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In a kingdom where women have been banned from using magic—punishable by death—Jena has been blessed (or cursed?) with the most powerful magic in centuries. When her master is murdered by assassins, she embarks on a journey of revenge.
Nate has the opposite problem to Jena. In a family packed with powerful mages, he’s a failed mage with very little traditional magic at all. A disgrace to his grandfather, he’s living in the dangerous salt mines of the volcano region, when he’s targeted by the same assassins who killed Jena’s master.
Turns out, there’s a secret plot underway to overthrow the Kingdom, and Jena and Nate are the only ones standing in the way. Together, they must try to save their kingdom and return the crown to its rightful owner…
Chapter 20 - NATE
Nate stood up and kicked dirt over their fire. He repacked the few possessions he’d taken out of his travel bag, and tied it to his horse. Nearby Argus did the same. They’d been traveling for the better part of a week and had settled into a routine.
Argus still watched him carefully, and tied him to his horse every day. But since they’d left the farmhouse, Argus had been more respectful. He seemed willing to give Nate the benefit of the doubt.
“We’re almost halfway there,” said Argus. “But this has been the easiest part of the journey.” He gestured toward the forests they could see along the horizon. “The Forest of Ghosts lies to the north.”
“We avoid it, I hope? We’ve enough on our plate without having to deal with a haunted forest,” replied Nate. They hadn’t seen any more of Prince Lothar’s creatures, but the expectation of it hung in the air like an odorous fog.
“We’ll travel the border of the forest and then along to the base of the Ember Volcanoes.” Argus came over, and gestured for Nate to get on his horse. He tied him to the pommel using the same thick ropes he’d used to tie Nate onto the saddle. The sharp sizzle of the attaching spell ran up his arms, and Nate sighed. Another day stuck to his horse.
Argus leaped onto his great black stallion and put an easy distance between them. Ready or not, Nate’s chestnut horse cantered after Argus, unwilling to be left behind. Nate was silent for a time, watching the man in front of him. The mercenary was taking them through some of the most dangerous landscapes in the kingdom—the desert, the forest, then volcanoes, which harbored not only fire and ash, but also beasts like the lavaen—without a pause for thought. He was devoted to his master; there was no doubt about that. But why would a man as proud as Argus have a master who demanded such a high price?
“Tell me about your master, Argus. He must be a great mage.”
“There is nothing to tell.” His voice was flat and hard, saying end-of-story as clearly, as if he’d spelled it out. Many of their conversations ended on such a tone.
Nate was left to wonder to himself as they rode the dusty trail.
The winter sun was on the verge of the horizon, bright rays of light clustering in his vision. Nate blinked, adjusting to the emerging sunlight. At first, he confused the flickering light to his left with the sunrise, but then the figures started to appear.
Along the roadside, hovering in front and behind as he rode, keeping pace with his horse and whispering, were ghosts from the Edges. The voices were different, but the message was always the same. Old and young, wealthy and poor, there was no distinction.
Ever since he’d called so many at the farmhouse, something had changed. They were now more aware of him and could find him more easily. Nate ignored them all, keeping his eyes on the road ahead. He couldn’t stop even if he wanted to; he was firmly attached to the saddle. He also knew from long experience that he couldn’t help them all.
So he pretended he couldn’t hear their ghostly moans. He ignored their desperate pleas. But out of the corner of his eye, their wispy figures glittered in the sunlight and he was tempted to glance around more than once. His knuckles were white from clutching the pommel; Nate gritted his teeth and kept his focus on the road ahead.
They rode hard along the trail, their tired bodies sinking lower and lower into the back of the horses. They stopped only for short periods, resting the horses and eating as often as they could. The Forest of Ghosts went from being a black dot on the horizon to a larger, more ominous shape in front of them.
It was the most disturbing forest Nate had ever seen. The blackened trees, the eerie mist that curled around them. A chill crawled up his spine more than once that afternoon as they rode closer to the dark forest looming before them.
Even the ghosts that had been following him all day melted away as they came closer to the forest. It was the opposite of what he had expected. Surely, the Forest of Ghosts was crowded with the lost and lonely spirits who hid in the Edges?
As the sun was setting into the late afternoon behind them, Nate became aware of a high-pitched buzzing noise over the pounding hooves of their horses. It grated along his bones and Nate turned in his saddle, looking back up the steep hill they had just cleared. At the crest of the hill, he saw the outline of two strange-looking riders.
As he watched, the riders and their horses sped down toward them, too fast for natural methods. It wasn’t ordinary horses thundering in their direction.
“I know. We must ride for the Forest of Ghosts.” Argus pulled his horse in close to Nate’s, and used a small sharp knife to cut Nate’s bindings. There was a spark of pain as the attachment spell was broken.
“But—” said Nate.
“Ride, Nate. It is our only hope.” Argus spurred his horse into action, slapping the rump of Nate’s horse and forcing it to do the same. Their pounding hoof beats almost drowned out the buzzing in his ears.
Leaning low over his horse’s neck, Nate dared to turn his head.
Behind them, two seething shapes in the form of men on horses followed, steadily gaining. The buzzing became louder, more excited. For an instant, their pursuers lost their shape, forming a sinister buzzing mass against the late afternoon sky.
Whatever they were, they were clearly after Nate and Argus.
The creatures settled back into their chosen form, and one heaving imitation-horse reared. There was no sound other than the heavy buzzing that filled Nate’s ears. The rest of nature seemed to have shrunk back in horror.
His heart beating hard in his chest, Nate urged his mare into a frantic gallop after Argus. He rode low and fast, and soon caught up with the big mercenary, pounding past him.
Glancing back, Nate realized Argus had slowed down to allow him to pass. Argus slipped his powerful black stallion directly behind Nate, protecting him from behind.
Up ahead the Forest of Ghosts loomed, the lesser of two evils.
The world around him narrowed, until all Nate could see was the forest framed between his horse’s chestnut ears. He clung to her, urging her faster with his every thought. She was panting, foam leaking from her mouth, but didn’t stop her gut-wrenching sprint. She was as scared as he was of the riders behind him.
They were almost there.
The big blackened trees were so close Nate could feel their presence breathing across his cheek. It felt like cold fingers were slithering over his skin and goose pimples rose across his body.
The mists shrouded the entrance to the forest, hanging heavy around the leafless trees, seeming to dare them to cross their portals. A feeling of still and silent death cloaked the forest and every instinct inside Nate told him to turn and get as far away as he could. Only the sound of the creatures thundering behind them, their insistent buzzing crawling into his ears and leaving a filthy feeling of dread, made Nate continue on to the forest.
They were almost there.
An arrow sliced past his head, landing in the earth ahead of his speeding horse. The grass and soil around the arrow turned a dirty, slimy black, spreading out in a deadly circle. His horse swerved, losing valuable speed, but managed to avoid stepping in the spreading blackness.
Behind him, he heard Argus following the same path.
Glancing back, Nate saw flies and maggots beginning to emerge from the black earth, forming a shape. Further back, with no visible means of steering or support, Nate saw one of their pursuers lift his bow again and aim, while the horse continued racing toward them.
“Argus, watch out!” yelled Nate.
The second arrow swooped past Argus, narrowly missing his shoulder.
“Faster, Nate, faster. You must not die!”
“I’ll not leave you behind now, Argus.” Nate urged his horse faster, knowing Argus would stay close to him.
Chapter 21 - JENA
“I don’t know what sisters are supposed to be like. How are we supposed to treat each other?” asked Jena.
They were near the border of the forest again, the edges of the area marked by the darkened leafless trees she had seen when she first entered.
A mist dragged itself around them, and Jena shivered. She looked up and saw the tiny silkworms coating the trees with their threads.
Bree shrugged. “We look after each other. Try not to take each other for granted.” She wandered along a path only she could see, leading Jena through the thick forest.
Jena nodded slowly. “Is that all? I can do that.” The forest arched around them, and she felt secure and at peace for the first time since she had left Thornal’s cottage.
It was all to do with Bree.
Bree smiled. “I’ll let you know if there’s anything else you need to do.”
Jena cocked her head to one side. “Do you hear that?” she said. “The buzzing? Is it one of the protective spells?” The noise grated against her skin, and sent the fine hairs on her arms prickling.
Bree turned to Jena, frowning. “No. It’s not part of the forest.” She touched the bark of a tree close to her. “It’s a threat, something outside. We should—”
A chestnut horse burst through the trees in front of them, racing as if its life depended on it. It slowed down as it encountered the trees, but the poor animal was sweating and rolling its eyes and didn’t seem to notice where it was going. As they watched, the man riding the horse turned to look behind him. In the split second his back was turned, the horse raced under an old gnarled tree. The back of his head connected with a thick low-lying branch, and he was knocked to the ground with a solid thump. Jena winced.
His horse raced on deep into the forest, the trees moving aside to let the frightened creature pass.
Jena ducked behind a tree root, pulling Bree down with her. They didn’t know what this new threat might mean, and Jena had well-honed survival instincts.
Then, just past where the unconscious man lay, a massive black stallion breached the forest’s borders, foam at its mouth and wide, terrified eyes, just like the other horse. Its rider pulled on the reins, attempting to slow the frightened beast. It trampled a few more steps into the forest before the thick branches slowed it down and it came to a halt, stamping and dancing.
The rider slumped forward in the saddle, and his hold on the reins slackened. The horse fretted and circled around in the small space and then it reared up, knocking the big man to the ground. He landed with a heavy thud on his side, his face pushed into the forest floor. Free of its rider’s weight, the horse fled into the forest, following the path of the first animal.
Again, the branches parted to allow the horse to flee.
Around them, the forest held its breath, silent and still as it assessed this latest intrusion. Jena leaned around the tree to get a better view. The motionless bodies of the two men who had hurtled into the forest were only a few steps away. The silk worms were moving in agitated patterns, spinning their webs closer and closer to the two bodies.
The closest man was dirty, his clothes rough. He had a jagged mage tattoo on his face and scratches on his arms. There didn’t seem to be any fresh blood, but a lump was already forming where he’d connected with the sturdy branch.
Farther down, the second man lay very still. He was travel stained and dirty, like his companion, but had evidence of an attack. The end of a wicked-looking black arrow stuck out of his shoulder.
Bree nudged Jena, pointing to the arrow. “He’s hurt. We should help him.”
Jena’s cocked her head to one side, listening as the thundering hooves of their pursuers became louder. “We need to see if their hunters are a threat to us first.”
Bree nodded, nervously glancing toward the edge of the forest. “We usually wait for the forest to assess those entering, before we approach them. I don’t yet know if it has accepted these two. But, we can’t just leave them.” She peered at the two men, biting on her lip.
“How bad is it? Have you treated an arrow wound before?” she asked. The persistent buzzing began to affect Jena’s ears, and she twitched her head, pressing her fingers against her ears to unblock them.
Partially distracted by the noise, she tried to assess the man’s arrow wound from a distance: how badly he was hurt and how much blood he was losing. It took her a moment to realize something was wrong.
Around the arrow, instead of blood, a thick bubbling black liquid was eating into his flesh. White fleshy maggots curled in and out of the blackened ooze. A faint greasy smoke rose from the wound and hovered around the surrounding mists, turning their pure white into a dirty grey.
“His blood... Jena, his blood is black,” whispered Bree, her voice trembling.
“I don’t think it’s blood.” Jena swallowed hard. “This is bad, Bree.”
As they watched, the tiny silkworms dropped toward the body. They tried to spin their strands, but the oozing mess spat and hissed, and they were quickly driven away.
“Jena, what is it? How is it driving the silk worms away?”
Pages appeared inside Jena’s head, and the Book of Spells provided her with the answer to Bree’s horrified question. There was a full page devoted to the creatures that owned the arrow. It contained several warnings, and terrible predictions for those who crossed their path.
The Riders were coming.
Without thinking, Jena stood up from their hiding place and raced over to the man with the arrow. She glanced back; her sister was right behind her. “We don’t have much time. The arrows are deadly. He’ll die if I don’t help him,” she said. It would mean showing Bree more than she wanted of her mage skills, but she thought she could trust her sister. Bree had her own secrets to keep.
Bree nodded in reply from the opposite side of the large man where she was crouched. Her eyes were wide as she took in the black oozing liquid on the man’s shoulder. She put out her hand to touch the man’s skin, and Jena grabbed her.
“Don’t touch him. It can attach itself to you as well.”
Bree paled, and pulled her hand back.
“I’ll try to heal him, and then we need to get out of here. The creatures that did this... they’re not something we want to be around.” Crouching over the body, Jena held her hands directly above the untainted skin around the arrow, and closed her eyes, trying to block out the awful buzzing noise that now filled every space in the air around them.
She could see the page in the Book of Spells clearly, and began reciting the words under her breath, drawing on the energy of the earth around her. Her voice was unsteady. She had no idea if it would work; she’d never tried this specific piece of spell casting before.
But she had no choice. She had to try.
She repeated the chant, over and over, low and fast, concentrating on her hands where they hovered over his shoulder. She pictured the black liquid being forced back into the arrow, and the maggots curling up and dying, their puffy bodies turning a putrid yellow. She mentally poured cold water over the bubbling black mass, then turned it cold, freezing it so the mass couldn’t breathe.
Opening her eyes, she looked down at the wound. The ooze had stopped moving.
It had worked, at least for now.
But she could still feel it inside the man, fighting against the spell. Beside her Bree was staring with wide eyes, but she didn’t say a word.
The big man moved; he looked at her awkwardly over his shoulder. “Help the other. I’m not important. Help him survive,” he muttered, trying to push her away.
“He’ll be fine. He just hit his head.” Jena removed her hands from their position over his body.
“They’re right behind us. You must run. Take him with you.” Again, the man pushed at her, almost knocking her over from her crouched position.
“Hey, watch it,” said Jena. She glanced at Bree. “Do you think we can carry them?” she asked.
On his other side, Bree shook her head. “Creatures such as this, the forest knows they’re not welcome. It will not even allow them to enter. It’s a protection that’s been in place since...”
She didn’t need to continue for Jena to know what she meant.
Jena peered anxiously at the landscape beyond the forest. “How strong are these protections?” she said. “Will it hold against something stronger than wolvans?”
“I don’t know. Strong enough, I think,” answered Bree, but without conviction.
Even as they spoke, the buzzing became louder, filling the air with a sickening taint. Jena’s body twitched and she gave an involuntary spasm. Squinting out through the trees, she tried to get a clear view.
The snorting of horses announced the arrival of two Riders; they pulled up their beasts at the border of the trees. The creatures paced up and down, their heads shaking and snorting, foam dripping from their mouths. One Rider tried to enter the forest; the horse reared up and turned away, screaming in pain. On the branches around them, the tiny silkworms anxiously moved about, reacting to the unwanted intrusion. The already dark trees seemed to grow denser and thicker, closing in until it was almost impossible to see out the forest.
Moving to one side to peer out through the branches, Jena had to stifle a gasp with her hand. Half-rotted scabs of meat clung to the decaying bones that made up the horses’ frames. Dull black eye sockets saw nothing and everything. Maggots crawled in and around the horses’ cavities, making their eyes and nostrils move with false animation.
Their tall, thin bodies pulsed in the afternoon heat, sometimes blurring out of focus. Jena narrowed her eyes and realized the horses were made of millions of tiny black flies swarming together, through the shell of the horses and up over their rumps, fleshing out the shape of the putrid creatures, and creating the riders on their backs. The buzzing that surrounded them stung her ears.
“What are they? How can they be real?” Bree said from just behind her, her voice rising in panic.
“They’re called Riders. They’re formed by dark mage work, and almost impossible to kill,” whispered Jena, pulling the information from the Book of Spells.
It didn’t say how truly terrifying they were in real life.
The false horses stomped, paced, and reared, as they turned in agitated circles just outside the bounds of the forest. The Riders seemed to look through the branches directly at Jena and, although she knew they couldn’t see her, she shrank back under their gaze.
She hoped they couldn’t enter the forest. If they could have, surely they’d have done so already. Her hand shook as she pushed a strand of hair back off her face. Without thinking, Jena made a gypsy sign for protection and one of the Riders tilted back its head and laughed: a strange mix of screeching cackle and the underlying buzzing that set up the hairs on the back of her neck.
“Help the other man,” the large man lying beside her whispered again, his eyes closing. “Help the other man.”
CHAPTER 22 - NATE
The looming figures came closer and closer. Nate tried to move, but couldn’t lift his arms or legs. He yelled for help, but no sound emerged. Around him, the trees collapsed in on his body.
They were almost here. He could smell their fetid breath as they opened the gaping holes that passed for mouths. One reached out a skeletal hand to grab him. The hard fingers touched his arm and he screamed.
His eyes jerked open and he sat up straight, flinging his arm out to defend himself. Nate fell out of the small bed where he had been lying, and thumped onto the floor, almost vomiting from the pain in his head. He groaned, and hands pulled him back into the bed, clean white sheets and a soft pillow easing his pain. A hand gently stroked his forehead and soft words soothed his panic.
He fell into the blackness.
When Nate woke again, lamplight brightened the otherwise dark room. Eerie shadows flickered on the wall, moving with the flame hiding behind glass. A glass of water and a slice of bread and butter sat on a small table beside the bed. He reached up and felt his head, looking for the lump or cut that had caused him so much pain. There was nothing to mark his fall, but when he moved his head, he was hit by a wave of dizziness.
Lying back, he tried to remember what had happened. It was all blurry; he had been crouching low on the racing horse when they reached the trees. He’d looked back to check on Argus... then nothing.
He didn’t even know if Argus had made it into the forest after him.
Argus had believed the Forest of Ghosts would save them. But where was he now? He gazed around the small room. There were no windows, and the walls were made of stone, solid and thick. If he was a prisoner here, it was a solid cage.
He licked his lips; they were cracked and dry. Reaching over he managed to hook awkward fingers around the glass of water, and he leaned in to take a long sip. The cool water ran down his throat, and he immediately felt better.
He took a second slow sip. The rumbling of his stomach made him reach for the bread. He was chewing the soft doughy roll when the door opened.
A young woman appeared in the doorway. Long straight white-blonde hair framed a serious face with very blue eyes. A long robe in forest green completely covered her body. She seemed very young and fresh-faced.
She smiled. “Oh, you’re awake. How do you feel?”
“I’m better now that I’ve eaten,” said Nate, holding up the half-eaten roll. He hesitated. “I’d like to know where I am.”
“You’re in a safe place.” She stayed by the door, holding the handle with one hand. “My name is Breanna.”
“Nate,” he replied. “Did we make it into the forest?”
“Yes, you’re in the Forest of Ghosts.”
“Argus as well?”
“Argus? Your friend?” She paused. “He was hurt.”
Nate sat up straighter. “What happened?”
“He was hit by a tainted arrow. We managed to slow the poison down.”
Nate thought of the black death that had spread around the arrow he’d seen. “Will he recover?”
“We’re doing our best.”
It wasn’t the reassurance he’d wanted. Those arrows had been full of rotten black death. Nate tried to sit up, but fell weakly back to his pillows. Soft skirts rustled and he felt her soft hands across his forehead.
“We kept you asleep so you could heal faster, but it was a hard knock you took on that branch.”
“I wondered what happened,” he said, putting one hand absently to the back of his head, once she’d lifted her hand away.
“You’ll be weak for another day or so, but it’s just the after effects. You’ll be fine.”
As she tucked him in, Nate asked, “Can I see Argus?” He had grown used to the big man in the short time they’d spent together.
“Not yet. You’re still too groggy.” She looked down at him, sympathy in her eyes. “And he’s not up to visitors.”
“What happened to the creatures hunting us?”
Her eyes darkened. “They wait at the edges. The forest is more powerful, but they wait with the patience of a stone.”
They were waiting for him.
He closed his eyes, feeling suddenly weary. “How long before I can get up?” Before he could leave?
“Not long.” She walked back to the door. “I’m going to visit Argus now. I’ll let you know how he is.” She left the room, closing the door quietly behind her.
Nate felt himself dipping back down into sleep, tired from even such a short visit.
He dreamed of huge flames, and a crown that fit his head perfectly. Long fingers reached out to him, but they couldn’t find him.
Someone screamed from a long way away.
* * *
Once again, the sleep lifted slowly from his mind. Groggy, Nate opened his eyes, peering around the room. Low lamplight came from one corner. Lifting one hand to his head, he realized his headache was gone, and he felt rested.
Despite a lack of light, his small room seemed cheerful and clean. In the distance voices murmured and children laughed and played.
He caught movement out of the corner of his eye. A woman sat in an armchair at the edge of the room. Her head was leaning slightly to one side, her eyes closed. Her long, dark hair fell around her face, and she almost seemed to glow in the lamplight. She wore a dark skirt and a thick tunic top and looked more suited to working on a farm than sitting with a sick patient.
Beside her stood a ghost, an old man wearing mage robes, but with no tattoo. Nate frowned. No tattoo meant he wasn’t a true mage, and shouldn’t be wearing the robes. He opened his mouth to say something and then stopped. The man was dead. It was no longer an issue.
He tried to sit up, getting as far as leaning on his elbows before the woman opened her eyes. As her hair fell back off her face, he saw brilliant blue eyes, and burn scars down her cheek and neck.
He was mesmerized by both.
“How do you feel?” Her voice had an odd lilt he couldn’t place. Her attention was focused on him, and he struggled to think of an answer.
“I’m... better.” He frowned in concentration. “My head doesn’t hurt anymore.”
A small smile appeared, then disappeared. “That’s good.” Her eyes seemed full of knowledge.
“I’m Nate,” he said.
“Jena,” she replied.
“Jena.” He savored it on his tongue.
She bowed her head in acknowledgement, those blue eyes taking him in. “You’re a mage?” she said, gesturing at his tattoo.
The ghostly mage beside her seemed to shimmer, catching his attention. He nodded, momentarily distracted. “I’m more often a salt collector. But the tattoo makes it hard to hide in a crowd.” He glanced at her burns.
“Everyone remembers my face,” she said, acknowledging his look.
He flushed, not wanting to embarrass her. “You have an extremely striking face,” he said. There was an awkward pause, and Jena’s eyes refused to meet his.
“In a good way,” he added desperately.
“Thank you,” she said, her tone making it clear she didn’t believe him.
Nate felt his face redden. He searched desperately for something else to say. “Do you know how Argus is? The healer was unsure when we last spoke.”
“He’s ill, but he’s still alive. He took an arrow from the Riders, and the poison is still in his body.”
“So those... things... that were chasing us, they’re called Riders? I’ve never heard of them.”
Jena nodded. “They shoot arrows with a deadly poison that eats you alive. Most don’t survive.”
“So he owes his life to you?”
Jena shook her head. “To my sister. She’s a talented healer. But he’s not out of the woods yet.” She glanced around them, as if she could see outside the room. “Literally,” she said with a tiny curve of her lips.
“Tell her thank you. From me, as well as Argus.” Nate could still feel the echoes of the fear that had pumped through his veins during their mad race into the Forest of Ghosts. They were lucky to be alive.
“I will.” Jena moved to the door. “I’ll leave you to rest before dinner.”
“Jena. Wait. Where am I?” Nate gestured around the room.
“You’re in the Forest of the Ghosts. Probably the safest place to be right now, given who was chasing you.”
“But what about the Riders?” Nate held his breath while he waited for her reply. Were they still waiting by the edge of the forest?
Jena frowned at him. “Why are they chasing you?” she asked.
Letting out a frustrated breath, Nate shook his head. “You need to ask Argus that question; he understands it better than I do.”
Jena nodded and left through the door before he realized she didn’t answer his question.
CHAPTER 23 - JENA
Bree was waiting for Jena in the corridor outside Nate’s room.
“How is he?” she asked.
Jena paused, thinking through her first impressions. She’d felt strangely awkward around him. “He seems to be getting better,” she said neutrally. “How is his friend?”
Bree’s smile disappeared. “I haven’t dealt with anything like it before. He’s hurting, I know that much. The tainted arrow went deep.”
“Will he die?” Jena’s chest tightened. She had risked being found out for him; she wanted him to survive.
“He might have already, if you hadn’t acted quickly. Whatever you did, it saved him.” Bree put her arm around Jena’s shoulders.
Jena gave a short laugh. “I had no idea what I was doing.”
Bree raised her eyebrow. “For someone who didn’t know what she was doing, you did an awful lot.” She paused, then said quickly, “Jena, I’m your sister. Family. I feel the power pulsing around you. I know you cast a mage spell to help that man. You’re hiding it, and you don’t need to. You can trust me.”
Bree’s words sent Jena’s mind whirling. She had power pulsing around her? People could tell? Her breath quickened in panic. She frantically tried to think of something to fend off her sister. “I lived with Thornal for a long time; it was hard not to pick up certain things. Perhaps what you’re seeing is your connection to me. You’ve got healing skills, and you’re very empathetic.”
Bree gazed at Jena with disbelief in her eyes. “I just thought...” She blinked. “Forgive me, I shouldn’t have spoken.”
Jena hoped her face didn’t reflect the guilt she felt. For a moment, she even considered giving away her secrets; but the idea of putting Bree in more danger kept her silent. “I’m glad to have you looking out for me,” she said softly.
They began to walk down the hallway toward the healing room where the other wounded man was resting. Argus, Nate had called him.
“What can you do for him?” asked Jena, trying to cover the awkward silence.
“He’s not improving. There is something I haven’t tried, but it’s difficult. I might need your help.” Bree’s face was serious. “It could be dangerous,” she said.
Jena nodded. “Of course I’ll help.”
When they entered the small healing room, their patient was sitting up in bed watching the door. Jena had a feeling he’d been like that for some time.
Bree frowned. “What are you doing? You shouldn’t be sitting up. You’ve no more strength than a kitten.”
He raised his eyebrows, watching with dark eyes as she hurried over to his bedside and placed her hand on his forehead. His face was pale, and a sheen of sweat glistened over his skin.
“You’re burning up,” she said.
“I’m not a child. You, however, are a child. How old are you? Should you be in here with a patient by yourself?”
For the first time since Jena had met her, Bree look flustered. “I’m one of the best healers here,” she said. “I’m more than capable.” She pulled her hand away from his forehead, her hands fluttering for a moment, before falling to her side.
Then she seemed to give herself an internal shake and glared down at him. “We’re not children, and we know what we’re doing.”
“I hope so.” Argus continued to watch Bree’s every movement, his face impassive. He was obviously in a great deal of pain, but he wouldn’t admit it.
“How do you feel?” Bree asked.
“Like I’m rotting away.”
“The poison from the arrow is still in your body. We stalled its progress, but to get it out, I will have to do a Seeking to find the source and destroy it.”
Jena gave Bree a swift look. She was surprised her sister even knew what a Seeking was, let alone how to do it. Jena had only seen Thornal do it a couple of times; it was an extreme form of healing, and she was almost certain it was an exclusively mage skill. Perhaps her sister wasn’t telling her everything either?
“Is there any other way?” Argus asked.
“The poison is too strong. It’s your only choice.” Bree was calm but firm, her expression serious.
He nodded abruptly. “Do as you must.”
“Then we start now. No point in delaying.” Sitting down on the wooden stool next to his bed, Bree gestured to Jena to sit across from her on a matching chair.
Jena narrowed her eyes. Why was Bree rushing this?
“Jena is going to help me,” said Bree. She turned to Jena. “You’ll be connected to me. I’ll need you to watch me, and pull me out if something happens.”
Jena nodded. “How do I pull you out?” she asked, leaning forward in the chair. She knew the answer, but was curious how much knowledge Bree actually possessed.
“Focus really hard and yell my name in your head. It should be enough to help me find my way back.” Bree sounded certain, but she was nervously twitching her hands on the coverlet.
Jena was sure Bree didn’t know as much about Seeking as she was making out. She reached across the bed, over Argus’s legs, and grasped Bree’s hand in a comforting touch. Bree glanced up, her eyes shadowed.
Jena tried to let her sister know that it was going to be fine. For anything that Bree didn’t know, Jena had the Book of Spells to guide them.
Jena leaned back and settled into her chair, waiting for Bree to begin.
Taking a deep breath, Bree began counting backward.
Whispers of Bree’s mind swirled around the room. A soft tendril linked a piece of Jena’s thoughts to her sister’s. At first, everything was blurred; then it came into focus, but with a strange double vision that made her eyes water. It was like being in two places at once: she could see through Bree’s eyes, and her own. Then it disappeared and all she could see was a bright white light.
A flash of pain made Jena jerk back in her chair, and then they were inside Argus’s head.
Thoughts and feelings floated around them. Controlled emotion was heavy and sticky in the dim surroundings. Jena felt the blood pumping through Argus’s veins and his heart beating at the center.
It was an overwhelming, disembodied feeling that made her head spin and her knuckles turn white. Jena’s heart started beating faster, and her breath came in ragged gasps. On her stomach, she felt a pinch of pain as the raven used its sharp beak to calm her down. She took several big breaths, using the control methods Thornal had taught her. Her thoughts settled and she was able to focus, again, on what Bree was doing. How could her sister cope so easily?
Through Bree, Jena could feel Argus’s pain and the dark bitter taste of the poison throbbing in his shoulder. Grasping the affected area with her mind, Bree soothed the pain with a wash of cool thought.
Argus relaxed as his pain was eased.
Bree then concentrated on the poison itself. It was sitting on his shoulder, bubbling and seething, trapped by Jena’s original spell. A lump attempted to seep out past the barrier and into the bone and muscle around it. It jumped back as if stung, and the black, poisonous mound roiled and turned in anger.
With her gentle healing magic Bree attempted to smother the invading black poison. It struggled against her, surging forward like an attacking army, eager to grasp a new and possibly more fertile host.
Bree’s presence seemed to strengthen the poison’s desire to get out, and it started to batter against the weakening barrier provided by Jena’s original spell. Repeatedly it hammered against the barricade, until, with a sound like a pop and a faint sting, the spell broke, and the blackness oozed out.
For one terrifying moment, the surprise of its escape allowed the black infection past Bree’s defenses. Jena pulled in a deep breath, ready for a fight. But then Bree pushed back with a surge of power, her green softness surrounding the black, and it was forced to retreat again.
But despite pushing with all her magic, Bree could only contain it. Jena felt Bree’s rising desperation and fear, as well as her exhaustion, as she shoved against the powerful infection. She couldn’t destroy it and now it was no longer trapped by the spell.
Another strong surge from the black ooze broke part of Bree’s defenses and the mass seeped down Argus’s arm. In the distance, they heard a groan of pain, and Bree again shoved desperately at the blackness. She prevailed for a moment, and then the black ooze buzzed in triumph as it pushed her further back.
Bree began to panic, her usually stable mind darting back and forth.
Without thinking, Jena took over, using skills she had honed with Thornal.
Pushing more of her own power into Bree’s mind, she moved after it along the thread that joined the sisters. There was an unexpected surge of power pressing against her, pushing her even faster toward Argus and Bree. She recognised it as the same power that had caused the white fire spell in Thornal’s home.
She pulled it all into her mind without question, knowing they needed everything they could get.
The bright white light, more powerful than any of the rest, danced and screamed at being set free from the constraints of Jena’s mind. Close behind she heard the cawing of the raven. Thornal’s creature was helping as well.
Jena moved with the light, happy to have the extra assistance, even if she wasn’t entirely certain where it came from. The black oozing disease wasn’t just attacking Argus; now Jena and Bree were at risk as well.
She spoke the final part of the Seeking spell, and her whole consciousness landed inside Argus. Jena merged with Bree’s mind, and together they formed a pointed arrow, their combined force easily pushing the black ooze back up Argus’s arm and into his shoulder.
It hissed and spat, but it was no match for the onslaught. Once it was contained, they stamped over the poison, crushing it dead.
As they watched, the black infection dried up and turned to dust.
The raven cawed in triumph, then pulled itself and the glowing white light back through the connecting thread and into Jena’s body.
Jena was slower to return, trailing alongside Bree, both sisters exhausted by the confrontation.
As they were about to leave his body, an unusual mist from Argus’s internal landscape started to curl around them. She sensed other pain within the big man, and realized the mist was a spell, binding him to a master.
Bree pushed against the spell, trying to break it, but the pieces of the floating mist simply separated, only to regroup again. When whispers of the spell tried to attach themselves to Jena and Bree, they quickly withdrew, too exhausted to fight another battle.
Jena opened her eyes. She and Bree were back in the small healing room. She trembled and wiped the sweat from her face, waiting for the dizziness to subside. Directly across from her Bree was pale and limp in the morning light.
They didn’t speak for a long while. This time Argus broke the silence. “Thank you. I no longer feel the pain. Your method was... unusual.”
Jena glanced at him. There was a brittle tension in the air. His eyes were dark and hard. He knew they had seen things he would prefer to hold secret.
Bree stood, wiped imaginary dust off the front of her robe, and nodded. “We must check on our other patients,” she said.
Jena opened her mouth to tell Bree to rest for a moment, then saw her face. She nodded at Argus and then followed her sister out of the room.
As Jena closed the door, Bree took two steps, then collapsed onto the stone floor.
CHAPTER 24 - NATE
Nate managed to sit up on his bed. He was feeling claustrophobic and disorientated, which made him determined to get dressed and leave his room.
He could feel all sorts of magic swirling around in this place, and it made him nervous. It reminded him of being back at Mage Training School. He’d rather face a live volcano than his old school masters.
He managed to get his trousers on and his shirt over his head before the room started spinning uncontrollably. He lay limply back on the bed with his eyes closed, pushing the sick feeling away.
“You shouldn’t push yourself like that,” said a stern voice beside him.
Nate jumped and sat up, immediately regretting it. The ghost he’d seen in the room earlier was back. And now it was too late to pretend he couldn’t see it.
“What do you want?” he said tiredly.
“You’re Zachariah’s boy, aren’t you?”
“His grandson,” said Nate. His family was the last thing he felt like discussing right now.
The ghost nodded. “Ah, that explains it.”
Nate tried to hold the words in, but found he couldn’t. “Explains what?”
“Your skill level.”
“Look, if you came here to insult me, you can turn around and leave again. I’m not in the mood.”
“I didn’t mean it as an insult, my dear boy. At least not to you.”
Nate narrowed his eyes at the old man. “Why are you wearing mage robes, but no tattoo? You realize it’s against mage laws?”
The ghost shrugged. “Once you get to a certain point in life, the rules no longer hold their appeal.”
Nate tried to memorize the mage ghost’s face. Long grey hair fell around his shoulders and his mage robes hung off a tall, spare frame. A long-healed scar ran down one side of his right cheek, making his lined face look gaunt. He looked to have been an old man when he died. “Should I know who you are?” he asked.
The old ghost shook his head. “I’m no one important. Unlike you.”
Nate frowned. “I’m no one important either.”
“Prince Lothar would beg to differ,” said the ghost slyly.
“He’s wrong. I’m not next in line to the throne. How could I be? It doesn’t even make sense.”
“Those dark creatures waiting out by the edge of the forest would beg to differ.”
“It’s not my fault he’s gone insane. I don’t even know where he’d get an idea like that.”
“The Flames cannot lie. Lothar has seen it in their fiery depths and he will stop at nothing to succeed.”
Nate shook his head, unable to explain it, but knowing it was false. Ghosts always turned the truth to suit their purposes; he knew that. He just had to keep reminding himself of it. “Are they still there? The Riders?”
“Yes, although their master grows restless. I believe it won’t be long before they are called home, and another beast appears to challenge you.”
His chest was suddenly heavy, as if something big was pushing down on it. “Why won’t he stop? Even if it were true, I don’t want to be king. He can have the throne,” he said desperately.
“It doesn’t work that way, my boy. You know better than that.”
Nate rubbed one hand over his face. He did know better. His grandfather had always drummed the old stories into his head about the Flame Throne, the Flame Echoes, and the Great Fire Mage who started it all. “You think the Riders will be gone soon?” His mind caught on the one piece of information he could use.
“There will be a small window of time when you can leave the forest and continue your journey without getting trapped by the Riders, yes.”
“And when would that be?”
“Give it a day or so and I believe they will leave.”
“And you don’t think Lothar will ever give up on me? Let me live in peace?”
The old ghost shook his head. “No. Now that you are a piece in the chess game, it is your death or Lothar’s.”
CHAPTER 25 - JENA
“How do you feel?” Jena asked as she placed a cool cloth on Bree’s forehead. They were in one of the nearby rooms, Bree lying on the bed where Jena had carried her with help from another healer.
The other woman had then raced off to fetch Miara before Jena could stop her.
“Tired. Sleepy. Sore.” Bree offered a faint smile to accompany her words. “How can you be fine? You did all the work.”
“I had help.”
“I noticed,” said Bree wryly.
“Well, now you know my secrets,” said Jena. Or some of them. “Does it usually affect you like that?”
“Seeking?” Bree gave a wan smile, a faint sheen on her pale skin. “I’ve only done it once before, but I was fine afterward.”
“I was betting you’d never done it before. But it’s not something you should do without more knowledge.”
“Oh, don’t growl. It hurts my head,” said Bree with a faint smile. “It worked perfectly well the last time.”
Jena sighed. Now wasn’t the time. “Thornal used to be a little tired after. Maybe it’s the taint from the Riders that made it worse.”
“Thank you for being there. For trusting me.” Bree gazed at Jena, the meaning clear. She knew about the raven, and the strange power that had helped them overcome the black poison. She knew that Jena could cast spells, or at least this one. Jena’s secrets were emerging, despite her attempts to keep them hidden.
“Don’t tell anyone, Bree. Not even Miara. They’re mine to work out.”
Bree nodded, with obvious reluctance. “It might be useful for Miara to know about them. She might know what you should do.”
If people knew she had a mage tattoo attached to her body, or that she could cast spells, she wouldn’t last a week. People who broke Mage Law were dealt with swiftly. “They’re my secrets to keep, Bree,” she repeated, just as a noise at the door announced the arrival of Miara.
“What have you done, you silly girl?” said Miara, like a fussy mother hen talking to her favorite chick.
“He’s feeling better now, Miara. We saved his life.” Bree tried to raise herself up in the bed, to show she was fine. Jena helped her lie back down when the dizziness made her eyes roll back in her head.
“All for some strange man we don’t know and may mean us harm? Have you lost your mind, Bree?”
“He needed our help. I’m a healer.” There was a stubborn note in Bree’s voice.
“You should have—”
“Bree needs rest and then some food and drink,” interrupted Jena. “You can yell at her after that, if she’ll listen.” Jena flashed a look at Bree.
Miara sighed. “We’ll talk about it later,” she muttered, casting a strange look at Jena, her eyes glinting.
Jena sobered, glancing away from that knowing stare, unused to the scrutiny. She suddenly felt close to her sister and very protective.
“We can talk about it outside. Bree needs to sleep.” Jena gestured for the others to precede her out of the room. With a flick of her fingers and a muttered word, she sent a small sleeping spell in Bree’s direction. Her sister’s eyes closed and her hands relaxed on the bedspread as Jena shut the door.
Outside in the hallway, she met the full force of Miara’s stare.
“You and I need to talk,” she said. “Now.”
Miara turned and strode off. She didn’t even wait to see if Jena would follow.
Jena stalled for a moment, tempted to stay where she was. But she knew the high witch only wanted to make sure her people were safe. She followed meekly through the caves toward Miara’s office.
“Sit down.” Miara motioned toward one of the armchairs. “Would you like something to drink?”
Jena shook her head, grasping her hands together tightly in her lap.
“What happened?” Miara was to the point and blunt. Jena made a mental note to ask Bree if she was always that way.
“She used my power to help with a Seeking.”
“It makes me nervous when my calm Bree does a dangerous Seeking without thinking through the consequences. Did you talk to her about it beforehand?” Her voice was sharp and she paced the room.
Jena found herself smiling, her lips curved in amusement she couldn’t hide. “Bree has a mind of her own, Miara. She doesn’t need any pushing to do dangerous stunts. And I’m pretty sure she hasn’t just developed this trait since I’ve been here.”
At first Miara tried to remain stern, but she eventually let out a whoosh of breath, and sat down. “I’m just trying to understand the reasoning behind risking her life on some patient she doesn’t know.”
“She’s a healer first. She wanted to heal him. It’s not complicated.”
“She’s never tried a Seeking on a patient before.”
“Yes, she has.” She paused to let Miara take in that bit of information. “But she’s also never had a patient with an arrow from the Riders before.”
“And she’s never had a sister to back up her stunts before.” Miara looked over at Jena. “She’s always been stubborn. And she’s always ready to burn herself to save her patients.”
Jena nodded. There didn’t seem to be much to say to that.
“I’m worried. She doesn’t see the possibilities for danger.”
“You can’t treat her like a child.”
“She doesn’t have any experience of the world. She’s never even left the forest.” Miara saw Jena’s look of surprise and added defensively, “We had to protect her.”
“That doesn’t mean she can’t make her own decisions. Besides, she has me to protect her now.” Jena’s voice hardened. “I know all about the real world.”
Miara lifted her eyebrows mockingly. “You’re not exactly old enough to understand all the possible threats, either. That’s why Thornal sent you to me. To protect you from those who would harm you if they knew who you are and what you hold inside your head.”
Jena looked sharply at Miara. “What do you mean?” she asked.
“He told me years ago that he was planning something. That he had an idea to save the realm, just like it said in the Flame prophecies.”
“What was his idea?”
“To place the magic of the Book of Spells inside someone’s head to protect it from the false king of the prophecy. At the time, he talked of putting it in his own head.” Miara nodded toward Jena. “But I can see that his plans changed.”
CHAPTER 26 - NATE
Nate had managed to get dressed and leave his room. He’d stopped talking to the ghost. The old mage had nothing better to say than to rant about Nate being the next king, and he was tired of hearing it.
And he had other things on his mind. If he only had a day or two before the Riders disappeared, there wasn’t much time to get fit again. He’d promised Argus that he would go with him to his master, but their close call with the Riders had made him realize he was a danger to everyone around him, including Argus. He needed to disappear, to leave Ignisia, and find a new home somewhere far away.
And to do that, he needed to find people willing to help him. He would need a horse, or at least find his old one, and supplies.
“You can’t just run from something like this,” said a voice beside him.
Nate jumped. He scowled at the ghost. “Leave me alone.”
“I know you’ve had a tough life. Being Zachary’s grandson can’t have been easy. The old bastard has blinkers on and no tolerance for anything outside the usual. But it doesn’t have to be like that.”
“I grew up in a castle, with all the food I could want, and was educated by the finest mage minds.”
“Ah yes, but you are different. Your magic does not come from the same place as other mages. I don’t doubt you found the mage school to be a painful experience.”
Nate stopped in his tracks. “Look, I appreciate the effort. You’re trying to make me feel better. But I don’t need it. I came to terms with my abilities a long time ago. And right now, I’d just like to go for a walk in peace, without another ghost asking me to do something for him.”
The ghost stared at him for a moment. He opened his mouth to say something, then closed it again. “You are right. I will leave you for the moment.” And he disappeared right in front of Nate.
Nate stormed off down the hallway, too annoyed to watch where he was going, until one of his legs wobbled and he had to put one hand to the wall to steady himself. He took a breath. He had to remember not to overdo the walking on his first exploration outside of his room.
He smelled the cooking and heard the murmur of voices well before he arrived at the large communal area. Pausing at the entrance to the large open cavern, he searched for a familiar face, and found none. He sat down on a wooden stool next to a campfire where a woman was stirring a large cooking pot.
“Smells delicious,” he said, warming his hands near the flames.
The woman smiled, her long hair held back with a leather tie, and her plump body covered by a simple dress of brown and green. “Thank you. It’s probably going to be your lunch.”
“Does everyone wear forest colours?” he asked, looking around at the browns and greens in their attire.
“It helps us blend in. We have many ways of protecting ourselves here at Flamehaven.”
Nate blinked. He was at the legendary Forest of the Ghosts village? “I thought Flamehaven had been destroyed?”
“Another form of protection. We like to hide from the rest of the world.”
“Why? What’s so special about Flamehaven?”
The woman shrugged. “For that, you will need to ask Miara.” At Nate’s blank look, she added, “Our High Witch, the one who leads us.”
Nate nodded, still staring around the bustling room.
“We live by the prophecies,” added the woman.
The woman nodded. “The four prophecies of the Great Mage. Mainly the one about Flamehaven.”
Nate thought back to his training, trying to remember the prophecy that mentioned the forgotten city.
“The dead city of Flamehaven lives in our memories,
As a refuge for outcasts and souls on the edges.
The seeds of the Guardian were planted here,
While the mighty fall,
Their blindness leading to a false path.
The flames of Flamehaven shall rise again,
When the Fiery Redeemer returns,
And leads the Way.
Let those who remember,
Be the gatekeepers,
And those who have forgotten,
Fear what they don’t know.”
Nate looked up at the woman. She nodded, a curve to her lips. “Perfectly recalled. I wouldn’t expect anything less, you being a mage and all.”
“So Flamehaven is real, and you’re the gatekeepers?”
“We try. And we watch out for a fiery redeemer.” She grinned. “Whatever that might be.”
“The Forest of Ghosts keeps everyone out by being so terrifying that only the very desperate dare enter?”
The woman tipped back her head and laughed, showing off a few missing teeth. “That’s about it, fella.”
Nate leaned back in his chair. “What’s your story? Why are you an outcast?”
The woman shrugged. “Nothing much really. My village accused me of doing mage magic. It came to the ears of the local mage, and would have meant my life if I stayed.”
“Were they right?”
Her eyes suddenly seemed brighter, more intense. “There’s nothing in mage magic that a woman cain’t do. That’s a fact. It’s just the ego of the tattooed men who keeps it so.” She glanced at Nate’s tattoo. “Excusing your pardon, present company excepted.”
Nate shook his head. “I have only a small ego when it comes to mage magic. I’m sure you can do it better than me, on any given day of the week.”
“Probably could,” she agreed with a smirk.
Letting his breath out in a heavy rush, Nate leaned forward again. “Can you tell me who I should talk to about my horse? And getting on the road again?”
The woman pushed her wooden spoon around the pot. “The only person you should talk to is Miara. She controls who comes and goes around here.”
CHAPTER 27 - JENA
Jena put a hand to her head, trying to stop the spinning dizziness. Her newfound power was because she had the Book of Spells in her head? She knew the words inside out, but that was different from actually somehow having the book’s power inside her.
It seemed impossible. But then, no more impossible than carrying a dead mage’s raven tattoo around on her body, or finding a long lost sister.
And certainly no more impossible than finding out Thornal was her grandfather.
She tried to think rationally. There had been the pain when the book was destroyed, and her increased powers had definitely started around that time.
But it seemed too much.
A step too far, even for Thornal. “Why would he put the Book of Spells in my head? Why not another mage?” Jena rubbed her face, as if trying to scrape away the thoughts that were now crowding her head. “If he really was my grandfather, wouldn’t he try to protect me?”
“Perhaps this was his way of protecting you.” Miara shrugged when Jena gave her a burning look. “He knew who your parents were, knew they were strong, and knew what would happen if you were ever discovered. He also needed someone he could trust with the Book of Spells.”
Trust? He hadn’t even told her anything.
She thought of the ancient book, glowing gold in the light of the cottage fire. Power had always emanated from its pages. She shuddered. “But what can I do with it? They’ll kill me if they ever find out. I’m the child of a mage and a witch, and now I have the Books of Spells in my head.”
“But that’s just it, they can’t kill you, not while you have the Book of Spells inside you.”
“But what should I do with it? What was he thinking?”
“He wanted to save Ignisia. The prophecies say a false king will destroy us all unless we can change our path. This was his way of giving us another chance.”
“Prophecies?” Jena looked up in confusion at Miara. The burdens were getting heavier and heavier. She closed her eyes.
“Think girl. If you’ve really got the Book of Spells in that head of yours, and I think you do, you’ll be able to pick up the pages.”
Jena frowned, thinking through the Book of Spells, page after page. It was difficult to know if it was simply her memory, or if the book really had become part of her somehow. But once she thought about what Miara had said, she pulled the correct phrases easily to mind. She quoted the passages in a low voice:
“When the Rose crushes the Flames,
‘Neath its curly thorns,
Ignisia will fall.
Demon beasts take wing,
While the rightful King,
Will see death.
When the Way is destroyed,
The Raven must fly,
With a child of two powers.
The Flames burn bright,
And the Way will continue.”
“That’s one of them. I believe we’re living through that particular prophecy. But I’m talking about the other one.” Miara paused, staring into the fire, her expression full of memories. “Thornal deciphered it in his early years as the Guardian, and worried if he would be able to destroy the book when the time came.”
Jena paused, flicking through the four prophecies in the book to find the correct one. Again, she read it out:
“The fall of Ignisia,
Begins when a witch and mage unite.
And a union of unholy power.
When the dark ones come in the night,
The Guardian must protect
The Way above all else.
The Book will burn,
His mark will fly free,
And his seed will follow
A path no other can see.”
“That prophecy is the reason the union of mages and witches is banned? They thought it would cause the destruction of Ignisia?” Jena asked.
“It’s the common thought, although Thornal and others believed it was misread.”
“But it didn’t save him. He died for it.”
“Yes. He died for it, or perhaps because of it. And so did his son.”
Jena paused. Thornal had managed to destroy the Book of Spells and save it at the same time by putting it into her head.
But who would let a woman use the Book of Spells? His sacrifice was futile; he’d made the wrong decision.
Her head whirled, thoughts crashing into each other as she tried to make sense of it all. She only just managed to hold down the sob that was threatening, and once again, a sharp peck on her stomach reminded her to stay calm.
She cleared her throat. “What do you think will happen? What am I supposed to do?” Jena thought of the Hashishin knife in her bag. She had made a vow and she would complete it, no matter what happened.
“I don’t know, Jena. I can’t tell you that. I’m not even sure Thornal knew. He would have told you anything you needed to know.”
Miara opened her mouth, but a knock at the door stalled her. She glanced at Jena. “I need to speak to whomever it is. But I will send them on their way quickly.”
She opened the door, and Nate stood there, slightly unsteady on his feet. Jena stood and stared at him, every instinct telling her to get as far away from him as possible. If he ever found out what she had on her stomach, she’d be dead.
“I heard that you’re the one in charge of who comes and goes around here,” he said.
Miara nodded. “But I don’t think you’re quite well enough to go anywhere yet, young man.”
Nate shook his head, his hair flicking over his face. “I don’t have time to get better. The Riders will be leaving soon, and I need to be gone before I bring more death and destruction down on innocent people.” He leaned one hand on the doorframe.
Miara grasped his other elbow and led Nate into her room. She settled him down on one of the chairs before the fire. He sighed back into the comfortable leather.
“Now, tell me. What makes you think the Riders will leave us so soon?” she said.
Nate shifted uncomfortably. “I can’t say. But it’s true. And I need to leave.”
Miara bowed her head, as if thinking. “I will consider our options.” She held up her hand when Nate opened his mouth to argue. “In the meantime, I want you to tell us why you entered the forest with such deadly foe on your heels.”
Nate rubbed his face, clearly gathering his thoughts. “I don’t really know or understand what’s happening. You need to talk to Argus.”
“We will, now that he’s recovering.”
Nate glanced up sharply. “He’s better?” He let out a rush of breath. “He took that arrow for me.”
“Why are the Riders hunting you, Nate?” asked Jena. She was keeping her distance from the mage, but couldn’t help asking the question.
His fingers tapped against the soft material of the chair’s arm, and stared into the fire as if it could give him whatever answers he was seeking. “Prince Lothar has decided I’m a threat to his position,” he said reluctantly. “He thinks he has to kill me to be able to inherit the Kingdom.”
At the mention of Prince Lothar, Jena’s whole attention snapped to Nate. She walked over and sat across from him on the second leather chair. “Lothar sent the Riders?” Jena’s voice was calm, but underneath she was struggling with her emotions. Just talking about the king-in-waiting raised rage within her so strong, she almost couldn’t contain it. She caught Miara looking at her strangely and glanced away, managing to dampen down her wrath.
Nate nodded. “It’s not the first time he’s attacked me recently.”
Miara narrowed her eyes at Nate. “Did Argus say why Lothar considers you a threat?”
Nate hesitated. “Before I say anything, you need to understand that it’s a falsehood.”
Miara nodded her head. “Go on,” she said.
“Prince Lothar believes I’m next in line to the Flame Throne. That my mother and Prince Raffeus were wed before my mother died giving birth to me.”
Jena opened her mouth to speak and then closed it. She didn’t know what to say.
“It’s not true,” said Nate quickly. “I’m not the next king. There’s been a mistake, and I’m going to pay for it with my life.”
“There must be a way out of it.” Jena frowned, studying Nate. He didn’t look like her idea of a king. His long hair was scruffy and he had a few days worth of stubble on his face. Shadows smudged under his eyes, and his mage tattoo stood out like a jagged black lightning bolt across his features.
“Not if Lothar’s way of dealing with it is to send every flame-filled, dark-infested creature he can raise at me.”
“Then we need to learn more about Lothar. Find a way to change his mind,” said Jena. Or just kill him, she added in her head. Her fingers clenched as if she were grasping a knife. That would solve Nate’s problem.
Miara cleared her throat, looking almost as if she could see Jena’s thoughts. “Lothar’s mother, Margaret, believed she should have inherited the throne,” she said slowly. “She railed against the Flames and their patriarchal succession, and almost convinced her father to destroy them. In many ways, she was right. Her brother Harad was not a good king.”
Nate let out a frustrated breath. “She’s taught her son to believe he should be on the throne as well. According to Argus, he’s already killed people in order to take it. Margaret never stooped that low.”
“So his attempts on Nate’s life are from some misguided belief that his mother should have been queen?” asked Jena.
“Don’t dismiss it so easily. Margaret was a strong woman and very clever. Her son obviously takes after her. She also dabbled in spells for many years.” Miara looked meaningfully at Jena.
“How do you know all this?” said Jena, deliberately changing the direction of the conversation. It might be obvious that having the Book inside her head meant she could cast spells, but she wasn’t ready to talk to Miara about it just yet. Especially not in front of Nate.
“I haven’t always lived here. All this happened under my nose, at the Royal Court. I only came here when my husband died.” Miara gave a twirl of her hand in the manner of a grand lady. “For many years, I was part of the court and all its intrigues.”
The images that she had seen of Miara in her younger years suddenly made more sense. At least she had a way to know that Miara was telling the truth. “Why did you come here?”
“I was having trouble coping with my husband’s death. Thornal brought me here to help me recover and I never left.”
“Thornal looked after you.”
Miara nodded. “He lived the hermit’s life only after his son’s death. We were part of the court of King Seamus, a great and gentle king.” She paused and gazed into the fire, lost in her thoughts.
Images flicked through Jena’s head of a court filled with ladies and gentlemen dressed in fine silks, dancing and laughing. Miara was in the center of a group of courtiers, young and beautiful.
“I saw Margaret grow up,” Miara said eventually. “I was there for Prince Harad’s Flame Ceremony after King Seamus died, and I saw the land change. It declined under King Harad. Margaret could see it as well, and it angered her. When her brother married her off she was wild with fury, but she did as she was asked.”
“How does any of this help me?” interrupted Nate, his voice slurring. His eyes were drooping; he was struggling to stay awake.
Miara took one look at him and stood. A moment later, a knock sounded on her door, and Miara opened it to a woman Jena recognised from the healing rooms. “Nate, I think you need to go with Kimi back to your room. You’ve had enough excitement for one day.”
Nate frowned. “I wan’ to leave as soon as th’ Riders leave,” he muttered. “Promise me you’ll allow it.”
Miara helped him to his feet, making soothing noises. “We’ll talk about it once you’ve had a good sleep.” She put one arm around his waist and walked him to the door, letting the taller and much younger healer take him.
Shutting the door, Miara came back to stand in front of the fire. “He’s conflicted and doesn’t know what to believe.” She lifted one shoulder. “I don’t know either. I wish Thornal was here to advise us.”
Jena stared at the older woman, trying to decide if she could trust Miara. Bree seemed to think she should. What harm was there in telling her more? She knew most of it already.
“We might be able to get Thornal’s help,” she said quietly. “At least an echo of it.”
Miara frowned. “Did he leave you a note? Perhaps a spell?” She’d obviously been expecting Thornal to leave something.
“In a way.” Jena waited a moment, staring intently at Miara, trying to find something that would confirm she was making the right decision. The older woman simply looked back with a steady gaze.
She lifted her shirt. The large mage tattoo stood out black on the taut pale skin of her stomach. The raven moved and ruffled its feathers slightly, but didn’t seem to mind the sharp gaze of the old witch.
Miara drew in a startled breath and sat down abruptly.
CHAPTER 28 - NATE
“Argus, you must allow me to help you,” said Bree.
Nate looked up from the small creature he was carving out of wood. He was sitting to one side of the room on a small wooden stool that Bree had found for him. Bree was standing over Argus as he lay in bed, one hand holding his wrist to check his heartbeat.
“I’m fine. I don’t need any more of your healing.” Argus looked disgusted as he tried to fend off Bree’s hands from touching his body.
The quiet healer’s face was flushed, and she was clearly frustrated. “You’re only feeling better because we healed you. But you have to let me do some more if you’re going to recover properly.”
“No,” said Argus, crossing his arms. “I’ll recover just fine without any more of your meddling.” He was lying under the clean white sheets of the bed, his face pale against the pillows and his legs moving restlessly as if they didn’t know how to keep still.
Bree glared at the big man with her hands on her hips and her expression stern. “You’re just being stubborn.” Bree glanced over her shoulder. “Can you help me please, Nate? I need him to stay still.”
“Don’t bring me into this,” he said. “I’m a patient too, remember?” He flicked his knife back and forth over the soft wood. Tiny chips floated down to the floor and he kicked at them with his foot. There was no way he was getting involved.
“This is serious, Nate. Argus needs your help, whether he admits it or not.”
Nate shrugged one shoulder, keeping his focus on his wooden creation. He was in two minds about Bree healing Argus. He planned to leave the forest on the morrow, if the ghost mage’s estimate of when the Riders would disappear was accurate.
If Bree really could help Argus recover, it would mean Nate could leave with a clear conscience. The big man had taken an arrow for him and he wanted to make sure Argus was fine before he left.
But if Argus weren’t completely healed, the mercenary wouldn’t be able to give immediate chase. So he wanted him to be improving, but not too quickly. “I don’t think you should force your healing on an unwilling patient, Bree.”
His gaze went to a spot behind Bree, and he saw the old mage ghost leaning against the wall again. The absence of a tattoo on the lined face was like salt on an open wound to Nate. He tried to ignore him.
“See? I’ll heal on my own.” Argus rolled his shoulder then winced and swore.
“Hurt, didn’t it? You’ve not been healing as fast as you should have.” Bree put her hands on Argus’s arm. “I can ease your pain. I know it.”
Her eyes were large and the concern in them was real. She focused all her attention on Argus, almost as if she was willing him to agree.
Nate watched the conflict on Argus’s face as he tried to dismiss her pleas and avoid her eyes. The big man wasn’t the sort to give in easily, but Bree didn’t give up, and she eventually wore him down.
“Fine,” said Argus after another few minutes. “Do your worst.” He lay back with an angry scowl and allowed Bree to put both hands on either side of his healing wound.
She hummed at first, a strange little tune that made the hairs on Nate’s arms raise up. Her eyes were closed in concentration. He felt the pulse of power in the room. Whatever else, Bree had the power to heal.
He wondered if a line had been crossed into the realm of mages. The distinction was sometimes blurry at the edges, with witches often accused of mage magic. Mages connected to the earth, to the elements deep inside the ground, and to the volcanoes that surrounded them. Their spells invoked the spirits from the Edges, the creatures that walked the lines between this world and the next.
Witches used a lighter, more superficial magic, often incorporating potions and herbs. They used nature, plants, and animals, to access their magic.
Bree’s power was somewhere in the middle, fuzzy and blurred. Nate shook his head and gave up trying to define it.
Argus’s face was pale, his eyes glued to Bree. He looked like he’d been hit by a lavaen, and Nate understood why. He was almost certain Argus was better. How could that kind of power not heal?
“How do you feel?” asked Bree.
Argus rolled his shoulder around, and nodded slowly. “It feels looser, easier.”
Bree nodded. “I’ll come back to check on you later. You could be out of bed in as little as a week.”
Argus’s eyes flicked to Nate’s face, shock running across his features. “A week? No, by the Flames, that will not do. I’ve been stuck in this bed too long already. I don’t need any more time here.” He attempted to lever himself up off the bed as he spoke. As Nate watched, Argus realized, yet again, that he was too weak. The big man fell back and closed his eyes.
“What has happened to me?” he asked the room.
Bree put a hand on his forehead, soothing away the frustration. “You were hit by a deadly arrow. You should not have survived and you need time to heal.”
“I don’t have time!” said Argus in an urgent voice. “We don’t have time.” He glanced over at Nate, then back at Bree.
Nate’s eyes narrowed. “What does that mean, Argus? Why don’t we have time?” Nate ignored the curious look from Bree as he asked the question building in his head.
“My master gave us a time limit. If we weren’t back by the second full moon, there was no point in coming back. We would have failed.” Argus’s face was shadowed, his eyes dark.
Nate wiped a hand over his eyes. “But the full moon was last week. The second full moon is only three weeks away. We’re supposed to travel all the way to your master in three weeks?” There was no way they could get there in that time.
It made his decision to leave the forest without Argus all the more sensible. They were never going to make it to his master, and riding hard only to miss the deadline was pointless.
Lothar would figure out he wasn’t a threat soon enough. Nate just had to live long enough for him to realize it. Somewhere far away from Ignisia and all the creatures Lothar was intent on sending. It was the only option that made sense.
“I need to be out of this bed right now. Do you understand?” Argus said, his voice rising. Bree leaned over and smoothed her hand across Argus’s forehead.
Jena’s intuition crawled along the back of her neck. Goose bumps worked their way along her skin, stopping awkwardly at the burned skin on her shoulder and arms. She raised her hand to rub her neck, trying to smooth them away.
Turning her head, she saw Nate walking in her direction from the Flamehaven village entrance. His long strides seemed to eat up the ground between them, and the surrounding trees made moving patterns of light and dark across his body.
She’d been right. Trouble was fast approaching.
Jena considered getting up and leaving; pretending she hadn’t seen him. But she probably wouldn’t get away with it. So she waited where she was, sitting on a log placed in the gully to catch the midday sun.
Jena hadn’t seen him since Kimi had taken him back to the healing rooms two days before.
She’d been avoiding him on purpose; she was uncomfortable in his presence, especially now that he was almost fully healed and she saw the way his sharp eyes took in every small thing around him.
His mage tattoo was a constant reminder of the danger she was in if he ever discovered her secrets.
It was bad enough that she’d shown Miara her tattoo.
Miara, who had seemed very open to such things, hadn’t been able to look Jena in the eyes ever since. She’d almost pushed Jena out the door after she’d seen the raven on her skin, and Jena had spent the last two days convinced Miara was going to tell someone and have her executed.
She’d resolved not to take anyone else into her confidence.
Jena still didn’t understand Miara’s reaction.
She’d accepted the Book of Spells inside Jena’s head with very little difficulty, didn’t mind that they were children of a mage and witch, and had an inkling that Jena could do mage spells; but something about the tattoo being on Jena’s body disturbed the High Witch to such an extent that she seemed almost frightened.
Jena had even caught her making warding signs with her hands a couple of times. She sighed. It was too late now. She was just going to have to trust that Miara would use the information wisely.
The raven tattoo stretched its wings, brushing its feathers over her skin, as if telling her not to worry.
Jena sighed and leaned back, studying Nate’s face as he walked toward her. He looked pensive; the striking black raven tattoo emphasizing the shadows on his face and making him seem otherworldly. She put her hand over her own tattoo. Feathers ruffled, collecting themselves into their proper place, and she wondered if it was the same for all mages. She’d never seen Nate’s tattoo move.
She looked up again and thought she saw an answering shimmer go through the mage tattoo on Nate’s face. Startled, she watched his expression for any change. Was there some kind connection she didn’t know about? Could he somehow tell she had a mage tattoo on her body as well? Her heart began to race and she clenched her hand over her stomach.
He was a mage. He could never find out.
“Jena. I thought it was you. May I join you?” Nate’s words were casual, yet Jena felt the tension beneath them. His intense gaze seemed to bore into her.
She nodded jerkily. “I’m just sitting here thinking.” She struggled to keep her tone casual.
“About anything in particular?” He sat next to her on the log, leaning forward with his arms on his thighs and his hands hanging loosely down.
“What I’m going to do.” Jena clasped her own hands tightly to avoid flinging them around and showing her anxiety.
He gazed around them at the forest. “You’re not going to stay here? I thought you only just found your sister?”
She picked at a small knot in the cotton of her sleeve. “This is an idyllic setting,” she said. The forest, no longer menacing, curled comfortably around them, protecting their secrets. “And you’re right; I’m only just getting to know my sister.” She stopped and took a deep breath. “But I’m not going to stay, no.”
She had other plans for her future.
Nate nodded. “It’s isolated.”
“But safe.” Jena felt bound to point out. “It’s protected you and Argus, despite your enemies. The Riders gave up.” The creatures had left that morning.
“Then why are you leaving?”
“You want to escape from Prince Lothar and his minions, find somewhere to hide until he forgets you.” Jena’s voice was hard, and she had difficulty holding back her anger toward Lothar. “I plan on confronting him.”
“Why do you hate him so much?” asked Nate, lines appearing across his forehead as he frowned at Jena. “What has he done to you?”
“What makes you think I hate him?” Her voice trembled, and she was afraid that her emotions were going to spill out.
“You’re not very good at hiding your feelings.”
Jena shook her head. “I’m usually pretty good at it. At least I used to be.”
Nate smiled softly, a sad expression on his face. “Maybe I watch you more closely than most.”
Jena jerked her gaze to his face, startled by his words. When their eyes locked, her breath caught in her throat. “I... uh...” She cleared her throat and looked away. “He killed my master,” she said baldly.
“I’m sorry,” said Nate. “Who was your master?”
“The mage Thornal.”
Nate’s eyes widened. “The Guardian? He’s dead?”
Jena nodded. “I vowed revenge for his death.”
“You can’t go up against Prince Lothar. You’ll never survive.” Nate’s hair fell over his face as he shook his head.
“I can try.” Jena narrowed her eyes and stared off into the forest. “He shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it.”
“There’s not much we can do about it.” Nate’s face was hard, his mouth a grim line across the middle.
“The thought of him becoming King of Ignisia...” said Jena. “Do you think there’s any chance you’re wrong?”
“About my claim?” He shook his head. “I’m a salt gatherer from the volcanoes of Ignisia. What does someone like me know about being a king?”
“Sometimes you can’t help who your parents are, or who your family are,” said Jena, staring down the gully and berating herself for even saying the words.
“I’m not a king.” The words were harsh, as if they were choked from his mouth. Nate’s eyes were black in the shade of the trees and his mage tattoo stood out livid on his face.
He didn’t look like a king. He looked fierce and somehow feral. He certainly wasn’t regal. It seemed as untrue as he’d said; Argus must be wrong.
She accepted his decree and leaned back on her log again. He was more accessible if he wasn’t the king. “So what are you then?”
Nate frowned slightly. “Just as I said, a failed mage turned salt gatherer. When Lothar learns I’m not a threat, it will be over.”
He said it with such finality that Jena was tempted to believe him.
“He’s gone,” said Bree, as she stood next to Argus’s bed.
“What do you mean, he’s gone?” Argus’s voice became louder on every word. “Where did he go?”
“He took his horse, and some travel rations. He’s gone.”
“Ignisia is at stake, and you let him run away?” The veins on Argus’s neck were standing out, his face turning red. He crushed his hands into fists on the white bed sheets.
Jena straightened, preparing to step in and stem his angry outburst, which was aimed squarely at her sister. But Bree remained calm, not even twitching a muscle in the face of his tirade. She’d learned how to deal with the mercenary over the last few days.
“We’re not your jailers, and we’re certainly not his. He can come and go as he pleases.” Bree crossed her arms, a single tapping finger the only indication she was irritated with Argus.
“But he’ll die. Without my help, Lothar will find him and kill him. My master foresaw it.” Argus’s dark eyes were haunted under the anger, and Jena saw genuine concern for Nate. He leaned back against his pillows, his thoughts following a path only he could see.
“I’m sure he’ll manage. And it’s his decision. Not yours.” Bree’s voice was soft but firm.
Argus glanced up at Bree, and his eyes caught in her gaze. There was a heavy silence in the room and Jena shifted uncomfortably. She felt like she was intruding on a private moment.
Then Argus looked away and shook his head. “I’m going after him,” he said.
He heaved himself up out of the bed. Bree rushed to his side, ready to steer her patient back to bed. But he didn’t sway, and even managed to convincingly push her aside and walk around the room.
“I’ve been worse, and I can ride. Your healing has helped. Thank you, Bree.” For another long moment, Argus stared down at Bree, his expression fierce. Then he was moving, striding toward the closet that held his traveling clothes. He kept flicking quick glances at Bree, but there was something compelling him to move. The eerie mists of the spell inside his body came to mind, and Jena wondered just how powerful this master of his was.
“You don’t have to be in such a hurry, Argus. A few more days won’t hurt.” Bree stood behind him, with her hands on her hips as Argus rummaged in the drawers. She barely came up to his shoulder, but she never seemed to be intimidated.
“It might not hurt me, but it will kill Nate. I must talk with your High Witch. She must be made to see reason.” He shook his head, his blond hair sliding over his shoulders. “I can’t believe you let him go,” he muttered.
* * *
Jena knocked on Miara’s door. Argus and Bree waited behind her.
When she saw her visitors, Miara raised her eyebrows, but didn’t seem overly surprised. They entered the room, and she motioned for them to sit. “Now, what can I do for you all?” She flicked her gaze to Jena a couple of times, but most of her initial anxiety seemed to have dissipated. Jena tried to smile encouragingly.
“I need to leave. Nate has gone, and I must chase him. I need your help,” said Argus.
“My help? What help could I give?”
He glanced at Bree. “Well, you could convince Bree that I’m not a child to be fussed over.”
Jena stifled a laugh, even as Bree stiffened and narrowed her eyes at Argus.
The big man kept going regardless. “I don’t know which way he went, or what he plans. But I fear Lothar is even stronger than my master realized. I don’t know if my skills alone will save him. But I must find him. The future of Ignisia is at stake.”
Miara stared at Argus, her eyes seeming to look into his soul. Argus didn’t blink, and matched her look for look.
“Very well; I will help,” she said. As Argus attempted to thank her, Miara held up one hand. “But on two conditions. One, you tell me the name and direction of your master. And two, you tell me everything you know about Lothar’s plans.”
Argus paused, his dark eyes still focused on the witch. He hesitated and glanced over at Bree, then back at Miara. Then he heaved a sigh. “Very well. I will tell you what I know.”
Miara nodded sharply, as if to seal the agreement. “Lothar wants Nate dead because he’s next in line to the throne; is that what your master told you?”
“And who is your master?”
“Remus. Sometimes called the shrinking mage.”
Jena didn’t even blink, the name meant nothing to her, but she saw Miara’s small movement of recognition, and her raven tattoo shifted in reaction. An image of a tall, handsome mage with long, red robes and a sneering smile flicked into Jena’s head.
“He always was one to take advantage of a situation. He knows all the prophecies as well,” said Miara. “So what does he want with Nate?”
“He thinks Nate can reverse the shrinking spell. Based on the prophecy, he believes Nate to be powerful enough to bend it back.”
Jena watched the emotion flicker across Miara’s face. She didn’t know what to believe, but Argus was very persuasive.
“As I said, always one to take advantage. And what part does he believe Nate will play in the prophecies?” asked Miara.
“He believes he’s the Fiery Redeemer.”
“And we let him just leave,” said Miara softly. Her eyes flickered in the light of the fire.
“Is it true?” asked Jena. “Nate doesn’t believe—”
“Nate doesn’t want to believe,” interrupted Argus. “He’s scared and unwilling to trust people, and now he’s alone out there.” Argus jabbed one arm in the direction of the forest outside the room.
Miara cleared her throat. “So if Remus is to be believed, not only is Nate our next king, he is also the one from the prophecies who is going to battle Lothar?”
“My master also believes Lothar will destroy the Flames as soon as he is in power,” said Argus.
Jena’s stomach dropped at the thought. The Flames were the center of the kingdom, the one constant.
They were protection and beauty and tradition.
Thornal had taught her to revere and respect the Flames, but she’d always known how important they were to their lives. “He wouldn’t dare,” she said.
“His mother Margaret had strong beliefs,” said Miara, nodding. “She thought the Flames held us back, rather than helped us. We have to assume Lothar thinks the same way, despite the fact he’s using the Flames to gain power.”
“He’s ruthless,” said Argus. “He’ll do whatever it takes. My master believes he can help Nate hide from Lothar until the time is right.”
Jena took a deep breath. Lothar had killed Thornal, the most powerful mage in the kingdom, and was trying to get the Book of Spells. Added to that, he would probably destroy the Flames as soon as he was named the Flame King.
They couldn’t let Lothar win.
“Is there anything else I should know?” Miara asked.
Argus shook his head. “Remus sent me to get Nate and bring him back. He’s the next king in the line of succession, and Lothar wants him dead, whatever the cost.” He paused. “We don’t have much time.”
“I have started to hear rumors from outside the forest,” said Miara softly. “There are whispers of disappearances, strange creatures roaming, and villages being attacked. I believe Lothar is calling beasts from the dark regions of the Edges to help him.” She paused. “Such as the Riders.”
A vision of the Riders, rotting and crawling with maggots, rose in Jena’s head. “If Lothar is controlling the Flames, he must have access to an incredible amount of mage power. He won’t be easy to dethrone.”
Miara looked stern, but Jena caught a flash of raw emotion on her face. “It is not an accident that you are all here,” she said. “The Flames have drawn you together. You came to me for help in this task, Argus. I give you my help; Bree and Jena will go with you on your journey and help find Nate.”
“What?” Three surprised voices rose together; the sound echoed around the room. Jena looked over at Bree; her sister was as shocked as she was. Was Miara trying to get rid of them? Could this be Miara’s answer to her obvious fear of the tattoo on Jena’s stomach? She studied the High Witch closely, but her expression was closed, and she gave nothing away.
“When I asked for your help, I meant a ruse that would keep Lothar off track, or some potion to hide us from him.” Argus didn’t hold back on his opinion. “They will only slow me down.”
“You can’t just offer us up without asking, Miara,” added Jena. And I don’t need to stay in Nate’s presence any longer than necessary.
“Argus, between them, Bree and Jena have what you need to find Nate and keep him safe from Lothar,” said Miara calmly. She turned to Jena, looking her directly for the first time since she’d found out about the tattoo. “This is the only way to follow your path, Jena. You are destined to challenge Lothar, but you need their help.”
“How can they possibly help me against Lothar?” Argus was scathing.
“Bree is a healer, and despite your attempts to hide it, you are still very weak from the arrow’s taint. You won’t make it more than a half day without her. Jena has the ability to hide you all from Lothar’s searches in the Flames.”
Jena gave Miara a startled glance. How on earth was she supposed to do that?
“Is that even possible? I thought the Flames could see anything anywhere?” Argus shook his head as if to clear it. “I don’t need their help. I’ll have to ride hard to catch up with him. They’ll slow me down.”
“Yes, it’s possible they’ll slow you down. But you won’t survive more than a day if you don’t hide from Lothar’s gaze.”
Argus paused, thinking. “Fine, Jena could be useful. But Bree doesn’t need to come with us.”
Jena didn’t know whether to be pleased or annoyed at his begrudging decision to include her in his group, but Bree gave an indignant gasp, her blue eyes flashing. “You don’t think I can be of use?” she said.
Argus glared at her. “You’ve never left this forest, you told me so yourself. How do you expect to survive with an irrational mage-king sending dark creatures from the Edges after us?” His movements were jerky and agitated as he gestured outside again toward the edge of the forest.
“I know how to take care of myself, which is more than I can say for you. Which of us had a poisonous arrow in our shoulder just a few days ago?” Bree seemed like she wanted to spit in his direction, she was so angry.
Miara held up her hands, indicating they should both settle. She stood, her small frame held sternly erect. “Bree needs to go with you. First, because she is the only way you will survive the journey, Argus. But second, because she’s part of the prophecy as well. You all are.” She held up her hand when Argus tried to speak. “I’ve thought long and hard about this since I saw…” Her eyes darted to Jena’s stomach where the tattoo was hidden. She hesitated. “Well, let’s just say since you first arrived here, Argus. The prophecies are clear. If Nate is the Fiery Redeemer, then our part in this conflict is to make sure you all stay together. It’s the only way we’ll beat Lothar.”
Argus stood up, his tall frame towering over Miara. He took a step toward her, and for a moment it seemed as if he was going to use his physical strength against her. Then he paused and retreated to the bookshelf. “I can’t look after them both. Bree could be hurt,” he said, his voice low and raw. “She can’t take care of herself out there.” Argus wasn’t holding anything back, but he looked miserable rather than angry.
“I can look after myself, Argus. I’d last longer than you against the kind of enemy you’re fighting,” Bree said quietly, but her anger thrummed in an undertone.
“And Jena is hardly better,” Argus spoke as if he hadn’t heard Bree at all. “She might have lived outside the forest, but she is still a girl with very little training against the kind of problems we’ll be facing.”
“Pardon me?” Jena’s pride wouldn’t stand for the accusation of being unable to take care of herself. “Who saved you from the Riders? Who healed you when you would have died? I think we’re far more qualified to look after Nate than you are.”
“You’ll cause more trouble than it’s worth,” said Argus. “Thanks, but no thanks, Miara. I don’t accept your help.”
“You arrogant brute—” began Bree.
“Of all the stupid—” said Jena.
A sharp whistle sounded, silencing them all. Miara spoke into the sudden gap, “Good. It’s decided. The sisters will be your protection until you reach the shrinking mage.”