Royal Mage

CHAPTERS 1-10 - FOR SECRET SOCIETY MEMBERS ONLY!

Brand new, never-before-seen chapters of book two in the Firecaller series, Royal Mage. 

Royal Mage starts where we left our travelers at the end of Fire Mage - at the home of Argus's master, Remus the shrinking mage. 

Jena, Nate, Bree and Argus are on a journey to find out more about their destiny. But first, they'll have to battle monsters, overcome evils, and find the truth among the lies being told to the kingdom. 

Read on to find out more... 


CHAPTER 1 - NATE 

"Argus, you succeeded.” Remus lifted his cup of tea in toast. “I wasn't sure you would.” The shrinking mage smiled and it seemed an unnatural act, his lips stretching uncomfortably across his yellowed teeth.

Nate clenched his hands around the mug he held, struggling to contain the emotions that raged inside him. After all their travels, after almost dying several times and the kernel of hope he’d been nursing about Argus’s master being able to save him... it was a disappointment to finally meet Remus.

He’d known at first glance that the strange deformed mage wasn’t the saviour he’d been looking for. There was something cold and devious about him; it emanated off him, leaving Nate with a greasy feeling whenever Remus came near.

The ghost’s warning was spinning around in his head: Don’t trust the mercenary’s master. He means you harm. He’d been hoping the ghost who’d appeared as Argus fought the hashishin had been wrong or perhaps telling half-truths.

But as soon as he’d seen Remus, he’d known the ghost was right. They couldn’t trust Argus's master, not even the tiniest amount.

He shivered. Despite the warmth of the cheerful fire burning in the grate, he felt cold. They were sitting around the hearth in Remus’s cottage, drinking the tea he’d just made them. Shadows danced on the walls, which were hung with disturbing masks and stuffed animals, plus shelves of books and vials filled with strange liquids. It was like a distorted, unhappy version of his grandfather’s spell room.

And his grandfather’s room hadn’t exactly been a barrel of laughs.

Next to Nate, Argus looked up from contemplating the teacup he was holding in one enormous hand, his expression hard. "You said you could help Nate."

"Yes, I suppose I did." Remus’s eyes bulged in the dim light, the milky disease that affected the eyes of the elderly creeping across their surface. He was sitting on top of three ancient spell books, his need to be taller than everyone else while they sat in front of the fire outweighing the centuries of magic and knowledge they contained.

Nate couldn't help wondering how old the mage actually was. His age was masked by the grotesqueness of his current state. His body was wizened and wrinkled unnaturally, his lopsided face perched precariously on a bird-like neck. It was part of the spell that was causing him to decrease in size; Nate had never seen anything like it before. 

He watched Remus with narrowed eyes, trying to see through the disturbing surface to the man beyond. His imagination failed him. “And can you help me? Or is this a deception you've created?" His voice was harsh, and he was expecting an answer he didn't want to hear.

"I can help you, and you can help me. It will be a fair trade." Remus smiled again.

Nate ground his teeth. "How can I help you?" he said. "I don't have any useful powers. I’m sure you’re aware of that. My grandfather let it be widely known that I lack the family talent as a mage." He wasn’t going to trust this shrinking schemer with the secret of his supposed Firecaller talent.

"I have searched for many years to find a way to reverse the spell that was cast on me. I have foreseen that you will be the answer to my problems."

Nate’s heart beat faster. What did the old mage know? “How? What do you want from me?"

"You must use the Book of Spells to save me.” Remus leaned forward, his unsettling eyes focused on Nate. “I know you possess it. It is part of the prophecy."

Across from where he sat, Nate felt rather than saw Jena’s sudden intake of breath. Beside Jena, Bree put her hand on her sister’s arm.

He didn't say anything for a moment, gathering his thoughts. He was determined not to give away Jena’s secrets either. "What makes you so sure I have the Book of Spells?”

"It is written in the prophecies. Do not bother to lie to me.” Remus made a wide gesture with one long, thin arm, the huge spell books rustling as he moved. “I have studied for years to find a way out of this curse. It's in the Book of Spells, I know it is.” His unsteady eyes flickered in the firelight, and Nate’s intuition kicked into full force.

They couldn’t trust this old man with anything. Not one thing. 

The full force of their wasted journey hit Nate in the chest, and he struggled to take a breath. Remus wasn’t going to help him, wasn’t going to save him. He wasn’t going to do anything but double cross them if he could possibly manage it. What were they going to do now?

How was he to defeat Lothar?

Across from him, Jena stirred. “How did you come by this particular shrinking curse, Remus? It seems too simple a spell to confound a powerful mage such as yourself." She smiled, but it didn't reach her eyes.

Remus's face twisted for a split second, pulling his features into an even more terrible disfigurement. It seemed he might not answer Jena’s question for a moment. Then he gave his chilling smile. "I was caught by a woman. Two women, actually. They were jealous of my powers and connived together. Separately they were weak and pitiful. But one placed a shrinking spell on me, just as the other placed an eternal spell. Combined they were powerful enough to entrap me."

Nate glanced up quickly. "How is it these women were casting spells? And how is it you can't remove a simple shrinking spell?"

Remus shook his head impatiently. "This was a long time ago, and both women were witches, so they had some power of their own. I had taught them a few simple mage spells."

Nate blinked. “Mage spells? Women can't do mage spells.” He forced himself not to glance at Jena.

Remus saw his expression and waved away his breach of the centuries-old mage law with one arrogant flick of his wrist. "It seemed innocent enough, but they used it against me. On that day, I realized the Council was right to uphold the ban on women casting spells and becoming mages. They use their emotions over their logic. It leads to no good."

"What happened to them? Why didn't they relent?" Asked Nate, even thought he thought he knew why they didn't relent. He wouldn't give in to this little monster either.

"Bah," said Remus. "I had cast a spell on them first, and it took affect before I could ask them to change it."

"And you couldn't reverse the spell you cast on them?"

"What use would that have been? They wouldn't have reversed my spell. If I had to be stuck shrinking through the years, they could be stuck in their assigned roles as well. It was a fit punishment."

"Even at the expense of your own health?" He couldn’t believe it. Remus’s pride was phenomenal.

"I was confident back then that I would find a way out of the spell. It has since come to my attention that although the eternal spell is small, it is powerful. It does not detach itself easily."

“What's in the Book of Spells that will stop you shrinking?" Again Nate had to concentrate hard on not looking at Jena.

Remus made an impatient noise. “I don't know what it is; I just know it's there. Something in the Book of Spells can turn back an eternity spell.” He leaned forward again, his strange milky eyes focused on Nate’s face. “You have it, and in return for me saving you from certain death at Lothar’s hands, I want to look through the book.”

A whisper of unease rolled up Nate’s spine. What would the shrinking mage do when he realized that Nate didn't have the Book? Would Remus stand back and let them all die at Lothar’s hands?

Of course he would.

"And if I don't have it?" Nate asked softly.

"The Guardian might be dead, but the Book still exists. I know you have it." Remus’s eyes gleamed in the firelight. Even lopsided, his power was disquieting.

"What makes you so sure?" Nate leaned back in his chair, tapping one finger gently on the arm, and wishing they’d never come to this place.

"Thornal couldn't destroy it. It's just not possible. What good is a Guardian without a Book to protect?" Remus shrugged, his head drooping to one side. "You are the one from the prophecy, and you are intimately connected to the Book in all the old sources. I know you have it."

“But how?”

Remus huffed, sweeping his arm in an impatient arc. "I have studied for the last sixty years, trying to find a way out of this flaming spell. I know that Lothar, the Rose King, is finally moving, and the prophecy is under way."

"What makes you so sure about the prophecies?” Nate finally glanced at Jena, wondering what she wanted him to do.

She just shrugged, as if it was no concern of hers. 

Remus nodded his head towards his hearth. "I have a Flame Echo in my fireplace. I hear the news; sometimes more than I should."

Nate glanced at the fire, its rosy flames suddenly taking on a more sinister glow. It took a complicated spell to create an Echo bond. Most of the Flame Echoes that existed had been put in place by the Great Mage, centuries ago. It was a timely reminder that Remus was a very powerful mage. He needed to be careful. “And if I help you undo this spell, what will you do for me?"

"I can help you defeat Lothar. I can lead you to Lothar's weaknesses."

Nate leaned forward. "What are his weaknesses?"

Remus patted the side of his nose. "I keep my secrets until you have given me what I need. Give me the Book, and I will tell you how to defeat Lothar."

Nate paused. "I need some time," he said. "I'll have to go through it to see what might be of use to you. It’s not always a matter of simply reading the Book of Spells."

Annoyance flitted across Remus's face before he could hide it. "It would be easier if you simply gave me the Book to study."

"I gave an oath. It stays with me."


CHAPTER TWO - JENA 

Jena yawned widely.

She’d barely slept all night, despite having a proper bed for the first time since they’d left the Forest of Ghosts. Remus had grudgingly allowed the women to use his spare room, while Nate and Argus had slept in front of the fire. 

After a night in the room Jena was pretty certain Nate and Argus got the better end of that deal. The walls were covered in stuffed animal heads of all different sizes, from tiny lava mice to larger wild cats and even a two-headed fire deer. Their glassy eyes had stared out at her all night, infecting her dreams and making her toss and turn wretchedly. 

As soon as light had filtered across the sky, Jena had emerged from the room, ready to leave. But Nate and Argus were nowhere to be found. She discovered that Remus had been awake before her, and had already asked Nate and Argus to do some chores for him. Argus hadn’t yet told Remus that the spell had been broken, and the mage didn’t seem to have noticed. Argus and Nate had apparently packed up a bag and headed to the quarry for some rocks to fix Remus’s home.

So now Jena and Bree were sitting on the veranda looking out over the barren landscape, trying not to be too impatient. It was still early morning; steam was rising from several rocky vents in the distance, and small animals occasionally popped their heads out from behind the sporadic underbrush. 

“You’d think they’d know to stay well hidden,” said Jena.

“What?” said Bree absently. She’d been staring into the distance in the direction that Nate and Argus had left from.

“The animals. Otherwise they’d end up on our host’s walls.”

Bree shivered delicately. “How does he get their eyes to look so real?” she asked.

Jena shrugged. “Magic.”

Bree didn’t take her gaze away from the narrow track.

“They’ll be back soon. He’s only sent them to get some rocks from the quarry. Argus said it wasn’t far away.”

“I’m just nervous. Around…you know.”

Jena nodded. She knew exactly what Bree was talking about. Remus was a devious old man. He watched them out of the corner of his eyes, when he thought they weren't watching, with a faint sneer on his lips. 

Even worse, he was desperate. He'd kept pestering Nate last night about the Book of Spells, and every time he'd asked something new, Jena had been convinced he'd find out their secret. Nate hadn't looked at her and had answered calmly, but Jena's heart had been pounding loud enough to be heard across the kingdom. 

When she discovered that he’d asked Nate and Argus to get the rocks, at first Jena had been confused. She’d assumed he would ask to see the book again first thing this morning. She’d been stealing herself for Nate’s reply. But Remus seemed to have changed his mind this morning. Except every instinct inside her was yelling that Remus had some kind of a devious plan. He didn't seem like the kind of person who would take no for an answer. 

“They’re both big enough to look after themselves. They’ll be fine,” she said, although she wasn't convinced. Jena crossed her fingers and glanced nervously in the same direction Bree had been focusing. 

“But why—?”

Bree broke off as Remus came shuffling around the corner of the house. He'd excused himself not long after they'd gotten up, saying he had to pick some herbs for their dinner.

“Having a rest ladies?" he said. His tone and expression implied they were obviously lazy. In the time they’d spent with him, it had become clear Remus really didn’t like women at all.

"We've come a long way," Bree reminded him gently.

Jena glanced over at her sister, her mouth curving in a moment of genuine amusement. Bree was so forgiving. She assumed that perhaps Remus had forgotten their travels. Not that he was just a horrible little man. 

"Ah yes, I suppose you have." Remus came to a halt in front of them. His tiny, deformed figure was clothed in an altered traditional mage gown, and his strange wrinkled hands hung from the sleeves like they weren't even joined to the rest of him. Despite looking like an enormous human-colored prune, he still managed to look dangerous. He cast a considering look over their faces. "How much do you wish to help Nate?" he asked. "Do you wish him to succeed against Lothar?"

I tensed, wondering where this was going. Remus's expression was just bland enough to be suspicious, his eyes glittering with an excitement I couldn't easily explain. 

"Of course we do," said Bree, frowning. Her hands tightened on the arms of the wooden chair she was sitting in. 

"I hesitate to tell you this. I'm not sure you're strong enough. Perhaps it will only upset you to know what you cannot do." He paused again, looking apologetic.

Jena raised her eyebrows, but refused to ask him to elaborate. The more she knew of this small mage, the more manipulative and devious he seemed. She wouldn't trust him if her life depended on it. 

When neither of the sisters asked him the question he was waiting for, Remus continued. "You have an opportunity to help Nate defeat Lothar. But it will mean braving something rather frightening."

"What are you talking about?" said Bree, her kind face scrunched up in confusion. 

"I could not tell you while the men were here; they would not have let you go." 

Jena stood up. She'd had enough. "This is some kind of trick."

Bree pushed herself up from her chair and came to stand beside Jena in a show of solidarity that made Jena's chest tighten.

"My dear, this is no trick. It is within your power to bring Nate a lavaen stone from the core of the volcano. With such a powerful magical object on your side, Nate is certain to be victorious."

Jena's stomach dropped. “A lavaen stone?" Her one experience with a lavaen had been terrifying. She had no desire to repeat it.

"It is a powerful stone that comes from the very core of the beast. It forms like a pearl in an oyster. When it grows too large they heave it up, vomiting a stone of such power and beauty, it is legend among mages. The stone would give Nate the advantage he needs over Lothar."

Jena swayed where she stood as a page of the Book of Spells appeared in her head. She still wasn't used to the powerful mage tome being inside her head. For the thousandth time, she wondered what Thornal had been thinking, putting the ancient book inside her head. It was a guarantee of death for Jena, should any of the mages--for example like Remus--find out what he'd done. The page of the book that had shimmered to the surface showed a picture of a gleaming red stone in the hands of a mage. The writing talked of lavaen stones as if they were a myth. Jena clenched her hand. "And how are we supposed to get it?"

"You must enter the lair of the lavaen on this mountain, and ask her for it."

Jena shuddered, images of fire and death flashing through her head. “We can't just ask a lavaen for a stone. It'll kill us."

"A normal lavaen, perhaps. But this is a special creature. She used to be human, and was turned into a lavaen many years ago. She responds only to women. Males she tears to pieces. If you had the men along, they would only be a hindrance."

“Did you do something to her? Is that why she hates all men?”

Remus waved a hand. “It hardly matters how it came to be. But the stone is there for you, if you are brave enough to take it.”

"How exactly will the stone help Nate?” Jena asked. She knew there was some kind of trick involved in Remus’s suggestion, that he was probably expecting them to fail. But the nasty little mage didn’t know that she could do mage spells, that she had the book of spells inside her head, and that together Bree and Jena were a powerhouse team. 

He was assuming he was sending two helpless women to the lavaen’s lair. Horrible little rotter.

It was hard to know how Argus had borne living alongside him all the years he was under his spell—although perhaps it explained the mercenary’s surly demeanor.

"It is a power source for the Firecaller. Lothar is gaining strength every day. Nate has no chance of winning this battle if he simply relies on his own abilities." 

Jena thought of the murghah, and the small glowing ruby filled with souls the creature had carried. Lothar was using the souls of his own people to succeed in his terrible quest. What chance did they have against someone like that, unless they had something similar? "Say we believe you. What do we have to do?" Jena asked. She tried to ignore the flash of triumph on Remus's face.

"You must enter the cave, and ask for the pleasure of speech with her. If she roars, you must run immediately," said Remus. "You will have time to escape. If she purrs, she is happy to talk. Go inside, ask for the lavaen stone. Simple." 

Jena turned to Bree and spoke in a low voice. "He's telling the truth about the lavaen stone. It's in the Book. If it can be of help to Nate, I need to go. But you should stay here and wait for Nate and Argus, tell them what I'm doing." 

"No,” said Bree firmly, her eyes flashing. “If you go, I go. You might need help." Bree glanced over at Remus. "And I'm not staying here alone with him," she added under her breath. 

Jena turned back to the shrinking mage. "How long will it take us to get to the lavaen's lair?" 

"No more than an hour or two. It's very close."

She gazed up the mountain. In the distance shoots of red lava spurted out from the uppermost volcanoes. "It lives near the volcano?"

"It lives inside the volcano." Remus's eyes glinted, and Jena saw amusement flit across his face. She let out an angry breath. He was a smoky, devious mage and this was a trick of some kind. He thought they wouldn't survive the meeting with the lavaen.

But he didn't know them. He didn’t realize who their parents were, or that her grandfather had taught her to be a mage.

And it was in the Book. They – Nate – needed all the help he could get.

"Tell us how to get there."  


 CHAPTER THREE - NATE 

Nate's back was soaked with sweat, making his shirt uncomfortably wet and cold, despite the heat of the morning. He grasped another heavy lava rock with two hands and hefted it into his bag. Despite being small, they were compact - heavy with the minerals formed in the centre of the lava.

In the distance he could see Remus's house tucked into the side of the mountain. They'd walked up here earlier when the sun wasn't quite so high, and it had felt like a nice mild morning. 

Now the sun was baking his skin, heating it up until it felt like he was being baked alive inside a forge. A red glow was spreading over his face and body. This was much harder work than mining the volcanoes for salt. “How many more do we need of these?”

“Not many,” replied Argus from a few feet away where he was lifting a lava rock twice the size of Nate's.

“And the reason we’re breaking our backs lifting rocks for him is…?”

“I don’t want to upset him. Not until we know what we’re going to do.” There was a certain satisfaction to Argus's tone. 

Nate watched him carefully. What had changed? He'd been hell bent on getting back here to his master this whole time, and now it seemed like Argus was equally eager to leave. 

He figured it had something to do with Bree.

“And what are we going to do?” He knew Argus wanted to take Bree away while they all continued on their quest, but now that they were here, Nate wondered if it had changed Argus's mind. The reality of Remus and his slowly shrinking body was terrifying to behold, and the fact he was working with Lothar made it even worse. He hadn't wanted to leave Bree and Jena by themselves back there. Surely Argus would help them? 

His chest tightened at the memory of his confrontation with Lothar, and Jena's vow. She'd pledged to continue on with him, and to fight Lothar for the crown. It had warmed him from the inside out at the time, but now the reality of it all was starting to sink in. 

“I don’t know." Argus held one hand up to shade his eyes from the heat of the sun. "What do you want to do?”

"We both know Remus is lying; but what is he lying about?” Nate scratched behind his ear where the sweat was ticking his sensitive skin. “It must be the information on Lothar." 

"Does it matter what he's lying about?" Argus frowned. “We know we can’t trust him.”

“It’s a waste of a journey if we can’t glean something from him. He’s a mean little bastard, but he’s powerful.”

“And what makes you so sure he’s lying?” asked Argus sharply. 

“Other than everything you’ve told me?” Nate shifted where he stood, trying to decide if he could trust Argus with his true magic. But they'd come this far, saved each other many times. It felt right to tell him. "I have a particular power; part of being Firecaller.” Nate hesitated, old habits making him reluctant to spill his secrets. “I can see and talk to ghosts. When you rescued me the first time, a ghost told me your master was lying and would only pretend to help me. It wanted to help me get out of there without you." Nate looked for shock or fear on Argus's face, and saw neither. 

The big man simply looked intrigued. "How do you know the ghost didn't lie?"

"They can't lie."

"Then why did you come with me?"

Sweat dripped from his brow as Nate considered the rocky cliffs above them for a moment. "Ghosts… when they're living in the Edges between this world and the next… have to figure out why they're still here," he said. "Sometimes they're just stubborn bastards who don't want to die, but mostly, if they find what it is they have to finish, they'll move on to the next world. They get pretty desperate as soon as they realize I have the power to help them.”

"And that's bad?”

Nate shrugged. “They’ll say and do anything to get their way. They can't lie, but they bend the truth and try to force me to do their will without considering the consequences for the living. They can’t be trusted. So I went with you."

"And it landed you here, carrying rocks for a mean little bastard mage and trying to figure out what he's is up to,” said Argus drily.

“So it did.” Nate paused and looked up. “But you did save my life several times. I don’t know if I ever properly thanked you for that.”

“You were too busy running away from me,” said Argus.

“I didn’t want to be King of Ignisia. Still don’t.” Except now he'd vowed to wrest it from Lothar's twisted hands. Nate tried to regret it and couldn't. 

“Sometimes we don’t have a choice in life. Things just happen a certain way.” Argus’s expression was haunted for a moment, before he hid his emotions again.

“Your brother’s death wasn’t your fault,” Nate said cautiously. He didn't want to upset the mercenary. 

Argus glanced sharply at Nate. “You don’t know—“ He stopped, and took a deep breath. “I’ve carried that with me for a long time. It’s hard to let it go.”

“I know. But you’ve got a second chance now, with Bree. Don’t mess it up by focusing on your past. Think about the future.”

Argus raised his eyebrows at Nate. “Like you’re doing?”

“My future isn't quite so simple. I have to battle a self-righteous mage much more powerful than I am, and if I succeed, I become king, a role I know nothing about and have no desire to hold.”

Argus laughed. “You’re smart. You’ll figure it out.”

Blowing out a frustrated breath, Nate sat down heavily on a nearby boulder. “So what are we going to do about Remus?”

“Why are you looking at me for the answers?”

"He's your master, you should know him. Is he going to help us?“

Argus paused. Then he stretched his back, and curved one corner of his mouth. It was the closest Nate had ever seen him come to smiling. "He's not my master any more."

Small but powerful, the statement made Nate stare at Argus. "You're free of him?” He’d not been completely certain, but he’d had an idea there was more to Argus’s devotion to his master than he'd said.

Nodding, Argus rubbed one hand over his roughly stubbled chin. He looked embarrassed. "It was a love spell. I had to fall in love with a pure-hearted woman, and she had to fall for me. Only then would I be free of his tyranny. He thought no one would ever fall for an ugly old soldier like me, let alone a woman with a pure heart. And to be honest I thought he was right." Argus's eyes went soft. "But we were both wrong."

"When did you realize?"

"I thought it was possible when we were at the water demon's cave. I knew for sure when we arrived at the house. The old pull had gone. I felt nothing but annoyance and anger, where before there had always been a desperate desire to serve Remus."

"What does it mean?" 

"That I'm free to do what I want. I'm free to love a good woman and settle down. I'm free to go home to my people, to introduce them to the woman I love." 

Nate went over to the big man and grabbed his shoulders. He grinned, and then grabbed Argus in a big hug, slapping his back in congratulations. Argus stiffened, then relaxed and slapped Nate's back in return.

Nate stepped back, still grinning. "How long have you been under his spell?"

"Too many years. Since just after I left the Flame Guards."

"So what do we do? Do we stay to listen to what he has to say?”

“Your ghost was right. He’s going to double-cross you if he can.”

Nate nodded slowly. “I don't want to give him anything."

"Nor do I. I think we should leave on the morn for the Utugani winter camp. I want to see my family again. I wish to hug my grandmother Catriona, and talk hunting with my father. Seeing Eldrin has made me long for home." 

“Then let’s get these rocks back to Remus. We need to make plans with Jena and Bree.” Nate stopped to look around them at the small quarry. "Did he make you do this very often? When you were under his spell?" he asked. 

"He enjoyed putting me in my place."

"You think he's dangerous?"

"Yes. He's selfish, arrogant and he's a mage. We have to be very careful. Our main protection is that he believes you have the power to reverse his spell."

“Then we have to keep up that pretense until we can leave." 


CHAPTER FOUR - JENA

The hot sun beat down on Jena's body, making the scar tissue on one side itch uncomfortably, while the knots in her stomach became tighter and tighter with each step. But she refused to give in to the urge to turn around again to see if Remus still watched them from the veranda of his house. 

An uneasy shiver crawled along her overheated body as she pictured him standing as they’d left him, a cold gleam in his eyes and a tiny smirk on the edges of his lips.

It seemed like he knew something they didn't, and that had felt dangerous. For a long moment, she fought the urge to look back again, to see if he was still there. Instead she clenched her fist and forced herself to carry on. It didn't matter if he was still there. 

They were both strong, capable women, with more power in their pinky fingers than Remus gave them credit for in their whole bodies. He didn't know everything there was to know about their situation. Even if he was sending them into a dangerous situation, they'd be fine. They'd faced so much on the way here, it was difficult to imagine anything worse. 

Except maybe Lothar watching them through the flames. 

Firmly blocking the memories, Jena forced herself to focus on the uneven track ahead of her. The mountainside was barren, and the path rocky and steep. The only movement came when they dislodged rocks and sent them tumbling down the track. Heat blanketed the landscape, getting worse as they climbed higher. The track was so rugged it was almost invisible in places.

Clearly very few travellers came this way.

“You good?” she asked Bree, walking just behind her.

“Yes,” said Bree, her gasping breath leaping over and around the word like a lizard in a lava bath.

Remus had promised them it wasn’t far to the cave, but it was still a steep climb and they were both already exhausted. 

The giant eagles sent by Lothar had torn open the skin on her side, and despite healing magic from Bree, it still ached with every step. Jena felt like she’d tumbled down a mountain, and her whole body was now covered in bruises. She was glad they’d left their bags with Remus, even if he thought he was tricking them into it.

You’ll be back before the men. No need to take your heavy bags. You can borrow one of my smaller knapsacks for food and water.

Even in her memory, his voice seemed slimy. She’d known what was behind Remus’s words straight away: he wanted to search for the Book of Spells, maybe even steal it. What he didn’t realise was that he wasn’t going to find anything useful in their bags, so all his scheming was for nothing.

All the same, Jena felt a pang of worry. What if getting them out of the way wasn’t the worst of what he was trying to do? They knew Remus was trying to trick them, and still they were going.

She was purposefully taking her innocent sister Bree into a confrontation with a deadly beast.

Jena took a deep breath and tried to calm her nerves. She was confident in her mage skills, she had the Book of Spells inside her head and the raven on her side. It was all information Remus didn’t have when he sent them up the mountain.

They would be fine.

This wasn’t a terrible idea.

Jena slowed in her steady ascent, her legs unconsciously catching up to what her brain was thinking. What were they doing? This was a terrible idea. They should talk to Nate and Argus before heading off on their own, who knows where. Nate would need them if he was going to have any chance against Lothar.

Only the thought of Nate up against Lothar—an experienced mage using dark magic to gain immense power—hardened her resolve.

Whatever she could do, she would do.

Remus wasn’t as smart as he thought he was.

She forced her feet to start moving again and they travelled on in silence, the worries in Jena’s head swirling uncomfortably. When she felt the impatient scratching on her stomach, she lifted her shirt, knowing straight away what the raven was asking for. The bird leaped free with the usual painful twist and Jena grimaced. It flew straight up, high into the sky, then wound down and landed on her arm, chattering at her in a way she hadn't heard before.

"What's the matter?" she asked. "Have you seen something?"

It continued to chatter and caw, but when she lifted her shirt for it to go back on her stomach, the raven leaped back into the air, flying overhead in wide circles.

"It's a good watch animal. It’ll warn us if anything is coming," said Jena as she watched it with one hand over her eyes.

"Why do you think he sent us up here?" asked Bree. She knew what they were doing was dangerous. The last lavaen they'd come in contact with had killed her horse.

"I don't know. He might want us to succeed at this, so we owe him something. Or he might be trying to get rid of us. In which case we have to be very careful."

"What does it say about lavaens in the Book?" asked Bree.

Jena scanned the pages, until she found the notes on the fiery creatures. "They live in the lava, swim in it. They can tell if someone is lying to them."

"Good skill to have. I wish we could use it against Remus."

"Yes. It would be nice to know what was going on in his head."

"He's... off-balance," said Bree. “It's the way he's shrinking. I don't know what he was like before, but he's crooked now. Askew. Not just in his body, but in his mind."

"He's desperate to overcome the spell," agreed Jena. She knew exactly what Bree was getting at. There was something completely off about Remus. 

"Can Remus still overcome his shrinking spell? Perhaps it's already too late.” Bree sounded hopeful.

Frowning, Jena scanned the pages of the Book of Spells in her head. "I'm still looking.” She hesitated. “To be honest, I don't want to help him."

Bree nodded her understanding and they walked on in silence, Jena still searching the Book. There were a number of spells that almost matched, and could possibly be altered to suit, but they could just as easily make his condition worse.

The eternity spell was difficult. It could backfire in so many ways.

"Wait! Here it is," she skidded to a halt. "A shrinking or growing spell that has been locked in place upon a living creature can be broken if that creature submits to a master."

Bree laughed. "A master? He'd never do that. He's got enough self-consequence for three men."

"Make that ten. I'll have to keep searching. Sometimes the answer isn't obvious."

"Enough about Remus. What about the lavaen? What else does it say about them?" Bree sounded nervous.

Jena read the collected mage wisdom on lavaen. "There's not much here. It says they’ll work with humans when necessary." Jena grinned at Bree. "Let's just hope it turns out to be true for this one."

"They're beautiful creatures. It was terrifying, but it was beautiful, the one we saw." Bree’s expression was misty, and Jena knew she was thinking about her horse.

"Beautiful, but deadly,” she said. “We have to be careful."

They trudged up the mountain, one slow step in front of the other, as the sun rose higher in the sky. The heat that had been cloying and uncomfortable now became almost unbearable. Her scarred skin tightened painfully under the onslaught. Jena dealt with the discomfort by focusing inwards, looking through the Book for something that might free Remus—if she decided to help him.

She couldn't find a way other than submitting to a master, something she was certain he wouldn't do.

She was focused on rearranging a particularly complicated spell in case it helped, when her foot skidded out from under her on the loose shale. With a yelp, she crashed heavily onto the rough ground, sliding downward, over the sharp rocks and narrowly missing taking out Bree as well. 

She frantically reached out, on either side of her, trying to grab hold of something, but everything was just out of reach and she was moving too fast.

Just when she thought she’d end up back outside Remus’s cottage, she crashed into a large rock, bashing her head against the side. Everything went fuzzy, and Jena’s head spun. For a moment, time seemed to hold itself still, and it felt like she wasn’t even breathing; then it all came rushing back, along with gasping pain from several new scrapes along her side, mostly on her elbows and her leg. The only good thing about it was that she had fallen on her good side, so she hadn’t grazed her scarred skin.

She bit her lip to stop the whimper that wanted to break free.

“It hurts," she said pitifully.

"I know. Let me have a look at it." 

"We don't have time," said Jena, trying unsuccessfully to stand back up. 

Bree firmly pushed her back to sitting. "We're stopping for a rest," she said. Bree poured a little of their precious water over the wound and began wiping the small stones out of the graze. Pain shot up Jena’s leg as the cloth rubbed into her skin, and she jerked away.

"I'm sorry, it's going to hurt, but we need to get the stones out." Bree’s voice brooked no argument. “Now lie still. Then we’ll have a rest, get something to eat.” A little of her cool healing magic seeped into Jena, and the pain lessened slightly.

Jena nodded. She felt like crying over the scrape on her knee, and her head was starting to ache from where she'd hit it. She needed the rest, even if they were in a hurry.

Once Bree finished cleaning Jena’s wounds, she pulled out their lunch; bread and cheese provided by Remus. Jena sniffed it cautiously, but Bree bit right in.

"He might be smokey, but he can bake good bread," she said.

Jena nodded. After the first couple of bites, the food settled her anxiety, and calmed her desire to have a tantrum. She sighed. "We better keep moving."

Bree stood up and put out a hand. Jena gritted her teeth and stood straight, unwilling to give in to the stiffness in her leg.

"Are you sure you're okay?" asked Bree peering at Jena's face, concern in her eyes. “We could always head back down and try again tomorrow?”

“No. He said it wasn’t far. And I’ve felt far worse pain than this. Let's go." Jena wanted to beg Bree to use more of her healing magic on her grazes, but she kept silent, knowing Bree was saving her strength in case they needed it against the lavaen.

They continued to scramble up the incline, Jena taking care to watch where she was going and not slide a second time.

"There it is,” said Bree, pointing ahead. “The rock shaped like a bird's head. That's the one he was talking about. We must be close." Bree crawled up and around the large rock, and then reappeared at the peak, waving at Jena. "It's just behind here."

"It's not very big," said Jena, peering around. The gap in the mountain wall would allow the women through, but the lavaen would never be able to use it. "Do you think it’ll be happy about us coming in by an entrance it can't use?"

"This is the entrance Remus told us about." Bree shrugged. "We can only hope he was telling the truth about that at least.“


CHAPTER FIVE - NATE

They were almost back at Remus’s house, two enormous sacks filled with rocks hampering their movement, when a familiar rush of energy told Nate that a ghost was traveling alongside them. 

He was so used to ignoring them, that it was only when the ghost crossed his path that he realized it was the ghost mage, and not some long-dead person trying to force him to take revenge on their behalf. For the first time since he’d been visiting Nate, the ghost mage was agitated, floating back and forth, and waving his hands at Nate, trying to catch his attention.

Nate stopped, frowning at the ghost, trying to figure out what was wrong. He hadn't seen him since the birds attacked just before they arrived at Remus's place. “What's the matter?” he said. 

“You must hurry. They’re in danger.” The ghost mage's voice was louder than usual, and it echoed uncomfortably across the mountain. 

An ominous feeling rumbled along Nate's skin. “Who’s in danger?” He took a step toward the ghost, as if that would help. Shale beneath his feet moved and he had to widen his stance so he didn't topple over.  

In front of him, Argus stopped as well. “Who are you talking to?” he asked, turning back. He dumped his bag of rocks to the ground. 

“There’s a ghost. He says someone is in danger.” Nate tried to shake off the prickles of unease. They'd only just left Bree and Jena at the house. What kind of trouble could they possibly have gotten into back there in the short time they'd been gone? 

Except they'd left them there with Remus. 

The ghost mage gave up talking, and grabbed at Nate’s arm, trying to force him to keep moving. Except the ghost's hands just floated through Nate’s body, giving him eerie chills. 

“Jena and Bree are in trouble," said the ghost mage, finally getting to the point. "Remus sent them into danger. And if you don’t hurry, they’re both going to die.”

As if by magic, the words had Nate moving again. “Remus has done something to Jena and Bree,” he said to Argus as he scrambled toward the bigger man. “We have to hurry.” His heart was pounding uncomfortably in his chest, and he tried not to think too hard about what Remus might have done. 

Argus’s expression became thunderous. “If that shrinking monstrosity has harmed a hair on either of their heads, I’m going to kill him,” he growled.

Nate just nodded as he lumbered past Argus, the rocks on his back suddenly feeling twice as heavy as they'd been a moment before.

The ghost scowled at Nate. “Drop the damned sacks of rock and run. Only you can save them." 

The words were like a bucket of cold water over Nate’s head. Why on earth was he still carrying the rocks? He hefted the bag from his shoulders, dumping it to the ground. “Leave the rocks, we have to run,” he said to Argus, before starting to run unsteadily down the side of the mountain. The ghost paced beside Nate, his clothes flapping silently. 

Argus followed without question, and soon they were thundering down the mountainside, their booted feet pounding over the landscape of boulders and sparse plant life. Nate couldn't think clearly, he just kept Remus's house in his sights, and concentrated on not falling. They'd save them. It would be fine. 

Nate rounded the corner of Remus's house, going straight for the front entrance. He pulled open the door to find a cheery fire flickering in the grate, and Remus waiting for them at the table. It seemed innocent enough. 

"Where are Jena and Bree?" Nate asked as he strode inside the room. He didn't trust the expression on the shrinking mage's face.

"They went for a walk."

"A walk? Why would they go for a walk? They were both exhausted."

"They'll be back soon," Remus said in a soothing voice. "Now what would you like to eat after your busy morning?"

"Where are they? Tell me now. Before I call some friends you won't like." A red haze came across Nate's vision, and he had to concentrate on holding it in check.

"Ah yes, the demons. They're rather unsettling aren't they?" Remus shivered dramatically. "Sit here and I'll tell you everything you need to know about Lothar." Remus waved a hand at the grate. "Argus, tend the fire."

Argus didn't even pretend to move.

Nate loomed over Remus, using his height and letting off waves of power. "I have no time for lies. Just tell me where I can find Jena and Bree," he said. 

Remus didn't even blink. "They went for a walk up the mountain. They should be back soon." He glanced over at Argus, who was still standing ominously by the door. 

"I don't believe you. Try again," snapped Nate. 

"You'll feel bad about not believing me when they come back to the house." Remus smiled, thin lips parting over his crooked yellowing teeth. His eyes kept darting between Nate and Argus. 

Nate practically snarled. "I know you've done something. Tell me where the women are, and I might not kill you." He was on the edge of his temper. The fires were boiling inside his stomach and he could feel the room heating up around them. It felt like he was about to snap any moment. 

"Hold it in," said the mage ghost in his ear. "We need your powers to save the women. Just get him to tell you where he sent them."

"I did tell them not to go," said Remus with a delicate shrug. 

"Where. Are. They?” Nate's voice was as hard as steel. Panic was clawing its way up his throat. He grasped Remus's shirt front and let the flames glow inside his eyes. 

Fear finally emerged on Remus's face. His hands clenched in front of him on the table and his left eye twitched. "They went up the mountain to the lavaen's lair. They wanted to collect a lavaen stone to help you with your upcoming battle."

Argus's hand whipped to his sword as if he was about to fight something. "That beast is insane. You sent them to the lavaen's lair?"

Remus gave Argus an irritated glare. "Argus, go outside. I need to discuss this with Nate." He flicked a hand at the mercenary dismissively. 

Argus clenched his hands at his sides and glowered. “You no longer control me mage. You will tell us both exactly how to find them." He strode over to the other side of Remus and loomed threateningly over his ex-master. 

Remus peered up into the mercenary's eyes. He pursed his lips like he'd just tasted something sour. "They insisted on going. I tried to stop them," he said in a whiny voice. "They're both stubborn women."

Nate couldn't help himself, he spoke the words that called his fire demon, and the glowing ball of demon appeared in the room.

"Master, how may I serve you?" said the demon as it appeared. 

"I need you to watch this mage for me." 

"Is that all?" said the demon, clearly annoyed. 

"Maybe not just watch, depending on what he decides to tell us." 

The demon glowed a deeper red, just as clearly pleased by the statement.

Remus looked worried for the first time. "Now, now, don't be hasty," he sai  

"Just tell us where to go. And so help me, if you lie, you'll live to regret it."

Remus held his hands up in front of him. "Now, now, don't be hasty. I simply told them about the lavaen stones, which could help you destroy Lothar. I might also have mentioned that the best way to get the favor of the lavaen was to go in through the entrance on the Bird Head side."

"You sent them into the lavaen's lair for one of its stones?" Argus lurched toward the little mage, his hands grasping Remus’s robes at his neck, pulling him into the air and knocking over his chair with a clatter. He gave the mage a shake. "I will kill you with my bare hands."

"Stop it Argus," Nate pulled at his arm. "We have to find them. Do you know this entrance he's talking of?"

Argus nodded, giving Remus a shake before dropping him to the floor. The ungainly mage landed heavily, and looked sulkily back up at them. "Before you go, just tell me the spell I need to release me. I know it's in the Book."

"I don’t have the Book of Spells, Remus," said Nate, satisfaction flowing through his body as he saw the mage's frown. "Jena has it. Your interpretation of the prophecy was wrong."

“What? That can’t be right.” Shock trembled across Remus’s expression. 

“You better hope the women are in one piece, or you won't have to wait until you shrink to death. We'll be back to murder you ourselves.”

She has the Book of Spells?” He looked to the spare room where the women stayed. “But I checked—” Remus's face went white. “Why didn't you tell me?” 

“Because we didn’t think you could be trusted,” snarled Nate. “Which you’ve just proven by sending Jena and Bree off to be killed.” Nate cut himself off before he could say anything more, already regretting his angry words. They couldn’t trust Remus, and a woman shouldn't have the Book of Spells. It was the kind of information that could get Jena killed.

Even as Nate watched, Remus’s face took on a sly expression, like he'd just heard what Nate had been thinking. "A woman has the Book. Now that is an interesting situation. Any help you need, I'd be glad to give it."

Nate knew the small mage wouldn't be above blackmail to get what he wanted. The knowledge sat like a stone in his belly. He regretted the petty urge that had made him tell Remus. He looked over at the demon, tempted to let the creature do whatever it wanted to Remus. “If you so much as blink out of line, we will kill you,” said Nate, his eyes flashing with fire. The demon beside him moved forward eagerly. “For your sake, you better hope we find them in time,” Nate said grimly.

“I can help,” said Remus, his voice still slimy and smug. 

“We don't need your kind of help,” growled Argus, before storming out of the cabin. 

Nate stared down at Remus a moment longer. “You did this to yourself,” he said. “Just like you did it to yourself all those years ago. You haven’t learned a single thing in all your years.” 

“I didn’t need to learn a lesson,” spat Remus. “I just wanted my life back.” 

“If you’d been a better person, you’d have had it back by now.” Nate glanced at the demon. “Stay here and guard him while we climb the mountain. We won’t be long. If we don’t return by the end of the day, you have my permission to kill him.” 

Remus sputtered, and moved away from Nate across the floor, but Nate ignored him and strode out the door. 


Chapter six - Jena 

"Maybe we shouldn't do this," said Jena.  

She turned to Bree, all her doubts pushing to the surface. The stinging pain in her hands and legs was like a throbbing reminder of everything that could go wrong.

"We can't back out now, we've just spent the morning climbing the mountain,” said Bree, her voice gentle and persuasive. “Our reasons for being here haven't changed. We need to help Nate."

Jena took a fortifying breath and stepped closer to the entrance, then hesitated again. She focused on the Book of Spells page about lavaen, just in case there was something she missed. "They also hate not getting the respect they feel they deserve. So whatever you do, make sure you're polite," she said. 

“I won’t say any of the terrible things I was planning to say,” Bree said with the ghost of a smile. “The sooner we go in, the sooner we get out."

A cawing sound was all the notice that Jena had before the raven swooped down, demanding access to her skin. She lifted her shirt, and the raven slammed into her side, making Jena wince. 

"I never get tired of watching that happen," said Bree. "Can all mages do that?" 

Jena shook her head. "One, I'm not a mage. I'm a woman, remember? And two, no. This is Thornal's raven, and I've never seen another raven separate from its mage and fly like that." She moved closer to the entrance, rubbing her side where the raven attached itself. "Come on, let's. get this over with." 

Together they walked into the gloom of the tunnel, hands running along the sides to keep their orientation.

Jena created a small flame in the palm of her hand, holding it up.

The tunnel was narrow, the walls close. It was warm, the heat coming from the surrounding rocks. Unidentified creatures skittered back into the darkness ahead of them.

"How long was this tunnel supposed to be?" whispered Bree. Her voice echoed into the darkness.

"It goes to the centre of the mountain, directly to the lavaen's lair. It must be a fair distance."

They kept walking, unable to see too far ahead, stepping cautiously to avoid the rocks jutting out at irregular angles. Jena felt something slither over her foot and jerked to one side to avoid it, crashing into her sister. Bree squeaked as they both crashed into the wall on her side. The light in Jena’s hand went out, and they were left in darkness, clutching each other. 

"What's the matter?" Bree whispered. “What did you see…?”

"There was something—I felt it on my foot." Jena shook her head. "Sorry."

Jena drew forth the flames in her hand again and held her palm high, letting the flickering light fall on the tunnel around them. It had a slight decline, and it was getting hotter and hotter as they got deeper into the mountain. The pungent odour of sulphur hung in the air, and Jena’s nose twitched uncomfortably.

"Are we going to end up in a lava pool?" asked Bree.

"The lavaen swim in it."

“Of course they do.”

They kept moving forward, Jena leading cautiously, trying to ignore the frantic pounding of her heart. The memory of the lavaen as it swooped low over their heads was repeating over and over in her head. The only thing that had stopped the lavaen that time was Nate and his Firecaller abilities. Jena took a shaking breath, and her hand trembled, throwing strange shadows into the tunnel ahead of them. She was starting to regret this whole adventure. They should have waited for Nate and Argus. The four of them together might have been more able to take on a creature like a lavaen.

“It’s going to be fine,” said Bree from behind her. “We’ll charm the lavaen. You remember what Remus said—the creature doesn’t like men.”

“How did you—?” asked Jena.

“I can…kind of…feel you thinking. It’s just a vague feeling. I’ve also gotten to know you, and understand your tells. You’re regretting the impulse to come up here. But it’s going to be fine.”

Jena nodded, accepting what Bree was saying. She felt some of what Bree thought too. “Thanks. I needed that.” She turned and kept walking, this time with a steadier hand. The calming influence of Bree stayed with her and Jena smiled at the thought of her sister having her back.

As they walked further into the tunnel, the darkness became deeper, more absolute. Jena had never been more glad of her ability to call a flame to her hand. The tunnel was also narrowing around them, and the rotten smell of the sulphur in the lava was getting stronger. Under their feet, the stone was vibrating gently, and becoming warm to the touch. If they didn’t arrive at the lavaen’s lair soon, it might be too hot for them to walk.

When she finally saw a light that was stronger than the flame in her hand, Jena breathed a sigh of relief. The end of the tunnel. They approached it cautiously, and peered out into a massive cavern filled with the heaviness of heat and steam. The heat hit them like a wall. Below them lava bubbled in an enormous internal lake, flowing into the cavern from several tunnels, and swirling violently in red and orange patterns. The lingering smell of sulphur was so strong, it was like another personality in the cavern.

Fires burst forth from several cave entrances below and across from them, and the whole room was coated in a red glow that lit their faces. The heat was immense, rising up at them in waves that were almost visible. Except, instead of moving away from the heat, Jena and Bree edged forward, as if compelled. The glow called to them; it felt warm and cozy and familiar. Jena wanted to get closer, to feel the warmth against her skin. She took another step forward, and rocks skittered over the edge of the tunnel and tumbled into the lava pool below. 

The falling stones made her pause, and Jena’s scars prickled uncomfortably. The raven pecked her on the stomach, and she jerked at the sudden pain. She shook her head to clear it. The compulsion to leap off the edge into the lava receded and she took a step backward, pulling Bree with her. Bree fought with her for a moment, until she too shook her head, and looked around like she didn't quite know where she was. 

“What just happened?” Bree asked in a small, scared voice. They'd both almost walked over the edge into the lava without even thinking about it.

“Some kind of mesmerizing spell to capture its prey, I’m guessing," whispered Jena. "We have to be more careful." 

Jena peered over the edge again, and this time she saw the lavaen, its black scales reflecting the light from the fires. Her breath became stuck in her throat and she had to suppress the urge to cough over her suddenly dry mouth. The lavaen below them was easily three or four times larger than the one they’d faced back at the mercenary camp. Lava spilled over the rock where the immense creature perched, lapping at its enormous clawed feet. The gushing orange-red color of the lava pool echoed the molten magma that simmered between the lavaen's own scales. Its wings were tucked against its sides, and its eyes were partially closed.

Suddenly, those molten eyes opened fully, and the lavaen lifted its head to stare directly up at Jena. Its cold, dead eyes reminded her of Remus’s, and she shivered, despite the terrifying heat of the cavern.

Bree took a step forward, her hands reaching out to calm the creature. "A friend of yours told us you might consider helping us. The safety of the Kingdom is at stake. "

The lavaen's eyes glittered. Who might this friend of mine be? 

The voice reverberated around in their heads, echoing uncomfortably several times before the words left their heads. Jena held her hand to her head and wished they were still back at Remus’s house. Her instincts were screaming at her to run, and it was only because Bree was close to the lavaen that she stayed where she was. The lavaen watched them coyly, and Jena was reminded of a snake waiting to strike. 

"Remus." The name was out of Bree's mouth before Jena could caution her. She didn't think Remus was a friend of anyone's, let alone the lavaen's. 

In fact, she was pretty sure he was counting on that fact to ensure they didn’t survive this encounter. 

Ah, Remus. The lavaen spat out his name, her eyes swirling with anger. He is a friend of yours?

“No. He’s nothing but a dirty little sneak,” Jena said quickly, trying to prevent whatever was about to happen. 

But she was too late. So fast, it almost seemed like she might have imagined it, the lavaen’s body rose up from its lava encrusted perch, one arm snaking out. It grabbed Bree in its scaled hands and returned down into its crouching position.

The lavaen held Bree’s struggling body up to the light of a nearby fire like she was a toy. Quite a pretty young female. Did you think some of my jewels would make you even prettier? Is that why that disgusting rodent Remus sent you here? The words were heavy inside Jena’s head, this time laced with a pungent bitterness that she hadn’t noticed the first time.

Bree screamed, her legs thrashing uselessly as they dangled below the lavaen's scaled hand.

"Leave her alone!" yelled Jena. Fear made her vision blur for a second, but she didn't have time to fall apart. She had to save Bree. 

Her heart pounding, Jena leaped through the air and landed on the back of the giant creature. Steadying herself on the lavaen's back, she dug her fingers into the gaps between the scales. The heat from the lava behind the scales seared her fingers, making her want to scream with the pain on her scarred side. But Jena didn't hesitate. She climbed up the back of the lavaen, ignoring everything but the need to rescue Bree.

The lavaen roared louder this time. You think I would give you one of my precious stones? It reared up on its hind legs, trying to shake Jena free.

Bree screamed as the creature tightened its hold on her.

"Stop that! Stop hurting her," yelled Jena. As she shouted, the raven pulled itself away from her skin, and Jena felt it escaping out from under her shirt in a flurry of feathers. The sense of relief she felt was out of proportion with what the tiny raven would actually be able to do. But it was good to have help. The raven gave a loud and insistent caw, and then she felt the brush of her raven's wings as it flew past her face.

The raven then flew up past Bree, cawing madly at the lavaen, and flying close to the face of the massive creature. The lavaen swatted at the raven with its other paw. At first the raven was able to duck and dive out of the way of the scaled creature. But then, with a loud thwack, the lavaen managed to hit the raven hard and send it up against the rough walls of the underground cave.

The bird fell to a ledge halfway up the wall, its body still.

Jena's eyes widened and she felt a sob escape her chest. She watched the raven, waiting to see if it would shake its head and stand up. Nothing. Even the raven couldn't help them against this foe.

Jena frantically thumbed through the pages in her head for a spell, something that would stop, or at the very least distract, the lavaen.

Fire was no good, the lavaen loved fire. It lived in lava.

If Nate was here he might have been able to summon the water demon. That particular demon might have had a trick up its sleeve for a lavaen. Or maybe even the fire demon could have talked to it again. Argus could have distracted it while she found something in the book that might help. 

With four of them, they might have been able to trick the beast.

The lavaen curved its enormous neck around, and one of its red glowing eyes looked directly at Jena. You made a serious error of judgment coming here, little creature. I will kill your friend and then I will kill you. 

It bared its lips, showing off the sharp white teeth inside that were each bigger than Jena’s entire torso. Jena could only stare down at the creature, her mind whirring, trying to figure out a way to save Bree.

 

Chapter Seven - Nate

"How much further?" asked Nate. He was hauling himself up the barren mountainside behind Argus, the midday heat surrounding them both like another layer of skin. His heart was pounding like a drum at the crescendo of a war song, and he was gasping for breath at the bruising pace Argus was setting. None of it mattered. They had to get to Jena and Bree before something bad happened. The fire demon buzzed beside him, barely visible in the midday sun. 

"I think we've almost caught up.” Argus pointed to a spot near the trail. “They had food here, and not long ago." He paused for a moment then strode ahead, his expression slightly wild. 

Nate stopped by the place Argus had indicated, unable to see the evidence that seemed to be so clear to Argus, and then continued on after the mercenary. "How are we going to defeat an insane lavaen in its lair?" he said.

“I do not know,” said Argus, almost under his breath. His hands were almost white, they were so tightly clenched at his sides.

Nate glanced at the glowing ball next to him. “The fire demon will help.” It had been a fire demon that drew the lavaen away from them last time.  

Argus shook his head, clearly frustrated. “A demon can’t do anything against a lavaen. It's like setting a breeze against a storm.”

"It worked last time."

"But why? I don't understand how a fire demon convinced a lavaen to turn back.” Argus threw a scorching look over his shoulder as he stormed ahead. “We can’t rely on a fire demon a second time.”

Nate looked up at the fire demon streaming along beside him. “Is that true? You won’t be able to help us against this lavaen?” He felt the demon’s fire reflected inside him, in the ancient burning fire that hid at his core.

It buzzed left and right before answering. “The big one is correct. I do not have the power to defeat this particular lavaen. She is not the same as the last one. It is the power of the Firecaller that commands the beast."

“Firecaller?” Nate repeated stupidly. Out of habit, he looked around for the ghost mage, wanting him to confirm whether it was true. The old man wasn’t there.

"Of course master. As I keep saying, you command the fire creatures. All of us."

A screech echoed across the mountains, carried on the faint wind that brushed past them. It rattled a flock of crows, and they rose up out of a barren tree, squawking at the disturbance.

"We need to hurry." Argus strode up the path in long determined strides.

Nate took off after Argus, trying to keep up. Thoughts of Jena and Bree facing the lavaen on their own had him half running after Argus, despite the heat that blanketed the landscape.

Beside him, the demon kept pace easily. ”Master, you have the power to defeat it, and you will know how to do it when you meet the lavaen." The creature buzzed, flaring brightly for a moment, then returned to a distant haze.

Nate glared at the creature. “I don’t need more riddles, I need actual help,” he said.

The demon didn’t respond.

Soon Argus turned off the main path and stopped outside a small cave. "This is it,” he said, turning to Nate. “It'll be dark."

"The demon can go first."

Buzzing into the tunnel, the demon’s eerie glow lit the long narrow passageway. Argus and Nate followed the flickering light, at first stepping cautiously on the rocky surface. Peering into the distance, Nate couldn’t see anything but rocks and more darkness. “How far is it from here?”

“I’m not sure. I’ve never gone the whole way down.” Another roar pierced the silence, reverberating down the tunnel, and shaking loose some of the rocks over their heads. “We need to hurry.”

They ran as fast as they could down the narrow darkened tunnel, following the demon’s light. The temperature rose, and Nate wiped at the sweat forming on his forehead, trying to keep it out of his eyes. Nate stumbled when he heard a familiar voice echoing in the cavern ahead of them. Jena. He ran faster, his heart pounding. When a light appeared in the distance, he thought at first he was seeing double because of the heat. But the end of the tunnel grew larger and larger, like some deadly creature speeding at them, determined to cause harm.

They ran toward it, faces grim.

Argus slowed as they approached the end, the bright light beyond hurting their eyes and making it impossible to see what was happening. The demon flitted out into the cavern, sizzling with excitement. The smell of sulphur permeated everything, and the heat made it feel like they'd been thrust inside a baker's oven. The flames inside Nate rose up; it was like he was burning from the inside out in reaction to whatever was inside the cavern.

He felt compelled to move toward the end of the tunnel, his legs moving of their own accord. The magic crackling in the air felt familiar, fiery and thrilling. He was drawn to it, fascinated by it. For a moment, he forgot what they were doing here, and allowed himself to soak in the glorious feeling of the powerful flames he sensed inside the cavern. 

Jena yelled again, her voice indistinct. Her familiar voice was enough to knock Nate out of his stupor. He shook his head to clear it, and pulled at his shirt where it was sticking uncomfortably to his skin. He leaned around Argus to get a better view. They were on the edge of a small entrance to the lavaen's lair. Lava bubbled in pools around the room, and fires burst out of multiple vents. Flickering firelight covered everything. 

In the middle stood the biggest lavaen Nate had ever seen. Its enormous ebony scales reflected the firelight, and the fiery cracks in her skin were packed with so much boiling lava she lit up the area around her with her own red and orange glow. Large, wicked-looking, ebony claws scratched at the rocks beneath her, and her soulless black eyes stared down at something she held in one hand. 

The lavaen screeched in the closed space, and Nate covered his ears to save them from bursting open. Blood pounded through his body, and for a moment, he saw perfectly leaping flames, dancing in formation. The magical fires in his core leaped in response to the lavaen, whispering love poems to such a perfect fire creature. He had to clench his fists into tight balls and force himself to concentrate on staying in the here and now. If he lost himself in the fire, he’d never be able to save Jena and Bree. 

This enormous lavaen could have eaten the other two they'd fought for breakfast, and still have had room for more. He’d been terrified in the past but this lavaen was so powerful, he was almost beyond the fear. She was beautiful, sleek and powerful. Her scales soaked up the light from the fires around the room, their brilliance matched only by the gleam of the lavaen's teeth as she smiled down at something in her hands.

“She can’t be real,” he whispered to Argus. His palms were sweating, his blood thrumming erratically through his body. The sweltering heat was coming at them like waves on a beach, hitting their bodies and then pulling back, only to slam into them again. The creature was a massive flame he could see as clearly with his eyes shut as he could with his eyes open. "She's enormous." 

Argus nodded, his face glowing red in the lava light. “She is. And much meaner than usual.” He paused. “Smarter, too.”

Nate wiped his hands on his pants. The lavaen’s black scales were the size of dinner plates, and she so perfectly matched the colors of the lava and the volcanic rocks in her lair, that she almost melted into the background. The lavaen turned slightly and Nate inhaled sharply. 

"Look," said Nate, pointing. Argus nodded grimly. The lavaen was holding Jena and Bree, one in each hand. Jena was struggling to get free, but Bree was limp, her eyes closed.

"What do we do?" asked Nate. He couldn’t help it. Every time he took charge and used his power, something bad happened. And right now, he felt like he was being torn in two. The power of the fire and the lava and the lavaen combined was so immense, all he wanted to do was bathe in the fiery goodness. The deep dark fires in his belly were thrumming with heat, and he wanted to ignore everything else, his friends, the rest of the kingdom, and just immerse himself in the violent crimson flames. 

Which meant they needed a plan of Argus’s making, something that might save them from Nate’s Firecaller power. 

"I'll create a distraction, while you use your Firecaller tricks."

"I don't have any Firecaller tricks," said Nate. None that he wanted to use again, anyway."  

Ignoring his words, Argus reached into an inside pocket of his leather vest, and pulled out the small fire ruby, tossing it to Nate. "Use this if you need it." He stepped out into the lavaen's lair.

“Wait, Argus. I don’t—” 

But it was too late. Argus had raced down the path along the outer wall of the cave, and was at ground level. 

Nate looked down at the ruby in his hand.

He immediately felt the pull of the ruby’s magic, trying to draw him down into its power. He’d been enthralled by the rubies that Argus had given him when they’d first met, only able to escape when Argus had slapped him. It was a struggle not to fall down into their power a second time. 

Shit. “Wait, Argus. I don’t—” Nate stopped. 

It was too late. Argus had gone, and the fire demon was buzzing out in the cavern. There was no point arguing with thin air. 

So much for a plan that didn’t involve his new magic. 

The tiny gem had worked for them against other dark creatures, including the first lavaen he'd ever seen.

They’d survived that time, although right now, that felt like it had been more of an accident than from skill. 

The second lavaen they’d come up against, he’d also managed to survive—mainly because his fire demon had persuaded it to leave. And it had taken their horse instead of them. 

He’d also had help that time, telling him what to do. The ghost mage.

Where the hell was the old man now? He’d seemed so desperate when he’d told them what was happening. Why did he only appear when it suited him?

Nate swallowed hard and tried to concentrate on the fiery beast in front of him. It was up to him. He was the Firecaller. He was on his own against a lavaen, a beast more powerful than most people could imagine.

It would be fine.

Probably.

His hand clenched tightly around the fire ruby, Nate watched as Argus jumped across the rocks, managing to avoid the lava pools and stood facing the lavaen, his expression set. He glanced up at Nate and nodded once, then turned to the creature. Without hesitation, he started waving his arms in front of her. “Hey!" he yelled. "Let them go, you great noxious beast!"

Nate stood frozen for a heartbeat, his brain locked in place. What the hell was he supposed to do? He stumbled to the edge of the tunnel, his heart dropping with the stones underfoot that tipped over the edge and tumbled to the ground below. 

His insides were churning, and the flames in the cavern were calling to him, telling him he was home. This place was where he belonged. He didn’t belong with the humans, puny sacks of meat, so easily killed. He was more powerful than any of them. The heat of the fires burned his skin and sweat dripped down from his face, blurring his vision.

He wiped one arm across his eyes, trying to clear the moisture. He felt feverish, not quite right in the head. The voices of the fires echoed in his head, repeating themselves. It was like he was cocooned inside a great fiery sea of power, driven by the lavaen in her own home, with her own objects of power around her. He was floating in the waves, the water gently lapping at his skin, warm and glowing. Except he knew he was forgetting something important.

There was something he was supposed to be doing. His flame magic was awakening deep within him. Tendrils of power curled out from his body and sought the fire creature in front of him. His magic revelled in the flames that surrounded her, the power that emanated from her very soul. A rumbling noise sounded deep in the lavaen’s chest and Nate felt her heart beating thunderously in her chest.

He watched, hypnotized, as the fire creature leaned toward Argus.

"I do so enjoy fresh meat,” she said.

Argus pulled his sword out of his scabbard and stood ready, arms holding his weapon steady. He looked tiny next to the lavaen, his small face red with reflected color from the hot pools of lava all around him.

Then, as if to show her power, the lavaen turned slightly and ignored Argus, holding up Jena. It sniffed Jena’s hair delicately, the sensitive nose twitching. "You smell strange. Like smoke and magic. You will taste delicious."

Nate held his breath. He felt dizzy, his vision blurring as his connection to the lavaen wavered.

Energy swelled around the cavern. A fire ball emerged from Jena’s fingertips and hit the side of the lavaen.

The lavaen laughed. “I’m immune to fire, you silly girl. You’ll have to try harder than that.” She smiled, and her large yellow teeth glinted in the light of the flames.

Jena renewed her struggles, batting her fists against the tough scaled paws of the lavaen, crying out in rage when her efforts achieved nothing.

Nate watched her, transfixed. A pained breath of air pushed out Nate’s mouth. There was something he was forgetting. 

Suddenly the lavaen roared, a pain-filled bellow that echoed around the room. It screamed again, its eyes glowing red. It flicked its tail around, and moved from side to side. Argus had managed to wedge his sword between the scales on the lower back of the lavaen, and was chopping at them as best he could.

The pain echoed inside Nate’s head, and pushed him away from the power centre. He shook his head, and started to think clearly again. 

Argus. Jena. Bree.

He had to save them all.

Memories of the red rage that had engulfed him when he'd fought the mercenaries still made him hesitate. He’d been completely out of control. His power was too new, too uncertain. He didn’t know if he’d kill them or save them if he let himself go inside that ancient power right now. He had to think of another way. His hand tightened on the fire ruby. Maybe he could use the ruby to control the lavaen? 

He certainly didn’t feel strong enough to control her by himself, no matter what the demon and the ghost mage said. 

Nate swallowed hard, wishing he had the ghost mage to help him. Wishing he had any kind of an idea other than letting loose a power that he couldn’t control and that still scared him.

The lavaen screamed again, knocking him out of his frozen uncertainty. If he did nothing, they would all die anyway. Nate held onto the ruby, and focused his attention inward. The ruby’s power surged up and into his body like it had just been waiting for the opportunity. It blazed inside him, filling the crevices of his soul with a burning power. Nate gathered it together, and searched for the lavaen in his mind.

Again, it wasn't difficult to find. The lavaen's mind was like a bright and shining ball of fire, blazing as brilliantly as the sun. Its strength hit him in the chest, and for a moment he flapped and gasped like a fish in the bottom of a fisherman’s boat. She was very different to the other lavaen he'd faced. Bigger, more powerful, stronger. He was like a speck, a tiny dot against the lavaen’s fiery power. How was he supposed to do anything against that?

A buzzing light appeared next to him as he struggled against the feeling of nothingness. “Master, focus. She is tricking you with the brightness of her power. Using it to mesmerize you. It does not have the substance to destroy you.” The demon flickered next to Nate’s eyes, making him blink and unlocking him from the lavaen’s thrall. 

Nate shook his head, trying to reset his mind. He managed to get his breathing back under control, and his focus returned. The ancient fires inside him burned brighter and he began to see how he might control this beast after all. “Thank you demon,” he whispered. 

“You must save your friends. They hold the key to your path,” said the demon. 

Nate nodded. He’d save them, but not because they were part of his ‘path’. They were his friends. "Let the women go, lavaen," he said, stepping out onto the pathway. His mouth dried out as the lavaen turned to glare at him, but he stood his ground.

Driving down to his core of molten fire, he started to weave his power around that ball of flame, encasing it in tendrils of brilliant fire under his influence.

"Who are you?" The lavaen leaned her long neck toward Nate and sniffed. Dark eyes that seemed to see into his very soul glared at him. She didn’t seem to sense his power surrounding hers. Not yet, anyway.

"I am the Firecaller. You must do as I command." His hands shook, but he held them tightly against his sides so they weren’t visible. The fire ruby burned in his hand, and he wondered if it would leave a mark.

He didn’t know if the bindings he’d placed around the lavaen’s power were strong enough. He didn’t know if she was about to burn them all alive. He just had to keep it together long enough to get them out of here. 

The lavaen roared again, at first like she was amused, and then ending with a high-pitched scream. Nate felt her bashing at the fiery ropes he'd put around her magic fiery soul. They'd held, so far. 

“What do you command, little man?” The words were barely words, so heavily were they coated in an angry snarl from the lavaen.

“Let the women go. Let us all go free.”

"I answer to no one."

Even to Nate's ears that statement sounded hollow. His power surrounded them both, getting stronger and stronger as each second passed. “You answer to me.”

It was getting so strong, Nate was beginning to worry that he might not be able to control it. His whole body was rock hard with the tension of trying to control the ancient magic, to make sure it did what he commanded and didn’t escape like it had last time to destroy and demolish everything in its path. 

"You want me to starve?" The lavaen's voice became soft, cajoling. "The Firecaller was never so harsh before." Soft tendrils of magic snaked around him. The creature was attempting some kind of mesmerizing magic on Nate.

The lavaen's scales seemed brighter, its eyes more innocent.

Jena’s harsh scream broke the spell.

Nate hardened his magic, and sent a warning push of power through the bonds. "Don't toy with me, creature."

"Nate, get out of here,” Jena yelled at him from where she was dangling awkwardly from the lavaen's claws. “She’s too powerful. You have more important tasks to perform. Your journey can’t end here.”

Bree appeared to come around, her head lifting momentarily from where it had been lying limply against the lavaen's hand.

Nate tightened his grip on the creature's energy source. "Let the women go, and we'll leave you in peace."

The lavaen looked down at Jena and Bree as they swung in the air, trapped by its paws. She appeared to consider her options, then opened her big, scaled palms and let go. Jena and Bree screamed as they dropped, each landing with a sickening thump on the rocky ground below.

There was no sound in the big cavern for a moment, then Argus roared, sprinting toward Bree, his heavy boots thumping on the hard surface. 



CHAPTER EIGHT - NATE 

"You are not to touch either of them again. You will stay where you are, lavaen, creature of fire." Nate ran down the carved path, straight to where Jena lay next to the lavaen's massive hind leg. He was struggling to control the ancient fiery magic inside him. It lapped at his soul, pushing to escape. He was holding onto the bindings around the lavaen by the skin of his teeth. 

He crouched down beside Jena, reaching out to brush a hair away from her face. She opened her eyes, and he let out the breath he'd been holding. She was breathing, she was alive. The fires inside him settled for a moment, the bindings around the lavaen tightened again. The creature screamed behind him, but he ignored her. 

"Can you stand up?" he asked Jena, touching her arm. 

She nodded and allowed him to pull her to her feet. He peered at her face, trying to decide if she was okay. 

“I’m fine,” she said, pushing away his hands. When she swayed, he grasped her again, holding her until she was steady. All the while, the flames inside him swayed to the beating of his heart. 

"Thanks," she said, moving away again. 

He pushed her toward the small entrance whispering in her ear, "Get out of here. I don't know how long the creature will be under my control." 

Jena hesitated. 

“Go. I need you all out of the way, so I can use my magic.” 

She nodded and ran unsteadily up the path, watched with glittering eyes by the lavaen. Nate saw her enter the tunnel, then looked back at the lavaen. He was caught for a moment in the lavaen's eyes, the fire-red depths calling to him. He was still entwined with the enormous creature, their fiery magic bound together. It felt like he was standing on a precipice, high in the air. Like perhaps it could go either way, like she could just as easily turn the tables, and have him under her control. He sensed there was something more to this lavaen, but he couldn’t figure it out. She seemed less driven by a primordial need. 

It was like she was razor sharp, her beady intelligence helping her think her way through this situation. Maybe even coming up with a way to get back control. 

To kill them all. 

The thought sent a shiver of fear through Nate. They needed to get out of here. Now. 

With strength of will, he dragged his gaze away from the shimmer in the lavaen's eyes and ran to where Argus was crouching next to Bree, holding one limp hand. 

Nate bent down and, afraid of what he would find, put a hand over her heart, waiting for a beat. He let out a breath when he felt the gentle thump. He checked the back of her head. She was bleeding; the bang to her head had knocked her out.

"Argus, you'll have to carry her out of here," he whispered, glancing frantically towards the tunnel above them. The ruby in his hand was pulsing painfully, and his fire magic was thrumming erratically. He didn’t know how much longer he’d be able to hold the lavaen to his will. 

"I was afraid to move her. Her injuries...." Argus glanced at the blood spreading around Bree's head. 

"You have no choice. Just pick her up. We can heal her when we get to the tunnel." 

"What's the matter, little men," purred the lavaen. "Can't lift a puny little woman? Would you like some help?" 

"Just do what you're told." Nate pushed more power at the lavaen, holding it tighter in his fiery grasp. “Don’t worry about us.”

The creature roared, the sound echoing around the room.  

Argus hefted Bree into his arms. She hung limply, her face pale and her hair matted with blood. Nate could only watch as Argus carried her across the room in front of the lavaen, ignoring the beast as it rolled its eyes and snarled, teeth glinting in the light from the fires. At least they’d be safe. 

He turned back to the lavaen. His power was weakening. His vision was blurring. She had more power inside her than a normal lavaen should, that much he was sure of now. She was fighting him, pulling at the magical bonds he’d put around her. She was magnificent. A creature of fire and power. 

"But I do worry about you. I worry about anyone who holds power over me.” The lavaen growled, a sound made worse by the unpleasant echoes in the confined lair. 

“Come master, you must leave,” said the fire demon urgently, buzzing next to his ear. “You don’t have much time.” It broke the spell the lavaen had been quietly weaving around him. 

Nate started to run. The demon was right. He followed Argus’s path, trying not to feel sorry for the magnificent creature beside him. She had been about to kill Jena and Bree. She’d rip them apart given half the chance. 

But the smoky smell of fire that lingered around its body was like a perfume, and the red orange glow from between its scales called to him. He’d had problems with being fire-enthralled before, but a creature whose very essence was fire was almost more than he could handle. 

"It won't be for much longer," said Nate, torn between comforting a creature he was drawn to, and the safety of his friends. "I do not take pleasure in this. But you gave me no choice." They were almost there; he could see Jena waiting in the shadows. He risked a glance back at the lavaen. 

He jumped when he realized it was right behind him, following his path up the side of the lair with its brilliant red eyes. 

"It won't be for long," said the lavaen. "You'll make a mistake soon." 

Nate looked ahead of him to where Argus was almost at the top of the path. "Hurry Argus. I don't like this," he said. 

"I'm going as fast as I can." 

From the corner of the entrance, Jena was gesturing at them to hurry. Argus made it to the tunnel, disappearing into the darkened space. Nate reached the top of the path, and stopped, turning to look back at the lavaen. 

It stood watching him, its head almost level with his. There was a moment, a connection, and he felt a longing in his heart. The creature was beautiful. It filled his newly expanded senses with fire and energy. A whisper of sadness rolled up inside him. He turned away, towards his human companions, wishing things could be different, that he could be friends with this magnificent creature. 

He let the fires inside him dim. His grip on the fire ruby loosened. He allowed himself a tiny break in his concentration.

Before he could catch his breath, he was up in the air, caught in the claws of the lavaen. She drew his face up to her own, and peered and him. "Such a puny creature. How can you control me so?" she asked him softly. 

Behind him, Nate could hear yells from Argus and Jena, but all he could do was gaze into the eyes of the fire creature, enthralled by her magnificence. Despite his direct control over her starting to fade, he knew she couldn't harm him. He felt it in their connection. He also felt her frustration, and her anger at this restriction. 

Just as quickly as he'd been lifted up, she put him down. Nate turned to tell the others he was fine, and saw why she'd lost interest in him.

 "No! Argus, Jena, get back!" Nate yelled, but it was too late. Argus and Jena had both rushed back out into the lair to save him, and now the lavaen had them trapped. 

The creature reached one large taloned hand over and plucked Argus into the air. Argus's yell of pure rage reverberated through the cave, mixed with the lavaen's scream of triumph.



CHAPTER NINE - JENA

Jena screamed as Argus was plucked from the top of the rocky pathway right beside her. 

The instincts that had made her run out behind Argus to try and protect Nate were telling her to run back inside the tunnel with Bree. Instead, she frantically searched the rocky ground below for Nate, even as Argus dangled in the air nearby, held tightly in the lavaen's paws, his angry bellows punctuating the cavern and echoing around them. He squirmed angrily, attempting to use his strength to get him out of the lavaen’s clutches. The mercenary was harder to kill than a stone bannock; she had no doubt he could take care of himself. 

It was Nate they had to protect. He was the only one standing between them and Lothar on the throne of Ignisia. She let out a breath as she spotted him. He was sprawled on the ground about halfway down the path from the tunnel. Her relief was short-lived however; he wasn't moving. Somehow the lavaen had knocked him out.

Maybe even killed him. 

Her heart leaped and panic set in. Was he dead? Was this all for nothing? Had they lost the only man who could challenge Lothar for the crown?

But then he moved, and shook his head as if to clear it. He pushed himself to his hands and knees, then slowly to standing. Jena let out another relieved breath. He wasn't entirely steady on his feet, but at least he wasn't dead. 

She watched as Nate realized what had happened to Argus. His whole body reacted, and she could almost physically see his fear. He looked out of control. His eyes were wild, his hair stood on end, and his face was pale despite the red glow from the lava.

He glanced back up at Jena. “Stay there,” he yelled, gesturing with his hands. 

She shook her head. “No. I can help. Argus is my friend, too.”

“I need you to look after Bree. I can’t save him if I’m worried about her grabbing you too.”

Jena hesitated, and Nate obviously took that as agreement. He ran on shaky legs back down the path he had only just climbed, back into the lavaen's cavern. 

Jena watched, held frozen, her whole body tensed for… she didn’t know what. Should she run down there after him? Or stay with Bree? The hairs rose over her body and she knew it was Nate using his power, attempting to gain control over the lavaen again.

The lavaen roared, smoke and fire spurting towards the roof. Jena could almost feel the creature's anger as Nate used his fire magic.

“Let him go,” yelled Nate. “He means you no harm.” He was standing directly in front of the lavaen, his whole focus on the creature.

“Lies!” snarled the lavaen. She flicked Argus across the room. He twisted and tumbled through the air, before hitting the side of the wall and slumping to the ground.

Jena sucked in a breath, only just holding in the scream that wanted to break free. She took a step toward the lavaen, but then stopped. What could she do against this creature? Nate was the one with the Firecaller powers. 

Nate's magic was swirling around the heated cavern below. Jena just had to hope it was enough. Frantically, she flicked through the pages of the Book of Spells, but there was nothing that would be more powerful than Nate. He had the ability to control these creatures. He just needed to use them to save Argus.

“Leave him alone, lavaen," said Nate, his voice booming with power.

Jena held her breath, but the lavaen ignored Nate, and leaned over, picking up Argus's limp body between two fingers, dangling him upside down. Blood dripped from a wound on his head. "He doesn't look so heroic now, does he?" she said, her eyes glittering.

"Put him down!" yelled Nate, his whole body vibrating with anger. "Carefully."

"Your control is slipping, Firecaller. I can feel it. Save yourself, and leave your friend to me."

Suddenly Nate hurtled himself up the side of the lavaen's body. He flung a fire spell at her head, then another. The demon swirled around the lavaen’s head, adding another dimension to the attack. The lavaen tried to flick Nate away, but he was too fast, and managed to cling onto her body. She roared again in response.

Jena held her hands out in front of her, and created another fire ball, just in case Nate needed her help. The last fire ball she’d thrown at the lavaen had been pointless, but perhaps it would be a good distraction? 

She held herself ready at the top of the cavern, feeling useless. Nate had asked her to stay where she was, and she didn’t want to leave Bree, in case something happened to Nate or Argus. But it meant that all she could do was wait for the right moment to throw her fire ball, and try not to look too closely at Argus who was dangling from the lavaen’s fingers.

The lavaen reared up onto her hind legs, trying to shake Nate free, but he clung onto her back, holding tight to her scales. Jena wasn’t sure it was doing anything positive for the situation, but at least he was trying. The lavaen shook her body, the ripples flickering down her body and managed to knock Nate off. He landed heavily near the lavaen’s rear leg, and didn't move. Jena screamed. 

The lavaen gave a roar of triumph, drowning out Jena's noise. The creature's brilliant eyes glittered in the flickering light. In one long scaled forearm, she held Argus up high near the ceiling. He dangled down limply, and Jena could only hope against hope that he would be okay. 

Nate pushed himself to sitting. “Don’t you dare hurt him,” he yelled as soon as he saw what was happening. His whole body was shaking, but the flare of power that he’d been using seemed to have disappeared. Jena hesitated, holding the fireball in front of her, trying to decide whether it would help or hinder their situation for her to throw it at the lavaen. She held her breath, praying to the gods that she no longer believed in that the lavaen would spare Argus.

Except of course she didn’t.

The lavaen held her prize between her fingers for one second longer, and then let go. Argus plummeted to the rocks below. Jena screamed as Argus landed with a thump on the stone floor.

Without thinking, Jena threw the fireball she’d formed at the lavaen. The creature didn’t even notice as the blazing ball hit her flank. It dropped into the lava beside her and flared brightly for a moment before dropping into the swirling heat. Jena started running down the path. She didn’t know if she was going to attack the lavaen, or help Argus. Everything was muddled up inside her head. All she knew was that she couldn’t just stand by and watch a moment longer.

“Stay up there,” Nate yelled at Jena, his voice panicky. “I can’t do this if you’re down here too.”

“You need help,” she yelled back. “I can’t—”

“Stay with Bree. You have to stay with her.”

It was the desperation in Nate’s voice that finally made Jena stop. She glanced over at Argus. He lay at an awkward angle, completely unmoving. The lavaen screeched from behind Nate. Then the creature's wings unfurled suddenly behind her, pushing the heat out through the cavern in a wave. 

Jena took a step backward, leaning into the rock wall behind her, grateful that she wasn’t closer to the enormous creature. She started backing up the path toward the tunnel where Bree lay, wishing they'd never listened to Remus. 

Jena kept her gaze tightly on Nate as he waved his hands in the air, using a mix of his mage skills and his firecaller skills to distract the lavaen. His fire demon began swirling around the head of the lavaen again. The demon then buzzed up the length of the lavaen, whipping around its head, going in and flicking burns on its body. In a human the same burn would have created a huge open wound and enormous pain, but thick scales protected the lavaen and it simply left small, inflamed patches on the hide.

The lavaen roared, snapping its huge teeth at the demon, but the small fire creature was too fast. Rearing up onto her hind legs, forearms out full length, the lavaen swung angrily at the small fragment of light darting around her face.

It was enough of a distraction for Nate. He moved quickly, sprinting to where Argus lay on the floor. He crunched low beside Argus, and Jena watched closely, trying to figure out from his reaction if Argus was alive.

Behind her she heard the noise of someone waking. Bree.

She turned, too scared to know the truth about Argus just yet, and rushed back to her sister. Jena’s heart was pounding, and fear raged through her body. Was Argus okay? She didn’t know and it was killing her.

And if it was killing her, it was going to destroy Bree.

Bree’s eyes opened and she looked at Jena blearily.

“Where’s Argus?” she whispered, her voice croaky.

 


CHAPTER TEN - NATE 

Nate knelt down next to Argus's limp body, trying not to look too closely at his wounds. He touched a shaking hand to his friend's chest to see if his heart was still beating. 

Nate let out a tiny relieved breath. 

There was a thready beat. Unsteady and thin, but it was there. Except blood was pooling beneath Argus's body, his face was pale, and he was so limp he was almost part of the rocks beneath him. The mercenary didn't have much time. 

Behind him, the lavaen roared, and he looked to where the demon was still darting around the fire creature, keeping her distracted while he tended to Argus. He didn't know how long the distraction would work, she could decide at any time to ignore the demon and come after Argus again. Everywhere he looked, time was disappearing. 

Nate squinted up to where Jena was kneeling next to her sister on the ledge in front of the tunnel, near the top of the cavern. He just needed to get Argus up to Jena and Bree; they'd be able to do something to heal him. Bree had healed them after they were attacked by the Riders in the Forest of Ghosts. Jena had the Book of Spells inside her head. Between them they were powerful enough to save Argus. 

They had to be. 

Because Argus would definitely die if he didn't get some kind of healing help.  

Nate knew he couldn't ask them to come back into the cavern with the lavaen, so he was going to have to take Argus to them. Grasping his arms under the big man's armpits, Nate made sure he had a tight hold. Then he pulled once, hard, straining against the sagging bulk he was trying to drag.

Argus didn't budge. Not even a little bit. He also didn't wake, or moan about being moved. His body was completely slack, like an enormous, really heavy, sack of potatoes. Nate's heart beat picked up, and he tried again, trying not to let panic set in. 

He glanced back up at the lavaen, hoping that she hadn't noticed what he was doing; terrified she would look down.

But the lavaen's eyes were on the demon as it buzzed around her head. She was taking swipes at it, trying to knock it out of the air. 

Nate took a deep breath and pulled again. This time he managed to drag Argus a short distance, taking a gasping breath before giving another painstaking heave. Nate's breath was now coming in panicky gasps, and he tried not to think about what Argus's lack of reaction might mean. 

Nate dragged Argus again, using all his strength, his breath rasping in his chest. He pulled the mercenary another few feet, and he felt as exhausted as if he'd just dragged Argus half way down the mountain. He looked up at Jena and Bree again, and it seemed like they were further away than the stars. Nate stopped and squeezed his eyes shut, trying to block out the lump he could feel pushing against his chest.

He couldn't carry Argus to safety. The mercenary was too heavy.

For a moment, Nate stood there, frozen, despite the heat. It felt like the lava was burning at the inside of his stomach. Acid rose up his throat and the heat of the cavern was suddenly too much. He felt claustrophobic, like the air in the room was wrapping itself around him, tighter and tighter. His muscles clenched, and his thoughts spun inside his head, off kilter and desperate.

He took another deep breath, trying to focus, to think. He glanced around him, but there weren't even any random ghosts handy to give him bad advice. Not even the damned mage ghost, who'd conveniently disappeared when Nate needed him most. Every way he looked, there were only bad choices.

He couldn't drag Argus to safety on his own, and if he could somehow manage it, he wouldn't be able to do it without the lavaen noticing what he was doing. She'd never leave him be, and right now he couldn't feel any of his new power inside him—he'd depleted it somehow. He'd have no show of protecting them both. 

She might leave Nate alone because he was the Firecaller—although there was no guarantee of that—but she certainly wouldn't leave Argus. She'd proved that already. 

Nate looked up at Jena again, trying to figure out what to do. Jena was crouched just inside the tunnel, talking to Bree, who seemed to have woken up again. He didn't want to think about Bree's reaction to Argus being hurt. 

Maybe worse than hurt. 

No. Argus was going to be fine. They'd to do everything they could to save Argus and it'd be enough. Argus might be a pain in the butt, but he'd protected Nate on more than one occasion and Nate wasn't about to give up on him now. 

Jena raised her head and then looked down at him as if she'd felt his gaze on her. Their eyes met. He didn't want to call Jena out into the lair again. But he needed her. He couldn't do a normal mage spell, but Jena could. It would take up precious time they didn't have, and it would probably draw the lavaen to them. But it was their only hope to save Argus.

He gestured to Jena, and she leaned in to her sister who was still lying prone on the ground, whispered something in her ear, and then raced back down the path. Nate could only admire her courage. She hadn't even hesitated.

He turned back to Argus, putting one hand on the big man's arm. Argus was limp; his head lay at an agonizing angle. His arms were sunken into the ground, his face a grey waxy color. It was almost as if…

Nate touched one hand to Argus's chest. There was still the faintest beat, but it was fading fast. 

The demon suddenly burst into the air next to him. "Master, we must take him into the Edges. Right now. Death hovers over him." 

"But—"

"No arguments." The demon buzzed and flared brightly, and then suddenly Nate and Argus were inside the place in between the living and the dead, where the demons lived. 

"You can only be here for a minute or two, master. But the big man has even less time. He suffers from more than simple physical wounds. The lavaen has used some kind of strange magic to put a curse inside him. You need to put the big man into the fire ruby to give him more time. Everything inside the rubies runs differently, including time. If you don't, he will die. It is your only hope." 

Nate stared at the demon like he'd just grown an extra head. "I don't know how to do that," he said desperately. It was like he was being told to just swim across the ocean, but never having seen water before. 

"Then figure it out. I cannot tell you how, only that it is within your powers. And if you do not do it, your friend will die, and Lothar will win." 

Bile rose up in Nate's throat, burning his mouth. "I don't—" He swallowed. The demon didn't care about his fears. It wouldn't even argue with his low estimation of his abilities. 

And it said he could do this. 

Nate pulled out the fire ruby from the pocket where he'd placed it. It glowed gently in his palm, and he had to force himself to keep moving, to avoid the thrall that affected him so easily with these particular rubies. 

"Just concentrate," said the demon. 

Nate glared up at the glowing ball next to him. "It's not that easy, especially when I have no idea how to do it." 

The demon moved closer to Nate, and then suddenly it was inside his head. He wanted to scream, but everything was frozen in place. 

The demon forced his eyes wide open, made him look down at the ruby, and closed his hand over it. Suddenly the power inside the ruby flared to life. There was a strange fog coming out of the tiny jewel, and it flowed out over Argus's body. The fog moved until it covered Argus, and then suddenly it somehow tightened, contracting until it looked more like a layer of material wrapped over Argus's body. For a moment, it hovered there, and then it tightened again. 

Nate gaped as Argus's body was contorted by the mist into a smaller shape, twisting and turning him in the air, jerking him backwards. And then suddenly, as quickly as it had appeared, the mist disappeared back inside the fire ruby, taking Argus with it.  

Nate just stared down at the ruby. Argus was inside there. Dying slowly. How the hell was he going to sort this mess out? 

The demon leaped out of Nate's body, and shuddered like it had just touched something slimy. 

"What now?" 

"You have seven moons, maybe a few more, to find a cure for your friend. Otherwise he'll die." 

Nate opened his mount to argue, but the demon disappeared, and moments later, so did the edges. The heat of the lavaen's lair hit him like a brick house. 

A touch at his shoulder made Nate jump. He turned, jerking his hands high, preparing to throw a fire spell.

"Watch it! It's me," whispered Jena, ducking down in front of him.

Nate let out a breath. He still didn't understand what had just happened. 

"Where's Argus? What just happened to you two? You went... fuzzy... for a bit before I got here." 

Nate opened his hand and showed Jena the fire ruby. "Argus is in there. He's in a bad way. The demon said it was the only way to save him. I don't know how, but we have to find a way to heal him, and we've only got seven moons to do it." 

"He's in there? In the ruby?" Jena looked incredulously down at the small jewel. 

Nate nodded. "It was the only way." 

"What are we going to tell Bree?" Jena's expression was horrified.


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