CHAPTERS 11-20 - 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 ELEVEN - JENA
Jena’s throat constricted as she tried to inhale the heated air in the cavern. It felt heavy and metallic, and burned her lungs as it went down, like it wasn't air she should breathe. She and Nate were running across the rocky floor of the lavaen’s cave, dodging bubbling lava pools and trying not to stumble on the rocky surface. As she ran, she desperately searched the Book of Spells in her head for something, anything, but it was no use. Jena’s magic was powerful, but not against a creature like the lavaen.
The enormous fire creature loomed next to them, black scales glinting with the reflection of the lava, still preoccupied with the attacks from the tiny demon Nate had called. Any minute now, the lavaen would forget about the demon, and focus back on them. If they hadn’t made it out of the cavern before then, they were dead.
As she ran, Jena could feel the scarred skin across one side of her body being stretched unpleasantly in the heat. What would happen to her skin if the lavaen’s flames hit it? It would be many times worse than when she was pushed into the campfire all those years ago.
Jena shuddered at the thought. The remembered pain from those burns still woke her some nights. It had been months of agony, and thinking about it only made the fear worse. She just had to focus on running.
She could feel Nate behind her, his breath gasping just like hers. One foot in front of the other. She chanted the words inside her head. We're almost there. If she said it enough times, eventually it would be true.
The bottom of the path was just a few feet from her now. So close.
The lavaen roared behind them, and Jena flinched. The sound shook the entire cavern and set loose rocks from over their heads. Jena ducked, her hands over her head, trying to avoid being hit. Rocks plopped into the lava pools next to them, sending droplets of lava in arcs toward them. Jena used a quick air spell to push the droplets away, and kept running. Kept hoping.
The lavaen roared again and this time Jena turned her head. The soulless black eyes of the lavaen stared down at her, malice in their depths; it was like looking at her own death.
“It’s seen us,” she yelled at Nate, her voice breaking.
Nate glanced back as well. “Keep going. Don’t stop.” He kept running too, but moved directly behind Jena as if to protect her from the lavaen. He was the Firecaller, and was supposed to have an affinity with fire creatures, so maybe it would work. Except this particular fire creature seemed to have a mind of her own.
Without looking back again, Jena made it to the bottom of the path, still desperately trying to find a spell that would work. Her most powerful element, fire, was worse than useless against the lavaen. She paused at the bottom of the path and threw a fire ball at the lavaen anyway, ignoring Nate’s instruction to not look back. It went the same way as the last one: nowhere.
As she watched helplessly, the lavaen leaned down towards them, taking a deep breath. Jena let out a scream, half rage, half despair. One blast with the lavaen's fire would kill them both. There was nothing they could do to protect themselves from that kind of fire. Her legs kept moving, and she could feel Nate just behind her on the rocky uphill path, but it felt like a useless act of defiance.
The lavaen was about to cover them in her deadly flames.
Jena let out a tiny sob, then swallowed it back down, determined not to show her fear. She forced herself not to wince, or cry out, or even stop, when all she wanted to do was crouch down with her hands over her head, as if that would somehow save her.
She hadn’t expected them to fail this early in their quest. Argus was already gone, maybe forever. They were about to join him. Bree was the only one left, and she couldn’t fight Lothar on her own.
What had made her think she could take on this creature? Take on Lothar? Half a sob got stuck in her throat, and she stumbled. The only thing that saved her was Nate grabbing her from behind, his strong hands holding her in place. He murmured something unintelligible, something comforting. She leaned in closer to his solid strength and took a deep breath, waiting for the burn of the lavaen’s flames.
Instead of the flames, she heard a single determined caw behind them. Her raven. The lavaen hadn't killed it. It had woken from whatever unconsciousness the lavaen had managed to impose on it.
As she watched, it cawed again, and then swooped down. Just as the lavaen was about to set off her fiery blast, the raven used its claws to rake a path across the beast's delicate snout. The lavaen roared again, reaching up to hold her nose with one clawed paw.
Jena didn’t think, she ran, her hand still linked in Nate’s, dragging him behind her. The raven was buying them more time. She wasn’t going to waste it, although she kept taking quick glances over her shoulder trying to make sure the raven was okay. The lavaen stretched out and swatted at the raven, but the bird dove out of the way then dipped around the lavaen's head. The demon flew in after the raven and burned the big beast again. The lavaen bellowed, rising up onto her back legs, trying to swat at her two minuscule attackers.
“Come on, they won’t be able to distract her for long,” Jena urged Nate.
Nate nodded grimly and they pounded up over the rocky path toward the tunnel entrance. Her body had run out of puff, her legs were screaming in pain from the climb, and her vision was blurred. The heat had made the air so thick, it felt like it was dragging her body backward. Jena wiped the sweat off her forehead and out of her eyes, trying not to stumble again on the rocky path. Tiny rocks that she dislodged with each step tumbled down into the lavaen’s cave. Jena kept her gaze on the tunnel entrance ahead of them, blocking out the caws and growls of the creatures behind her.
When they arrived at the entrance to the cave, they didn't stop, even when the lavaen screeched behind them. Jena stooped to grab Bree’s arm, and half dragged her into the tunnel, Nate following closely behind. The lavaen’s growls echoed behind them. Jena wanted to run until her body burned and she couldn't think, but it was soon too dark to see. She stumbled to a stop, her breath heaving. She let go of Bree's arm and put her hands on her knees. The cooler tunnel was a balm on Jena’s fractured nerves, and for a few moments her gasping breath was the only thing she could hear.
They’d escaped the lavaen. By the skin of their teeth. Relief flooded Jena’s body, and she almost fell over right there in the darkness. After a moment or two, the darkness became overwhelming and Jena flicked her fingers. A small white flame lit the tunnel, burning in her hand. Jena let out a tiny breath and looked at the other two.
Bree peered behind Nate, eyes searching. “Where’s Argus?” she said, in a soft, careful voice. Her words echoed faintly around the tunnel.
Goosebumps appeared down Jena’s arms and her breath lodged in her throat. The flame in her hand flickered. She looked back to her sister, who was staring behind them back down the tunnel as if expecting Argus to appear at any second. Jena didn't know how to explain that Argus wasn't coming, that he was trapped inside a fire ruby and was probably dying. She didn’t have the words. Not for Bree.
Nate cleared his throat. “The lavaen wounded him. Badly.” He was looking at Bree as if memorizing her features. The pain in his voice was palpable.
Bree whimpered, putting one hand over her mouth. “He’s back in the cavern? You left him there?” She turned as if to go running back in.
Jena grabbed her arm. “No, no, of course not. We wouldn’t do that.”
“He’s not dead," added Nate. "And he’s not in the cavern.”
Bree looked from one to the other, her face haunted. "Then where is he?" she asked, her voice cracking in the middle.
“He’s inside here,” said Nate, holding out his palm with the fire ruby nestled against his skin.
“What?” Bree’s confused gaze went from Nate to Jena and back again.
“He was dying. It was the only way to save him. But we…” Nate hesitated like he didn’t want to tell her the rest.
“We only have seven days to find a cure,” said Jena. She was hoping that once she’d said it, it wouldn’t sound so bad. But it sounded worse. Her head began to pound. She wished she hadn’t lit the flame in her hand. It was awful watching Bree’s tortured expression.
“A cure for what?”
Shit. Jena scrunched her eyes shut, trying to block it out. It didn't work.
“A cure for the curse the lavaen put on him just before she dropped him,” said Nate.
Jena opened her eyes again and found Bree looking between them, then down at the fire ruby. Her face crumpled, and she put her hands over her face and wept.
Jena rushed to her side, crouching down beside her. The flame in her hand disappeared as she held her sister in her arms.
“It’s okay, we’ll figure it out. He’s still alive, that’s good right?” she muttered the words softly to Bree. Then she whispered into her sister's ear, directly from the Book of Spells. A calming spell to stop her from feeling so distraught.
Bree pulled back suddenly, her focus on Nate. “Get him out of the fire ruby, and I’ll heal him. I’m good at healing.”
Nate shook his head. “It’s not that simple. He has a curse on him. You can’t cure the curse.”
"No, no, Nate. I can heal him, I know I can," she said again, her eyes swirling like she couldn’t comprehend a world in which she couldn’t fix Argus. Jena clutched her sister’s hand tight, hoping for her sake that they’d be able to lift the curse.
“Bree, he's really bad. He might not survive.” Nate looked directly into Bree's eyes, which were swimming with tears. “The demon helped me put him into this fire ruby, for safekeeping. He needs to stay there.”
Bree shook her head. “That can't be true,” she said.
"We need to find the antidote before we let him out," said Nate. "Being inside the ruby slows time almost to a standstill. If we take him out before we’re ready, he’ll die.”
Bree whimpered, but didn't say anything more.
“I should have stopped him from going back out.” Nate's face seemed to cave in, and tears welled in his eyes. He wiped them away angrily.
Jena reached up and put a hand on his arm. “We thought you were in danger. We were trying to save you.”
“I should have been able to keep the lavaen under control. I took my attention off it. Argus would have thought I still had it under my power.”
“Did he say that? Do you think Argus blames you?”
“No. But I do.”
"Well don't. It wasn't your fault. The lavaen killed him; you didn't kill him.” Jena willed him to believe her.
Nate nodded, but she could see he didn’t take comfort from her words. "I'm so sorry, Bree,” Nate said after a moment's hesitation. And he really was, Jena could see it clearly on his face. He looked like he’d aged ten years in the time they’d been inside the lavaen’s cave.
Just then, the zig zagging light of the demon came into view, and the accompanying caw of the raven echoed along the walls. Jena let out a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding. The raven was okay. The tunnel became even brighter under the light of the demon, illuminating the harsh expressions on their faces.
The demon buzzed around Nate's head, clearly communicating with him.
“We have to keep moving,” said Nate. “The demon says the lavaen has left the cavern, and is probably searching for us. If we're going to escape, we need to be fast.”
Taking a deep breath, Bree looked up beseechingly to Nate. "I want to hold the ruby," she said.
Nate's eyes darkened, and he rubbed one hand over his face. "I'm sorry, Bree. I need to keep it with me. It's safer."
Bree let out a sob, and Jena pulled her sister into her arms again. Bree buried her face in her sister's shoulder. She started shaking, and then big violent sobs were pushing their way out of her body.
Jena tightened her grip around her sister. Bree didn't deserve this. She loved Argus, and now he might die? She'd had her own set of unfair things happen in her life, but she was prepared for it, expected it. Bree thought life was good and kind and fair. This was breaking her apart.
"We have to get out of here," said Nate. "I have a feeling the lavaen won't stop searching any time soon, and we have to make it down the mountain if we're going to save Argus."
There was nothing more to be said. Jena and Bree stood again, and they trudged back down the tunnel they'd all come down only a few hours before, none of them feeling like the same people they were when they'd first arrived.
CHAPTER TWELVE - JENA
Water dripped around them, and the weight of her thoughts made Jena’s breaths uneven. The demon's unsteady light meant they had to watch carefully where they placed their feet on the rough ground, so she was mainly focused on moving forward, and keeping Bree upright.
As they trudged along the final stretch of the tunnel, Jena tried not to let herself become overwhelmed by what they now had to do. As well as defeat a powerful prince who wanted them dead, they had to find a way to stop the lavaen’s curse and save Argus.
In seven days.
Instead of helping, going into the lavaen’s lair had made their problems much, much worse. She’d known that Remus wasn’t on their side, but she’d arrogantly thought she’d be able to overcome whatever he was trying to throw at them. Jena glanced to where Bree was walking, her shoulders sagging, her face pale.
They’d been so very wrong.
They walked in silence for a long time, but eventually the questions jumping around in Jena’s head needed answers. “What are we going to do? Should we go back to Remus?”
Nate nodded grimly. “He needs to know exactly what he's done. He thought I had the Book of Spells, and sent you both off to what he thought was certain death.”
“He was trying to get rid of us?” said Jena, then winced. Of course he was trying to get rid of them. And they’d known it at the time. If anyone was to blame for Argus being hurt, it was her and Bree, for thinking they were smart enough to outwit Remus.
Not that she’d voice that thought aloud in front of Bree.
“Of course he was. He only thinks of himself and how he can get what he wants,” said Nate.
Jena felt a spark of anger. “He’s a nasty little mage. I hope he never gets free of his curse.”
Bree gave a sobbing cry next to her, and Jena immediately regretted her words. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m not thinking properly.”
“None of us are,” said Nate. “We need to get off this mountain in one piece and then think about how to break the curse and get Argus back. Then we have to get back to our quest.”
His words reminded Jena of their main goal. Lothar. Argus being cursed didn't change the fact they had a deadly enemy to face.
“How are we going to get down the mountain without the lavaen seeing us?” asked Bree in a small voice.
“I can help with that I think,” said Nate. “The demon can sense the lavaen, because it’s a fire creature as well. We just have to hide whenever she’s near.”
Jena kept thinking as she walked. “I could maybe do a spell to make us blend into the rocks a little? A camouflage spell. We wouldn’t be completely invisible or anything, but if we knew when she was flying over and stayed completely still, we’d be fine. I use it when I’m hunting.”
“Sounds perfect,” said Nate, striding out ahead, like he was desperate to get out of the tunnel. Jena followed him. She was just as eager to leave this disaster behind them.
The demon was lighting the tunnel ahead. It buzzed a little higher into the air as they neared the end and natural light started to take over from its supernatural glow. The raven cawed and flew alongside the demon out into the world on the other side of the tunnel. Jena tried not to think about the lavaen flying above them on the mountain, just waiting for them to emerge so she could destroy them all with a burst of her flames.
Soon they stood at the entrance of the cave, looking out over the barren mountain landscape. The demon and the raven were up into the blue sky, flying in erratic patterns. Jena couldn’t help feeling that there was something missing. She’d become used to the large silence presence of the mercenary in such a short time. She couldn’t imagine how terrible Bree felt right now.
“What now?” asked Jena, as she scanned the sky above them. A light breeze floated along the edge of the mountain. It was hard to believe that it was still daylight. It felt like years had passed since they’d entered the cave.
“You do the camouflage spell,” said Nate squinting into the bright light outside the cave. “And then we can get going.”
Jena stepped forward. She saw the spell clearly in her mind, one that she had done many times as she went out hunting to catch rabbits for the stew pot.
"Just tell us what to do, and we'll do it," said Nate.
"Just hold onto everything we want to be camouflaged, including each other, and everyone link back to me. It won't last long, maybe an hour or two, and we’ll be visible if we move. So if the demon says she’s coming, we have to stay completely still. Understood?”
Nate and Bree nodded. They shifted their packs so they lay on the ground together, and then we all kneeled on either side. Nate and Bree’s hands linked over everything, then Jena grasped both of them by the hand. Jena’s heart clenched as she felt the heat of the fire ruby in Nate’s hand.
She started the spell, holding the thought of hiding clear in her mind. It had to be crystal clear, or it wouldn't work. She whispered the words of the spell under her breath, and the air hummed. The wind swirled in a mini tornado around them. The currents caught at their clothes and their hair, twisting and pulling. Jena peered up at the sky, hoping that the spell casting itself wouldn't be what gave them away to the lavaen. But they had no choice, they needed whatever protection they could get.
She closed her eyes and the spell built in strength. It grew around them, slowly and steadily. As she used her mage power she became aware of the heat emanating from Nate; his Firecaller abilities were almost a tangible presence on their own. She felt like she could reach out and touch the blaze that seemed to be burning around him. It made the possibility of their survival seem more real, not such a distant dream.
Jena opened one eye, and looked down at her body, while continuing casting the spell. She could feel her power swirling around them and the wind was almost visible, it was moving so fast. Her hands where they touched the others were glowing.
Nate’s eyes were closed, but he was also faintly glowing, and his body seemed to be pulsing. Next to her, Bree was glowing too. She grinned. It had worked.
“I don't really know exactly how long this spell will last,” Jena said, standing up and brushing off the dust from the windstorm. “We need to move, and fast.”
“Did it work? I can't tell,” said Nate. He frowned down at his arms.
“You're glowing,” said Jena. "At least to me."
“I don't see it,” said Nate, a small frown between his eyebrows as he looked down at his body.
Jena looked down. “I can,” she said.
They both looked at Bree, who shrugged. “You both look the same to me,” she said.
“Then the only way we're going to know for sure is to test it. Let's go,” said Jena. She was confident it had worked because of the glow, so she walked around Bree and Nate to step out directly under the hot sun.
Nate cleared his throat. “The demon says the lavaen is up there right now.”
Jena nodded, and took a few more steps out into the bright light, and then looked up. She saw a large shape flying in wide circles in the sky above them. The lavaen seemed impossibly huge, her scales reflecting brilliantly off the sun. She flew in lazy circles, wings reaching wide across the sky, waiting for her prey to come out of the mountain.
“She’s up there,” she whispered. “I’m going to step out a little further, really slowly, and see if she sees me.” Jena moved slowly, keeping her arms and legs tight against her body. She had to move slowly so that the camouflage worked.
“Has it seen you?” asked Nate from the shadows.
“Not so far.” She hoped. Maybe she was just waiting until they all came out into the open.
Nate rubbed a hand through his hair, then glanced over at Bree. “We don’t have much choice,” he said. “We have to follow her.”
“We’ll be fine if we stick to the shadow of the rocks, and move really slowly,” said Jena, trying to sound confident for the benefit of the other two. Bree didn’t even seem to care right now. The blow of Argus’s curse and incarceration in the fire ruby seemed to be too much for her.
It had seemed a long way on their walk up, but it was even further going down. They had to move so slowly, it felt like a punishment. Jena was constantly glancing up at the sky, waiting to hear a bellow of recognition, and the sharp claws of the lavaen against her skin. Next to her, Bree seemed lost in a trance, looking straight ahead, moving only when Jena told her to.
The raven cawed over her head about halfway down the mountain, but Jena ignored its summons. It cawed again, swooping low and blowing a wingbeat of breeze over her scalp. She didn’t want to let the raven onto her skin, they needed it in the air, helping the demon. She just kept going one step after the other. The raven would have to wait. Slowly, bit by bit, they crawled down the mountain, like creatures afraid of the sun. They were almost to the ground when the demon buzzed down beside them, and then moments later lavaen screeched overhead. They froze, eyes wide. Jena didn’t even dare to look overhead.
“She’s angry. I don’t think she’s seen us,” whispered Nate, his eyes searching the skies.
Jena let out a breath, that turned to a gasp when the lavaen flew past, low and fast over the rocks where they were hiding. The creature swooped barely a few feet over their heads and Jena had to hold in the urge to scream. But the lavaen’s claws didn’t rake her back and the creature flew onward, clearly searching for something she couldn’t see.
“It’s working,” said Nate with a grin.
They continued creeping down the mountain, stopping and holding their breath every time the demon warned them that the lavaen was about to do another increasingly angry sweep. Jena kept a careful eye on Bree, who walked like a ghost, following their lead, but not thinking for herself. Jena watched her sister, and as they neared the base of the mountain, she vowed that she would do everything in her power to bring Argus back to Bree. She couldn’t bear the despair on her sister’s face.
As they came closer to Remus's cabin, a violent screech echoed up the mountain, like a bird but louder and deeper. They all froze again.
“That wasn’t the lavaen, was it?” whispered Jena. Thankfully they were still out of sight of the cabin.
“I don’t think so,” said Nate, frowning. "We're all feeling off kilter. Maybe it was nothing. A bird, or something.” His expression said he wasn’t convinced by his own words.
“It’s a predator,” said Jena. The sound was fragmented – like she was hearing it from two different places at once. She looked up into the sky and realized the raven was projecting what it could hear back to her as well. Her connection to the raven had become stronger; she could even see some of what the bird saw without it being attached. The raven dove back toward her. It swooped over their heads, strangely silent in the air. It circled twice around her head. Jena glanced at Nate, and then shrugged. He knew all her secrets now. She lifted her shirt and the raven dove back onto her skin. Immediately it sent images of red eyes and black muscle and flames. She shivered.
“There's something up ahead. It’s not good. Wait here with Bree, I'm going to see what it is.”
"Jena, you can't just head off without us," hissed Nate, but Jena ignored him. They didn't have time to argue. She ran towards the lip of the path, using the cover of the rocks to hide her from whatever was in the valley where Remus's house sheltered.
Peering over an outcrop, she stilled.
Outside the house was a murghah. Maybe even the same one they’d faced in the village. Flame snorted from its nose, and its eyes glowed red in the afternoon light. Jena ducked back down.
Was it really the same one they’d already encountered? The idea that it was another of the creatures sent ripples of goosebumps down her body. They were so powerful, and Lothar was the one controlling their movements. How could they possibly defeat such a man?
On her stomach the raven rolled and then pecked her. She lifted the shirt up over her stomach, well used to its demands. It burst free in a rush of wind and feathers.
She peered out again over the rock, and this time saw the woman riding the murghah. Her black silk dress glinted in the sun, and her hair draped over her face as she leaned down and talked to the shrinking mage. The woman's eyes were flat and expressionless. Remus was strangely unconcerned by the beast's stomping and fiery breathing.
Prickles of awareness flowed along her arms, and Jena leaned her head to one side. Remus seemed in charge of the meeting, rather than the other way around. As if he was ordering the creature, rather than about to have his soul sucked from him.
The raven had found a perch near the roof, and Jena picked up some words through their link, although it was distorted by the bird's mind. She could only hear "My Lord Lothar", "Fire ruby", "kill". Nothing good, whatever way you looked at it. The last word she heard had her racing back to Nate and Bree.
Jena climbed down and raced back to Nate and Bree. “Quick, we have to get out of here. We need another path.”
“What is it? What did you see?” Nate leaned forward, his face concerned.
“A murghah is at the house talking to Remus. I heard him mention Lothar's name.”
Nate paled. “We need to get the flames out of here.”
CHAPTER 13 - NATE
Nate swallowed, and he knew his expression was just as exhausted as Jena’s was. His skin was stretched thin across his face, and his eyes felt like they'd been rubbed raw with sand.
He'd been looking forward to getting to Remus's cottage. The shrinking mage might be a double-crossing ash-dweller, but he’d at least had comfortable beds, and food for them to eat. Nate’s head ached from using his unfamiliar firecaller magic and trying to control the lavaen, he had scratches and bruises all over his body, and his chest restricted every time he felt the tiny fire ruby that was nestled in the pocket of his trousers.
But they had no choice.
“We have to go,” he said, crawling back away from the rock they’d been hiding behind. “We can’t win against a Murghah. Not a second time and definitely not right now.”
He glanced at Bree, who still looked like death warmed up. But Jena’s sister was heaving her exhausted body to standing, prepared to keep going. If she could do it, so could Nate.
“Where do we go?” asked Jena, a hint of panic in her voice. Her face was covered in ash from the lavaen’s cave.
“We need to find shelter,” said Nate. He put one hand over his eyes, trying to see an outcrop of rocks or a darker section that might indicate a cave. “We just have to head away from Remus and hope we find something.”
“Actually, I think I can help,” said Jena, lifting her shirt to bare her stomach. The raven tattoo leaped off her body and zoomed up into the sky. As many times as he saw it happen, Nate would never get used to it. His own tattoo covered his face and shoulders, a dark reminder of everything he wasn’t. He couldn’t imagine how much power Thornal had wielded to allow him to pull his tattoo off his own body, and allow it to attach itself to Jena.
“I’ve told it to find us a cave or some kind of shelter for the night.” The raven took off in a westerly direction, thankfully along the edge of the mountain, instead of up it again.
They started trudging away from Remus’s house, Nate occasionally looking behind them just in case. He also kept checking the sky, until it felt like he was going to get a permanent crick in his neck from all the twisting and turning he was doing.
“You’re fine,” said a voice beside him.
He jumped in fright, and then turned to glare at the ghost mage walking beside him. “Where were you when we needed you?” he whispered in an undertone.
“I can’t always control when I can come back into this world,” said the ghost mage sadly. “But I wouldn’t have been much help anyway.”
“You might have prevented what happened to Argus,” said Nate.
“Probably not. That lavaen doesn’t react in the same manner as other lavaen. She’s a creature by design, not by nature.”
“She wasn’t born a lavaen?”
“No. She was made one by Remus. She’s part of the reason he’s shrinking.”
“That explains why she hates him so much.”
“I cannot stay any longer right now. Just keep following the raven, it will lead you where you need to go.”
“But—” The ghost mage was gone before Nate could ask him anything more. Typical.
An hour later they had traveled west along the side of the mountain, following the raven. They were all glancing nervously into the sky, hoping the lavaen couldn’t see them. It was hard to know exactly when the camouflage spell was going to wear off… Not to mention the murghah flying around, who knew where.
The afternoon sun had disappeared behind the mountain and Nate was starting to wonder if they could go on any further. Bree was stumbling, and only seemed to be able to keep going because she had Jena holding her up. Jena’s face was starting to look almost grey. She’d been exhausted and sore before this latest trek. Nate’s vision was blurring and he was struggling to feel one blistered foot. He was worried that he would stumble and lose the fire ruby out of his pocket. And once he went down, he didn't think he would be able to get up again.
In front Jena halted. The raven was swooping over head, flying in a formation designed to get our attention. Jena pointed at an overhang just ahead of them. "Over there. The raven says we can rest there."
They managed to stumble over the rocks and shrubs that were in their way. Jena and Bree halted at the entrance to the cave. Nate peered in past them, then stepped past and walked further into the dark space. The fire demon, which had been buzzing around in the sky with the raven, buzzed past Jena’s head, and entered the cave, lighting it for them. It was dry and clean, and most importantly, empty.
“All clear,” said Nate, relieved. They were unprepared and probably unable to battle another creature right now. He sat heavily on a large rock at one end of the cave. His feet throbbed, and his head felt like it had splinters running through it.
"Are we safe here?" asked Bree. Her pale white hair was messed up, and her clothes had streaks of dirt and dust across them. She half fell into a seated position on the floor of the cave, her back to the wall. If he’d been here, Argus would have sat down next to her and comforted her, given her some of his strength. Nate balled his hand around the fire ruby in his pocket. They’d get Argus free. He had to believe that.
Jena shrugged, looking around their small sanctuary. “Safe enough for now. We've got a lavaen and a Murghah after us. At least they can't see us from the sky in here.”
"Has the camouflage spell worn off?" Bree looked down at her hands, as if trying to see the spell.
“Only just,” replied Jena. She looked across at Nate and he saw the truth in her eyes. They’d been walking out there like sitting ducks for much longer than he’d realized. He sank further into the rock, glad he hadn’t known until now.
“We found the cave just in time, then,” said Bree. Her eyelids flickered and she looked like she was about to fall asleep halfway through the sentence.
Jena nodded. “We’ve been lucky.”
“You don’t think the lavaen will start searching the caves?” asked Bree, anxiously.
Nate shook his head. “No. And this cave is too small for her to even pay attention to it.” He crouched over their small pile of possessions, pulling out their food and drink rations.
Bree looked overhead, as if she could see the lavaen circling above their heads right this moment. “She surprised us back there,” she said. “She could surprise us again.”
“It’s always possible.” Nate shrugged and kept rummaging. “I wish I'd thought to bring more," he muttered.
"We all thought we'd go back to Remus's house. You didn’t know, any more than we did,” said Jena.
Nate pulled out a few small items, a couple of pieces of fruit and a hard seed bar. It seemed so stupid now to have left Remus's house without proper supplies.
"I'm not hungry. You can eat my share, Jena," said Bree.
Jena’s head snapped up. Bree's face was pale and the strength of mind she'd used to get her this far seemed to be fading away.
“You'll eat your share and say thank you for it,” Jena said fiercely.
“You need your strength,” added Nate as he handed Bree her share of the fruit. He took a small sip of water, , trying not to be greedy—all he really wanted to do was open his mouth wide and let it run down his throat—and passed the water skin on to Jena, who took a small sip. She passed it to Bree and glared at her sister until she took a sip as well.
Nate stood. "I'll sit by the opening, as lookout," he said. "You two get some rest. I'll wake Jena for the next shift."
Jena nodded. As he walked unsteadily to sit closer to the cave’s entrance, Jena took off her outer jersey and balled it up into a pillow, placing it near Bree. "Lie down on this and try to get some rest," she said to Bree.
Bree slowly lowered her head to the pillow and closed her eyes, looking as fragile as a pottery doll. Bree had always been reserved, her emotions held in check, but she'd had a spark, a fire behind her eyes that spoke of a passionate personality.
Now the vibrancy was gone, replaced by blankness.
It didn’t take long for Bree to fall asleep, but Jena sat staring down at her sister for a while longer.
Nate carefully positioned himself on the ground at the entrance, making sure he couldn’t be seen from outside. He didn’t think he’d be able to do much if anyone attacked right now, but perhaps it would afford a sense of peace to Jena and Bree.
Bree didn’t actually look like she cared whether she lived or died right then. It was like she’d already given up on Argus, that as far as she was concerned, he was dead.
Except he wasn’t going to let Argus’s life end like that. He took out the fire ruby and rubbed it absently with his thumb. The glow enthralled him, as it always did, and he had to blink a few times to get himself out. The light outside the cave was darkening. It would be night soon enough.
Sighing, Nate shuffled about on the rock, trying to get comfortable. Eventually he gave up, accepting the rocks poking into his back, and instead listening as Bree’s breath slowed and evened out.
“Nate…” said Jena quietly.
He looked up from his ruminations.
She hesitated, clearly reluctant to speak. She took a breath, and blurted out the words. “I don't know how much longer I can go on, Nate,” she said softly. She looked over at Bree. "And Bree took a head wound that knocked her out in the lavaen's lair."
He nodded, understanding her fears. They were similar to his own. “We can rest here for a night at least. It will be safe enough,” he said. “Tomorrow we can figure out a plan.”
Jena nodded and shuffled down on the floor, snuggling up to her sister for warmth.
Nate’s brain was spinning too fast for sleep.
Events felt like they were spiraling out of control, and he didn't know what they were going to do next. How were they going to save Argus? And Lothar was still just as much of a threat as before, sending assassins and creatures to kill him.
Their short-term quest had been to find Argus's master, and instead of helping them, he'd turned out to be another enemy.
Nate sat staring off into the outside world through the entrance of the cave, trying to figure out how the hell they were going to get out of this mess.
Thanks so much for reading Royal Mage! Come back next week for more chapters...