Royal Mage

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.


CHAPTER 14 - JENA 

Jena tried to fall asleep next to her sister.

But, despite lying there for a long time, shifting and turning and listening to Bree’s quiet snores, she just couldn’t do it. She kept thinking of how they’d blithely walked up the side of the mountain to the lavaen’s lair, confident they’d be able to deal with whatever was in there. If they’d known what would happen, they’d never have left the cabin.

She doubted Miara would be surprised to learn that Remus had betrayed them. She’d told Jena and Bree to be wary, but they’d arrogantly assumed they’d be able to deal with it. Her hand clenched into a fist, and Jena tried to push away the guilt she felt at Argus’s predicament. If they’d just stayed at the cabin…

Jena swallowed a couple of times over her parched mouth. Her throat was dry, and she thought longingly of the water skin, but there was no way she'd take water from her sister's share.

She looked around. At the end of their little cave, she could see a tunnel. Perhaps somewhere in the cave there would be more water?

Standing quietly, careful not to wake Bree, she crept towards the back of the cave. Nate was sitting at the other end, at the entrance to the mountain. He was staring off into the distance, a sad expression on his face, and a small orange-red flame idly flickering across his fingers.

She wouldn’t interrupt his thoughts. She'd be back before he knew she was even gone. 

The entrance to the tunnel was small, only coming up to her shoulders. The rocks were rough, but had a damp moss growing along the sides. She could hear water dripping in the distance.

Taking a deep breath, she ducked her head and crept down the narrow enclosure, her shoulders hunched. Just as she was thinking of a fire spell, there was a buzzing noise and the fire demon appeared behind her.

“You coming with me?” she asked, surprised. She hadn’t realized the demon could act independently like that.

“You’ll need some light,” was all it said, before buzzing in front of her along the tunnel.

It was sticky and humid in the confined space, the moisture in the air making her feel even more thirsty. She could still hear dripping in the distance and her dry throat rippled painfully.

She crept along slowly, crouching low, her knees bent, and her outstretched hand following the uneven surface of the rocks at her side. The further she went into the tunnel, the thicker the air became, until it was almost a struggle to breathe in the humidity and heat. She was starting to rethink her decision to crawl down here without telling Nate. 

Small beads of sweat ran down her face and neck, and she wiped a hand across her forehead. Only the sound of water up ahead kept her going. It was lucky she wasn’t scared of confined spaces, because the tunnel started to get even smaller as she crawled along. 

Just when she was starting to think it was going to end without going anywhere, she saw something up ahead. Through the demon's flickering light, she could see a widening in the tunnel. It looked so similar to the entrance of the lavaen's lair, her memories tipped back into the terrifying moment when the lavaen had grabbed them. Jena gasped and froze. Nothing she had done had helped; all her spell casting had been useless against the beast of fire. What was the use of her power, if she couldn’t even save her friends?

What if this tunnel led out into another lavaen's lair? Argus could no longer save her, Bree had fallen into an exhausted sleep and she hadn't even told Nate where she was going. Forcing herself to take calming breaths, Jena thought it through. Should she head back? She was alone in a dark cave. Finding water didn’t seem quite as important as it had before.

Except she'd survived far worse. She was no longer a slave, she’d healed from the terrible fire burns on her face and body, and she’d travelled all this way already. She was just tired. That was why she was letting her fears get the better of her. She let out a slow breath.

If it was a lavaen, she’d just go back and tell the others, and they’d leave. Simple. In fact, it would be better to know now, rather than later.

She crept forward until she was at the edge of the tunnel. Cautiously, she peered out around a large rock, keeping a wary eye for possible dangers.

The large cavern was higher than the other lavaen’s lair, with massive rock formations and glowing pinpricks of light in the ceiling, marking the presence of thousands of tiny glowworms.

In the far corner of the roof there seemed to be another opening; she could see the faint glow of what might have been outside light. In the middle toward the back was a pool of water that flowed under a large rock to one side.

The dripping came from a point above the pool. Water drizzled down the rocks, dripping over an outcrop before disappearing into the pool of water. She couldn't see anyone or anything in the cavern.

She tried to swallow, but her mouth was too dry. Without thinking she scrambled over to the pool and eagerly dipped her hand into the water. The cool liquid felt like silk through her fingers, and cool as it went down her parched throat. The demon followed her, buzzing about above her head as she drank from the surprisingly sweet water.

“We are not alone, mistress,” it said. “It is a fire animal, one of my brethren.”

Jena looked up. Her stomach lurched. “A lavaen?” Jena whispered, dreading the creature's reply. How had she not seen it? Her breath caught in her throat. She had been insane to wander off without telling anyone where she was going.

“No. A creature of an altogether different flame.”

Jena frowned. Another fire creature? She looked around cautiously, trying to understand the demon's description. “Where is it?” she asked hoarsely, her eyes darting around the cave. At least she had the demon with her. Maybe it would help her escape this new beast.

“You will see soon enough.” The demon buzzed over to the other side of the cave, its erratic light throwing brightness into the shadowy corners of the immense space.

From her position in the centre of the room, Jena had a better view than she'd had from the entrance. At the far end, below the opening high in the roof, there was an outcropping of rock, a perfect place for anyone who wanted to stay hidden.

At first she could only see a heat haze, humid air rising from the heated rocks. But as she watched, the outline of a creature emerged from the shimmering air. It focused in and out of her vision, sparkling in the demon’s light. Larger than the lavaen, this new creature was translucent; ripples of shape and color appearing and then disappearing, as the light around it murmured and changed.

It opened one eye and Jena gasped. Like the centre of a fire, its iris was so fierce and beautiful that she couldn't look away. As she watched, the spark in its eyes spread to the rest of its body, and soon the creature was ablaze, reds and oranges and yellows burning across its back like a flame-colored cloak.

The creature stood and walked gracefully on four legs towards Jena, who took an involuntary step backward before she could steel herself to stay still. 

A cross between a lion and a lizard—only much larger and far more magnificent—it had strong front legs, with larger back legs that were similar to the lavaen's. The creature's head was around three quarters of the way up to the roof of the cavern, and its body had large, sturdy translucent wings tucked snugly onto its back. Its coat of flames burned brightly in the dark cave.

“What is it?” she whispered to the demon as it skimmed back to her side. She couldn't take her eyes away even though the creature was twice the size of the lavaen, and looked like it could kill her with one swipe of its enormous forearm.

“It is a shimagni, mistress.”


CHAPTER 15 - JENA 

“It doesn't seem to be angry with us,” said the demon, buzzing around her head.  

Jena glanced at the demon. “You expected it to be?” 

“It was a possibility, mistress. That was another reason I came with you.” 

She was momentarily taken aback by the demon's words. Demons weren't known for their loyalty to the human realm. “Thank you,” she said. 

“You are important to my master. I serve my master,” it said. 

Raising her eyebrows at that admission, Jena turned back to the shimagni, digesting this new information. Her mind unlocked, she skimmed through the book, trying to find a page on this new creature, but for once there seemed to be nothing that described the beast before her. 

The flames of the creature were not only the usual reds and oranges of fire, but pinks, and blues, and purples, and greens. Jena couldn’t help being transfixed. 

“You travel with the Firecaller.” 

Jena jumped. The voice had appeared in her head, causing a faint buzz. It was a feminine voice, sweet and fluid. The creature had its head to one side waiting for her answer. 

“Yes, Nate is the Firecaller,” Jena said managed to say, her voice breaking in the middle.  

“The water demon also told me of this man.” 

Jena frowned. She looked toward the pool of water in the centre of the room. 

“Yes, child. He inhabits that pool at certain times. You should be more careful with water in caves.” 

“I didn't think – I was so thirsty…” Jena trailed off. Her voice sounded harsh and loud in the cavern next to the silence and beauty of the voice in her head. “I should have known better.” Especially after what had happened the last time she’d drunk water in a cave.  

“Is that what drove you to disturb my sleep? Thirst?”

“I didn't see you in here. I would never have disturbed you if I'd known,” said Jena, thinking how very true that was. The shimagni was enormous, twice the size of the lavaen. She—Jena assumed it was a female, by its voice—looked like she could kill Jena with a swipe of one large forearm. 

“You are welcome to drink from my pool.”

“Thank you for your kindness.” Jena bowed her head, figuring a little extra politeness couldn’t hurt.  

“What is your name, child?” 

“Jena.” 

“Jena. And your companions?” 

“Nate, the, ah, Firecaller, and my sister, Bree. And also... we have… our friend Argus… inside a fire ruby. He was hurt by the lavaen on the other side of the mountain.” Jena tried not to let the tears well up again. They burned at her throat, aching to get out. They would save Argus. It would be okay.  

“Argus? The slave of the mage Remus?” 

Jena looked up swiftly. “Yes. Although he is a free man now. My sister loves him, so Remus's spell was broken.” 

The shimagni settled back onto her haunches. “I am glad to hear it. He did not deserve to live under  Remus’s spell.” 

"You know Argus?” 

“I keep watch on the mage Remus, and know all his familiars.” 

“He found love and freedom, but if we can’t figure out a way to get rid of the curse the lavaen put on him, it might just kill him.” Jena couldn't keep the sadness out of her voice. 

“Love sometimes does. It does not mean it was not worth it. He does not regret it.” 

“How can you be sure?” Jena looked around, wondering if Argus had followed her here as well. 

“I know it. It was not simply any love that he had to find, my child. He had to fall in love with one of pure heart and gentle soul. Remus thought a hardened warrior would always disgust such a woman, rather than cause her to love him. He knew little of love.” 

“How do you know so much about Remus?” 

“He was once my true love.”  

Jena blinked. Of all the answers she had expected, that was not one of them. “Your true love? Remus?” Too late, she realized she should have kept the surprise and disgust out of her voice. “I mean–”

“Do not fret, child, I understand. He is an awful little man now. But once he had more character, more nobility.” The shimagni paused. “Although he has always been arrogant.” A flitter of color swept across the shimagni's back, and she ruffled her wings. “Once upon a time, that seemed a more acceptable trait to me.” 

The flames had returned to an almost invisible blue over her body. Jena ached to reach out and touch the shimagni’s skin. She moved closer, but didn't quite dare to put her hand out. Waves of heat came off the shimagni, like a real fire was burning over her flanks. Jena couldn’t begin to understand why she ached so badly to be closer to a creature that would burn her skin to a crisp. 

“Why do you still keep an eye on him?” asked Jena, trying to take her mind off the compulsion. 

“He is not to be trusted. I like to make sure he does not take things too far.”  

Jena paused in her inspection of the long sleek tail of the shimagni. “He already has,” she said, unable to keep the pain out of her voice. “He tried to kill Bree and I by sending us to the lavaen. And he enslaved Argus.” 

The shimagni sighed, a soft sound that reverberated around the room, caressing the air, making Jena shiver. A tightness clenched along her scarred skin, and Jena wished she was better at keeping her mouth closed. She thought desperately of those first few moments when she'd been unable to speak at all. Now she was offending a creature she had no wish to upset. 

“It did not seem so bad. Argus always seemed lost, and somewhat content to be in Remus's spell. Perhaps I was wrong.” 

Jena shrugged, thinking fast. “He wouldn't have met my sister if you'd helped him escape. And he wouldn't have been able to save Nate from Lothar.” 

The shimmering creature bowed her head to one side in a graceful gesture of acknowledgement. “Perhaps. You are also assuming I would have had the power to help him escape. Remus is a powerful mage, despite appearances.”

“How is it you were in love with a man?”

“I was once a woman of your world, the same as you. I was a witch, and I was in love with a mage.” 

Jena’s small intake of breath must have been audible to the shimagni, and the flames stirred again, lighting her flanks to a deep orange. 

“It was an illegal pairing, and we kept it secret. I would have done anything for him, until I walked in on him and his other lover.” Red flames burned across the shimagni’s flank. One gleaming eye blinked. “Still, I would have taken him back. We demanded he choose between us. He became angry and said he would punish us both. He cast a hasty spell and turned us both into the one creature the fates determined we most resembled. I became a shimagni, and the other woman became a lavaen. The one you encountered I believe.” 

“The lavaen? She used to be a human woman, too?” Jena’s mind whirled. How was that even possible? Remus was more powerful than they’d realized. 

“She was not always the dark creature she is now. She was a talented witch and tried to resist the pull of the lavaen's soul for many years. It has turned her mad, the mix of lavaen and woman in one body. I was luckier. My shimagni self exists in harmony with my human self.” 

Jena shivered. She had disliked Remus, but she hadn't known just how terrible he was. “He's shrinking now. He will die soon.” 

“Yes, that pleases me.” The shimagni gave a small shake of her head. “It was the lavaen. She saw what he had done faster than I, and cast a spell in reply. He will never break that spell now. Her madness holds it locked in place. And so the flame burns.” 

“He thought there was something in the Book of Spells.” 

“The Book of Spells? Perhaps. But the Guardian is unlikely to help him.” 

Jena swallowed. “The Guardian is dead, and no one else has been appointed.” 

“The Guardian is dead?” The lavaen sat up straighter and lowered her long neck down towards Jena. “The prophecy has begun. Who holds the book?” 

The shimagni sniffed next to Jena. A wave of humid air, smelling of ash, brushed over her. She squirmed, trying not to look into those beautiful eyes. 

“I smell its power around you. But it is not quite as it was. Do you have it?”  

“Yes,” whispered Jena, caught in the fiery eyes of the shimagni, like she’d known she would be. 

“It is inside you. You are the Book of Spells.” 

Another whoosh of ashy breath blew the hair off Jena’s face. She tried to hold herself steady, to be courageous in the face of this enormous creature with the power to destroy her. It took all her willpower when the shimagni reared up onto her hind legs, and flames burst out in bright reds and oranges across her body. It was only the sense that it wasn’t intended for her benefit that kept her in place. Jena stood transfixed as the creature lifted her head to roar at the ceiling, a long keening cry that seemed sad and joyous at the same time. 

“Jenna! Stay where you are! I'll save you,” yelled a voice from the corner of the cave. 

Her attention had been so focused on the shimagni that Jena jumped in fright at the words. She turned, and saw Nate, one arm outstretched like he was about to cast a spell. 

Jena took a couple of steps toward him, her palms raised. “No, no, Nate. She's not going to harm us,” she said frantically. “I don't think,” she added on an undertone, glancing back up at the creature before her. 

“No, I will not harm you, Guardian of the Book of Spells.” The shimagni looked over at Nate. “Or you, Firecaller.”

Nate jumped, as startled at the form of communication as Jena had been. He lowered the hand he’d been holding up. 

Jena turned back to the Shimagni, only just realizing what she’d said. “Oh no, I'm not the Guardian. I'm just looking after the book. Think of me as the actual book, not the Guardian.” Jena stuttered the words out, shaking her head, taken aback at the suggestion that she take the place of her beloved master. 

“You hold the book: you are the Guardian. You do not think your master wanted the book either, do you? The book needs a protector. It has found you.”  

“My master was a great mage. I can't protect the book like he did!” Jena felt a cold sweat break out over her body just at the thought of trying to protect the Book of Spells from the Mage Council or Lothar. 

“He would have helped you. Sent someone along to provide for you.”

Jena thought of the raven. “He gave me some help, I guess.”

“And the book would have protected you.” 

“Maybe.” There were many times she had been able to come up with a spell that helped because the book was in her head. 

Nate moved to stand beside Jena. He put an arm around her shoulders. "You're the Guardian, Jena, whether you like it or not," he said with a grin. 

“I am afraid the Firecaller is right. But then he does not fully realize what a Firecaller is, and I fear his duty is much worse than yours.” 

Nate's face paled. "What?" he said.


 

CHAPTER 16 - NATE 

“I have something for you, Firecaller.” The shimagni dipped one transparent paw into the bubbling pool. The fire went out around her paw as it searched the depths, eventually emerging with a black stone held between thumb and forefinger. It burned darker than night, and seemed to suck the light. It emanated power. 

“What is it?” asked Nate, his gaze locked on the stone. 

“A lavaen stone.” 

“That's what Remus sent us up the mountain to get,” said Jena, still slightly indignant about that part of their journey. “He said it would help Nate.” 

The shimagni nodded. “He was right.” 

Nate couldn't move his gaze from the stone. It called to him. The flaming power inside him surged upwards, trying to claw its way out. “What does it do?” he whispered unevenly, as his inner fire launched itself again and again at the barriers he was holding up against it. 

“It calls to you, I know. Resist until you need it, because this power will change you. But it will help you defeat Lothar, give you the power to overcome his dark arts.”

“I can't be around the stone. It would drive me insane trying to hold myself back from being enthralled.” Nate closed his eyes and gave a couple of sharp shakes of his head, trying to clear the inferno raging inside him. It burned, screaming with desire to take the stone and use it. To burn everything and everyone around him. Even no, without being able to see the stone, he could feel it so strongly with his other senses that it felt like his eyes were still open. It smelled of earth and stone and sulfur and it sizzled in the damp atmosphere of the cave. He started salivating with the stinging taste of it on his tongue. Squeezing his eyes even harder, he clenched his hands until they hurt and pushed down on the fiery power that raged inside him. 

A cool hand touched his temple, and immediately the pain eased and the overwhelming pull from the lavaen stone became bearable. He opened his eyes to find Jena standing in front of him, her dark eyes watching him closely, her hand gentle on his forehead. The lavaen stone throbbed from inside her fisted hand by her side. It wasn’t gone, but its power was somehow dampened down. She gaze up at him calmly, waiting for him to settle. 

He wished he had half her calm. When they’d first met, she’d seemed so stern and angry all the time. But that wasn’t who she really was. It had taken him a while, but he now realized that the scars down one side of her face helped Jena protect her inner emotions from the world. Under that tough outer shell, she was kind-hearted and determined to protect everyone who needed it. She had little tells that he was learning, like the twitch of her lips on one side of her mouth when she was amused and the tiny frown line that appeared in the middle of her eyebrows when she was worried. She felt so much more than most people, the scars just made it easier to hide. 

“I'll carry the stone, keep its power hidden from you, if you like.” Compassion filled her eyes as she continued to watch him carefully, waiting for his balance to return. Shadows flickered across her face in the uncertain light from the Shimagni’s flames. 

He had no choice but to agree to her suggestion, but he appreciated that she’d asked. “Thank you,” he whispered. He closed his eyes again, and let the coolness of her hand provide the comfort he needed in the humid heat of the cave. She was protecting him from his own powers. He wished he didn’t need it, but he did. He took a few deep breaths, and tried to focus like the ghost mage had taught him. 

After a while he opened his eyes again. “How do you do that? Block its power?” He watched her closely as he waited for her to answer, trying to understand how she could do something that was so foreign to him. 

“It’s actually just a quiet spell from inside the Book of Spells,” she said softly. “Not often used, but powerful in its own way.” 

Behind them, the shimagni gave a shuffling laugh. “And you say you are not the Guardian, little one.” 

Jena’s wide-eyed gaze flicked to the shimagni. “It’s a simple spell. Not like the powerful mages of Flame City.” She removed her hand from Nate’s forehead, and took a step away, like that would take back what she’d just done. 

“You underestimate your powers, child of the book. Thornal chose well when he passed his powers on to you.” She tipped her head to one side as if considering them both, her flames swirling over her body in a strangely hypnotic pattern. Where the lavaen had been angry and irrational, the shimagni radiated calm and a soothing sense that everything would be alright. “The prophecies are in good hands.” 

Jena peered up at the shimagni, suddenly intent on Rothell. “What do you know of the prophecies? Miara was convinced they were in play too.” 

“You are on the path of the prophecy, I know this for a fact. It will not end until you have fulfilled them one way or another. There is much more at stake than you realize. Thornal protected the Way by putting the Book of Spells inside your head. You must take your next steps with care.” 

Nate took a deep breath, thoughts spinning. If they were part of the prophecies, then much more rested in their hands than simply saving his life or confronting Lothar. It was a daunting prospect. “So where do we go? We have to find a way to save Argus before he dies, but we also need to get to Lothar before the coronation.” 

Jena looked at the shimagni. “Can you advise us? The prophecies don't say anything about how we’re supposed to overcome any of this.” 

“Go where you think you must. Do what you think you should do. But know this: your time is limited. The prophecy swirls around our kingdom like a beast waiting to strike, and if you do not play your part, we will all be doomed.” 

“No pressure,” muttered Jena under her breath. 

Nate shot her an amused look, even though he’d been thinking exactly the same thing. “Do you know anything that might help us? Or lead us in the right direction?” he asked. 

The shimagni hesitated. “The lavaen, the one who cursed Argus, her mother was Utugani.”

Nate glanced at Jena. She gave a small nod. “They do like their curses, the Utugani. And if she cast an Utugani curse, one of the elders might know a way to undo it. And maybe have the necessary healing herbs to help Bree heal him once he’s out of the fire ruby.” She gave one decisive nod. “I think we should take the chance to save him. We should go to their camp.” 

Nate nodded, thinking about Argus's family, who would have only just been told by Eldrin that his brother would be coming home. What would they say when they were told he was trapped in the fire ruby, and might die? 

“Go with your gut. That is all you can do.” The shimagni gave what could only be described as a fatalistic shrug, and the waves of flame across her back turned into a swirl of royal purple and deep blue.  

Nate locked eyes with the enormous creature, and for a moment was lost in her fiery gaze. Could they really afford to delay going to the Flame City? Lothar had the power to destroy the whole kingdom with his machinations, and he was the only one who could stop it. But Argus was their friend. “I agree. We’ll go to Argus's family.” His stomach churned, but it was the only decision they could make. 

“Bring your sister into my cavern. I would talk to her. And Argus, he should hear my words also.” 

Nate's chest burned. He looked at Jena again. “Argus is... I mean you won't be able to... Argus is inside the fire ruby, unconscious. He’s badly wounded,” he said. 

“I can feel him, he is close enough to the edges that we may be able to talk to him, through your powers, Firecaller.” 

“Oh.” Nate didn't know what else to say. He’d always been able to see the ghosts who remained behind, but being able to talk to someone who was unconscious was new. But a creature like the shimagni was completely out of his previous experience. Her powers could be unlimited for all he knew. She glowed and shimmered in the humid heat of the cavern, the now-blue flames seeming to lick her body. Her eyes were mesmerizing, blazing strong, holding the power of fire in their depths. Nate felt he would do almost anything for her.

“We’ll get them,” he said, glancing back toward the tunnel that he’d come through when he’d realized Jena was missing. The warmth and relative safety of this cavern appealed to him. “And then may we rest in here with you?”  

“You may stay here. I can offer you food, and water. It is also warm in my cavern.” 

Nate bowed to the shimagni, then went with Jena back out the tunnel. They arrived to find Bree awake, but weeping gently into her hands. Nate hesitated, not sure what to do. Jena rushed over to her sister, pulling her up into sitting position and cradling Bree in her arms. 

“Shhh. Don't cry. He wouldn't want you to cry,” she said in a soothing voice. Bree turned and hid her face in Jena’s shoulder. Jena rubbed one hand down her sister’s back. “We’re going to save him. He’s not gone yet.” 

Nate crouched down next to the sisters, and put one hand on Bree’s shoulder. “Bree, we have someone who wants to meet you. Someone who might be able to help us. Help Argus.”  

Bree looked up, surprised. Her long blonde hair hung about her face making her look like a wild woman. “Who else could possibly be in these caves?” she said, her voice raspy. She wiped one hand across her eyes. 

“Someone amazing,” said Jena. “Come see for yourself.” 

Wiping at her eyes, Bree nodded, visibly pulling herself together. She sat up a little straighter, and Nate could almost see her spine straightening and her will forming. “Okay,” she whispered. 

Jena stroked her hand down Bree's hair, and curved one corner of her mouth. “You’ll love her.” 

Bree nodded and pulled away from Jena’s embrace. 

Jena stood up, reaching down with one hand to pull Bree up as well. Bree brushed the dirt off her trousers briskly, like she was using the motion to shake herself free of her tears. 

Nate wondered how he had ever thought her weak and indifferent. Bree was one of the strongest women he knew. After Jena. 

He cleared his throat. “We're going to stay with her, and have food and rest.” He didn’t tell Bree that the shimagni wanted to speak to Argus as well.   

Bree picked up her bag and followed Nate to the entrance of the tunnel, Jena just behind her. Nate bent over to fit through the tight space, and started crawling through. He registered the fire demon buzzing around their heads, lighting the way, but was more focused on whether the shimagni would really be able to talk to Argus. What would he say? Would he blame Nate for his situation? Nate shook off the thought. It didn’t matter who was to blame, but he was determined to do everything he could to save the mercenary.

When he emerged into the cavern, it seemed brighter than before. Fires had been lit in evenly spaced wall sconces above their heads and gave off a friendly, flickering light. The shimagni was waiting for them on the other side of the pool, her eyes flaring when she saw Bree. 

“Come here my child. Come talk to me.” 

Bree didn't even blink when the shimagni talked in her mind. She simply walked over to the shimmering creature like it was the most natural thing in the world. Reaching out, Bree touched the shimagni on her front leg, hesitating just before she put her hands into the flame. “A shimagni,” she said. “I never thought to see one.”

“This is Bree. She and Argus…” Nate trailed off, unable to finish. Jena stood beside him, watching the meeting. 

“I am glad to meet you, Bree. Call me Rothell. That was my human name.” Rothell’s voice was echoing in Nate’s head as well.  

Bree bowed her head. “I am honored to meet you, Rothell.” 

Rothell leaned in and spoke gently into Bree’s ear, but this time her words were in Bree’s head alone. 

“What do you think she's saying?” said Nate, glancing at Jena beside him. 

“I don't know. Kind words I hope.” Jena paused. “Where's the fire ruby?” 

He patted the pouch at his waist. “I put it in here for safekeeping.” 

“Do you think we’ll be able to save him?” 

“I’m going to do everything in my power. For his sake, and for Bree’s.” 

Jena put one hand on his arm. “Thank you.” The words were quiet, but powerful. 

Nate ducked his head awkwardly. “He saved my life, more than once.”  

When Nate looked up again at the shimagni, she was curled on the ground, her long tail wrapped around her legs. Bree was curled up inside Rothelll's front paws, in a deep, exhausted sleep. “She’s sleeping,” he said. 

“Good. She needs rest. This has all been traumatic for her,” said Jena, although she looked just as tired, dark circles marking her eyes, and her skin pale. The implication of her words was that perhaps this wasn’t the worst day that Jena had ever had and made Nate aware that he didn’t know enough about her life before they met in Flamehaven. But right now, she was as exhausted as her sister. 

“You need rest as well,” he said. “It’s been a difficult couple of days.” He put one hand on her back and gently propelled her toward the shimagni. The fact that she didn’t resist spoke volumes. “Do you mind adding another to your nest?” he asked Rothell. 

“Both sisters are very welcome,” said Rothell, gesturing with her enormous head for Jena to lie next to Bree. “Come Jena, sleep next to me. I will protect you.” 

Jena reluctantly took a couple of steps toward Rothell. “’I’m not really that tired…” she began, but she looked like she was being held together by sheer will. 

What had happened in her life that made her so reluctant to admit to any kind of weakness, or to give in when she so clearly needed sleep? “Just sleep for a little while,” said Nate gently. He cast about for an argument that could convince her. “It would probably help Bree if you were there next to her.” 

She paused, clearly torn, but then nodded. “Just for a little while,” she said, before stepping over Rothell’s massive forearm, and curling up to lie next to Bree. Even as Nate watched, she relaxed into sleep in the protection of the shimagni’s forearms, her face more peaceful than he’d ever seen it. 

It had to be some kind of magic. Nate glanced up at Rothell. “Thank you,” he said, sure of who was helping them rest. 

“You are all exhausted,” she replied, giving Nate a look, clearly telling him to sleep too. 

“Yes, I’ll sleep soon,” said Nate, moving closer to Rothell. “But first we need to talk.” 



CHAPTER 17 - NATE 

“I do not have all the answers you seek, but I will do my best.” The shimagni smiled, her large teeth showing in the firelight. The lines of her body shimmered, and Nate's eyes watered just looking at the multitude of colors hazing across her body.

He blinked, trying to clear away the moisture, then took a deep breath, trying to decide where to start. “What do you know about being a Firecaller? What does it mean?” It had been the question that had been plaguing him the most, ever since he’d accepted what the ghost mage had told him about his powers.

“A Firecaller is a very rare species of human, one with an affinity for fire so strong he can control it.”

Nate shook his head, rejecting her words. “But I can't control fire. Not properly. It controls me.” He paused, trying not to let memories of burning flesh and screaming force their way into his head. “I can call fire demons, but that’s not making fire do my will.”

“You have not tried, Firecaller. I am a fire creature, and I will do your will. The lavaen, she is also a fire creature. She would have recognized you instantly. She could not have hurt you, whatever happened to the others. And if you’d known how to wield your full powers, you could have ordered her to your will and she would not have been able to hurt anyone at all.”

Nate felt the blow of that information so heavily he took a step back. Argus’s imprisonment in the fire ruby suddenly weighed even heavier on his shoulders. “I could have saved us all,” he said, horrified. “It really is all my fault.”

The shimagni snorted out a breath of hot air that blew the hair off Nate’s face.

“Enough with the dramatics, Firecaller. She is a cunning creature, the lavaen. There is no way of knowing what might have happened. Only what did happen.”

“So if I can’t look back, what else can I do? What else should I know?” Nate felt like he didn’t even know the right questions to ask, let alone know how to wield anything.

“Each Firecaller is called by the fates, and only when needed, when our world is out of balance. They are given the tools they need. But they can be either a savior or a destroyer, depending on their actions.”

Nate couldn’t suppress his shudder. He felt like he’d been forced to climb on a fast, powerful horse that hadn’t been broken, and told to just ride. “But how do I figure out what I need to do to save everyone?” He didn’t know how to be a savior.

“The Great Mage was a Firecaller. That's how he created the Royal Flames.” The shimagni smiled, and her large eyes glowed in the cave. “The same fires burn inside you. They are yours to use as you will. You need only ask.”

Nate started to pace in front of Rothell, his hands tightly clenched. “I ask and the flames destroy. I don’t control them. They control me.”

“You have the power within you. You are resisting it.”

Nate felt the anger he’d been suppressing surge to the surface. “I don’t know how to do any of this!” he , waving one hand in the direction of the outside world. “It’s not a matter of resisting. It’s that no one can tell me how to do it. Everyone thinks I should have some kind of instinctive knowledge of how to be a Firecaller, and I don’t!”

The shimagni leaned her head down to be closer to Nate, her eyes glowing with sympathy. “I can only tell you what’s inside you. I am not a Firecaller, I do not know precisely how it works. There hasn’t been a Firecaller for centuries. There is no one alive who can tell you how to use your powers. But it is always the same for every Firecaller.”

“Then how am I supposed to do this? We have no time; we have to somehow save Argus, as well as stop Lothar. Everyone is relying on me, and I don’t know how we’re going to do any of it.” Nate heard the whiny note in his voice and gave a frustrated growl. “I never asked for any of this.”

“No one asks for something like this, Firecaller. Do you think I asked to be turned into this shape? I make the best of it. I do what I can. I move forward, live my life.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”

“I do not need an apology. But you need to understand there is nothing you can do to change who you are, Firecaller. You cannot give it away, or force someone else to take up the mantle. You are who you have always been. Whether you think you are up to the task, or you do not, who you are has never changed. Your powers have never changed. There is only what you believe about yourself and the choices you make.”

Nate swallowed hard against the words he wanted to say to reject her words. He knew she was right, no matter how much he wished she wasn’t. “Then it’s up to me to figure it out,” he said, resignation making his voice gruff. He took a breath. “Then what do you know about the Firecaller? About my powers?”

“You have the power to re-light the Royal Flames.”

“But they never go out. It isn’t possible.”

“They have already been partially extinguished. Lothar is controlling the Flames to keep his secret hidden. Everyone else in Flame City thinks Lothar is the next king and all is well. That is why he is so desperate to find you; it is a massive drain on his powers. Once he is confirmed as King, I believe he will destroy the Flames completely.”

“But—He can't just put them out,” Nate practically squeaked the words out. “Flame Echoes burn in every town and village in the kingdom—the magical ricochet would be devastating.”

“Your cousin believes he has the right, and will stop at nothing. You must be careful.”

Nate put a hand to his head, as the full implications of what Lothar was attempting to do hit home. “How do you know this? Are you sure?”

“I speak the truth.” The shimagni growled in the back of her throat.

Nate put up his hands in apology. “I don’t mean to offend, I simply don’t understand why he’d destroy the Flames. They’re the beating heart of Ignisia. They provide the power on which our magic runs. They keep the mages in line and keep our enemies at bay.”

“His mother has raised him with the belief. He blames the Flames for King Harad’s disastrous reign. He sees the destruction of the Flames as the only reasonable solution to the succession issues.”

“He’s worse than King Harad. Our old king was simply incompetent. Lothar is deliberately destroying our greatest magical asset.”

“Lothar is, by all accounts, a very smart man. He has been planning this for many years. Perhaps since he was a child, learning of his mother’s discontent.”

“Lothar must be powerful if he can hold the Royal Flames in his thrall.”

“He has a number of tricks and potions at his disposal. He isn’t as innately powerful as you, Firecaller, but he has spent years perfecting his craft. You have spent years avoiding yours. It will be difficult to overcome his machinations.”

Nate winced, thinking of his years as a salt mage. If only he’d known more about who he was. An image of his austere grandfather popped into his head. The old man used to loom over him as he tried to accomplish the simple magic expected of all young mages, and was visibly disgusted by his lack of ability. There’d never been any suggestion on an alternative for his lack of normal mage powers. And if anyone should have known about the Firecallers, it was his grandfather.

“Now, tell me of those you see on the Edges.”

Nate blinked. Rothell’s words brought him back to the real world, but for a moment he struggled to change the direction of his thoughts. “I’ve...ah... You mean the ghosts? I’ve seen them since I was young. I help those I can, but many of them are tricksters and time wasters.”

“The ability to see ghosts is not a Firecaller ability I have ever heard of, but perhaps it was not considered the most useful of their skills.”

“It’s not always the most convenient skill to have. They turn up in all sorts of places and they generally only want one thing.”

“Your help?”

“Yes. They want me to do whatever it is that made them stay behind rather than going into the Edges and beyond.”

“But there is someone else? Another who is helping you from the Edges?”

At first, Nate thought she was talking about the demons, but then he realized she was referring to one person. Nate looked up sharply. “The mage ghost? What do you know of him?” he said, narrowing his gaze at Rothell. “He’s the only ghost who has never asked anything of me. There’s something different about him. He can follow me in a way that no other ghost has ever been able to.”

“He is someone who can help you.”

“What do you know of him?” he said, his voice sharp. “Who is he?” He’d been trying to figure that out since the ghost mage started appearing.

“If you would know more, ask the old mage.”

“He only ever seems to show himself when we're in the middle of a crisis. I never get a chance to speak to him before he disappears.”

“Then describe him to Jena. She will tell you more of him.”

“But—”

“Jena will help you decipher the puzzle.” She shifted carefully, so as not to wake Jena and Bree. “Now, Firecaller, I wish to talk to Argus.”

Nate pulled out the fire ruby from the pouch at his waist. “He’s inside the ruby. He’s injured, he might not be able to talk.”

“You will take us both in there, in our minds. We will see what we can do to make him more comfortable. And then I will have questions.”

Nate blew out a breath. “This is what I’m talking about. I don’t usually just go into the fire rubies. I get enthralled and almost die using them. But I don’t know how to get inside one.”

“Then let me guide you.” Rothell’s voice inside his head expanded somehow. She was bigger and took up more space. The fires inside him burst into life, but they seemed more subdued than usual. Rothell seemed to be controlling them somehow. He certainly wasn’t. Then they were diving, even though his body remained standing. The shimagni had Nate wrapped in a shimmer of magic, and they dove inside the fire ruby. Everything turned red, the fires inside the powerful jewel burning bright.

“How did you do that?”

“I will tell you when we return, but for now, we must talk to Argus.”

Nate turned with his mind, and felt inside the ruby for the heat signature of the big mercenary. It was faint but distinct. “He’s over there. Come on.”

He led Rothell to a small corner of the fire ruby’s interior, where Argus lay, his body still broken and bruised. “I think he’s near death. The demon said putting him in here was the only way to save him.”

“He will have a ghost form inside here, if he is close to death. You must bring it out of his body, so we may talk to him.”

“Won’t that hurt him?”

“Not if you put the ghost back inside his body as soon as you can.”

“I wish you would stop making statements as if these things were easy,” Nate growled at the shimagni. “We just talked about that.”

“If you believe you can do it, and then just do it, it would be easy.”

Instead of trying to decipher that statement, and keep arguing his point, Nate stepped closer to Argus’s body. He needed to try, in case she was right. He laid one hand on Argus’s still arm. It vibrated with warmth and energy, like it was absorbing something of the fire ruby by being in here. 

Nate hoped it was helping him. He closed his eyes and concentrated on the body in front of him. He felt a wispy presence inside Argus and gently pulled on it. It came away easily from the body, too easily and for a moment Nate worried that he’d killed Argus by doing it. But the body beside him continued to thud with the heart’s beat. He let out a breath as the ghost form of Argus emerged into the space above his physical body. He looked around, momentarily confused, and then his sharp gaze found Nate. He gave a sharp nod.

“You’re inside the fire ruby,” said Nate quickly. “We had to put you here to give you more time for us to cure the curse that lavaen threw at you.”

Argus nodded, once. “You must hurry. My life forces are slipping further away every second you delay.”

“We will get you free,” Nate promised. “But in the meantime, this is Rothell. She’s helping us. And she has some questions for you.”

Inside the fire ruby Rothell was nothing more than a shimmering ball of light, but when Nate gestured to her, Argus’s ghost bowed formally.

“Argus, I wish to know more of Remus,” said Rothell urgently.

“I only know of him as my master.” Argus shrugged his shoulders wearily. “You’ll have to be more specific about what you want to know.”

“Was he working on anything new recently?”

“I was away for many days, on a mission to recover Nate. But before that, he’d been leaving on short trips,” said Argus slowly. “Which was unusual for him. He doesn’t usually like people to see him in his current state.”

“Was he writing more letters? Contacting people?”

“He has a small flame that he keeps hidden in his bedroom. He thinks I don’t notice it, but I do. He talks to other through the flames, that’s how he stays informed about what’s happening in Ignisia.”

“Does he contact Lothar?”

Argus shook his head. “Not that I know of. But he was part of the Royal Court with Miara. He knows many of the people who lurk in the halls of power in the capital city and he maintains his networks.”

Rothell’s ball of light hummed with energy. “I feel certain he’s making a move, playing a piece on his chess board. First by bringing Nate to him, and trying to use the Book of Spells to save himself. There must be other examples of his schemes. There’s energy shifting on the mountain.” 

Nate cleared his throat. “When we saw him earlier, he was talking to a Murghah as if it was an equal; he wasn't afraid of it.”

“There was a murghah on the mountain?" Rothell's voice rose to a screech. "When? Why did you not tell me before?” Her voice lost its calm, and her ball of light suddenly sprouted tiny lightning sparks. Nate moved away, unsure whether the sparks could actually hurt him inside the ruby.

“It was at Remus's house when we went back," Nate said quickly, holding his hands up placatingly. "Jena heard it. We doubled back and came this way. It was the reason we stopped in this cave.” 

“The murghah changes things. Lothar and Remus have attained more power than I had anticipated. We must hurry. I will have to take you from the mountain to your destination. Argus, where does your family wait for you?”

Argus blinked his eyes, and clenched his hands. "They wait at the Summer Hearth, near the main fork of the Flaming River."

“We must all rest. Remus has taken his side with Lothar. In the morning we fly.”


CHAPTER 18 - JENA 

The sizzle and smell of food cooking made Jena’s nostrils twitch. Her stomach rumbled, she swallowed over a dry throat, and her fuzzy brain tried to remember where she was. All she knew was that she was lying on a hard, uneven surface, but surrounded by something warm and soft. 

Opening her eyes, she saw Nate tending a small fire near a cavern pool not far away, the smoke swirling up towards the roof. A little further away, the shimagni sat on the same large rock where she’d been when Jena first entered the cavern. Bree was asleep nearby, curled up in blankets, her face relaxed in a deep sleep.

And just like that, Jena’s memories of the previous days events came flooding back. She tightened her hold on the edges of her blanket, grateful that someone had thought to wrap it around her. That Nate had wrapped around her. She watched him as he shoved the sharp end of a stick through a small fish and started roasting it over the flames, turning it slowly. 

He looked up, saw her watching him and half-smiled. “Fish for breakfast, courtesy of Rothell. She lured it to the surface and all I had to do was pluck it out of the water.” 

“Smells good,” Jena said. She sat up slowly, stretching out her sore muscles. Despite the stiffness, she felt more refreshed than she had since she’d left home. She looked around, wondering how Rothell had moved her in her sleep and she hadn’t even noticed. Except if she really thought about it, the answer was easy: magic. Even just sitting on her large rocky perch, the shimagni glittered with energy, waves of it constantly in motion over her body. 

“Rothell says it’s healing for Bree to sleep, so we’ve left her,” said Nate, catching her glance at Bree. “But we’ll need to get going soon.” 

Jena nodded and then stood, moving away from Bree, so as not to wake her. She sat down on a rock next to Nate, and put her hands out to capture some of the warmth from the fire. The burned skin on her face tingled in reaction. She heard the cawing of her raven somewhere high in the cavern, but when she peered up into the shadows, it stayed hidden. 

She glanced back at Nate. He had dark circles under his eyes, and didn’t look like he’d had the same kind of restorative sleep that she’d had. “I can help with the fish,” she said, holding out a hand. “I’m pretty good at turning a stick.”  

Nate shrugged and held out the stick to her. “If you like,” he said. 

Jena held it in one hand, turning the fish and staring into the flames. It felt warm and cosy sitting here next to Nate. The fish sizzled and the delicious smell made her stomach rumble again. 

Nate put his hands closer to the fire, staring intently at the small blaze in front of them. Slowly, the flames started burning toward him, their flickering drawn to his hands like moths to a light. 

“Nate! Stop it, I'm cooking,” Jena said with a grin. The flames had moved so close to Nate that the fish was hanging over open air. A tiny bubble of laughter burst out of her unexpectedly. 

Nate let the flames go with a whoosh of movement, and they returned to their natural position. He stared at her. “I’m not sure I’ve ever heard you laugh like that before,” he said wonderingly. 

Jena eye’s widened and she immediately dropped the tiny grin that was still lurking at the edges of her mouth. She leaned forward and hid her face behind a fall of her hair.

“It’s amazing what a good night’s sleep can do,” she muttered, but she was just as surprised as he was. She really was more relaxed than she’d been in a long time. There had seemed very little to laugh about for a while now, but even before Thornal’s death, she’d always held herself back from that kind of spontaneous laughter. It usually felt too much, like she would be asking for trouble if she ever felt happy enough to laugh like that. She didn’t even know what it was about Nate stealing the fire that had tickled her funny bone so much. 

Nate cleared his throat. “You didn’t even blink at the idea I can call fire to my hands,” he said, changing the subject. He could obviously see her discomfort, which made Jena want to hide even more. She forced herself to look at him. 

His face was just on the edges of the light from the fire. His eyes were like dark pools, the shadows created by the fire on his face adding to his mage tattoo and making him seem remote and jagged. Except she knew he wasn’t at all distant. He was brave and kind and thoughtful. He seemed less and less like the selfish mage she’d first met back in the Forest of Ghosts. 

They were both changing, she realized suddenly. She wasn’t sure who they’d be at the end of this journey. Perhaps they wouldn’t even be alive. It was a chilling thought, and stripped away the last of her mellow mood.

She forced herself back to their conversation. “I lived with the Guardian for years,” she said slowly, still turning the fish. “Thornal could do much bigger magic than that.” Pulling the flames was one of the first things she learned to do when Thornal was teaching her mage magic. 

Nate sat up a little straighter like he’d just been hit with a bolt of lightning. “Jena, what did the Guardian look like?” he asked, the words bursting out of him. He was unnaturally still as he waited for her answer, like she was about to say something vitally important.

She stared at him, surprised. She tried to remember Thornal’s face, and found the smaller details were already slipping from her memory. It made her chest hurt and she took a ragged breath, unexpectedly reminded of her grief.

“He was tall. When I first met him, he seemed impossibly tall, and I always felt like I was looking up at him from such a distance. His eyes were this deep blue, but they would change with his moods, like the weather changes the surface of a lake. His hair was long and grey. I used to try and imagine what he might have looked like when he was younger, with brown or black hair, but I could never do it… Not until…”

She stopped, but then remembered that Nate already knew most of her secrets. “The raven showed me what he looked like as a young man. He had long dark brown hair. It looked wrong.” She sniffed, trying to think of other details that would help her pictured Thornal better. “He liked to wear these old faded black robes that no other mage would be seen dead in. I tried to get him to buy new ones, but he always refused. Said he preferred the anonymity that his old robes gave him. As if that was true. Wherever he went, people knew who he was. He was never mistaken for anyone but who he really was.” 

Nate nodded slowly. “Anything else?” 

“He didn’t have a mage tattoo, but he did have a distinctive scar running down his chin.” 

Nate let out a sharp breath. He looked over to the glowing shimagni then back at Jena. “I think he’s here with us,” he blurted out. “I think he’s the ghost mage that’s been following me since the forest,” he said. 

Jena felt the color drain from her face. “He's here?” She looked around, as if he would suddenly appear in front of her. Shakily, she pulled the fish off the fire and put it on the plate Nate had set out beside her. She tried to remember what Nate had told her about his abilities. Could she speak to Thornal as well? 

Nate nodded. “He’s the one who’s been helping me. He told me how to save you from the Murghah, and helped with the rescue in the water demon’s cave.” He pushed his hand through his hair, and stared down at the flames in front of them. “He told me what Remus had done and made sure we would get there in time to save you.” He hesitated, clearly just having some kind of epiphany.

“What is it?” said Jena impatiently. 

“He’s here looking after you,” he said wonderingly. “It’s not about his own quest at all.” 

“He's not really dead?” Jena asked, her heart clogging up her throat, making it difficult to breathe. 

He glanced quickly back up at her, his eyes filled with concern. “I’m sorry Jena. He’s definitely dead,” he said softly. “They're usually in the Edges because they want to finish something in this world before moving on.” 

She put one hand over her mouth, and wished she hadn’t asked. She’d known the answer before Nate even said it, and it was like being told of his death all over again. “Do you know what he has to finish?” Jena tried to imagine what Thornal might be trying to do. He’d said he’d known of his exact day of death for a long time before the assassin’s attack. Surely he’d prepared? 

“I’ve never asked him,” said Nate reluctantly, seeming embarrassed to admit it. “He only seems to show up when we’re in trouble, and I’m always distracted by whatever is happening. Most other ghosts can't wait to get it off their chests.” 

“Ask him,” said Jena, emotion rising in her chest. “Ask him now!” She stood up, pacing around the cave, wishing she could see Thornal. Her emotions were all topsy turvy, impossible to pin down. She didn’t know if she was happy or sad that she might be able to talk to Thornal again. 

It suddenly seemed urgent that she knew why he’d stayed behind. “Where are you, Thornal? Tell us why you’re still here,” she demanded. She could feel the heat of tears forming in her eyes, and halted abruptly to swipe at them with one hand. 

Why had he stayed behind? And why was it so important to her that she know?



 CHAPTER 19 - JENA 

Nate moved to stand in front of her and put a comforting hand on her shoulder. “He says it was for you. You were his purpose,” he said, ducking his head to get Jena to look at him. “He couldn’t just leave you when he died. He was the one who led you to the Forest of Ghosts, and your sister.” 

Nate’s words, softly spoken, felt like needles in her chest. She didn’t know why she was so upset to learn that Thornal was Nate’s ghost mage. It was confusing. She felt happy, but also like she was being torn apart. “He made me burn down the house and leave it all behind,” she said, her voice hoarse. There had been so many memories, so much of her life inside that cottage. Nate’s hand on her shoulder held her steady, let her breathe. 

“He’s sorry for the necessity. But he couldn’t leave anything for his enemies to find and use. He had no choice.” 

Jena nodded jerkily. 

“He’s been protecting you, that’s why he stayed in the Edges. He didn't want to leave you on your own,” says Nate earnestly, clearly trying to convince her of Thornal’s good intentions. 

More tears welled, and then rolled down Jena’s face. 

“He says he knows you’re powerful on your own, and didn’t need his protection. But he wanted to be there anyway.” Nate glanced over his left shoulder. 

“Is he there? Behind you?” Jena peered over Nate’s shoulder, but could see nothing but shadows. She swallowed hard over the lump in her throat and tried not to be resentful that Nate could see him. 

Nate nodded. He put both hands at the top of Jena’s arms, almost like he was trying to prepare her for what he was about to say. “He says he couldn't protect your parents: his son Primus and his daughter-in-law Dalaphine. He found out too late what the Mage Council had planned, and he couldn’t save them.” Nate swallowed. “He says it was—and still is—his life’s greatest failure. What happened broke him, and he never recovered. His second greatest regret is the fact that he didn’t know his grandchildren had survived the attack. But as soon as he found out that you and Bree were still alive, he made sure you were both safe.” 

Jena didn’t know whether she felt sick or… something else. “He knew? That he was my grandfather?” Her stomach roiled as she tried to come to terms with what Thornal was telling Nate. 

Nate waited a moment, his gaze on the floor, listening to Thornal’s answer, and then took a breath. He looked up at Jena, and she knew she wasn’t going to like his answer. “He says that he didn’t feel like he could tell you at first. You were too… wild and angry. You’d had too many terrible things happen to you. You needed a gentle return to everyday life.” Nate’s eyes were filled with compassion as he repeated things she would never have told him otherwise. “He says that later it became impossible. He worried that you would think he’d lied to you. He didn’t want to lose your trust.” 

Jena’s shoulders trembled, and a rushing noise filled her ears. Her head felt thick with emotions that she couldn’t even begin to process. Blindly, she put her arms around Nate's middle, and buried her face into his neck. Her body shook as tears of grief flowed down her cheeks. 

Nate just shifted his arms around her, and held her while she cried. 

Jena let it all go, all the grief that she’d been holding tightly inside since Thornal had been killed right in front of her. She hadn’t cried, not once. And now she was making up for it, wracking sobs escaping from her body. It felt horrible and cathartic all at once. 

Eventually, her sobs eased, and Jena became aware that she was still tucked inside the warmth of Nate’s arms. She lifted her head, and pulled back in his arms. “Thank you,” she mumbled toward his broad chest. She moved awkwardly backward out of his arms, embarrassed that she’d lost control in front of him. She wiped her hand across her watery eyes, and tried to act like nothing had happened.

“Any time,” he said with a faint smile in his voice. “Thornal says you’re strong, Jena. He says your life has made you strong, that you’ve been forged out of adversity for the quest we’re on.” 

Jena looked up sharply at that. “I could have done without most of it, all the same,” she said sharply. It wasn’t that she didn’t like who she was, but the constant reminder of her pain, the scars on her face and body, weren’t something she thought of as having a silver lining. 

“He says he’s sorry for not finding you earlier. He says it took him too long. He wishes he’d found you sooner, that he’d been able to protect you from some of your hurts.” 

Jena shook her head. “No, that’s not what I’m saying. I don't blame him for my life, Nate. I trust him when he says he would have protected us if he’d known. I know Thornal, I know his moral code. And I am strong, he’s right. But I feel like perhaps I could have been just as strong without all the pain and suffering.” She gave a watery smile, because there was no way to know for sure. “I’m just glad that Miara gave me a hint when we were in the Forest of Ghosts. This would have been an even bigger shock, otherwise.” 

“Miara knew?” 

“She guessed. She told us while we were in the Forest of Ghosts. She didn't know for sure, but she was obviously confident enough to tell us.” 

Nate was quiet for a moment, taking it all in. “I’ve got a few questions for you both, if it’s alright?” he said eventually. “I’ll tell you Thornal’s answers Jena, but it’s a conversation we need to have together, I think.” 

In some ways it was the last thing she wanted to do. She felt wrung out, like she’d just been taken down to the river, and been washed and beaten against the rocks. She could have done with a break from all the heart-wrenching emotion. But she nodded anyway. They didn’t have time for her to recover and rest. They had to start traveling again this morning. 

“How is it that you can travel with us?” he said, talking to Thornal. “None of the other ghosts I’ve ever met have been able to do it.” 

Nate nodded as if Thornal was speaking. 

“What did he say?” said Jena impatiently. 

“That he left his tattoo and his ashes with you,” said Nate, as if repeating what Thornal had said. “What does that even mean?” 

Jena glanced up into the shadows above the cavern, until she saw the raven perched in a crevice way above their heads. It turned its head as if it knew what she wanted and leaped into the air, flying directly for Jena, then swooping a couple of times over their head.“You’ve seen it attach itself to my body?” she said. 

Nate nodded, dawning comprehension in his eyes. 

Jena lifted one side of her shirt, exposing her stomach. The raven swooped down, and at last minute it swooped in a tight circle around her body and smashed itself into her skin. Instead of the collision of feathers and skin that should have been the result of a bird hitting her skin, the raven—as always—disappeared into her skin, and then returned to the surface as a large blue-black tattoo that moved and shimmered across her skin. Jena winced, the pain radiating out from the spot where the raven tattoo had landed. She then screwed up her face as the raven settled itself into her skin. When she opened her eyes again, Nate was looking at her like she was some kind of miracle. 

“By the Flames,” he said breathlessly. “This is unbelievable. It’s his tattoo? On your body?” He looked like his head was spinning, and he was struggling to fit this kind of power together. 

“Yes. The raven did it the first time to warn me about some soldiers on the road. Initially I had thought it was just my master's familiar helping me,” said Jena, looking down at her stomach, where the raven moved its feathers slightly. Seeing it there on her body still seemed unreal after all this time. “Then Miara said that it was possible for mages to take their tattoos off, and for them to come alive – and I knew it was his tattoo.” 

“No wonder me moving the flames of the fire didn’t seem like a big deal,” he said. “There’s nothing you can’t do. You’re the granddaughter of the most powerful mage in Ignisia, and the daughter of a mage and a witch. No wonder Thornal taught you mage work.” 

“It’s his magic, not mine,” said Jena. She’d done nothing to earn the raven, it was a present from Thornal. Her grandfather. The thought bounced around in her head like a noisy unwelcome guest. 

Nate leaned forward, reaching out his hand to touch the raven on her stomach. At last minute, just as his fingers were about to touch the inky skin, Jena moved away. “He might peck, and that hurts,” she said, a slight blush crawling up one side of her face. 

“I’ve never seen it before. I didn't know it was possible.” He touched his own face tattoo, a sense of wonder filling him. “And that's how you've been staying with us, Thornal? Through the tattoo on Jenna?” 

“What is he saying?” said Jena impatiently. 

“He says it’s the raven and the ashes you’re carrying. He saw his own death and used the time before to find a way to attach part of his soul to the raven. It pulls him with us wherever you go.” Nate paused, as if listening. “He says it’s not perfect, there have been gaps where he’s not been able to find us, but… he did it all for you, Jena.”  


CHAPTER 20 

“We have to go,” said Nate. He was wearing his traveling clothes and his pack was sitting nearby. Jena and Bree were just as organized – their scant possessions were gathered together in the small bag they shared between them. Jena nodded and pulled the pack over her shoulders. 

It had been a difficult conversation, with him in the middle, interpreting for Thornal and Jena. He didn’t quite know how Jena was taking all the revelations Thornal had given her. He hoped she’d find a way to forgive Thornal for keep his secrets from her. He’d seemed genuinely upset. The worst thing was, they didn’t have time to sit and dissect it any further. They had to get to the Utugani, tell them about Argus, and see if they could help with their mission to Flame City. 

He looked at the pack that held Jena and Bree’s meagre belongings. They’d had one each at Remus’s house, both filled with clothes and rations, but they’d left one bag with Remus. There was no way they could go back to Remus, not with the murghah hanging around. Rothell kept saying that he had the power to control the dark horse and its rider, but he didn’t want to put it to the test. Not yet. What if he couldn’t do it? What if his power wasn’t as strong as they kept telling him it was? It seemed a big risk to take, especially when they were trying to save Argus.

He sighed. They couldn't take the risk. Not yet. Not before they were ready. Which left them with not enough rations and no change of clothes. They’d decided to continue on to the Utugani and Argus’s family as planned, to tell them what happened to Argus and to get their help. Nate dreaded meeting Argus’s brother Eldrin again. He thought of his huge grin, and his teasing of his brother. It was going to be difficult to tell him that Argus was trapped in the fire ruby. That he might not survive, if they couldn’t break the curse and heal his wounds. 

Nate peered around the cave that had housed them overnight, trying to memorize the details. It had felt like a safe sanctuary, even for such a short amount of time. Rothell had helped them all sleep and somehow wake rested. It would be nice to stay here longer, to let Rothell protect them from the outside world. 

But they had to focus on saving Argus. He just hoped Eldrin and his family wouldn’t be so upset over what had happened to Argus that they refused to help.  

“Let’s go,” said Jena, speaking mostly for Bree’s benefit. Her sister was looking much better this morning, a decent night’s sleep having revived her, but she still looked a little lost. 

“The sooner we leave, the sooner we get there,” agreed Nate. They walked over to where the shimagni was waiting for them near the outside entrance to her cave. It was hidden with a zig zag of rocks that made it look like a solid wall, and it was only when Rothell had shown them that they’d believed her when she said she had another entrance. 

They gathered around Rothell, shuffling awkwardly, each of them hesitant to take the first step. Nate cleared his throat. 

Rothell grinned down at them. “I will not break. I am strong.” 

Jena glanced back at Bree, then forward to Nate and gestured for him to go first. 

Nate nodded grimly, and stepped forward. He climbed onto Rothell's bent leg, pulled himself up and swung a leg over the broad back. It was a strange feeling. It was like sitting on a breath of air, warm but insubstantial. Rothell’s body shimmered and sparkled under him, almost like she was there at the same time as not being there. Nate shook his head over the thought. He’d never experienced anything like it. It was kind of like being inside a mirage on the horizon, even though you knew the mirage wasn’t real. 

What he was realizing was that not only did it look like Rothell shimmered and moved unnaturally when you were looking at her from a distance, she also did it when you were sitting on her back. Rothell wasn't always completely solid, and it was the kind of thing that could really mess with your perspective. 

Nate forced himself to take a deep breath and focus. They didn’t have time for him to freak out about traveling on Rothell. Grasping the closest back ridge, he turned to look down at Bree and Jena and gestured for them to follow him. He leaned down to pull Bree up, his warm fingers touching Bree's icy cold hands. Jena was last, climbing into place behind Bree. 

Everyone ready? asked Rothell. 

“As we’ll ever be,” said Nate, hands tight on the ridges of Rothell’s back. 

Rothell’s wings expanded out on either side of them, and Nate gasped. Her wings were large in span, but thin and gossamer and looked like a starry sky. They were the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. 

The shimagni rose into the air, her hind legs pushing off into the air directly above them, twisting and turning through the hidden exit and out into the early morning sky. 

Nate squeezed his eyes shut, half expecting to hit the roof of the cave as they flew past. When he opened them again he could only see clouds and blue sky. 

Out in the light, Rothell’s body was translucent, shimmering with all the colors around them, reflecting light. It made her basically invisible in the sky. Nate tightened his grip, and tried not to look down. It felt like they were flying on nothing, and that was a disconcerting experience. The powerful flames inside him rose toward the surface as panic started to take over. They were literally holding on for their lives. 

Nate clung to the ridge in front of him, small flames licking at his hands. Behind him he could hear Bree breathing heavily like she was trying to stay calm, just like he was. 

And then the world dropped out from under them.  


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