Royal Mage

CHAPTERS 21-30 - 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 TWENTY-ONE - JENA 

Jena screamed, her hands clutching the hard ridges of Rothell’s back, as they swooped through the clouds. It felt like she’d left her stomach somewhere high above them. The shimagni dove low before climbing back up to cloud level, her euphoria pouring through their minds, a bright golden stream that lifted Jena’s spirits. As they dipped into a turn, Rothell’s enormous wings spread out on either side of them, and the landscape below appeared swooped by, too fast for them to see anything more than a blur of color. 

“I won't let you fall, humans.” Rothell's voice was warm with humor inside their heads. 

All three of them were clinging in the same desperate manner to Rothell's back. Bree gave a tiny whimper that was snatched away by the wind. Jena clenched her stomach muscles and could almost feel the raven scrunched up on her skin. When it scratched a claw in painful protest she wasn't surprised. Rothell took them higher into the sky, her powerful wings pounding the very air around them into submission. Soon they were flying high above the ground, Rothell simply using her wings to glide through the air currents. 

The wind whipped uncomfortably across her face, her fingers felt like they were burning from holding on so tightly, and Jena’s heart felt like it was trying to pound its way outside her chest. But it was starting to seem… safer. Rothell was flying steadily, they hadn’t fallen off yet. Jena peered around through half-opened eyes. They were flying above the western edge of the mountain, the rugged beauty of the whole range spread out before her like a craggy blanket. Her breath held in her throat and she blinked several times. Never in a thousand years could she have expected to get this kind of a view of the world. It felt… exhilarating. 

Jena tipped her head back and laughed. 

What a thrill! 

Who would have thought that flying so high would be exciting rather than terrifying? She’d been prepared to survive the experience with stoic determination, not to feel this amazing sense of freedom and wonder. 

“It is how I feel every time I fly, Jena. Can you imagine how wonderful it is to be a shimagni? I cannot help loving Remus still, in a little corner of my heart, for allowing me to experience this life.”

Jena sobered at Rothell's mention of Remus. She recalled their mission and why there was a small flame ruby digging against her back, held securely in her sister's bag. 

“How long to the Utugani Hearth?” she asked Rothell. Her words were whipped away too fast for the others to hear them, but somehow the shimagni knew what she’d said. 

“Not long, although I flew the long way, to avoid the Murghah.” 

Jena watched the view below, some of her initial excitement dulled by the reminder of their duty. “We have to enlist their help breaking the curse. We can’t do it by ourselves.” Jena shivered. She had to believe they’d be able to find a way to say Argus. She closed her eyes and tried to recapture her enjoyment of the flight. The cool wind buffeting her face, the feeling of moving faster than she’d ever moved before. Perhaps Rothell would—

A screech in the sky just above them interrupted Jena’s thoughts. Her blood chilled and her eyes flicked open. The murghah. The black horse-like creature was flying above them, its body reflecting the sun, smoke rising up from across its skin. It gave another stomach-curdling screech. 

“I will attempt to outfly it.” The shimagni didn't sound sure of her ability to evade the creature. 

"No! Nate will have to control it. He knows how," said Jena. She leaned to one side around Bree and slapped his arm. 

Nate looked back over his shoulder at Jena and shook his head. “I don’t know how,” he yelled, the wind sucking away his words as soon as he said them. 

“You have to,” Jena yelled, even though she knew Nate couldn’t hear her. She pointed at the murghah, then at the three of them. “We won’t make it if you don’t figure it out.”  

“I’ll try,” he yelled, his expression grim. The raven tattoo on his face seemed to shimmer and Jena wished she was sitting directly behind him instead of Bree. If she’d been closer she could have loaned him some of her confidence that he could do it. 

Jena looked up, and saw the dark shape of the murghah hurtling towards them in the open sky. Its blistering hooves would hit them any minute. 

“Now, Nate. You have to do it now!” Jena felt the flames of her magic curling around her, and she prepared to throw whatever she could at the dark beast… except she knew it wouldn’t work. The only one who could affect the murghah was Nate. He just had to believe in himself. She clenched her hands tighter onto Rothell and tried to will Nate to believing in himself. 

She watched as he lifted one of his arms, gazing directly at the beast overhead. She felt the power of his magic shift the air around them. Goosebumps rose along her arms in reaction. Overhead the murghah swerved, screeching. The creature swept its dark wings in a powerful beat, and pulled away. 

But the woman on its back held her hands high and began chanting a strange pattern of words. In her hands she held a glowing fire ruby. Its magic pulsed through the air, and Nate gasped in pain. The fire ruby in the bag on Jena’s back pulsed in answer. Jena leaned forward, all her energy focused on Nate. 

“It’s…It’s pulling me. I don’t know if…” Nate pushed the words out, every syllable threaded with agony. He put both hands to his head, like he was trying to contain the pain inside it. Jena gasped, but before she could move, Bree grabbed onto him with one hand, clutching him around the waist. Jena reached out and grasped Bree, desperate to keep them both steady.  

“Rothell, he’s not holding on, don’t do anything crazy,” yelled Jena, terrified that the shimagni might try another roll like she did before. 

“I will fly steady, but you must get him to control the murghah, it is your only hope of survival,” said Rothell, her voice calm inside Jena’s head. 

Jena leaned forward, trying to make sure Nate heard her words. “You’re the Firecaller, Nate. You can do it. You have to. ” Jena hoped her words were true. If Nate couldn't win against this creature they were all lost. 

Nate screamed, his whole body tensing. Bree cried out, his movement knocking her backward. Overhead, the murghah’s rider was chanting, the words heavy in the air around them. 

“It is attempting to steal his soul. I cannot stop it.” Rothell’s voice was angry. 

“Nate! Do your worst, let out your core.” Jena didn’t know what else to say. He didn’t seem to hear her. “You have to defeat it, for all our sakes!” It was true. The murghah had easily overpowered her last time they’d met. She’d almost ended up inside the fire ruby, and she hadn’t stood a chance against it. Murghah were too powerful, too little seen, for the mages to know how to deal with them. 

Nate was their only hope. 

Except he looked like he was about to implode in front of her. The only thing keeping him on Rothell’s back was Bree desperately clinging to him. Jena clutched her sister, trying to think of another way out of this. Perhaps if they let Rothell do some acrobatics? She shuddered at the thought of trying to hold Nate onto Rothell’s back while they were upside down. Maybe she could cast a spell to burn the creature alive? Except she knew the murghah would simply suck up the energy of the spell. All she’d be doing would be making the creature more powerful. 

“Nate, please,” she screamed, desperation carved into her voice. “You have to let go. Make it happen, just like last time.” She gripped Bree’s arm, and tried not to think about what would happen to them all if he couldn’t unleash the fires. 

And suddenly, as if he finally understood that they were about to die, a burning heat burst out from Nate. The tremendous and powerful energy made Jena’s whole body tremble in reaction, and Bree jerked back, trying to get away from the crackling static created by the unleashing of what could only be Nate's fire. Even the shimgani shifted under them, her skin rippling in reaction. 

As Jena watched, Nate started to transform. He glowed, a pulsing fiery light emanating from his skin. Even his eyes were no longer human; they glowed a demon red. 

Thankfully the focus of his glowing demon eyes was the murghah. The woman still held the fire ruby aloft in her hands, and Jena thought she could see strands of the red pulse from Nate being swallowed into the hard edges of the jewel. 

Nate roared, a sound that seemed to emerge from the very depths of the Edges. Jena’s whole body trembled in reaction, and Bree leaned even further away from Nate, trying to escape the burning power. 

Lifting one arm, Nate shot a bolt of fire directly to the murghah. It hit the woman squarely on her chest. But instead of hurting her, the fire seemed to make her grow, her body enlarging, swelling in front of them. She lifted the ruby a little higher, and this time, Jena was sure she could see Nate’s soul being pulled into the stone. It wasn’t working. The creature was more powerful than Nate. Jena couldn’t breathe, her heart pounding in her chest. They were going to die. 

Again, Nate roared, and this time Jena heard pain in the sound. “What else can we do? It’s not working–” 

And then Jena felt something shift, like someone was drawing on the heat in the very air around them. It became harder to breathe, and the cold became colder. On the edges of her vision, she saw the murghah stumble, fall a few feet then right itself. 

“You are mine, creature. You will do my will.” Nate’s voice boomed. 

The murghah screamed, kicked its front legs high into the air, then flew straight up, and away. Jena watched it as it disappeared, her heart still pounding, half expecting it to turn around and come back at them. 

She glanced back at Nate, wanting him to drag the murghah back, to force it to his will. Except Nate looked like he was barely alive. He was glowing orange, but his eyes were closed, his face was slack, and his body sagged like a half empty sack of potatoes. Bree was struggling to hold him up. 

And then he seemed to just go boneless. His glow disappeared, and his whole body collapsed to one side. He slipped through Bree’s hands, sliding off the side of the shimagni. Jena screamed, reaching out to catch him, but she she couldn’t reach him without pushing Bree off as well. 

They both scrambled to grab him, but he slid down the side of Rothell, tumbling through the sky below them, mercifully unaware of what was happening. 



CHAPTER 22 - JENA 

“Rothell!” Jena yelled, even as the shimagni turned and matched Nate’s fall. She shimagni grasped him in her front paws, holding him safely against her chest. Only then did Jena breathe again. The flight no longer seemed thrilling. She felt like she’d been blasted with so much fear and terror in the last few minutes that her heart might never settle down again. 

“We’re almost at the Hearth. I will carry him until we arrive.”

“Hurry, Rothell,” Jena said. If the murghah came back… She couldn’t help frantically searching the air around them, trying to spot the deadly black horse creature. She had no idea if the murghah could return, but she wouldn’t be caught unprepared a second time. Jena kept trying to catch a glimpse of Nate cradled in Rothell’s arms, but he was just out of her line of sight. Was he okay? What if he died, before they’d even made it to the Flame City? What of their quest then? 

Jena just had to assume that Rothell would tell them if something had happened to Nate. She clutched the shimagni’s back ridges, and flicked through the Book of Spells in her head, trying to find something that would destroy the next creature that dared to come at them. There was a whole parcel of nothing that would be helpful, and for the first time in a long time, Jena felt useless. 

Eventually the shimagni began to spiral downward toward a large river that wound in between an enormous forest and grasslands. If she wasn’t so worried about Nate, Jena might have been more in awe at the view they were getting of the landscape, all laid out below them like a green and blue tapestry woven by a master. She’d never seen anything like it. They were flying toward a large grassy area near a fork in the Flaming River.

She could see why it was an Utugani campsite; it had everything a traveling hearth might need, all in one place. It brought back memories of her own childhood with the Utugani, the freedom of roaming the landscape, living off the land… and then the terror of being pushed onto a burning campfire, and sold by her jealous step brother before she’d properly healed. The scarred skin on her face started to feel even tighter than usual, and her fingers felt like they were wedged into Rothell’s back ridges. Her heart was thudding like a drum in her chest. 

She hadn’t anticipated these feelings of fear and dread over going back, but perhaps she should have. Thornal had never asked her about it, and she’d never told him anything. She’d never talked to anyone about it. She’d kept it all squashed inside her, all the fear and hurt and betrayal, until it had felt like it didn’t matter any more. It was so long ago, a distant, painful past she’d thought was behind her. She wasn’t a child, she could protect herself these days. She even had family. Jena glanced at Bree just in front of her, leaning forward into Rothell’s back ridges like her life depended on it. Bree wouldn’t let them hurt her again. 

Except here she was, feeling like she couldn’t breathe, her scars feeling like she’d just been burned again, and her whole body locked in a rictus of fear. Her chest tightened, her eyes locked on the patchwork of earth below them. 

She shook her head sharply, trying to shake free of the memories. The feeling of being a child again, lost and alone. It didn’t make sense. They couldn’t hurt her. She was a powerful mage. She would burn the campsite to the ground, before she let anyone hurt her again. Her breath was ragged and rattled. 

Everything was all mixed up in her head—fear for Nate, memories from childhood, and the utter devastation Eldrin was about to experience when they told him that Argus was locked inside a fire ruby, possibly dying if they couldn’t do something to save him. Jena squeezed her eyes shut, trying to calm her raging thoughts. She needed to stay focused if she was going to get through the next few hours. Pushing everything back inside her, she concentrated on breathing steadily in and out, and ignoring the pain and hurt that was clamoring to escape. Not just ignoring it, actively squeezing it back into the tiny box where she’d been hiding it all these years.

When she opened her eyes again, she could see small dots on the ground below, quickly becoming bigger and turning into people and tents as they flew closer. She took a heavy breath, and felt better. 

“I will land away from their encampment. We need Nate to be conscious and able to talk before we go to them. He has asked to be the one who tells them the news of Argus.” 

Jena nodded, even though Rothell couldn’t see her. Nate and Argus had been traveling together for a while now. It made sense that he’d want to talk to the Utugani. And she sure as the Flames didn’t want to be the one to tell them. The people below became larger, until they could almost make out the individual faces. Jena searched for Eldrin, but he wasn't among the people coming out of their tents to stare up at them as they came into land. She didn’t know if it was a relief or not. 

Rothell landed and placed Nate on the ground. Bree, then Jena, slid down Rothell’s side to the ground, both rushing to where Nate was lying prone at Rothell’s feet. Jena crouched beside him, and reached out to smooth his hair from his face. He still looked deathly pale. 

He groaned and opened his eyes, the bright blue startling against his ashen skin. “I never want to travel that way again,” he said, slurring slightly. 

“Were you awake while we were flying?” asked Jena, trying to hold in her shudder at the thought. She touched his neck and arms, trying to see if he was wounded. 

Nate weakly batted her hand away. “I’m fine. I just used up too much power on the Murghah.” His voice sounded distant, like he was talking down a long tunnel. 

“You need something to eat and drink, and quickly, before Argus's family arrive.” Jena eyed him fearfully. His eyes were dark holes in his pale face, and there were tight lines around his mouth. He didn't seem right. Something was wrong, and she didn't know what it was. 

Nate nodded, holding his hand over his eyes for a moment, then rubbed them. “What have we got?”

Jena handed him her water pouch, then looked through the travel pack she’d been carrying on her back. “There's some fish from breakfast.” Jena handed him the bundle and hovered while he unwrapped it. He was shaking and his face was still grey. 

“Thornal says to look in the book for the spell on... the spell that’s just after the ones on water spirits.”  Nate’s voice was confused, and he frowned. 

Jena had almost forgotten about their extra traveling companion. It was a relief to know that Thornal was here and knew how to help Nate. She searched the Book of Spells for the page he was talking about, flipping quickly through the pages inside her head. She stilled, her heart stopping in her chest, when she found the right place. 

Thornal had to be joking. “He definitely says the one after water spirits?” she said, trying to stay calm. 

Nate paused, his brows raised. Then he nodded. “Yes, that's the one. He says you have to be quick.”

Jena felt her blood run cold. It was the Edges energy spell, one of the hardest and most dangerous in the book. If it went wrong, it would mean being locked in the Edges for not only herself, but Nate as well. “I don't... I mean…” 

“He says be quick, or….” Nate swallowed hard. “Or he says I’ll die.” 

Jena looked around her wildly, but she couldn’t see Thornal to confirm what he was saying. Was he telling the truth? Or just trying to get her to do the spell? 

The shocked expression on Nate’s face was enough to convince her. She took a deep breath. Reading the instructions carefully, she made sure she understood everything she had to do. 

Chanting low, Jena concentrated on saying the words exactly right. Opening her mind, she sought out the Edges that were all around them, and yet no-one—except Nate—could see. She started chanting louder and louder, bringing the energy all around her into her body. She held her hands cupped in front of her and, still chanting the words of power, pushed everything she captured into her hands. Soon there was a glowing ball, sizzling and bucking between her palms. The energy was trying to escape her control, pushing, battering her defenses until she wondered if she could really make it do what she needed. 

She began to feel hands all over her body, clawing at her, trying to find a way back from the Edges, trying to get back into the world. Trying to use her to get back into this world. Her breath came in short gasps, and she had to focus to keep them at bay. She stepped closer to Nate, who was watching with shadowed eyes. Pushing her hands to his chest, she thrust the power she had pulled from the Edges into Nate, hoping that she’d done it right, and hadn’t just shoved a bunch of ghosts trapped inside the Edges into Nate’s body. 

The world went dark. 

**************

Jena gasped, feeling as if hands were still clawing at her throat, choking her. She battered against her attackers, but only encountered empty air. She closed her throat on the scream that threatened, and made herself look around. 

In the distance Nate and Bree were speaking to a gathering of five men, none of whom she recognized, but who were all obviously Utugani. 

Nate was holding the fire ruby in his palm, showing them. 

One of the strangers raised his arm in a gesture of anger, but Nate put his other hand out in placation. Jena stilled. Nate's hand glowed with a yellow light, so bright it was visible from this distance, and lit up the faces of the Utugani who were crowded around him. 

Jena rubbed her eyes, then looked again. What was wrong with Nate? Had she turned him into a ghost? Was he filled with the souls of those people who’d tried to get back into this world through her spell? 

Momentarily panicked, she tried to sit up. Her head spun, and bile rose in her throat, her breakfast along with it. She threw up into the ground beside her, then lay back down again, closing her eyes. What the flames had she done

“You are still very weak. You will need to rest.” Rothell’s voice was soothing inside her head. 

Jenna jerked in surprise. She hadn’t noticed the shimagni nearby. “What’s happened? Why is Nate glowing?” She didn’t open her eyes, and her words were barely a whisper. 

“He is fine. It is simply the after effects of the spell.” 

“It worked?” 

“You saved his life. The murghah had managed to steal part of his soul, before it ran away. He has been able to use the energy you gave him to recover—at least until he can recover his soul—as well as talk to the Utugani and convince them we are friend not foe.” 

“Did something else happen? What are you not telling me?” 

At first there was silence. “There was a slight side effect you might not have known about.” 

Jena straightened up so she could look at the shimagni. “What have I done?” she said in a whisper. 

The shimagni sighed. “The ghost of Thornal is now trapped inside Nate. He’s trying to stay out of Nate's way, but it’s going to be difficult.”  

Jena turned back to Nate and stared in horror. “I’ve put Thornal inside his head?” She took a deep breath. “How do I fix it?”

“We do not know. For now, they must put up with it.” 

Jena took a few deep breaths, trying to calm her fear. At least Nate wasn't dead, which was what she had thought might happen. 

He just had another person inside his body. A ghost. Her grandfather. 

Jena shivered, imagining how awful it would be to have another soul inside her body. At least it was Thornal and not a complete stranger. Although the thought of having Thornal inside her head made Jena shudder again. Thornal wasn’t always the easiest person to deal with. She might have to give Nate a few tips.  

She watched the two groups in front of her. They were still talking, and occasionally one would look toward Rothell and Jena. Nate stayed calm, somehow soothing the anger that was rolling off the Utugani. 

Beside him Bree remained silent and stiff. 

“I should go and help them.” Jena managed to sit up this time, but paused when her head started to pound. 

“You need to stay here. Your presence will only confuse things.” 

“Confuse things? How?” 

“There is another short-term after-effect.” Rother paused again. 

“What could possibly be worse than Thornal being inside his head?” I asked. 

“It’s not worse. It’s just not… ideal. When you and Nate get too close, you both start to glow. We had to separate you so Nate could go and talk to them.” Rothell shook her wings. “Nate said Thornal didn’t think it would last.”

“What does it mean?" Jena asked cautiously. 

“You are the originator of the spell. It means you are now connected to them as well. You haven't been awake since it happened, but we think it might mean you can hear Thornal inside Nate’s head.” 

Jena jumped up, knocking her head on the shimagni's front ridges. She sat down again. “I’ll be able to hear Thornal?” It was a tantalizing thought, being able to hear Thornal’s voice. Her chest hurt and she rubbed it absently with one hand. It would almost be like she would have him back. Maybe this wasn’t the bad news she’d thought at first? 

Except Nate had to be struggling with the extra soul inside his body. Jena had difficulty listening to Rothell inside her head, let alone having someone actually inside her head hearing all her thoughts, knowing all her secrets. For Nate’s sake, they had to get Thornal out of there. But not perhaps until she’d had more of a chance to talk to Thornal? 

“There will be a way to undo what has been done. There always is.” 

Jena glanced up at Rothell. “What about Remus, the shrinking mage? He never found a way to undo what had been done.” 

“Ah, but there was a way. He could have reversed his spell on us. Then the witch could have undone her spell. But he chose not to do that. He was arrogant and self-righteous; and he thought he could find a way around it. Now it is too late. She is no longer human and he is trapped.” 

Jena thought she could hear a certain amount on satisfaction in Rothell's voice. 



CHAPTER 23 - NATE

Despite their hard faces, the tense lines around the mouths of the Utugani men were easing, and the rigid stances they had adopted at first had relaxed. Their knives had been put away in their leather pouches, they'd stopped looking at the shimagni behind him every two minutes, and were managing to keep eye contact with him. 

So far, so good. 

Nate took another breath, trying to maintain his expression of easy affability. It was harder than it seemed. All he wanted to do was yell and scream, to rant at the fates for putting Argus in this position, for not being able to return him to his people in one piece. He didn’t want to be here, giving them this bad news. 

The eldest had leathered skin, the many lines revealing the years he’d lived. He wore a shirt and trousers in brown and green, and he had an eye patch covering his right eye. Nate thought he caught more with that one eye than his companions did with two. The one-eyed man watched as Nate and Bree replied to the questions hammered at them from the younger, stronger men who were bracketing him. 

“We need proof Argus is inside that stone, before we go to the Utugan and tell him," said the man on the right, his bright red shirt a beacon in the green of the valley. They had reluctantly told the sentries why they wanted to speak to their leader. 

“If we could speak to Eldrin, he would be able to tell you that we are friends of Argus’s. We don’t have time to convince everyone of the truth. We need help to save Argus.” Nate held still, trying to coerce them to agree by the power of his thoughts. 

“It won't work you know. You're not using the right spell.” The voice echoed inside his head. Nate jumped slightly. He tried to keep his face from showing the annoyance he felt every time he remembered the visitor in his head. He saw the one-eyed gypsy watching him thoughtfully, and kept his face blank. 

“There's no use feeling annoyed about it,” said Thornal. “What's done is done. The good thing is these fellows seem to be coming around to our point of view. You've argued our point well.”  

Nate nodded, then stopped, realizing too late what he was doing. 

The young gypsy in front of him frowned and he inwardly cursed. He focused again on the older man in the middle. 

“I can tell you things about Argus that no one else would know. Things he would only have told a friend. Would that help?” 

“No. Not me. Perhaps his brother or father.” The old man paused; his one eye clear as he looked at Nate. “Answer me this one question with honesty, and I will allow them to fetch the Utugan.” 

At Nate's nod, the old man gestured towards Bree. “What is the woman to Argus?” 

Nate thought the old man had a good idea what Bree was to Argus, but he wanted them to say it. Beside him Bree had gone white. Her eyes were giant orbs in her face and tears welled in her eyes. 

He opened his mouth, and then shut it again, unable to cause Bree more pain by mentioning what had been growing between them. 

“I’m… when we save him, I’m going to marry him." Large tears rolled slowly down Bree's face, and her pale skin seemed to be made of marble. She stared unblinkingly at the old man until he looked away towards the mountains behind them. 

“He’s the love of my life, and if he hadn't loved me back, he wouldn't be stuck inside that fire ruby, alone and dying.” Bree was trembling. Nate put his arms around her, and she leaned into him, her tears starting to turn from silent drops to wrenching sobs. 

“But he wouldn’t have been a free man,” said Nate firmly. “I know Argus preferred to be a free man, rather than the servant of Remus.” He could do little other than hold her and wait til the storm passed. 

“Now, tell me who you are,” said the old gypsy. He waved his hand. “Other than a friend of Argus.”  

Nate cleared his throat. “Argus saved my life. More than once.” He paused, trying to think what it would be best to tell them. “I was a mage, not a very good one. I live on the coast south of here. He helped me escape from assassins, then he took an arrow for me. I owe him my life.” 

“Argus was always brave,” agreed the old gypsy. “Nothing has changed in that.” He dropped his gaze to Bree. “And he could always inspire love,” he said softly. The old one-eyed Utugani let out a breath. “We will get Eldrin and the Utugan to come.” 

“But–” One of the younger men started to protest. 

The old man held up a hand and silenced him. He gestured with his head, and the man on his right turned without another word and ran towards the camp. 

Nate watched the red shirt get smaller and smaller. “Thank you. You won't regret trusting us. Argus is our friend.”

“You know, that's where Remus underestimated Argus,” said Thornal. “The old fool always misunderstood love. It explains the mistake he made with the lavaen and the shimagni as well.” 

Nate had to focus on not shaking his head every time the mage talked in his head. It was like a ringing in his ears, it jarred, and it sent shivers down his spine at the same time. He hoped the old mage wouldn't be in his head for long. 

“I’ll try not to be, son. Although I’m going to stay here long enough to teach you how to control your flames. You’ve been given a hodge-podge mage education.” 

Goosebumps rippled across his skin, crawling like a thousand spiders. He could almost feel the old mage ferreting around in his head, turning over what he knew and didn't know. It felt like a stranger going through an old wardrobe and finding forgotten treasures from childhood. Secret and personal treasures. Treasures that you'd much prefer to keep hidden away. 

“Don’t worry son, I’m not judging you. I’m judging those who taught you. Your grandfather mainly, rotten old fish scraps that he is.” 

Nate’s eyes widened slightly at Thornal’s slur on his grandfather’s name. It wasn’t that he disagreed, it was more that he’d never heard anyone other than himself say anything disrespectful of the old man. He was, after Thornal, one of the most powerful mages in the land. 

“You get to my age, son, you don’t have to pull your punches,” said Thornal wryly. 

Nate let out a breath, then looked over Bree's head at the one-eyed Utugani, who was watching with solemn eyes. It reminded him why they were here. 

He felt the tears in his eyes, and had to struggle to keep them from falling. "I'm sorry, it's still very new for us," he said to the old gypsy. 

The old warrior nodded, staying silent. 

The remaining younger man turned his head to look back to their camp. Behind him, a group of men ran towards them from the distant campsite. He swallowed. 

The moment was here. 

He had to tell Eldrin and his father what had happened. How he’d let them down by allowing Argus to be hurt. 

“Don’t be ridiculous, Nate. That’s not the truth.”   

The distant shapes became the larger figures of Eldrin and another two men, plus a man who was obviously their leader, the Utugan. He was wrapped in the ornate furs of the wild bear they revered, its brown and silver coat glistening in the late morning sunlight. He had the same stern look as Argus, and he had a large bear tooth pierced through the fleshy part of his ear. 

“They’re coming,” he whispered to Bree. 

Bree stepped back from his arms, wiping her eyes and straightening her spine. 

Eldrin arrived first, his eyes moving from Nate to Bree. “What’s happened? Where’s Argus?” he asked. 

Nate took a deep breath, but waited til the Utugan arrived before answering. “Eldrin, I’m sorry,” he said looking at Eldrin and then his father, his chest tight. He had to force the words past his lips. “We fought a lavaen, only a day past. Argus was wounded… and the creature cursed him. He’s inside this fire ruby, held in time,” he held up his hand with the fire ruby again, “but we don’t have long to save him. And we don’t know how to save him.”  

Eldrin sucked in a breath, and went pale. Beside him, the Utugan took a step backward, his hand half raised as if to deny the news. 

“No,” said the Utugan, his face creasing with denial. “He’s coming home. Eldrin told us he’s coming home.” 

“We were betrayed by his master," said Nate, trying to say it all at once. “We shouldn’t have been there at all. But if we’re going to save Argus, we need to do it quickly and we need your help.”  

“You saw it happen? He’s truly inside this stone?” asked Eldrin. His face seemed calm, until Nate looked into his eyes and saw the wild storm raging there. 

Nate swallowed hard. “Yes. I saw it. I’m the one who put him inside the fire ruby, to extend his life long enough for us to save him.” Nate closed his eyes for a moment, unable to bear the look in his eyes any longer. “I’m sorry, Eldrin. I should have protected him better.” 

“What help can we possibly give?” asked Eldrin. 

Nate opened his eyes again, trying to straighten out his thoughts. “He doesn’t have much time. But if we’re going to save him, we need to find out what the curse is. I wondered if your hearth might have someone who was knowledgeable on such things?” 

“Thank you for coming to us,” said Eldrin. He held out a hand and grasped Nate's shoulder. His eyes were darker than they’d seemed previously but his face remained impassive. 

Suddenly Bree let out a cry, and ran towards the Utugan. Startled, Nate looked behind Eldrin; the gypsy leader had fallen to his knees, his hands clutched at his chest, his face showing pain. The two Utugani guards held Bree from going to his side.

“No!” The word reverberated around inside Nate's head, and Nate felt Argus’s pain from inside the fire ruby. How the hell had that happened? 

“Something to do with your Firecaller abilities, no doubt,” said Thornal, his voice thoughtful.  

“Let her go. She’s a healer.” Eldrin barked the order as he followed her to his father.

He grasped the Utugan before he fell further, and held him half lying on the ground. Bree knelt before him and placed her hands over the Utugan's chest, closing her eyes. Her breathing was shallow, and her face went pale. Her hands trembled where they lay. Nate felt Argus watching through his eyes as Bree attempted to save his father. All he could do was stand back and watch.

Bree kept her hands on the chest of her patient. Her head was down, and her hair fell around her face, hiding her expression. Sitting on the ground, holding his father's body off the earth, Eldrin was the only one who could see her face, and he watched it with the intensity of a hawk, the lighthearted man they had met only days before gone. Everyone seemed to be holding their breath. 

Minutes passed, with no movement from either Bree or the Utugan. Nate desperately hoped that Eldrin wasn't going to lose his father, especially not now. 

“She'll save him, lad. She's powerful, like her sister.” Thornal’s voice whispered in his head.  

Nate jumped; then cursed.  

The Utugan's eyes flickered and opened, and he took a deep breath. The collective release of breath was like a breeze that suddenly came up around them. 

Bree moved back from her position over the Utugan. “He should be fine. He needs to rest. It was his heart, but I have made it strong again.” Bree spoke softly, watching the Utugan with large eyes. Her face was even more drawn, and now there were dark circles under her eyes. When Nate saw her sway, he leaped forward to help, but the old one-eyed gypsy got there first, putting an arm around her waist. 

Eldrin and one of the younger men helped the Utugan to his feet. They put his arms over each shoulder, and started to carry him back to the camp. Bree attempted to follow, and stumbled. The old gypsy pulled her arm around his shoulder and started back to the camp just behind the others. 

“But…” Nate moved again. 

“We will take care of her. You may follow us into our hearth with your creature.”  

Nate turned back to where Rothell and Jena waited. As he got closer he saw Jena start to glow, as she had earlier. By the serious expression on her face, he knew she had noticed.

“What happened? Why did Bree go with them?” 

“The Utugani had a problem with his heart. Bree fixed it, but it cost her. They’re taking her into the hearth. We are to follow.” 

Jena scowled even deeper, and gestured between them. “How are we going to do anything if we light up like a fire every time we're around each other?” she asked him. 

Nate shrugged tiredly. “It will wear off, according to Thornal.” 

“Thornal should have known better than to have me do the spell in the first place,” she said, crossing her arms, and scowling in a way that made him think of a mother hen telling off her chicks. 

“Is that how you used to tell him off?” he asked, a slightly hysterical laugh bubbling in his throat. It was highly inappropriate, but he had a vision of Jena bossing Thornal around in his own home, telling him off for not putting the kitchen cloths away. 

“You've got it in one, my boy. She was a martinet. But she took care of me like no one else ever had. She did it because she cares about others, because she has a heart bigger than most other people combined, not because of familial duty, or because I'd bought her at the markets.” 

Jena’s scowled deepened for a moment, and then a smiled flicked at one corner of her mouth. “Maybe I was a martinet,” she said. “But he deserved it.” 

Nate blinked. “You can hear him?”

Jena nodded, a shimmer in her eyes that said more than she knew. “Rothell says it might wear off, but for now, any time Thornal speaks to you, and I’m nearby, I can hear him.” 

“I’m not sure whether to be happy for you, or upset,” said Nate with a grin. 

“I can’t speak for Jena, but I for one am so very pleased,” said Thornal quietly. 


CHAPTER 24 - JENA 

“I make them nervous, I can smell it.” Rothell’s body swirled with violets and blues. Her tail swished about anxiously, making the fire in their small hearth burn brighter. Jena shifted away from the suddenly brighter flames.

“That's why we're here at the edges, and not in the main part of their camp,” said Nate. He was next to the fire, adding more of the wood he'd gathered. He looked tired, his skin pale and dark circles under his eyes. The faint glow around his body—which had thankfully lessened for both of them in the time since the spell—made him almost look like a ghost.

Jena put one hand on the side of Rothell’s neck, running her hand soothingly over the shimagni’s soft skin. “They’ll get used to you,” she said softly. Rothell leaned closer and hummed like she was a cat.

The people in the main camp were distracted, everyone aware their Utugan was ill. There were a lot of people running to and fro, anxious expressions on their faces. 

One of the younger guards had met them when they approached the campsite, and had approved where they had set up their camp, but they hadn't talked to anyone else for a while, including Bree. It was only because Jena could sense her calm presence nearby that she wasn’t storming into the main Utugani camp to demand they allow Bree to come back to their campfire.

“We should be talking to someone, finding a cure for Argus,” Nate said. He was clutching the fire ruby that held Argus in his hand. He stood and walked a little way toward the main Utugani camp, and then back to their small camp site, his impatience palpable. 

The flames in the fire followed his path, leaning in his direction where ever he was.

"Have patience, Nate. Their leader just collapsed," said Thornal.  

Jena could still hear Thornal's voice inside Nate's head—although he was getting fainter, like the glow that was almost non-existent now. She felt a pang in her chest; she would be glad to get rid of the glow, but at the same time, sad that she wouldn't be able to hear Thornal any more. 

She’d been able to talk to him while they were setting up the campsite, and confirm some of what she’d guessed about her parentage and what had happened all those years ago. It had felt good to hear his voice again, even if only for a short while. 

"They said they'd talk to their person, find out more information," she said to Nate. "For now, our best option is to wait." Jena hoped she was right. Surely they hadn't forgotten about Argus? 

Nate poked at the fire again, this time more aggressively, accidentally knocking a larger piece of wood off the top. Sparks flew into the sky around them, and Nate's face was momentarily lit up like a demon's. 

When they'd first arrived, they'd been busy. They’d collected dry pieces of wood and smaller kindling from the nearby forest, and Nate had lit the fire, while Jena organized the rest of their campsite, dragging over a couple of logs—with help from Rothell—and pulling their remaining travel rations out to prepare a meal. They didn’t have much; only what they’d eaten at Rothell’s cave: mostly fish. 

She completely understood Nate's impatience, but she didn't know what to do about it. They had to wait until someone came to them—that much she remembered about Utugani camp protocols. 

As she crouched next to the fire looking down at their meager rations, wondering if she could find some herbs to make it more palatable, Jena sensed movement and glanced up, glad that someone had finally come to give them more information. Except...  

“Nate,” she whispered, catching his attention and nodding her head towards the young woman who'd just arrived. 

Long dark hair fell out of a yellow scarf. She wore a long skirt and a brightly embroidered shirt, traditional clothing among the Utugani. She was holding a snugly wrapped baby in a woven sling across her front and a bowl of steamed rice in one hand. To Jena she seemed somehow very proud and completely uncertain at the same time.

The woman strode up to where they sat beside their fire. Without saying a word, she held out the plate of rice to them. Jena stood up and took the gift, trying to smile encouragingly at their visitor. She didn't seem like an official emissary. 

The young Utugani woman glanced at the shimagni, then looked at Nate with solemn eyes. “Argus was my cousin. They say you knew him, and that he saved your life?” she said. She had the same intensity as Argus, and a way of tilting her head that reminded Jena of the ex-mercenary.

Jena glanced at Nate. Guilt and pain were clearly etched on his face. He believed it was his fault that Argus wasn't here with them, reuniting with his family. 

Nate nodded. “That's true.”

“Can you tell me the story? The story of how he saved your life?” Again the woman glanced at the shimagni. Rothell shimmered in the half-light of the fire, her eyes glowing and swirling with fire. 

Startled, Nate glanced at Jena, then back at the young woman. “I don’t think—”

“They need to know, son. This is important.” 

Jena nodded, agreeing with Thornal. 

“I’d like to know more about how he spent his life. It’s been so long since I saw him,” said the woman. Her baby in the wrapped sling snuffled in its sleep as if agreeing.

Nate hesitated a moment longer. “I guess… yes, I can.” He gestured for her to sit down on one of their nearby logs.

“Would you like something to drink?” asked Jena. “We have a hot tea brewing.”

As Jena was pouring tea into a cracked travel mug for the woman, she heard the chatter of young children, and looked up. Two women, each with two children—their ages maybe somewhere between seven and ten—clinging nervously to their skirts walked towards them, a determined set to their jaws. “We heard you might tell us the story of Argus’s bravery?” said the one with long wavy blonde hair, her hand stroking the matching blond hair of one of her little boys as he hid his head in her skirts. “He was our friend when we were children. We’d like to hear the story of how he saved you.” She held out a bowl filled with steaming stew.

The other woman, with darker olive skin and long dark brown hair that matched her brown eyes, held out a platter of fruit and a flask of drink. “We bring gifts for your campsite.” Her two boys both had matching hair and skin, and their large dark brown eyes watched Jena and Nate carefully.

Jena took the offerings with a smile, and placed them to one side of the campfire. “It will make a delightful change from fish,” she said, and motioned for the women to sit next to their first guest. “We don’t have any more mugs for tea,” she said. “I can’t offer you proper fireside hospitality, I’m sorry.”

The dark haired woman nodded to the older of her sons, who ran off, presumably in search of mugs.

Instead of moving toward the proffered seat, both women stared up at the shimagni. The shifting, blue and violet glow from Rothell’s body was reflected on their faces, making it difficult to read their expressions. They all seemed fascinated by Rothell, but were still cautious.

“She won't hurt you,” said Nate, still standing on the other side of the campfire.

The blonde woman’s eyes sharpened, turning them to dark jewels in the firelight. She was a stunningly attractive woman. “I am not afraid. I simply wish to assess my surroundings.”

“A wise sentiment,” said Rothell softly in all their heads. The women jumped, and the youngest with her baby stood, stepping backward over the log. “I mean you no harm, please do not be afraid.”

“She is here to protect us, not harm us. You are wise to be cautious, but it is not necessary around Rothell.” Nate smiled up at Rothell as he spoke.

Jena sent out a tiny calming spell, and the three women shuffled and glanced at each other, before sitting back down on the log, ruffling their skirts to hide their nerves. The little blonde boys peeked out from behind their mother, curious eyes on the shimmering beast in front of them. 

The little dark haired boy arrived back, gasping big breaths—Jena had an idea he was afraid of missing something good—and holding four ceramic mugs. 

“Oh good. I can serve you tea while you listen to Nate’s story,” said Jena, smiling down at the young boy. He all but ignored her and stared over her shoulder at Rothell.

Jena managed to hold in the amused smile, and poured tea for her guests. With a creature like Rothell around, it was hard to compete for attention. One of the boys whispered in his mother’s ear, and she shook her head sternly.

It is all right. He can touch my side. I will not harm him.

This time, all three women, and all four children stared up at Rothell with matching expressions. This time no one moved.

“See, I told you,” said the little boy to his mother. “She said it was okay.”

“Come stand with me,” said Jena, holding out her hand to the boy. “My name is Jena. I’ll be your guide.” Jena looked to his mother for permission, the same as the boy.

She gave Jena a stern look, but at her son’s entreating face, she broke. “Fine. But do not get too close,” she said. 

The boy moved closer, one hand in Jena's and the other hand outstretched. "My name is Blane," he whispered, not taking his eyes off Rothell. 

"Nice too meet you," said Jena softly, not wanting to spook him. 

The other three boys moved away from their mothers and came forward too, almost like they were compelled. Jena had a feeling most people reacted to Rothell that way. Almost as one, they touched their hands to the shimmering skin on Rothell’s flank.

“It feels… like a cloud,” said the oldest boy. “It’s so soft.”

The dark haired woman stood. “Like a cloud you say?” She said, then walked cautiously over to Rothell. “With your permission,” she said to Rothell, bowing her head and holding out her hand hesitantly.

“Permission granted,” replied Rothell in all their heads. Her eyes wandered over to the other two women. “To all who are here.”

The woman with the baby stayed where she was, but the striking blonde woman stood and strode over. She touched Rothell’s body, and let out a soft exhalation of breath. “It’s soft. Not at all what I expected.” She looked up at Rothell’s head. “So beautiful.”

Rothell nodded regally, like she got compliments like that all the time. “Now, shall we have some tea and listen to the story?” she said.

Jena jumped into action, and set up the offered food on an overturned log, pleased that the distraction of Rothell had eased some of the tension around their campfire. 

The children grabbed a piece of the sweet forest berry each, and then settled close to their respective mothers, who cradled cups of tea in their hands. Jena piled a plate for both her and Nate, and placed his plate next to where he’d been sitting. 

He nodded his thanks and took a deep breath. She could see he was nervous, and wondered how much of the story he was actually going to tell them.

And then it was time for the storytelling to begin.


CHAPTER 25 - NATE 

Just as Nate opened his mouth on the first words, several more visitors walked into the circle of their campfire. Shy expressions and strong features were common among the new arrivals. Each had an offering of food, and they were all women. Nate hadn’t spent much time among the Utugani, but he hadn’t had the impression that the women were the leaders. It had always seemed like such a warrior-led society.

And yet here they were. Some were older and some younger, but all claimed some kind of kinship or friendship with Argus. Nate counted almost two dozen women around their campfire, even as more visitors trickled in. Each time, they brought more food with them, and each time, Jena and Nate welcomed them in. Soon they were helping themselves to the feast they had provided, and murmuring in low voices to each other. Most of the women had moved closer to touch Rothell’s hide—the shimagni had to be getting sick of the attention by now.

“I’m willing to put up with it, if it helps us in our quest,” said Rothell, presumably only in his head.

Nate gave her a nod that he hoped conveyed his thanks.

“Are they all telling the truth?” Nate asked Jena in an undertone at one point, as he chewed on a particularly delicious bread roll. “Were they all close to him?”

Jena looked around the campfire, taking in the faces in the flickering light. “Utugani are a very tight knit community. They usually spend a lot of time together, and family is more than just your parents. It’s the wider community too. He could easily have had the connections these women are saying he did.”

“Why is it only women and children? Where are the men?”

“I wonder if the men even know they’re here?” said Jena, amusement on her face.

“If it’s an initiation, you’d think they would.” He paused. “Maybe.”

“Maybe the men are guarding the Utugani? The fact that he’s unwell changes the usual protocols.”

Nate lifted one hand and rubbed at his chest, trying to soothe the uncomfortable feeling that had tightened inside. Argus had missed out on seeing his family, of hugging and kissing them, swapping stories and living with them again.

And it wasn’t just that he’d missed out this time. There was a chance that he’d never be able to do that again. The pressure to safe Argus felt like it was suffocating him.

“We should be trying to break the curse, not here, telling stories,” he whispered to Jena. “Why can’t they see that?” He clenched the fire ruby that held Argus inside his fist. Being in their midst, meeting Argus’s family, was breaking Nate's heart. He looked around at the increasingly crowded campfire. The women were laughing and joking, eating their food and waiting for him to begin. He pushed aside his fluctuating emotions. Nearby Jena simply watched him, her glowing form motionless, like she didn’t want to spook him.

“This is our initiation. We have to prove ourselves worthy of the information we seek,” she said softly.

“Do you think they can see our glow?”

“They're not commenting on it.” Jena gestured around her. “You'd better start the story. If this is a test, you need to impress them.”

Nate looked around at the women in various stages of eating and talking. He caught the eye of several who were obviously waiting for him to start. “No pressure,” he muttered.

“None at all,” agreed Jena, attempting to hide her half smile. She seemed far more relaxed than she had been since they’d landed with Rothell. Everything had happened so quickly, that they really hadn’t had a chance to catch their breath.

But he didn’t have time to worry about that right now. He had a story to tell.

He strode to one side of the campfire, placing the shimagni behind him, her violet and blue translucent body rising up off the ground, and providing a glittering backdrop. It would allow them to listen and watch the shimagni at the same time.

“Thank you for visiting us, and thank you for your kind gifts of food. We've eaten better tonight than we have in many weeks.”

There were murmurs from the crowd, many nodding their heads and accepting his thanks.

“You’re here to listen to the story of Argus, and how he saved my life. He actually saved my life, not once, but three times in the short time I knew him, and I can only thank you, his family and friends, for his great deeds.” Nate paused and looked around the faces at the campfire.

“Well done boy, you're a natural at this,” said Thornal approvingly.

Nate narrowed his eyes for a moment, ideas on how to get rid of the mage in his head flicking through his thoughts, before he continued. “The first time Argus saved me, he was only just in time. Deadly assassins had surrounded my house…” Nate continued to talk, weaving the story of their trip into the story of Argus, so they would understand what he had meant to them. When it came time to describe how Argus had been wounded and had ended up in the fire ruby, there were tears running down the faces of many in the audience. 

It was true love that had saved him, and cursed him at the same time. 

Nate’s gaze went to Jena; she watched him with dark eyes that glittered in the firelight. He knew she felt guilty for her part in putting Argus in danger. He wished he could convince her that it hadn't been her fault. 

There was silence around the campfire when he finished. “We brought him straight here to his family, hoping to get help.” He left out meeting the murghah, trying not to alarm them. He nodded to show he’d finished. “We have to find a way to break the curse and save him.” He swallowed hard, feeling like he should be doing something more, that he was wasting the extra time they’d been given to save Argus’s life by telling stories.

“This wastes nothing. We need these people to be on our side. Telling them this story is how we find out how to save him.” Rothell’s words inside his head were sharp. He flicked his gaze to her, and gave a quick acknowledgement. She was right. They needed the help of these people. 

His audience started chatting to their neighbors, talking about the story they had just heard. Nate had stuck to the truth as much as he could, and Argus had come out as the hero he was. The low murmuring was strangely soothing, and Nate let out a breath, relieved to no longer be the center of attention. 

In small groups, the visitors started leaving, thanking Nate and Jena for their hospitality as they left. Many were even brave enough to farewell the shimagni, who nodded graciously every time.

“You're a natural storyteller, mage.” An old woman leaned on the handle of an ornate cane, her gnarled hands almost translucent. Long grey hair was pulled back into intricate knots and her face was lined with age. But her smile was beautiful and Nate recognized the eyes. They were the same blue as Argus and Eldrin’s.

“Thank you. I was only stating the truth. Argus's actions speak for themselves.” He bowed respectfully.

“He was always a good boy, my grandson. Thank you for making him come alive for us again. We will do everything we can to reverse the curse and get him healed.” The old blue eyes filled with tears, but they didn't overflow. Whoever she was, this woman had pounds of self-control.

“Thank you.”

She nodded. “It does you credit, young man. As does the young woman who saved our Utugan.” She looked at Jena a moment. “Your sister, they say?” she said, her eyes narrowing on Jena.

Jena looked uncomfortable under the woman’s scrutiny. “Yes, she's a gifted healer.”

“And she loves Argus?”

Jena paused, perhaps startled by her perceptiveness. “Yes, she loves him.” 

Nate wondered for the first time if the Utugani might have banned Argus and Bree getting married if they’d arrived as they’d planned. Argus was of the royal line, there was probably some kind of rule about who he could marry. 

The old woman’s eyes glinted with those unshed tears. “At least he has love to keep him warm inside his fire ruby prison,” she said, then shuffled away, taking the arm of a younger woman.

Jena watched the old woman walk away. “They’re a tight knit community,” she whispered, her voice uneven. “I’d forgotten what that was like.”

“They all love him,” agreed Nate. "You could feel it." 

“And because of us, he’s cursed, maybe dying. I’m surprised they’re able to look us in the eye, let alone come out here and talk to us.” Jena held her mug of hot tea tightly in both hands. 

“Silly humans. They know you are his friends. You are his best hope for being saved.” The shimagni's voice rumbled in their heads.

“Let’s hope so.” Nate wished he could be so certain. 

“Do you doubt me?” The shimagni’s voice sharpened, and her shimmering scales darkened with dark purple and midnight blue.

“No, I don’t doubt you,” said Nate, holding out his hands in supplication. “But you’re the one they came to see, not me.”

“But they left with a story told with heart and truth that will stay with them, whatever happens. You gave them something special, Nate, and I believe it will stand us in good stead with the Utugani.”

“I hope you’re right,” said Nate.


CHAPTER 26 - JENA 

The Utugan's expression was stern, the lines on his face harsh in the bright early morning light. He looked older than he had the day before. He looked tall and ominous, standing at the edge of their small campsite. There were two younger guards standing at attention not far off. 

Jena shifted uncomfortably on the log she was sitting on and managed to swallow the bite of leftover bread cake that she’d been eating, attempting to look like someone the Utugani could trust. 

She risked a quick glance at Nate. He looked equally unprepared for this early morning visit. “Good morning…. Uh... Utugan. I hope you are well?” said Nate, before wincing. “Sorry, that was a stupid thing to say.” Of course the Utugan wasn’t well, he’d collapsed the day before.  

“Come. We need to talk.” The Utugan looked sternly from Jena and Nate to Rothell, then turned and strode away towards the far end of the camp.

“That was awkward,” said Jena, taking another bite of her breakfast. 

“Maybe he’s decided to help us already?” said Nate. 

“Without us even asking for it?” Jena shook her head. “Something is going on.” She looked up at the shimagni, wondering how the enormous creature would fit into a tent. 

“I will wait here,” Rothell said softly. “Call me if you need me.” 

“Let’s go. We don’t want to keep him waiting,” said Nate. He absently touched the shirt pocket where he was keeping the fire ruby with Argus inside, kind of like he was reminding himself why they were on this quest. He turned and strode in the same direction as the Utugan. 

Running a little to catch up, Jena joined Nate as he walked toward their possible doom. She looked back over her shoulder at Rothell sitting serenely by their campsite. She wished the shimagni could come with them. At least then she’d feel safer. It felt like things could go either way with the Utugani, especially if they decided that Argus being inside the fire ruby was their fault. 

She knew how capricious the Utugani could be. 

In the distance, standing by a large pot over a fire, she saw Argus's grandmother watching them, a satisfied smile on her face. Jena smiled back briefly, but her nerves were tight at the thought of meeting with the Utugan. She rubbed her scarred hand, smoothing the bumpy skin between the fingers of her other hand. 

At the Utugan's tent, two guards glared down at them. 

“Are we allowed in?” asked Nate. “He did tell us to follow him.” 

One of the guards reluctantly pulled aside the hides and gestured for them to go inside. 

Jena ducked her head under the heavy material, entering a cave-like enclosed room. Lanterns lit the space from several corners. Thick leather hides covered the floors, and flowers poked out of metal urns. The Utugan put his arm wide and gestured for them to sit down on one of the chairs or large pillows in the room. A young girl with long dark hair offered them a steaming lemon drink and small chunks of bread and cheese on a wooden board. 

“This is my daughter, Ellie,” said the Utugan, gesturing to her. “She’s the light of my life.” The young girl blushed, and glanced at Jena and Nate. 

Jena saw something flicker across the girl's face and the skin on her face tightened. She hated it when she noticed people seeing her scars for the first time. It always made her self conscious. 

But Ellie was obviously too practiced at receiving guests to falter for long. “How do you do?” she said as she smiled sweetly, her initial expression wiped away. Jena made herself relax, smiling back and holding out her hand in greeting. The young girl shook both their hands, and then with a curtsy to her father, slipped out of the tent. 

They were left along with the Utugan, and his two guards. The Utugan sat down in one of the large chairs covered in furs. Jena and Nate moved closer and sat down across from him. 

“We need to talk about many things,” said the Utugan, his words clipped. “But first, you need to tell me what happened to my son and how we can save him.” 

His expression was haunted and Jena’s heart clenched in her chest. His pain was her fault. Eldrin had come back to his father with the news that Argus would be returning home, and now he’d been taken from him again. “I’m so sorry,” she blurted. “We allowed ourselves to be tricked by the Mage Remus. We should have known better.” Her guilt hung like a ridiculous cloak around her, uncomfortable and tight. If she’d been more savvy, if she’d just thought about it, she’d have realized it was too dangerous, that Remus wasn’t on their side. 

“My son was a grown man. I do not blame you for his…” he gestured toward the fire ruby that was now in Nate’s palm. “…current state. But I do wish to do everything I can to ensure his safe return.” 

Nate cleared his throat. “I’ve been told that he has approximately fourteen moons, give or take a night. That was two nights ago, so we’re down to twelve moons. We need to find a way to fix the curse and heal him, and we need it now.” 

“I don’t think my people know how to stop a curse from a lavaen,” says the Utugan. “I can talk with some of our elders, see if any of them are aware of such a thing.” 

“She was once a witch, if that changes things?” said Jena softly. “She was turned into a fire creature by her lover, the Mage Remus.” 

The Utugan raises his eyebrows, like the craziness of the witches and mages is beyond his ken. “As I said, it is not something I have personal experience with. I will find one of our people who can help.” He hesitates. “If we have no answers, what is your next plan?” 

“We need to go to the Flame City. For Argus, but also to complete our original quest.” 

“Eldrin tells me you plan to confront Lothar. I would like to ensure you succeed.” 

I raise my eyes to his face in surprise. “You want to help us take on Lothar?” I’m so used to thinking of it as a fools errand, I’m suspicious of anyone who decides to help.” 

“Lothar has become a problem for many in Ignisia.” 

Jena’s skin prickled and her burns seemed to harden. This was a reminder that confronting Lothar was about more than just revenge for Thornal’s death; it was about the whole kingdom.  

“What have you heard?” asked Nate, his eyes fixed intently on the Utugan. 

“He destroyed an entire village south of here. There were no survivors. Terrible beasts are roaming; a black winged horse, and wolvans have been seen. Even the Royal City is suffering at his hands. I had never thought to wish for King Harad back.”  

Jena looked up from her drink. “What are your plans?” she asked. Their mission had just become about more than their own lives. 

“The Utugani must rise up against Lothar, and hope they will be supported by those in the prophecy.” 

Jena swallowed. He was talking about the Rose prophecy. The very prophecy that Miara had said they were all involved in. 

Outcasts unite, the Flames burn bright, and the Way will continue. 

“How much do you know about the prophecies?” asked Jena. 

“We have our own prophecies to guide us. We believe Lothar will turn against the Utugani people next, and we must stop him.”  

“How do you intend to help?” Nate's voice was brisk, but his face was paler than usual. Jena knew he didn't like the talk of the prophecy. 

The Utugan nodded and smiled. “To begin, we can provide you with the travel rations and clothes you so obviously lack,” he said with a dark glance up and down each of them. His eyes were set deep in his face, and he looked tired. 

Jena looked down at her body. She was tired too, but she was also sore, dirty with ash and blood, and had multiple rips and holes in her clothes. “Thank you,” she said with a twist to her mouth. 

“We also intend to travel to the Flame City. Some, the youngest and the oldest, will move west of here into the hills. Those able to fight will join me on the road to Flame City. We must move quickly, before the coronation next week. There is a reckoning coming for Lothar and we intend to be part of it.” 

“A reckoning?” 

“As is stated in the prophecies.” 

Jena glanced at Nate. How much did he believe in the prophecies? Thornal made me learn them forwards and backwards, but I wasn’t sure how much I trusted that they’d be able to guide us. Or save us. 

“We can also help you get into the city, and we have contacts who will be useful.” 

“When will you be ready to leave?” asked Nate. “If you can’t help with Argus, Flame City is the next best place to find a mage who might be able to help Argus.”

“We can start breaking camp straight away. My men will be ready to leave by nightfall. It will only be as long as it takes us to ensure the safety of our more vulnerable folk. I will leave Eldrin in charge of the women and children while I lead our soldiers to the city on horseback.” He pauses, a chagrined expression on his face. “He won’t like it, but I am the Utugan. It is up to me.”  

Jena nodded. “In return, we’ll help you pack up here, before we leave.” She folded her hands in her lap. At least they could help others survive. 

I can carry supplies to this new camp. The shimagni spoke into their heads from her position outside. Jena jumped slightly—she hadn’t been expecting it. 

The Utugan blinked, but was quick to mask his confusion. "Thank you for your offer.” 

Jena rubbed her arms, looking around the darkened room. Ellie had returned to the room and was sitting in one corner, her large eyes taking in their discussion. 

How were they going to save the Kingdom? They didn't even have a plan. They'd been told that it was up to Nate to save Ignisia from Lothar. But they had no idea how. A Firecaller who hadn't been trained and a gypsy with the Book of Spells in her head who wanted to be a mage, but would probably end up dead before she could cast anything. 

Not exactly auspicious. 

Nothing like the heroes of prophesy. 


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