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This is the first chapter in Forest of Flames and the first in part one, Fire.

Into the Unknown

"Land ahoy!"

Iris stared at the narrow dark strip on the horizon for another brief moment before she slid down the ropes of the Halcyon and landed elegantly on the deck.

"Good eyes," remarked Vully, the blue-skinned Sky Elm, who, like his gull companion Mackerel, stood at the bow of the ship, looking at the sun-drenched sea before them. "There's something up ahead, that's true. Must be Fuocith's Teeth."

"It's been a while," the second captain of the Halcyon and the Water Elm Sirsir replied."As much as I love the water... weeks of seeing nothing else gets boring after a while."

Iris, too, could hardly wait to set foot on land again. Like her friends, she had never been to Zesto. She had never met Fire Elmen before. But that would soon change: they were finally looking for Fuocith, the Keeper of Fire. Only with their help, they would be able to find the legendary Plain of Lumeon, thus saving Elysia from the Shadows.

"I'll go downstairs and get the boys."

Alarmed, Iris hurried to follow Sedna with a cry of,"Wait for me!" Even if they got along much better than at their first meeting, the Water Elmin still tended to exert herself as superior to their friends. Annoying, but Iris knew that the feeling was mutual.

They used the hatch that led beneath the deck, and Iris realized with surprise that for once Geb wasn't asleep. Normally she wasn't able to count on him until noon, but today he was with Karzelek, the Ore Elm that also accompanied them on their journey. Geb held one of the two glowing stones they had brought with them from the Ore Tribe illuminating Karzelek, who was working on some kind of device while his goat companion Four-Leaf watched curiously.

"I don't want to interrupt you," Iris began, grinning at their surprised faces - they hadn't seen them come,"but we're almost there."

"Really?" The work on Karzelek's invention was immediately forgotten. The only one of her friends who was not much bigger than her, Karzelek looked at her with wide, excited eyes. "Can you see Zesto already?"

"Let's find out!" Geb was the happiest to reach the mainland, Iris knew. He was an Earth Elm, after all.

Leaving the belly of the ship and Karzelek's invention in excitement and haste, the friends climbed up onto the deck, and immediately ran to the bow of the ship. The landmass in front of them was growing, a long, dark strip on the horizon. Despite this point of interest, Iris noticed something else.

"Is that smoke?" She asked, staring at the cloud rising vertically above a particular spot.

Vully turned serious. "Bring us in closer," he called to Sirsir, who was at the steering wheel right now.

The sea hardy Water Elm followed his order, drawing the Halcyon in closer until they were only a few yards away from the cliff that rose high above them. Right in front of them was a disruption in the sheer rock wall: a broad waterway that seemed to lead deeper into the continent. Looming narrow rocks protruded from this water, looming narrow rocks which they would have to navigate around in order to advance further.

And from somewhere back there, among the looming narrow rocks and far-off waters, came the smoke.

"That must be the harbor," Sedna pondered.

Vully just stared ahead. "That is the harbor," he confirmed. "But that can't be. The Fire Tribe has never dared to settle this close to the coast before."

"The harbor may be well protected, but the land-facing side is a different situation." Sedna looked at Vully for confirmation. "Right?"

"There was never a good reason."

"And if that weren't any Elmen?", Karzelek asked, clutching his goat companion close to himself like he always did when he was afraid. "And if that was...the Shadows?"

"Unlikely", Sedna said. "The Shadows are far too subtle for that; it's not like them to set an entire place on fire."

"It doesn't matter who it was," Geb stated. "What matters is that we get in there and help the people!"

"No way," Vully replied. "If the enemy's still there, we'll be dead before we even reach the harbor."

His words were met with a stagnant silence.

"I'll do it." Iris lifted her chin. "Shimmer and I'll fly in and check if the coast is clear. If it is, we'll come back and get you."

"And if not, you're done for." Sedna gave her the usual skeptical look. "That's a stupid idea."

"Oh, do you have a better one?"

"No, but you'd still be putting yourself in unnecessary danger." Again, Iris heard the silent implication. Didn't Sedna know she could take care of herself?

"I'm also not a fan of the idea," Vully said. "But we can't just stay here and do nothing either." He looked insistently at Iris. "Only land if you're sure. And don't forget, you're not immune to fire."

"I'll be fine," she assured him before swinging herself on Shimmer's back and looking confidently at her friends. "See you soon!"

Shimmer rose into the air and immediately veered toward the gap in the rocky cliff. Instead of flying over it as they normally would, she chose a path that the Halcyon would have taken - between the rocks.

Iris let Shimmer navigate herself and took the time to look at her surroundings. Even at their fast speed, she noticed the defenses built onto the rocks around her, as well as a few stone buildings nearby. Sedna was right, the harbor was well protected from this side. But no one tried to attack them - the harbor wasn't the only thing on fire.

Yet it was the harbor that attracted Iris's attention. It itself may be at sea level, but almost the entire settlement was built into the rock wall that almost completely enclosed the harbor. But no matter if harbor or city, everything was on fire.

Desperately, Iris looked around for other Elmen while Shimmer circulated slowly over the harbor. The sight of bird companions and their Elmen, now corpses, drifted in the water below, and the stench of smoke in combination with that of burnt flesh was almost too much to handle. It couldn't be that there weren't any survivors! With such a large colony, someone had to have managed to ...

Iris cried out as Shimmer suddenly descended. Had she been hit? But the magpie moved towards a large building, perhaps some sort of warehouse. Now Iris also noticed what her companion had seen: the building wasn't on fire.

As it didn't seem to have any windows, Shimmer landed at its entrance, a massive door - open just a few inches. Iris's curiosity took over: She had years of experience living on the streets, she knew how to move in silence. It would be easy to sneak into the building and find out who - or what - was hiding there.

"Come on," she whispered, egging on Shimmer. There was no point in keeping the magpie here to guard. Iris needed her wings - and her magic. If it got dangerous, they could fight as well as flee.

Together they snuck into the building that felt much bigger on the inside. Barrels, boxes, sacks, and arrays of other containers piled up to the high ceiling at frequent intervals as far as Iris could see. In contrast to the rest of the harbor, there really was nothing on fire at all. It wasn't very bright either - there were no windows through which light could stream. Iris, however, stood in the narrow strip of sunlight in the doorway; and the hall was also illuminated far ahead of her.

These two light sources were enough to show Iris the massive swath leading from the entrance to the end of the hall. A swath some kind of animal had burrowed, an animal much larger than the bird companions of her tribe. And the light at the end of the path cast shadows on the wall, shadows that Iris couldn't identify.

She had to get closer.

Iris chose an aisle at some distance to the swath. The obvious way might be the shortest, but they would be noticed immediately. Advancing past all the items stored in a harbor, Iris and Shimmer sneaked on, but she soon realized that it wasn't necessary. Whoever else was in this building talked so loud that they'd hardly hear Iris coming. Able to clearly understand the strangers, sge listened as she watched the moving shadows on the wall.

"And now?", she heard a female voice. "What do we do with all the stuff they've left us?"

"Burn it, what else?", a man replied. "It's a lot of stuff. It'll last long."

"Yeah, if we ever manage to get it to the Scorch Dragons. We were lucky we saw the fire."

"It may well be that the other clans are already on the way," a third voice said, again feminine. "We aren't the only ones at the Teeth. Especially the Glimmer Tortoises would happily slaughter all of us for that amount of fuel."

"They don't need fuel to do that," the man muttered. "We should leave as quickly as possible, with as much stuff as possible. Then we'll return and see what they left us."

Now Iris was so close to them that she could see the Elmen: two women and one man, with sanguine bodies and dark, imposing horns. Just as Iris's body was covered by downy feathers, these Elmen were cloaked with tiny scales. Their clothes consisted mainly of leather... leather from reptile skin, as Iris could see from the patterns, so she was hardly surprised when she noticed their companions. There weren't too many reptiles in the Sky Mountains, but Iris's knowledge was sufficient enough to recognize the coiled form of a snake and that of two more rigid lizards. She had no doubt that for them, Shimmer would make for an excellent meal.

One of the women, a scale-covered cloak draped over her shoulders, grasped a torch in her hand. The only source of light in the group, it nevertheless sufficiently filled the vicinity. "Leave? We don't have much of a choice anyway." Gesturing broadly at the animals, she commanded,"Tie everything to them that's still good to use. We can't leave the best stuff here."

The man nodded and went to follow her instructions. Iris watched him and the other woman with vehement fascination as they loaded their companions; they seemed to have a sense of where to place each item to keep everything in position.

The man bent down to pick up another sack - and paused. His eyes narrowed to slits and... Iris dropped to the ground just in time to escape the fireball that slammed into the objects behind her. A bang, followed by crackling, announced the now ignited fire.

"Are you insane?", the woman with the cloak cried out. "You're destroying our loot!"

"I'm getting us a new one," the man growled, walking towards Iris with fast steps.

What should she do? Behind her was fire, and in front of her...

She sent a strong breeze in the man's direction, surprising him and throwing him to the ground. She jumped on Shimmer's back, ready to flee, and the magpie alighted into the air. But the flames behind her blocked the way; the stacks of boxes and other things were too high to fly over. There was only one way, and that led directly past the Fire Elmen. Her only hope was that they wouldn't attack her with fire again, and she was lucky in that regard.

However, just as the Air Elmen and companion passed the group, ready to turn to flee in another corridor, they were suddenly taken from the sky as a rope suddenly looped around Schimmer's neck and pulled her down abruptly. Shimmer crashed onto the floor, and Iris was dragged off of her before she could focus again. Too dazed from the fall to defend herself, she was forced to let herself be tied up.

Through blurred vision, she saw the horned beings; heard what they were shouting at each other. She didn't understand much, only "fire" really got through. "Fire", "outside", and "Scorch Dragons". The last words echoed in her head as she tried to give them meaning. The woman had spoken of clans, she recalled weakly, as her senses faded more and more.

What had they gotten themselves into?

Forest of Flames Chapters
 Prologue  Prologue
 One: Fire  1: Into the Unknown2: The Gift3: Travel by Snake4: Scorch Lines5: Wars to Be Won6: Impure Business7: Dark Fire
 Two: Forest  8: Smoke and Feathers9: Midnight10: Heart of the Forest11: The Ones We Love12: Shadow Dance13: Makeshift Solution14: A New Beginning15: Eye of the Storm16: Traitors17: The Return18: Wildfire Hill
 Three: Water  19: Answers20: Ancamna Falls21: Against the Flow22: Starry Night
 Epilogue  Epilogue