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This is the tenth chapter in Forest of Flames and the third in part two, Forest.

Heart of the Forest

"Boulder!" Geb cried out, no less panicky than his companion. He rushed after him, but he realized early on that he wasn't fast enough.

"Out of the way!" Spitfire passed him, only Nergal on her back. The Fire Elm had another flame ready in his palm.

"Don't!" Geb warned, he knew fire would only make things worse. But Nergal couldn't be stopped, he had already hurled a fireball at the vines.

For a moment they were on fire, but just as quickly as they had taken Boulder, the vines extinguished the fire.

And then they were out of sight.

"No!" Geb yelled again and again. "Boulder! We have to help him!"

"He's gone, Geb," Nergal said from above. "There's nothing we can do."

"Ridiculous," Sedna commented, catching up with the others. "I won't allow anyone but me to travel without a companion."

"Then try and catch them!"

Geb slowly began to understand how Karzelek felt so often. The quarrel only caused greater headaches. "We should have tried to find another way," he repeated his words from earlier. "A way that doesn't hurt plants."

"Hard to do, with a forest like this", Nergal muttered.

Iris also eyed the plants nervously. "If they can move, they should have let us through to begin with."

There was new hope in Geb. "That's it! Iris, you're amazing!"

She tilted her head. "That wasn't really a serious suggestion."

"But that's the point! They just attacked us because we hurt them, nothing else. They don't know that we're coming in peace."

"Then tell them," Nergal scoffed. "That's definitely going to work."

Geb didn't let him change his mind. This was the other way.

He turned to the nearest tree.

"Hello? Do you understand me?" Talking to plants seemed idiotic to him. On the other hand, they obviously had a conscience here... which made the whole thing not only strange, but creepy. The plants showed no reaction, but he continued nevertheless. "We're sorry that we hurt you. We just need to get to the tribe that lives here very urgently, and have found no other way to cross the forest. I... we understand that we should have asked you for permission. Please accept our apologies and set my companion free. And... lead us to the Forest Tribe, that would be great."

Nergal rolled his eyes and waited for an answer. A sign. Anything.

A strange noise filled the air, followed by a deep, powerful voice. "We hear you," it seemed to come from everywhere.

Geb held his breath. Was he hallucinating? No, even in Nergal's faced he could see that he heard the voice clearly. "Who are you?" Geb asked cautiously. "Do you have a name?"

A pause. "We are the trees, the vines, the grass. We are the essence of the forest itself. You have entered this place unasked. We will not let that go unpunished. We -" The voice was shaken by a sudden cough attack, then it continued: "We will kill you. We, the vines and trees."

But Geb was no longer afraid. Trees didn't cough. No matter how magical this forest was. "Show yourself."

"Look, we are all around you, we -"

"Nice try." Nergal went directly to one of the nearby bushes, grabbed behind it, and pulled out a young girl.

She had dark green skin, on which her white markings were particularly prominent. She wore a sleeveless garment that seemed to be made of leaves and bark, and her markings protruded just below, that's how young she was. On her head, where the element of the person was most easy to tell, were the first tiny beginnings of horns, as brown and patterned as the bark of a branch.

"Not bad," Iris said, who had followed Nergal curiously. "Over here is a hollow tree trunk, she must have used that one."

"So what?" The girl crossed her arms. "You almost believed me, admit it!"

True, Geb had to agree. If she hadn't coughed...

"What's your name?" Karzelek asked.

The girl grinned at him. "I'm Lelya. And you shouldn't be here."

"We don't want to do anything to your tribe," Geb assured her immediately. "Or the forest. We're here because Nergal needs your help."

Lelya looked at the Fire Elm in disgust. "That's exactly why you shouldn't be here. Because he can't be here. Can't help you there."

Nergal looked back with the same hostility. "Can your tribe cure me or not?"

"Maybe. It's just no good to you."

A grin appeared on Iris's face. "He also took away our stones when we were at his tribe."

"No," Nergal said immediately. "Forget it."

"Perhaps we could make an exception," Lelya pondered, standing opposite Nergal, her hand stretched out. "Give me your stone."

"No way."

"Then give it to me," Iris suggested. "I can keep it in my bag until it's all over."

"Otherwise you may never be cured," Geb agreed. "It won't be for long."

Nergal muttered something unintelligible, then gave Iris his elementary stone. "Don't do anything stupid."

"Me? Never," she said, letting the stone slip into her bag. They didn'Ät mention that Nergal could also use shadow fire, of course. They'd never be able to reach the tribe like that. They had to hope for the best.

Geb was glad to have solved this part of the problem, but the much more important one was still there. "Can you bring back my companion?", he asked Lelya. "He has never deliberately stepped on plants, I promise."

"You're funny," she replied. "But I believe you. How about I take you to our village, and my companion Orchid makes sure your rhino gets there safely?"

Iris was the first to ask exactly what Geb was thinking: "Your companion is a flower?"

It wasn't all that unlikely. The plants here were alive - what if the Forest Tribe really didn't have any animals for companions?

But Lelya laughed. "No, stupid." Without any warning, she let out a piercing cry, the response of which she received moments later. The sound grew louder and louder, more of a bellowing noise than a real scream.

Then its source appeared.

Geb knew monkeys from his own tribe, some Elmen had baboons or macaques as companions. But this animal wasn't brown, but as dark green as Lelya, and had a tail much more bushy than that of a baboon. Its face was still distorted from the bellowing, even as it jumped off its branch. Only on the ground did it finally calm down.

Lelya scratched the fur of the monkey, but Geb shared what he could read in Iris's expression: the thought that orchids were much prettier than this animal. Of course nobody said it out loud.

"Take his rhino to the village," Lelya explained to the monkey, who nodded briefly, heading off into the right direction. The girl smiled after it, then turned back to her friends. "Do you have howler monkeys outside the forest?"

"No," Karzelek said, taking his hands off his ears. "Not at my tribe."

"They're loud if you want to sleep, but otherwise pretty enjoyable."

"Great," Geb muttered. He had actually thought to be able to sleep in at least once at this Tribe. But he knew he shouldn't be complaining. Even if he hadn't really slept well in months ... "You get used to it," Lelya laughed and nudged him into the side. He was almost twice as tall as she was, so it didn't quite make as much of an impact as she might have planned. "Do you want to carry me?"

"What?"

"You're tall. You can do it."

He looked questioningly to his friends, who were just shrugging their shoulders. She was right, he would do it with ease. "Alright. Come here."

She virtually jumped on his back but easily found a comfortable position. She pointed in a direction that Geb could hardly distinguish from the others. "This way."

With him in the lead, Lelya led them through the forest. This time the plants made room for them even without Lelya's help. She avoided, however, to answer most of their questions, because she didn't want to say the wrong things around Nergal and tell him things that her tribe preferred to keep secret. So their conversation was only about the animals and plants of the rainforest, which Geb once again found much more interesting than his friends, as far as he could tell.

At some point, Nergal was tired of following them blindly through the jungle. "Are we there soon or do you just want us to get lost?"

"Don't give her ideas," Sedna replied. "You should be glad that she hasn't already done so."

"It's not far," Lelya said, tapping Geb's shoulder. "Let me down."

"Sure," he nodded, crouching down so she could descend. Then he looked around curiously. If they were there soon, he had to almost be able to see the village...

On foot - Lelya was barefoot, as he only really noticed now - the girl led them further through the forest, and then came to a halt before a particularly thick and high wall of bushes, branches, and other scrubs, that only really looked like a wall from up close. From a distance it was perfectly integrated into the rest of the forest.

Lelya stood next to the last few feet of trunk that were still left of a tree. It had several holes in the bark and was obviously hollow inside, just like the trunk before. Then she beat it - sometimes with a fist, sometimes with a flat hand, which also produced different tones. Was that a special secret language that only this tribe understood?

He waited anxiously for the answer. It showed itself, as the plants in front of them divided and gave away an opening, just large enough for them all. Nergal looked suspiciously at the end of the passage, but Lelya went on without fear. "If you want to stay here, go ahead. Doesn't bother me."

He didn't let her leave it at that and followed them with disgust.

The tunnel was only a few dozen feet long, but what Geb saw after it took his breath away. Behind the plant wall was not just another part of the forest, and 'village' was an understatement: before them extended a settlement that fit perfectly into its environment. The houses here on the forest floor were built directly into the roots of the four gigantic trees that Geb could recognize at first sight. He couldn't tell how far the place still went in the distance.

Iris's gaze wandered upwards. Geb blinked, the settlement didn't end there at all. No, there in the tree tops, in the branches and leaves, even seemed to be the core of the entire place. It was an enormous vault, almost a labyrinth, that made Geb dizzy just by looking at it from below.

"Lelya!", a voice called out, and a boy came running towards them. He was about Nergal's age, his skin almost the same green as Lelya's. But instead of tiny horns, this boy showed what Geb had misjudged from the beginning. This tribe had no horns at all... but antlers. That of the boy was not yet fully grown either, Geb assumed by its size, but with the bark-like texture it looked like the branches of a tree. "I told you not to -" He fell silent as soon as he noticed the presence of everyone else. "Who is this?"

Nergal looked at him darkly. "That's definitely none of your business."

The Forest Elm only had eyes for him now. "A Fire Elm," he stated in disbelief. "A Shadow! A... I don't know what you are, but you should be dead."

"Certainly not," Nergal replied, and Spitfire growled a bit as well.

"Guys..." Geb began cautiously.

Lelya nodded gratefully. "Guys, that's my brother. Jarilo, these are a few Elmen I found in the forest."

"And animals that shouldn't be here," Jarilo added. "And this monster."

"Monster?" Nergal repeated furiously. Geb begged Terrai that Nergal wouldn't use his shadow fire. Then everything would be too late.

"That's why we are here," he said quickly. "We were hoping your healers could help him."

"I don't know if they can," Jarilo replied. It did't sound like he was lying. "But if you have made it to this point... fine, I'll take you to them. Lelya, go to your mother and tell her where you were for the last three hours. Immediately."

"I have to wait for Orchid," she protested.

"She'll find you herself," her brother replied. "And now go. I have important things to do."

"We'll be fine," Iris winked.

Then Lelya nodded. "Alright. But I will come to see you later!"

"Certainly not," Jarilo muttered as soon as she was out of earshot. He continued a little louder: "You're lucky that we also have healers on the forest floor. I would never have taken you up into the treetops."

I wouldn't have wanted to go there anyway. Geb had to think back to his flight with the Sky Elm Notos. He had grown accustomed to it after a few days, but it hadn't cured his fear of heights. And these treetops already made him feel sick from down here...

He followed Jarilo through the part of the settlement that was on the ground. The tribe kept their distance from him, as he soon noticed - especially from Nergal. The Forest Elmen were afraid of him... Geb couldn't help but feel sorry. But he didn't know how to help someone like Nergal without being hissed at.

Jarilo stopped in front of one of the lodges built into the roots, a little apart from the others. It differed from the other huts in that it was decorated with a multitude of colorful flowers. That didn't make it look as enchanted as the rest of the buildings, but felt all the more welcoming to Geb. Besides, it was not completely surrounded by roots, on one side was an open area on which he spotted a well-known figure.

"Boulder!" He called in relief, forgetting everything around him. He ran toward the rhinoceros, overjoyed to see his companion again. He looked good, without serious injuries, even almost unharmed. The things that could have happened to him! Geb just wanted to take him in his arms.

Something pushed him into the dirt even before he reached Boulder. Confused, he looked up, and straight into the dark green face of a stag that bore a stunning resemblance to Jarilo.

"Birch doesn't seem to like you," the Forest Elm commented and stroked the stag's fur. "I wonder why."

"There are still birches so far south?" Iris asked.

Jarilo stared at her darkly. "No."

In the meantime, Geb had rattled himself up again and managed to reach Boulder without the stag holding him back. He ran his fingers over his companion's rough skin, glad to find no more than a few scrapes where the vines and the uneven ground had particularly hit him. "Glad to see you're fine, buddy." That was an understatement, of course. "I thought I'd never see you again."

"Such a rhinoceros is much too tough for most rainforest creatures," a new voice commented. It belonged to a woman who stepped out of the hut and walked to them, a bowl full of a strange paste in her hands. "So you're the group he belongs to."

Geb nodded. "His name is Boulder."

"You don't name your companions after plants?", the woman asked as she squatted beside Boulder and began to put the paste onto his sore spots. "Interesting."

"Why are you helping him anyway, Sirona?"

"For the same reason you brought his friends to me, Jarilo." The woman, Sirona, spoke politely to him, almost as if she had respect. Geb had a sudden thought: Jarilo and Nergal were so similar... what if the Forest Elm was also the son of his tribe's chief?

Sedna seemed to have had a similar thought. "We should visit Damara. She'll want to know we're here, don't you think?"

Jarilo agreed. "Definitely. I'll find someone to take you to her."

Sirona didn't look up from her task. "Don't you think it would be better if you go yourself? Damara thinks highly of you, you know."

Jarilo's eyes wandered to the hut. "I haven't seen Ani today."

"Birch can do it for you as long as you're busy."

The stag lowered his head in agreement.

"Alright." Jarilo looked at Nergal. "Come on. Damara will be very... interested in you."

"You're not scaring me," Nergal replied immediately. "It is her right as a chief to want to see me."

"If she wants to see you, she should come to me personally," Sirona declined. "We'll never let you into the treetops, Fire Elm."

Iris interfered. "Without his stone, he can't make fire. And I have it."

"Maybe. But Shadow remains Shadow."

"If I can avoid him down here, it's alright with me," said Nergal. "Your plants are suspicious anyway."

"I'll stay here as well," Karzelek said, while Four-Leaf nibbled at some foliage. At least this didn't seem to bother any of the plants. "If that's okay."

Geb nodded, glad to have found an excuse for himself that had nothing to do with his fear of heights. "If you stay, I'll stay as well." He asked Iris and Sedna, "Are you talking to Damara?"

Iris shrugged. "Sure. The thing with the chiefs always ends up for the two of us, doesn't it?"

"I have that feeling too." Sedna squinted upwards. "When do we go?"

"As soon as possible," Jarilo said. It was easy to tell how unhappy he was with this constellation. "The faster I get to be with Ani, the better."

"Who is Ani?" Karzelek asked as soon as the group was out of earshot. Geb shared his question - they knew she was in Sirona's hut, but nothing more. "Is she hurt?"

"Ani is my daughter," Sirona said proudly. "She is fine, don't worry."

Just at that moment a scream came from the hut.

"Nergal!", Geb cried at once - the Fire Elm was nowhere to be seen, and the door of the hut was open. What was he doing? Geb stormed in, closely followed by Sirona and Karzelek. Beside a couple of overturned pieces of furniture, one thing stood out: Birch and Nergal stood in the middle of the room, eyeing each other furiously. Behind Birch a girl Geb's age watched the action with wide eyes.

"What's happening?", was everything that came to mind at this moment. "What are you doing inside?"

"Finding out what this creepy beast is doing here," Nergal replied without turning away from Birch.

"I could say the same of you," Sirona snapped back. "Don't you dare touch my daughter, you -"

"Mother!"

Sirona fell silent at once and, like everyone else, looked at the girl whose skin was as bright green as her mother's.

"He didn't do me any harm," Ani continued. "Really."

"He would have, if Birch hadn't been here in time."

"You don't know that!"

"He's a Fire Elm. And a Shadow. The worst possible thing that could happen to us."

"Maybe we should just talk with each other," Geb suggested, quickly getting enough of the fight. "All together, in one place. Like... here and now, until the others are back." He sat down at a table demonstratively. Karzelek did the same without hesitation, and Ani came to them, smiling, albeit shyly.

Nergal rolled his eyes. Only Sirona and he were still standing - and Birch, who mustered them all critically. But Nergal's gaze met Ani's and he sat down, so Sirona gave in reluctantly.

"There we are," she said, unsure of what to do with the situation, and watched Nergal attentively. "And now?"

So far so good. "Now we can sort out some of our issues."

"Good," Nergal nodded. "I'll start." He looked over at Ani. "I just want to know why Jarilo and his stag don't let you out of sight."

"That's easy," she said. Geb was impressed that she didn't seem to be afraid of Nergal, quite unlike her mother, who was more than suspicious of him. "We'll get married soon."

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