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This is the twelfth chapter in Forest of Flames and the fifth in part two, Forest.

Shadow Dance

Of all his friends, Boulder was the one who enjoyed staying with the Forest Tribe the most. As Geb had already learned on the first day, the Elmen here almost exclusively ate fruits - and there were a lot of those in the rainforest. So many that it would take Boulder and him weeks to try them all out.

But that wouldn't stop them.

"Which one is that now?" Iris asked at breakfast. "I've stopped counting."

"And I never started," Geb replied with his mouth full. But she was right: They had been Sirona's guests for almost a week and there were different fruits at every meal.

"Thirty-three," Tammuz said without looking up from his scribbled tables. "The lychee is fruit thirty-three for you, Geb."

Tammuz was Ani's father they had met the second day. His vocation was Hunter - or Gatherer, as the Forest Tribe called them, and he placed great value in showing them the benefits of the rainforest. This included the fruits he collected daily and recorded in his tables, which was why he was only at home during the meals - if at all.

"Sometimes I think he should have been a scribe," Sirona had said. Their task was to deal with science and figures and all these complicated things. But it couldn't be denied that Tammuz liked his work.

"Another letter and we're at fifty percent," he murmured further. "Of those that are easy to collect, at least. If we ignore that, I suspect us at ten percent. At the very most."

His orangutan, Fig, scratched his head.

"Apes and mathematics," Tammuz observed. That had been his favorite expression in all their encounters.

"Let's see what the others are up to," Iris suggested. As she had confessed to Geb before, she didn't understand much of mathematics either.

Geb gladly followed her request, so they left Tammuz and his companion alone and entered the grass area next to the hut. For once, Boulder wasn't dozing, but consumed his portion of breakfast.

Beside him lay an animal that reminded Geb of an elephant, only with smaller ears and a shorter trunk. It was the female tapir Magnolia, as Geb knew by now: Sirona's companion who had immediately decided not to leave Boulder's side.

Which of course wasn't too difficult.

Spread over the rest of the meadow, Geb was able to make out two groups. Sedna, Jarilo, and Birch were one of them; Iris wasn't the only one who had observed their relationship. Geb had also noticed how well they understood each other.

"I'm happy for Sedna," he said. "She needed someone to fit her."

"But he doesn't make her happier," Iris put in. "And me neither. They only strengthen each other in their hatred for Nergal and drown each other in pity."

"You think so?"

"You just haven't listened to them yet. Horrible, I tell you." She looked away from the two of them and went to the second group, Karzelek, Nergal, and Ani, with their companions.

Geb was also curious about what progress they were making. The first few days, Sirona had tried to heal Nergal - but apparently his mind was too restless and vicious. All her attempts to change that had failed, since she had always snapped at him and he hadn't taken it lightly at all.

Ani had asked permission to try it herself several times, but her mother had always declined... until she had finally lost her patience and let her.

So today was the first day Ani would try to heal Nergal.

"How's it going?", Geb asked Karzelek, who sat a few yards away with the companions and fed Four-Leaf some clover. Why should he disturb Ani if ​​he could ask his friend?

"Hello," Karzelek greeted him and Iris. "Pretty well, I think. He didn't shout at her yet."

"That's a start," Iris nodded. "It's better than all the days before. And other than that? Did she introduce you to her companion?"

Geb looked at the animal that nibbled at some fruit and looked at them curiously from tiny eyes. It was a kind of cat, or perhaps a weasel, with long thick fur and a bushy tail, in the same lush summer green as Ani's skin. "Did she tell you what it's called?" He saw the animal for the first time.

"A bintu... bintusomething. I think."

"Binturong," Nergal's voice reached them. "He is a binturong and is called Durian."

"True," Ani smiled, sitting next to him and now looking to the friends. "I'm glad he can finally get to know you. I thought he was avoiding you."

"Probably Jarilo," Nergal replied, glaring at the Forest Elm. "I would avoid him."

Iris followed his gaze. "Don't you already?"

He nodded. "You should too, Ani. Or at least tell him to leave you alone."

But Ani grimaced. "I know you don't like him, but he's not a bad Elm. He really isn't. He's much nicer to me than you think."

"Or so you say."

"Or so I say." Her gaze was worried. "Please, just ignore him, Nergal. You know what I told you."

Nergal groaned, but he sounded gentler than before. "I can't get upset if I want to be cured. Shadows are based on negative feelings, which I must reverse."

Geb and Iris exchanged a glance. They both knew Nergal long enough by now - he wasn't exactly the nicest Elm in the world. Would Ani really manage to change that? To drive the Shadows out of him?

"That's right. Please forget Jarilo. For me." Admittedly, with Ani's smile and her soft voice, it was hard to be angry. On the other hand... Nergal could think about it differently. Perhaps he considered all of this a ridiculous waste of time.

Nergal, however, really tried his best, Geb could see that in his eyes. As much as he hated Jarilo, he liked Ani, and he didn't want to disappoint her. "He doesn't deserve you," he said one last time, then relaxed his facial features. "Let's think about something else."

"Nice things," she agreed. "Did you have something specific in mind?"

Nergal didn't hesitate. "You."

Within seconds all eyes were on him. Especially Ani stared at him with wide eyes.

"I did not mean it like that," he explained quickly. "Not at all. But - nothing against Sirona - with you I have the feeling that I can do this. More than with Sirona."

"You don't get mad at him," Karzelek said. "Not like your mother. She kept yelling at him, just like my mother did with me."

"Because it doesn't help," Ani replied, as cheerful as before. "No one is happy when one shouts at them. Only sad." She turned to Nergal. "I've heard about what your tribe is doing to ours. But I don't know if you are like these Elmen - and even if, you need our help. My help. Nobody deserves to be half a Shadow, no matter what the others think."

That's probably the nicest thing someone has ever said to Nergal, Geb thought. In the older boy's eyes lay a warmth that was quite different from the impulsive heat with which he had always regarded them all. And, for once, Nergal really had nothing to say.

"I want to try something," Ani said. "Something I'm sure will help you."

"Well, go ahead." Nergal slid back and forth, as if he were completely cured in a few minutes.

"It's not that easy. I need... Geb?"

"What?" Was he supposed to help her?

"Jarilo shouldn't see this now. Is he looking?"

Geb's gaze wandered to the boy, but he was still in a conversation with Sedna. "No," he said. "He's busy."

"Okay." Ani leaned forward and pulled Nergal into a tight embrace. He made no sound, seemed to just be confused, for a brief moment.

That was as long as the embrace lasted, for a bloodcurdling belling made them flinch.

Geb swallowed. He had forgotten Birch.

The call of the deer also tore Jarilo and Sedna out of their conversation. The boy stared into their direction immediately, his eyes fixated on Nergal. And he stared back.

Jarilo approached them with big strides, his eyes full of anger. Nergal gently pushed Ani aside, then straightened up and looked confidently at the other. Ready to a fight, Geb realized in horror.

Ani went between the boys, both of which were more than one head taller than her. This kept Jarilo at a distance - for now.

"Leave him alone," she begged him, a hint of fear in her voice. "Please, Jarilo. He didn't do me any harm."

"He touched you," he snapped back. "I clearly told him he's not supposed to do that!"

"No!", she cried. "I was the one who -"

Nergal cut her off. "Then I touched her, so what? She hasn't burned herself, nor has she become a Shadow. Everything's fine!"

Ani looked panicky between the two and then to Geb and the others. But what was he to do? Step in and and hope not to get hurt?

He could try.

"Nothing happened," he said as calmly as he managed. "There is no reason at all to get mad at each other." "No reason? Ha!" Jarilo didn't look away from Nergal. "Isn't a Fire Elm in the heart of the forest reason enough? Half a Shadow at that? Such monsters don't belong here. They don't belong anywhere. Especially not near Ani."

"You don't belong near her," Nergal replied without having calmed down in the slightest. "You're a perverted idiot who doesn't leave her alone for a single moment! She deserves better than you."

"Someone like you?"

"I wouldn't own her like you. I wouldn't dare marry her without really loving her!"

Geb observed the conversation nervously. What should he do? He had to end it somehow, but how? His magic wasn't good enough. Nergal hadn't taught him yet.

Did Iris know a way? But she, too, was focused entirely on the argument.

Ani was still standing in their midst, knowing that everything would only get worse if she left them enough room to fight. "Stop it!", she cried again. "Both of you!"

"One moment," Jarilo said. "There's only one more thing I want him to know." He took a step forward; Ani actually went some feet aside. "There is no point in keeping you alive, you know that? She can't heal you. No one can. Leave this place or let us kill you; many people here would gladly do you the favor."

"They can try," Nergal growled, all his muscles tense. "And do you think I care? I wouldn't have kept our stupid agreement anyway. Your tribe doesn't matter to me. All your cursed bodies burned in our fires don't matter to me. I'd happily see you stew."

Karzelek tugged at Geb's pants to get his attention. He pointed to the ground in front of them - and Geb froze.

Their shadows were moving.

Not the way they did when the sun or the light source changed, no: Like waves, impulses, they seemed to pulsate. With every hate-filled word from Nergal they became faster and stronger. Now Geb most definitely didn't dare move anymore.

Jarilo's eyes widened as well as he realized with horror what was happening around them. "Get out of this place!", he shouted again, trying to avoid the pulsating shadows as much as possible. His eyes jumped around in panic as if he hoped the rest of his tribe would save him. But there was no one there. "Leave this tribe alone and go!"

Nergal was shaking. For a moment, he looked at Ani who, unlike Jarilo, didn't back away from the shadows, but remained frozen in place. But then he stared back at the boy. "Not with you near her."

He sprinted forward, the sharp claws of his shadow half stretched out. There was nothing but hatred in his eyes.

Jarilo responded immediately; with a simple, quick gesture, he let vines sprout from the ground, similar to those that had grabbed Boulder. But even before they could take Nergal, fireballs blazed on his palms. Iris was still in possession of his stone, Geb knew, but these were no ordinary flames. They exhaled darkness, not light, and thus resembled the shadow waves around them rather than real fire.

And still they burned the vines within mere moments.

Jarilo kept trying; more and more vines were emerging from the environment. Nergal's shadow fire, however, stopped them all, and with ever-bigger steps he approached the other boy, who kept backing away until his back touched a tree.

One more vine he still conjured, but Nergal didn't burn it. No, he grabbed it with both hands while the shadows around them stretched as long as at sunrise; Jarilo's own shadow shot up the tree's entire trunk.

Then, suddenly, the shadows collapsed at once. They moved directly to the boys, completely independent of the body to which they belonged. They crept up their bodies, and for a brief moment, they were completely shrouded in darkness. Pitch-black darkness where light was supposed to be.

Geb couldn't make out anything, no silhouettes or signs of what was happening. But after a few seconds, the shadows pulled back and took their rightful places, as if nothing had happened.

And revealed Nergal, bent over Jarilo, pulling the noose of vines tight around his neck.

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