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This is the fourteenth chapter in Forest of Flames and the seventh in part two, Forest.

A New Beginning

It hadn't rained in a long time. Sunstone was certainly not the most rainy city in Elysia, and yet it had been there that Geb had last been in this weather. Even aboard the Halcyon, south of the Stormy Sea, he had remained dry. And yet it was raining now.

Fits my mood, he thought bitterly and stared at the piece of paper between his fingers again. Even if he couldn't read, Karzelek's words echoed clearly in his head.

Damara will declare war on Gerra. Caw and I are warning him. Do what you can.

Iris was gone. Just like that. Without talking to him before! He ran his fingers across the table in front of him to calm himself, leaving behind wide imprints of cleanliness in the middle of the layer of dust.

"She didn't want to waste any time," Karzelek said, watching him. "That has nothing to do with us, I'm sure."

"Of course not," Geb agreed without hesitation and wiped the dust off his pants. Still, he was worried - Iris had run away and Sedna was still missing without a trace. What if something happened to them? If they didn't return? Then it was only himself and Karzelek to search the Hero of Light. Only the two of them...

There was a knock at the door. Geb felt hope again: Was that Sedna? But when he opened the door, someone else was standing in front of him. Lelya.

"Hello," she said simply and only confused Geb more. He didn't know what to say at all - her brother had died. Had been killed by someone Geb had brought into this forest. Elmen like Karzelek wouldn't dare to come here under such circumstances. And yet Lelya was standing here.

"... hello," he replied carefully, forgetting to ask her inside. What could he say? Should he apologize? "...why are you here?"

"Why I'm here?" There was mourning in her voice, but for her age, she recovered surprisingly fast. "Yes, it's about Jarilo. And no, I don't hate you."

"Really?" Karzelek asked, having come to them. "I mean..."

"I hate the fire Shadow," Lelya said. "Not you. You're alright."

Geb gathered himself. "Do you want to come in? It's raining."

At least that made her smile. "Really? I didn't notice. But I'm just picking you up."

"For a trial?", Geb asked. Chiefs were fond of those, he knew by now. And that Lelya didn't hate them didn't have to mean anything...

"For the funeral."

"...oh." He hadn't expected that. "I don't know. I mean, are we even allowed to be there?"

"Everyone can come," she assured them. "So?"

"Okay." If Lelya wanted them there, he wouldn't disappoint her. "Karzelek?"

"I'm not staying here alone," he replied, looking back uncertainly. Geb put a hand on his shoulder to calm him.

Lelya nodded. "Come on, then."

Karzelek ran back into the hut to get Four-Leaf, and Geb also decided to take Boulder with him. He couldn't leave his companion completely alone.

Lelya led them across the forest floor into a remote part of the settlement until Geb was not even sure whether they were still within the city. They had long passed the huts when the trees around them seemed to become smaller, as if they had only been here for decades and not already felt like forever. Then he noticed that they were going to a larger group of Elmen, about thirty people, along with their companions.

Lelya kept her distance from them. "I... I'm going to my mother," she said. Geb remembered Iris's descriptions; her mother was apparently quite ill. In addition, he saw in her tremble and heard in the break in her voice, it became harder for Lelya to keep her feelings under control. "Just go there and watch," she said, then ran away.

He looked to the group, then to Karzelek. They didn't belong here, they both knew. But what choice did they have? "Let's go."

The boys and their companions joined the other Elmen, and Geb tried to push through the crowd with polite excuses so that even the small Karzelek could see something. But hardly anyone let them through, they were insulted or pushed away.

"That won't work," Geb muttered in frustration as they stood at the edge again. "I'm sorry for Lelya that we'll be missing this."

"I... didn't really want to see it anyway," Karzelek admitted. Geb noticed that the boy suddenly stared past him and followed his gaze. Relief flowed through him as he recognized the person who was hiding behind a tree and watching the clearing from where she had a much better view than many of the Forest Elmen.

"Sedna!", he shouted, hoping that she wouldn't run away from them. Sedna, however, remained where she was, and stared back in surprise. Geb ran to her, closely followed by the others. "We haven't seen you since yesterday."

She just nodded. "Can we discuss that later? I'm not here for that."

"Because of Jarilo, I know." Sedna flinched, so Geb quickly changed the subject. "Iris seems to have... figured things out. That Damara wants to take revenge on the Fire Tribe."

It was only now that Sedna seemed to notice that someone was missing. "...where is Iris?"

"Yes, about that..."

"She didn't go off alone to stop this, right?" When Geb didn't answer, she groaned. "How typical for Iris. Do you have a plan?"

"As soon as this is over," Karzelek supposed. "I think it's starting."

Indeed, the group of Elmen began to move, separating in the middle. Sedna turned away from her friends again, and even Karzelek peered through the trees. Geb quickly helped him on Boulder's back to get a better view before he watched the action himself.

The group of Elmen had formed a passage through which a few people were now walking, to the place where the young trees were scarcely more than a meter high. And where a hole had been dug, as Geb noticed with an ache. The people weren't alien to him either: Damara herself was at the front, flanked by her panther companion. Then Jarilo followed, covered with a sort of leaf coat and carried by two boys at about his age. His friends, Geb suspected. The last one was Birch, the head raised majestically despite all circumstances.

Damara stepped straight to the hole, then stopped behind it, so the audience - with Geb and the others - could watch as the two boys put Jarilo into the earth.

Now they'll put the soil back on him, Geb presumed. That's what his tribe would do.

But before this happened, Damara turned to her Elmen: "We have gathered here to attend one of our oldest ceremonies. Jarilo, son of Robor and Vesna, once came to us with his mother and sister, because their forest had fallen against the Fire Tribe. We all hoped for a glorious future for him, as he was to marry Aranyani and thus preserve their strong magic. But no, he was coldly murdered only yesterday, by a Fire Elm."

A shocked whisper went through the crowds, but Damara silenced them with a hand gesture.

"Still, as you know, he will preserve the magic of our forest in a different way, for all generations to come." She held up a hand in which she was holding something, but Geb was too far away to see it in detail. He only saw the boys bend down and remove the leaves that covered Jarilo. Damara knelt down and when she rose again, the object had disappeared from her hands. Only then was Jarilo covered with earth.

"We thank nature for this rain," Damara said. "This tree will flourish fast and well."

A tree!, Geb thought, amazed. Of course, that was a seed. But that means that all the trees here...

As soon as the hole was gone, Birch lay down on the new earth, but so that there was still enough rain to reach it. He remained there, motionless.

This seemed to be a sign that the ceremony was over. One of the Forest Elmen raised his voice: "What will you do against the Fire Tribe?"

Geb listened closely: Would Damara reveal her war plans now?

"I have discussed the matter with the council," the chief declared. "We have unanimously decided that there will be no offensive. Our warriors will not attack the Fire Tribe."

Thank Terrai, Geb thought before he suddenly realized something: If Damara was so obviously against an attack, why did Iris believe the opposite?

"Do you think that Nergal...", Karzelek spoke up and made Geb freeze.

Nergal. As little as he himself hated the Fire Elm, he was the only logical answer to Iris's behavior.

"She must have contacted him somehow," Sedna said. "We have to talk to him."

"We?" Geb asked. He hadn't expect Sedna to join them. "What about..."

"Iris is the priority," she cut him off. "The living are more important than the dead." Geb heard bitterness in her voice, but didn't dare mention it.

Instead, he smiled - about Sedna putting her friends above anything else. How she had grown since then... "Thank you."

Sedna turned away. "No problem. And now come on - I know where we'll find Nergal."

---

"You can't go in there." Two stocky Forest Elmen were guarding the entrance to Nergal's prison. A companion was with them, an armadillo.

"Exactly," the smaller and younger-looking of both agreed, crossing his arms. "Access only with permission of the chief. Especially to your fire friend." Geb noticed how he suppressed a yawn that the other imitated involuntarily.

"You look tired," Geb pointed out.

The larger Forest Elm shrugged. "I won't even deny that. We had night shift yesterday, but someone has to jump in if other people have important appointments."

The other one nodded. And almost dozed off. "Which doesn't mean that we can't stop you if you try something stupid."

Sedna's face lit up as if she had an idea. "That won't be necessary," she said, pulling out a piece of bark about as tall as the palm of her hand, on which Geb could see symbols. Letters? She held it up to the guards. "See? Permission of the chief."

The older man narrowed his eyes and stared sleepily at the bark. "Hmmmm," he said. "Yes, looks like it. Well then... it's the cell in the back. Not hard to find."

Sedna nodded and put the bark away again. "Thank you." She pushed past the guards and Geb followed her in astonishment.

"Where did you get that?"

Sedna strode through the dark passage, while Karzelek activated his glowing stone so they could see better. "Jarilo," she said tightly. "It had nothing to do with Damara."

Geb didn't dare ask further, and instead tried to take in his surroundings. The cells seemed to consist of thick, impenetrable branches, but Geb couldn't make out much more than that. Only the little signs that had been put in some places. There were probably the entrances - if they opened.

At some point Sedna stopped, waited briefly, then tapped one of the innumerable branches. "Nergal?"

Geb heard only a muffled noise in response. But when Sedna pulled her knife, he grabbed her arm. "I don't think the trees would like that."

Frustrated, she put the knife away. "Then talk to them again, like last time."

No reason to be this irritated. But it was worth a try. He put a hand on the branch next to him and thought of the nicest no-we-don't-mean-you-any-arm-thoughts that occurred to him. But nothing happened.

"Let me try."

Geb turned around. There was none other than Ani, who looked at them nervously but resolutely.

Sedna also frowned at the girl. "What are you doing here?"

"Visit Nergal," Ani said as if that was self-evident. "You know the tribe is very respectful of me because of my strong magic. The guards are no different."

"You should be at the funeral," Karzelek said. "Right?"

She sighed. "I was there. But only briefly... trust me, that place was full of Elmen who were closer to him than me. Then I saw you and followed you."

"Fair enough," Sedna replied. "Can you make the branches...", she hesitated in the formulation, "... open the cell?"

Ani nodded and put a hand on the bark in front of her after Geb had made her some room. Within a few moments the branch retreated and gave a clear view of a dark cavity. "Nergal?", Ani asked. "It's me."

"I know." Nergal's voice surprised Geb. Almost the entire aggression seemed to have disappeared from it, and only a hint of it was heard, especially when he said, "Why did you bring the others with you?"

"Oh, we're here by ourselves," Sedna replied. "We need to talk, Nergal."

"If it's because of Jarilo, you can leave right away." He became quieter. "I don't need everyone to remind me."

Geb looked at Sedna and knew that if he didn't help her, she would probably lead the conversation in that very direction. "It's about Iris," he explained, noticing the frustration in his own tone. "You made her believe that Damara will declare war on Gerra! And now she basically went to him all by herself and -"

"That's what I'm supposed to have said?", Nergal cut him off. "Why should I do that? How should I have done that? I was imprisoned here the entire time."

"She must have been here," Geb countered confused. "She left us a message." Could it be that Iris had deliberately lied to them? But why?

"Right, someone was here last night," Nergal admitted. "I've heard footsteps. But we didn't talk - I mean, how? Only Forest Elmen can open the cells."

"Iris doesn't have a reason to lie to us," Geb said. "I know her. Why would she want to start a war?"

Beside him, Karzelek stared at the news Iris had written. "...what about Caw?"

"What about Caw?" But then it dawned on Geb. "Do you think that he..."

"I wouldn't put it past him," Nergal said indifferently. "But who's asking me?"

"I, for example." Now Ani entered the cell completely, and Geb saw that Nergal's arms and legs were tightly held by even more vines. Had he already tried to escape with his strength? Or had he found no point in it? Ani continued, "I don't believe you killed Jarilo on purpose. You're a Fire Elm and a Shadow, yes, but that doesn't automatically make you a monster. It's hard... but I at least will continue to believe that there is good in you. A whole lot of it."

I don't know if I'd be ready to think about him like that. Ani had to be really convinced. Or she was just dangerously naive...

"So, what's the plan?", Sedna asked even before Nergal could reply to Ani's words. "Follow Iris and try to stop her in time?"

"You'd never be fast enough," Nergal replied. "Spitfire and I, maybe, but that won't happen anytime soon."

Geb thought. "Then we assume that she'll make Gerra travel with his warriors in our direction. And then?"

"We're going to meet them halfway." Again, Ani sounded incredibly resolute. "We and Damara. And then the two of them talk this out. Peacefully."

"Sounds good," Karzelek said.

"And could work." Nergal scoffed. "You're in luck that my father isn't a warrior. He certainly doesn't want to burn your forest."

"What if Gerra thinks the Forest Tribe is holding you prisoner?", Sedna considered. "That's not that improbable - and in that case, speaking won't do any good, believe me."

Geb frowned. "Then Nergal has to come with us."

"And how do you want to convince Damara?" Nergal's shackles moved, but they were too tight for him to be able to make real gestures. "I don't think she'll let me go."

"I'll talk to her." Ani looked at Geb - did she consider him the leader of their group? "I think I can convince Damara to leave the forest with Nergal. She could arrange a sort of negotiation with Gerra. An agreement. As originally planned."

"Thank you," was all he could think of. "That you're ready to help Nergal."

Ani looked down, for the first time she looked unsure. "I'm trying to forget what I have seen. Even if it isn't easy."

Nergal didn't apologize and didn't say another word, only looked darkly at the other Elmen.

Sedna turned to leave and the others followed her, only Geb said a quick good bye. Please, Nergal. Make it easier for us to like you.

"I'm staying," he heard Ani say.

The way she's able to.

---

Even before they reached the impure hut again, Geb accelerated his pace. From a distance, he saw Boulder, who wasn't just dozing and instead stood tense in front of the hut and stared at it.

"What's the matter?", Geb asked immediately as he reached his companion, and Boulder again pointed to the building. Four-Leaf, too, shifted nervously in Karzelek's grasp. "Someone is here," concluded Sedna, who had already begun to circle the hut. "Something's wrong, and what else could it be?"

"Perhaps the person who always cleans the hut," Karzelek suggested, even though he certainly didn't believe it.

Sedna drew her knife. "I'll go inside. Geb, back me up."

"What?" Then he looked at Boulder. Right, my magic... He wouldn't be a big help, but of course he would protect her. "Alright."

"Good luck," Karzelek said, and Geb gave him an encouraging nod.

"I bet it's nothing."

"We'll see about that." Sedna slowly opened the door, the knife ready for any attack. But once the door was open enough that she could enter the hut, Sedna didn't move anymore. "Geb," she whispered.

"Yes?", he replied quietly.

"Your powers. Now."

He pushed past her. He wanted to see his opponent before he attacked them.

But he also stopped a few moments later. There, in the middle of the hut, sat Khya and ate a banana.

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