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This is the sixteenth chapter in Forest of Flames and the ninth in part two, Forest.

Traitors

Geb wanted to go back outside to discuss the next step with Sedna, but it was too late: Khya had already noticed them.

"We meet again." Her tone surprised Geb. She sounded as if she hadn't really expected them.

Sedna clasped her knife. "Nergal isn't here if you're looking for him. Leave, Shadow."

Khya put the rest of her banana on the table and stretched to full size - she was smaller than Geb and Sedna, but her wings made her look much more imposing. "Shadows have names, you know."

Geb mustered his courage. "Hello, Khya."

"There we go." She smiled sincerely the her friends. "Geb, right? Last time, we didn't have the opportunity to introduce ourselves."

"There was no reason to." Sedna continued to glare at the girl. "Why are you here?"

"I know what you really want to ask me. You're pretty sure why I'm here. You just want to know how I want to stop you this time."

"Exactly," Sedna admitted. "And?"

"You don't get it." Khya decided to sit down again, pointing to the other chairs. When neither Geb nor Sedna moved, she frowned briefly. "I'm not here to attack you."

"But instead ...?", Geb asked, puzzled.

"I want to apologize to you."

"Apologize," Sedna repeated. "What for? That you wanted to kill us?"

"That's not true!", Khya shouted back. Frustration lay in her voice... as if Sedna had just hit a really sore point. "I wouldn't do that. Ever."

"You fought against us," Geb said. You're a Shadow, aren't you? But then he noticed that the legends never mentioned that Shadows killed Elmen - only changed them. Except for Alastor, at least...

"I'm stopping you, that's true. And I will continue to do so. But," she stressed, "there was never any mention of killing."

"Then what do you want to apologize for? That Alastor wanted to kill us?"

Khya sighed. "That too. You just have to believe me that we aren't really like that. We have no bad intentions."

"Right," Sedna said.

"You have to believe me! The Shadows aren't your enemies. We're trying to help you." Again she grimaced. "And that it doesn't work sometimes... I wanted to apologize for. I made stupid mistakes."

"Go ahead." Sedna decided to sit down on a chair after all. Geb did the same, even though they still kept some distance to Khya. "Do continue."

"I'm young for a Shadow," Khya said. "I follow our rules, yes, but I think ... I don't think I'm good at that."

"What do you mean?", Geb asked. He knew a lot of rules. It was new to him, however, that they couldn't be kept well enough - either they were followed or not.

"In addition to all other rules, there is one that is especially important. One that everyone must respect, no matter what happens."

Sedna rolled her eyes. "Which one?"

Khya looked down. "Change at least one person in every new place you enter."

"And you broke it?"

"No!" Khya's head went up again. "I'm following it. Always."

Geb went through their encounters in his head. First Alastor, then Nergal, and she had threatened Sabazios at the Claws... he froze. "Sabazios."

"For example." Honest frustration lay in her voice. "Alastor wanted to kill you. Nergal is a misshaped half Shadow. And Sabazios vanished who knows where after a few seconds. That he can't stand us, I knew, but that..." She buried her head in her hands. "I choose the wrong ones. Every time. How am I supposed to serve Umbrath like that?"

"Not at all," Sedna suggested.

"Without Umbrath I wouldn't have anyone," Khya snapped at her. "Like most of us! You have no right to judge us."

Geb crossed his arms. "And you don't have the right to change Elmen."

"You don't understand. We need the tribes and Impures to survive as a species. To prevent Umbrath from being killed by Lumeon and his hero. With Elmen who are better off as a Shadow."

He hesitated. "... Elmen like you?"

Even Khya was silent for a moment, then she looked at Geb. "I wasn't an Elm."

When he met her gaze, he saw it. Her eyes had different colors: the left one was red, the right one dark blue. "But an Impure," he concluded.

She opened her mouth to answer, but her gaze wandered past Geb. "Come in."

Geb turned his head - Karzelek had watched them from the doorway. Now he didn't move an inch.

"She isn't doing us anything," Geb said without feeling that he was lying. He didn't trust Khya, of course... but that she wasn't here to hurt them, he believed her.

Karzelek hesitantly approached, but stopped short before them, as if he had suddenly noticed something else.

"What is it?", Geb asked.

"Someone cleaned up again while we were gone."

Geb stared at the table in front of him. Karzelek was right, the imprints his fingers had left before had disappeared, and with them the dust itself. He didn't need Khya's almost proud smile to understand. "That was you."

Khya nodded. "Since I'm a Shadow and have the chance. The Impures deserve a better life."

"That's why Tammuz said that nothing happened in the last few weeks," Sedna said. "Because you were busy with us."

"And now that we're here..." Geb added, but Khya interrupted him.

"No."

"No?"

"No." Khya's gaze wandered to the window, away from the others. "I knew you'd be here, but that has nothing to do with me being here. I haven't come to stop you. Not today."

"But because of the hut?"

"Exactly."

"What about Nergal?", Sedna asked. "Back at the Fire Tribe. What was that about?"

"I had to change someone, those are the rules."

"And why him?"

Khya rolled her eyes. "You know it, don't you? It was to stop you. To prevent him from taking you to Fuocith."

"No," Geb said. "No, I don't think so." There was something in the way she said it... he couldn't describe it. But something deep inside him knew she was lying. A little idea...

"Then what?", Khya replied. Sedna and Karzelek also looked at him questioningly - was he the only one to notice it? The subtle fluctuations of her voice, the look that was almost eye contact, but just almost?

Of course she was right, he didn't have an answer. But he was so sure that he had felt something! He thought hard, trying to put his instinct into words. Again their eyes met, and now she stood up, turned to leave. Her eyes red and blue, the colors of an Impure. An Impure...

"Wait!" He shouted after her, but that didn't stop her. Think, Geb! She couldn't leave, not where he was so close to figuring it out... "Eucleia, wait!"

Khya froze abruptly. "What did you just call me?"

"Khya," he replied in confusion, but in the eyes of his friends he saw that this wasn't true.

Sedna corrected him. "Eucleia."

"Eu ...", he repeated speechlessly as everything came together in his head. Then he couldn't help but grin at his discovery. "Yes!", he nodded enthusiastically. "It's her! She's Eucleia."

"She looked so sadly at Kairos," Karzelek recalled.

"You would have too, in my place," Khya - Eucleia? - said without moving an inch. Somehow she even sounded... relieved that he had uncovered this secret. "If your only friend backstabbed you like that." "Because he saved Nergal?" Khya flinched at Geb's words. He thought about everything that Kairos had told them. "That wasn't a plan to stop us. At least not only. But revenge! Because Nergal treated the Impures - and you - so badly."

"And you were the one who made the Shadows leave the Impures alone," Karzelek added. Had Geb misheard, or did his friend actually sound less anxious than before?

"For Kairos," Khya agreed. "Because he was my friend. Before he apparently decided to be on Nergal's side."

"Because you're a Shadow," Sedna said bluntly. "No matter how much he likes you, he will never support the Shadows."

Would I?, Geb asked himself. If Iris was suddenly a Shadow? Or Sedna? "I think she's right, Khya."

"I know!" Khya looked down. "Why do you think I've never visited? He should never have noticed me! Or you either." Then she looked up again, her gaze determined. "But I've gotten used to it. Elysia hates us Shadows, but everyone has the same ridiculous reasons. And yet you can ask any Shadow, any truly loyal one - we owe Umbrath so much. We stand by him, no matter what happens."

"A pity," Geb replied, and meant it too. He hated his next words, and yet, of course, he was right. "I guess we'll never be friends."

Khya stepped outside. "It depends on you, not me." Then she spread her wings... and disappeared.

The next few seconds were silence. "That... was interesting," Sedna finally said. "And now?"

Geb sighed. "Good question." He felt terrible. What he had just said... he had never gone so far. He had never intentionally hurt anyone. "... do you think I was right?"

"She's a Shadow, of course you can't be friends."

But Sedna's certainty didn't give him any hope. "You heard her. Kairos is - was - her only friend. Maybe we should have been nicer to her. Maybe she needs us."

Sedna rolled her eyes. "If you want to make friends with a Shadow, please. She will backstab you after five minutes and ruin the entire mission forever. Kairos said that she wanted to be a Shadow, did you forget that?"

"I would try to like her," Karzelek added hesitantly. "But she reminds me too much of..."

Geb got up and went to his friend. He put a hand on his shoulder. "It's okay, buddy. Think of something else."

That didn't work out too well. "What will she do now?", Karzelek asked. "She has to change someone in the Forest Tribe now. Do you think she'll take Nergal?"

Geb took his hand back, that's how stunned he was. "You're right!" He had completely forgotten the rule of the Shadows. If she went to Nergal and made him a full Shadow, everything would have been in vain.

"We'll never make it on time!", Sedna cried after him as they stormed out of the hut, Geb at the front. "If she wanted to see him, she's already there."

"I know," he said, looking back over his shoulder. No, they had no chance of reaching Nergal quickly enough, and he was painfully aware of this. "But we have to at least know whether -"

He crashed into someone. "What the -" the person began, but stopped short as he glared at Geb. "I knew it! You're allies!"

It was only now that Geb realized who he had stumbled into: two boys - Jarilo's friends from the funeral - who held Khya with all their strength and were incredibly successful. She seemed to have taken several slaps in the face and already looked half unconscious. And they were in the middle of the sunlight, so she couldn't flee with magic.

Let her go!, Geb wanted to yell, but he stayed silent. Should he really defend Khya? A Shadow?

Behind him, his friends came to a halt, watching the scene just as speechlessly. Did they share his thoughts? Sedna certainly not, but maybe Karzelek. Would the Forest Elmen kill Khya? And if he helped her, what would they think of him?

"I didn't intentionally run into you," he began cautiously. "I'm sorry."

"We know what your damned Shadow friend has done!", the boy that had not spoken before replied. "He killed Jarilo!" Anger and tears were in his eyes. "And he's going to pay for it!"

"Her too?", Geb asked. Did the two even know that this wasn't Nergal?

"Of course her too!" The boy right in front of him pushed him back. "We can't get to the fire Shadow. And she ran right into our arms. It was a sign of the forest!"

"A sign!" The other agreed. "We take revenge on her. For Jarilo." He kicked Khya so that her legs gave way under her and she knelt helplessly between them without doing more than groaning painfully.

It urged Geb to do something. Anything. Violence isn't a solution, he wanted to tell them, but Khya was a Shadow. She was their common enemy. She had done terrible things and didn't regret anything.

"No," he said, out loud this time. That wasn't true. She wasn't on her side, but she hadn't wanted Tanzanite's death either. Or Jarilo's, he suddenly realized. "Leave her alone."

"Geb...", he heard Sedna's nervous voice. The last thing he wanted was to provoke an argument or a fight, and yet...

The boy in front of him snorted furiously. "Leave her alone? Are you nuts?" He let go of Khya, she couldn't do much anyway. "If you're on her side, fine. I can handle you."

Get away from here, said the voice in his head. It's not worth it.

No, he countered. Khya might be a Shadow, but she didn't deserve any of this. And talking would do no good.

He threw himself at the boy in front of him and pushed him to the ground with all his Earth Elm force. Sedna groaned in annoyance before she took care of the other Forest Elm. That only left...

"Pull her into the shadows!", Geb shouted at Karzelek, who was staring at him with wide eyes. But he did as he was told, and thanks to his own tribe's abilities, managed to drag her out of the light without much effort. As soon as she was no longer exposed to the sunlight, she shot an infinitely grateful glance at Geb before she blended with the shadows and once more left nothing but her clothes behind.

"Traitor," the boy under him growled, trying to free himself. But he didn't stand a chance against Geb's strength.

Geb still felt terrible. He didn't want to fight this boy, but that would happen if he let go of him. And he couldn't hold him down forever. What should he do?

"Stop!" A well-known voice made him freeze, and the Forest Elm also remained motionless before using Geb's hesitation and freeing himself from his grasp. Instead of attacking, he only looked in the direction from which the voice had come.

"... hello, Ani."

"Kaax," she said, and nodded to the other boy, who quickly let go of Sedna and had a ridiculously innocent expression on his face. "Cinteotl."

"Did you see what happened?", he asked, sounding quiet.

"No. But these are my friends. You will leave them alone."

"They helped a Shadow!", Kaax protested. "We were only doing the right thing."

Ani sighed and exchanged a brief glance with her companion who was with her for once, the binturong Durian. She could barely look over his back, but his head was still closer to the ground than hers due to his physique. "You can go," she said to Kaax and Cinteotl. "We'll discuss this later."

The boys looked at each other, hesitated - and left.

Geb breathed a sigh of relief and only noticed that he had held his breath. "Thank you."

"How did you do that?", Karzelek asked, who had come closer. It was admiration that Geb recognized in his voice. He knew his friend would never have dared to speak up like that.

Suddenly Ani looked terribly unhappy. "That wasn't me. They only listen to me because the whole tribe thinks my magic makes me special."

"Doesn't it?"

A smile appeared on her lips, but only briefly. "The tribe worships me because my magic is so powerful. It's not even difficult at all. But if they continue to be so full of hatred, that won't help."

"So full of darkness ...", Geb said.

"It has nothing to do with darkness. The Shadow Kaax spoke of - you helped them, didn't you? They are made of darkness, but that doesn't mean they're evil. Our elements don't determine who we are. That's what we do ourselves."

"That's true," Karzelek said. Just like Geb, he was thinking of the Ore Tribe, who had also prescribed the Elmen who they were supposed to be. "Will you help Nergal?"

Ani stroke Durian's fur absentmindedly. "To be honest, I don't think that my magic can heal him. That anyone but the Light Elmen can do that." She smiled at Karzelek. "But I can help him recognize what I just told you: Who he is doesn't depend on his tribe. Only on himself. I'll make him accept himself."

Geb thought back to the first few days after Nergal's transformation, in which he had incessantly scratched the black spots of his skin and had told the others to cut off his wing stumps. How much he had hated his appearance... "That would be wonderful."

"I just hope that everything will be okay with his father." Care snuck into her voice. "I was able to convince Damara to accompany her because she saw that Nergal isn't quite as stressful in my presence. But that doesn't mean I can stop his magic."

"It won't come that far," Geb calmed her, while Sedna had other things in her head.

"So Damara agree with the plan?"

Ani nodded. "She will go to Wildfire Hill with Nergal and a few other Elmen. I'll come along, just like the rest of you. We'll leave tomorrow."

That didn't surprise Geb - and he even rejoiced a little. He would see Iris again sooner. "Tell Damara that we agree."

"I will." Ani turned to leave, but then decided against it. "Thank you again for helping this Shadow. Not everyone would have done that."

True, Geb thought. Let's hope that we won't regret it.

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

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