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

The Return

When Zephyr regained consciousness, he was instantly crushed by a violent hug.

"Careful," Tick laughed. "You're choking him."

Iris forced herself to let go, and suddenly felt incredibly stupid. "Sorry, Zeph. It's just -"

"It's okay." He still sounded exhausted and powerless as he straightened up. And yet... happy? Relieved? No less than her. "How long...?"

"A few hours." Since they were at Tick's, in her former bear cave, Iris had been thinking. Probably more than usually in an entire week. And yet she didn't know at all where to begin. "You saved my life."

"Not yours. Shimmer's. "

"That's the same thing."

Zephyr nodded absentmindedly. "Sabazios?"

"Is alive." Unlike his nephew, however, it seemed as if he would remain unconscious for a while.

The boy nodded again, but without looking at Iris. "Caw?"

"Gone." Iris had thought about him more than enough as well. "I still can't believe he used me like that. I really thought there was something there after all the... moments between us."

Zephyr turned his head and looked at her, his eyes as bright blue as her own. "I'm sorry," he said. "If I had known who he was, I..."

"I know. You'd have warned me right away." She remembered the events before. "I know what you said."

Zephyr grimaced. "Where is Morning Breeze?"

"With Shimmer. You- " Iris paused. "Don't change the subject."

He winced. "Subject? There is no subject. You shouldn't have heard that. I mean, not yet. I would have told you, yes, but..."

"Would you have?"

"... probably not."

"You were incredible when you were brave, Zeph. Why aren't you more often?"

"Because you're usually with me."

She had to smile. "Normally you call that reckless."

"Because it's true." He was silent for a moment. "Still, Iris ... whenever I've ever been brave, I've only done it for you. Because you needed me at that moment."

Just like it had been at the trial when he had betrayed Sabazios. And suddenly everything became clear to her. "I think that's the difference between you and Caw."

"What do you mean?"

Frustration sneaked into her voice as she remembered the other boy. "He was never concerned about me. You should have heard him, he always said that he feels better in my presence. That he is doing well. He never mentioned me - and when I was the one who needed him, he just ran away."

"I also feel fantastic with you," Zephyr confessed without any embarrassment. "But you know that already... I would never let anything happen to you."

When she smiled at him, he became nervous after all. And instead of just being annoyed by it - as usual - she suddenly found it kind of adorable. "Thanks for everything, Zeph. But now I need your courage one more time."

---

Gerra's palace looked the same as Iris remembered it. Black and powerful, it stood beside Mount Ember, a completely desolate structure that could be recognized from a distance. But the nearer they came, the later it became, and soon the volcanic stone flickered red and orange in the light of the setting sun. An impressive sight, actually - if she hadn't already had enough experience with fire and darkness...

She risked a glance at Morning Breeze, Zephyr's companion. The jay was carrying Sabazios, who was still unconscious. Then again, still wasn't quite right: he had woken up twice since their departure and almost fell, but Iris and Zephyr had silenced him both times. It was easier that way.

"We should be careful," Zephyr worried. They both rode Shimmer, so Morning Breeze would have it easier. The magpie had become stronger in the last months, they hadn't had to rest often. "I don't think they will receive us kindly."

"Don't worry." Telling Zephyr that wasn't really useful, she knew. But of course he was still her best friend, even if she was not sure about anything beyond...

There! On the walls of the palace, flame-colored dots ran back and forth, some of them pointing to the Sky Elmen.

It quickly made Shimmer land in front of the palace gates. She didn't dare imagine what would happen if the Fire Elmen shot fire at them...

Within seconds they were surrounded by guards who were standing at the gates, huge reptiles included. As she knew from the Fire Tribe by now, a wrong word was enough and the flames would do more than just dance on the palm of their hands.

Iris and Zephyr rose from Shimmer's back while the guards and warriors eyed them suspiciously. Like motionless snakes, who could attack at the next moment.

"Greetings," Zephyr began cautiously. "We ask for an audience with Gerra."

"You are fireless," replied a man with a companion that ran on two legs like Nergal's, but wasn't such a raptor. It had a round, smooth, and certainly unusually hard head. "You have no right to meet him. Not without command or registration."

A plump, rust-colored woman standing beside a turtle pointed to Iris. "She was here last time. Before Nergal -"

"Right!", a third Elm interrupted her. "She kidnapped Nergal!"

When someone recognized Sabazios as a Shadow, the chaos was perfect.

"By Fuocith, look!"

"It's a trap!"

"Burn him, quickly!"

A bellowing roar drowned them all. The gates of the palace opened, albeit slowly, and gradually gave way to Gerra's gigantic horned companion, as crimson as the Elm on its back.

Zephyr didn't need an explanation, he certainly knew who this person was. As the Fire Elmen stood still and saluted, Zephyr went to his knees, so Iris had to imitate him.

"I remember you," Gerra said as soon as his companion fell silent. Iris didn't have to look up to know he was looking at her. "You were the one who insulted me."

Zephyr beside her groaned softly, but said nothing.

What do you have to lose? "True," she replied, and stood up, gazing bravely at Gerra. "And I'm Iris."

Gerra nodded, he had never learned her name. "I remember your acquaintances differently."

"My name is Zephyr," he said as he rose as well. "We are coming to warn you, great Gerra."

"Of the Shadows?" Gerra's gaze wandered to Sabazios, still hidden by the mighty skull on his head. "I have not forgotten our conversation."

Me neither. "Forget the stuff from last time. This is more urgent."

Gerra looked around the circle of guards and warriors, then made his companion turn around. "Let us continue inside."

---

It was strange to be one of only three people in Gerra's huge throne room - well, four, but Sabazios was still unconscious. Every word echoed so strongly from the walls. It was Gerra who spoke first.

"Where is my son?"

Iris and Zephyr exchanged a glance. Of course, they had thought in advance about what they would tell Gerra, and yet it felt odd now that the moment had come. Fortunately, she could leave the talking to Zephyr.

"He is at the Forest Tribe," the boy began cautiously. "There were some... incidents, but he is alive."

Silence. "I understand," Gerra said at last. That was all.

"And now?" Iris dared to ask. "Will you take him back?"

"By force? That isn't worth it. I don't need a second war."

She didn't mention that the first one was meaningless enough. "You can't just leave your son there."

"What do you expect me to do?" Gerra's voice grew louder and made her flinch. "Do you want me to burn down the forest?"

"Of course not!" Zephyr hurried to say. "We had only, well ... expected a little more reaction, if you understand. After all, it is about your son."

Gerra sighed as the tension escaped his body. "I know, I know. As little as we can get along, I should do something."

Thoughtfully, he looked at the two miserable teeth on his chain. The larger of the two belonged to the former chief, Iris suspected. The other...

"You are a diplomat, right?", Zephyr asked. "I'm sure you can have a peaceful conversation with Damara."

"Our tribes do not have the best relationship, you know. She would never let us near her forest."

"Then we're flying ahead," Iris suggested. "We convince her to agree to a meeting outside the forest." That shouldn't be a problem. Surely Damara wanted to get rid of Nergal as well...

A groan, closely followed by a yelp, interrupted her thoughts.

Sabazios had woken up and was staring at Gerra with wide eyes.

It took no more than a hand movement of Gerra, and suddenly Sabazios was surrounded by guards. Two of them grabbed him and pulled him to Gerra, who looked down at him skeptically. "Forget my son. Tell me what a Shadow is doing here."

This was a topic that Iris and Zephyr had always pushed aside on their flight. None of them had wanted to talk about it.

Zephyr took the floor, "We ... had hoped you had a use for him."

"As the final opponent in our next clan tournament," Gerra pondered.

"Without killing him," Iris pointed out quickly, whereupon Sabazios looked at her confused.

Gerra was also surprised. "Why wouldn't you want to kill a Shadow?"

"He's my uncle," Zephyr explained, and Iris nodded.

"As much as I want to see him dead... knowing that I caused someone's death... on purpose... I don't think I could live with that."

She sflinched at her own words. Sabazios had said the same thing about Caw...

"I understand what you mean all too well," Gerra agreed. "Yet he is a Shadow and thus a threat."

"I don't support the Shadows," Sabazios said, having finally grasped the situation. "I am in no way a threat to this tribe, I swear by Aricel."

Iris grimaced at the memory of recent events. "He's right. His motivation only had to do with me."

"Which I am in no way sorry for."

"Very well," Gerra interrupted. "If I am not to kill him, what else should I do? Leaving him rot away in prison would be a waste. A waste of prison cells."

"I can help you!", Sabazios begged, which didn't surprise Iris in the least. Getting chiefs to like him was one of his greatest talents.

"Help me?", Gerra repeated, still suspicious, but now with a touch of curiosity. "In what way?"

Sabazios's voice grew louder, more hopeful; his guards exchanged an amused look. "Against the Shadows! I am sure your tribe owns scribes. Researchers who would be very interested in learning more about them. About their abilities and everything else."

Gerra scratched his chin thoughtfully before pointing to one of the guards. "Go and get Nusku. He will decide himself whether he wants to work with a Shadow."

---

Nusku, as it turned out, was a tall, skinny man, who was about a head taller than Gerra. He had orange-yellow skin and scales, and there was an oil lamp attached to one of his horns, shining dimly, and emphasizing the contours of his face - and the bags under his eyes. His expression was the same as the one Iris knew from Sabazios: he thought himself better than her and didn't appreciate fun. And yet there was excitement in his eyes when he saw Sabazios before him.

"A Shadow, indeed! A real Shadow!" The man walked up to Sabazios, looking at him from all sides, even grabbing his wings for a moment to inspect them more closely. "Impressive," he muttered to himself. "Look at these wings! They resemble those of the companions from some of the other clans, and yet -"

Gerra interrupted him by clearing his throat. "Nusku."

"What - oh. Excuse me." Nusku turned away from Sabazios and adjusted his oil lamp. "Well, Gerra, I think we can work with it. Very well, in fact. I can already see a whole range of applications of our new knowledge."

"Just guarantee he won't escape us," the chief nodded.

"That shouldn't be a problem," Iris knew. "He rather flies instead of dissolving into shadows."

"Unless we make him do it," Nusku murmured, squinting at Sabazios again. Louder, he added, "It will be an exciting collaboration, I'm sure."

"He belongs to you." Gerra gave Nusku a last glance before he gestured the guards - and Sabazios - domineeringly outside.

Was that the last time I saw Sabazios?, Iris wondered. Somehow she was even glad she didn't have to say goodbye. And that Sabazios had said nothing at the end either...

"And now to you," she heard Gerra say now. "I agree with your plan." He waved one of the remaining guards over to him. "Take them to some spare rooms. I'll take care of finding an adequate escort that isn't drunk in taverns right now. We'll leave in the midday sun."

Sleeping in, thought Iris, relieved. About time.

"And you at dawn," Gerra added. "You need a head start, after all."

--

They flew about a day's distance from Gerra's group. Iris avoided looking down, or landing in certain places. Too much reminded her of Caw, because right here they had just landed a few days ago to eat or sleep...

"I hope the others got along well without me," she said for probably the tenth time.

Zephyr flew closer to her. "They avoid problems better than you, don't they? They're fine, I'm certain. They will have missed you, but otherwise... "

"Zeph."

"What is it?"

Then he followed her gaze downward. They had flown steadily towards Wildfire Hill, and still on this day, they would reach the Heart of the Forest. But perhaps they didn't have to. At the foot of the hill, on the side facing the forest, a group of Elmen and their companions had gathered. Most of them were green-brown dots, but she also saw others: red-black, dark blue, gray-orange, mud-brown ... her heart skipped a beat, these were clearly her friends!

Shimmer flew faster on her own and steered toward the group.

"Iris, wait!"

Zephyr's worried voice caused her to force Shimmer to stop and Zephyr was able to catch up on them. "What's the matter now?"

"We should approach slower. More subtly."

Iris rolled her eyes. "They aren't our enemies. What's gonna happen with us?"

"I know. I believe you. It's just..."

"Yeah?" Shimmer also flapped her wings impatiently.

"I ... I'd like to know the situation better before I know where I'll land."

When Iris thought about it, she noticed that Zephyr was right - as usual, as she had to admit. What if they're angry with me? Or worried? Did she want to go back to them at all?

Zephyr smiled as if he could guess her doubts. "Don't worry. It's not about you. I just don't want to be unprepared."

She nodded, pointing downwards. "We'll land there."

'There' was in this case the bank of the Zesto river, up on the hill, and in some distance from the place where their friends were waiting. So they could approach the group slowly and prepared.

The good thing was that they were sometimes flanked by bushes, which made it even easier not to be spotted early - at least when looking up from the foot of the hill.

Because the person who observed this group from the cover of a bush was not at all concealed for Iris and Zephyr.

Iris looked at Zephyr, who was walking behind her. The question was clear in her eyes: Should they approach the person?

At least there seemed to be no danger from her. A few quiet steps later, Iris realized that it was a girl: her body was bright blue, like Iris's own, but slightly shimmering in sunlight, as she had sometimes seen with Sedna's scales. Her own small portable treasure, she thought, not without envy.

"Hello," Iris greeted. The girl flinched in surprise, but then she smiled and waved. She was younger than Iris, perhaps eight or nine. Did she live here at this river?

Iris crouched to her. "Are you watching those down there?"

The girl nodded, but remained silent.

"What's your name?", Zephyr asked. "Should you be out here all alone? I don't think so."

The girl rolled her eyes. Again Iris wondered why she said nothing. Was she afraid of them? It didn't look like that to Iris. "If she doesn't want to talk, we won't make her."

"It's still rude." Zephyr peered down to where their friends were talking. The girl was watching them, Iris realized.

"We can take her with us," she suggested. "Maybe Sedna will be happy about company from her tribe."

The girl jumped up and nodded enthusiastically.

"Oh, wonderful," Zephyr murmured. "Let's go."

Iris let her friend pout. Just because he felt insulted by their new company, he wouldn't ruin the joy that Iris felt once more. She had been separated from her friends so often in the past that she promised to prevent that in the future as much as possible.

For a moment she forgot all her doubts and worries. She stormed down the hill, the wind hit her face. She ran so fast that with every step she felt like she was falling, but it never happened. No, instead she ran right into Geb - and him almost over as she wrapped her arms around his big body.

Geb yelped in surprise, tried to shake her off... and then realized who had overwhelmed him from behind. "Iris!" He grinned widely as she finally let go of him and looked around.

In the eyes of her friends, she saw nothing but relief - they weren't really angry that she had left. She was still breathing heavily trying to recover from her sprint. "Hi guys."

"I - we - were hoping you were well," Geb said. "We thought you were -"

"We can talk about this later," she interrupted him before Karzelek cut her off himself: "Isn't that Zephyr?"

"That can't be," Geb noted as the boy approached, closely followed by the Water Elmin. "What are you doing here, Zephyr? And where's Caw? " "Long story," Zephyr replied as soon as he was within earshot without having to yell.

"And yes, Damara isn't planning a war, we know," Iris added quickly.

Zephyr sighed. "That too is a long story. In any case -"

He fell silent on his own accord, and stared, like the rest of his friends, at Sedna, who embraced the younger Water Elmin as violently as Iris had just done with Geb.

"Sedna ...?", Geb raised his voice carefully, as confused as all of them.

"Do you know each other?" Iris asked. That didn't make any sense at all, Sedna lived on the Eastern Isles, not here in Zesto. Or did all the Water Elmen in the world know each other because all waterways were connected? That had to be a lot of Elmen...

Slowly, Sedna broke from the embrace and quickly wiped away a few tears that Iris knew she should never have seen. Sedna frowned as if she were looking for the best way to answer the question. Her gray-blue eyes seemed all the more like small stormy oceans.

"This is Selkie," she said finally, with a stifled voice, an arm protectively placed around the younger girl's shoulders. "My sister."

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