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This is the eighteenth chapter in Forest of Flames and the eleventh and last in part two, Forest.

Wildfire Hill

Geb's thoughts had never changed so often in such a short time. He had just been excited about Iris's return, then he had been surprised by Zephyr's sudden appearance - and now he was staring at Sedna in utter confusion.

"You have a sister?" In his mind he went through everything she had told him, from her origin to her parents. But no matter how much he tried it... "You never told us about that."

"She shouldn't be here," Zephyr said. "Not all alone."

"And half a world away from your islands," Karzelek added.

Selkie looked to her sister, puzzled. Of course, she also wondered why Sedna had never mentioned her...

Zephyr crossed his arms. "I still think it's terribly impolite that she doesn't talk to us."

Sedna glared at him with an anger that made him back away. "Because she's mute, kelp brain!"

"Mu- oh." Zephyr decided to keep his mouth shut, but Geb was still confused, even if he thought to understand Sedna better now.

"Is that why you never told us about her?"

"What? No! "Sedna took a deep breath, then slowly shook her head. "Don't you have more important things to do? Shouldn't you talk to Damara? This can wait."

"You can tell us everything, you know." Disappointment and grief spread into Geb's voice. I thought you had told us everything. What was she hiding from them? How much was she hiding from them?

"Please, Geb." Sedna almost sounded desperate. "Not now. Not here."

"Then later," Karzelek said. He hated it when others felt so terrible, Geb knew - but did his friend think of Sedna or him? Or of them all?

We have all the time in the world, Geb tried to calm himself. "Let's talk to Damara," he suggested before he looked at Sedna again. "That gives you some time."

Sedna nodded silently, so he left her alone with her sister and led the others away from them. From the corner of his eye he saw that Iris was only following him slowly.

He gave Karzelek a sign, then he slowed down for her. For a few seconds, they walked silently behind Karzelek, who was talking to Zephyr. The two seemed to get along well, something Geb had already noticed during their last encounter so many weeks before, in the dark halls of the Palace of the Sky. But he didn't pay attention to their words. Iris was more important. "Is everything alright?", he asked cautiously.

"You're not mad at me, are you?", she asked instead. "That I ran away?"

"I'm grateful that you told us at all." He nudged her - carefully - into the side. "But the next time, do it before you leave."

"I don't think that would have changed anything. I would have gone with Caw anyway."

"I know." When she didn't reply, he continued, "How is he?"

"No idea. I don't care anyway."

Oh no. He suddenly knew what had happened. They had talked to Nergal about it. "I'm sorry," he said. "That Caw -"

She didn't let him finish. "Thanks. We're there."

As much as he hated it, he couldn't object. They had reached Damara's tent - or rather sun sail. "We'll talk later," he whispered to Iris, before moving past Karzelek and Zephyr.

Damara had already sat up and looked over from the shadows of her sun cover. "Geb," she said. "Karzelek. And -"

"Zephyr, Your Highness." Geb smiled at the bow of his friend; he was as formal as Geb remembered him. "Iris and I bring news from Gerra."

"I suppose he'll be here soon?"

Zephyr nodded. "We have a one-day flight head start."

"Wonderful." Damara looked at one of her guards. "Post someone on the top of the hill. I would like to know when Gerra is approaching."

The guard nodded and hurried away, so Damara turned to the friends again.

"Anything else?"

"No," Zephyr said. "That was all."

"Then go. I'm sure tomorrow will be an interesting day."

---

For the rest of the day, Geb decided to take the time to talk to his friends. He finally had to find out what Sedna was hiding from him - and also what had happened between Iris and Caw.

But Sedna was not where they had left her. Her sister was also gone without a trace. They didn't run away, Geb thought, even if he wasn't even all that sure about that. But even if he was right, they couldn't have come far...

"Should I look for them?"

Geb blinked. He hadn't even noticed Iris was standing next to him. "Maybe I should..."

She shook her head energetically. "You don't have to take care of us all, Geb. And I'm much faster than you anyway. And I can fly."

There was nothing he had to say against that. "Alright. But hurry up."

"I'll be right back, you'll see!" Iris stormed to get Shimmer - and only when she had disappeared from Geb's field of vision did he wonder whether she was just trying to get out of his way.

He didn't have a lot of other options. He could visit Nergal and Ani, but what for? They did well without him. There were still Karzelek and Zephyr, just where were the two? They couldn't possibly have disappeared without a trace as well.

In fact, Geb spotted them relatively quickly: They were just climbing Wildfire Hill, they probably wanted to discover Gerra as early as possible as well. Geb decided to follow them -maybe at least Zephyr would explain to him what was wrong with Iris.

As soon as he had reached the top, Geb saw his friends: they sat with their backs to him on a rock and looked exactly at the side of Zesto that belonged to the Fire Tribe. "What are you doing up here?"

Zephyr turned his head in surprise. "Geb! Why are you here?"

"To ask you why you're here." He laughed and stepped closer to them. Next to Karzelek was still some space on the stone. "May I?"

Karzelek moved aside. "Of course."

Whatever they had talked about just now, they were silent. Until Karzelek said what Geb had also noticed:

"They rebuilt the bridge."

"That's true." Geb remembered only too well how they had stormed the hill a few weeks ago. How Nergal had made him collapse the bridge that connected the two river banks. And yet it stood here as if nothing had happened, the stone as stable as before. The Fire Tribe didn't have any reason for that. "But why?"

"Just because," Karzelek thought. "If someone destroys something I've built, I wouldn't ignore it either."

"Every tribe has its pride," Zephyr added. "Some more than others, of course."

Like the Tribe of Sky. That reminded Geb that he was here for a certain reason. "What are you doing here in Zesto? And what about -"

"About Iris?" Zephyr let out a long sigh. "Hard to explain." Geb thought of something Iris had told him a long time ago: "Hard to explain," only gives Zeph a reason to explain something to you.

And she was right.

Minutes later everything was spinning in Geb's head. Zephyr hadn't left out anything, he had told them about Sabazios, about Caw, about his own storm, as if he had just waited for a chance to tell someone all of this.

"Wow," was all that Geb could think of.

Zephyr nodded. "That sums it up. But ... don't worry about me. Iris is the one you should take care of, not me."

"Nonsense." Geb looked at him over Karzelek's head. "You are both our friends. You are no less important than she is. If you need our help, just tell us."

Zephyr dared to smile. "Thank you, Geb. This is a... a really nice feeling."

"Having friends?" Karzelek leaned against Zephyr's shoulder. "Yes," he said. "It really is."

Geb also had to smile at the sight of his friends. "Lean in my direction," he laughed. "Otherwise I'll crush you both."

Suddenly, there was an expression on Zephyr's face that Geb saw for the first time: an almost sneaky grin. And then, with a completely deliberate swing, he threw himself against Karzelek, so that it was Geb who was crushed.

None of them made any attempts to move, not even Geb. It was actually quite comfortable. Perhaps that's exactly what we all needed, he thought. A little relaxation after all the stress. Zephyr most of all, they all knew. But who it was about didn't matter. As long as his friends were happy, Geb was content as well.

---

The next morning, Geb was one of the first to gather on the top of the hill. He couldn't have slept in, he didn't want to miss anything important.

Strictly speaking, he was the first - except for Iris, who was sitting where he had met Zephyr and Karzelek yesterday. "Good morning," he said cautiously. He had not seen her since yesterday afternoon. What should he do? "Did you find Sedna and her sister?"

But as usual lately, she countered with a counter-question. "What did Zephyr tell you?"

He sat down next to her and tried an optimistic smile. "Everything. But that's okay. You didn't do anything wrong."

"I've done a lot of wrong things."

He put an arm around her shoulders. He was glad she didn't object. "Do you remember Eucleia?"

"Kairos's friend?"

He nodded. "That was Khya."

Iris looked at him in disbelief. "You're kidding."

"I'm not." He would never lie to her, she knew that better than anyone else. And he saw that in her still shocked - but no more doubtful - face. "She isn't evil. Against us, yes, but she's sorry for a lot of things. Like you, aren't you?"

"Are you comparing me to a Shadow?"

"Only to Khya. What I'm trying to say, Iris... you both know when you make mistakes. You admit it. And that makes it much easier for us - all of us - to forgive you. That's why I could never be really angry with you. You're taking care of that yourself often enough."

Iris had to smile. "Is that supposed to cheer me up?"

Geb beamed back. "I think it's working."

That seemed to distract her enough. "Look," she said, nodding towards the horizon. "Gerra is coming."

Geb had to squint, but it was true, a series of dark spots came closer and closer to them. Whether that was Gerra, Geb couldn't see at all, but he trusted Iris. "How long before they're here?"

"A few hours, I think. Why don't you get us something to eat?"

Geb's growling stomach gave her the answer. "I'll be right back."

After his return they also spent the rest of the morning on the hill. Zephyr and Karzelek soon joined them, and Sedna and her sister also showed up. Geb was glad that the two of them were doing well, even if he wanted Sedna to be more with her friends again. But that was her decision.

The higher the sun rose, the closer came the group that Geb could gradually identify as Fire Elmen. Red and orange scales shone in the sunlight, especially those of Gerra's huge reptile. Geb had never seen it in full size and, above all, in movement. Even from afar, it was the most imposing of all her companions, even though it wasn't the tallest. A two-legged lizard that reminded Geb of Nergal's still surpassed it a great deal.

Companions will never be smaller than their wild counterparts, Geb recalled. The small ones grow up to riding size, like Shimmer, but the really big ones ... they get really big.

It was almost noon when Geb ceased watching Gerra. He had just been stopped by the local Fire Elmen. They don't support Gerra, Geb remembered something Nergal had told them. Would they allow Gerra to pass through at all?

But first Geb got distracted: the last Elmen of his own group reached the top of Wildfire Hill, above all, of course, Damara, who moved with the same grace as the panther who walked beside her. There were no guards with her - no, they only came now, flanking Nergal, whose hands were bound. Wet wood, Geb knew. That didn't burn.

Ani was close to him and seemed to reassure him, while their two companions were behind them. They all lined up along the river, so Geb decided to do the same.

So here they were ... and waited for Gerra's arrival.

The huge horn shield of his companion was the first thing to come into view. Slowly but surely, the rest of the reptile also appeared as it climbed the hill, along with Gerra, who was sitting on its back. It stopped just in front of the bridge and remained completely motionless until the other two reptiles and their companions were beside it.

Geb noticed how uncertain some Forest Elmen suddenly were. The reptiles *were* so much bigger than their own companions ... at once, Geb was able to understand very well why they feared the Fire Tribe, even without the use of fire.

Then he saw that in reality they weren't three at all. Three enormous reptiles, yes, and also three Fire Elmen, but behind a reptile a familiar face peered out.

"Kairos!", Geb called in surprise, and the others also noticed the Impure.

"What's he doing here?", Iris asked, no less astonished.

Geb didn't believe he was worried about Nergal. Rather, he suspected that Gerra wanted to have some Impure with him in order to do lower activities. And Kairos had volunteered to - yes, perhaps, to protect the other Impures from Nergal.

Of course, Kairos was too far away to hear them, but when he saw them, he waved. He doesn't hate us that much after all.

The whole bank seemed to hold its breath as Gerra rose from his companion and stepped onto the bridge. Although it was wide enough, the reptile didn't follow him.

That didn't stop Damara's panther. It followed her to the middle of the bridge, where she now stood opposite Gerra, a few inches larger than him even without her antlers.

They both spoke - probably deliberately - loud enough that everyone could understand them.

"Chief Damara."

"Chief Gerra."

"I wasn't expecting to ever meet you."

"And I never hoped I would."

Gerra didn't respond to that, but in his voice there was a warning tone. "You know why I am here."

Damara nodded briefly and stepped aside. Geb saw Nergal push past other Elmen and approach his father confidently, without any sign of weakness. Ani ran after him, but stopped short of the bridge, as if she weren't sure if she should follow him. So she waited.

For a moment Gerra and his son stared at each other in silence, but then the chief took the floor. "You're full of bad ideas, aren't you?"

"What will you do now?" Nergal replied. "Kill me?" He sounded angry - but not as if he was serious. More like as if he was trying to cover something else... fear?

Does he really think his father would do that? On the other hand, Geb didn't know Gerra too well. Would he do it?

Gerra drew the sword he carried with him in a sheath and lifted it over his head. Silence lay over the hill, while Geb held his breath without turning his eyes away. He won't -

The blade whirled down.

Karzelek and Ani screamed.

But the only thing that lay on the floor were Nergal's shackles.

Geb breathed out in relief. Gerra's mouth moved, but he spoke so softly that Geb didn't understand him. Whatever it was, it was something only Nergal heard. But then Gerra raised his voice again: "It just so happens that we caught a Shadow only days ago. You should keep him company." He nodded at the other Fire Elmen. "Seize him."

With heavy iron chains they hurried along, but Nergal didn't move from his spot. "You can't do that!", he protested. "I won't let my own tribe put me in chains!"

"It is for your own protection." And for ours, it lay silent in the air.

"No," Nergal shouted, sounding so angry that the two Fire Elmen briefly froze. But with renewed determination, they walked up to him again - until Geb saw the dark flames that formed on Nergal's hands.

Geb wanted to hurry to him, stop him - but he had seen with his own eyes what Nergal could do. If he intervened now, what would Nergal do?

It was Ani who made the choice for him. She ran over the bridge, past Damara and her hissing panther, grabbed Nergal's wrists, ignoring the flames, and looked him straight in the eye. She also said something, but not loud enough for Geb. Whatever it was, Nergal seemed to calm down, and the shadow flames disappeared as well.

Gerra stared at both of them. It took him a moment to find words. "... what just happened?"

"My name is Ani," the girl said, avoiding to look at Gerra's disturbing skull. "I was one of those who tried to heal Nergal."

"It worked out great!" Kairos shouted from the shore.

Gerra didn't let himself be distracted and looked at his son. "You do what she tells you to?"

"She manages to calm me," he replied curtly.

"Do you love her? A Forest -"

"No," Nergal interrupted him. Too fast, Geb thought.

The chief nodded thoughtfully. "I guess it would make sense to take her with us so you don't get any stupid ideas."

Damara took a step forward. "The Fire Tribe is no place for Forest Elmen."

"If she can prevent my son from getting us into trouble, I'll gladly take that chance." Gerra almost defiantly raised his chin to look at Damara. Then he pointed to Kairos. "And if a half-Forest Elm can survive with us, a brave girl like her will too."

Geb was not quite comfortable with the matter. He heard Iris say, "There were hardly any plants near the volcano. I can't imagine that Ani will stand it there for long."

"Apart from that," Gerra said, "I understand your concerns, of course. Especially since my tribe has caused you such problems. I apologize for my son killing one of your Elmen. Let me know if there is anything I can do to make amends."

Damara ran a hand through the fur of her panther and didn't hesitate for a moment. "Tell your tribe to stop the forest fires. None of my Elmen will die anymore because your definition of entertainment consists of the destruction of habitats."

Gerra opened his mouth to say something, but decided against it. He considered briefly, then said, "Discuss this with the chiefs of the respective clans. They listen to you rather than to me. That's the truth."

"Possibly. But you asked what you could do for me, and that is my answer. It's within the limits of what is possible, isn't it?"

While the adults were discussing, Nergal looked over his shoulder, exactly to Geb and his friends. For him, all this is the most unpleasant, Geb knew. But why was he looking at them? Did he want them to interfere?

"There's something else," Nergal suddenly said, his gaze directed back at his father. "I promised the others to take them to Fuocith. For trying to help me." There was a strange bitterness in his voice. "And I keep my promises."

Geb approached the bridge, surprised that Nergal actually remembered it. His friends were close behind him.

Gerra looked briefly at them. "It's just after the beginning of autumn. That means Fuocith is currently..."

"With the Blaze Raptors."

"Thank you, Nergal." Gerra told them to come closer until Geb was within earshot. He noticed that only Iris had followed him this far - they had begun the journey together, it was only logical that they represented their group. "The territory of the Blaze Raptors lies north-east of here, almost the lower jaw of Fuocith's teeth. We'll have to ride a detour."

But Geb beamed inwardly: Gerra hadn't rejected their request. "We can accompany you?" He asked, just to be sure.

Gerra nodded. "My son insists. And it's the least we can do."

"Thank you," Geb said honestly. "That means a lot to us."

"We'll wait here until everyone is ready." There was a smile behind Gerra's skull, but it was hard to tell how serious it was. "It was a pleasure to meet you, Damara. For good relations."

Damara gave him her hand, her voice was cold. "I hope so."

They followed Damara, Nergal, and Ani back to the shore. Iris looked over at Sedna, who was still standing with her sister. "Looks like Karzelek is no longer the youngest."

That's right, Geb realized. Selkie would now travel with them, she would never make it back to the Eastern Islands alone.

But Sedna grimaced at Iris's comment. "There's something I should tell you."

Oh no. Geb could already guess what was coming. Sedna had already concealed her sister - and what she would reveal now was maybe something even more than that. A lie.

Sedna took a deep breath. "I'm not from the Eastern Islands. I come from Zesto."

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