This is the second chapter in Forest of Flames and the second in part one, Fire.

The Gift

"Can't you stand still for once?" Sedna's gaze was following Geb, who paced uneasily over the ship's deck and kept looking towards the coast. "I thought your tribe is supposed to be calm and patient."

Geb forced himself to stop. She was right. "I'm worried about Iris, that's all. She should have long been back by now." They had been waiting for more than an hour now, and there was still no sign of Shimmer and her.

"She always insists she can take care of herself." Sedna sounded worried as well, she couldn't fool him. "And anyway, what do you want to do? We can't get in there. Not with the entire ship."

"Then we'll swim."

"Can you even swim?"

"A little bit."

Sedna groaned. "Geb, that's not helping. I'm the only one of us who can swim. And I'm not going to stop you from drowning on the way."

A shadow lay over the two and seconds later, Vully and his companion Mackerel landed next to them. They had taken off a while ago to look for Iris and check the situation, and Geb immediately felt hopeful again.

"And?" He asked. "Did you find Iris?"

"She'd be here now if we had," Sedna replied.

Vully glanced at her and nodded. "No trace of her, but we didn't land either. Who knows what you'd find when you're on the ground." He signaled Sirsir, who was still at the wheel, with his hand. "We're going in."

"I thought we can't?" They could be attacked, Vully had said so himself. Unless...

Vully put a hand on Geb's back; he wasn't able to reach the shoulder without stretching. "There's no one left to attack us, big guy." Then he went over to Sirsir, talking to him as the Halcyon slowly began to move. They spoke too quietly for Geb to understand, but he didn't want to anyway. He had understood very well what Vully had just said, the conversation with Sirsir certainly didn't concern him.

Instead, he joined Sedna, who was standing at the rail and looking at her surroundings. Strictly speaking, she was staring at the water that was choked with the bodies of Sky Elmen and their companions. Geb quickly averted his gazed, instead trying to distract himself with the rocks around him.

Sedna spoke without looking up. "If it helps, I haven't seen Iris yet."

That's not really helping. But he didn't say anything.

Geb heard steps behind him and turned around. It was Karzelek, Four-Leaf beside him, looking at Geb in confusion. At that moment, Geb was glad the boy was so small. The railing was too high for him, the floating bodies were hidden from him at this distance.

"Are we looking for Iris?" Karzelek asked, coming to him before Geb could have stopped him. For a moment he stared at the bodies in the water and didn't move, just like he had done when he had killed the Shadow Alastor. Geb was about to try and calm him, but then Karzelek said something. "That's strange."

Sedna looked up as well, surprised that Karzelek wasn't just silent and frightened. "What's strange?"

Karzelek continued to look towards the water, his voice even quieter than usual. He was afraid. "They aren't burned."

Geb forced himself to look at the bodies again, and his friend was right: considering that they were dead, they all looked unusually ... uninjured. No, that wasn't quite true. Especially some of the birds had partly singed feathers - but this was by no means the result of flames.

"Lightning," said Sedna. "We often have storms in the Water Tribe, and more than enough birds. These are lightning wounds."

Geb knew that there was a Lightning Tribe in the Stormy Sea, currently at war with some other tribes. "So it wasn't the Fire Tribe who attacked the harbor?"

"They are allied with the Lightning Tribe, they were probably both here." Sedna glanced at the harbor that had now become visible and was still in flames. "There's enough fire here, at least."

"And no water to extinguish it." Sirsir approached her, handing the wheel to Vully. "If only our companions were here. Then we could save something, at least."

Sedna nodded briefly, then pointed to a spot of the harbor that wasn't burning: a sandbank, just big enough to go ashore. "Drop us off over there," she said. "Then we'll go on alone... with or without Iris."

Sirsir gave Vully a sign before giving the friends a wistful smile. "It's gonna be so quiet without you. You were pretty nice company."

"It was great," Karzelek agreed. "The sailing."

Vully, too, joined them as soon as he'd taken the ship to the coast, and had left a large plank which was wide enough for Boulder. "Well, then it's time to say goodbye. If you need us... you know where to look."

"You will be the first to hear about our adventures." Just weeks ago, Vully had expressed the desire to discover the Plain of Lumeon himself. To tell him about it was the least that Geb could do.

"I can't wait, big guy. Take care!"

"We can try, at least," Sedna replied. She knew just as well as Geb how dangerous their adventure would likely continue to be. "Until someday."

After they had all said goodbye to each other - and had woken up Boulder, dozing as usual - the friends left the ship. Apart from Sedna, all the Elmen and companions were equally glad to have solid ground under their feet again, but their joy didn't last long. They had to find Iris.

Geb tried the obvious way. "Iris!" He called, as loud as he could. "Iris, are you there?"

"As if that's going to work," Sedna commented, but indeed: Something was moving far ahead of them. A small blue dot that was clearly a person.

"Iris!" Geb cried, following the dot as fast as he could.

His friends were right behind him. "Geb, wait!"

But he hadn't lost sight of the dot yet, he kept following him. He heard Sedna behind him again.

"That probably isn't even Iris!"

"But maybe they know where she is!"

"Wait for Karzelek, at least!"

That stopped him. Sedna was right: Karzelek might be strong, but he wasn't made for running. Breathing heavily, the boy followed his friends at some distance and Geb felt guilty immediately. "Sorry, buddy," he said as soon as his friend had caught up to them. "I shouldn't have run right away."

"I wanted to take... Boulder," Karzelek panted. "But he was too tall." He looked past Geb, where the stranger had disappeared. "They only escaped because of me."

"Nonsense," Geb said. "Come on, we'll look for them together. They can't have gotten far." He walked to the spot where he had last seen the stranger. It was Karzelek who first found what they were looking for: footprints in the already left ash.

"Great work," Sedna nodded, surprising Geb. It didn't happen often that she said something nice on her own. "I'm only used to finding trails underwater."

That was another thing Geb hadn't known about her. "Your vocation is hunter?"

Instead of looking to him, she glanced at the tracks in the ashes and began to follow them. "I am more useful in that regard underwater."

The tracks led them through the few paths that were not blocked by the fire and its destruction, and finally into a dead end - where they weren't alone.

A man was sitting there, a man with a blue skin that in some places was as bright as Iris's feathers, and in others as dark as Sedna's scales. The characteristic white lines that every Elm had on their body were missing, and his torn clothes also made it obvious: they had found an Impure. The last one they had met had been Thorn, but compared to him, this one looked rather like a chief. He must be working for the Elmen at the Teeth instead of being a wildling.

Geb stepped forward to ask if he knew anything about Iris, but Sedna was faster. "Where did you get that?" She asked the Impure and snatched a blue crystal from his hand that reminded Geb of the Ore Tribe. No, it was from the Ore Tribe.

"That's the stone Iris got from Heimdall," he also recognized. Did the Impure know what had happened to Iris?

"Is that how you greet a person of such importance?", the Impure replied, crossing his arms. "There's no reason why I should help you."

"You're an Impure, that's reason enough."

Geb tried to calm the situation. "What's your name?"

"Fides. And no, I don't want to know yours. Why would I? We're not going to talk that much longer."

"Tell us what happened here," Sedna insisted. "You're an Impure, you have to."

Fides didn't seem to care. "I don't serve you, fish face. Only my master, and he's drifting over there in the water."

Sedna put a hand to her forehead, trying not to lose her patience and act without thinking. "Alright, Fides. What do we have to do to make you help us find our friend?"

He confidently pointed at the gemstone Sedna held in her hand. "Give me that."

"That was a gift," Geb said. "We can't give you the stone if Iris doesn't want us to."

"Well, maybe she wants it?" Fides continued to sit demonstratively before them. "Like I said, no stone, no information. Your problem, not mine."

"You can have my stone." Karzelek took out one of his glowing stones: the one he wore on a device on the forearm so that he could hold the stone even with Four Leaf in his arms. "This one is better than the blue one anyway. It glows in the dark."

Fides sounded skeptical, but Geb saw the sparkle in his eyes. "That's a trick, isn't it? Either it only works with someone like you or it lights up all the time. Always."

"No," Karzelek said calmly. "It's brighter with me, but everyone can make it glow. If you want it to go out, you just have to let go."

"Let me see." Fides tore the glowing stone out of his hand as Karzelek walked up to him. He shielded his eyes with his hand, probably to check Karzelek's words. Finally, he nodded, satisfied. "We have a deal. This one's mine."

Sedna gave Karzelek a grateful look. "Good. Now tell us what you know."

Now that Fides was happy, he was rather helpful after all. "The Lightning Tribe attacked us," he explained. "What they wanted? No idea. They didn't take anything with them, I think. Only fired their lightning at everything and everyone."

"The port is strategically important for the war," Sedna pondered. "The northernmost place where you could supply the Water Tribe without being attacked."

"Yeah, until yesterday. Now they'll have to survive up there without us."

"Why are they fighting anyway?" Karzelek asked, and Geb realized that he himself had no idea.

Fides shrugged. "I don't care, I've got nothing to do with that anymore. I'm gonna move to a nearby wildling settlement. Take care!"

"Wait!" Sedna grabbed him by the arm when he wanted to get up. "You didn't tell us where Iris is."

He rolled his eyes. "Oh, right, about that... well, the Fire Tribe showed up after the others had already left again. Looted the warehouse and that's it. They took your friend, too."

"Are you sure?" Geb asked nervously. Problems with the Fire Tribe were the last thing they needed on their journey - and what if they had done something to her?

"What do I know? Small and light blue, just like her bird. Didn't see much more than that."

"That will have to do," Sedna nodded. "Where did they go?"

"West," Fides said brazenly

"And then?"

"How am I supposed to know? I didn't follow them. None of my business."

Geb knew, however, that they needed some kind of hint. They didn't know this continent and would get lost way too fast. "Is there a place where they could have gone? A city or something."

Fides raised an eyebrow. "I'm an Impure of Sky and Water. I've never met the Fire Tribe. The continent is as foreign to me as to you." He made a dramatic pause. "But..."

"But what?" Just like Geb, Sedna was well aware that Iris was moving further away from them with every second. "Get to the point already."

"But they patrol regularly at the border. If you wait long enough, someone's gonna show up who knows more than I do."

"Looks like we have no choice." At last, Sedna let him go. "Take us there."

"And risk that the Fire Tribe finds me? Good joke. Like I said, I'm going somewhere else. South, to be exact. You'll find the border without me, it's hard to miss."

"Thanks anyway," Geb said, if only to keep Sedna from asking more questions. They had lost so much time already and Iris was in danger! "You really helped us a lot, Fides."

"Was the least I could do, with this kind of gift." He held up the glowing stone that now belonged to him. "Good luck, and don't get burned!" "We'll try," Sedna muttered, while Geb remembered what Thorn had said when they had left him back then. "May the almighty Infinipede protect you!"

For a moment, Fides was actually speechless. "...thank you," he said at last, as if he didn't know what else to say. "You too."

He accompanied them to the upper edge of the harbor, where the rest of the continent began. Only when he headed south and Geb sat on Boulder's back with the rest of his friends did Sedna ask about his words.

"Infinipede? Seriously?"

"No idea," he confessed as Boulder started to move. "An Impure said that to me once."

"Let's hope it's good for something."

"We'll find her," he said, sounding as optimistic as possible.

"Oh, I have no doubt about that. I'm just wondering whether we'll find them in time."

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