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This is the twenty-first chapter in Forest of Flames and the third in part three, Water.

Against the Flow

A sudden noise tore Iris from her sleep. She was instantly awake, just like Zephyr, who looked at her in alarm.

But her eyes were on the water beside them. The noise had ceased as fast as it had come, but she saw its aftermath: a tall shadow below the surface of the water, rapidly increasing its distance from them.

"What the ...," Zephyr whispered, who had also discovered the figure.

Iris was already a step ahead. She scanned the cave, her group, to see if everything was alright.

Then she froze: Sedna was gone.

But Sedna didn't disappear with that much noise. It had sounded rather like... yeah, as if she had been dragged underwater.

Iris looked at Zephyr, her thoughts racing. "Wake the others." She swung herself on Shimmer's back. "I'll find out where they're going."

She didn't give him time for contradictions - with every second, her target gained more lead. Shimmer pushed off the ground and broke through the waterfall, completely soaking Iris in the process.

But she didn't care. She looked for the bridges and above all the water below her: the sun was just rising, allowing her to recognize the shadows. Especially when they moved. Water Elmen probably couldn't see in complete darkness, so their target had waited for the first light.

She instinctively steered Shimmer to Ikatere's hut. He was the only one who knew about Sedna and whom Iris would trust to kidnap her. To kill her.

Iris suppressed the thought. He could have killed her on the spot if that was his goal. But he had fled with her. What was he doing?

Shimmer landed on the dock in front of the hut. Iris got off her back and remembered the night before: If you hear nothing, he's awake. So she listened - and heard nothing.

She knocked on the wooden frame like Hapi had done. "Ikatere?"

No reply.

Iris knocked again, then pushed herself through the curtain. Inside the hut it was dark - too dark to see more than outlines. But one thing was clear: no one was here.

She ran back outside and jumped back on Shimmer's back. They had to find Sedna. Save her from her father before it was too late. But now they could be anywhere!

But she wouldn't give up. Back in the sky, her eyes searched the docks for every detail that could help them.

They were already turning the third circle over Ancamna, and Iris's hope began to fade. It's Sedna. None of the others. Maybe she deserves it. Maybe they should leave her behind instead of wasting more time here and missing their trip to Fuocith.

If we don't find them, she'll die. They had helped Nergal without ever having liked him. They had spared Sabazios. How could they leave Sedna to her fate? Sedna, who, despite her lies, had been a friend to her?

No, she had to go on. One more round she would fly and then...

There! From the corner of her eye she noticed a movement. Not far below her an Elm rose out of the water and dragged another shape behind them: Sedna.

Was that her father? Iris couldn't see his scale color in the dark. But his marks had glown blue and the scales of this Elm were silvery blue.

Everything inside her urged Iris to make Shimmer go down, but the lighter Elm was already dragging Sedna, who was obviously unconscious or at least didn't resist, into a nearby building. Iris didn't have the faintest idea of ​​what could be in there - following them completely alone would perhaps put her in danger herself. Then that wouldn't help Sedna at all.

Don't do what you would do now. Iris forced herself not to act too hastily. Think about it. What would Geb do now?

He would get help. Ask Hapi for advice. Free Sedna together.

Yes, she decided. That was a much better idea. She took in the building: In the middle of the city, the entrance not marked with a fabric curtain, but with pearls dazzling in the morning light. And right there, between the bridges, a strange round stone island. That had to be enough.

Shimmer raced back to the waterfalls, where Iris noticed in relief that the others weren't just awake, but already waiting for them outside.

"And?", Geb asked, barely after they landed.

Iris told them what she had seen, and Hapi nodded at every word.

"That's Marduk's house. Not good at all."

"Your chief?", Geb asked, but Hapi ignored him.

"Marduk will definitely kill Sedna. Not before he gathered the city and gave a speech, which usually takes a while... but not long enough. We'll never save her in time."

"During his speech, then", Iris suggested. "We'll show up in the middle and save Sedna when everyone is distracted."

Hapi looked at her desperately, his thoughts racing as well. "They'll kill you! You have no chance against half a city that insists on killing companionless Elmen like Sedna."

"There must be a diplomatic solution," Zephyr said warily. "We should try to negotiate with them before innocent people are injured."

"Would be nice," Hapi sighed. "But that will hardly work."

"And why not? If we only convince them that Sedna -"

Hapi shook his head. "It's not that easy. It's possible that Sedna will be able to go with you and stay alive... but Marduk would have to talk to our chief. And that guy's on the other side of the continent."

"And we have to act now if we want to be with Gerra in time," Iris knew. "So we'll do it with force, if need be."

Geb, who had frowned the whole time, asked, "Will he gather the city on the docks?"

"No," Hapi replied, confused. "In the middle of the bay is a small surface we call the moon island. He'll be there."

"Solid ground?"

"Yeah."

He nodded. "With Boulder, we have a chance."

Now Iris understood what he was about to do. "You want to use your magic?"

Geb still felt uncomfortable. "I need to get Sedna out of there."

"You're either incredibly strong or incredibly bad at using your magic," Hapi guessed.

"Both," Geb admitted. "But we don't have a choice. Just take us there."

"Okay." Hapi climbed on Cuddle's back and looked at the two Sky Elmen. "Fly back to town. You'll find the crowd quickly. Just make sure that they don't discover you or think you're enemies. I'll bring the others to you."

He'll use his magic to help Boulder through the water, Iris knew. Just like I helped him back then. "See you soon," she said to them before she rose to the air with a now uneasy feeling.

"Do we have a plan?" Zephyr asked shortly afterwards. "Except sending in Geb and Boulder and hoping that they won't cause too much chaos?"

"You've heard Geb. That will have to do." It wouldn't take too long: Geb would distract everyone so that Sedna could escape. And then they would flee back to Gerra together.

No problem at all.

The piece of land that Hapi called the moon island towered unmistakably out of the water. It was the island Iris had noticed earlier: a circular surface of light-gray stone with darker spots that actually resembled the moon, not more than fifty feet in diameter. It was right in front of Marduk's hut, but no bridge led directly to it. The island was enclosed by a square of docks, but the Elmen were kept at a distance. Iris shuddered. They probably only use this island for executions. A flat stone in its middle confirmed her thoughts: it had the perfect shape to behead someone on it.

She looked over at Zephyr, who was also staring at the island. She couldn't blame him for his empty gaze... surely he thought about how short and dignified such an execution was in comparison to the sky holes that were standard in the Tribe of Sky.

Iris focused again on what was happening beneath her. There were already some Elmen gathered together and more and more joined them. That Sky Elmen liked to watch negotiations, she could understand, but was the Water Tribe really that interested in executions? Or did it just have consequences if you didn't appear?

Then she saw Sedna. She was indeed conscious and, fortunately, in good shape. Followed closely by a large dark green Water Elm, she left Marduk's hut and headed toward the moon island. No guard was needed to make her, the dark green Elm with his curved sword was reason enough.

It urged Iris to fly straight down, and to simply disappear with Sedna into the sky, but she noticed that she had been wrong: there were guards, a whole lot of them. They all had spears with them and Iris didn't doubt they could use them. Shimmer would be struck within seconds if they acted now.

Iris had no choice but to watch Sedna walk the plank that had just been put out to get to the moon island. She went straight to the stone in the middle of the island, and then, just before she got into position for the execution, her eyes went up.

Dozens of eyes followed her, including those of some guards. Shimmer barely managed to avoid a throwing spear that whirred only featherwidths past them. Another followed, so the birds were forced to fly higher, out of reach of the weapons. Too high to hear the Elmen on the ground.

But perhaps this incident wasn't so bad. The guards, she also saw from up there, now kept all eyes on them. Geb just had to approach from a different direction and then...

Where was Geb, anyway? It looked as if the dark green Elm was now giving a speech, so that had to be Marduk. Hopefully the speech lasted as long as Hapi had said. They had to distract the Water Elmen as long as possible.

"Over there."

Zephyr drew her attention to the water behind Marduk's hut: indeed, a brown rhinoceros pushed through the waves. A spot that none of the Water Elmen noticed. The water became brighter and flatter the nearer they came to the moon island. Soon, Boulder would have solid ground under his feet...

She heard Zephyr again. "I hope this'll go well."

I hope so too. "Get ready," she said. "It's starting."

Even out of the air Iris saw the ground begin to shake. Many of the Water Elmen lost their balance as the wooden docks under them trembled, and the water itself made innumerable tiny waves.

"That's our chance!" Iris shouted to Zephyr. They had to prevent the guards from throwing their spears at Boulder. So she let Shimmer descend, move mere featherwidths over the armed Elmen who still tried to keep on their feet. Zephyr did the same hesitantly - and that made the Water Elmen so angry that the air was soon full of spears. But thanks to Geb's earthquake, the guards couldn't aim and combined with Iris and Zephyr's magic, they all missed the birds.

A look down told her that Sedna had escaped to safety. At least she couldn't find the Elmin anywhere, she had to be underwater where no one could catch her. Hopefully, she also knew it was best to wait for her friends up by the river...

We need to go back there. But Iris suddenly realized that this wasn't all that easy: Boulder was in the middle of the bay, there was nothing but water between him and the cave under the waterfall. Even if Boulder was a better swimmer, the companions of the Water Elmen - and the Elmen themselves with their magic - would cut off their path within seconds. Whether Geb could use his magic without ground contact was questionable.

We have to do it like we did at the river. "Come on," she called to Zephyr, but that was hardly necessary. Her friend was quickly with her, and together they searched the ground for Boulder and his riders.

The rhino now stood firmly on the moon island with all four legs, Geb and Karzelek looked around in panic, in search of a way out. They were surrounded by Water Elmen, but of course they couldn't surrender. In total despair Geb used his magic, more and more bridge posts broke from the impact and kept the Water Elmen at a distance. Geb was lucky: many of the Water Elmen couldn't get close to them because they would be injured otherwise.

Iris's gaze fell on one of the larger rafts that were drifting in the increasingly turbulent waves: whatever had been lying on it had already been swept or destroyed, and with some luck it was strong enough to carry Boulder. It had to be strong enough.

She nodded at Zephyr, who immediately steered towards the raft and tried to push it into Boulder's direction, while Iris flew to tell Geb.

"You just have to send one more wave," she cried to not have to get too close to him. This would hopefully keep the Water Elmen away long enough, leaving only the raft in Boulder's vicinity.

Geb nodded silently, so Iris returned to Zephyr to help him with her magic. She was glad that Shimmer could fly - the quake which suddenly caused all Water Elmen to fall into the bay had no effect on them. With her own thrust of magic she held the raft in position as the resulting mega wave reached it, and brought it close enough to the moon island, the only thing still firmly in place. The rafts with huts were also drifting freely in the bay, but as far as Iris could tell, they were all still intact.

Boulder managed to climb onto the raft, and Iris thanked Aricel for carrying his weight. Now they only had to get it back to the waterfalls - so she put herself and Zephyr in position behind the raft to push it with her wind magic.

But as she held herself above the water, Iris suddenly noticed that something was wrong. The Water Elmen that were supposed to drift around them had all disappeared.

Iris fell almost off Shimmer's back as she noticed the huge dark shadows beneath the water surface. Before she could warn Geb, blue and green scaly animals shot out of the water, some of them with teeth as sharp as those of the Fire Tribe reptiles. They wouldn't eat her friends, surely?

In a moment of relief, Iris realized that none of the fish seemed to be interested in that. But they caused violent waves, much stronger than those that Geb had triggered with his earthquake, and prevented his raft from approaching the waterfalls.

Then the waves turned against them. From the corner of her eye she saw Hapi on Cuddle's back, and some other young Elmen who were apparently on his side. They wouldn't be able to fight the adults for long, but Iris took advantage of this opportunity and conjured up an even stronger drift of wind for Boulder, which brought the raft a good deal forward. We can do it!

She heard Geb's screams and saw how he and all the others on the raft were hurled into the water when a gigantic dark green shark caught the raft with his head from below and thrust it with enormous force.

Hapi and a few of his friends were with Boulder and Geb at once, but a bit nearby she spotted Karzelek, desperate not to drown. Nobody noticed him, they were all distracted by other things.

Iris didn't hesitate. She let Shimmer fly down, exactly towards Karzelek. The magpie seized him with her claws and lifted him up. Karzelek screamed - did he even still know what was happening?

"It's just me", she tried to calm him. "Come on, we'll take you to the waterfall cave and -"

"No!" He protested and fidgeted, which made it unnecessarily complicated not to let him fall. "I have to go back there!"

"You can't swim!"

"But Four-Leaf is still down there!"

Pigeon goo. He was right, his companion wasn't with him. And she hadn't seen him from above. "We'll look for him. But we have to set you down."

"Alright."

Iris prayed that everyone else was too distracted to notice her now. Shimmer flew, as fast as she could, past the Water Elmen fighting each other with their magic.

They put Karzelek on the narrow strip of land that protruded from the waterfall cave. "Get somewhere safe!", Iris shouted at him, then Shimmer shot back over the battlefield.

Iris did her best to find Four-Leaf within the chaos. But someone else caught her eye - someone who would be a great help to her now.

"You have to help me!", she cried to Hapi, who was easy to see with his comparatively bright scales.

He immediately left the Water Elm he was holding back with a friend. "What happened?"

"Four-Leaf is here somewhere," she said. He nodded already, he didn't need to know more. Without another word he dived off and was no longer to be seen.

Back in the air, Iris kept her eyes open for the goat, which wasn't that easy. The waves, the driftwood and the fighting Elmen made it almost impossible to discover such a small and gray creature.

But she had to do it. Hapi would only find Four-Leaf underwater, Karzelek needed her up here. Four-Leaf might be small, but he was nevertheless a part of their group. Karzelek's companion. She wouldn't let anything happen to him.

There! Not far from her, Four-Leaf tried to hold onto a piece of driftwood, but he always slipped off. He wouldn't be able to keep it up for long.

Shimmer shot down again to lift him up as she had done with Karzelek. She went deeper and deeper, the wind blowing Iris's face.

Suddenly, it was no longer a dive.

But a fall.

Far too late - only at Shimmer's cry - Iris noticed the spear that had drilled through the flank of the magpie.

"No!", she cried, so loud that the whole bay had to hear it. Not now. Not here.

Not again.

The arrow was only in her flank. Not in the middle of her chest. She'd be fine. She had to be.

Don't overreact. Don't overreact. Don't -

They fell. They fell and fell and the pain hit her with full force as they hit the water surface. Iris was too paralyzed to swim, and anyway, she had to stay with Shimmer. Above the surface of the water she saw the outline of a bird that came nearer and nearer - Zephyr on Morning Breeze - and that gave her hope. The others knew they were here. They would be saved.

She didn't have to leave Shimmer.

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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