This is the twenty-second and last chapter in Forest of Flames and the fourth and last in part three, Water.
Geb had never thought it possible that one of them would die here, today - or ever. He had thought it difficult to save Sedna, but not impossible. But Sedna was gone, he himself clung to Boulder with his last remaining strength, on their little raft powerless against the enemy waves.
And Iris and Shimmer had been taken from the sky.
Geb saw Zephyr flying over them. For a moment, it seemed as if he was trying to save Iris, but then Morning Breeze suddenly turned around. The jay flew back to the waterfalls - to Karzelek, who was waiting there?
No, Morning Breeze flew farther, over the waterfalls, until Geb couldm't see her anymore.
Did Zephyr just - He didn't want to finish the thought. But Iris, he wouldn't -
What should he do now? Even if they made it to the waterfall cave, what use did that do? They were three - Geb, Boulder, and Karzelek. And that was unthinkable.
He raised his voice as much as he could. "We surrender!"
The turbulent water around him became quieter and quieter, as both the hostile Water Elmen and Hapi's friends stopped their magic. They were all exhausted by the use of their powers, but Geb noted with astonishment that nobody looked particularly triumphant. It was more a kind of... relief?
As he looked around, he saw the reason: the city was a mess. Most of the buildings were still standing, for many of the rafts had remained well. But there was scarcely anything left of the bridges that had connected them, the rafts simply drifted in the bay.
Geb stared at the extent of the destruction they had caused. This is all my fault. If only he had his magic better under control! Then he could have prevented half the city lying in ruins.
And if someone died? In sudden realization, he tried to make out corpses. If I killed someone? If Iris -
He froze. Iris. What if she had drowned? Or the spear had mortally wounded Shimmer? And he couldn't do anything because he couldn't swim.
"You have to get them out of there!", he pleaded with the Water Elmen who were now idly drifting on their companions near him. "Please! You can't let them drown!"
When none of them did anything, he wanted to yell at them. Ask them how they could be heartless enough to let a child drown. But he knew this would only make things worse.
A blue animal came to the surface, but it wasn't a fish, even if it had similarities with one. Geb remembered the journey on the Halcyon, where he had seen such an animal from afar: A whale. A boy Hapi's age was with him, but Geb only had eyes for what the animal was carrying in its huge mouth.
The whale brought Iris and Shimmer directly to him, and along with the boy, Geb managed to lift them both onto his raft. Motionless and completely soaked, they lay on the wood. Geb knelt beside them immediately. Were they already dead? Was it too late?
"Out of my way." Without giving him time to do so, the other boy pushed himself beside him. He put Iris on her back, crouched over her and removed the wet clothes from her upper body. Then he put his hands on her chest and pushed with quick, confident movements.
Geb held his breath as he watched the boy. He clearly knew what he was doing, and yet it took such a long time...
Then Iris began to cough. All the water within her left her body within a few coughing spurts, and Geb allowed himself to breathe again.
She was alive.
There was no time, however, to thank the boy, for now he moved to Shimmer with a more cautious approach. He had of course never reanimated a bird before.
Iris's full attention lay on her companion as soon as she had spotted her. Thus, Geb had a brief moment to capture the rest of their situation: He saw Hapi and Cuddle, who had now recovered Four-Leaf, and Karzelek, who was likewise brought to their raft and immediately took the goat into his arms. They were all here - except for Sedna and Zephyr, and in more or less good condition...
None of them had the strength or the motivation to talk to the others. Too tense was the situation: What would happen to them now? Would they be executed like Sedna? Locked away? Or could they actually return to Gerra?
Marduk's huge shark rose from the waves, the Water Elm on his back. Just in front of the raft, they stopped, and Marduk straightened to full size, which was about Geb's own. Only that Geb was too exhausted to get up.
The dark green Elm looked coldly down at them. He was covered in scars, and his fins were also torn in some places. His voice didn't reveal what he felt. "You lost."
Geb gathered all his courage. One of them had to speak. "We know."
"You caused enormous damage."
Geb grimaced as he remembered the battle. "We're sorry." Then he took a deep breath. "Sedna is our friend. We couldn't let her down."
Marduk's voice remained emotionless. "There is a diplomatic method."
"It would have taken too long." Hapi suddenly stood next to Geb, his eyes confident. "They only have a few days left to meet Fuocith. They had to free Sedna quickly."
"Since when has our tribe been interested in what the Keeper of Fire is doing? This does not affect anyone except the Fire Tribe itself. Apprentices of other tribes should have nothing to do with these affairs."
"It's not just about the Fire Tribe," Karzelek said. "It's about the prophecy."
Marduk stared down at him. "The prophecy will also be fulfilled without the interference of insignificant glittering Earth Tribe wimps."
Karzelek shrunk a little at these words, but Geb couldn't let that slide. "He isn't a strange Earth Elm. He comes from the Ore Tribe, and can do much more than you might think."
"I don't care who you are or where you came from," Marduk replied. "You have inflicted enormous damage to our city and must be punished."
Will you kill us?, Geb asked, but he held back. Don't give him ideas.
Marduk looked at him critically. "You are lucky. We adhere to the general law. As you are apprentices of other tribes, we will spare you - you and your companions. Nevertheless, your actions will have consequences."
"But Fuocith -," Iris put in, still with a powerless voice.
"You have nothing to do with Fuocith. You have nothing to do in Zesto. No, you will return to Xiro. Interfere with the prophecy there if you care so much. But Zesto will not be at fault if the world falls into darkness because insignificant children have interfered with the higher powers."
Could we really accidentally... prevent the prophecy? Geb shuddered at the idea. But then he heard Karzelek:
"Terrai told us we should talk to Fuocith."
For a moment, Marduk hesitated, then he shook his head and turned away. "Everyone can claim that. And now take these apprentices to Thalassa's ship. The faster we get rid of them, the better."
The raft immediately set in motion, pushed from behind by companions, and at the same time steered by water magic. The ship Marduk had spoken of was the same as the one Geb had noticed the day before. As if nothing had happened, it lay calmly anchored at the sea-side end of the bay, unaffected by the drama of the battle.
But to get near the ship at all, the raft had to pass the city's driftwood, which had already been pushed out of the way by some Elmen. Again, Geb felt incredibly guilty at the sight. The glances he met were partly hostile, but also partly apologetic or understanding. Not everyone thinks we're to blame. They probably liked Sedna, or at least they could understand why they had had to prevent her death.
But what good was it to them now? The closer they got to the ship, the more painfully Geb became aware that they wouldn't reach Fuocith any more. Instead they would return to Xiro... and then? Where would they go? To Terrai? Or to Aricel? There was no way they would give up. Not where they had come so far.
Finally, Thalassa's ship rose before them. It had great similarity with the Halcyon: The same size, the same design, only the figure at the bow was different. Instead of a flying fish, this time it was a Water Elmin - whose exact image appeared now on the deck. She had turquoise-blue scales that had already grown gray in some places and reminded Geb of Sirsir, even though the two of them, apart from their age, had no resemblance at all. Perhaps it was also the interested sparkle in her eyes when she discovered the friends; Sirsir had looked at them the same back then. "So these are our little evildoers."
Marduk nodded from the back of his companion. "You're going to take them to Xiro. To the Westhorn."
"To the Easthorn," she corrected him with a similarly cold voice. "They have the better harbor."
"Just get them away from here as quickly as possible."
"That should be easy." The woman began to give a few other Elmen instructions without even taking a breath. She knew exactly what to do, and Geb felt as if the ship had been completely made ready within minutes.
Only when she finally finished did she look down at the raft. "Oh, right." She just needed to lift her arms, then the water under the raft also shot upwards and hurled the friends straight onto the deck, so the air was squeezed out of Geb for a moment.
The woman looked at him with an amused smile, then reached out for him and helped him to his feet. "I'm Thalassa." And pretty strong. "I'm Geb."
"Fine, Geb. Do you know how to sail?"
"Wonderful." She looked past Geb, to someone else who had to be standing somewhere there. "Get ready, Arry. We're setting sail."
When Geb followed her gaze, he saw the boy who had saved Iris and Shimmer before. "Your son?" She didn't reply and glanced at Geb's friends instead, looking as if she needed to do something urgently. "Will you be fine?"
The others seemed to be doing well, although Iris still didn't have the strength to get up. "I think so," Geb said.
Thalassa nodded. "If you need something, come to me. But the sooner we're at sea, the better." Then she left him on the deck and instead helped Arry get the ship moving. Did their companions and their magic help them?
What was he thinking? He leaned over the railing. He would still have time to deal with the ship later, but now he should say goodbye to Hapi and Selkie. He tried to spot them among the Elmen who still watched them, but he couldn't see them anywhere. Did they not want to say farewell to them?
"Down here, Geb!" Geb, relieved, recognized the exact Elmen he had looked for below him. Hapi and Selkie sat on Cuddle's back, who seemed to accompany the ship. "Sorry we couldn't help you better."
"You did what you could." Geb sighed. "And we're sorry that we destroyed your city."
Hapi still managed to smile. "It could have been worse, right? The houses are still standing and no one is seriously injured."
"Are you sure?"
"As far as I can tell." Hapi's smile became more sincere. "Don't worry about us, Geb. We're like Sedna, we're going to make it."
In Geb there was hope. "Do you know where she is?"
"No," he confessed, Selkie also frowned. "But we'll keep our eyes open, I promise."
"And what else?", Hapi asked cautiously. "What are you going to do now?"
Geb was silent for a moment. "If only I'd know."
"Don't let Marduk get you down, okay? You can find the Hero of Light, I know that. You can't give up."
Easy for you to say. But he didn't want to destroy his friend's hopes. "We won't."
Hapi nodded contentedly. "Good luck, guys. Greet Arry from me."
"Good idea." Geb waved the two farewell, then looked for the other boy. He finally found him at the bow of the ship where he stared down into the water. "Hello, Arry."
The boy didn't move. "Talk to my mother if you want to talk."
Geb walked over to him without saying a word. He didn't want to argue, he simply wasn't in the mood. In order to at least figure out why Arry was supposed to be so busy, he followed his gaze: A whale, much larger than Arry's own companion, was connected by ropes to the ship and pulled it through the ocean. It was the one Arry was watching so firmly.
This must be Thalassa's companion. Geb looked at the woman standing on the other side of the ship, staring at the sea and the bay they slowly left behind. Geb decided to follow Arry's request and went over to her. "We're sorry we destroyed half the city."
Thalassa turned to him - so she wasn't busy. "There's not much that ties us to Ancamna," she said. "To hardly any city, to be honest. And besides, it serves right, especially Marduk. I could never stand him and the other ambassadors, just like the law concerning the companions."
"We couldn't let Sedna die."
"I know. I'd just drop you off a bit further north of Ancamna if I could. But first, it would still be too late to reach your destination, and second, I can't risk anyone noticing us."
He nodded. That others got themselves into trouble because of them was the last thing he wanted. "So your companion pulls us across the ocean."
"Exactly. And Arry keeps an eye on him - he has an excellent sense of noticing the smallest signs that Wavebreaker subconsciously transmits."
That explained why the boy was so immensely concentrated. "Do all the ships at the Water Tribe look like this?"
"Not that I'd know," she replied, slightly confused. "Why do you ask?"
"We've been on a ship like this. It looked the same."
Curiosity flashed through her green eyes. "Who was the captain?"
"His name is Sirsir." Geb had barely finished his sentence when Thalassa grinned broadly. "You know him?"
She nodded enthusiastically. "He's an old friend of mine. I haven't seen him is years! Where is he now? How is he?"
"His ship is called Halcyon," Geb said, glad to have found a less depressing subject. "The other captain is a Sky Elm named Vully. They're sailing the Stormy Sea."
"I'm glad he found someone. He always had different tastes than most." She smirked as though she was thinking back to a special memory. "Just a pity they sail so far north. We don't usually get that far."
"Should we greet him from you if we ever come to the Beak Bay again?", Geb suggested.
"Yes," Thalassa said. "That would be great."
"I'll try to think about it." If they ever visited the Beak Bay again and Sirsir happened to be there. A quite unlikely situation, they both felt - but for the moment this positive thought was all they needed.
Hours later Geb woke up by the sound of steps nearby. Normally such a sound would never have awakened him, but here on the sea his sleep was not quite as sound as on land.
Curiosity got the better of him. They all slept below deck, only Iris and Shimmer preferred the open sky. And besides them, no one else was on board - so who was awake right now?
He heard the steps move away, and finally the opening and closing of the hatch that led to the deck. It was too dark to see who was missing, so Geb decided to follow the noises, and sneaked cautiously to the hatch. As soon as he had opened it, he saw the starry sky above him. It was still in the middle of the night.
He waited until his eyes had grown accustomed to the dark, and finally discovered a small, chubby figure at the railing: Karzelek.
Concerned, Geb accelerated his steps. Did he dream about Alastor again? He hoped he wouldn't scare his friend now. "Hello, Karzelek."
The boy turned around, but he relaxed immediately when he recognized Geb. "What are you doing out here?"
"Asking you what you're doing here." He smiled, knowing that Karzelek had better eyes in the dark than he did. Then he remembered his guess. "Did you have nightmares again? You slept well on the Halcyon."
"I haven't dreamed about the Shadows for days," Karzelek said proudly. "I think that has to do with our conversation with Khya. That helped."
"I'm glad." Geb looked up at the sky. "What are you doing here, then? Looking at the stars?"
Karzelek followed his gaze. "They're great, aren't they? It makes me sad that so many Elmen from my tribe have never seen the stars."
"So it's all the more important that you get the opportunity. You can tell them a lot when you return to Spectralia."
"I'm not going back to Spectralia," Karzelek said resolutely. "Not until we've reached our goal."
It surprised Geb a little that his friend still believed in their mission so firmly. Karzelek had always given up quickly. But then he realized something elementary: Karzelek had spoken of a We. At that time the boy had always looked up to Geb... of course, he still did, but now he saw himself as part of their group. They belonged together - Karzelek, Iris, Sedna, Zephyr, himself and all their companions - and even if the previous day had separated them, Geb felt that this was not yet the end.
No, he would stay with his friends. He had been afraid to destroy with his magic, so he had never trained it - but the last day had shown him that he needed his magic.
He would learn to master his powers if it helped him protect his friends. He would be the light Karzelek saw him as until they had found the true Hero of Light. He would lead his group: to Terrai, to Aricel, or wherever else fate would lead them next.
Once again he followed Karzelek's gaze to the stars, the tiny lights in the darkness of night. He put an arm around his friend's shoulders and returned his gentle smile. "Don't worry," he said. "We'll find a way."
|Forest of Flames Chapters|
|One: Fire||1: Into the Unknown • 2: The Gift • 3: Travel by Snake • 4: Scorch Lines • 5: Wars to Be Won • 6: Impure Business • 7: Dark Fire|
|Two: Forest||8: Smoke and Feathers • 9: Midnight • 10: Heart of the Forest • 11: The Ones We Love • 12: Shadow Dance • 13: Makeshift Solution • 14: A New Beginning • 15: Eye of the Storm • 16: Traitors • 17: The Return • 18: Wildfire Hill|
|Three: Water||19: Answers • 20: Ancamna Falls • 21: Against the Flow • 22: Starry Night|