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

Travel by Snake

The clouds swept over Iris as she slowly regained consciousness. A huge bird was up there as well, and she easily identified the silhouette. Shimmer's alright, she thought with relief. But her joy vanished instantly when she realized that she was the one who was moving. She lay on her back, but she did not remain in one place; she seemed to be moving in wide curves. Panic rose up in her chest, especially since she not only didn't know where she was, she also felt that she had been tied to... something. Something that was moving.

Iris raised her head as best she could to find out more about her situation. In front of her she saw nothing but a barren wasteland, and beside her... she froze. Beside her, two of the Fire Elmen rode on their lizards. Which in turn meant that she herself had to be on the back of the snake...

"You're awake." Iris groaned frustratedly when she couldn't turn to the person who had to be right in front of her. But she could tell by the voice that it was the woman with the scale cloak. "Who would have thought that birds are so easy to catch?"

"Thanks a lot," Iris replied. If only she could at least see the other person... "I have to pee."

"That can wait until we stop for the night."

"It's urgent."

She heard an amused snort. "You don't have to pee and you know that. You just want me to untie you."

So it wasn't going to be as simple as she had imagined. The woman wasn't stupid - there was no use in lying to her. "Pretty much. So?"

"All right. Head down."

Iris put her head back on the serpent's back, and froze as the woman bent over her, removing the leather straps with which she had bound Iris to the snake. She grabbed Iris's arm, pulled it up, and finally grabbed her with both hands so that they were standing together on the back of the snake that pushed itself over the ground without any interruption.

The woman, who was a bit more than a head taller than Iris, stared at her. She had noticed Iris's glance to Shimmer. "Don't even think about running away. You know what happened last time."

"Yeah, you tied me to a snake and dragged me who knows where." In fact, she was incredibly grateful that the Fire Elmen didn't seem to have harmed Shimmer somehow. As long as her companion was well, she would endure everything.

The woman sat down and pulled Iris with her. It was only now that Iris relaxed a little; she no longer felt as though she was about to fall from the snake. "What else should we have done? If we had left you in the warehouse, you'd have burned down like the rest of it."

Iris looked away. "You didn't have to attack us in the first place."

"I'm the wrong person to say that to. Laran noticed you, not me."

"One should know not to cast a shadow in the torchlight," the man called to them. He couldn't possible have heard her! Iris bit her tongue to avoid a remark. She had paid attention to everything in the warehouse, she was certain of that.

"Don't worry about it," the woman said. "He's just an excellent hunter." When she looked at Iris again, she didn't feel all that hostile. Had she really only wanted to help her?

"Still, you could have left us there. Somewhere at the harbor, at least. Our friends will start looking for us."

"Your friends are lucky if they aren't caught by the Glimmer Tortoises."

There it was again, one of those words that didn't make any sense to Iris. Scorch Dragons, Glimmer Tortoises... "Are there dangerous animals here?"

The woman laughed. "More than enough! But nothing that you need to fear as long as you're with us."

"And how long will that be?"

"Depends on what Kamar is going to do with you and your bird. That's a chief thing."

Iris tried to assign the name, but without success. "Never heard of him."

"Of her. And how could you, if you don't even know who the Scorch Dragons are? Who do you think is our chief?"

Iris knew that her former teacher, Sabazios, had covered this topic with Zephyr and her. The chiefs of the tribes of Elysia were general education, he had said. She thought about it briefly. "Gerra, I think."

The woman rolled her eyes. "Gerra, of course it's Gerra. Chief of the West is what he calls himself. Thinks in all seriousness that he can rule the entire Fire Tribe."

"Isn't that exactly what a chief should do?"

"Maybe in Xiro. But for us, each clan has its own chief." "Each ... clan?"

Only now did the woman seem to realize that Iris didn't understand a word. "Zesto is huge," she explained. "Too huge for one person to rule alone. We aren't really a tribe - rather a few independent clans with their own territories."

Slowly it dawned on Iris. "And you are the Scorch Dragons."

"Exactly, little one. My name is Wadjet, by the way."

"I'm Iris." An idea formed in her head. "And I want you to take me to this Gerra."

Wadjet stared at her in disbelief before she turned away and followed the gaze of her snake. "We'll take you to Kamar. Our chief. We have nothing to do with Gerra and his Ember Horns."

"My friends and I aren't in Zesto for no reason," Iris continued. "We need to talk to Fuocith."

"Just that Fuocith won't be interested in you. You have no fire in you."

"That's why we should go to Gerra! With his support, Fuocith is going to help us."

"Gerra isn't a better chief than any of the others we have," Wadjet replied before leaning to the side. "What do you think, Laran?"

Had he already listened to everything again? Of course. He directed his lizard closer to the two. "I wouldn't mind getting rid of the birds. What is Kamar supposed to do with them? She has no interest in the other tribes, and that's good if you ask me."

"So you think we should take the detour?"

"Not us." He nodded toward the other woman, who showed no interest in their conversation. "Gabija and I ride back to the Scorch Dragons and report. You take the girl to Gerra."

Wadjet looked around - if she wanted to protest, she kept it to herself. Her snake was the only one of the three reptiles that carried no merchandise from the Tribe of Sky, just Iris. And that the companions parted was out of the question. "As you wish, brother. I'll get back as fast as I can." She nodded. "Run like fire."

"Run like fire."

Then the snake slowly but surely changed its direction without further instruction. Instead of going west, it was now heading north-west.

Brother, Iris thought as they departed. She had never known her parents, let alone her siblings, if she had any. What had come closest to them had been the Crows - the secret group she had grown up with. Along with Autolycus, who ... yes, who was like a brother to her. A brother she had left to allow herself a better future with Zephyr and his uncle.

Then she had met Geb and experienced more in the last few months than in her entire life before. Geb, too, was like a brother to her - and she had left him as well, if not voluntarily. But now she was here, on the back of a snake that moved farther and farther away from Geb and the others, and her friends had no idea...

---

Shimmer's cries were what woke her up. Iris tried to orientate, which wasn't easy, because it was in the middle of the night. But she heard Shimmer's call, saw her dark outline against the starry sky.

Iris looked to where she thought Wadjet was. Why wasn't she awake? Or her snake? And what was wrong with Shimmer? What - or who - had frightened her?

Then she saw it.

It, too, was only a sketchy figure in front of the thousands of stars that shone on the cloudless night sky. A figure with gigantic wings ... and even though she saw no more than its outline, she knew the Shadow was looking at her.

The Shadow folded its wings and slowly approached her. "Hey," he said, his voice more gentle than Iris liked. She waited a moment, gathered herself, and hurled at him the strongest gale of wind that she could muster in her current position.

But instead of being thrown to the ground, her opponent seemed to cast the wind aside with a mere hand movement.

How was that possible? Shadows couldn't do that, Iris was sure. Only the Sky Elmen could control the winds. But that would mean...

"I'm not a Shadow if you're thinking that." The stranger walked up to her and now Iris could have slapped herself for her stupidity. No, he wasn't a Shadow at all, and he had no wings either. He was a Sky Elm, just like her, and his companion had been behind him. And because it was so dark, Iris had mistaken them for a single figure.

Iris stood up at last. She was less nervous than before, but she wouldn't make the mistake of blindly trusting the stranger. In fact, they were about the same height, and slowly her eyes also got used to the little light. He didn't look very threatening, just standing there and not making a move to attack. But she would remain cautious, for she could feel that something about this boy wasn't right at all.

"Sorry if I scared you," he continued, sounding as if he really meant it. "And that I had to knock out your friend."

"She's not my - you did what?"

"Calm down!" He raised his hands plaintively. "She's just unconscious. I wanted to talk to you alone, that's all."

"Uh huh." She looked at the snake that still didn't move. "Did you knock that one out too?"

"I didn't have to. Snakes can't hear anything, did you know? If your companion doesn't dig its claws into it, we're safe."

"Alright." Iris decided to play along for now. Somehow, she did want to know what he wanted from her... "Who are you?"

Caw, cried the bird that joined them now.

A raven, Iris thought. Or a crow. She thought about Autolycus, whose crow companion Mist had died because Iris had not been there to help him and the rest of her old friends... no. It wasn't her fault. She had to stop thinking about it. She had left this part of her life behind.

"She's right," the boy said, running his fingers through the bird's plumage. "My name is Caw."

"Caw," Iris repeated, not knowing whether to laugh or just be speechless. "Your name is Caw."

The boy - Caw - didn't seem to be offended. He probably heard this reaction a lot. "That's true," he said, his hand still on the bird's neck. "I owe my name to her."

"Your parents didn't feel very creative." Iris knew that all Elmen bore the names of gods of the Old Civilization, at least in the four tribes that had once emerged from it. To show how much better they were compared to the beings of old. It was new to her that Sky Elmen didn't stick to it.

"I grew up with wildlings," Caw said indifferently, which definitely explained his name. Iris knew only one wild Impure - and that one was called Thorn.

"You're an orphan," she concluded. "Is that why you're here, then? Because I'm one as well?" Even if she had no idea where he should know that from.

"'Orphan' is perhaps the wrong word. My parents didn't want me, that's all. And no, Iris... that's not why I am here."

Now she was actually speechless. "... you really know who I am?"

"Why else would we have followed you all the way from Xiro to here?"

She frowned. Now he really made her suspicious. "A very good question."

"We heard about the trial," he said. "About your plan to find the Hero of Light and save Elysia from the Shadows."

"And you want to join us?"

"No, not that. But I find your plan impressive. I find you impressive."

"You crossed an ocean to tell me that?"

"We don't want to join you," Caw emphasized again. "But that doesn't mean we can't help you if you need our help. And it seems to me as if that's the case."

"I don't need your help," she immediately replied. What was he thinking? Everything went according to plan ... even if it didn't necessarily look like it.

"The Fire Tribe is dragging you who knows where and you don't need my help?" He replied, half offended, half amused.

She shook her head. "I'm not being kidnapped. Not anymore. Wadjet is taking me to Gerra, the chief of the Fire Tribe. He'll help me find Fuocith."

"While your friends don't even know where to start looking for you? I know where they are, Iris. I can bring you to them."

This was exactly what she'd been thinking about for some time: her friends, the ones she had left just to get closer to her goal. Was that right? Was this her chance to make up for it? On the other hand, she had a plan - and she had promised herself not to get influenced by others again.

"No thanks," she said at last. "Like I said, I need to go to Gerra. But if you really know where the others are... fly to them and tell them what's going on. And no dramatic exaggerations."

"If you say so." Caw did not sound particularly enthusiastic. "I'll be back as soon as I can. Take care, you and... " He hesitated.

"Shimmer," she replied. "My companion's name is Shimmer."

He nodded. "Take care of yourself," he repeated, climbing on the back of his own companion, ready to leave.

"Wait!" Iris managed to stop him in time. "What's the name of your companion?"

She thought she saw a smile on his face. "Do you remember when I said they named me after her?"

"That was only a few minutes ago."

Again, Caw nodded. "Well, they also named her after me." The raven spread its wings and rose into the air.

"What's her name?" Iris shouted after him. Why did he have to make it so dramatic? It was just the name of a bird.

But as it turned out, she was wrong. It was far more than that. Long after his departure, Caw's last words still echoed in her ears.

"Midnight!", he had called. "Her name is Midnight!"

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