This is the fourth chapter in Forest of Flames and the fourth in part one, Fire.
Fides had been right: the border couldn't be missed. They were only a few steps away from a black line that was several meters wide, stretching to the horizon on both sides.
"Ashes," noted Geb, who had bent to examine the line and now had dark dust on his fingers.
"Clearly a warning," Sedna said. "They won't hesitate to use their fire against us."
Geb noticed Karzelek jolting at this sentence, looking around nervously, as if he were afraid a Fire Elm might appear at any time and burn him alive. "Do we have to go over there?" He asked with his soft voice, which made his thoughts more than clear: Please say no.
"At some point," Sedna replied. "But only once we're allowed to. We remain on this side of the border until we meet the Fire Tribe." Somewhat more reassuringly, she added, "Then they have no reason to attack us."
"No one is going to hurt us," Geb agreed with a grateful glance to her.
Karzelek nodded, though hesitantly. "I hope you're right."
They waited in silence for someone from the Fire Tribe to appear, just like Fides had recommended. With every passing minute, Geb became more nervous, for who knew what these strange Elmen would do to Iris. And there was nothing that he could distract himself with - for as much as he enjoyed to get lost in the beauty of nature ... there was not much to see in this barren wasteland. Yes, even Geb would call this place boring.
Perhaps talking to his friends would do the trick.
Once again he realized that he knew surprisingly little about Sedna. He nudged her gently, as they were both sitting in the shade of Boulder's massive body.
"What is it?"
Geb wondered how to best word the question. As usual, he chose the easiest way. "Do you miss your parents?"
Sedna froze. "Why are you asking?"
"Why not?" He hesitated. "I mean, you don't have to tell me anything. But you know more about us than we do about you, and I thought..."
"Alright." She didn't look at him as she spoke. "When we met at the river Xiro, it had only been a few days since I ran away."
"Ran away?", Geb repeated. "Why?"
"My parents, Geb." He could not hear emotion in her voice. "They were the first among us on the Eastern Islands that were turned into Shadows. Needle and I ran away, we didn't have much of a choice. And then... then I even left my companion behind just so I could flee into the river Xiro where the Shadows would never find me."
"That ..." Geb searched for the right words. "I'm so sorry, Sedna. If I had known that, I..."
"It's alright," she said, standing up. "Let's not talk about it." She looked at Karzelek, who was sitting on Boulder's back with Four-Leaf, still looking for Fire Elmen. "Any news?"
"I ... I think there's something moving over there," the boy replied, which now made Geb stand up as well and at least partially made him forget Sedna's story for now.
It was true, at some distance there was a movement, but none of them had as good eyes as Iris. So they had to wait until whatever it was came closer - and it did.
Four huge lizards came to a halt on the other side of the border line. Geb didn't recognize a single one - three of them were too massive to even resemble the lizards he sometimes saw in Sunstone. They also had horns or backplates, features he had never seen on a lizard. The fourth one even walked on two legs.
Each of them carried an Elm on their back, as red or orange as the lizard itself. They also had dark horns in various shapes and claws that reminded Geb a little of the Shadows, even if those were even sharper. Their leather clothing looked almost like armor, and they all carried swords.
The Elm on the back of the bipedal lizard began to speak. His scales and skin were a strong ruby-red, and even though he looked much older through his edged facial features, Geb recognized through the white lines on his arms that stopped just above his hands that he was not quite yet an adult. "Who are you?" He asked, his powerful voice accompanied by a slightly hissing accent. "What are you doing here?"
He looked at Sedna most of all, but she didn't let herself get provoked. "We are looking for a friend. We were told that we could find her at your tribe."
"Exactly," Geb nodded, not wanting to appear useless. "And we have remained on this side of the border so that we don't seem like a threat to you or something."
"You? A threat?" The boy laughed, and his older tribemates joined in. But he quickly became serious again. "I appreciate your manners, stranger. You do well to respect us." He didn't bother to get off his companion's back. "But you didn't answer my question. I understand your water friend here, but what are an Earth Elm and... ", he looked Karzelek," ... whatever that is looking for on our side of the world?"
"Our friend, like I said." But Geb was aware that was not what the boy wanted to know. "And ... well, the Hero of Light."
"Then go back. You won't find him in this place."
"We know that," Sedna replied. "But Fuocith will be here."
"Let's bring them to Gerra," one of the other Fire Elmen suggested. "What they say sounds kind of important."
The boy, who obviously was the leader of the group, glared at him. "My father has better things to do than deal with fireless people. He has a war to win."
"Maybe, but what else do you want to do? Let them travel all across Zesto alone? The chief will be furious when he finds out."
"If our friend is really with your tribe," Geb interjected, "Where would she be?"
"Depends on who found her first," said one of the men. "This is Scorch Dragon territory, so probably them."
"So you're not on your territory?" Sedna concluded - although she certainly understood as little as Geb.
"No," said the boy on the bipedal lizard. "But as the son of Gerra, I am permitted to ride wherever I want. And if the Scorch Dragons have even a little respect, they will have brought your friend to him. Anything else wouldn't make him too happy, believe me. "
"Then bring us to him." With some luck, Geb knew, they would not only find Iris, but also Fuocith - and thus the Hero of Light. "Please."
The Fire Elmen looked at each other - no, actually they all looked at the boy and waited for his answer.
"Alright," he said at last. "But don't try to run away. That wouldn't end well for you."
"We won't, I promise." Once again Geb looked at the border line that lay dark and threatening before them. "May we pass?"
"You may," the boy nodded, and watched with a piercing, dismayed look as Geb and Sedna sat down behind Karzelek, who hadn't left Boulder's back, and the rhinoceros crossed the frontier. Geb noticed how one of the four-legged lizard covered Brocken's tracks in the ashes with its tail before they flanked the friends from all sides. Of course the young Fire Elm was leading the group.
Nobody said much during the ride, whhich once again made Geb think of Iris. She always found a way to make traveling more exciting. Geb wasn't too bad at it himself, but unlike Iris, he didn't want to upset the Fire Elmen: they didn't seem very talkative, on the contrary. Iris, he knew, would have tried it anyway - but Geb wasn't Iris. And maybe it was better that way.
Things only turned eventful when Karzelek suddenly cried out. This caused Boulder to stop immediately, and the Fire Elmen also brought their companions to a halt.
The young leader of her group made his companion turn to them. "What is it?" He asked harshly.
Karzelek only looked to the side, and everyone followed his gaze. Geb held his breath as he saw what his friend had spotted: a whole herd of giant four-legged lizards similar to those on which the Fire Elmen rode, more than three times as large as Brocken. At some distance, but still overwhelming ... especially for Karzelek, who was still accustomed to the caves where there was nothing that even remotely resembled this sight. Geb, on the other hand, had already seen some herds of animals at the beginning of their journey - but this was something quite different. These were lizards, of which he had never known they could be so huge.
"Ah, that's it," the Fire Elm continued with pride in his voice. "Yes, these animals only live here in Zesto and nowhere else. We call them the returnees."
"Were they gone?", Geb asked.
The other boy nodded. "They existed long before the Old Civilization, but they eventually died out, every single species. When Fuocith created our tribe a thousand years ago, she also brought the returnees back to life."
I didn't know Fuocith is female. But he kept that to himself.
"Are they dangerous?" Karzelek dared to ask. He also looked at the reptiles with newfound interest.
"Most of them are herbivores," the Fire Elm explained. "Which, of course, doesn't make them harmless. They could still pierce you with their horns or break your bones with a single move of their tail. It would also already be enough to crush you with their massive bodies when you get in their way..."
"That's enough," Sedna interrupted. "You're scaring him."
"Good," the boy said, making his companion turn around so they could move on. "Fear keeps you from doing stupid things. Only he who can overcome his fear can become a good warrior."
"He's not a warrior," Geb stated for his friend. He knew all too well how much this topic still bothered Karzelek.
The Fire Elm looked at Geb over his shoulder. "Then he should change that as soon as possible."
For a few days, it all stayed the same way. They rode when it was bright, and kindled fire when not. They crossed two more scorch lines like on the first day, and the boy - whose name was Nergal, as he had revealed to Geb after a while - explained to them that the Fire Tribe consisted of a total of twelve clans, all with their own chief. His father, Gerra, was the chief of the clan that called itself Ember Horns, and in his opinion the best chief of them all. Whatever Geb and the others asked him, he ignored, careful not to "betray his tribe to the enemy," as he put it. As ridiculous as it was, Geb decided not to disturb him any further.
The other Fire Elmen weren't very talkative either. Geb didn't know whether it was because of Nergal or whether his tribe was generally so silent. Either way, he had to get used to it.
Despite all this, the trip was not unbearable. Every so often, Geb saw herds of returnees, or single ones, but none of them made any effort to attack the group. When it came to their own food supply, the Fire Elmen did not kill any of the reptiles either, instead only hunting mammals and birds. Geb suspected that it was not only dangerous, but also forbidden to even hurt the returnees. With such special animals he would probably act similarly.
When the terrain became more and more hilly, and the group approached a mountain that surveyed everything else in the environment, Nergal announced that they had arrived. "This is Mount Ember," he explained. "The home of the Ember Horns."
"How creative," commented Sedna. "What had its name first, the mountain or you?"
"The mountain, of course," said Nergal, but one of his companions interjected.
"I would have thought we were first."
"Are you sure?" Another asked. "I reckon that the mountain was named first."
When the first Elm tried to counter, Nergal turned to them. "Enough! Don't let the enemy play you off against each other. That's exactly what she wants."
Sedna rolled her eyes, but said nothing. Geb had always appreciated the fact that she didn't start any unnecessary quarreling.
The nearer they came to Mount Ember, the louder it became. Geb quickly realized that he had been wrong: The Fire Tribe was not silent, on the contrary. The air was filled with shouting, singing, laughter ... and roaring. Wherever Geb looked, Elmen - with or without companions - seemed to fight each other at every other corner. Many of the buildings confirmed this: numerous fire or blood stains, as well as broken walls, were evidence of earlier duels - and nobody bothered to repair the damage. It probably wasn't worth it with this many fights. But why didn't anyone put an end to all this? Didn't the Fire Tribe have any guards to deal with it?
Geb had already seen it coming, but he still felt uncomfortable as more and more Elmen noticed the group and stared at them. He understood them well, he found himself staring at them too, but he also sensed that Sedna wasn't welcome at all. He overheard the word 'water' several times, as well as things he could assign to Karzelek. No one here has ever seen the Ore Tribe, he recalled.
"They won't do anything to you," he whispered to Karzelek.
"Thank you, Geb."
He wanted to answer, but a sentence attracted his attention: "The second fireless today."
"She's here," Sedna murmured behind him.
Geb had realized this as well and couldn't put into words how relieved he was. "Now we just have to find her."
"They'll take us to the chief. Depending on how long she has already been here, we might meet her there."
Just then, Nergal's lizard came to a halt - in front of a building that seemed to consist entirely of black stone. It was a lot bigger than the houses before and less... destroyed, but like the rest of this place, devoid of ornaments that didn't serve any real purpose - in other words, the exact opposite of the palace of the Tribe of Sky.
Nergal told them to get off Boulder.
"Well," Geb said in response to Sedna's assumption. "Let's find out."
|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|