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

Wars to Be Won

Iris had imagined Gerra's palace differently. More colorful, more decorated ... more like a palace. Instead, she was looking at nothing but black stone and the occasional fire that lit the room as a torch. This chief didn't seem to care much about appearance.

"Does it look like this at your chief's too?" She asked Wadjet, who was sitting beside her on a stone bench, waiting with their companions to be led to Gerra. Iris tried to remember the name. "Kayak?"

"Kamar." Wadjet chuckled. "And yes, it's pretty similar. Just not made of volcanic rock... and especially not this huge."

Iris, too, had noticed that immediately. Why were the buildings of other tribes so gigantic? It were not even the Fire Elmen that needed such high ceilings - but their companions. Even the hall in which they were waiting was so massive that Shimmer could fly freely without problems. She did not, however, because Wadjet had asked Iris to make her stay with them on the ground. Just to be sure.

"As much as I hate Caelus, his palace was at least interesting to look at." The sky palace was full of paintings and statues, heavily exaggerating certain people and events - but at least it never got boring.

"Fabric burns," Wadjet said. "And statues can also be destroyed. At least in public buildings, it's simply not worth it to our tribe."

This was a reason Iris could accept, at least. "I hope the others are doing well," she said after a while. Had Caw kept his promise and told them about Iris's plan? She hadn't seen him since their first meeting.

"I don't think you have to worry about that." Wadjet nudged her and nodded towards the entrance.

Iris could not believe her eyes. There they stood: Geb, Sedna, and Karzelek together with their companions ... and a young Fire Elm with a not particularly friendly expression. This, however, didn't matter much right now.

Iris jumped up at once and rushed to her friends. It was Geb that she pulled into a hug, ignoring their height difference. "I missed you, guys."

"Right back at you," Sedna said, but she also sounded relieved behind her sarcastic facade. "Geb was completely convinced we would find you here. I guess he wins this round."

"If you're not with us, you would at least work towards our plan," Geb agreed, hugging back. "And Nergal would have brought us here anyway."

Iris let go of him and looked at the boy who accompanied her friends. "That guy?"

"'That guy' is the son of the chief," the boy replied sharply. "You should have more respect."

You'd like that, wouldn't you? But Iris wouldn't let that happen. Fortunately, she had just the right answer: "The son of which chief? Your tribe has so many of them."

She was unable to breathe when Nergal grabbed her necklaces and tore at them with full force. "Gerra's son," he hissed at her, then pushed her away. Geb was quickly on the spot to catch her. "The son of the only true chief."

Iris read the faces of her friends: Karzelek was afraid, as often, which she could understand with a guy like this. But Sedna's expression was a relief: the Water Elmin did not think highly of this Nergal either.

"I'm glad you all got along," Iris said simply before she noticed who had walked over to them. "Guys, that's Wadjet. She brought me here."

"I don't often see fireless Elmen," she confessed with a smile. "And here we have ... water, earth, and ..." She paused - of course, the last tribe was completely foreign to her.

"Ore," Karzelek replied nervously. "Hello."

"Should I know you?" Nergal aked Wadjet.

She did not let herself be intimidated. "I don't think so. I'm just a hunter of the Scorch Dragons. Too insignificant for someone of your importance to know."

"Careful." The bipedal lizard beside him also let out a growl. "We'll fight if you keep talking like that."

"No reason to panic. I would not want to fight against someone who has this many teeth."

Iris was puzzled for a moment. She quickly noticed that both Fire Elmen were wearing numerous reptile teeth on the necklaces their elementary stones were attached to. Wadjet's necklace had two, but Nergal had more than Iris could spontaneously count. Were the teeth a symbol of power?

"The teeth show how many fights we have won," Wadjet explained. She had definitely guessed that Iris and her friends did not know this custom. "They belong to the losers' companions."

"But that's -"

"Barbaric," Geb finished her sentence. "And ... what if a companion loses all its teeth?"

"Impossible," said Nergal. "Reptile teeth always grow back."

Iris could see how interesting Geb found this already. But there was something more important to discuss. "So when can we finally talk to Gerra?"

"I'll check." Nergal pushed past them and disappeared into a nearby room. The lizard he had left behind had the same hostile expression as its companion, but made no attempt to attack anyone. Iris hoped it would stay that way.

She looked at Sedna. "That guy is even worse than you when we first met."

"Funny, that's exactly what I thought." Sedna nudged her side. "Good to have you back. You're at least an entertaining kind of annoying, unlike him."

"Thanks a lot", Iris laughed. Sedna was right. She could sometimes be somewhat... impulsive.

"I think this is yours." Her gaze fell on Karzelek - and he was holding an all too familiar blue stone.

Instinctively, she reached into her pocket without letting the stone out of her eyes. "How did you..."

"You must have lost it."

"An Impure found it," Geb added. "He helped us find you."

"Even if we had to give up one of the glowing stones." Sedna didn't seem to like that at all.

"A trade?" Iris asked.

Karzelek nodded. "You were worth it. It was about your stone ... and we still have another glowing stone. It was the only right decision."

She smiled at the boy as she put the blue crystal back in her pocket. She could really count on him and the others. "Thanks, guys."

But their joy was short-lived, for Nergal soon returned: "My father will speak to you now." He glanced at Wadjet. "You too."

She shrugged. "As you wish."

The door through which Nergal had just disappeared was, in fact, part of a much larger gate that was now opened to the Elmen and their companions. Behind it lay a circular room, in the middle of which was a round table with twelve seats. Following these in lines to the edge of the room, thin walls separated two seats from each other there. Effectively, there were twelve niches, which must be where the companions of the Elmen took their seats.

One of them, the one opposing the entrance, was even occupied; by a four-legged reptile that reminded Iris of Boulder. It was much bigger than Geb's companion, but it also had a horn on its snout, which was more like a beak, and numerous other horns on the edge of a shieldlike ruff. Just like Boulder so often did, it seemed to be dozing.

Iris heard Karzelek say something to Geb: "Enki's companion has so many horns too."

She listened closely. On their visit to Spectralia, none of them had seen Enki's companion. Iris had already assumed that it was too old and weak to show itself in the throne room.

"And what kind of animal is it?", Geb asked.# "A many-horned sheep. They usually have four, but they can also have more, just like Enki's companion."

That explained the stubbornness Enki had met them with. But Iris decided to concentrate on the chief of the Fire Tribe now, for he was sitting on the chair in front of the big reptile and rose when he saw the friends.

Iris gulped at his sight. He himself was small for his age, no taller than his son; even his leather clothing was more simple than extravagant. On his necklace, beside his elemental stone, hung only two teeth - no, what made Iris shudder was his head. Gerra wore the skull of an Elm like a mask that covered half his face... and it was a skull that was at least twice as big as Iris's own. Not even at the Earth Tribe had she encountered such giant Elmen.

"Welcome," he raised his voice, sounding neither menacing nor overly friendly. But it was strong and confident, as if he had already had more than enough experience as a chief despite his rather young age. "Please, take a seat."

Iris left it to Nergal and Wadjet to sit next to him, and finally sat down with the rest of her friends beside the Fire Elmin. Their companions also made themselves comfortable in the wall niches - Nergal glared at them when Four-Leaf stayed with Boulder, but said nothing.

"Thank you for having us," Geb began. He was indeed the part of their group who knew best how to deal with formalities. "It is a great honor for us."

"I am no less honored," replied the chief. "I have never yet welcomed Elmen from Xiro. What immediately brings me to the point: Why are you here?"

"Lumeon's prophecy," Geb answered truthfully. "We need to talk to Fuocith and considered it appropriate to ask for permission beforehand."

"A wise decision - but at the same time a stupid one. Fuocith has never been particularly interested in what I have to say."

Iris frowned. Shouldn't the exact opposite be the case? Chiefs and Keepers were in close contact. "Why not?", she asked.

"Fuocith only talks with those she considers worthy," Nergal said. "With true warriors."

"We had this discussion already," his father replied, irritated for the first time. "Anyway," he continued to the friends, the sharp tone in his voice vanishing incredibly fast, "I cannot help you as far as Fuocith is concerned. You must move on, as much as I would like to help. That is, if you don't have any more questions."

"What interests me," Sedna began, "is why you are at war with my tribe in the first place. As far as I know, we were not the ones to start it."

"That is true." Nergal gave his father a warning look when he replied, but Gerra completely ignored him. "I personally started the war. Not against your tribe, but against the Eternal Ice."

Iris knew this place: it lay north of Xiro and Zesto, beyond the Stormy Sea, and was the home of the Ice Tribe. "Did the Ice Tribe do anything to you?"

"No," Gerra admitted openly.

Geb stared at him, bewildered. "You wage war against perfectly innocent people?"

"That's how you could express it, I suppose."

"Is that why Fuocith doesn't like you?" Karzelek asked.

Nergal snorted, whether amused or disparaging, Iris couldn't tell. "Fuocith doesn't care who we fight against and why. She likes war. She likes warriors."

"And Gerra isn't a warrior," Iris concluded.

Now Wadjet also spoke up. "That Gerra's vocation isn't warrior is well-known. He is, or was, a diplomat."

"A diplomat who wages war against the innocent?" Sedna asked. "You don't hear that often."

"It is for the benefit of my tribe," Gerra said. "How much do you know about us?"

"That you have clans," Geb replied.

Iris grinned. "And that you're the most important chief, supposedly."

"The clans have existed almost since the dawn of the tribes," Gerra nodded. "For hundreds of years there have been the border lines, the territories, the ridiculous rivalries and clashes among the clans. But we are a tribe, a single one that should not destroy itself from within."

Iris could not believe what she just heard, and Geb was obviously thinking the same, "And instead you destroy other tribes?"

"I have given us a common enemy," Gerra explained. "The way to it leads over the water - and as you may know, until a few years ago, no Fire Elm has even set one foot on a ship. The Ice Tribe is tougher than you think. I have killed their chief, and yet to this day they refuse to die."

"At least they have honor," Iris replied, looking at Gerra's skull bones. Was the whole Ice Tribe as gigantic as its chief? And how tall were their companions? "You obviously don't. Is that why Fuocith doesn't talk to you?"

For the first time, she thought to see Gerra's eyes behind his skull. There was an evil glitter in them, and in his voice, too, Iris realized that she had hit a sore point: "As my son already said, Fuocith loves fighting. The war happens with her consent."

Iris didn't object to that - perhaps he was right, and even if not, she could hardly insult a Keeper. But there was something else she could do. "Are you aware that there is an enemy that is much more important than this ridiculous war?"

"Hold your tongue."

"Why?" Iris felt the eyes of her friends on her. Nergal's. Gerra's. But what she had to say was important. More important than anything else. "I'm telling the truth, my friends can testify. Maybe you know it yourself! Why do you think we want to talk with Fuocith? We're looking for the Hero of Light. The Shadows grow stronger from night to night and with each night we lose innocent Elmen that the Hero of Light could have saved. The Shadows, those are beings that you can kill until there is not a single one left. Instead, you are slaughtering Elmen who have done nothing to you or to anyone else. You are a terrible chief who hasn't earned this title. I hope the next time Fuocith burns you directly."

Silence spread as Iris realized what she had just said. It was the truth, she didn't dare deny it - but she too was aware that she had just been really, really stupid. Only then did she realize that she had jumped up, her hands firmly on the table and glaring at Gerra. She did not dare sit down again.

"I ... do not think she meant that seriously," Geb cautiously raised his voice and stood up as well. "Maybe we should rather leave again..."

"You'd like that." Even if Gerra remained seated, his tone made more than clear what Iris had just done. "You come into my tribe to meet our Keeper - you, as fireless! Then you not only tell me how to lead my tribe, no. You want to see me dead! And you really expect me to let you go? After all that I just had to hear?"

"At least our deaths would be more justified than the others you are responsible for," Sedna said bitterly. Should Iris be grateful for her support? Or rather slap herself for her endless stupidity?

Gerra leaned back. "I'm not going to kill you. I will keep you here, in the tribe you obviously hate so much. Maybe you the Shadows will get you or maybe you change your mind about me at some point... we have plenty of time to figure that out."

"You can't do that!" Iris protested. Especially not when all this was her fault. "We have a mission to fulfill!"

"I am the chief," Gerra replied coldly. "I can do whatever I want. Nergal, since you brought these strangers here, I leave it to you to look after them. Do with them whatever you want."

It just keeps getting better. Iris shuddered at Nergal's utterly hatred-filled look that wasn't even full of satisfaction like Tanzanite's back then. He just loathed them.

Nergal stood up as well. "Give me your elemental stones."

Iris didn't let herself be intimidated. Not by him. "Definitely not."

Then Gerra let a flame dance on his palm, a flame he aimed at Four-Leaf and could fire at any time. "Do what my son tells you to. You are only making it more unfortunate for everyone involved."

Karzelek looked at her pleadingly. Iris knew that she couldn't let anything happen to Four-Leaf - or any other companion. She was about to reply, but Sedna was faster.

"On one condition."

"You have no say in this," Nergal growled, but Sedna ignored him.

"The companions stay with us. Unharmed."

Nergal hesitated for a moment, then nodded. "As you wish. Now give me your stones."

Iris couldn't remember ever taking off her elemental stone. The others felt the same way, she knew. When she did, she immediately felt the difference - it might have been tiny, but the way the stone had pressed on her body was unmistakable. Now, as she watched as Nergal hung all their necklaces - Geb's, Sedna's, and Iris's own - around his neck, that weight was missing.

Iris didn't dare look her friends in the eye. She didn't dare look anyone in the eye. What had loomed over them for so long had happened at last.

She had made a huge mistake.

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