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

Impure Business

At least they were all together.

This was one of the few positive thoughts that Geb could manage as Nergal led them deep into Mount Ember. Even for him who came from Sunstone where it sometimes became unbearably hot, the heat was overwhelming. But then how must his friends feel? In Spectralia it had been rather cold, at the Claws as well. And Sedna was hard to read anyway.

He still couldn't believe what had just happened. He had never seen Iris so... directly, especially not to a chief. As much as he liked her, this time she had gone to far, which she had probably already realized herself. She must have realized.

But he was much more frustrated about himself. He was a guard. He should have prevented Iris from saying these things about Gerra. Or he could at least have tried harder to stop this from happeninf. Instead of making Gerra help them talk to Fuocith, they had lost their elemental stones and now followed Nergal into the depths of the volcano. At least the companions of the Fire Tribe had similar needs as the mammals of the Earth Tribe, so the path was not causing Boulder any trouble.

Geb did not dare ask Nergal where he was taking them. Sooner or later he would find out anyway, he didn't have to make Nergal unnecessarily angry. He made sure to remember their course so that he would not be as disorientated as in the sky palace. Soon, however, he realized that he didn't have to at all, because after they had left Gerra's palace and entered an inconspicuous entrance at the side of the volcano, it had always only gone in one direction. First through a long corridor which reminded him of Karzelek's tunnels, and which made Iris, like any other cave, visibly nervous.

The passage ended in a large cone, open at the top, and on its floor, far below them, was bubbling lava. The group was about in the middle, and Geb swallowed as Nergal led them down a path on which Boulder only barely managed to walk safely without falling.

"If you want to kill us, just push us down already," Sedna said with a discomfort in her voice that was not all too common for her. But Geb could well imagine that this hot, waterless environment did not make her feel well at all. He could only hope that it wasn't more than that and that she would dry out.

"Kill you?" Nergal repeated. "Why should I? You are more useful alive."

Once again Geb asked himself what the tribe was going to do with them. He doubted that Gerra would demand ransom for them - despite their mission, they were only apprentices and the tribe could not afford to start a war with even more other tribes. Gerra knew that, Geb was sure. Of course he had given his son the power over the friends, but Nergal too had to be aware of the situation of his tribe. But what would happen to them then?

A few meters above the lava, the path ended in a cave that was not guarded or locked. "In there," Nergal growled, and no one disagreed.

The inside of the cave was illuminated by several torches, but otherwise it was completely empty - at least in terms of objects. There were at least twenty Impures in the cave.

"You have new roommates," Nergal declared. "Give them the usual treatment."

One of the Impures, not older than Karzelek, grinned at him. "Other tribes too now?" He laughed. "Don't you find any more of us? The war must be keeping you really busy if you don't even have time for hunts anymore."

"No one asked you!" With a single blow, Nergal made him lose his balance. The boy rubbed his cheek as he straightened again, but kept his grin.

"As always, huh?"

Nergal mumbled something before he left the cave and shouted a little louder: "Maybe next time I'll throw you into the lava."

As soon as he had disappeared, the boy turned to Geb and the others. "That's what he says all the time. But he never really does anything to me."

Geb looked at the Impure more closely. His skin was dark red and green - fire and... forest? Yes, he thought he had heard of this tribe before. The boy put less weight on one leg than on the other, and he also had some scars and bruises wherever one could see the skin - and perhaps even beyond. Of course Geb didn't know where these injuries came from ... but that Nergal did nothing to him was almost certainly a lie.

The Impure pushed a strand of his unkempt hair out of his face before offering a hand. When Geb wanted to take it, the boy quickly pulled it back and laughed. "Nice try, but I'm not touching you. I can't stand you."

"But -" Geb began. They had only known each other for a few seconds!

"Let him be," Sedna interrupted him. "As an Impure, he has no reason to like us."

She was probably right, he thought sadly. But he kept trying. "I'm Geb," he smiled, and introduced his friends as well. Only now did he realize that the boy was not the only one who mistrusted them: All the Impures seemed to think that way about them, young or old. All of their eyes pierced deep into Geb.

They were not welcome here.

"You could at least try to look friendly," said Iris. "We're not here voluntarily, just like you. So you can be a little nicer to us."

"Actually, we are here voluntarily," the boy replied. "Most of us, anyway." He seemed to like their stunned reactions. "Honestly, we could easily get away if we tried. But why should we? It's warm and dry and we get food. That's more than you can say about the wild." Geb had to admit that this sounded logical. And yet...

Karzelek was thinking the same. "But they hurt you."

The boy shrugged. "So what? We're alive, that's enough." When no one else said anything, he continued, "I'm Kairos by the way."

Geb smiled, glad that the boy had introduced himself after all. "What exactly happens here?" He asked. "It's still in the middle of the day. Shouldn't you all ...", he didn't know how to express it without hurting them, "...be doing things for the tribe?"

"Not today," said Kairos. "There are so many Impures here that they never send us all to work at the same time. One more reason to stay here."

Sedna looked at the entire group. "If this is only a fraction of it... quite a lot of Impures for a single city. Did they find one of your settlements?"

For the first time someone other than Kairos spoke up, an elderly woman with dappled orange and light blue skin. For all Geb knew, that could be any combination of fire, sky and water, because not all Sky Elmen had light blue feathers like Iris. He himself knew one with feathers that were orange like the dawn: Zephyr. "We are not all from here," she said. "Many of us originally lived with other clans. But then Gerra started the war and united the clans, more or less. We were gifts to him."

"Yes, for an absolutely idiotic war," Iris murmured. She said it not as openly as she had to Gerra, which made Geb quite relieved. She was aware that she had made a mistake.

Kairos looked at her. "Did you say that to the chief? Not a good idea. No wonder they put you in here. To us."

"What ... what will they do with us?" Karzelek asked nervously.

"No idea. At least they won't just let you go ... but I'll see what I can find out."

---

Since the volcano was surrounded by smoke clouds, there was only one way to measure time: apparently, the tribe had such a lively nightlife that Kairos's entire group left the cave as soon as another group returned from their shift. Like the Impures before, they were afraid of the friends, so Geb gave up trying to talk to them. Karzelek had even tried to convince the Impures that they had no bad intentions with the help of Four-Leaf, but not even the small and not at all frightening goat could convince them.

Even Nergal, who brought them food one time, only muttered something before disappearing without responding to Geb's questions. It really seemed as if only Kairos could tell them what would happen now.

Geb thought that everyone was already asleep - but then he noticed that Iris was still awake.

"Are you alright?", he asked, and immediately felt stupid. Of course she wasn't alright.

"Let me sleep," she retorted.

"You've been awake the whole time."

"Just leave me alone."

He didn't expect that. "Iris..."

"That's what you get," he heard a new voice. A male Impure with a red-violet body had stood up and stared at him. "Let the Shadows take her."

"No," said Geb, louder than he wanted to. Iris flinched, but said nothing. "We are here to fight the Shadows. And ... how can you even say anything like that?"

"Why not? The Shadows have been taking Impures for centuries. It has never interested the tribes. They only want to do something against the Shadows now because they are suddenly affected themselves."

Geb went silent. He had never thought about that. "We knew nothing about it," he finally defended himself. "We would have helped you."

"What did you think? Shadows don't live forever and they cannot reproduce. They must come from somewhere ... from us."

Geb had to think of Khya, one of the Shadows they had encountered in the Ore Tribe. She was hardly older than himself. Geb had thought she had grown up as a Shadow, but if that man was right... "I thought they were only taking adults," he said.

"That would be nice." The man sighed. "The youngest here was ten when the Shadows took her. It is one of the reasons why Kairos hates the tribes so much. He blames them for her disappearance. You."

Geb grimaced. But he was glad the man had told him all of this. "Thank you," he said. Now he could at least partly understand the Impures. "What's your name?"

"Kvasir," the man replied. "I cannot tell you what I used to be called. I've been here for too long."

Geb nodded. He knew how it was with Impures: if one was found by a tribe, they were given a name that resembled theirs. The name of a god of the Old Civilization. In the wild, on the other hand... he paused. Here, in private with an Impure, he could solve one of his biggest questions. "May I ask you something?"

"Of course."

"So, about a month ago, we met a wildling - we didn't betray him, if you're thinking that." Kvasir looked surprised indeed. "And when we left him, he said something that I still don't understand. I thought it was a wildling thing, but here too, in Zesto, a town Impure knew about it."

Kvasir nodded as if he already knew what Geb was about to say next. "What did he say?"

"He called it Infinipede." Geb saw with relief that Kvasir seemed to know what he meant. "What do you know about this? My friends couldn't tell me about it, it must be an Impure thing."

"Not necessarily, but I do suppose that this is the case for the most part."

"What do you mean?"

"It is a kind of faith that is most attractive to Impures. After all, it kind of stands against the light as the highest of all powers."

"And this... Infinipede is more powerful than the light?"

"Much more powerful."

Geb shook his head. "I don't believe that. I would have heard of it." Then he thought. Even of Umbrath, the Keeper of Shadow, he had not known anything until recently. Or from the Ore Tribe. Or from so many other things... "Tell me everything," he begged.

But Kvasir asked him a question first. "How do you think the world came to be?"

This wasn't difficult to answer; after all, everyone knew this story - at least in Geb's tribe. "At first, there was only endless darkness and big chunks of rock in it. Then Lumeon, the Light, appeared and let some of them shine: the sun and the stars. He chose one of the remaining chunks and created the four Keepers who formed this world for him and filled it with life."

"And have you ever wondered where Lumeon came from in the darkness? Where the rock chunks came from?" Kvasir smiled. "We cannot prove that the Infinipede exists - not like you can with your Keepers - but it helps us find explanations for the things that transcend all powers of the light."

"So, in your opinion, he created Lumeon?" At that moment, Geb was extremely relieved that this creature was only a legend. Even if it could defeat Umbrath with ease...

"We, especially the Elmen-members of our faith, call it Aethill, because it is, so to speak, the first Keeper of all. Its egg is the origin of everything, from it the chunks of rock formed when Aethill hatched. It was the Infinipede who ruled over the chaos and separated it into light and darkness through Lumeon and Umbrath. And... yes, the rest is largely the same as your version. There are also people who don't care about Lumeon at all, people who assign the sun and moon to the Infinipede as well. Which, if you ask me, is too much."

Geb began to understand. "That is why so many Impures believe in the Infinipede! The Impures are treated so badly that they ceased to support Lumeon."

"Because he never supported them," Kvasir nodded. "It is exactly like that. You don't have to share our views, but it is nice you understand."

"One more question."

"Go ahead."

"How do you know of Umbrath? None of my friends had ever heard of him before Terrai told us his legend."

"I can understand. It seems to me that every single tribe would rather deny his existence. We aren't much different."

"But from where -"

"The Shadows took Impures from here, you know. I was never their choice, but if you listen closely, you can learn a lot."

Just at this moment, Kairos stormed in and stumbled to a halt with his limping leg.

"You shouldn't be here," Kvasir told him, much more harshly than Geb had just experienced him. "Go back to - where were you assigned to?"

"Nergal," the boy grinned. "Well, more or less, he would never take me voluntarily. But I'm not going back yet. I found out something!" He looked at Geb, his eyes telling it all.

"What ... oh! Of course." Kairos must have discovered what Gerra and his son had planned for the friends. "Will they let us go?"

"Nope," Kairos said as if he couldn't care less about them. Which was probably true. "On the contrary. Nergal and Gerra argued a bit, but they do that all the time. Anyway, Nergal told him that the war could go better, so Gerra decided to reconcile with Fuocith or something. The Keepers aren't really my thing."

Geb couldn't believe their luck. "Fuocith will come here?" He asked. "We'll be able to talk to her?"

"Didn't sound like that to me. More like they're going to sacrifice you. Burn you alive and stuff."

"That... they can't do that. We haven't done anything to them. "At least nothing that bad.

"Are you sure?" Kvasir asked as well. "It seems a little drastic to me."

But Kairos insisted. "No idea how they're going to kill you," he shrugged. "But they will. At noon."

"Wonderful." Geb's thoughts raced. What should they do? Not follow the plans of the tribe, that was certain. On the other hand, what choice did they have? Maybe they could flee tomorrow while they were being led outside... he decided to ask Kvasir for advice.

Before the man could answer him, Iris got on her feet. Geb suddenly realized that she must have heard everything, including the talk about the Infonipede. She hadn't slept, after all. "Wake the others," she told him. "We're getting out of here. Now."

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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