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

Dark Fire

"Escape? Now?"

"Of course now! When else?" Iris was wide awake. She had only partially listened to Geb and Kvasir, but that had changed as soon as Kairos showed up. "Wake the others, come on!"

Geb followed her order, albeit a bit confused. Shortly after, Sedna stared at her sleepily, but frustrated. "Haven't we had enough horrible ideas for one day?"

"This isn't a horrible idea!" Iris protested, but couldn't deny that she understood Sedna's anger. "The last one wasn't the best, I know, but this one is different. We have to get out of here."

"I agree. We... we don't really have a choice." Iris was tremendously happy that Geb supported her. Of course he hadn't approved of her tone towards Gerra, like everyone else. But if he agreed with her now, she knew that he was still on her side. Or was he? They had no choice, he had said so himself...

"We're leaving," Iris repeated to distract herself. Should they look for Wadjet and ask her for help? No, it would take too long. And anyway, they didn't even know if the woman was still at Mount Ember or had already made her way back ... She looked at Kairos. "Take us to Nergal."

"I thought we were doing it secretly?" Sedna asked. "You know, without anyone noticing."

"We won't leave without our stones," Iris stated.

Sedna nodded quickly, as if she had just forgotten completely. "Right. Okay, Kairos, take us to him."

He leaned against a wall. "No idea why I should do that. If they catch you, I'll get a ton of problems. Isn't worth it to me."

"If you don't help us, we'll flee without you. If we make it, and we will, you'll all get into trouble, not just you." Iris herself had the habit of putting herself above the well-being of all. She could only hope that Kairos was different.

"Alright," he said at last. "But I'm not doing it for you." He made sure the friends and their companions were ready, then ran ahead through the cave entrance. Iris noticed how Geb said goodbye to Kvasir before he followed the boy.

Kairos led them along the long passage across the volcano through which they had come the previous day, and not a single guard could be seen. The Impures didn't attempt to flee anyway, so the tribe had probably thought that they would also keep the friends from doing so. Good guess, Iris grinned about their luck.

They didn't stay outside for long, just for the brief moment they needed to get from the volcano entrance to the palace. Not too far away, the city was as active as the day before. Only now did the torches really make sense. Iris would almost have described it as beautiful if the tribe of this place wasn't so awful.

Instead of using the, of course, much too obvious main entrance, Kairos brought them to an inconspicuous hole in the back wall. "I always take this one," he explained. "You have to leave the animals outside, but don't worry. I've been here for years and have never seen anyone walk around here. If they stay close to the wall, no one's gonna notice them."

"Hopefully you're right." No matter how often she had already had to leave Shimmer behind, it never came easy to her. "Let's hurry."

Kairos entered the secret entrance, closely followed by Iris and the others. It was dark in this part of the building, but Iris was sure that Geb was intentionally not using the glowing stone. They would be way too easy to notice otherwise. Instead, she imitated Kairos and kept a hand on the wall to her right.

The boy seemed to know exactly what junctions they had to take and always whispered it to them in advance. He followed the corridors without even hesitating once, until they broke into a larger passage, lit by torches at last. The way they had taken had to be so inconspicuous even from this direction that it didn't interest anyone.

"Right over there," Kairos whispered. "That's Nergal's room. If I'm right, then around this time, right now -"

A crash interrupted him. It came from the direction into which Kairos had pointed.

"W-what was that?" Karzelek stammered.

Kairos sounded unimpressed. "Oh, that's just Nergal himself. He's always doing that when he's angry about something and I'm not there."

"And you let him do that to you?" Sedna asked.

"Someone has to. Now come on!"

The Impure led them forward, but they didn't get far. A voice, not Nergal's, came from his room.

"Careful! You almost hit me."

Iris froze and gave her friends a panicked look. They all knew this voice.

"Not again," Sedna murmured. "What is Khya doing here?"

Iris agreed quietly. They had already encountered the Shadow girl several times. She remembered how Geb and Karzelek had seen her with Sabazios. Was Nergal working for the Shadows as well? It would suit him.

"Do you know her?" Kairos asked in surprise.

"Long story," Iris replied. "Point is, there's a Shadow with him."

"I'm surprised that they took so long. He's a good target." The Impure ran towards the room, but Iris grabbed his arm.

"Wait! Are you sure the Shadows have never been with him before?"

The boy nodded. "Absolutely. I'm often with him during the night, I'd have noticed."

"We can't go in there, at least," Geb said. "Khya is looking for us. We would never be able to get our stones and get back to our companions before she really gets... dangerous this time."

"Then we'll stay here," Iris decided. "We wait until Khya is gone, and listen to them while we're here." She had been practicing at the markets for a long time. "Kairos, do you know where he keeps the stones?"

"He doesn't carry them around here," he explained. "The Shadow won't find them unless he tells her the place."

"Good." Iris didn't believe that Khya might even make him a Shadow. As the son of a tribe's chief, he was certainly more useful to her?

They inched slightly closer, then waited. During their conversation, they had missed a few sentences, but it wasn't difficult to get back into the talk.

"I don't know what you still want from me," Nergal said, hostile as usual. "I already told you everything. We have the ones you are looking for, yeah. And tomorrow they're dead. There's no reason for you to still be here."

"And what about you?"

"What, what about me? I'm Gerra's son. I can't leave."

Not only Iris had noticed the frustrated undertone, Khya also sounded interested. "But you'd like to?"

"My father is an idiot. Why do you think Fuocith won't speak a word with him?" He didn't give her time to answer. "Because he's a coward! He kills the damned chief of another tribe, and instead of using it to his advantage, he just comes back here. He has a skull, but what good is that to him? Nothing!" Again something flew through the room. "We could have defeated the Ice Tribe long ago. I should be there to finish the matter once and for all. I should be with my mother and fight!"

Iris grimaced. She knew this feeling - that there were things that were much more important than what you were currently doing. She had felt it often enough when Sabazios had still been teaching her. But she didn't want to agree with Nergal. He didn't deserve it, the way he had treated them.

"So what's keeping you from it?" She heard Khya ask. "Is it your father? Is he not letting you go? You have to show him you're serious."

"As if I'm not trying!"

"Then you have to try it differently. He must be able to see that you aren't joking."

It went quiet in Nergal's room... too quiet. Kairos didn't think long and stormed in. Iris followed him - what else was she supposed to do? He stood no chance against a Shadow. But neither did she... fortunately she could count on the fact that at least Geb would follow her. Together they had a chance.

Iris did not have time to orient herself, that's how fast it all went. The Shadow with its massive wings was easy to find, and very close to Nergal, but Iris didn't know what was happening, for Kairos was just about to intervene. Together with Geb, she helped him push Khya away from Nergal so that she was thrown to the ground, and for a tiny moment she saw an emotion in Khya's gaze that she had never expected, especially here and now: grief.

Iris wanted to do something, ask her, take her captive, anything - but Khya was already using her Shadow magic and vanished into the dark, still in Geb's grasp, leaving only her clothes in his hands.

Iris groaned in frustration. How could they ever defeat the Shadows when they were able to do that? Unless the Hero of Light would use his powers to drive out the dark entirely, so that the Shadows couldn't retreat anywhere anymore...

Sedna, who had probably stayed outside with Karzelek, drew her attention back to the current problems. They all turned to Nergal, who had not made a sound during the entire incident. Now, however, he groaned as he straightened up, as if he was in great pain.

Geb hurried to him to help him, but quickly retreated. Something was wrong.

Karzelek covered his mouth not to scream, and Iris bit her tongue as she finally realized what had happened.

Nergal's scales had partially regressed and had become darker, in some places nearly black. His horns also looked smaller, while his fingers, which already had pointed claws, looked much more lethal.

They had stopped Khya, but not fast enough: Nergal was already half a Shadow.

Nergal quickly noticed that they were staring at him. His body. He too looked down at himself, motionless, and shouted at the friends.

"What did you do?" He spun around, glaring at his body, but of course it didn't help. "Undo this! Immediately!"

"That was the Shadow, not us," Kairos replied, who seemed to be more fascinated of the situation than frightened. "And don't scream. If Gerra sees you like this, you're dead. If anyone sees you like this."

When Nergal's back faced them again, Iris noticed the biggest problem. His clothes arched in two places on his back, as if something from beneath wanted to push through.

Wings.

Nergal reached for his sword and threw it at Geb, who only narrowly managed to catch it. "Chop them off!", he snarled.

Geb didn't move.

"Come on! What are you waiting for? Do I have to burn them myself? Maybe I'll do that!" A flame appeared in his palm - did Iris only imagine it, or was it darker than normal as well? Nergal cried out and flung the flame against a wall to make it disappear again. "That shouldn't happen!", he shouted in disbelief. "Spitfire isn't here. I shouldn't be able to use my powers!"

"Shadow powers can do that," Kairos said, more amused than anything - in contrast to Iris, who found the situation deeply disturbing, just like the others. Nergal had just been a normal Fire Elm moments ago... and now he was completely distressed, completely different from what she had experienced before. Only his aggression was still present, for now he was approaching Kairos and staring down at him.

"Impure!" He growled, and Iris had a desire to hold him back. But she wasn't strong enough to do so, only Geb and perhaps Sedna would be able to. But what if he used even more unintended Shadow magic against them? No wonder the two hadn't done anything yet.

"My name's Kairos, and you know that." This boy was more blunt than Iris herself! Wasn't he afraid at all?

Nergal gave him a slap in the face, the claws trailing weak traces, slightly drawing blood. Fortunately, he hadn't attacked him with these claws directly... Kairos straightened himself bravely again and continied staring at him. How often must Nergal have hurt him already that he didn't back down anymore?

"I don't care about your name," Nergal growled again. "You're an Impure. You know the Shadows! Tell me how to reverse this!"

"The Tribe of Light can do that," Kairos replied without any fear. "Accompany the others, they want to go exactly there."

Nergal shook his head. "That's too far. And it takes too long. There must be another way... a faster one."

"True. But you won't like it."

Nergal pulled the Impure closer to him, his face only inches away from his. "Tell me!"

"My father came from there," Kairos said. "Before you killed him. He always said the Forest Tribe would have the best healers in all of Elysia because they work with magic."

"Are you insane? I'm not going there. They would kill me, even if I weren't... weren't this."

"Here too," Geb interrupted. "Or at least something similar."

"We won't take him with us if you're thinking that," Sedna replied. "I certainly won't travel with a Fire Elm. Especially not with this one."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Nergal hissed, so Iris interjected as well.

"I don't like him either, but the idea isn't that bad. The Shadows are our common enemy, aren't they? We'll keep an eye on Nergal for a while and he'll take us to Fuocith as soon as he's better." That was the only thing that really mattered here. With his help, they could actually meet the Keeper of Fire, one step closer to the Hero of Light.

"Well, I agree with helping him," Geb said with an anxious look at Karzelek. Iris suddenly understood how much the boy would suffer from traveling with a Shadow, especially such an aggressive one. And yet he nodded slowly as Geb spoke. As long as the Earth Elm was there for him, he would do anything.

"I have to go there," Nergal pointed out. "I don't like it a bit, and if you get fed up along the way, that's alright with me. But I don't even have to try it alone."

"Then we'll do it," Iris decided. "We help you and you help us. Or we'll try, anyway."

Nergal reached for a cloak of reptile leather hanging from a hook and threw it over his shoulders to conceal his skin and wingtips. "That should be enough for now. Now let's go."

"Your companion?", Geb asked.

Nergal nodded. "I'll get her. Meet us behind the palace." He hurried away without a word.

"Well, that's going to be fun", Kairos grinned as he tore off a piece of his shabby clothes and pressed it on the wounds in his face. "I'm alright with that. One less idiot to take care of."

"You're not coming with us?" Karzelek asked, surprised. "You would get away from this ... this place."

"The Forest Tribe can't be much worse than this," Geb agreed. "They are certainly more friendly to Impures there."

Iris knew that the Forest Tribe was one of the four tribes once founded by Impures. She nodded.

"Thanks, but I'll stay here," Kairos said. "Why do you think I'm letting all this happen to myself? Nergal is terrible. The whole tribe is terrible. As if I didn't know that!"

"But -" Iris said. That didn't make any sense!

"But I'm still here anyway. And as long as it stays that way, as long as I'm here to provoke Nergal and the others, they'll leave the other Impures alone." His voice broke for the first time. "Do you think I'm enjoying it? It hurts. It hurts, damn it. But they can cripple me as badly as they want if it's keeping the others safe."

Shocked, astonished, silence covered the room. Iris looked at Geb, they both knew he would do the same. As depressing as this realization was.

"You're brave," Sedna said simply. "Brave and really insane. Just like Iris."

No, Iris thought without saying it out loud. He's a much better person.

"I bet the Shadows haven't come as often since you've been doing this," she said instead.

"They weren't even here since. But that's not my doing, believe me." Kairos went straight to a drawer and took out three necklaces of dangling stones he proudly presented to the friends. "I think these are yours."

Iris felt the difference immediately as she took her stone and put it around her neck again. It was elemental magic within the stone that had returned to her and gave her new energy.

When Cairos began to lead them outside again, Iris remembered what she had heard from Geb and Kvasir earlier. "The last Impure they took from here... that was your friend, wasn't it?"

"Yeah." There was grief in his voice. "She's the one I'm really doing this for. She was so miserable... she was happy when the Shadows came. I could have gone with her, but I promised her to take care of the others. And she promised me that the Shadows would stay away from us."

"What was her name?", Karzelek asked.

"She had her name before she came to us. She knew her parents, just like me." Kairos stopped in his tracks and looked over his shoulder. There was a smile on his lips. "Her name was Eucleia."

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