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This is the eighth chapter in Forest of Flames and the first in part two, Forest.

Smoke and Feathers

"South," Kairos said when they finally met Nergal and all their companions behind Gerra's palace. "Go south and past Wildfire Hill."

"What's that supposed to be good for?", Nergal replied. "That will take weeks. The Forest Tribe also lives in places that are only a few days' journey from here."

Kairos grinned, as always. "True, but they hate your tribe. They'd never help you. You'd be more lucky with Chief Damara."

"Then I'll force them to help me!" Nergal growled. "I don't know Damara and I don't want to get to know her. We do what is fastest."

Geb was more worried about Nergal than he was frightened. His partial transformation seemed to drive him completely insane; in the last few minutes alone, he'd scratched his arm several times as if he could make the black spots disappear. Geb could understand that he wanted to return to his old form as quickly as possible, but he had to be aware that this wouldn't work with violence, right?

He was even more surprised when Karzelek opposed Nergal as well.

"Does Damara live down there in the south?", he asked Kairos.

He nodded. "I've never been there. My father neither. But he always said she lives in the heart of the forest."

"That's what I thought."

"Is that important?", Geb asked, who had no idea what his friend was trying to say.

"I've been thinking," Karzelek replied. "All the time."

Geb looked at him. His friend was smart, he knew.

"You remember my tribe," Karzelek began to say to Geb and the girls. "The glowing stones and those that have ... other abilities."

The shadow stones, Geb knew. Hopefully Terrai had taken care of this by now...

"What about those?" Iris asked.

"You know we don't have our own Keeper. But the Ore Tribe still came to be, in the caves, because the magic was so strong there."

"Get to the point," Nergal replied. He couldn't add anythign to this conversation. "Otherwise I'll go without you."

Karzelek let that distract him for only a moment. "So, I thought maybe everything is magical, the fire and the water and so on. But for these elements there are the Keepers, so the whole magic is embodied by them. And only the places your tribes never reached, our caves and Zesto's forest and whatever else there is... only there can you still find real nature magic. That's also why we should do what Kairos says. Because the healers there work with magic and the magic is strongest in the heart of the forest."

"Ridiculous," Nergal said. "That would mean the Keepers are something bad. But they aren't."

"I didn't mean it like that!", Karzelek answered with a hint of panic. "I know how important the Keepers are. I just wanted to say that we have to go where the magic is strongest."

Geb immediately felt the urge to protect his friend. "I think your thoughts are really good," he said, smiling down at him. "I would never have thought of it, but I think it makes sense."

"As for the magic, fine with me," Nergal grumbled. "Then we'll ride south. But we hurry up." Then he noticed that Kairos was staring at his companion, the bipedal reptile Spitfire. Geb, at least, was glad that her bond with Nergal did not seem to have changed. Was the boy looking for signs that she had become half a Shadow as well? Was that possible at all? "What are you staring at?"

"Spitfire is older than the nose horn thing," Kairos said without turning his eyes away from the lizard. "As good as full-grown. It's certainly fairer if two people ride on both animals instead of three on the younger one."

"True," Geb said without really thinking about it. It was only then that he noticed: Who would want to ride with Nergal? A half-Shadow?

When nobody said anything, Sedna let out an unnerved sigh. "Fine, I will." She walked over to Nergal. "Cowards."

She only said that to hide her own discomfort, Geb was sure. She knew exactly that Karzelek would never have done it, and Geb and Iris had their own companions.

Nergal climbed on Spitfire's back and helped Sedna up, even if one could see the resentment on both of them. "Let's just get this over with as fast as possible."

---

That had been about a week ago. Nergal led them south relentlessly and gave them just enough pauses to keep the companions from getting tired. At first they had traveled right through the territory of a different clan, but Nergal had been able to avoid all other Elmen. Now, they had been riding along a scorch line that went directly south for three days. Nergal had told them that they had the right to travel along these lines without being harassed by patrols. So far this had been true.

Nergal didn't say much more than aggressive comments in all this time. Sedna had used her knife to cut two holes into his clothes so that the wingtips no longer pressed against them, and only this one time he had politely thanked her. Even Iris's presence did not make the trip more entertaining.

The only relief was that there were no signs of the Shadows.

When the evening dawned on this day, the group reached a place that finally promised some change in their rather desolate journey. The scorch line crossed two more; here the regions of three clans met. In the territory before them, Geb was able to make out a long hill in the distance.

"Tomorrow we'll be there," he heard Nergal say as he rose from his companion. "We'll stay here tonight." They had already spent the last few days outside, and even today Nergal had everything he needed for a campfire. He let Spitfire ignite it, as if he feared his half-Shadow powers might somehow affect the fire. But then he suddenly had something in his hand: Little blue chunks, almost a powder.

"What's that?" Geb asked curiously. None of them had ever seen this stuff, he recognized by the looks of his friends.

"Copper sulfate," Nergal explained, not hostile for once. "We mine it near Mount Ember."

"And what do you do with it?", Iris wanted to know.

Instead of replying, Nergal threw the chunks into the fire - and Geb held his breath. Suddenly the flames had turned green.

Karzelek took cover behind Geb, but quickly came closer to the fire. Fascinated, he watched the radiant flames, and even Geb could hardly look away. Only Sedna was unimpressed.

"All well and good," she said. "But is there any use for us except to ruin our food?"

"It's not toxic," Nergal stated. "Our prey from before will hardly taste differently, and you won't die from it. But we'll be left alone tonight."

"What do you mean?" Geb couldn't imagine how this green fire should keep patrols away. Or Shadows...

"Copper sulfate is only found in our clan, Ember Horns", Nergal proudly explained. "My father and his most loyal clans use the green flames as signs of identification. Patrols only approach normal fire that doesn't fit into their known schedules. But whoever has our fire can travel wherever they want."

"Then why didn't you ever use it before?" Sedna asked.

"Why should I have done that? So far, we were only in areas that are relatively close to Mount Ember. They almost expect nightly excursions on my part. But here we are almost at the other end of the entire tribe's territory, so it's time to use my limited supplies."

"Good plan," Geb said, watching the flames. Elysia always managed to surprise him.

"And it really is harmless?" Karzelek asked, trying to keep his curious companion away from the fire.

"Not any more lethal than normal fire," Nergal replied, shrugging.

Then Sedna coughed.

"Everything all right?" Geb asked, alarmed.

"I'm fine," she replied, but her voice was scratchy and she held a hand against her forehead. "Just a headache."

"Me too," Iris said, but sounded much healthier than her friend. "So much for the fire not being toxic."

"Interesting," was all that Nergal said.

"Oh, great, he finds our pain interesting," Iris imitated. "Thanks a lot."

I have to help them, Geb decided. This was his job as a guard. To protect Elmen. "Go to Shimmer," he said. He had noticed that the magpie had retreated as well. His friends followed the order gratefully, then he looked at Karzelek and their two companions. Boulder dozed, as he often did, his breath went quietly and regularly. Four-Leaf seemed confused, and Karzelek looked at Geb worriedly. "I'm fine," he said, optimism in his voice.

"Me too," Geb nodded before turning to Nergal. "I don't get it. What's going on?"

"I knew that birds and fish can't stand the smoke of this fire," he admitted without guilt. "It's good to know that it has the same effect on their Elmen."

Yeah, really good to know. "Will they get better again?"

"Of course. They did not breathe in too much of it." The stare of his blood-red eyes hardened. "But don't think I'm going to put out the fire. We need it."

Geb looked over to his friends, who were watching him. "We'll make a fire over there," he said. "A normal one. I won't let anything happen to them, and they need the light."

"And it's close enough to yours to adhere to this patrol rule," added Karzelek.

Nergal groaned in frustration. "Do what you want," he growled. "I'll stay by the fire. My fire. "

"Alright," Geb tried to calm him. "Come over if you want."

He took some of the remaining wood, nodded at Nergal again, then went to his friends with Karzelek and Four-Leaf.

"You left him?" Iris asked immediately, while Geb was already trying to kindle the fire. "Serves him right. If he wants to kill us, he's got to try something different."

"He doesn't want to kill us," Geb said. "He needs us and he knows that. And he didn't know that the fire would make you sick."

Iris gave up. "You can assess Elmen better than I do." She glanced at the fire that Geb had now managed to light. "This is much better than the other one."

"Much better," Sedna agreed. Geb noticed that she already sounded less ill than before. "Even if it is quite useful, his fire." Still, he didn't fail to notice how she watched the flames suspiciously, as if they were going to rise up at any moment and burn them. "Which doesn't mean I like fire."

"But water beats fire," Geb put in. "Doesn't it?"

"Yes, and fire burns the fish out of water," she replied. "I have no magic. I can't stop the fire when something happens. Only you can, Geb."

"Me?" He repeated, but quickly realized that she was right. He could smother the fire. If he weren't so miserable in dealing with his magic... "Let's leave that to Nergal for now."

"Unless it's him who attacks us," Iris said. "But as soon as we're in the forest, we stand no chance anyway. No wonder the tribe doesn't like the Fire Elmen."

"Four-Leaf likes clover," Karzelek said.

They all looked at him, surprised. "What does that have to do with anything?", Geb asked.

"Nothing." Karzelek looked embarrassed to the side. "But it's a more beautiful thought. And a fact. "He looked at his friends one by one. "It doesn't help thinking about the bad things of the future. It doesn't make the future any better. Just the present terrible." His large, bright eyes were focused on Geb, his orange crystal horns glimmering in the firelight, radiant against the darkness around him. "I've learned that from, Geb. And from Terrai and ... yeah, from all of you. I'm really grateful that I can be here with you now."

"Just like me," said Geb, quite agitated by Karzelek's words. "You are the best friends I've ever had."

"And with you I feel like we can do everything," Iris agreed.

They all looked at Sedna; the Water Elmin hadn't said anything yet. She did't like to share her feelings, Geb knew. So he was even more glad when she finally gave in - even if she was still staring at the fire. "I don't regret having gone with you. Not at Beak Bay. Not on the river Xiro. I don't regret anything."

Suddenly, without warning, the flame rose up several feet high in front of them. Sedna cried out, louder than the others. The flame calmed down at once, and Nergal stood nearby, snorting amused.

"That's not funny," she snarled at him.

"I don't know anyone who's afraid of fire," Nergal replied. "Apart from that one Impure ... but my grandfather burned her father, so I shouldn't be surprised."

Geb shuddered at the mere thought. "That really isn't funny," he tried to explain. "We aren't from the Fire Tribe. For us, all this violence isn't a typical thing to do." And that's good, he added in thought.

Nergal looked down at his necklace of teeth to which his elementary stone was attached. "Hm," he said. "Fine. I can try to hold back."

"Why did you come here anyway?" Iris asked with a not necessarily friendly undertone. "You have your own fire."

"You left your dinner. Not eating it would be a waste."

Spitfire appeared in the firelight; in her forelegs she carried the beast that Nergal and her had recently hunted down. Geb did't know what it was exactly, just that it was some small, nimble hoofed mammal that had still been no problem to kill.

He had already stripped it from its fur, and now Nergal cut the prey into suitable portions and divided them among the friends. He only left out Sedna - Geb knew that Iris wasn't an enthusiastic meat eater, but the Water Elmin was the only one who vehemently rejected it.

"Aren't you a hunter?" Geb had asked her recently.

"That does not mean I have to eat what I catch."

He could't object to that. He at least found this hoof beast very tasty and ate the largest portion of all ... apart from Spitfire, of course.

Even though Nergal wasn't talking to them yet again; the silence broken only by the crackling fire also had something harmonious. Peaceful.

Until Spitfire's head went upwards and she stared in one direction.

"She heard something," Nergal said, and rose. "You're waiting here. I'll check."

"I'll come with you," Geb replied immediately. He didn't want to always sit around uselessly while others protected his friends. That was his chance. "I'm a guard. I have to come."

"As you wish. But don't get in my way."

Together with Spitfire, they approached the green fire, because the sound was coming from there. When they had come near enough, Nergal made the flames turn in various directions. Once, Geb thought he had seen something, and Nergal also approached the spot.

"It's okay!," a voice said even before Nergal used his magic again. "We surrender."

Two figures appeared in the light of the flames: A Sky Elm, younger than Nergal and smaller than both, but certainly older than Geb, and his companion, a raven. They didn't look hostile, not even strong or dangerous - and yet Geb felt that something was wrong. Out of pure curiosity, he looked at the two more closely, for he remembered something he had learned a few weeks ago: the feather color in the Sky Tribe depended on the time of day the Elm had been born. As dark as the strangers glimmered in spite of the flames, they had to be nightborn. But Geb saw no dark blue in their feathers; it seemed as if they were...

"Impossible," he gasped. According to what he had been told, pitch-black feathers shouldn't exist. This boy should be dead. Should have been for a long time...

"Yeah, we are," this very boy replied. But he didn't say it as fearlessly as Kairos would have done. "And we're not going to do anything to anyone."

"Didn't think you would," Nergal said with a look to Geb. "What do we do with them?"

"Take them to the others," Geb suggested. What else should they do? "Or let them go."

"Out of the question. They're abusing the protection of my fire, I won't let that go unpunished."

"They didn't harm anyone." Why did Nergal have to be so hostile to everyone? There was no reason at all. Especially when the strange boy clearly looked as if he was expecting to be instantly killed by Nergal. "We take them to the others, alright? We'll solve this peacefully."

"Thank you," the stranger smiled. "We won't trouble you."

"It's too late for that," muttered Nergal, but then went back to the others. Geb followed him, the two new ones beside him.

"Thanks," the Sky Elm whispered to him.

Geb just smiled. Nergal would be upset about everything he said now, so he'd rather be silent.

"We're back," Nergal announced as soon as they stepped back into the light of the reddish fire.

"And?", Iris asked, whereupon Geb noticed that his new acquaintance was still hiding in the shadows. Before he could protest, Nergal pushed the boy into the light, and now it became clear that his feathers were indeed pitch black.

The first thing Geb noticed was how Iris was staring at the boy. Surprised like the others, yes - but as if she knew him.

And then he said it.

"Hey, Iris."

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