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

Eye of the Storm

"By all Keepers, what are you doing here?" Iris stared at the boy that suddenly stood before her; tried to sort her thoughts. Zeph is here. For whatever reason. And with him his companion. "You shouldn't be in Zesto."

Zephyr's eyes, however, were only focused on Caw, they were full of confusion... and fear, as Iris quickly recognized. "He neither."

"Caw is perfectly fine," she protested, but pulled away from his touch. Why did Zephyr have to interrupt them right now?

"He is shadowborn," Zephyr said. "You shouldn't be with him. He shouldn't be alive!"

Iris glared at him. "Is that why you're here? To tell me that? If so, you can just leave already."

Zephyr fell silent. His gaze grew gentler and he began to fumble with his scarf as he often did when he spoke to her. "... no," he finally said. "Of course not. I... I need to talk to you."

"Go ahead."

He glanced to Caw. "Can he...?"

"No." Caw would stay. She had nothing to hide, and he much more often shared her opinion than Zephyr...

Zephyr put a hand to his forehead, but forced himself to look at Iris with his bright blue eyes. "Something happened."

Something so bad that he couldn't say it directly? "Did the Shadows attack?", she asked. "Did they start a war?"

"Did the Hero of Light show up?", Caw suggested, interfering in the conversation for the first time. He smiled at Iris. "It doesn't always have to be bad news."

"Unfortunately, yes," Zephyr said. "And I... believe it has to do with the Shadows. I don't know who else it could have been."

Iris hated how he held back information like that. "Did they attack Caelus? Or the Crows?"

Zephyr rolled his eyes. "Autolycus is fine. Caelus as well."

"And what happened then?"

"Sabazios disappeared."

"Who?", Caw asked. Technically, you should know. But there was no time for such discussions, so she only gave him a brief reply.

"His uncle." Iris noticed her heart race. The Shadows had also been her first thought, and yet she pushed the thought away as quickly as possible. "Did he break out?"

"They only found his clothes in the sky hole. It was locked as always."

Zephyr was right, no one but the Shadows could do something like that. "So Sabazios is a..." She didn't dare say it, too dreary was the thought. Sabazios's words echoed in her ears: "It will be your fault."

Zephyr nodded without finishing her sentence. "I left as fast as I could. With Shadow magic, he has an immense lead, I know... but I still hoped to find you in time. To warn you."

Only slowly did she realize what he was hinting at. "He'll be after me."

"If he finds you."

That made it easier. "Right. He can't possibly know where I am, as spontaneously as this was."

"How did he find you then?", Caw asked, eyeing Zephyr suspiciously.

The boy stared back. "I was lucky," he explained. "I went to Aricel to ask her about you, but she told me you had never visited her. In the Beak Bay I found Elmen who said you had sailed to Zesto, and since no one wanted to take us with them, Morning Breeze and I flew off alone." He stroked the jay's plumage. "We almost drowned since we hadn't been able to rest anywhere .. but the ship that had brought you here was just on the way back and luckily found us in time. When we reached Zesto, we flew into the continent, where a few Elmen attacked us. They brought us to their chief, where I then learned that the Fire Tribe has several, and now I was on my way to the one who is apparently the most important here."

"And just to warn me of Sabazios?" Iris was speechless. What he had been through, just because of her...

"Yes." Zephyr looked away. "...where are the others?"

"Long story." She decided to introduce Zephyr to Caw instead. "Zeph, that's Caw," she said, looking up at the older boy, who passed her by a few inches. "He helped us a few times."

But then she noticed that Caw himself wasn't really listening. He had not said anything for a while and stared into the distance.

"Caw?" She asked nervously. "Is everything alright?"

A piercing shriek drowned her voice. A cry so loud that it could only come from a really big raven. A companion. Midnight.

Other cries followed, and despite the rain Iris saw innumerable birds rise into the sky.

She looked around. Shimmer was gone.

"Caw?", she shouted to drown out the birds. Panic rose in her, why did he stay so calm? "Caw, what's going on here?"

The boy finally looked back at her, but there was pain in his eyes. Then he stormed away.

"Wait!", she shouted after him, realizing that he went right to where Midnight had cried. Was Shimmer there too? What was going on?

Iris ran off, ignoring the rain and the wind whipping her face. And Zephyr, whom she left standing. She could see Caw in front of her, but she also noticed that she was faster than him. She came closer and closer until she could almost touch him. Then she jumped and pushed him to the ground.

"Tell me what's going on!", she yelled at him, the fear for Shimmer covering everything else. "Where is Shimmer? What did you do to her?"

The sentence escaped her mouth unintentionally. She was silent when she repeated her words in thought. Don't let it be true, she pleaded. Please, have nothing to do with all this.

"I didn't do anything to her," he replied, but this only made Iris feel even more terrible. Frustrated, she got off him and ran further to where she suspected Midnight. She heard Caw follow her, and didn't know if she should be relieved about it.

Then, suddenly, Shimmer screamed - and fell silent within seconds. Iris stormed in that direction - and came instantly to a halt when she saw her companion.

Shimmer lay on the ground, pressed down by numerous vines. But these were struck into the earth, not naturally sprouted out of it. There were no Forest Elmen behind this trap. And Caw had been too far away, right? He was not to blame, certainly not...

Iris hurried to Shimmer and tried to loosen the pegs with which the vines were stuck in the ground. She had almost loosened the first when someone put an arm around her neck and pulled her abruptly back into a standing position, one hand pressed onto her mouth. Iris protested and defended herself as best she could, but the other person was stronger than her.

"Don't move," said a woman's voice close to her ear. "Makes things simpler for both of us." Iris estimated her at thirty, but that was hard to say, as rough and scratchy as the voice sounded. Was it a Shadow?

Iris glanced at the arm holding her, and breathed a sigh of relief. The skin was not black but, from her angle, a blurred mixture of red and a bright green. An Impure.

There was no point in fighting back, so Iris stopped. What did this woman want from Shimmer and her?

"Thank you, Tick." Chills went down Iris's spine as a Shadow stepped out of the dark shapes of the forest. His clothes lay close to the skin as the rain poured on him, and yet it was clear that they were too big for him. This, however, made him no less frightening, as he now, with the leathery wings majestically half-open, advanced with striking steps past Shimmer, and stood no more than an arm's length away from Iris.

The wildling, Tick, pushed Iris down a little, so that the Shadow - not much taller than Iris - could look down on her even more drastically.

Iris swallowed. She knew this stare too well, she had had to deal with it for a long time. And yet she didn't want to, no, wasn't able to believe that this was not a nightmare, but terrible reality. Sabazios was a Shadow - and he was here to kill her.

"Iris," he said now. "What an extraordinary pleasure to see you." He spat out each syllable individually, a strangely hatred-filled satisfaction in each of his words. Iris stayed silent with Tick's hand in front of her mouth, so with a simple gesture Sabazios made the woman release Iris at least in this respect.

But what was she even supposed to say? Too deep was the shock she felt at his mere sight. So completely without feathers and with now deep violet markings, not to mention the massive wings... she blinked at him, while the rain tirelessly poured.

"You've become quiter," Sabazios continued. "A wise choice. If only you had thought of it earlier." He took her chin in one of his claw-studded hands, his ice-cold eyes piercing her.

But Iris wouldn't make it easy for him. Fear was the last thing she needed now. "If you think you can kill me, then -"

"Pah!" He pushed her back and turned away before he stepped to Shimmer. "I am not one to kill Elmen. I couldn't do that." His eyes wandered to the magpie that had also ceased to fight by now. "Her, on the other hand..."

"Don't you dare," Iris threatened. "If you take even a feather -"

"That is exactly what I am going to do." His arm went down, and suddenly, with an outcry of the magpie, he had a feather in his hand. "All of them, if need be."

"Shimmer hasn't done anything to you!" Seeing her suffer was more horrible than anything else. And he was well aware, she realized in horror.

"You took my companion," Sabazios growled. "My rank, my tribe, my life! I won't kill you, oh no. I will let you suffer, take your companion - and everything else that means something to you." He looked into the distance, directly past her. "He was only the beginning."

Tick pulled Iris around so that she could see who Sabazios was talking about. Confusion, anger, grief, all this overwhelmed her when she saw him: Caw, with an apologetic gaze that broke her heart. "I'm sorry, Iris."

Again, she didn't know what to answer, as disarranged as she was. "You worked for him?", she asked, bewildered. "The whole time?"

Sabazios snorted and almost sounded amused. "My son doesn't have to work for me. He obeys me all by himself."

Iris stared back and forth between them. This couldn't be, never, they didn't look like each other at all - "You're lying!"

"Why should I? I'm surprised you didn't notice it yourself. His story... I listened to you that night. The most unbelievable tale I have heard in years."

Of course, she had been quite surprised back at the campfire. That Caw was supposed to have fallen onto Midnight, by chance, that they had accidentally bonded... and yet, no, she didn't want to believe it. Caw couldn't be the son of her greatest enemy. He wouldn't... "What about your story is true?", she dared ask.

Caw looked as if he really was sorry about everything. But that only made it worse. "The Impure village," he said. "Midnight and I grew up there."

"His mother died at birth," Sabazios added bitterly. "And I myself am not the worst liar. Caelus never knew about Caw's existence, not even my brother. As loyal as I am to my tribe, I could not kill my own son. So I took him to the village and hoped they would take care of him there."

"I never knew him!", Caw tried to... defend himself? He sounded really upset, so Iris almost wanted to forgive him. "I didn't do any of this because he's my father! I mean, not just, I -"

"You didn't talk to Nergal, did you?", she interrupted as she tried to hold back her tears. Not that it mattered in the rain. "Damara isn't planning a war! You lured me here deliberately, far enough away from the others so that he could kill Shimmer."

"Iris, please, I would never want that -"

"Oh yeah? Why did you do it then?"

Caw's voice grew quieter. It took him a moment to speak. "He knows where my village is. And he said that... that he would destroy it if I didn't help him."

Iris hesitated. She knew how much his family meant to him. No, not family. That would be Sabazios too... "You could have told me!", she replied. "We could have stopped him together. I would have helped you, Caw."

Sabazios watched the action silently, knowing that he had been right. Yes, he was just about to destroy her life. But there was a last hope...

"Help me now," she begged Caw. "Midnight is here somewhere. And I know you can use your magic."

"My magic," Sabazios corrected her.


"He never got his magic. How would he? Aricel would never accept him. I gave him my elemental stone, he has more use for it now than I do."

Iris shook her head desperately. She had to ignore Sabazios if she wanted to get through this. "We can end this together, Caw. Then... "She paused. "Then I'm ready to forgive you."

The next few seconds felt like entire hours. Caw looked at her, then his eyes wandered to Sabazios and finally back to her. "...I can't do that," he said so quietly that Iris almost didn't understand him. "I can't risk it. I'm sorry." Then he stormed away into the darkness of the forest.

Suddenly, Iris felt terribly helpless. She didn't care how pathetic she looked. Let Sabazios see her like that! Then maybe he would leve her alone.

"You should let her go," she heard a voice behind her: Tick. The Impure had loosened her grip on her, and a hint of compassion was in her voice. "That was some pretty tough stuff right now."

"That was the plan," Sabazios replied without repentance. "Serves her right - you would have done the same if you had become a Shadow only because of her."

"I thought the Shadows enjoyed their powers."

Sabazios glared at her. "Not all of them!", he cried. "Not me!" He growled at his own wings as they spread dramatically. "These cursed hellbeasts thought they could pull me onto their side. That I would worship Umbrath! Umbrath!" He shook his head, pacing frustratedly in front of Iris. "My loyalty is to Aricel and no one else. I won't take on a Shadow name, and by Lumeon, as if I would ever dare to travel bodyless in the dark! There will always be wings, be it a bird's or not."

Iris couldn't take it anymore. "North Star is fine! He never went to Aricel. We took him to the Beak Bay."

Sabazios froze in the middle of his movement before his head snapped in her direction and his eyes pierced her. "What?"

Iris gulped. That didn't sound relieved. Not at all.

"Do you realize what you've done?", he snapped at her, and despite the rain, she thought she could see him crying. "If he wasn't with Aricel, he remembers me! Then he is waiting for me, and I am a keeper-cursed Shadow! Do you think I can go back to him like that? Do you think so?"

"No," she confessed, and despite all this she felt sorry for him. He felt the same about North Star as she about Shimmer... "There must be something we can do."

"We?" He laughed without any joy. "There is no we, Iris." He went to Shimmer again and bent down to her. "I'll take everything from you. Every single one of your accursed friends. You won't be left with anything that hasn't been taken from me because of you." He pulled one of the pegs out of the ground; the one Iris had already loosened. And held the pointed end dangerously close to Shimmer's neck. "Say farewell to your wings."

Tick pulled Iris towards her as if in a hug. Iris herself closed her eyes, she didn't want to give him the satisfaction of her watching him as he... as he...

Sabazios's surprised outcry made open her eyes again after all. It seemed as if a gust of wind had hit his wings head-on, causing him to stagger backwards; from the way he was trying to get his balance back. The wooden peg lay harmless on the ground, he must have dropped it.

"Keep your filthy claws off her."

Iris lifted her head. There stood Zephyr, his companion behind him. He had stretched his arms downwards, where his fingers moved as if he were shaping the wind like a river that was steadily shifting around them.

"Nephew," Sabazios said as soon as he had recovered. He didn't try to hide his surprise. "You have no reason to be in Zesto."

"I won't let you do anything to Iris!", the boy replied. The fear in his voice was hard to conceal, and yet he stood there, his eyes fixed on his uncle.

Sabazios didn't seem very impressed. "You should pay me more respect. Just as it was before she came and destroyed our lives."

All your fault... She banished the thought. Not here. Not now.

"Destroyed?" Zephyr shouted against the wind. "Do you really think that? It was she who showed me that life is more than the pride of our tribe. More than the rules and prohibitions. And what fun is! Without her I'd have never known."

"I've trained you! With all the traditions of the tribe. You would have become a decent Elm of Sky without this -"

"This fantastic Elmin who kept me from it? Yes, her ideas are dangerous and I hate her for that, for all these plans I have to stop her from. For the fact that she can't keep her mouth shut and that I am the one who has to deal with the consequences." His voice trembled, and Iris listened breathlessly. "But that's the great thing about her. She says what she thinks. She dares to do things I never dreamed of. She's braver than I'll ever be, and I don't care what she thinks of me. Let me be the cowardly know-it-all who doesn't get anything about fun. Maybe that's even the case!"

Now his voice broke. It rose to a desperate cry, and with it the wind he conjured until the rain seemed to turn around him as if he were the eye of a storm.

"But I love her, Sabazios! Do you hear me? I love her! And by the Keepers, I won't let you make her suffer!" With a single powerful movement, he stretched his arms forward. All the wind, all the rain around him, followed the silent command and hit Sabazios with full force. The Shadow was thrown against a tree, and didn't get up or move again. But as soon as he had sent his storm, Zephyr slumped to the ground as well.

For a moment nothing happened at all. Then Iris pulled away from Tick and stormed to her friend. "Zephyr!", she cried. "Zephyr, wake up!" Had he just... he couldn't...

Tick crouched beside her and ran her hands over the boy. "He's alive," she said with a certainty that irresistibly soothed. "We can take him to me until the rain stops."

Iris nodded numbly before the two of them released Shimmer from her net. She, too, could use a dry place.

Together with Shimmer, she hauled Zephyr's unconscious body on the back of his own companion. Morning Breeze seemed exhausted from the use of her powers, but she seemed strong enough to be able to carry the boy.

"Help me out," she heard Tick call. The woman was just about to tie Sabazios with the vines. "I'm sorry, but he's still alive. We better take him with us."

Again, Iris only managed a silent nod. They put Sabazios on Shimmer's back and started moving, in complete silence except for the rain that tirelessly poured.

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