This is the epilogue of Forest of Flames and concludes the second book.
Nergal stared at the deep red blood that stood out against his now black finger claws. Was he just imagining it, or did he become more and more a Shadow from day to day?
Of course that's nonsense, he exhorted himself and wiped the blood away on his clothes. Should he hide the scratches on his arms? What would Ani say if she saw him like this?
Ani. She was the only reason he was sure his condition wouldn't get worse. Without her, he would have given up long ago. No, she wasn't allowed to see how he had once again -
He turned around. There she stood, Ani of all people, and looked at him with the worried look he hated so much.
"I told you you shouldn't..."
He covered the wound with his hand. "I know. I'm sorry."
"Do you want me to take a look?"
But Ani had already taken out a bandage she wrapped around his arm. He was a little relieved after all - she was the only one who really cared about him. It felt good be silent and let her do her work.
"I hope the others aren't in trouble," she said at some point.
Nergal rolled his eyes. He hadn't thought of the group for days. Not since Zephyr came to them nearly a week ago with the announcement that he would accompany them to Fuocith alone. Nergal didn't want to know exactly what had happened to the others. Unlike Ani... "I told you they'll get along. They're alive and they're doing well. Why wouldn't they? We'll never see them again anyway."
"I thought they meant more to you than that."
"Not more than most."
"Gerra!" Nerio's voice went through their little camp and stopped Ani from replying to him. Nergal immediately pulled away from Ani, a little too roughly, as he realized immediately afterwards. But he, too, had to know what had just happened.
He stormed past Sunshield - Gerra's companion, the only thing blocking his sight - and looked directly at an oncoming horde of other Fire Elmen on their companions.
"Are we being attacked?" Ani asked, having reached him now.
"No." They were in Singe Viper territory and this clan was mostly friendly to them. Even Nerio hadn't sounded worried. When he looked at the horde, Nergal found that they didn't look aggressive. Rather as if they had a message.
He looked at Ani urgently. "Go to Zephyr and the Impure. My tribe doesn't need to wonder what you're doing here with me."
Fortunately, she didn't protest. Nergal made sure that the three fireless didn't interfere, then he went to his father together with Spitfire.
Gerra was just adjusting the skull without which Nergal hadn't seen him in years. He hated the dirty thing that was nothing but a steady reminder that Gerra had once fled from the war. But of course his father saw it differently. "Go to your friends," he said now. "The other clans don't have to know what you got yourself into."
"I'm still a Fire Elm," Nergal growled at him. "They'll have to accept that."
"And you'll do what I tell you to."
Gerra's tone made him flinch. They often argued, of course, but since Nergal had been half a Shadow, everything had become even worse. He had no doubt that Gerra would kill him in his sleep if he had only made him angry enough before. It was better not to risk anything.
"As you wish." He sat down with the others - who were not his friends - and waited.
"That didn't go well," Kairos grinned at him. "Daddy doesn't like you anymore."
"Shut up." As much as he wanted to beat up the Impure, he couldn't. At least not now. "Actually, be quiet, all of you. I need to know what they're saying."
Kairos put his hand on his mouth, but at least he really kept quiet. Nergal closed his eyes and focused on what the Fire Elmen were saying.
"You too. How can I help you?"
"We were traveling to Mount Ember. You know, just a few days ago we discovered an entire Impure settlement. Of course, we burned it down immediately, like we always do. But one of them wanted to meet you."
"That isn't true!", a new voice said. "I just knew a few Elmen who were traveling to you. I thought I'd see how they're doing if I get the chance."
"Coincidentally, I know exactly who you mean." Nergal heard approaching footsteps. "You stay with us. Here, they can tell you more."
The second Nergal opened his eyes, a figure was thrown before his feet: an Impure, older than Kairos, with light and dark blue dappled skin.
The Impure got up, accidentally looking into Nergal's eyes - his were as strange as Kairos's, two different colors based on his own skin color. And they were wide open with terror - of course, he was looking at half a Shadow.
"You don't have to be afraid of him," Ani tried to calm him. "No one here will do you anything."
"Hard to tell," Kairos added, but he was the one who approached the newcomer and gave him his hand. "I'm Kairos."
"Fides," said the stranger, and returned the gesture. But he still didn't seem to feel comfortable, and he kept glancing over at Nergal.
"Maybe you should go away for a bit," Kairos suggested. "So that we can talk to Fides."
"It's his problem if he thinks I want to kill him."
"But that's true."
Nergal glared at him. He could still hear the adults talking, so he hoped they were distracted enough to ignore him. "I won't leave just to make an Impure feel better."
"You could go hunting." At least Zephyr didn't sound as if he loathed his mere existence. In fact, the thought wasn't so stupid: perhaps he could at least calm his father a little.
Of course, Kairos would see his approval as a personal victory, but Nergal didn't care. As soon as they had spoken to Fuocith and were back at Mount Ember, he had all the time in the world to take his frustration out on the Impure. It was better not to make him too happy now, so Nergal climbed on Spitfire's back and rode away without a word.
When he returned, the foreign Elmen had already departed. Only Fides was still here. Another idiot I have to deal with.
"Didn't catch anything?", Kairos asked even before Nergal had left Spitfire's back. "Even I would have thought you're better than that."
Nergal shot a shadowy blaze at him, which, on purpose, only narrowly missed him. Of course he hadn't been able to concentrate, too many thoughts had distracted him. At some point he had given up and had just ridden round aimlessly. "Where is Ani?"
"She's taking care of Fides," Zephyr explained, nodding to Sunshield, on the other side of which the Forest Elmin had to be. "Without us distracting her."
"But hey, look at this," Kairos put in, holding up a colorless crystal.
Nergal snatched the stone before Kairos could pull back his hand. He turned it and turned it some more, but it was nothing but a simple stone. "And? What's so great about it?"
"Fides brought it with him," Kairos replied. "He got it from Karzelek. It's supposed to be a glowing stone, but it stopped working a while ago. That's why he said I can have it."
Nergal looked at the crystal again, then threw it back into Kairos's hands. "That thing is useless," he said. "Just like you."
"If you say so", Kairos said, shrugging and playing with the stone. He held it into the light and looked at the sparkle - until Zephyr loudly protested.
"Careful! Not in the eyes!"
But Nergal, in this brief moment, had noticed something: "Do it again."
Zephyr stared at him. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Take cover if you want." Zephyr wasn't important for what had just happened. He turned to Kairos. "Hold the stone exactly like before."
"Hmm," the Impure hesitated on purpose, but after a warning glance, he quickly did what Nergal demanded of him.
All eyes were now on him. What had he seen?
Nergal stared at the spot. And indeed, there it was again! "Look."
The others were now also looking at what fascinated Nergal. The glowing stone broke the sunlight in one place so that a whole rainbow was reflected onto the ground.
"Pretty," Kairos said. "But I didn't think you'd be into something like that."
"I didn't want to see it because it looks pretty." Maybe Zephyr was smarter. "Do you understand what I mean?"
"Not really," the Sky Elm confessed. "Give me a hint."
Nergal tried to remain calm, but that was hard with his discovery. "The prophecy!", he replied. "The Hero of Light!"
Kairos tilted his head. "The Hero of Light is a rock?"
"No. I mean yes. Amongst other things."
"Do I have to get what you mean?"
Nergal let out an annoyed sigh and ignored the Impure. Instead, he looked back at Zephyr. "Your friends are looking for a Light Elm, right?"
The boy nodded. "We thought that was the only logical interpretation of the prophecy."
"But you realized it isn't true." Nergal pointed to the glowing stone. "You saw what happened just now. The light isn't just a single elm. It consists of many parts. An Elm of every color."
"Every tribe," Zephyr whispered, bewildered. "An Elm of every tribe..."
"Too bad for you," Kairos thought. "They already have Iris."
Zephyr shook his head and stood up. "I have to tell them."
"That doesn't matter." Nergal also rose. "Don't you understand? They don't have to find the Plain of Lumeon to fulfill the prophecy. That's why it hasn't yet come true. Because no one was intelligent enough to see the truth."
Kairos crossed his arms. "I discovered that."
"Keep dreaming." Kairos wasn't wrong, that was true. Without him, they would never have noticed the refraction. But ultimately, it had been him, Nergal, to whom they owed everything. And no immature Impure. "In any case, the others don't need a Light Elm for saving the world. They need Ani and me."
"Or any other Fire and Forest Elm. Or me. I'm both."
"You're neither." That he hadn't understood that yet...
But then Nergal noticed something. "Maybe it was fate that I met them and Ani." That I've been made half a Shadow to make that possible. He repressed this part of his thought. "It can't have been a coincidence. We have to go back to them as fast as possible."
"And how?" Zephyr brought him back to reality. "Do you want to invade the Water Tribe and search for them?"
For the first time in a long time, Nergal managed a grin. "Not exactly. You will."
Zephyr stared at him. "I see."
"You'll find the others and explain everything," Nergal repeated. "No matter what their plan is, you will convince them of ours instead."
The Sky Elm hesitated, but his eyes shone in the color of Iris's feathers. He wanted to go back to her, Nergal knew only too well. Zephyr had often thought of her in the last few days. He couldn't resist the possibility of returning to her. "And what about you?"
Nergal looked at him gratefully. "Ani and I will await them where we'll find the rest of the Elmen that we need for prophecy: in the Land of Eternal Ice."
Kairos remained skeptical. "Are you sure you don't just want to see your mother?"
"Most definitely." As much as he missed her, however much he wanted to see her again, the prophecy was more important. It was true that he had never been particularly interested in it, but now he had a reason to. He had deciphered its true meaning, and he was undoubtedly sure of it. He would be part of the group that saved Elysia from the Shadows. His father would stop hating him, and everyone would forget that he had almost become a Shadow.
Geb, Iris, and all the others didn't know it yet - but Karzelek's glowing stone changed everything.
|Forest of Flames Chapters|
|One: Fire||1: Into the Unknown • 2: The Gift • 3: Travel by Snake • 4: Scorch Lines • 5: Wars to Be Won • 6: Impure Business • 7: Dark Fire|
|Two: Forest||8: Smoke and Feathers • 9: Midnight • 10: Heart of the Forest • 11: The Ones We Love • 12: Shadow Dance • 13: Makeshift Solution • 14: A New Beginning • 15: Eye of the Storm • 16: Traitors • 17: The Return • 18: Wildfire Hill|
|Three: Water||19: Answers • 20: Ancamna Falls • 21: Against the Flow • 22: Starry Night|