Epilogue Blood Fall

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Blood King Klaeon sits in his private carriage in silence. He rubs his chin with one hand and reads from a sheet of paper in his other. The writing on the report is nearly illegible, having been written quickly.

An attack in the south has taken out another of his scouting groups. Opinions are circulating that Klaeon is wasting men sending groups that far south. He laughs to himself. They don’t understand why I need groups down there. That’s fine. It couldn’t matter less to me what they think.

He crumples the report, which immediately bursts into flames. He throws the residual ash out the window. He winces and curses as the wound the cloaked man gave him stings. When he finds out who that man is he will personally execute the bastard along with that traitorous beast that bit him.

Knocking on the door of the carriage, Teron calls, “My Lord.”

“Enter.”

Once Teron climbs in, he kneels on the floor before standing. “My Lord, we are almost ready to depart.”

“Very good. Make sure everything is finished quickly and thoroughly. I don’t want to have to clean up another mess.”

“Yes, my Lord.” Teron holds out a black envelope. “This was on the carriage door.”

Klaeon raises his eyebrows. “Well, I haven’t seen one of these in a while. Did you see who delivered it?”

“No, it was stuck to the door when I approached. I checked with all our guards and no one saw anyone approach the carriage.”

Klaeon takes the letter. He turns it over, but there is no writing, only a small, symbol-shaped indent on the front. He opens the envelope and scans the letter inside.

A smile spreads across his face. “Get several of your best men together, Teron. It seems our favorite Shadow Watcher has some interesting information for us. He’s infiltrated the escaped group of slaves containing the Rare Kinds and knows where they are going. I want you to follow and kill them all.”

“All of them, my Lord?”

Klaeon raises his eyes to Teron. “Except for the Life Healer and the cloaked man who wounded me. I want you to bring them to me. I want the pleasure of killing them myself.”

“And the beast that attacked you?”

“I want its head.”

“Yes, My Lord.” Teron bows and leaves the carriage.

Klaeon rereads the letter and looks at the envelope closely. He tries to burn it, but the material doesn’t burn. It changes from black to red and writing appears on the envelope. He reads the writing and lifts his head.

“Teron!”

Teron appears at the door of the carriage. “My Lord?”

“Before you leave, I’ve got something for you. Once you’ve gathered your men return to me.”

Teron bows his head and leaves, closing the door behind him. Klaeon places the envelope next to him. A sharp headache causes him to gasp, grab his head, and close his eyes.

“Not now,” he growls. The pain increases in response, but eventually fades. He opens his eyes and leans his head back. “We’ll have the Life Healer soon. You can feast on her magic all you want.”

His reddish brown eye glows a deep scarlet.

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Chapter 36 Blood Fall

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Ime clears his throat. “So, when you heal someone, what does it feel like?”

“I don’t know if I can explain it properly.”

“Try.”

“Well, it gathers here,” she touches her chest, over her heart, “and when I’m healing someone I send it into them. I feel warmth flow from my chest, down my arms, and into whoever it is. I direct where the warmth goes and it heals them. I see the wound and how to fix it.”

“And what about when they’re close to death?”

Meah furrows her brow. “I can feel their warmth disappearing. I send my warmth to bring it back, but if they’re too far gone it takes away my own warmth. I think it could kill me. If I could find someone to teach me, maybe someday I could bring someone back from the farther reaches of death, but I don’t know what the cost would be to me.” She touches Ime’s hand. “What does your magic feel like?”

Ime looks at his hands and clenches them into fists. “Each one feels different. When I use my air magic it sort of feels like an extension from my body, like the air all around me reaches out and moves everything around me. Earth feels like it comes from my legs. I can feel it below me and I can use the air to help move it. When I open the earth it’s like I can shift all of it. If I wanted, maybe I could make mountains or split the earth into new lands. Water…water is my favorite to use, but not for fighting. It feels like my whole body is controlling it. I feel the water in my body telling the water around me what to do.” He pauses.

“What about fire?” Meah asks.

His eyes dart back and forth as his mind searches for the words. He sighs and leans back on his hands. “I remember when I first used my fire magic. It scared the hell out of me. My sister and I were walking through the forest by my village and a wild lurgen attacked us.”

“Lurgen?”

“Oh, they’re little four legged animals people from my village sometimes kept as pets. But this one was mad, feral. It tried to bite my sister. When I tried to stop it, fire erupted from my hand. I didn’t know exactly what happened, but saw the lurgen was gone. My sister had to tell me over and over that fire shot out of my hand before I would believe her. I tried to do it again, but I couldn’t. As I practiced more and more I realized the secret. The difference between the fire magic and the others was I didn’t need a physical source nearby. I could create it myself. I don’t know exactly how, but it’s similar to your healing magic.”

Ime places Meah’s hand on his chest. “I can feel the fire here, in my heart. I need to use my other magic to bring it out. It’s like they all work together somehow to bring the fire in my heart into the real world.”

Meah stares at her hand on Ime’s chest. Her own heart flutters in her chest. She pulls the hand away slowly. “What…what did it feel like when the Blood King took your fire away?”

Anger flashes across Ime’s face and he turns away from her. “It’s a horrible feeling. His power rips your magic from inside of you. I could feel my other magic trying to keep my fire from being taken, but it couldn’t.”

“When we defeat him, we’ll get your magic back.”

“If we beat him.”

“Of course we will. We’re going to find that city in the cliffs, we’ll get an army larger and more powerful than his, and we will win.”

Ime laughs. “You sound very sure.”

She nudges him with her elbow. “I know it will happen. We Rare Kinds have to stick together.” She smiles.

Ime raises a finger and flicks it at her. Water splashes from the pool onto her. She playfully pushes him a little more roughly than she had expected. Ime shouts as he falls into the pool of water.

Meah leans over the side of the rock as he breaks the surface. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to push you that hard!”

Ime yells and jumps from the water. He grabs her and pulls her in. She barely has time to grab a lungful of air before crashing into the cool water. The pool is much deeper than it looked from above. She kicks her legs and crashes through the surface.

Birds sleeping in the trees scatter at the sound and Meah searches for Ime. He swims under her and tugs her legs. She screams and looks down at his shadow. He rises from the water and laughs. Meah glares at him, but can’t keep a smile from her lips. She laughs and their laughter echoes in the clearing. They splash each other with water, Ime winning with his magic.

A strange light fills the pool and the two look down. Hundreds of small, startled fish swim around the pool. Light shines from their scales, dancing below the surface. Several swim towards the waterfall and jump up the water. Ime watches the fish for a moment before swimming towards the waterfall. Meah follows. They watch with wonder-filled eyes as the small fish make it to the top of the waterfall.

“I’ve never seen fish swim up a waterfall. How are they doing that?” Meah asks.

Ime watches the fish carefully. He reaches his hand into the waterfall and grabs one. He holds it in his hand. The fish wiggles furiously and its mouth opens and closes, gasping for breath. Water flies into Ime’s hand and the fish uses it to leap from his hand. It disappears into the rushing water and Ime smiles. “It’s magic. They’re using water magic to climb the waterfall.”

As the fish climb, the lights from their scales flicker out, but new lights glow behind the water. The fishes’ movements awaken worms hanging on the rocks beneath the water. Unlike the fish, they have multiple colors and as the two watch them the worms slowly move away.

Ime looks at Meah and grabs her hand. “Come on.”

“What?”

“There’s something behind the waterfall.”

He pulls her toward the rushing water, but when they reach it he raises a hand and the water parts, allowing them to pass through. The water crashes down behind them and they enter a small cave. The worms have moved to the ceiling and walls of the cave, waking other worms. The worms’ lights glow brightly and the cave fills with a kaleidoscope of colors. The water glows under Meah and Ime as fish in the pool swim in circles beneath, occasionally leaping to swallow any worms close enough to the water.

Meah swims around the cave, spinning in the water to take in the strange world around her. Her eyes wide with amazement, she laughs happily. She smiles at Ime. He is staring at her, not the cave. The light reflecting off and from the water makes her body glow. Ime swims closer and wraps an arm around her waist. He places his other hand on the back of her head and pulls her into a kiss. Meah pulls away suddenly and stares at him.

Then she wraps her arms around him and kisses him passionately. It surprises Ime enough he forgets to use his magic and they fall under the water. The lights from the fish surround them and Ime raises them back to the surface. They gasp for air and look at each other. They laugh and kiss again.

“We should head back,” Meah says. Ime looks at her with disappointment. “We have to tell everyone the plan. Plus, we should probably get into some dry clothes.”

Ime smiles and they swim out of the cave. They walk back to the village talking about nothing in particular. Ime talks about all the trouble he used to get into with his sister. Meah tells him about her village and the surrounding valley.

“Meah! Ime! There you are!” Daniil’s voice calls from the doorway of the larger hut. Loud voices, coming from inside, signal the end of the celebration. Everyone is waiting for them.

“Where have you two been? Everyone’s bugging us about the plan. What’s the plan? Do you know the plan? What’s Ime’s plan? Does Meah agree with Ime’s plan? Could you please tell them we don’t have a plan?” Kylii yells angrily.

Ime and Meah look at each other and smile. Ime walks past the brothers into the hut. Meah, Daniil, and Kylii follow and everyone inside the hut falls silent, turning to Ime.

Ime takes a deep breath. “I’m going to the city in the cliffs.”

The freed slaves begin to shout at each other, with some for the plan and others against. The villagers move away from the freed slaves to avoid being caught in the middle.

Jaxon appears at the opposite doorway and leans on the side of the hut. He watches Ime carefully.

“Jaxon is right!” Ime yells over the arguing. The arguing stops and eyes return to Ime. “Jaxon is right. Even though we’ve escaped Klaeon’s Arena, he will still come after us, our homes, those we love. There is only one thing to do. Stop him. I am going to the cliff city. Those who wish to join me may, but no one will be forced to come. If this is the end of your journey with me I wish you the gods care to make it to wherever you wish to go. I will leave in two days. Whoever is going with me, I will see you then. That is all I have to say.”

Ime looks at Meah and she grabs his hand. He smiles and leads her through the crowded hut to the opposite door. He locks eyes with Jaxon. “Your map better be right.”

“We’ll find out together.”

Ime and Meah leave the hut and head for Pu’ah’s home. Fresh, dry clothes are waiting for them. They move to opposite sides of the room and begin changing. Meah unties the strings on her dress and pulls the wet cloth over her head. She grabs a dry dress and pulls it over her head. She bites her bottom lip and slowly turns her head.

Ime has his shirt off and new dry pants on. He is staring at the new shirt provided, gray, which reflects the silver of his eyes. He runs his hand through his damp hair and Meah takes a quick breath as the muscles in his back move. He looks around for another possible shirt and catches Meah staring at him. Her eyes move up and down his chest.

“Everything all right?” Ime asks.

Meah crosses the room to him and reaches a tentative hand out to his chest. He watches her, unmoving. She places her hand on his chest and her magic fills her hand. She jumps and pulls her hand away. Ime stares at her confused, but she quickly presses her hand against his chest again. Magic fills her hand and she feels Ime’s muscles. She feels his heart beating as though she holds it in her hand.

A hand covers hers and she looks up into Ime’s silver eyes. She feels his heartbeat speed up and she leans close. He meets her halfway and their lips touch. Ime drops his shirt and wraps his arms around her.

They part and Meah tries to remove her dress. When she has difficulty, Ime helps then lays her down on the blankets set out for them.

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Chapter 35 Blood Fall

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“Ime!” Meah calls after his disappearing figure. When he doesn’t slow or turn to her, she quickens her pace. “Ime! Wait!”

Ime leaves the village, venturing into the surrounding forest. Meah tries to keep up, but the trees slow her down. She loses sight of him but pushes forward entering a small clearing containing a large pool with a waterfall. The clearing is surrounded by lush vegetation. The moon, high in the night sky, reflects from the pool.

“You should have stayed at the celebration. I want to be alone.”

Meah sees Ime’s hunched figure on a large rock by the edge of the pool. He throws pebbles into the water with his earth magic and back out with his water magic. His silver eyes reflect moonlight.

“Why did you leave so quickly? Was it because of what Jaxon said about fire? I’m sure he didn’t mean it as an insult.”

“Why do you listen to that man? He’s a slave trader. He brought you to the Arena. I’m more than willing to bet he killed someone you loved.”

Meah falls silent and remembers Elder Mircien. She swallows a large lump in her throat and turns away from Ime.

Ime, realizing how his words affect Meah, runs his hands through his brown hair. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…I just don’t trust him. I don’t think following his plan is the right choice.”

Meah shrugs. “It’s the only plan we have. He’s right about trying to go home. If we do, the Blood King will come after us and destroy our homes and those we love. We have to stop him and we can’t succeed without help.”

“Do you trust him?”

“I’ve already answered that question.”

“You said we could trust him. I’m asking if you trust him.”

Meah climbs up next to the rock where Ime is sitting and places one hand on each side of his face. “I trust him completely.”

Ime grasps her hands and gently moves them away, staring deeply into her eyes. He sighs. “Fine. We’ll search for the city in the cliffs. We’ll gather an army and we’ll stop Klaeon.”

Meah smiles and sits on the ground next to the rock. “You’re the only one who doesn’t call him Blood King.”

Ime spits. “He is no king. There haven’t been kings in these lands for centuries. He’s just a man who wants power. All men who know the forbidden magic want power.”

“In my home we’d never heard of a king. I can’t imagine what living under his rule must be like.”

“He’s been self-proclaimed king since before I was born. He terrorized my home for years.” Ime stops and turns away from Meah.

Meah leans her head forward to see his face, but can only see his profile. “What was your home like? Was it like the city around the Arena?”

“No,” Ime’s eyes move around, looking at the trees in the clearing. “It was a beautiful village. It had trees like these that bore the sweetest fruit. We lived at the bottom of a sleeping volcano next to the sea. Plants grew quickly because of the rich soil. Before our ancestors settled there the volcano created the rich earth with its fire. When it fell asleep our ancestors tended to the earth and new plants grew. The ocean provided us with fish and plentiful rains provided us with drinking water until wells were dug.”

Ime’s expression grows dark and he clenches his fists. “Then Klaeon came into power. He sent his men out to villages in his proclaimed domain to terrorize people into submission. First his troops stole our food, water, and money. Then they began kidnapping our women and strong young men. For sport they tried to see how many villagers they could force to eat rotten fish.”

His expression relaxes, but his fists remain clenched. “I was the first in my family to be born with magic. There were others in the village, but my magic was unique. Many can use one element, but to control them all is extremely rare. I used to help around the village and keep an eye on my younger sister. My parents were proud, but they warned me never to use my magic when the soldiers were in the village.

“One day, five of Klaeon’s men attacked my sister while she was out picking berries. They beat her until she couldn’t fight back or scream for help. Then each in turn…forced himself on her. When I found out I became furious. I went after the men, against my family’s wishes. I promised myself I wouldn’t use my magic to keep the village safe. But when I found them I couldn’t beat them with physical strength alone, something snapped inside me.”

Meah climbs onto the rock next to Ime and takes one of his hands in hers. She holds it in her lap, comforting. He relaxes it as she squeezes it between her own.

“They taunted me with details of how they violated my sister. I killed all but one of them with my magic. I burned one alive, crushed another in the earth, tore one apart with wind, and drowned another by forcing water down his throat. I told the lone survivor to return to Klaeon and tell him to leave our village alone. If he didn’t, I would kill every soldier that came even within the farthest border. The survivor hurried back to Klaeon and several days later more men appeared in our village. I kept my promise and killed each one. Klaeon arrived soon after. He said. “I’ve heard all about this magic user who has made it his personal duty to protect this village. But even he would not be foolish enough to challenge me outright. Therefore, I must satisfy myself with killing those he loves.”

“I was still a stupid, young boy then and without thinking attacked Klaeon. He easily defeated me and, to make an example of me, he took away my fire magic, then ordered me to be taken to the Arena to die in the games. He thought taking my magic would destroy my spirit, but it made me stronger. I vowed to survive every fight. I vowed to someday kill Klaeon and return to my family.”

“That’s when you met Daniil and Kylii.”

“They had already been fighting in the Arena for many years before I got there, but they took a liking to me and decided to help me in the first few fights. After that I didn’t need their help. I could kill any man placed before me.”

“Do you…enjoy killing?” Meah asks softly.

Ime’s breath catches in his throat and he shakes his head. “I do what I must to survive.”

Meah wraps her arms around Ime’s arm and moves closer to him. “I understand.”

Ime tenses as she moves closer. “The only ones who know about my past are Daniil and Kylii. It’s nice to tell someone else who can understand.”

“What was your sister’s name?”

“Niya. It means night in the ancient language. Her hair and eyes are the deepest black, like the night sky.”

“What does Ime mean?” Ime’s face goes blank and then an embarrassed smile forms on his lips. Meah can see his cheeks are flushed and she laughs. “What?”

“Ime means sweet fruit.”

Meah stares at him and starts to giggle. “Sweet fruit?”

Ime nods and laughs with her. “Most don’t know the meaning behind our names anymore. The only reason I know is because my mother and father loved the old stories. Did you ever ask your parents if your name meant anything?”

Meah’s laughter stops and she gently pushes away from Ime. She shakes her head. “My parents became ill when I was ten ages old. When I turned thirteen they died. They didn’t talk much about old stories except about their travelsbefore I was born. Though my mother told me my name meant something precious to them.”

“I’m sorry about your parents.”

“They were wonderful people. The people in my village were wonderful people. Elder Mircien treated me like family after my parents died. He was the only one who saw me for more than my magic.”

“You still have him to go back to.”

“He was killed when Jaxon’s men attacked my village. He was killed to lure me out of hiding.”

Ime’s eyes widen and he turns away. “I should stop talking. I’m making things worse.”

“You asked me if I trusted Jaxon.” Meah looks at him. “I do. When his men attacked my village he didn’t hurt anyone. He drew his sword, but he never used it. Bandits in the desert attacked us and he killed them all alone. He may have been a slave trader, but he’s a good person.”

“I don’t want him to hurt you.” Ime’s face immediately turns red and he turns his back to Meah.

Meah’s face feels warm and she smiles. “Thank you.”

They sit in silence, each trying to calm a racing heartbeat. Fish splash in the pool and the waterfall’s calming sound fills the clearing.

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Chapter 34 Blood Fall

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Ime takes the scroll, unrolls it, and spreads it out on the table. Meah leans close. On one side is the legend of the cliff city. On the other is a simple, hand-drawn map. Ime looks up at Pu’ah. “Do you know the way?”

Jaxon smiles and points to the map. “I do. Legends tend to have directions in them if you know how to look. We need to travel through the caves of the mountains to the forest of Spirits. The canyon lies on the other side.” As he speaks he traces the route on the map. “There is an entrance to the caves located nearby. No one knows of it besides Elder Pu’ah and myself. Even if the Blood King’s men manage to find their way there, they won’t be able to follow us into the caves.”

“I’ve heard the caves in these mountains are dangerous. Creatures that live deep in the dark eat the flesh of those who enter,” Daniil says.

Kylii nods his head. “I’ve heard they used to be men, but turned their backs on the sun for the protection of the caves. They can see in the dark and know the caves better than any living thing.”

“We should be fine with the number of magic users we have. The creatures in the caves may be dangerous, but using fire we can keep them at bay,” Jaxon says, his eyes flashing to Ime for a moment.

Ime stands suddenly. “Please excuse me. I need some air. This talk of war and legendary cities is suffocating.” He leaves the table and exits through the back of the hut.

Those around the table watch him leave in silence. Meah’s concerned eyes watch his back disappear into the night. She feels eyes on her and knows Jaxon and Pu’ah are staring at her.

“Excuse me,” she says. She stands and quickly follows Ime out.

The silence at the table continues as she leaves the tent. The map left on the table rustles as breezes move across the hut. Kylii grabs it and looks at Jaxon. “So, if this city is only a legend, how did you get a map to it?”

“Like I said, legends have directions in them if you know where to look. I knew where to look,” Jaxon explains. “Travelling the lands for several years helped, too. It’s amazing the number of stories you hear.”

“Meah may trust you, slave trader, but we remember what you did to our homes and our lives,” Bern says suddenly. “How do we know you aren’t leading us into a trap for the Blood King?”

Jaxon hesitates before turning to Bern. “If you are looking for an apology for what I’ve done, you will have to keep waiting. I know that an apology from me would mean nothing to you. If you don’t trust me, that’s fine. You can stay here or try to find somewhere to go on your own.”

“We will stay by Meah’s side. We promised to protect her.”

“You treat Meah like a saint, always offering to sacrifice your lives for her. Can’t you see she hates it every time you say such things? She didn’t save your lives to have you throw them away. She wants you to keep fighting.”

Rava slams her hands on the table and glares at Jaxon. “You speak like everything you’ve done in the past is suddenly erased! You helped bring slaves to the Arena. You helped kill many people!”

“Rava!” Mava tries to calm her sister, to pull her back into her seat. But Rava pulls her arm away.

“Why are you so interested in helping us all of a sudden? Why are you so eager to help Ime and Meah?”

Jaxon waits for her to finish. He takes a deep breath and slowly stands. “Don’t talk as though you know what is going on. You are too blinded by your misplaced faith in Meah to understand what has happened. You can’t see that Ime may be the only one who can stop the Blood King.”

“What do you mean?” Daniil asks.

Bruer leans forward. “Ime’s fire magic scared the Blood King so much he had to take it away from Ime when he was just a boy. Why would he do that unless he knew it made Ime powerful enough to threaten even him?”

The hut has gone silent and every eye is on their table. Jaxon searches the faces of the freed slaves, angrily. “Listen to me. You are all free. You have a choice. You can run off and try to find your way home. Most of you will be recaptured by the Blood King’s men or by other slave traders. Those of you who manage to find your way home, how long do you think the peace will last? How long before more slave traders come for you, your families, your friends?”

Many eyes fall to the floor, unwilling to face the truth of Jaxon’s words.

“Your other choice is to stop the Blood King. That is the only way the Arena, the slave trading, the fear, and the dying will stop. But you are all free. I can’t make that choice for you. Ime can’t make that choice for you. Meah can’t make that choice for you. You must make that choice for yourself.” Jaxon storms out of the hut.

Pu’ah rises to his feet, watching Jaxon leave sadly. “I wish for all of you to excuse him. He has always been a bit on the dramatic side. This celebration was not meant for talks of such dark things. Please eat, dance, and forget about such heavy things tonight. This is a celebration of new life. Let the music play!”

The musicians resume playing and conversation slowly follows. But the room is retains an enhanced air of gravity. Daniil and Kylii move closer to Pu’ah.

“You almost sounded like a father apologizing for his misbehaving child,” Kylii jokes.

Pu’ah laughs. “Is it that obvious? Jaxon didn’t really want me telling anyone he was my son.”

Daniil spits his drink out across the table coughing. “Excuse me, are you saying he actually is your son?”

“Yes.”

Daniil and Kylii look at each other and smile, having trouble containing their laughter.

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Chapter 33 Blood Fall

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With sunrise, the once slaves wash off the dirt and blood of the Arena and put on new clothes, provided by caring villagers. They feel more alive, like different people. The younger slaves, including Cal and Bon, play with the children of the village.

Ime awakens, rolls over, and rubs his eyes. He freezes when he senses movement, drowsiness immediately gone, and looks at the figure lying next to him.

Still asleep, Meah adjusts to Ime’s movement and takes a deep breath. He carefully sits up, trying not to disturb her.

The beating of his heart quickens as he watches her still form. Light from the window reflects off her auburn hair. The corners of her lips turn up slightly giving her face a childlike expression of ease. Ime wonders if her lips are soft to the touch.

“Ime! Meah! Wake up!” Daniil’s voice calls from outside, tearing Ime from his thoughts.

“You two gonna sleep all day? What are you doing in there?” Kylii adds.

Roused by the commotion outside, Meah slowly sits up. She yawns and her tired eyes focus. She sees Ime and smiles. “Morning.”

“Afternoon, I think.”

Meah looks at the window and laughs. “It feels nice to sleep in.”

“Ime! Meah!” Daniil and Kylii yell, frustrated.

Ime jumps to his feet and crosses to the window. He throws it open and glares at the two standing outside. “We heard you the first time! What do you want?”

Tanith lies next to Daniil. Her fur, now clean, appears several shades lighter. The cleaning of her front paws of dirt and blood reveals the graded lightening of her fur. Much darker at the top, it fades into a light tan. The gradation is reversed for her hooved back feet, gorwing darker until fully black.

Daniil crosses his arms over his new clothes. He wears a blue shirt with black pants and matching boots. “Everyone keeps asking where you two are. We told them you were probably working on a strategy.”

“And here we find you two still in bed. Doing only the gods know what,” Kylii says. His clothes match his brother’s clothes, except his shirt is red.

“Sleeping. That’s all!”

“Don’t worry, you don’t have to speak delicately. We’re all adults.”

The flush on Ime’s face brings eruptions of laughter from the brothers. Meah walks to the window and smiles at the two.

“You two look nice.” Meah laughs.

Tanith snorts.

“And you look beautiful, Tanith.”

Tanith’s tail pats the ground appreciatively. Daniil leans his head to the side. “Unlike some people, we’ve already washed up and dressed in fresh clothes.”

“I think Ime’s earned the extra sleep.”

A snicker escapes Kylii’s lips. “If that’s all you two were doing.”

“Why did we bring these two with us, again?” Ime asks Meah.

“Because you love us,” Daniil and Kylii say together. “We’ll see you two at the feast. Remember, it’s just a few hours away, sleepyheads.” They lope away with Tanith following.

“I see you two are finally up,” Pu’ah says, carrying two small piles of clothes. He places one pile on a chair against the wall and hands the other to Meah. “These clothes are for you. They were donated by a young couple and they’d feel honored to have you wear them.”

“And, because you are no longer barbarians, here is water to clean yourselves up,” Jaxon grunts, carrying two large buckets of water and washcloths. He puts them at either end of the room, spilling small droplets onto the floor. He smiles and places his hands on his hips. “If you need anything, just shout. We’ll be outside…reminiscing.” He meets Meah’s eyes before leaving.

Laughing quietly, Pu’ah turns to Meah and winks before following Jaxon out. Shutting the window, Ime crosses to the pile of clothes left for him. Meah moves to her pile, but decides to wash up first. She grabs the washcloth and dips it into the cool water. She turns away from Ime and removes the dirty Arena clothes.

Reaching for his bucket of water, Ime turns and sees Meah undressing. He stares at her bare back with wide eyes. She moves the wet cloth across her skin, over her tanned arms and pale back. Ime tears his eyes away, grabbing the bucket of water without turning around. He calms his breathing and removes his shirt to begin washing the dirt from his skin.

The villagers bustle about preparing a mighty feast for the group. The large hut is filled with the delicious aromas of grilling meat and boiling vegetables. Warm fires keep the hut full of light. Long tables are arranged to seat the entire group as well as those villagers brave enough to speak with the new guests. Villagers at one end of the hut play music, while others dance gaily in front of them.

The fear of death is gone and many of the escapees are more outspoken. Laughter fills the hut. They talk openly with villagers, thanking them over and over for their kindness.

One table is set slightly separate from the others along the wall of the hut closest to the back door. Pu’ah sits with Jaxon, Meah, Ime, Daniil, Kylii, Bruer, Bern, Mava, Rava, Skara, Tristan and a few villagers. Tanith lies on the ground between Daniil and Kylii, staying relatively out of sight so she doesn’t frighten the villagers.

Ime wears a well-fitted black shirt with matching black pants and boots. Meah wears a green dress, which brings out her emerald eyes. She braided her hair over one shoulder, using her silk bracelet as a hair tie.

A strange silence falls on the table after Ime describes their escape.

Pu’ah breaks the silence. “You were very fortunate to escape after facing the Blood King. Now that you have, what are your plans?”

Ime stares at him with confusion on his face. “Why should there be any plans? The plan was to escape the Arena. We did that. Everyone is free now.”

“Do you really think those men and women who followed you only wished to be freed?” Jaxon asks, taking a drink from his cup.

“Why else would they risk their lives to escape?”

Mava, Rava, Bern, Skara, and Tristan look at each other and then to Meah. “We want to protect Meah. She saved us and we will give our lives to make sure she remains safe,” Bern says.

Jaxon meets Ime’s eyes. “And, with Blood King Klaeon still alive, it is only a matter of time before he comes after us.”

“Do you really think he’ll come after us?” Meah asks.

“You escaped from his Arena with most of his slaves. A beast and an ex trader defeated him before his own men.”

Pu’ah leans forward to look at Meah. “He fears your power, Life Healer.”

“Why? All I can do is heal. What is so dangerous about that?”

“Life Healers can do more than heal. They can bring the dead back to life. Stories say they can even grant immortality. He wants that power. But if he can’t have it, he will destroy it so no other may possess it.”

“That sounds like enough reason to come after us,” Kylii says. Daniil kicks his brother under the table. “What?”

“He can’t be left to do as he pleases. He will hunt us down to the ends of the earth destroying those in his path if he must,” Jaxon says.

“Are you suggesting we start a war with Klaeon? He has an army too large for us to possibly fight,” Ime yells, furiously.

“But you do want to kill him, don’t you?”

Ime is silenced by Jaxon’s words. Meah places a comforting hand on Ime’s shoulder, but his eyes grow distant.

Jaxon sighs. “I’m not saying we should fight him now. I’m suggesting we build an army. The Blood King isn’t loved across this land. Many would join forces against him. All they need is someone to lead them.”

Ime thinks carefully, considering his words. “Where do you suggest we go to gather an army?”

Jaxon looks at Pu’ah. The Elder reaches into his cloaks and pulls out a scroll. “There are legends that speak of a great city carved into the cliff walls of a distant canyon in the south. The people of this city are powerful and know the way of war and magic.”

“We start there,” Jaxon says, handing the scroll to Ime.

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Chapter 32 Blood Fall

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Jaxon and Bruer lead the weary group through the canyon. The excitement from the escape has faded. Now the once slaves just want to sleep. Jaxon warns them it would be better to keep moving for at least a day to ensure they get far enough ahead of Klaeon’s forces so they can rest. Although many of the slaves still don’t trust Jaxon. Ime’s support of the plan causes them to mumble their approval.

To slow down any soldiers who may be after them, Ime and a few other magic users close the canyon path behind them at multiple points with earth magic. Daniil sends Tanith up the sides of the surrounding slpoes to keep watch for anyone following. After she returns from a tenth scouting without spotting anyone, Daniil stops sending Tanith and the magic users stop blocking the way behind.

Although it’s nearly dawn when the group finally rests. Meah wakes soon after sunrise to see Jaxon standing watch at the far end of the group. She carefully moves away from the sleeping figures around her and stands next to him.

“Still don’t sleep?” she asks.

Jaxon laughs. “Old habit. You seem to be an early riser.”

Meah nods. “Old habit. I’ve had nightmares since I was a child. They used to wake me up early and I just kind of got used to it.”

“Nightmares.” Jaxon watches the sun rise higher. “We should get moving.”

He turns to wake the group, but Meah grabs his arm. “Wait! Just a little longer. They haven’t slept since yesterday.”

“Fine, but only two more hours. Any more and we risk anyone following catching up.”

The two hours pass and Jaxon rouses the group. Once they continue through the canyon path, magic users return to blocking the path behind, and Daniil sends Tanith up the canyon sides a few times to ensure they are still not being followed.

As she returns to his side, Daniil scratches the Khorgoi’s head. She rubs her muzzle against him. Kylii grabs his brother and pulls him close. He whispers in his ear and Daniil’s expression becomes blank. Kylii storms ahead to walk with Bruer and Fleance, surprising both men.

“Is everything okay?” Meah asks Daniil.

Daniil refuses to look at her, instead keeping his eyes on his brother’s back. “It’s nothing.”

She expects him to continue, but when he doesn’t she moves to Ime. “I think something’s wrong between Daniil and Kylii.”

Ime looks from one brother to the other. “They’ll be fine. Fighting is part of being a sibling.”

“Are you speaking from your own personal experience?”

He ignores the question and stares at Meah. “Jaxon was the one who brought you to the Arena.”

Meah nods.

“Do the others you came with trust him?”

“No.”

Ime leans close. “Maybe you should ask why.”

The group walks in silence the rest of the day. As the sun lowers in the sky, plants appear on the sides of the path. They follow the path and find grass growing all around them, adding vibrant green to the otherwise brown landscape. From a small clearing they see a small patch of forest nestled between the steep canyon walls. At the center sits a village built on a stream that flows from the mountains.

As they approach, villagers stop their daily chores to stare at the newcomers. One villager runs through the village, returning with a small group of men. Jaxon steps forward and greets the group, speaking directly to the one Meah assumes to be the Elder of the village.

As Jaxon speaks to the locals, Meah looks at Ime’s face. His expression is calmer and he appears more relaxed. She wonders how long it has been since he first fought in the Arena. Was he the same as Daniil and Kylii? Fighting since childhood?

Kylii has moved back to stand next to his brother, but their expressions are grave. Somehow she can tell it isn’t because of the escape or the thought of being followed by soldiers. There is something between them, creating a strange air of distance. Tanith sits at Daniil’s side and Meah sees Kylii give her a quick look.

“Welcome!” the Elder approaches the group with Jaxon at his side. “We hear you escaped from the Arena and the Blood King. You are all very fortunate to be alive. We wish to celebrate your newfound freedom. Many of our people have seen the terrors of the Arena and know the Blood King’s cruelty. You are safe here. We would like you to join us in a great feast tomorrow night. Until then, rest. Many here would be honored to give you shelter for as long as you choose to stay.”

Ime thanks the Elder for his kind words. Villagers approach and lead many of the once slaves to their homes for rest and clothes. The only ones who stay behind are Ime, Meah, Daniil, Kylii, Bruer, and Jaxon. They follow the Elder to the center of the village.

“Thank you for understanding, Elder Pu’ah,” Jaxon says.

Elder Pu’ah smiles at Jaxon. “We haven’t seen you in many ages, Jaxon. Many wondered if the Arena had taken you. But those who venture to watch the games assured us it had not. Though I have been hearing strange rumors from travelers about a black blooded slave trader who sounded a little too familiar.”

Jaxon looks away from the old man. “You must be speaking of the Black Caravan.”

“And you knowing what I am speaking of answers my next question. I had hoped it was just my old mind trying to confuse me.”

“How do you know Jaxon?” Meah asks.

Pu’ah keeps his eyes on Jaxon a moment longer before turning his attention to Meah. “It is not my place to answer personal questions about Jaxon. Though if he is in the sharing mood, then I do not mind talking about history.”

Jaxon takes a deep breath. “I was born here. This is my home village.”

The others stare at him with wide eyes.

“And you left here to become a slave trader?” Ime asks.

“He left here because he was unhappy,” Pu’ah answers before Jaxon can even open his mouth.

Jaxon finally meets Pu’ah’s eyes. “I left because there was nothing to keep me here. My mother died and my strength made me too dangerous. I didn’t want the Blood King to have any reason to attack this village.”

“Instead, you brought him all the slaves he’d ever need to keep your village safe,” Kylii says, a hint of anger in his voice.

“I did what needed to be done to survive.”

Meah stares at Jaxon, remembering a similar conversation she had with him during the long journey to the Arena.

Pu’ah stops them outside his home. He climbs the steps to the door, turning back to the small group as he says, “You are all more than welcome to stay in my home. Unless, it is not to your liking?”

“It’s fine. Thank you for having us,” Ime says.

“Though it may be a little crowded with six of you.”

“If you guys don’t mind,” Kylii interrupts, “Daniil and I will stay outside… with Tanith. We’d like to enjoy the outside air as much as possible.” He eyes his brother. Daniil remains silent, placing his hand on Tanith’s head. She looks up at him, confused.

“I prefer outside as well. The porch is fine for me,” Bruer says.

Pu’ah looks at the three, smiling. “Don’t forget to come to the celebration tomorrow. There will be much great food for you to enjoy.”

“We never walk away from the promise of delicious food. We’ll meet you there. Which is where, exactly?” Kylii asks.

Pu’ah points to a large hut with the cloth walls that are currently rolled up. The brothers nod and wave their hands in thanks as they walk towards a small collection of trees. Ime and Jaxon follow Pu’ah inside, but Meah hesitates.

Ime notices she hasn’t followed and appears in the doorway. “Meah? Are you all right?”

She turns to him smiling. “I’m fine. Go on inside. I have something to talk to Daniil and Kylii about first.”

He slowly nods and returns inside the hut. Meah quickly walks after Daniil and Kylii. She has trouble keeping up once they enter the trees, but she stops when she hears Daniil’s voice.

“What is your problem, Kylii? You’ve been pissed at me the whole way here, but you haven’t explained to me why. You said we needed to talk so let’s talk.”

Meah moves behind a thick tree closer to where the brothers have stopped. She carefully peeks around the thick trunk. Kylii is sitting on the ground, leaning against a tree. Daniil is standing in front of him, Tanith lying at his side like a guard.

Kylii crosses his arms across his chest. “Ick im na falla batter, Daniil-li?”

Daniil stares at his brother in surprise. “Really? You want to speak like that?”

“Ick im na falla batter, Daniil-li?”

Daniil sighs. “Daniil-li im falla batter. Isk?”

“Iks im na batter falla’s bo?”

“To guaray billa batter. Iks im na meter ma Kylii-li?”

Kylii stands. “We are twins. We share everything. We even share our own language.”

“Jei.”

“Then why can’t I hear her?” Kylii points to Tanith.

Tanith’s ears perk up. Daniil looks down at her then up at his brother. “That’s why you’re so upset with me?”

Kylii looks hurt. “That’s all you have to say? We share everything, Daniil-li. Daniil-li o Kylii-li pomised to faways garet achinee. Everything! Now you have something with that beast that I can’t understand and it scares me.”

“Isk?”

“What if you start having other things we can’t share?”

Daniil laughs. “There are going to be things we can’t share. That’s life, Kylii-li.”

“I don’t want there to be anything we can’t share! We promised!”

“Tanith is sorry you can’t hear her voice. She can only link with one person at a time.”

“We basically are the same person!”

“No. No, we’re not. You know that better than I do.”

Kylii sits back down against the tree. He glares at Daniil and the air steadily grows warmer. “I still don’t understand why she can’t speak to me, too.”

Daniil walks over to his brother. Tanith moves to follow, but he stops her. She freezes and watches the two curiously. Daniil sits down next to Kylii. “It’s the limit of her magic. You know what that means and you know it can’t be broken. If it is, the consequences can be high.” As he speaks the air fills with a cool breeze, calming the heat.

“It’s still not fair.”

“Magic isn’t that great at being fair.”

Tanith stands and slowly walks towards the brothers. She lowers her head, submissively at Kylii. She nudges his foot, softly. Kylii stares into her white eyes.

“She says she understands your concern. She knows what it is like to have someone you love and trust completely. She doesn’t want to come between us and wishes you to know that once we have reached a land close to her home she will leave. She only wishes for you to trust her as you trust your brother,” Daniil says.

Kylii reaches a hand out to Tanith and she cautiously moves forward so his hand rests on her snout. He strokes her red scales and sighs loudly. “Fine. But no secrets! I want to know everything she says. Especially about me.”

Daniil laughs and grabs his brother roughly around the neck. He wrestles him to the ground and both laugh.

Meah watches in silence and a small smile creeps on her lips. She carefully moves away, trying not to make a sound to catch the brothers’ attention. She makes her way back to Pu’ah’s home and Jaxon is waiting for her, sitting on the top step. Bruer is lying on the far end of the porch, his weapons on the floor next to him.

“How are they?” Jaxon asks.

“Better now that they’ve had a chance to talk privately. Why aren’t you inside resting?”

Jaxon smiles and raises an eyebrow. “I’m not tired and since I’m not sleeping, Elder Pu’ah wants to talk about the old days, which I am not in the mood for.”

Meah walks up the steps and sits next to him. “I remember never seeing you sleep on the journey to the Arena. Are you sure your blood isn’t black? I imagine those who do have black blood don’t need to sleep either.”

Jaxon turns his head away from her. “You’ve already seen the color of my blood. Being the leader of the caravan meant I had to be alert more than the others. I slept when no one was paying attention. But I think rest is exactly what you need now. I had Elder Pu’ah set up a second blanket next to Ime for you.”

Meah blushes. “Why?”

“So you might feel a little more comfortable sleeping in a strange place. Someone you trust sleeping next to will help you ease into a deeper, more restful sleep. Trust me.”

They sit in silence. The only sound is Bruer’s snoring coming from the far end of the porch. Meah finally says, “You should talk with Elder Pu’ah.”

“Why?”

“He sounds worried about you.”

Jaxon leans back and stares up at the night sky. “He’s old. Worrying is part of his daily routine.” He sighs loudly. “Get inside. You’re about to fall over.”

Meah stands and thanks him. She heads inside and sees Pu’ah sitting at a table. His mouth is set in a hard line and his eyes stare at the table sternly.

“Are you okay?” Meah asks.

Pu’ah raises his eyes to her and his expression lightens. “I’m fine. I’ve set you and…”

“Ime and my name is Meah.”

“Yes, sorry. I guess we skipped formal introductions.”

“We did, but you seemed distracted by Jaxon.”

Pu’ah lowers his eyes. “Yes. I had accepted the fact that I may never see him again and here he is.”

Meah places a comforting hand on Pu’ah’s hands. “I’m sure he planned on coming back.”

He pats her hand. “I would like to believe that. Anyway, I’ve set you and Ime in the next room. Feel free to sleep as long as you like.” He stands and walks through a doorway.

Meah walks to the opposite doorway and sees Ime already sleeping under a blanket on the floor. She quietly slips under the one next to Ime’s sleeping form. She faces him and smiles.

Jaxon is right. She falls asleep quickly and it is a deep sleep.

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Chapter 31 Blood Fall

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Ime struggles to free himself from Klaeon but he feels his strength ebbing. The feeling triggers a memory of the last time he fought Klaeon. Having his magical pulled from his body terrifies him now as it had then.

The alien presence filling him, searching inside of him for where his magic is hidden, makes his body tremble. Even his most secret places, places he can’t access on his own, are invaded. The presence finds what it is seeking and withdraws, taking magic and strength with it.

In a panic, Ime hits Klaeon, but his blows are weak and Klaeon laughs. “You can’t fight me anymore.”

A massive roar surprises Klaeon. As he turns, Tanith plunges sharp fangs into his thigh. Screaming, the King tries to kick the great beast away. But her fangs are embedded in his flesh. Tanith pulls him further away from the edge of the roof before releasing him with a hiss. The cloaked man uses the distraction to move next to Klaeon and stab him in the shoulder. Klaeon glares at the man, forced by the pain to release Ime.

Ime’s magic flees from Klaeon to return to him. The force of it knocks him to the ground. Simultaneously, his strength begins to returns. Meah runs to his side and helps him to his feet so they can move away from Klaeon. Tanith follows.

The cloaked man removes his knife and kicks the back of Klaeon’s knee. The Blood King falls to the ground, blood pooling the wounds on his body. The cloaked man runs after the others to see Ime fighting against Meah.

Ime breaks away and runs for Klaeon. He can’t allow his only chance to regain his fire to slip away.

The cloaked man stops Ime, wasting time they should be using to flee. “We have to escape now, Ime! You can fight him another day!”

Ime’s eyes are wild as he tries to force his way past.

“You don’t want it to end like this.”

The rage in Ime’s eyes disappears, as the man’s words sink in. He yells angrily, turns, and thrusts past Meah, who barely moves out of his way. Meah looks to the cloaked man, who shakes his head indicating this is no time for questions and chases after Ime.

Ime creates a flight of stairs from the roof as he waits for them to reach him. Klaeon struggles to his feet. His furious wails fill the night. Dark red fire erupts from his hands and flies towards the group. As Meah, Tanith, and the cloaked man hurry down the stairs, chased by the dark magic, Ime forces the fire away using his wind. A small ball of flame makes it past, hitting his side where Klaeon had kicked him. Ime uses the last of his energy to close the roof access before he collapses. The cloaked man grabs him and with Meah, helps the exhausted Ime hobble through the halls and down the stairs to the main floor, with Tanith leading the way.

Outside the Arena they break into a fast run, or as fast as they can, considering Ime’s injuries. They only stop for Tanith to sniff the air. She leads them out of the city towards the mountains.

The group enters a small canyon. The dark of the night makes it hard to see. The rough terrain challenges Meah’s and the cloaked man’s ability to balance the nearly limp Ime.

Perceiving voices and lights ahead, around a corner, they quicken their pace. Praying it is the rest of their group. The escaped slaves are waiting for them, sitting on boulders, and treating any who were wounded during the escape. Daniil and Kylii rush to take Ime, now completely unconscious, from Meah and the cloaked man.

Meah grabs Daniil’s arm. “Take him to Skara. He may have internal bleeding.”

Daniil nods and the brothers quickly take Ime to the healer. Meah collapses to the ground and tries to calm her breathing. The cloaked man sits on a nearby boulder and cleans his bloody knife.

Meah looks at him. His knife seems familiar, but she too exhasusted to understand why. She crawls close and stares up at him. “Who are you?”

His cloaked head turns to her with a smile formed on his lips. The man raises a hand to his hood and pulls it back to reveal black hair and blue eyes. Meah chokes back a sob and tears form in her eyes.

“Jaxon?”

Jaxon nods his head and leans forward. “You thought I’d left you behind, didn’t you?”

She nods.

He laughs. “After Seera nearly killed me, I realized my heart wasn’t really into slave trading anymore. Truth is, it had never been to begin with. I saw your first fight. I saw your strength and was truly impressed. When I overheard rumors of a possible escape, I decided to help.”

“Why?”

“Think of it as an attempt to make up for some of the things I’ve done to you and other slaves.”

“What about your caravan? Bruer and your other men?”

“I would never let him go off on his own,” Bruer says from behind Meah. She looks up into his familiar face and at the group behind him.

You led them here?”

“I did, missy. The Blood King may have built his Arena here, but he doesn’t know the land as well as us who grew up here.”

Jaxon nods at Bruer and he walks away. “I disbanded my caravan. Well, to be more exact I gave it to those who wanted it for themselves. Bruer and Fleance were the only ones who decided to stay with me.”

“Fleance?”

“Ah, you probably don’t remember him. He was the young man who brought your food and water every day.”

Skara interrupts them. Her eyes are wide and she grabs Meah’s hands. “Something serious is wrong with Ime.”

Meah’s heart drops and she stands. “What?”

“I can’t heal him. Something is blocking my magic!”

“It’s probably some lingering effects of the Blood King’s power,” Jaxon says.

Bruer returns with Ime and lays him on the ground in front of Meah. Daniil, Kylii, and a few others follow. Meanwhile, Rava, Mava, Bern, and others who traveled with Meah stare at Jaxon in shock. Some eyes are filled with terror, others with rage.

Meah looks down at Ime.

“You should heal him, first. Then we can talk,” Jaxon says.

“But my magic is blocked,” Meah says.

“You’re a Life Healer.”

Meah meets his eyes. The certainty staring back at her keeps her silent. She leans down to Ime and places her hands on his chest. She feels the block Skara mentioned. She hesitates, unsure whether she can get past it. She tests her magic and finds the block disappearing as her magic touches it. She relaxes and heals Ime. Her magic is getting stronger. She is able to block the noise easily, heal multiple wounds at the same time, and her energy doesn’t fade as fast.

Her excitement is short lived when Ime opens his eyes. His eyes gaze up at Meah, but move immediately to Jaxon. He sits up. “We escaped?”

Meah nods and places a hand on his shoulder. “He didn’t succeed did he? In taking your magic, I mean.”

Ime lifts his hand and a stone rises. He uses wind to throw it and pulls water from Bruer’s water jug. He puts the water back in the jug and shakes his head. “He didn’t take anything.” He holds his hand palm up and concentrates. His expression becomes grim. “But I didn’t get my fire back.”

“Fighting the Blood King without all of your magic is dangerous and reckless,” Jaxon says.

Ime returns his attention to him. “I’ve heard of you, Jaxon Parth. People say the blood of the leader of the Black Caravan is as black as the death that follows you. Many slaves you brought to the Arena spoke of you.”

Jaxon smiles and bows his head. “I’m honored you have heard of me, Ime Gurek, undefeatable Rare Kind of elemental magic. Well, all but one elemental magic.”

Ime frowns. “Why did you help us?”

“For her.”

“A lot of people are interested in her. Many want to kill her. How do we know you’re any different?”

Meah moves between Ime and Jaxon, taking Ime’s face in her hands. “He saved everyone, his men led the others to safety. He saved you and he saved me, more than once. We can trust him.”

Ime tries to think of an argument, but seeing her face erases any in his mind. He stands and takes a calming breath. “So, how are you going to help us now?”

Jaxon jumps to his feet. “I know a place we can go for a little while. There’s an oasis town at the end of this canyon that I don’t think the Blood King Klaeon knows about. If he does, he doesn’t care about it enough to station any of his soldiers nearby. The town will give us shelter, food, and new clothes.”

“How far?”

“A couple days on foot.”

“And after we’ve rested up?”

“We’ll talk about that after we get there.”

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