Chapter 16 Water

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“Free at last,” Tal says, triumphantly. She runs into the grass, opening her arms wide to feel the sun on her skin.

The rest of the group follow suit, happy to be rid of the dark forest. Those assigned to pull the wagon find new strength, moving faster even with their heavy burden.

Only a few of the horses were recovered from the forest and now carry some of the wagon’s load, making it easier for those pulling. But not by much.

Hesitating to leave the forest, Ari glances back. She’s almost hoping to see Ylan, changing his mind to join them. She knows deep down his home is more important.

“You coming?” Crofton asks, standing in the sunlight. The blood is gone from his face and a fresh scar on his forehead is the reminder of what happened in Vacuda’s house. He wears the knife from the village on his waist, adding another weapon to his collection.

Nodding her head, she steps out from under the trees and into the grassy field. The warmth of the sun, she fears will make her brands ache, feels nice on her skin. The air is light and a gentle breeze rustles the grass and the leaves of the trees.

She glances ahead at the group enjoying the sunshine and open landscape stretching out in front of them. The horses they were able to find nibble at the grass, hungrily. Though she still senses uneasiness throughout the group.

“Let’s keep moving. We’ll put some distance between us and this forest before figuring out where we are,” she announces.

The group agrees and they continue forward. They don’t stop until the forest is out of sight, only fields of grass surrounding them.

The horses are tied to the wagon, but given enough slack to feed on the grass. Link and Sten stay with the animals, Sten keeping an eye on his friend. None dare approach the emotional man even Guto keeps his distance.

“How do we know we haven’t lost our way?” Tal asks, sitting next to Ari. Indra, Kemp, Vesna, Vico, and Crofton soon join.

“Ylan says they didn’t move our belongings from where we’d been resting. In theory we should still be on course,” Ari says, but her expression saddens. “If I hadn’t lost my father’s journal I could tell you for sure.”

Leaning forward, Kemp raises his hand. He grabs something and pulls, revealing the journal in question. “Lucky for us, Tal found it and you happen to know someone who can hide things very well.”

Taking the journal, Ari smiles at him. “Luck is a fickle thing.”

“Vacuda was making a copy. Probably so he could find your father himself,” Tal says. “He didn’t get very far, though. Barely got the notes of the forest down.”

Opening the journal, Ari quickly finds what she’s looking for. “If we truly didn’t diverge from our path, we should be able to reach the coast in three days heading north. Nothing but fields until we see the sea.”

“You guys travel to the coast all the time, are we heading the right way?” Crofton asks Vico and Vesna.

The two siblings eye each other, deciding who would answer. “Our usual route to the coast didn’t take us anywhere near that forest. Our caravan did most of our trade with the eastern coast cities. We’re not as familiar with the northern coastal cities,” Vico explains.

“You’ve never been to the north?”

“Not as far north as we’re going, no. But it doesn’t mean we haven’t heard of the northern cities.”

A northern city,” Vesna mumbles. All eyes look at her and she clears her throat. “Most of the northern coastal cities are just little fishing villages. Except for Marpidium.”

“Marpidium?” Tal struggles over the name. “Strange name.”

“It’s the largest city on the coast, from what we’ve heard. They deal exclusively with trade to Deirak and islands around Myldea. There’s even discussion that many pirates hang around the city.” Vico shrugs his shoulders. “It’s probably the best place to find a ship to Deirak, to be honest.”

“That’s our destination then,” Ari says.

“Your father didn’t mention Maridian?” Kemp asks.

“Marpidium,” Vesna corrects him.

“Right, Marpidium. Your father didn’t mention Marpidium?”

Searching the journal, she shakes her head. “He doesn’t mention any cities by name or anyone who helped them. Just vague directions and names of lands or mountain ranges or whatever.”

“It’s like he wanted you to work at finding him,” Tal says, with a sly smile. “Or make it hard for others.”

“We have a destination at least. Let’s take it one step at a time and we’ll figure out the rest later,” Crofton says.

Everyone agrees and soon the group is on the move again. Using the sun, they head north. The grassy fields stretch on forever. The only break in the grass was the occasional tree. As the sun lowers in the sky, a chill on the air brings the group closer, trying to keep warm.

They stop to rest when the sun disappears behind the horizon. Some clear the grass before building up campfires while others quickly fall asleep, the exhaustion catching up to them.

As everyone drifts off, Ari stares into the dying campfire. Her mind races, flashes of what happened in Vacuda’s house still clear in her mind.

The magic locked inside of you has the potential to destroy the world or save it. Once it is fully unlocked you will choose which, but the choice will be yours alone.

“Now I have to save the world, huh?” she whispers to herself.

The stories of her mother and father were repeated throughout Kellahn. She heard stories from those who fought alongside her parents, those who were rescued by her parents. But she also knew how her mother felt about those stories. How she wished to be normal, wanted the stories to stop glorifying her and Ime. How she wished everyone who gave their lives to fight for freedom were spoken of more than her.

Ari holds her hand up to the fire. The brands are discoloring, her skin trying to heal the damage. No healing magic can ever take the scars away, but it seems the pain has passed for now.

Magic.

She uses her air magic to make the flames of the fire dance. The rush of air brings newfound energy to the flames. She reaches deep down inside of her, searching for that new magic. She feels it hiding beneath her air, curled up.

Closing her eyes, she concentrates, imagining the magic uncurling and stretching. She imagines it slowly stretching until only a small sliver rises. She feels the rest of the magic try to raise with it, but she forces it to stay back. The small sliver mixes with her air, mixing easily. She feels her air magic grow stronger, filling her. The rest of the unknown magic rises. She tries to push it back, but it’s stronger now with her air mixing with it.

Sweat rolls down her forehead as she struggles, the magic growing more and more uncontrollable. The magic in her brands awaken, bringing slight burning sensations across her skin. Panic fills her and her breathing grows shallow. She fights against her magic, fights against the panic, but both only grow stronger.

A hand grabs her arm and she’s pulled back from the fire. Opening her eyes, she gasps at the sight. The campfire is huge, taller than a person, but the heat is kept back by the wind surrounding it.

“Stop doing your wind magic,” a voice says in her ear.

Turning her head, she stares into Crofton’s eyes. His right eye is now an icier, colder blue than his left. She sees something hiding inside that eye and her panic intensifies.

“Stop your magic,” he says again. “They can’t take any more.”

Confusion mixes with the panic and he gently takes her chin in his hand, turning her head. Bodies are writhing on the ground, struggling against something. Her eyes land on Tal, Indra holding her to him, grasping her chest. Flashes of light appear around her, her magic trying to create shields as she fights against it. Weapons fall to the ground around Kemp, his hands trying to stop them. Others share similar attacks with magic and sounds of struggles filling the night air.

Crofton pulls her into a tight hug, his breath warm on her neck. “Stop your magic.”

Shaking her head, she tries to stop her magic, but the panic won’t go away. “I can’t.”

“Yes, you can. You may not be able to control it fully yet, but you still control it. It doesn’t control you. You can stop it. You have to.”

She closes her eyes, listening to his breathing. How can he stay so calm? How can his breathing be so comforting? The magic fades away, the panic following slowly, and the pain from her brands easing.

Exhaustion overcomes her and she falls limp against Crofton. Her magic goes back inside of her and she feels empty. She still feels her magic deep inside her, but for some reason this time the rest of her feels empty.

“Why are you crying?” Crofton asks, softly.

Tears pour from her eyes and she grabs hold of him. She gasps for air and shakes her head against him, her fear threatening to bring back the panic.

What is this new magic?

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Epilogue Air

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He watches the group leave the Redland Raider’s camp. He enjoyed seeing the girl’s fear and he knows his master enjoyed it as well.

But she still ventures on to find her father. He knows his master’s will is to keep her alive for the moment, but he wonders why. The longer she’s kept alive the higher chance her sealed magic will be released.

One of the caravan members hurries to the girl’s side and comforts her. The boy from Kellahn is visibly upset at the two’s familiarity. His master told him to keep an eye on the boy and now he sees why.

Perhaps there is a way to use him?

If they continue heading in this direction they’ll hit the forest where he came from. He’s been begging for a second chance.

His master’s voice echoes through his head. Yes, this is a chance for him to prove his loyalty. Send them there.

Standing, he calls out to his transporter. He feels magic surround him and he disappears, returning to the others under the power of the Source.

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Chapter 30 Air

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Fear fills Ari as the words she heard from her vision witnessing her mother’s death are spoken to her. Her magic explodes from her, slamming the man away. Blood from his hand hits her face and she falls back. Arms grab her and keep her on her feet as Radhri runs at the rider, making a killing blow with his weapon.

The fog still moving through the camp fades away as the magic disappears, but the sense of dread lingers behind. Ari glances up at the one holding her.

“I’ve got you, Ariana,” Vico says, smiling.

Returning his smile, Ari’s eyes look past him and spies Crofton watching them with a guarded face. She can’t tell what he’s thinking, but she can see his fists clench tightly.

Pulling away from Vico, Ari stares at the blood on the blade of the axe. “Thanks.”

Radhri appears besides Ari, his eyes still burning with the rush of the fight. “These men following you were cowards, attacking while men sleep. But as with most cowards, they’re easily beaten.”

“Until the next group attacks,” Tal says.

“We’ll be gone before then,” Ari responds. She locks eyes with Radhri. “I promised you we wouldn’t run if it came to fighting, but they’ll know when I’m gone and won’t bother your people.”

Scoffing, Radhri crosses his arms over his chest. “You and I both know that isn’t true. If it were they would’ve only attacked your tent, but they specifically killed many of our mages. This fight isn’t yours alone, Ariana Gurek.”

Crofton appears at Ari’s side, eyeing Vico carefully, but his statement is aimed at Radhri. “You know who she is?”

“Of course, and no, Tal didn’t tell me. I knew the moment I saw you as well as when I saw that medallion around your neck.”

A snort from behind precedes Gahndri’s appearance. “You didn’t even know it was there til I said something.”

Raising her hand, Ari touches the medallion she forgot she wore since leaving Kellahn. “How do you know this medallion?”

Before Radhri can answer, Gahndri forces himself between him and Ari. “That medallion’s got some pretty strong magic on it. The one who cast it made sure only specific people’d be able to see it. And those people would know what it meant.”

Radhri elbows his way back in front, ignoring his brother’s stubborn glare. “It’s a sign of trust. It lets us know whoever is wearing it is someone to help, not hinder.”

“And who told you of it?” Crofton asks.

Again, Gahndri forces his way forward. “No one told us, they’re how we were able to protect ourselves from ambush during the war.”

“The war? The Blood War?”

“Of course, the Blood War. You know any other? I was no more than you’re age, boy, when I went off to fight. Magic makes war a different game. Enemies can be anywhere, anyone, or anything. These medallions, when worn by those not meant to wear it will turn black to the eyes of those wearing its comrades.” Gahndri pulls a similar medallion from his pocket, a large scratch cutting across the center. “Your father never wore one, but if anyone could ever fool him, I’ve never seen ‘em.”

“You knew my dad?” Ari asks.

“I did.”

Turning hopeful eyes to Radhri, the leader of the Redland Raiders lowers his eyes. “I remained behind during the war. Gahndri and our father went off to fight while I remained home.”

“There’s no shame in it, brother. You were to become the next chief. If all three of us died, it wouldn’t have mattered whether the False King was victorious or defeated.”

Ari’s hope fell. “Then my father didn’t come this way on his journey?”

“Not to our camp,” Radhri answers, but he eyes his brother knowingly. “I believe it’s time to deliver the message, don’t you, Gahndri?”

Snorting, Gahndri sneered at his brother. “You think I don’t know when to do it? I’m the one entrusted with it.” His eyes take in the dead around them. “But not here. Do your role, chief.”

Feeling the eyes of his people on him, Radhri turns away from Ari and her group, shouting orders. The Raiders begin collecting the bodies of the killers to burn while others head for the edges of the camp to keep extra watch. The families of those slain prepare the bodies for proper burial.

“This way, all of you,” Gahndri says, being sure to include the ex-caravan members, Ari’s group, and the raider volunteers.

The large group follows in silence. As they walk, Gahndri orders everyone to gather their belongings as he leads them through the camp. How he knows where everyone’s tent sits is beyond Ari’s understanding. When they reach her shared tent, Kemp and Crofton are the first to gather their things. Ari hesitates, staring at the dead body still lying on their tent floor.

The man wore nothing striking or easily discernible. After searching his pockets, she finds no trace of anything besides the knives he wore to kill with. Who were these men? Who had they been before they were sent to kill mages in Kellahn? Is the Source truly the one controlling them?

“Ari, come on,” Crofton calls from the tent opening.

She finishes and leaves. After a few more stops, the group reaches the edge of the camp. The groduns are already harnessed to the wagon, filled to burst with supplies. Link and Sten check the groduns carefully, allowing the great beasts to take in their scents. A few of the raiders check the supply wagon, making sure nothing is left behind. Tal continuously looks behind, searching for her father, sure he wouldn’t forget to say goodbye.

“Stop you’re worrying, Tal. You’re father would flay me alive if I let you leave before he has a chance to say farewell.” Gahndri turns to Ari, studying her calm expression. “What’s in that mind of yours?”

“These were only a small number of the men following me. Only one even a true magic user,” Ari says. “There’re more out there, enough to attack Kellahn. How will you be able to fight them if they choose to attack the camp?”

“If they wished to destroy the camp, they wouldn’t have sent non magic users and if they truly wanted you dead, they wouldn’t have bothered with such a cowardly way of doing it.” Gahndri’s eyes darken. “This was a warning, I think.”

“A warning? People died,” Kemp says.

“And what does that matter? You continue to spout the foolish thought that they’re trying to kill her, but think carefully on this attack and the one you witnessed in Kellahn. For ones trying to kill someone, they’re not very well organized.”

“And yet they killed my mother,” Ari speaks coldly.

“I don’t mean to speak ill of any’s death, but your mother was killed because they truly wanted her dead. I think these men were meant to frighten you from finding your father.”

From the corner of her eye, Ari notices Crofton’s shoulders stiffen. She knows he’s remembering their fight.

“Sorry, I think we’ve missed a lot of what’s happening,” Vico breaks in suddenly, sensing Ari’s unease. “Those of us from the caravan know we’re searching for someone in Deirak and we’ve pieced together that someone is after Ari.”

“And that she’s the daughter of Ime Gurek and the Life Healer Meah,” Vesna adds. “But why are these people after her?”

“My father is searching for the Source of all magic in order to discover why magic is fading from the world. Something claiming to be the Source sent these men to our home in Kellahn and killed mages as well as my mother. Now they’re after me before I can find my father.” Ari meets the eyes of Vico, Vesna, and Guto. “Understand?”

The three nod their heads in unison.

“Do you still wish to travel with them, after hearing that?” Gahndri asks.

“Of course.”

“Yes.”

“Absolutely.”

There’s no pause before the answers. Vesna smiles at Kemp, who returns the smile happily. Vico stares at Ari, holding back his smile in the presence of Crofton.

“Good. Now, I have a message from your father, Ari.”

“I thought Ime didn’t travel this way?” Crofton demands.

“He didn’t visit our camp. But I’m not condemned to never venture out for my own business just because I’m the cook. I came across Ime and his group many years ago. He told me of his quest and the dangers he believed would befall his family back home. He even seemed to know about the possibility of his daughter following after him.” Leaning his head to the side in thought, Gahndri’s expression reminds Ari of Radhri when he’s concentrating. “Though I don’t think he knew then it would be because of this exact reason.”

Waving his hand to clear his thoughts, Gahndri locks his eyes on Ari’s. “That’s besides the point. His message. He wished for me to tell you to beware the grave city and once you reach the sea make sure the ones who transport you to Deirak bear the mark of the Watchers yet not the Watchers.”

“What is it with our parents and riddles?” Crofton says under his breath.

A large group of Raiders walk out from the camp, Radhri in the lead. “They aren’t riddles for the sake of being confusing. They’re meant to keep wandering ears from understanding the truth beneath.” He takes a deep breath and, smiling, looks at the group preparing to leave. “May the gods protect you all and grant us a swift reunion.”

Tal runs to her father and wraps her arms around him. “Don’t destroy the camp while I’m gone.”

“When have I ever needed to be told that?” He waves Indra over and places a hand on his new son’s shoulder. They have a moment of understanding only Ari catches. Radhri looks to Ari and nods his head. “Your journey is still only just beginning, but know when it’s over you have another place you can consider a home.”

“Thank you.”

The Redland Raiders say their goodbyes to the group and as they leave the camp, Radhri’s booming voice leads those staying behind in a somber chant. Soon the group is gone, out of sight and the raiders return to their lives.

Gahndri and Radhri are left alone, staring after the ghosts of those who left.

“It’s strange,” Radhri says, “The message Ime left for his daughter didn’t seem as poetic when he spoke it to you years ago.”

Shrugging his shoulders, Gahndri eyes his brother. “He also said I could deliver it however and whenever I wanted.”

The two brothers stand a while longer before heading back into the camp.

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Chapter 29 Air

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The camp is quiet. The few guards keeping watch at the outer circle of the camp talk softly to each other, their weapons lying safely within reach. Their eyes occasionally search the surrounding Redlands for any signs of movement, but only briefly before returning to one another.

Guards at the eastern half of the camp drink heartily, their heads swimming with the wine. With their senses dulled, they don’t even hear the shadows creeping behind them. Light flashes as steel is buried into the backs or throats of the guards. Blood drips to the earth and the bodies are placed in such a way to avoid suspicion by any passing by.

The shadows enter the camp, spreading down the aisles. Magic raises a fog, slowly dousing the fires around the camp and allowing the shadows to easily move without detection. They sneak into tents, searching for specific individuals. Most are left to their rest, but once the shadows find who they’re looking for the deaths are quick and soundless.

Ari is unsure what wakes her, but as she sits up, rubbing her eyes, she hears strange steps outside. A large shadow passes by the entrance to the tent and she notices fog creeping inside. Even from across the tent she senses the magic in the fog and her body tenses.

She flicks a finger at Kemp and Crofton, sending small rushes of wind at them. Both wake with a start as the tent flap opens. A man enters and freezes when he sees Ari awake, staring at him.

Immediately, Ari uses her wind to drag the man into the tent. Kemp, awaking faster than Crofton, realizes what’s happening and pulls a blade from the air. He thrusts it into the man’s chest, aiming for the heart. Ari muffles the man’s screams with her blanket, throwing the man to the floor as she does.

Finally fully conscious, Crofton climbs to his feet and stares at the dead man on the floor. “What’s going on?”

Ari motions for Crofton to be quiet and she creeps to the tent entrance. She opens the flap only enough to peek outside. There are more men walking among the tents, some with bloody weapons.

Turning back to the two, Ari fights to control her rage. “We’re being attacked. From the looks of it, their magic users and they’ve already killed several people. We have to stop them before they kill any more.”

“We have to wake the Raiders,” Kemp adds. “Do you have an idea how?”

“Right now? No, I’d prefer to run out swinging if that’s all right with you,” Ari says, her anger raising her voice.

Crofton grabs her arm. “We can’t do that. We’re outnumbered. We have to raise an alarm, or at the least, get to Radhri so he can.”

“While they continue to kill people in their sleep?”

“Talking about it isn’t helping,” Kemp interrupts. “Here’s the plan. Crofton, go wake Tal and Indra. I’ll head for Radhri. If you really are itching to do something crazy, Ari, create a distraction that’ll wake up the Raiders. Let’s go.”

Pulling an axe from the air, Kemp hands it to Ari and the three exit the tent, keeping low and out of sight of the shadows.

Ari uses the fog to her advantage, swirling it around her with her magic and creating ghost-like figures to distract the men wandering the camp. She passes a tent and hears struggling inside. She quickly enters in time to plunge her axe into the back of a man trying to slice a woman’s throat. The woman had woken before he could kill her and fought back.

“Thank you,” the woman says to Ari.

Ari quickly explains what’s happening to the woman and tells her to stay in the tent. Ari exits the tent and continues moving through the camp. She makes her way to where the horses are being kept and finds a collection of lanterns. She grabs one and lights it before grabbing another. She pulls the candle out of it and leaves the lantern case behind.

Leading one of the horses out of the pen, Ari grabs a third lantern and a pole. She lights the lantern and ties it to one end of the pole. Then she secures the pole to the horse’s saddle. She hits the back of the horse and it runs off into the camp. The light bouncing as though held by a rider. The sudden voices of men yelping at the sight give Ari an indication that the distraction is working.

She takes her lantern and the candle and heads for the center of the camp. She reaches the pylon and, lighting the candle, throws it onto the ready to burn wood. The fire is low and Ari uses her magic to raise the flames. The fire ignites and the fog around it disappears, as the magic is broken. Men approach the pylon and Ari, waiting for them, attacks them one at a time. She buries her axe into their backs and, for the shorter ones, their heads.

A loud voice echoes through the night, joined by other voices, and suddenly the camp comes to life. Raiders, roused from their sleep take arms and burst from their tents ready to fight. Screams of those discovering those murdered during the night join the whoops of fighting and Raiders soon join Ari at the pylon.

Radhri storms through a small collection of the strange men, killing them with his sword. He slams his body into one, throwing the man a good distance before other raiders descend upon him with their weapons.

Kemp follows close behind, his weapons swinging freely. Behind him are those from the caravan. Guto slams men into the earth with his thick arms. Vico and Vesna shoot arrows from bows as Link and Sten wave their swords at any who get to close to the siblings.

A man attacks Ari from behind, hitting her in the back with a club. She’s thrown to the ground and pain erupts across her back. The man stands over her and swings the club down at her before she can gain enough wind to stop him. The club bouncing against something and smacks the man in the face. He howls as blood streams from his broken nose.

Indra runs the man through with a spear and Tal appears to help Ari to her feet. “Where’s your back guard?” she jokes.

Ari smiles. “You’d know better than me. He fetched you.”

Crofton appears at Ari’s side, blood on his hand. Noticing Ari’s wide, concerned eyes he smirks. “Not mine.”

“He killed the man who came to kill me. Saved my life,” Tal explains.

The Raiders make quick work of the strange men and a furious Radhri approaches Ari. “How did this happen?”

“I’m going to say, the tracks you found were decoys to lower our guard.” Ari looks at one of the dead men. “They were after only the magic users. Just like in Kellahn.”

“The guards at the eastern border of camp are dead,” one of the raiders says, running up to Radhri. “As far as we can tell, only the eastern quarter was affected. They didn’t get any further than here.”

“Then we’re lucky. We stopped them before they could do any more damage. Figure out how many we lost and clear these scum from our lands.”

The fog playing at the edge of the center of camp catches Ari’s eye. She watches it dance, staying far from the fire burning. The magic controlling the fog isn’t fully broken, which meant only one thing. The one controlling it isn’t dead.

“Wait. We’re not finished yet,” Ari says, looking at Radhri. “There’re more men somewhere.”

“What do you mean?”

Screams from behind cause everyone to turn as a terrifying sight runs towards them. A horse covered in flames runs through the Raiders. They jump from its path, avoiding the fiery hooves, but still being burned by flames leaping from its body. Sitting on the beast’s back is a figure made of black shadows, its form constantly shifting and changing.

Those with their wits about them try to attack the beast and rider, but their weapons can’t reach them as the heat of the flames pushes them back. A path opens before the rider and Ari realizes it’s leading right to her. The rider raises an arm and the horse opens it mouth. It breathes fire towards Tal and Indra. Tal raises her hands and a shield appears before them, protecting them from the flames.

Crofton moves closer to Ari, raising his weapons, ready to protect her, but Ari only sees an opportunity. Filling herself with her magic, Ari releases it around her, moving those close to her away. As the rider moves within the cleared circle Ari has created, she takes a deep breath. Her magic rises and as she watches the approaching rider, she realizes time has slowed. She can see everyone turning towards her painfully slow, but her eyes focus on the horse’s feet.

She releases her breath, circling her hands in front of her. As time gradually returns to normal, her wind magic creates a cyclone and knocks the horse into the air. The rider leaps from the beast’s back before he can be thrown and lands in front of Ari.

Ari quickly lowers her hands and the cyclone carrying the horse stops and lowers the frightened animal to the ground. The flames are gone and she recognizes it as the horse she released from the pen.

The rider stands before Ari, watching her. The shadows surrounding his body disappear, leaving only a man behind. His eyes are empty, as though another stares out from them.

Those standing around ready to attack the man, but Radhri stops them, watching Ari carefully. Tal and Indra hold Crofton back as he struggles to reach Ari’s side.

The rider leans his head to the side, taking slow steps towards Ari as though approaching a wild animal. The empty look in his eyes sends a shiver through Ari’s spine and she raises her axe defensively. The rider stops within an arms length away from her, unafraid of the weapon.

Leaning forward, the rider grabs the head of the axe. Ari tries to pull it away, but he only tightens his grip, the blade cutting into his hand. Fear fills Ari as she stares into the empty eyes, showing no pain.

“You will die with blood fire.” The rider’s voice is emotionless, dead. He leans close to Ari’s face before speaking again. “It is the Source’s will.”

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Chapter 28 Air

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Night has fallen by the time Ari leaves Radhri’s tent. She passes the pylon and sees a few small groups sitting around small fires. They eat and talk cheerfully, sharing stories. Link and Sten are among one of the larger groups, finally appearing relaxed. Crofton and Guto sit with them, laughing and eating large platefuls of food.

Tempted to join them, Ari still remembers her fight with Crofton and can’t bring herself to walk over. She’s afraid she’ll only dampen the bright mood the group’s in. Instead she walks towards the edges of the camp, closest to the canyon. She stares into the dark canyon, curiously. The light of the fires throughout the camp barely reaches into the gaping opening. The stream reflects the firelight, creating flashes of light reminding Ari of gemstones.

Taking a breath, Ari steps out of the protective light of the camp and into the shadows of the canyon. She follows the same path Tal took them on the horses the day before. She finds the path leading up to the top of the canyon and her feet move faster as she climbs. It reminds her of climbing the towers back in Kellahn.

Her mother’s friends used to talk about the top of the canyons of Kellahn before the city grew. They spoke of how the light of the city couldn’t penetrate the walls and once you reached the top all you could see were the stars.

Reaching the top of the canyon, Ari’s eyes are greeted by thousands of stars and a waning full moon. Soft music plays across the canyon top and Ari spies the musicians from the wedding. They’re sitting in a circle and as one plays, others join in with harmonies or their own melodies to flow with the first musician’s idea. A song forms and a solemn voice adds words to the notes played by the instruments.

Staying far enough away to not disturb them, Ari sits and listens, enjoying the music as it clears her mind. Tomorrow the journey to find her father continues. Until Radhri mentioned what his raiders found, Ari almost forgot the dangerous people following her. Being with the Redland Raiders brought a familiar calm she only found at home. But the illusion of safety, though deceptively pleasant, couldn’t last forever. Ari knew this, yet still she felt herself wishing to stay.

She wonders if her father knew about the Redland Raiders. There hadn’t been any mention of them in his notebook, but she had a feeling her father purposefully left details out. Even the letters he wrote to Meah were vague. Of course, Radhri didn’t mention having any other visitors before Ari’s group, but that didn’t mean anything.

Approaching footsteps behind her make Ari turn. She sees a familiar figure pause as she sees him and a smile forms on her face. “I take it Kemp and Vesna are still occupying your tent?”

Vico’s teeth seem to glow with the light from the moon. He walks to her side and sits. “Yes, and I doubt Crofton would be thrilled to find me alone in your shared tent. I thought to sneak off before he returned and saw you walking alone. What did Radhri speak with you about?”

“We’re leaving at dawn. Somehow, even with the wedding excitement, he prepared everything. The groduns are healthy and ready to pull the one wagon the raiders don’t want. Supplies are already secured to it and the raiders joining us are packed.”

“That’s good. Why aren’t you heading to bed? We have a long way to go to reach the coastal cities and I assume we’ll want to make as few stops as possible. Sleep may become a rare commodity. You should enjoy it while you can.”

Leaning back on her hands, Ari looks at the stars above. “I’ll go soon. I just wanted to have one last moment of relaxation.”

“And privacy?” Vico asks, cautiously.

Sensing a hint of hurt in his voice, Ari looks at him. His eyes scan her face, taking in every detail and she sees something in them she hadn’t noticed before. Her heart beats suddenly louder in her chest.

“If I wanted privacy I wouldn’t be up here with a group of musicians,” she says, motioning her head at the ones in question.

Staring past her at the musicians, Vico nods his head. “You’ve a point there. Though I don’t think they’ve even realized they have an audience.” His eyes gaze up at the stars. “May I be blunt?”

“You’re asking? That’s never stopped you before.”

Vico grabs her and pulls her close. His lips press gently against hers before she can resist. Ari’s eyes widen and as he pulls away, her mouth opens slightly in shock. Seeing her expression makes Vico’s cheeks flush and a smile turns up his lips.

“I can’t tell you how long I’ve wanted to do that. I’ve been a little jealous of Vesna and Kemp easily being able to show their affections. It’s not usually my strong point.” His eyes return to the stars.

Touching her lips, Ari’s heart skips a beat. Her mind races unsure of what to say. It’s the first time someone has kissed her and it’s erased all thoughts from her head. As she calms her heart and finally brings her mind to some semblance of understanding, she realizes she enjoyed it.

Staring at Vico’s smiling face, Ari slowly moves towards him. Her movement catches Vico’s attention and he turns to her. Ari places a hand on the side of his face and leans close. Vico meets her halfway and their lips press together. Ari closes her eyes and feels Vico place a hand on the back of her head.

The memories of the past days fade, diminishing in importance to the current moment. The only thing filling Ari’s thoughts are her and Vico. She presses her body against his, feeling his warmth and heart beating. His free arm snakes around her waist and holds her in place.

As the moment passes, Ari and Vico rest their foreheads against one another. Their eyes meet and small laughs escape them.

“I think I’ll be blunt more often,” Vico says.

The musicians stop playing and pack up their instruments. They talk loudly and laugh as they ready to leave. Vico and Ari separate before the men and women notice them. They head down the path leading to the camp, leaving Ari and Vico alone.

Vico turns to Ari as the last musician disappears below, a little eager to continue where they left off, but when he sees Ari’s face the thought fades. An odd sadness fills Ari’s face and she plays with her silk bracelet.

“What’s wrong, Ariana?”

“I shouldn’t have done that.”

“To be fair, I made the first move. You only reciprocated with like feelings.”

Ari glares at him, but the anger is forced. “I shouldn’t have reciprocated.”

“Ouch, that bad huh?” Vico asks.

“No, no, not that. I liked it and I do like you. I mean I did make the second move…but with everything and the excitement of leaving tomorrow, I don’t think this is a good idea right now,” Ari says, speaking faster than normal. She places her head in her hands and sighs. “I’m sorry. I sound crazy, don’t I?”

“You sound confused and tired. I think sleep is the best option right now. I’ve never been very good with timing. Come on, I’ll walk you back.” He stands and helps Ari to her feet. “And I’ll give you time to figure things out.”

They head down to the camp and pause outside of Ari’s tent.

“I don’t suppose a goodnight kiss is in order?” Vico jokes.

Biting her bottom lip, Ari peeks inside the tent and sees Crofton’s still form in his bed. She quickly kisses Vico on the cheek and smiles. “That’s all you’re getting.”

Vico places a hand over his cheek and bows low. “I shall cherish it until I hear word of your decision.”

Stifling a small laugh, she playfully hits his arm. “Quiet! Crofton’s asleep.”

Smiling, Vico walks away, heading for his tent. Ari watches his walk, only entering her tent once he’s out of sight. She quietly walks to her bed and crawls in, removing her shoes.

She lies down, but before falling asleep, she grabs the silk knot Vico made her and holds it close.

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Chapter 27 Air

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The following day is spent recovering from the wedding. Raiders, as well as most of Ari’s group, clean. The left over food is collected and the dishes washed using the water from the stream. Gahndri shouts orders, easily making the clean up faster. The tables and performance areas are taken away and the pylon is returned to its rightful place.

Raiders return to their normal day-to-day work. Horses are fed, cleaned, and the riding equipment is checked and repaired. A group gathers and head out to circle the camp, keeping eyes out for any possible threats. Tal and Indra spend the day in their tent, the only movement being a few raiders bringing food.

Ari’s the last to wake up in the shared tent. Kemp and Vesna are long gone and Crofton walks out as Ari’s eyes open. Sitting up, her head pounds at each movement. A loud crash from outside brings a pain-filled moan to her lips.

Standing, a wave of nausea rolls her stomach. She grips her bed tightly and notices a small table with a pitcher of water, four glasses, and a bowl of fruit. Thanking the gods the table is within arm’s reach, Ari eagerly grabs a glass and fills it to the brim. She drinks two full glasses of water and takes a piece of fruit. She eats it slowly, her throat working a little harder to swallow the solid food.

Glancing at the door of the tent, she realizes the sun is already setting. She’s slept the entire day away, though to be fair, she knew she wasn’t the only one. Resolving not to remain inside any longer, Ari stands, having a little trouble changing into fresh clothes, and heads out.

The sunlight, even as it sets, sends a fresh wave of pain through her head. She stumbles at first, but she soon acclimates and walks further into the camp. She spies Crofton talking with Guto before both men join others to move one of the large tables from the night before.

“Are you all right, Ariana?” a familiar voice says from behind.

Ari turns and sees Vico sitting in the shadow of a tent, his hands working a new knot. Joining him in the shade, Ari smiles, trying to hide the pain from her pounding head. “Fine. Haven’t slept through a day since I was little…or sick.” She watches his hands work at the knot. “Why aren’t you helping with the heavy lifting?”

“I helped earlier. Once Crofton and Guto finally decided to wake up, they relieved me for the rest of the day.”

“And you didn’t go right to bed?”

Vico’s hands pause and his eyes flash with a moment of high emotion, but he calms it and smiles at Ari. “My tent is currently occupied and my presence would be a little…awkward at the moment.”

A blush fills Ari’s cheeks. “Vesna’s feeling much better then?”

“Oh, yes. Much better.” He continues working on the knot. “I never thanked you properly, Ariana, for helping Vesna…when she was first attacked.”

“You don’t have to thank me. If we can’t help each other then there’s no point in being called friends.” She raises her eyes to his. “By the way, why do you call me Ariana? Ari’s fine.”

“Because Ariana is more fun to say and because it reflects your beauty,” Vico says bluntly.

Ari’s cheeks burn with a fresh blush and she turns her head away. “Subtlety isn’t a word you’re familiar with, is it.”

“Why be subtle about the truth? Besides, your reactions are the best.” Vico’s eyes rise suddenly and a smirk turns up one side of his mouth. “Looks like you’re being summoned.”

Ari follows his gaze and sees Radhri standing across from them. His eyes are on Ari and when he realizes she’s staring at him, he motions her to approach.

Releasing a sigh, Ari stands, steadying herself on the pole of the tent. “Can’t imagine what he wants to talk about. Hopefully nothing too loud.”

“I could go with you, if you’d like.”

“No, I can handle him on my own.” She considers a thought and fights another blush from her cheeks. “If you want to lie down, you’re more than welcome to rest in my tent. Since Kemp and Crofton are both busy and it looks like I’ll be too, you’ll have it to yourself.”

“Thank you. I might do that.”

Radhri waves his hand impatiently and Ari takes a deep breath before heading over to the Redland Raider’s Chief.

“Walk with me.” The friendly tone didn’t hide the command. Radhri leads Ari away from Vico and the men working.

“I’m glad our celebration was enjoyed not only by you, but by your companions as well. They’ve all seemed far more on edge than you. Which is odd since you’re the one who has men after her.”

“Well, I’ve always been able to handle stress better than a lot of people. I think it’s due to the unique environment I was brought up in.” Wanting to change the subject, Ari motions towards Tal and Indra’s tent. “Congratulations to you on gaining a new son.”

Pride fills Radhri’s body and his smile widens. “Indra is a good addition to my family. He’s strong, loyal and has the blood of a warrior, but also the calm quietness of a highly trained strategist. He’ll make a fine chief one day.” He laughs. “If Tal doesn’t take it first.”

“I already assumed Indra knew what he was getting into when he chose to marry her,” Ari says, smiling. “I think he likes Tal ordering him around.”

Radhri’s laughter grows and he slaps Ari on the back. She winces, but his laughter is contagious. “That poor boy definitely knew.”

Walking through the camp, Ari realizes they’re heading to Radhri’s tent. Once inside, Radhri dismisses the raiders cleaning. He sits and waits for Ari to do the same before beginning.

“You’ll be leaving tomorrow at dawn. Everything is prepared.”

“So quick to be rid of us?” Ari asks, hearing anger in her voice.

“My men have noticed strange things in the desert. Tracks that suddenly vanish with no trace, the bodies of animals torn or broken in odd fashions…but they seem to be only coming from one direction. The same direction we found your group.”

Ari’s heart thumps loudly in her chest. She knew the ones chasing them would eventually catch up, but she hoped they’d made a large enough distance between them to have at least a few more days.

“I see your mind working. As far as my men can tell, the ones making the tracks are on foot and still two days walk from here. By the time they arrive, you’ll be gone.”

“Abandoning you to fight them if they choose to attack.”

“Not abandoning us. We’ll be helping create more time between you and them. The longer we can stall them, the more successful you’ll be in reaching your destination.” Radhri crosses his arms over his chest. “You and yours are honorary members of the Redland Raiders. As long as my bloodline lives you’re to be given aid any way possible and that includes fighting on your behalf.”

“Is that why you’re sending Tal and Indra with us? To protect them from possibly being killed if there is an attack?”

“Tal was always meant to go with you,” Radhri says, a distant look passing over his face. “Even if I forbade her, she’d only sneak off. Indra’s no better. He would never think to stop her. Another thing she got from her mother, a distinct personality that refuses to be told what to do.”

Hesitating, Ari plays with the silk bracelet on her arm. “I’m sorry to ask, but what happened to Tal’s mother? Whenever you speak of her your eyes give away that she’s no longer alive.”

“Perceptive. Tal’s mother died several years ago. She was a protection mage. Her magic allowed her to create protective shells around herself and others. It’s the same magic she passed on to Tal.”

“How did she die?”

A shadow passes over Radhri’s face and his eyes darken. “A disease of the mind overtook her. A madness that destroyed her memories and her body, eventually forcing an end to her life.”

A vivid memory fills Ari. A discussion she overheard between her mother and Lyrrel years ago.

“How long before his madness deems him a candidate for release?”

“Another day at most. Don’t blame yourself, Meah. The madness comes to all Seers of Eraunel. The release is a kindness, not a curse.”

Ari returns from the memory. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

“It’s another reason I wish for Tal to join you.”

“I don’t understand.”

Radhri leans close, lowering his voice as though afraid for someone outside the tent to overhear. “There hasn’t been any definitive proof, but Tal fears since she gained her magic from her mother, she may have gained the madness that killed her. It never appeared in her mother until after Tal’s birth and steadily grew worse as the years passed.”

“So you want her to come with us because?”

“I hope it will keep her mind off it. And maybe on your travels you will come across someone who may have a cure or a way to control the madness.”

The conversation between Meah and Lyrrel flashes again through Ari’s thoughts. She nods her head slowly. “I see, but…it may not be a pleasant solution whatever we find.”

A brief moment of anger fills Radhri’s eyes. “I know what you speak of. Death is not a solution. No matter what those from other cities say, I won’t accept it as Tal’s ultimate fate and I ask you to do the same.”

“You’d rather her live her days in madness than release her from the pain?”

“Don’t misunderstand me, Ari. What I ask is for you to keep Tal fighting. I’ve witnessed the madness at its worse. I understand it far better than anyone should.”

Shocked realization fills Ari. “You killed her. You killed Tal’s mother.”

A sad smile comes to Radhri’s lips. “I released her when the pain became too much for both of us.”

“Does Tal know?”

“She knows the madness is the reason her mother is gone, but I made sure she didn’t witness her mother’s death.” He pauses, thinking carefully before continuing. “I can’t say the same for Indra.”

“Indra saw you kill Tal’s mother?” Ari asks.

“He helped me. I wanted to show him what he may have to do himself one day if a cure isn’t found.”

“And how does he feel about that?”

“If it comes to it and a cure can’t be found…he won’t let her die alone.”

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Chapter 26 Air

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The drummers beat harshly on their drums and the crowd stops dancing. Slowly they move away from the dance floor, returning to their tables until only the three couples are left. By this point Radhri is back at his table and raises his hands for silence. The crowd watches their chief intensely, the three couples standing in a straight line before him.

Eyeing each couple, Radhri smiles with both excitement and pride. He gives a speech in his native language, his arms moving gracefully above his head. At specific points, the couples respond. The elders stand at their table and chant. It starts low and grows as Radhri finishes speaking. He nods his head at the band and one of the string musicians plays a slow tune matching the chanting.

The couples circle the empty dance floor. As the string player and the elders finish the chant, each couple stands together. Ari’s eyes lock onto Tal and Indra standing at the center of the dance floor. The musicians prepare to play and the audience falls silent.

The wedding ceremony begins.

The musicians play their instruments and the couples come to life. Tal, as well as the other women, steps back from Indra, or their respective male companion, and grabs her skirt in one hand. The other hand rests on her hip as she throws her chin up. She stomps her foot in time with the music, raising red dust around her. She dances around Indra slowly, turning her hips to accentuate the skirt, making it dance around her and revealing short bursts of color from beneath.

The music quickens and the women circle the men faster, grabbing their skirts in both hands and creating shapes in the air around them. Their feet kick up as they dance. Soon they release short noises of excitement, reminding Air of birds.

The music stops suddenly and the women throw one hand in the air, holding their other out to the side, still holding their skirt. The men turn to them and take their raised hand with one of their own. The music starts again and the couples spin, stomping their feet together in time. The men rest their free hands behind their backs as their eyes lock onto the eyes of their partner.

They circle until the music grows more complicated. They release their captive hands and the men clap to the music, their feet rising from the earth as they spin and whoop with happiness. The women grab their skirts in both hands and circle the men again. As the music intensifies, the dancing moves faster and faster, creating a blur of color and dust.

When the music stops the couples are facing each other, their hands holding them close together. Different music begins and the men reach down and grab the women’s skirts. They tear them away, revealing shorter skirts. The women tear away the men’s shirts and vests, revealing their bare chests.

In the silence, the men stomp their feet and pound their chests. They chant in their native language and create their own music. The women kick the skirts away and place their hands on their hips. The men raise their arms above their heads as they stomp their feet and grab their left wrist with their right hand. This signals the women to clap their hands and stomp their feet. They chant their own verses, clapping their hands in quick, staccato patterns. One woman even makes a high keening noise before returning to the chanting. They raise one hand above their head and the other in front of them.

This signals the men to lower their arms and pound their chests, thighs, and arms. The women join in with their clapping and both sexes chant, the women’s voices picking up after the men finish and vice versa. As they stomp their feet, the couples move closer together, leaving only enough room between them to continue clapping or pounding their chests.

Watching with wide eyes, Ari feels the energy between each couple. The tension builds as the couples chant together and before she can stop herself, she reaches out for Crofton’s hand, easily finding it. She squeezes it tightly and relief fills her when she feels him squeeze back.

The men hop, slamming both feet into the ground and the women quicken their clapping. The music the women and men create with their bodies and voices is filled with more emotion than anything the musicians played. Short bursts of whoops echo from the crowd as the energy fills them as well. Women give out high keens to encourage the couples on.

The clapping and pounding stops, only the stomping continues. The men and women throw their hands at each other, not touching, but holding their hands mere inches apart. Their movements synch and the chanting changes to a joined song.

The musicians join in, carefully bringing their instruments in under the singing couples. Each couple pulls out matching sets of rings and they stop singing. The elders and Radhri take over singing with the music and after a while the entire audience joins in. The couples smile brightly and place the rings on their partner’s finger. A final, singular shout from the audience appears to finish the ceremony and the couples end the wedding with a kiss.

Indra lifts Tal from the ground and spins her as they kiss. Even when they pull apart, he continues to hold her above the earth, smiling wide enough for everyone to see his immense joy no matter how far they sat. Tal mimics his expression and kisses him again.

A loud roar rises from the raiders and everyone leaps to their feet. Radhri tries to speak over the noise, but he’s drowned out, though the couples seem to hear him as they give loud cheers and the music plays dancing music.

The crowd rushes the dance floor, most to congratulate the newlyweds, but some so filled with excitement, they need to dance it out.

The only ones still seated are Ari’s group, but excited raiders soon drag Link, Sten, and Guto to the dance floor. Vico refuses until Vesna assures him she’s fine before joining the dancing. Kemp leans close to her and the two talk quietly.

Ari and Crofton watch the dancing, afraid to look at one another. Their hands are still clasped together, but neither wants to be the first to let go.

“That was something, huh?” Crofton asks, nervously.

“Yeah,” Ari answers. “I’ve never been to a wedding, but I doubt they’re usually as fun as this one.”

“Agreed.”

By the time the last raider has congratulated Tal and Indra, the two make it back to their table. Now they sit together, not separated by Radhri. They eat and drink heartily, stealing kisses and private moments, as much as they can with the celebration still happening around them.

Eventually, Kemp and Vesna move to the dance floor, joining the rest of the celebrators. Indra and Tal, noticing Ari and Crofton still sitting and having been recharged, grab both and drag them onto the dance floor. Even Radhri manages to join the dancing, giving Indra a large hug to welcome him into the family.

The energy stays high well into the morning, the sun lightening the sky far in the distance. The newlywed couples head off to their new private tents even as a few raiders remain to dance.

Ari, Crofton, and Kemp with a sleepy-eyed Vesna tagging along stumble to their shared tent and quickly fall asleep as their heads hit their pillows.

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