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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Chapter 25 Air

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The night comes quickly. Bonfires and lanterns light up the entirety of the camp. The pylons from the previous night’s celebration have been torn down and replaced with long tables of food and a place for musicians to sit and perform.

The three couples to be wed join Radhri at his table, the men sitting on one side while the women sit on the other. The women wear dresses with long, flowing skirts and tops molded to their bodies, looking as though they were poured on. The men wear nice pants and shirts cut at the shoulder. Vests rest atop the shirts made of leather.

Ari, Crofton, Kemp, and the others from the caravan are seated with the rest of the raiders. They are welcomed by the ten selected to join them on their travels to the coast, but introductions are cut short.

The beginning of the celebration is signified with a small procession of the elders of the raiders. They wish the blessings of the gods on the three couples, each drinking in honor of the soon to be wed.

Once the elders sit at their designated table, Radhri stands. He speaks a few words in his native tongue, answered by the elders before he turns his attention to the rest of the crowd. “As the full moon rises in the night sky and the gods glance down from their places among the stars, we’ve gathered this night to join these souls together. Tradition now calls for the Dance of Spirit to begin.”

Waiting for this cue, one musician plays his stringed instrument, joined by another and soon a drum. Then the entire band plays together and the three couples stand. They move out towards the crowd, grabbing people to bring to the dance floor.

Tal walks right up to the table where Ari’s group is sitting and takes Crofton by the hand. Surprise fills his face and he glances at Ari, but when their eyes meet both look away quickly. He allows Tal to drag him out to dance.

A moment later, Indra holds his hand out to Ari. She stares at it before raising her eyes to his face. His expression is the usual serious expression he seems to always wear, but Ari sees a smile playing at the corner of his lips. Ari takes his hand and he leads her out to the dance floor.

The dance is freeing. As Ari tries to follow Indra’s movements, she realizes he’s not leading her, but following. She adjusts her dance and her eyes travel to each couple. Those who were brought out to dance are the ones in charge. The couples follow until she realizes everyone is dancing in similar patterns.

Watching from the table, Kemp keeps his eyes dancing from Ari to Crofton, noticing the smiles on their faces. Real smiles, not the fakes they’d been showing all day.

“Are you jealous you weren’t picked to dance?” Radhri asks, approaching the table.

Jumping at the leader of the raider’s voice, Kemp shakes his head. “Unlike those two, I have a feeling I know why Tal and Indra specifically chose them. One of the reasons anyway.”

“And that is?”

“A show of faith, so to speak. Allowing outsiders to participate in your traditions shows trust.” Kemp eyes the standing man. “A trust we humbly accept.”

Smiling, Radhri kneels down and points to Ari and Crofton. “My daughter is very perceptive, especially when it comes to those who have strong feeling towards one another. Indra informed her of the slight disagreement those two had this morning. Tal is trying to solve it.”

“I haven’t had a chance to speak with Tal privately yet, but I assume you can answer my question just as well,” Kemp says.

“What magic does Tal use?” Laughing at Kemp’s surprised expression, Radhri places a hand on his shoulder. “She’s hard to speak to about such things, simply because she only chooses to use her magic when she must. If you’re curious enough to ask me, though, I can’t deny an answer. Her magic is protection. She uses it to create protection around herself and around those she cares for. It’s the same magic her mother passed on to her and it will be passed on to her own daughter.”

“Is she the only magic user? I haven’t seen many others.”

“No, we have a number of magic users. We simply choose when we use it. But enough, the Dance of Spirit is ending and when the signal is given all are welcome to join. I suggest you ready your dancing feet, friend.”

Slapping Kemp’s back, Radhri stands and continues walking through the gathering of tables, speaking to any he passes. Kemp glances at Vico and Vesna. Both are clapping along to the music. Vesna, spying Kemp staring at her, smiles brightly, but Kemp knows there is one last thing he must do before he can ask her to dance.

As the music intensifies, the string players strumming faster and faster, the drummers suddenly slam their hands down. The effect breaks a spell through the dancing group and the pairs split. The engaged couples return to each other and those brought out to dance join together.

Ari and Crofton lock hands, both staring into the other’s eyes. They stand still, awkward as the music continues, easily changing to a more energized tune. More from the tables join in the dancing, whooping with enjoyment.

“I’m sorry,” Crofton says. “For what I said earlier. I’m sorry.”

Opening her mouth to respond, Ari hesitates. She lowers her gaze, locking her eyes on Crofton’s chest. “Some things we don’t have to tell each other. I just need to know I can still trust you.”

“Of course you can.” His chest rises and falls quickly. “I…I’ll keep my thoughts to myself, unless you specifically ask for them. I didn’t want this to come between us as much as it did.”

“You said you hated my magic. How could you not expect it to come between us?” Ari looks up at him. “And I want you to understand something. I’ve never thought you were weaker than magic users. You’re probably the only non-magic user I’d ever trust guarding my back. So get over this stupid feeling of non-superiority or whatever is happening, okay?”

Before Crofton can answer, Kemp appears and smiles at the two. “Mind if I dance with Ari for a moment?”

Crofton opens his mouth to object, but Kemp leads Ari into the dancing crowd around them. Crofton stands alone for a moment, before heading back to the table. A mixture of anger and confusion fills him and he sits down, grabbing a large glass.

“What the hell, Kemp?” Ari asks.

Leaning close to Ari’s ear, Kemp says, “Radhri mentioned Indra overheard your argument with Crofton. What argument? What did you two argue about after I left the tent?”

“Why are you suddenly interested?”

“We have to be better communicators,” Kemp says, smirking. “If I’m to understand why Crofton might suddenly think twice about helping in a fight, it better come from you.”

“He feels like we’re treating him differently because he’s not a magic user.”

“And you told him that’s shit, right?”

Glaring at him, Ari squeezes his arm tightly, purposefully digging her nails. “Of course, but he’s stubborn…and he told me something I haven’t quite forgiven him for, yet.”

“What?” Seeing the hurt and hesitation in her eyes, he leans his head to the side. “That bad, huh? Don’t tell me. This is obviously something personal between you two. But at least tell me I don’t have to keep on eye on him?”

“I promise. He won’t do anything stupid.”

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Chapter 24 Air

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The canyon walls surround the group and soon the camp disappears behind them. Tal rides ahead, leading with a determined pace. She glances pack only once to ensure the others are following. They head deeper and deeper into the canyon until a path leading up appears. Tal urges her horse onto the wide path and soon the group emerges on top of the plateau.

The Redlands stretch beyond the horizon in all directions, the morning sun casting long shadows across the land. In the distance a small dust storm can be seen travelling across the endless, harsh terrain. Large birds circle overhead, their far seeing eyes searching for food.

Tal dismounts and motions for the others to do the same. “Let’s talk, away from my father, away from everyone.”

Ari is the first off her horse, Followed by Kemp and then a reluctant Crofton who stays far from the group. Ari eyes the horses. “What about them?”

Waving her hand at Ari, Tal smiles. “Let them wander. They’ll stay close.” She sits on the ground and stares at the three curiously. “All right. I want the whole story. Not the one you told my father or the one you’re going to tell me is the truth. There can be no secrets between us if you want my full help.”

The three look at each other, Ari’s eyes sharply snapping away from Crofton. After a moment of silent deliberation, Ari and Kemp sit across from Tal. Crofton stays where he is, crossing his arms and letting his eyes wander across the landscape.

“Do we have your word you won’t speak of this to anyone?” Ari asks.

“Only if you explain why it needs to be kept a secret.”

Hesitating, Ari chooses her next words carefully. “Do your people know the names Ime Gurek and Meah Flandine?”

Locking her eyes on Ari, Tal crosses her arms over her chest. “The Life Healer who instilled hope into the hearts of a world that forgot how and the legendary Fire Mage who defeated the Blood King, the self-proclaimed ruler of Myldea. We may prefer isolation, but our people didn’t sit idly by when a call for arms was raised. Many of our people fought in that war. Many died, but some were brought back by the Life Healer’s magic.” Tal’s eyes scan Ari’s face and she leans forward. “Are you going to tell me they’re your parents?”

Ari nods, her hands shaking as she prepares to speak. “The attack on Kellahn wasn’t committed by someone claiming to be the reincarnation of the Blood King.”

Tal snorts. “I figured that.”

“The attack was committed by magic users. They were sent to kill as many magic users as they could, but their true targets were me and my mother.” Ari plays with the silk bracelet on her wrist. “My mother, Meah, was killed during the attack and they would’ve killed me too if Kemp and Crofton hadn’t been with me when they tried.”

“And what of Ime? Was he killed as well?” Tal asks.

“No. My father is in Deirak. He left Kellahn after I was born to search for the Source of Magic.”

“Why?”

“Magic is fading from the world. Your people must’ve noticed it,” Kemp says, resting a hand on Ari’s leg in comfort. “Ari’s father believes if he can locate the Source of Magic he may be able to determine why and stop it.”

A small sound from behind sends a shot of rage through Ari, but she ignores Crofton’s interruption and keeps her eyes on Tal. Kemp glances back at Crofton, sensing the strange air between the two.

“The Source of magic? Is that even something that can be found?” Tal asks, ignoring the interruption.

“There’s the possibility that whatever is causing the fading of magic may not be the Source, but something interfering with it,” Ari says. “Something that my father may be getting close to locating.”

“So it sent men to attack Kellahn, kill you and your mother as a warning to stop Ime.”

Ari swallows a lump in her throat and takes a calming breath that only makes her nerves and anger grow. “And because I may have the power to destroy it.”

“And the men following you three are these same men.”

“Yes.”

Tal’s eyes move from each of their faces with a stern expression on her face. After several seconds of thought, she stands and places her hands on her hips. “All right. Now that I know what I’m actually fighting for, you have my full strength.”

“Are you saying you wouldn’t have tried very hard to help us if our story didn’t satisfy you?” Crofton asks, angrily.

“Yes.” She met Crofton’s eyes. “My father is sending not only me, but some of our most loyal men. If your little adventure wasn’t worth risking my life for, it’s sure as hell not worth any of our people. Loyalty must go both ways in order for it to work.”

“Will they fight not knowing the truth?” Kemp asks.

Smiling, Tal holds her hand out to Ari. “If I trust you, they’ll trust you, too.”

Ari takes the hand, Tal pulling her to her feet. Kemp stands and all three turn to Crofton. He eyes Ari, warily, but she nods her head. He reluctantly walks forward to join them.

“Good. There are still a lot of preparations to make for both the wedding tonight and our journey to Deirak,” Tal says. “But since we have a bit of time, how about a race?”

“A race?” Ari asks.

“Of course. I want to see how you handle horses. Up for it?”

An excited smile forms on Ari’s lips and she almost bounces with excitement. “Absolutely.”

The four mount their horses and line up. Tal straightens her legs so she can look at the three next to her. “We’ll race down the cliffs, through the canyon away from camp then circle back. The finish line will be the small stream that runs by the first tent. Everyone got that?” Before they can agree, Tal says, “Go!”

Ari and Tal take off before Kemp and Crofton realize what’s happened. Crofton’s expression darkens as he watches Ari disappear down the path leading off the cliff.

“Well, we’ve got no chance to catch up to them. So how about a little race between the two of us?” Kemp asks. Without a word, Crofton nods his head and they chase after the two girls.

The group tears through the canyon dodging large boulders and bushes. The thrill of the race excites the four, wiping the stress from their thoughts. Ari and Tal reach the end of the canyon and rein their horses around a large tower of stone. They run past Kemp and Crofton, yelling excitedly as they pass. Crofton groans and turns his horse around to follow after, raising a cloud of red dust. Kemp quickly does the same and the two men race after the women.

Tal and Ari run neck and neck as they approach the stream marking the end of the race. Their horses run through the water, sending large splashes around them. Slowing, they eventually come to a stop, laughing and cheering.

Crofton and Kemp catch up and all four dismount. Indra approaches, a bright smile on his lips as he walks up to Tal. She mimics his smile and places a hand on his cheek. He takes the reins of her horse and leans down suddenly, kissing her. She playfully shoves him away, but both share a smile of unbridled joy.

Indra leads the horses back to the stables, leaving the four by the stream. Tal drinks from the clear water and motions for the others to do the same.

“So you and Indra,” Ari starts.

“What?” Tal asks, eyeing Ari curiously.

“It’s just…I thought you two were…”

“Siblings? No. Indra and I grew up together. We’ve always been at each other’s sides and after tonight we shall be forever bound together.”

“Three weddings tonight,” Kemp says, realization dawning in his voice.

Nodding, Tal takes another drink of cool water. “One of them is mine.”

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Chapter 23 Air

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The camp is bustling with movement and excited voices, waking Ari from her dreamless sleep. Crofton is still asleep, rolling away from the noise. Kemp sits on his bed, waving his hand in front of him with his eyes closed. Occasionally his hands close as though grabbing something and he moves it lower or higher.

Sitting up, Ari watches Kemp in silence. He works quickly and soon lowers his hands as he finishes. Opening his eyes, Ari notices his pupils are thin and as his eyes focus they grow to regular size. He blinks a few times and rubs his eyes.

“What was that?” Ari asked.

Glancing at her, Kemp sighs. “Didn’t know you were awake.”

“What were you doing?”

“I was organizing my weapons. I may not be able to go where they’re being held, but I can still see it if I concentrate. I have to organize my weapons so I don’t grab the wrong one.”

Ari stood and crossed to Kemp’s bed, sitting next to him. “So before you ever get into a fight, you organize your weapons and try to guess what you’ll need? Before you need it?”

“Yes.” Yawn cuts him off.

Smiling, Ari leans in close to Kemp. “You weren’t here when Crofton and I got back. How’s Vesna?”

Raising an eyebrow, Kemp smirks and crosses his arms across his chest. “She’s fine. Vico and I put her to bed and then had a nice chat. He thinks when we reach the coastal cities he and Vesna are going to stay with us.”

“Are they? Why?”

“Well, the caravan they were scouts for is finished and they don’t have a home to go back to, so I offered them to join us. Did I overstep my bounds?”

“Only if having Guto, Link, and Sten join us bothers you.”

Leaning his head to the side, Kemp places a hand on his chin in mock thought. “Gods, I don’t know, would we have to still act like they’re in charge of us?”

“I knew you wouldn’t mind,” Ari says, playfully shoving him. “Radhri has also offered to send some of his men with us, too. Including his daughter Tal.”

“Who can hear you from many steps away,” Tal says as she enters the tent. She spies Crofton still sleeping and kicks his bed.

Snorting awake, Crofton quickly sits up, reaching for his knife. When his eyes focus he relaxes. “What’s going on?”

Tal leans down and smiles at Crofton, her face moving uncomfortably close to his. “You three are coming with me. Get dressed and meet me by the stables.”

“Why?” Ari asks.

Standing, Tal glances at her. “I want to get to know you better before risking my life helping you. Hurry up or I’ll send someone to fetch you.” She walks to the tent entrance, stopping only to add, “You don’t want me to send someone to fetch you.”

As she disappears outside, Crofton falls back on his pillow, rubbing his eyes. “She’s pleasant in the morning.” He catches sight of Ari sitting on Kemp’s bed and his eyes widen. “What’s happening here?”

Climbing off the bed, Kemp grabs his boots and heads for the tent entrance, already dressed for the day. “Updating each other on our new travelling companions. I’m going to check on Vesna and Vico then meet you at the stables.”

Ari watches Kemp leave even as she senses Crofton’s eyes still locked on her face. She releases an audible sigh and stands. She crosses to her bed and opens her bag. She digs out fresh clothes and turns to Crofton. He lowers his eyes, but she saw for a moment the look of jealousy in them.

“We were just talking, Crofton.”

Sitting up, Crofton lowers his legs to the floor. “I know.”

“Do you, though?”

Snapping his eyes to meet hers, Crofton grips the edge of his bed tightly. “Yes, I do. You said you were just talking and I believe you.”

Squeezing her fresh clothes tightly, Ari leans her head to the side. “Good, because that’s all we were doing.”

“Right.” Crofton stands and takes his shirt off. He grabs a new one from his bag and lays it on the bed with a fresh pair of pants.

Ari’s eyes linger on his back, watching his muscles strain as he moves. She turns her back to him and quickly dresses.

“We haven’t really had a moment to ourselves since Kellahn,” Crofton says, softly.

Freezing, Ari resists the urge to turn and look at him. “Without Kemp, you mean.”

An affirming grunt is his response. The sound of clothing being thrown to the floor and belts being buckled fill the silence before Crofton speaks again. “You said we have to be better communicators. We have to trust each other and not keep secrets.”

Ari’s heart quickens. She can’t stop herself from turning to face him. Her eyes fill with slight fear. “Crofton, only secrets that could lead to one of us being killed.”

A flash of anger crosses his face and he quickly closes the distance between them. He raises a hand to touch her, but rethinks it and clenches his fist. “I don’t like it when you trust others over me.”

“It’s not like that,” Ari starts, but Crofton grabs her arm tightly. The pain in her arm silences her.

“I know I’m not as strong as those with magic, but I made the choice to come with you to find your father. Wherever you go I’ll be there by your side, magic or no. But I see how you and the other magic users look at me when you think I don’t notice.”

Pulling her arm roughly from his grasp, Ari takes a step back. “Where is this coming from? You’ve never cared about that before.”

“I’ve always cared about it. I never wanted you to feel like I did, but I always have. It’s also been this thing between us that neither of us ever acknowledged, but if we’re not to keep secrets then here I go.” Crofton takes a deep breath and meets Ari’s eyes. “I hate your magic.”

Eyes widening, Ari stumbles back as though he struck her. Sudden pains in her chest and her back make her wince. She feels tears threaten to form in her eyes, but she’s able to fight them back as rage replaces the shock and heartbreaking, backstabbing sorrow.

“What?” Ari is surprised how soft her voice is, but she sees Crofton waver a little at the venom in her voice. “If you hate my magic, you hate me. My magic is me, Crofton.”

“No, it’s not. It’s something you inherited from your mom and dad, but it isn’t who you are. You choose to use it, but you don’t have to. You could choose to stop and live a normal life.”

Ari raises her hands in front of her in shock and her eyes close as she breathes deeply. “I can’t believe I’m hearing this from you. I can’t choose to live a normal life. That option isn’t open to me anymore. You realize there are people chasing us who want to kill me, don’t you? Or do you think they’ll back off if I tell them, Oh, never mind, I’ve chosen not to use my magic anymore? They killed my mother for fuck’s sake, Crofton.”

“Because your father couldn’t just let magic disappear.” Crofton tries to comfort her, but Ari glares at him and points a finger at him. Wind slams into him, knocking him back a few steps. He stares at her in shock.

“Don’t come near me right now. I don’t know where this stupid, bullshit came from but you have five seconds to apologize or convince me that you’re joking before I never speak to you again.”

The tent flaps open and Indra steps inside. His eyes shift from Crofton to Ari and understanding fills his face. He steps between them, his back to Ari. “Leave. Tal is waiting.”

Crofton, startled by the command, shakes his head. “What about Ari?”

“I’ll accompany her. Go.”

Hesitating, Crofton curses and leaves the tent, grabbing his shoes as he passes. Ari flinches away from him as he walks by, but he makes no move to speak to her or touch her.

As soon as he’s gone, Indra turns to her. “He’s afraid.”

Ari stares at him incredulous. “Of what? Please, enlighten me.”

“Losing you.”

The rush of blood to Ari’s face is no longer from anger. “So he chose to chase me away by being an idiot?”

Sighing, Indra grabs Ari by the arm and leads her outside. “Magic users are all the same. Come, Tal waits.”

Too confused and angry to argue, Ari allows the raider to drag her towards the stables, but she keeps her eyes peeled for Crofton as her thoughts fill with the idea of losing him. Losing her mother is still painful, if she lost Crofton, too…the pain in her chest aches, but she manages to calm down as they arrive at the stables.

Indra releases her arm and nods his head at Tal. She smiles and nods back, releasing the soft-spoken man to leave. Kemp is sitting on a stool behind her and Ari’s eyes land on Crofton’s arm, the only part of him she can see as he leans against the far side of the stable.

“I told you, you don’t want me sending someone to fetch you. Come on, we’re going for a ride. I think we all could use the fresh air.” Tal leads the three towards four horses ready for riders. She pats the neck of the largest of the animals, a beautiful black horse with a white spot on its rump. “This is Nokt. His name means night in our language.”

The horse nudges Tal with his nose and she scratches behind his ear. She points to each horse as she assigns the other three.

“Kemp, you’ll be riding Hija. Her name means hair and she’s the one with thick fur. Crofton, you’ll be riding Sahn. His name means sun because of the golden sheen to his coat. And Ari, you’ll be riding Sinf. Her name means swift. I don’t think I need to explain why.”

After mounting the horses, Tal teaches them a few commands before they venture off into the canyon.

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Chapter 22 Air

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The dancing continues as more food is brought out from seemingly nowhere. The man behind the massive feast, Gahndri appears before Radhri’s table. He bows low to the ground, but Ari still catches a glimpse of annoyance in the man’s eyes.

Radhri motions the man to stand and smiles. “We thank you, Gahndri, for this bountiful feast and the honor you show to our guests. Though I hope you didn’t use all of the food for tonight?”

“Of course not. You haven’t seen the sheer size of the meal I’ve prepared for the main celebration tomorrow evening,” Gahndri says, his chest filling with pride at his leader’s words.

“Then we’ll all wait with expectant breath for the night to pass swiftly so we may reach tomorrow as quickly as possible.”

Those nearby cheer with excitement. Radhri stands and crosses to pat Gahndri on the back. Tal rolls her eyes as she filled her plate with the fresh food.

Vico helps Vesna to her feet. “I’m going to take Vesna to bed, she’s barely able to keep her eyes open.”

“You’re making me sound like a child, Vico,” Vesna says, trying to shove her brother away, but she doesn’t have enough strength.

Kemp leaps to his feet and helps Vico steady her. “I’ll help you.” He eyes Tal. “I hope your father doesn’t mind if we leave early? Or is that rude?”

“It would be more rude if we refused an injured guest rest,” Tal says. “I’ll make sure a healer sees her in the morning.”

“Thank you,” Vico says. He and Kemp lead Vesna away.

“He probably won’t even notice. When Gahndri’s in a bad mood, my father focuses on cheering him up,” Tal says, leaning close to Ari. “He’s my uncle, after all.”

Crofton nearly choked on his food. “The brother of the leader of the Lost Raiders is the cook?”

“The brother of the chief of the Redlands Raiders chose to be the cook.” Tal eyed Crofton. “Do you frown on people for choosing to live how they want where you come from?”

Crofton’s cheeks flush and his eyes lower. Ari can see a mixture of embarrassment and sadness in his eyes. She feels her own sadness thinking about Kellahn and takes one of Crofton’s hands in hers. Crofton tenses and squeezes gently.

Releasing a loud sigh, Tal turns to face them. “My father and uncle chose their own paths. Plus, my uncle’s the younger brother. He never wanted to be leader. But I see I’ve hit a nerve with what I said. I’m sorry for your loss.”

Locking eyes with her, Ari struggles to keep calm. “How do you know we’ve suffered a loss?”

“You have the eyes of people who’ve recently witnessed death. But your eyes,” she points a piece of fruit at Ari, “show the sorrow of losing a family member.”

Ari fights back her tears. “My mother. Before we began our journey she was murdered.”

“I assume by the men still chasing you?”

“How did you know about that?” Crofton asks.

Nodding her head towards her father, Tal smiles. “I made him tell me everything you spoke about on your way here. He can’t keep anything from me.”

“We assured your father your people are in no danger,” Ari begins.

Tal stopped her with a hand. “You assured my father you have no idea who’s following you. He’s assured me you’d fight if they threatened our people and if you don’t we can kill you.”

“The more reason we shouldn’t be staying too long,” Crofton mumbles.

Tal’s eyes dance between Ari and Crofton as she chews. “You’re heading for the coast and then on to Deirak. But how many from the destroyed caravan will be continuing on with you?”

“Why would they continue on with us? We were simply passengers who requested aid crossing the Redlands.” Ari feels the eyes of Sten, Link, and Guto on her, their interest in the conversation piqued.

Guto is the first to speak. “The caravan is destroyed. Even if we manage to sell what remains to the coastal cities, there’s no guarantee we’ll be able to find a caravan hiring or if we’ll make enough to pay our ways home. I can’t speak for these two or Vico and Vesna, but heading to Deirak doesn’t sound like such a bad plan.” Link and Sten share a look and nod in agreement.

“But you don’t even know us that well,” Crofton protests. “Why would you be willing to give up your caravanning and help us?”

“We joined the caravan life for excitement. But it only ended up being the opposite, except for the occasional bandit attack,” Sten says.

Link shudders. “Though the last one was the worst attack we’ve encountered.”

“You know, if you join us there’s the chance we’ll be attacked by things worse than bandits,” Ari says. “It isn’t right endangering any more people.”

“Then why run at all?” Tal asks. “Every where you go you’re endangering lives. That’s the danger of being followed, if you truly didn’t want to risk more lives than your own you wouldn’t ask for help. There’s a stronger reason for your desire to reach Deirak other than a phantom threat of unknown men chasing you or even that stupid lie you told about a new Blood King.”

Falling silent, Ari and Crofton glance at each other.

“Our home was attacked,” Ari says. “The men responsible are the same ones chasing us and, for reasons I can’t tell you, the only way to stop them is to find someone, I can’t tell you who, in Deirak.”

Before Tal can ask a follow up question, Radhri returns to his seat, releasing a loud sigh. “Gahndri seems in a better mood now that I’ve assured him he’ll have extra hands tomorrow for the preparations.”

“And what hands are those, father?” Tal demands.

Motioning his head towards Link and Sten, Radhri takes a large drink from his glass. The two men pale, noticeable even with the glow of the fires around them.

“And did you ask their permission before you volunteered them?”

“Did I need to? They’re our guests. I’m sure they’re willing to help out in exchange for the food, medical aid, and sleeping quarters we’ve so graciously provided them.” He eyes the two caravan men, waiting for any sign of disapproval, but Sten and Link understand the hidden threat.

“What is the celebration tomorrow?” Crofton asks, attempting to divert Radhri’s attention from Sten and Link.

“We’re having a great wedding day. Tonight we perform for the gods to ensure the ceremony is blessed. Three couples will be uniting their lives together under the full moon tomorrow evening.” Radhri’s eyes gleam with excitement.

“Are there usually three weddings in one night?”

“Only on the full moon do we celebrate the joining of two into one. This is a special occasion however because—”

“Stop boring them about tomorrow. They’ll find out soon enough,” Tal interrupts. “The men chasing them destroyed their home. They’re heading to Deirak to find someone to help stop them. Gods, I found out more about their situation in five minutes than you did in hours.”

“Is this true?”

Ari nods, clutching her hands together. “They attacked our home, murdering hundreds…including my mother.”

“Ari,” Crofton gasps, a small warning in his voice.

“It’s fine, Crofton. They should know. Now they’re chasing after us and the only one who can help us is in Deirak.”

Radhri stares at Ari for a long moment in silence, but his eyes are distant as he thinks. He looks at his daughter. “We should help them.”

Tal quickly turns to her father. “What are you suggesting?”

“Ten of my warriors shall accompany you to Deirak. Well, twelve, truthfully,” he says winking at his daughter.

“You would allow that?” Tal asks.

“Of course. I can already see in your eyes you want to help and I’m sure Indra would agree, as well.”

“Like he has a choice.”

“Hold on,” Ari interrupts. “You’re offering to send some of your people with us?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

Tal smiles at her. “Because we understand the pain of losing a loved one in a violent way and the fear of running from those who wish to harm us. But in exchange you must attend the wedding celebration tomorrow. We can discuss further plans after.”

With agreements made, the group enjoys the last of the celebration. As the night wears on, Ari and Crofton excuse themselves to find their way to their shared tent with Kemp. Ari and Crofton note that Kemp is absent, probably still with Vesna and Vico.

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