Chapter 21 Air

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After Ari finishes telling Tal everything about the bandits and Radhri’s rescue, Tal sits in silence, thinking. The four sit on large pillows around a small fire. Their shadows dance on the dark walls behind them.

“My father can be rash sometimes. He’s not very good at first impressions and tends to over step his bounds.” Her dark eyes look at Ari. “But he seems to like you. He wouldn’t have brought your group here if he didn’t.”

“What? He would’ve abandoned us in the Redlands and taken everything for himself?” Crofton asks.

“We may be showing you kindness now, but don’t forget,” she smirks at Crofton, “we are raiders. Bandits fear us for a reason.”

The tent flaps open and Radhri walks in. He plops down between Ari and Tal and crosses his legs, placing his hands on his knees. “Gahndri has, reluctantly, been able to find more food for the feast tonight. Though if we have any more unexpected guests he may throw himself into the fire.”

“What’s the feast for?” Kemp asks.

Radhri smiles at Tal, but she only looks away from him. “It’s the beginning of a great celebration.”

 

 

 

 

Drums beat loudly and voices echo the sound enthusiastically. The pylon is engulfed in flames and all around it smaller fires are built at different heights. A long strip of coals also stretches from one fire to the next.

Bodies dance around the fires, a mass of motion comprised of men, women, children, and anyone else who wishes to join in. The drums crescendo into a cacophony of sound and then suddenly cease.

Radhri stands, holding his hands above his head. He speaks in a different language, his voice booming over the fires. His eyes take in every face upturned to him. He waves his hands and at one point pounds his chest with a fist. He raises his voice and gives a resounding call into the night. The crowd raises their voices to his and soon the cheers bounce from the walls of the cliffs behind them and back.

Waiting until the crowd silences again, Radhri motions his arm to the group seated to his left. “To our honored guests here at our celebration, welcome. I beg to my people, my family treat these guests as one of us and show them the dignity we know to be our life’s blood.” The crowd voices approval and he waits for them to silence again. “Now, let the true celebration begin!”

The drums explode back to life and bodies leap into the air. Gatherings encircle the flames around the pylon and the drums slow their pace, though only slightly.

Radhri sits. To his left, after the space reserved for Tal, sits Ari, Crofton, Kemp, and those from the caravan. Vesna wears a bandage on her side and her head. The healers were able to determine little damage had been done and she was free to walk around on her own, though Vico stays by her side at all times.

The seating area is placed before the line of coals and the two largest flames. As the drums change their tempo, men begin to make the cross over the coals. As each man passes they try to one up each other. One stands for a moment at the center to show his bravery. Another does a cartwheel, sparks flying where his hands dig into the coals. Yet another sits on the coals before continuing.

At each one up, Ari and the rest of the group wince. Kemp and Crofton at one point both yell out in shock. Ari chooses to instead look away at the more gruesome choices, namely when one man picks up a blazing coal and places it on his tongue.

Cheering rises steadily as the last of the crossers approaches.

Tal steps up to the edge of the coal walk and faces her father. He watches with a guarded expression, choosing not to show favoritism. The drums slow as the crowd’s excitement grows.

Turning back to the red-hot coals, Tal holds her arms out to her sides. She places one foot on the coals and slowly moves forward. The drums pick up speed as she approaches the center. She stops in the middle and turns in a full circle. Then she lowers until her knees are barely touching the coals. She lowers her arms and places her hands on the ground.

The drums cut out until only one is playing. He slows his beat until it’s slow and controlled.

The muscles in Tal’s arms strain as she carefully places her weight on her hands. She raises her butt in the air and soon her feet lift off the ground and rise until they’re in the air over her. She pushes and does a perfect handstand, her arms straightening.

As she moves with slow grace, the single drummer matches her intensity with a low rumble as she moves. Once she reaches her full handstand the other drums give an impressed single beat.

Ari, Kemp, and Crofton watch in silent awe. Once Tal finishes her handstand they immediately applaud, leading a small cheer from the crowd.

The single drummer slows his beat again and Tal takes a deep breath. The crowd falls silent again and watches with anticipation.

Slightly adjusting her weight, Tal carefully places most onto her right arm and lifts her left arm. Her legs lean slightly to the right to counter balance and the drummers give another single beat. The crowd cheers again, whoops echoing against the cliff wall.

Tal lowers her left arm and her chest moves up and down as she breathes deeply. She bends her arms and pushes hard, throwing her legs forward to land upright. She finishes the walk across the coals and holds her hands up above her head in triumph.

The men, who crossed before her, surround her and congratulate her or speak quickly in awe. Ari can see black soot on Tal’s hands and feet and wonders if she even felt the scalding heat.

Radhri stands and everyone falls silent, even the drums. He scans the faces of the crowd and without a word, points to the largest of the flames, besides the burning pylon. Tal stares at her father and nods.

“He can’t mean…She doesn’t have to…” Crofton can barely speak. His eyes dart from the flame to Tal to Radhri back to the flame.

Tal approaches the flames and stands still. A second figure moves to the opposite side of the fire. It’s the man named Indra. He stares across the fire at Tal and the two circle the tall flames. The drums begin playing a strangely broken tempo. Sudden loud beats make the crowd jump, but all eyes remain locked on the two circling the flame.

The two suddenly change directions at different beats of the drum, but how they’re able to do it at the same time is a mystery to Ari. She leans forward, her attention entirely drawn to the sight.

The drums grow in tempo and soon the two are running around the fire, changing direction at the slightest provocation. The climax of the drums hits and becomes a simple drum roll. The crowd gets into it, stomping feet or beating their hands against their chests or with their voices.

Then every thing cuts out. All sound disappears and Tal and Indra stop on either side of the fire. They leap forward, both jumping high into the air over the flames. For a moment time seems to have stopped. The two, at the apex of the fire hang in mid air. From where Ari sits it looks as though they’re going to collide, but she knows deep down they won’t.

Turning her head to make a comment to Crofton and Kemp, Ari realizes the two are frozen and not just in awe, but truly frozen. She looks to Radhri on her other side and sees him in mid swallow of a drink. She glances back at Indra and Tal and her eyes lock onto the flames. The fire isn’t moving either.

Panic fills her. Is she having another vision? No, this feels different. She can’t tell why, but she knows this is something different.

As soon as she realizes what’s happening it ends. The sound of the crowd cheering snaps her back and she sees Indra and Tal are now standing on the opposite sides of the fire. They successfully made their jumps.

Both walk to stand before Radhri and the crowd watches intensely. Radhri stands and his eyes move between the two. A large smile grows on his face and he releases an uplifting yell. The crowd joins in as Indra and Tal bow their heads.

Music plays and the raiders explode into dance. Some leap over the smaller fires in celebration as others feast heartily. Children watch the strong men and women leaping through the air and copy the movements with great excitement.

Rhadri sits as Tal returns to her seat by his side. Indra joins a group to continue the dancing and performing further feats of agility.

Radhri turns to Ari. “You can breathe now.”

Releasing a breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding throughout the display, Ari laughs nervously. “That was quite an ordeal.”

Leaning forward to see Tal, Crofton stares at her with a newfound respect. “How were you able to stay on those coals for so long? Especially while doing all…that?”

After swallowing a mouthful of meat, Tal shrugs her shoulder. “It’s not that hard if you don’t let fear control you.” She smiles and winks at Ari. “It doesn’t hurt to also have magic.”

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Chapter 20 Air

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The camp is half a day’s walk from where the caravan was attacked. The raiders are warm to Ari and the others, offering them food and water freely, but the feeling of unease is still strong among Guto, Link, and Sten. The stories of the Lost Raiders are many and many end with no survivors, though as Kemp points out that makes it hard to verify the true stories when supposedly none survived.

Radhri remains far from Ari since they spoke, but she still catches him a number of times staring at her. After hours of the same reaction, Ari carefully makes her way forward until she walks next to the leader of the raiders.

“Why do you keep staring at me?” she asks.

“Who says I’m staring at you?”

“Well, you appear to be looking back an awful lot and, so far, every time your eyes found me. Sounds like someone staring at someone else.”

Smiling, Radhri leans towards her, balancing easily on his riding animal. “You seem to have a high opinion of yourself if you think every time a man looks behind him to make sure everything is working as it should be is actually keeping an eye on you. Perhaps you should worry more about your friends. The little one is bothering my men close to him.”

He was speaking of Link. He’d been becoming more and more nervous as they walked. If any of the raiders got too close, Link nearly passed out. Now he’s visibly shaking and his eyes roll anxiously in his head.

“Can you blame him? Have you heard the stories people tell about your group? Some actually claim you’re a group of dead soldiers out to finish fighting a war thousands of years old,” Ari says.

A full-throated laugh explodes from Radhri’s mouth, jarring his riding animal. “Do they really say that? Or did you make that one up?”

Hesitating, Ari’s face flushes a light pink and she turns away from him. His laughter grows louder and she finds herself struggling not to smile. “It could be true. I’ve heard stranger stories from Guto.”

“Ah, is he the large one?”

“Yes.”

“My men like him.” Radhri glances back at the man in question. “They can tell he’s a good man. Now, what about the two who are with you?”

“What do you mean?”

“You three are headed for the coast to find a ship willing to take you to Deirak. Normally, I wouldn’t question you beyond what you’ve already told me, but you three seem to be hiding something. And I have a strong feeling it may put my men in danger. I’m nothing if not someone who trusts strong feelings.”

Ari glances back at Crofton and Kemp. Crofton is staying close to Guto, talking normally. Kemp is helping Vico with Vesna, keeping watch on her injury. She stares at Radhri. “They’re may be men following us. We don’t know who they are, but they do want to cause us harm.”

Searching her face for deceit, Radhri’s eyes narrow slightly. “When was the last time you saw these unknown men?”

Shifting uncomfortably under his scrutinizing gaze, Ari takes a deep breath. “We…actually haven’t seen them. We just know they’re after us.”

“Mm-hm. Interesting. I’m assuming someone informed you about them, then?”

“A friend who happened to be a Seer told us about them.”

“And he didn’t tell you who they were?” Radhri asks.

“No. He couldn’t tell from his vision.”

Radhri thinks carefully and for a moment Ari thinks he may change his mind about helping them. Radhri faces forward and his eyes search the horizon.

“I’ll have some of my men keep watch behind us. Any signs of danger and we’ll place you three deeper in the group. I’m not going to risk my men’s lives over unknown assailants. If they attack my people and I see your group running instead of helping, I’ll kill you. Is that understood?”

Ari nods her head. “We would never abandon anyone who helps us.”

Radhri’s head snaps to her. “Don’t speak for those you think you know. I’ve lost many to the fault of false trust. If you wish to speak for your two companions, be sure you know them better than yourself first.”

Before Ari can respond, Radhri spurs his riding beast forward. Those of his men also riding mimic their leaders movement and soon those walking are hurrying to catch up.

“Why the sudden rush?” Crofton asks as he catches up to Ari. “Is something wrong?”

“We’re almost home,” one of the raiders not riding says. His smile is bright and he quickens his pace.

Many around them skip and release loud whoops of excitement. Ahead a tall plateau sits at the top of high cliffs. Canyons cut through, but at the base of the largest opening is a camp. Smoke rises from dozens of fires and the smell of cooking meat wafts over the group as a breeze passes.

Tents span out from the center of the camp in a circular pattern. Those on the outside circle are smaller and made of thicker skins. Men sit outside of them with weapons close by. As the group passes through, they look up and wave. When they see the remnants of the caravan their smiles waver for a moment.

They enter the camp and pass tents of varying sizes with women, children, and elderly peering out at them. A few of the tents have men taking care of the children and as the group passes the women of the raiding group hurry to their families. By the time they reach the center where a large pylon is built and the larger of the tents sit, the raiding party is down to a few and the last of the caravan stands out noticeably.

Radhri stops them and climbs down from his beast, stroking its long nose and whispering in a different language. A raider takes the animal and leads it away as Radhri turns to the largest of the tents. The flaps fly open and a young woman storms out.

“Tal! See, I told you I’d make it back before the feast,” Radhri says, holding his hands out wide, expecting a hug.

The young woman glares at him and then at Ari and the others of the caravan. “Who are they? More mouths to feed? Have you told Gahndri he’ll need to prepare more food or are they going to eat dirt?”

Realizing he wasn’t going to get a hug, Radhri lowers his arms and a sheepish grin forms on his lips. “They were attacked by bandits. They lost their comrades and a lot of their trade.”

“One of our own has been seriously injured,” Vico yells angrily. “She needs help now.”

Radhri waves his hand at Vico cautiously, but the young woman, Tal, is already directing her anger at him. “Is she dead?”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“Is she still breathing?” Tal asks, crossing her arms. “Cause if she’s still breathing and the bleeding’s slowed she’s going to survive. What you need to be worried about is whether or not the injury to her head is more severe internally.” She snaps her attention to Radhri. “You couldn’t drop her off with the healers first?”

Radhri looks defeated and takes a step back. “It slipped my mind.”

“Of course it did.” She glances behind her at the tent. “Indra!”

The tent opens and a man walks out. He meets Radhri’s eyes cautiously and smiles. Radhri nods his head at him, a brief look of pride passing through his eyes.

“Indra, my father seems to have forgotten to drop off a wounded fighter with the healers in his rush to get home. Could you show them where to go?”

Indra steps forward and waves his hands at Kemp and Vico. Kemp hands off Vesna to Vico and watches as the two follow the quiet man. Ari leans close to him. “You can go if you want.”

Kemp shakes his head. “I’m not going to leave you two to deal with this without me.”

Tal walks up to Ari and her eyes move up and down taking Ari in. “So what are your names?” Walking up behind her, Radhri tries to talk, but she stops him with her hand. “Go tell Gahndri to prepare more food before I get angry and decide to feed them you.”

“I’m the chief and you’re my daughter, you can’t just feed me to whoever you like.”

Tal turns to him and even though Ari can’t see her expression, the look of fear on Radhri’s face makes her glad she can’t. Radhri leaves without another word.

“Now then,” she says as she turns back to Ari with a smile. “Your names?”

“Ariana, Ari,” Ari says holding her hand out.

Tal takes it and her smile widens. “Talea, Tal.”

“Crofton,” Crofton says, stepping forward.

Guto crosses his arms and remains where he is. “Guto.”

“Kemp,” Kemp says.

Link and Sten step forward together, but Sten is the one who speaks. “I’m Sten. This is Link.”

“And the two who left with Indra?” Tal asks.

“Vico and his sister, Vesna,” Kemp answers.

“What are we gonna do about the groduns? They need food and lots of space to rest,” Link says quickly, stumbling over his words. He covers his mouth with his hand when Tal gives him a look.

“There’s some space in the canyon if they don’t mind some company. The horses are pretty friendly and don’t mind sharing their space,” Tal says.

“Horses? That’s what your father was riding? We’ve never seen anything like them,” Sten says, wonder in his voice. He and Link, between panic attacks, had watched the strange animals with great curiosity.

“Well, they’re rare here. When the first of my family made it here from Deirak they brought a few with them. As far as we know they’re the only ones in all of Myldea. They’re smaller than jubequi, but they’re faster and have a stronger stamina.” Tal turns to Sten and Link. “If you two would like to take them to the paddocks I can have some of these men show you the way.”

“I’d like to show them, Tal,” one of the remaining men says. Ari recognizes him as the one who spoke to Radhri when they first met. “One of the groduns is wounded and is more familiar with my scent than any of the other men.”

Tal nods her head and the three men went to work releasing the groduns from the wagons. Guto tags along to provide extra strength.

Tal grabs Ari’s arm and leads her towards the tent. “So, I want to hear how my father found you.”

Kemp and Crofton follow quickly.

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Chapter 19 Air

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The sun beats down on the caravan as they cross through hills of red sand. Everyone wears protective eyewear and scarves over their mouths, but still the red dust seems able to find ways into their mouths and eyes. The groduns snort and shake their heads of the dust while the long eyelashes of the jubequis save them from the invading particles.

The wind calms as they move through the hills, but the heat continues to rise. Vesna rides ahead, keeping eyes open for any signs of danger. Kemp rides a distance behind her. Vico and Ari cover the right side while Crofton and Guto cover the left. The rest bring up the rear or are spaced between the wagons.

Turner rides at the head of the first wagon, his eyes scanning the hills around them. His jubequi snorts, uneasily.

“Fine, if you’re the first’un to find any beasty not dead on the ground, I’ll give ya twenty pieces,” Guto’s booming voice fills the uneasy air.

Crofton shakes hands with the larger man. “Deal.”

The two men had been coming up with ridiculous bets since waking up that morning. Both were already down fifty “pieces” each or what they chose to call coins.

Crofton’s eyes search the red earth and he suddenly points ahead, near Vesna. “There! Right there!”

“What? I don’t see nuh-thing,” Guto says, shading his eyes with his hand.

“You’re blind. There’s a tiny thing crawling along underneath her animal.” Crofton leans forward. “I think…or that might be a shadow.”

“A shadow within a shadow? I think the sun’s got you goin’ blind.”

“I’m telling you, right there!” Crofton shouts, pointing at Vesna.

Vesna collapses to the ground, her jubequi rearing back in a sudden fright. The caravan falls silent.

“Vesna!” Vico urges his jubequi forward.

Ari follows as Kemp leaps from his jubequi. Vico jumps from the back of his own jubequi and lifts Vesna up. An arrow is lodged into her side and blood rolls down the side of her head where she hit a rock.

Vesna’s beast runs forward, shrieking in fear. The ground beneath it gives way and it disappears into a large hole. Its cries fade and soon fall silent as it hits the bottom.

“Ambush! Raiders!” Turner bellows, drawing his weapon.

The men immediately move the wagons into a tight circle and surround it, facing outwards. Kemp grabs the reins of his, Vico, and Ari’s jubequis to lead them into the safety of the circle.

“She’s still breathing,” Ari says, placing a hand on Vico’s shoulder. “Let’s get her out of the open.”

Vico lifts his sister and he and Ari move towards the caravan. Shouts echo around them as men appear at the tops of the surrounding hills. Arrows are shot into the caravan hitting men and beast. Then the men charge, weapons reflecting the sun’s light.

The men of the caravan meet the bandits head on and fighting erupts everywhere. Ari uses her wind to keep Vico safe until he can get Vesna under cover. Kemp draws weapons from his bag and throws a blade at an approaching bandit. The weapon lodges into the man’s chest and as he falls to the earth, Kemp grabs the blade and tears it from the dead man.

Crofton holds his father’s weapons in his hands, easily managing to fight two handed against the man aiming for him. Guto joins him and the two soon start shouting out the number of men they’ve killed in a mini competition.

More and more men appear from over the hills, replenishing those who fall. The caravan loses men and beasts lie slaughtered on the ground, their blood turning the red sand black. Arrows fly from above and Ari releases a wave of magic to protect those around her.

Magic fills the air as more magic users resort to their magic to fight off the attackers. Two wagons are set afire by arrows and two men rush to save as much as they can from the flames. Ari tries to reach the burning caravans to help put out the flames, but three bandits surround her and separate her from the rest of the caravan.

She tries to fight them off, but one of the bandits is dulling her magic with his own power.

A man grabs her arm and twists it behind her back. “Enough!” His voice is amplified by magic and the fighting stops.

The only ones left of the caravan are Guto, Vico, Vesna, Kemp, Crofton, and two others. Turner lies dead beneath the bodies of two bandits. The bandits surround the small group and hold their weapons at them.

“Your caravan is now ours. We have no use for the men, but the two women are ours.”

Ari twists forcefully against the man’s grasp, but he nods his head at the man to his left. The man steps in front of her and punches her in the stomach. She gasps and stops struggling, instead using all of her strength to keep from collapsing.

The man pulls her close. “For that, you’ll now watch as your comrades are killed before your eyes.”

The bandits tighten their circle around the caravan’s survivors. Before any of them can attack, an arrow flies through the air and hits the man holding Ari between the eyes. He falls to the ground, his grip still tight on Ari’s arm. She’s dragged to the ground with him and lands on top of him. She looks at the arrow sticking out of his head and notices it’s red, as though made from the very Redlands around them.

The men around her step back in shock as they recognize the arrow.

“Lost Raiders!” the magic user dampening Ari’s magic gasps.

The bandits hear him and panic. More red arrows fly into the crowd, killing men left and right. Before the men have the sense to run, a wall of people appears at the tops of the hills. A much larger group of people has already surrounded the group and sitting on the back of a large riding animal with a long mane is a man holding a sword high above his head.

The bandits realizing there’s no escape prepare to fight for their lives. The man with the sword swings the blade down and the group attacks, running down the hills screaming with excitement.

Vico, Guto, and the last two of the caravan grab Kemp and Crofton and hide under the last wagon with Vesna, who is slowly regaining consciousness. Ari frees herself from the hold of the dead man and is immediately grabbed by the magic user blocking her magic.

“You have to save me from the Lost Raiders! They’ll kill you, too!” he rambles quickly. “They’re demons! Demons!”

The man with the sword appears next to Ari and the magic user. He stares down at them from his beast and looks from Ari to the man. He swings his blade quickly, killing the man before climbing down from his animal. The last of the bandits are killed behind him.

“Who are you?” Ari asks, her magic creating a small whirlwind around her.

The man’s eyes move up and down Ari and a smile plays on his lips. “It would seem I’m your savior. You’re welcome.”

“A bit presumptuous of you. How do we know you aren’t more dangerous?”

“I never said we weren’t more dangerous, but we won’t kill you over immaterial things.”

Ari looks past the man and sees the other raiders surrounding the last of the caravan group. She stops her magic and stares into the man’s eyes. “But you might kill us over something else.”

Shrugging, the man eyes the group behind him. “Well, if you prove yourselves dangerous, too, we might feel the need to protect ourselves.” He leans close to Ari. “But I don’t think you’ll try anything stupid like that.”

“That man you killed called you the Lost Raiders. What does that mean?”

“Names are simply things people use to try to define things they don’t understand.”

“In other words, it’s what everyone calls you, but you don’t have a name.”

“We’ve lived in these lands for many generations and we keep to ourselves. Those who’ve encountered us spread stories and those stories spread further and twist with each telling. If you wish to call us the Lost Raiders, fine. We’ve never had a true name. Normally, we don’t like getting involved with travellers, but these bandits have grown more aggressive and bold. They’re beginning to claim lands for themselves and that puts my men in danger.”

“We have no intention of endangering your men. Our only intention is to cross the Redlands and reach the coast.”

The man steps closer to Ari and stares into her eyes. He circles around her, placing her between him and his riding animal. “Why are you trying to reach the coast?”

“We’re heading for Deirak. There’re rumors Myldea isn’t safe for magic users anymore.”

“What makes you think that?”

“We heard Kellahn was attacked by someone claiming to be the reincarnation of the Blood King,” Ari says, her eyes lowering. “If it’s true, we figured better to leave than risk becoming slaves to a madman.”

One of the raiders approaches, sheathing his weapon. “Radhri, one of them’s injured. She’s losing a lot of blood.”

Radhri looks at his man and nods. “Check the damage of the wagons. It looks like two of them are immobile. Salvage what you can and put it on the other wagons. Are any of the beasts still alive?”

“Two still able to pull, one with an injured leg and now blind. It seems it was hit by a fire arrow.”

“Will it slow us down?”

“It doesn’t trust anyone to get close enough to tie it up.”

“See if one of those from the caravan are willing to help. Let’s hurry.”

The man bows his head and heads back to where the group is. The raiders quickly begin following Radhri’s orders. Water mages put out the last of the flames on the wagons and search for anything still useful.

Turning back to Ari, Radhri motions towards Kemp and Crofton. “You may want to explain to your friends that we’ll be taking all of you back to our camp. We have healers who can help the woman.”

“Her name is Vesna,” Ari corrects.

“Right, Vesna.”

Ari cautiously walks away from him towards Crofton and the rest of the caravan. Vico holds his sister close to him, his eyes watching each raider who passes too close.

“How’s everyone?” Ari looks from one tired face to another.

“Alive and confused. Who are these guys?” Kemp asks.

“Lost Raiders,” Guto says. “That’s who they are, right?”

“Yeah, but they don’t really call themselves that. They’re going to take us back to their camp. They can help Vesna and I trust them,” Ari says. “Are we all that’s left?”

Guto motions his head to the two others who survived. “Link and Sten were in charge of the groduns and wagons. They managed to save two of the groduns from injury.”

“Can you help the raiders with the injured grodun? They want to take it with us, but it won’t let anyone near it.”

“Of course not. They’re murderers!” Link squeaks out. He attempts to say more, but Sten slaps a hand over his mouth.

“Shut it. We don’t have a choice.” Sten nods his head at Ari. “We’ll take care of the grodun. It should recognize us by our scents. If the raiders are willing to help when we calm it down.” He and Link head off towards the wounded grodun.

Crofton moves close to Ari, his eyes locked on Radhri. “Can we trust them?”

“They saved us from the bandits and they’re offering to heal Vesna. Besides, what else can we do? I have the feeling they know the Redlands better than anyone.” Ari glances up at Radhri and realizes he’s watching her with a wide smile on his face.

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Chapter 18 Air

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“Oi, newcomer, help us with this, woud’ja?”

Crofton leaps from his jubequi and heads over to two men trying to lift a wagon to change the wheel. With his help the three easily lift it from the ground and a fourth quickly changes the broken wheel.

Ari and Kemp circle around the caravan with the other magic users, keeping an eye out for any danger. The calmness of the animals relaxes them, but they still scan the red hills for any sign of movement.

The caravan has been crossing the Redlands for two days since allowing Ari, Crofton, and Kemp to join them. The scouts at Nani’s had been easy to convince once they saw what Ari and Kemp could do. Crofton’s added willingness to work only made them happier. Apparently the caravan lost a couple members after their last route through the dangerous Redlands.

“How we doing, boys?” the leader of the caravan, Turner calls back.

“Ready to go, boss,” the man finishing the wheel calls. He nods his head and Crofton and the two men lower the wagon to the ground.

The larger of the two shuffles Crofton’s hair, laughing. “Good’un, Croft.”

“Shut your mouth, Guto. I could feel you weren’t even hardly lifting, you lazy bastard.” Crofton laughs and gently punches Guto in the belly.

Smiling, Ari can’t help but laugh when Guto grabs Crofton in a headlock.

“Glad to see him making friends,” Kemp says, riding up to her. “It looked a little dicey there at the beginning.”

“Ah, Guto enjoys picking on new guys. He always picks one out to mess with and if they can keep up with him, the more he likes ‘em,” one of the scouts, Vico says.

The other scout, Vesna, Vico’s twin sister, rides up next to Ari. “It also doesn’t hurt that your boy there likes to get his hands dirty. The last people we allowed to travel with us refused to do any heavy lifting.”

“That explains why it took a bit more convincing to let him tag along,” Ari says.

“Well, that and your refusal to let the caravan leave without him.”

“You could’ve just left without us,” Kemp says.

Vico laughs. “And you wouldn’t have just followed us?”

“Point taken.”

The caravan heads off now the wheel is repaired. Crofton climbs back onto his jubequi and rides alongside Guto. Ari and Kemp take their places on either side of the caravan. Vico rides with Ari and Vesna rides with Kemp.

The caravan is made up of four wagons with a total of twenty men, not including Ari, Crofton, and Kemp, guarding the cargo. The cargo includes animals, textiles, seeds, jewelry, and select food items. The main focus was connecting the towns and villages on opposite ends of the Redlands to minimize travel distance going around the dangerous lands. Only a few caravans dared the journey due to the high number of bandits calling the Redlands home.

So far, the only danger the caravan had come across was a herd of large beasts called borums in the middle of their mating rituals. Luckily, borums are slow animals so the caravan was able to escape unscathed.

The caravan continues its long trek until nightfall when they finally stop to rest. The wagons are placed in a circle as magic users create a make shift paddock for the groduns. Once they’re secured and fed, the men and women cook meals and prepare for sleep.

Ari sits near the grodun paddock and watches the great beasts lazily eat and lie on the ground to sleep. Crofton sits with Guto and a few of the other men. Their laughter echoes across the camp to her and she smiles. She’s happy to see Crofton relaxed and easily making friends. Her eyes scan the camp and she spots Kemp talking with Vesna.

Leaning close to her ear, Kemp whispers something to her and Vesna laughs. She rubs his arm and smiles up at him before leading him away from everyone else. They disappear behind a wagon and Ari feels a tinge of jealousy.

“All right, Ariana?” Vico asks sitting next to her.

Tearing her eyes from where Kemp and Vesna disappeared, Ari nods her head. “Fine. Your sister seems to have taken a shine to Kemp.”

Shyly smiling, Vico laughs. “Yeah, she likes making friends.” He emphasizes the word friends to show he understands what Ari’s implying. “I trust her to know what she’s doing.”

“Are you really okay with it?”

“At first I wasn’t, you know. She’s my sister, I want to protect her, but she’s tough and after arguing about it we came to an understanding.” He eyes her curiously. “And what about you?”

“Hmm?” Ari returns her attention to the groduns.

“Are you okay with him being friends with my sister?”

“He’s an adult. He can do whatever he wants.”

Raising his eyebrows in surprise, Vico shrugs his shoulder then crosses his legs and pulls out balls of string. He begins twisting and braiding the string into intricate patterns. He hums as he works, his fingers easily working the strands.

Slowly turning her head, Ari watches him work for a moment. “What are you making?”

Smiling at her, Vico holds up his work. “In my village there’s an old legend about the gods. Morda, our mother god, fell in love with a mortal man who worked with silks and wool. She would watch him day in and day out. Velan, the god of death, grew jealous of her infatuation and appeared before the mortal man. He challenged him to a contest. If Velan won, the man would be killed and dragged to the underworld. If the man won, he would be granted one wish.”

As he speaks, Vico works continuously on the knot in his hands. “The contest would be to see who could create the most beautiful and intricate knot from silk and wool. Morda, catching wind of the contest, aided the man by giving him silk from her own collection. With the godly silk, the man made a knot so intricate and detailed it was said any who gazed upon it could see the very cosmos.”

Ari watches Vico’s hands move faster and faster as he makes the knot larger. The details in each twist and tie becoming clearer as he tells the tale.

“Veran lost to the mortal man, but true to his word he asked what the mortal man wished for. The mortal man wished for an unlimited supply of the godly silk.” Vico’s hands freeze suddenly, leaving the knot unfinished. Ari’s eyes rise to his face. “But Veran is a trickster and jealousy continued to feed his rage. He turned the mortal man into the very creatures that spun the silk, but instead of making him godly he kept him mortal. So the man lived out the rest of his days as a manseed spider, creating the very silk he so desired.”

Quickly finishing the knot, Vico cuts the strings with his knife and hands the intricate creation to Ari. “And that is why the manseed spider’s silk is the most precious of silk in Myldea and its web one of the most beautiful.”

Ari takes the knot and strokes the tied strings. “I haven’t heard that story before.”

“Did your parents tell you many stories of the gods?”

“No, but a friend of my mother’s used to tell me about them. My favorite stories were about the brother gods, Ogrin and Kellot. They got into a lot of trouble.” Ari tries to hand the knot back to Vico.

Shaking his head, Vico gently pushes the knot away. “It’s a gift for you. Keep it as long as you like.”

“Thank you.”

Standing, Vico puts the balls of string back into his pockets. “Get some sleep. Tomorrow’s going to be another long one. Good night, Ariana.”

“Good night, Vico.”

Vico heads off to sleep. Ari looks down at the knot in her hands. She hadn’t noticed as he was making it, but there’s one strand of white silk strung throughout the knot. It winds its way through the other strings, circling out from the center. Ari traces the white silk and smiles. She lies down and closes her eyes, falling into a deep sleep.

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Chapter 17 Air

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A strained silence falls over the group. Kemp processes what he’s heard as Crofton gives Ari a surprised look. She knew the information would be news to Kemp, but she thought Crofton might’ve known because of his mother and father. Judging from his expression she’d been wrong.

“Your mom could destroy magic?” Crofton asks in a low voice. His eyes scan the empty room quickly. “And the Source of magic knew this?”

“Of course it did,” Ari says angrily. “Look, the magic blocked in me may have the same ability to destroy magic and I think that’s what it’s afraid of.”

Kemp leans back in his seat. “It wouldn’t be the only one afraid. If it becomes common knowledge that your mother could destroy a person’s magic and that you may have the same ability…many magic users wouldn’t want that to exist.”

“Do you include yourself in that generalization?” Ari asks.

His eyes search Ari’s face. Leaning on the table and taking a piece of cooked meat, Kemp shrugs. “Not really. You don’t seem like the type to randomly kill someone’s magic for the hell of it. I doubt you would even do it to your enemies unless they deserved it over death.”

Ari avoids Kemp’s eyes. “Sounds like you think you know me pretty well.”

“I only speak from our short time together. So, how do we unblock your magic?”

Crofton chokes on a piece of meat. “Do we really want to unblock it? Wouldn’t that encourage those scared of it to be even more…you know, scared?”

“But it would be the perfect weapon against those chasing us. If we stop their magic, they’ll be easier to handle.”

“More to the point, if I can cut off the connection they have to the source they might not want to chase us anymore,” Ari says. “Assuming the Source is controlling them, which my mother seemed to believe.”

Crofton shakes his head. “I don’t like the idea of calling you a weapon.”

“Perfect attack then,” Kemp says. “How do we unblock it?”

“I have to find masters of magic.”

“Masters of magic? What does that even mean?” Crofton asks.

Elbowing him in the side, Ari’s eyes water. “Kiphy Lakeen was a master.”

Crofton’s eyes widen as he remembers the old magic user. “We have to find more people like him? Gods, that’ll be…”

“Difficult? Impossible?” Kemp says.

“Terrifying,” Crofton says.

“Right, so now that you both know this, we need to discuss our story.”

“Our story?” Crofton asks.

“We can’t go around telling people that men are chasing after us because I may or may not be able to destroy magic. And we can’t tell them we’re searching for my father.”

“I understand the first bit there, but why can’t we tell them about your father?” Kemp asks, taking another piece of meat.

Glaring at him, Crofton grabs a piece of meat for himself. “Because there are still people who think of Ime and Meah as enemies and view anyone who supports them in the same light. If they learned Ari was their daughter, they may try something stupid.”

“You mean kill her.”

“Something stupid.”

“Yes to both of you. So what’s our story?” Ari says taking a large piece of meat for herself.

“We’re heading through the Redlands and ultimately to the coast, correct?” Kemp asks.

Ari nods. “My dad ceased contact once he left Myldea to sail across the Great Sea to Deirak.”

“Then we tell people we’re on our way to Deirak.”

“But why would we be going there?”

Crofton grunts as he tries to chew and swallow quickly. “People will be hearing about the attack on Kellahn soon enough. We could say we heard about it and figured if even the legendary city was being besieged, the only place left safe to go is Deirak.”

“But that’ll only create panic. We don’t want half the country chasing after us in fear.”

“Not if we make it sound like we’re paranoid,” Kemp adds.

Raising an eyebrow, Ari gives him an incredulous look. “What does that even mean?”

“We had a lot of people like that pass through my village. They claimed the end was coming and they were moving on to a safer place. If you give any story a pinch of crazy people will help while behind your back taking pity on you.”

“Okay, so how do we add a little crazy to our story?” Ari asks.

“Simple, we say the one behind the attack was the reincarnation of the Blood King,” Crofton says, finally taking a large gulp from his drink.

“How is that simple? That doesn’t sound crazy.”

Shaking his head, Kemp shakes his finger at Crofton. “No, that’s a pinch of crazy. Everyone’s heard of the Blood King even if they weren’t part of the conflict. They also heard how your father killed him. Reincarnations are a prime indicator of something not being right in the head.” He leans across the table and slaps Crofton’s arm. “Good one.”

Taking aback by Kemp’s compliment, Crofton mumbles a “thanks” between swallows of meat.

“Fine, the attacks were done by the reincarnation of the Blood King.”

“Only the reincarnation of the Blood King. That’ll add enough crazy for even those who might believe a reincarnation could be possible. They’d never believe a single person attacked the city.” Kemp smiles, pleased with the story.

Sitting back in her chair, Ari wonders if the story will truly work. The fear of another magic user rising up to take the Blood King’s place has always been a fear in the hearts of those who were affected by Blood King Klaeon’s rule. But if the story will help them safely reach her father, she’s ready to try it.

“Now that that’s settled, how long do you think it’ll be before we can speak to those scouts?” Crofton asks.

“Whenever they’ve had enough time to rest. They’re sent ahead to prepare everything so when the caravan arrives they can load up and go with little stopping.” Ari hesitates. “We have to be better communicators.”

“Better communicators? Why?”

Kemp snorts. He struggles to keep the laughter from his voice when Crofton gives him an angered look. “No, no, I can see why you’re confused. When I kept the fact my village was attacked from you, I was secretly hoping you’d find it out from a complete stranger who has no business knowing.” He points to Ari. “And the fact she felt she couldn’t trust us to know why those chasing us want her dead was a secret ploy to force us to ask her how her day’s been.”

Standing quickly, Crofton’s chair fell to the floor behind him. “Do you have a problem?”

“No, but you apparently do.” Kemp takes a drink from his glass.

Crofton attempts to slap the drink from Kemp’s face, but Ari grabs his arm in time. “This is why we need to communicate. You’re pissed off at Kemp for some reason and you won’t say why. It makes it dangerous. We have to trust each other which means no more secrets that may lead to getting us killed.”

Meeting her eyes, Crofton bites his bottom lip before grabbing his chair and slamming its legs on the floor. He sits and crosses his arms on the table in front of him. “Fine! I don’t like how you just came and made yourself so god damn comfortable. I don’t like how you kept the fact a rogue gang of men attacked your village from us and I don’t like how you’re a magic user and can protect her better than I can.” He motions his head to Ari at the last part, causing her to blush slightly.

Nodding his head, Kemp leans back in his chair and smiles at Crofton. “All right, my turn. I don’t like how you didn’t have a problem with me until the attacks on your city, making me think you thought I had something to do with it. I don’t like how you think she needs protection when she can clearly take care of herself. I don’t like how you play yourself short, I’ve seen you fight and you’ve got high skills better than some magic users I know. And I don’t like the look you keep giving me when you think I’ve said something stupid when truthfully, I never grew up in the same kind of place you two did.”

The two lock their eyes on Ari. She stares back at both confused. “What?”

“Your turn,” they say in unison.

“I don’t have anything to say.”

“We both did it, it’s only fair if you do it too,” Kemp says.

“Hold on, neither of you said anything to me so before I go you two better do me.”

Both men’s eyes widen and a touch of pink rises on their cheeks. Amused smiles curl up their lips and Ari rolls her eyes.

“You know what I mean. Don’t act like children.”

“I’ll go first,” Kemp says. “You’re too reckless. I haven’t decided yet if it’s because you want to prove something to us or you just don’t have a clue how cruel the world can be. I think you could use with some hand to hand combat training and I think you’re still hiding something from us.”

Ari tries to speak, but Crofton slaps his hand over her mouth. “Nuh-uh, not until I go. I agree with Kemp about your recklessness. I agree that you’re still hiding something from us, but I think it’s because you don’t know it yet. And, if you’re demanding honesty, I don’t want you to unlock your magic. You don’t need it and we don’t need the added trouble it might bring us. We don’t even know what it really is and it might…” he trails off, unwilling to finish his thought.

Ari forces his hand away. “No, finish. No secrets.”

“I’m worried it’ll change you. Kiphy used to tell us stories about magic users who had great power awaken within them and how it changed them. I’m afraid it’ll change you and I already like the you you are now.”

Kemp raises his hand. “I’d like to add that to my list now, too.”

“Right, now it’s my turn.” Ari takes a large gulp from her drink and sighs. “Kemp…no more secrets or else I’ll punch you in the face. I want you to remember why you went to Kellahn and never forget you need to find a master, too. My needs don’t outweigh yours.”

Raising his glass, Kemp nods his head. “Deal.”

Turning to Crofton, Ari hesitates before placing her hand on his leg. “Crofton, you’ve been my friend since we could first walk and talk. But your overprotectiveness is not needed or welcomed. I trust you enough to watch my back in a fight, trust that you can trust me enough to cover yours. I also want you to stop this stupid alpha male fighting with Kemp. We’re all comrades now.”

Crofton swallows, struggling to hide his emotions, but he manages a curt nod.

“As for this secret you think I’m keeping, I honestly have no idea what you’re talking about, but if I do figure it out I swear you two will be the first to know.”

“Bout damn time you three got to it.” Nani appears standing at the head of the table. He winks at Ari. “I wasn’t sure you’d actually go through with it. The scouts are rested and gathering supplies as we speak. If you want to talk to them, now’s the time. Once everything’s ready they’ll go back to sleeping until tomorrow and by then they won’t want to listen to anyone.”

Ari smiles at Crofton and Kemp. “Let’s go get our ride.”

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Chapter 16 Air

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Ari’s eyes widen and her magic creates a breeze in the closed shop. “What?”

“Well, actually, the group that destroyed his village was on its way to join with the other groups preparing to attack your city, but that’s nitpicking.”

The breeze in the shop grows stronger and Ari clenches her fist. “There’s no proof he knew it was the same group.” The windows rattle with the increased flow of air. “He couldn’t have known they’d come after the city next.”

A finger slams into Ari’s chest and her magic immediately stops. “Stay calm, Ariana Gurek,” Nani says with a low voice. “I’m not trying to imply there’s any deceit. As you say, there’s no proof he had any idea the attack would be coming.”

“All we need is to know whether or not the caravan heading through the Redlands is passing through this town soon or not. If you really want to know why, it’s because we’re searching for my father following the path he took,” Ari says, stepping back from Nani.

“You’re searching for Ime? How do you know he passed this way?”

Ari pulls the notebook from her bag. “These are all of the letters my dad sent us up until the point he ceased contact. They describe the path he took.”

Eyeing the leather notebook, Nani takes a step back. “I see. The caravan you’re looking for will be here tomorrow. The scouts they sent ahead are upstairs resting. When they’re ready you can speak to them about the possibility of joining them.”

“In your opinion, will they let us tag along?”

“If you can prove you’re useful, but for two mages and a non magic user who looks like he’s lifted things before that shouldn’t be too difficult.” Nani places his stones and stick on the table. “Though I’ll be blunt, I wouldn’t mention the people following you.”

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

“The same way I knew everything else. They won’t let you join them if they sense any danger following you.”

“I hadn’t planned on telling anyone unless they really needed to know.”

Nani’s eyebrows lowered and he leaned his head to the side. “I wasn’t worried about you, but you should make sure those two outside understand why you can’t go around telling everyone.”

“They understand…I think.”

“Communication, use it.” Nani walks to the door. “I’ll send for you when the scouts are ready to talk.”

Grabbing her bag, Ari heads for the door. “I could ask how you’ll find us, but I know that’s a pointless question.”

“Consider this time until you can talk to the men a time to work on communication and discuss how you are going to present yourselves to those you meet.” Opening the door, Nani smiles at Ari. “And perhaps you should also tell them the truth about those chasing you and why they’re chasing you.”

Hesitating, Ari stares at Nani cautiously. “I don’t know why they’re chasing me other than because of who my parents are.”

“You do know the reason. It’s the same reason your mother told you to find masters of magic. If you think carefully, you’ll understand.” He waves his hand out the door.

Ari walks out, wincing at the change from dark shop to bright sunlight. Nani closes the door behind her, leaving her alone. Kemp and Crofton are sitting against the stall. When they hear the door, they quickly stand and move to her.

“What happened? Did that brat do anything to you?” Crofton asks.

“Did you see Nani? Any news about that caravan?” Kemp asks.

Holding up her hands, Ari looks from one face to the other. “One at a time, please.” She points at Kemp. “Yes and the caravan will be here tomorrow. The scouts are here but they’re resting. We can talk to them later.” She points to Crofton. “I talked to Nani and, surprise, that little brat was Nani, which you probably would’ve realized if you weren’t being a complete jerk. Now let’s go find some place we can relax while we wait for our opportunity to talk to the scouts.”

She doesn’t give them a chance to ask more questions. She heads off in search of a nice place to wait. Kemp and Crofton follow quickly.

“I wasn’t being a jerk. That little shit was rude,” Crofton says, angrily.

“That little shit is actually a full grown shit in a little body.” Ari glares at Kemp. “You saw through that, didn’t you?”

“I had no idea.” Kemp adjusts his bag and avoids eye contact. “Though, I’m surprised I didn’t notice.”

“Don’t take it personally. I think he did it on purpose,” Ari says. “Besides, we need to talk.”

The two men walking behind her look at each other in surprise. The three walk through the town and find a small inn with a dining hall. Inside there are a few tables and one woman at the counter who looks up as they enter. Other than the woman, the room is completely empty.

“Stayin’ or eatin’?” the woman asks, eyeing the group’s bags eagerly.

Taking the table furthest from her and the door, Ari smiles. “Eating. Whatever is the house special as well as three glasses of whatever you recommend with the house special.” She motions for Kemp and Crofton to sit.

“Coming up.” The woman disappears into the back.

Crofton sits next to Ari leaving Kemp to sit alone on the opposite side of the table. Kemp places his bag on the chair next to him and places his elbows on the table.

“You said we need to talk, what about?” he asks.

Swallowing the nervous lump in her throat, Ari locks eyes with Kemp. “Why did you leave your village?”

Kemp sits silent. He clasps his hands together in front of him and his eyes lower to the table. “My village was attacked one month ago. A rogue group of men came in and killed all of the magic users…but not me.”

“Who attacked your village?” Ari asks.

“A random group of men.” Feeling Ari’s eyes still on him, Kemp raises his eyes to meet hers. “Magic users…some of the ones who attacked your city.”

Crofton slams his hand on the table. “The same men who attacked our home?” He reaches across the table and grabs Kemp by his shirt collar. “You knew they were going to attack Kellahn, didn’t you?”

Ari slaps Crofton’s hands, forcing him to release Kemp. “Stop it! He didn’t know they were going to attack Kellahn. How did you escape?”

“My mother forced me to hide,” Kemp says, straightening his shirt and glaring at Crofton.

“How did she force you to hide?” Crofton asks, a tinge of anger in his voice.

“I inherited my magic from my mother. She hid me in the only place they couldn’t find me. When she died, I was released.” His eyes move to Ari. “Is this what you talked about with Nani?”

“No, but he suggested we should all learn to communicate better. So while we wait for the scouts, we’re going to practice.” Now it’s Ari’s turn to fall silent. She takes a calming breath and squirms in her seat. “There’s a reason Kellahn was attacked.”

Crofton turns to Ari and places a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “We know it’s something to do with your dad.”

“That’s only part of it.” Ari closes her eyes, preparing herself. “The ones who attacked Kellahn were sent by the Source.”

“The Source? What’s the Source?” Kemp asks.

“The Source of all magic,” Croton snaps. “Ari’s dad is searching for it to find out why magic is disappearing.”

Anyway, my dad must be getting close to finding it so in a panic it sent those men to attack Kellahn to try to scare him off. At least, that’s what my mom thought.”

The woman reappears from the back with three drinks. She places the glasses of strangely colored liquid in front of the three and eyes them warily before heading back to prepare the food.

“So your mom thought this Source sent those men to give your dad a warning to keep away,” Kemp says, taking a glass and sniffing it cautiously. He takes a small sip and winces. “Gods, cleans you right out.”

Tentatively taking the glass in front of him, Crofton takes a sip. He inhales sharply after swallowing and strains against a rising cough. He puts the glass down and pushes it away.

“My mom thought that was the reason, but there’s another reason.” Ari sighs, taking her glass, but not drinking. “They were after me not because of my dad, but… because of something else.”

“What are you talking about?” Crofton asks.

“My magic is blocked.”

“Blocked? You seemed able to use it fine during the fighting,” Kemp says, taking a larger drink.

“That’s my air magic, something I inherited from my father, but there’s another magic inside me I can’t get to. It’s blocked and I think the Source was the one who did it. Now I think it’s afraid the block won’t last and it wants to prevent that, which means getting rid of me.”

“Are you sure? Do you even know what your blocked magic is?”

Looking at the colored liquid in her glass, Ari takes a few sips and eyes Kemp. “What’ve you heard about my mom’s magic?”

A confused expression crosses Kemp’s face. “She was a Life Healer. She could bring people back from the dead. Should I have heard anything else?”

“Maybe. I’m not sure how many people actually know outside of my family and one or two of my mom and dad’s closest friends.” Ari pauses as the woman returns with a large plate of food. There’s meat and vegetables piled high and she eyes the still full drinks on the table before leaving. Once she’s gone from the room, Ari continues. “My mom could also destroy magic. She could find the source of someone’s magic inside of them and destroy it.”

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Chapter 15 Air

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“We’re looking for a caravan heading for the Redlands,” Crofton tells the young shopkeeper. He holds up the map Ari’s father drew. “Redlands? Do you know of any caravans heading into the Redlands?”

The shopkeeper shakes her head. “I don’t converse with the caravans that pass through. They rarely give me any business worth the amount of trouble I went through to get it. If you want to know about the caravans, ask the caravans.”

“Thanks,” Crofton says.

“Well, another dead end,” Ari says as they walk away. “I wonder if she knows we’ve already tried speaking to the caravans?”

Kemp sighs and his eyes search the crowd. “She does. But that doesn’t mean she knows anything. We should head back to where the caravans set up camp. Maybe we’ll catch one coming in we haven’t spoken to yet.”

“Do we really need to hitch a ride?” Ari asks. “My dad didn’t and he made it through fine.”

“And how many people left with him?” Kemp asks.

“I see your point. Safety in numbers.”

“Plus, if we can prove we’re an asset, they’ll provide us food and water,” Crofton adds. “We won’t have to worry about running out of our current supply.”

“I get it, I get it. Caravan good, wandering into desert alone bad. Now we just have to find one heading into the Redlands.”

“I know one,” a man says from a doorway. He stares at the three with large eyes behind glasses. His arms are thick and scarred. “There’s only one caravan that passes through this town heading for the Redlands.”

“Only one? That makes our chances of it being in town slim,” Crofton says.

Gently hitting him in the stomach, Ari quickly walks up to the man. “But there is one. Where can we find them?”

The man leans against the doorway. “They usually pass through here around this time. I haven’t seen them yet, so you haven’t missed ‘em. Though I can’t say for sure how long it’ll be before they get here. May be a few days, may be a few weeks.”

“Can we afford to wait here a few days?” Kemp asks. He gives Ari a look, asking the question he can’t say out loud. Can they afford to stay in one place too long before those chasing them catch up?

“Where are they before coming here?” Crofton asks. “Is there anyway we could find them coming from another town?”

“I couldn’t tell you that. I only know about the time they pass through here. They don’t usually stop. They send men ahead to collect supplies then when the caravan passes through they pick up the supplies and move on.” The man nods his head further down the street. “The one they buy from the most is Nani Hofster. He sells mostly dried foods, top sellers for caravans, seeing as how they don’t need to be kept fresh and last longer than fruits, vegetables, and fresh meat.”

“Thank you for the information.” Ari reaches into her bag and pulls out a few coins. “Here.”

The man holds his hand up. “Keep it. I just like helping people out when I can. A man saved my life several years back from a band of slave traders. He didn’t have to, most of his group told him to let the traders be, but he couldn’t stand to see them mistreating us. He said he knew what it was like to be treated as a thing rather than a man.” He brushes the scars on his arms. “Since that day, I promised myself I would always help out folks in need no matter how small.”

“Thank you.”

“Take care of each other. Out there, sometimes that’s all you’ll have,” the man says, heading inside his home.

“All right, let’s find this Nani Hofster,” Crofton says, walking away. Kemp follows, but Ari hesitates a moment staring at the man’s home. She leaves a small bag of coins on the doorstep before following the others.

Nani Hofster’s shop is located near the eastern edge of the town. The main building houses most of the produce, but a small stand built in front of the large window shows a selection of dried meats, fruits, vegetables, and a number of different herbs. The scents filling the air are overwhelming at first, but soon become an intoxicating mix of new smells.

A small boy sits on a stool next to the stand, holding a splintered stick in one hand and throwing small stones with the other against the stone walkway. As the group approaches, the boy glances up. He takes them in quickly then lowers his eyes back to his small activity.

“We’re looking for Nani Hofster?” Kemp asks. “This is his shop, right?”

“Maybe. Why you looking for him? I’m not good enough to do business with?” the boy says, slamming a stone against the walkway.

“We’re not here to do business. We have some questions for Nani about the caravan that travels through the Redlands,” Crofton says, eyeing the boy with an annoyed expression. “Are you even old enough to be in charge of any business?”

The boy stops throwing the stones and glares at Crofton. “Are you even useful enough without being able to use any magic?”

Crofton’s face pales and his lips become thin lines. He takes a threating step towards the boy. “What’d you say, you little shit?”

Placing her hand across Crofton’s chest, Ari steps between him and the boy. “Please don’t tick off my friend. If we buy something from you, will you tell us where Nani Hofster is? Or should we just go inside and take a look at the rest of what you’re offering?”

Eyeing Ari with an intrigued expression, the boy stands and walks up to her. He places the splintered stick on her shoulder. “There’s nothing inside for you. You want Nani you gotta pass my test.”

“Now there’s a test? This kid’s messing with us. Let’s just go. I’m sure there’s someone else we can talk to.” Crofton knocks the stick off of Ari’s shoulder.

Kemp groans. “You already know this is the closest we’ve gotten to a lead on any caravan heading for the Redlands. I’m tired of talking to people who don’t know anything.”

The boy shoots an annoyed look at the two men. “I’ll only talk to her and since you two won’t shut up, we’ll do the test inside and you can stay out here.”

“Absolutely not!” Crofton seethes.

“Crofton, shut the hell up,” Ari says. “Stay out here with Kemp and keep an eye out for anyone who may look like part of a caravan or…looking for trouble. I won’t be long.”

Before Crofton or Kemp can argue, Ari takes the boy by the arm and drags him into the shop. She shuts the door behind her and throws the boy to the center of the room. “Do you always insult your customers?”

“You gonna tell my mother?” the boy asks, tapping the stick against his leg.

“That would be pointless since you’re not a child, at least, not on the inside. I’m assuming you’re Nani?” Ari places her bag on the nearby counter. She faces the boy and crosses her arms over her chest. “Why the disguise?”

“Who says it’s a disguise? Kids can be shop owners. Maybe I’m mature for my age.”

“Whatever, if you don’t want to tell me why that’s your business. You know about the caravan heading for the Redlands and when they’ll be passing through this town again.”

“Maybe, why specifically do you need a caravan heading through the Redlands?”

“That’s my business.”

The boy, Nani, plays with the stones in his other hand. The stick tapping his leg slows as his thoughts race and his eyes move slowly over Ari. “Does it have anything to do with the recent attack on Kellahn?”

Ari keeps her expression guarded. “What’ve you heard about the attack?”

“A large number of magic users died during that attack. They seemed to have been targeting them specifically.” Nani steps closer to Ari. “And I heard we lost one of our legendary mages. A Life Healer named Meah. Did you know her?”

“Everyone in Kellahn knew her.”

“Mm, I imagine they did, but how about you? What was your relationship with her?”

“Is this part of your test? Asking questions you already know the answer to?” Ari feels a thin layer of her air magic wrapping around her.

“You’ve already passed the test. I’m only being courteous by asking questions. It’s this strange thing called communication, something you and those two outside seem to lack.”

“We communicate fine.”

Nani leans against a table. “Is that why you don’t know Kemp’s village was destroyed by the same group that attacked your city?”

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Chapter 14 Air

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They continue walking farther away from Kellahn, deep into the plains surrounding the canyon. Tall, brown grass fills the land, dancing as a warm breeze passes through.

A herd of beasts leaps away as the group of three approaches, their long legs allowing them to easily jump great distances. Another herd of larger animals look up lazily from their grazing, but, sensing no threat from the group, lower their heads and continue eating.

Soon the rolling hills of grass change to the familiar hard ground surrounding Kellahn, but with the occasional pool of water. Animals surround the small pools, drinking greedily.

“There must’ve been rain recently,” Kemp states. “They’re filling up as much as they can before it runs out.”

“It’s nice to know we have an expert travelling with us,” Crofton grumbles. “Maybe you can tell us when it’s going to snow next.”

Kemp looks at Crofton, but stays silent. Instead he rolls his eyes and turns to Ari. “Karrion Desert didn’t receive much rain, but when it did, it was a mad dash for the residual water before animals drank it or it was sucked into the earth.”

“There was a time when the river that flows through the canyon nearly dried up. There was fear that it would never recover, but then the rains came and flooded the lower third of the city. Even our water mages had trouble controlling it,” Ari says.

“Sometimes the only thing that can control nature is nature.”

The land changes from hills to flatness, stretching for miles into the horizon. The tops of mountains can be seen, but they’re so far away they appear only as small bumps. The sun lowers in the sky, bringing cooler air, but the warm breeze continues blowing.

Finding a small collection of trees, the group rests and decides to spend the night. They create a small fire from the branches of the trees and prepare a small meal, their hunger only a mild annoyance.

Ari takes off her shoes and rubs the soles of her feet. The tension releases slowly, but the aching continues and she knows it’s only beginning.

“All right. We’re searching for you father, following the same path he took, and then what?” Kemp asks. “What do we do once we find him? Are we asking him to come back to your home? Are we telling him to stay away? What?”

Crofton glares at Kemp. “You’re asking a lot of questions about Ari’s father.”

“No, I’m asking why we’re going after him. The city was attacked by what looked like very powerful magic users so I can only assume two things. One, they’re going to keep attacking the city and we’re to get your dad to stop them or two, they’re going to follow us and the safest place to go with murdering magic users chasing you is one of the strongest mages in Myldea.” Kemp glances at Ari. “So which one is it?”

Putting her shoes back on, Ari smiles. “They’re chasing us. Does that change your mind about coming with us?”

A smile grows on Kemp’s lips. “Not really. I might’ve changed my mind if no one was chasing us. Too boring otherwise.”

“You’re making light of the people who killed Ari’s mother and hundreds of others. These aren’t some stupid gang members, these people are dangerous,” Crofton says, angrily throwing a stick at the fire.

“Being scared of them isn’t doing anyone any favors, either.”

“We don’t even know you. You could be one of them. You showed up about the same time as the attacks. A bit of a coincidence, isn’t it?”

“With that logic, I bet you make friends with every newcomer to your city. Besides, why would I’ve helped you in the forest if I were part of them? Wouldn’t I’ve killed you?” Kemp grabs for some food, but Crofton knocks his hand away.

“Maybe you’re supposed to come with us to find Ari’s father and then kill him.”

“What? Are you even listening to yourself? You can’t really think that.”

“I can. Betrayal can happen at any moment. Our city knows that very well…my father knows that very well,” Crofton says, his voice growing soft.

Ari throws her hands at both men, wind knocking them back and creating a small distance between them. “That’s it. I’ve had enough. I’m not going to be listening to you two arguing the whole way. I refuse to tolerate your macho, one-upsmanship bullshit or whatever this is about. If you can’t get along, both of you go back to Kellahn and let me continue on my own in peace.” She points at both. “Otherwise, make up and become friends quickly. This is your only warning.”

Staring at her with equal expressions of understanding, Crofton and Kemp look at each other. Kemp motions his head towards Ari. “She always this blunt?”

Rolling his eyes, Crofton holds his hand out. “You have no idea. I’m willing to trust you for now, but any sign of any kind of betrayal will change that quickly.”

Taking Crofton’s hand, Kemp laughs. “You’ll soon find all I want is to help any way I can.”

Sighing with annoyance, Ari takes her helping of food and eats. “Not exactly what I wanted, but I guess it’ll have to do.”

The three eat their dinner, small conversations occasionally breaking the silence. The tension between Crofton and Kemp lessens, but Ari knows it’ll still be a hard task getting the two to be friends…for the moment.

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Chapter 13 Air

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“Northeast. Redlands. Right, I’ve never heard of the Redlands,” Crofton says. He looks at Ari. “What does the notebook say about them?”

They’d been walking for almost five hours before resting under a large tree. It didn’t have leaves, but the numerous thin branches provided some shade.

Opening the notebook, Ari’s breath catches in her throat as she sees her father’s familiar handwriting. Forcing the emotion down, she reads the first letter carefully. “The Redlands get their name from the color of the dust. It covers everything, giving a red tinge to skin, clothing, and anything else uncovered. The caravans that travel just south of the lands refuse to travel through them for fear of the Lost Raiders. That and the lack of water, cover from the sun, and the sudden cliffs and canyons that seem to entrap any who don’t pay enough attention to where they’re going.”

“Great. Sounds like a good place to start,” Crofton says, sarcastically. He opens a bag of food and takes a small bite. “We should be reaching a caravan trail soon. I remember my dad talking about some of the ones that occasionally do business with Kellahn.”

“If you want to reach the Redlands, you’ll need to find a caravan further north than those that trade with Kellahn,” a voice says.

Ari and Crofton look up and see Kemp walking towards them, a wide hat covering his head. In his hands are two more hats, as well as three large canteens.

“What are you doing?” Ari asks, holding back her laughter at his hat.

“Why are you following us?” Crofton asks.

Sitting down next to them, Kemp hands each a hat and canteen. “Well, I was on my way out of the city when I saw a mob of people staring off into the distance. When I asked what was going on they told me you two left to go on a long, dangerous journey to find your father.” He points to Ari. “One of the people standing at the back was upset because they hadn’t had a chance to give these to you.”

“Why’d they have three?”

“One of the more important looking guys, Lyrrel, told the guy to bring three. When I asked why, Lyrrel himself told me, ‘Because I saw that three would be needed.’ Then he walked away without saying another word. He didn’t even ask me for my name or who I was. You people from Kellahn are weird, you know that, right?”

“Did he ask you to come with us?” Crofton asks.

Staring at him, Kemp shrugged. “Not really. He walked away without saying another word.” He emphasized the sentence. “But another guy did kind of insinuate that I should get these to you guys before you die of sun exposure.”

Ari puts the hat on her head and the canteen around her shoulders. “Thank you. We did kind of leave in a rush and didn’t really think about that.”

Crofton places his hat on the ground. “And now that you’ve delivered it to us you can continue on to wherever you were headed.”

“I don’t know. I get the feeling you two haven’t done much traveling on your own. You might need my help.”

“What could you possibly know that we don’t?”

“Well, for one, when you’re traveling across lands with little to no shade, you should always wear a hat or some other kind of protective head gear,” Kemp says snapping the rim of his hat with his forefinger. “Also, you need to have eye protection when you cross deserts or any other lands with free blowing dust or else there’s a chance you could get an infection or go blind.” He opens his black bag and pulls out three pairs of goggles with darkened glass.

“How do you know all that?” Ari asks.

“Growing up in Karrion Desert teaches you quite a bit.” Sensing Crofton’s anger, Kemp holds his free hand up. “Look, I know you don’t know me, but that guy Lyrrel told me not once, but twice to help you guys. I think that shows he trusts me. I don’t even know what you’re looking for. I just felt like I should help you out.”

“Yes,” Ari says. “You should come with us.”

“Ari,” Crofton exclaims.

“The ones who attacked Kellahn, they’re after me.” Ari glares at Crofton. “Do you really think just the two of us could take them on? We don’t even know how many there are or how powerful they are. I’d feel safer if we had people fighting with us we can trust. And I trust Kemp.”

Seeing the determination in her eyes, Crofton finally secedes. “Fine. That makes sense and, I hate to admit it but it would be better to have more than one magic user around.”

“Then it’s decided. Let’s keep moving. I don’t want to stay still too long. Are you okay to keep moving?” Ari asks Kemp.

Smiling, Kemp hands Ari and Crofton a pair of goggles. “I’m good to go. So, what exactly are we looking for?”

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Chapter 12 Air

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Angry eyes bore into Ari’s back. She ignores the owner, choosing instead to continue packing her bags. After her conversation with Lyrrel, she was able to gather a few things from her old home before rushing back to Crofton’s including travel bags and extra money from her mother’s belongings.

The bags hadn’t gone unnoticed by Crofton or his parents.

Crofton stands in the doorway of the extra room of his home Ari had been spending the past two nights in, his arms crossed over his chest.

“You’re just going to leave Kellahn, then?” Crofton finally asks.

“Leaving is the only option.”

“You don’t know that,” Crofton snaps.

Placing the final piece of clothing in her last bag, Ari stands up straight and glares at him as she closes it. “I do know. I have to find my dad.”

“Why? To tell him what happened here so he can run back and save the day?”

The words sting and Ari throws the bag in her hands onto the bed hard. “No, Crofton. You wouldn’t understand even if I told you.”

“Because the people who attacked this city may come back and you’re the reason why?” he says. Ari tries to hide her surprise, but judging by his expression, Crofton already saw it. “My parents thought that might be why and that’s why I’m going with you.”

“No, you’re not,” Ari says.

“Yes, I am. You’re not going anywhere without me.” Crofton motions his head towards his bedroom across the hall. “I’m already packed.”

“How are you already packed?” Ari asks with a smile.

Shrugging his shoulders, Crofton walks into the room, lowering his voice as though to keep it from any stray ears. “I knew you were going to do something like this. After my parents mentioned the people who did this might come back for you I figured better to be prepared.”

“Though we didn’t know you were listening to that conversation, Crofton Hila,” a voice says from behind.

Ari and Crofton jump and meet the eyes of Crofton’s father, Fleance Hila. Small laughter echoes down the hall from Mava Hila followed by indistinguishable words.

“What did mom say?” Crofton asks, his ears turning red with embarrassment.

“She said, you get the sensitive ears from me.” Fleance’s eyes land on Ari and he walks towards her. “You’re sure those who attacked will come back for you?”

Swallowing a lump in her throat, Ari nods. “I…my mother told me…through Lyrrel.”

Fleance’s eyes hide his thoughts, but a long intake of breath signals a decision made. His eyes bounce from Ari to Crofton. “Both of you grab your belongings and follow me.” He disappears through the door.

Hesitating only a moment, Ari grabs her bags and follows after. Crofton quickly runs to his room and grabs his bags, catching up quickly.

The three walk into Fleance and Mava’s bedroom. Fleance crosses to a chest in the corner of the room and opens it. He pulls out two weapons and something wrapped in cloth.

Turning to Ari and Crofton, he hands the weapons to Crofton. “These are made of stronger metal than your current weapons. They kept your mother and I alive during the war.”

Mava appears in the doorway as though on cue. “They’re also resistant to magic thanks to a few mages from the north.”

Staring at the weapons with wide eyes, Crofton holds them with extreme care. “Are you sure you shouldn’t keep them? I don’t want to lose them.”

“You were always meant to inherit them. I know how you fight and I know you’re ready to wield them.” Fleance pats his son on the shoulder before stepping in front of Ari.

He hands her the item wrapped in cloth. “This is something you may have use for on your journey.”

Confused yet intrigued, Ari unwraps the item carefully. It’s actually several items. There’s a blank medallion on a white gold chain, black paper, and a black ribbon. Ari looks at Fleance. “What’s this for?”

“Keep the medallion with you at all times. It may guide you to allies where else there are none. The paper you’ll learn what to do with when you need it. The ribbon is in case of an emergency and the cloth is to be given only to its owner who will provide undeniable proof, if he or she chooses to reveal it.”

“Very…cryptic,” Ari mumbles. She wraps the paper and ribbon in the cloth and places it in a secure place. The medallion she places around her neck, the cool metal resting on her skin lightly.

Mava appears between Ari and Crofton, pulling them into a tight hug. “Be careful, you two. Remember, some of the most dangerous things aren’t people. Keep plenty of water and food with you and ration it well. The last thing you want is to be hungry or thirsty in the middle of nowhere. Trust me.”

“I’m assuming your last stop before heading out will be to see Altan and the Lito’s?” Fleance asks. The blank stares greeting him make Fleance sigh. “They have a record of the road your father travelled until his letters stopped coming. You weren’t just planning on going out there without any directions?”

“Sort of slipped the mind a little,” Ari says.

“I had a feeling.”

“We’ve already sent a message to Altan and the Lito’s,” Mava interrupts. “They’ll be waiting for you two at the northernmost tower at the edge of the city. Do you know where that is?”

“You mean the one they rebuilt after the brush fires five years ago?” Crofton asks.

“That’s the one. Now get going.”

Crofton hugs his mother and father one last time before he and Ari leave. As they walk, Ari plays with the medallion around her neck, eyeing Crofton. “Are you still sure you want to leave? There’s a chance we may never come back.”

“I said I was going with you and I meant it.”

“But won’t you miss them?”

“Of course, but that’s nothing compared to what you’re feeling. If there’s anything I can do to help relieve what you’re feeling, I’ll do it and I know my parents would agree. It’s insane for you to think you could just leave on your own without anyone.”

Ari blushes. “A simple yes was all I was looking for.”

The walk through the city is quiet. Not a soul is walking around or can be seen in the many buildings. The city feels empty. Even when they reach the section where they were attacked, the gangs seem to be gone, as though hiding.

Climbing to the top of the canyon walls, a strange sound fills the air. Hundreds of voices echo from ahead, beyond the buildings built along the edge of the canyon. As Ari and Crofton reach the northernmost tower the sight of almost a third of the city’s people greets their eyes.

Turning as a single entity, the crowd spots the two and silences. Standing at the head of the crowd is Altan, Cal, Bon, Lyrrel, Ringan, and a number of familiar faces Ari’s seen come and go from her home. Nearly all of the slaves rescued from Bloodfall Arena and their families have come to see Ari and Crofton off.

Stepping forward, Altan holds out a notebook wrapped in leather. “Ari, Crofton, you two are beginning a long and perilous journey. We wish you safe passage and the guidance of the gods.” As Ari takes the notebook, Altan smiles at her. “Your father was quite descriptive of the path he took until he ceased contact. I think he knew you would be following some day.”

Opening the notebook to the first page, Altan points to a small map. “His first stop was in the Redlands to the northeast. There are a large number of caravans that pass through the desert just south of the Redlands. I’m sure any of them would be willing to let you tag along until you reach them.”

Ari holds the notebook to her chest. “Thank you.”

Eyeing Crofton, Altan gives him a nod. “Knowing she’ll be traveling with someone we all trust gives us extra confidence you’ll succeed in this.”

“Thank you,” Crofton says softly, nodding his head.

Altan steps back, holding his arms wide. “All of us who have been directly touched by your mother and father’s kindness and strength wish we could join you, but the gods have declared this to be something you alone must do. We shall continue rebuilding and growing the power of this city. All we truly hope for is that one day you will return to us.”

Cal and Bon step forward holding out packages. “Some additional supplies to help you along the way,” Bon says.

“It’s a little from everyone, but even a little goes a long way when your out there alone,” Cal adds.

The two hug Ari and Crofton before stepping back into the crowd. Ringan approaches and wishes them luck, shaking their hands. Several others among the crowd yell out their blessings on the two as Lyrrel walks forward. He no longer wears the robes Ari is used to seeing him in. He wears brown and green clothing more suited for movement and travel. A bow and quiver of arrows are strapped securely to his back and a hood covers his head.

“I would like to share with you words your father said the day he left,” Lyrrel says, straightening his back. “‘Some say the hardest part of any journey is taking the first step. I know this to be false. The hardest part of any journey is never having the courage to ask someone to take that first step with you.’ Stay strong and remember to take care of each other.” He holds his hands out and Ari and Crofton hug him.

“Be safe on your own journey, Lyrrel,” Ari says.

“I’ve made the trek many times, though this will be the first time alone and at a rush, but it’ll be good to get these older bones moving.”

With the final goodbyes, Ari and Crofton turn away from their home and take their first steps.

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