Author: Cole Culain PM
The final book of the Blazing Heart Saga. Vertalia has fallen. Trentioc has vanished. Drakuas is unleashed. The Legendary Seven draw ever closer to their destiny. And perhaps, their demise.Rated: Fiction T - English - Adventure/Supernatural - Chapters: 47 - Words: 208,747 - Reviews: 20 - Favs: 9 - Follows: 8 - Updated: 05-10-13 - Published: 02-11-12 - Status: Complete - id: 2996254
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
"You owe me a bull," Necro muttered as he slid into his chair. Nick accepted the two mugs with a sigh, passed one to Anna and fished in his pocket for the coin. Caenis, a stagehand in the Rouge Players, likewise paid Necro and took his own drink. The wood crafter pursed his lips as he swilled the beer around in his mouth.
"Maybe I've just been spoiled by Henrich, but this stuff just doesn't cut it for me anymore."
Anna swallowed her mouthful and glanced around the smoky tavern. "It's not great. But hey, it's alcohol." She held the mug up. "Cheers, boys."
The three men clinked their mugs together and took another drink. Caenis glanced over at the innkeeper. "He's giving us the evil eye. Think it's because we're outsiders, or just so damn good looking?"
"It's because we had money to pay with," Necro chuckled. "Look at the other patrons. Farmers scraping the dirt just to keep food in their bellies. They're drinking the cheapest stock the bar has, and only then so that the innkeeper doesn't kick them out. They aren't used to outsiders, and they aren't used to outsiders, especially those with money."
Anna whistled, impressed. "And you figured all that out from just two minutes in here?"
Necro shrugged. "It's the same thing in every town we pass through. Frankly, it's become rather predictable." He glanced up. "Well, that's not."
A group of young men and women, all armed to the teeth, tromped through the door, letting in a gust of cold air. The innkeeper growled and placed the mug he was polishing on the bar. He pointed at the rack next to the door. "We got a policy here. Drop your weapons, and no manipulation."
For Nick and his friends, such a thing had become second nature and they did not need to be reminded anymore. These mercenaries, however, were unused to such treatment, and protested loudly. The barman stepped out from behind his counter. "Look, if you want to start a fight, fine. Pick up your gear and do it outside. But when you're in my tavern, you play nice and keep your noses clean."
One of the young men shoved his way to the front of the group. "But Captain Gaheris said…"
"I don't give a damn what Captain Gaheris said. His word may be law in camp, but under my roof, I'm in charge. Either you drop your weapons, or you get out."
The mercenary troop complained again, but in the end they relented, hanging their weapons on the pegs on the wall. They slumped into chairs all over the tavern, nearly filling the room. Many of the locals got up and left in a huff.
A few more men came and went as the sun sank lower and lower into the sky. A man with scarred hands came over to their table. "Do you mind if I sit here?" He glanced over his shoulder at the mercenaries. "I really don't want to deal with them. I won't be a bother, I just want a drink."
Necro nodded, and the man graciously sat down. He took a sip of beer. "You three are mercenaries, aren't you?"
"How can you tell?" Nick asked.
"You have the look. It's in your eyes. These children… maybe they've seen a battle or two, but they've never seen war. You have. So, which was it? Casinoria? Centris? Vertalia?"
"All three," Anna replied with a sigh. "And then some."
The man whistled through his teeth, impressed. "And you managed to come out ahead of the Reversal every time? I'm impressed."
Nick made sure to keep his face expressionless. This man seemed to bear the Reversal no ill will, but he certainly felt no love towards it either. Better to let him think that they fought on his side. Whatever that may be. The scarred man nodded. "I assume you've come here looking for work too? I used to be a soldier of fortune myself, and I know what the signs look like."
Necro shook his head. "Actually, I haven't a clue what you're talking about."
"Do you live under a rock?"
"Not quite, no. But my associates and I just returned from a trip through the mountains of northern Teresoto."
"No one goes to the mountains of Teresoto."
"It was… for my health."
"Right. Suicide is just what the doctor ordered." The man shrugged. "You really have no idea?"
"No, we've been among the peaks since we left Vertalia."
The man ran a finger along one of his scars. "The Reversal is in Teresoto now. They took Seabreak Keep, and are only moving forwards. Obviously, they're going to do to Domines what they did to Vertalia. So naturally, our Divine King is trying to pull together what support he can."
Nick folded his arms. "Mercenaries? That's the best he can do?"
The scarred man nodded. "The factions are getting rebellious again. This is just like any other opportunity they've seen for the past few decades. While the king is weak, they'll strike." He took another swig of beer. "So naturally, our ruler is fretting over whether the final strike will come from that Reversal… or within."
"It seems like he's losing whatever sanity is left to him," Caenis chuckled.
The man nodded. "Indeed. He's getting his support way out here, because the Reversal seems to be winning the war to the east. It's those dragons, I tell you. Running circles around the airships."
"Flying circles, you mean." Nick smiled at the thought.
"I suppose." The man downed the last of his ale and got up. "Well, I'm good on my word. I'll leave you your peace. Fair travels." He strode to the door, picked up his dagger from the pile, and walked out into the night.
Caenis peered at his empty glass. "Well, I guess the old saying is right! The truth comes out in our cups!" He got up and swaggered to the counter for a refill.
Necro chuckled as he glanced at Nick and Anna. The water shifter folded her arms. "What's so funny?"
The bard-king smiled, the first genuine positive emotion Nick had seen from him in a long time. "Finally, some solid information. The Reversal is moving onward, at what seems to be a steady clip. And the Divine King is getting paranoid, which can only help us."
Anna nodded. "Plus, we also know to be careful from here on out. We can't afford to attract too much attention, what with the military presence."
"You think it's going to be that noticeable?" Nick asked.
Anna and Necro shared a look before the bard replied. "I'm sure of it. If this is the force we're looking at for a frontier garrison, imagine how much larger and more vigilant it will be the closer we get to Domines?"
Nick chewed his lower lip. "Right. Okay, I see your point."
Anna winked. "So keep a low profile, Blazingheart."
"Why tell me, specifically?"
"You've never been particularly good at it, you must admit."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"When's the last time you've done something covertly and succeeded?" If there was an insult implicit in the remark, Anna covered it with a smile.
Nick actually had to think about it. "All right, point to you."
The flowing motion of his hands occupied all of his focus. His eyes shifted back and forth from the ghostly image his Eversight provided to the solid and vibrant one of the present. The juggling clubs rose and fell, and Nick used his clairvoyance to move his hands into proper position, training his double vision as he did so.
Kim had insisted on this practice, so as to prepare him for a more practical application, like in battle. Every day, after his juggling practice ended, she would spar with him, keeping both of their warrior instincts sharp. Most of the people in the Rouge Players had never seen such accomplished swordsmanship, and their bouts now drew quite the large crowd of spectators.
Nick took a deep breath as he sped up his tosses, trying to push his limits just a little farther. He heard Maura gasp in surprise from where she sat with Evara some distance away. The fire mage allowed himself a small smile as he added still more speed, and higher tosses.
"When are you going to light them on fire?"
The clubs fell to the ground, and Nick let loose with a string of muttered curses. "Damn it, Evara! I almost had it!"
The scarlet unicorn flicked her tail back and forth. "It was just a question. It's not like you have to worry about getting burned. Maura and I think it would look better."
"Whoa. Don't go dragging me into this." The girl tucked her knees up to her chin. "That said, she has a point."
"Well, I'm sure Nick can wait until tomorrow to try." The fire mage turned and smiled at Kim. The Chosen of Mana tossed him a practice sword and a leather breastplate. Nick deftly caught them as Kim continued. "Come on hothead, it's time for me to give him a few new bruises."
"Excuse me?" Nick replied, easily falling into the banter. He adjusted the straps on the breastplate and hefted the sword in his hand. About the same length and weight as Inferno. After a moment's consideration, he tossed it into his left hand.
Kim arched an eyebrow. "Left hand?"
"I use my scimitar in my right. I'm trying not to confuse myself."
"It's not often I get to go up against a left handed opponent," the woman said with a nod.
Nick smiled. "And I'm not used to using just my left hand. It'll be good practice for us both. Ready?"
Kim swept her sword up in a quick fencer's salute. "On guard!"
Nick blinked, calling up his Eversight. A ghostly image appeared over the actual Kim, moving just slightly faster than the real psychic. A slight twitch in her muscles allowed Nick to predict the incoming horizontal stroke. As helpful as the Eversight was, years of sword training had granted him a different kind of foresight.
Kim came at him with a left feint. The ghostly image then revealed that Kim would reverse her course and go for a backhanded swing at Nick's unguarded right side. The fire mage sidestepped to the right, appearing to fall into Kim's trap. But as soon as the psychic started to reverse her direction, Nick pivoted again, springing out of harm's way. When Kim again went for his exposed right side, Nick lunged for her unguarded left. The warning given to him by the ghost image just an instant before Kim struck, giving Nick the advantage he needed.
Kim jumped backwards, and the small crowd that had gathered let out a gasp. Nick took note of their presence, and then just as quickly blocked them out, not allowing for any distractions. When Kim came at him with another feint, he prepared to go into an upward-sweeping parry, the best option available according to the double vision. However, when he went to block, Kim's blade wasn't there.
It took all of his agility to avoid the thrust Kim would have dealt him. Nick recoiled with a gasp. "It was wrong."
"What?" Kim muttered, concentrating on the battle.
"The Eversight," Nick grunted back as he engaged her blade. "It said you were coming in with an overhead stroke, but you didn't."
"I changed my mind at the last second," Kim replied. "But interesting to know. Your clairvoyance isn't infallible."
"It's like Delphia always says. The most minute actions can change the future."
Kim pressed her sword against Nick's trying to throw him off-balance. "You have to focus on the present as well as the future. The Eversight is going to mess you up if things are changing all around you. In a larger battle, unpredictability is everywhere."
For the rest of the bout, Nick began working on dividing his focus between the future vision and the present battle, trying to strike a balance between them. Nick realized that the Eversight vision was most useful when Kim was going for a set-up or feint, but on a regular attack, he was better off focusing on the present.
Finally, after a drawn-out clash, Kim caught Nick when his focus was slipping and fatigue was beginning to strain the muscles in his triceps. The fire mage was getting sloppy, and his reaction time was slowing down. Using her hip, Kim threw Nick's leg off balance as she applied pressure to her blade, making Nick fall on his back. Kim leveled to point of the practice sword a half-inch above Nick's neck. "Touch, I win."
She reached down to help him up, and Nick graciously accepted the hand. Kim pulled him to his feet, and Maura tossed them two waterskins. Kim took a long drink from hers, but Nick poured the contents of his over his head, making his overly long hair fall limply into his eyes. "Oh gods," he sighed. "That feels good."
Kim stretched, cooling her muscles down. "I think I'm going to have Anna draw me a bath. Shall I leave the tub for you when I'm done?"
Nick nodded. "I'm in the mood for a beer. I'll put a kettle on for your tea."
Evara trudged alongside the wagons of the Rouge Players as they clattered down the dirt road. The unicorn sighed again, staring up at the sun. "It's hot. And I'm bored."
Nick grinned as he tapped his ankles against her flanks. "I see something…"
"Don't you know any other games?" Evara groaned. "There's nothing to see out here." A scampering of tiny feet made her look up. "Oh, what fresh hell is this?"
Two monkeys clambered down from the cart and rested on the small lip, their tiny, knobby hands and feet gripping tightly. In unison, they blinked and tilted their heads slightly to the right, as if waiting expectantly. Nick glanced between the two, and then down at Evara. "Nope, I can't tell. Can you?"
The unicorn shook her head. "No, not at all."
Nick grinned. "All right, Kita. We're stumped."
One of the monkeys twitched and fell backward into the wagon as it suddenly grew larger, sprouting fox ears and a bushy auburn tail. The little shape shifter laughed as she got back to her feet. "Yay! Kita wins!" She jumped from the wagon, and then clambered up onto Evara's back, nestling in just in front of Nick.
The scarlet unicorn cried out in protest. "Easy there, girl! I've only got one spine!"
The remaining monkey chattered excitedly. "Come on, Mavis!" Kita cried. "Quick, jump!"
The monkey bunched up his tiny muscles and soared through the air, landing nimbly on Kita's outstretched arm. Then, he hopped to Nick's shoulder, curling his tail around the fire mage's neck like a scarf. "Easy, Mavis!" Nick said with a laugh.
The monkey continued to chatter excitedly, his wide, intelligent eyes scanning back and forth. With a cry of what could only have been delight, he jumped over Kita, and settled down just behind Evara's horn, clutching the spiraling protrusion in one tiny fist.
"How they put up with this urchin, I'll never understand," Evara grumbled.
"Oh, you're just upset that Little Mavis gets more attention than you," Nick chided.
Eventually, Evara stopped complaining. Nick knew that she was truly glad to have the company Kita and Little Mavis provided, and it made her day a little less dull. The monkey turned his face up to the sun; one hand on his hip in the same way Mavis sat when at ease.
The fire mage smiled as he remembered Maura telling him about how Little Mavis had gotten his moniker. Apparently, Little Mavis had copied the actual Mavis's every move, until it escaladed to the point where one night, in the middle of a performance, Little Mavis wandered out on stage and began to pantomime Mavis's ringmaster routine. The man had broken character, something he never did, to laugh uproariously. Since then, Little Mavis had served as his comedic foil in many performances, and consistently stole the show.
They rode in a companionable silence for a time, until Zephyr cruised by over their heads. "I hear airships," he called down.
Kita's fox ears twitched as she tried to locate the sound. "That way," she said, pointing to the northeast.
Nick glanced at Evara. "Reversal, you think?"
The unicorn shook her head, startling Little Mavis. "Not this soon, no. If I had money, I'd wager that they're from the Divine King. Should we go find Emelia and Mavis? It might be trouble."
Nick grunted an affirmative, and they galloped around the wagons. Little Mavis began to chatter excitedly when they came close. He leapt from Evara's head to Mavis's shoulder, pawing through the man's hair. "What's got you in a sour mood?" the ringmaster asked.
Zephyr alighted on the ground. "There are airships nearby, and from the sound of it, there are several. I don't think this is a normal shipping route. Do you two know anything?"
Emelia chewed her lower lip. "I think the Divine King's army has a fortress in this area. It's used to train officers, last I heard. Far enough out of the way not to be attacked in the civil wars, but in an place harsh enough for nature to do it's own work on the men. There's an airfield not far from it, used to built the King's war galleys."
Mavis stroked his goatee. "I think I know the one. We should be able skirt it. It's far from the road, for obvious reasons. There will likely be a military checkpoint when we get close, but that won't give us any trouble."
Nick nodded mutely. Emelia smiled grimly. "You're rather paranoid, aren't you?" At Zephyr's sharp intake of breath, the woman allowed herself a laugh. "No, it's a good thing. You don't survive for long in our line of work if you aren't."
Mavis rolled his eyes. "Emelia, you're a choreographer first and espionage agent second. There's very few dance instructors involved in international intrigue. And if you want to keep your cover believable, you'll remember that." He walked away whistling a tuneless song, Little Mavis clapping in time to it.
Emelia sighed. "Just stay vigilant the closer we get."
When Zephyr and the other wind riders could make out the buildings of the checkpoint, Evara and Treyu took their leave of the company for fear there would be people who did not meet the unicorn's standards of purity. Nick watched as the two equine creatures darted into the shifting grasses of the prairie. He wished he could have gone with them, but a rider would have been spotted from the air with a decent telescope. Two wild horses would attract far less notice, and Evara would not be very far.
The wagons of the Rouge Players rumbled to a halt at the presiding officer's signal. He asked Mavis to make the wind riders circling above land for a basic inspection. In the respite from travel, Necro jumped out of the wagon where he was tuning his harp. The bard wandered to a notice board hanging outside one of the squat stone buildings.
Then, he briskly turned on his heel and dragged Nick and Kim over, pointing at a line of papers. "What do you see there?"
Nick peered in. "The people in those wanted posters look awfully familiar."
"They should, fool. Because they're us!"
Kim swallowed, her breathing speeding up ever so slightly. She leaned down at peered at the accompanying text. "Dangerous revolutionaries thought to be roving northern Teresoto. Approach with caution and detain on sight. Wanted alive for questioning." She allowed herself a rueful smile. "Nick, yours says that you are especially dangerous."
Necro turned on his heel. "We need to keep a low profile. Maybe even have Lucian and Grimsbjorn weave a Dark Illusion over us…"
"Hey!" a guard shouted. "Back to your wagons! Let's keep the process moving along!" He strode over. "Where are your identification papers?"
"Um, sir, we don't have identification papers." The air around Kim began to glow with a faint golden aura. Nick knew her next words would be a strong compulsion to get the soldier to leave them alone and carry out his business. "And we really don't need…"
"Wait a minute," the man growled. "That woman there!" He pointed at the wanted poster. "That's you! Hey! I need help over here! Dangerous revolutionaries! Help!"
Necro's rapier was clear of its sheath before the man had finished the second word. "Run," he snarled to Nick and Kim. "Get the others, arm up, and we'll fight our way out of here."
"Evara!" Nick shouted, knowing his voice would carry over the open prairie. He bounded to the wagons, his friends already bracing for a fight.
"What's going on?" Lucian asked.
"Apparently, we're wanted men and women," Kim murmured. "And we need to get out of here fast."
Anna sighed. "So much for covert." She twirled Typhoon over her head, summoning water from moisture in the air.
Mavis raced past them, two guards in hot pursuit. "We'll get you out of here! Just hold them off!" He stumbled and fell on his face. The two guards advanced, spears leveled at his throat.
Grimsbjorn jumped from the cart and stood over Mavis's supine form. He growled low in his throat, forming his shadow into two black battle-axes. "Leave him be," the fallen Lord snapped.
Emelia cracked the reins of her horses, blowing past the guards at the checkpoint. "Get the players out of here! We'll meet back up later!"
The people of the caravan had begun to panic. None of them had ever been in a combat situation before, and it showed. Necro jumped into one of the few stationary wagons. "Hey! Everyone settle down! Caenis!" He grabbed the man's lapel and dragged him along. "Get everyone into the wagons and get scarce. We'll deal with these soldiers!" The stagehand mutely bobbed his head and ran away shouting orders.
Heinrich bellowed, hurling two soldiers away from Maura and Kita. His massive strength, amplified by the earth itself, while unrefined and untrained for battle, was a force to be reckoned with. He roared again, heaved a barrel of ale over his shoulder, and barreled through a platoon of soldiers sent to apprehend him. Carts started breaking through the barricade, but not fast enough. Seithios and Lexa stood in front of the column, holding off the Divine King's shoulders. Anna twirled through the crowd, water tracing glimmering lines through the air. All who stood before the fierce warriors found their manipulation negated by the mighty attacks.
Zephyr whistled, signaling the wind riders from the Players to join him in the air. "Go!" he shouted. "Scatter to every wind! Get away from here! You'll only be in the way! Confuse them, come on!" The five acrobats did exactly that, rolling and twisting through the line of airships drifting just below the clouds. Manipulation flashed and cannons thundered as the soldiers tried to apprehend them, but Zephyr moved with the speed of a raging tempest. With a sweep of his hand, the cannons were thrown out of alignment, and the manipulation reflected by a steady gust.
Kim glowed with golden light as she stalked through the garrison. Using telekinesis, she hurled men through the air, making just enough chaos to help the Players get to their wagons and try to calm their horses. Nick, Necro and Grimsbjorn fought back-to-back, drawing the worst of the fighting to themselves. Nick's swords were in one of the wagons, and he had been forced to resort to his bare fists and manipulation to keep the soldiers at bay. Unlike Necro, he did not have the foresight to keep his swords on him at all times.
"Now this is strange," Necro quipped as his rapier flashed through the air before him. "Grimsbjorn the Stoic is actually taking a stand and fighting of his own free will. What happened to the man who had to be yanked along by Lucian?"
"These are good people," the dark-haired man replied. "I'm not letting them get hurt." His axes twirled, and three men fell in a shower of blood. He glanced up as Evara and Treyu galloped towards them. Grimsbjorn turned to the white unicorn. "Get Lucian out of here. He's useless with this many innocents around."
Treyu sniffed in derision. "I don't take orders from—"
"Do it," Nick snapped. "He's got a point."
"You go too," Grimsbjorn growled. "They want you. It'll buy them time."
The fire mage wanted to protest, but saw the logic. He grabbed Lucian's wrist and shoved him towards Treyu. Then, Nick jumped onto Evara's back. The scarlet unicorn reared, her hooves lashing out as she prepared to bolt. "Wait!" Grimsbjorn cried, and barreled off into the smoke. He returned an instant later, shadowy tendrils lashing out from his back. Kita and Maura were slung over his shoulders, both comatose. He dropped Kita onto Evara's saddle, and Maura onto Treyu's. "Protect them with your life, Nicotorex," he growled, then slapped Evara's haunch, sending her racing away.
A cry went up as the unicorns bounded over the prairie, and soon riders were in pursuit. "Keep going!" Nick shouted to Lucian. The blind man nodded, and Treyu poured on speed. Then, the fire mage whirled Evara around to face the cavalry troop that chased them.
The scarlet unicorn flicked her ears back. "I'm not going to like what you're about to do next, am I?"
"Probably not." Nick's hands unclenched, and the two daggers at his belt. Spark and Dancer had been useless at the range he had been at back with the Players, and they would be useless in combat now. But as foci for his manipulation… they would serve. He drove his heels into Evara's side, and she set off at a gallop straight at the riders. With just five yards to go, Nick stretched his knives out, fire pouring from the tips. It spread through the dry grasses like, well, a wildfire, roaring as it consumed the golden stalks.
Then, Nick jerked his hips, signaling Evara to turn. The unicorn wheeled away from the blaze. Nick forced himself not to look back, not to see why the horses were screaming. The wall of fire would continue to grow, drawing water shifters to put it out before it set the entire countryside ablaze. The chaos might be enough to buy his friends and comrades the time they needed to get clear of the garrison, but it was still his duty to present a target for interception.
Evara paused atop a hill, both unicorn and rider abjectly refusing to look back at what they had wrought. Kita stirred in the saddle, and Nick reached down to run a hand through her hair. "Shh. It's all right. We're safe now."
Evara flicked her ears forward. "We should go find Treyu."
Nick murmured in agreement, and they took off over the grasslands again. They caught up with the white unicorn several miles up ahead, his head bowed in exhaustion. A small stream bubbled through a ditch, and Treyu was greedily drinking it up. Nick and Kita slid off Evara's back, and the scarlet unicorn hurried to join him.
Lucian sat nearby, scanning the area for sounds. Maura was curled up next to him, her shoulders quaking. Nick glanced down at Kita and nodded mutely, silently communicating to go and help Maura. The shape shifter hastened to the girl's side and began to murmur what Nick could only hope were consoling words.
Lucian turned as Nick approached, intentionally making the stalks of grass shake to warn the blind man. "Did you lose them?" the shadow mancer asked.
Nick nodded grimly. "We got away. I hope the others did too."
Lucian massaged his thighs, sore after a hurried bareback flight. Nick realized that Lucian wasn't sitting down out of any sense of security or lethargy. Rather, his knees hurt too much to stand. The fire mage flopped back on the ground to stare at the clouds and scan for distant airships. "We'll wait here for a little while. The unicorns need a chance to recover, and we do too. I used a pretty large-scale manipulation back there. Nothing so major that I'll need bed rest, but larger than I've had to do lately."
Lucian took off his headscarf, brushed his hands over it to clear away the pollen and dust that had stuck to the material, and then retied it. "Maura isn't in good shape. Her mother was back there, and she's been worrying about her."
Nick twirled a stalk of grass between his thumb and index finger. "All of our friends stayed back there. I'm sure everyone made it out just fine."
The sun sank lower in the sky, and they decided it was safe to head out again. As the unicorns galloped back across the grasslands, Nick bent his head close to Kita's ear. "When we ran away, we headed southeast. Our friends probably kept going on the southern road. In a little while, can you turn into a bird and fly up to look for them?"
The shape shifter nodded, and soon after, changed shape into a peregrine falcon that soared up to just beneath the clouds, vanishing against the roiling gray expanse. Nick lost himself in the waves of amber grasses that stretched from horizon to horizon. After riding in a relatively straight line for about an hour and a half, a figure dropped from the sky and angled towards them.
There was a shriek, and Kita dove from the clouds at an incredible speed, her talons outstretched. The figure swerved out of the way, and the young shape shifter quickly angled back up. The falcon contorted, changing into a red and gold dragon. The reptilian beast roared at the top of its lungs, its barbed tail lashing through the air.
"No, Kita!" Nick roared as Evara darted forward. "Kita, stop this right now!"
Lucian's left eyebrow raised a fraction of an inch. "She turned into Flayme, didn't she?"
Nick did not even deign to give an answer. He merely growled low in his throat and stood his saddle. With a concentrated effort of will, he launched himself into the sky on a cushion of thermal energy, jets of fire pouring from his hand. He landed on Kita's back, clutching the jagged protrusions that ran the length of her spine. The fire mage clawed his way up to Kita's neck. "Stop this instant!" he shouted. "Land, right now! And don't ever, ever transform into him again! Kita, that's an order!"
The dragon plummeted, gouging large fissures in the earth with its talons. Then, the scaled beast shivered and was replaced by the little girl once again. Nick fell to his knees at Kita's feet, his shoulders heaving with exertion. "I'm sorry for yelling at you," he managed to gasp out. "But… I'm sorry. You can't transform into Flayme ever again."
The shape shifter dropped to a crouch and butted the crown of her head gently against Nick's chin, a very animal-like gesture of submission and apology. "Kita didn't think. Kita is sorry."
"It's not your fault," Nick murmured. "I should have better control over my emotions by now. It was wrong of me to yell at you." He hugged her, briefly but tightly. Kita hugged him back. Then, he stood up, brushed off his trousers and turned to the wind rider that Kita had engaged. "You're with the Players, right? One of Zeph's friends."
The young woman, one of the company's acrobats, nodded. "They sent me out to find you and bring you back. It's not too much farther now."
Nick nodded and signaled to Evara. The unicorn sighed as Nick and Kita swung back up into her saddle. "After this, I expect a few days of rest," she grumbled. "All this running is a major pain."
"How do you think I feel?" Treyu muttered. "At least you have a saddle on. Lucian, Maura and I are really suffering."
The wind rider shot off into the sky, and the unicorns hurried along after her. In another half hour, the first of the Rouge Players' wagons came into view. The travelers had taken shelter in a grove some distance off the rode, camping in the shade of the evergreen trees. Kim, Necro and Zephyr stood next to a campfire. Grimsbjorn leaned against a wagon not far from them, his eyes closed and a washcloth pressed to his right bicep, where he had suffered a cut. Seithios sat on a stool, staring directly into the flames. His fists were clenched, and his back was rigid. At the unicorns' approach, the earth crafter stood up.
"They got them, Blazingheart."
"What?" Nick hissed, dropping to the ground.
Kim strode over to them and passed Nick his sword belt. "The soldiers captured Anna and Lexa."
Nick clipped the belt around his hips. "We're going after them."
"Damn right we are," Seithios growled. "And we're going to make those bastards pay."