If Artemis thought waking would calm some of the heat that infused her body, she was dead wrong.
As she stirred, strange orange light flickered through her lashes. It was so warm. Too warm. Something was crackling nearby. Loud. Everywhere. Drowsiness dulled her reaction to the noise, but not to the smell that invaded her nose.
She cracked her eyes open. Their world was on fire.
Artemis gasped loudly and sat up. It was still night, but the flames that clung and laughed their snappy laugh from the trees spread dancing light all around her, ripping at her shadow and the shadow of the sleeping dragon beside her.
She lunged at him, shaking his shoulder violently. "Ashent! Wake up!"
Unlike her groggy upheaval from sleep, Ashent's eyes snapped open and into focus immediately; angered confusion flitting across his face. He hoisted himself up quickly, like fight and flight were two reactions simply melded into one.
"What's happening?" Artemis asked, her voice cracking and tilting up at the end in hysteria. Was it Lagoa? Or had the imperial dragons finally caught up to them? She heard nothing of these things her mind suggested, but the noisy popping and cracking of the flames around her made deciphering the answer impossible either way.
"We've got to move," Ashent declared, grabbing her hand and pulling her to the edge of the roof. He jumped down, all but dragging her down too. Luckily, she landed on her feet, and the earth and grass huddled up close to their cabin was mercifully cool and damp.
It wouldn't be that way for long; as Ashent picked up his sattle from the ground and flung it on, Artemis was entranced by the way the flames clawed violently at the grass not ten feet away.
It didn't look normal.
"Get on," Ashent commanded, grabbing her wrist and jerking her forward. Artemis landed heavily against his back as he turned, and she scrabbled to find the straps of the sattle as he shifted below her. Her feet left the ground with a quick tilt, and she was lying awkwardly across the sattle.
Quickly she righted herself. "Who would do th—"
A loud crack interrupted her from above. Artemis looked up in time to see a branch – engulfed in flame—descending towards her.
She tensed, expecting collision and searing heat but Ashent moved swiftly, swaying to the right to avoid. It landed on his wing, the crackling and hissing of the branch protesting, but Ashent paid it no mind. He snapped his wing out with a growl, sending the branch flying.
Artemis slouched with a momentary sigh of relief. No doubt the bond had spared her that ordeal.
The black dragon moved, digging the fore-claws of one wing into the wood of the cabin, followed by a back foot. He hoisted himself fluidly up to the roof. The house creaked and groaned beneath his weight, and when he pushed for lift off, the rest of their shared, broken cabin all but collapsed in on itself.
Rising into the air, Artemis looked over her shoulder and despaired. The flames touched a corner of the crumbled mess and rejoiced, flaring and swaying in celebration as they chewed through the wood and paper and peace.
Ashent pushed himself higher, his body dipping and then rising. Strong and rhythmic. Artemis tore her eyes away and focused ahead. It was easier.
High up, the world didn't seem to make any more sense. The noise of the flames receded, but the cries of the village grew louder – horrified and terrified and mournful. Fire dotted and lined the forest below them like a maze from a nightmare.
At the cliff with the blossoming tree was the clear cause of the destruction: A dragon made not of scales and of hardness, but of pure fire.
"Who is that?" Artemis breathed, transfixed. "What is that?"
Ashent curved his back to circle around, his body tilting in the turn. "Chastis," he rumbled lowly.
She sucked in a breath and held it, horrified. Sweet, gentle Chastis… what had happened to him? He was engulfed in flames, but they bent and contorted to keep the shape of a dragon. A tail swished left, and flicked right – a whip of fire that seemed to flicker out and relight with each change of direction. The wings appeared to be the only steady stream of fire that her eyes could comprehend, the flames bending along his body like a candle under a draft.
The rest of him shifted and glimmered like each scale was a flame of a different mindset.
The two of them turned at the voice, and it was Vita that approached. Artemis was relieved to see her.
The grey pulled in to circle behind him. On her back were numerous humans – all looking relatively uncharred.
Artemis recognized a face and straightened. "Miah!"
Though sweat created a sheen on his face and he looked like he had rolled in soot, he managed a hard smile. "Are you guys alright?" he called.
She nodded frantically. "Yes, we're fine. But what happened?"
Jeramiah stood, picking his way through the seated humans to the front of the cadre. They all appeared to be in shock, with clear tear-tracks scarring through the grime of their faces. They fidgetted non-stop, and Artemis realized that nearly all of them had bleeding legs – the consequence of sitting on a dragon that none of them were bonded to. Thanks to all the leather he wore, Jeramiah was unhurt.
Holding onto Vita's spikes, he scaled her neck with deft proficiency, as if he was climbing a rather tame tree instead of a dragon hundreds of feet above the ground. He reached her head and spoke too quietly for Artemis to hear. Vita pulled up and forward just slightly, and Miah hopped onto Ashent's hind-quarters.
Artemis held out her hand to him, and he gratefully accepted – using her grip to pull himself forward and settling himself behind her on the edge of the sattle. Though Ashent watched him with a suspicious eye, he said nothing.
"Where were you guys?" Jeramiah asked.
Artemis couldn't even manage a blush, so confounded by the chaos. "We were sleeping. I'm so sorry, Miah."
"The fire spread so quickly, I barely awoke in time myself."
"Tell us what's going on," Ashent cut in, turning his stare at Chastis down below. "He's lost his mind."
"He found out about the enslavement camp," Vitaloni said. "He heard the cries and went enquiring to the elder. What you see is his reaction, though none of us expected such destruction or we never would have told him the truth."
Oh, Chastis, Artemis thought sadly.
"Why is he reacting this way?" Ashent asked. "It's too extreme to be a simple tantrum."
As if on cue, the flames of Chastis' body flared a dangerous white and his voice screamed out; horrible and heartbroken. "I didn't know! I didn't know!"
"He's beating himself up," Miah murmured.
"Why?" Artemis questioned.
"Because he trusted his father," Ashent said suddenly, like he just somehow knew, "and his father lied to him."
"More like omitted it," said Jeramiah. "It makes sense: the boy is a half-breed himself. Of course Nomil wouldn't dare tell him about the camp. The kid has a righteous heart."
Vita chimed in softly. "Your brother has been trying to calm him, Artemis."
Vita's words sharpened her vision. All around the living flame that was Chastis, she could see humans – their shadows elongated, causing the scene from so high up to look like a horrible ritual; like they were trying to capture him or sacrifice him even though she knew full well they were simply trying to calm him or at least contain him.
"We have to go to him," Artemis said, scanning for Lane. "He's frightened."
"He's also angry," Miah warned. "We should let him burn himself out before we attempt to reason with him."
"No," Ashent declared. "The fire seems natural, but he's keeping it burning with his energy. If he keeps going, he'll expend all that he has and destroy himself."
Horror struck Artemis square in the chest.
Ashent tilted down, and Vita followed. "If I ever mix words with Nomil, it won't be to tell him about his son's end."
They approached slowly, circling Chastis overhead. His heat was scorching, but Artemis pretended to have some of Ashent's resistance and ignored it. Vita flew in a wider circle, keeping away from the majority of the flames for the sake of the humans she was carrying.
Artemis took a moment to locate Lane, and Razorit too, in human form. The two of them were in front of Chastis, but the flames were so hot that they were quite a distance away, covering their faces with their arms. To be heard above the noise and disorder, they had to shout, but she couldn't understand what they were saying. She realized Chastis probably couldn't either.
The living flame turned its head, seeming to notice Ashent. It had no eyes, only gaps that the flames refused to fill in. Less of a living thing, more like a suit of armor. It opened its mouth, and Chastis' words screamed out.
"I didn't know! I'm sorry!"
"Calm yourself," Ashent replied warningly. His voice was deep and commanding, but not harsh.
"But you must hate me," Chastis cried. "I let this happen! I thought my eyes were unclouded, but I am blind to the world!"
"This has nothing to do with you."
Chastis skirted back and forth in what seemed like a flash, looking uneasy. Pacing, Artemis realized. The steps he took were so fast she could barely follow it.
"No! There is no excusing my ignorance. I've no one to blame but myself. I should have learned of it. I should have stopped it! How could—why didn't I know? How do I teach enlightenment with such enfeebled knowledge?"
A small wave of fire pulsed out beneath him, and then a huge one. Artemis tensed as humans screamed and scattered. Razorit broke out of his human form and launched into the sky, dragging Lane up with him.
Seeing this, Ashent seemed to snap. "Enough!" he ordered, breaking and punching such a great gust of wind at Chastis that his fire blinked out for half a second. It relighted instantly. "You're letting the guilt of your father consume you."
"What?" Chastis whimpered.
Artemis touched Ashent's shoulder. "What are you talking about?" she asked quietly.
But the black dragon ignored her. "You think these emotions normal, prince? Will you burn yourself to ash as they swallow you?"
"If I must… if it's the only way to atonement!"
Artemis swore the flames around Chastis grew a little bit denser, hotter, but she continued to stare with rapt focus even as Jeramiah covered his face with his arm to guard against the heat. Ashent seemed to notice too, but did not widen his circle.
"Burning won't ease your father's conscience. You've mistaken his guilt for your own—that is the true ignorance in you."
"You… you think my father regrets this camp of half-breeds?" Chastis asked, his voice filled with desperation.
"You would know best. You were born of his flesh—filled with his essence and heart. Do you feel this guilt for not knowing? Or do you feel his for not acting?"
Chastis' head of fire looked at the ground, and his tail curled around him sadly. "I—I don't know. It's confusing. If these feelings are his… then who am I?"
"A mere copy."
"Ashent!" Artemis hissed, reaching for the bond and yanking his head back. He growled, but she didn't care if he found it uncomfortable. "Don't!"
"It's the truth. He'll be a replica of his father – clever, calm and cowardly. I assure you, Artemis, if we make an ally of him – as my father did Nomil – we'll be making a mistake."
"No!" Chastis screeched. "The Blacks and Greens have always been allies!"
"Prove it then, oh prince of the great Greens," Ashent seethed. "Show me the difference between a copy and a king!"
With a cry Chastis launched himself up, and for half of a terrifying moment, she mistook the movement as an attack. But the green whirled away from them like a great funnel of fire, and his earthly flames ceased mid-chomp. All at once, the world was quiet.
But calm did not follow.
Ashent turned to look at Vita. "Drop your humans somewhere safe. Gather the greys. All of them. Whether they wear armor or not."
"Oh fuck, oh fuck," Jeramiah was suddenly whispering behind her. Before she could question him, he was yelling past her to Ashent. "No! You have to reconsider! It's suicide to go there!"
Ashent rounded on him with a snarl. "Silence! You should be thanking me. I'm giving you a chance to redeem yourself for your despicable past."
"We can't," Jeramiah protested anyway. His hand landed heavily on her bare shoulder. "Think about Artemis – you'll put her in danger. That camp is no place for her – for either of you!"
In a moment of clarity, Artemis became aware of two things. One, they were all headed for the enslavement camp with Chastis at the helm. Two, Jeramiah was trying to use her as a means of discouraging Ashent.
Rather than feeling afraid at knowing what was about to happen, she just felt rage.
"Get off me, Miah!" she hissed, jerking her shoulder away. "I can't believe you! I'm not afraid."
"Deposit us on the outskirts of the camp," Miah suggested, ignoring her. "If you want to torch the stone of the encampment then fine, I daresay Chastis's fire could do some real damage, but leave Artemis where it is safe. I swear on my life that I'll protect her."
"Stop talking!" Artemis demanded, twisting in her seat to palm him in the mouth.
"Your life means very little to me. Swearing on it doesn't give it bulk."
"I know, but it's all I've got."
Your life isn't good enough, Artemis thought with shallow, bitter sarcasm. You don't trust him, do you, Ashent?
She wanted to say it… but didn't. She dared not force Ashent to measure how much he truly trusted Miah – not when she had worked so hard to blur the line between them. Were they friends? Maybe not. But were they enemies? Not exactly. They were teetering somewhere in the middle. Somewhere almost manageable. Perhaps Salvageable.
It wouldn't be she who sharpened Ashent's hate into focus.
Held hostage by the fear that Ashent might remember that he never trusted Miah, Artemis struggled in silence. She had two cards to play. If she fought, she stood a chance of remaining with Ashent in the battle to come. But it would come with a cost; Ashent would think she was taking his side. He would think Jeramiah was not to be trusted – that she changed her mind about that man.
But that just wasn't true. Great ones was she fuming at that man right now, but it wasn't true.
She resorted to begging. "Ashent please! Don't separate us. Every time you do you come back half-dead."
"Or half-alive, you know, depending on perspective," Jeramiah pitched in.
"I will toss you from this sattle," Artemis stated slowly, not even looking back at him.
Ashent didn't speak. The black dragon merely stared at her for a moment longer before turning away. Artemis knew what it meant, and her heart sank with unbearable slowness.
Artemis's emotions overloaded the moment she saw the enslavement camp, though it could only be seen from the distance they were at because Chastis had already arrived. His fierce, orange glow grazed over the top of the tall, wickedly spiked walls. The cries that escaped were mostly human this time, and the way Chastis soared back and forth within the area was merciless and skilled. A pendulum counting down. Left, right, left right. Seconds into his attack, the shouting changed from cries of alarm to screams of pain.
"You were brutal!" Artemis cried to Ashent. "Look at him! Look what you've driven him to!"
"I see nothing I regret."
She leaned back, appalled. 'You're brutal.'
"Ashent!" Jeramiah called. He pointed down. "If you wish to keep Artemis out of harm's way, this is the safest area. It's close enough that your bond won't feel strained, but there is good cover."
Everything was slipping from her hands.
"No, Ashent!" Artemis shouted, and again, was ignored as he angled himself downward. She didn't have time to protest further before Ashent had thundered to the ground and his dragon form shifted into nothing more than smoke.
Futilely she grasped for the receding tendrils, but if Ashent didn't want to be held, he couldn't be.
He was darkness.
"Please," she whispered. It was so dim. She could barely see him. No stars were out to help – or perhaps smoke from the struggling encampment was blocking their presence.
Artemis walked forward in pure desperation, and he allowed her to embrace him. Something inside of her cracked. Was this how it would always be? He would never allow her into battle upon his back?
She squeezed. "Please take me with you—"
"You understand the depths of this task I am entrusting to you, Jeramiah?"
Artemis breathed in sharply. Ashent had never said Miah's name. Not like that.
"Have you ever held the world in those blood stained hands of yours?"
Jeramiah made a sound like he was thinking about it and shrugged. "Once or twice."
"You've lost count?"
"No. I've just lost sight of my worlds."
Artemis couldn't follow their strange conversation, but all attempts vanished seconds later. Ashent's hands gripped her upper arms gently.
"Make no mistake, Jeramiah." He all but shoved her back. Miah caught her by the shoulders. "There is only one world," Ashent's eyes fell down to meet hers. "The one you're holding now. You would do well to remember that."
Then with a blast of wind and a blink of her eyes, he was gone.
Artemis wrenched herself away from Miah and stared up at the pitch black sky. Seeing nothing and hearing everything. Horrid, pained cries swelled up into the night, but the sparse little forest she had been stranded in did enough to blindfold her from seeing it.
Grating her teeth together, she turned on Miah with an anger that she could not control. He caught her in his sights a little too late. By the time he noticed her approach wasn't at all peaceful, she had already put her hands on him and shoved him back with all her might.
Miah crashed onto his back with a grunt, dead leaves crinkling loudly beneath him.
"Artemis what are you—"
"Why did you do that?" she yelled, throwing her hand out in the direction of the noise. "Why did you have to butt in and separate us? Just because you're scared of the camp doesn't mean that I—"
"Whoa, whoa. I am not scared," Miah said, holding a hand up at her like he was afraid she would press her assault further. "We just have to be smart about this."
"This is cowardly," Artemis hissed.
He kept his warning hand up as he slowly got to his feet. Artemis almost felt a little bad. He seemed to be in pain.
"You're right. It is cowardly," Jeramiah said, "but do you know the only difference between the brave and the cowardly?"
She stared at him, perplexed. Was this really the time for riddles?
"Range," Miah said slowly. "The man with the sword is courageous, isn't he? But the man who keeps his distance and still looses his arrows – what do you think of that kind of man? Is he a coward because he chooses to fight from afar?"
"Not necessarily," Artemis said tersely.
"Right, so, let's be the archers this time, and we can be swordsmen some other."
She threw her hands up. "The archer might not be cowardly, but he becomes a coward the moment his quiver is empty. So, in case you haven't noticed; we're stranded here without any arrows thanks to you."
"You're right. We better fix that."
Artemis jerked her head back as Miah spun and strode quickly into the tangle of trees. She had no choice but to swallow her confusion and follow. It was not easy in the dark, but her eyes were beginning to adjust fairly well. Before long, she was stalking at Jeramiah's heels.
"Wait—that was a metaphor, was it not?" she asked. "About the swordsmen and the archers."
"Indeed, it was."
"So where are we going?"
"To my stash of arrows."
Artemis blinked and pulled up a little. "So what you're saying is… you were prepared for this?"
"If the arrows are information then yes, I was prepared."
"Hah!" Artemis smiled and grabbed him lightly on the shoulders. "I knew I could trust y—"
But Jeramiah tensed beneath her hands, completely freezing up. He stopped walking, talking. Even breathing ceased.
"What?" she asked, pulling her hands away self-consciously.
She couldn't see it, but she swore she heard him swallow. "It's nothing, dove. You just have gotten a lot stronger than I anticipated. You're stronger than you know."
Artemis folded a hand over her mouth. "Oh, I'm sorry. Did I hurt you before?"
"Well... it was definitely surprising. When you pushed me I hardly suspected I would move, let alone keel over. "
The edge of her mouth pulled down in a quick, apologetic wince. "I'm so sorry, Miah. That was unwarranted."
He swiveled to look over his shoulder at her. "Artemis, what have you been doing?"
Blinking and shaking her head, she asked, "What do you mean?"
"Your strength wasn't… normal. It was like… it was the sort of force I would expect from Ashent. Too strong. Uncommonly strong."
"I am not sure," Artemis replied, though she knew the second the words formed that it was a lie. Abruptly, in her heart, she knew where the force of that push came from. It was the energy inside of her. Her new organ. The sentia wasn't just causing changes in her appearance – it was causing deeper changes too. Changes to her very muscles.
Great Ones help her.
"I'm sorry, Miah," Artemis said. Hastily, she pushed past him, and hoped she could push past the topic as well. "I'll be more careful next time."
He followed closely behind, so this had to be the right direction. "More careful?" he echoed incredulously. "You need to let it loose. Especially with where we're going."
While trying to calm her frantic thoughts she managed to pin down the appropriate question for the situation, even though many others were scattering through her mind. "Where are we going?"
"The encampment. Just a different entrance."
Artemis furrowed her brows and ducked under a branch. "Why didn't you tell anyone that you knew another way in?"
"Simple. The more ruckus they can cause above, the better chance we have at nipping the weed off at the root. This way."
Jeramiah turned sharply, but Artemis didn't know how he discerned the proper direction.
"The root?" she asked.
"Yeah. I mean, I don't want to say we have no chance of success, but there is a strong likelihood of this encampment sprouting back up unless we head underground."
"Underground?" Artemis balked. "You mean there is more than just the structure I saw on the hill back there?"
"Much more. Like a tick burrowed into flesh, and unless we go deeper, the dragon that Chastis and Ashent and our troop have likely encountered already will be by all rights invincible."
Jeramiah stopped with his hand on a branch and looked over at her sympathetically. "You might think it cruel for you to be stretched so far from Ashent, but it's necessary for this task. There is a woman far below ground who is nothing short of evil. She mans the depths of this place and her dragon controls the surface. Even though they are bonded, they almost never meet. Meeting would mean vulnerability and she's no fool – she knows how many dragons here want to crack her skull between their jaws."
"So we have to kill her," Artemis clarified.
Jeramiah nodded and pressed forward again through the thorny bushes. "It still more complicated than that though. We have to kill her, and someone must also kill her dragon in the meantime or else the battle will be endless. That's why I need you." He flashed her a tight smile. "Someone else who can be endless, even if I go down."
"I see…" she murmured. Shame heated in her chest. "I'm sorry I doubted you."
"Stop apologizing, dove. I'm the one who worked here."
"And now you've come back to destroy this place," she said. "And you're going to free all the half-breeds. Then you're going to come west with us, and never look back."
Jeramiah sighed through his nose and looked up at the sky. "I should warn you about the half-breeds. They're not the rebels you likely envision. I doubt we'll even be able to convince them to leave this place."
"What?" Artemis gasped, appalled. "Why? Who would ever want to stay in a place like this? There is nothing here for them!"
"True, but is there any more beyond those walls?"
"There's the sky."
"That they would be caught dead flying in."
True. That was all true.
"They must come west with us," Artemis pressed. "It's their only chance."
He barked a short, bitter laugh. "I agree, but good luck telling them that. They believe that underground is where they belong – as close to hell as possible. Ah, here we are."
She pulled up behind him, and realized that he didn't need to see to find what he was looking for. He was crafty and observant, and if she had taken the time to listen she might have figured it out earlier.
An innocent, bubbling river lay before them.
Jeramiah crossed his arms and nodded to himself. "I hope they laid some traps, because the mice are coming in."
PS. To the reviewers who are reminding me how saddle is spelt - I know. In a previous author's note, I've said that I've spelt it this way (sattle) on purpose. I know it's not the proper spelling. I've simply done it to differentiate between a horses saddle and a dragon's. They're two different things, so I've spelt them differently. Thanks.