Chapter 10

Fire, Water, Wind, and Earth

Twinkaleni's plan has Alice and Danahlia waiting low in the shallow stream. They each have a mass of branches over their heads and try to look like broken tree limbs caught adrift in the slow waters. The mage has selected a spot where the shore line bows out into the water some, predicting the agent will approach there as it is the shortest way across the stream. While Alice and Danahlia wait on opposite sides of the bow, she stands waiting on the opposite shore to lure him in the hopes they will have him surrounded.

Alice pokes her head just out of the water from under her branches, watching the shore nervously while trying not to move. On all fours with the water up to her neck, her fur and clothes are completely soaked and she shivers with fear and cold. Seeing Danahlia's mass of branches further downstream and Twinkaleni standing along the shore comforts her some as she grits her teeth, trying to stop the shaking. They've been waiting for over an hour like this and she's wondering if he will even come, when a figure in a long bright red robe like cloak emerges from the forest, alone and on foot. She freezes, her breath catching in her throat, watching as the figure spots the Murin and stops.

The hood of the cloak is up, hiding the figure's identity, but it could only be the agent sent by the Order of Thermathrogi. All Alice can tell from her vantage point is that the individual is tall, thin, and long limbed. The red cloak shifts as the mage hunter pulls something from it. A hand extends towards Twinkaleni and a roundish bauble drops a few inches from it on a slender chain. The agent speaks a few indiscernible words and the thing at the end of the chain glows a faint orange, moving as if carried by a light breeze in the general direction of the waiting Murin. He replaces the bauble within his cloak and takes a few steps to the shore where Twinkaleni had predicted he would.

"So, I have found you at last. You've led me on a merry chase, mageling, but the end has come. I do give you this choice, little one, return with me of your own will or return with me under mine," the cloaked figure offers in a bored tone.

"I will not return to the Order and neither shall you, murderer!" Twinkaleni shouts from where she stands across the stream.

The man huffs a laugh, "I don't know what you think I am but I am no murderer. Come child, I will take you home. Your masters await." He extends a welcoming hand to the little Murin.

"I have no masters! I am free! And you killed my friends!" Twinkaleni shoots back.

The man's offered hand closes slowly into a fist before dropping back to his side. "Hmph, friends?" he calls mockingly, "I've merely punished a draft dodger and those who aided him. Any loyal servant of Arsalia would have done the same in my stead. My patience is ended, come to me now."

"They were innocent CHILDREN!" Twinkaleni shrieks, her voice carrying a crack like thunder.

It's enough to rip Alice's attention away from the cloaked man to see her small companion's eyes flare a bright gold, her tiny hands balled into fists. The water along the shore ripples away from her, steadily reaching out to Alice among her branches. The man is quiet for a moment, perhaps taken aback by the sudden surge of raw power, or simply content to let it pass.

He seems to glare at her from under his hood, "Very well. If you will not come willingly, then by the authority given me by Grand Master Igneous Balk of the Order of Thermathrogi, I, Pimine Caine, sentence you, Twinkaleni Orbear, to death. Adarath!"

On the last harshly spat word, the man whips his hand toward the young mage, a gold ring on one finger glowing bright red just as a boulder sized fireball coalesces from within it to fly towards her.

Alice has to force herself to keep from leaping up and calling warning to the small mouse girl. She grits her teeth even harder, hand squeezing the grip of her sword, keeping in mind that it was all part of the plan.

Twinkaleni shouts, "Pavata!" raising both her arms over her head. A wide, squat pillar of water rises from the stream before the massive ball of flame. The two collide with a deafening, searing hiss and an explosion of steam. Warm, almost hot, wet air floods over Alice, mixing with the already present fog, to create a thick haze of water vapor that cuts visibility to only a few feet. This was it.

A split second before Alice throws off her branches, she hears Danahlia shouting wildly from somewhere in the haze. Alice joins in, screaming at the top of her lungs, slapping and splashing the water.

As they try to distract the cloaked figure, Twinkaleni cries, "Feasta!"

Alice sees a blurred beam of orange light race from where she last saw the Murin mage to where the Order's agent had been standing. The orange light hits something, stopping in midair and the man gasps in surprise. Alice goes silent, trying to see through the thick mist, wondering if the attack was successful.

But as the steam slowly dissipates, the man laughs, "Not bad. The Order was right to prepare me for fire."

"The cloak," Twinkaleni rasps and Alice sees the small silhouette of the mouse girl on her knees, the spells exhausting her.

Danahlia charges the man with her spear, splashing toward him and snarling a challenge.

Twinkaleni cries, "No, Danny! Pavata!"

Another thinner but taller pillar rises from the water, this time rushing toward the man as he extends his ringed hand to the Liguna. It's too far, the cloaked man, a red blur to Alice, watches it coming and steps easily out of the way as the water crashes into the ground beside him. Alice, seeing what is about to happen, raises her sword and begins splashing toward the man screaming. But her fur and clothes, heavy with water, make her far too slow.

The man extends his hand again and roars, "Adarath!"

Alice can see the great ball of hellish fire through the haze, fly from the man's hand to burst into the stream with another eruption of steam. Danahlia screams.

"NO!" Alice cries, forcing her heavy legs to carry her onto shore to the man's back. She comes down hard with a chop, but the man turns to catch her blade on a long, serpentine dagger.

He snarls, "Mere children," and pushes Alice's sword away with ease.

Furious, Alice swings her sword as hard as she can, again and again at the tall man, letting anger fuel her strikes. But every time, the man either uses the flat of the dagger to redirect her blows or evades them completely. She slashes and chops at all angles, trying to pierce the man's guard, but the difference in their fighting ability is all too apparent.

Her arms steadily begin to tire, the sword becoming heavier with each swing. The young Tokala's rage turns to fear as the man, smirking, shows how vastly out classed she is. Still Alice swings, now more out of desperation and the terror of what will happen if she stops. Her latest attack is dodged, the man sidestepping, allowing her sword to bite into the soft earth.

He sighs, shaking his head in disappointment, "And I thought bringing in the mageling would prove a decent challenge."

Alice snarls, pulling her sword free and spinning in a full circle to bring the blade around to slice the man in two at the waist. But he steps into her, grabbing her by the wrist with one hand and punching her in the cheek with the other.

The young Tokala's face blooms in pain as she twirls to the ground with a high pitched yip. Instinctively holding the throbbing ache, she reaches blindly for her sword, vision blurring with tears and tasting blood. The man looms over her and shakes his head again.

"At least you tried. Not like your friends at the cave. Just hid and denied ever seeing the mageling till the end," he says, tossing his dagger up and expertly catching it before driving the tip towards Alice's chest.

"Vespis Flowmino!" cries Twinkaleni.

The man glances to his right just as a burst of wind sends him flying several feet away. Alice rolls with the sudden powerful gust over her sword and grips the handle. She sees Twinkaleni fall face first onto the ground from her kneeling position across the stream, the mage's outstretched hands splashing limply into the water. There is no rock or tree for the man to hit and he simply lands on the ground with a pained grunt. Knowing she won't have another chance, Alice takes up her weapon and runs on wobbling, powerless legs to finish the mage hunter before he can regain his feet.

She delivers a chop aimed at the man's head with everything she has left. But the gleaming serpentine dagger meets it in midair. Still, the blow cuts shallowly into the man's shoulder and he growls in pain and anger. The man's hood has fallen back and she can see now that he's a Mustaroni. The weasel man's small sharp teeth grit as he slowly pushes Alice back off of him. Her blade steadily slips free from his shoulder and she bears down with all the weight her slim body has to get it back into him. Then he spits in her eye.

Alice loses focus for only a second but it's enough for him to get a leg between them. He push kicks her in the stomach sending her flying back, Jellybane splashing somewhere in the stream. Alice cries out as she hits the ground, curling around her aching stomach, as she tries to wipe clear her vision. She coughs, unable to get her breath back as the man stands up. He puts a hand to his shoulder and examines the blood on his fingers, his eyes widening with malice. The weasel man then extends his ringed hand to Alice as she cowers away from him on her back and into the water.

"Play time is over. Adara-!"

Lyca leaps onto the man, scratching and biting at his face, her legs wrapping around his chest. He screams under the assault as the burnt wolf girl savages him with claw and fang. They fall to the ground, struggling for a moment until with a vicious jerk of her head, the man's cries become a wet burble. The Lobovan rolls off of him to lie on the ground, her chest red with blood. The man twitches, holding his shredded throat in a desperate effort to slow the life leaving him.

Unable to process what just happened, Alice simply sits in the stream, breathing heavily and watching the man still. Lyca groans weakly, snapping Alice back. She begins to crawl toward her friend, legs and arms numb, face and stomach throbbing, vision blurred with tears and saliva. As she gets within a few feet, she wipes at her eyes to see the serpentine dagger pressed to the hilt, high in Lyca's chest.

She hurries to the girl's side, "Lyca? Lyca?!"

The Lobovan's eyes are still open though they are slow to focus on her. "Red? Did I, get 'im?" she asks, fresh blood dripping free from the corner of her mouth.

"Yeah," Alice sniffs, "yeah, you got 'im."

"Good," Lyca groans, "Why does, my chest hurt, so much?"

"It's nothing," Alice says, trying to figure out if she should pull out the dagger or not, "You're gonna be alright."

"Where's Ne-?" when Lyca doesn't finish Alice looks to see her eyes stare blankly, her mouth hanging open.

Alice sniffs, new tears falling to the Lobovan as she leans over her calling, "Lyca? Lyca?!" she shakes the wolf girl by the shoulders, "Lyca?! Come on! You're gonna be alright! Come on!" She looks for her other friends and spots Danahlia pulling herself slowly from the stream, "Danny! Help! Lyca's hurt!"

Danahlia turns to the sound of her voice and crawls toward her. As she nears, Alice wails, "What are we supposed to do? What are we supposed to do?"

Breathing raggedly, Danahlia looks over the wolf girl and spots the dagger. She shakes her head, and closes the girl's eyes before collapsing herself.

"Danny?" Alice looks to the Liguna to see her generally bark colored back is exposed, clothes burned away, her skin a mess of ugly pink, red, brown, and black flesh. Alice screams, her throat hoarse, "TWINKALENI!" She scans the shore, trying to wipe away tears so she can see but they just keep getting in the way. She calls for the mage over and over, not wanting to leave her friends.

After several minutes with no response, she finally gets up and crosses the stream. Cold and wet, she finds Twinkaleni passed out along the shore. Picking up the little mouse, she also find's their packs where they left them before the battle and lugs all back across. Knowing there was nothing she could do for Lyca, she places a wet bit of clothing over Danahlia's burned back and after a long while gets another fire going. She then uses some more wet clothes to wash the blood from Lyca's body.

Eventually she removes the dagger, revealing the horrible slit it left just over Lyca's left breast. The deceptively heavy weapon reminds her of Jellybane and she wades around in the stream until she finds her sword. She dries the weapon and continues cleaning Lyca off while periodically rewetting the damp shirt over Danahlia's back, her mind blank and movements mechanical.

She is alone again, curling around her mother's arm. Alice had found her in bed one morning after finally starving herself to death. The feeling of abandonment too strong for her to face, the young fox stuck by her mother's side until neighbors came later in the day to check on her. They did often then, knowing it was only a matter of time. Alice knew at some level too but her young mind was never able to prepare. She's jolted from the day dream when Danahlia groans.

It's late in the afternoon now and Alice wipes at her eyes, "Danny?"

The Liguna groans again and looks to see Lyca's still form. "Twinkie? Where's Twinkaleni?" she asks, wincing but suddenly alert.

Alice sniffs, pointing to the slumbering Murin, "She's ok, I think."

Danahlia sees her and slumps back down, "That guy?"

"Dead."

"Lyca?"

"Her too."

Danahlia takes in and lets out a long breath, "You?"

"I'm ok," Alice lies, "How about you? How's your back?"

"Hurts. We got anythin' to eat?"

Alice smiles, sniffing and rubbing a bit of snot from her nose, "Yeah."

They eat and drink as the sun steadily drops behind the trees. Danahlia, not wanting to move much, props herself up on her elbows. Alice had been ravenous but for some reason didn't feel it until now. Looking over to Lyca, she gets the strangest guilty feeling, like she should offer her something. Cleaned off and with one of Alice's shirts covering the wound that stole her life, the wolf girl looks like she's just sleeping. Alice knows better of course but still feels like the girl might rise, hungry after the day's madness, too. She begins to cry again, thinking of how just yesterday they had been playing in the forest. Danahlia comes to sit beside her, pulling her close.

Alice sniffs and asks, "How did things go so wrong so fast?"

"I don't know," the Liguna whispers.

By morning, Twinkaleni is awake and after breakfast they bury Lyca by the stream, digging her grave with their bare hands. The three gather a few wild flowers to decorate the small hill and use river stones to spell out her name beside it. They mourn her for a time before going through the cloaked man's things.

Danahlia puts on his ring, extends her hand out, and calls, "Adarath!" sending a fireball flying into the air, shocking them all. "Sorry, heh, didn't think it was still loaded," she says, taking the ring off and placing it into Twinkaleni's waiting palm.

Twinkaleni sighs and then announces, "It still has some charge left to it, but it will run out eventually."

"Anyway you can recharge it?" asks Danahlia, reaching for the ring, "Never know when a fireball might come in handy."

Twinkaleni puts the ring away into a pocket, "I don't believe my enchanting skills are at a sufficient level just yet, but perhaps in time."

Danahlia frowns and begins trying to remove the man's red cloak. It's embroidered with an eye within a triangle, the corners of which have three smaller triangles, all in gold thread. Alice finds a coin purse with quite a few coins, many of them gold. She pockets this, not feeling the least bit guilty.

Twinkaleni helps remove the cloak and nods, "As I thought, this too is enchanted, very complex."

"What's it do?" Danahlia asks, tugging it roughly off the man.

"Less now, considering the state it's in," says Twinkaleni, motioning to various cuts and tears in the cloth, "But when it was whole, I believe it could dispel, or perhaps even absorb fire." She pulls the ring from her pocket and nods, "Yes, I feel the connection. The cloak could absorb fire and channel it into the ring, keeping it charged."

"That's nice," grumbles Alice, thinking of all the harm the monster had done with this magic.

Twinkaleni sighs, "I'm sorry, Alice. But this could aid us in more ways than one."

"Dibs," says Danahlia without enthusiasm, pulling the ragged bloody cloak from Twinkaleni's hands. As she does, the strange bauble from before rolls free from it and they all look to see what it is. Attached to a thin metal chain is a corked glass globe-like vial, full of orange ooze. Within the ooze floats what might be a chunk of old meat.

Twinkaleni picks it up gingerly, revealing it to be, "A piece of my tail. He was using it to track me."

"Only a piece? Does that mean they can make more of these things?" asks Alice, looking at the shriveled, strange looking hunk of flesh, dark brown through the orange goo.

"Unfortunately, yes," Twinkaleni admits.

"Great," groans Danahlia.

"However, I believe it will be some time before anyone realizes this agent is no longer… operating. So we should have a long while before they even consider sending anyone else, if they do so at all."

Searching through the rest of the Mustaroni's things, they find a few provisions and another knife, this one plainer, more for utility. After a lingering goodbye to Lyca, the girls decide to head back to the forest dwellers' camp to look for survivors, leaving the weasel for the ferals.

Before they even set foot in the camp, late that day, Alice regrets the decision to come. The harsh stench of burning things is still heavy in the air.

"Maybe we shouldn't," says Danahlia, giving voice to Alice's thoughts.

Tears already falling from her eyes, Twinkaleni stubbornly presses on, "I brought this. I owe it to them to at least look for survivors. Lyca made it out, perhaps others did as well."

But as they enter the camp, Twinkaleni falls to her knees. Some of the huts are still smoking, though most are only piles of ash. And before the cave mouth is a large crumpled form whose long blackened muzzle could only be Philip's.

It wasn't real until then and Alice begins to hyperventilate, feeling like she might throw up, as Danahlia tries to pick up the Murin, "Come on, there's nothin' for us here."

"NO! I have to see!" Twinkaleni cries, tearing away from the Liguna to run into the cave.

"Twinkie, don't!" Danahlia calls, chasing after her.

Alice is hesitant to follow, instead kneeling beside Philip's remains, whispering "I'm so sorry."

She reaches out to him but is afraid to touch the rough looking black and red mass that was once a strong, handsome, and kind young man. Then Twinkaleni screams. Alice runs into the cave, but stops almost immediately, finding the rest of the forest children.

They're huddled together in the darkness of corners, blackened feet and hands sticking out from the shadows. Alice tries not to look at them, she doesn't want to see what they've become. Twinkaleni screams again and Alice carefully makes her way to the back of the cave where she sees her friends by the green glow of the unblemished core stone. Tucked in a tight ball at the very back of the chamber is the smallest of the charred bodies, the core stone a few inches from tiny outstretched fingers.

Twinkaleni screams her rage and grief, the sounds echoing into a horrible chorus within the stone tomb. Alice collapses beside Danahlia and joins her in trying to console the Murin mage, failing to control her own emotions.

An unknown time later, Twinkaleni quiets and says in an unexpectedly calm voice, "I'm going back to the Order."

Danahlia exclaims, "What? Are you crazy? After everything that happened, you're just gonna turn yourself in?!"

"No, Danahlia," the Murin mage says, her tone one of finality, "I'm going back to destroy it."

As she speaks, she turns to them, eyes flaring bright gold once more. And for the first time, Alice is afraid of her.

Epilogue

The girls spend the next few days in the forest dweller's camp in the hopes that the survivors may return. After counting the bodies, they know that at least a handful must have fled as Lyca had. That hope is all that comforts them as they bury their friends in earth and tears. Danahlia begins to shed her skin, not only around the massive burn on her back but everywhere. It alarms Alice when she sees it at first, but the Liguna assures her that it is a natural healing process. Alice then helps remove the thin, semitransparent layers of skin and when finished, Danahlia looks somewhat shiny and slick for a time, her back much improved.

They all have nightmares, though Twinkaleni's seem especially terrible. They carry on even after she wakes, often with her repeating, "It's my fault, it's my fault," over and over. Danahlia and Alice have taken to watching her carefully as, periodically, she will spontaneously start banging her fists against her head. She is distracted for a time when she begins scratching a message into a relatively flat part of the cave wall with the utility knife found on the Mustaroni agent.

It eventually reads, "On this spot, the Order of Thermathrogi murdered sixteen innocent, defenseless children." Along with this, Twinkaleni prints as legibly as she can, the names of the victims. Lyca, Philip, Nesu, and several others are already in stone, but then she begins to hit herself again.

Alice pulls her arms away, afraid she'll hurt herself, and when asked what was wrong, the Murin wails, "I can't remember, I can't remember all their names!"

Danahlia and Alice help, and the two have to make up a few, but having sixteen names carved in stone calms Twinkaleni considerably. Once her work is done, the Murin sets the core stone in a rocky dimple so that anyone who passes will be able to see the message clearly in the green glow. The trio manages to find the first camp that the forest dwellers had led them to, wanting to see if the survivors had rendezvoused there instead. They find no one. They leave food out just in case, and cut a message into a tree saying the main camp is safe. They head back to the cave and wait for one more night but no one ever shows.

In the morning, after they set out more provisions in the hopes that someone will return, Alice says glumly, "I think we've done all we can for them."

Danahlia agrees, "Yeah, let's go. We still have a long road ahead."