Forest/Fire, Part 2
by Kristine Lee
Read Part 1 "Young Flames"

The trek to the Geyser Chamber took longer than Korg's excitement could last. His initial anticipation at wreaking some more "dis... ray" had worn away to silence, then finally to boredom. He had given up his lead to walk beside Zet and pester him for a while. Then he'd fallen a few paces behind.

"How much farther?" he whined, louder than Zet thought necessary. Then again, Zet thought all whining was unnecessary.

"Much," answered Zet, staring stoically at the path six feet in front of him.

Korg fell silent again, every now and then sighing loudly and pointedly.

A few minutes passed.

"How about now?" Korg asked.

"Now we're even farther away," Zet sneered.

A mistake.

"What?!" Korg screeched to a halt. "Aren't we going to--"

"Yes, yes. I was being facetious."

Zet hadn't stopped walking. Korg reanimated himself and scurried to catch up, temporarily confused into silence by the big word. He sidled up to Zet, who had picked up the pace in irritation.

Korg had been a nuisance the whole way--moreso than usual, because Zet had felt something watching them several times and would have liked to hear better.

"Okay... Zet... but even so, why would you say we weren't any closer, when we have to be, we've been walking so long?"

Zet made a sound of disgust and dismissal. Korg watched him, still expecting a response.

"But--" started Korg.

Zet cocked his head. "Ssh!"

"What is it?" Korg whispered loudly.

Zet straightened. "We're here."

They had reached the mouth of an enormous cavern, with ceilings so high they were lost in the gloom. In the large, flat center of the cavern, a cluster of Magi stood in a rough circle around a central area, milling and chanting. Zet just could make out Agram from this distance, standing a head taller than the other Magi and gesturing his commands with great authority. Zet made for the group, Korg trailing behind, giggling about more "dis... ray!"

* * *

As Korg sniggered and trotted off, Tryn and Barak paused just outside the cavern entrance.

"We should recruit that guy--he's loud enough to keep Evu awake without jellybeans!" Tryn whispered.

Barak smiled faintly but didn't reply. He crouched carefully into a nook in the cavern wall and gestured Tryn to follow.

The space was small--she would be very close to him. She paused for a moment, trying to determine if this was intentional. She couldn't tell, didn't know how to read his features. His inscrutability was probably a product of growing up among so much rock--calm, strong, expressionless. But she'd also seen the pure energy in his eyes. One of these days, she was sure she'd see his full temper unleashed, and when that happened...

"Sometime today..." he whispered.

She smiled and knelt beside him, squeezing shoulder to shoulder.

"We'll wait here until their spell can't be reversed, but before it hits full power," he whispered, this time directly into her ear.

The cavern wall was cold, and damp drafts wafted by. Barak's bare arm against Tryn's, muscles tight even in relaxation, exuded the calm warmth of a cheerful fire. Tryn shivered and leaned closer.

Barak raised his eyebrows, and Tryn blurted out, "It's cold in here. You're warm. You don't mind sharing some of that heat, do you?"

"Glad to be of service." He grinned slightly.

His warm breath gave her delicious chills. She could hear the Core Magi chanting rhythmically in the distance, and although it was a repugnant rhythm of vile words, she felt lulled by Barak's warmth. He smelled faintly smoky and a little wild--kind of metallic, almost like blood. She wondered what she smelled like to him, maybe like pine needles and rich soil.... But she was forgetting their situation. She straightened a little and offered, "I'll send another plith to scout their progress."

Barak nodded, and Tryn felt him watching her as the plith materialized. When it had formed, Tryn patted the plith's tiny head. Both she and Barak watched it disappear around a bend on its way toward the chanting voices.

Tryn's thoughts cast back and forth from Barak's presence beside her to the prospect of being shot from a hole in the ground by a dark geyser. How would they avoid injury as they fell from the plume, assuming they could even reach the site before it erupted? Even if they did eject safely, how could they get away from the geyser's effects? Barak seemed confident, if a little reckless, but what did he have in mind? Tryn was about to ask, when the plith returned and whispered its message in her ear.

"It's time," she said, and undreamed the plith.

Barak nodded and rose swiftly, pulling a transparent ball from his pocket. It seemed to contain nothing but an orange flower of flame, very dim. It rose before them and led the way.

* * *

As they neared the cavern mouth, they became aware of something underneath the sound of the chanting. To Tryn it was like the rush of a great wind in the trees. "Do you hear that?" she asked.

"Yeah," said Barak. "It sounds like steam hissing from a vent."

Tryn chuckled slightly. "You. Always with the volcanoes."

Barak looked at her blankly.

"Never mind," said Tryn. "Let's go."

She peered cautiously into the cavern and saw a gout of energy issuing from the circle of Magi, aimed at the cavern floor. The energy coalesced, writhed around, then swirled up toward the ceiling high above. Blasts of putrid air flung the hair of all in the cavern every which way. It even reached Tryn and Barak in the neck of the tunnel. In this whirl of sensations, both of them failed to sense a shadow clinging to the tunnel ceiling above their heads--a shadow with a slitted pair of softly glowing eyes that regarded them with predatory interest.

Tryn saw the ground within the circle of Magi begin to tremble and ooze tendrils of blackness. Her adrenaline surged as she saw the shadow geyser begin to bubble up. Their window of opportunity was growing brief. She screamed, "The geyser's starting!"

The black trickles became a torrent, and the torrent became a flood that tore the ceiling with a great crack of splitting rock.

Just then, in her peripheral vision, Tryn saw a dark shape fall upon Barak, pushing him back around the last bend of the cave. She whirled and instinctively dreamed a flurry of leaves upon the creature--just enough to turn its attention away from Barak. At the same time Barak's fireball exploded in the creature's face, temporarily blinding it.

As the creature broke free of the storm of leaf and fire and turned toward Tryn, she got a better look at it. "It's some dark breed of hyren!" she yelled. She could see that Barak was still alive and kicking, though he didn't acknowledge her call. Then the evil hyren stalked forward, backing her into the wall. She could smell the rottenness of its breath as it opened its huge jaws.

Scratched and bleeding, Barak leapt to his feet, dreaming an ash hyren. The great red creature swung its head back and forth a moment, orienting itself, before zeroing in on the darkbreed hyren. Tryn jumped aside as the two beasts clashed.

The ash hyren immediately got the better of the situation. It blew volcanic ash upon the darkbreed, obscuring its vision and weakening its attack. But, as the ash whirlwind swirled around the darkbreed, the component ash began to darken and blur, becoming like the stuff of the Shadow Geysers. The darkness crept against the tide, into the ash hyren's mouth, and then plunged down the creature's throat. The hyren fell with a croak and writhed for a moment, suffering some internal trauma, and then its very nature warped. Its legs bent at unnatural angles, its teeth elongated in random directions, and its flaming eyes dimmed. Their pained and wretched darkness gazed upon Barak and Tryn. Tryn watched Barak move closer, dreaming up a pair of arbolits to help the beast. But as he laid a hand upon the hyren's neck, it swiveled drunkenly and spat in his face. Repulsed, Barak backed away. He tapped his ring, then tapped it again.

"It won't undream!" he said, stunned.

The two hyren laughed in unison, an evil malicious sound.

Barak's rage seized him with renewed fury and he raised his hands, preparing to blast the hyren with everything he had.

But Tryn brought up a wall of roots to block the hyren from pursuing. "Barak!" she yelled. "You can't win! Stand and fight, and we lose! Use your head--it's time to run!"

"It seems like that's all I've been doing lately," Barak grumbled.

Tryn looked at him admonishingly. She could see his resolve battling his heated desire to fight and conquer. After a moment, resolve won. The two of them quickly fled into the great cavern.

* * *

Surprised by the sudden arrival of intruders, some of the Core Magi turned uncertainly, afraid to derail the spell in favor of dealing with trifles. Tryn and Barak, blasted by the foul-smelling wind, ran into the fray. A couple of dark Magi moved to block them with their bodies, still chanting, but these attempts didn't stand a chance against hope and desperation.

Tryn and Barak broke free from the circle of bodies and dived into the erupting geyser. It pelted them upward, infusing them with fear--fear both of how this would end and of the nature of the blackness that buoyed them. Smells of death and decay choked them; menacing shapes and textures flowed into and around them. Cold paralyzed their bodies.

Then there was brightness, and they shot into brimstone-scented air. In one crystal moment, Tryn thought, So this is what it's like to fly.

Barak yelled, "Wahooo!" But they shot higher and higher--too high, way too high. When gravity finally took hold, it did so with a vengeance, hurling them down toward a rash of stalagmites thrusting out of the rocky ground.

Tryn was too dazed to feel much of anything except the blind panic of freefall. She was dimly aware that Barak, more accustomed to vertigo, had the presence of mind to dream up a raxis. As the ground rushed toward them, the raxis swept up under Barak, then Tryn, turning their falls into a dipping, horizontal flight. They were too heavy, though, and the raxis rocked unsteadily a few feet above the ground. Then it lost control, dumping them both onto the mountain earth.

They fell a slight distance from each other, cold, gasping, but with no permanent damage. Tryn watched Barak surreptitiously as he lay for a moment, staring in disbelief at familiar terrain--the volcanic region of Cald. A smile lifted the corner of his mouth.

But it soon faded, and Tryn could hear why: soft thuds in the distance. Those would be the creatures from the Core, invading Barak's homeland. Some damage had already been done--much of the area's scrub brush had turned to twisted black sticks. The clean red earth had lost its brightness and smelled faintly of swamp gas. Even the air was thick. Breathing it was like trying to breathe foam. Barak sank back and closed his eyes.

Tryn crawled to him. He lay still, eyes closed, and for a moment it seemed he wasn't moving--wasn't breathing at all. Her heart stopped. But then his chest rose and fell, and a surge of emotion overcame her. She leaned over him gently and kissed his lips.

His eyes flew open, and he sat up. "What the...?"

Tryn leaned back quickly. "I... thought you were unconscious."

He looked at her sideways speculatively, then looked away said, "There's no time for this. This geyser is spewing filth into Cald. I have to stop it before it destroys the whole region!" He gathered himself, rose with a pained groan, and jogged away, pulling the raxis back into dreamland as he did so.

Tryn watched him for a moment, then followed.


Read Part 3 "Men are from Cald, Women are from Naroom"

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