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Chapter 6

Hand over hand, inch by painful inch, Caer pulled himself onto the sandy beach. His hair was crusted with salt, skin toughened by the chafing winds, nails lengthened and filed into claws. He was so tired, he could barely keep his eyes open. Slowly, he lowered himself onto the black sands. He breathed in slowly and deeply; he couldn't stop, mustn't let himself rest but for more than a moment. He groaned and pulled himself to his feet, unused muscles screaming in agony. He pressed a hand against the unnaturally smooth cavern wall. How long had it been since that disastrous night in Northreach? In these tunnels, time had no meaning. Night was day, minutes were hours, and days were weeks. Without the burning light of the sun or the silvery moon, there was no way of knowing how much time had passed. His raft had fallen apart a long while ago, shattered by boulders hidden within the water.
He walked slowly through the tunnel, eyes darting left and right, watching for any signs of danger in the near darkness. Caer's ear twitched at the soft skittering coming from down the tunnel. His eyes widened and his nostrils flared as the sound grew louder. Suddenly, everything grew brighter, every color, sharper. He growled, bending his knees and centering his weight with his feet apart, ready to fight. The giant centipede skittered closer to him then suddenly turned down another tunnel. Caer relaxed and his sight dimmed. Caer slowly progressed through the tunnel, limping slightly as he went. His mind had retreated to its most primal state, numbing itself to everything but the desire to survive. When he knew that he could move no longer, he pulled himself into a small cavern off to the side. Setting his pack to the side, he curled up into a small ball and slept.
After a time, Caer awakened and resumed his tiresome journey. Hunger soon began to gnaw at his belly, a burning urge to consume whatever edible thing was in sight. Fortunately, a large cave rat scurried past his feet. Unfortunately, for the rat that is, Caer ruthlessly broke its neck and began to tear it apart, blood covering his lips and hands. When his gruesome task was complete, he was full but not completely satisfied. He carried on. Through winding passages and up steep slopes he wandered, searching for a way to the surface. Finally Caer stopped and listened. His ears twitched, filled with the faint sound of the whistling wind. He breathed deeply, letting the fresher air fill his nostrils with the smells of the surface. He walked slowly upwind, anxious to reach the surface. Soon the path was an upward climb, and every step brought Caer closer and closer to his old self as the instinctual creature that had awakened within him slowly faded away. At last, Caer was at the mouth of the cavern. He took his first steps out and stepped back, pained, as the bright light of day pierced his eyes. He retreated back into the cave, resolved to wait until nightfall.
When night came, Caer stepped beneath a thick leafy canopy. "Where am I?" he asked the night air. He appraised his surroundings, noticing the tall trees, the thick grass, the sound of movement and of flowing water, the scent of life. "This is definitely not the Winterlands," he muttered to himself. He started forward, only to fall to his knees as the world around him started to spin. He held a hand to his head, trying to stop the sudden throbbing. "What is wrong with me?" He tried to stand up, but crashed to the ground as his right leg slipped out from under him. He winced in pain and looked down at his leg. His nose crinkled in disgust. An angry red gash ran from his ankle to his knee, ragged edges tinted a sickly green. "When'd this happen?" he wondered. Then it hit him. "The crash; That must've been how this happened", he thought to himself. He looked back up towards the trees. The leafy branches began to blur and his vision began to fade, but not before he saw a pair of twitchy fluffy ears and shining amber eyes.
A warm, wet something wiped its way along Caer's cheek and startled him awake. The small girl licking his cheek jumped back, hair standing on end. She seemed not a day older than six. "What was that for?" Caer shouted at her, watching as she cowered back and started whimpering like an apologetic puppy. It was then that Caer noticed the twitching brown triangular appendages atop the girl's head. "Come here," he said soothingly, noticing the girl's discomfort, as well as the fluffed tail tucked between her legs. Carefully she walked over to him and sat down. "Have you been helping me?" he asked her, pointing at the bandages that covered his right leg. She smiled and nodded. "Thank you," he said, "sorry for scaring you there." The girl cocked her head to the side as if to say 'all is well, no worries'. Caer tried to push himself up into a sitting position, but was gently held down by the girl who was making little tut-tut motions with her daintily clawed finger. "Brother rest" she whispered softly, hesitantly—as if trying the language out for the very first time. Caer relaxed, whoever this girl was, she obviously cared somewhat about him. "Who are you?" he quietly asked her. She held a finger to her lower lip, a thoughtful look on her face, before drawing a crude figure in the dirt beside a blob with a triangular shaped 'head' with little triangle 'ears' with that selfsame finger. She pointed at the figure, then to him and whispered "Brother" and then to the blob, "Rhia"—she pointed at herself.
Caer looked at her, eyes wide with disbelief. Could it be? He thought back to that fateful day, his seventh birthday, and to the small wolf pup who swatted at his hand. "How about Rhia? It's a very pretty name," he had said then. He blinked his eyes and reached out to touch the small wolf ears on the girl's head. She pushed he head under his hand and allowed him to scratch her ears, a gesture which was rewarded with a purr-like sound and a swiftly wagging tail from the small girl. "So you're really— "
The girl opened her shining amber eyes and bobbed her head. "—and you're like this how?" She looked thoughtful for a moment before answering.
"All of us like this, Brother. We all—" she pointed to herself, "and—" she pointed at her drawing. Caer blinked, still confused. "So…?" She waved her hands in front of her face in an explosive motion, and wiggled her fingers as if to emulate sparkles. "Magic then?" he asked her. She bobbed her head cutely. "Yes, M…ma…mahhjick?"
Caer smiled. "Ma-g-ic, Magic." Rhia smiled, tail wagging with glee, and hugged the boy. She pulled away as his stomach began to rumble. "Brother rest," she said, "I hunt now." Caer nodded and closed his eyes, still trying to process everything that was happening.
Caer woke later to soft muttering and the smell of smoke. Rhia was sitting next to him, holding a small smoking rodent over his head. "Eat Brother," she said to him, proud of her handiwork. Caer smiled. "Good job," he said and ruffled her short hair. Smiled toothily, pulled a small piece of meat off the squirrel with her claws and held it above his mouth. Caer opened his mouth dutifully and allowed the small girl to feed him. For the next few minutes the girl carefully fed her 'brother' the little pieces of meat, only stopping to giggle when one fell into his nose instead of his mouth. When she was done she offered him a small herbal concoction she had prepared to heal his leg or 'fix leg' as she had said. Trusting the small girl he voluntarily swallowed the vile brew, gagging as the thick heavy liquid rolled down his throat. The smell of the thing was so wretched that he passed out…again.
Rhia looked down at her sleeping 'brother' and smiled, tail wagging happily. She'd been living alone for a long time now, but that was all over now that her 'brother' was here. Suddenly she stiffened, ears twitching madly, breathing in the scents of the forest. The tree-lady was coming, she had to hide brother.


The girl grumbled as water splattered onto her face from the trees above, waking her. She scowled at the offending water-bearing leaves. "Great, just great, I've been gone for ten years and I'm finally back, finally sleeping, and I'm caught in a rainstorm." She looked to the sky, almost apologetically, "It's not that I don't like rain," she murmured, "but I was tired." A gentle wind blew past her, assuring her that everything was fine. She leant back against the tree and breathed deeply. It was good to be home, and now that the rain was gone, it was time to check up on things. Slowly, she let herself go, sinking her awareness into her surroundings.
Before she could stretch out any farther than the small ring of trees surrounding her, a small red-orange ball of fur nudged her side with his small black nose, drawing her attention to him as he climbed into her lap. The girl started to run her hand through the small fox's fur absentmindedly. "How long was I asleep?" she asked him, joints popping with every movement. She winced, "Must've been for a few days." She blinked. "Wow. I don't think I've ever slept that long before." The fox glared at her. She sighed. "Yes, I know. I shouldn't have slept that long," she said while ruffling the fur behind the fox's head, "but at least you were here to protect me." The little fox seemed to puff up with pride, his lip curling upwards in a kind of grin. The girl knew she was over-exaggerating his abilities, but now was the time to get on the little fox's good side. Foxes were notoriously proud, and once insulted, infinitely mischievous. She definitely didn't want to get on this one's bad side, even if her father was the Lord of Foxes. She bent over and let the small fox climb onto her shoulder as she asked, "anything interesting happen while I was gone?" The fox looked worried for a moment before yipping softly in the girl's ear. The girl's eyes widened. "What was that?" The fox yipped again. "Is that so? A Fire-Spirit, in my forest?" The girl stood quickly, shaking wispy leaves from her vest as she steadied herself. "Guide me," she whispered to the fox. The fox leapt down from her shoulder and ran in the direction of his quarry. The girl calmly followed.
She soon came upon a tall oak tree in the middle of a clearing, within whose branches lay a calmly slumbering crimson haired man. She stopped. "Get out of my tree Flame-child," she called out commandingly. In an eye's blink, the man was on the side of the tree, like a cat slowly climbing downwards. He snarled and focused his bloodied eyes upon her, the black flame marking on his arms thick and dark like freshly painted ink and waving like tentacles beneath his skin. The man bared his sharpened canines and roared, springing off the side of the tree and towards the girl. Without a thought, the girl lashed out with her magic. Long vines ripped upwards from the ground and snaked towards the leaping creature and coiled around his hands and legs, binding him tightly. In the instant the vines touched his skin, the blood rage melted from his eyes, revealing crystal blue irises. As his other features receded to their previous state, arm markings dimmed and claws and canines shortened, awareness awakened in his countenance.


In an instant, Caer realized three things. One, he was no longer lying down; Two, he wasn't even on the ground; and Three, He was about to come face to face with his new best friend… Dirt. With a loud thud, Caer smashed face first into the soft earth. He tried to lift himself off the ground, only succeeding and rolling himself onto his back. He snarled, seeing his wrists and legs bound by thick rope-like vines. He tried to pull his arms apart, only serving to have the vines tighten around his wrists. It was then that he noticed the girl standing behind him, staring down at him. Wearing undyed leather leggings ,a and a loose deep green shirt seemingly woven from some type of plant with sleeves that ended with a flare at her elbows, and a laced-up brown vest, she towered over him with an imperious look on her face. "Who are you?" he asked angrily. The girl looked down at him. "I'm me, obviously," she replied, casually observing him. Something was definitely off about him, she realized; snarling beast one minute and confused the next. "and I want to know what you are doing in my forest."
Caer laughed softly. "Your forest? What a joke. Where exactly is this place anyway?" he asked her. He glanced down briefly at the vines impeding his movement. They were really starting to bother him. The girl gave no answer as she continued her questioning. He ignored her and focused on the vines around his wrists. If only they would just wither and die, at least he'd be able to get up off the ground then. "These are yours right?" he asked her, nodding towards the vines. She knelt down, and spoke softly into his ear. "Of course they are. I'm not going to let a fire-spirit wander through my forest unchecked. Not after its finally healthy again, after your kind helped destroy it years ago. Caer felt the hot flush of anger touch his cheeks as he attempted to headbutt the girl. "My kind? What is this 'my kind' you speak of? I'm clearly as human as you yourself are. Now get your little plant friends to let me go, and I'll get out of your stupid forest."
She scoffed. "Human?" She looked away for a moment. "Tcha! Like I could trust you anyway; you've already set a fire, how can I trust you not to burn everything else down on your way out?" She gave him a hard glare. He could feel the fire building within him, pure anger. "I have done nothing, NOTHING!" The vines suddenly erupted with flames and blew away as ash in the gentle breeze. The girl scooted back from the man, surprised that he had destroyed her binding so easily. She shrugged mentally. It was a weak one anyway. Caer on the other hand was more intently focused on the subtle fact that tendrils of fire were coiling around his arms and he couldn't feel anything; no pain, no heat, nothing. The girl glanced over at him; he looked like a child with a new toy—curious and innocent. She moved next to him. "Alright, I believe you, but can you please quit it with the fire?" Caer looked up at her. "How?" She looked at him, eyebrow raised. "Think about it." She said. Caer looked at his arms and tried willing the fire to disappear. The flames instantly died. The girl stood up and walked in front of him, gesturing for him to stand. "Let's try this again" she whispered softly to herself as he stood. She looked him in the eye. "Welcome to the Amaranthine, I am Kiritari, it's Guardian." she finished with a small bow. "Your name please?" She looked at him again, noticing the raggedness of his appearance. "Your profession and reason for being here would also be appreciated."
Caer blew a few loose strands out of his face. "My name is Na'Caern, I'm called Caer. I am…was one of the Royal Ice-carvers of Northreach. My reason for being here is…." Caer looked away as the events of the past few weeks brought themselves to his attention once more. A tear slowly dripped from his eye. "I killed a man." Kiritari stiffened, what kind of person had she allowed into her forest? She snapped her fingers, and thicker vines circled around his entire body. "Explain. Now."
Caer sighed. He detested being bound again, yet her reaction was reasonable. "It was an accident," he said slowly. Kiritari crossed her arms over her chest as a look of disbelief crossed her face. How often was it that a man would kill another 'accidentally'? "Fine. It was Prince Arran of Northreach. I was minding my own business when he came and started beating me. I blacked out and when I woke, what was left of him lay at my feet." Kiritari stepped forward, arm raised as if prepared to strike. "NO!" a young voice shouted as a brown blur streaked in between Kiritari and Caer. The little wolf girl stood between her 'brother' and the 'tree-lady'. Rhia stood as tall as she possibly could, her fluffy tail twitching in an agitated manner; she glared at Kiritari, bravely guarding her 'brother'. She growled. "No hurt brother."
Kiritari stopped, puzzled at the appearance of the little wolf girl. She was not one of her wolves, none of the ones in her forest could assume a human shape. She knelt down. "Who might you be little one?" Rhia crossed her arms and stared defiantly at Kiritari, fully aware that the 'tree-lady' could strike her down at any moment. "I Rhia o-of Fenrir's Pack. You no hurt Brother. Master kill you." Kiritari was briefly taken back by the wolf-girl's words. She'd never seen such aggression from one of The Mother's children before. And what did she mean 'brother'? Kiritari inched a little closer to the girl. Rhia growled and stomped her little foot. A puff of air blasted the young woman in the face, blinding her momentarily. When the dust cleared from Kiritari's eyes, she saw the small girl tugging at the vines binding Caer. "Why do you defend a killer?" she asked the girl. "Brother no bad," she said in reply, still struggling with the vines, "Brother save me. Brother 'scape bad one. Cold One. Cold One kill first master"
Kiritari noticed Caer tense up when the girl mentioned Cold One. "Who is this 'Cold One'," she asked him. "She means Lorias," Caer whispered, "Lorias, the Lord of Northreach, The Lord of Ice and Snow." She stiffened. "How do you know this?"
Caer raised an eyebrow. "Considering I was told by the remnant of Khaeras, I think he would know." She looked sharply at him, fear shadowing her features. "No, he's not coming back. He won't burn your forest again." Kiritari sighed in relief. "Good." She waved a hand at Caer and the vines receded. Once free, he rubbed at his arms. "Thanks," he muttered. Rhia hugged his leg, happy that her 'brother' was free again. Caer smiled. Then he remembered that he had just held flames in his bare hand only moments before. "How did I do that?" he thought to himself, his curiosity overcoming his fear of Kiritari and of the question of his humanity and his obvious lack of a stone.
Caer stared at his hand, concentrating on the feeling of the flames that had only recently danced on his fingertips. Power slithered from his arm and out his fingertips in the form of small tongues of fire. "How am I doing this?" he asked no one in particular, "I'm human, I'm not supposed to be able to do this without the stones." Rhia looked up at him. "You Brother, that's why." Caer looked down confusedly at the girl. "That makes no sense whatsoever" he thought to himself.
"It's much simpler, really" Kiritari stated, startling Caer from his reverie. He looked up at her. "How so?"

"You're not Human."