Chapter 46: Into the Storm
The last ship left at dawn after Lord Dux and the other Magisters finally, if reluctantly, boarded the vessel.
Rose pondered on their strained farewell as she stood watching the ship sail off towards the North Western Horizon. Surely they must realise this is the right thing to do…
“Should we not get going now?”
It was Ash, he touched her lightly on the shoulder. Rose had been so preoccupied with her thoughts she hadn’t heard him come up behind her. He was right to be impatient, they should have left immediately, but she had felt her eyes drawn to follow the ship. How long have I been standing here?
Almost everyone she knew had left her now. Those that remained included the three people she treasured most in the world, together with two sparring female Bloods whose motives for being there were so impenetrable that Rose could never hope to decipher them.
“Yes, of course,” she said, pulling her eyes from the rapidly shrinking ships, their sails fluttering in the breeze as they dipped and bobbed towards the dark, imposing mound of Knucker Island. “are the others ready?”
“Yep, Ro-eh-na will be transporting Lee and Auriel,” said Ash, “You’ll be with me if you’re okay with riding with El-on-ah?”
“I’m fine with that,” said Rose, though her neck prickled at the thought of being that close to El-on-ah for any length of time. “How long will it take to get there?”
“A couple of hours, maybe three if we hit bad weather.” Ash flushed, his eyes dipped to the ground. “Rose, before we go, I just wanted to say… I mean I wanted to tell you…”
Rose smiled. She knew what he wanted to say to her, Rose felt it too - the fear that either one or both of them would be killed before either spoke the words, that unspoken truth, which in reality they both already understood.
She placed a finger on his lips and leant in close, placing her mouth on his. Rose’s heart soared as he took her into his arms and she experienced a sensation she had long forgotten - that feeling of belonging, of oneness, of coming home. This single moment is worth everything we have been through. If we can accomplish nothing else, this alone is worth fighting for - the freedom to be able to love without restraint.
“I love you too, Ash.”
He slid his hand over her hair and down, to cradle the nape of her neck.
“I can understand that,” his lips tilted, “but I was only going to ask you not to dig your heels in my back when we took flight.”
“Ash! You are insufferable…” Rose punched his chest playfully.
“It’s true,” Ash winked, “but you love me though.”
“I do,” Rose’s face clouded, “too much…”
Ash tilted her chin forcing her to meet his gaze.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “ I have a good feeling about us. Remember what you said Rose - our time will come.”
“Maybe one day…” Rose struggled to keep the growing sense of doubt from her voice, “everyone will be free to be together like this without fear, and feeling the way we do will be so common that no one will give it a second thought… Maybe, one day… but dreaming won’t get the job done.”
Rose tugged at his hand, and they walked back to join the others waiting at the city gates, their earlier sense of elation rapidly evaporating.
Ro-eh-na’s sylph-like form was transformed into a ferocious looking, red-scaled dragon. The beast stamped and snorted as Auriel and Lee approached.
“Is this safe?” Auriel asked, as Lee pulled her up onto the dragon’s shoulders, “it doesn’t feel safe.”
“We are about to do battle with an army of fyre casting Djinn, and you are worried about one short ride on a dragon,” Lee shook his head, “what’s the point? Either way, we’re all going to die.”
“Lee, you are…” Auriel’s reply was quickly smothered by the sound of beating wings as Ro-eh-na took to the sky.
A second later Ash transfigured into an even larger animal, its vermilion scales glimmering as they caught in the amber light of the sunrise. The enormous beast roared, opening its jaws and spewing out a jet of fyre that melted a mound of snow, causing it to sizzle and steam. The dragon’s wings unfurled and then folded as the animal crouched to enable Rose and El-on-ah to mount.
El-on-ah hesitated as she approached the winged reptile.
“Don’t worry about Ash,” said Rose with a chuckle, “he’s just messing with you.”
“Really?” El-on-ah arched a feathery brow, “hasn’t he heard - we Bloods have absolutely no sense of humour.”
Rose caught the glint in El-on-ah’s eyes as she spoke. Yet, they obviously do.
Rose stepped up onto Ash’s back, pulling El-on-ah up behind her.
“As this was my idea, am I at least going to be allowed to know where we are going?” Said El-on-ah.
“We’re flying to Ogin’s Deep,” said Rose, giving a spontaneous wince when El-on-ah wrapped her arms around Rose’s waist, just as the dragon spread its wings and soared into the air. “We’ll be forming a small welcoming committee for the Afreet.”
“Surely, the Afreet will take the mountain route over the Glacier?” El-on-ah said, “it would be much quicker.”
“I agree, It would be much more direct, and faster,” said Rose, “but Lee has calculated the odds of every plausible scenario, and according to him, by far the most likely course they will use is over the Deep. I trust his logic. Travelling this route allows them to fly at a much lower altitude where the air is relatively warmer. They’ll expect us to be at Isingwilde - so their guard will be down. No one will expect an attack at the Rhodium border.”
Rose found herself smiling as the dragon climbed into the freezing mist. The clouds dampened her hair and droplets formed on her lashes as Rose looked down over the gleaming turrets of Isingwilde dipped in gold as the morning sun rose over the Ice Mountains.
“Hopefully, this will ensure, not only that Lord Dux and the others will be safe,” said Rose, “but the city will remain intact. There is little remaining of my homeland as it is.”
Two hours later they landed on the shores of Ogin’s deep as the sun rose high above the summit of the Ice Mountains and began its voyage across the cobalt skies of Rhodium.
Rose had forgotten how beautiful this place was. A gentle breeze rippled the surface of the water, though it did not appear to have the strength to disturb the thin mist that hung like a silver curtain above the shore.
“This place suits you,” said Ash, his face still glowing as he completed his transformation to Ascendant form, “beautiful, unspoilt, the landscape reborn each day with the shifting of the snow, yet below, ancient rocks eternally determining its true nature.”
Rose had not heard him speak so poetically before. This quest has changed all of us, and he is right, Rhodium is who I am. This land, the Fae and even it’s dragons not only encapsulate the desolation, sadness, and wrath of our ancestors but also, the might of its natural elements… the power of ice.
They camped next to a large knucker hole, bubbling with steaming water fed from the hot springs below. The rocks around the rim were warm and free from ice and snow, and they provided adequate shelter from the icy breeze that whipped over the tundra throughout the night.
Laying their blankets beside the hot rocks, they sat huddled around talking in whispers as the genesis of a plan began to emerge.
Like many of her other plans, Rose was unaware how the idea came to her. It simply formed, like a figure emerging from the mist, the more she studied it, the more distinct and real it became.
Ash outlined the likely route the Afreet would take. He had flown to Aurum only a few days earlier and so was able to take into account the thermals and wind sheer he had experienced.
“Gliding can get pretty hairy over the mountains.” Ash said, chewing on a strip of Tantin, a chewy dried meat the Twocasts used to live on throughout the winter, ”I hate to say this, but I agree with Lee, I think they’ll fly low along the Deep and only turn inland over the snow when they have little other option. They’ll turn North somewhere around here. I guess there is a small chance of them flying out to sea to launch a surprise attack on Isingwilde from Knucker bay, but I doubt they’ll bother.”
“My calculations suggest that they would take the more direct route,” said Lee, “and that is - overland.”
“What do you think Auriel,” said Rose, “have the Afreet any vulnerabilities that we can exploit?”
“Very few,” Auriel said, taking a half chewed piece of Tantin from her mouth. She looked at it with disgust, “I don’t know how you can eat this Ash, it’s revolting.”
“If you’re not going to finish that?” Ash shot her a hopeful look.
Auriel passed him the remainder of her meal.
“The only spells that affect the Afreet are Fyre blocking spells,” said Auriel, “but they’re really only useful as a delaying tactic, no matter how powerful the magic, fyre will not be quelled for long.”
“A small delay may be enough,” said Rose, “I may have access to magic that can do more than simply slow them down. Though, somehow, we would need to corral them, hold the Afreet together in one place for a few seconds. For that, we need the skills of our two Metamorphs.”
Rose glanced towards Ash and Ro-eh-na.
“Don’t tell me,” said Ash, “Red Dragon time again?”
“That might work,” Auriel’s eyes lifted, glinting with a sudden spark of understanding, “the Djinn have a healthy respect for dragons, and their fyre spears will have little effect on the hide of a red dragon. I doubt that they would risk doing battle with them. What do you think Lee?”
“I think,” Lee’s eyes clouded, “that once you realise what a dragon is capable of, any sane being would wish to avoid them.”
By the time they had settled for the night, Rose was content with their plan, though she had not shared any details of the actions she intended to take after Ash and Ro-eh-na had restrained the Afreet.
If El-on-ah had not been there, she would probably have told them all, but no matter how hard she tried, Rose could not shake her suspicions about El-on-ah. So, reluctant to share anything of vital importance with her, Rose had kept her plans to herself. Intuitively, the others seemed to sense her reticence, and none of them pressed her further, not even El-on-ah.
As they settled down for the night, Rose felt a surge of relief. Now, there is just one last thing to do…
While the others slept, huddled together beside the hot rocks surrounding the steaming, softly bubbling knucker hole, Rose stepped out Northwards, onto Rhodium’s rolling ice-covered tundra.
Rain of Fyre
The next morning, as the red fire of dawn, rose beyond the Ice Mountains, so they came.
“Is it them?” Auriel joined Eleanor and Ash who appeared suddenly preoccupied with the skies over the eastern horizon,”is it the Afreet?”
Rose squinted into the distant cloudless sky. At this distance, the approaching hoard appeared about as intimidating as a flock of birds. Rose would have described the red swarm of winged Djinn as elegant even. A murmuration of graceful creatures swooping and diving in perfectly choreographed synchronicity. Strange how often things of beauty turn out to be so deadly…
“It’s them alright,” said El-on-ah, “I recognise the formation, there must be tens of thousands of them, Ka must’ve mobilised his entire Army. Evidently, he doesn’t intend to make the same mistake he made last time.”
Lee stirred, pulling back the covers of his makeshift bedding. Seemingly confused, he looked around at the vacant, discarded blankets around him.
“how long will it take them to get here?” Rose rested a hand lightly on Ash’s arm.
“Minutes,” said Ash, “we need to move quickly. Rose, are you sure you know what you’re doing?”
“I am never sure what I’m doing,” said Rose, “but it appears that some part of me has little doubt. So, we should get started. Good luck everyone.” Squeezing Ash’s arm, Rose hesitated. “Remember what I told you, Ash.”
It took all of her strength not to lean over and kiss him. She willed him to hear her thoughts. Please, please, come back…
“You have no need to worry about me, Rose,” Ash winked, casting her a lopsided grin. “You know me, I’m the epitome of caution.”
“Right,” said Lee, “Like Ka is the epitome of restraint…”
“Who said that?” Ash raised his brows in mock surprise, “Oh Lee, it’s you! I thought you’d decided to skip the battle to catch up on lost sleep.”
“Really?,” Lee raised an eyebrow,”You think this is the right time to make fun of me?”
“I don’t think there will ever be a wrong time to poke fun at you, my friend,” Ash slapped Lee affectionately on the shoulder, “just keep safe eh?”
Within seconds everyone had taken up their agreed positions. El-on-ah moved swiftly North, about fifty feet, where she climbed up onto the lip of a large knucker hole. Lee went South a similar distance. Shivering, he pulled his cloak around him as he trudged along the Northern shoreline of Ogin’s Deep.
Rose and Auriel stayed close to the knucker hole, watching as Ash and Ro-eh-na transfigured, their forms shifting once again, into those of two great red dragons, before spreading their wings and climbing effortlessly into the skies above them.
“This is going to work,” said Auriel, sounding as if she were attempting to convince herself as much as Rose, though her words betrayed her uncertainty. “If the prophecy is to be believed this has to work…”
“You could sound a little bit more confident,” Rose felt her lips twitch, but the smile was short-lived.
Her face, turned to the skies, Rose followed the path of the two red dragons flying above them, and as she caught sight of the approaching Djinn, her breath stilled in her throat. A vast red cloud came sweeping towards them and their advance heralded by the beating of thousands of leathery wings and the howling cry of the Afreet.
Rose felt her skin prickle as the sky above blackened, the creatures casting their malevolent shadows over the snow covered tundra, like messengers of doom. We come, bringing a storm of fyre and death, and there is no stopping us…
“Get behind me,” Rose grabbed Auriel, swinging her around and stepping forward to shield her friend.
Rose’s white cloak billowed in the rush of the approaching tempest, the wings of the Afreet whipping the air into a frenzy. They were almost upon her now, Rose could even make out their uniforms and the fyre spears that brought so much destruction, but they were maintaining their course. She felt a rush of hope. They’ve not yet seen us.
Rose glanced towards Lee who, having pushed his cloak back from his shoulders, had his right hand raised in readiness. He nodded as he saw her expression.
Rose spun around gesturing towards El-on-ah. Get ready.
Their plan was working, the Afreet seemed to be actively avoiding the two dragons and were being rapidly corralled into a group. Rose looked on in awe, grinning with pride as she watched Ash swoop and dive in the air above her. It’s like watching sheep dogs herding sheep.
Ash and Ro-eh-na were flying parallel to one another, an army of red-scaled, winged Djinn between them, channelled forwards towards Rose in a rapidly compressing funnel.
Rose gasped as the crimson and black cloud swirled above her. Surely they must see us soon…
As if hearing her thoughts a screeching cry deafened their ears, seconds before a bolt of fyre streaked through the air towards Rose and Auriel.
“Tenere ignis,” Lee reacted instantly.
A bolt of red light shot from his potens ring, blocking the passage of the ball of flame, which hung in the air like a wasp captured in amber.
Above, the Afreet raised their fyre spears, casting hundreds of fyre balls towards Rose and Auriel.
Lee and El-on-ah blocked them again, holding the bolts of red fyre with their magic until the sky was littered with fiery spheres hanging like paper lanterns above them.
“It’s almost time,” Rose spoke in hushed tones, though she did not know why. Her voice sounded strange, tired and old, like Elder. “Look…”
Ash and Ro-eh-na flew parallel to one another taking up positions on opposite sides of the vast crimson cloud. The two dragons moved like lightening, circling the hoard of Afreet, corralling the grotesque flying lizards like two nimble carp surrounding a school of minnows.
“Auriel, if this doesn’t work,” Rose said, raising her right hand, “get into the knucker hole.”
“It will work,” said Auriel, “Lord Eldwyn did not predict your demise at the hands of the Afreet.”
Rose shrugged. “There is much that Lord Eldwyn did not predict,” she said, flicking her wrist forward, as if she were merely swatting away a fly,“Duratus!”
As Rose cast the ice charm, a fountain of silver white energy sprung from her ring. Millions of glistening particles streaked through the air, spreading like tiny shivers of ice, instantly freezing the atmosphere and trapping the Afreet within an enormous frozen monolith, which towered above them like an icy tomb.
Inside the gigantic crystal structure, the astonished faces of ten thousand Djinn looked out at the slight figure of a female Whyte Ascendant.
“You did it!” Said Auriel, “I knew you would…”
“Then why do you sound so relieved?” Said Lee, joining them.
“I’m just pleased that no one got hurt,” said Auriel, “my trust in Rose and feelings of relief are not incompatible.”
“I would not know,” said Lee, “emotions are a mystery to me.”
“Yeah, sure they are,” Ash said with a smirk, as he and Ro-eh-na rejoined the group.
El-on-ah was the last to return, her pace slow as her eyes gazed upward at the massive crystal sepulchre.
“An impressive spell,” El-on-ah’s brow furrowed as she neared the group, “but I fear it will not hold. Cracks are appearing in the ice already. Fyre runs through the veins of the Djinn, their body temperatures run high, you cannot expect to halt them with ice.”
As if to underline her words a loud crack sounded above them. A huge chunk of ice fractured, splitting away from the tower directly above Rose. “Obsepio!” Instantly El-on-ah flung out her arm, her potens ring delivering a stream of scarlet energy towards the centre of the shard, knocking it backwards and diverting its path. It fell with a thunderous crash a few feet away from them.
“Thank you El-on-ah,” said Rose, “that block was also impressive. In answer to your point, however, my spell is not designed to hold them indefinitely, merely to contain them. This way we will not have to fight them all at once. As the ice thaws, it will release them spasmodically, in short bursts, which means we will able to pick them off a little easier.”
“I don’t understand,” said El-on-ah, “the Djinn are immortals, our magic alone cannot kill them, the only option we have is to imprison them.”
“You are absolutely correct El-on-ah, alone, our magic cannot kill them,” Rose gestured beyond her, towards the Northern Tundra, “but we are not alone…”
Billowing up from the Northern snow lands was a dense, shimmering, silver-white fog heading towards them at speed.
“A blizzard?” El-on-ah squinted into the distance, shaking her head, “no… it’s much too localised.”
As the rolling miasma approached, it was accompanied by a soft, pulsating, wailing cry.
El-on-ah rapidly formed an attack pose, raising her ringed hand towards the wall of cloud.
“Our magic will not work on the Fae,” Rose could not suppress a small smile of pleasure, as she took in El-on-ah’s sudden fearful expression. Yet another Blood who has trouble in complying with the no displays of emotion directive.
The fog grew more opaque as it approached, shimmering in the sunlight as billions of tiny crystals eddied and danced within the miasma.
“The Fae hate we Bloods…” El-on-ah’s black eyes widened, as what little colour she had drained from her face, “and they are known to be deadly, even to immortals.”
“Exactly!” A light breeze caught Rose’s hair, making it swirl around her like a silken cloak.
Rose focussed her attention on the fog, which stalled and now swirled and shifted, hovering a few inches above the tundra a few yards in front of them. She watched the familiar shapes moving within the miasma - tall, thin ghostly figures. These extraordinary, dynamic forms materialised, expanded and merged only to disperse and vanish seconds later.
Ribbons of mist drifted towards them like the fronds of some ethereal creeper twisting and curling in the air. The breeze caressed Rose’s skin, bringing with it the aroma of Snow roses. The effect was mesmerising. Rose felt a sudden warmth, like arriving home. My people…
A loud crack jolted them out of their reverie as another boulder of ice tumbled to the ground releasing a single Afreet officer, who dived straight towards them, his fyre spear aimed directly at Rose.
A form flew out from the cloud. Letting out a long blood-curdling screech, a single female Fae streaked rapidly towards the Djinn, gliding over the tundra like some ghostly eagle owl intent on charging its prey.
The wraithlike creature shot over their heads, an emaciated, transparent phantom, peppered with ragged black holes, punched out from its substance like silver cobwebs shattered by stones.
The two creatures collided, ice meeting fyre. The effect was instantaneous and catastrophic. The explosion created a blast that knocked Rose and the others to the ground and sent them skidding over the snow and ice until they hit the raised edge of the knucker hole.
The Fae woman hit the Afreet officer, piercing him like an icy arrow and freezing him instantly. The Djinn’s body shattered into thousands of sparkling, glass-like fragments that scattered over the snow like multi-coloured jewels.
Another crash, then another, as one by one, the Djinn broke free and one by one the Fae attacked. The air rang with thunder as the ice tower finally tumbled to the ground.
Rose and the others stood beneath a swirling maelstrom, their ears deafened by the screeching war cries of the Afreet and the wailing of the Fae as wave upon wave of them made their attack.
When finally the silence of the snow blanketed tundra was restored and the Fae, once more, became shrouded in mist, the only remaining evidence of the battle of Ogin’s Deep, were a few scattered fragments of coloured glass. These last, icy remnants of the Afreet army, slowly melted into the snow.