Dristan’s hand occasionally brushed against mine as we descended the seemingly endless spiral staircase that led to the sub-levels of the Aviary. The others trailed behind us. It was silent aside from the echoing of our footsteps on the stone.
At first, the stairwell had been massive. But the father down we went, the more narrow it became. Near the top, we could’ve all walked side by side down the stairs and had plenty of room. Now, it was nearly a single file line.
I’d dressed in my fighting leathers, matching the others. The clothes were good protection, and they were easy to move in. But I hadn’t thought about the heat.
My brow was beginning to sweat as the heat grew stronger. Even with the sub-levels sealed off by this magical door, it was still not enough to keep the heat contained. Leather had not been a good choice at all.
Just as I was starting to think that we’d never reach the bottom, the stairwell finally spat us out into a long, wide hallway. At the end of the long corridor was a set of heavy, metallic looking, double doors.
“Here it is.” Dristan said, taking my hand and leading me slowly down the hallway.
“What is that gods awful smell?” Ronan said in disgust as he trailed behind us. I glanced over my shoulder and caught sight of his face, which looked as if he were about to vomit.
“It wasn’t me.” Warrick chuckled as he strode past Ronan and came to walk at Dristan’s side. I rolled my eyes.
Dristan shook his head at him with a small smile before glancing over his shoulder toward Ronan. “It’s sulfur.”
“It’s repulsive.” Ronan complained, covering his mouth and nose with the crook of his inner elbow.
“If you can’t handle it now, you may want to rethink going beyond the doors. It’ll be twice as bad.” Andromeda said from behind him. Torryn walked by her side, smirking at the floor.
“I didn’t say I couldn’t handle it.” Ronan said with a roll of his eyes.
“It is quite horrid.” I said agreeably, wrinkling my nose.
Reaching the end of the hall, we stopped, and my eyes trailed from the floor, all the way up the double doors , and stopped at the ceiling. The doors seemed to be covered with some sort of transparent, jelly like material. It seemed to move subtly, undulating up and down the metal doors.
“What is it?” I asked in wonderment, reaching toward the strange material.
Dristan caught my wrist, gently yet firmly. “Don’t touch it. It’s ward magic. Like the one around the Aviary that we passed through when we came here.”
I turned to look at him. “Why can’t I touch it?”
He lowered his hand, taking my wrist with it. His fingers twined with mine as our hands came to rest at our sides. “This ward magic is more powerful. It has to be, so that the lava and heat will remain contained. If anyone besides me touches the doors, they will imminently fall unconscious and the magic within the spell will send a shock wave to my consciousness, alerting me that someone has tried to open the doors.”
I stared at him curiously as he brushed his thumb over the back of my hand.
“Why would anyone want to open the doors? Why go through so much trouble to keep it so secure?” I asked.
The corner of his lip turned up. “You’ll see.” He said mysteriously.
Warrick chuckled, sending Andi and Torryn some secret look. They smirked back briefly. Ronan looked between the dragons, his expression just as puzzled as mine. When his dumbfounded eyes met with mine, he smiled at me.
“Dragons, eh?” He said with a shrug.
Dristan growled softly in the back of his throat, signaling for Ronan to watch what he said next. Ronan’s smile only grew larger, and he sent me a secret wink when the other’s weren’t looking. I rolled my eyes at him before facing the door once more.
“Let’s just do this as quickly as possible. Between the smell and the heat, it’s not going to be pleasant in there.” I said, eyeing the door with skepticism.
“Yes, and I won’t be able to hold these doors open forever.” Dristan said darkly. “I can hold it for about twenty minutes at the most.”
My spine tingled at the warning in his tone. “What happens if we don’t get back to the doors in time?”
“We will.” Warrick said sharply.
I turned to look at him at the same time Dristan did. Their eyes met, and I stared at the side of their faces. Warrick’s eyes shimmered with fierce determination and Dristan gave him a single, sturdy nod of his head in response.
Dristan turned back to me. “Let Ronan lead you. He will be able to sense the presence of a rune if there is one. Get it and then get out of there.”
I nodded slowly. “What if it isn’t there?”
“Then we will have to look somewhere else.”
“What if it’s there, but I can’t get to it in time?”
“Then we will try again when my powers have revived. Holding the doors is going to drain me.” He answered, his eyes sparkling down at me like two deep pits of liquid cerulean.
“How long will we have to wait?” I asked.
His nostrils flared. “So many questions...”
I stared back at him defiantly as he stared me down. Finally, he closed his eyes and sighed deeply through his nose. His shoulders relaxed. “It’s hard to say. It could take a day. It could take a week. It depends on how long I have to hold the doors open. Ideally, you should try to be in and out within ten minutes. But if you take twenty... My magic will almost completely deplete. It will take several days to recover.”
My jaw clenched in frustration. “We can’t wait that long. We can’t keep wasting time.”
“Then find the rune, and get your ass back to the doors.” He growled softly.
I stared into his eyes, confused at his harshness. Reaching out mentally, I tasted his mood. Immediately, I winced.
He was very agitated. Not at me... But because he could not go with me. He was afraid for me. And he knew that once I passed through the doors, he’d be helplessly stuck there until I returned.
He didn’t like it.
Not one bit.
Forgetting there were others around us, or perhaps simply not caring, I reached out and brushed my hand over his jawline. The stubble of his beard felt like sandpaper against my skin.
“You’re worried.” I said gently.
He stared down at me, his ocean depths alternating slowly between my own eyes. “Of course I am.”
I smiled briefly, my hand still upon his cheek. “Stop it. I’ll be just fine you silly, overprotective lizard”
The corner of his lip quirked upward, but fell instantly as Warrick and Torryn both burst out laughing behind us.
Dristan growled, baring his teeth, his eyes still boring into mine. Hesitating, he tore his gaze away from me and turned to face his first and second in command.
I pressed my lips together, wishing I’d held my tongue, as my eyes met with Andromeda’s. She was leaning against the wall with her arms crossed, a small smile playing about her lips. When she noticed my meek expression, she raised her brow and grinned, as if to say, “Don’t-Worry-They-Do-This-All-The-Time-Better-Get-Used-To-It”.
“Ov-Over... P-Protective... LIZARD!!” Warrick sputtered between bursts of laughter. Torryn nudged him in the ribs as they double over, and when they met eyes, it only made them laugh harder.
I’d never seen Torryn laugh like this before. Warrick had a sense of humor, but I’d never seen him this undone. I rather liked the sight of them like this, so I couldn’t truly bring myself to feel that bad at Dristan’s expense.
Even Ronan let out a strangled chuckle before he subtly covered his mouth with his hand, rubbing his nose as if he’d sneezed.
“Not the time to be testing me.” Dristan snarled, stepping toward the two giggling dragons.
“What are you going to do?” Torryn chuckled, straightening himself. “Scratch us with your...” He took a deep breath. “Your little lizard claws?”
He and Warrick both started laughing even harder than before, holding their stomachs as they did.
Before I could blink, Dristan growled, lifted his hand, and snapped his fingers.
Torryn and Warrick both flew toward each other, and as their foreheads collided with immense force, I thought perhaps they might’ve both had fractures.
“Ouch!” Warrick complained as he stumbled backward, clutching a hand to his head.
“You son of a-” Torryn began.
“You two had best shut your gods damned mouths. This is serious. If you can’t control your bad senses of humor, maybe we should abandon this mission and come back another day.” Dristan snapped.
Torryn rubbed his forehead, growling softly.
Warrick rolled his eyes. “Just trying to lighten the mood.” He grumbled.
“Dristan, calm down.” I complained, grabbing his hand.
He turned toward me, his face annoyed. “I’m perfectly calm. If I weren’t, these two would be suffering from much more than a bump on the head right now.”
Ronan snorted from behind us. Dristan began to turn toward him, but I caught his face in my hands, forcing him to look down at me.
“Enough.” I said firmly. “We have work to do. You can all measure and compare your manhood later.”
I heard Andi snicker.
He stared down at me, his eyes flaming. After a few beats, the corner of his lip twitched upward. As the flames within his ocean orbs dwindled and finally died out, he grinned. He leaned forward and pressed his forehead to mine.
“You’ll pay for this, later.” He said softly.
His gentle threat had enough bite that I knew he wasn’t lying.
“Ha...” I laughed sarcastically. Purposefully, I pulled my lower lip between my teeth and bit down briefly, before quickly letting it go again. “Oh, drat...” I whispered deviously.
His eyes flashed with shock, followed by instant anger, and then an unmistakable hint of desire. I couldn’t contain the ear splitting grin that spread across my lips as I watched his reaction to my daring words.
He growled. “You’re going to regret that, too-”
I spun away from him, interrupting him before he could threaten me further. “Alright, is everyone ready?” I asked, smiling pleasantly.
I ignored the soft growling from behind me as my eyes alternated between my companions.
“Born that way.” Warrick said, flashing me a white smile full of sharp teeth.
“Let’s do it.” Torryn agreed, his wings flaring behind him.
“About damn time.” Ronan said, rolling his eyes.
“Good.” I said, beaming at them. “Andromeda, you should stay here. If we are taking too long, we’ll need someone to come and check on us to make sure nothing’s happened.”
She nodded. “Good idea.”
I turned toward Dristan, who I could’ve sworn literally had steam coming out of his ears.
“Whenever you’re ready, mate.” I said innocently.
He stared at me stone faced before a brief smile lit up his face. Then, he turned and lifted both of his hands toward the doors.
His palms hovered above the strange, jelly like film covering the door, and I held my breath in anticipation. I watched in amazement as his palms began to glow with soft, golden light, much like the one that appeared around him whenever he shifted forms.
“Yn agored.” His voice boomed loudly.
I took a step back as the doors began to tremble, and the translucent film on the doors began to dissolve. The doors suddenly split, and a red glow became visible through the crack between them.
I took a step forward, entranced by the emerging light, but I was pulled back by strong hands. I glanced over my shoulder and found Warrick staring down at me. His eyes, once filled with laughter, were now stern.
The doors shook, and the ground beneath my feet began to vibrate with the force of it. I tried to remain composed as the doors widened further, and a blast of scorching hot air washed over my body. I squinted my eyes, suddenly afraid my lashes might burn off.
My skin immediately began to sweat even more profusely than it already had been. The red glow from beyond the door engulfed the hallway, painting each of us with an eerie, orange light.
Dristan grunted, moving his hands outward as he forced the doors to open completely. He snapped his wrists to the side, and the doors follow his motion, flying wide open and remaining that way as my mate held his arms out to his sides.
The trembling ceased, and Dristan’s shoulders slumped in relief as the doors stilled. His hands still glowed with the soft, golden light as he looked at us over his shoulder.
“Go.” He grunted.
Torryn crossed the threshold first, and a wave of hot wind swept his blonde hair back as he did. Warrick was next. As he passed Dristan, he paused to look him in the eyes.
“Take care of her.” Dristan murmured.
“I will protect her with my life.” Warrick answered, placing his hand on Dristan’s shoulder. “I promise.”
Dristan nodded and Warrick passed through the doorway, trailing behind Torryn.
Ronan pushed past me, and didn’t give Dristan a second glance as he strode through the doors.
I hesitated, suddenly feeling very nervous. The reality of venturing into the core of a volcano suddenly hit me, and I felt my throat bob as I stared at the glowing, red doorway.
My mind knew that we had to go. But my body did not want to move forward.
I shook my head, trying to rid myself of the sudden anxiety, and forced myself to walk. I tried to control the shaking of my knees. I stopped at my mate’s side, turning to study his face.
Sweat trailed down his temple, and he looked to be under a great deal of stress. His brows were furrowed with the effort he was using to hold the doors, and I knew that he was worried. But he smiled at me, all the same.
“I love you.” I reminded him.
“I love you, too.” He whispered, his eyes serious.
I stretched up onto my tiptoes, careful not to move too quickly and break his concentration. He closed his eyes as I planted a tender kiss on his lips.
When I pulled away, his throat bobbed. “Hurry back to me.” He breathed.
I nodded, determination settling into my bones, and turned away from him. Without another moment of hesitation, I stepped over the threshold, and into the pits of hell.
The sub-levels were twice as daunting as I’d thought they would be. The long hallway we’d delved into eventually led out and into a huge, open space. The cavern was round. Small walkways and stone bridges had been built all around it, reaching across the wide open pit in the center.
I crept closer to the edge and peered over the side, holding onto the stone ledge for support. Far below, red hot, molten lava bubbled and boiled like a giant stew of certain death.
I gulped in fear as I stepped away from the ledge, and walked as close to the wall as possible. Warrick walked beside me, guarding my exposed side from the ledge. Torryn trailed behind us, guarding my back.
Curiosity crept up my spine. “Warrick?”
I bit my lip. “What would happen to one of us if we fell into the lava? I mean... We can’t die unless silver gets into our bloodstream... I know I wouldn’t die if I fell into the lava, but I’m still afraid of it.”
He hesitated a moment as he stared ahead, walking slowly and carefully. “You’re right to be afraid, Brenya. True, we would not die if we fell in... But being injured that badly would leave a very ugly mark.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, you would heal, over a long period of time. But your body would be scarred, forever. If you fell into the lava, you’d probably be deformed, bald, and covered in burn scars from head to toe.” He explained. “It is hard to say. No one I know has ever fallen into lava before.”
I let out a huff of breath. “Gods...”
“Yes... Just because we are practically immortal does not mean that we are invincible. There are always consequences, some of which many would agree are far worse than death. You must always be cautious, even though you have healing abilities.”
I nodded slowly, turning my gaze forward. “Well, I feel much better now. Thanks a lot.”
He chuckled softly. “Sorry.”
Ronan slowed in front of us, and turned to face me. Beads of sweat were running down his face, mirroring my own. I could feel sweat rolling off of my temples, dampening my hair.
“I’m starting to feel something.” Ronan said, furrowing his brows.
“Great.” I said hopefully.
“It’s... strange.” He said, glancing toward the lava pit. “I’ve never felt power like this before. And it seems to be very far away...”
My hope fizzled and died in my chest. “Far away?”
“Yes, but... Close at the same time. I can’t explain it.” He answered, wiping his brow with the back of his hand. “It’s like it’s buried.”
My brows pulled toward each other. “That doesn’t sound good...”
He sighed. “Lets keep going. I can feel it growing stronger. I just need to follow it...”
“Lead the way.” Warrick said, nodding his horned head.
Ronan turned, continuing on, and we followed hastily.
“The path narrows ahead. Watch your step.” Torryn warned from behind us.
He had obviously been down here before, and I briefly wondered why.
Ronan pressed against the wall as the path, indeed, began to narrow, and he crept around a corner up ahead. Warrick slipped in front of me, and held his hand out for me to take. I gripped his hand, which was slick with sweat just like mine, as Torryn came closer to my back.
“Don’t worry.” Torryn said gently. “We won’t let you fall.”
I glanced at him over my shoulder and smiled. “Thank you.”
Warrick guided me around the corner, and I tried not to look down. The path was so narrow that I couldn’t walk normally. I had to place one foot in front of the other, careful to keep my balance. One wrong move by any of us, and we’d fall.
As we turned the corner, the red glow from below became even brighter, and my eyes widened as we emerged into a larger, hollowed out cavern. This room was circular as well, and had one, single bridge stretching over the empty space of its core. The bowels of the space were covered with the biggest pit of lava I’d seen so far.
But it wasn’t the size of the room, or the gargantuan pit of lava beneath it, that made me gasp.
High above, surrounding the space, every nook, cranny, and ledge sparkled with treasure. Gold, and silver, and jewles of every color I could imagine, adorned the walls. Mounds upon mounds of golden coins, and jewels rested upon every flat surface I could see.
“Gods above...” I whispered, marveling at the vast collection of fortune.
So this was why the sub-levels were so heavily protected. All of the dragon’s treasure was kept here, hidden away from the world. No wonder the Aviary was so well kept... It was funded by seemingly endless fortune.
Ronan let out a low whistle. “Sheesh... So, this is where you dragon’s hide your stolen wealth.”
Warrick growled in front of me. “We haven’t stolen any of it. It is from our past generations. We did not put it here.”
“And yet you keep it hidden. Protected. I’m willing to bet that most of this belongs to several of the Fae you keep imprisoned in this hunk of rock.”
“You know not what you speak of!” Warrick snarled. “Dristan has been using this wealth to care for all of us, including the Fae. He is trying to right the wrong that has been committed by our elders.”
“He should give it back to them.” Ronan countered.
“He plans to. Once the war is over. They have no use of it now. He is providing for them, keeping them alive, keeping them safe. He is training them, feeding them. He is doing everything he can. When the war is won, he plans to distribute the wealth equally among the people, so that everyone can rebuild and renew their lives.” Torryn said darkly.
Ronan was silent, his face blank. Then, his expression broke out into a sarcastic grin as he turned away from us.
Pride surged through my being as Torryn and Warrick’s words rang through the cavern. My mate... He was truly pure of heart. No matter how much he liked to tell himself that he wasn’t. He would always do right by the people, in the end.
“I’m being drawn to that bridge...” Ronan said, changing the subject. His cold voice echoed off of the rocky walls.
I eyed the rickety looking bridge warily. “Is it safe?”
“All of the bridges down here are preserved with magic so that the heat does not destroy them. It will hold.” Warrick said reassuringly.
I sighed in relief. “Alright...”
Ronan edged toward the mouth of the bridge, using his foot to test it’s stability. It held his weight, so he stepped onto it carefully. “I can sense it... Can you feel it too, princess?”
I tilted my head to the side. Could I?
I closed my eyes and mentally reached out with my power, trying to see if I could sense anything other than flame, and danger, and anxiety.
My eyes flew open.
“Yes!” I gasped. “I-I feel it...”
Something was here. I couldn’t quite place the sensation as I felt it with my mind. I’d never felt anything quite like it before.
It was ancient. It was powerful, and enticing. It was something that screamed danger, but also drew me in with it’s beauty, like a moth to a flame.
Somewhere, toward the bridge, there was a source of immense magic. It pulsed against my consciousness, caressing my heart with gentle, ghostly fingers. My heart thundered as the pulsating power strummed me like an instrument.
If I ignored the sensation, blocked it out, it was almost unnoticeable. But if I concentrated, and found it again, it was loud, and consuming, like the beating of war drums.
Ronan took three steps, and before Warrick could follow, I pushed past him.
“Brenya, wait.” Warrick warned, catching my wrist. “You must be careful.”
“I’m fine, Warrick. I can feel it... I need to find it...” I said, tugging against his hold.
“Just... stay close to Ronan. Stay close to one of us, at all times.” He said, letting go.
“I will.” I said, turning away from him.
I crossed to the middle of the bridge, more quickly than I probably should have, stopping only when I met Ronan’s back. I glanced over my shoulder to find Warrick and Torryn slowly making their way toward us.
The bridge swayed with their movement, and I subconsciously reached for Ronan’s hand.
He took it eagerly, twining his fingers with mine. He turned toward me, staring down into my wide eyes. “You feel it, don’t you.”
It wasn’t a question.
“Yes.” I whispered, staring up at him.
The red glow of the lava reflected in his orbs, making him look dark and ominous. It was as if the pits of hell were not below us, but in his eyes. “I’ve never felt power this strong.” He said in soft amazement.
I lowered my gaze, following the pull of the magic, trying to source it. Through the spaces between the boards of the bridge, I could see the boiling lava below.
The pull was coming from it...
The throbbing power told me not to move forward, nor back. The rune was not on the other end of the bridge. It was not on either end.
It was here.
Right here. Where I was standing.
I was confused.
“It’s... It’s here... But how? Where?” I whispered, lifting my gaze back to him.
“I think...” His brows furrowed as he gazed around us. “I think it’s buried.”
“Buried?” My eyes grew in horror. He wasn’t suggesting...?
“It’s beneath the lava.” He said, settling his gaze back on mine.
I felt Warrick come up behind me. “Why have you stopped?” He asked impatiently.
“It’s here.” I said distantly, my fear growing larger.
How the hell was I supposed to get to the rune if it was beneath the lava?
“What? Where?” Torryn said, glancing around us.
I shook my head, turning toward the dragons. “It’s not here... It’s there.” I pointed down, toward the pit of magma bubbling below us.
Warrick glanced down, and then back up, his eyes instantly registering what I was implying.
Ronan’s hands grapsed my shoulders, turning me toward him again.
“Brenya...” He said gently. I tried to recall the last time he’d called me by my name, instead of addressing me as ‘princess’.
“You have to use your power. You can control fire, which means you can control lava. You can get to the rune, Brenya.”
“No.” Warrick snarled from behind me. “She hasn’t trained yet. It’s too dangerous.”
Logic and determination battled inside of my mind as I stared up into Ronan’s powder blue depths. There wasn’t time. We’d wasted enough time, already. If we didn’t get the rune now, we’d have to wait even longer so that I could train and Dristan’s power could regenerate. Then we would have to come back and get it. It would take too long.
“I can do it.” I said sternly.
Ronan’s eyes flashed with satisfaction just before I whirled to face Warrick.
“Time isn’t on our side, and you know it. I can do this, Warrick. I know I can. Just let me try... If I can’t, we’ll leave.” I begged.
He stared down at me in contemplation. “We’ve already been in here for five minutes. It’ll take five more to get back. I’ll give you five minutes, then we’re leaving.”
“Dristan said we had twenty minutes!” Ronan protested.
Warricks eyes shifted to him over my shoulder. “Twenty is the maximum. I won’t risk it. We need breathing room so that the doors do not close. Five minutes.”
“I can do it.” I said again.
“Hurry.” Warrick said, shifting his eyes back to mine.
I turned to Ronan. He gave me a single nod, encouraging me.
Taking an unsteady breath, I turned to the side and leaned over the bridge. I peered over the side, focusing my magic to find exactly where the rune was located. My eyes swept over the simmering heat, searching for it...
“There.” I said, pointing toward the lava, just a few feet out from where we were standing on the bridge. “It’s right there.”
“Try to relax your mind. Don’t think about how much time you have. Just calm your magic.” Ronan instructed.
I listened, closing my eyes as the throbbing of the rune reached out to me.
My chaotic mind buzzed like a swarm of trapped, angry bees. Reaching into the pool of magic inside me, I attempted to silence my vibrational thoughts.
I thought of Dristan. I thought of his gentle, sapphire eyes, and the way his warm, rough hands felt on my face. I thought of the fact that he was mine, and always would be. I thought of how happy the people would be when I finally defeated the king. I thought of peace.
And my mind quieted.
I could feel it... The magic within me. It shimmered, bright and warm in the center of my soul, like an inviting pond in the summer time. The pool was deep, and wide, and seemed to be endless. But I knew that it wasn’t. It had an end. And I had to be very cautious not to drain it.
My eyes fluttered open as I took hold of the power inside of me, calmly and gently, as if I were picking up a frightened animal. I extended my hands outward, palms facing the lava, as I focused on the energy within the pits of fire.
I had manipulated the earth before. I knew that I could do the same now, with the flaming liquid below. It seemed to call out to me as I stared at it, silently marveling at the powerful majesty of the naturally destructive substance.
The lava was like me.
The flames were like me.
I was fierce and bright. My heart held enough passion to ignite a fire among the people. It held enough spark to capture the affection of a dragon lord.
I was like the lava...
We were the same.
I had always had it within me. I had always been a part of it. Even before I ever existed. We were one.
Something inside of me shifted, snapping into place like a rubber band. Something that had always been there, but had been waiting in the dark. Waiting to be awoken, to be remembered... Waiting to merge with me.
Grabbing hold of it, I clenched my outstretched hands into fists.
“Show me the rune.” I whispered.
A wave of wicked delight washed over me as the lava below responded to my demand. The center of the pit began to bubble, more fiercely than it had before.
When I watched the bubbling liquid begin to separate, flowing away from itself it two different directions, I could also feel it moving, somehow, deep inside of me.
It was as if the lava was a living, thinking thing. And it’s mind was directly linked to mine. I could feel it’s substance, it’s power, it’s movements...
We were one.
“Holy hell...” I heard Ronan whisper from beside me.
The lava moved away from the center of the pit, separating into two massive waves of flaming magma.
I pushed it, further, and further aside, desperately searching for the bottom...
The sheer volume of lava I was manipulating was considerable. I could already feel my power emptying out of me. I had to hurry.
“Brenya, be careful! Don’t use too much!” Warrick warned, moving closer to me.
“Don’t touch her!” Ronan growled, moving around me to stand between Warrick and I. “You’ll break her concentration!”
“Look!” Torryn bellowed.
The bottom of the pit came into view. The black, rocky surface of the pit was a startling contrast to the glowing fire surrounding it. I halted the lava, leaving a ten foot wide path through it, revealing the floor.
My power was beginning to feel weaker. The walls of lava grew heavier with each passing second. I did not know how long I could hold it.
My eyes continued sweeping across the floor, searching for any sign of the rune. Just as I was about to give up, something caught my eyes. Directly below us, there was a glowing, blue orb of light. It was wedged into the rocky floor, barely visible.
I knew it was the rune. I could feel it calling out to me.
“There it is!” I cried in relief.
I snapped my head to the side, finding Warrick’s wide eye’d face.
“Warrick, fly me down! We can grab it quickly, and fly back up before I let go of the lava!”
He stared at me with conflict and rage, his eyes as black as the rocky walls surrounding us. Ronan looked between us, his expression growing more and more anxious. Torryn was staring into the lava, his wide eyes filled with astonishment, as he studied the parted walls of flame.
“Warrick!” I shouted impatiently. “Now!”
He growled in defeat, pushing Ronan aside, as he stalked toward me.
“Be careful!” Ronan warned as Warrick lifted me into his arms.
“Go!” I yelled, clenching my eyes shut as I held onto the power.
My magic flickered, like a flame in the wind, and I was trying my best to shield it from the breeze, trying with all my might to keep it alive.
I was falling.
I opened my eyes in alarm, and instantly realized that Warrick had dove off of the bridge. We plummeted toward the pit and I tightened my arms around his neck, my terror growing as the heat of the lava grew stronger than ever before.
The magma roared loudly around us.
“Where is it?!” He shouted.
I pointed to the glowing ball. “There!”
He dove toward the subtle glow, moving faster than I’d ever known he could.
Mere seconds had passed, and we were on the ground. Warrick set my feet onto the hot, rocky terrain, and I yelped as the heat seeped through my boots.
“Hurry, Brenya..” He said nervously, staring around us at the looming walls of red death.
My hair was sticky and wet as it clung to my neck, and I stumbled toward the glowing ball. My magic was nearly drained. Only an ember remained glowing within me.
I fell to my knees, ignoring the pain as the searing hot ground burned through my fighting leathers and scalded my skin.
I reached for the glowing, blue ball, excited and terrified all at once. It looked to be made of blue glass...
My hands closed around the ball and...
My hearing went out.
Something inside of me snapped into place.
As my skin met with the ball, the magic contained inside of it merged with me, shocking me to the very core of my existence.
I lifted the ball, confused and afraid. I peered through the ball and gasped. Through the glass, the flame rune stared up at me, whispering it’s power to me in the strangest of ways.
It’s power seeped through the skin of my hands, twining with my magic, entangling with my spirit. I heard a faint ringing in my ears as it awoke something deep inside of me.
My power over the flames, the power that I’d been so uncertain of before, suddenly snapped fully into place. It was as if touching the rune had solidified my elemental power over fire. It had sealed the magic in me as soon as I’d touched it.
The sheer force of it, the shocking rush of power that locked into place within me, had physically and mentally stunned me.
It had dazed me so fully that I hadn’t realized when I’d let go of the power I’d been using to hold the lava at bay. I hadn’t noticed that my body was suddenly glowing, bright red. I hadn’t noticed that my body had ignited in flames. I hadn’t noticed when Warrick had tried to lift me up, burning himself on my fiery skin.
The next few moments happened in slow motion.
“Brenya! Move your ass, NOW!” I faintly heard Warrick’s voice from somewhere behind me.
Reality came rushing back. Sound returned, and I clutched my hands over my ears as the absence of silence stunned me.
I whipped around and screamed as I caught sight of the gargantuan waves of lava rushing toward Warrick and I.
My eyes locked with his. His arms were covered in burns, along with his chest. His shirt had been burned completely off, and his naked chest was charred and bloody. I glanced down at myself, and gasped.
I hadn’t imagined it.
I was literally in flames.
But I wasn’t in pain...
I lifted my eyes back to his, knowing that if he flew me out, he’d be burned even more. What if he didn’t heal fully?
‘Help...’ I whispered down the bond, desperate for some kind of miracle.
Warrick’s eyes flashed with despair.
In that moment, I knew that he was thinking the same thing that I was. How ironic, that only minutes ago, we’d discussed how a significant injury could permanently scar a magical being.
He snarled and then charged at me with determination.
He rushed toward me, lava hot on his heels, and scooped my glowing body into his arms.
He snarled in pain as he flew us upward, my flaming body searing into his flesh.
The walls of lava rushed toward us, and for a moment, I did not know if we’d reach above it in time. I closed my eyes, praying to the gods...
Just before we broke the surface, the lava began to collapse, closing in around us.
Warrick spun his body, spinning upward like a spiral, wrapping his wings tightly around me to protect me from it.
But I knew that I wasn’t the one who needed protection. The flames could no longer harm me. They were part of me.
Warrick made it, just as the two walls of lava collided. We flew out from between the enclosing space like an arrow, and I nearly cheered in relief.
But the agonizing cry from Warrick’s mouth cut through my fleeting moment of joy.
I glanced up in horror to find his left wing in flames, lava dripping from the end of it. The delicate webbing melted away from his bones in mere seconds.
“Ahhhh!” He bellowed in torture, his eyes squeezed shut.
The beating of his wings faltered.
And we were falling.
Back toward the pit of lava.
“No!” I screamed.
The swirling red and orange magma rushed up to meet us as we plunged down. But just before we hit the surface, something caught us.
I gasped at the force of it, my ribs protesting against Warrick’s steel grip on me. I whipped my head up, confused.
“Andromeda!” I gasped through my tears.
Andromeda held Warrick to her, her hands tucked beneath his armpits, as she flew above us. Warrick groaned in pain, still clutching me to him. I glanced down at my body to find that the flames around me had gone out. I wasn’t burning him anymore.
I whipped my head to the side and found Torryn flying beside us, Ronan perched on his back.
“We have to hurry! He can’t hold the doors!” Andi called, her tone laced with worry.
“Go! Go!” Torryn urged.
They flew faster, weaving around peaks of rock, and over bridges.
“Warrick is hurt!” I cried, trying to see his wing.
“He’ll be okay! Are you hurt?” Ronan called from beside me.
I turned toward him, my hair whipping around my face, stinging my skin. “I’m fine!”
“But, you were in flames!” He answered, his face screwed up in confusion.
“I’ll explain later!” I said, still unsure of what had happened myself. All I knew was that the rune had solidified my control over fire. And fire couldn’t hurt me, now.
“Did you get the rune?” Torryn asked, dodging a large, spiked rock.
I showed him the ball, still pressed to my chest. “Got it!”
“Gods above... I can’t believe you did it!” Ronan shouted, his face lighting up.
I smiled back briefly, but my smile instantly melted away. Yes, I’d done it... But at what cost?
Andromeda and Torryn speared into the hallway that led to the doors, shooting through the narrow space at lightning speed.
The doors came into view, and they landed hastily.
“Torryn, help me with him.” Andi said calmly, pulling Warrick’s arm over her shoulder.
Torryn rushed to his other side as Warrick let go of me. He pulled his arm over his shoulder, helping Andi walk him toward the door. I back away, my eyes wide with horror, as I beheld his injuries.
His entire chest and stomach were shining with blood, the skin around his burns tight and black with scorched flesh. His hands were ruined, and I could see bones poking through the skin on some of his fingers.
But his wing...
His wing was completely devastated.
“Warrick....” I whispered in despair.
He met my eyes as they passed me, and he smiled through his obvious pain. “It’s okay, Brenya... You’re safe. I did what I had to do.”
“I’m so sorry...” I whispered as tears fell down my cheeks.
Most of the webbing between the framing of his wing was gone. Tattered, and ripped, hanging in shreds from the long curve of the bone near the top. The talon at the tip of the frame glistened with red blood. It looked like a ruby, proudly adorning him.
Ronan grabbed me from behind, pushing me forward, as I watched the three dragons pass through the doors. “Come on, we have to go!”
I let out a sob as he pushed me toward the doors.
As soon as we passed the threshold, Dristan let out a deafening snarl, and released his hold on the doors.
“Agos!” He growled.
The doors fell shut, the loud booming sound making me nearly jump out of my skin, and the strange jelly-like film returned to them.
Dristan spun around, his crazed eyes landing on me and Ronan. His eyes shifted to Ronan’s hands, which were still firmly set upon my shoulders.
Ronan slammed against the stone wall as Dristan threw him from me. “Don’t touch her!”
Ronan growled as he slumped against the wall, but did not argue.
Dristan turned to me, cupping my face in his hands as he searched my eyes. “Brenya, what happened? Are you okay? I-I could hear you... You called for help, through the bond. Are you hurt?”
My eyes screwed shut as another sob left my lips. I shook my head.
“Why are you crying, baby?” He whispered in uncertain worry.
“W-Warrick.” I stuttered through my tears.
I opened my eyes to find his own swirling with dread. He let go of my face, and slowly turned toward his comrades.
Andromeda had sat Warrick up agains the wall and was cooing into his ear as she inspected his wounds. Torryn stood beside them, his arms crossed, as he stared at his injured friend with furrowed brows.
Warrick’s head was leaned against the wall, his eyes closed, his breathing rugged and uneven.
Dristan took a small step toward them. “What happened?”
“Long story.” Torryn said, his voice hard like granite.
“We need to get him to the infirmary right away.” Andromeda said, standing to her feet. “His injuries are severe. And Dristan... H-his wing...”
Dristan’s eyes lowered, landing on the shredded webbing of Warrick’s wing.
“Fuck.” He growled, running his hand through his hair. “Take him. Hurry.”
I watched helplessly as Andi and Torryn lifted Warrick between them again, hooking his arms over their shoulders. He groaned in pain, his eyes never opening.
Dristan only turned to me when they’d disappeared up the staircase. He took a long breath, running both hands through his hair.
“Did you get it?” He asked, his eyes shifting between Ronan and I.
I nodded, the orb still clenched in my hand.
Slowly, he walked toward me. He pulled me to his chest, and I lost it.
I sobbed into his shirt, breathing in his comforting scent, as the reality of what had just happened settled into my mind.
“It’s alright, love.” He said, stroking my hair.
“No... Warrick...” I sobbed.
“He’ll be okay.” He whispered, kissing my forehead.
A horrifying thought occurred to me.
“Will he fly again?” I asked, pulling away and looking up into his eyes.
He gazed down at me with a pained smile. When he didn’t respond right away, I pounded my fist against his chest.
“Tell me! Will he fly again?!”
He sighed deeply, his sorrowful eyes alternating between my own.
“I don’t know.”