A booming laugh had them both turning to find a man approaching. Long white hair flowed all the way to his waist, matched with an equally long beard. His brown robe brushed the stone floor as he walked, and his eyes fixed on them.
Sarah could only compare him to one thing.
“You’re kidding, right?” Her whisper made Axin look at her.
“Let me guess. Nilu? An actual Wizzard?”
Axin’s loud laugh echoed on the walls of the cave, making her belly clench.
Nilu approached, a wide smile on his face.
“Hello, Sarah. I have waited a long time to meet you.” He stuck his hand out to her and waited.
She rolled her eyes at the still laughing Axin and shook his hand.
Nilu gripped her hand for a moment, examining her face.
“She’s prettier than I thought.”
Axin finally stopped laughing and came to stand at her side.
“No words would do her justice.”
A blush heated her cheeks.
“It’s nice to meet you.”
Nilu released her hand and crossed them behind his back.
“I hear you learned a lot over the last few days. I’m sure it must all be very scary and confusing.”
“Yes, it is. I still have a lot of questions, though.”
“Oh, I bet. Why don’t we eat? We can talk, and you can ask anything that still bothers you.”
He spun, moving to the large stone table in the back of the room. They climbed the three stone steps leading to the table, and Sarah saw the carved surface. It showed a map of the world on the left, and another place she didn’t recognize on the other. Tiny figures stood in random places around the map on both sides.
Nilu came to stand beside her and waved his hand over the surface. The map vanished and a delicious looking buffet appeared in front of her eyes.
She shook her head. I’m never going to get used to that.
Axin pulled out a heavy stone chair for her and sat down next to her. Nilu took a seat on the other side of the table and reached for a glass of red drink. She could see the fire behind him, the glow of the flames giving the space a cozy feel.
“Raztus is watching over your grandmother. She is awake and baking apple pie. Jake is still waiting in the car like he promised.”
Sarah relaxed, reaching for her drink, “Thank you. I honestly wasn’t sure he would keep his word.”
“You saw something in him none of us did. I will need to be near him to know for sure, but I think he may be telling the truth. When he used his magic to heal Margeret, I felt the pain in his soul. He’s confused. Unsure of who or what he is, and where he belongs.”
“I don’t trust him, Nilu.” Axin took a long sip of his drink, finishing the content of his glass in two large swallows. He put his glass on the table and Sarah’s eyes went wide as it filled itself up.
“I know you don’t. You have good reason not to. But we have been fighting Fasia for a long time. Perhaps change is what we need.”
Axin grumbled under his breath and grabbed his glass again.
Nilu chuckled, “You just don’t like him because he got too close to Sarah. But you would never have met her if not for him. Remember that, Axin. He is far younger than you.”
Sarah took a sip of the wine, loving the sweet, delicate flavor of it.
Her eyes caught movement in the flame behind Nilu, and she frowned. It vanished just as quickly, and she focused back on the men.
“Is there something you want to ask me, Sarah?” Nilu got her attention again and returned her drink to the table.
“A lot, to be honest. But For now, I just want to know why you created the linked?”
He leaned back in his seat and sighed.
“I didn’t create them. I expanded the linked.”
“What does that mean?”
“My family was linked. I was the firstborn child with a new… genetic modification. The witch gene. We don’t know where the linked came from, but there were very few, and only linked to a select few animals. Dragons, wolves… the apex predators. I was a small child that day. I was in the field, playing with a rabbit I had as a pet. Without even knowing it, I linked the neighbor's son to the rabbit. After a few months, when I realized what I’d done, I did it again. Only that time, I did it with all the creatures of the world. My ten-year-old mind had no idea of the consequences of my actions. No one really knows the extent of the power we had. What we could do with it. My sister, Fasia, was born under an eclipse. Her birth killed our mother. She was a vile person from the day she could walk. She never cried, always did things on her own. She was a strange, cruel child, and grew up to be a monster of a woman.
“But, she was still my sister. Despite everything, I cared for her. She asked me to teach her how to do magic, and it was her idea to release the Linked, letting them live like us. Free to be who they were. It sounded like a good idea at the time. But it caused… unimaginable chaos and destruction. So many people died because of it. I had to do something. The spell was held by all of our lives. As long as we were alive, then each person born linked would be free to change when they wanted. There was only one way to end it.”
“By killing them all?” Her harsh tone made Axin squirm in the chair next to her.
“Yes. Do you know what happens to a person when they change? They live on pure instinct. Those that are linked to predators, like lions and tigers, hunt. Those that are linked to prey, become just that. Prey. Even the children. During what everyone now calls our crusade, we hunted and killed those linked to the predators. The ones that killed mercilessly, without discrimination. It almost cost me those dearest to me.” His gaze shifted to Axin.
She turned to see Axin’s head lowered, his jaw clenched.
“I worried we would never get him back. He understood what needed to be done, but it cost him far more than you can imagine. For hundreds of years, he locked himself in purgatory, thinking it’s where he belonged. His mind was broken for a long time. It took a great deal to bring him back from that.”
Under the table, Sarah placed a hand over his tight fist. It opened, turning palm up and she slid her fingers between his.
Again, movement caught her eye from the fire. This time she saw the outline of a winged creature move in the flames. It waved at her, the strange face smiling.
A deep frown marred Sarah’s face as she tried to understand what she saw.
“Otoya! Are you going to just flap around in there all day, or are you going to introduce yourself to our guest?” Nilu turned to face the fire, a wide smile on his face.
The flames moved as arcs of it flew out the sides. A sudden burst of flame popped on the side, and a stunning red bird flew out of the flames. It was massive, bigger than any bird Sarah had ever seen. But unlike Axin’s dragon form, this one was covered in stunning bright red and orange feathers. Its tail glided behind it with blue and yellow colors, leaving a trail of color in her vision. It moved behind the flames and soared through them before landing at the base of the steps. As soon as its feet touched the stone floor, the bird took the shape of a woman, with long shocking red hair, in a tight red dress.
She climbed the stairs, her eyes a wonderful, soft blue. Sarah would place her age at no more than thirty.
Otoya went to Nilu, sitting down on his lap and stroked his beard.
“I was giving our guest a show, my love. No need to be rude.” She planted a kiss on his lips before turning her gaze to Sarah.
“This is my wife, Otoya,” Nilu said with a broad smile.
Sarah was still trying to process what she had just seen. The woman was a bird a moment ago, and she flew out of the raging fire in the center of the room.
Otoya smiled. “I live in fire, Sarah. It is where I go to heal.”
“Heal? I’m sorry, I’m just trying to figure out how that works.”
They all chuckled, “She’s a phoenix, Sarah.” Axin informed her, giving her hand a light squeeze.
“Oh. Wow, okay. I guess that makes sense.”
Otoya gave Nilu one more kiss and sat down on the chair beside him. It was strange to see an older man with a woman as young and as stunning as Otoya, but nothing was normal to Sarah in this world.
“Is every mythical creature real?” Sarah asked.
“Just about. A lot of your myths are based on the linked.”
She couldn’t tear her eyes off Otoya. Sarah’s never seen a woman quite as stunning as her. And the way she looked at Nilu, with pure love in her eyes, brought a smile to her face.
Axin shifted closer to her, “It looks weird, I know, but don’t be fooled. Otoya is not much younger than Nilu. They met during the crusades. He saved her life. They fell in love and have been that way since.”
“I thought dragon fire burned everything.”
“It does.” Otoya said, tearing her gaze away from Nilu, “But a phoenix needs fire to survive. Any fire would do, but Axin’s flame keeps me young and beautiful.”
“Are there many of your kind?”
“Sadly no. We are a rare breed. As far as I know, only five were ever born. One lives in Purgatory. One in the living world and two are here, with us.”
Again, Mr. Takamori flashed in her mind.
“I have a favor to ask you. I know we’ve only just met, but who knows what will happen.”
Axin’s hand got firmer around hers, but she continued.
“I have a friend-”
“I know.” Nilu cut her off, “A wise old man if you ask me. What is it you want?”
“I would like you to let him live here after he dies. He’s a good man with a kind heart. He gave me that contract when so many others pitched to him. He told me the truth about this world, and I would like you to consider giving him a place here.”
Nilu looked at Axin for a moment, then met her eyes again with a nod.
“Anything for the one who brought Axin back to us.”