“Sunja, I’m sorry!” Armando exclaimed. He hurried to help her but the closer he moved to her, the more the flames grew.
“Back away,” she shouted. “You’re making it worse!”
Armando froze, he wanted to help but he knew that he’d be ineffective. Sunja was finally able to eliminate the flames but not before she’d suffered significant damage on her face and arms. After taking a deep breath to calm her nerves, she focused and used her powers to begin to heal from the burns. The charred flesh on her arms and legs renewed itself and knitted together before Armando’s eyes.
When she’d repaired all the damage to her body, Armando reached to steady her and help her to her feet. She was hesitant in taking his hand, as fear continued to ripple through her. She knew the malice that was the driving force behind the black flames and couldn’t figure out why it would be directed at her. Unlike the other types of flame, this variety was driven by intent to warn, maim or even kill a living being. All Nitelge and some humans could withstand blasts of regular flames but this version was quite destructive. Its potency wasn’t often wasted on inanimate objects; with deadly efficiency, it bypassed anything that wasn’t bone or flesh, its concentrated power was at its best when engineered for destroying a live target.
“We need Xersa here,” Sunja told Armando. “We have a problem.”
Sunja contacted the Head Kelcho and explained what had happened. Xersa understood the magnitude of the circumstances and used a portal, quickly arriving to assess the situation. The viciously acrid scent of the black flame still lingered in the air.
“What do you think might have caused this?” Xersa asked, looking back and forth between Sunja and Armando.
“The energy signature in the flames is from Zaitis,” Sunja told her. “He’s likely protecting Armando but I don’t know from what.”
“Have you felt any pain, lately?” Xersa asked Armando.
“My head hasn’t been hurting, though I didn’t know that block was there.”
“And your dreams?” Sunja questioned. “Was there something recently that might have triggered this?”
Armando considered her questions for several moments, as she and Xersa peered intently at him. He shook his head, reluctant to share the truth.
“When’s the last time you had the one about being trapped in the cage or about Izdahl dying?” Xersa asked, pointedly. She was determined to get to the root cause of the issue.
Sunja gripped Armando’s hand to soothe him, seeing the acute panic-strickened expression that appeared on his face. Concern wrapped around his heart, whenever he thought about the dream of Izdahl’s death. Sunja had told him on several occasions that those images might not need to be taken literally. Still, it was painful for him even to consider the possibility.
“I haven’t dreamed of the cage for several months but the one with Izdahl dying happened last night,” Armando responded, quietly. His voice was subdued, as he thought of the images of his lover’s life ending. “It probably happened because I saw him still healing from his practice with Metienne. Considering how battered he looked, I can only imagine how much damage he’s taking. He won’t let me come to the practices. That makes me worry more.”
Xersa leaned against one wall, crossing her arms, as her mouth twisted in frustration.
“I believe that Izdahl is resilient enough. Armando, it’s you we should be worried about; there’s so much going on with you lately,” she commented. “Last week, you forced the shield around Zaitis’ statue to drop. This week you’re roasting Sunja.”
Armando’s actions with the shield remained a source of gossip. Xersa had advised him to remain quiet about it and he’d listened, allowing a spokesperson appointed by her to deal with any media. She was happy that the flame incident didn’t happen in front of many witnesses. It would only fuel more rumors and concern, even with the Kelcho Council.
“We should tell the Council about the flames,” Sunja recommended. “It’s possible it’s connected to what happened with the statue.”
Dagmar had whipped the other leaders into a fury and they’d demanded a hearing about Armando’s actions. Xersa didn’t also want them riled up about a human who could release black flames. She knew it was possible that this sort of thing could occur again and, next time, it might be in front of more witnesses.
“I agree,” she told Sunja. “We’ll tell them and we need to check on Zaitis.”
“Yes, perhaps he’s awakening and it’s affecting Armando.”
“We don’t know how much he can take; Zaitis might overpower him.”
“I’m standing here.” Armando waved a hand at them. “Please don’t talk about me, as if I’m not.”
“You’re right,” Xersa replied, laughing. Then she sighed. “In truth, none of this is funny. I’ll need some time to draft a few strategies. The less alarmed the Council is, the better it will be for all of us.”
Tybris leaned back in his armchair. For the past hour, he’d listened to Rasmus tell him the deeds he and Khalaf had done for Dagmar. The last part of the explanation had been about making the forbidden Blood Replica.
“I suspected my uncle had some dark and ugly secrets,” Tybris began. “I just didn’t know the magnitude.”
“I may have become caught up in his ideas,” Rasmus admitted. “I’d wondered about all that he could accomplish.”
“And how much you could benefit?” Tybris pressed.
“Naturally. But things may have gone too far.”
“Yes. If others find out what he’s doing, our entire clan would suffer.” Tybris stared dejectedly into the distance, his mind racing with a series of negative repercussions. He ran his hands through his hair in frustration. “We might lose all of our status. I’m not sure there’s much I can do to stop him.”
“There might be one way to keep things from getting completely out of control,” Rasmus mentioned. He chose his next words carefully, as a mistake would reveal too much. “The information I gave him was helpful but maybe there are other things he needs.”
In truth, Rasmus was certain there were additional details that Dagmar required. After all, he’d done his best to ruin the Kelcho’s chances of using the replica to its full potential. He’d intentionally held back a crucial part of the magician’s spell. The creator of the replica had to access the blood replica’s soul, in order to affect the person upon which it was based.
As he thought of his next move, Rasmus unconsciously touched the two-inch silver disc that contained Armando’s blood, which hung on a chain around his neck. Usually, it showed an image of Armando walking his horse. On the other side of the disc was an engraved sentence written in ancient Nitelge. The code was a clue to the location where Rasmus had hidden the rest of the details about the spell. While he’d already told Tybris a great deal, he needed more time to develop further trust.
Tybris noticed Rasmus’ action and wondered why the disc was so important.
“Does Armando mean something to you?” Tybris asked, his mind drifting away from dealing with his uncle.
“It actually soothes me to do this,” Rasmus explained. Now that he realized how closely he was being watched and how much he’d already let his guard down, he went on the alert again. “It’s complicated. It’s just that Armando looked so peaceful at that moment. For years, I’ve found him to attractive. As I’ve learned more about him, Dagmar’s plans became too much.”
“I read the accounts of how his parents died. It’s a gruesome tale, even among Nitelge. I can only imagine the impact that would have on someone. At any rate, your sentimentality regarding him is…intriguing.”
“Are you mocking me?” Rasmus demanded, his tone playfully indignant.
“No; I would never do that,” Tybris teased.
He stood and went over to where Rasmus was sitting. He leaned over Rasmus and motioned for the disc. Rasmus took it off and handed it to him, trying to remain as calm as possible. Tybris turned the object over and looked at the inscription on the back.
“What does it mean?” he asked.
“It’s ancient Nitelge for, ‘Some things are just out of reach’.”
“That’s quite poignant,” he murmured.
“Yes. Perhaps I was feeling sentimental when I decided to engrave that.” Rasmus smiled ingratiatingly, as he took the disc back and put it around his neck.
If Tybris had been able to examine it more closely, he’d have learned a crucial detail. In the words, Rasmus had hidden vital information about completing the Blood Replica spell.
“Why am I in the middle of this pasture with you?” Dmitri asked, as he leaned against the fence.
“You’re here for support,” Izdahl replied, grinning about his best friend’s petulant tone. “I need to show you my idea for the Gathering; it’s my special entrance. I have to make sure it’s good enough for Metienne to review it. I don’t want to disappoint her.”
“Definitely not!” Dmitri laughed loudly. “There are so many videos of your walk of shame. You don’t want to make things worse.”
Only a day had passed, since Metienne had forced Izdahl to drag his damaged body down the capital’s busiest street. Many humans had been particularly terrified by the sight of him. Nitelge, who were well-aware of the vigorous nature of preparing for the Nakra Hein, had still winced at his battered appearance. His family and friends chose to take the matter lightly, teasing him about it. Even Jaxon, who tended to be quite serious, couldn’t resist the verbal jabs at his son. All of that treatment only made Izdahl that much more determined to impress them at the Gathering.
“Armando’s still feeling embarrassed about bringing down the shield,” Izdahl responded. “Maybe that spectacle was my plan to take some of the heat off him.”
“Sure, if that reasoning makes you feel better,” Dmitri quipped.
As mischief filled his eyes, Izdahl stepped closer to his friend and took his face in his hands. Dmitri was silenced and, unintentionally, his mouth opened slightly, as he anticipated what would happen next.
“Dima, instead of your ridicule, I desire comfort and care, during this difficult time.” An evil grin spread across Izdahl’s face. “Fortunately, I already have a lover who meets those needs.”
“Clearly, I’m not that bad. As I recall, when we slept together, you came first.” Dmitri laughed softly, quickly recovering from being mesmerized.
His naughty words hit their mark, as Izdahl remembered how much he’d enjoyed sex with Dmitri. He was even more thankful for their friendship that allowed them to accept the past and still tease each other.
“On a serious note, let me show you what I can do, before Koraiy loses his patience.” As he stared at Izdahl, Koraiy stomped his left front hoof three times in a row, a quirk of his which indicated his annoyance.
“Isn’t this something Armando should see first?” Dmitri asked, as he watched Izdahl swing up into the saddle. “He’s your partner and…”
“I don’t want him to see it in such a rough stage.”
“Oh, so I get subjected to your garbage techniques.”
“Exactly,” Izdahl replied, as he patted Koraiy, letting his steed know he was about to put on a show. “Just watch, Dima. We’re going to gallop and then come back your way. Pay close attention. I’ll need advice on how to improve.”
Dmitri nodded to show that he understood.
As he’d said he would do, Izdahl raced away, then he made a sharp turn and headed back towards his friend. On exhibition was his new power. When Dmitri saw it, he stared at his friend with awe that was wrapped in a bit of fear. He knew that Koraiy was roughly 3,000 pounds. The steed should have been touching the ground, as he thundered towards Dmitri but Izdahl had lifted both of them several feet off the ground.