Spedro laid a hand on his shoulder as he passed, and he turned, unpleased with the interruption. He was pinned to a tree, with a large, jagged branch protruding from his chest, slick with red blood.
“Why?” Spedro croaked, his eyes dangerously close to rolling back into his head.
Phoenix said nothing, but shrugged Spedro’s soon to be dead hand from his shoulder and kept walking.
Phoenix woke with a start, the feeling of Spedro’s hand on his shoulder still. He turned, panicked. Lindani lay beside him, breathing evenly, still sleeping. He realized he had been dreaming and lay back down, trying to calm his racing heart. The stone was dangerous, he knew that, but he would never be able to do the things he had just dreamed. Chalking it up to nerves, he laid a hand on Lindani’s hip and pulled her close, molding his body to hers and falling back asleep.
The morning brought new light and new smells when Phoenix woke well past the hour in which he usually rose. The smell of cured ham teased his nose, and his stomach rumbled in response. He reached over to wake Lindani to find she was not there, her spot on the blankets cold. With a raised eyebrow he pulled himself from the blankets and dressed, sniffing the ham all the while. Phoenix pulled the tent flap to the side to see the three around a fire, while Lindani knelt by a pan, cooking breakfast. He looked to the sky to see the sun close to its zenith, and shook his head in confusion.
“Why did you three let me sleep so late?” he queried, sitting heavily next to Ember.
Lindani giggled. “We tried to wake you, but you would not even acknowledge us. You kept mumbling the word ‘blue’ in your sleep, and we decided you would wake on your own sooner or later.”
Phoenix turned to Ember for confirmation, and she nodded while popping a piece of the ham into her mouth. He raised an eyebrow and grabbed the remainder between her fingers, popping it into his own mouth, and chewing with a smile. She slapped his arm playfully, and began to protest to Spedro who had just entered the clearing, when she tilted her head to the side then turned quickly to the east.
Phoenix knew that look and rose, lighting his hands and making ready for a fight. “Voices on the wind,” she said a moment later. “The neighing of horses, rattle of carts, and shouts of drivers. There is a massive group of people a few minutes east.”
Spedro and Lindani had rallied on his back, each of them calling their respective element. Ember rose as well, causing the air around her to swell and gust, buffeting them with wind.
Phoenix relaxed, extinguished his hands and turned to the others. “I will learn who they are, alone. No reason to scare them if they are peaceful, and too many of us may draw their attention if they are not.”
Lindani began to protest but was silenced by Spedro’s hand on her shoulder. “He is right. I will follow at a distance and send for you two if we need you.”
Ember and Lindani nodded, though Phoenix noted the apprehension in Lindani’s eyes, and the lack thereof in Ember’s. Lindani’s eyes swept over him, and she came forward, pulling him into a hug. He wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close and she whispered in his ear. “I have a dark feeling. Let us turn from these people, whoever they may be. Let us run together.”
She raised her eyes to his, and continued. “Forget Demetrius and the people. We can find a way to be safe and happy away from his influence.”
He glanced at Ember, seriously considering her offer. He had undertaken this quest for her, at her request. He had sworn to protect her against any enemy, including himself. He had sworn of the only thing that brought him any happiness, his element, for ten years in an effort to protect her. She stared back, her eyes hard, and Phoenix’s eyes widened. He could swear he had seen a flicker of dark blue in the normally light blue of her iris. He looked again, but saw nothing.
Turning back to Lindani, he lowered his head to hers, kissing her forehead. “I am sorry, but I cannot. We have a duty to protect those weaker than us that cannot defend themselves.”
Crestfallen, she broke his gaze and looked to the ground, digging the toe of her boot into the packed earth. “Be safe, and do not hesitate to call upon us.”
“I will,” he replied, and turned from her. He glanced at Spedro, and nodded. “Let us be off then.”
Phoenix pushed the branch of the tree from his view, and looked down at the mass of people below him. He had climbed up to the top of the tallest tree hoping to better see the people making their way to them, and almost lost his footing and plunged to his death when he finally lay eyes on them. A column of soldiers, horses, and oxen led carts wound across the countryside, keeping to the road. He tried to count them, but gave up after the fourth try. He whistled to Spedro, signaling that the people were hostile, and began to climb down from the tree. Fifty feet from the ground he leapt from the tree, and used controlled bursts of HellFire from his palms to slow and guide his descent. He touched down and bent his knees, absorbing the slight impact.
Making his way back to Spedro, he found him leaning casually against a tree, arms crossed on his chest. With a smile and a shake of his head, he began whispering to him hurriedly. “It is Demetrius’ soldiers. An entire regiment of them, number somewhere around five thousand.”
Spedro’s smile widened. “Are there any Zuhdalay with them?”
“I cannot tell. Possibly.”
“Let us go back for the women, and we will decide what to do.”
Phoenix shook his head. “You go. I will stay here and keep an eye on them, try to figure out where the Officers are. If we can remove them first, the army will fall into chaos, making our job much easier.”
Spedro leveled a look at him. “And what guarantee do I have that you won’t attack them alone?”
Phoenix’s eyebrows shot up. “Do you think I am stupid enough to attack that many men, gifted or otherwise, alone?”
Spedro chuckled quietly. “No. Not even you could be that stupid.”
Phoenix smirked. “Go. And hurry, I will not be patient for long.”
Spedro cuffed him on the shoulder and turned back into the forest, disappearing a moment later in the thick foliage. Phoenix sighed, and turned back toward the road, breaking into a sprint. In front of the column he emerged from the forest, standing directly in the road, arms crossed.
“Company, halt!” came the cry, and the mass of men began to slow. Phoenix leaned over to the left, and watched the command slowly ripple back over the miles, all the soldiers finally halting. Seven men on horses cantered toward him from the front of the procession, coming to a stop about thirty feet from him. “Who are you, and why do you so bravely place yourself in our way? Do you not realize we could run you down as easily as a fox runs down a rabbit?”
Phoenix smirked. “I think you would find running me down a bit harder than you may think my friend. As for the other question, I am Phoenix of Yaag. I offer you the chance to surrender to me, and none of your men will be harmed.”
The men on the horses glanced at one another, and then the leader turned back to him. “Phoenix of Yaag you say? The stories we hear paints him as a giant of a man, possessor of two elements. You are small in stature, and I doubt you possess a single gift.”
Phoenix laughed, loud and raucous. “Giant of a man? Is that what they say of me?” He recovered from his fit of laughter, and leveled a glare at the men before him, lowering his head. “But the part about two elements, that is true. Do you wish to test yourself against my power?”
The men nodded, smiles filling their faces. “Of course,” the leader said. “If what you say is true, you die. And if you lied, you still die for testing yourself against us. This shall be…entertaining.”
Phoenix lit his body then, only allowing the flame to overtake half of his body, then called forth hard stone from the ground. The horses the men sat on broke, and reared into the air. It took a few moments for the men to reign in the beasts, and when they did the leader spoke again. “It seems you were telling the truth. But you must know we would kill you when you showed yourself to us, and you came alone?”
Phoenix laughed again, parting his flaming lips. “Who said I was alone?”