The elevator slammed into the wooden platform at the top of the cliff with a shuddering crack of wood, swayed,and threatened to tip, as full dark turned the desert into a void of shadows. For a long moment, they stood in silence that was punctuated by the swaying, cracking wood and Jadeth’s soft, keening sobs.
“We need to get off of this thing.” Ivo grabbed Jadeth’s arm and tugged gently. She let him pull her upright and away from the edge of the void, her head down and red hair hiding her face from the world.
Light flickered, fluttered, and then steadied from within the Elemental’s curled fingers. The light puddled at their feet, illuminating the rickety wooden floorboards and four stricken faces.
Ivo glanced up at Emaranthe, now held aloft like a living lamp, and behind the flickering fire held in both her hands her face was tight with pain, her eyes wide and unfocused, yet set on Jadeth steadily. He glanced at Jadeth and noted her hunched shoulders, arms wrapped around her middle, and the heavy fall of her red hair hiding her face as she struggled to contain her grief.
“Jadeth, he—“Ivo sighed, but stopped. He didn’t even know what to say. To see the usually happy go lucky, feisty Elf this way was more than unnerving.
Across the elevator, Jaeger remained silent, head bowed, his chest still heaving with exertion. Only the overly tight fist clenched around the frayed rope holding the elevator betrayed his inner thoughts.
“No!” Jadeth exploded into motion, flinging her arms wide and knocking Ivo’s hand away. She spun on her heel and bolted onto the platform. She halted, her back to them, shoulders heaving, beside the elevator, with only a few yards of firelight illuminating the desert hills before her.
“No,” Jadeth repeated softly as she straightened and tipped her head back to the stars. Ivo frowned and shot a quick glance at Jaeger, who released the rope and moved onto the platform.
“What do you mean?” Jaeger said as he moved to stand beside her. The air was chilly this far from Emaranthe’s fire, and she shivered as Ivo appeared on her other side.
“I mean, if…no, when…that jerk comes back…I will kick his ass,” she bowed her head again before adding so softly that both brothers at first didn’t think they heard correctly;
“…and then kiss him.”
The Elemental’s giant hand appeared beside Ivo. The stone fingers uncurled revealing Emaranthe sitting cross-legged in the palm of its hand, her wide eyes fixed on the fire shivering and flickering in her upraised hands. When she didn’t move Ivo turned and lifted her to his chest. She shuddered, the flame dimming slightly, before letting her rigid back relax into Ivo’s strong warmth and burying her face in his neck.
He turned and led them off the platform, the small flickering fire cupped in Emaranthe’s hands lighting their way. The darkness was tangible as their grief, a void held at bay by the warm glow.
At the base of a nearby hill they stopped, too weary, sore, and heartsick to continue in the dark. Emaranthe slid free of Ivo’s arms and knelt on the rocky ground. The small fire shifted onto the ground and burned steadily, surrounding them in a golden puddle of light as Ivo, Jaeger, and Jadeth sank to the ground with tired groans and pain tightened faces.
Emaranthe didn’t sit. She stood gazing down at the small fire with enigmatic eyes. A light wind, dry and cold, teased her hair into drifting about her pale face like a silken cloud. She blinked and tears rolled down her cheeks silently.
“Emaranthe?” Ivo inhaled sharply as she turned and looked at him with those eyes. She blinked at him and then looked across the campfire to where Jadeth sat mute, her sapphire eyes anguished, tears streaming down her cheeks in dirty trails.
Emaranthe stumbled around the circle and threw herself down to the ground next to Jadeth, and flung her thin arms around the elf’s shoulders much as she had so long ago when they’d first met. Jadeth sniffed, a sad, half laugh, and hugged her back.
They didn’t speak. They didn’t need to.
They drew apart after a long moment and Emaranthe made her way back to Ivo. Without hesitating she all but fell into his arms as he held them out to her. He pulled her close and buried his face in her wind tossed hair with a groan. Shaking fingers smoothed the wayward strands from her face and his arms tightened around her until her trembling body began to calm.
“I’m so sorry, Emaranthe. I know that wasn’t fair. I just—“Ivo whispered as he pressed a light kiss to her forehead. Wide, teary gold eyes met studied his face carefully in the shadowed light and his closed as fear tightened his chest.
“I just couldn’t bear the thought of you getting hurt again. I can’t lose you.”
“It’s okay. I know you did it to keep me safe,” Emaranthe smiled as tears blurred his handsome, agonized face before falling. “And I love you more for it.”
His arms spasmed around her slight frame, his breath catching on a choking inhale.
“I hate to break up the hugfest, but now what?” Jaeger sighed from the edge of the firelight as he dragged his helm free and let it fall to the ground with a clatter. His whole body hurt, but he forced his screaming muscles to move. Beside him, Jadeth sniffed and sat up straight.
“He’s right. We have a mission.” she exhaled and swiped shaky hands over her cheeks, scrubbing away the tears. “He…he…didn’t help us for us to throw it all away now.”
“One thing is for sure, we can’t do anything right now. Daylight will help us decide our next path.” Ivo said. He didn’t relax his arms from around Emaranthe, but let her twist in his embrace to join the conversation.
“We have to be close to Golden Summit. There just isn’t much further we can go.” Emaranthe sighed and let her eyes close and head rest on Ivo’s chest. Though still covered in dented, filthy armor, she could feel his warmth, his breathing, the steady, deep rhythm of his heart, and it relaxed her, comforted her more than anything else could.
“What if more guards appear?” Jadeth licked her lips and flinched as her tongue hit a cut and stung. “We can’t fight like that again anytime soon.” her eyes roved over Ivo’s face, and then Jaeger’s, seeing the myriad of cuts, welts, and bruises even in the flickering light.
She’d learned long ago that minor wounds like these were better left to heal on their own…neither man would let her treat them unless it was dire. She knew instinctively that they had been lucky during this battle…very lucky.
“Since none have yet, we have to assume that no other alarms were raised.” Ivo said, his fingers drifting through Emaranthe’s hair absently.
“I’ll keep watch, you guys sleep.” Jaeger spoke up. Ivo opened his mouth to protest then snapped it shut and sent his brother a questioning look over the small fire. Keen blue eyes dropped to the small woman huddled in his brother’s arms.
“She needs you more than I need sleep. You can take the second watch if you want.” Jaeger raised an eyebrow and stood, then vanished into the darkness beyond the ring of firelight.
Ivo frowned and glanced down at the woman in his arms. Her eyes were closed, her full lips slightly parted, her breathing deep and even. Even asleep she was so beautiful.
Across the fire Jadeth flung herself down onto the ground, not caring that it was rocky, dusty, and probably covered in insects…she was too tired and heartsick to care anymore. She propped her head on her arms and stared into the dancing flames blindly, her thoughts on the regrets that seemed to sink into her soul. So many years of regret, of lost time, of holding onto anger and fear. Why had she let herself bury her feelings in anger? She sighed and rolled away from the firelight and let her eyes close. She needed the oblivion that sleep would bring.
Jaeger paced around the puddle of light, keeping to the shadows as he moved in deliberate silence. The low, even breathing of his brother and the women told him that they had finally fallen asleep.
His thoughts strayed to Mirena and Anya and his feet stumbled. He would have sagged to his knees, but for the innate training from the Academy kicking in. He resumed prowling, his eyes studying the darkness for danger and shoved the regret from his thoughts. They were gone, and he had a job to do.
Toward midnight he woke Ivo and wordlessly he watched Ivo ease the still sleeping woman from his arms and place her gently on the ground. With a small sigh, Emaranthe curled into a ball, but remained asleep and Ivo let his fingers trail through her tangled blonde waves for a moment. Ghostly fingers of fire seemed to mimic his motions as her hair sifted between his fingers before he backed away.
Ivo watched his brother stretch out on the ground, his lanky frame half in and half out of the low burning firelight. His gaze strayed to Emaranthe again as she rolled over and huddled tighter within herself against the cold air. Her golden hair shimmered and the ghostly flames stilled and vanished as if they’d never been there.
Ivo prowled the ring of firelight with eyes that gleamed in the moonless night. He would protect her, all of them, even if it meant his own death. The inky landscape was a mirage of black and blacker shapes…rolling hills converging on a summit high above the rest of Shimmersand. He paused, his eyes on the point where the hills melded into the plateau.
Golden Summit. Where the Golden Maw rules from afar. There they would find the map that would lead them to Eboni.
Dawn spread fingers of rosy light across the sky, touching where Ivo stood in solitude , his gaze steady on the summit before them. Emaranthe’s tiny fire had long died, but even in the chill of the desert night the weary friends had slept exhausted.
When the morning had grayed the sky and he could see well enough he woke up the other three silently. Jaeger quickly readied, his eyes having scanned the now visible scene, while the two women moved slowly to rebraid their hair and inspect Emaranthe’s wound.
Ivo studied the path that continued from the elevator and rose up to curve around a narrow ledge with a sheer dropoff, before widening out into more rolling hills. Nestled among the hills, colorful tent canopies could just be seen between willowy palm trees. White pennants blazoned with the image of a gold crown flipped and waved in the stiff wind.
He felt, rather than saw, the other three join him at the trailhead. A small hand crept into his gauntleted one and he glanced down at the tiny woman with pale hair and huge golden eyes.
“So what’s the plan?” Jaeger tugged his helm over his eyes and studied the landscape.
“I think we found Golden Summit,” Jadeth flipped a scarlet braid over her shoulder and narrowed her eyes at the distant tents. “There are at least six tents; the largest is also the farthest away. That may be where Hazeed has the map.”
“Let’s move closer and see what we’re up against.” Ivo sighed and reluctantly released Emaranthe’s hand and pulled on his helm. He led them up the broad, sweeping trail and along the cliff face where the path narrowed before it widened into a plateau of hills and trees. The early morning sun bathed the brown landscape in blushing golds as the sky lightened to a deep cloudless azure. He halted at the foot of a towering palm tree that angled out over the trail at the base of the first set of hills.
The first tent was red and gold and further beyond the rest of the tents were spaced out between tall palm trees and small, rolling hills.
Emaranthe sank into a careful crouch, clenching her jaw to keep from crying out as the movement pulled on her torn side. The other three followed suit, surrounding her almost out of pure habit.
Without warning, she turned with a gasp, her eyes flying to the trail they’d just travelled. Ivo and Jaeger jumped, startled, and swung about, their hands on the hilts of their weapons, their eyes searching for whatever had startled Emaranthe. When neither of them saw any danger, they frowned in almost comical unison.
“Emaranthe, what’s wrong?” Ivo scanned her face, his eyebrows knit as her eyes continued to sweep the landscape, her mouth tilted in a puzzled frown.
“Where is the Elemental?” she asked, lifting her golden eyes to his green. Confusion clouded them and worry highlighted the smudge of shadows beneath them.
“That’s a very good question.”
To be continued…here