The meeting hall was full. Brynna had noticed Jineh’s face in the crowd, presumably there to help them with his inside knowledge. Cas was already standing beside the empty Elder’s platform, tall and elegant in his formal robes. He looked grumpier than usual for it.
When the Elders finally filed in they looked just as exhausted as Brynna felt. The seven of them took their seats, and then promptly called the meeting to order. They began to run through what they needed to discuss, Brynna slipping lower and lower in her seat as they rehashed the information that she already knew about.
Then one of them picked up a slip of paper and said, “While the Head Shifters and their party were riding back, we received some new information from the troops on our borders, as well as whispers from our spies in the Fire Nation.” Brynna blinked, sitting up and making an effort to focus. “The larger faction of the Fire Nation army, the one currently marching through the Earth Nation, is only a few days away. And the other half of their army, the half our troops met in battle in the Fire Nation desert, is being split. Some troops are returning to hold down their capitol, and the rest are following our army north, presumably to join the half of the Fire Nation army that is already almost here. We are lucky in that our own troops have a lead of several days.”
“Will our troops get back here before the first wave of the Fire Nation army reaches our borders?” an Air Nation general asked.
“That is looking increasingly unlikely,” and Elder said. The hall began to buzz at his words, and he waved a hand to silence them. “We should be able to hold them off, if only for a little while. We may lose some ground, but not much, before our troops get here.”
“And what then?” one of Solana’s generals asked. “We cannot win, we do not have enough men.”
“We can withstand a siege, for some time,” an Elder said.
“And you do have us,” Solana said, motioning to herself and her fellow Head Shifters. “We may not be able to tip the scales, but we can surely help some.”
“Ehm, yes, about that,” the head Elder said, picking up a scroll. He unrolled it, scanning it for something, then looked up, nose wrinkled. “There is a Jineh Lim of the Fire Nation here?”
Brynna looked around and saw Jineh stepping out from the crowd of nobles. He looked like he was brimming with pent up energy. “Here, my lord.”
The head Elder cleared his throat. “We have been informed,” he said in a ringing voice, “that you realised the Fire Nation’s plans, and hence abandoned your Nation to join us?”
Brynna could see Jineh raise his chin up higher. He didn’t look to be a day older than sixteen. “Yes.”
The Elder nodded. “And the Phoenix — he is also aware of your Nation’s treachery?”
Jineh frowned, the bandages on his face moving slightly with the shift. “I told him all that I knew, but he is still in confusion.”
“And yet even with the knowledge, he is still fighting for them?”
Jineh shook his head slightly. “He is fighting for them, yes, but he has been lied to — ”
“Lied to or no, he is loyal to them, is he not? He is not a hostage, and nor will he defect if the opportunity arises, as you did?”
“I have faith in him that he will come to his senses,” Jineh gritted out.
“But we cannot base this on your faith alone. He has not defected thus far, and it is likely he will continue against us with everything he has got.”
“He is being tricked,” he hissed.
The head Elder ignored him. “The Phoenix is riding with the portion of the Fire Nation army heading north. He is coming here, and tricked or not, he will still be fighting against us, so we must strike him down before he can.”
There was a ringing silence after these words. “What?” Brynna said, a cold wave of realisation trickling down her spine.
“The Phoenix is coming, and we cannot afford for him to reach us.”
“What do you propose we do?” Solana asked softly.
“We have decided,” the head Elder said, sweeping his arm out to indicate the rest of the Elders, “to send an elite group of Shifters out, to take the Phoenix down. It will only be a handful, and they will have to be stealthy, but we believe they can get the job done. With him out of the way we will suffer less damage, and losing him will be a blow to the moral of the Fire Nation troops.”
“What?” Jineh yelled.
Solana gave a humorless bark of laughter. “I have no Shifters strong enough for such a mission.”
“Well, we rather thought we should send you,” the head Elder said. “You, Princess Brynna, as well as our own Head Shifter, Lord Cas. Perhaps a couple of other Shifters you see fit could go as well. I think together you should be enough to kill the Phoenix.”
“Kill?” Jineh’s voice was shrill in the chamber, echoing. “You can’t kill him, I just told you — ”
“The Phoenix is a threat to us all,” the head Elder said. “It is better that we destroy him before he destroys us. Be quiet, youngling.”
“You can’t do that,” Jineh boomed, fingers sparking. “He doesn’t know — he’s been lied to, we can’t kill him — ”
He came too close to the stairs up to the platform, and a couple of the guards grabbed him by the arms, yanking him away. Brynna jerked, like coming out of a sleep; she had been so stunned at the thought of being sent to murder the Phoenix that he hadn’t even really been able to process what she was seeing. Jineh thrashed, trying to free herself from the guards.
“Calm down or we will have to retain you — ”
Brynna turned her gaze from her to Cas, who looked like he didn’t know what to do. His disgruntled look from before had now been completely replaced with a kind of shocked horror that Brynna could sympathise with. When Jineh lashed out at a guard, more guards came to grab him. Cas took a step forward, hand going out, as if to stop what was happening, and then stopped, dead still.
“I came here to help,” Jineh pleaded, anger dissipating into desperation. “This isn’t the way to win this.”
“You will be silent,” the head Elder said, voice beginning to rise, “and you will go back to your seat, or you will be escorted out.”
Jineh turned in the Head Shifters’ direction. “Don’t let them do this,” he said.
“Take him out of here,” the head Elder said dismissively, waving his hand.
The guards pulled him through the hall, struggling and yelling.
For several beats there was silence. Brynna turned to look at Solana, who looked shocked, eyes wide and staring at the closed doors. Her chest was rising and falling rapidly and her hands were clenched on the arms of her stone seat. Then Brynna looked at Cas, but she couldn’t see his face for he had turned away from them all.
The head Elder settled back into his seat. “Now,” he said, “shall we continue?”
Brynna gaped, appalled beyond words. “No,” she said slowly.
“Hm? What was that, Princess Brynna?” the head Elder asked.
“No,” Brynna repeated, voice significantly louder. She stood stiffly, feeling like her anger had turned her blood to fire.
She turned to Solana but found she was too furious to articulate her thoughts. She simply shook her head instead, and made for the door. “I’m done.”
“Princess? Where are you going?” the head Elder called.
“Brynna,” Solana said softly.
She didn’t pause. “The Earth Nation rescinds its offer of assistance.” She pushed the large double doors open and stepped through.
Jineh was on the ground, his head in his arms. Brynna bent, grabbing him upper arm and tugging. “Come,” she said softly.
Jineh looked up at her, eyes fiery, face streaked with angry tears. “Don’t kill Kai. He’s like a brother to me.”
“I won’t,” Brynna said. She kept tugging, and Jineh didn’t budge.
Then there was another hand reaching out and grabbing Jineh’s other arm. Brynna looked up to see Solana’s determined face. “Come on,” she said gently. “We’ll take you to the Healers, they can give you something to calm you down.” Jineh blinked at her, almost glaring. “We aren’t going to kill him, now let’s go.”
Together they were able to tug Jineh to his feet, and they lead him away from the meeting room.
Solana watched Brynna pace the room. Jineh sat on the bed, looking like he was only half aware of where he was. All his fire seemed to have died out. Cho had given him something which seemed like it was rather strong.
“The past week has been a strain on her mental stability,” she said, eyeing Brynna like she thought the Earth princess could use a sedative as well.
“This week has been a strain on all of us,” Solana said, running a hand through her long hair.
After a pause Cho asked tentatively, “What exactly happened in there?”
“The Elders thought they could use us as some kind of assassination team, to kill the Phoenix.” Cho sucked in a sharp breath. “And Jineh was upset by this idea.”
“Well I can’t imagine why,” Cho said tersely. She eyed Jineh as she sipped at her tea, as if thinking she should have given him a stronger dose. “And then you brought her to me?”
Solana couldn’t stop the corners of her mouth from twitching, even though this situation was anything but funny. “Well, first Brynna stomped out dramatically and rescinded her offer of help.”
“I was not being dramatic,” Brynna huffed, still pacing.
Solana scoffed and Cho said, “So will you be leaving for your homeland now?” Her head swiveled to look at Solana. “Will we be leaving?”
Solana shook her head. “That decision is not mine to make, but as Brynna is the only one from her nation presently here, she can obviously decide where she can go.”
Brynna had stopped, staring at them both. “I don’t want to go home. I can’t just abandon the war now.”
“Then where exactly are you planning to go?” Solana asked.
“I,” Brynna began, “hadn’t thought about it.”
Solana sighed heavily, putting his face in her hands. “This is a disaster,” she muttered.
“I couldn’t just let them get away with it,” Brynna said. “The idea that we would just willingly kill one of our fellow Head Shifters — the idea that we would be willing to kill anyone on their orders! It was too much to take. I am so sick of them treating us like weapons at their disposal.”
Solana couldn’t argue with that. She understood the feeling all too well. “So now what?”
Brynna fidgeted with the edge of her sleeve. “What are you going to do, Solana? Will you stay, help them with this mission? They aren’t going to let up. And even if you don’t help, they will still send other Shifters after Kai.”
“Not my Shifters,” she said. “I will not take part in this, no matter how much my generals pester me. But I don’t know what else we can do. The Elders seem like they’ve made up their minds about the action they’re going to take.” She nibbled his lower lip. “And they’re going to lean hard on Cas until he gives in.”
“Do you really think he will?” Brynna asked.
“I think if he doesn’t he could be stripped of his rank. Or worse. We’re lucky in that we aren’t under the Elders’ authority.”
Brynna resumed her pacing, and there was an edge to her movements now. “What if,” she said, “we leave?”
Solana frowned. “I thought you said you didn’t want to go home.”
“Not for home,” Brynna said agitatedly. “What if we,” she motioned to the two of them and Jineh, “go after the Phoenix on our own.”
Solana squinted at her. She’d thought of this herself, but had dismissed it, assuming her fellow Shifters would not go along with it. “I had considered this. But what would be the point of this venture?”
“To save him,” Jineh suddenly said, and Solana almost jumped. “Right? You want to get to him first, to save him and bring him over to our side.”
Brynna huffed. “We can’t stop the Elders from sending assassins after him. But neither can we go home, not now, we’re too invested.” She slumped, rubbing a hand over her eyes. “And we’re going to lose this war, you know, if things stay like this. But having him could turn the tides in our favor.”
“I’m coming with you,” Jineh said immediately. “I’ll know the best way to find him.”
Brynna was looking at the wall thoughtfully. “We’ll need someone who can make him listen, though. No offense, but he didn’t listen to you.”
Jineh made a small disgruntled noise into his cup. “He didn’t have enough time to process it. It could be different this time around.”
Brynna shook her head, eyes still staring at white walls. “No, I mean, we need someone who can tamper with emotions, someone who can actually keep him calm enough to listen.”
Solana realized what she was leading up to. “You’re suggesting we kidnap the Oracle,” she said flatly. “I’m sure you realize how well that played out the last time.”
She put her hands on her hips. “We wouldn’t be kidnapping her, you know she’d come along willingly. She doesn’t like it here.”
It could work, Solana thought. “But we can’t just walk off with her! The Air Nation would send soldiers out in droves after us.”
“I know it’s a shaky plan, but I cannot just let this be. We have to try.” Suddenly she looked unsure. “That is, if you want. I don’t want to drag you into this unwillingly. I won’t face repercussions from my people for this, but you will.”
“No,” Solana said softly, “I can’t let you do this alone. And I can’t sit idly by as they use Shifters as mercenaries, killers against our own. I’ll go.”
“This is suicide,” Cho hissed, and Solana jumped again. She’d forgotten she was there.
“Maybe,” she said cheerfully, then she sobered. “Please don’t tell anyone about this, at least not until we’ve got a bit of a head start.”
Cho shook his head. “You’re kidding me, aren’t you? I’m coming with you. You’ll all die along the way if you didn’t have someone to heal you when you get hurt. Which you will.”
She blinked at him. “You — ”
“I’m going with you.” She folded his arms.
“But you just said that it was suicide.”
“Maybe so. But if you don’t even get there in the first place, what’s the point of it all?”
Solana nodded, unsure but figuring that having a Healer with them, a talented one at that, could only be a good thing. She ran through a quick mental checklist of all the things that she would need to take with her for the journey, and allowed herself a small amount of sadness over the fact that she’d only managed to get one night in the soft air nation bed.
Then the door to the room opened, and Cas stepped in, looking thunderous, his face black. “Okay,” he said. “When are we leaving? I’ve had enough of this, they’re completely out of control.”
Solana stared at him. “What — how did you know?”
“Because it’s the only thing we can do in these circumstances. If we stay, they’ll pressure us until we agree to kill the Phoenix.” Cas, Solana realized, was actually shaking with anger. “I do not understand when it became permissible to order the Head Shifters of a nation around, and I do not know when it became permissible to order the killing of a Head Shifter at the hands of other Head Shifters, but I will not be part of it.”
“You will be demoted,” she said.
“I will be stripped of my rank even if I stayed, because I will not go along with their madness. And then what? I would be an ordinary Shifter still forced to fight and listen to their orders. No, if I am being stripped of my title, I am going to go my own way and do what I think is right.”
“You know,” Brynna said musingly, “with all three of us Head Shifters, Jineh, a Healer, and the Oracle, we may actually succeed in retrieving Kai and bringing him onto our side.”
Cas blinked. “The Oracle?”
Solana said, “We figured she’d be the only one able to make the Phoenix listen.”
Cas scowled. “The Oracle is locked away right now in the Room of Purification. It is guarded day and night, and has no windows, only a single door warded heavily. You’ll never be able to get her out of there.” He paused, thoughtful. “But I think I can.”
“You can?” Solana asked.
“Great!” said Brynna brightly. “You should go do that, and I will get Adian.”
Before anyone could move, however, there was a knock at the door. They all froze, like they had been caught in some terrible act. After a moment, a familiar voice called out, “Lady Solana? Are you there?”
Solana strode forward and pulled open the door. “Tahoma,” she said, trying to keep his view of the actual room limited. “What’s wrong?”
“The meeting ended,” Tahoma said, trying to peer around her. “I was wondering what your plans were.”
She ignored him for a minute, trying to work out how she was supposed to get rid of Tahoma without making him suspicious. “Um.”
“Lady Solana,” Tahoma said, “I do not want you do kill the Phoenix.”
Solana assured him, “We’re not going to.”
“We? What’s going on? Are you leaving?”
“I don’t — “ she composed himself. “Yes, we are leaving. Not you, though, not the Shifters, just me.”
“I’m coming,” Tahoma said immediately. “I want to help.” He pushed the door open further and stepped inside. Solana watched him warily, sighing, and then shut the door behind them.
Tahoma turned to Cho. “You’re going too?”
She nodded. “I think having a Healer along would be a good idea.”
“Okay,” he said, decisively. “I’m definitely coming.”
Solana ran her hand through her hair again. “This secret mission is not very secret anymore. And we were only going to take a couple of people.”
Tahoma shrugged. “I am strong. I can help with whatever it is you’re going off to do. I don’t think, at this point, you can afford to turn any allies away.”
Brynna gave a whoop of agreement. Solana just sighed and said, “Alright. Cho, go back to the Healers quarters and pack as many supplies as you can. Report back here as soon as possible. Cas, go get the Oracle.”
“The Oracle?” Tahoma asked.
Solana waved a hand in the air. “While they’re gone, we’ll explain.”
Cas strode briskly down the halls, head held high and spine stiff. His anger had melted into a dull simmer, giving sharp purpose to his movement.
The Room of Purification was in the Oracle’s section of the capitol. Cas knew there would be guards, and attendants watching over the door, possibly even praying outside of it.
He was so lost in thought, feet carrying him automatically, that he bumped right into Alix. He stumbled back and Alix reached up to grab his upper arm.
“I’d heard something happened at the meeting,” he said softly. He looked around, searching for prying ears. “Can we go back to my quarters and discuss it?”
Cas swallowed thickly and shook his head. “No. I’m kidnapping the Oracle.” His voice dropped so low as he spoke that by the end he was just mouthing.
“Oh my god,” Alix said. “You’ve gone mad.”
“Keep your voice down, Al,” Cas hissed. “We, the other Head Shifters and I, have decided to take matters regarding the Phoenix into our own hands. And we need the Oracle, so.” Cas took a deep breath. “I am kidnapping the Oracle, and we’re all going to get out of here.”
“Oh my god,” Alix repeated. “You’re going to get yourself killed. You are stupid.”
Cas bristled. “Maybe, but I can’t think what else to do. I am sick of the Elders.” His voice faltered as he said the next bit. “Are you coming? Or are you going to stay here?”
Alix shook his head and muttered, “Cas, you’re so stupid.”
“They ordered me to kill the Phoenix,” Cas said bluntly. “I cannot do as they ask. I have to do what I think is right.”
“It may be right but it is not sensible,” Alix hissed. “If you get caught with the Oracle — well, you know what the punishment is.”
“They won’t kill me,” Cas said. “They may strip me of my rank but they would not kill me, my powers are too valuable to them.” He looked around them, at the empty hall. “I don’t like discussing this out in the open. I am doing this. Are you coming?”
Alix pursed his lips. “Stupid,” he said. “Stupid stupid stupid.”
“I guess that’s a no,” Cas mumbled.
Alix went to hit Cas round the head, stuttering when he realized he was using his right arm. After a split second pause he continued the swing and smacked Cas with what remained of his right forearm. “Of course I am coming, but, shit Cas, stupid.”
“You said that already, Al,” Cas whined, rubbing at his head. “And ow.”
“Believe me,” Alix said darkly, “if I thought it would knock any sense into you, I’d have done it harder.”
“I have to get the Oracle,” Cas said, “but you should wait for me in Lady Solana’s rooms, that is where we are gathering.”
“I’m going to wait right here,” Alix said, glaring at him. “That way I can help if anything goes wrong.”
Cas nodded, and made his way to the Room of Purification on his own. There were a few attendants outside, as well as a guard on either side of the door. None of the attendants and neither of the guards were Shifters.
He walked quickly and purposefully forward. “The Elders have urgent need of the Oracle,” he barked out.
An attendant scampered forward, stopping him before he reached the doors. “My Lord,” he said, “the Oracle is not to leave this room, the Elders said she must stay in solitary for three days.”
“And now they need her,” Cas said. “It is an emergency, it has to do with the war.”
“But my lord, we cannot open the door without the Elders’ consent — ”
“You have their consent,” Cas said sharply. “Are you accusing me of lying?”
“Please, my Lord, if we could just send one of our own to the Elders’ chambers to clarify — ”
“We do not have time for this,” Cas said urgently. “The Oracle must be brought to the meeting hall. It is a matter of utmost importance. You are wasting valuable time. Now open this door or I will be forced to report you for hindering our war efforts, which in current circumstances amounts to treason.”
The attendant looked at his companions, all of which had gathered around Cas. They all hovered, looking uncertain. Cas waited, hoping his nerves weren’t showing through.
“Now,” Cas barked, and finally one of them scrambled to obey. As the attendant muttered some kind of chant in front of the door to disable the wards, Cas fought not to let out a sigh of relief.
The door swung open to reveal a sterile white room. Cas stepped up, looking around. The room was extraordinarily bright, though there was no discernible light source. It seemed to be radiating from the walls themselves. There was no furniture in the room, nothing adorning the walls, only a futon in a corner, upon which the Oracle was sitting. She was wearing very simple robes, all things considered, no silver adornments or sashes. She stood as Cas entered, eyes wide in her pale face.
“The Elders have need of you,” Cas said, and he hoped his expression conveyed enough that the Oracle got the hint not to ask questions. She nodded, in any case, and followed when Cas motioned for her to follow him. She looked grateful for any excuse to be out of the room, which, Cas had to admit, made him feel uncomfortable as well.
Outside of the room, the attendants made to follow them, just like they normally would. Cas held up a hand. “This is secret business,” he said. “I will escort the Oracle myself. You will stay here and wait for her return.”
“But my Lord — ” one of the attendants said, aghast.
“Wait here,” Cas said, voice as haughty as he could manage, and when he strode down the hall, none of them followed him this time.
The Oracle said nothing until they met up with Alix, who looked like he wanted nothing more than to lay down for a while. “I can’t believe this is happening,” he said, almost moaning.
“Al, please try to be supportive,” Cas said shortly.
“Where are you taking me?” the Oracle piped up.
Alix narrowed his eyes. “Don’t you even want to know why we’re taking you first?”
The Oracle shrugged. “I recognise you both from the journey, and neither of you mean me any harm, that much I can tell. Are we going outside of the capitol? Are we going on another journey? Will we have to ride horses again?”
“You sound far too excited,” Alix mumbled. “Just keep your head and voice down, we’ll explain once we get to Lady Solana’s rooms.”
“So you aren’t taking me to the Elders,” she said, almost happily. “Are we rebelling? Are you kidnapping me?”
“It’s not kidnapping if you come willingly,” Cas said. “Which I figured you would.”
Kiera nodded. “I would quite like to never be stuck in my rooms again.”
Alix groaned. “We’ll all be executed for treason.”
“Only if they catch us,” Cas said cheerfully.
They’d reached Solana’s room and Cas didn’t bother knocking before he opened the door. Cho was already back, a large lumpy bag beside him on the bed, and Brynna had returned with the Shadow Walker.
“Adian!” the Oracle cried, dashing into the room. “I should have known you’d be coming too.” She threw her arms around the Shadow Walkers shoulders, and Cas couldn’t help the involuntary gurgle that flew from his mouth at the sight. Alix had made a noise like a dying bear.
“Oracle,” said the Shadow Walker, in a grave voice unlike his normal, “you forget yourself. You shan’t sully yourself like this.” Then he grinned, and Kiera stepped back and slapped him lightly on the chest.
“Don’t be like that,” she said. She scanned the room, seeming overly pleased that she obviously at least recognised everyone. Then she frowned. “Where is Tylan? Isn’t he coming?”
“Who?” Cas asked, frowning.
The Oracle shot him a scathing look. “He’s one of your Shifters, you should know him.”
Cas wracked his brain, trying to think. Alix asked, “Is he the one with that noxious poison ability?” The Oracle sniffed, but nodded.
“Oh, that one,” Cas said. “I do remember him. He’s awful.”
“We have to bring him,” the Oracle said, turning back to look at the Shadow Walker.
“We already have enough people,” Solana fairly wailed.
“I know him,” Tahoma said. “He seemed nice. He can’t air Shift very well but his miasma ability is interesting.”
“So he’s like you and your freezing ability?” Solana asked, and Tahoma nodded.
“Adian,” the Oracle whined.
“Why do you always have to bring your third wheel.” The Shadow Walker stepped back from the Oracle. He addressed Cas cooly. “I don’t think one more person could hurt, and I do think Tylan could be useful.”
Solana spoke before Cas could. “Fine, if it brings you comfort, and if you think he is trustworthy. Go get him.”
The Shadow Walker turned to stare intently at the Oracle. “Where is he?”
The Oracle shut his eyes, and after a few moments said, “In his quarters, on the south wing.”
In the next second, the Shadow Walker was gone.
“Alright,” Solana said, clapping her hands together. “Alright. it’s almost dark. We’ll all gather supplies, quickly, quietly, and meet back here after. Then, under the cover of dark, we’ll head down to the ground.”
“But how?” Cho said. “How are we going to get down to the ground? We can’t take a gondola. None of us can operate one, plus they’re too slow and obvious. And once on the ground, what will we do? Steal some horses? There’s no way we can go on foot. We’ll be caught within a day.”
Cas cocked his head to the side. “We could take the birds. I don’t know how far they’d get us, but it would be some head start at least.”
“We haven’t got enough of them,” Alix said slowly. “Plus you know how easily spooked they are, and they’re even worse at night. And they squawk.”
“Well then I guess we’re just doomed,” Jineh said, throwing up his hands impatiently. “Come on, there has to be some other way to get down.”
Adian was staring around at them all like they were idiots. “I have a dragon,” he said flatly.
After a pause Brynna said, “Oh. That’ll work.”