“That’s a big army,” Kai exhaled. The sun was still up, but the sky was dimming, and there were torches and fires by the thousands beneath them, flickering in the growing darkness. Aurelie had seen it in the distance with Rowan, but up close it was far more breathtaking, and terrifying.
“There,” Sydney said, pointing a slender finger out. “Nico’s tent is the big red one, right?”
“The one with the giant golden phoenix on it, yes,” Lexa said.
She saw it too. Almost all the other tents were yellow or cream. She tried to reach out with her senses, but she still couldn’t find Nico. She could sense a few of the other more powerful fire Shifters, glowing like tiny stars, but none of them were the Phoenix. “I still can’t feel him. I can feel others, but not Nico.”
“Maybe he’s not in his tent,” Kai said. “Sweep the rest.”
Aurelie frowned, and did so, but it didn’t yield any better results. “Guys, I don’t think he’s here.”
“How can he not be here?” Lexa asked.
“I don’t know, but he isn’t.”
“Then where is he?” she asked, now sounding like she was on the verge of having a breakdown.
“I don’t know,” Aurelie said tiredly. “I can’t just find people like that, what do I look like to you?”
“The Oracle,” Lexa said flatly.
“Are you sure he isn’t here?” Kai asked. “He has to be here, where else would he be? Maybe you just are missing him.”
“Don’t question the word of the Oracle,” Rowan snapped. Aurelie layed a hand on his forearm, rolling her eyes a little.
“No, he isn’t here. I’d definitely be able to sense him.”
“That is not good,” Jayden said.
“Do you think they killed him?” Sydney whispered.
“No,” Lexa and Jayden said at the same time, but Hazel sensed that Jayden wasn’t very sure about it, while Lexa was.
“I can’t see them killing him unless it was an absolute necessity, he’s too strong to just dispose of,” she continued, voice like steel. “They’re not going to get rid of him unless he turns out to be a liability.”
“What do you mean he wasn’t there?” Lucien was asking, and he turned to face Aurelie as Jayden placed her back down.
“I mean the Phoenix is not in the camp,” Aurelie snapped. Lucien raised an eyebrow at her, and she lopped on the ground close to the fire, unable to work up the energy to care any longer.
“So, where is he?” Savannah asked, and Aurelie might have kicked her, but Jayden was blocking the way.
“If he isn’t here,” Cas said slowly, “then they probably took him back to the capitol.”
“We need to talk about the very likely possibility that he is dead,” Sydney said.
Kai rubbed a hand over his mouth. “Lexa doesn’t think he is.”
“I don’t think he is,” Lexa sighed. “Nico is one of the sharpest people I know. If he really believed what I told him, he wouldn’t outwardly show it. But after what happened with me, they’re going to be on high alert, and if they thought he was going to flip sides…”
“They’d kill him,” Cas finished.
“What other reason would there be for him not being here?” Jayden asked.
Lexa was silent as she thought. “You all weren’t really supposed to know the extent of his power until it was too late for you to retreat, but Nico blew that when he came out fighting in the first battle. They weren’t mad at him over that exactly, but it definitely showed that he was a bit of a loose cannon. A useful, powerful cannon, but a loose one nonetheless. It’s possible they wanted to separate him from the fighting, but still make use of him by having him in the capitol to guard it. He’s more useful than ten thousand ordinary soldiers would be.” Her voice sounded pained as she said this, regret and nostalgia brimming. She paused, then added, voice lower, “It will also be easier to keep an eye on him in the capitol.”
Kai groaned. “There’s no way we can get into the Fire Nation capitol. That’s a suicide mission.”
“I believe I said the same thing about this before we even left,” Sydney said.
“We can’t go back,” Savannah pointed out. “What would we do, just hand Aurelie back and say that we’re sorry for running off and kidnapping the Oracle? They’d execute at least half of us.”
“She’s right,” Cas said. “And besides, we started this mission because Nio is the only way we have a chance of winning this war, we need him.”
“So, what, our plan just went from ‘wait for the Fire Nation army to pass by and snag the Phoenix,’ to ‘fly across the giant Fire Nation desert without being seen, walk into the Fire Nation capitol, and then somehow escape with both the Phoenix and our heads’?” Rowan asked, tone scathing.
“I don’t see what else we can do,” Jayden said slowly. “We can’t go back. The only way to go is forward.”
“We don’t even know if Nico is still alive,” Rowan replied. “There’s a tent down there meant for him, and yet he’s not in it, what does that say?”
“That they’re using a decoy,” Lexa replied, “because they don’t want their troops, or us, for that matter, to know Nico isn’t with them.”
“And why would they do that if he was still alive? I think they killed him and are trying to cover it up, and you just don’t want to admit it.”
“That would make sense too,” Asher sighed.
“But we have to know for sure,” Jayden said. “And the answers are clearly not here.”
“We could just head south, toward the Capitol, and see if we can find any answers along the way,” Lexa said determinedly. “If Nico… if he’s dead, we’re going to have to figure something else out, because like Savannah said, we can’t exactly go back to the Air Nation as we are now.”
“We’re just chasing dead ends,” Rowan said.
“But there’s nothing else we can do, Rowan,” Cas said forcefully. “Any plan is better than no plan at all.”
Rowan fell quiet, looking supremely unhappy. “Aurelie is sick, she needs to be taken back, at least.”
“I am not sick,” Aurelie protested, not even blinking at the lie. “And I don’t want to go back.”
“You’re not sick?” he asked disbelievingly. “Lee, you couldn’t even walk ten minutes ago.”
“Don’t question the Oracle,” she said weakly, trying not to show her fluster at the nickname. He hadn’t called her that in so long and it brought back a wave of fresh memories. “Rowan, I can’t go back. I won’t go back.”
Rowan turned on Lucien, who was watching Aurelie with a very thoughtful expression. “You,” he said angrily, “take her back.”
“Are you kidding me?” Lucien asked, gaze snapping to Rowan. “Do you want me to die? Wait, don’t answer that.”
The tall boy threw his hands up in frustration. “I don’t understand either of you. I know I agreed to bring her along but now we’re just heading further into enemy territory and she keeps getting sicker, this isn’t — it isn’t right.”
“And it’s not right to expect me to just go back quietly,” Aurelie snapped. “I hated it there and I won’t be locked up again. So stop treating me like a child, Ro.”
He bit hard on his lower lip, face twisting. Back rigid, he left the camp, stalking off into the darkness. Were Aurelie normal, she would have just seen him leaving in a huff, but she was a Seer, and she could see the despair swirling around him like a miasma. It made her want to cry and call him back, but she knew he wouldn’t listen right now.
“He’ll be back,” Lucien said softly, accurately reading her expression. He moved so he could put an arm around her shoulders, and she leaned against him, feeling a bit better.
“Should we pack up and leave, then?” Lexa asked.
Kai blinked. “Huh?”
“We can’t travel during the day, not over the desert, it’d be too obvious.” She gestured around themselves. “The sun only just went down. We could pack up and leave now, and then sleep when morning comes.”
“I suppose so,” Kai said haltingly, like he was unsure. Aurelie was hoping he would disagree, because the thought of packing up and leaving right now made her feel like crying.
“Time is of the essence,” Lexa pointed out. “We need to find Nico, sooner rather than later, otherwise we’ll fly back here only to find everything’s been burned.”
Kai was tired of cold food, but knew they couldn’t risk lighting a fire, so he ate without complaint. Not all of the others were as mature about it as he was, but they all understood. Where there was a fire there would be smoke, and empty cities weren’t supposed to have any signs of life.
“Can we at least go foraging?” Cas had whinged two days in.
“You won’t find anything but ash, Shittygray,” Jayden had interjected.
“Besides,” Kai added, ignoring Cas’ protests, “I don’t think we should stray far from the dragon. Aside from the possibility of getting lost and caught unawares, this ash may as well be snow. We’re leaving prints. I don’t want Nico to walk in and see fresh trails all around. No. We stay put.”
Four days ago, they had landed in a large courtyard in what Lexa told them was near the marketplace of the Lightning Clan’s city. The buildings around them were quite tall, and mostly still standing, so the dragon didn’t stick out too much. Unfortunately she was beginning to get a little restless, and Lucien was having slight trouble getting her to stay put, just like Kai was having trouble getting any of them to stay close.
But days passed, and as they did the group steadily became less on edge. Kai was concerned about them becoming complacent, and was determined to remain vigilant. So far no ghosts had come after them though, which had been Rowan’s primary concern, after the Food Situation. Even Jayden had been a bit unnerved by the place.
Now though, Rowan was kneeling in what had once been a grassy area and was now just ashes. There were tiny whirlwinds twirling in front of him, his palms outstretched slightly towards them. In an attempt at curing his own boredom, he had taken it upon himself to practice his Air Shifting.
When Kai softly complimented him on one of the bigger whirlwinds, he actually gave him a tentative smile, and Kai beamed back. It was nice to see him finally starting to relax and mesh with the rest of them, after holding himself separate for so long.
“One,” Kai murmured to himself as he went to find the others. He counted heads at least two times a day, making sure no one vanished without his notice.
Savannah was putting together a snack in the shade of the dragon, making a very concentrated effort to keep the soot off her food.
Not far off from Savannah, Lucien was leaning up against the dragon’s side, softly speaking to Aurelie, who was leaning against his side. Aurelie was pale, looking almost gaunt, having lost a worrisome amount of weight recently, but she was listening attentively, looking at Lucien with fascination. When Kai neared them he realised Lucien was talking about the dragons down in the Bonelands, telling the Oracle a story about what had happened when his own dragon was a baby.
“Kai, you’re kicking up ash!” Savannah cried, shielding her cheese as Kai neared.
“Sorry,” he said, rolling his eyes. Savannah scowled at him like he had committed some unforgivable act.
“Hey, Kai,” Aurelie said weakly, giving him a small smile. He felt a pang of concern, as usual.
“Hey,” he replied. “How are you feeling?”
“Fine,” she said, her usual answer. “Starting to get a little tired of staring at the same scenery though.”
“Same,” grumbled Savannah. “How much longer are we going to have to wait, anyway?”
“I don’t know,” said Kai, exasperated because people kept expecting him to have the answers. “Why don’t you ask Aurelie? She’s the Oracle. Are you sure we didn’t miss him?”
“No,” she said simply. “I don’t think we did.”
“Well, he’s taking his time,” Savannah said. “It’s very rude, there’s a war going on.”
“You can lecture him when he gets here,” Kai retorted, turning to leave.
As he walked away he heard something about how they should make Nico eat some of their gritty food in punishment, and he rolled his eyes upwards. “Four,” he muttered.
As he walked through their camp, a lump under some of the furs caught his eye. He lifted a corner and was greeted by Sydney’s sleeping face. Kai sighed. He didn’t understand how she could sleep in this heat under all those layers but clearly she was managing it very well.
It had taken a full day for her to wake up after the attempted Healing, She’d taken the explanation of what happened to her calmly, but her entire demeanor had changed once she heard that they were on their way to the Lightning Clan’s City. It was probably a good thing that she didn’t have any kind of offensive powers, because Kai would have feared for his own safety if she had. Sydney had been livid, turning first on Kai, then Jayden, then Lucien for some reason, demanding from each of them an explanation for the crackpot, dangerous plan they had come up with.
“It’s the only way we can find Nico,” Kai had protested, almost shrinking back from her, which was silly because she wasn’t even a physical threat. “I know it’s dangerous, so much can go wrong, but — ”
“That’s not what I mean,” Sydney had hissed, poking him in the chest. “Lexa is — I’ve got a patient still in the middle of recovery, don’t you see, and now you want to drag her back to the place where her trauma originates from? You’re supposed to be smart!” Then he had whirled on Jayden who had his arms folded across his chest and his expression schooled into blankness. “Or at least you’re supposed to be the smart one!”
The argument — which was really more one-sided yelling on Sydney’s part — had gone on until Lexa herself had silently stood up and walked off. Sydney had fallen quiet at that, just enough for Lucien to interrupt. “We know it’s stupid,” he’d said. “We know it’s going to hurt her. But Lexa was the one who suggested this. It’s not your decision to make.” Sydney had stared at him, struggling to catch her breath, and then left camp too, stomping after Lexa. It had been a while before they’d both returned, neither of them looking particularly happy.
Now, with her short hair all over her face and her mouth slightly open in sleep, it was close to impossible to think about how intimidating Sydney had been. Kai added her to his tally with a murmured, “Five,” and gently lay the corner of the furs down. He only had to find another four.
Cas, and Jayden were sitting together, Cas with his head on Jayden’s shoulder. Asher was in front of them, body poised like he was ready to strike at something.
“What are you doing?” Kai asked.
“We’re training,” Cas said.
“I’m training,” Asher said. “You two are being gross.”
“Training how?” Kai asked.
“Trying to see if I can pull some moisture out of the air,” Asher said, straightening.
“It’s not working all that well,” Cas said sympathetically.
Asher grunted. “It’s hard when the atmosphere is this dry.”
“Keep trying,” Kai said, smiling. “I’m sure you’ll get it eventually.”
“I could practice blood bending,” Asher said, a thoughtful expression on his face. “But seeing as the only living things around here are you guys, that seems unlikely.”
“Please don’t voodoo any of us,” Jayden said solemnly. “Not even Rowan.”
They laughed, and Kai smiled wider, adding them to his numbers so that he now had eight altogether and just one more to find.
“Lexa!” Kai shouted. His neck was prickling at the silence.
“I’m here,” came the soft reply. He turned towards the sound, picking his way through the remnants of fallen beams and other debris. Lexa was around a precariously standing wall, head radiating off of her.
“Lexa,” Kai panted, making his way to the boy’s side. “I couldn’t find you. You’re not supposed to wander this far.”
“Sorry, Kai,” she replied, her voice uncharacteristically quiet. “I just… I heard what they did, but I never saw it with my own eyes. I think I was beginning to forget that this actually happened, you know? That my own nation was responsible for this. That they killed our own people, innocent people, Nico’s family.” She took a deep breath. “I will never forgive it.”
“I’m sorry, Lexa,” Kai said, looking around himself. There really wasn’t much left. The pillars hinted at something extravagant and beautiful, but he would never really know for sure. It was broken now, destroyed. “But we’re here now. And we’re going to get Nico on our side. Okay? We’re not going to let them get away with it.”
Lexa walked around a fallen beam, tracing her finger over patterns only she seemed to see. “I almost don’t want him to see this. I know it’s the only way to get him to believe us,” she added when Kai opened his mouth, “but this would hurt him so much. He’s been through too much enough already.”
Kai was quiet for a moment. No words seemed to be right. “You… you really care about him.”
“What gave me away?” she asked, turning to him and smiling crookedly. Sadly.
Kai swallowed, trying to return the smile. “We’ll be okay, Lexa. You, him, all of us. I know it.”
“You shouldn’t throw those words around, Lord Kai,” Lexa said, but she seemed lighter, somehow. She straightened, cracked her knuckles. “So, you here to take me back to camp?”
Kai offered her his arm in answer, and after a heartbeat of eyeing it, Lexa wound her own arm around it. They walked back in comfortable silence.
Nothing eventful was happening back at the camp. In fact from what Kai could see, most everyone was where he’d left them. He looked up at the sky and sent up a thank you for small mercies.
However, his wave of gratitude was interrupted by Cas sprinting back into camp, Jayden and Asher hot on his heels. “We just saw people,” he gasped out. “Riders, on the hill. It’s him. He’s here.”