Continued… (for a full list of the parts to Ancient Fire, click here)

(Previously: Elad and Lottie made their way through the booby-trapped burial crypt, Death’s Deep, to the last resting place of King Harad who had reputedly stolen Fyre and had it entombed with him. Upon finally reaching it, they discovered to their horror that the box that ought to contain the sword was empty.)

Chapter 6

A single folded scrap of paper lay in the bottom. That was all.

Through so many dangers, risking life and limb, treading the forbidden pathways, to get… a note. A single, stupid, scoffing note that mocked her from where it rested in the box. Taking it out, heart in her shoes, she unfolded it.

Ha! Did you really think that a dainty like this could lie here so long without arousing the lust of pirate hearts? You fool! Ordinary men might balk at the journey you tread, but Deathbrand pirates do not know fear. Only I and fools such as you would dare Death’s Deep. I’m afraid I’m just one step ahead of you, little foolish one! Catch me if you can!

Here the writer had drawn a rude face and signed with a swirling signature. Captain Vladimir Hawk. Deathbrand pirates. Lottie moaned and buried her face in her hands.

“I knew it was too easy,” she whispered hoarsely. “I just knew it was too easy. I go, get the sword, come back. Done. Too simple. Too safe. Of course that couldn’t be all. Oh no. This isn’t even close to over.”

“I’ll say it isn’t.”

Lottie glanced up, startled at the sudden voice, and saw Elad brushing himself off, human in form now.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“We haven’t gotten the sword back. Until we do, you haven’t fulfilled your promise, so we’ve got to find those pirates.”

She narrowed her eyes skeptically. “And how would we just do that? They wouldn’t have happened to leave a convenient paper trail, did they? We don’t even know how long it’s been since they came here.”

“Twelve days, maybe fifteen,” Elad answered promptly. “Scent’s old but not too old. They’ve left something better than a paper trail.” He grinned and tapped his nose. “A paper trail they can’t control. They’ll lead us right to them.”

“We? You’re still coming?” She looked at him in some surprise, but also felt something like hope for some reason. Somehow, and she wasn’t sure how, she had found his presence reassuring, even with the constant changing. Was this what it was like, having a friend?

“You won’t find them without me,” he pointed out. “And what else would I do? Go back to roaming aimlessly in the wild and hoping against hope that somewhere in the background you’ll find Fyre and figure out some way to kill the Witch?”

Lottie bit her lip and grinned. “Good point.” She was already feeling better. But she refused to let herself think about the dealing with the pirates part. They’d figure that out eventually, when the time came.

It took less than half the time going back as it had coming. Lottie was right; none of the traps had reset themselves, and she certainly wasn’t going to waste time resetting them as the Deathbrand pirates had. Soon they were scrambling up the broken stairs and out of the hole into the cave.

“Now what?” Lottie asked, breathing hard and digging a knuckle into her side.

“We wait till nightfall,” Elad said, squinting up at the sun. “I can’t track in the daytime. We’ll have to travel by night from now on, at least until we catch up with the pirates.” He scrambled onto the stony rise that squatted over the cave. “Go ahead and catch a few winks in the cave while you can. I’ll nap and keep watch up here. I won’t be anything unusual to anyone passing by – just another brigand.” He winked down at her from his perch. “A young girl in the wild? Quite another matter.”

Lottie had a sudden image of the Mistress flying above in dragon form, searching for her, searching for where the blood of Nimrod and her hope for return had hidden itself. She ducked quickly back into the cave and curled up, munching on some of the provisions the Cloak Girl had given her. She drifted off to sleep, utterly exhausted and aching all over.

The dream was shadowy, but somehow familiar, though she had never dreamed it before. A small, curly haired girl was playing with brightly colored rags in a small living room. A woman’s laugh, tinkling like sweet bells, wafted toward her. The child looked up and held up her arms. Someone reached down and picked her up, but for some reason Lottie could only make out a vague shadow where the person ought to be. She strained, but couldn’t catch the face.

“My little Charlotte-bug!” a man’s voice boomed, and he took the girl from the invisible figure and swung her around. She couldn’t see his face either, though it was right in front of her. Why not? She threw herself against the wall, against the film that blinded her eyes, feeling somehow that it was the most important thing in the world to see his face. She almost could. She pushed harder. Grasping. She could almost see her father’s face! She could almost see… her father’s… face…

She broke through, but instantly knew she hadn’t. The dream had shifted before she had succeeded. The man before her now she knew somehow was not her father. Though something about him seemed almost right. Almost familiar.

He was holding a sword, fighting something big and indistinct. The big thing vanished, and the man looked directly at her. He stepped forward, and for some reason, Lottie felt no urge to shrink away. He held out his sword, and his eyes bored into hers.

“Take it now. Wield it well. The All-Maker has chosen you. You must stand against the evil. My sword is yours to take up, my path yours to continue, my beginning yours to finish. Go, with the strength and courage of the All-Maker, go! You know your task. Do not waver.”

The sword hilt burned in her hands. Fiery strength surged up her arms and coursed in her veins.

Something was wrong. She was lying on a cold stone floor, and the Mistress stood over her, speaking to her men about how she was using Lottie’s life and blood to unseal the Portal and open the way for her return. But this couldn’t be! She couldn’t let this happen!

She tried to sit up or move at all, but she couldn’t.

“No!” she screamed. “No, no, no! I won’t let this happen!” She moved. She was on her feet. Where was the sword the man had given her? There it was, in her hands. She raised it, fighting back fear and doubt, staring the Mistress in the eyes. This would be the end, for good or evil, better or worse, this would be the end of life as it had been. But she was not going to let some half-demon monster use her blood for her demonic rituals!

The Mistress laughed. “You dare defy me, Chérie? I applaud your useless courage. Except here, now, this isn’t courage, little Chérie. It is folly. You shall end in folly and disrepute.”

“I don’t care,” Lottie said, surprising herself. Her voice was steadier and calmer than she had expected. “So be it. I’ll do everything I can to kill you, and if I die, oh well, but it’ll be after you. I’m Nimrod’s heir, and this is his ancient sword, Fyre. You remember it.”

“Of course I do.” The Mistress’s voice was patronizing now, amused. “But what can you do? You are a fool. You cannot help but die.”

“I don’t care!”

Lottie awoke, murmuring, “I don’t care… I don’t care…” over and over again to herself. The sun slanted into the cave. It was late. Her sleep hadn’t exactly been restful or especially refreshing, but she did feel better. Except for the dream. That was just too… creepy? Real? Vision-like? It felt too much like a glimpse of truth, of what had been, which wasn’t hard to contemplate, and of what would be, which was impossible. And then that man with the sword… Nimrod? His words still haunted her, much as she tried to ignore them, and they made her uncomfortable. Had her own brain invented them, or was it something else?

“You know your task. Do not waver.” She shivered. She didn’t want to think about what that was saying.


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