The tribe convened that night around a massive bonfire. They chose an open hilltop west of their dwellings, capped with a flat stone whose face shone pale and silver in the somber moonlight. Everyone was present, arranged in a crescent around the dancing red flames.
Helkryvt was present, chaperoned by Mota and Badger. Beledine couldn't spare the energy worrying about him. He kept a respectful distance, lurking at the back of the crowd, allowing the tribe to grieve. As long as he stayed there, she promised herself she wouldn't dwell on him. She had to focus on getting through this ceremony.
Their dead had been wrapped in furs. A cold wind snaked down from the north, trailing ripples across the calm of the shining lake. It reached the five bodies laid out neatly on the hill, gently ruffling the shrouds. Beledine watched the corpses, imagining the subtle movements were caused instead by the rising and falling of her tribemates' chests. An unpleasant pressure crept into her own chest, tightening slowly around her lungs, and she looked away.
Kamber and Bogs had been mates, and as such they were placed in the fire together. Embre wielded a strong current of air, whisking up whorls of dust that glinted in the starlight, and wrapped his spell around their bodies. He levitated them into the fire, holding them aloft until the flames claimed them. The Araxi Tribe watched in silence as flesh turned to ash, and sparks spiraled into the heavens and vanished.
Saima, a petite earth wielder, had been mated to Wartho—but she wasn't strong enough to carry him to his final resting place. Two tribesmen bore his body toward the bonfire on her behalf. Saima walked beside them, one hand on her mate's chest, silent tears fanning down her brown cheeks.
Rahxus had been unmated, but his two closest friends delivered him to the flames. And then it was time for the final body.
Kibar crouched beside Skyrel's lifeless form and hefted him up. He straightened easily and began walking, but Beledine's surprise, he stopped before her and offered her the body.
She shook her head. “You were closer. You knew him longer.”
“It is your right as chieftain,” he replied. Beledine wasn't sure she would be able to carry the weight of her former leader. She was wiry and well toned, but she was also slight of figure, and Skyrel was at least twice her weight. She glanced up at Ghokarian.
<You are the strongest one here,> he reminded her.
Beledine thought fast, rifling through mental catalogues of spells for one that could help her. She settled on a heat spell that would create lift beneath the body, similar to the one she'd wielded earlier that sun on the mountain.
Lifting her chin, she held out her arms to accept Skyrel. She ignited fire-threads from her source and wove them into intricate patterns in the air, roping them together beneath the corpse as Kibar handed it over. Millions of invisible energy strands coiled around Skyrel—she gave them life, causing them to vibrate and emit heat, but prevented them from turning into actual flames. The heat lifted the body, and quick as a wink she created a secondary spell to protect it, not wanting it to burn before it reached the pyre.
Beledine felt all eyes on her as she walked forward, half-carrying, half-floating Skyrel in her arms. A pressure needled at her left temple, and she knew Helkryvt was watching. A warmth unlike that which the fire provided radiated toward her in waves, indicating he had embraced his source. Mages had the ability to see other wielders' threads, and she was sure he'd connected with his magic to examine the spells she had woven.
Ignoring Helkryvt's scrutiny, she created a third spell when she felt the heat licking her face. The flames parted before her, allowing her to step into the womb of the bonfire. She heard a few tribesmen cry out, but they quieted when they saw she was safely forging her way through the blaze.
“May your wanderings be blessed,” she whispered to Skyrel, crouching and placing him on the glowing gleeds. She dropped the spell that protected him, and at once sparks began to crawl up the edges of his shroud. The heat of the crimson-gold tongues her dried whatever tears she might have cried. She knelt there, feeling something eating away at her heart in much the same manner tiny flames were now eating away at the corpse.
Then the pressure in her chest burst. She plunged mental fists into her source and ignited as many threads as she could. They flooded through every capillary within her and exploded from every pore on her body. With all the power she had left, she sank heat into the stone hilltop. It became molten and red-hot at her mental touch. Skyrel's body blistered. The scent of charred flesh reached her as he began to melt into the ground.
It wasn't enough. She stood abruptly and wrenched her arms skyward, dredging up every one of the fire-threads she'd fed into the ground. The stone roiled like water, then rose in great whorls, dragged by the sheer weight of the fire spell within it. Great walls of flaming rock sprouted around Beledine, catching up the last charred bits of Skyrel's body. It yielded to the heat, melting away, turning to embers that scattered toward the moon.
Skyrel Araxi was gone.
One more burst of mental strength sucked the life and heat out of every fire-thread on the hilltop. Beledine pulled the energy out of the molten stone, freezing it in place. The flames winked out of existence. In the sudden absence of the heat, the chill of the night rushed in, striking her cheeks and making her shiver.
“You have returned to the earth and the sky,” she murmured, gazing blindly at the stars.
She turned and exited the frozen stones, returning to her people. They were all staring at her. She knew it must have been quite a display, and for a moment she regretted her actions. But she saw Ghokarian smiling, and she looked back to see what she'd inadvertently wrought.
The sinuous pillars of rock had twisted together in a shape, not unlike the one carved into the chieftain's talisman. In fact, Beledine thought as she tilted her head to survey her work, from a certain angle it looked like it was a flickering flame—a dark flame, paralyzed, suspended in a single moment of time.
“A fitting monument,” Ghokarian rumbled. He words jolted the tribesmen out of their stupor, and they murmured agreement.
“Now what, chieftain?” Embre asked Beledine.
“Now we move on,” she replied. “We rebuild. We return to our normal lives, and we create a home here. A home Skyrel would have been proud of.”
“We have still some business.” Mota had piped up from where he stood, guarding Helkryvt. Beledine glanced their way. The other mage was regarding her with an unreadable expression. His eyes glittered like polished obsidian in the pallid moonlight.
“That we do,” Beledine agreed. “Helkryvt Moothvaler, step forward.”
Figures parted ways as Helkryvt drifted forward, approaching Beledine. Again, she was struck by the aura of power around him. Did she give off that same aura? Was this why people feared mages? She wasn't intimidated by him, but that was only because she was a match for him in terms of strength. How must it feel for someone like Blure or Adsy to gaze into that dark face, knowing he could snuff out their lives without breaking a sweat?
“This stranger hails from the nation-states of the south,” Beledine announced loudly. “As we explained earlier, he assisted in the defeat of the enemy tribe and its rogue dragon.”
A smattering of polite applause fanned through the audience. She refrained from rolling her eyes.
“He has requested to join us. Normally I would accept without question someone who had proven his worth in battle and helped save our lives. But there is more to know about him. He is a mage, unmarked.”
Her words didn't have the effect she'd expected. Instead of pulling back, the crowd drew nearer, leaning close with interest.
<That wasn't how they reacted to me,> she complained silently to Ghokarian.
<Perhaps you have shown them that mages are not to be feared,> he replied. Beledine considered this, then smiled. Perhaps that was true. But if so, then they should feel the same way about Ghokarian now—and they would not like hearing what she had to say next.
“Helkryvt is also a hunter,” she continued. “He is renowned in the south, he claims, for his ability to kill dragons.”
A whisper ran through the tribe. Young Falme huddled close to his father. Mota scowled.
“If I may,” said Helkryvt, addressing them directly, “your chieftain has omitted important information regarding my actions. I kill rogue dragons, like the one that attacked you earlier. My aim is to protect the innocent, not to take innocent lives. As humans expand their territory, they inevitably come into contact with dragons. We are seeing many more rheenarae now. And if a dragon should bond with a human who is, shall we say, less than wholesome . . .”
He trailed off, letting them draw their own conclusions.
<The point he brings up is valid,> Ghokarian admitted. <Statistically speaking, not all who become dragon speakers will be good. There are just as many who will use their power for ill. There may, in fact, be more of the latter than the former.>
“I can protect you,” Helkryvt announced, now pacing along the edges of the crowd. “And I can help your tribe grow strong. I've seen the greatest rising cities—the land you have is fertile and defensible, better than most of the lands in the south. If you accept me, I can make you great. We will recruit tribesmen; we will build a metropolis; we will not just survive, we will flourish.”
Excitement glittered on a few upturned faces. Murmurs spread. He was an excellent speaker, charismatic and commanding, and he was saying all the right things. Beledine recalled her conversation with Ghokarian before she'd set out on her journey. Her own words came swimming back: Our tribe would be the most powerful tribe in the world.
Here stood a mage echoing her sentiments. Here stood someone willing to help. Why, then, was she so hesitant to accept?
“You have traveled far and wide, Helkryvt,” she said. “Why would you settle with us, so far from civilization? Why choose the Araxi Tribe, when surely you would be accepted anywhere?”
He shook his head and offered her a small, sad smile. It opened something that had previously been closed off in his eyes, softened the hard, strong lines of his face, and transformed him. It was the first hint of vulnerability he'd shown, and it made Beledine's breath hitch in her throat.
“You are too trusting, chieftain,” he whispered. “Too young and naïve. I'd have thought those scars on your cheeks would have taught you something. Mages are just as feared as rheenarae, and for just as good reason. We are dangerous. We have too much power. If we had a mere inkling to do something, there are few who could stop us. No one wants someone like that running around their city unchecked.”
Beledine raised a brow, struck by his words. His mention of her scars again stirred that dark and dormant something in her gut, but she quickly squashed the sensation.
“I've moved from place to place, trying to make myself useful. Trying to prove something, perhaps,” he admitted. “Humans are a cruel species by nature. And that cruelty rubs off on dragons. Thus, I don't stay anywhere long. But here, in the middle of nowhere, I have found a beacon of hope. I've found you.”
He approached her again, holding out a hand. “You are mage and rheenar both, yet your tribe respects you. I've been here not even a sun, and I see it in their eyes. That is all I want. Seeing them accept you, I believe they could accept me. If we built a city—a city to end all cities, grander and larger than anything the south has ever seen—based on that respect, we could change the way everyone thinks. We could change the world.”
Beledine stared into his face for a long moment. She didn't speak with Ghokarian, but a whirlwind of jumbled emotions stirred between them, passing from one to the other and growing stronger with each successive turn of the maelstrom. Together they teetered on the brink of a decision.
Beledine brought them tumbling to a verdict together when Helkryvt offered her another smile.
“You have convinced me. But I promised the tribe I would let them weigh in, and I stand by that promise,” she said in a voice that rang across the clearing for all to hear. “All in favor of accepting Helkryvt among us?”
A cry went up from the Araxi. Hands shot into the air in a show of support. If there were any dissenters, they were drowned out. The majority had spoken.
Beledine smiled back at the mage. He hadn't once taken his gaze from her face.
“Welcome home,” she said.