It was not long before the source of the murky clouds boiling overhead could be seen. The volcano reared up like an ugly beast, belching its putrid breath into the sky. A faint whiff of stagnant heat wafted to them over the plain.
"Three days," said Gray. "Two and a half, if we're lucky."
"Then we've no hope of facing Herothi at all," said Juliexus hopelessly. "I don't think you understand. Herothi doesn't need to travel anymore. He can just disappear and reappear, wherever he likes."
"I think you're forgetting," said Gray calmly, "that this costs him considerable strength. Returning from the Underworld is no mean feat, even for one possessing the strength of all the thousands of people he has consumed."
"We shall just have to hope he doesn't want to impinge on his strength, then," said Mune savagely.
The four of them journeyed, night and day, barely stopping to sleep. The arid plain drifted lazily by, as if it wasn't aware that evil was lingering on its borders as they spoke. None of the small lizards scuttling frantically across their path knew that somewhere, a demonic spirit could open up the land beneath them whenever he wanted with no more effort than lifting a finger.
Mexii's heart beat with barely contained rage, grief, and panic. She wanted revenge for the death of her mother and father, the deposed monarchs of Karmine. She silently cried herself to sleep most nights, remembering her father's dying body in front of her, and her mother's life being extinguished like a guttering candle before a storm. Her limbs shook with anxiety as she contemplated the fact that Herothi had control of the very earth they travelled on, and would soon be in control of the cold.
But fire would triumph over cold, everyone knew that. Herothi had made a fatal error, deciding to claim ice for himself.
Gray had incredible stamina. His long, slender legs looked no stronger than birch saplings, yet he was the first to the summit of every hill, and he never seemed out of breath. Juliexus often lagged, pausing to rub her hooves with annoyance, a look of pain on her face. And when they camped, Gray preferred to sit in quiet solitude, away from the Trinity. Mexii would have attempted to start a conversation with him, but she could feel his grief at his mistress's defeat and the burning desire for revenge as she felt in her own breast; so she left him to his silent contemplation.
Gray had insisted that they not light a fire, in case Herothi decided to pull off his trickery again. But Mexii had had an idea, an idea she could only share with Juliexus and Mune, as Gray kept pushing ahead ...
"I must rest," panted Juliexus at last, on the second night of their journey. "We have travelled non-stop for the last day and a half. My hooves ache from the ground, and my withers are heaving."
"We cannot stop," said Gray, forging ahead with a relentless pace. "Too much is at stake."
"But Juliexus did not listen. She slumped onto the floor in the shade of a spiny bush. Mexii and Mune joined her instantly.
And they had lit a fire.
"Are you mad?" said Gray, raising his eyebrows, though still retaining his calm temperament. "Herothi will seize his chance - he could be here any minute."
"No, he won't," said Mune stubbornly. "Now he will have claimed ice for his own, he will find the heat of the flames unbearable."
"Then he will use it to spot us on the plain," said Gray. "We'll shine like the brightest star in the heavens."
"We haven't lit it for no reason," said Juliexus, a demeaning frown on her features.
"What are you planning?" said Gray suspiciously.
"We would have told you," said Mexii brusquely, "but you have never particularly been keen on social interaction, what with your travelling half a mile ahead of everyone else, and not speaking to us when we set up camp."
"Can you blame me?" said Gray indignantly, a cold frown creasing his elegant eyebrows. "My mistress has been defeated and my friends consumed."
"And I've just lost both my parents, both of whom I only managed to see on their deathbeds," Mexii retorted. "At least I have still been acting like a normal human being."
Gray opened his mouth again, but Mexii turned her back, stung, and joined hands with the other Trinity around the campfire, just as they had planned.
Mune began intoning a spell in the ancient language of Kamûn. It was not at all like Gray's lilting mother tongue, but he could understand certain words and phrases. It was a spell of summoning.
Juliexus' amulet began to glow jewel-bright, as did Mexii's halo of essence. The fire sparked aggressively, tossing sparks into the air like blood red meteors in the black night.
And then, a figure, forged of flames, began to emerge. First head, then muscled shoulders, and then torso, which rippled into the hungry flames below. The figure swayed in the breeze as the fire did below, tiny tongues of flame undulating across his arms and down the centre of his back.
The resulting apparition was over seven feet tall.
"Who dares disturb the Great Cynder, Guardian of Fire, Keeper of War and Omen of Greed?" snarled the figure, his voice sounding like a hundred snapping twigs at the centre of a bonfire.
"We assure you, our motive was not to disturb, but to summon," said Mune quietly, locking eyes with the beast. "We send you a warning."
"A warning? Bah!" Cynder spat, blasting them with warm air. "What creature, mortal or immortal, could threaten a being such as me, the most powerful of all the elements of Karmine? This is only the third time I have been summoned in all of history. The first two used similar, petty excuses. Why should I believe you?"
Mexii stared, open-mouthed, at the arrogant god before the them, refusing to swallow his pride.
"You can get down off your high horse straight away," she said angrily, rising to her full height. "I might not command a powerful force, and I might not preside over battle in this world, but boy I could give you a run for your money.
"Interesting, interesting ..." said Cynder silkily. "Perhaps I kill you straight away then ... either that or I burn your mouth to a crisp so you may never talk so disrespectfully to an immortal again."
"Do you want our warning or not?" snapped Mexii.
"If I must ..." said Cynder in a tortured voice.
"Well then ... have you ever heard of a being called Herothi?"
Cynder looked down inscrutably at her for a whole three seconds before laughing derisively.
"Some scary ghost you've dreamt up in your nightmares, is he? No, I haven't heard of Herothi, and neither do I want to hear any more about him."
"Hmm, let's see, then," said Mexii coolly. "Perhaps you'll know him as the Omen of Death, or the Bringer of Shadows."
For the first time in the conversation, Cynder looked as though he was paying full attention.
"Did you say the Omen of Death?"
"But that's a myth, a fancy prophecy made up by soothsayers and bards!" said Cynder sardonically. "You cannot begin to believe that I would listen to a story like -"
"Ismara was defeated by a mortal, then?" challenged Mexii, ignoring the start of pain that spasmed on Gray's face.
Finally she had struck gold. Cynder was struck dumb, his eyes widened in shock.
"How did you know that?"
"Because we saw it happen," Mexii pressed insistently. "We saw Herothi's essence consume her people, reduce her forest to withering, poisonous cacti, and pollute her air with his evil fumes."
Cynder remained sizzling silently for another five seconds.
Then he said, with a threatening crackle: "I think we'd better all have a little chat."