52. Stormrider (1)

Mana was limitless around Azalea. The canyon was saturated with it, drowning in it. She gritted her teeth against the sheer force of it dragging at her skin like a current.

She heard Azure beside her, his breathing sharp and irregular, each inhale laced with a note of pain. Without hesitation, she burned her manawell and peeled away the instability that was smothering them—first for herself, then for him. The effort was barely a whisper on her manawell.

As soon as Azure could take a free breath, he did so with a heaving gasp. “Well, that is a neat trick.”

“I did this during my first surge dispatch,” Azalea said. “It was at a leyline. Lots of chaos saturation to deal with there.”

“Well, it is quite appreciated. It won’t wear you out?”

“Not really.” Azalea took a moment to examine her manawell. It seemed completely full, bubbling at the brim. Magic thrummed through her veins and made her feel alert, alive. How odd; she thought she’d used a decent amount of mana at Northelm. Perhaps the mana-rich atmosphere of the canyon rejuvenated her more than it taxed her.

“Good,” said Azure, “because I think we might need every last bit. Duck.”


Azure lunged aside and tackled her out of the air. As they plummeted to the canyon floor, an icy spear shot overhead right where her nose had been. Azure pivoted quickly, and Azalea fired her windsoles to soften their landing on the dusty ground.

“Ice?” Azalea gasped.

“Cryomancy,” Azure said. “The beast we are about to face is a creature of mana.”

“That makes sense. I—I haven’t fought too many of them, but I think that Class Four and up is when corruptions start manipulating mana.”

“Most excellent, whatever that means.”

“Big creatures have manacrafting,” Azalea explained. “The bigger the creature, the greater variety of powers it can access. I think.”

“Really! How many powers will we be facing?”

“I—I don’t know. A Class Four seems to have one or two traits. But this is a Class Five, so…”

“So it will have twenty!” Azure bounced to his feet. “Excellent! No doubt the spider queen shall writhe in jealousy when she hears of it.”

And he promptly launched himself into the sky, dark fire peeling behind him.

“Twenty traits,” Azalea whispered as she fired her windsoles, darting after him. “Asters forbid.”

They wove a few steps further into the canyon and rounded a pillar of ivory sandstone, where they stopped short.

The Class Five was unusually beautiful. Its massive, serpentine shape levitated in the sky, lazily winding down the canyon like a silver river. A strange black growth twined around its body like parasitic vines, pulsing and bulging in a way that was both eerie and mesmerizing. The contrast was stark against its shimmering scales, quartz-like claws, and the pale horns jutting from its skull.

“A flying snake,” Azalea murmured, awed.

“A wyrm,” Azure corrected. “But unlike the wyrms of the Sovendyret, which are naturally born, it appears to be the unnatural development of a canyon lizard.”

“You can tell?”

“Of course,” Azure said. “Creatures born with a natural manawell cannot be corrupted by the Storm. Not dragons, nor everfoxes, nor humans. Their bodies are accustomed to absorbing and manipulating mana.”

“But it’s so…pretty, for a corruption,” Azalea said.

“As are flytraps. Do not be taken in.”

Azure extended his hand, and with a sudden squeeze of mana threads weaving together, Paradox appeared in his grasp, the blade shining with dark fire. Azalea drew out Bluebell and flicked the toggle. The surrounding air crackled and sizzled with instability, and she burned her manawell faster to unravel it.

“Alright,” she said. “The important thing here is to buy as much time as we can, so perhaps we should—”

Azure flung Paradox right at the wyrm before she could finish.

“Azure!” she cried.

He looked startled. “Hm? What?”

“I was strategizing!

“But if we kill it, then we would have bought infinite time.”

Azalea hissed in frustration, but leapt up to follow Paradox. Its structure was an unstable mess, and she barely kept it in one piece until it slammed into the wyrm’s cheek, shattering into black fragments that embedded in its eyes and nostrils.

The wyrm threw back its massive head and expelled a bone-shaking roar, turning right to Azalea with slotted eyes blazing in fury.

Azalea made a wispy, not-very-brave noise that sounded something like meep.

Icicles formed in a deadly fan before the wyrm’s head, and with a lash of its head, they shot forward, carving through the air.

Azalea responded on instinct. Blood thrumming, she whipped up Bluebell and fired, and fired, and fired, and fired—

The starshooter responded instantly, frictionless and butter-smooth under her touch.

Four firebolts seared forth and hit the icicles dead-on, dissipating them into harmless steam.

Huh, came Azalea’s momentary, puzzled thought. Why did that feel so easy?

She had no time to dwell on it. Azure had leapt up to capitalize on the opening she’d provided. With a burst of mana, Paradox reformed in his hand. He cleaved it downward in a powerful, two-handed blow that dug the blade right into the wyrm’s underbelly.

Scales shattered under the heft of the blade. The air shook and Azalea’s skin immediately prickled at the raw, chaotic power that pulsed from the impact. Silver blood spewed from the open wound, littering the canyon floor.

The wyrm screeched.

Azalea and Azure were bodily thrown back by a current of ice mana as the wyrm thrashed away. Then it turned once into an elegant loop. At first, nothing seemed to happen.

Then the entire canyon shifted, and the world fell apart.

Azalea stumbled as the ground heaved under her feet and erupted into waves, bearing her high into the air. She dropped low to recover her balance, but it was impossible. The ground kept rolling underneath her in a low, crackling rattle, pushing her around like a kickball. Within moments, her vision was spinning and her head was pounding.

“Why, this isn’t a canyon!” came Azure’s distant voice. “It’s a living beast!”

“No, the Five is Terraforming!” Azalea called back, coughing through the plumes of dirt and dust. The Class Five at Havenport had done the same, and passively manipulated the surrounding terrain to create an advantageous arena. On this rocky, ever-changing ground, she and Azure would be hard-pressed to find their footing, while the levitating wyrm would remain unaffected.

Terraforming, Azalea documented in her head. And Levitation, and Cryomancy, and Stoneskin since Azure’s sword didn’t penetrate the hide. Oh dear. That’s quite a few traits already.

She tried to fire her windsoles, but the ground pitched under her heel just at the wrong moment. Her angle was thrown off and she went vaulting across the soil, barely pulling up before she cracked her nose.

As she was still struggling for balance, she sensed the air turn brittle. Above her, icy shards crystallized into being, threatening to rain down and pierce her clean through.

“’Zalie!” Azure roared from the other side of the field.

Azalea raised Bluebell, but before she could pull the trigger—

—a tongue of dark fire wheeled in and consumed the shards, turning them to vapor.

Azure landed next to her, half-crouching, knees flexing to respond against the rolling ground beneath him. He seemed to have no trouble at all keeping his balance, even in the turbulent arena.

“Thank you,” Azalea gasped, scrambling to her feet. “How are you doing that?”

“Doing what?”

“Staying on your feet.”

“Oh, just practice,” Azure said. “It’s very similar to riding on the back of a galloping thunderdrake.”

And Azalea watched with utter disbelief as, in perfect time with the next crest of the ground, Azure easily walked forward until he was borne up to a vantage point, staring up at the wyrm without a trace of fear.

“Now,” he said, “what say you we end this creature’s shenanigans?”

Grey Dismas paced in the front hall of the Geppett manor, which he knew to be an unproductive use of time, yet could not seem to stop. Every time he scolded his wandering feet and planted them on the ground, they shuffled forward again. Eventually, he gave up, and simply resolved himself to pacing holes in the luxurious, probably imported rug of the Geppett foyer.

The double doors of the entryway suddenly opened, making him jump. A silhouette with a billowing velour cape glided into the foyer, followed by a Geppett footman scurrying behind them.

“Excuse me—Lord Sage,” the footman gasped out, “I’m terribly sorry, but you must be announced before you can—”

“Then announce me,” said the sage. The voice was polished and bitingly cold, like the first frost of winter.

The footman opened his mouth, then closed his mouth. He turned to Grey with a pleading expression.

“Announcing, er, the honored Sage, um—”

“Sage Phineas Bookman.”

“Sage Phineas Bookman,” rushed the footman breathlessly. “Here to speak with His Grace, the High Lord Roland Geppett, on a matter of urgency.”

Utmost urgency,” Sage Bookman repeated. Grey could not make out his face beneath the shadows of his hood, but he swore he caught a glimpse of a single red eye, cutting and soulless. “Show me to His Grace without delay.”

Grey nearly responded out of instinct. The sheer force of authority exuded by the sage threatened to flatten him against the ground, and if he was honest, his shaking legs did not seem up to handling the pressure.

But then Grey hesitated.

Observatorium cloaks were difficult to commandeer—but if one had been? Or if a sage had been paid off? Then if Grey revealed that the house lord was absent and all his veteran companies had been dispatched, the estate would seem vulnerable. Perhaps this was merely a probe from a competing noble, looking to seize a distasteful opportunity to strike.

Grey straightened and desperately tried to iron the squeak out of his voice. “His Grace is occupied with other urgent matters, Lord Sage,” he said. “Given the circumstances, I pray you understand.”

Sage Bookman stepped close, which was really quite intimidating, as he was disturbingly tall for a man with a silly name like Phineas. He leaned in close and that red eye burned a little brighter. Good Myths, was he a cyclops?

“Then go to your lord and tell him my name,” Sage Bookman said, every syllable enunciated like a sharp knife. “He will want to see me at once.

Ah. Well, that was a slight problem. Grey desperately tried to keep his knees from knocking together as he stared into the void beneath that velour hood.

“I’m, I’m afraid,” he said faintly, “that for—for the security of—purposes, that still, it is important to, to honor formalities—”

“What is your name?” Sage Bookman interrupted.

Grey swallowed and tried not to cringe. If he was reported, so be it. He would explain that he’d only tried to protect Lord Geppett’s interests. He was in the right. He was.

He hoped he was in the right.

“Grey Dismas, my lord,” he said.

Sage Bookman nodded. “Very good, then. You can be the one to explain why, when there is a sea of baying monsters tearing down the gates of this estate, you neglected to mention the bedamned Class Five skipping up from Dead Rest to kill us all. Doesn’t that sound like fun?”

“A—a Class Five!” Grey yelped. “That’s not—”

“Possible?” The sage shot him an especially chilling look—or, at least, it looked that way from the swiveling tilt of the hood—and Grey fell silent. “Because the epicenter is north? Yes, we all know how the Storm loves to listen to rules. Now, the only Hunters with a positive record against Class Fives are at Northelm, engaging another Five, so the central defense is up to us. We require contributions from House Geppett to reinforce the Scarlet Rider.”

Two Class Fives! Grey’s mouth flopped open and closed like a fish as his brain unearthed lucid memories of the giant, horizon-eating titan that had nearly laid waste to Havenport. Airlea was doomed. Very doomed. It was time for Grey to set his final affairs in order. He would give his ceremonial tabard to his mother and his chess set to his cousin. And he would donate his old Academy textbooks to the Promising Youth Grant in the name of charity. Or would none of those things exist anymore?

“Well?” Sage Bookman demanded.

Grey nearly jumped. “Well, what, Lord Sage?”

“Well, are you just going to stand there, gaping like a doe-eyed ignoramus, or are you going to dispatch some forces?”

I shall stand here like a doe-eyed ignoramus, because we have nothing left but simple footmen and we’ll all be slaughtered like animals!

“Ah,” Grey stuttered aloud. “We, we can contribute…two companies. Bramble and Thorn.”

Sage Bookman nodded. “Good. And have you a marksman unit?”

“Er—well—” The experienced ones had left with Lord Geppett. Only the new unit, who had barely survived a trial by fire at Grimwall, remained. “Technically, I suppose—”

“Excellent. Dispatch them as well.”


“Thank Lord Geppett for his kind generosity.” The Observatorium cloak flowed like moonlight as Sage Bookman turned around. “The other nobles could stand to learn a thing or two from him.”

Oh dear, Grey thought faintly as Sage Bookman disappeared. Now he was trapped into dispatching those companies to keep Lord Geppett’s honor.

For some reason, he had the distinct feeling that had been the sage’s very intention.

It was a good thing that Echo’s suspicions had been correct, and that High Lord Geppett was away from his domain, no doubt commanding one of his companies on the frontlines.

He would not have recognized the name Phineas Bookman, as the sage did not exist.

The old adage was to avoid mixing business with pleasure. But Karis Caelute had never been one to strictly adhere to rules.

The creature before her was an impressive sight. It towered on stocky hind legs, torso encrusted in a thick, weathered hide. Twin ram horns, black as onyx, spiraled out of its skull. Ghostly light simmered in the cracks of its skin and spines, sickly green in the darkness. It had probably been an ordinary ram once. Now it lived as a curse, a demon.

Most would have cowered at the sight. Some—the more honorable—would have been compelled to fight.

Karis simply smiled.

The fragrance of ice and flowers swirled in her blood, rushing eagerly through her body, filling her with an irreplaceable, bone-shaking energy that she could barely control. She flourished her manawell and felt the frigid air bend around her like water, ready to shape.

Oh, she could get used to this.

Karis flicked her rapier, sending sugar-thread right at the giant ram’s neck. It chipped the leathery hide slightly, but not nearly enough to pose any danger.

She refused to feel disappointed. She’d expected as much from a Class Five.

“Stoneskin,” she called to Halcyon, dissipating her thread. “Say, what should we name this one?”

“The honor is yours,” Halcyon called back, sweeping past her. “I named the last one.”

“Ah, yes. After your grandmother. I suppose I should handle the naming from here on out.”

“She would’ve been honored.” Carried by a wave of water, he ducked under a giant boulder that hovered in midair. “Terraform. Watch out for flying islands.”

“Honored to be named after a monster? I hardly think so.”

“Honored to be named after a Five.”

“They’re horrendous.”

“They’re powerful. She was a Hunter.” The Class Five’s empty eye sockets filled with a ghostly green flame that blazed. Halcyon flinched. “Careful. Any smoke it Forms seems venomous.”

Karis flicked her rapier, stringing sugar-thread between the floating islands like tightropes. “I would not want a monster to adopt my namesake, Five or otherwise,” she said.

“There are worse names to have.”

“Such as?”


She smiled and stepped forward, lunging off her sugar-thread strung between islands like a trapeze artist. The towering corruption swiped a heavy arm in her direction, ghostly smoke trailing behind its jagged claws. She deftly wove around it with a tug of another well-placed thread.

Then suddenly, she was falling through the air.

Karis’s weightless sense of balance immediately vanished as she hurtled towards the ground at a terrifying speed. She tugged at her thread, but it only wafted away. Somehow, its anchors had disappeared.

She quickly pushed out her legs and fired her windsoles, softening her landing before she hit a snowbank. Frowning, she studied the sugar-thread that fell around her, undone. The ends had been cleanly severed, as if snipped away.

“Aeromancy,” she murmured. She looked up at Halcyon, who was slamming a wave of water into the ram’s haunches, no doubt looking for a weak point. “Yuden! It has aeromancy!”

Halcyon’s wave knocked hard against the beast’s leg, but its iron stance hardly wavered. With a touch of his windsoles, he coasted down the wave’s remnants to drop at her side.

“Well,” he said grimly. “That complicates matters.”

“A weapon we cannot see, and thus cannot elude,” Karis agreed. Another stroke of bad luck. Blades of wind were easily lost among the chaos of combat, unlike the obvious sparks of electromancy or the inferno of pyromancy. She and Halcyon would have to stay on their toes, or risk losing their heads in the blink of an eye.

“It’ll be too easy to get cut down,” Halcyon mused. His brow furrowed. “I could try to shield us, but the water might block your thread.”

A brief shimmer in the air caught her attention. Karis immediately pulled in her limbs and shot away, narrowly avoiding a blade of wind that barreled past her. The deadly projectile struck the snow bank, spraying white powder violently at the impact.

Oh. Of course.

“Hold your mana,” Karis said in Halcyon’s direction, landing delicately on a levitating island. “I have an idea.”

With a brief nod, Halcyon sprung up, slashing at the corruption with a glowing glaive to catch its attention. Good man. He knew exactly when to buy her space.

Karis breathed in deep, letting the cold air flourish in her lungs. She burned her manawell as she blew into her hands, Forming a trail of glittering sand that nestled in her palm. Then she flared her manawell and flung the sand outward.

Diamond dust exploded from her fingertips like a galaxy of stars, coating the entire area with hanging speckles of floral ice, as if snow had frozen in time. Subtle and feather-light, the particles would not interfere with any manacraft, yet remained noticeable enough to detect movement.

Karis was immediately rewarded for her efforts. The starfield glittered to Halcyon’s left when it swirled, displaced by wind. His gaze snapped in that direction, and he darted away with plenty of room to spare as a bolt of wind sped past him.

Lips curving upward, Karis leapt after him. “There,” she said. She could not withhold the evident hint of smugness. “One advantage negated.”

Halcyon’s eyes glittered in amusement. “Well done,” he said. He looked up at the corruption’s looming silhouette. “Now it’s a fair fight.”

The giant ram opened its massive, crooked maw and released a thunderous groan. Green fog sapped from the cracks in its hide and shot towards them like seeking arrows.

“It was a fair fight,” Karis said ruefully. She flicked her sword, sending a flurry of snow-petals to soak up the acrid smoke. “Find a way to break the stoneskin. I’ll see to the vapor.”

Halcyon nodded and leapt off, water sweeping around him. Karis stared into the oncoming horde of blazing, spectral smoke.

“Come,” she murmured under her breath, summoning more thread to herself. “For on this night, one of us shall meet our doom.”