53. Stormrider (2)

Light flooded the field as Sethis cleaved his blade downward. Mana rippled through the steel like a solar flare, carving into the resilient hide of the beast before him, splitting it from head to tail in one terrible blow.

With an awful, gurgling roar, it fell heavily, bones and flesh ruptured in a messy heap on the rocky soil.

Sethis dropped to a knee and leaned heavily against his sword, blinking away the filth and sweat that threatened to trickle into his eyes. Only one out of three Class Fours had been felled, and he was already bone-weary. The incessant dark that clotted the sky affected him more than he would have liked to admit; he could feel the toll of requiring every thread of light to come from his manawell.

But he had to overcome this. The town proper was already undermanned, struggling to stave off the power of an epicenter’s horde. The least he could do was keep the Class Fours at bay.

Sethis forced himself to his aching feet and pulled up his weapon. His sword-arm was numb and his mouth was dry as dust.

May reinforcements be swift, he prayed. He might not live to see the dawn otherwise.

It was not Echo who visited the Observatorium this time, but Lord Magnum Valence in all his trappings and finery, wolf cane carefully nestled between his long, gloved fingers. He smiled benignly at the fresh-faced sage who trembled before him. Poor child. It was the Observatorium’s initiation rite of a sort, being sent to weather the unreasonable demands of the unruly nobility.

“G-good evening, my lord,” said the young sage. Echo could hear his knees knocking together under his robe.

Oh, he was tempted. So very tempted to be the cruel, imposing villain that this sage expected. It would be a very welcome glimmer of entertainment in this dour landscape.

Behave, Echo, said a strict, small voice in his head that sounded entirely too much like Azalea Fairwen. You decided to turn over a new leaf. I know you can be good.

Echo stifled a sigh. Being good was so dull.

“I am sending marksmen to the frontlines at Dead Rest and Northelm,” he told the sage patiently.

The sage glanced up. “Ah…yes, my lord?” He quickly looked back at Echo’s feet. “But I am not a marksman.”

Really! I hadn’t noticed! Echo bit back the acerbic reply.

“Just as well,” he said, his tone thinning. “I am not seeking more marksmen, but Stabilizers.”

“Stabilizers?” parroted the sage.

Echo hoped he would soon shut up.

“The primary drawback of starshooters is their low firing rate, which is born from instability,” Echo explained slowly. “Sages are known to be some of the country’s strongest Stabilizers, as they must monitor high-energy experiments. Therefore…I certainly hope you can deduce the rest.”

The sage shuffled anxiously from one foot to the next. His teeth were chattering as he opened his mouth. “But we…we’ve only Stabilized our own experiments…”

Hells! Did no one in Airlea think outside their asses for a single minute?

“Stabilizing is Stabilizing,” Echo snapped. “If you tame the guns, they will fire faster. For Myth’s sake, I thought you were all innovators here!”

Oh well. So much for being good.

The sage made a light squeaking noise and cowered under his hood. “H-how many sages will you require, Lord Grace, Your Valence, sir?”

“As many as you can damn well spare to keep our country from annihilation, perhaps?”

“Y-yes, my lord, at once!” The sage pelted back into the Observatorium, nearly tripping over his robes in his haste.

Echo sighed and turned back to the flickering lights of Mythaven. Hopefully, the older sages would not prove to be so timid.

He was fortunate that most of his trips had been short, at least by windsoles. Still, the travel was beginning to tire him, and the trek to his greatest ally yet was the longest one.

But even if a lame dog can’t fight, he thought ruefully, it can muster the other hounds.

He tilted his head to stretch out a crick in his neck and inhaled, gathering his remaining strength. He stopped at a cool, smooth voice that seemed to slide out of nowhere.

“I don’t recall making you head of the Observatorium, Lone Wolf.”

Echo’s knife was immediately in his hand as he turned. Embarrassingly, he nearly jumped at the sight of a velvet Observatorium cloak that seemed to hover in the air, rippling softly.

“High Sage Myrdin,” Echo greeted mildly. “Our every action determines the survival of our nation. You can understand my urgency.”

High Sage Myrdin drifted closer, his motions impossibly smooth, like a wraith. “Since when was that a mercenary’s concern?”

“A mercenary is reliant on a thriving market. Or a living one, at least.”

Myrdin’s hands emerged from his sleeves, and he rested the tips of bony, white fingers against each other. “I’ve no quarrel with your request. Personally, it seems like good sense. But as you’ve just terrorized one of my minions, now I must know: what is your true plan?”

“I’m an open book, Lord Sage,” Echo said. “I said that I needed Stabilizers for marksmen, and so I do.”

“House Valence does not keep marksmen. I know that much.”

“Never said they were mine, only that I sent them.”

Myrdin’s hood inclined for a moment, as if he were puzzled. Then he chuckled—a high, rasping noise that didn’t sound quite right. “Fair enough. And what will you do in the meantime?”

Echo hesitated, but only for a moment. “There’s an ally of mine,” he said. “A powerful one by the Noadic Range, deep in the Talebloom.”

“Bit of a trek this late, isn’t it?”

“Perhaps. But I figured it was worth a shot.” Echo grinned wryly. “There might still be fighting by the time we’re back.”

“I could guarantee it,” said Myrdin. “Would you appreciate some assistance?”

This stunned Echo for a moment. High Sage Myrdin was his most elusive and most prestigious client, but also the most predictable. Their business was symbiotic and measured—something always taken for payment, nothing for free. Offering assistance, unprompted? That was new.

Perhaps the threat of annihilation really did bring people together.

“What did you have in mind?” Echo asked.

“Something I’ve been wanting to try,” Myrdin said softly.

Echo watched the sage apprehensively. He dared not move and barely dared to breathe as Myrdin raised a pale and colorless hand, cloak slipping an inch down to reveal an equally gaunt, bony wrist.

Those ivory fingers clicked into a single, ominous snap.

Then the world around them crushed into nothing.

Azalea threw herself aside as beams of ice screamed just past her, radiating a faint chill on the back of her neck.

She’d hoped that between her recent growth and Azure’s extensive monster-hunting expertise, they would have surmounted this creature without much trouble. What an optimistic dream that had been. They’d been wailing upon the wyrm’s hide for what felt like hours—Azalea with the refined power of her starshooter’s condensed firebolts, and Azure with his litany of nigh-uncontrollable dark blades and consuming flames.

“Why can’t we break through?” she gasped out, landing next to Azure.

“We are,” Azure said. “We’ve drawn blood several times.”

“But nothing significant. It doesn’t even look like its strength is flagging, and the scales keep on healing whenever we break them.”

“Indeed,” Azure said. There was a rare frown etched on his face. “I’ve never witnessed something so stubbornly resilient.”

As they dove away from an oncoming spray of ice lances, Azalea frantically searched her mind for answers. Oh, why hadn’t she thought to memorize more information about the manacrafting traits of higher Classes? If she knew all the ins and outs of how stoneskin worked, they wouldn’t be stuck like this. She had been negligent. She had been sloppy. What an awful feeling.

Of course, she hadn’t quite expected to be fighting a Class Five in her third month as a Hunter, but still.

Azalea took a moment to breathe deeply and steady herself. Confidence, Fairwen, murmured Halcyon’s voice in her mind. She might have yet to study higher Classes, but she could still use her eyes and ears.

When Azure next leapt forth, she stayed back and sprung carefully over the rattling earth, focusing on the wyrm’s movements. Azure cleaved Paradox downward in a bone-shattering blow right at its skull.

That was when she felt it.

It was hard to sense through the unruly knots of chaotic mana, but—there. Right before the moment of impact.

The wyrm was using mana.

She felt the magic weave into its scales just before Azure struck, so quick and silent that it had gone unnoticed. Bolstered by the infusion of magic, the scales hardened and absorbed most of Azure’s blow.

A mana-resistant barrier, Azalea realized. The wyrm was able to concentrate the barrier on a small area, rendering it nearly impervious to physical and magical influence alike.

The wyrm tossed its head, flinging Azure away. He made a tight turn and landed spryly on his feet, but Azalea could tell from the pressed line of his mouth that he was disturbed. Nothing had ever borne the full weight of the Aphotic Blade and lived to tell the tale.

Azalea sprang to his side, barely darting through a shower of icy shards. “Azure,” she said quickly, “I think I know what it’s doing.”

“Being rather obnoxious, yes.”

More ice flowered before the wyrm’s maw, then shot right at them at blinding speed. Brother and sister moved as one; Azalea raised Bluebell and fired in rapid succession, dissipating the shards on the left, while Azure swept his hand, consuming the shards on the right with dark fire.

The ice vanished into harmless vapor, but there was no time to celebrate.

“The wyrm is using manacraft,” Azalea explained, “to fortify its scales in a localized area just before impact.”

“It’s what now?” said Azure.

“Um. It’s making a mana shield to block you.”

Azure hissed. “That’s quite rude. How do we break it? Shall I make my blade bigger?”

Azalea paled. “I—I don’t think that’s a very good idea.” Myths forbid, he would create an Aphotic Blade the size of a small continent. “I think, I think maybe we should strategize. For example, if a soldier has a heavy shield, then usually, you have to strike from a different angle. One that the shield can’t cover.”

“Ah! But of course.” Azure reached out a hand. “We must strike from many angles at once. I shall make the sky rain swords.”

“Exactly. Wait, what?”

But Azure was already up in the air. He raised his bone lance and began a baleful chant, his manawell boiling with power.

Azalea jumped after him with a burst of her windsoles. “Azure, don’t!” she called, panicked. “The spell will explode!”

Azure stopped his ominous chanting just long enough to call out a cheery, “Not with you here!” Then he resumed.

Oh dear, Azalea thought morosely. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. He didn’t need to chant like that. It did nothing for manacraft and only served to get on her nerves.

With a shudder of the earth, a horrible, shapeless void swallowed up the sky. Little red flames beaded over its surface like will-o’-the-wisps in the gloom. Azalea shrank back as each light flared and stretched into an eyelet, and from the gap within, cruel dark forms slowly emerged, until the sky was full of blades bleeding out of crimson eyes.

The air thickened around Azalea like viscous oil on her skin, pouring into her nose and lungs, setting her veins on fire. Her mouth opened in a silent scream as she summoned every drop of magic in her manawell. It churned in her, rising to a frothing wave, nearly uncontrollable.

Azalea blazed.

As Azure’s swords shrieked down from the sky, festering and putrid, her mana surged to meet them. She tore aggressively at the unstable knots, barely keeping the unravelling cloth of the spell in one piece. The sky shivered and buckled under the force of the spell; the weight of it was like a mountain crushing down on her shoulders.

Still, she stood. She burned harder, keeping everything strung together by a single fraying thread. She was an anchor among thrashing waves.

The wyrm did not sit idly by in the face of the looming threat. With that eerie, beautiful roar, it rose up, mana congealing before its maw. Ice crystallized into javelins that shot into the skies like a shower of stars. Gleaming blue crashed into ravenous red, and the projectiles exploded, scattering white sparks across the canyon.

Azure hissed, and Azalea felt a sharp tug on her gut as his manawell flared even brighter, a furnace pushed beyond its limits. More eyes cut open the sky, and more dark swords pushed through, a storm of falling blades. The pressure pressed on Azalea’s skull until a sharp pain stabbed at her temples, but she only gritted her teeth and dug her heels into the churning earth. She burned faster. She would burn until there was nothing left of her manawell, not even ash.

The wyrm released a melodic shriek that echoed throughout the canyon, but even its volleys of ice could not stave off the inevitable. Azure’s blades closed in, a swirl of bloodlike crimson against pale ice.

The world shattered.

Azalea’s knees bucked as the pressure in the air snapped. The mana blades crushed through the ice and struck at the wyrm’s hide. After a brief moment of resistance, the scales collapsed, and the wyrm sank down with a guttural roar as the blades sank deep into its flesh. A quake pulsed out from where it landed, throwing Azalea on her back, driving the breath from her lungs.

Slowly, the air settled, mana dispersing into the air. Azalea tried to pull herself up, but her muscles refused to listen, seizing up whenever she moved them. Her back was throbbing painfully and there seemed to be a knot between her temples.

Get up, she told herself. Up, now.

She looked at where the wyrm lay. Its majestic form was coiled on the ground, big patches of scales shattered, blood pouring from open wounds—but it was breathing, great flanks rising and falling as it struggled to recuperate. Injured, but not dead. Not by a long shot.

“The stoneskin,” Azalea rasped. “It’s shattered.” She tried to stand again, but her shaking knees gave out, and she fell on clammy hands.

“Excellent,” mumbled Azure. He was also looking the worse for wear, leaning heavily on his bone lance.“We should…strike while…we have…the advantage.”

“Yes,” Azalea said. She blinked slowly; her vision was spinning and did not seem keen to stop.

“’Zalie,” Azure said laboriously, “I think I’m going to faint.”

“Please don’t.”

Azure keeled over. His body lay on the rumbling earth, listless and silent.

Azalea grimaced. She dug the point of her starshooter into the ground. Getting up was painstaking; one knee worked under her, then the other, then a great push against the starshooter until she was upright, swaying on her feet like a drunkard.

The wyrm lifted its head and crooned in an oddly fragile noise. Mana prickled in the air, and with a chilling wind, the ground frosted beneath Azalea’s feet. Her soles skidded on the ice and she barely caught herself with a hand, flinching at the sting of weight on her wrist. All around her, the arena was shifting, sharp planes of glacial ice cascading to the sky, hedging her in like a bird in a cage.

The wyrm rose slowly, a beautiful doom backlit by a thundering sky. Ice encrusted before its maw, ready to launch forward and spear her through.

With shaking legs and an aching back, Azalea stepped in front of Azure and splayed out her arms, as if her fragile form could keep him from death.

The ice shot forth to embrace her.

Echo hurtled through the most terrifying and indescribable sensation.

His skin bunched and then stretched tight; his organs hurtled end over end; he was being pushed through a pin, then pulled over a rack. The world was an indistinct smear around him, all color and light blurred together.

Then suddenly, as abruptly as it began, it ended. Echo tumbled onto a patch of soft grass. He was flat on his back, staring at a patch of dark, stormy sky through the leafy cover of trees.

“What—what was that,” he gasped, grabbing his stomach and trying not to hurl up a half-digested sandwich. He looked over to where Myrdin’s cloaked, wraithlike shape drew upright. “What the hell did you just do?”

“Stop whining,” Myrdin said. “You’re in one piece, aren’t you?”

“Oh, so you didn’t just feel like garlic paste squeezing through the eye of a needle?”

“What a grotesque description. It stinks of ingratitude.” Myrdin gestured dramatically with a hand. “Look around. Is this not what you wanted?”

Echo clambered to his feet, still swaying as he struggled to gather his bearings. He was in the thick of a forest, patches of undergrowth dotted beneath the lush, hardy trees, and the air was thick with the dormant slumber of ancient magic. He was, without a doubt, in the Talebloom.

Echo opened and closed his mouth, his scattered mind stuttering even more. “How did…Am I dreaming? Drugged?”

Myrdin sniffed. “You think a High Sage to rely on cheap parlor tricks? How disappointing.”

“But teleportation is impossible. A theory of madness,” Echo said numbly. “Mana and matter cannot be destroyed, then recreated in another location. That’s one of the basic tenants of manacraft.”

“Why are laws made, but to be revised?” Myrdin lifted his head. “One moment. I hear someone approaching.”

The sage lifted his thin hands, and out of habit, Echo drew his knife. Rapid footsteps padded in the grass, and the bushes parted to reveal Heidi in her cottage dress and floppy witch hat, woven basket swaying on her forearm.

“Mr. Wolf!” she exclaimed. “Goodness, I was wondering what on earth could have made such a—but oh, who is this?”

She looked curiously at Myrdin, who still had his hands cautiously raised. Echo sheathed his knife quickly, but the sage seemed reluctant to lower his guard.

“Ah, Heidi,” Echo said. “This is Myrdin, a prolific sage from the capital. Myrdin, this is Heidi, ah…my ally.”

He expected Myrdin to scoff at Heidi’s unassuming, diminutive appearance. To his surprise, the sage only raised another hand, frame tense from head to toe.

This is your ally?” Myrdin hissed. “Some fey spirit?”

“Oh, no, I’m not a spirit,” Heidi said. “I had enchanted hair, once, when I was born, but it hasn’t done anything magical since I cut it, so I suppose that’s over with. Really, I’m just a simple alchemist.”

Myrdin eyed Heidi like he still didn’t believe her, and while Echo would have liked to take a moment to ponder the idea of Heidi actually being a spirit, there were more urgent matters to see to.

“An invigorating conversation, to be sure,” Echo said, “for after the moment of crisis. Heidi, dear, would you be willing to offer your aid?”

Sometimes Karis wondered what her father’s final thoughts had been before he’d vanished into the Talebloom.

Had he thought of her and her mother? Not enough, clearly. Not enough to stop him from throwing away his life in a futile endeavor, leaving behind a grieving wife and child.

Had he been afraid? Again, not enough to stop him, to make him come home. He had looked at the knot of the Great Storm and plunged right into it.

Karis had hated her father for a spell. Despised him for leaving her, nearly as much as she loved him and idolized him for being a Hunter, a hero.

She should have realized long ago that heroes made happy endings only for others, and not themselves.

Yet here she was, ten years later, a Hunter herself. Not just any Hunter, but one of the pedestals of the Guild, fighting tooth and nail for the very system that had taken so much from her. The irony was nearly hilarious. Or perhaps it was ordained, because looking up at the Class Five before her, Karis thought she might finally understand her father, just a little bit.

He did think of me, she pondered. At least a little. Because when facing such an abomination herself, Karis could not help but recall familiar faces. Her mother, mainly—the keen-eyed wise woman tucked away safely in their Mythaven home, waiting for her daughter to return. It reminded Karis what she was fighting for. Who she was fighting for.

And why she kept throwing herself against an enemy that, after weathering hours of relentless manacraft, seemed none the worse for the wear.

Karis skidded back with a grimace as the Class Five threw back its head and bellowed. Cracks spread weblike fingers across the snow-flecked rocky ground, humming dangerously beneath her shoes. She quickly sprang to a floating island just moments before the soil erupted, spewing chunks of stone upward.

Wonderful. Always keeping us on our toes, I suppose.

In the chaos, she barely caught a flicker of movement in her shimmering snow-field, far to her left. She twisted instinctively with a flare of her windsoles, but she was a blink too late. With a violent whoosh, a blade of wind carved past her, nicking at her arm and drawing blood.

She turned again and landed neatly on her feet without further issue. She was about to click her tongue in mild annoyance, but suddenly, a cold, horrifying numbness spread down her hand and up to the socket of her shoulder. She watched her arm swing uselessly at her side, unresponsive and unfeeling, as if she were looking at the arm of a puppet.

She bit back a groan. Numbing venom. Their margin for error had grown that much smaller.

“Karis!” called Halcyon’s voice, sharp and urgent.

Karis instinctively sprang away just as wind barreled right where she’d been standing. With a flick of her rapier, she sent sugar dust exploding before the beast’s eyes, blinding it for a precious second.

As she turned to nurse her injury, she heard the soft sound of Halcyon landing on the snow beside her.

“Numbing venom,” Karis said shortly. “My arm is useless. If you’re hit by anything that draws blood, even manacraft, be sure to bind the limb close. Or you might lose it, and then you’ll bleed out without even knowing.”

“Good to know,” Halcyon said shortly. He was already yanking at his cloak, tearing off a lengthy strip of fabric.

“Oh my,” Karis ground out, forcing a smile. “Is this worry I sense, Hal?”


That single word made Karis stop. Her smile dropped as warmth skittered traitorously to her face, and she looked away.

“You should get a heavier cloak for these exact situations,” Halcyon said.

Karis blinked and cleared her throat, recovering quickly. “For making slings?”


“The idea is to not make mistakes at all.”

“That never happens.” He tossed the strip of sturdy cloth at her and shot away on windsoles, flourishing water to catch the beast’s attention. Trails of bitter green smoke rose from the fractured ground and soared after him.

Karis was quick to bind her arm with the assistance of sugar thread, using the cloth to hold it snug across her stomach. She took a moment to test her new balance. Unwieldy, but not terrible. Hopefully the numbness would subside throughout the encounter.

She fired her windsoles, and with a whirl of sugar-thread, shot through the air until she approached Halcyon. She pulled together mana into a giant blossoming petal that shielded his back, absorbing the rancid-looking smoke before it could reach him. The petal shriveled into a husk and fell away.

“Thanks,” said Halcyon as she fell in step next to him.

He used to say I had it handled, to which she used to reply, Then act like it. But that was many years ago, back when they had been young and stupid and everything had seemed like a game.

“Merely repaying a favor,” Karis said instead, nodding at the sling cradling her arm. “Any progress on the stoneskin?”

They both swooped down as blades of wind cut over them. Halcyon swung his glaive up, and a powerful crest of water cut right into the beast’s plated leg with a force that would have gouged through a building. Still, the hide held.

“Either the pressure points keep changing,” Halcyon said grimly, “or they don’t exist. Can’t seem to crack it.”

What a bothersome creature. Much like picking a lock, shattering a corruption’s stoneskin relied on striking several weak points simultaneously. But if those points continuously changed, or were impossible to detect, then the beast was as good as invulnerable.

Karis reached out northward, feeling the distant chill of the Noadic snow and the fragrance of its wild blossoms tickling at her manawell. She had been burning conservatively to save her manawell, but unlike previous Storms, she was at the advantage here.

Perhaps now was the time to introduce a little more force.

“What are you planning?” said Halcyon, eying her uncertainly. Although she hadn’t said anything, he probably could feel how she was bracing her manawell.

Karis only smiled. “Nothing you wouldn’t do.”

“That’s not reassuring.”

“Well, now you know how I feel.”

Halcyon shook his head disbelievingly, but didn’t bother arguing further. He turned his focus to a rising wave of burning smoke and spectral skulls, and water mana swelled to his glaive.

“Do what you have to,” he said, “but don’t die.”

Karis hummed. “I wouldn’t dream of letting you rest on your laurels.”

He launched off without another word. Karis turned back to the Class Five and stared right into its blazing, soulless eyes, a mire of devastation and despair. Despite the lack of intelligence and awareness in that consuming gaze, she could not help but lift her rapier in an elegant salute.

“Very well,” she said softly. “Let’s dance.”

She reached deep in her manawell and blazed.

The Range answered her summons. She could feel it deep in her bones, roiling and rumbling, a tempest of flowers encrusted with ice. She pulled in its turbulent sea of mana and pressurized the threads like a blacksmith hammering at metal. The mana thrashed against her, wild and ancient, a power that had her hand shaking and her skull pounding in agony. Still, she held on, a rider gripping an unruly steed.

Karis pressurized the mana to a boiling point until it was too much, until the entire structure was ready to unravel—

—then, with a cry, she yanked the threads into a Form.

Crystalline needles, prismatic as ice yet colorful as flowers, exploded from nothingness, fanning behind her like the plume of a peacock. They hummed with magic, more dense and powerful than anything she had ever made.

Karis laughed. She could not help it. She extended her arm, and the needles floated with it, like an extension of her body. Like a pair of cruel wings.

Let’s fly.

She fired her windsoles and waltzed. The air around her was a blur of sugar-thread, of crystal needles, of cutting ice and venomous blossoms. She flitted around the corruption like a hummingbird, darting under the brutal swings of its massive claws, dancing just beyond the flurry of wind blades it sent cutting towards her. Even though one hit would be enough to kill her, she felt invincible.

As Karis sped down the length of the creature’s body, she flicked her sword, and her crystal needles snapped into formation. They dragged across the creature’s hide with a terrible, strident noise, testing for a mana response. Just as Halcyon had posited, the mana came and went in different parts of its hide, changing swiftly and without pattern.

Bothersome, she thought irritably. But you are not the only one who can adapt, fell beast.

She burned her manawell, which was already depleting at an alarming rate, and Formed sugar-thread to latch onto her crystal needles. Then she sent the needles out. They sang as they whipped through the air, tethering sugar-thread to the ground, to the flying islands, to the beast’s spiraling horns, knitting an intricate web in the blink of an eye.

Before the beast could react, Karis slashed her sword, sending the tip dragging over the hide.

Mana rattled beneath its skin. She felt magic congeal up into the hide, hardening into an outer shell. Strong. Impervious.

Before the stoneskin could change, Karis dropped her sword and crooked her fingers down.

The web tightened.

The needles shifted, pulled by the sugar-thread until they locked into place over the weak points, and then—

Karis snapped her fingers.

The needles crushed in, piercing the hide and sinking into tender flesh.

The stoneskin cracked. Karis could feel the shudder of it deep in her bones. The beast roared, raw and deafening, and wind curdled in its claws as it tried to slash apart her web.

More. She needed more.

Karis gritted her teeth and, ignoring the aching hollowness of her manawell, burned further. She reached out towards her crystal needles, and with a sharp blaze of every last drop of mana in her body, pulled as hard as she could.

The needles tore into the beast, scoring devastating lines through flesh and organ, expelling blood in a brutal spray. The stoneskin shattered with a powerful pulse that sent ripples through the snowbanks and the rocky soil. The beast staggered back with a low, dazed moan.

Karis felt her manawell gurgle and run dry. Her power flickered. The needles fell apart and the sugar-thread dissipated. Vision blurring and skull throbbing, she swayed, then fell as her legs gave out beneath her.

She plummeted through the air at a terrifying speed, the frigid wind whipping at her face. But though the ground loomed closer with every passing second, she couldn’t bring herself to care. She was a broken vessel. A raindrop on its fated journey to shatter on the ground.

Ah, she thought distantly. This was how Father felt. Weary. At peace. As if one foot was already in the underworld.

Then the heavy weight of a body collided into her, and for one moment, the sudden blaze of pain cleared her mind.

Halcyon peered down as he hoisted her in his arms. His face was ordinarily so perfectly, aggravatingly stony, but that mask seemed to have cracked. He looked at her with open worry drawn over his sharp features. Had Karis been any more energetic, it would have been a delightful opportunity to tease him.

“Stay with me,” Halcyon commanded. He shook her roughly. Karis’s brain seemed to rattle in her skull, and she blinked blearily. “Hey. You broke the stoneskin. Are you really going to faint and let me take all the credit?”

“Shush, Yuden,” she mumbled. So tired. Her tongue felt swollen in her mouth.

“Then stay awake,” Halcyon said.

Karis’s eyes began to slide shut. She’d done her duty. Surely she could sleep now.

“Caelute.” The iron grip shook her again—hard enough to hurt, this time. “This is a Five. You have to stay alert until it’s over.”

“Mm,” Karis said, her voice barely above a faint whisper. “Hypocrite.”

She could no longer fight the darkness. It slid up and claimed her.

Halcyon cursed as Karis went limp in his arms, her head lolling back and her features slack.

He understood. He’d overburned just like her during the Battle of Havenport, and he too had plummeted into the ocean, unconscious and bereft of all mana. But that Five had been dead by the time he’d slumped beneath the waves.

This Five was very much not.

It was still more than capable of killing Karis, and much as Halcyon hated to admit it, he was incapable of protecting her and taking down the corruption at the same time. Nor did he have the time to transport her somewhere safe—not unless he let the Five hit Northelm.

Grimly, Halcyon took a moment to gauge the reserves of his mana. It wasn’t nearly enough. He had been liberal in his manacrafting, aiming to use most of his power to dismantle the stoneskin so that Karis could finish it off with her precise, lethal technique. Instead, he’d failed, and now Karis was incapacitated and he was severely weakened.

He looked up at the monstrous corruption, which was hunched over and winded, but far from death. Not for the first time, he felt much like an inconsequential gnat.

He’d faced these odds before—on that fateful night just two years ago, where he stood side by side with Karis, staring up at a massive shadow that blotted out the moon. How immovable it had seemed—the first Class Five in history, come to strike directly at Havenport.

Don’t fret, Hal, Karis had told him. We’ll split the points.

Halcyon had almost laughed. Points. Karis had to know that they were staring Death in the face. And still, she’d had the gall to crack jokes.

Maybe that was when Halcyon had fallen. A dark, foul night, when both of them stank of blood and sweat, unkempt hair plastered to their temples, the annihilation of mankind on the horizon. He’d fallen for Karis because of a joke. How romantic. His nana would turn over in her grave if she knew.

No, that wasn’t quite right. He’d probably not fallen for a joke, but rather for Karis’s fearlessness, for her unbending will, for her propensity to save others, no matter the cost.

It was a propensity that now put her in his arms, unconscious, leaving him to finish off the Five alone.

It’s Havenport, he thought vaguely. All over again. And this time, I’m alone.

And then, as the next clap of thunder rattled the earth—

Lightning blazed.

And rain began to fall.