54. Stormrider (3)

Halcyon laughed in the rain.

The water pierced his flesh and sank right into his blood, churning it, boiling it, an injection of lightning straight into his veins. His manawell responded immediately, soaking up the ambient power, absorbing it like a parched rag.

He waved his hand, and smooth as oil, the rainwater flowed to him. He flicked his fingers and water rose in a wave, safely bearing Karis away in a current.

He turned back to the Five. Karis’s snowfield had disappeared, but the water mana within the roaring rain had honed his senses to a razor point. He could feel everything with disturbing clarity—the obscured cliffs, the formation of the floating islands, every slight movement from the corruption, all marked by where the rain stopped.

Water is the most pliant of elements, whispered his nana’s voice. Even years after her death, his memory of her remained just as brittle and clear—her powerful tone, her thick Yuerai accent. Water is playful, or mysterious. Soothing, or stormy. A light mist or a wild wave. You hold great power, duckling, but to control it, you must first control yourself.

He’d been so young then, so angry. Nana had tried to cure him of resentment, sometimes through affection, sometimes through a swift knock on the head. He couldn’t tell whether it had worked, or whether he’d simply gotten better at concealing the anger.

Halcyon bore himself up onto an island square between the Five’s eyes, staring directly into the soulless flame within its empty sockets. The corruption snarled, and green smoke congealed in its claws, surging right for him in a writhing blast.

Control yourself.

Halcyon swung his glaive upward. Threads of water mana pulled at his command, smooth as silk, and rose before him in a wave. The water twined with the smoke and bore it upward, rising like the head of a serpent before it dissipated into vapor.

“Cute,” he said. He couldn’t stifle the tug of a cocky smile. “Now it’s my turn.”

He reached for his manawell within and blazed, and Nana’s warning disappeared as the rain roared in response.

Wes swore that his hand was welded to his sword. Practically, it could not be so. But before, his arm had burned and ached with every swing, muscles knotting in protest at overuse. Now the limb felt dead from where it attached to his shoulder. The sword swung more out of habit than anything else, the strikes directionless and ineffective.

Still, he had to keep swinging. That was the only thing driving him forward at this point. Keep striking. Keep fighting.

A flash of light caught Wes’s attention. The distant figure of Airlea’s crown prince arced over the walls of Northelm, blade shining like a beacon, and carved through a line of squealing corruptions. He landed solidly on the wall, not far from where Wes was stationed.

“I’ve seen to two of the Fours,” Sethis said as Wes rushed to him. “How is the wall?”

“Still holding, Your Highness,” said Wes. He looked over the crown prince with a light frown.

The once-immaculate white jacket was tattered at the hem, soaked with beastkin blood that unfurled into a muddied pink beneath the rain. The royal cloak hung gracelessly from his shoulder, embroidered stars frayed into bits of thread. And no matter the prince’s doctored, upright posture, he could not hide the marked limp that favored his left side.

“Your Highness,” Wes said, “before you face the last Four, we need to get you to a field medic. Where’s the royal physician?”

Sethis stared, blinking rain out of his eyes.

“There…is a royal physician posted here, isn’t there?” Wes said, suddenly uneasy. To dispatch the crown prince to the frontlines without a medic who knew his biokey—that would be beyond foolish. It would be insane.

Sethis rubbed the back of his neck. “Well, I…I’m not exactly here…with express permission, so to speak.”

Mythics! Wes should have realized it earlier with the prominent lack of royal guards. For a moment, his caution and respect were overridden by incredulity.

“So—now that you’re injured, Highness…you can’t receive healing until you walk back to the capital?

“I imagine the Garrison could spare some poultices,” Sethis said sheepishly.

“And if you break a leg? If your chest is cut open? If you’re injected with venom?”

Despite the difference in status, Sethis was the one to lower his gaze. “I apologize,” he said contritely.

Asters, the look on his face was just like Azalea’s. That stubborn I’m-sorry-for-worrying-you-and-being-a-little-stupid-but-not-for-doing-the-right-thing look. Wes pinched the bridge of his nose and released a slow breath, gathering his thoughts.

“Well, Highness, you have two options,” he said briskly. “Either you can place your trust in a noble’s son who is highly motivated to kill you and supplant you, and entrust me with your biokey so I can regen you—or, you can find Lady Caelute, who is much less motivated to kill you, but much more likely to be out of mana after facing a Class Five.”

“Out of the question,” Sethis said promptly. “Lord Yuden and Lady Caelute will need every drop of mana to combat that creature.”

“Then what?” said Wes wryly. “Would you trust a noble with your biokey?”

Sethis’s gaze warmed. “Not every noble. But perhaps this one.”

Wes hesitated. He despised how that simple admission of trust warmed him, how it nearly won him over, as if the royal family hadn’t sat on their hands and done nothing for generations, watching the Airlean citizens suffer in silence.

“Alright,” he said, a little grudgingly. “I’m at your disposal, Your Highness.”

They made it quick. Wes snapped on the mana inhibitors while Sethis traced the radicals of his biokey on the stone walls with his finger—no visible markings, but motions that Wes could read and memorize nonetheless. Then Wes sank into his plait, mending the worst of it. Sprained leg. Bruised rib. A raw gash across the shoulder. All of it Wes stitched together cleanly, aware of just how much trust the prince had placed in his hands.

“Thank you,” said Sethis as Wes surfaced back to reality, disoriented, wincing at the surrounding clamor. “You demonstrate great skill for your youth.”

“The youth don’t have much choice with the crown unwilling to do anything,” Wes said with a bitter tinge. Then he remembered who he was talking to, and he flinched. “I meant…I…”

“It’s alright,” said Sethis. There was a shadow in his gaze. “You said nothing untrue.”

Wes knew that he shouldn’t fault the crown prince. Sethis was here, on the frontlines, despite the dangers and the fact that his reigning father had apparently denied him any royal support. The irony was almost humorous. Two boys on the battlefield, neither with permission to be there. Did Wes have any right to scold Sethis when he knew firsthand the pains of having an inflexible father?

Sethis returned the inhibitors and hefted his sword. There was no longer any pronounced limp, but the haunt of weariness on his face would remain long after the battle ended. But then his expression softened, and he lifted his head.

“Light,” he said wonderingly. “I sense…light.”

Wes jerked out of his thoughts, clasping his sword tighter. “The beacons?”

“Not fire.” Sethis looked over the parapets. The tension on his face softened into a smile. “Reinforcements.”

Wes followed the prince’s gaze, puzzled. In the distance, lights beaded like fireflies, then slowly grew, pulsing until they bathed the horizon in a warm glow. He squinted, and could just make out the rippling velvet of Observatorium cloaks beneath the light as sages held gnarled staves aloft, casting a sea of light over a regiment of decorated soldiers. Verdant standards rippled proudly in the wind, emblazoned with a regal crest that Wes knew all too well.

“Father?” he said numbly. He rubbed his eyes, as if that would cure the illusion of the golden leaf embroidered into the standards, but still it remained. “But…the estate. He’s leaving it vulnerable.”

Sethis chuckled. “Perhaps he came for something more important.”

Wes tried not to take it to heart. He tried not to hope. Hope had a way of failing him. Instead, he turned back to the glowing horizon and heard the distant blast of a horn. The regiment marched forth.

Lured in by the sudden noise and light, the beasts turned away from Northelm and faced the approaching regiment.

The sages raised their staves, quartzes blaring as the pikemen stepped ahead, hefting weapons at the ready.

And at the next blast of the horn, as if heralding the approaching bloodshed—

—the beasts charged.

The ice pressed in. Azalea cringed, but she refused to move. Not with Azure behind her, unconscious and vulnerable. She would not leave him. Never again.

Azalea raised her starshooter, but she already knew that she wouldn’t be fast enough. Her arms were pulling through a mire. Her skull was ringing. She could hardly see straight, much less shoot straight.

Then there was a sudden, sharp snap in the back of Azalea’s head.

She flinched and dropped to her knees as the mana around her curdled and stretched. The ice shattered, driven back into the wyrm’s flesh. It lurched backward with a snarl, dazed.

In that precious moment of peace, a pair of shoes stepped before Azalea. Then another. Then a third.

She thought it was the afterlife, at first—that she had died, and ghosts of the dead had come to meet her at the threshold. She looked up to see a wraithlike figure donned in a heavy velour cloak that flowed over him like shadows, with paper-white hands and bony fingers.

But then her gaze drifted to the right, and she found a colorful cottage dress topped by a very memorable witch hat.

“Heidi?” she blurted.

The familiar face of Echo’s gentle, eccentric friend blinked warmly at her. “Oh!” Heidi said. “Why, it’s Katherine the Seventh!”

“Azalea, actually. Your other skull,” corrected the third and final figure—none other than Echo himself, dressed in his grey-green cloak with silver hair trailing over one shoulder. He was currently bent over with his hands bracing his knees, looking rather ill.

Heidi clapped her hands. “Yes, that’s right.”

Azalea rubbed at her eyes, disoriented. “Is this—am I dead?” she stammered. “What’s happening?”

“We can’t be dead,” Echo muttered. “Or I wouldn’t feel so sick.”

“You’re welcome,” said the wraithlike figure next to him—a sage, Azalea realized, judging from the exquisite Observatorium crest embroidered into his cloak. “Had we walked on foot, you would only have a corpse left to greet.”

The sage’s voice was dry, elegant, and surprisingly youthful, not the crusty tones of the undead that Azalea expected. But he was powerful, exceedingly powerful. She could feel it in every one of his movements—deliberate, poised, flowing, as if he were keenly aware of every thread of mana in the air. There was no other explanation; he had to be one of the three High Sages of the Observatorium.

“Thank you,” Azalea whispered, clutching her hands to her chest. “Your aid is sorely welcome.”

Echo finally pulled himself up, the nausea on his face softening into a smile. “Did you think this was all?” he said. “Three people?”

Azalea blinked at him, uncomprehending.

“Behold,” said Echo. And he swept a hand up to the canyon cliffs with a bow.

Little lights crested over the cliffs—tiny, dancing sparks of dust, dressing the sandstone like wildflowers. Azalea heard the faraway blast of a horn, and the lights danced closer. They were tongues of fire, she realized; torch flames held aloft. By soldiers. Entire companies of them, forged into orderly phalanxes, steady as steel.

Echo had not brought only himself, but an army.

She gasped, her hands rising to press over her mouth.

“When I finally decide to be useful,” said Echo, “I don’t do things by halves.”

Azalea wanted to cry. She could already feel the prickle of tears in her throat, but they were not unwelcome.

“Where did they come from?” she whispered.

“I have my ways.” Echo tipped an imaginary hat. “Connections are the one thing the Wolf has.”

Azalea laughed wetly. “I knew you could do it. I always knew.”

“What, save your sorry backside?”

“No,” she said gently. “Grow a heart.”

Echo’s mouth turned up in a rueful smile that she hadn’t seen before. “A certain little girl twisted my arm into behaving. So in a way, Red, this is all you.

It was certainly not, but Azalea could not hold back a smile. The limbs of her body that had felt utterly drained, bereft of all strength, were filled with renewed vigor. Odd, really, how everything could change by simply not feeling alone.

“Now,” said Echo, crooking a brow, “before the Five recovers from whatever just happened, will you tell me why you’re standing in front of a corpse?”

Azalea flinched and stepped aside, revealing Azure’s slumped and silent form. “He’s not dead,” she said, biting her lip. “But he’s…he’s hurt. He broke the Five’s stoneskin, but it took a great deal of his mana.”

“Oh, poor thing,” Heidi said, quickly stooping at Azure’s side. She dug into the large, floppy satchel hanging over her shoulder, and after the sound of crystal clinking, withdrew a small vial filled with a pale tincture. She shook it violently, bringing the contents to a frothing churn, then uncapped the vial.

A pungent odor hit Azalea square in the face, inflaming her throat and making tears bead in her eyes. She stepped back, squeezing two fingers over her nose.

Echo grimaced. “Well, that’ll wake a man.”

Heidi thrust the vial right in front of Azure’s face. He woke violently with a thrash of limbs, gasping and snarling like a wild beast, hands flying to the bone weapons strapped at his waist. But Heidi did not flinch. She grasped his chin and turned his head toward her until he was looking her right in the eyes.

“Shh,” she murmured softly. “Shh, shh.”

Azure froze, chest still heaving with quick, sharp breaths. Heidi reached up slowly and deliberately, letting his eyes track her every movement. Then she laid her palm atop his head and nested her fingers in his unkempt golden hair. She stroked a wayward lock, crooning lightly.

It was as if—as if—

She’s calming a dragon, Azalea realized. She was torn between somber regret and fascination. The tragedy of her brother’s wildness birthed from his isolation of society, and yet—there was a beauty in Heidi’s understanding of his nature. No, not mere understanding, but acceptance. If she had been his only human companion in ten years, then Azalea knew without a doubt that she had been a faithful one.

Azure settled quickly under Heidi’s touch, his tension unfurling. He glanced around, absorbing the icy battlefield around him and the recovering wyrm before him with surprising composure.

“Ah,” he mumbled. “I was certain the battle would be over after the Rain of Oblivion. How disappointing.”

“Fives are very hardy creatures,” Azalea said. “Impressive enough that you shattered the stoneskin. All we must do now is strike it down.”

Azure raised his hand and grit his jaw. Azalea felt the surrounding threads of mana tug at her gut, jerking towards the tips of his fingers. But the force was weak and unsteady; a moment later, Azure released the brittle Form with a sigh.

“My mana is much diminished,” he said. “I cannot bring another Rain of Oblivion.”

“I—I think it might be better that way,” said Azalea nervously, as she could not Stabilize another Rain of Oblivion.

“Then what?” said the High Sage dryly. “Are we out of options?”

“Never.” Azalea straightened and pulled back her shoulders, trying to sound as confident as Halcyon Yuden or Karis Caelute. “Miss Heidi and Azure, stay with me to take down the Five. Echo, direct the companies you’ve mustered toward the heralds; we’ve only two Hunters holding them at bay, and they’ll benefit greatly from reinforcements.”

Echo saluted with two fingers. “Right. Special heroes on the Five, peasants on the heralds.”


But he was already gone, windsoles bearing him away.

Azalea turned to the High Sage next, but he was already waving a dismissive hand. “Single combat is not my specialty,” he said smoothly. “I shall employ my talents elsewhere.”

Azalea wished to protest, but she held her tongue. She hadn’t the slightest who this sage was or the breadth of his powers; it would be foolish to try to control him, and he already seemed disinclined to listen to her.

Besides, he likely outranked her.

“Asters be with you,” she said, but the sage ignored her, lighting his windsoles and shooting away. Odd. Windsoles—was that how he and Echo and Heidi had arrived? But she hadn’t sensed them at all, not until the very moment they appeared before her eyes.

She had no time to linger on the question. The wyrm was moving again.

Stormlight crackled about its sinuous form as it rose skyward with a lazy, serpentine curl. The ease of its movements belied the wild knot of mana tangling in the sky; the dark clouds began to crystallize into fat chunks of ice that threatened a deadly hail.

Heidi moved first. She stepped in front of Azalea, brandishing a glass vial of a bubbling, vibrant liquid.

“To me, May May!” she called.

There was a crack like thunder, and out of nowhere, the shadow of a black cat leapt onto Heidi’s shoulder. Azalea stifled a yelp of shock, but Azure seemed completely unsurprised.

Heidi uncapped the vial, tipping it towards May May’s mouth. May May arched back, ears flattening on her skull as she hissed.

“I know, I know,” Heidi said soothingly, rubbing her free hand between May May’s ears. “I’ll find you some very nice fish when this is all over. How about that?”

May May’s ears perked back up, and with a lazy meow, she allowed Heidi to feed her the vial’s contents.

All at once, the little cat’s frame seemed to melt, then swelter, bulging like putty, boneless beneath the coat of fur that began to tear at the seams. Azalea’s hand pressed at her mouth to stifle a sudden surge of bile as May May’s amorphous form rose, larger, larger, raw flesh knitting into powerful talons and fanning out into wings, rising bones crafting a beaked head.

Where a tame feline friend had once stood now loomed a massive raven.

May May threw back her head and screeched, magnificent ebony wings ruffling with the force of the sound. Heidi smiled fondly at the sight for a good minute before she noticed Azalea’s open-mouthed look of horror.

“Oh, don’t fret,” she said. “It’s good for her to get some exercise.”

Azalea tried to swallow her shock. She should have realized, really, that May May had never been an ordinary house cat. As Heidi’s familiar, she was likely an unusual species of creature from the depths of the Talebloom.

May May ducked slightly, allowing Azalea and Azure to clamber on her back. Azure seemed completely comfortable sitting astride wild creatures, but Azalea, who had only mounted a tame pony once before, cringed at the rumbling, uneven hide beneath her.

“Go,” Heidi said as she withdrew more flasks from her satchel. “I won’t be much use up there, so I shall see what I can do from the ground.”

“Thank you, Miss Heidi,” Azalea said. “Truly.”

Heidi only smiled. “Anything for dear Azure’s little sister,” she said.

Azalea opened her mouth, mind fumbling. How did—how did she—

But May May was already leaping skyward, grand wings snapping out.

Azalea immediately clung onto Azure as her stomach swooped, the wind pounding into her face and the ground hurtling beneath her. They soared right into the crackling knot of the storm where the sky was thick with heavy, dark clouds, ice globbing into fat shards of hail. The wyrm’s figure shimmered in the fog, a slender outline of pale blue.

May May swooped closer. Azure snapped out his hand and Formed a short sword that boiled with dark mana. Azalea felt the strain of it bow his manawell, but he held it together through considerable force of will.

Not for long, she thought grimly. They had to end this quickly.

The wyrm loosed its maw and sent a flurry of hail in their direction. May May tucked in her wings and swerved around the sharp rain of ice, but a stray shard clipped her wing and sent her spiraling. She screeched in pain, but righted herself with some effort.

“We have to strike now!” Azalea called, bracing against the onslaught of the cold.

“Very good!” Azure called back. “Where?”

Azalea froze for a moment, uncertain. They had contended with the beast for so long, and yet she had no clue where its weak spot could lay. None save—

“The head,” she said suddenly. She raised her voice. “The head! That’s where—that’s how it’s been Forming mana, harnessing its power—it always opens its jaw, or moves starting with the head.”

Azure nodded shortly. “Then we shall strike as one. Are you ready?”

Oh, she hoped she was correct. They only had enough mana for a single solid blow. If Azalea had been mistaken, then she might have just doomed the entire canyon with her folly. But there was no time for doubt. The hail was thickening; Azalea could feel its heavy, unforgiving pressure on her cheeks as it threatened to fall and devastate the land below.

“Yes,” she said. She braced herself as May May pulled closer. “Now!”

The Fairwen siblings leapt as one, vaulting through the cold, wet sky and landing right along the wyrm’s crown. Azure plunged his sword straight into its hide without hesitation, the blade shattering through its scales and sinking deep into flesh. The wyrm loosed an agonized roar that shook Azalea’s eardrums, but she refused to cower.

She sucked in a breath. Primed her starshooter straight at the open wound, and the boiling mana that leaked from within.

She pulled the trigger.

The firebolt blazed out of the barrel with a thunderous crack, soaring right towards the festering flesh.

Azalea reached deep and burned every speck of mana left. She fired, and fired, and fired, yanking at the unstable knots around the starshooter, watching the four rounds arc through the darkness like falling stars—

Azure roared, pulling down his blade with all his strength. The surrounding mana shivered as the wyrm’s crown ripped apart with a wild spray of blood.

The four firebolts sank in, their blazing light swallowed by the rank, bubbling tissue.

For one moment, there was nothing.

Then the wyrm’s frame jerked underneath them, throwing them out into oblivion.

Azalea plummeted at a terrifying speed, stomach turning over and she reached out blindly for Azure. Right as she found the weight of his hand, she landed flat on her back—not on hard rock or sheer ice, but soft, warm feathers. She heard the soft, chittering noise of a friendly raven.

“May May,” she gasped out through aching lungs.

Above her, the wyrm continued to writhe, serpentine form contorting. Its skull split apart, peeling like old clay, and an unearthly shriek echoed across the canyon.

“Quickly,” Azalea rasped. “Get us away.”

May May seemed to understand. She pulled in her wings and barreled away as the air curdled around Azalea’s ears. Azalea held on as tightly as she could with her free hand, jaw clenching as pain rippled up her arms from the effort of holding both herself and Azure fast.

The skies simmered. Like cold glass dropped into a kiln, the hailstorm began to fracture with a thin, high cracking sound until it shattered entirely, spreading glacial dust over the canyon.

May May had nearly alighted when the wyrm simply—


Blinding light seared the clouds as the corruption’s body crumpled in on itself—horns shattering, scales splintering, noble form shriveling away to a dried husk. The sorry remains of its corpse fell with a thunderous crash, a final, lasting drumbeat that echoed throughout the canyon.

Azalea’s mind slipped into darkness, dulled by exhaustion.

She was met with the peace of silence.