55. Stormrider (4)

Grey Dismas spat out a mouthful of blood as he jabbed blindly with his spear. In the hectic scramble of warding off ravenous beasts, the impeccable techniques of the House Geppett militia had devolved into little more than wild, thoughtless flailing. Yet again, Grey was in charge of captaining untempered soldiers.

At least he was in good company. Fighting at his side were soldiers clamoring under several other banners—House Valence, House Harte, House Mordin, all of them fresh-faced and underprepared. More boys than men, waifs than women.

But still, they were needed. Any warm body that could hold a pike was valuable against the endless onslaught of gnashing teeth and writhing fur.

Well, Grey thought morosely, if I am to die, at least I have brought honor to my liege with my final breath.

A sudden clap of thunder nearly made him jump. The dark sky blazed a brilliant white, and in the distance, the looming shadow of the Class Five fell.

“What was that?” yelped a young pikeman at his side.

Grey gaped for a solid moment, unable to muster a reply. Surely that didn’t mean—but was it possible to hope—

“I think,” he said disbelievingly, “I think that means the alpha has fallen.”

The demeanor of the heralds that crowded around them appeared to confirm this impossibility. Rabid ranks of vultures and peccaries and the occasional terrifying scorpion were visibly unsettled: shrinking back, glancing about, chittering and clicking nervously. Something had certainly cowed them.

Oh, does it even matter if it’s true? Grey thought distantly. In a battle with such overwhelming odds, hope was the most lethal weapon.

So he raised his voice and bellowed: “The alpha has fallen under the sword of the Scarlet Rider! Press forward, and claim victory for your houses!”

The energy around him changed in an instant. Soldiers roared their approval as they raised their pikes and bows and swarmed forward fearlessly. The thick clot of heralds broke as the animals fled, trampling each other in their haste. Onward and further still, Grey’s message traveled, whispered so fiercely and fervently that it left his control.

The Five is dead. The war is won.

The Scarlet Rider has saved us all.

Lord Roland Geppett had always been a hero worthy of ballads and storybooks. Or so Wes believed, ever since he was a child.

He watched his father tower over the riffraff, arms knotted with muscle and thick as tree boughs, jeweled warhammer swinging in heavy, crushing blows that churned up earth and shattered bones. The Geppett elite regiment strode forward in an orderly, unforgiving march, rending through beasts as if they were mere paper. Starshooters flared as firebolts launched across the barren fields in brutal volleys, sending up plumes of smoke wherever they struck.

The sight was powerful. It was terrible. It was beautiful.

That was his father, soldiers of his house, magnificent and unconquerable. Wes wanted to strangle the tickle of pride that inflamed his chest, but it lingered stubbornly. Northelm could not have had a greater savior.

The regiment approached, Lord Geppett at the helm. The beasts were thrown into a panic at the heavy pincer, scattering as they were impaled by pikes on one side and arrows on the other. Lord Geppett fired his windsoles to leap onto Northelm’s walls, bringing down his hammer right on the soft skull of a corrupted lynx. His boots landed heavily on the weathered parapets.

His eyes roved through the crowds of soldiers until they stepped on Wes. Immediately, a scowl darkened his face.

Wes set his jaw and tried not to shrink. His boyish awe was quickly souring. “Lord Father,” he began uncertainly.

Lord Geppett’s eyes flared. “You, boy,” he snapped, “have a great deal of explaining to do.”

Wes’s cautious optimism vanished, and he felt his hackles instinctively rise. “Would you like my defense now, in the middle of the battlefield?” he said dryly.

Lord Geppett growled. “We will speak later. Behind the walls with you. Stay out of the way.”

“Alas, you’ll have to make me.” Wes reached up and flipped down the visor of his helm, shrouding his broken expression in darkness. He wouldn’t give his father the pleasure of seeing any tears. “Some people actually think I’m good for something.”

“That is hardly what—get back here, boy!”

But Wes had already leapt away, his windsoles churning until the air in his ears drowned out the clamor of his thoughts. If he could only lose with his father, then there was victory to be had elsewhere.

Karis’s eyes peeled open to an ocean hanging in the sky.

She blinked, and blinked again, and still, the unusual sight remained—a veil of water that drifted just below the cloud cover, dappled with beautiful pinpricks of light. Slowly, the veil took shape, braiding around itself into a thick, pulsing current that plunged from the sky like a snake. The head of it yawned open like a dragonhead, ready to consume all.

Oh, Karis thought distantly. It’s Yuden. He was in there somewhere, she knew—driving forward the current with his glaive, manawell blazing as he pulled together every thread of water mana within reach. The Leviathan Wave, his admirers had dubbed the technique. A fitting enough name.

As for who it consumed first—victim or creator—that was a different question entirely.

Karis watched as the dragonhead current crashed downward with the force of a guillotine. It split through the corruption’s hide, tearing the creature from top to bottom in one vicious stroke, bloodsoaked water spraying as bones shattered and flesh fell. The creature’s mangled body swayed, then crumpled with a slow, eerie groan.

Halcyon’s manawell winked out and he collapsed onto the snow, a dot of blue against a blanket of white.

Karis grimaced as she dragged herself up to her elbows, her shoulders screaming in protest. She gingerly reached for her manawell, only to be swallowed by a wave of nausea; she had nothing left, and if she pushed, the effects would be devastating.

Crawling to Halcyon’s side was painstaking. Her injured arm was still mostly numb and bound to her midsection. She half-dragged, half-wormed herself across the snow, inch by inch, stopping whenever the pain rattled up her arms and legs and threatened to strangle out her vision. It seemed an age before she reached him.

“Yuden,” she rasped. She gripped his shoulder and shook him. “Up. We can’t stay out here. We’ll freeze.”

He would freeze, at least. Without the protection of his manawell, the bitter cold would dig into his skin and kill him. Karis was fortunate enough to resist the cold, given her natural inclination towards ice mana.

Halcyon tried to move. Karis saw his arm tense as he attempted to raise it, to drag himself up. But the motion was futile, and his head fell back onto the snow with a soft groan.

“Can’t,” he mumbled. He was blinking blearily, fighting to stay awake. “’S cold.”

The drowsiness muddying Karis’s own mind rapidly begun to clear, displaced by alarm. “Yuden. You can’t sleep. Not until reinforcements arrive.”

Halcyon grunted indistinctly.

“If you conquer a Five only to submit to weather, I shall be exceedingly cross.”

“Nothing new.”

“Is anything broken or punctured?”


“Can I move you, Yuden.”

He said nothing.

Karis pulled herself onto her knees, flinching at the racket of pain that echoed through every limb. She lifted Halcyon’s arm to hang over her shoulder and gingerly began to pull. He cried out, a sound so abrupt and sharp that she immediately stopped.

“Not good,” Karis said. “I think that something important is displaced. Perhaps shattered.”

He supplied no witty response, which was even more concerning.

Gritting her teeth, Karis fumbled to open one of the pouches slung at her waist. It was difficult with one hand, but she managed to drag out her mana inhibitors. With shaking, clumsy fingers, she fastened the first bangle around Halcyon’s left wrist.

“No,” Halcyon rasped. “Your mana.”

“Quiet,” she snapped. “This will be difficult enough without your fussing.”

He was silent as she fastened the second inhibitor around his other wrist. She waited for the telltale click of his manawell syncing with the appliances.

There was nothing.

Karis looked at Halcyon, who only blinked back slowly. His eyes were clouded with pain, but she recognized that determined, infuriating set of his jaw.

“Yuden,” she said flatly. “Sync with them.”

He only blinked again.

“Yuden, enough.

“You don’t have it,” Halcyon forced out. “The mana.”

“Don’t patronize me,” she said sharply. “I will determine my own limits.”

“As if.”

Two words had never stirred so much anger. She gripped his chin and forced him to look her in the eyes, as if that would cow him. He did not flinch.

“Karis,” he said—quietly, laboriously. “I’ll be fine. They’ll come.”

But what if they don’t, Karis wanted to say. Nobody else was there to pull you from the ocean. I was the only one who reached you in time. Nobody else is here now. Only me.

She did not realize—not until this moment, not until she was looking it square in the face yet again—how much seeing an inert Halcyon had scared her. So many people had come and gone around them. Only his presence remained a constant.

“Karis,” Halcyon repeated. “They always come.”

Her grip eased. She let his head rest back on the snow.

Perhaps he was correct. The Five of Havenport had caused quite a commotion; perhaps another Hunter would have reached him in time, or a soldier who could swim, or even a well-meaning citizen. And this Five would be no different. The giant carcass would make certain that she and Halcyon could be quickly found.

She was being…irrational. How vexing.

Composure regained, Karis cleared her throat and slowly pushed until she was sitting up. In a stray thought, she pulled her shimmer-scarf from out of its pin and wound it carefully around Halcyon’s neck.

Fool, she told herself. As if the meager, sheer fabric could contribute any kind of warmth. Still, the way his gaze trekked up to her face, eyes glimmering with soft surprise, made her hands tingle.

“Perhaps I shall have to get a thicker cloak,” she murmured.

Halcyon’s mouth twitched upward. “Good.”

“Because one of us is freezing.”

Worrywart, he should have said. But he was quiet. She shook him until he hissed with pain.

“D’you mind?” he slurred.

“It’s poor manners to leave a woman in the middle of a conversation.”

“Can’t help it. Street rat.”

She should have laughed. Instead, she blurted: “Don’t die, Halcyon.”

Halcyon paused. It was so long before he next spoke that she nearly shook him again.

“Look,” he said.

Karis turned.

A soft glow, like spring blossoming after a long frost, pulsed in the distance—a ray of light mana piercing through the dark. Sethis’s figure approached, growing ever larger, cloak billowing in a ripple of stars.

Help is here. She released a breath, the terrible pressure falling from her shoulders. She reached down and clasped Halcyon’s hand, winding her fingers tight, as if she could pass the heat from her body into his.

“Don’t you dare close your eyes, Yuden,” she said. “Not until you’re back indoors.”

She felt the faintest squeeze of her hand, and heard a soft, barely-there murmur.

“Wouldn’t dream of it.”