Anecdote LVIII. Into the Fire

Posted on Posted in Anecdotes

January 27th, 2016

The sounds of cannon fire and shouting rang across the river as the sun was rising. Moloch’s army had arrived in the night as the Train passed, and had begun their assault on Corerrofin hours before sunup. Lask had left Stefin to oversee the battlefield, and returned to Avigdell. Falient had prepared his ship, and was ready to leave, but Lask needed to wait until sunrise for the final piece of magic.

He stood with Barrett on the balcony as the sun appeared in the east, the two facing the light appearing over the falls. Barrett knelt and raised his hands to his chest. Green tendrils of magic glowed like vines around his fingertips, blossoming across his chest, and drawing out the shining shape of his half of the Heart. It moved in steady undulations, shining with a glow like moonlight. He offered it up toward Lask’s waiting hands.

Lask’s fire curled around the offered half, drawing it into his hands. He pressed it to the mark upon his chest, as if embracing it. The fire flared brighter, and Barrett’s heart sank into Lask’s breast. As it encountered the other half within Lask, the Heart fused together within him, and its light seemed to shine out of his skin. The first sunbeams of morning illuminated him, shining in his wings, as the Heart blazed together as one for the first time since its reentry into the world.

As dawn poured over Avigdell, Lask looked eastward toward the falls, and unfurled his wings, launching himself into the air, and soaring off in pursuit of the sun. Barrett rose, stepping to the railing, and looked out across the water. Lask seemed to blaze in the light, the Heart’s fire streaming from his wings. He was engulfed in the sunlight, morning’s minion spiraling into the heavens,  then all at once he tucked his wings and fell back toward the river. He seemed to carry the sunlight with him, fire trailing behind him like a banner, and when he disappeared into the water of the falls, the entire river burst into light.

Up on the balcony, Barrett grinned, watching the glowing flood rush down the falls and spread around the island. Lask burst from the mist of the falls, shining water and sparks flying from his crimson feathers. The Light would hold in the river for many hours, but Lask would not linger to see it. He soared once more over the house, waving goodbye to Barrett, then banked northward toward the harbor, so he, Falient, and Wyatt could set out. Barrett watched him go, then shifted into the shape of an eagle, and took off across the river to help Stefin.

*******

Moloch’s forces had blasted through the walls of Corerrofin just before sunrise, thousands of enemy soldiers pouring into the trees. Stefin’s archers picked them off from above, having climbed into the canopy, but there were far too many for the arrows to fell. Stefin’s ground soldiers struggled in the trees and outside the walls. Enemy Warmongers snapped and charged, trying to break through Stefin’s ranks. The trees snapped and toppled under artillery fire as Moloch’s war machines rolled in. The sky over Corerrofin was heavy with black clouds, cancelling out the sunlight that should have incinerated the Dark legions.

Stefin was up in the tower of Kotelvira, surveying the field. His claws left scratches in the stone as he gripped the rail. One of his captains was with him, bringing him updates and relaying orders.

“They’re starting to set up on the riverbank,” said the Runner (whom Stefin was painfully aware was not Giemm). “To–”

“Fire their Sun Snuffers into Avigdell,” the Demon growled. “Si. Where is the Titan?”

“They’re holding him back, but it won’t be long before they’ve cleared a path for him up to Avigdell’s gate, then they will surely unleash him.”

Stefin surveyed his battered forest with a critical eye, then said, “Tell Rami and Mavari to pull back to the east and wait for the Titan to pass. Tell the others outside the wall to do what they have to get out of the way. Our reinforcements will arrive after the Titan goes by. Tell everyone to stay out of the way until then–”

“But the Titan will–”

“Go straight across the bridge, si!” snapped the Demon. “And kill fewer of us in the process. Stay out of his way til he gets on the bridge, then everyone on both sides of the wall come back in from the north and drive them into the river.” He turned away from the balcony, then stalked back inside.

“Where are you going, senierro?” called the Runner, unable to keep the fear out of his voice.

“Where I will be more useful than standing up here. Go find Rami! Relay the orders. He will know where I am if you need to find me again.”

Stefin stomped back through his castillo, and out of the front gates, taking off at a run toward the chaos. He set himself ablaze as he neared the fray, and bowled his way through, hardly slowing. The noise was deafening. Everywhere, people were screaming and calling, thousands of voices almost inaudible above the chest-rattling booms of artillery. Stefin tore through the enemy lines toward the Avigdell gate, almost oblivious to the cannon ball that collided with the tree to his right. He turned his face away as splinters flew, and ran onward, ducking an arrow, tearing through a Warmonger’s snapping jaws. Something leapt at him from behind, its weight sending him stumbling. It shrieked and fell loose, and as he spun, he saw a familiar spear shaft protruding from the Warmonger’s back. Just then, a slender hand closed over the shaft, wrenching it loose, and he caught a flash of blonde hair. Satha’s blue eyes met his gaze for only an instant, then she was off running again.

“Satha!” Stefin called after her. “Go toward Kotelvira! The Titan is coming! Follow Rami!”

He didn’t know if she heard him, but she seemed to sprint eastward through the trees as a distant roar rang over the chaos.

Stefin glanced eastward, seeing Rami and Mavari’s forces retreating up the hill toward Kotelvira. The field seemed to quiet, and there came a thunderous rhythm that shook the ground. Stefin knew the Titan had been unchained. He sprinted toward the gate to Avigdell, trying to close the distance before the Titan came into sight. He hauled himself over the wall next to the gate, clambering down the cliff face, and pressing himself against the rocks under the end of the bridge.

The Titan Rothok broke through the ruined gates of Corerrofin, sending rubble flying as he broke through the walls. He was a monstrous beast, towering into the trees, hulking and primordial. He was shaped like a terrible ankylosaur, with an armored back like a mountain, and spines the size of Stefin himself. The Titan’s tail swung behind him, brandishing a club bigger than Stefin’s gates.

Rothok plowed through the wreckage of the trees, bulling huge toppled cedars out of his way like stalks of wheat. He galloped through the swath of destruction Moloch’s army had cut, barreling toward Avigdell. Stefin could hear him bearing down on the gates, and glanced up at the underside of the bridge, comforting himself with the length of wires and cables they had run along the stones. His own soldiers were to light them shortly, but Stefin wanted it done sooner.

Rothok hit the gate with a sound like an explosion. Stefin felt the cliffside shake with the force, felt the rocks shift behind him, and hoped they would not break loose and send him into the river below. Sparks and fire burst as the Titan tore at the wards, and Stefin could hear the horrible grate of twisting metal as Rothok forced his way through. There was a crack like sharp thunder as the wards at last shattered, and with a deafening roar, the Titan fell through onto the bridge.

Rothok regained his footing and took off again at a run, charging across the bridge, great feet gripping the crenellations, tail obliterating the lanterns and flags as he passed. Stone broke off under his passage, splashing into the river, the bridge groaning under the Titan’s weight. Stefin listened for the span of a heartbeat, waiting until the Titan neared the center of the bridge. They were supposed to let the Titan cross, to cut it off from Moloch’s forces, but the Demon was unwilling.

“Forgive me, farero. This time, I think I know better,” he whispered, then reached up and lit the fuse himself.

The Demon’s fire raced along the underside of the bridge, setting off the charges they had hidden in the night. He rolled out from under the bridge, and scrambled back up the cliff face. The bridge exploded into a cloud of debris, its magnificent arches tumbling away into the rushing river, and sending the Titan crashing into the Light-laced water. Rothok let out a grating shriek, floundering in the Light river. The water hissed on his thick hide, and Stefin roared,

“METHOK!”

The dragon was already in freefall, having watched the explosion from high in the clouds. Methok crashed into the river with splash that sprayed back onto the mainland. The dragon lunged for the Dark Titan, claws glancing of Rothok’s armor. Rothok was roaring, flailing in the river, struggling to get to shore before the water could eat through into his Dark flesh. Stefin could hear the sounds of battle resuming behind him as Rami and Mavari’s forces rushed back in, trying to cut off the enemy’s access to the riverbank, but he could not tear his gaze away from the Titans.

Methok grappled with Rothok, trying to push his head under the water. Rothok snapped, and lashed, clamping his jaws onto Methok’s arm. The dragon struggled, pulling himself free, and dealt a return strike, sending up sparks from Rothok’s armor. Rothok was desperate, floundering toward the island as the water began to eat through his iron hide. Stefin could see black blood beginning to flow away into the river. Methok threw himself at the other Titan, tackling him into the water. Rothok rolled, his spines ringing against Methok’s scales. Methok clamped his jaws onto the back of the Titan’s neck, his teeth piercing through into Rothok’s flesh. Rothok flailed in sheer panic, and his tail swung, landing a lucky strike.

The club crashed into the side of Methok’s head, wrenching him loose and sending him crashing into the water. The dragon sputtered, but was stunned, hardly able to keep himself from sinking under. Stefin suddenly saw Barrett go tearing out of the trees down river, and throw himself off the cliff. He shifted as he fell, taking the shape of a hulking orca, and splashed into the water. He swam out into the river, diving down to catch Methok’s head as it sank under. He braced his back under Methok’s neck, and shoved the dragon back to the surface, jostling him, trying to shake him back to his wits. Methok was bleeding from the mouth and the side of his head. Stefin thought his jaw looked broken. On the other side of the river, Rothok hauled himself out of the water, and was clambering up the side of the island. He would make onto the island, Stefin knew, but he hoped the Titan would be far weaker for it.

Turning back, Stefin headed back into the trees of Corerrofin, struggling through the chaos northward. When he broke through the the rear of the invading soldiers, he sprinted into the forest, away from the noise. The sounds of the struggle faded behind him as he ran, until he reached the northernmost wall of his territory. He hesitated only a moment, then raised his hands, conjuring a large fireball between them, then unleashed it upon the wall, blowing a hole through the stone.

A portion of the wall fell into rubble, leaving an opening out into the neutral lands beyond. He heard a distant Runner scream, perhaps in response to the sound of his fire. He followed it, hoping it was not another flank of Moloch’s army. As he ascended the foothill into the trees, he saw a disarrayed force milling about in the forest, growling and calling to each other. They carried the red banners of Dark Malstefin, a sight Stefin had not seen in years, and he smiled in spite of himself. Here was his army from centuries past, sent forward in time by Lask’s magic.

These were Dark soldiers, he must not forget. They would respond only to the might of the Demon they served. Now was not the time for fear or anguish. As he announced his presence, Stefin drew himself up to his full height, summoning sparks of fire around him, inflating his chest with the breath of a roar that broke over the trees like thunder.

“My soldiers! Attention!” the Demon’s voice rang over the hubbub, drawing instant silence. “To your ranks!”

The soldiers scrambled at the sight of their red emperor, shuffling and shoving to regain their formations. As they did so, Stefin pulled himself up onto an outcropping of rock so to make himself more visible.

“I’m sure you’re wondering where you are, and why I am here with you,” he called to his soldiers, “But now is not the time to ask questions. Questions will come later, today you must fight! Through these trees, beyond that wall–” he gestured in the direction he had come from “–is an enemy that wants me and you dead. This enemy wants to destroy what is mine, including all of you! I have powerful enemies; you know this. Powerful enemies are what happens when you are a powerful king.” He extended his arms out, allowing them to take him in. He grinned a pointed-toothed smile when the army answered him with cheers and approving snarls. Sometimes he missed the raw energy of a Dark army.

“You no doubt see things about me that are different,” Stefin told them. “Those answers too will come in time. For now, you need only know three things: whom do you serve?”

“Malstefin!” came the reply from the army, punctuated with shouts of, “The Scorpion! The Red Hand! Roj diab d’Ispania!”

“How will you know your ally in the field?”

“The red mark!” came the answer, the soldiers slapping the red emblems tied to their upper arms. Stefin hoped they would have sense enough to recognize it on Rami and all his other current soldiers.

“And do you want to live to see tomorrow?” roared the red Demon.

A deafening cacophony of shrieks, cheers, and growls echoed affirmation.

“Then follow me!” Stefin commanded them, “And fight with everything you have! Show them what it means to be my enemy and yours! Show them what happens when they try to step on the scorpion!”

The Dark soldiers began to surge forward even before he had finished speaking. The Demon leapt from the rock, taking off at a run even as he hit the ground, leading his Dark army at his heels, through the north wall, and sweeping down into Corerrofin.

*******

Lask nodded his thanks to Stefin’s soldiers from the stronghold of Alasalcon, and set off down the final stretch of the tunnel, drawing Falient and Wyatt in his wake. Lask led them at a brisk pace, jogging toward the ladder at the end. As they traveled, they could hear the impact of long-range shells on the ground above. The hidden stronghold of Alasalcon and its neighbor fort of Cadurapi had at last revealed themselves in the form of a fiery barrage on Moloch’s castle.

“You won’t have much time once we’re inside,” he told them, beginning the ascent, “Take the first left out of the tunnel, and then–”

“–straight up the stairs, third door on the right, I know. Seen Barrett’s map myself, y’know” said Falient, lightly pinching Lask’s ankle as he followed him up the ladder. “We’ve got this.”

“Good.” Lask reached the top of the ladder, and braced his shoulders against the final layer of stone that lay between them and Moloch’s stronghold. “Then let’s go.”

Lask’s wings blasted into the stone with a roar of fire, and he shoved his way through the rubble into the dungeon beyond.

“Get Giemm and go,” he called to Falient as he took off. “I love you both.”

With a push of his wings, he was gone, launched into the shaft beyond. Falient took off at a cautious run, holding his pistol ready as he took the stairs ahead. Wyatt trailed him, both guns drawn. Falient reached the corridor above, shooting one of the Serpent guards ahead. Wyatt’s guns fired once each, taking out the Warmonger and other Serpent farther down the hall. Falient was already busy with the lock on the third door. He finagled off the cover with his knife, then reached behind him, saying, “Railtie.”

Wyatt passed him the twisted iron spike they had stolen from the Train’s track as she had passed the night before. Falient drove the tie into the lock. Its black point pierced through Moloch’s protective magics, and the lock fell open. Falient bulled his way through the door and rushed to the table inside.

Giemm lay broken and tattered on the table’s bloody surface, limbs straining at the rough iron chains as his body shivered to curl inward. The severed length of his beak lay bloody in the floor beside the table. There was no sign of his right hand; his free arm was cradled to his chest, blotching his feathers in blood and black char. It looked like Moloch must have scorched his hand off into ash. Giemm was covered in burns, patches of red and blackened skin showing where there were no longer feathers, places where the Demon had set his feathers on fire. Wyatt gathered the remains of the beak in his arms, staining the front of his shirt with the pieces.

“We’re here, old boy,” Falient said as he forced open the manacle with his knife, and pried off the cuff that held Giemm in his current shape. “You’re on your way home now.”

Giemm sputtered, but could make no sound in the ruins of his face. Though the magical cuff no longer held his form captive, he made no move to shift out of his tattered bird shape. Falient found he was glad, realizing he didn’t want to know what the damage would look like on a human face.

“Lask will get ya fixed up. He’s mended worse,” Wyatt told Giemm, smoothing what was left of the feathers on his head. “Just be still.”

Falient pried open the last fetter, then Wyatt tossed his key. Falient knelt and touched it to the floor. He drew the shape of his door in the air and wasted no time pushing the key in, opening the portal onto the deck of his ship. Wyatt gathered Giemm’s legs under his arm and helped Falient carry him through, passing him into the Luminor Selandir’s waiting hands. Wyatt handed off the pieces of Giemm’s beak to one of the Maculiens on board. As Falient turned for the helm, Wyatt called after him,

“You go ahead. I’ll see ya when Lask gets here.”

“Wot?” Falient spun. “You’re not stayin’–”

Wyatt smiled at him and pulled the door shut, even as Falient rushed for it. The door disappeared in the air as Falient reached it, and Wyatt withdrew his key from the other side. The gunslinger tucked it back into his shirt pocket, and drew his guns again, turning to face the dark hallways of Moloch’s stronghold.

“Alright, Lask,” said the gunslinger, “Let’s get ya home too.”

*******

Quinn stood on the western balcony of his house in the treetops, looking out across the forest. The woods were ablaze, the trees girding themselves in Lask’s fire. Quinn saw Rothok pull himself over the edge of the island, and immediately the branches began whipping the Titan as he passed. Though their fire burned him, the trees could do nothing to withstand his mad charge. Quinn wasted no time. The young man double-checked that he had Julia’s locket around his neck, then grabbed his key, and drew a door into the room in Garth’s home where his siblings were staying. He shoved it open, and yelled,

“Rhys! Fierro!”

The boys obeyed and ran to their brother. Quinn yanked them through and slammed the door before any of the other children realized what was happening. He waved the door away, and knelt, saying, “You ready?”

Rhys Oliver and Fierro nodded. Quinn leapt from the balcony, shifting into the dragon shape of Cressida. He clung onto the branches under the house, and reached up to help the boys clamber onto his back. When they were secure, he let go and took off over the trees, wings sending them racing back across the island. He swooped in on the southeast side, landing where Rhys Oliver had constructed his long-range gun. The boys clambered off his back, and Quinn returned to his human shape, kneeling down and feeling through the grass until he found the hidden ring of the cache door. He heaved it open, revealing a large store of artillery rounds. Fierro’s jaw dropped, and Rhys’s eyes widened in eager anticipation.

“Told you I’d get them,” Quinn said. “Do not blow yourselves up. Adar would never forgive me.”

“We won’t!” they chorused.

“Take care of each other.” With that, Quinn took Julia’s locket in his hand, shifted into the form of a silver falcon, and took off toward the towers of Del Sayronet, clutching the locket in his talons.

*******

Lask flew straight up the drainage shaft and broke through the grate on the second level with one well-placed kick. His flames silenced the two Warmonger guards in the hallway even as they began howling an alarm. The fortress shuddered, taking heavy fire from Alasalcon in the distance. The Light shells rocked the place, shaking the stones under Lask’s feet. He drew his sword and took off at a run, darting down the right hand corridor, sending a sudden blast of fire up the hallway at the Serpents standing watch, and continued around the innermost circle of Moloch’s keep.

As he rounded the corner to face the door to the Ancient Demon’s chambers, he heard a heavy thump from inside– perhaps it was but one angry footstep, in the way a bull might warn an intruder in its pen. Lask paused for only a moment, summoning his fire along his wings and blade. He steeled himself, feeling the full force of the Heart coursing bold and bright through his veins. Drawing back his sword, he took one deep breath before shattering the stillness. He kicked through the door in a scarlet tempest of sparks and swirling fire, then sent a brazen bolt of flame down the length of the chamber, where it glanced off the horns of the Ancient Demon on the other end.

“Found your nerve at last I see,” rumbled Moloch. The Demon unfolded from the shadows, a mass of shifting muscle, easily seven feet high, with the towering head and horns of a bull. “I wondered when you would come to me. I had hoped I would see you sooner when you saw what I was doing to your feathered friend.” He clasped in his hand a massive war club, all black iron, which he towed along the floor, sending up sparks from the stone.

“You have reached too far toward the Halls of the Wind,” declared Lask, striding the length of the hall, “Now I have come as the Light’s answer.”

“You are nothing but blustering pride,” snarled the Demon, stalking out to meet him. “Arrogance will be your undoing, Luminor.”

“I will have your blood on this sword,” Lask promised him, “And you will know the feeling of a swordpoint pushing through your shoulders.”

Moloch swung, but Lask’s swift feet carried him well out of range of the iron mace. He tucked his wings, leaping low to swing at Moloch’s legs, winning a fortunate strike across the back of the Demon’s left knee. Moloch staggered, a blast of his fire rushing out across the chamber, setting the intricate carpet near the door ablaze. Lask ducked and shuffled his wings, smothering flames before they could catch in his feathers.

Lask returned with a bolt of his own. The fire of the Heart connected with Moloch’s mace with a sound like thunder, and the Demon deflected the strike to the floor. Lask lunged for him, wings driving him into the Demon and sending him staggering. Moloch shoved back, his brute weight stopping the Luminor’s charge. Lask’s sword rang against the black mace, punctuated by Moloch’s gruff snarl as he braced against the driving force of Lask’s wings.

“You have tried for years to kill me and failed,” Lask growled, sparks leaping from his blade to sting Moloch’s eyes. “You will not succeed now.”

Moloch’s knee drove upward, knocking Lask back.

“You are too haughty, Luminor,” spat the Ancient Demon. “How many of your kind have tried to kill me and failed? How many have met their doom in this very hall? You are smarter than many, and you have been a worthy adversary, but my kind sleep while the likes of you rise and fall. How can you live when I stand now awake before you?”

“Because I am made by the one who has already beaten you.” Lask clapped his hands onto the pommel of his sword, sending a gusting wave of fire blasting into Demon.

Moloch was thrown backward with a wrathful roar, and Lask rushed into the fire after him. The two whirled around each other in the blaze, struggling to see through the heat. Lask’s sword moved like the fine point of a pen, drawing blood each time he was within reach of the Demon, until Moloch stamped his great foot with a roar of, “Enough!” and at the Demon’s voice, all the light in the room went out as a black wave burst from his hoof. Lask was blind in the darkness. Even his own fire suddenly winked out.

*******

Barrett guided Methok to shore downriver among the willows. As the wounded dragon hauled himself to shore, Barrett shifted back to his human shape.

“Rest,” he told the dragon, stroking his foreleg. “We can’t afford to have you get yourself killed.”

Methok gave no protest, gave a tired groan, and settled down among the rushes to begin nursing his wounds. Barrett could not stay, and shifted into the swift form of a stag to go bounding back up river toward the sounds of battle. He could see the island in the distance, and could tell from the flare and movement of the trees that Rothok was tearing his way across Avigdell toward Del Sayronet. As Barrett neared the front, he mustered his strength, and shifted into the golden dragon’s shape, so it seemed Methok charged back into the fray.

Barrett launched himself into Moloch’s ranks tearing through the Dark soldiers like a wolf in a hen house. He cut through the lines to where the war machines had been rolled to the riverbank. They were already firing, launching sun-cancelling rounds across at the island, and explosives that shattered trees and buildings. As he approached, Barrett saw one of the rounds collide with Del Sayronet, blowing the top of the rear tower off entirely. He lunged at the nearest gun, his sheer dragon weight toppling it. He seized the barrel in his claws, wrenching it sideways, then leapt for the next gun. Another shell hit the northwest corner of Del Sayronet, sending rubble flying in the distance.

Barrett hardly saw the damage. He rampaged through the line of artillery, twisting metal, and spewing fire onto the Dark creatures manning the weapons. All of a sudden, it felt like something struck him in the chest– though he knew nothing had hit him– and his dragon shape flickered, then vanished.

Barrett found himself standing in the midst of Moloch’s gunmen, and they all stared for a moment, stunned that it had not been Methok wreaking such havoc. Barrett reached for his magic, but it was gone. No shape would answer his frantic call– he was human, and vulnerable. He had never been so abandoned by his own abilities. For a terrible instant, he wondered if Lask and the Heart had perished. He scrambled as a Warmonger leapt for him, dodging its teeth, deflecting it with a kick. He reached for his knife, but before he could draw it, there was the sound of a pistol shot, and Barrett felt pain explode in his side.

The shot knocked him from his feet. The Demon who had been overseeing the artillery had fired, hitting him in the left side. Barrett’s hand was drenched in crimson blood when he reached for the wound. He strained for his magic, but it was like it had vanished. As the Warmongers advanced on him, he did the only thing he could think of, and threw himself backward into the shining river.

He kicked through the water, pushing himself away from shore and his attackers, ducking as the Demon fired another shot at him. Several of the Warmongers hurled their spears, and he felt one graze his leg, but pushed on, driving himself out into the river, until the current grabbed him and carried him away, blood trailing in a crimson halo around him.

***

On the east end of Avigdell, Belara, Cantebon, Tathiana, and Cressida waited together. The four of them could hear the Titan tearing through the island, the sound of the blazing trees lashing and snapping, and Rothok’s wrathful roar. The Titan burst from the forest, whipped and torn by the trees, his hide eaten away in places, as if by acid, from the Light in the river. The wounds did not seem to slow him, for as soon as he broke through the unforgiving trees, he regained his footing and charged across the meadow.

There was the sound of artillery fire from above, and the Titan stumbled as one of Kieran’s rounds struck it in the foreleg. Kieran was up in the central tower, manning one of his heavy guns, which was aimed out the window toward the west. Tathiana mirrored his shot, releasing a bolt of magic across the field as the Titan approached. Rothok saw it coming and ducked, the bolt glancing off his iron back. Undeterred, the Luminara fired again, blasting him in the knee. The Titan stumbled, plowing into the ground, but righted himself as Cressida was shifting into her dragon shape.

As the Titan neared them, Cantebon and Belara each released a fireball of sizzling plasma. They hit the Titan like molten cannonballs, blasting him his off his feet. Cressida lunged before he could get up, snapping at his throat. Rothok rolled, kicking her back, and she ducked his swinging tail. Tathiana dove in, tucking her emerald wings, and vaulting over Cressida’s back onto the Titan’s head. The Luminara’s nimble feet held her balanced as Rothok bucked, and she drove one of her curved swords down into his left eye.

Rothok shrieked and flailed, sending her flying. Tathiana hit the ground, and rolled to avoid Rothok’s stomping foot. Cantebon rushed toward her, unleashing a comet-like bolt of light and flame, blasting the Titan back before he could step on her. Belara watched, still at a distance. Her hands shook. She could hear herself gasping as if she had run for miles, and knew she should join them, but everything inside her was screaming to run. She glanced up, picking out the small shape of Quinn perched on the south belltower like a silent sentinel. His presence should have comforted her, but instead it made her blood run cold, for he seemed to perch as the grey harbinger of death.

Cressida threw herself at the Titan, trying to knock it over so to reach its more vulnerable underside, but Rothock dug in his feet, shoving and stabbing at her with the spines along his sides. Most of them glanced off her scales, but two snagged in her wing. For a moment, Cressida was trapped, unable to free herself from his side, but another blast came from the tower and Kieran’s round exploded onto Rothok’s back, blasting off the tough layer of armor where it struck. The Titan was thrown back, the force wrenching him free of Cressida.

All of a sudden, there was an explosion overhead. A shell from the other side of the river had almost been upon them, but something had blasted into it in the air, destroying it before it could strike. Tathiana dodged a piece of shrapnel as it fell. Belara looked to the south, where the intercepting shot had come from, and spotted Fierro loading another round into Rhys Oliver’s long gun. She gasped at the sight of them. They both should have been far from here– her son, the scarlet-skinned boy Stefin had given her, made a thumbs up to Rhys and ducked. Rhys fired again, blasting another of Moloch’s shells out of the air.

Belara was torn. Part of her wanted to run and snatch them up, to flee this horrible place and carry them with her. She glanced back to the Titan. Tathiana had run under him, stabbing upward at his underbelly, but her blades could not pierce his hide. She got a lucky strike in a place where the river had eaten his skin away, but when he roared and whirled, the sword was wrenched from her hand. Cressida dug her claws into its back, sinking into flesh where Kieran’s shot had blasted through the armored plating. Cantebon was summoning a crackling sphere of energy between his hands, and he dove beneath the Titan, unleashing the magic upward.

Rothok was blasted into the air and sent sprawling. His belly broke open, black blood pouring from the hole Cantebon had pierced. Cantebon looked over his shoulder, as if wondering where Belara was, and in the moment he looked away, Rothok’s tail swung. The club collided with Cantebon, snapping bones and flinging him away into the meadow. Belara screamed, and her hands flew to her mouth as her mentor fell. He seemed to flicker, but something tethered him–

Don’t go. It was the Writer. Hold on. Think of Sera. I won’t let you go. They’re coming for you. Just hang on.

Cantebon gasped, sputtering, broken in countless places. He could do nothing. He could only feel one of his arms, but could hear the words on the wind of the island, and though he flickered– his soul trying to move on– he stayed, the words holding him to the island. Four Maculiens sprinted out of the front doors of Del Sayronet. The Titan lunged for them, but Cressida blocked him, digging her feet in, and breathing a fierce breath of blue fire into his face. Rothok shrieked, tail whipping. A shot from Kieran blasted him away from the Maculiens as they passed.

Tathiana felt shrapnel pierce into her shoulder as Rhys blasted another shell that was aimed for them. Feeling her heart hammering in her chest, Belara surveyed the chaos: Tathiana hacking at the Titan’s knees with her remaining sword, Cressida snapping at his face, Kieran taking shots when he could get them, Rhys and Fierro manning the long gun to intercept Moloch’s artillery fire, the Maculiens hauling a flickering Cantebon onto a stretcher, one of them driving a pick full of magic into his chest. It was now or never. Would she run, or would she save them?

“Oh, fuck it all,” Belara snarled. She glanced once more toward Quinn and whispered, “Fly true.” With that, she stormed toward the Titan and shouted, “Hey! Ugly! Down here!”

She summoned every scrap of magic she could find inside herself, wisps of dark blue curling around her hands and legs. Bursts of light shot from her fingers as she conjured the unstable mass of a singularity between her hands.

“Run!” she shouted to the others.

Cressida dislodged herself and scrambled away. Tathiana staggered after the dragon. The Titan charged at Belara, but she held her ground, growing the mass between her hands, the swirling force of her cosmic magic whirling around her. The Titan lunged, colliding with the field of her magic. He resisted her, straining against the force of her power, but Belara dug in her feet and shoved back. She could feel the magic whipping her, threatening to shred her with its unstable force. The sparks stung her own face like bees.

Rothok’s jaws strained toward her as she let the magic build. She glanced to the south, and for just a moment, saw the red shape of her son. She closed her eyes, letting him be the last thing she saw, then let the magic consume her. She seemed to dissolve into sparking light and deep blue magic. The cosmic force broke over Rothok, engulfing him, collapsing him upon himself. Belara was pulled into the twisting mass with him, the magic collapsing into a blinding marble-sized sphere of energy, then all at once, it exploded.

*******

A rolling laugh like thunder rumbled out of the Ancient Demon in the dark. Lask shied from the sound, reaching for his magic, but finding it gone. His fire had gone out, and he couldn’t muster the light of the Heart through the shadows the Demon had cast. He felt the wind of the black mace wash over him, and saw momentary sparks gash themselves on floor where he had stood. Moloch was swift to take the advantage. Lask was quick, for he had worn no armor to slow him, and it was only his speed that saved him in the dark. Lask heard the Demon’s heavy steps and feinted right, then fled left as Moloch pursued him. Again, he could see only the brief flash of sparks on the floor as the mace missed him.

Sparks, he thought.

He paused, waiting for the faint rush of air, then dove to the side as Moloch’s mace came down. Sparks flew up from the floor and Lask flung one of his wings out, reaching into the sparks.

“Ilius!” he called to the sparks. “Ilius, ad mem!”

The sparks answered the call of the Heart and ignited the tips of his feathers. He didn’t wait for them to take further, furling his wing and rolling to the side as Moloch’s mace came down again. The sparks spread down Lask’s wing, igniting his magic, drawing out his flames once more. Lask felt the Heart pounding in his chest, and all at once, he flared in the darkness like a living torch, just in time to see the Demon swing.

Moloch’s strike was different. Lask dodged, thinking the blow would be coming downward, but instead the terrible mace swung in from the side. Lask’s movement away was all that saved his ribs. The mace connected with his side, sending him sprawling. He drew a deep breath when he hit the floor, making sure he hadn’t been winded, and rolled to the side as Moloch lunged for him.

***

Barrett struggled in the current, the river buffeting him downstream. He could hardly swim, the pain in his side making it nigh impossible to stroke. He coughed, spitting water, struggling to keep his head above the surface. All of a sudden, he felt a crackle of energy run through him, and his magic surged back. He immediately shifted into a pike, and though the wound in his side made swimming difficult, he no longer feared drowning.

He swam with the current downstream until he caught sight of Methok on the bank. He cut through the water to shore, beaching himself, and shifted back to his human form. He dragged himself up from the river, until he felt one of the dragon’s claws hook the back of his shirt and haul him up into the grass. Barrett lay against the dragon’s side, and tried to raise his head to see the wound. He was bleeding badly, he knew. He could feel hot blood pouring down his side. Methok looked down at him with troubled eyes, the dragon’s jaw sitting crooked, and several bloody teeth poking out at odd angles.

“Yeah, me too,” Barrett gasped up to him. He fumbled for his pocket, pulling out a scrap of shed lizard skin. He raised it skyward and called, “Jeandra, Jeandra, Jeandra!”

Within seconds, a door appeared nearby, and the Luminara rushed through.

“Barrett!” she cried at the sight of him. She pulled off her satchel and knelt at his side, tearing his shirt open to see the wound.

“It’s bad, isn’t it?” he said.

“I’ve seen worse,” she told him.

Barrett let his head fall back, and tried to relax.

“Don’t worry,” she told him, “I won’t let you bleed to death.”

*******

Lask’s sword pierced into the Demon’s shoulder, halting his charge, Moloch’s own momentum running him onto the blade. Lask snarled and wrenched his sword free before the Demon could regain his footing. The swordpoint had missed the Demon’s heart, and the Luminor inwardly cursed his aim. He spun back as Moloch stumbled, slicing his blade across the Demon’s shoulders. Moloch roared in outrage, whirling back toward his adversary, and unleashing a bolt of fire.

Lask was knocked from his feet again, but moved with the force of the blow, rolling out of the fall and back to his feet as the Demon stumbled after him. Moloch’s black blood was dripping onto the floor, igniting the carpets, and hissing into the stone. Lask was careful not to step on the places it fell. He sidestepped as the Demon swung again, far more nimble than Moloch’s heavy gait, but as he turned, Moloch’s hand opened and four spikes flew from the Demon’s palm.

Lask stumbled as the spikes hit, their sharp points peppering his right shoulder just missing his throat. He felt hot venom burst under his skin, and flared in fire. He staggered, suddenly dizzy, trying to summon the fire of the Heart to scorch the poison out before it could spread. A wave of vertigo sent him collapsing to the stone floor. Lask struggled to move, burning with as much fire as he could manage to combat the poison. He could see the black vapor of it rising in the flames, but knew Moloch was advancing. The venom made him sluggish, and he could not pull himself out of the way.

Lask heard himself scream as the iron mace came down on his right leg. Flesh and bone broke under the Demon’s blow. As Moloch hefted the mace again, Lask could see his bright crimson blood trail from it, spattering the floor. His femur was broken, he was certain. He would have seconds to move out of the way, but didn’t know if he could move from the place he had been struck. By a stroke of stubborn fate, he was spared the choice.

*******

The force of Belara’s magic erupted in a violent explosion that seemed to shake the whole island. Tathiana and Cressida sprinted away from it towards the south side where Rhys Oliver and Fierro looked on in horror. The Maculiens had just managed to get back inside, rushing Cantebon between them, and slammed the doors of Del Sayronet as the magic broke. Only Quinn dove into the explosion.

The silver falcon launched himself from the bell tower, tucking his wings and plunging into the crackling energy. Rhys Oliver managed to keep his head enough to fire the last shell Fierro had loaded, blasting another of Moloch’s shells away from Quinn’s path. The falcon was swift, opening the locket with his talons and snatching the flash of Belara’s light out of the air as it rushed upward. He caught it, snapping the locket closed, but was blind in the light of the explosion. The wind of it buffeted him, and he didn’t see the ground until he collided with it.

*******

A sound like thunder rang across the room, and Moloch was blasted off his feet by a round from the gunslinger in the doorway.

“I knew I loaded the big rounds today for a reason,” growled Wyatt. He stalked into the chamber, cocking the gun again as Moloch hefted himself from the floor.

Lask was regaining his grip on his sword, fingers curling around it slow enough Moloch would not notice the motion. He looked toward Wyatt and caught the gunslinger’s eye with a subtle nod.

“Your bullets won’t put me down, Viatrian,” Moloch snarled, stalking back toward the fallen shape of Lask.

“Want to bet on that?” Wyatt asked, striding down the center of the burning hall. He could see Lask positioning his wings, bracing them against the floor, but Moloch didn’t notice– he was too busy glowering at the impudent Viatrian.

“You may be old like me,” growled the Demon, “But your power sleeps. You will watch me kill this one.”

“I will not,” declared Wyatt.

“Fire, then,” spat Moloch, raising the mace over Lask’s head.

“Fire, indeed,” growled Lask from the floor.

Lask’s wings lifted him, bringing him to kneel on his unharmed leg, and with both hands, he drove the length of his sword upward under Moloch’s rib cage, piercing straight through his heart, the black-slicked swordpoint emerging from his shoulders. The Ancient Demon sputtered in surprise, the mace slipped from his hands and clanged to the floor behind him. The fire of the Heart rushed up the sword blade, straight into Moloch’s black heart. Moloch roared as the fire seized his core.

“Ilius, ad mem!” Lask roared back, reaching for the Demon’s magic as well as his own. “E el Magnoroth, e el Somadar. E el ser regnalian, en se kervante mem iaton!”

The fire burned out of Moloch’s skin, the ancient power within him betraying its master. The fires answered the Rose’s command, searing out of their owner, and funneling down the length of the sword blade, through the grip and pommel, through Lask’s chest braced against it, into the Heart beneath. The power of the Ancient Demon rushed into him, and Lask felt himself cast adrift on the rushing flood of magic and fire. All the centuries of Moloch’s Dark life emptied themselves into the knelt Luminor, and Lask braced with all his strength against the power.

Al–, came a voice in his head. It was the voice of his Writer.

Lask could feel the Dark force of the Demon’s life grappling with his magic, tearing at his soul. Wyatt stood by, helpless as Lask wrestled the Dark force. Horns began to emerge from Lask’s head as he inherited the Demon’s power.

Al– Av–, you are mine, Elanor told him.

The horns rose above Lask’s head, curving and black, and for a moment Wyatt wondered if he should put a bullet through his companion’s heart

You are mine! Elanor commanded her spirit, And we belong to the Light. We have always belonged to the Light, and we will serve it to our last. Anything that is given to us will be used for the Light, and the Light will sustain us. The Heart is strong in the Light, the Darkness of this fire is nothing to the Light of the Heart. You will vanquish this foe, and the Heart will thrive in the fire.

Lask managed a smile through the roar of the fire at the sound of his Sunflower’s voice, at the feel of her ink in his veins, the veins of the Heart. As the horns curved upward into graceful points, a rush of fire blazed up their length, turning them shining gold.

Al– Av– Al–, called Elanor the Writer, You will tame that fire; it will kneel before the Light as you do. You will return to the ones who love you, and all will be well in the Halls of the Wind.

With that, Lask pulled Moloch’s fire into himself, into the Heart, and the Ancient Demon fell to dust at his feet. The fire swirled through Lask’s feathers, wreathed the shining horns on his head, and sparked from the ends of his hair, then the horns and flames vanished like smoke into his skin, and all was silent behind it.

*******

The silver falcon fell in a heap at the center of the crater. Everything was still. The distant booms of Stefin and Moloch’s artillery continued to echo on the other side of the river, but the island itself was quiet. The Titan was gone, wiped out in the force of the magic. Quinn lay in the crater for a moment, feathered chest fluttering as he caught his breath, then he shifted, returning to his human form. Cressida rushed to him, returning to her human shape as well. She was battered, but intact.

“I’m ok,” Quinn groaned, pushing himself up. Tathiana knelt beside him, as if wanting to verify his condition for herself. “I got her,” he told them.

Cressida knelt and flung her arms around him. Quinn hugged her back for a moment, then stood. Cressida looked up into the tower, and Kieran waved to her with a relieved smile. Fierro outraced Rhys and grabbed frantically at Quinn’s arm with the locket.

“Mama?” he asked, breathless and tearstained.

“I got her,” Quinn assured him, smoothing his hair back. “I got her, I promise.”

Fierro wrapped his arms around Quinn’s waist, and buried his face in his side, and Quinn could feel the boy shaking.

“It’ll be ok,” he told the red boy, embracing him. “Adar will bring her back to you.”

***

Blackjack and his alkesh had picked up where Barrett left off. They swept up the riverbank, leading a charge with Stefin’s soldiers. The were swift and efficient, trained by Lask and Falient’s own hands. The fighting was in cramped quarters; many straining bodies pressed in among the massive war machines. It was difficult to tell friend from foe. Blackjack’s gun thundered over the melee, and he struggled to keep his visions at bay. The flashes were coming faster, showing him only seconds ahead of time, and they were more of a distraction than an asset in the chaos. He tried to push them away, but all of a sudden, an image of a spiny grey Demon leveling a pistol sprang into his mind. Blackjack whirled.

“COTTON!” he shouted. “GET DOWN!”

Even as he screamed, he heard the shot. His white companion had been up ahead, climbing the side of one of the guns to jam the mechanism. He had just broken off the trigger arm, when the shot struck him squarely between the shoulders. Blackjack could hear himself screaming, but it was over in an instant. Not even the Writer was fast enough, for the words did not carry on the wind as they did on the island. Cotton sputtered, and all at once, his spirit rushed upward in a flash of golden light, and he was gone.

“COTTON!” Landra’s shriek pierced through the chaos. Blackjack could see her tearing through the enemy lines, spearing anything that came between her, but there was nothing for her to run to. Cotton had already moved on.

A roar of rage ripped from Blackjack’s throat, and he reached back, pulling free the oversized revolver Garth had built for him. He cocked it and fired in the span of a heartbeat, and his face twisted in wrathful satisfaction as the shot blew the Demon’s head clean off his shoulders. Wasting no time, Blackjack turned and fired again, obliterating the Runner rushing at Landra in her rage. She was nearly berserk, and there was no mistaking her as the daughter of Daleroth. Flames spewed from her horns and hands, scorching everything she could reach.

Everything was bloody chaos. His alkesh seemed to be swept in an unfamiliar rage as the loss of their brother ripped through them. Blackjack tore through the lines to get to Landra, Ferra following close at his heels. Landra was losing her control, and Blackjack feared she would burn the wrong soldiers, or worse harm herself. He reached her in the confusion, and seized the end of her spear, halting her mad swings.

“We need to get out of here!” he shouted to her. “Put your rage that way–” he pointed “–and fall back to–”

But Landra was looking behind him. She shrieked, struggling to get her spear loose to throw, but Blackjack wouldn’t let go of it, thinking she was still mad with grief. He glanced to see what had spooked her, and looked just in time to see a hulking Warmonger tackle Ferra behind him. She fired a shot up into its belly as it fell on her, but not fast enough to keep its knife from slicing up under her chin.

Blackjack let go of Landra even as the two fell. He heaved the dying Warmonger off of her and gathered Ferra in his arms. She gasped and sputtered. Blackjack could feel himself shaking, could hear his heart pounding in his ears. He tore the sleeve off his shirt and bunched it against the wound, trying to do anything to slow the blood, but it soaked right through, drenching his hands. Blackjack’s eyes roved over their surrounding, but there were no Maculiens here– they could not get through the thick enemy lines this close to the river. Ferra looked up at him with terrified brown eyes, unable to speak. She groped for his arm, squeezing his shoulder, as if trying to remind him that she loved him. Landra stabbed another Warmonger that lunged for them, as Blackjack yelled, “TENZAR!”

He’d lost sight of their other companion, but Tenzar heard them. He shoved his way back through the struggling throngs to them, and his scaly face fell awash in horror.

“Draw us a door!” Blackjack shouted. “We need to get out of here. Now!”

“Where to?” Tenzar growled, fear making his voice sharp.

“Get me to Del Sayronet,” Blackjack said, looking across the river to the still-burning beacon in the high tower, as he gathered Ferra in arms, “And pray that Lask is back.”

*******

For a moment, Lask remained motionless, panting, still awash with the rush of Moloch’s immense power, then he seemed to return to the present, and his sword clattered to the floor. He caught himself on his hands and wings before he could fall face-first, and a breathless cry escaped him.

Wyatt rushed to him, and the gunslinger cringed at the look of Lask’s leg. Lask turned his head to see it. It was bloody, broken open by Moloch’s mace, and he could see white shards of bone amid the crimson-slick flesh.

“That’s–” started Wyatt, blanching at the sight.

“It’ll heal,” Lask growled, gripping the gunslinger’s shoulder. “You have to help me up.”

“I don’t think ya should move.”

Lask ignored him and stretched, reaching out toward the grip of Moloch’s fallen mace. He winced and stretched further, just able to curl his fingers around the handle. The moment he touched it, the black iron turned to gold under his hand, and the gleaming gold began to spread up the shaft. The mace was swept in Light, seeming to slough off its dark exterior, giving way to a smaller shape.

Lask smiled at the familiar sight. Here was the scepter he had held before, golden and set with amethysts, which he had sent back to himself to ensure he’d survive his blooming. Lask got a grip on it and pulled it up to his chest, as if to comfort the Heart with its touch. He tightened his grip on Wyatt and said,

“Get me up, never mind how I yelp.”

“But–”

“Get me up, Wyatt. I must…” he nodded toward the door at the back of the chamber.

Wyatt swallowed further protests and wrapped Lask’s arm around his shoulders, gathering the Luminor close. The gunslinger stood, hauling the battered shape of Lask with him. Lask screamed again as his tattered leg shifted, but he grit his teeth, biting down on the sound before it could escape further. He nodded again toward the door, not trusting himself to speak.

Wyatt moved toward the back of the chamber, staggering a bit under Lask’s weight. The pair stumbled for the door, Wyatt mostly carrying him. Lask hobbled on his good leg, his wings stretching out to the floor to help stabilize them. Wyatt kicked the door open and guided him inside.

They emerged into a dark room, with a long curving panel of levers, dials, and gauges in the center of the room. Beyond it were all of the Ancient Demon’s scrying tools, including an additional piece of the shattered mirror. Lask ignored it for the time being, dragging himself to the center control table. He leaned on it, gripping the edge with his free hand, getting his balance.

“Go fetch my sword,” he told Wyatt. “Please.”

“Ya shouldn’t be–”

“I have to summon the fire for this, and I haven’t used it before, so I have no idea what it’s going to do,” Lask snapped, voice sharpened by pain. “I could very well incinerate you by accident, so go to the other room, get my sword, and tarry a moment until you see that I have things under control. Or by all means stay, and risk being burned alive by your own husband.”

Wyatt released him, patted a hand on his shoulder without another word, then dutifully went out of the room to collect Lask’s sword.

Lask steadied himself on the control panel, waiting for the gunslinger to leave, then summoned his fire. It answered faster than anticipated, the blaze of it leaping out of his hands, engulfing his wings, crowning his head. The horns reappeared atop his head, a robust flame seeming to hang in the air between them. Lask fumbled with the fire, drawing it back, unused to the force of its power. Regaining control, he cast the fire up the length of the scepter, then brought it down like a hammer on the surface of the control table.

The panel was swept with a wave of flame, and it seemed to shake off eons of soot. Black dust fell from every surface, revealing fine wood and brass instruments. Lask did not study them, reaching for the dials and levers, shutting off the magic that fueled the weapons laying siege to his home. As he shut down the controls, he heard Wyatt’s footsteps returning, but did not look up until his task was finished. As he worked he said,

“That black urn on the shelf there–” he inclined his head toward the wall beyond the control panel, “–that is Pynelt. Could you fetch him so we can take him home?”

The gunslinger obeyed, crossing the room to collect the urn. He carefully tucked it into his satchel, and returned to Lask’s side. When the control panel lay still and dormant, Lask accepted his sword from Wyatt’s weathered hands, sheathing it at his side.

“Thank you,” he said, the words resonant with far more weight than just for fetching his sword. Wyatt reached out and held Lask’s face in his hands for a moment, giving him a nod and faint smile.

“Always,” the gunslinger told him.

“Take me home,” Lask murmured, voice suddenly weak and pleading.

“You got it.”

Wyatt reached for his key, and drew them a door onto Falient’s ship. The gunslinger braced himself against the Luminor, hauling him through the door. Lask was covered in a fine sheen of sweat, both from the exertion and the pain. They staggered onto the deck of the ship, Wyatt almost losing his grip as Lask’s weight shifted. As they stumbled aboard, Lask furled his wings, letting them disappear, and allowed himself to collapse into the concerned hands of the Maculiens. One of them shouted for Selandir, as they hauled Lask onto a stretcher.

“Take us home!” Wyatt called up to Falient.

The captain obliged, turning the dials on the helm to open a portal back to Avigdell. Selandir appeared as they flew through, glancing at Lask’s leg, then said to Wyatt,

“Can you draw us a door into his infirmary?”

The gunslinger nodded, and did so. As the Maculiens lifted Lask between them, he looked over the rail of the ship, surveying the swath of devastation wrought across the island, and the smoking crater where the Titan had fallen. Del Sayronet was covered in the black pox of enemy fire, windows shattered, part of the north corner crumbled into rubble.

“Where is Quinn?” asked Lask, but paused as his eyes reached the east edge of the damage. The top of the rear tower had been blown off, and a shaking sob escaped him at the sight. He bit down on it, but was unable to keep the tears from slipping free.

“It’s all fixable,” Wyatt told him, brushing his hair back.

“My ravens,” Lask whispered.

Wyatt glanced to the rear tower, where the ravens had dwelled, but could think of nothing to say as the Maculiens carried Lask through the door.

They carried the battered Luminor into the infirmary, transferring him to one of the beds. Cantebon lay on the other side of the room, four Maculiens swarmed around him. Another scream was wrenched out of Lask as they repositioned him. Selandir followed them in and rushed to inspect his wounds. The Luminor surgeon pulled back Lask’s ruined collar, inspecting the punctures from Moloch’s spikes.

“Looks clear, but dose him anyway,” the healer said to one of his assistants. “We can’t take any chances.” He motioned for one of the others. “Get an IV in him.”

Lask tried to be still and let them work, but as he lay there, he saw another group of them carry Giemm into the infirmary.

“Oh god,” Lask breathed. Even having expected the sight, he was not prepared for it. He groped clumsily toward the place they were laying the broken bird on another bed. “I have to–”

“You have to rest,” Selandir told him, “And I have to work on that leg.”

“No,” Lask protested. “I can heal him. I have to–”

“We’ve gotten him stable, and he’s sedated,” Selandir told him, “He’ll be fine for a few hours. I must work on your leg, lest you have complications. Moloch could yet kill you if you don’t let me work on this now.”

Wyatt gently pushed Lask back onto the pillows, saying nothing, but sending a clear message. Lask lay still, and said,

“At least go pick some of the fire flowers for him.”

“There are none, sir,” confessed one of the Maculiens. “We went for them, but your garden…”

Lask closed his eyes and felt one of the Maculiens push his sleeve up. A moment later, he felt the prick of a needle in his arm. Selandir was inspecting his leg, carefully cutting away the tatters of Lask’s pant leg.

The infirmary door opened, and Quinn rushed in, flying on swift feet to his father’s bedside. Lask smiled at the sight of him, and reached for him.

“I got her, Adar,” said Quinn, taking his hand. “I got her.” He held up the locket as if to prove it.

“Well done,” Lask said, taking his hand. “I knew you would.” He took a quick survey of his son and said, “You don’t look much worse for wear.” Quinn nodded, and Lask squeezed the young man’s hand. “Where is your father?”

“I don’t know,” Quinn said. “He was on the mainland. I think he had to flee into the river.”

“Find him,” Lask said, “Before you do anything else.”

Quinn nodded, squeezed his father’s hand, then took off in search of Barrett.

Lask could feel the medicine beginning to dull the pain, but still winced at the feel of an injection in his thigh.

“I’m going to have rebuild the bone,” Selandir told him. “You’ll probably end up with a few screws–”

“Don’t you dare sew me up with any pieces of metal,” Lask snarled.

“The bone is shattered,” Selandir replied. “I’ve lost count of the fragments already. It’s going to need support to heal.”

“You’re one of the best healers in the world, Selandir,” Lask retorted. “You’ll figure it out.”

The other Luminor frowned at him. “With this kind of damage… you’d almost be better off to let me amputate it, and find someone to grow it back for you.”

“Absolutely not.”

“Then the pins–”

No.”

“A little metal’s not so bad,” said Wyatt. “I got all kinds of little pieces in me.”

“Bullet shards. You’re a gunslinger.”

“Nothing wrong with needin’ some rebuildin’,” Wyatt pressed. “Let the man work, ye’ll patch up fine–”

“I said no!” Lask snapped. At his wrathful voice, a sudden burst of fire exploded outward, setting the bedclothes alight, and scorching the gunslinger and the Maculiens touching him. They scrambled back, smothering flames on their sleeves, shielding themselves from the heat. Lask clenched his jaw, forcing himself to get control, and pulled the fires back into himself. He lay there for a moment upon the charred and bloodstained sheets, and closed his eyes, trying to steady himself. When he looked to Selandir again, he said, “Fetch the Shaktar from Ivan if need be, but I will have no plates, rods, or pins left in me for the rest of my life.”

Selandir motioned to one of his assistants. “Find Ivan. Quickly!” He turned back to the charred bed, and told Lask, “Damn your stubbornness. You’ll have a limp for the rest of your life.”

“Then I shall limp with pride,” Lask growled back.

There was distant shouting down the hallway, a voice shouting for Lask. The infirmary door burst open, and a panicked Blackjack rushed inside screaming, hysterical, “Lask! Help her! Please! Save her! I can’t stop it!”

He carried Ferra in his arms, the wound in her throat bubbling with blood. She sputtered and gasped, hardly able to breathe. She had turned ashen, and looked like a mistress of death. Two of the Maculiens rushed toward them, already bring things to try to staunch the blood flow. Lask hesitated only a moment. Quinn had gone; there would be nothing to protect her from the wild wrath of the fire, but there was no time for precautions.

“Bring her to me,” Lask said.

“You should not exert yourself,” Selandir cautioned, “We can take care of it. You don’t have control of that magic yet–”

“Bring her to me, damn you!” Lask roared. “NOW!” Flames sparked from his fingers and the ends of his hair, but he held the fire in check.

The Maculiens shoved another bed up against Lask’s and Blackjack deposited Ferra on it, sobbing. As he let go of her, Lask could see him shaking uncontrollably.

“Save her, please!” Blackjack begged as Lask reached for her. “I’ve lost Cotton. I can’t lose her.”

Ferra’s almost delirious eyes looked to Lask, and he told her, “Be still.”

He summoned the fire, and it roared to life upon him. He placed his hand over her slashed throat, releasing his magic. The fires lapped around her neck and face, and she made a horrible sound that would have been a shriek, but only gasped in her throat. The wound was dire, and Lask wondered if Blackjack had kept her alive this long by sheer will. His magic surged into her, knitting flesh and staunching blood, while the fires blistered and blackened her neck and face. Lask held it with all the force he could muster, but could not stop it from burning her as he closed the wound.

Ferra gasped, arching under the force of his power, and her lungs filled with a great breath. Lask did not relent, the force of the fire snatching her back from the threshold of death. When the flames at last subsided, he slumped back, thoroughly winded. Ferra’s face was marked with burns and gold-colored lashes from the tongues of flame, but she would live.

“Thank you,” Blackjack wept, clutching Ferra’s hand. “Thank you.”

Lask barely heard him, drifting near delirium in his exhaustion. Selandir was speaking, but the haze and the pain clouded Lask’s senses, until at last, he passed out, the fires winking out with him.

***

Quinn flew over the wreckage of the island, and the mainland beyond, seeing Stefin’s soldiers driving Moloch’s forces into the river. Stefin was standing atop the ruins of the gate’s archway, roaring for his soldiers to force them all into the water. Quinn knew the Demon would spare none of them in his wrath. Moloch’s soldiers were forced into the shining water, eaten alive by the light as if they had been forced into a river of acid, and the river was flooded with their black blood. For as far as Quinn could see, the bodies of dead Dark soldiers clogged the river’s waters.

Quinn followed the river dow, where he saw the golden shape of Methok among the willows. Quinn landed in one of the trees and observed Jeandra tending to the Titan, carefully pulling the teeth that were too damaged to save. Methok was hissing and snarling, but did not snap at her. Barrett lay against the dragon’s side, bandaged and pale, but alive. Quinn fluttered down and hooted to announce himself.

“Hey,” Barrett greeted him, managing a warm smile at the sight of him. “You look like you fared ok.”

Quinn shifted back to his human shape and sat down against Methok with him.

“I did,” said the young man.

“Belara?”

“I caught her.”

“I knew you would.” Barrett winced as he moved, but put an arm around his son anyway.

“You didn’t fare so well,” Quinn noted, eyeing the bandage wrapped around Barrett’s torso.

“I’ve had worse,” replied Barrett with a wry smile, “Jeandra does good work.”

The Luminara smiled a bit, then asked of Quinn, “Is your other father home yet?”

“Yes, he got back just a few minutes ago.”

“Selandir?”

“He’s fine,” Quinn reassured her.

She nodded, glad to hear it. “You should help him to the infirmary,” she told him with gesture at Barrett. “He needs more pain medicine than I had on me, and I need to finish with this fellow.” She looked back into Methok’s mouth.

Quinn nodded, and rose to draw a door home for them.

*******

It was over four hours later when Lask came to. He blinked dazedly, and looked over to see the Maculiens still working on Cantebon, Selandir among them, piecing the Sun Demon’s bones back together. Giemm was still sedated, and Stefin had appeared. The Demon was battered, and still smeared with blood, ash, and dirt, but he sat like a statue on the bed beside Giemm, cradling the bird in one of his massive arms. Barrett lay in the bed beside Lask where Ferra had been, and smiled to see him awake. Wyatt sat in a chair near Lask’s head, cleaning his guns. The gunslinger noticed he was awake, and said,

“Hi, old hawk.”

“Hi, old oak,” said Lask. His voice was quiet and a bit weak. He propped himself up and looked down the bed. His leg was wrapped in a thick cast, and a set of crutches was propped against the bed for him. Lask frowned at them.

“It will only be a little while,” said Quinn from nearby, noting his father’s look.

Lask glanced toward him with what might have been skepticism, but it was overshadowed with fondness at the sight of his son looking so well.

“There’s still some sunlight left in the sky,” said Quinn. “I could go tend to the island.”

“Go to the garden first,” Lask told him. “Find the roots of the fire flowers– I pray they are intact– and if they are, bring them back to bloom. Bring me three of them if you can.”

Quinn nodded and left the infirmary. When he was gone, Lask pushed himself up to sit, and carefully moved his legs over the side of the bed. He winced, growling, and Wyatt came to help him move the cast off the bed. The gunslinger’s rough hands snagged on the cast as he lowered it down, but he paid no attention to it, and reached for the crutches.

*******

Quinn took the corridor to the north door of the house, following the pathway outside into what remained of the garden. There were a few spots of color left among the smoking wreckage of trees and bushes, but much of the garden was gone. The gazebo was blessedly untouched, for which Quinn was glad.

He made his way through the debris to the place where the fire flowers had grown. He found the ashes of their stalks buried amid the mud and the remains of the snow. He knelt, following the stalks to their base, probing gentle fingers into the soft mud to find roots. The roots felt plump and strong, and he smiled a bit.

He touched his fingers once to his lips, then placed his hands over blackened muck. Green and gold sparks wound down his arms, wisping from his hands, until he released a bright bolt of light into the ground. Sprigs of green burst from the marred dirt, straining toward his hands, fanning leaves, twisting higher. He could see buds forming, eagerly answering his magic, and soon the fire flowers burst back into bloom. Their brilliant red, orange, and gold seemed blinding in the blackness of the ruined garden. Quinn plucked three of the blossoms, as his father had instructed him, but slipped a fourth into his pocket before he returned to the house.

*******

Lask could not stand very long, but Wyatt helped him settle into a chair at Giemm’s bedside. Stefin had said nothing, but continued stroking Giemm’s tattered feathers. There was a small table of instruments and medicines beside the bed, which Lask seemed to be cataloging when Quinn returned with the fire flowers. Lask accepted two from him, saying,

“Very good, thank you. Give that one to your father.”

Quinn nodded, and offered the third flower to Barrett, who savored the sweet nectar of it before nibbling the petals. Lask crushed the other two in his hand, one at a time, placing them into two separate mixtures. He motioned Quinn back to his side.

“Are you well enough to help me?” he asked of his son.

“Of course.” Quinn nodded with a slight smile, and Lask thought he looked more full of life than the rest of the place combined. Lask nodded toward the table nearby and said, “Fetch his beak, please.”

Quinn obeyed, carrying the pieces to his father with a certain reverence, and stood by for further instruction. Lask took up the first paste he had made, dipping his fingers in. Stefin shifted Giemm as if he were glass, turning his head so Lask could gently rub the paste onto Giemm’s brutalized face. He worked with as much care as he could, but even in his drugged sleep, Giemm flinched and whimpered at his touch. Stefin kissed his head as Lask worked. Lask guided Quinn to hold Giemm’s beak back to his face, lining it up with the wound. Lask inspected it, glad to see that though it was severed, it was all intact with no pieces missing.

“Alright,” said Lask, placing his hands over his son’s. “Don’t let me burn him.”

Quinn nodded, his own magic already visible on his hands. Lask summoned the fire, and it roared to life around him. He clenched his jaw, reining it back, but he could see Quinn flinch, the young man’s wrists flushing red where Lask touched him.

“I’m sorry,” Lask whispered.

“Don’t worry about me, Adar,” Quinn answered, mingling his own light and sparks with Lask’s. Quinn’s magic seemed to funnel Lask’s down into Giemm, and the wound glowed in a line around his face. Lask pushed on with his magic, knitting the beak back to Giemm’s face, but he could hear Quinn’s breath catch. The young man did not falter, pouring his own magic in with his father’s, until there was a flash and Giemm’s face lay intact once more. Lask smothered his flames at once, and looked to his son. Quinn’s hands and wrists were flushed and blistered, but he made no sound.

“I’m sorry,” Lask murmured, bringing his child’s hands to his lips.

“It’s alright,” said Quinn. “They’ll heal.” The young man gave him a sly wink.

Lask gave him a weak smile, and inspected his work. The beak had been reattached well, and Quinn’s magic had left no scar, only a few flecks of gold in the feathers across the bird’s nose and cheeks. Lask nodded his approval, then carefully opened Giemm’s beak, inspecting the stump of his tongue. Wyatt had found no trace of it, so had theorized Moloch must have burned it after removing it to destroy his alkesh mark. Lask knew the truth of this; having inherited Moloch’s memory, he knew very well what the Demon had done to Giemm.

Lask took up a small knife and carefully reopened the wound on the remains of the bird’s tongue. Giemm whimpered and tried to move in his sleep, but Stefin held him a bit tighter, whispering into his ear. Wyatt got a grip on the end of his beak, to keep him from reflexively snapping at Lask’s hands. Lask applied another of the medicines from the table, black ink from the Writer and a bit of her blood, to the wound, then summoned back the fire. Quinn slipped a few fingers into Giemm’s beak, finding the wound, and guiding his father’s fire into it. The young man winced, but didn’t draw back, watching in fascination as Lask’s magic drew new flesh from the wound. Giemm’s tongue seemed to unfurl in his mouth, until it was whole once more.

Quinn let out a grateful breath when the fires abated, and reached for a jar salve from the table. He rubbed it onto his blisters and rubescent burns without a word. Lask slumped for a moment in the chair, seeming winded, and looking ashen.

“What about his mark?” asked Wyatt. The gunslinger had noticed it did not reappear with the rest of Giemm’s tongue.

“It will come,” Lask replied. He steeled himself and glanced to Quinn. “You have the glove?”

Quinn nodded and reached into one of his pockets, producing the soft glove that was stained in the Reader’s blood. Lask accepted it, and motioned for Quinn to bring Giemm’s arm closer. The young man cradled the bird’s forearm, drawing it over to lay before Lask. The Luminor inspected the stump of the wrist, and began brushing away the ash. Wyatt cringed as the ash sloughed off, revealing the mangled remains of Giemm’s flesh and bone.

“That’s going to be tricky,” Quinn noted.

Lask nodded. “We’ll manage.” He reached for the second paste he had made, which contained blood from both the Writer and Reader, along with the fire flower, and other ingredients Lask had carefully gathered before the storm. He applied the medicine with gentle fingers, pressing it into the hollows and raw places. When the stump was covered, Lask nodded to Quinn. The young man brought his hand to his lips, blowing a breath over his fingers. As he did so, a swirling mist of green light seemed to hang in his grasp. He guided it down to settle over the wound; it seemed to cling to the paste Lask had applied. Quinn slid the bloodstained glove over the stump, then Lask reached again for him with the fire. Quinn clenched his jaw, and braced for the force of his father’s magic.

Lask’s fire lapped up Giemm’s forearm, shrouding his wrist. Quinn’s magic spiraled and sparked through the fire, and the glove disappeared in the flames. New bones began to sprout like twigs from the wound, flesh and skin following them as they took shape, forming fingers in the flames, drawing themselves into the shape of Giemm’s curved taloned hand. It was as full and functional as before, but it was pale, almost white, golden talons. His alkesh mark had reappeared, almost seeming to glint in the light as it marked his wrist, the end of it stretching down the back of his hand.

“Thank you,” Stefin whispered, and Lask thought the Demon’s voice sounded like tears.

“Always,” Lask replied, a bit breathless as he sunk back into the chair. He looked ashen and hollow, thoroughly exhausted, but still managed a look of pride as he told his son, “Well done.”

Quinn reached into his pocket and produced the fourth fire flower. “For you, Adar,” he said, offering it to his father.

Lask gave him a weak smile and accepted it.

“Is there more I can do here?” asked Quinn.

“No, you’ve done beautifully,” Lask told him. “Go. Roam where you will.”

Quinn nodded and hugged him. Lask savored his son’s embrace for a moment, then released him. The young man paused to hug Barrett as well, then left them alone to rest.

*******

As soon as he was outside, Quinn shifted into his favorite owl shape and fluttered up to sit on one of the intact turrets. He returned to his human shape, sitting against the flagpole at the top of the turret, and surveyed the island. The wreckage was extensive, but he didn’t see anything that looked beyond repair. He looked down at his own hands, inspecting the blistering and peeling burns he’d received from his father’s magic. Closing his eyes a moment, the young man quieted himself to reach for his magic, channeling just a bit of it down his arms and into his hands. The blisters shrank and disappeared, and the redness began to recede. He did not heal them entirely, not wanting to waste the energy on temporary discomfort he could easily ignore. Once the stinging pain was gone, he stopped, leaving his body to heal the rest of the damage on its own.

Glancing around at the house, Quinn rose and shifted back into his owl shape, flapping away from the turret and gliding back into the ruins of the rear tower. He landed in the wreckage of the upper chamber, shifting back to his human shape on the remains of the wall. A bit of rubble shifted and fell loose under his foot, but he shifted his weight and regained his footing almost without noticing– all the casual surefootedness of a young stag.

He climbed the ruins of the wall to test what remained of the floor. He eased his weight onto it, finding a section that would hold him, then stood in what was left of the ravens’ tower room.  There was hardly anything left of the arches and their perches, just a few charred pieces of wood and melted metal. Three of the ravens had not been home, and had not yet returned, but Quinn sensed the other nine were dead.

He raised a hand, conjuring a bit of fog, and released it into the wreckage. It seemed to grow and wind through the debris, and as it passed, a black feather floated into the air and hung there as if suspended by an invisible string. Another appeared, and another. Quinn swept the fog through the ruins until he had raised one tattered feather from each of the lost ravens. The nine black feathers hung in the air, turning slowly in place. Quinn raised his hands to his face, breathing into them a glowing green fog with wisps of gold. He held it between his hands, trapping it in a spherical shape, and inhaled deeply of the cold wind that blew through the ruined tower. He exhaled, breathing another lungful of fog forth into his hands, growing the sphere he clung to. He gathered the energy between his fingers until he held swirling ball magic before him. Then, the young man steeled himself and clapped his hands together, golden sparks raining from his hands with the sound. The glowing mist seemed to shatter into nine pieces, and they shot like stars to each of the feathers, then all at once, the silence broke into the sound of cawing.

The nine ravens fluttered, frantic and disoriented among the wreckage, calling and floundering for a place to land. They settled among the debris, ruffling their feathers and croaking with displeasure.

“Peace, friends,” Quinn said, extending his hands to them. “It’s good to see you, and my father will be glad to know you have returned. I am sorry for your misfortune; it’s been bad day for a lot of people here, and there is much hurt about just now.”

The ravens quieted at the sound of his voice, and seemed to listen intently as he continued,

“You deserve a better place than what this tower is tonight. I won’t have a chance to fix it until tomorrow, so please roost in my house in the forest tonight. You’ll find it is warm, with many good places for perching, and you will find a window cracked for you on the east side. Before you go, I wonder if you would favor me with one of your feathers, so that I might take them to my father?”

The ravens were glad to oblige. One by one, they fluttered to land on his outstretched arm, and plucked a feather for him. As they passed the feathers into his hands, a few gold sparks were drawn out of each of them, sinking into the young man’s hands. The ravens’ tokens offered back to him just a bit of the energy he had expended to return their lives. They each gave him their favor, many giving him several feathers, then flew off towards the forest. Quinn smiled after them, then tucked the feathers into his pocket, and flew off to further inspect the garden.

 

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