BAIRON WYKES

I could practically feel the frayed ends of Varays nerves firing next to me. At her other side, Micas mana signature was a weak hum. And yet, both Lances stood firm in the face of a terrible enemy. A swell of pride fortified my own commitment.

I was glad to stand next to these warriors in defense of my home. Each of us had faced down certain death at the hands of an asura. Looking away from my companions, I leveled a ready stare at the two Scythes hovering above, refusing to let any fear of them creep into my heart.

Cruel laughter echoed through the cavern, resounding from stone to stone as it built like the pressure before a thunderstorm.

”Done losing? Youve already lost! ” the white-haired, scarecrow of a Scythe I had wounded shouted down at us, her previously playful voice now full of menace and cruelty. ”Don you feel it? ”

On the far edge of the cavern, a horrible pressure was drumming out of the walls in sharp bursts, several sources of mana and paralyzing killing intent all slamming into one another with the force of maces against a bare skull.

Even from so far away, the sensation made my fingers grow weak around the haft of the red spear.

”But please, don stop fighting, ” the Scythe continued, her snarl easing as she adopted her darkly playful mannerisms again. Black-purple flames were burning through the wound Id given her, wiping it away as if it had never existed. ”It would be oh so disappointing to finally get a chance to fight in the war only for the mighty Lances to give up so soon. ”

Speaking for only Mica and me to hear, Varay said, ”Mica, cast defensively, keep them occupied, distracted. Bairon, focus on landing blows with that ungodly spear. We have a chance if we can cut off the flow of their mana, even briefly. ”

”Yes, thats the spirit, ” the Scythe said, suddenly giddy. ”Scheme away. I can wait to shove that cursed spear up your— ”

”Enough, Melzri, ” the purple-haired Scythe cut in, her voice oozing like sludge through the air. ”Let us finish this before the Wraiths arrive. ”

The Scythe Id fought, Melzri, sobered. ”Of course, Viessa. Good impressions and all that. ”

Even to my enhanced senses, Melzri was little more than a shadowy blur as she suddenly flew into our midst. I had just enough time to pull my spear up into a defensive position before her strike landed. The blow sent me skating backwards, my feet digging long gouges into the courtyard.

She wielded a long, curved sword in each hand. One swirled with black wind, the other with dark fire. Both blades snapped out simultaneously, one at Varays ribs, the other at Micas throat. The strikes deflected off stone and ice, and the other Lances let themselves be pushed away by the force, then flew up into the air.

A dark cyclone was spinning into being above us as Viessa worked some horrid spell, but my focus was on Melzri.

She didn pursue the others, but spun again and catapulted herself at me.

Ice reached up from the earth to wrap around her limbs, and the dust sank unnaturally to the earth as the gravity between us became several times heavier. The Scythe jerked mid-lunge, and I sidestepped and pulled up my spear. Her blades clanged against the shaft, and I countered with a series of lightning-quick thrusts that were batted aside by her blades.

Above me, everything became howling darkness, and I lost sight of Varay and Mica.

Melzri was a vortex of burning, cutting steel, leaping, spinning, and striking with impossible force and speed, the twin blades seeming to come from every direction and angle simultaneously as I struggled simply to keep my spear between us.

Shed been playing with me before, I realized with a sickening certainty. Just waiting for the other Scythe to finish off Varay and Mica. Otherwise, I never would have landed the blow that forced her to temporarily retreat.

Cutting off these spiraling, unhelpful thoughts, I focused on the Scythe and her weapons, letting myself sink into the hyper-focused state required to effectively utilize Thunderclap Impulse.

Mana infused every synapse in my body. It sparked in my mind, enhancing both my thoughts and reactions by several times over.

Her swords were both cutting toward me, one at my right knee, the other at my left elbow. Instead of flailing wildly in an effort to block both blows at once, I leaned into them, the enhanced perception of my lightning-enhanced senses allowing me to thrust my body forward between the two blows. My pauldron rammed into the Scythes face.

It was like running headlong into an iron hyrax.

Lightning rushed through me, condensed into a single point on my arm, and then exploded outward with enough force to send Melzri hurtling backwards. Her swords closed around me like shears.

I dove into a forward roll, so close to her weapons that I felt the fire lick at the back of my neck.

As I came to my feet, Melzri was bearing down on me, already recovered, her body rotating and her blades turning around her like those of a thresher.

The ground cracked beneath me as I launched myself backward with another condensed burst of lightning. Cocking back, I threw the asuran spear with all my might.

Melzri twisted in her flight, flowing like wind around the spear. My sped-up senses barely saw as she let go of her own weapon and tried to grab mine out of the air.

Her body jerked violently. The grace and precision of her movement were suddenly a chaos of limbs as the spear yanked her sideways and sent her spinning to crash and tumble across the ground. She vanished with the crunch of breaking stone into one of the fallen buildings.

The red spear turned in a wide arc and flew to my hand, but I was already moving in to close the distance between me and the Scythe.

With a curse, she hurled away a large section of wall that had collapsed onto her, giving me the perfect opening. I aimed for her core, driving the spear down with both hands.

Her counter was little more than a blur, even with Thunderclap Impulse active. The wind-wreathed blade jumped up to parry my thrust, and the spears head sank deep into the stone beside her. At nearly the same time, something burned across my back, and then her flaming sword was in her hand again as well. As I hissed in pain and reached for the line of fire across my back, she lashed out with a kick to my chest.

The cavern bent and wobbled as my perspective struggled to correct with my sudden backward motion. I was vaguely aware of crashing into and through something very hard, and then, I was lying on my back.

Above me was the writhing, roaring black stormcloud. Within the cloud, I could vaguely sense the other two Lances struggling against the second Scythe. They were relying on me, on the asuran weapon Arthur had gifted me, and I needed to stand up, to help them, to fight.

But the fire seeped into my blood.

I knew it immediately. No matter how much time passed, I would never forget that wretched encounter with the Scythe, Cadell, in the flying castle, or how it had felt to lie there, helpless as a newborn as his magic ate away my life from the inside.

I imagined actual flames alive in my blood, each frantic thump-thump of my heart spreading the blaze.

Melzri appeared above me, her movements businesslike. One arm was hanging lower than the other, but as I watched she rotated it until the arm popped back into place. She gave me a curious look, her eyes burrowing through my skin and into my blood and bones.

”What does it feel like? ” Her words were soft, almost reverent. ”Tell me, and Ill speed your demise. ”

I laughed with derision, then my body spasmed and my back arched with agony, every muscle going taut. ”It feels…just like I remember, ” I gasped out through clenched teeth. The spasm settled, and I took several deep, painful breaths. ”It took me months to regain my strength after the other one filled me with fire. ”

Her gaze sharpened, and she leaned toward me, the wind-shrouded blade pressing against my breastplate. Her eyes were wide, and a muscle in her cheek trembled as she suppressed a manic grin. ”Go on… ”

I met her eyes the color of curdled blood. Outwardly, I was calm. Peaceful. I had accepted my death—again. But inside, the real battle was raging.

”My body didn feel like my own, not for a long time, ” I continued, inwardly focused on controlling my release of mana. ”This alien force had been within it, and even after it was gone, it had left a residue that I couldn wash off my soul. ”

The edge of her sword slid across my breastplate, sinking into it with the low whine of metal on metal. ”Youve got a surprisingly beautiful way with words, Lance. Finish, and I will relieve you of this pain. ” She bit her bottom lip as she waited, filled with anticipation.

”I thought Id never heal, not really. My time as a Lance was done. I was cursed to linger as a burned-out husk of my former self. ” Her eyes closed as her blade slowly parted the leather backing of my armor and then the flesh beneath. ”But I had so long to think about it, Scythe. I planned, and I hoped. ”

”What did you hope for, Thunderlord? ”

Slow, steady downward pressure. The feel of steel scraping across bone, and then…

”That, one day, some foolish Alacryan would be stupid enough to try it on me again, ” I growled.

Her eyes flashed open, reflecting the white lightning burning from my many small wounds as I completed casting the spell I had designed for this very moment.

Thunderlords Wrath, I chanted in my head, nearly gasping with relief.

For all her speed, Melzri couldn react quickly enough.

Instead of retreating, she leaned into her blade, and I felt it scrape against the edge of my sternum as it bit deep. The lightning filling my body—my blood—raced up the steel and into her. I could feel every particle of mana as it attacked her nerves, crashing along her arms and into her torso.

She was thrown off her feet, then crashed through a statue of some ancient dwarven lord. He fell to the ground in pieces, his cracked face staring up at me forlornly.

I floated off the ground after her, wreathed in reaching tendrils of lightning.

”I just couldn get rid of that feeling of fire in my blood, ” I said as Melzri thrust herself up from the ground and into the air. The twin blades jumped back into her hands. One arm was blackened up to the elbow. ”So I learned how to turn my blood to lightning! ”

I punctuated this last word by focusing on the deep wound in my chest. A blinding ray of lightning exploded out of me. Melzri brought up both of her swords to deflect the blast, and a shield of wind and fire encircled her. The lightning condensed and built where the two spells impacted, growing and growing until the pressure ripped the mana apart.

The explosion sent us both hurtling backwards, tumbling through the air like newborn birds fallen from the nest.

Inside me, white-hot light struggled against the devouring darkness. Every vein and artery screamed with the strain of it, but I was winning. The spell shed used was specific, designed to eat away at my lifes blood. Without anything to burn, the soulfire was fading.

Taking hold of my tumbling flight, I righted myself and readied the spear, letting mana flow around it, infusing it in a shell of electrical energy.

The black cloud above me rippled, and a small dwarven body plummeted out of it, crashing into the ground nearby. I gave Mica one quick glance to ensure she was breathing, then cocked back my arm to throw. But, Melzri was gone.

With a sound like the cracking of thin ice, the cloud above snapped. Darkness was replaced with fluttering white as it became a snowstorm, and I could see the entire landscape of the battle raging above.

Varay and Viessa were both stationary, each facing the other as they hovered a hundred feet overhead, their battle one entirely of will and magic.

The snow of the conjured storm was falling inward toward Viessa. Within it, the shapes of armed and armored men formed out of the gusting flakes were cutting and slashing all around her. Black scythes of wind countered, defending and destroying the conjured warriors as quickly as Varay could form them.

Several mages had gathered along the winding roads that curved around the cavern, and as one they began sending spells hurtling at Viessa.

Helen Shard was firing arrows of burning light from one edge of the cavern with her band of adventurers at her back, each casting and throwing spells of their own.

From another ledge, the Earthborn brothers were sending earthen spikes like stalactites at the Scythe. Beside them, Curtis and Kathyln Glayder were both casting defensive spells in the form of shields of ice and glowing golden panels of flame. The cavern shook with the roars of Curtiss world lion.

Adjusting my target, I threw the asuran spear.

It painted a bright red afterimage across the cavern, flying true toward Viessas heart.

I sensed the flare of mana and took a jagged, lightning-infused step away. The tendrils of electricity surging around me reached for the twin swords closing in on my neck.

It wasn enough.

Black wind and fire cut through white lightning. Steel glinted hungrily.

Melzri had manifested out of the shadow right beside me. Her face was a mask of concentration.

Then the light was warping, the air hardening and turning to dark crystal around me, and in an instant I was trapped, my entire body encased within a shell of black diamond.

The twin blades rang off the protective spell, lodged into the diamond, and stuck fast.

Through the opaque crystal, I could just see Melzris silhouette spin around as a smaller shadow wielding an oversized hammer flew at her from the side. I felt each blow of the hammer shiver up through the ground beneath me as the two exchanged strike after strike. I could also sense the strain on Micas core as she pushed herself to her limits.

Whatever magic Viessa had used on her had left her weak. She was almost to the point of backlash.

The crystalline structure trapping me in place shattered.

Mica was on the ground, Melzri pinning her. The Scythes hands were wrapped in bands of black fire, and each blow burned away a layer of Micas flesh, leaving her face cracked and bleeding.

I channeled all the power of Thunderlords Wrath and lunged, wrapping my arms around the Scythe. The lightning coiled around us both, pinning her to me as I yanked her away from Micas prone form. Desperation fueled my strength, and I held on despite Melzris power swelling in my arms, threatening to shatter me.

Her body burst into flames. Soulfire battered against the energy cladding my body and restraining her.

I began to tremble.

I couldn hold the Scythe for long.

Then my mana winked out like a doused candle flame.

I was stumbling backwards, Melzri still in my arms. Her soulfire was gone.

Together, we fell.

As I lay on my back, waiting for the pain to hit me, I saw what was happening above.

Varay was sagging, near the end of her strength. Viessa was winning the battle of wills, pushing back against Varays conjured army, the lines of sharp black wind cutting closer and closer to where Varay hovered.

An arrow slipped through Viessas defenses and sank into her thigh.

Then the pain hit.

I sucked in a choked gasp. A bloody hole had been ripped through my side just below my ribs. With no mana flowing through my channels to begin healing the wound, I felt the full force of it. Draped across my arm, Melzri stiffened, and her hand pressed to her ribs just below her chest, where an identical wound had been ripped in her armor and flesh.

Without mana, I could no longer sense the spear, which had been returning at full speed while Id grappled with Melzri. Knowing I couldn deliver a blow, Id done the only thing I could: held her and let my weapon come to us.

Melzris twin swords lay several feet away, where theyd dropped from the Black Diamond Vault spell when it failed. I struggled to roll onto my side, one arm reaching out, but every nerve in my body flared with pain.

Sensing my movement, Melzri twisted to look at me. As if moving in slow motion, her fist clenched, and she drove it into the open wound in my side. We both yelled in agony.

Above, something was happening. I blinked several times, thinking perhaps it was my own delirium, but when I looked again, it was still happening.

Shadows were coalescing around Viessa and forming copies of her. One became two, then four, then eight, until the sky was full of visions of her. Everywhere I looked, spells were passing through the illusory copies.

Melzri was moving again. She rolled over and kicked one leg over me, straddling my stomach. Her hands reached for my throat. I grabbed her wrists and tried to twist them one way or the other to shove her off me, but I lacked the strength. Both our arms shook with effort.

Over her shoulder, the Viessa copies were wavering in and out of focus, popping one by one, the air around them shivering with a kind of black static. Then, it was just Varay and Viessa again.

Suddenly more spells were finding their marks. A squadron of dwarven guards had appeared, abandoning whatever position they were supposed to be guarding, and were flinging spells, filling the sky with projectiles. Viessa seemed shocked as an arrow pierced her arm, then wavered and nearly fell as a boulder twice her size slammed into her from the side. Her mouth was moving, but no sound came out.

”Thats it! ” Varay shouted, her voice projecting triumphantly throughout the cavern. ”We
e wearing her down. Focus fire! Everything youve got! ”

Melzri relaxed suddenly and our arms snapped out to the side. Her head surged down and drove into my nose with a meaty thunk. My vision went blurry for a moment, and then her fingers were around my throat.

”Youve really surprised me. ” Her words were ground out between gritted teeth. I pulled at her wrists, but my arms were weak and overtired. ”It seems like you Lances learned a trick or three since fighting Cadell. This has almost…been…fun… ” Her hands tightened as she spoke, and I could feel the heat in them, the vibration of her mana stirring back to life.

In the same moment, my own core thrummed as the spears mana-suppression effect began to wear off.

Something moved nearby. A small motion, but I saw the glint of a jet-black gemstone eye.

Just as Melzris hands lit up with soulfire, condensed bolts of lightning poured through my own hands and up her arms. I manipulated the currents to target and disable her muscles, aiming to paralyze her. Her body seized, her legs spasming and digging into my wound.

Her fingers clenched around my throat.

Her soulfire ate into my flesh.

Then a hammer larger than me slammed into the side of her head, knocking her to the ground. Before Melzri could recover, another blow landed, then another, driving the Scythe into the stones like a nail.

Mana flooded my body, lending strength to my muscles and dulling the pain of my wounds. I stood slowly.

Above, Viessa fell back, surrounding herself with shadowy shields, no longer able to counter the barrage of attacks.

The spear was nearby, half buried into the stone floor. I gave it a mental tug, and it wrenched free and flew to my hand.

Micas weapon stopped falling. Panting, she stumbled back from the crater shed hammered into the courtyard tiles. I raised the spear, preparing to finish Melzri.

But the crater was empty.

A giggle escaped Micas bruised and bloody lips. ”Mashed her to dust, heh. ” Then she was collapsing.

I caught her and eased her to the ground. The conjured hammer collapsed, her will unable to hold the weapons shape any longer.

”At least Varay seems to be winning, ” she said, her dilated eyes staring up at the fight above.

I knew Melzri was still here, illusioned into invisibility, but I couldn help but follow Micas gaze. She was right. Even Viessas defenses were trembling now, the shields quaking and cracking as the Scythe reformed them over and over again.

Arrows, stones, bullets of wind, spears of ice, gouts of fire, and dozens of other spells all concentrated on the Scythe, but my attention was drawn to Varay.

She was flinging curved blades of ice at Viessa, one after another, each sinking into a shadowy shield before breaking and dissipating. She had a fierce, determined look as she simultaneously directed the attacks and flung spells of her own.

But I couldn shake the sense that something was wrong.

Looking more closely, I watched the way her spells moved, and felt the sensation of all that mana crashing through the air.

My pulse spiked.

Varay had no mana signature.

”An illusion, ” I gasped, meeting Micas confused gaze.

”Wuh? ” Micas eyes lost focused, then closed. ”Oh, that feels bad. Im just gonna…lie here and die, I think. ”

I looked from Mica to Varay—the real Varay, wrapped in the guise of Viessa, being crushed under a wave of spellfire—and then back. With Melzri still prowling around, leaving Mica alone could mean her death, but Varay was losing strength, being torn down by her own friends and soldiers…

”Curse you all for giving me feelings, ” I snapped, scooping Micas unconscious body off the ground and throwing her over my shoulder, then lifting up into the air. I kept the spear ready in case Melzri attempted another sneak attack, but none came.

As I flew, I attempted to rearrange my expression, putting aside my anger and letting very real fear come forward. I thought of Virion, who had gone into hiding since reaching Vildorial, and my family, and the tremendous amount of mana still surging violently in the direction of the portal, where Arthur was, and the distant tombstone encasing Ayas corpse.

And…I gave myself permission to feel it. To…break. Even for a moment.

Tears built up in my eyes, and a knot of discomfort in the back of my throat. I flew slowly, taking a roundabout route to avoid coming between Varay and all the spells flying at her. Through the wall of shields, her Viessa-form gave me a plaintive, hopeful look, and I could see just how close to failing she was.

I ignored her. I had no choice.

Instead, I approached the Varay I could see, the illusory skin wrapped around Viessa like a shield.

She looked at me warily, her eyes tracking across my face, lingering on the tears wetting my cheeks, and she relaxed. ”Shes almost done. Hold back, if you must. Ill finish this. ”

”V-Varay, ” I said, my voice catching. ”Its Mica. Shes dying. ”

Varay-Viessa glanced down at Mica. ”Ah. Most…unfortunate. ” She squinted, looking closer. ”Shes breath— ”

I thrust with the asuran spear.

Her lips curled back from her teeth in an animalistic snarl, and she spun away from the blow, her attacks already turning away from the real Varay toward me.

The spear, aimed for her core, cut wide, barely catching the fabric of her robes.

She caught the haft with one hand and slashed across my torso with her other, drawing a black line across my armor. Blood sprayed from the gash, spattering the false Varays pale face.

I wrenched back on the spear and released a bolt of lightning along the handle.

Sparks jumped between Viessas fingers, and her hand twitched.

The haft slid through her grip, and the blade carved a thin line across her palm.

She hissed, and her eyes flew wide open. She clawed the air in wild panic.

The illusions vanished. Across the cavern from us, Varay was huddled behind shields of ice, bleeding from dozens of wounds, her mana signature trembling weakly.

”Stop! Cease fire! ” Helen Shard shouted, but her voice was drowned out by the noise of combat. Spellfire kept pounding Varays position.

Viessa was falling, her mouth open in a silent scream. Defenseless.

But Varay needed me.

Despite the blood running hot and fast from the wound across my torso, I flew up into the path of the spells and released a bright flash from the end of the spear. All the mages focused on Varay threw up their hands or turned away, and the bombardment was broken, even if only for an instant.

”Use your damned eyes! ” I yelled, falling back into a protective position in front of Varay.

Far below, Viessas body was still plummeting. I held my breath.

A white-haired figure flew from between two first-level structures and scooped the Scythe out of the air, and I let out my breath in a curse.

”This fight isn over! ” I shouted to the confused mages, focusing on Curtis Glayder, who I knew better than the rest of them. I pointed to where the two Scythes were streaking across the cavern below. ”We need to— ”

I was interrupted by the shattering of stone as a portion of the cavern wall collapsed.

Alacryan soldiers protected by transparent barriers of mana began rushing through.

”To the breach! ” Varay ordered, swinging around and gathering her mana.

Melzri and Viessa floated to a stop over the army pouring into the city. ”You haven won! ” Melzri screamed, her face pale and pained. ”You
e just losing slowly, Lances! ”

As if to drive this point home, both Scythes flared with purple-tinged black flames, and their wounds were wiped away. Dark eddies of wind were already beginning to reform around Viessa as her mana returned. Beneath them, dozens of battle groups quickly fell into formation.

Mica stirred, but did not wake. Varay looked as if she might plummet out of the air at any moment. Our allies were pale and shaken as confusion gave way to horror at their attacks against Varay.

Distantly, I realized the signs of battle from the direction of the portal had ceased. I could not bring myself to hope for Arthurs victory, however.

There was motion all around as Varay still fought to organize what troops we had. Some were shouting for reinforcements. A few dwarven soldiers turned tail and ran.

I floated forward through the chaos and met Melzris curdled-blood gaze. ”Today, I saw fear in the eyes of a Scythe. That is enough. ”

She shook her head, bright hair swaying around dark horns, and smiled. ”At least you will die brave, Lance. ”

”Alacryans. ” Viessas voice cut through all other noise like a razor. ”Advance— ”

A purple flash lit up the highest level of the cavern. The entire world seemed to grind to a halt, all sound and motion ceasing.

Standing at the high roads edge near the palace, Arthur Leywin stood armored in gold-rimmed black scales with onyx horns curling down from the sides of his head like a Vritra. He blazed with purple light, his blond hair lifting up from his head as if charged with static, bright runes burning purple beneath his eyes.

He stepped forward, closer to the edge, and each footfall was the beating of a wardrum. The sound of it swelled in my chest, setting my heart racing and blood pumping with adrenaline.

The enemy, on the other hand, shrank. The Alacryan mages pulled back, huddling close behind their shields, frightened eyes turning to the Scythes.

The Scythes seemed to dim. The cutting wind around Viessa slowed. The mana around Melzris weapons flickered and died.

The entire city seemed to hold its breath.

Slowly, Arthur raised one arm. In it, he held a broad, black horn that curled like a mountain rams. He tossed it over the edge, and it seemed to fall unnaturally slowly, turning over again and again.

”Agrona has exhausted my patience, ” he said, his voice rolling like thunder through the cavern. The Scythes flinched backward, and a tremor ran through the Alacryan forces. ”You have ten seconds. ” A breath. ”Nine. ”

The Alacryans broke. Men shouted as they stamped and shoved, bowling over one another in an effort to retreat back through the raw hole in the cavern wall.

”Eight. ”

Melzri and Viessa floated up slightly. Viessa was impassive, but Mezlri struggled and failed to maintain her composure. Together, they bowed slightly, then turned and flew out of the cavern, over the heads of their retreating soldiers.

”Seven. Six. Five. ”

No, I thought, sudden realization waking me from my stupor. ”Why…are you letting them live? We need to kill them, ” I wheezed, but Arthur couldn hear me.

It took longer than the promised ten seconds, but the rest of the Alacryans were allowed to flee in peace. No Dicathian moved a muscle to stop them. Most were not even watching their exodus, but staring up at the glowing figure of Arthur Leywin instead.

Then they were gone. Just like that—the battle won.

I let out a weary sigh and began floating up toward Arthur. I didn know what to say, or how to say it, only that I needed to acknowledge him.

Before I reached him, his golden eyes rolled up toward the cavern roof, then back into his head.

He stumbled back a step, then collapsed to the ground.

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