Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Chapter Twenty-nine: Revenge(Part One)



Kacey lunged with Jason's sword, and metal rang in the air as he parried. She was on the offensive, hay flying under her feet as she surged forward like waves, slamming into Jason's defense, then ebbing for a moment as he lashed out before striking again.

His blade nicked her hair, and she saw a healthy cut of it float away. 

With a snarl, Kacey laid open his other arm, and that got to the man. His eyes flashed with fury and pain, and he spun into an elbow that would have put her out if she hadn't ducked. She cut his ankle in passing-

"Ow!" She tumbled, clutching her nose. Jason's foot withdrew, and he charged, sword over his head-
Kacey rolled. Jason slammed the point of his blade into solid earth, and then the half-elf sprang to her feet, coming back at him. His sword was heavy in her hands, and she cursed it: it had been made for a man, one bigger and broader than she. The balance offended her, the weight was off, and it was longer than she liked.

Which didn't mean she couldn't use it.

"Kacey!" Ardyn cried, as the sword battle raged below her. The blonde fired a pistol, and another White Hand went down with a cry, this one moments from impaling Kui. The Islander's light flashed, but he hardly seemed to need it half the time: his movements were fluid, and his strikes powerful. He'd claimed a sword, and in him Kacey saw the grace of a warrior, whatever the differences between their cultures and backgrounds.

Her opinion of the man only climbed.

"You!" Kacey swung across at her shoulder-level, and Jason sprang backward, recovering his sword. He parried her next strike, kicking her in the chest in passing. Kacey spat from the shock, but then her head lashed out and she caught the man on his nose. "Killed!" Next it was her knee, and then her elbows as she tried to bring his clumsy sword around. "My!"

He shoved with his shoulder. She stumbled, and then had to dodge an overhead that would have cleaved her into elf and woman. Kacey lashed out-

And Jason knocked the sword from her hands. She paused as the tip of his blade went to her throat.

"You're not bad," he complimented. "I can see your uncle and father's training took root. But you're an amateur in a world of professionals. You need guidance and training and experience if you're going to rise."

"I want no place in your world order," Kacey hissed. She spat, and instead of the ground, she caught his face. That made her grin. "I have some tricks."

"Really? Like-"

She flashed her hand in his eyes. Jason blinked from the red light, but he was fast, and he swung for her wrist. Kacey cried out as the shock ran through her bones, but her steel bracers absorbed the hit and kept her hand attached to her body. They dented, though, and the metal pushed into her skin-

Clang! That was his backswing, hitting her ribs before she could retreat. Her armor took the hit, but again his strike bent inward, and Kacey gasped as she abruptly found the steel jutting into her ribcage. 

Then she threw herself backward, and Jason charged after her-

He slipped. On what, Kacey didn't know, but the assassin practically did a full split in the hay, crying out in surprise. His sword fell, and Kacey lunged, kicking him as hard as she could in the nose. He tumbled backward, and she saw his hand going to the other pistol on his belt. She bent to sweep up her shield, dropping onto her knee as Jason rose-

Bang-clang! Bang-clang! Kacey shuddered from the impacts, but both bullets fell in the hay before her.

Her fingers found Kjetil's knife under her, and she lunged. Jason, with sword in one hand and empty gun in the other, met her head-on.

She bashed him with the rim of her shield. He slashed her arm. She blocked an overhead with a bong of metal on metal, then he used his pistol to bat her knife to the side before she could take him in the eye. She tried to flash Fell Fate again, but his blade nearly severed three of her fingers, and she had to give ground. Jason lunged for a headbutt, and Kacey raised her shield to block it.

Bong! Her arm reverberated from the force of impact.

That got through to Jason. He stumbled three steps, dropping his gun to rub his forehead. Kacey charged, and she rammed her shield into his gut. He doubled over, and her knee came up to bounce him back upright for more. Kacey pulled Kjetil's knife back-

The noise was...soft. It was a meaty squish, and for some reason the only thing Kacey could think of was a watermelon being carved open. She felt a sudden shake of resistance, jerking all the way from her fingertips to her shoulders and down to her toes, as two hundred pounds of weight drove her backward.

The man dropped his knife, choking as blood leaked from his mouth...and dripped from where Kacey's claymore was embedded in his chest up to the hilt.

Blood on her bridal gloves. Dry throat. 

Kacey choked.

"Ow!" She went down hard, clutching her jaw as her knife spun into the hay. Jason pulled his fist back, dropping one knee on her spine. Kacey screamed as he rained blow after blow onto the back of her head.

"You should have taken your shot," he growled, as he yanked her up by her hair. Kacey struck with her elbow, but couldn't stop him from hoisting her up and then dropping her back at his feet. She cried out, trying to get her hands and feet under her.

Thud! She coughed as he kicked her, hard enough she fell on her side. The redhead pulled her shield up to cover herself as best she could, and winced when Jason only shifted targets, hammering blows on her knees and ankles.

I can't kill him, she realized, suddenly awash with self-loathing. Kacey, his life doesn't matter - he's a murderer!

I can't kill him. It echoed in her head. I can't do it. Not even him. Not even for revenge. Not even to save my own life!

Kacey thrust her shield out as Jason kicked again, and she caught his foot. She threw it aside, and that won her a moment to rise, gasping for air, blood running from her cheek and her mouth, ribs alight, lungs screaming in protest. Her legs wavered under her.

"You have spirit, young lady," Jason said, nodding in clear approval. "Spirit won't save your life."
"No," Kacey agreed. "Ardyn will."

To his credit, Jason immediately spun, covering his head. Not to his credit, he'd missed when Ardyn descended from the lofts.

"Get him!" the blonde cried, the instant she fired her liberated crossbow. The bolt dug into Jason's leg from below his guard, not above it, and he howled. Kacey lunged, and she kicked the assassin with every bit of strength she had left.

He staggered. He wavered. But he didn't go down. His eyes just flicked up as Kacey landed her foot, and there was anger in them.

"You win this round, MacTavish, but your King is already dead," Jason growled. "This Palace is surrounded, so even if we didn't get him, our next strike will. You lose the war - and there will be war."

"You're going nowhere," Kacey declared. "Not with an arrow in your calf-"

He threw something at his feet. The redhead screamed when it burst with a choking cloud of white smoke.

"Of course!" she cried. "Just like Midnight's got! Why didn't that occur to me?" She struggled forward. "Ardyn? Ardyn, are you there?"

"Kacey!" Her cousin's voice was close enough for comfort, and in an instant, they literally ran into each other in the mire. Both of them crashed on their bums in the hay, nursing their heads.

"You daft girl!" Kacey cried, after she'd recovered. "You were supposed to be on the ship!"

"You'd be dead without me," Ardyn protested. "I had to help! Angus has the helm. He'll be there for us."

"Are you two all right?" Kui appeared through the haze, light on his palms. He extended them, and both Kacey and Ardyn took a hand. 

"Fine," the redhead told him. She glanced him over, and the heap of fallen Light warriors. "You?"
"A couple scratches. You're the worst-off of us." Kui turned. "I'm going to start wrecking carriages. And...you are?" He paused at Ardyn's shoulder. "I don't believe I have the pleasure."

"Ardyn MacTavish," she said. "Kacey's cousin."

"Corlane's daughter." Kui nodded. "Very good, then. I'm with Lady Estelle."

"I figured," Ardyn said. "Where is she?"

Kacey curled her fingers and sewed a Thread of Health, clutching her thigh. "Help me out of this chestpiece. It's bent inwards."

"And then-"

"And then you stay here for keepers." Kacey swept up her shield. "I'll not be long."

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Chapter Twenty-eight: The World's Finest(Part Three)



Midnight faced down the scattered men and women of the Guiding Light, bow in hand. She set her teeth, ignoring the burning in her chest from where those bullets had found her. Pain didn't matter. Failure was not an option, so she would find a way.

I'm not going to die.

"All right, kill!" That was the blonde Whisper with the crossbow. She raised her weapon, and Midnight's bow sang. The Whisper's eyes widened as she saw her weapon's string cut cleanly. "I don't believe it-"

On came the White Hand.

Midnight's bow flashed like a club. She blocked sword strikes and put out teeth, hurling men to their hands and knees. Teeth flew and blood with them, and that was before she used her off hand to snap out one of her pistols.

Bang! Bang! Two of her foes dropped, clutching holes in their chests, and a third man behind the first staggered, holding his shoulder. The MacDonalds and their guest huddled together for cover, and Midnight saw the older sons flip the table onto its side. 

"Gotcha!" A man seized her bow. Midnight fought him for it for one moment, then released the weapon when she decided she couldn't win a tug of war. He held it aloft like a prize, face lighting up.

It fell before Midnight's clenched fist decked him. She seized him by his collar and the seat of his pants, and with a yell she flung him under the feet of his fellows, sending half a dozen to the floor in a pile of failure. 

"Take her!" Theron screamed from the floor, tears pouring down his face. The next men had knives, and Midnight paused to draw Callan's from her thigh sheath, flipping it into a reverse grip in her hand. The maimed wizard made it to his feet, only to fall again. "Kill her! Shred her alive!"

Clang! Clang! Knives met in the air, as Midnight wove backward. She grunted as one scraped her arm, sparks flying as metal went over metal. Her own blade flashed and a man fell with a torn throat, then another with all the tendons in his wrist a memory. Midnight snapped the other one with her elbow, flinging the man into his next friend with a side-kick that could have taken down a stone door and likely shattered quite a few ribs.

"No more!" the blonde vaulted in, and she managed to clap the knife from Midnight's grip. She grunted, only to cry out louder when the Whisper clocked her with her crossbow like an improvised club. "Down, traitor!"

Midnight seized her bow from the floor. She spun, kicking the blonde's knee and sending her down with a cry. She didn't think anything broke, but...

"Go left! Flank her!" The next man fancied himself a tactician. His sword jarred Midnight's forearm as she blocked with her armored gauntlets, spraying more sparks over the floor. He lunged, and she parried again with her bow, snarling under her breath as he used the opportunity to kick her in the chest. Her ribs lit up.

I'm not going to die. I promised.

She whipped out one of her bomblet arrows, activating it and slamming it to the ground. A spray of the little explosive charges spread in all directions, and men jumped as the little things stung their feet. The crowd assembling around her was, for a moment, stymied. Midnight set a grapple arrow to the string, chose her rafter with care, and fired.

"Oh, you're not getting away!" the blonde screamed. She threw herself upright, running for Midnight as she slid out of the circle of explosions and terrified minions. The ravenette yanked brutally on the line, twisting her shoulders-

"Oh, come on!" the Whisper howled, as the rafter Midnight had weakened earlier ripped free of its housing. The men dealing with her bomblets had all of five seconds to look up and see it coming before the heavy wooden thing crashed down among them, greeted by screams of agony.

Out came another grapple, and Midnight drove it right into the Torchbearer's shoulder, as she leveled her staff. Midnight heaved, and the woman fairly flew forward, right into her elbow. She crashed on the floor, and Midnight kicked her throat hard enough bones snapped.

"Take her bow! Take it away! She's half without it-"

Midnight scaled the dining table in two steps, leapt over MacDonald and family, and fired into the gloom and the throng. Smoke burst around her, and she vanished into it before anyone could get close.

"Where is she?" someone screamed, on the other end of the room. "I lost track of her-"

Midnight seized her from behind, snapping her neck with one heave. She flipped her bow back up and fired, taking down four more men in as many shots.

"Got her!" Then the blonde was on her, tackling her to the ground. Midnight's bow flew, and she didn't think she could recover it this time.

"You! Filthy! Traitor!" The blonde punctuated each scream with a blow that flung Midnight's head one way or the other. Dazed but not destroyed, she yanked the Whisper down and rolled her, driving her head into the hardwood floor-

"Ah!" Midnight screamed as someone drove a blade right between the joints of her armor from behind. She felt the blade go in, and she felt the sense of violation as it lingered-

Her elbow flew. The man went down, but he had friends, and they approached with blades flashing. Midnight couldn't rise, battling on one knee as they came for her with yells of hate and more than a little terror.

This is it, she thought, glancing around the sea of destroyed men. Just them left!

She cried out again as the next slash punched through her shoulder plate and cut into her. Midnight punched, and she took out one man's knee, feeling the bone crack and shatter under her knuckles. He went down, and the woman's hand came up-

Sparks again, as she caught the last man's knife by the blade. His snarl turned into something else as she twisted and the steel snapped in half.

"No..." he started, stumbling backward while she rose to her full height. In the back of her mind, Midnight noted with amusement that her full height was still five or six inches below his. "No...I'm not...I just...I'm a mercenary..."

She clapped his throat with the heel of her palm, and when he choked, she seized him. With a cry of effort, she flipped the man over her shoulder, bringing him crashing down with his moaning fellows.

"You...you won't win."

Midnight turned. The blonde still stood between her and MacDonald, the Torchbearer rising by her side with healing light flashing over her wounds. Theron staggered to his feet, still whimpering and crying as blood fell from his severed and shattered limb, but he appeared to have staunched the worst of it with his Nerien magic.

Midnight sucked in air, finally reaching to her back and ripping out the knife. She tossed it aside carelessly, reclaiming Callan's from the ground. Half her body burned, and she felt blood flowing down her back. She'd been shot twice, stabbed, slashed, hit...her legs wavered.

I'm not going to die. I promised!

"You will never defeat a Torchbearer," Theron told her. He stuck his hand out, and his wand soared back into it. "Your time is up, archer with no bow."

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Chapter Twenty-eight: The World's Finest(Part Two)



"What's going on in there?" the man demanded. He waved to his mates, and they scurried inside the Royal Stables, drawing knives and swords. The man himself - a sergeant, he had to be - put a hand on his own blade, seeming to weigh his options. "Well, if it's Midnight, maybe I should bring a report to...to...Tempest is on Morning Glory. I can report to her-"

Wham!

"I really do hope you weren't with the Lionsmane Guard," Ardyn said, discarding the shovel she'd borrowed without permission but with every intention of returning, halfway between the harbor and palace. She checked the man's consciousness by kicking him in the face, then nodded in satisfaction when he didn't twitch. Ardyn claimed his pistols and dagger.

Then she followed his men for the stable, teeth set.

***

Camilla quivered, reaching alternately for her sword and the crossbow she'd found. Silence came from the dark overhead, and in fact the only noises in the room were the White Hand and Whispers' staggered breathing, and MacDonald's son's whimpering.

"Shut up," Theron ordered, eyes wild. "Drop your bow, Midnight! I want to see it fall from the rafters!"

"Midnight?" MacPhearson muttered. Camilla wished Theron could have shut his mouth just a little sooner. There went the secret that they were being stalked by Nurem's mysterious agent in the night.

But if they shot Midnight and laid out her body...couldn't they spin the story that she was one of the attackers from Nurem? She had the same armor the Whispers did...Camilla liked that thought more and more the longer she contemplated it. MacPhearson's memory would be a bit of a downer, but they could always kill her and elevate someone else to the throne. MacLoughlin? If they took his son, that would work well. As long as it wasn't MacTavish...

"Last chance," Theron growled. "Drop the bow! And then you jump after it! Unless you want to see what his head looks like on the inside?"

"Let him go!" MacDonald cried. "You cowardly-"

"I'll do it!" Theron cried.

Snap! That was a bowstring. Theron ducked his head behind the boy's as he screamed-

The arrow wasn't going for his head. And it wasn't an arrow, it was two, side-by-side. Camilla watched them soar, driving straight into and through Theron's right arm, the heads bursting out of his bicep dripping red. His wand jerked away from the boy's skull on the force of impact, and he started with a cry of pain, just enough that the boy bolted, running for his parents under the table.

Theron's eyes fixed on the line trailing from the lower arrow at the same time Camilla's did.

"Ah!" The Owner's shriek echoed through the room, the loudest sound since the barrage of explosions, as the line snapped taut and he was hauled up toward the ceiling, hanging with his heels four feet off the ground.

Midnight appeared in the dark, using the line holding Theron up as a brake while she descended from the rafters, bow in her off hand. Her feet hit the ground with a soft thud. Camilla snapped her crossbow up, just as Theron managed to twist his wand to point at the demonic woman-

Camilla's eyes went wide as the second arrow in Theron's arm exploded.

His scream grated her ears. The man collapsed on his knees, wand flipping over toward the door as his arm was blasted off just below the shoulder. Red sprayed everywhere, and fragments of bone like shrapnel. Theron fell on his face, clutching at the stump of his arm, wailing like a child.

The Light's warriors stared in horror.

"That was for the girls in Greenhaven." Midnight set an arrow to her bow. "Well, ladies, gentlemen...I'm right here. Who wants to go next?"

***

"You." Kacey stared Jason down, shield at her side. White Hand filtered into the stable from outside, scampering up into the lofts with arqubuses and bows. The redhead took a step forward to confront the leader of the Guiding Light, curling her fingers up one at a time.

"You know who I am," she said, voice cold. "You killed him in front of me." Her step became a walk. "Get ready to meet your Messiah."

"Kill them," Jason ordered. He drew his sword as three men charged past him.

Kui's hands flashed light, and Kacey's shield hurtled. Two of them were out right then, and the servant claimed a fallen sword to finish off the third while the redhead recovered her shield. She threw herself at Jason, and he stepped back, flicking his blade along the hay-coated floor.

Clang! His overhead she blocked, and then she had to knock away an attempted punch at her gut. She wove around the next set of strikes, and sparks flew and bells rang as again sword and shield met in the air. Clang! Bong!

Out came Kjetil's knife in her off hand, and she lunged with it. Jason skipped backward, parrying her strikes in a storm of silver steel. His green eyes were cool, though his lip curled upward as they fought.

Then his foot took her in the chest, and she stumbled backward. The redhead hissed - then gasped, as she had to cover her head.

Bang! Bong! The two sounds were almost simultaneous, as one of the men in the lofts fired down on her, the bullet skittering off her shield-

Bang!

"Ah!" Kacey fell to one knee, clenching her teeth, as Jason's pistol blew a chunk out of her thigh while she covered above. His second shot echoed, but she managed to catch that one, and her arm jerked from the impact.

"Kacey!" That was a voice that sent horror through her veins.

"You daft idiot!" Kacey cried, shoving herself back upright. She gasped as Ardyn seized the man who'd shot at her from above, appearing in the loft from the next best thing to nowhere, a dagger flashing. The White Hand's body fell an instant later, and Ardyn caught his freshly-reloaded musket before it joined him.

"You shouldn't have-"

"I couldn't let you just-" Ardyn snapped the gun up, slender arms quivering from the weight, and fired, the recoil nearly bowling her over. Across the stable, another sniper in the lofts screamed, tumbling from his perch before he could put a shot in Kacey from the rear.

Flashes of light signified Kui's preoccupation, and Kacey saw him crouch under a dome of light that somehow absorbed a half-dozen men's strikes like it was made of stone. Kui grinned, and then his shield blew outward, flinging all his foes across the stable like ragdolls.

More came for him, undeterred.

"I'm going to kill you," Kacey told Jason. "I'm going to do to you what you did to my father-"

"You had your chance. I don't understand, Kacey." His eyes flashed. "This world is sick. It's dying. Change is coming, and death with it. Your father was an educated man. I have to believe he raised you to be knowledgeable as well. You know that this world is full of danger and ills." He shook his head. "Char is coming, Kacey, and stronger for his defeat! The Four will descend from the North on the world of Men! The Secret of the Star will be revealed, and the gods help the world when it is-"

"You're a raving madman," Kacey snarled.

"The Gifted must come together to protect this world," Jason insisted. "The strongest of them, under the Light's banner. Our means are harsh but we seek to defend, not destroy! The Iron Sea War is necessary for the salvation of mankind and our approach to Transcendence! The Messiah willed it, and you should count your lucky stars you were chosen to see it!"

"...are you saying I should thank you for shooting Dad?" Kacey demanded, in shock.

"Where would you be if I hadn't?" Jason asked. "You wouldn't have found your calling like you have, and then where would the rest of us be? We need you, Kacey. And you needed the push. I don't pretend that was my intent, but if this is the Messiah's will, I am awed by his wisdom in creating a shieldmaiden like you to stand with us."

Words failed Kacey. Her shield was a good substitute, though, as she slung it into his stupid face. He recoiled, and she lunged with her dagger, slashing and parrying as he rose to the defense. She punched and kicked, and he jammed her legs at every chance with quick blows of his own.

She cried out when he punched her bullet wound. She rammed Kjetil's knife into his arm in retaliation, and he hissed. His sword came up, and she abandoned her cousin's blade to grab his with both hands, wrapping her fingers around the crossguard, holding it inches from her forehead.

His free hand caught her throat. She gasped as he lifted her up off the ground.

"On the other hand, maybe I'm mistaken," he said. "Maybe you're simply a little girl lashing out at the world, who will never be fit to stand with the others when Plan Thirteen is initiated. You're certainly no Estelle. She-"

Kacey lifted her leg and kicked him in the throat. He gasped, and she wrenched his arm, ripping out of his grip and claiming his sword as she did. The redhead spun away, stumbling on her bad leg, while the master of the Guiding Light retreated, coughing.

Kacey MacTavish held up her appropriated sword. Jason eyed her, then leaned down to take one off of a fallen minion of his. He discarded Kjetil's knife, and red ran into his shirt.

"That was for Estelle, and what you did to her," Kacey growled. "This one's a wee bit more personal."

"Go for it." Jason leveled his sword. "Show me what you've got...Shieldmaiden."

Kacey screamed. They charged in the same instant, and their blades met with a clang that she thought could be heard in Nurem.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Chapter Twenty-eight: The World's Finest(Part One)



Camilla jumped. She spun, clutching her sword as she, along with everyone else in King Truman's chambers, searched the rafters overhead. Her eyes flicked through the gloom as she sought signs of motion in the dark. 

"Oh, scary," Theron growled, brushing off his coat. "Little light show. Parlor tricks. Someone get up there and flush her out."

"Musketeers, on me," Camilla ordered, as Becky and three more Whispers threw grapple lines and ascended into the rafters. She sheathed her sword and produced one of her pistols as a detail with arquebuses gathered behind her. "Wait for her to appear, then take her down. One massed volley."

"That'll hardly be necessary," Theron scoffed. "She's a woman with a longbow! A mere mortal, with no wizardly talent or witchcraft or even a Gift-"

"If you think anything about that mortal is mere..." Camilla growled.

Whizz!

"Ow!" a man cried, ripping at the shaft stuck in his shoulder. Camilla spun, firing her pistol at the first movement she saw in the rafters-

"Watch your fire!" someone cried. "We're up here too!"

Wham! Thud!

"Oh, come on!" Camilla shrieked as she watched a brunette fall in a heap. She sprinted to her side, checking her pulse and sighing in relief when she felt it. "Why is it always you, Beckers?"

A woman screamed. Camilla looked up, only to see another Whisper fall from above, clutching her slashed throat. The blonde ducked as another arrow flew.

"Enough of this!" Theron cried. He raised his hand. "Klamnet!"

White light burst from his palm, lighting up the corners of the room. Both Illuminators raised their hands too, and the glow filled the rafters-

"There!" Camilla cried. She ducked as the next arrow landed beside her: a very near miss. Several more like it rained around the firing squad and Illuminators, and everyone ducked for cover. "She's up there! She's moving-"

"I see her-"

"Move!" one of her shooters cried, as Midnight seized the final Whisper sent up to flush her out. "Get out of the way-"

"Fire anyway!" Theron cried-

Boom!

"No!" Camilla covered her eyes as the arrow she thought had missed exploded, spewing smoke over the room. She coughed, staggering through the clouds as guns went off and arrows flew. MacDonald and his family shrieked, and she distinctly saw MacPhearson roll under the table with the wife and little boy as sparks flew from silver cutlery.

Boom! Boom! Somehow, the sound was different, and it was coming from above. Explosions in the rafters? What was she doing, trying to bring the ceiling down on all of them? That was crazy!

Crazy was her forte, wasn't it?

"Fire!" Camilla screamed. "Suppress her! Volley fire, up there!"

"I can't see-" one of her men cried.

The whizz of an arrow filled the world. Camilla ducked and covered her head as it screamed like a firework, blowing open in the air over her and spraying dozens of small metal balls over the ground. She shrieked as each one exploded in a tiny puff of shrapnel, scattering her little firing squad as they hopped and fell, clutching their feet. Several had to rip off their armor as the tiny spheres sank into the cracks between plates before detonating.

Then Camilla looked up, and for a moment-

"There!" she cried. "The window!" She snapped her pistol up as an arrow shot over her head. One of her men cried out, and she knew without looking he was already dead. "Fire!"

The roar of musketry and the twangs of crossbows filled the room. Glass shattered, and it rained over the dinner table. More screaming from the civilians, but Camilla couldn't care less.

She fired too, and she heard it. Saw it. Sparks flew from Midnight's armor, and the woman cried out.

Then she was gone, bleeding into the blackness that had returned after her smoke disoriented the Illuminators.

"I hit her!" Camilla shouted, voice shaking. "I saw it! I hit her!"

The smoke blew sideways. Theron's wand flicked, sending it out the windows into the rain. His hand came up, and again he cried out the God of Light's name.

Boom! Camilla saw the flash this time, and she discarded her empty pistol to draw her other one, aiming for the rafter she saw shake.

"She's trying to bring it down!" Camilla cried. "Stop her! Fire!"

"Fire!" Theron repeated, as the few men who hadn't already emptied their weapons did so now. Arrows seared out in response, cold and uncaring for the lives they took. Several more burst and sprayed bomblets, and Camilla's ears rang with the blasts. She cried out as one went into her chestpiece, and she had to discard it before the toy detonated.

Which is exactly what Midnight wanted, she thought. Now I'm exposed.

"Flush her out!" Theron ordered. The Torchbearer shambled forward, staff upraised, her green eyes glowing.

"Fire is pure," the woman recited in a voice broken from weeks in the dark. "Fire brings guiding light in the shadows!"

Flame seared from the tip of her staff. It surged up into the rafters, and Camilla saw Midnight flit from one position to the next, swinging on a line buried in the ceiling.

Again she fired. Again she saw sparks. Midnight lost her grip, and she landed like a cat on the next rafter, barely catching her bow. The Whisper thought she saw red dripping.

"Almost!" Camilla screamed in desperation. She scrambled to find an unfired gun, knowing it would take minutes to reload hers: minutes she didn't have.

Midnight vanished again. More arrows flew. Men dove behind whatever cover they could find as smoke blew around the room: great clouds of white and of tear gas, reducing warriors of the Light to shrieking, simpering children clutching their eyes. Camilla counted her lucky stars that she avoided the worst of it-

"Out here!"

"No!" That was MacDonald's wife, and then the man himself was yelling too. Camilla glanced up to see Theron, yanking the youngest son into the open, wand to the boy's head.

"I will blast his skull to splinters!" the wizard cried. "I'll do it! Don't test me, woman! Show yourself!"


***

"Hey-"

That was it for that man, as Kacey slammed into him with her shield up. He crashed into the fellow behind him, and then the remaining four lunged at her. Knives flashed out of sheaths, and her shield and fist came up while she smiled.

Bong! Bong! Those were blades and boots as she blocked and parried. She waited, weaving around strikes, passing chances to retaliate as-

Kui appeared from behind, throwing his hands over one of their faces. Light flashed from his palms, and the man screamed as he was blinded. The Islander kicked out his knee from behind and caught his knife before it hit the ground.

"Took your time!" Kacey slugged the next man into unconsciousness before spinning into a kick on the third. He staggered into Kui's range, and the knife drove into his throat.

"I'm sure you handled yourself quite well without me." Kui slapped the final man's chest, a pulse of light shooting out when he did like a spear. It threw the man across the stables into one of the lofts with an explosion of splinters and hay.

"Look at all these horses," Kacey encouraged, glancing around. "There's hundreds of them. And those carriages!"

"I like horses," Kui agreed. "But we need to-"

"No. Those aren't royal carriages." Kacey eyed one. "That's how Jason and company got here. They rode in on these."

"Are you thinking that's our way out?" Kui asked. "Once Midnight finishes with MacDonald?"

"I'm thinking it's a fair sight better than walking to Sora's Cove," Kacey agreed. "And if they've left the carriages for us, then why shouldn't we take them?"

"I like your style, red," Kui said. "We only need two. Let's sabotage the rest while we're at it."

"Now who admires whose style?" she inquired. "You do have the mind of a servant: causing as many bloody problems as you can as quickly as possible."

"I prefer to think of it as being thorough about my job," the Islander replied. "Whatever that job may be."

"Not a philosophy that kept you from betraying the Guiding Light."

Kacey and Kui turned. The redhead's fist clenched as once again, she came face-to-face with Jason and his green eyes.