Thursday, February 23, 2017

BELTHOR SPELLWEAVER

Hello, everyone! I hope this finds you well, and I hope you've been enjoying Midnight. It's about to come to a close in the next three weeks - and boy, has a lot happened for me since then.

I'm excited to officially announce the second novel of Maximus: BELTHOR SPELLWEAVER! It has its own page and Bookstore section now, as it is complete and ready for purchase! However, if you'd rather wait, it'll begin airing in March.

The third novel of Maximus has been completed. I'll announce its name once it has rested and been edited and made ready for purchase. I'm currently in the beginning of development work on number four - and so on and so forth.

If I've entertained you, I've accomplished my mission. In light of this announcement, I've cycled what chapters of Midnight are available.

If you're interested in making purchases, Belthor Spellweaver and Midnight can be bought individually through the Bookstore, but they can also be purchased together for a discount.

I hope to see you soon with the beginning of Belthor Spellweaver, and I hope it'll entertain you as much as Midnight has.

~Kevin Haulsee

Chapter Twenty-six: Fall(Part Two)



There were no words. There was no attempt at communication. Wreathed by rain and illuminated by the faint light from Rosa around, Estelle lunged at Jason with a wild cry of rage. He surged to meet her, his right arm wavering as blood poured from his bicep.

Callan's knife flashed in Jason's grip. Estelle ducked under it, driving a series of blows into her old trainer's ribs. She felt something crack after a particularly violent punch connected.

They spun around the training room in the monastery together, punching, kicking, punching. Jason lashed out and Estelle dodged, only for the process to reverse and repeat a moment later.

"Midnight Demon," he'd called her, the ghost of a smile on his lips. Oh, how she'd loved to hear how proud he sounded, how encouraging...

Then Jason slammed the knife hilt into her face in the now, and she staggered left. Her hands rose as the knife fell, and she caught the big man's wrist. Estelle flung him past her, and he crashed on his back. She went for his face with her heel, and he caught her ankle. Her head hit the wall as she fell to the ground beside him, looking right at her mother's faintly-twitching form, still oozing blood.

She seized her bow as she fell.

Estelle rolled toward Jason, spinning her bow around as she did. She battered at him, and he rolled away, blocking with his arms. They made their way down the parapet that way, until the big man's foot hit one of the crenels. In a flash, he shoved himself off and flung himself overtop Estelle, pinning her down with all his weight.

Estelle ripped at Jason's shirt as he threw himself atop her, her back pressed into his mattress. She practically tore it open, running her hands over his muscles as he loomed over her, his lips on her neck. She arched her back and gasped as his hands went to work next, and she hooked her legs around him, pulling him as close as she could.

Estelle screamed as she hooked Jason and flung him sideways into a crenel, head-first. He wavered, and she surged after him, slinging her bowstring around his neck. She hauled, and he choked for a moment, but his elbow came out and got her in the stomach an instant later.

Pain. That was the other bullet wound. Estelle's vision wavered, and her hearing became distant.

It didn't matter.

Callan. Mother. Revenge. Callan. Mother. Revenge.

Her fists flew. She got Jason in the face, and his nose cracked. She hit him again, then again. His arms came up and he drove the knife into her shoulder. She felt the steel grate along her bones as she moved. It didn't matter.

She knocked his arms up into the air with a manic scream, then her head shot forward and she battered his splintered nose. An uppercut was next, and that sent his head snapping back so far Estelle almost thought it would pop off.

He kicked her in the knee. Something cracked. Estelle's arms shot out and she wrapped them around his leg, yanking him down along with her. They crashed to the stone again, and she battered at anything she could hit with her elbows and fists. She got a kick to the face for her trouble, and her helmet cracked.

Her fingers wrapped around the hilt of the blade jammed in her flesh, and she ripped it out, screaming her pain and her hate in the same breath as she drove it into Jason's foot, all but nailing it to the stone.
Another kick flung Estelle back. She stared up at the cloudy sky for a moment, gasping for breath through the agony. She could barely see through her cracked and dented mask. She heard Jason groaning and shifting his weight around.

Arthritically, Estelle rolled over. She got her hands under her and pushed up, then reached upward for the cracks between stones. Laboriously, she rose, dragging herself hand over hand to her feet. Still she could barely see, and she reached to the clasp behind her ear. The cool wind and icy rain ran over her face and through her hair as her helmet fell beside her.

Her leg didn't want to bear her weight. Her bullet wounds were open and bleeding. She was faint, and woozy, and she ached and stung all over. She clutched her bow in her hands, and it was chipped and cracked from the battles just like its owner.

And none of it mattered, because Jason was struggling to his feet by the crenels. Blood ran down his face from his nose and his forehead, and his boot was red where he'd drawn the knife out. He looked up to meet Estelle's eyes, and slowly he reached to his side and drew his sword.

Estelle raised her bow.

They went at each other with equal fury, like a hurricane and a typhoon clashing to find out which was the stronger storm. They limped and they gasped for breath, but there was no mercy nor quarter offered or given. Estelle's bow spun in her hands as she whirled back and forth, striking low and high and blocking Jason's slashes and thrusts. She hit him in the chest, and grunted when he slashed her back open. Her bowstring snapped when Jason's sword cut it, and she threw the weapon aside in disgust as it lost all tension. Jason's sword was next, flying over the crenels when Estelle slung him around in a circle.

Then it was just them, head to head, one on one. Estelle hit him in the windpipe with everything she had, her throat raw and burning from her screams of war and mourning.

Her leg betrayed her. She fell at Jason's feet, and he kicked her, sending her flying onto her back again. This time, she couldn't find it in herself to rise, and she lay under the stars, choking and gasping in the rain.

"You were the best, Stella," Jason managed through his own pained breaths. "It's not personal."

"None of it was personal," she managed to reply, staring into those green eyes. "Not...one...night."

"Estelle!"

In a flash of light, a dark-skinned figure burst up to the top of the tower. Kui lunged for Jason, and he recoiled, clutching his eyes. An instant later, there was Belthor, a staff in hand. He rammed it into the warrior's chest and he flew backward, just in time to receive a hook from Kui that would have put any lesser man to sleep.

Jason was better than that.

Belthor cried out as his next stab was caught, and the staff wrenched from his grip. It spun as Jason flung it past him off the edge of the tower. Estelle struggled to her feet as Jason seized Kui and threw him bodily, head-first into the wall. The Islander slumped, and Estelle's heart burned.

She frowned as she saw a pistol clatter out from his coat. Desperately, Estelle seized it.

Belthor had courage. He took a wild swing at Jason. Courage didn't equal success: the warrior ducked back and then gave the boy a single blow that put him head-over-heels into the floor. His feet thumped down a moment after his face hit the stone.

Estelle leveled the pistol at Jason - only for him to grab her hand. She screamed as he twisted her arm brutally. Several things cracked, and the pain lanced up past her shoulder like a lit channel of oil. She dropped the gun, and only fortune let her seize it with her left hand before it was on the floor and out of reach.

Then Jason was behind her, the one place she couldn't shoot, and he wrapped his arms around her neck. She choked.

"Go to sleep, Stella," he ordered. "Go to sleep." He reached out and caught her elbow as she tried to twist the gun around behind her. "Join your mother..." He yanked brutally as she tried to hit him. The world was faint and she couldn't see anything but the stars breaking through the clouds above. "Join your mother...and your cousin..."

My cousin. Callan appeared behind Estelle's eyes, just like he'd been in life. He stood on the stern of their lifeboat, gun in one hand, holding his chest with the other.

Promise me, he'd demanded. Say it!

Estelle watched him again in the darkness as her world was ending, and seeing his end gave her a sense of...peace.

We're not going to die, he'd said. So had she, when she comforted Luna.

They'd both been lying.

"I'm sorry, Callan," Estelle whispered with her last breaths.

Then she brought the pistol up and put it to her chest, just below her neck, and squeezed the trigger.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Chapter Twenty-six: Fall(Part One)



Midnight lunged for Vaneer, grabbing the man's collar. She spun him around, but it was the only touch she managed: an instant later, he jabbed her in the neck, and she found herself retreating, raising her hands to protect herself. Some sixth sense warned her, and she knocked a punch away as it came for her stomach.

Unfortunately, she missed the other punch, which sent her staggering into a crenel. Midnight gasped as she hit the stone with a very loud thunk and dust fell around her feet. Something burned in her chest, and she wondered if one of her bullet wounds had reopened.

"Estelle, don't be foolish," Vaneer chided. "You cannot win."

"No. You can't." Midnight lunged again, spinning into a kick that almost cracked the bald man's skull. She whirled back around, forgoing kicks for punches, power for speed, and her and Vaneer's arms blurred as they attacked and blocked in a meteor shower of blows. Her arms burned from the shocks and impacts of defense.

She hit him. She actually hit him, right across the cheek with an elbow strike that flung him two feet to the left. Midnight bared her teeth and lunged after him. As if in response, those violet eyes seemed to glow.

Midnight sank to her knees in the stone, crying out as it turned to mud beneath her. She reached for the nearest crenel to pull herself out, but she couldn't-

Wham! A blow took her in the chest. She recoiled, flying onto her back, and slid along the stone for a moment.

He's a telepath, she reminded herself, coughing on the ground. It wasn't real. None of it's real. Ignore him and power through.

Her hand wrapped around her bow where it lay.

"A darkness is coming," Vaneer warned. "A darkness unlike any the world has ever faced. The Guiding Light protects the world, and you seek to defeat our means to do that-"

"You protect yourselves," Midnight replied. She rose to her feet, bow in hand. "You couldn't care less about the world. About the innocents your war will kill. You're nothing but words."

"And you're nothing but wild, untamed, unbridled rage," Vaneer replied. "You could be more. So much more. That's what Plan Thirteen is about, Estelle: you."

"I'm not listening to any more of your lies," she said. "You tried to have me killed!" She lunged, spinning her bow around like a bat. Vaneer ducked.

"And that I failed shows your worthiness," he replied. "That I failed proves my point about you."

"You have no point about me! I choose that!" The bow came back around, and it smacked Vaneer right in the chest. Midnight kicked, then struck again, feeling him recoil from the blows-

Purple shone in his eyes.

Midnight staggered as the waves picked up her little boat, and the rain beat down on her from overhead. She was adrift, caught in the storm that had placed her ashore so long ago-

Vaneer stood before her, but even as she took a step for him, he backed away, fading into darkness like a ghost. Midnight grit her teeth and started after him. It wasn't real. It wasn't-

"Estelle."

She turned in surprise, gasping in spite of herself. "Callan?"

It's not real, she told herself as her cousin approached her from the lifeboat's stern, arm extended.

"Take my hand," he urged. "We're not going to die, either of us."

"You're not real." Midnight clutched her bow. "You're not-"

"Estelle, the storm's only going to get worse," he pleaded. "We can't do this alone. United we stand. We have to face the growing threats together or we will die. You promised. You promised!"

Midnight swallowed.

Her bow flashed, and she cracked Callan upside the head. He staggered backward, and she threw herself on him.

"You're not Callan!" she screamed, flinging blow after blow into the hallucination. The boat bucked under her and she staggered to the side. An instant later, she took an uppercut to the chin that flung her almost into the ocean.

"Estelle, I'm only-"

"You're not him," she whispered again. "It's an illusion. You can't lie to me, Jason."

Jason-as-Callan lunged, and Estelle threw herself forward, pushing off what she supposed in the waking world was a crenel and not the side of their boat. She caught her attacker with a shoulder to the chest, and she flung him into the bow. He crashed on his back, and the boat bucked hard.

Hard enough Midnight slipped and fell beside him.

He was on top of her then, grabbing for her throat and battering at her head. She covered herself as blows rained down, crying out as her bones ached and her armor cracked. If she'd had any doubt as to whether Callan was really Jason or not, it was gone now.

Her hand pulled an arrow from her thigh quiver, and she drove it into the big man's arm. It punched straight through his bicep, and he howled as the head burst out the inside. Instantly, Midnight threw him, slamming Jason on his back and giving him a single solid blow to the face.

Then she drew Callan's knife, and she threw it into the storm.

Midnight lay on the stone of the tower, coughing for breath. She got her hands under her and managed to rise to one knee, massaging her throat. Beside her, Jason lay on his back, snapping the head off the arrow stuck through his arm. He pulled it out a moment later, and Midnight winced at his scream.

"You are a brilliant warrior," Vaneer complimented her, drawing the knife from his shoulder. He put a hand to it to stop the flow of blood. "This is a waste. You belong with us."

"I belong here," Midnight managed. "Between you and the innocent." She managed to rise, dropping her hand to her chest. Yes, she felt wetness when she pushed on her armor. One of her wounds had reopened. It hurt.

It didn't matter. She took a step toward Vaneer.

"You won't win, child," he chided. Jason rose from the floor, clutching his bloody arm, but his face unwavering. Andromeda lingered behind the Messiah, glancing between him and Midnight with a very conflicted expression around her purple-glowing eyes.

"Watch me," Midnight replied. She claimed her bow from the ground.

"Stand down," Vaneer ordered. His eyes gleamed. "Your final warning."

Midnight lunged. She spun into a vicious swing with her bow, and Vaneer evaded it by leaning backward-

Pain!

Midnight shrieked as she collapsed to her hands and knees, then onto her side, clutching her head and writhing as knives played havoc inside her skull. She saw everything in a purple tint, and the rain felt hot as it ran over her skin. She was boiling alive and freezing, and the bones in her skull had to be cracking from the pressure as bombs exploded inside it. Her throat burned as she screamed.

"Jason?" Vaneer asked. "Could you?"

The green-eyed man reached down and picked up Callan's knife. He loomed over Midnight, those eyes cold...

"Jason," she whispered through the pain. "Jason, please...don't do this. You're better than this."

He was silent. Midnight reached out and clutched his leg, feebly. "Jason..."

"I serve the Guiding Light," he finally said. Midnight gasped as the pain redoubled. She thrashed, and Jason's foot planted itself on her chest. "Good-bye, Stella."

"Ah!"

The pain faded, mercifully. Midnight gasped for breath and raised her head in the same instant. She looked down the parapet to see Vaneer-

And the arrow sticking through his heart. The man looked almost as shocked as Midnight felt.

And then he dropped to his knees, spitting up blood, to reveal Andromeda behind him, her eyes brown in full again as she pulled Midnight's arrow from the Messiah's body.

"Oh," Vaneer whispered, coughing up a spray of scarlet. "No. No...you need me...you don't know what's coming...I have to save you all..."

And then he fell forward, crumpling in a heap at Andromeda's feet. She stared down at him with burning hate and fury in her gaze.

"You'll not harm my daughter," she whispered, tears in her eyes. "You'll not-"

Jason's foot was gone from Midnight's chest. She threw herself upward as fast as she could, grabbing for him, but she was too slow.

"Mother!" she shrieked as Jason drove Callan's knife into her chest, up to the hilt. Andromeda stumbled, and the knife came out and went in, three more times. Blood sprayed the already-red stones, and it soaked into her gown.

The bloody arrow fell from Andromeda's fingers. An instant later, she collapsed too, right behind Vaneer.

Estelle's mouth hung open for a long moment. Tears burst from her eyes again, and not from pain of the flesh now.

"Mother," she whispered.

Jason turned to face her, bloody knife in hand.

Estelle Marona's fists clenched.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Chapter Twenty-five: Rise(Part Two)



"Hello, Estelle," Vaneer said. "Or should I call you Midnight?"

"I don't much care what you call me," Midnight told him. "I care that this is your final warning."

"Warning?" Vaneer seemed amused.

"Leave," Midnight ordered. "Nurem is under my protection. I won't allow you to start a war for the Iron Sea."

"You can't prevent it." Vaneer breathed, and his eyes turned violet for a moment. "Tempest and her people hold Luna in chains. Your friends' attempt to rescue her has failed. They are all in my power now."

Midnight breathed slowly, evenly. She glanced from Vaneer to Jason to Andromeda.

"I don't believe you," she said.

"If I'd told you your mother answered to me, you wouldn't have believed that either."

"How?" Midnight asked. "How did you get to her?"

"The necklace," Andromeda replied, her voice somehow both strong and wavering in a way Midnight found difficult to understand. "It was a gift."

"There is a reason my lieutenants wear those necklaces," Vaneer agreed. "They allow me not only to sense what they are thinking and feeling from afar, but also to enter their thoughts as if I stand beside them, regardless of where they may be."

"And you used that to force her to steal back your file on Plan Thirteen and shoot me." Midnight set her teeth. "What is Plan Thirteen?"

"You don't know what's coming." Vaneer's voice was earnest. "I've seen the future, Estelle Marona. In it I see nothing but death and misery. Our world will end in fire, when the secret of the Star is made known, when the Stone falls into the wrong hands, when the elves come down from the North, stiffened by drow legions and led by the Four. When the King of Clans dies and there is a power vacuum in the Highlands, the world of Men will be weak. You won't kill me here tonight, Estelle: you need me. More than you know."

"Do I?" Midnight asked.

"Plan Thirteen is necessary," Vaneer continued. "It's necessary for evolution. Mankind is not strong enough to defend itself from the things that are coming, not in its current state. We must make it stronger. And that is what this war was to accomplish: to bring forth the Gifted for the defense of the many. So that we could find the strongest, the mightiest. For Plan Thirteen."

"You are insane," Midnight told him, her voice level. She turned to Jason. "You believe in all this?"

"I do." There was no give in his tone. Midnight glanced past him at MacTavish's ship, and she swallowed as she saw the smoke had all but faded. Fortunately, she couldn't see the man himself, but...

"Return," Vaneer ordered. "Estelle, not for the sake of friendship or loyalty to me should you return - oppose me if such is your will. It is your right. But I need you, and you need me. Together, we can weather the coming storm...divided, we will fall."

"Leave," Midnight repeated. "Final warning." She raised her bow.

"Estelle-"

"Okay." She drew her arrow back and aimed between Vaneer's eyes. "Goodbye."

She fired. Vaneer slipped to the side, and the shaft flew through the air right where he'd been and lodged in the stone wall of the tower right by Andromeda's head. Midnight lunged at him, swinging with her bow and fist, both her feet and even her head. The man wove backward, blocking when he had to with surprising skill, but not firing back. He knocked Midnight's bow from her hands with a particularly skillful defense, waving Jason down when the man made a move to engage Midnight from her other side.

All of a sudden, he did shoot back, and Midnight's head rang as he cracked it against the stone wall of the tower. His foot came up and he kicked her onto her back. She rolled and propped herself up as best she could, struggling to breathe.

"It's been too long," Vaneer said, cracking his neck. "I don't go hand to hand much these days."

Midnight set her teeth. For revenge.

She screamed and lunged, fists flying.

***

The Whispers jumped onto each others' shoulders, flipping forward in midair as they came in for downward slashes and kicks that ought to have split Kui, Belthor and Luna in half. The Islander caught one mid-descent with a blast of light that made her drop her sword and crash straight on her side, which struck him as a skillful move on his part. He made sure to stab her immediately thereafter.

"Run!" he ordered Luna. "Get out of here!"

"I won't leave you-" Oh, she sounded like Estelle.

"If you die, they win!" Kui didn't follow that up with Belthor and I are expendable, but that didn't mean he wasn't thinking it.

"You know!" Belthor shouted, as he evaded strikes from the two Whispers that had vaulted his way. "When I woke up this morning-" he paused to lean back under a slash "-I didn't think I'd spend the night rescuing a princess from a death cult of female ninjas!"

"You get used to it," Kui replied, as he sent one of Belthor's foes flying with a blast of golden light.

Smoke exploded around the pair, and they were coughing. Kui tried shining light through it, but the glow didn't do much to the cloud. He swore, raising his hands defensively to cover his face-

Wham! Someone hit him in the gut. Kui gasped and folded over, but he reached out and caught a hand as he did. He yanked, as hard as he could, and a Whisper fell overtop him. Instantly, the Islander snapped his legs and his arms up, and before she had a chance to react he locked her in the most vicious chokehold he could. She thrashed, but it lasted all of five seconds before her struggles tapered off. Kui held on until she lay still, then pushed himself out from under her, stumbling to his feet.

The smoke faded quickly. That was the rain's doing. Kui glanced left, and he blasted another Whisper with a burst of light that seared her eyes-

A bolt took her in the chest, and she staggered. She fell to her knees, and Kui turned in surprise.

I wonder if the archery thing runs in the family? the Islander mused as he saw Luna with a liberated crossbow on the other end of the clearing.

Another Whisper flew through the air with a clap of thunder, and she landed in a heap almost fifteen feet from where she'd started. Belthor was a whirling storm of staff strikes, battering left and right with both ends of the weapon as the Whispers tried to get the best of him. Kui took a step that way-

Lightning slammed down an inch from his face. That made him jump, but the thunderclap that came an instant later made him howl. He clutched his ears and dropped to his knees, the sound reverberating through his head like a demonic drumbeat.

Tempest loomed over him, electricity sparking from the ends of her hair. She said something that Kui took great offense to - he couldn't hear it, so he supposed it must have been fairly nasty. She had an opportunity, didn't she, to say whatever she wanted?

Her hands came up. Well, so did Kui's. He abandoned his ears and brought up a shield of golden light to match her storm of electricity. For the third time, light and lightning crossed, and the heat from the confrontation seared the ground. The light burned Kui's eyes, and he saw Tempest looking away too. He could hear a little, now, and what he heard was the hissing whine of power meeting power in a battle for dominance.

And little by little...he was winning.

Tempest cried out as Kui's power overrode hers, and she was flung backward. She rolled in the mud, struggling back to her feet in an instant. Kui, for his part, collapsed to his hands and knees in it, gasping for breath as the rain soaked him through and through. His limbs shook and ached...

"You lack control." Tempest staggered toward him, and Kui looked up to see her hands crackle with lightning. She leveled them at him. "Good-bye, Ku'uaki."

She fired. And...something was in front of Kui, standing between him and Tempest's Gift.

"Belthor!" Kui cried. The young man planted the stolen staff in the mud and held it firmly with both hands, screaming as electricity coursed over the tool, over him, into the mud and air around him-

And then it stopped. Tempest staggered back a half-step, looking almost as spent as Kui felt. He glanced up at Belthor, standing unnaturally still-

"Not enough." The man raised the staff and then slammed it back down in the mud, and a tremendous explosion of Tempest's own power reverberated outward, ripping furrows in the mud and electrifying the air around her. She screamed as she was struck in the chest, and again she flew, but this time straight up, up, up, until she was higher than the tallest tree Kui could see.

Then she came down like a stone, and he watched as she fell toward the road below, clearly already unconscious. Belthor raised his arms and the staff, and her descent ground to a halt mere inches above the roadway. He gently laid her down in the slick grass.

"Is that all of them?" Luna asked.

Kui tried to stand, but slipped on a hard object in the mud. He frowned, reached down, and felt the pistol Tempest had blasted away from him. Without thinking, Kui claimed it and stuffed it in his shirt.
Belthor offered his hand wordlessly, and the Islander took it with a nod.

"Yes," he told Luna. "That's all of them."

"Thank the gods." Luna sighed. "Estelle?"

"Estelle," Kui agreed. He took a breath. "Belthor...Estelle."

"Of course."

"Luna, get to safety," Kui ordered. "The Palace. Find your brother and make sure he's alive. Belthor and I will see to Estelle."

"But first." Belthor put his hand on Kui's chest. "Nerien!"

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Chapter Twenty-six: Rise(Part One)



Midnight swung across the gap between buildings, and her feet hit the stone exterior of the tower with a solid thump. She pulled herself upward hand over hand, a snarl of concentration on her face as she passed the third story...then the fourth...

At the fifth, she paused, reaching her grapple embedded above a small window. She could have put it up higher, but she didn't like the idea of climbing up over the crenels with Jason and Vaneer looming right there. Better to go inside lower and work her way up more cautiously.

This is it, she thought, taking a deep breath. End this.

She crashed through the glass, landing in a fighting crouch, one hand on her dagger. Inside she saw...no one. Just an empty hall leading to a set of spiral stairs upward. Midnight inhaled, drawing her bow and an arrow.

She advanced down the hall, heart pounding. Her smoke would be clearing in mere moments, and if MacTavish hadn't run for cover, Jason would have another shot. She had no time to waste.

Her feet hit the stairs. Up she went, trying to hurry but be cautious at the same time. She rounded the spiral stairs until she found herself emerging into the air atop the tower, lashed by light rain preceding the gathering storm. She clutched bow and arrow tightly as she continued around the parapet.

Midnight came around the tower to find herself face-to-face with Vaneer, and behind him Jason...and her mother.

***

"Hah!" Kui shouted, slashing. The White Hand before him went down, clutching the red gash across his chest. Of course, then Kui was backing up as Tempest and an Illuminator came at him, light and lightning both blasting to his left and right.

The Islander raised his hands, and a shield of gold and white covered him. He hissed through his teeth as it took blast after blast from his enemies, but he held on grimly. Any minute now, he'd have his opening-

The Illuminator cried out and went flying as a blast of something hit him from behind. He rebounded off Kui's shield and crashed in a heap on the ground with a broken nose, and Kui looked up to see Belthor, staff spinning as he evaded strikes from the two remaining White Hand, one on each side of him. There were two more Illuminators, too, and they were advancing on the boy from behind.

"Watch out!" Kui shouted. He clenched his fists and almost shoved the barrier forward toward Tempest. She stumbled back a step...but there was no give in her.

Lightning split the night. For a moment, Kui and Tempest were head-to-head, facing each other down with all their power. Light and lightning met and great crackling blasts of energy echoed from the point of convergence, stinging Kui's ears. He was screaming his defiance, and Tempest was too.

Neither would yield until the other did.

"Ride the lightning!" Tempest shouted, which was one of the strangest battle cries Kui had ever heard. Unfortunately, it seemed to work: his barrier cracked, and then he was thrown violently backward as it blew back on him. Somehow, he maintained the shield and wasn't struck by the surging storm of electricity, but he still hit a tree spine-first and shock waves ran through his body. He slumped.

"Ow," he muttered.

"Mister Kui-" Belthor swung his staff around, and when it made contact with the chest of one of the White Hand, a noise like thunder split the night. The hapless man howled as he flew ten feet through the air, clipped a tree branch, and flipped twice over before landing rear-facing-up in the brook. "Hang in there!"

Kui lunged to his feet. He forgot about his powers, and instead pulled out Belthor's pistol with its single shot. He aimed it at Tempest, but a bolt of lightning struck the gun and sent it spinning away into the darkness. Kui swore.

"Give up," Tempest suggested. "Just...give up."

"I beat you before," Kui warned.

"With a surprise attack and a simple trick." Tempest's arms crackled with lightning, and it reflected in her eyes. "It won't happen this time. I can kill you with nothing but a touch."

Kui raised his hands and blasted her with light. She ducked her head, then came around, sending bolts of electricity arcing his way. Kui dove to the side as her strikes obliterated bushes and uprooted small trees, sending rocks scattering like marbles.

An Illuminator flew over his head, screaming shrilly. The man crashed into a tree in front of Kui, then slumped on his back. The Islander looked over at Belthor to see the young man in his element, blocking and striking with his staff and sending men scattering like ninepins with every strike.

"You really should consider-" Belthor paused then to almost take a White Hand's head off before he ducked "-thinking about surrender!"

"For the Messiah!" the remaining Illuminator replied. "For the Light!"

Kui raised his hands and blocked another stream of lightning with a barrier of gold. He dug his feet in and held his ground, trying to let Tempest fire off her bolts until she didn't have anything left. Sweat burst over his face as the air heated around him. In light of that, the rainfall was welcome, and Kui gasped as the cold water drizzled over his forehead and down his cheeks.

And then someone was behind him. He ducked as a sword went through the air where his head had been. Without seeing her, he knew it was a Whisper, loading for another strike.

Kui's defense was simple. He dropped his shield and sidestepped.

The woman shrieked as Tempest's blast hit her dead-on. She writhed for several seconds even after the Gifted woman ceased her offensive with a horrified look, and then the Whisper collapsed on her face, twitching and steaming.

Kui blasted Tempest in that one moment of distraction. She screamed too, clutching at her eyes and stumbling back a few steps, dropping to one knee. Kui lunged at her as she fell, and he punched her once, twice, thrice - she caught his hand, so he kicked her hard enough she fell on her back. He lunged on top of her, and his hands pinned her wrists down.

"Get off me!" Tempest's veins seemed to pulse with white energy. Kui gritted his teeth, mastered his fear, and seized what he needed to.

Then he crashed to the ground beside her, rolling side to side as she struck out with bolts of electricity. Thunder rumbled in the air as she stumbled to her feet. Kui did the same at the first opening.

"You'll-" Tempest broke off as she raised her hand. Her face paled as she saw lightning arcing over her skin, jumping from finger to finger and knuckle to knuckle. She looked up at Kui with something akin to horror in her eyes. "What have you done?"

"What needed doing." Kui dropped the wires he'd ripped out of her device. "You have no control anymore."

Tempest swallowed. She looked again at her hands, but then fury built up in her gaze. She clenched her fists.

"I'll kill you," she whispered. Lightning crackled down her arms, and she aimed at Kui. "I'll kill you-"

Bam!

She flew into the forest with a cry and a blast of electricity Kui didn't think was intentional. An instant later, he heard a thud and the cracking of branches and leaves in the wind.

"Belthor?" Kui asked, turning to look at the young man where he stood fighting the remaining White Hand and Illuminator. He spun his staff and blocked a strike of light.

"A little help, Mister Kui!" he cried as the Illuminator tried to blast him again.

Kui tackled the man from behind. He pounded his face into the ground with fury, and then he was back on his feet, seizing the White Hand. For an instant, they grappled, and Belthor chose to disengage. Kui promptly ignored him, wrestling with the soldier until he finally had his moment, and he went for a vicious leg sweep. An instant later, bones snapped, and the White Hand cried out.

"Done," Kui said. He turned to Belthor, where he knelt beside Luna, undoing the knots holding her in place.

"I'm Belthor," he told her when she glanced at him. "Your sister visited me one night." He paused a second later, reddening. "Oh, um. I mean. Um."

"You certainly have a talent for picking the worst possible method to introduce yourself to someone," Kui said as Belthor finished untying Luna. He eyed the princess as she rose. "Marona."

"The Burning wasn't my-"

"Estelle told me." Kui took a breath. "I believe her."

"Where is she?" Luna asked. "Is she-"

"She's fine," Kui said, despite not knowing if she truly was. "She's just fine."

"She might be," Tempest's voice said from the darkness. Kui and Belthor spun, raising their hands and weapons as the woman appeared from the trees, hair slicked by the rain, with nettles sticking from her arms and lightning crackling off her skin whenever the rain hit her. "She might be, but you ought to worry more about yourselves." Behind her came six Whispers in full armor, weapons in hand as they fanned out.

"Got any spells?" Kui asked.

"I'm an initiate who failed my apprenticeship test and stole a staff," Belthor replied, voice wavering. "I can heal people."

"Well, that might be useful in a few minutes," Kui replied as the Whispers advanced.