Lorelei threw a wall of ice between her team and the charging Kaohlad. His dark sickles sliced through the wall with ease, but it bought the three just the barest bit of time to recover from the shock of seeing him regenerate from their opening onslaught.
Gwen leapt at Kaohlad, met his sickles with her silver needle sword. Sparks flew as the song of metal on metal echoed through the chamber, but Gwen was sorely outmatched. Lorelei blasted ice, formed walls to protect Gwen and patches of ice at Kaohlad’s feet, but the Son of Night was shockingly nimble and ruthless in his attack.
There was a madness in his eyes, a hunger that overpowered all else. He had spotted prey, and he would not let them escape.
He would feed on them just as he’d been feeding on the entire city above.
Unless we stop him. Right here, right now.
No small amount of planning had gone into their opening attack against Kaohlad. Lorelei’s Cold Snap, Will’s Energy Magic to control temperature and build pressure, Gwen’s thread prison…
All had led to a magnificent explosion, a perfectly-executed attack that should have utterly annihilated the vicious monster they now fought.
Now they were improvising. Improvising was a common thing for Hunters, so Lorelei and Will were used to it.
But they weren’t used to each other.
Lorelei and Will had spent plenty of time together, of course. With Caleb and Chelsea as their best friends, it was inevitable. Lorelei felt they knew each other well, and she enjoyed his company.
But they’d almost never been on a team. They’d rarely been in a fight together. She didn’t understand his strange uses of Energy Magic. And knowing that neither of her teammates were fully used to her Ice Magic, Lorelei had to tiptoe, to carefully consider how she used her ice.
She couldn’t freeze the floor much, because Gwen relied on being mobile, and needed proper traction. And she couldn’t just throw out ice walls and spears and other attacks and defenses like she could alongside Chelsea or even Caleb, not as fast and instinctive, because she couldn’t trust Will and Gwen to understand her patterns, to always be where they needed to be.
That’s why we planned out our opening strike, focused so hard on a single combined assault that could take him out right away.
And even though we thought about the possibility of him surviving…
We never saw this coming. Him fully recovering, stronger and faster than ever, after what we just threw at him?
Gwen blocked a series of vicious strikes, forced into a frantic backpedal. Lorelei raised a wall of ice, but Kaohlad ripped right through it.
He’s focusing in on her.
“Will, we need to spread his attention,” Lorelei said. She stood close to Will, and his hearing was uncannily good, even though he nearly always wore headphones, so she didn’t need to speak loudly even in the bombast of battle. Will simply nodded, saying nothing. He wrote words in the air, but Lorelei didn’t even think of looking to read them.
She had to keep her focus on Gwen. On protecting her friend.
Every breath Lorelei took felt chill in her throat, frigid in her lungs. Every exhale, snowflakes dusted the air.
Cold Snap is a finisher, a trump card, a last resort.
Opening with it was a good plan, considering what we knew, and what we couldn’t possibly have foreseen.
She shook her head. Managed to knock Kaohlad back a step with a cascading series of icy walls.
I held out a long time in the Library of Solitude. That was a bigger fight than this.
I can hold together.
I have to.
Gwen finally had the breathing room to toss out thread, silvery strands that seemed to vanish the instant after they were thrown. Three strands were thrown out in different directions, and then Kaohlad was back at her. As if she sensed the wall so close behind her, Gwen pivoted, continuing to backstep, now into more open space. Kaohlad came after her, but he was stumbling, left then right and back to the left. Little blossoms of light, the purple color that characterized Will’s magic, burst briefly at his shoulders whenever he stumbled one way or the other.
Messing with… momentum? Kinetic energy?
Whatever specific mechanics were involved with Will’s attack, it started to put Kaohlad off-balance for the first time, something the trio sorely needed. Gwen cast more strands of thread throughout the domed chamber, and Lorelei was able to freeze Kaohlad’s feet, throw walls all around him, arrest his momentum to give the three of them more breathing space. Confident that Kaohlad was an easier target than before, Lorelei flung a pair of icy spears at him. One sickle came up, shattered the first. But the other sickle missed, and the second spear pierced Kaohlad’s stomach, the icy blue projectile impaling him, sticking out his back. For a moment, Kaohlad looked stunned, swaying on his feet.
Then a grin crossed his face. Chopping down with both sickles, he sliced the icy spear’s ends off in the front and back. With a single push, he dislodged the rest of the spear. Closing his eyes, grimacing, he arched his back, and…
Inky darkness filled the hole in his chest, then transformed. Skin, even clothing, were made good as new.
Kaohlad opened his eyes, gazing at the trio with a hungry grin. “So full of life,” he said. “You’re exactly what I need to complete my mission.”
“What mission?” Lorelei asked.
“My redemption,” Kaohlad said.
Lorelei threw a series of ice walls in front of him, blasting Diamond Dust around them, a slicing icy shroud that veiled her and Will as they ran out of the way of Kaohlad’s charging attack. When Kaohlad emerged, bloody from dozens of superficial wounds, he quickly targeted the trio again and pursued them, his cuts healing over while he was in motion.
Gwen leapt to intercept him with a defiant battle cry, her silver sword clashing against his dual sickles. But he was too strong, too fast, and even Gwen’s excellent swordsmanship couldn’t sustain an offense. Once again, she was forced onto the defensive. Will and Lorelei supported her, forcing Kaohlad to break through icy shackles on his feet and walls in his path, manipulating his own momentum and kinetic energy to keep him from coming straight at Gwen unimpeded.
Lorelei blasted her Diamond Dust again, creating many long, sliding walls that moved within the biting mist, shadows and targets to hopefully throwing off Kaohlad’s sense of direction. When she spotted him, charging through the mist towards Will, she slammed a wall into him, though that only made him stumble, not fall.
Now he turned on her, charging out from the Diamond Dust, sickles raised. Lorelei put up several icy shields, and as Kaohlad sliced his way through them, Gwen stepped between the last wall and Lorelei. When Kaohlad came through…
He never saw her coming.
A dozen stabs in the space of a second, and Kaohlad’s whole torso was bloodied with holes straight through. A half dozen more stabs, ripping into Kaohlad’s shoulders, and then Gwen leapt away, casting out more silver thread that shone for a moment before vanishing.
Kaohlad took a moment to recover, and Lorelei bombarded him with icy spears, spinning blades of ice, whatever she could hit him with. She sliced off his arms and legs, impaled his body to the stone floor, and then crushed it all with a gigantic block of ice. She stepped back, panting, snowflakes misting the air in front of her.
Such brutality was far beyond what she’d ever done before, even to Hollows.
And yet she knew.
That still won’t be enough to kill him.
Moments later, arcing lines of darkness carved through the ice, tore it all to pieces. Up stood Kaohlad, well and whole again, cracking his neck as he turned his fierce, hungry attention on Lorelei.
That was when Gwen raised her hand, pulled down in a fist.
Dozens of strands of silver thread suddenly materialized, a web that tightened in a flicker of silver light. Thread so fine, so sharp…
Kaohlad was again sliced to ribbons. Bloody and dismembered, he crumpled to the floor.
Lorelei followed up with ice, and Will shone bright light like a spotlight onto Kaohlad, intense and blinding.
Darkness rose up like a veil, blocking their attacks and blocking what should have been a lifeless, horrifying corpse from view. A moment later, the veil vanished, and Kaohlad was whole once more.
What’s it going to take?
We’re getting better. We’re rallying, pulling together, gaining an advantage, but…
He isn’t weakening. He isn’t slowing down.
But we will.
Will’s burst of light, while gone, seemed to have some kind of residual effect. The domed chamber where they dueled the monster was lighter now, and Lorelei could see a few symbols laid into the floor, walls, and ceiling like mosaics. At the apex of the dome was a field of X-shaped stars, and a shroud of darkness swallowing them up. On the floor was the dark silhouette of a throne, and seated on the throne, darker still, the silhouette of a man with a crown of darkness.
On the circular wall that surrounded them, one word was written over and over in red, but crossed out in black: EXILED.
He thinks he can win favor with the Lord of Night? He thinks he can go back home? Caleb said in his shadow world was the phrase “Forever Exiled,” but maybe…
Maybe he thinks he can change that.
The worst part is, he could be wrong or right, and I’d never know. None of us knows enough about these Sons of Night and their Father, about the Endless Night they wish to bring down on us all.
And right now…
Lorelei coughed, her chest tight and cold.
Right now, I need to find a way to finish this, quickly.
You’re my greatest ally. And yet you fight back against me. I don’t…
Lorelei struggled to think the next part. She always did, because it was a rough pill to swallow.
But it was true.
I don’t understand you.
My magic, and yet…
You’re like your own entity. An entity that is incredibly powerful, and yet also has weaknesses, weaknesses you make me bear.
What are you? And what do I need to know… is there any way to overcome these weaknesses? To stop falling apart when enough time has passed after a Cold Snap?
Right about now… yes, there it is.
A faint blue tint covered all in her vision. Cerulean, just like her ice.
What does it all mean? What do I do to learn more about this power?
Not just for me. If it’s Elemental Magic…
For Chelsea, too. She goes through things she doesn’t understand with it, different from me, but…
Sometimes it takes control of her.
And I haven’t told her, but…
Sometimes you very nearly take control of me.
Why is that?
Lorelei blinked several times, staring at Kaohlad. He still stood in the center of the chamber, watching the trio with that hungry stare, hunger just barely tempered with a determined resolve.
Why isn’t he attacking?
Lorelei reached for her glove Talisman, tugged it snug with a shaky hand. She took in a deep breath, but had to stop sooner than expected.
Her chest hurt.
And she was very cold.
“Is there a problem?” Lorelei asked, glaring at the Son of Night.
Kaohlad grinned at her. “Oh, no problem,” he said. “I’m just savoring your expressions. That dawning realization that there’s nothing you can do to win… it’s a mouth-watering sight.” He twirled his sickles with a casual air. “My brothers and I, we all have titles. I am the Devourer. At my height, before my exile, I was second only to Sen, the greatest of us in all things. I was prized and revered. And now, after such a long exile, such a long, lonely, torturous road… I’m here.” His grin widened. “The road back home has finally revealed itself to me. I’m just… taking it in for a moment.” He breathed in deep through his nose, held it for a moment, then exhaled, slowly, through his mouth. “Yes. I do believe I’m ready, now. Thank you for coming to me. Thank you for accelerating all of this. I’m more grateful than you know.”
“It’s not over,” Will said, not betraying any emotions in his voice or expression. He twirled his pen Talisman, shrugged his shoulders. “Talk all you want, but we’re still standing.”
“Not for much longer,” Kaohlad said.
Lorelei formed ice beneath his feet, but he jumped as if he anticipated it, flipping in the air, arcing down straight towards Lorelei.
Gwen’s sword shot through the air, pierced through his back, came out through his chest, and stuck into the far wall. Thread trailed from it, and it caught, Kaohlad jerking to a sudden stop in midair, blood staining the silver thread. He grimaced, groaned, and sliced down at the thread. It cut, he fell, but a sudden beaming white ray of light shone down on him. He squinted, shielded his face, even as his pale skin and black clothes started to turn to ashy grey, crumbling. Darkness rose up, veiled him from sight, and a moment later he leapt through the veil, straight towards Gwen.
Before either Lorelei or Gwen could make a move to stop him, he suddenly dropped to the floor, crashing feet-first so hard the stone cracked and cratered beneath his feet. He sunk six inches, dropped to his knees, which also shattered the stone. Even kneeling looked like an effort, as he groaned and flexed, pushed at some invisible forced that pounded down on him.
No, there was nothing pushing down on him.
There was something pulling at him from below.
In front of Will, floating in the air, were the gleaming purple letters GRV.
Kaohlad managed to turn his head, with a supreme force of effort, to turn his dark, vicious gaze on Will.
Will tapped the letters, they pulsed with light, and Kaohlad sunk another six inches. He folded forward, catching himself on his forearms and hands, but he cried out in pain.
Will tapped the letters again, and they pulsed once more. Kaohlad screamed in agony, and Lorelei struggled to watch as he started to be crushed bodily, sinking into himself, his scream fading away as his neck folded up like an accordion.
Lorelei and Gwen, overcoming their horror, moved to deal the — hopefully — finishing blows.
But Kaohlad suddenly transformed into inky blackness, sinking into the stone like water into a drain. Will’s gleaming letters vanished from the air.
All was quiet.
“Where are you?” Gwen shouted in challenge, brandishing her sword.
Instinct tugged at Lorelei, and though she was struggling with her own deteriorating physical state, she turned in a flash, calling upon her ice as she raced towards Will.
Inky, black darkness was rising up from the stone right in front of Will.
Will wrote furiously, but he wasn’t fast enough. Kaohlad was formed, and his sickles came slicing. Will leapt back, fast enough to save himself.
But not his Talisman.
One black blade caught Will’s pen, wrenched it from his hand, and sent it flying through the air, bouncing across the stone floor on the far side of the chamber with a clatter.
Will was defenseless.
“Go!” Lorelei shouted, surrounding Kaohlad with walls of ice. Cerulean spears rained down at her vicious foe from all sides, and ice rose up at his feet to encase him.
Black sickles flashed through the air.
Ice shattered into a million pieces.
Lorelei called upon those pieces, blasting them into Kaohlad’s body, a million tiny cuts and punctures, enough to make the Son of Night, the Devourer, double over, nearly drop one of his cruel weapons.
Will was scrambling, had made it five paces.
Kaohlad’s dark gaze turned on the fleeing mage. Ice fell from his body, melted in the air, as his wounds swiftly closed.
Raising her hand, Lorelei called on more ice…
And her knees buckled.
She fell, catching herself, but every breath caused the air before her face to freeze. Her ungloved hand was pale, and small patches of glowing ice were on her knuckles and wrist.
She was so cold.
Defiance, and dedication to her friends, to her city, pulled her gaze upward, pulled her attention to the battle. Kaohlad wasn’t pursuing Will easily. Gwen was there, her sword flashing, threads flying from out of nowhere to slice at her monstrous, regenerating foe.
But she couldn’t fight him alone. She faltered, withered under Kaohlad’s tremendous strength, the speed and brutality with which he wielded his twin, curved blades.
She wasn’t backing away fast enough. Perhaps exhaustion was kicking in, or perhaps she was too determined not to back down, not to give ground when Will was still defenseless, when Lorelei was collapsed.
I have to help her.
Don’t fail me now. I need more time. I need more strength!
I can’t just fail now!
Lorelei called upon her ice, but nothing happened. The magic wouldn’t come.
Gwen parried a sickle, dodged the other, pressed an attack. Silver needle sword flashed as if it were made of light, of silver flame, blazing defiantly against the agent of darkness which it fought.
Darkness fell upon the sword.
The silver fire faltered.
Gwen fell back.
Blood streamed from her left arm, watered the stony floor.
She was falling. So slowly. Everything was slow, too slow, Lorelei could see it all in such painstaking, horrifying, helpless detail.
Don’t just fail me. Not now. I need…
I need you.
Whoever you are.
I know you’re there. I don’t know what you are, but I know you’re there.
For the first time, the first time in so many years that Lorelei had been sure he existed without any proof…
She saw him.
A ghostly figure before her, a young man whose body, face, hair, eyes, all that he was, was cerulean.
Just like her ice.
He had eyes, but no mouth. Yet those eyes said so much, in a language that couldn’t be expressed in words.
He reached out his hand, and Lorelei took it with her gloved one.
The world, the falling, the running, the fighting, all that had been happening so slowly, suddenly was back in normal motion. The ghostly man was gone. Gwen had fallen, fending off Kaohlad’s attacks on her back, desperate, on the verge of defeat. Will was still running, still chasing his Talisman so far away.
Lorelei stood. The ghostly man was gone.
But Lorelei had strength again. She was cold, but it wasn’t defeating her. Her vision was still tinted cerulean, but there was something comforting about that.
She raised her hand, and Ice Magic answered to her will.
A pillar of ice shot up right beneath Kaohlad’s feet, carrying him with sudden speed all the way to the ceiling, smashing him against the stone in a crumbling blast of noise and fury. A half-dome of ice blocked falling debris from harming Gwen as Lorelei raced to her, knelt at her side.
“It’s not so bad,” she said, looking at the long cut on Gwen’s arm. “You’ll be all right.”
“Will,” Gwen said, gritting her teeth against pain.
Lorelei looked Will’s way. There was no one around him, but she kept her eyes on him as he ran. “He’ll make it,” she said. Healing Magic came easily, and she didn’t even need to look at Gwen’s cut. Wounds like that were second nature for her to heal.
“Thank you,” Gwen said, and the two women stood together. Kaohlad came diving down from the ceiling with a vicious yell, and Lorelei and Gwen leapt aside, letting him land between them. Silver sword flashed, cerulean ice gleamed, as they fought to keep Kaohlad on them and away from their disarmed friend.
Kaohlad’s fury came clear in his voice, in vicious yells as he swung his sickles at both of his foes, battering through their defenses time and again. Lorelei and Gwen had rallied, but they weren’t out of danger.
They were still outmatched. And Lorelei was still on the clock.
He just gave me an extension is all. I can last a little longer, but it won’t happen again.
This is my last shot. We have to end this fast.
We have to end this fast, and yet —
And yet Kaohlad was fast, and strong, and he was picking up on Gwen’s swordsmanship, her patterns and rhythms, on Lorelei’s style, on her patterns and rhythms.
He was learning their ways, faster than they were learning his. He was adapting while they struggled to keep up.
Gwen’s arm was struck again, but she didn’t fall this time. Lorelei dodged one too many close slashes, and then things were far too close for comfort as the barest edge of one sickle grazed a line along her forehead. She leapt back with a surge of Enhancement Magic, giving her more space, but the thin, shallow wound on her forehead was a fire blazing on her skin. Blood trickled down, and she barely wiped it away in time to keep it out of her eyes.
Healing Magic wasn’t an option, she didn’t have time for it in this frantic duel.
Gwen faltered, and Lorelei saved her with a pillar of ice, with javelins and scything, spinning blades that Kaohlad tore to frigid shrapnel, which Lorelei then turned in on him, but he was onto that tactic, too, leaping away and charging for Lorelei. She put up walls, blasted him with Diamond Dust, raised platforms to knock him off-balance, but still he came, the distance between them shortening and shortening.
Silver fire flashed, and Gwen was there, slashing and thrusting, nimbly leaping away when Kaohlad pressed an offensive. She was adapting, just a little bit, but enough to keep her out of danger and press an occasional offensive, enough to keep her foe at bay even as her arm bled freely, speckling the floor.
Light suddenly blazed, a brilliant white spotlight, and Kaohlad leapt away, shielding himself with a veil of darkness.
Will stood, panting, Talisman in hand.
“It is all futile!” Kaohlad roared, surveying his three opponents. “I have drawn blood. Your life feeds me now, and your strength will wane faster than before, while I will only grow stronger. Death is at your doorstep.”
Lorelei clenched her hand in a fist, struggled not to betray her fear.
Because she knew. She could feel it. Kaohlad was telling the truth. The slightest of wounds on her forehead, and yet her strength was ebbing far too quickly.
He was feeding off of the pain he’d inflicted.
“Ah, but this has been exhilarating,” Kaohlad said. “I’ve forgotten the thrill of a good fight. Thank you for this.”
A voice spoke into the chamber, echoing all around the stone: “Assume victory too quickly and you’ll see Old Man Pride staring back at you in the mirror.” A woman’s voice, flowing, hypnotic, with a lilting tone of amusement. “And Old Man Pride says hello shortly before the great fall.”
“Who’s there?” Kaohlad asked.
At the edge of the shadowed entrance to the dome stood a woman. Her hair was stark white, her skin fair and unwrinkled, her one silvery eye that wasn’t blocked by the cascading waves of her hair bright and clear. Her mouth was turned upwards in the slightest, smallest of half smiles, reflected more joyously in her eye.
At her side was a Summon, a fox whose color seemed to shimmer and shift at all times, and who at any time seemed to have three tails, or seven, or only one.
“Isla,” Lorelei said, gasping in relief and hope.
“Please don’t neglect to notice Dama,” Isla said, as her fox Summon rubbed up against her leg.
“Another lamb to the slaughter,” Kaohlad said, grinning. “The road to redemption is a shorter one than I thought.”
“This one struggles to see the truth of things,” Isla said, pointing at Kaohlad.
“He does indeed,” came another female voice behind Isla, serious and stern. Footsteps sounded, and then the speaker appeared. Long raven hair, dark eyes glinting behind narrow-framed glasses, and those distinctive angular facial features — Deirdre Greyson was here. The frames of her glasses flashed with magical light. “You’ve been discovered, Kaohlad. Or should I say ‘Duo’? You were fond of that name when you threatened my daughter and kidnapped my son.”
“It has a delightful ring to it,” Kaohlad said. “But it’s no longer a truthful name. There is no other. Only me.” He suddenly charged forward, bounding across fifty yards of stone floor in a pair of seconds. Scythes raised, he struck down, neither Isla or Deirdre lifting a hand to stop him.
Because they didn’t need to. A pair of Summons appeared, flying sea turtles of similar but oh so slightly different shades of blue. They didn’t just block Kaohlad’s sickles, but redirected the energy of his attack back at him, sent him sprawling for a moment before he rolled to his feet.
A cane clacked on the stone, along with footsteps. Oscar Greyson stepped into the dim light, his pale blue eyes bright, the many laugh lines around his mouth and eyes emphasizing the small quirk of a smile on his lips.
“Don’t let down your guard, Kaohlad,” Oscar said in a warm voice. “No one here will allow you to simply assail them in a head-on attack.”
“How did…?” Lorelei asked.
Deirdre pushed up her glasses, which flashed again. “Finding things — or people — is one of my specialties,” she said. “I’m only glad we arrived in time.”
“Three or six, it makes no difference,” Kaohlad said, sneering. “The first trio can attest. I cannot die!”
“Yes, I know, Dama,” Isla said, kneeling to stroke her Summon behind the ears. “No one ever seems to count you. Don’t worry, he’ll see the error of his ways.”
“Everyone dies, Kaohlad,” Oscar said. “You’ll see soon enough.”
“Ready?” Deirdre asked, looking to Lorelei.
Lorelei, feeling a surge of renewed strength, nodded.
The second round of the battle exploded into action.