War of Storms

TitleWar of Storms
Series: The Ryogan Chronicles, Book 3
Release: November 2018
ISBN
PublisherEntangled Teen

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The immortal mages have risen, and they’re out for blood.

Khya arrived at the Ryogan coast too late to stop the invasion. Now, cities are falling before the unrelenting march of an enemy army, and Khya’s squad is desperately trying to stay ahead of them. Warning the Ryogans, though, means leaving her brother imprisoned even longer. Time is running out for everyone.

But how can her squad of ten stand against an army of ten thousand?

Calling in help from every ally she’s made in Ryogo, Khya tries to build a plan that won’t mean sacrificing her friends or her brother. It’s a tough balance to find, especially when the leadership role she thought she wanted sits heavy on her shoulders, and her relationship with Tessen is beginning to crack under the strain.

The end is coming, and there’s no way to know who’ll be left standing when it hits.

Prologue

Lightning cracks through the sky, fast and close. Thunder is a continuous rumble that shakes the foundations of Shiara. Every rock on the island trembles and vibrates, and Yorri has felt it for so long he can’t remember what it’s like to be still.

Days. Weeks. A moon cycle or more. Yorri can’t be sure how long ago the Miriseh abandoned him and the other prisoners in the mountains, leaving them to the torment of the elements. The storms haven’t broken once.

Thunder shakes the air and the ground. Heavy raindrops batter him from above. Lightning blazes overhead, leaving glaring streaks even against Yorri’s closed eyes. He wishes he was numb to all of it—shouldn’t he be by now? He’s not. Whatever power heals the burns from lightning strikes and keeps him alive without food also seems to make him feel each drop of rain as if it’s the first to strike. It makes each deafening crash painfully fresh. Lack of sleep should’ve sent him into delirium and unconsciousness ages ago, but the fresh sparks of pain continuously shock him into alertness, and his mind processes each moment in perfect clarity.

He wants to scream, to struggle against the magic binding him to the black platform he’s laid out on. Instead, he presses his lips together to hold back outbursts of agony and anger. He doesn’t think anyone is guarding the valley, but he can’t be sure, and he refuses to give the Miriseh the satisfaction of screaming for the help no one is going to give him.

Swallowing the pain, he tries to find something else to focus on. The only option, though, is staring at the others trapped on their own platforms. Some are as still as their stone beds, but others thrash and flail, arching up against the cords binding their wrists and ankles to the rock, their mouths open in shouts Yorri can barely hear over the thunder.

If Khya were in my position, she’d find a way to free herself from this, he thinks. By now, she would’ve found a way to free us all. He knows his sister sees him as the problem solver with a mind that can see its way out of any situation, but this… What the bellows is he supposed to do about this? Not even his enhanced strength can break his bindings, and the storm isn’t the only anguish he’s  suffering.

The ache in his chest has been getting worse. Between his lungs is a spot where a pale yellow warmth bloomed when he bonded with Sanii, but they’ve been apart for too long. The connection has stretched and strained and soured. The spot has grown cold. It’s sent out barbed vines; they wrap around his lungs and heart and slowly constrict. He didn’t notice at first—not in the midst of the storm. Now, it’s impossible to ignore.

The only way he has to mark the passage of time is the steady increase of that pain and the water slowly filling the small, rocky valley. Now, swells lap at the base of his black stone bed, and sometimes wind forces the waves to crest over him. When the water covers him completely, will it bring death or just a new kind of torture?

Lightning strikes the closest peak. Thunder cracks and rumbles. Huge chunks of stone break off the slope, dropping into the valley below. Several land in the water, sending up massive waves. One cracks off a piece of the platform closest to Yorri, missing the prisoner’s hand by inches. One falls straight on someone else’s leg, crushing it completely.

I can’t do all the work, little brother. The whisper sounds like Khya, and his sister’s voice  soothes  even  though  she’s not here; all he’s hearing is what he guesses Khya might say. I’m fighting to save you. The least you can do is help.

We never gave up on you, Sanii, his sukhai, would likely add. Don’t you dare give up on us.

Tessen’s imagined voice throws down a challenge. Khya always bragged about how smart you are, Yorri. Prove it.

But he can’t. There’s no way to win a fight against magic, a mountain, and a storm.

He stares at the bloodied mess of the prisoner’s crushed leg, only blinking to clear the rain from his eyes. Over time, the flattened, pulped places round out and the skin smooths. The injury heals completely; only their torn pants and the faint bloodstains not washed away by the rain prove it happened at all.

Yorri huffs, and then he laughs. He laughs despite how the pain between his lungs pierces and pulls. In part, he laughs because of it. His pain will never be enough to kill him. His injuries will always heal. He can’t die, and for some Kujuko-cursed reason, he doesn’t even have the partial oblivion of false unconsciousness anymore. He’s awake, he’s aware, and he’s watching as the water gets higher with each hour of rainfall.

How long, he wonders, will he be able to drown?

 

Chapter One

Rido’iti is burning. And all I can do is watch.

We’re on a ridge overlooking the city and the ocean beyond, a seemingly endless stretch of white-capped water so dark it’s nearly black. The position is a hundred feet up and half a mile away from the city, and we’ve barely moved for the last two hours. Sanii is as mute and still as the nearby Zohogasha, the statues of the Kaisubeh standing sentinel on the coast. Etaro holds Rai tight, face turned against her shoulder. Nearby, Sanii, Zonna, and Natani stare at the city below us, unblinking. Tessen leans against me, his breathing shallow and too quick, his body trembling.

When Varan’s army landed, I stayed because I needed to see what he would order his nyshin mages to do. And if they would listen. A small part of me had hoped, despite knowing exactly how well the citizens of Sagen sy Itagami unquestioningly follow orders, that those I once called clan would look at where they were and see that the city they’d been commanded to decimate was defenseless, its people weak and unprepared. I’m too far away to see faces or watch individual reactions, but the army didn’t seem to hesitate before the slaughter of Rido’iti began. Now, only ruins, blood, and ash remain.

I barely blink as my gaze traces the narrow, twisting streets dividing the tightly packed, sharp-peaked buildings of stone and wood—or the lines of what’s left of them.  We reached this height while the Itagamin army was still marching across the ocean, and then the wide thoroughfares were nearly empty; the raging storm had driven everyone indoors. Even in the darkness of the storm and with my vision blurred by pounding rain, I could see the bright paint on the structures and count the trees lining most roads. It’s easy to imagine what this place might’ve looked like on a sunny morning with a harbor full of ships and a city full of life. I’ll never see it like that. I will only ever see it in flames and ruins.

Fire has engulfed most of the city, crawling from building to building with the help of brutal gusts of wind. The flames are so thick and hot not even the rain can put them out. It’ll extinguish itself eventually, but only after everything it can consume is gone. No one is here to douse the flames anymore. The citizens have either fled or died, and the Itagamin army is already leaving the chaos behind to move north, away from the roiling ocean and into Ryogo.

“How many do you think died?” Etaro asks.

“Too many.” I close my eyes. Acrid smoke burns my nose, the scent full of burning wood, roasting flesh, and singed hair.

At least the screaming has finally stopped.

“What do you want to do, Khya?” Tessen’s voice is so low that I might not have heard the question if he hadn’t rested his forehead against my temple. “We need to go, or we’ll get caught by their scouts.”

I nod to let him know I heard, but I don’t move yet. We were so close. After four moon cycles in Ryogo, hunting secrets and building weapons, we had finally been about to get on a boat and sail home. When we reached Rido’iti, we found an army instead of a ship. There’s no way for us to get back to Shiara—for me to get back to Yorri—now. Even if there was a ship in the harbor that hadn’t been broken into pieces by weeks of vicious storms, we can’t leave Ryogo to the revenge of the bobasu. But that doesn’t mean I have the first clue how to stop them.

We never planned for this. And it’s ridiculous that we didn’t. Or maybe the others have been considering this kind of failure and I was too focused on saving Yorri to worry about the rest of the world. Even now, if I found a ship, I’d be tempted to leave this place behind.

Love is pulling me to cross the tumultuous ocean to save Yorri.

Duty is pushing me to get ahead of this army and destroy Varan.

Choosing one means turning away from the other, and though I’ll hate myself for failing Yorri again, I won’t be able to live with myself at all if I leave Ryogo to die. I thought Varan wanted to take over and put himself in the Jindaini’s place. That’s hard to believe after Rido’iti. Looking down at the smoldering city, it doesn’t seem like he wants to rule the Ryogans, he wants to rule Ryogo. Even if there’s nobody left to follow him.

I watch the last squads of nyshin leave Rido’iti as I step backward toward the tree line. “We’ll head north and try to catch up with Wehli, Lo’a, and the others before they get too far inland. Whether we find them or not, though, we have to go to Jushoyen.”

Jushoyen, the city at the center of Ryogo, is where their leader lives.

“It won’t be an easy trip. We’ll have to cross half the country.” Round face pinched and spattered with mud, Rai looks between me and Etaro, who’s still pressing close for comfort. Then she tilts her head to the north. “It’s going to be especially hard if we have to move fast enough to stay ahead of them.”

“Easy or not, we need to go.” I turn north, drawing  my wards in tight to make it easier for us to pass through the dense forest. The magical shields will not only keep off the driving rain, they’ll keep my friends safe if we run into trouble.

“But, Khya, we can’t—” Sanii cuts emself off, but I hear what ey didn’t say. Sanii’s the only one as horrified by the thought of missing our chance to go back to Shiara as I am.

I’m making the right decision to head inland and warn the Ryogans, but seeing the lines of strain marring eir long face makes me wince. My heart cracks, and my resolve weakens. I remember Yorri and the others trapped on those platforms on Imaku, and I’ve been desperately trying to avoid picturing the awful places Varan could’ve shoved my brother. All the agony and indecision I’ve been trying to squash since we first saw the empty harbor and the incoming army rises and chokes me.

Yorri is my brother, but he’s Sanii’s sukhai, eir soulpartner. To me, missing him is like missing half my heart; for Sanii, being apart must feel as though it’s slowly eroding eir soul.

Swallowing hard, I step in front of em, stopping only when we’re so close the toes of our boots are nearly touching and I’m looking down into eir big eyes. “I know. I know, and I hate this, but what— When I think about what Yorri would do if he were here, I can’t believe…”

Ey flinches, eir hand pressing hard against eir chest as eir small frame seems to collapse in on itself. “You can’t believe he’d leave when he might be able to help. Because  he wouldn’t.”

“Especially not when he had a way  to know without  a doubt we were alive.” Which all sumai partners do. As torturous as it must be for them to be apart, Sanii told me moons ago that so long as ey was focused and functional, Varan hadn’t found a way to kill the immortal born. I would know Yorri’s life had ended the moment ey dropped to eir knees, keening and begging to die. It hurts to even allow for the possibility, but I’ve already proven immortality has limits.

Sanii looks south, across the towering waves toward Shiara and Yorri, and rubs eir hand in circles against eir chest. Then ey nods. Determination settles over eir face as ey turns north. Rai and Etaro, still holding hands, follow em into the forest.

Natani, who’s been nearly silent for hours, gives me a long look, the expression in his dark eyes unreadable. “Do you really think we can make a difference against an army?” “No, but I don’t plan on stopping the army. All we need to do is destroy the bobasu.” And all I have to do is find a way to make that happen.

I have to find a way to make that happen.

Blood and rot, how am I possibly going to make that happen?

But Natani nods like he expected my response, and then he trudges after the others. Zonna, though, is watching me, his expression carefully blank. The raw pain that’s burned in his eyes for the past five days is now banked and hidden behind a wall as impenetrable as my wards.

“I don’t know what I’m doing.” The words tumble out before I can stop them.  Thankfully,  only  he  and  Tessen are close enough to hear me; admitting the depths of my uncertainty feels like quitting. It is, in a way—it’s giving up a lifelong goal—and I hate myself for it despite knowing  how poorly the reality of my old dream has settled on my shoulders. “I don’t want this.  I  thought  I  did—growing  up, I always wanted to be a leader one day—but now… Zonna, it should be you. You have the seniority. You have  the experience. You know so much more about, about everything, and I think…”

Something flickers in his eyes, sadness, but not the deep loss that’s been consuming him. This seems more like empathy. “You think what?”

“There’s only a few of us against ten bobasu and an army of thousands, and we’re relying on a weapon we don’t know how to deploy.” I grind my teeth, frustration and fear mixing painfully in my stomach. “I think you are our best chance at getting to Varan.”

“You’re fooling yourself if you think anyone, even me, can get to Varan without going through his army,” Zonna murmurs. “And in five hundred years, I’ve never seen anyone rattle Varan’s foundation the way you have, Khya.” He steps closer and reaches out, but he doesn’t put his hand on my shoulder until I nod. “I’m not the person who needs to be leading us. You are. Even if it seems impossible right now.”

Tessen huffs. “Telling Khya something’s impossible is the fastest way to make it happen.”

I don’t think that’s true this time, but his faith is heartening. I reach back and brush my fingers along the back of Tessen’s hand. It’s a shame I can’t absorb the confidence he has in me as easily as I can soak in his body heat. To me, it feels like I’ve been stumbling along ever since Sanii discovered Yorri had been captured instead of killed. Even though we’ve made it this far, I feel like I’ve failed far more than I’ve succeeded. The costs of those failures outweigh anything we’ve gained. I don’t think there’s anything I can do to make it up.

And now no one who’s able is willing to take this responsibility from me. Not Zonna, and definitely not Tessen. I glance at Tessen anyway, and his smile is grim and stressed. “I’ll follow you anywhere, Khya, but I’m not a leader. I never wanted to be.”

Biting back everything I could say to make him change his mind, I follow the others.

The ridge had been rocky and stable underfoot. Between the trees, that solidity vanishes and the mud gets deeper. It sucks at my boots and makes each step an effort. I shiver and pull my damp coat tighter around my  body. It wasn’t this cold here moons ago, so the storm must’ve brought the temperature down. The boots and the layers of thick, padded cloth took some getting used to, but I’m glad Soanashalo’a found them for us. Even with them, the damp and the cold seep through and bite at my bones. Has the air gotten colder or am I getting worse at handling it? It’s not like my wards help with this; they don’t contain warmth unless I make them keep out everything, including air. I thought immortality would make me nearly invulnerable, but even though I know the cold won’t kill me—not much can anymore—it doesn’t seem to make a chill any easier to handle.

“You can’t get warm, can you?” Zonna climbs over a fallen tree, his gaze flicking back to me. I don’t answer as I follow him over the massive trunk. He nods as though I did. “This is something you’ll have to get used to.”

“What is?”

“Feeling everything fresh.” He looks at his hands, flexing and clenching them as he talks. “Pain is usually sharper the first time you experience it, isn’t it? Most people I’ve met can brace themselves for certain kinds of agony, push the feeling aside and ignore it. That’s because their body adapts and their mind adjusts. They learn to handle misery.” Then he drops his hands and lifts a shoulder. “Or that’s what it seems like they can do. I can only guess.”

My stomach drops as another shiver rattles my bones. “It never gets better?”

“It won’t anytime soon,” he admits. “You can train your mind to ignore certain signals, but it’s not easy, and it won’t happen quickly.”

I fold my arms, hiding my clenched fists and trying not to clench my jaw, too, but it doesn’t stop my anger from spreading. “So, suffer in silence. Is that what you’re saying?” “No, I’m just trying to explain what’s happening and why. If you don’t understand, the sensations are going to distract you when we need your attention elsewhere.”

Because you aren’t willing to take over and give me a minute to breathe. The thought is uselessly spiteful. I bury it and consider what he’s saying instead. It makes sense and it doesn’t, especially considering I’ve trained myself to work through pain once already. “It hurt every time an Imaku- stone arrow hits my wards, but I got past it and learned how to block them. Why can’t I do the same with cold?”

“Because it’s physical, Khya,” Zonna says over our squelching steps. “The arrows are different. What  you feel when one of those pierce your wards seems like pain because your mind can’t understand it any other way, but it’s not physical because your wards aren’t. Those will feel the same as before. The only difference there is that the well of energy you have to draw from will be deeper.”

“At last. Good news,” I mutter. It is good, I just wish someone had warned me sooner. Though, to be fair, I’d been dying when they gave me the susuji. There hadn’t been time for a breakdown of penalties and benefits.

“There’s always more good news eventually.” His voice is soft and low, barely carrying over the sound of the rain. “It may not come often, but I promise there will invariably be more.”

It sounds like a meaningless but reassuring adage, but the look on his face is too intense. This means something more coming from him, and I slowly realize it means something more to me now, too. The timeline of my  life  has the potential to stretch for ages, but my mind hasn’t adapted yet. I’m still thinking in months and years instead  of decades and lifetimes. Maybe I don’t yet fully believe I have that much time.

But that’s not what I need to focus on now. “So what else should I watch out for?”

“Hunger will hurt, but you’ll never starve,” Zonna says after a moment. “You can go about two weeks without sleep before you begin to see things that aren’t there, and close to three before your body shuts down and makes you rest. No injury I’ve seen can kill you, noteven losing a limb. Suzu once regrew a finger after it was sliced off in a sparring match. Every hurt will feel like the first you’ve ever experienced, and it’ll take you a long time to get past that because all of it will be more painful than you can understand yet.”

He’s right—I don’t understand yet. I’m also not looking forward to the day that I do.

I don’t know what to say, and he doesn’t add anything else. Moving faster soon takes all our concentration, fighting through the tightly packed forest and against the thick mud. The wind is at our backs, but instead of urging us onward, it feels like the breath of a bellowing beast chasing us deeper into Ryogo. The thunder’s cracks and rumbles seem like its growl as it hunts.

The comparison should be ridiculous—overwrought in ways that only breed fear and end with death—but it’s all too apt. We are in the forest with a monstrous beast, it’s just one with twenty thousand pairs of hands and feet instead of four, and ten thousand bodies instead of one. If it catches us, we’ll be consumed, and no matter how much I’ve learned in Ryogo, I’m not sure my wards are strong enough to protect us.

I pass Etaro first. Then Rai soon after. A few minutes later, I realize I haven’t picked up my pace much, the others are slowing down to let me overtake them. It makes me grind my teeth in frustration when each of them gives way, but there’s no point in protesting. Someone has to take charge if we plan on surviving the day, and right now that someone is me.

Keeping us traveling the right direction isn’t easy, but I head northwest along the coast until I spot a rock formation I remember. It marks a turn. Earlier, it’d taken us maybe half an hour to get from here to the cove west of Rido’iti, but the journey back has been at least twice that. Maybe longer. It’s frustrating, because Rai was right—we have to move fast to stay ahead of the army and away from its scouts, and my decision to act as witness for Rido’iti instead of running as soon as we spotted the invasion has cost us precious time. Now, downed trees, sagging branches, thick debris, and deep mud keep slowing us down.

My choices have put us in danger yet again.

The forest is so dense even the lightning’s flashes of light struggle to reach the ground, so as I wave my hand to catch Tessen’s attention, I can hope he doesn’t notice my shivering. I gesture to the path, hand signing a question: Clear?

Closing his  eyes,  Tessen  listens  to  the  world  ahead.  I listen, too, but without the power  of his basaku senses,   all I hear is wind whipping through the trees, raindrops smacking against leaves, ocean, and rock, and the near- constant thunder rolling overhead. It’s so overwhelmingly loud I can’t even hear my own heartbeat thudding quick and hard through my body.

“I think we’re clear for half a mile, but that’s a guess. The storm is—” Tessen flinches at a particularly close peal of thunder and rubs his ears. “I don’t know what’s coming.” We haven’t known what’s coming for moons now, I almost say. I bite the tip of my tongue to keep the words back and nod instead, trying to think. Staying here isn’t an option.

I order Tessen to lead us on, and I stand back to let  the others pass. Etaro comes next, and then Zonna, Rai, Natani, and Sanii. I put myself at the end of the line because if the army is behind us, I need to be the wall between them and my squad.

As we walk, one mile and then two, I glance forward at Tessen as often as I look behind. I know him well now, so by the set of his shoulders, the speed of his steps, and the angle of his head, I’ll know as soon as he sees danger, probably before he can send a message down the line. Even with his senses hindered by the storm, Tessen’s our best chance of an early warning.

And we very well might need one.

On the ridge over Rido’iti, the horror of everything we were seeing distracted us; there might’ve been moments when we weren’t as concealed as we should’ve been. Tessen may have been the only basaku the clan has seen in decades, but he wasn’t our only riuku mage. There are at least a hundred unikus with enhanced sight and dozens of orakus with overpowered sight, hearing, and scent. Plus, everything we know about tracking, evasion, and fighting, we learned from someone in that army, and we’re still young. There was a lot we hadn’t learned yet. Underestimating them now would be dangerous.

Still, if I were invading Ryogo, I’d order a quick, straight strike to Jushoyen, so I could cut out the heart of this nation. Deviations would be a waste of time unless I spotted something dangerous enough to be worth eliminating. I assume that’s Varan’s plan, too, which means we might be safe if we continue moving parallel to the army, but I’m not risking my friends’ lives on an assumption. Despite having learned how to use my  wards in ways  the mages of Sagen  sy Itagami never conceived of, I shouldn’t think we can simply—

Tessen’s posture stiffens. He hesitates before taking a step. It’s all the warning we have.

Someone else’s ward flares to life, encircling and trapping my squad. More than a dozen Itagamin nyshin drop from their hiding spots in the trees, safe on the opposite side of the shield.

Heart pounding, I flood my own ward with desosa, reinforcing my protections. More nyshin move in from all sides, weapons drawn and magic ready. The air around us crackles as dozens of mages draw on the desosa. Flames appear in the kasaijis’ hands. Lightning gathers around the ratoijis’ bodies. Sharp stones and deadly arrows hover in front of the rikinhisus. The ground rumbles as the ishijis shove their power into the stone under us.

My heart stutters. Blood and rot.

Fifty-four nyshin—nearly three full squads—have us surrounded, and two of the squads are led by members    of the kaigo council, the yellow stripe running down the center of their tunics’ hoods a clear marker. I track them as they move closer, but it isn’t until one stops, pushes their hood back, and pulls the atakafu scarf from their face that I recognize her.

“I almost didn’t listen when my scout reported seeing a group dressed like the people in the city but carrying Itagamin weapons.” Anda steps closer, toes mere inches from the nyshin ward. “But here you are. Somehow not dead yet.”

“Do you think you’re going to change that  now?” This woman gave birth to my brother and me, but she was nothing more than a distant figure in our lives. Anda and Ono were interested in us only when our successes added to theirs, and I cared solely for their respect. When I left Sagen sy Itagami, they weren’t on the list of people I knew I’d miss.

Part of me wonders what her orders are, though I guess it doesn’t matter. She won’t succeed. She’s a strong rikinhisu mage and a brilliant fighter, but nearly everything about me has changed since I last saw her.

I smile, and my expression feels closer to a teegra baring its teeth than anything else. “I might be harder to get rid of than you expect.”

Sanii and Zonna are as indestructible as I am; I’m not going to tell Anda that, though. I’m also not going to think about who else is standing with Anda or what we might have to do to them simply because they believe what they were taught, trained, and ordered to believe.

“Varan has ordered you to return. None of you will be hurt until you face the Miriseh yourselves if you surrender to the clan’s authority.”

“We’re not going anywhere with you. And whatever ‘authority’ Varan once had over us disappeared as soon as we discovered what he’s been hiding.” Although I feared I’d hesitate the first time I faced one of my old commanding officers or falter the first time I had to put my squad’s lives over my clan’s, my conscience hardly twinges. Anda isn’t fighting for the good of the clan, she’s fighting for Varan’s petty vendetta and his catastrophic war—it’s those who follow her who are oblivious. I raise my voice, projecting over the storm and hoping everyone can hear me. “Do they know? Have you told them what Varan’s been hiding on Imaku for centuries? Did you even look at the people you slaughtered in Rido’iti?”

“Enough!” Her bellowed command instantly halts the restless shifting that swept through the nyshin. Jaw tense, my blood-mother shakes her head. “Such a disappointment.”

She raises her hand. The nyshin attack, launching a barrage of fireballs, lightning bolts, and projectiles against my ward. They must step through their sykina’s ward to do it, so for a split second, each one of them is vulnerable.

My wards don’t have that restriction.

Rai’s flames blast the rikinhisus’ projectiles out of the air, and the heat forces the mages back. Etaro uses thick sticks and debris to knock people off their feet. Tessen shouts warnings about the next wave of strikes. I create smaller wards in midair, blocking lightning and creating invisible walls that shock those who slam into the barriers.

Anda’s orders get sharper. Angrier. The nyshin’s responses get slower. Warier. We’re young and, in their eyes, inexperienced. They clearly expected us to fall quickly under their onslaught, but now they’re eyeing us like true threats.

Tessen moves closer, murmuring updates in Ryogan and telling me who, exactly, we’re up against. I breathe deep, drawing on the sparking desosa surrounding us as an idea forms. I relay new orders to Etaro, opening the pouch strapped to my thigh and activating the wardstones inside.

Etaro will shoot the stones through the sykina’s ward, and the impacts should shatter the shield, landing beyond the nyshin. Then I can use my wards to trap them.

Tessen’s attention fixes on one nyshin south of us. “Khya, wait, there’s—”

A nyshin bellows an order. Anda’s regimented ranks shatter as a third of the soldiers turn on the others. Confusion locks me in place, but my eyes dart from one furiously fought battle to the next until the leader of the splinter group shouts again. Ryzo.

A new warmth floods my veins. Ryzo may not have followed Tyrroh out of Itagami, but he’s always been my friend, and now he’s here, helping us. If I don’t help him, the other nyshin will tear him apart. I refuse to allow that while I’m here to stop it.

I scream, “Etaro! Go!”

The wardstones rise from my thigh-pouch and shoot away in all directions. Their power is connected to mine, and I sense each impact like sparks of pain inside my chest. Although passing through the nyshin’s ward slows the stones down, it doesn’t stop them. Some slam into the nyshin’s chests. Others embed themselves in tree trunks. Some keep going until they get swallowed by the muddy ground. I use them as anchors, running my magic through them and raising an impenetrable ward around Anda’s squads. The pitch of the battle changes, the frantic energy of a life-or- death fight snapping through the air like deadly magic as my friends join Ryzo’s team, and together we fight against the nyshin we once fought with.

From the center of my squad, I deflect and defend, pouring energy into the wards, enough to shock the nyshin unconscious when they crash into the invisible shields. An arrow breaks against my wards, directly over  the center  of Rai’s throat, and I gut the rikinhisu who shot it. Blood spreads across the front of their slashed tunic, darkening the wet fabric. Their hands press against the wound, and their eyes widen in shock as they collapse.

Then I’m left facing Anda. Around us, her nyshin are falling fast.

She’s back a dozen feet, sword up and dark eyes flashing with anger. Her hair, the same brown-black as mine, soaking wet and sticking to her dark skin. For a second, the image flashes me back a week. All I can see is Tsua and Chio kneeling on the wet ground with pure anguish on their faces and black veins spreading under their skin. Then Anda shakes the thick strands out of her eyes, and the image shatters.

Tessen screams my name. I catch movement to the left—the second kaigo is coming in fast, their sword aimed straight for my heart. I throw a ward up to block the inbound blow before it can come close. The kaigo slams sword first into the shield. Impact breaks the path of the sword, but training keeps the kaigo’s grip tight on the weapon. Which gives it the force it needs to careen sideways and slide deep across Anda’s chest.

I blink and step back. Even as I watch Anda stumble, eyes wide and hands dropping her blade, I can’t quite make myself believe what I’m seeing. All the uncertainty I hadn’t felt before rushes in now. Anda looms giantlike in my memory, as powerful and untouchable as the Miriseh used to seem. Even when this fight began, I somehow couldn’t see this moment. I can’t look away. Tessen takes out the kaigo who’d tried to kill me, and blood spatters against my ward, but I only see it in my periphery. My attention is entirely on Anda.

She touches her chest. Her hands come away dark with blood. Eyes wide and breath coming in fast, pained gasps, she stumbles again, but one bloodstained hand gestures sharply toward her fallen zeeka sword. The short blade rises, the tip pointed at my head.

“You—you can’t be allowed to…” She closes her eyes. The sword trembles between us. “You can’t— This can’t—” Anda sways. In my periphery, the last of her nyshin fall. Anda tries one more time to aim her sword and thrust the blade toward my head, but it’s as though that effort is what finally breaks her. Her knees buckle. The sword drops. Anda collapses so heavily the mud splashes up, dark brown spots smacking against my ward. I look away as the spark in her eyes fades and her life seeps out of the gash in her chest.

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