“Not taro,” she drawled. “But a duel. Me.” She splayed her fingers to her chest. “Versus you. No weapons. Just brains and brawn. Then, whoever comes out alive keeps the ship.”
“No.” Caden reached for Safi. “No.”
But he was too late. Safi was already agreeing, already nodding and marching for the gangway onto the ship.
Aeduan couldn’t tear his eyes away from the Threadwitch. Smoke whispered up around her. Without the Firewitch to sustain the flames, only charred earth remained—and Aeduan could finally get his bearings.
He and Iseult were at the southernmost edge of the pillars, where the river smoothed out into ancient battlefields.
Aeduan sagged against a pillar and watched Iseult’s approach. She had cleaved that man. As easily as Aeduan stilled a person’s blood, she had cut the bonds that connected the Firewitch to life. He’d seen that magic before. Dark magic. Void magic like his own. But never—never in a thousand years of living—would he have guessed that the Threadwitch …
Was not a Threadwitch at all.
As he waited, the morning’s rhyme flickered through his mind. Dead grass is awakened by fire, dead earth is awakened by rain. That moment in the ruins felt like lifetimes ago. But it wasn’t. Iseult was still the same woman who’d sparred with him. Who’d raced him.
Who’d come back for him.
Rain began to fall, dowsing the Firewitched flames. Cannons continued to blast, and pistol shots popped. Voices charged in through the drizzle, a sign the battle had reached the gorge.
Iseult reached Aeduan. Ash ran down her cheeks, black rivers of rain, and for half a breath, she looked as corrupted as the man she’d just killed.
Then the illusion broke. Her fingers landed on Aeduan’s shoulder, and without a word, she angled him around. Not gently, but efficiently. She gripped the arrow lodged in his lungs and heart.
Aeduan knew what Iseult intended to do, and he knew that he should stop her. Now. Before he owed her any more life-debts.
He didn’t. Instead, he let her brace a foot against the pillar. He let her wrest the iron from his heart.
Pain washed over him, heavy as the smoke-choked rain. He sank forward against the stone. His chest gulped and heaved. Blood oozed.
“They have Owl,” Iseult said.
Aeduan nodded, his forehead scraping against the rock.
“She’s not merely a child,” Iseult forged on. “The Baedyeds and the Red Sails both want her. Whatever she is, she’s special.”
Again, he nodded. He’d guessed as much, though he’d yet to think through what it might mean.
“They’re coming for her, Aeduan.” Iseult’s voice was harder now. Louder than the dribbling rain.
Aeduan opened his eyes. Black droplets cut lines through the ancient striations of the pillar.
Two more arrows popped free from his flesh. One from his thigh, one from his shoulder. Instantly, his vision sharpened.
Another two arrows burrowed free, and Aeduan’s spine straightened to its full height. Three more arrows, and his magic expanded as well.
“People,” he said, turning back to Iseult. “Hundreds are coming this way.”
She showed no surprise. In fact, she was the one to nod now. “It’s the Red Sails from the river. They want Owl back, which is why we must find her first.”
It was then—at that moment—that it hit Aeduan square in the chest. Iseult was here. Not hunting after the Truthwitch but here, standing tall in a land of smoking embers. Before he could speak, before he could ask her how she knew of the Red Sails, an inhuman shriek filled the air. Louder than the receding rain, louder than the cannons’ roar.
It was the mountain bat, returned and plunging right for them.
Aeduan barely yanked Iseult sideways before its talons crashed into the stones.
* * *
Merik could not reach Vivia.
Kullen’s cyclone fought him on all sides, even as Merik tried to send winds to grab Vivia. Even as he tried to send himself breaking free.
It was as if Kullen sensed what Merik would do next. It was if he sensed the tiny, pitiful heart of Merik’s true power.
He and Kullen were bound. Their souls, their magics, which meant … No magic. Merik could not use his Windwitchery here.
It left his chest aching and his body limp, but Merik did it. He released the wind. He released the magic. He released the fury.
Then Merik fell, a nosedive straight down the storm’s heart. A free fall toward the water-bridge. He felt Kullen’s scream blast in his skull. The magic lanced through Merik’s belly, through his limbs. Use me, use me, use me.
Merik did not use it. He hurtled on, no self, only black seafire zooming in fast.
Then he was passing the water-bridge. Heat consumed him. Shadows raged. But below—below, green valley awaited.
Through the smoky, wind-raised tears, Merik saw his sister. With her hands and legs outstretched, water writhed to her in vast webs. Over and over they shattered as she plummeted through. Not strong enough to save her from the valley’s floor, but enough to slow her descent. Enough for Merik to catch up.
He squeezed his arms to his sides, pointed his toes.
Water sprayed his face; droplets lost from Vivia’s control.
Faster, faster. No magic to push him, only the power of Noden. The power of the fall. Move like the wind, move like the stream.
Merik reached her. Water crashed into him, a thousand cuts that sliced him apart. His arms tore around her. He held tight.