Chapter 64 – The Battle of Corith

A sharp pain, seemingly out of nowhere, cut into my stomach and I choked, spitting my laurel leaf on the ground. Not that it mattered. The dragon already knew who I was. Still, I sensed that I had a more serious, immediate problem, maybe with the shapeshifting potion.

It didn't seem possible for it to be sunrise already.

But… what if it was?

"Dak!" I shouted. Another sharp pain brought me to my knees. I remembered, only vaguely, that Maka had said something about an antidote that I was supposed to take. She hadn't actually given me that potion. I'd been meant to return to our camp to get it.

"Oh, no! No, you're not going to die!" Ciwaldyr hissed. "That's too easy! I haven't begun to have fun with you yet!" I wasn't much of an opponent to begin with, in the condition I was in, but the dragon rolled me onto my back and held me down with his paw, tracing one of his claws across my throat.

Dak clenched his fists, obviously about to charge the dragon. But he didn't. He looked surprised for a moment, as if he could hear something, but didn't know for sure what it was.

Then, I heard it myself.

A whooshing sound. The clash of steel against steel. And of course, an unmistakable war cry.

"Ai-yah!"

"Tessars!" Ciwaldyr snarled.

I smiled slightly. I still felt like I was probably going to die, but it seemed like a good way to go. Like a cat batting a mouse, the dragon knocked me ten feet away. All the breath went out of my lungs, and as bad as I'd felt before, I was suddenly a whole lot worse.

Dak bellowed, pounded his chest, and ran right for Ciwaldyr. He didn't hold the dragon off for more than a heartbeat. Thrashing his neck and throwing the gumble off, Ciwaldyr whirled back in my direction.

The dragon's eyes narrowed. He pulled his head back and puffed out his chest.

I'd never fought a dragon before, but I could guess what was about to happen.

Though I wasn't sure where I found the strength, I managed to find my feet.

Gritting my teeth, I channeled as much Earth as I could, driving it up into a wall just as the dragon's breath would have blasted the both of us. The heat was still shocking, but my wall held. Dak gave a low whistle, an absolutely insane grin on his face.

I could hear commotion in the camp, and more than a few soldiers were banging on the gates of Ciwaldyr's "house". The dragon apparently decided that he'd rather have an audience, and the house dissipated into fog, gone as quickly as he'd created it.

That turned out to be a mistake.

The dragon's eyes widened in surprise as he realized there were two shadows in the air above him, their Swords glittering in the light of the sun. Holding a Sword in each hand, Orna hurled one blade like a javelin. It whizzed through the air and struck Ciwaldyr in the neck. He howled in pain, and tore the thing out of himself, taking a good chunk of flesh and scales with it.

Dak went for the Sword immediately. Before he could do any damage at all, the dragon had to contend with my uncle. He snuck in a good slice across Ciwaldyr's nose, and then shot off, using the glare of the sun burning through the clouds to hide where he hovered. Almost invisible balls of force pelted the dragon's face and caused him to recoil, like a dozen hard punches. That was a spell, I realized, and it was Orna who'd cast it. Seeing my uncle and Orna both in the air, using everything they had and fighting wildly, exactly like Christie, drove home something Hugh had told me long ago.

When a Tessar Captain did not hold back, it really was amazing.

Avoiding the dragon entirely, a cloaked figure ran straight for me. It was Hugh. He almost knocked me, shoving a glass vial in my face.

"Drink it," he said.

I didn't argue. Whatever it was burned like fire and smelled like tar.

"Hugh, what are you doing here? What is this?" I wondered.

"Everyone's here. And it's the antidote, keep drinking it!" Hugh replied.

I did as he asked, though it tasted worse than the beetle dung had. Pain brought me to my knees, and if I was supposed to be concentrating on my own true appearance, I never quite got there.

Hugh gave me a strange look.

"Something wrong?" I asked.

"Must be a side effect," he shrugged. "Maka will set you right."

I wasn't so sure that she would, though at that moment it didn't matter. What was more important was figuring out how we planned to stay alive.

Fortunately, Ciwaldyr was very focused on my uncle, who'd gotten another quick slash in.

"Your reagents," Hugh said, taking off my bandolier and tossing it to me.

"Your timing couldn't have been better," I told him.

I reached for my big fire spell, but then I considered that maybe Fire wasn't the smartest thing to use on a dragon. I seemed to be out of lavender snails, which ruled out Water, which was risky under normal circumstances.

That left me with Earth or Air.

Ciwaldyr sent Orna flying into my uncle, and the both of them hit the ground fifty feet away. I had feathers and coal in my right hand, my big fire spell again, as stupid as it probably was to use it… and my father's staff still in my left.

The dragon scoffed. "Feathers? Parlor tricks!" he said contemptuously. "And here I thought you were a worthy adversary!"

I felt the strength sapping out of my body, and not because I was working magic. Ciwaldyr was doing something that didn't seem like a spell at all, but it made me feel as small and insignificant as he probably thought I was. I dropped my reagents.

I almost dropped the staff.

Then, his hold on me dissipated.

Ciwaldyr snarled. Dak grinned victoriously, holding up a hacked-off portion of the dragon's tail. Ciwaldyr decided he'd had enough. Knocking Dak to the ground for what must have been the third time, he leapt into the air with a force that blew over nearby tents. He drew his head back and I realized he was about to breath more fire on us. I immediately tried to do what I'd done before, and channel Earth into a wall.

It wasn't quite enough.

I wasn't sure if I'd used too much power already, or whether taking the antidote to Makka's potion really did affect my ability to channel and cast.

In either case, my stone wall exploded in my face and almost buried me. My uncle, who'd been about to leap back into the sky, dunked and covered his head.

Ciwaldyr cut right past Orna and began flying west. She flew after him with a speed that evidently surprised him, because he turned around and tried to incinerate her.

A shimmering shield of air and white light appeared on her arm and stopped his breath.

If we survived, I was going to beg Orna for magic lessons.

"Damn it all, he's getting away!" My uncle shouted. "We're going to lose him!"

"No we're not!" I shouted back.

The centaurs, the goblins, and what was left of the Army of the North were doing an impressive job holding off the dark elves, but the battle was beginning to work its way towards us. The element of surprise had also worn off, which meant our enemies were getting organized.

"Keep them off me!" I ordered

Dak glanced at Hugh, and they both charged.

I took a deep breath. I already felt like I'd pulled a lot more out of my body than I should have, but I didn't see what choice I had. I cut my hand open. I'd sewn a blade under the buckle of my bandolier for exactly that reason, to give me blood if I needed it. That would have been enough to get me the attention of whichever Guardian I wanted to speak to, but I didn't just want to be noticed.

I wanted help.

I began channeling Air, as much as I could, and then more than felt safe. Casting my blood into the whirlwind swirling around me, I found the words I needed. The marks on my back went cold. That didn't surprise me. I wasn't calling for Malcit.

The wind intensified.

In some places, the battle stopped.

I recited the words to the spell.

"Four winds to four great towers blow. From mountain high to valley low. From Southern sands to Eastern sea. Guardian of the Watchtower of the North, Lord of Air and Lightning, hear me!"

Lightning struck out of the clear sky, and riding that blazing bolt of white-hot Air was a whirlwind of white feathers, golden scales, and far too many claws and teeth.

"So," Piasa observed, hovering above us. "War."

"I know you're not surprised, Guardian of the North," I replied.

"No," he said. "But I am always disappointed. What remains here is no threat to you, wizard of the House of Wells. Why have you summoned me?"

"I need to borrow your speed. To catch that dragon," I pointed.

Piasa's eyes flashed. A grin spread across his face. "Ah, a chase!" He exclaimed jubilantly. "But you know that spell!"

"I can't cast haste by myself!" I argued.

"Can't, or won't?" Piasa frowned. "Why, this one has gotten lazy!"

"Hey!" I protested. "I'm not your xiaoshin!"

"Oh, no. Right now, you are much too slow! Remedy that," he replied.

Without doing anything more, he disappeared.

"Piasa!" I shouted. "I thought we were friends!"

Of course, that had been when the Guardian of the North was still a Servant himself. Apparently, absolute power had gone straight to his feathery head! Piasa had made himself clear, at any rate. I may have had the power to summon him, but he wasn't going to do anything for me that I could do for myself.

I took a deep breath. I had salt in my bandolier, but no water. Only three people close to me were wearing Tessar blue, which was at least something I could focus on. That would not make the spell easy, but I did have something I hadn't possessed the first time I'd cast it.

Without stopping to consider the possibility of failure, I channeled Air again, the scraps that Piasa had left behind, and cast the most stupidly reckless, spiteful haste spell ever envisioned in the mind of a wizard.

"Four winds to four great towers blow

From mountain high to valley low,

With the speed of the heavens we must go, no time can we waste,

Guardian of the North, you owe me haste!"

Wherever he had gone to, I heard Piasa laugh. Apparently he thought that I was entertaining enough not to come back and smite me for my insolence. As soon the spell began to take shape, I threw it at Orna, my uncle, and Dak. Orna needed no coaxing. She'd never stopped chasing Ciwaldyr and barely glanced at me before taking off with twice her usual shocking speed.

My uncle looked stunned.

"What are you waiting for?" I demanded. "I gave you haste, didn't I? Go help Orna!"

He smiled slightly and took off so fast that I could've sworn he disappeared.

Dak grinned. "King of the East an' West, King of the Whole World," he said with a wink. It wasn't really his famed Darilyn impression, but his meaning wasn't hard to catch. He took off running with a speed that convinced everyone in front of him to get out of his way.

Some of the centaurs made it to us moments later, with Guraf in the lead.

"The dragon is headed to Corith," he reported.

"Orna's on his tail, and I just sent my uncle and Dak after him," I said.

"We'd better get moving too," Hugh said. "I don't suppose you've got any more haste up your sleeves?"

"Not at this time, no," I admitted. Channeling any more Air was probably not a good idea at that moment, but I wasn't going to say so. Hugh worried enough about me already.

"Hm. Well, it seems we have no choice then, do we?" Guraf snorted. "Climb on," he said.

Hugh looked incredulous. He knew a lot more about the centaurs than I did, but even I knew that they did not let humans ride them.

"Hugh Seeker, if you and the Lady Wells are going to carry the burden of the entire world," Guraf sighed. "At very least, I and my people can do something about your useless legs."

The centaurs made it to the city with impressive speed, but not nearly fast enough. Corith still hadn't rebuilt itself entirely from the damage my past Seekings there had caused, and Ciwaldyr had made short work of most everything in his way. There was so much smoke and so many things on fire that at first I couldn't see where the dragon had gone.

Then, I saw a shape in the clouds. It was circling, but awkwardly. Someone had wounded him seriously. One of Ciwaldyr's wings was injured, to the point where he could not continue to fly away.

My uncle and Orna were both on the ground in a pile of rubble. Neither of them looked very good. Orna had already been a mess, but there was an awful lot of blood seeping through my uncle's shirt.

"Why did you get in front of me? Orna demanded. "I'm already dying, you idiot!"

"There they are!" I pointed.

"Hazel!" Dak shouted. He was up to his chin in the water, presumably where the dragon had hurled him. "The Sword! It went to the bottom and I can't get it! My hand's too big!"

"I've got it!" I told him. I was not looking forward to getting wet, considering how cold it was, but I could tell Dak was frantic.

Wind whipped up around the both of them, and the Captains leapt into the air. The dragon screamed and rose to meet them, spewing more green flames.

Nowhere was safe. People were running everywhere in panic, while Orna and my uncle were trying desperately to push Ciwaldyr towards the river and out of the city where more people would surely get killed.

As they both swooped in for an attack, the dragon's tail whipped my uncle and he crashed into the ground. Orna did not hesitate. She pierced the dragon's neck with her blade and it snapped at her. She hit the earth with a heavy thunk, and for a moment did not move, but my uncle was swiftly on his feet and in the air again.

I took a deep breath and dove into the river. I could see immediately why Dak hadn't been able to retrieve the Sword himself. The space where it was stuck was small, and the only way to reach in was an awkward angle. Something nudged me, a familiar presence, as I swam under the dock. At first I thought it was Pistachio, but then I realized that it was Sinnifer.

She looked awful. Her usually blue scales were flat looking and gray, and her whole body was riddled with long cuts. She didn't say anything, but when I reached for the Sword, her tail whipped my hand sharply enough to draw blood.

That message was clear. She would not let me take it.

I'd run out of air, so I had no choice but to return to the surface.

The air was bitter cold when it hit my face, and I gasped for breath.

Dak looked at me, but all I could do was shake my head and clutch my bleeding hand. Sinnifer had never attacked me before.

I believed that she didn't want to do it, or at least I told myself that. Leviathan surely knew that she'd been disloyal to him, but he still needed her. That was why he'd beaten her half to death.

"There's no time," I said.

Dak nodded.

Reaching into my bandolier, I realized that I still had a single petrification acorn. It had been a long time since I'd used that particular spell, and it didn't seem powerful enough to use on a dragon, but perhaps I could improvise. I remembered only vaguely a spell that James had used once, when he and I were fighting Master Narien in the Floating Market. He'd made a shield of branches from a single acorn, strong enough to withstand some powerful wizardry. If I could ground the dragon somehow, my uncle and Captain Orna would no longer be the only ones fighting it. Even the arrows of the centaurs seemed useless against the beast's thick hide. It would take swords, spears, or something stronger to make a difference. My eyes drifted towards a shattered trebuchet in the town square. A length of rope was still connected to it.

"What are you doing?" Hugh demanded as I grabbed the rope.

"Inventing a spell," I told him.

Without waiting for his approval, I sprinted back in the direction of the river. Hugh followed me.

His sword flashed in the sunlight as he hacked his way through two dark elves. I dunked under their spears and kept running until I saw the vantage point I needed. With half the city on fire and the rest in ruins, I hadn't even realized what part of Corith we were in. We'd come to a stop in front of a very familiar tavern.

"There!" I pointed. "I need to get on the roof of the Wren!"

Dak hoisted me up.

What gave me a good view of the dragon also gave everyone in the city a good view of me. From the moment I started casting, it would be obvious where I was anyway.

I closed my fist around my last acorn and wrapped the rope around both of my hands.

"As my own hands I do bind

And as the vine, the tree does climb

Simple seed of common tree,

the strength of your branches lend to me.

Become stone, and cling to my foe

Drive him to the earth below!"

With all of the strength I had, I hurled the acorn. I didn't throw it nearly hard enough to strike the dragon, but I didn't have to. I felt the strength sapping out of my body, and the signature of the Guardian of the West on my back, not burning as Malcit's name always seemed to, but itching and twisting as if something was trying to grow out of my skin. Probably, something was. I ignored the distraction. The ground rumbled. A massive tree burst out of the earth and began growing faster than anything I'd ever seen, its arms snaked everywhere, breaking through the street before emerging again. The dragon seemed surprised by what was happening, and his moment of distraction proved fatal. Both my uncle and Orna were on him in a heartbeat, my uncle's sword piercing through his jaw, and Orna's driven through his eye.

As Ciwaldyr wobbled in the air, his tail thrashed and caught the tree I'd just created. Branches began coiling around him and turning into stone.

Ciwaldyr howled, thrashed with all the strength he had left, and then fell limp. I couldn't tell if he was dead or only unconscious, but he seemed to be contained.

At least a dozen arrows flew in my direction. I slid right off the roof and would have landed on my head if Hugh hadn't caught my arm.

"I think I'm done now," I told him, feeling more woosy than I wanted to admit.

The dark elves fled, and a cheer went up from Corith's remaining forces.

I could see two soaking wet figures on the banks of the river. One of them was not moving. I ran in the direction of Koryo and Orna, Hugh right behind me. It was Orna who was still conscious, though only barely.

My uncle had bled a lot, and it was obvious that he wasn't breathing. I stood frozen like a fool, not that it mattered. Orna was furiously shaking him and sobbing. If he had it in him to wake up, he would have.

I'd never seen the fearless Captain so broken. I wasn't sure how to react myself. I'd barely gotten a chance to know my uncle, who'd been so beloved by my mother and a mentor to my brother.

I couldn't shake how Hugh had said that my uncle and Orna would die together, and from the expression on his face, I could tell that he regretted those words.

I also hadn't forgotten Orna's conviction when she'd held the Sword, the moment she recognized that everything was taking shape in a way that the Guardians deemed necessary.

"Always wanted to do that. Slay a dragon," Orna said. "Thought it'd put some shine on my Sword. Make it burn like a star forever. Kory always thought it was madness."

Dragon-slaying did seem like a strange ambition, particularly for someone who'd lived as long as my sister had, and who'd faced almost every kind of monster imaginable.

"He was right," she finished. "The world is changing, Hazel. It's not just because of Menenan or Leviathan, though they must be stopped and you will have to be the one to stop them. There's going to be a new order under the new Guardians. The War will end, one way or another. The Tessars will end. No more Swords, no more Captains. No more dragons, no more grand old immortals like Christie, Tarran, and Cirat. And… perhaps some day soon, no more magic."

That sent a chill racing down my spine. Magic, in many ways, was one of the greatest parts of who I was. Did that mean the world would have no use for me?

"What do you mean, no more magic?" I demanded. "Why would the Guardians do something like that."

"You don't understand now, but you will," Orna told me. "You'll be there when the new Pact is Signed." She laughed softly. "And I do not envy you that. It's a long way off!" She coughed.

"Let me see your wound," Hugh said.

Orna scoffed at him, but didn't resist. The smell when he cut the straps on her armor was awful. I'd seen her necromatic burn before, but it had gotten much worse. Hugh recoiled. He stared at me helplessly. At that moment, he knew what I'd already known, that there was nothing we could do, apart from reassure Orna that we'd finish what we'd begun.

Orna slapped Hugh's arm. "Chin up, Captain. You know what you've got to do."

He nodded solemnly.

"I don't care which damn fool takes my blade, but I want you to make damn sure that someone worth their salt picks up Kory's Sword. Nobody he'd make fun of, you understand?" she said. "Someone good, solid. Someone like you."

That was a gut-wrenching thing to hear, and I couldn't imagine how Hugh felt. He did his damndest not to cry. It didn't matter. I was already sniffling and shedding enough tears for both of us.

"And… one more thing," Orna said, tugging on my sleeve.

"Anything," I promised.

"I think I left the tea on."

It was the last she said.

When I finally got back to our camp, the campfire was covered in snow. The bottom of Orna's kettle was burned black as if by dragon's breath, and the tea had all been boiled dry.