Well, I said I would update before the new year...didn't quite work out, so have the first update of 2018 instead!

Guest 1: Hope you had a great holiday season, too! :) Yeah, Terl and Jess will definitely need to depend on each other more than ever now that Ophiant's back in the picture. Although maybe his arrival also provides a nice distraction from talking about the awkwards, haha.

Guest 2: Trouble is sure one way to put it. Hope you'll enjoy this action-packed chapter!

XXXVIII: The Siege of Marautia

"Attack!" Myrine Aluana's bellow cracked like a whip.

The archers let loose their arrows. The magi roared spells, sending the ocean lashing toward the island like dozens of twisted snakes.

But it wouldn't work, none of it. Terl knew it even before the arrows twisted around and reversed course, flying back at the archers. Even before the water-snakes glanced off as if striking an invisible barrier and splashed uselessly back into the ocean.

Amani grabbed Terl's arm and jerked him back, narrowly avoiding the hail of arrows. One landed quivering by Terl's foot. His heart pounded.

All around the harbor, soldiers had fallen, arrows sticking out of them like pins in a cushion. Myrine had only been able to protect the ones around her with a barrier of water.

"Come!" she roared, and her ministra ran up to her side. They clasped hands and chanted together, but even as they did, hundreds of figures billowed from the island like a swarm of locusts. They drifted gracefully to the harbor, and Terl's heart lurched as he saw Owl's uncannily tall form, the insect-legged bodies of the training dolls. In their six limbs, they wielded swords.

"Protect the Lady!" bellowed a soldier, and the soldiers closed ranks around Myrine. They attacked with aura and arrows, but most of the attacks glanced off the swift dolls. A few arrows struck and some water whips sliced through the dolls, but even as the dolls fell more rushed in to take their place.

Myrine and her ministra finished their chant and sent a great wave rising from the harbor. The wave swept a good third of the dolls into the sea, but it was too late - Owl sliced down their guards and reached them.

He grabbed Myrine by the throat and lifted her in the air. Gagging, she kicked and writhed, but it was as futile as a worm caught by a bird. Her ministra ran to help her, but three training dolls grabbed him.

The dolls leaped into the air with startling grace. They floated back to the island, their cloaks spread like black wings.

Horror crashed through Terl. He could move again. He tried to run forward, but Amani maneuvered in his way.

"Let me - let me through - " Terl gasped. "I have to help, I have to - "

Amani shook her head. Kahar spoke for her. "There's nothing you can do. We have to run. Find somewhere safe."

"But, but," Terl could barely speak through the tears choking him. "Lady Aluana - she's in danger - "

"You're more important to Ophiant Liehr than she is," Kahar said. "Please, Terl. Listen to us. We've got to lay low. Regroup."

Terl turned toward Jessam, but Jessam jerked his head in a solemn nod. Helplessness spiraled inside Terl. Was there really nothing he could do?

But Amani and Kahar were right. He couldn't fight back, not against the sheer, primal force of Ophiant's power. Not here, not now.

Even as they led him away, though, he couldn't tear his eyes away from the island.

The mail-kite arrived, bringing news that Aramy would never have believed. Not until he had met Terl Ayoki.

He had often dreamed of the day when he would sail for Senero and reclaim his rightful throne. But he had never imagined it would come so soon. And he certainly had never imagined that he would sortie his fleet for a completely different reason.

Now he stood aboard Hemilia's flagship, facing the crews assembled on every ship. Hundreds, no, thousands of soldiers, all loyal to him, all gazing upon him. Waiting for his instruction.

Kestrel stood behind him, casting a spell that funneled the air around his face, amplifying his voice. Aramy drew in a sharp breath. An electrical energy surged through his body, the same as he'd felt the day when he had stood before the Senriver and declared himself the First Ministra King of Senero.

All else fell aside. There was only cold purpose.

"Everyone," Aramy called. "We sail for Marautia. But our purpose is not to battle the Army of Senero. Indeed, if necessary, we will lend them our aid.

"You might wonder why. You might think this has nothing to do with us, and it would be safer to sit back and let it happen. Perhaps we might even be able to descend upon the weakened Senero and take the throne without a fight.

"I am telling you that such thoughts are short-sighted and foolish. The Witch of Wishes' target is not just Senero; it is all aura users. And Senero itself was never our enemy. Rhynan Thandemar is. Whether he is on the throne or not, the people of Senero are still my subjects. It is my duty as king to protect and defend them. Senero is still my country. Our country."

He lifted his head, raised his voice. "Everyone, we will fight for the sake of our country. He will defend it from the man who wishes to destroy everything we are, everything we believe in. Will you stand by me, my loyal soldiers?"

"Yes, Your Majesty!" The resulting roar trembled the masts, resounded in Aramy's bones. He allowed himself a small, satisfied smile.

With fierce determination, he drew his sword, extended his arm, and pointed it before him. "Then fight with me!" he called. "Set sail!"

The soldiers and sailors shouted. They cut the ropes, unfurled the sails, and the ships began streaking across the clear blue sea.

Aramy turned to smile at Kestrel, who squeezed his hand. At long last, they were returning home.

It took five days for the warship to head down to Marautia. Aelonia felt every minute of those days.

Everything had happened so quickly. She wasn't sure whether to believe it, and knew that not everyone did. But the mayor of Marautia had been desperate for reinforcements. The Witch of Wishes had as good as declared war on Senero. Azed Court had no choice but to respond.

Aelonia stood next to Rhynan. He was at the forecastle of the ship, leaning over the railing and staring at the great expanse of the Senriver. His eyes were distant, and Aelonia could detect nothing through the bond. She sensed he didn't want her here, but she didn't want to leave him. Like it or not, he was her energos.

"I...I don't know..." Rhynan's voice startled him; he'd been silent ever since he'd gotten on the warship, not even speaking at the strategy meetings convened with the Circle of Magi and Privy Council. "I don't know, Loni." He shook his head, his recently-dyed curls swinging. "I don't know...if I can do this."

"Rhyn." He'd never admitted this much vulnerability to her before. Bizarrely enough, it made her spirits soar. Aelonia stepped up to his side and touched his arm. He didn't pull away.

"Rhyn," she said again, softly. "It's okay. We can do this. We have help. Lord Thandemar will help us. Everyone will."

"This is just..." Rhynan drew in a deep breath. "The Witch of Wishes. The temples. I know it's all connected. And now - I should have seen it earlier. I should have done more research."

Aelonia bit back the retort that rose to her lips. No amount of research could have helped us. She knew why Rhynan was clinging to his research, why it mattered so much to him.

So she said, "We can still learn more. When we're there, in Marautia. We'll learn everything we can, and we'll use that to defeat him."

Rhynan turned toward her, blinking. As if he'd never seen her before. And maybe he never had. Then his face relaxed into a smile, a gentle little smile that made the breath stop in Aelonia's throat.

He reached out, rested a hand on her shoulder. His touch was light, but warm. He pulled her close and Aelonia eagerly accepted the invitation. She leaned against him, breathing in his curiously metallic scent, letting his warmth wash over her.

It was strange; they were riding into a war unlike any a king of Senero had ever faced, but she felt utterly at peace. Like she could do anything with her bonded by her side.

Ophiant Liehr stood before Myrine Aluana, observing the ruler of the Coastlands with cool eyes. She knelt at his feet, her arms bound behind her back. He had already killed her ministra and drained his power. Now she was next.

"You will give me your power," he said. "I will take it from you, your worthless aura."

"Do what you will," Myrine said, her voice a furious rasp. Her blue eyes blazed with hatred. "But you will not win. I promise you. This is not even the beginning of it. From all of Senero, we will join forces and defeat you."

Ophiant clicked his tongue. "Optimistic, aren't you. If you all come at me, I'll have even more aura to drain."

He held out his hand before Myrine's face. Closing his eyes, he called his power, and it rushed through his blood in familiar tendrils of bitter smoke. It was easy enough to shape with his mind. Take it away from her. The aura that she does not need.

Myrine gasped. Ophiant let his eyelids slide partly open, a smile playing across his lips as he saw her twist and convulse in her bindings. Water was draining from every pore of her skin, her mouth and eyes and nose and ears. She writhed harder, but Ophiant directed the water away from her with rapid gestures of his hands.

It arced above his head, sparkling in the sunlight, and descended into one of the six enormous glass spheres encircling the chamber. Water aura was already swirling inside, glowing blue and casting rippling reflections onto the marble floor. When Myrine's aura finished draining, the sphere still wasn't even a tenth full.

Myrine Aluana collapsed, her eyes rolling back in her head. Her breathing was rough, ragged; it looked as though she had gained a hundred years. Ophiant smirked. Triumph surged through his entire body.

All her aura was gone. She was but a shell of her former self. He kicked her limp body toward Owl.

"Kill her however you wish," he said.

"Yes, Master." Owl lowered his head in a bow. He liked to take his time with killing his victims. Myrine Aluana's death would not be a pleasant one.

Ophiant turned, taking in the six spheres. All were empty save the one part-filled with water aura, but soon, very soon, they would fill with every kind of aura from every kind of land. He had only just gotten started. He had all the time in the world. To destroy aura, to destroy the magi, to destroy everything that had destroyed Emalen.

And at the end of it all, he would have her back.

The Curseborn was near. Ophiant could feel it. He would return. It was in his nature.

In the meantime, there were still Myrine's guards and soldiers to take care of. More aura to drain, more magi to kill.

Life had never been better.

"I can't keep hiding," Terl said.

"You've got no choice," Kahar snapped. "Unless you think you're strong enough to fight the Witch of Wishes on your own?"

Terl clenched his teeth, not wanting to admit she was right. But he was sick of this. He'd spent almost a week holed up in this abandoned house with Amani, Kahar, and Jessam. They lived off food stolen from the nearby market, which remained stubbornly open in spite of Ophiant's rampage upon the city. Terl had to admire the hardiness of the Marautian people.

He glared through the boarded-up window, though there wasn't much to see in the narrow gaps between the boards. The light of the oil lamp flickered fitfully, throwing stark shadows over the dusty furniture of the parlor. This must be a rich merchant's house, abandoned in preparation for the typhoon. Or after the floating island had appeared.

Every day, one of his companions went out to gather food and scout. According to Jessam, Ophiant's dolls had invaded the streets of Marautia and were snatching up any magi they could find and bringing them to the floating island. At the end of each day, dozens of corpses tumbled from the island into the harbor.

One of them was Myrine Aluana's.

I could have saved her, Terl couldn't help but think, even though he knew it was illogical. I was right there. I watched her get taken. Instead, I...

"I can't do nothing," he insisted. "This is all my fault. I unsealed the temples. I gave him the power he has now. I - I have to make it right."

Kahar folded her arms, unmoved. "Look, I admire your conviction, but you've got to have the power to back it up. And you don't."

Her observation, however true, stung. "So why are we hiding here? There's no point if we're just gonna let him go ahead and kill people."

"He's a human, in spite of everything," Kahar said. "He has his weaknesses. Watch and observe. Track the enemy carefully. Find his weaknesses, and only then do we strike."

Amani turned toward Kahar, and Kahar added, speaking for Amani, "Besides, we might get reinforcements soon. There's no doubt the Basquialists are going to come."

"Well, what can they do? They're still all magi, they still all have aura," Terl protested. "If they come they'll just be giving Ophiant even more targets."

"The Ministra King's special, yeah? He's got the aura of Azed or whatever."

"How is that supposed to help?"

Kahar scowled, but evidently couldn't back up her assertion. Terl glared at her and she glared back.

They might have continued their staring match forever if the parlor door didn't suddenly creak open. Kahar and Amani spun, hands on their weapons, but they relaxed when Jessam slipped inside. He was soaked; it must have been raining.

He looked red-faced, breathless. As he dropped a burlap-wrapped package onto the table, he gasped out, "The Army of Senero is here."

"What?" Terl tensed. "How do you know?"

"I saw their warships pull up in the Senriver. Had to be at least half a dozen of them." Jessam shook his head. "There was Rhynan Thandemar, and I saw the other members of the Circle of Magi too. He was giving a speech but I was too far away, couldn't hear it."

Of course the Army of Senero had gotten involved. It was their nation Ophiant was threatening, after all. But Terl's frustration only deepened. What could they do? In the end, they were helpless before Ophiant's power. A power that Terl had helped unleash...

He knew how to make this stop. He could go back to Ophiant. But if he did, he would be sacrificing himself. Everything that he was. And though he hated to think of it this way, he wasn't heroic enough to make that sacrifice.

Besides, would it really stop Ophiant from attacking Senero? Terl closed his eyes, thinking back to the memories from the cache. Ophiant's vow as he cradled the fallen Emalen in his lap. He had not only wanted to resurrect her. He had wanted to destroy the entire world of aura, the world that had destroyed her.

His dream was not just to stand by Emalen's side. It was to stand by Emalen's side as they ruled the world.

If Terl came back, Ophiant would not stop. No, Terl would become Ophiant's accomplice - even more than he already was.

The frustration rose inside him, deep and grinding. Was he really that useless? Was there really nothing he could do?

In the end, he'd become a prisoner again. Trapped within four walls, helpless against the vagaries of fate. In the end, he hadn't run away at all, had he?

Another two days passed. Terl started to beg to be allowed to go on the scouting expeditions, but everybody shot him down - even Jessam. "You're Ophiant's target, okay? If he sees you, it's all over."

Not just for Terl, but for Senero. Terl knew this, but it still burned. His companions were risking their lives every day, because they would die if they were caught by Ophiant's dolls. But they did it anyway, to gather food, to bring in information.

The latest information wasn't encouraging.

"Saw them fight," Kahar said grimly, her brow creased. "The Seneran Army against the Witch of Wishes. They got some of the dolls but not enough, and those freaky things kidnapped a few of the captains, took them up to the island. Their numbers keep getting smaller."

Terl clenched and unclenched his hands into fists. His palms were sweaty. "They don't know what they're dealing with," he said quietly. "They don't know what he can do. So that's all they can do, throw themselves at him. Uselessly."

Jessam folded his arms, tapping his foot on the elaborately woven carpet. "At least they're holding him off, right? He's still stuck in Marautia."

"It's not that." Terl shook his head. "He's not stuck. He's still here because he wants to be."

Amani tensed, and Kahar voiced her thoughts. "He must know that you're here."

Then Kahar spoke for herself. "Even more reason for you to stay inside, got it?"

Once upon a time, Terl might have been touched by their protectiveness. And maybe he still was. He knew they were just looking out for him, but - but - couldn't they see how similar it was to what Sellady had done? She too had wanted to lock him up to keep him from the Witch of Wishes.

But Terl knew, he had information the Seneran Army didn't. He understood the nature of Ophiant's powers. He knew why Ophiant was attacking Senero. He knew that aura had no effect on Ophiant or his special dolls. He knew that Ophiant had gained all of this power because the temples were unsealed.

It wasn't much, perhaps, but it was still information he could use. Information the Seneran Army had no inkling of as they continued to fight the Witch of Wishes to no avail.

Terl's powers weren't strong enough to match Ophiant's, but he didn't have to rely on his powers alone. He had his knowledge, too.

An idea began to unfurl in his mind, opening up slowly like a blossoming flower. He stood up. The others stared at him, their expressions wary.

"Hiding isn't going to fix anything," he said.

"Didn't you hear anything we said?" Kahar's face spasmed. "Running off to face him alone sure as shit won't fix anything either."

"I don't want to run off to him," Terl said. "But there's still something I can do. I can help the Seneran Army fight him."

The others' shock trembled in the air, cold like a sudden breeze. It filled Terl with a strange sort of satisfaction.

Too bad he didn't have enough time to enjoy it, because Jessam snapped, his voice quivering with fury, "No. Absolutely not."

Terl forced himself to remain calm, reasonable. "It's better than just the four of us. They have numbers, they have power. If I give them information about Ophiant, then - "

"It's too dangerous!" Jessam's voice rose. "If you leave and the dolls catch you - "

"You'll be there to protect me, won't you?"

"That - that's not - " Jessam sputtered. "Look, you can't just go to the Seneran Army, of all people. They'll want to use you too."

"Yeah, just like how the Basquialists want to use me, right?" It was a low blow, but it had the desire effect; Jessam reared back, his face going white.

"You can't go to them," Jessam said weakly. "Kestrel will think he was right about you."

"In case you haven't noticed, I've got bigger things to worry about than what Commander Knight thinks of me."

"Come on, help me out." Jessam turned toward Amani and Kahar. "Tell him he's off his rocker."

"I'm not insane," Terl snapped. "I know what I'm doing. Or do you think you can hide me here forever? I might live, but other people will die. They are dying! Every single day, every moment we sit here and dither. If there's anything I can do to keep more people from dying, then by damn I will do it!"

His voice rose to a trembling shout. He had no idea where this passion, this fury, came from, but he didn't much care. It was the truth.

"Hmm." Kahar rubbed her chin. She looked thoughtful, just like Amani did. "You know..."

"Oh, no." Jessam groaned. "Don't tell me you're - "

Kahar spoke over him. "What you're saying makes sense. We need a long-term plan. We need to be proactive. Hiding out here is just going to delay the inevitable."

"But still, the Seneran Army - "

Amani touched Kahar's arm, and Kahar spoke for her. "The Seneran Army is the largest, most organized force battling the Witch of Wishes as of this moment. We'll need their organization and manpower if we're to launch a serious opposition."

"It won't work! He's defeated everything they've thrown at him so far!"

"Because they don't know what they're doing," Terl cut in. "But you three, you have experience fighting his dolls, right? You can advise the Seneran Army on what to do. If we cut down his dolls first, he'll have a much harder time draining magi of their aura."

Or so Terl hoped. After all, he had no idea how long it took Ophiant to create new dolls. Once again, he felt a stab of fury that he had never asked the most important questions.

But it wasn't too late. It wasn't too late to learn everything he could. Hidden in this house, he couldn't learn anything new, nothing except for the reports Jessam, Amani, and Kahar brought back. But he couldn't make his own observations, and that was the most important when it came to formulating theories.

Terl's confidence swelled. He grabbed his staff and lifted his chin. "So we're going, right?"

Kahar nodded, but Jessam stepped in front of her, his arms thrown out.

"No." There was steel in his voice. "You can't do this, Terl. Do you realize just how much you're risking?"

"I think the reward is worth it," Terl said, forcing himself to remain calm even as his blood throbbed in his ears.

"No, it's - " Jessam drew in a sharp breath. "Terl, I told you before that your life is precious. I won't let you throw it away so easily."

"I won't die - "

"We don't know that."

"So you're going to keep me stuffed in here?" Terl couldn't help it; some of his frustration leaked into his voice. "How does that make you any different from Sellady?"

"Sellady was afraid of you. I'm afraid for you!"

Jessam was breathing hard, sweat sticking his loose bangs to his skin. Why did his concern leave Terl so cold?

Well, Terl knew why. He lowered his voice. "Jessam, I'm not a replacement for Heron."

Jessam flinched like he'd been slapped. "I never said - "

"That's what this is really about, isn't it? After losing Heron, you don't want to lose anyone else. But I'm not Heron. I'm my own person, I can make my own decisions. This is the decision I've made and you can't stop me."

He marched forward. Jessam twitched as though he wanted to intercept Terl, and Terl tensed; he knew he wouldn't be able to stop Jessam if Jessam decided to physically intervene. But then Jessam fell still and shuffled to the side. He hung his head, his shoulders trembling.

A replacement for Heron... Terl wished he hadn't said that, even though he knew it had won him the argument. He remembered their kiss, their lips meeting, the taste of licorice. How had it started? Had Terl wanted to kiss Jessam, or had Jessam wanted to kiss him?

If it was Jessam, then...when he did it, was he not thinking of Terl at all?

Terl clenched his teeth, willing down these pointless thoughts. It meant nothing. It didn't matter that everybody only saw somebody else when they looked at him, that Jessam was just like Ophiant - no, it didn't mean a thing. Not compared to the task he had to accomplish. The wrong he had to set right.

"Let's go," he said. "We'll meet Rhynan Thandemar. And we'll help him fight Ophiant Liehr."

He could only hope he was making the right decision.

Jessam stuck close by Terl's side while Amani and Kahar fanned out to the east and west, respectively. They would hide themselves at the meeting, observing it carefully, ready to jump in should things go wrong.

Terl hoped it wouldn't.

To disguise himself, he'd pulled a curtain from the house over his head, just like his old mantle, and had strapped the staff to his back so it wasn't visible. He'd feel more comfortable with it in his hands, but he couldn't risk being sighted with it. It would be an instant giveaway as to his identity.

The streets of Marautia were deathly empty, more silent than Terl had ever seen them. Even the market near their hideout had shut down; another reason to leave. They passed overturned carts, stalls still laden with wares. Like the people had fled quickly. Sometimes he caught flashes of movement behind windows; it seemed not only his friends had gotten the idea to hide.

Terl and Jessam darted through mazes of twisted back alleys, doubling back on their trail every time they glimpsed a black-clad doll. Not for the first time, Terl was grateful for Jessam's encyclopedic knowledge of Marautia's streets.

After what felt like two hours, they emerged upon the Senriver. They crept onto a dock jutting into the river, lined with wooden cargo crates. Jessam hid behind a stack of crates, then gave Terl a significant nod.

Sweat gathered beneath Terl's mantle. He would do the rest of this alone. At the very least, he refused to deliver Jessam into the Seneran Army's hands.

"Good luck," Jessam whispered. "And..." He paused, looking embarrassed, before plunging forward. "You're not just a replacement for Heron to me. I swear."

Terl's head pounded in surprise. He couldn't speak. So he just nodded before sweeping off.

Past the maze of crates, he saw the hulking forms of the Seneran warships. Small figures gathered on the top decks; they were too far away for Terl to see. Terl broke into a run. As he did, he reached back and unstrapped his staff. He'd need it.

As soon as he reached the edge of the dock, Terl lifted the staff and channeled his power. Let me fly, he thought.

He took a deep breath and leaped into the air. For a wild moment he feared he'd come crashing down, but he didn't; he kept rising and rising, floating like a dandelion seed blown on the wind.

Except Terl could control his course. Experimentally waving his arms and legs, he managed to turn himself so he was facing the top deck of the largest warship. His mantle flapped behind him like wings.

Heads turned toward him, whispers flurried. They'd sighted him. Smiling, Terl drifted down to the deck. He landed neatly, not even feeling the impact. He called off his power and straightened, looking at the people arranged before him.

There was a tall young man with a head of black curls. Rhynan Thandemar. Next to him was a much smaller woman in ministra robes. Behind him, magi with their hands all raised in casting position.

Rhynan Thandemar looked stricken into silence. One of the magi stepped forward, a huge blond man leaning on a walking stick. He wore the Thandemar colors of white and dark blue.

Fixing Terl with icy eyes, he snapped, "Who are you? What do you want?"

"My name is Terl Ayoki," Terl said, "and I'm here to help you defeat the Witch of Wishes."