The future is fluid, changing with every action and thought. It is also difficult to guide and lead. Only by being aware, can the future be altered.
— Saraboin Klum, The Predestination of Man
As the sun approached the horizon, Ojinkomàsu galloped along the road with Kanéko crouched down against his body. Her slender form shook from exhaustion, but Damagar’s threat continued to burn in her mind. Her hands tightened on her mount’s mane as she whispered into the wind. “Please, I need to get to Mama and Papa.”
They came up the sweeping road that led to her father’s lands. She was startled with how fast he could race. They had covered a day’s travel in an hour. The horse’s hooves drummed on the ground, and Kanéko’s eyes scanned the horizon looking for Damagar. They raced past a sign for the Germudrir Mill. Memories of her first visit, when she met Maris, washed past her and she closed her eyes tightly, pressing her cheek to Ojinkomàsu’s neck to avoid crying.
She caught the scent of freshly burning wood. Frowning, she opened her eyes and looked around. Smoke rose up above the trees in the direction of the mill, but instead of four small plumes as she expected, she saw a thick column of dark smoke billowing up.
Kanéko sat up on Ojinkomàsu and pulled back on his mane. The horse resisted and yanked his head from her fingers. She grabbed him again and hauled back with all her strength.
He shook his head and tore his mane free of her hands. His hooves continued to drum against the ground as he galloped toward the tower.
In the distance, a rumble rolled through the tree trunks. Ojinkomàsu’s ears perked up, but he didn’t slow down.
Kanéko thought she heard something beyond the rumble. She held her breath and strained to listen.
The strange sound came again, a sharp bark-like crack and then a second rumble that rolled through the woods. Birds burst out of the trees as the ground shook from the impact. A moment later, the breeze kicked up eddies of dust as it blew past Kanéko and Ojinkomàsu.
A few seconds later, another bark drifted through the trees a moment before a third rumble.
Kanéko tensed as she listened to sounds. It sounded distant but loud. Only one dalpre could bark that loud: Mamgum. And if Mamgum was in trouble, so was Maris and Ruben. “Sands! That’s the pack!”
A deep, powerful rumble rocked through the trees, the leaves fluttering as a wind rose up. Kanéko looked up as a tornado formed from the dark smoke rising from the mill. The narrow funnel plunged out of sight as the air pressure around her increased. A moment later, the wind blew past Kanéko and tugged at her hair.
She tugged at Ojinkomàsu’s mane toward the mill. He resisted, but Kanéko grabbed his mane with both hands and yanked him around. At the same time, she pictured exactly what she wanted him to do, just in case he was able to read her thoughts.
He finally relented and headed down the side road in a trot.
Kanéko tapped on the side of his neck, trying to get him to accelerate but Ojinkomàsu sullenly remained at the slower pace instead of flying across the countryside. When she jabbed him in the flanks with her heels, he accelerated into a gallop but no faster.
They came up to a haze drifting through the trees. The smell of burning wood followed quickly after it.
Kanéko’s eyes teared up from the pain until she pulled on Cobin’s goggles. The shadowed lenses shielded her from the sting of smoke and the wind from Ojinkomàsu’s speed. She wondered why she hadn’t put them on earlier.
As they drew closer, Kanéko slung her bow.
They passed a dalpre sitting in front of a tree. His head was resting on his chest and he sat in a puddle of blood. Kanéko felt horror rise in her throat as Ojinkomàsu passed. She turned to look at the fallen dog man, wishing he would move, but the body slumped to the side and didn’t get up.
Ojinkomàsu reached the mill in only fifteen minutes. As they came up to the last curve, Kanéko spotted a mercenary from the Burning Cloud Queen threatening a female dalpre with a large spiked hammer. Kanéko lifted the bow and tensed up, worried that she would miss and strike the woman.
Ojinkomàsu’s strides grew longer, and he sailed over the ground. Kanéko discovered a rhythm to his movements, a way of predicting when his gallop would not interfere with her bow shots. She didn’t know how she was aware of it, but she focused her attention on shooting first. She timed his bounds and fired at the apex of Ojinkomàsu’s gallop. The arrow flew true and plunged into the man’s back. He let out a bellow of pain and collapsed.
The dalpre gasped as the man fell, and then promptly grabbed the mercenary’s hammer and attacked him with it.
Kanéko turned away at the violence, a sick feeling in her stomach.
In front of her, the tornado faded away in tiny eddies of dark wind. The world grew quieter, and she could pick out whines and whimpers over Ojinkomàsu’s galloping. They came up to the mill and he slowed down.
The barn was burning. The closest wall slumped to the side and the splintered remains of the building spread out across the entire field. On the far side of it, the barracks were engulfed in flames. Embers rose in the shimmering air, and the smoke choked her.
Mercenaries surrounded a large knot of dalpre. From her quick look, she could only see women and children. The older dalpre were standing between the armed men surrounding them and the younger ones, snarling as they shielded the children with their bodies. Mamgum was in the center, cradling Ruben’s tiny, limp form. The mercenaries brandished swords to keep the dalpre penned in.
When she saw Ruben slack in the older woman’s arms, Kanéko let out a soft whimper of her own. She clutched her bow and aimed her arrow at the back of the mercenary standing in front of Mamgum. Ojinkomàsu’s stride grew longer and smoother, giving her the chance to fire.
The arrow flew true, slamming into the back of the man’s skull. A shower of blood splattered across the prisoners.
Before the body hit the ground, the side of the house exploded. Howling winds blasted fragments of wood and splinters into the yard. It knocked down a pair of mercenaries but narrowly avoided the captured dalpre.
Kanéko let out a gasp and almost fell off the horse, but Ojinkomàsu sidestepped and she remained firmly on his back.
A man jumped out of the house as the roof collapsed. He hit the ground and rolled twice before hopping to his feet. When he spun around, a sword and some mechanical device hung from his belt. He had a reddish beard streaked with white that ended with a wispy braid. He looked well into his fourth decade. The wind blew a large, floppy hat across the ground and it came to a halt at his feet. With a chuckle, he picked it up and jammed it back on his head.
Maris flew out of the house, her hair billowing in all directions. Fragments of the ruined house circled around her in a miniature tornado. There were roof tiles, pieces of clothing, and even some plates Kanéko recognized from lunch. Her torn dress barely hung on her shoulder and Kanéko could see multiple sword cuts bleeding through the ruined fabric. Maris lashed out with her hand and a burst of air shaped like a fist flew toward the man.
He drew his sword and parried. The blade sparkled magenta and the wind split in half around it. Spinning the sword, he brought it into a ready position and laughed. “Come on, girl! I can do this all day!”
“Rot in the ground, Sinmak!”
Maris surged forward, the air blasting out behind her. She accelerated with her fist drawn back. The wind gathered around her, the sound of the screaming wind deafening. The suction tore out the ground around her as the debris shot forward in a stream to slam into Sinmak.
It took a moment for Kanéko to respond to the surprise at finally seeing Sinmak. This man had been chasing her for days across the country, and she had never crossed him. She expected someone big and hulking, not a man with a ragged beard and an ill-fitting jacket.
Ojinkomàsu hit the ground hard, jolting her.
Shaking her head, she rejoined the fight. She shifted the aim of her arrow and fired at Sinmak. The arrow shot across the mill yard, but before it hit, he ducked below it without even looking.
Sinmak turned to look at her. She could see the reddish, evil glint to his eyes. “I was looking for you, Kanéko Lurkuklan.” He spat out her name and a frown flickered across his face but faded quickly.
Rising into the air, Maris threw blasts at Sinmak.
He dodged between them as the dust and dirt rose up in a cloud around him. When he couldn’t jump out of the way, Sinmak parried the blast with his glowing blade. The blade flashed and sparked from the impact with Maris’s magic.
Ojinkomàsu circled around the yard and Kanéko used the opportunity to fire at him.
Sinmak dodged easily, leaning to the side as the arrow snapped past him.
She frowned and shot again, firing arrows as fast as she could.
Maris join in, throwing blasts from her fists. The air howled around her as she floated in the air, the winds ripping at her body as she twisted back and forth to fire faster.
He continued to dodge both of them without appearing to take any effort. His sword glowed brightly with every movement, and Kanéko didn’t see a single blow land.
She stopped firing, but Maris continued. The wind pressure grew, and tiny vortexes of power curled into existence. Maris lifted her hands up as a tornado formed above her.
The tornado shot down, tearing up the ground, raising a cloud of dust and dirt.
Sinmak parried it with his sword. Magenta sparks popped away from the blade as he kept the tip of the miniature tornado against his weapon. He stepped back quickly, moving toward the barn as the wind howled.
Kanéko glanced at Ruben’s prone form, and then set her jaw. “We need to stop him, Ojinkomàsu.”
He accelerated into a gallop.
She dropped her bow, something Garèo would rebuke her for, and drew Cobin’s blade.
As they rushed in, Sinmak’s face spasmed. He hopped back and turned to face them. Kanéko swung her dagger down but he caught it with his own blade. He staggered back from the force of her attack and Ojinkomàsu’s charge.
Before he could regain his balance, a wind blast slammed into him, ripping half a foot of dirt out from underneath him. The winds screamed as Maris held out her hands in front of her, her clothes ripping from the force of elemental power she directed.
Ojinkomàsu charged past, and Kanéko had to grab his mane to avoid being ripped away by the force of the gale. As soon as they were out of the blast area, the air was still and she settled back into place. He raced in a tight curve to bring them around.
Kanéko groaned at the pressure of the horse’s speed. She struggled to turn herself to look to where Sinmak had been.
To her surprise, Sinmak still stood. He had stepped to the side and narrowly avoided the trench formed by Maris’s magic. He bowed to Maris. “You are going to have to—”
Wind picked him up and threw him back. He made no noise as he flew backwards into the barn. A crack rocketed through the mill yard and the barn collapsed in on itself.
Kanéko slid off Ojinkomàsu and stormed toward the yard. The unnamed blade in her hand shone in the firelight.
The mercenaries watched her warily, a few of them turning to keep their swords between Kanéko and themselves, but others stepped closer to the dalpre and lifted their blades as if to strike the helpless prisoners.
Kanéko stopped in her tracks.
“Kan!” Maris slammed into her and nearly knocked Kanéko off her feet. “You came back!”
Kanéko jammed her weapon into her makeshift sheath and hugged Maris tightly. As they embraced, she inspected the cuts and scrapes visible through Maris’s shredded dress. She didn’t see anything life-threatening and let out a sigh of relief. “Of course, I couldn’t leave you.”
“And I like you!” Maris panted heavily with a smile.
With a gesture to the mercenaries and dalpre, Kanéko asked, “What about them?”
Maris frowned and a whimper rose in her throat. “I can’t get close to them. And every time I do, they threaten to kill Mommy. And the others. And they were going to kill the puppies. A-And I can’t let them do that.”
Kanéko patted Maris on the back. “Do you know what he wants?”
“Rub. And Sinmak tried to stab him, but then Mommy stopped him. And she got hurt and pulled him into the pack. And then all the assholes penned up the women and puppies. But then the mean man,” she pointed to the barn, “told them not to kill the puppies unless someone fought back. So no one is moving.”
“Because if you hurt the puppies, the mommies would kill them. And if any got away, the daddies would hunt them down and strip their bones clean.” Maris growled, “And no one hurts our puppies.”
“What about you?”
Maris leaned against Kanéko and panted. “I’m so tired. I took off and tried to hurt Sinmak. He’s the alpha asshole. And if he goes down, and then his pack will run away. But he’s good at fighting. And he makes fun of me. And I can’t hit him.”
Kanéko rested her hand on Maris. She could feel heat radiating off her sweat-slicked skin. “Maris, how much energy do you have?”
A whimper. “I’m tired, Kanéko. I keep missing. And I almost fell.” Maris’s body trembled with exhaustion underneath Kanéko’s hands.
Realization dawned and Kanéko slumped. “He’s running you to exhaustion. Then, if he can get you, he will use you to trade for Ruben.”
“Mommy won’t ever give up Ruben.”
“Even if he threatens to kill you?”
Maris looked up, a hurt look in her eyes. Kanéko could see that Maris’s mother would have a hard time choosing between her daughter and Ruben. Maris whimpered pitifully. “Why? Why would he do that?”
“To get to Ruben… and me, I think.”
The wind gathered around Maris. The dalpre’s face grew violent and angry as she glared toward the barn. “And I hate him.”
“I know, I know,” Kanéko turned to follow her gaze. “But, that means—”
The air blasted around her as Maris took off.
Surprised, Kanéko lost her balance. By the time she scrambled up, she could only see a trail of dust leading directly into the barn. She gripped her sword and charged after Maris. “That means don’t go charging at him!” Swearing violently, she raced into the collapsed building.
Inside, she could see Maris hovering near the core-driven saw. The dalpre threw blasts of air toward the ground. “I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!”
Sawdust rose up in great plumes of choking clouds. Thankful for the goggles protecting her, Kanéko weaved through the broken roof and shattered remains of the saws. She drew the layout of the barn in her head, filling in the details as she made her way to the far end.
Sinmak parried Maris’s blasts. His sword glowed brighter with every stroke as the rapid bombardment rained down on him. He was on the near side of the massive blade. On the other side was the fire core. Her memories filled in a gap, there was a straight line between Sinmak and the core.
A grim smile stretched across her face. She peeked up and whistled once. Maris slowed down and grew quiet. The dog ears perked up as she threw another blast down.
“Maris! Line him up with the core!”
Maris frowned and looked over.
Kanéko peeked over at Sinmak. When she couldn’t see his eyes, she pointed where she wanted Sinmak and Maris. Maris nodded, and then turned back to Sinmak.
“Die!” Maris rained blasts against Sinmak. The impact shook the ground and sent sawdust flying everywhere. But, for all the strength Maris had left, a few blasts sputtered inches from her fingers. The dalpre’s body jerked down before she regained her flight.
“Sands!” Kanéko hurried through the dust, moving from memory. She found the fire core. The iron chamber continued to burn with a steady heat. She grabbed a hook and pried open the door.
Kanéko had never seen the inside of a core chamber before, only read about them. Standing in front of one, looking at the two foot wide rune producing a column of pure, unrelenting flames, she felt awe and fear. This was magic that she could use, something she could use to save Maris and the mill.
She tore her thoughts away and propped the door open with a heavy brick. She looked down the aisle. At the end, behind the spinning blade, Sinmak and Maris fought. She gripped her dagger tighter and raced back around.
When Sinmak saw her, he smiled. “Give me a few seconds, Lurkuklan. Your friend is about done.”
Kanéko glanced up at Maris, who floated lower. The wind didn’t cut nearly as tightly as Maris panted for breath. Her entire body shook and the aura of power around her flickered in and out.
“Drown in sands,” muttered Kanéko under her breath, “she really is running out.”
Sinmak parried another air blast. Kanéko charged in after Maris’s attack, slashing with the knife. Like before, Sinmak parried both Maris’s and her attack. Kanéko accidentally left an opening, but Sinmak didn’t take advantage of it. The sly smile on his lips gave her the impression that neither of them were a threat to the mercenary.
Annoyed, she remembered Garèo’s training. He insisted she never use the same attack in a row, because it was too easy to remember. She changed her attacks, going from slashes to pierces and mixing in the occasional punch and kick.
Sinmak parried her blows, but the sly smile faded from his lips. As she picked a random attack, she saw a tic on his cheek spasming. The more wild her attacks, the more he strained to defend against her. Every time she lashed out with her feet or swung her fist, the tic on his cheek would jump before he managed to dodge out of the way. Soon, sweat glistened on his forehead, and he panted with the effort to keep up.
Kanéko pressed her attack, trying to push him back toward the saw.
Sinmak grunted and wiped the sawdust clinging to his head. “Going to throw me into the blade? Seriously?”
“Yes. Then I’m going to throw you—” Kanéko blanched as she realize she almost told him her plans in the heat of battle. She had never fought so hard before and it was hard to keep her thoughts and her mouth separate.
“Please. The blade doesn’t move. I’m not going to make such a stupid mistake.”
Between one parry and a strike, Kanéko noticed that he hadn’t reacted to her accidental declaration. Curious, she wondered if he could speak Miwāfu. Keeping her face a mask of rage, she yelled, “You’re a fluffy bunny!”
He didn’t respond. He didn’t smile. He only parried her blow.
Kanéko felt elated. “Maris, he doesn’t know Miwāfu! As soon as he goes to duck under the blade, do you think you can charge him and throw him into the core?”
“Yes, Great Kosobyo Kanéko!” Maris swooped down to hover behind Kanéko. Streamers of air howled past Kanéko, yanking at her hair.
The smell of ozone choked Kanéko, but she continued to assault Sinmak.
Sinmak backed up further. The saw blade caught his hat and yanked it from his head. He sighed and smirked. “Brave plan. But, I can just do this…” He ducked underneath the saw blade, still parrying with his own weapon.
“Now!” screamed Kanéko as she dove to the side.
Maris exploded into movement and flashed past Kanéko. The wind threw Kanéko into a wooden beam as the dalpre rocketed underneath the saw blade catching Sinmak in the stomach with her fists. He flew back with a look of surprise on his face, losing his blade in the air.
Sinmak’s blade twirled in the air before the saw caught it, launching it out the door of the mill. Kanéko ducked to avoid it, but it was already past her before she could respond. She turned toward the fire core, but the wind pummeled her body and she started to slide away.
Bracing herself against a nearby pipe, Kanéko forced her head off the ground to look down the aisle. The cloud of sawdust blew past her as Maris’s wind cleared everything loose from the ground. She had a clear view of Maris struggling with Sinmak right at the entrance to the core.
Despite Maris’s surprise attack, Sinmak managed to brace himself a few feet away from the core. One boot wedged between the joints holding the pipes, and he held on to a wooden brace with one hand. His other was free as he tried to pry Maris away from him.
Maris was holding his chest, her arms wrapped around him and her legs straight out as wind howled around her. The flames from the core were being pulled around them in streamers, sucked past the two by the force of Maris’s attempt to drive Sinmak forward.
Kanéko concentrated on forcing her dagger through the pressure that pummeled her and crawled underneath the saw blade. She tried to stand up, but the intensity of the wind forced her back to the ground. She was thankful for her goggles, otherwise she wouldn’t be able to see with the winds tearing at her face.
Sinmak pounded on Maris’s back with his elbow. But, even his most powerful blow didn’t budge the dalpre. He gave up after a few seconds and his hand dropped to his side.
Kanéko felt a fierce joy as his other hand began to slip from the pipe, but it faded when Sinmak brought his hand back up. This time, he had the mechanical device from his belt. With a start, Kanéko realized it was a gun of some sort. It had a long muzzle and a large canister attached to it. She had read about them, but never imagined she would see one in person.
Sinmak struggled with his weapon, trying to aim the muzzle at Maris’s back. The tip wavered violently, bouncing around without pattern. He fired a shot but missed Maris completely. It hit a pipe and a gout of steam roared out.
Kanéko tried to call out to Maris, to encourage her, but her voice couldn’t carry over the force that pummeled her.
To Kanéko’s horror, Maris’s energy sputtered and the wind died.
Sinmak’s foot hit the ground and he used his momentum to slam his elbow into the back of Maris’s head.
In the sudden silence, Maris groaned as she slumped, but it ended with a growl that shook the rafters. She surged back up and slammed her head against Sinmak’s chin. At the same time, the air cracked as the wind burst back to life, but in the opposite direction, into the core. It tore pipes free from the moorings and dragged Kanéko back along the ground until she found somewhere to brace her feet.
The wind surged into the fire core and the column of fire deformed from the force rushing past it. Pressure gauges climbed into dangerous levels. Kanéko saw, but couldn’t hear over the wind, joints cracking from the pressure. Steam burst out in plumes only to be sucked back into the core.
Sinmak’s eyes grew wide as his hand slipped off the pipe. Maris’s magic surged and both of them flew toward the door to the core chamber. His hand flashed out and he caught the edge of the opening, holding on as his feet dangled in the howling flames inside the chamber. Straining, he brought his gun up but the weapon shook and wavered from the winds buffeting him. He couldn’t even tilt the gun to aim at Maris’s tail.
Suddenly, Sinmak smirked.
A sick feeling filled Kanéko. She didn’t know what he had in mind, but he suddenly stopped trying to shoot Maris and instead aimed directly away from her.
A shot burst out of the gun and raced down the aisle. It slowed down in mid-air, its forward momentum arrested by the force sucking everything toward the core. The shot itself was crystal, a sphere with some liquid inside it. Kanéko made a double-take as she realized it was an alchemical shot. The liquid would be enchanted to burn, freeze, or explode when cracked.
With agonizing slowness, the shot reversed its course and shot back down the aisle. Its course became clear, and Kanéko saw how it would strike a building support right behind Maris.
“Look out!” Kanéko screamed out frantically.
The alchemical shot slammed into the support beam and exploded into green flames. The blast picked Kanéko up and threw her into the spinning blade. The serrated edge tore the pack from her shoulder and opened a deep cut.
She hit the ground with her ears ringing. Desperate, she scrambled to her feet and swayed as a wave of vertigo crashed into her. Her eyes came into painful focus, just in time to see Sinmak kicking the door of the fire core closed.
“You know,” panted Sinmak, “that was almost a mistake.”
The saw blade was no longer between them. Kanéko glanced to the side to see it bouncing off into the woods, toward the river. She scanned the mill in the sudden silence, looking for Maris.
When she didn’t find Maris, she said, “W-Where is Maris?”
Sinmak gestured to the core with one shaking hand. He panted for a moment and took a deep breath. “In there.”
“In the core?” A whimper rose from Kanéko’s throat. There was no way Maris could survive in there, not with the relentless heat. “She’s in there? Let her out!”
“Do you really think she’s alive?” Sinmak said in a cold voice. He gave her a hard look with his reddish eyes. “I thought you were supposed to be—”
“You bastard!” Kanéko charged, her dagger high.
The end of Sinmak’s gun snapped up, and she skidded to a halt. She couldn’t stop herself fast enough, and the muzzle slammed into her throat, sending a bolt of pain along her senses. She stood in front of him, shaking with anger and fear.
Tears ran down her cheeks as she looked up at the core. She couldn’t find the words for the growing devastation that threatened to consume her sanity. Maris was gone in an instant. “Gods no. Why?”
“Because, I was hired to kidnap you, girl.” Sinmak had a voice like gravel and she had to strain to hear it over her panting. “That bitch was expendable and getting in my way. I was hoping to convince her to abandon you, you know those animals have no loyalty. I was wrong, she wouldn’t let you or that dwarf go even to save her own life.”
She stared past his shoulder at the fire core door, trying to figure out some way of getting past Sinmak.
“Now, Kanek Lurkuklan.” He stumbled over her name, skipping the last vowel. Muttering, he turned his head slightly to the side. He tapped the muzzle lightly against her throat before shifting it down to her collar. “I think we need to discuss your future.”
“You killed her.”
“Yes,” he panted, “but she left me no choice.” He stepped forward and forced Kanéko back. “But, that is in the past. And I need you to pay attention to me.”
Fresh tears blurred Kanéko’s vision. She never tore her eyes away from the core. “No… no… I can’t leave her. Not now.”
Sinmak continued to push her back, working her toward the barn entrance. “Death is a part of life. Pay attention to what you have remaining, for that is more important.”
She finally glared at him. “I’ll kill you.”
“No, no you won’t.”
Sinmak’s face spasmed just as one of the beams above them cracked.
Kanéko flinched from the sound.
He reached out and grabbed her. She let out a shriek as he shoved her away from the core. He took a step himself just as the timber came crashing down less than a foot behind him. He didn’t flinch as it rolled back away from him. Strolling forward, he jammed the muzzle against Kanéko’s throat, bruising it again.
She stepped back. “The poster said unhurt.”
He shrugged, and then gave her an evil grin. She shivered at the sight of it. “I can afford a healer. Head up to the front. I need to deal with the vomen for that damn toad. No reason to lose all my men attacking your father’s tower.”
Tears running down her cheeks, Kanéko obeyed. She kept her eyes on his gun, waiting for a chance to lash out. She didn’t understand it, but her imagination slowly began to work through the mechanical device.
They stopped long enough for Sinmak to grab his sword from the grass outside the barn. Then he prodded her into the yard. He stopped Kanéko a chain away from the dalpre and looked over her shoulder at the captured workers. “Now, old lady, give me the boy.”
“Never,” growled Mamgum. An answering choir of growls, from children and adults alike, rose up, but when the mercenaries stepped forward, everyone but Mamgum flinched back and whimpered.
“Do it, or I’ll do the same I did to your—” His face spasmed and Sinmak clamped his mouth shut. He cleared his throat. “Do it, or I’ll kill Kanéko.”
Mamgum snarled. “You touch her, and you will die.”
Kanéko barely heard the words. Her mind replayed Sinmak’s actions. His facial spasm, a tic, came back. The same tic was there right before he threw her aside to avoid the timber. She also saw it when she charged him. Every time, the muscle spasm preceded him avoiding an attack. She mentally ran through the magical powers she read about, trying to recall something she could use against him.
Sinmak gestured for one of the mercenaries. “Get a rope and tie up this girl. God, I hate that damned frog! Tie her up and get ready to sail out. Bitch, give me the damn kid.”
It came to Kanéko with a flash. Sinmak had prescience like Falkin. To test it, she reached down for her dagger. Sinmak’s gun rose up to her forehead, and he looked at her, a muscle jumping below his eye. A brief frown crossed his face as he considered some response.
Seizing an opportunity, Kanéko knew she had another weapon to use. She glared at him. “Or you’ll do what? Kill her like you just killed Maris?”
“Yes, just—” His face spasmed, and Sinmak inhaled sharply.
The sound of whimpering silenced instantly. Kanéko turned and saw Mamgum staring at Sinmak, tears in her eyes. “You killed my Mar?” As she spoke, she let Ruben slip to the ground. He stood up next to her and steadied himself against her leg.
Kanéko spoke quickly. “He did,” she looked back to see Sinmak reaching for her. “He threw her in the core! He burned her to death!”
Sinmak grabbed at her as he bellowed, “Gag her!”
The air changed. It was a subtle pressure but the hairs on Kanéko’s neck stood on end. She ducked under Sinmak’s hand and rolled back. When she came up, the pack had changed completely. Where there was fear and submission in the children and defiant protectiveness in the women. Only one look crossed every dalpre’s face: hatred.
Kanéko heard a growl, deep at first, but it rose up as the pack stood as one. Even the dogs, mere animals, joined in as they focused on Sinmak. The growl shook the ground, rumbling over the sound of the collapsing mill.
The mercenaries backed away, their faces growing pale. Kanéko glanced at Sinmak, whose face was spasming constantly. He hefted his sword and lifted his gun at Mamgum.
Mamgum stepped forward. “You…”
Around her, the pack suddenly crouched down and covered their ears. The mercenaries surged forward, but the dalpre weren’t cowering from them.
Mamgum stepped around them as she inhaled. “Will…”
Kanéko felt the air crackling with power. She dropped to the ground, mimicking the pack, and covered her ears with her hands. She winced as she remembered the pain the last time Mamgum yelled.
“DIE!” The sound of Mamgum’s scream became meaningless with volume, a deafening blast that crushed Kanéko against the ground. It roared around her, bouncing off every surface and echoing back endlessly.
Kanéko tried to look up, but the noise left her vision blurry and she couldn’t see through the tears. She scrambled to her feet and backed away, trying to clear the ringing in her ears. She hit something solid and hot behind her and spun around, flailing. Her hands caught Ojinkomàsu’s mane. Gasping for breath, Kanéko leaned into him until her vision cleared.
Half of the mercenaries were on the ground clutching their bleeding ears. The other half fought for their lives as the dalpre swarmed over them. Sticks, rocks, and teeth were used with brutal efficiency. Blood splashed everywhere. More than a few mercenaries were staggering helplessly, but there was no mercy from the pack as they were pulled down. No quarter was given as man after man fell with a gurgling scream.
Near the house, Mamgum attacked Sinmak with a timber as thick as Kanéko’s thigh and as tall as Kanéko. The enraged mother wielded it like a two-handed sword, slamming it repeatedly against Sinmak’s blade. He tried to parry, but the metal of the weapon was already bent from the brutal and ceaseless attacks from the enraged mother.
A mercenary stalked toward Kanéko. His knuckles were white around his sword and she could see the muscles in his arms tensing. He bellowed and charged forward.
Kanéko grabbed at her dagger but missed it. Frantic, she fumbled for the hilt.
Something powerful shoved her aside from behind.
Ojinkomàsu spun around on his front hooves. His back feet kicked out, catching the mercenary in the chest. A burst of light and flames exploded from the hooves and the man flew back across the yard before he hit the ground with a dull thump. His smoking body didn’t get up.
She stared up at horse with shock and surprise. “Ojinkomàsu?”
A gunshot rang out over the yard.
Kanéko snapped her head around. Sinmak was on the ground, his body beaten almost to a pulp. Blood ran down from a bruised eye. One hand hung limply on his side, but his other held his gun. Steam rose from the tip of the gun.
Shaking, Kanéko followed the line of the gun. It pierced Mamgum’s stomach, right above her navel. The heavy timber dropped to the ground as Mamgum pressed both hands to her belly. Blood soaked through her shirt and spread out across the fabric. She let out a whimper and crumpled to the ground.
Sinmak groaned as he crawled to his feet. He rocked the gun back and the next shot clicked into place. He held it out toward the crowds. Around him, the battle died down as people watched in shock.
“Now, that was a mistake… on her part. Things are getting messy.” He panted. “Time to leave! Someone get the daughter! Then kill all these fucking dogs!”
The barn exploded. A pillar of flame shot up, a mile high column of intense flames that beat against Kanéko. The air around the ruins were sucked up into it. The pillar blossomed into a mushroom-shaped cloud above them. The blast threw Kanéko, Ruben, and Sinmak into the air. It flattened the main house and blew apart the barracks.
She tumbled along the hard-packed ground. Her body came to a stop in a tangle of arms and legs among the dalpre. Frantic, she pulled herself out and forced herself to stand.
Flames roared from the remains of the barn. The large, heavy timbers were on fire, the heavy wood burning brightly. The heat surrounded Kanéko, sucking the moisture from the air and she had trouble breathing. She stepped out from the dalpre and looked around for Sinmak and Mamgum.
Silhouetted by the flame, Sinmak picked up his bent sword and made a show of jamming it into the sheath. It stuck, and he forced it in; the tip of the sword ripped through the side and stuck out at an angle. He picked up his gun and held it in his good hand. He turned to Kanéko, a shadow against the intense light and heat from the barn. “This has gone on long enough. Either you come with me, child, or I will kill every single person in this mill.”
Behind Sinmak, someone walked toward him through the fire. Kanéko’s mouth gaped open as she recognized Maris striding through the flames. The girl’s body was on fire, her black fur like pitch in the light. Around her, the fires grew more intense and wood burned away in heartbeats. Above, the clouds began to rotate into a tornado flickering with lightning in the dark, violent clouds. Maris’s eyes were two points of white flame and her teeth glittered from her snarl.
Sinmak started to turn, following Kanéko’s gaze.
Kanéko panicked and yelled out. “I’ll surrender!”
He turned back. A slow smile crossed his lips. “Then, just let me—” He stopped as his tic jumped. “I’ll—” Another tic. He closed his mouth but his face continued to spasm and jump. Slowly, his eyes widened. Even over the roar of the flames, Kanéko heard him speak in a voice of horror, “Why is everything a mistake?”
The roar of the flames died and left a stunned silence in the yard. Around Maris, the fires gathered, sucking away from the burning wood and debris and formed into a sphere of energy between Maris’s hands. As the heat warped the air around her, the remains of Maris’s dress burned away in a shower of embers.
Kanéko started to look away in embarrassment, but peeked back as jealousy reared its head. Maris was using air and fire magic at the same time, fusing them together into a single spell. It was the epic fight Kanéko always dreamed of, but it wasn’t her in the flames saving the day. It was Maris using magic that only one in a million could use. Kanéko didn’t know if she was happy or devastated, but the relief of seeing Maris alive confused her even more.
Sinmak caught her expression. He turned around. When he saw Maris floating in the flames, he stepped back with shock. His hand shook as he jammed the gun into the holster and fumbled with his sword.
“You—” gasped Maris, her voice rough from the heat that raged around her.
Sinmak yanked the sword from the sheath. He cut his palm with the effort and the flash of blood vaporized in the air before it hit the ground.
“—hurt—” She pulled back her hands. The sphere grew brighter and hotter, expanding until it covered half of Maris’s body.
“—my mommy!” Maris threw her hands forward. The sphere of flame shot from her fingers.
Sinmak parried with his sword, which flared into a blade of magenta waves. The sphere of flame split in half and the two halves bounced across the yard, igniting the ground as they blew past Kanéko.
Maris crouched down and kicked off the ground. The remains of the barn exploded behind her, sending embers in a cloud into the forest beyond the yard. She shot forward and slammed into Sinmak’s stomach. He folded in half over her burning body, his eyes bugging out from the impact. She rocketed ahead, leaving burning air behind her, as they flew up over the trees.
Sinmak’s sword exploded into brilliance. Magenta lightning bolts shot out in all directions, sparking and popping as it formed a sphere of feedback that matched the white-hot flames that surrounded Maris.
They arced up into the sky, rising in a star of white and magenta flames. The air rippled around the two as they dwindled to a point of blinding light.
Kanéko, protected by her goggles, could see it as clear as day. Around her, the dalpre and Ruben shielded their eyes. She held her breath, watching as the light reached its apex. It flashed out and then exploded into a blossom of raw magic. The power tore apart the clouds and the crest of energy came rushing back toward the mill.
Straining to see, Kanéko searched the skies. She spotted a dark shape arcing out into the distance. She didn’t know if it was Maris or Sinmak, but she hoped with all her might Maris had survived the explosion.
“Maris!” Kanéko ran forward. She wouldn’t make it. “Ojinkomàsu!”
She stumbled toward the burning trees. She heard him running up to her, and she grabbed him as he passed. He moved in perfect harmony with her desire, slowing down just enough for her to settle on his back and then accelerated toward Maris’s falling body.
They hit the concussion wave without slowing. Resonance crackled along the trees and ground. Lightning bolts arced between Ojinkomàsu and the earth as the horse sailed through it. The roar of the explosion followed right behind the crest. Kanéko winced from the deafening sound of it, but then he passed through it. He accelerated into a gallop as he raced through the forest. The halo of light around him intensified until the brilliance surrounded the horse as he tore through the woods.