Chaos looked like a cloud, but it moved like a tiger. Scarcely had the shout gone up than it bunched like a sleek predator and sprang across the treetops. Hovering above the village, Lisette thought it had taken on the shape of an enormous cloud cat, green fire in its eyes, grey shadows rippling across its grey hide.
Though it was far deadlier than any cloud cat.
Lisette drained the magic from her wings and dropped to the ground, a safe distance away from the enemy combatants, the meeting hall behind her. From this vantage point, the Chaos boiling towards them through the treetops looked even more menacing.
She cupped her hands around her mouth. “Come on!” she shouted to the mages. “We’ll give you shelter!”
That was the rule: You always gave anyone shelter from Chaos.
For your own sake, as well as theirs.
Acidia was half-turned towards the Chaos, staring up at it. A throaty laugh bubbled out of her. “Now it comes. Better late than never, I suppose!” She flung her arms out as if to embrace it.
Ominous crackles came from the forest. Lisette felt things shift, change, as Chaos engulfed trees, plants, animals.
“Don’t be an idiot!” Lisette yelled. “You need to get to safety! You have no idea what it could do to you.”
“Don’t I?” Acidia called back. “I’ve spent years studying Chaos. Now that it’s here, I’m finally ready for it.”
Yellow Mask folded his arms and stood still, stoic waiting in every line of him. Wolf Mask bounced on his toes. The eyeholes of his mask flickered as his gaze darted from the Acidia to the leading edge of Chaos coming over the last line of trees.
“Uh, I don’t know, Acidia,” he began, backing away towards Lisette. “Maybe we’d better…”
Sticky tentacles shot out from the woman, wrapped around his waist, legs, arms. Her mouth curved up in a hard smile. “You’ll stay.”
In one savage movement, Chaos pounced upon the three mages. Lisette didn’t wait any longer. She sprinted for the open door of the meeting hall, her wings chiming behind her. Jonquil waited in the doorway, her face white and strained. She reached out her hand and caught Lisette’s as she ran up the steps.
At the top, Lisette whirled around. The cloud of Chaos engulfed the mages. She could barely make out their forms in the clinging greyness, dark forms writhing in the wild magic.
Shrieks of agony rang out, torn from twisted throats. Enfolded by Chaos, the mages shuddered, clawed at their faces, beat at their limbs.
Jonquil tugged Lisette’s wrist. “Don’t look,” she whispered, as if Lisette was still a small child. “Come away.”
But Lisette couldn’t tear her horrified gaze away from those silhouettes. The Chaos shrank around the mages, becoming denser, more compact. It wrapped around them in wet, shining plates of obsidian It pried open their mouths and poured itself into their bodies.
And then it changed them.
The mages’ forms swelled and rippled, engorged with Chaos. Wings burst out of one of them—Lisette thought it was Acidia. She threw her head back with a ringing cry, her neck elongating rapidly, her face lengthening to end in a sharp beak. Her body grew to the size of a horse or a cow, and kept growing. A scaled tail lashed behind her and her feathered wings swept wide.
“O, Protector,” whispered Lisette, just as Jonquil said, low and hard, “Snoutbeck.
One of the other mages raised his head in a howl. His height had not changed but his body was far more muscled, his shoulders rounded, his chest huge. Fur covered his entire body and his hands had clenched into paws. He dropped to all fours and bounded away, into the forest, a tail streaming behind them. The second man, now grown to an impossible height for a human, also covered in fur, arms and legs thick as tree trunks, lumbered after him.
Chaos clung to them all.
The Snoutbeck, her eyes glowing yellow, craned her long neck. Her eyes met Lisette’s, the beak opened, and the creature sprayed acid over the nearest house.
It disintegrated in moments.
A knot tightened in Lisette’s stomach.
The Snoutbeck swept her tail, smashing into yet another Cloud Village home.
Lisette knew the creature would not leave until it had destroyed everything—even the meeting hall and the villagers inside it.
She stepped forward.
Jonquil’s hand tightened around her arm, holding her back.
Lisette turned and met her mother’s eyes. “She won’t stop, you know. I’m your best chance right now. I was trained for this.” Her gaze shifted to the mass of people in the hall, to the impenetrable Wulf, to Olina worrying her lower lip with her teeth, to Tamsin who could not meet her eyes at all.
“I’ll keep the Snoutbeck busy,” she said, raising her voice. “I’ll lead her away if I can.” She looked back at Jonquil. “You should get them to safety.”
Jonquil gave a stiff nod. Her hand fell away from Lisette’s arm.
Without that pressure she felt…somewhat empty. Alone. Lisette banished that fleeting thought.
They both had work to do.
They turned away to their respective tasks. Lisette heard Jonquil’s voice give orders, but the distinct words were lost as she sent magic into her wings and launched herself upwards.
She flew over the Snoutbeck. Acidia’s beaked face, now all eagle, tracked her, twisting her sinuous neck.
Lisette called down, “So you think you’re all superior, now that you can fly?” she mocked. “I can still beat you in the air.”
Acidia gave an enraged cry and shoved off the ground. Her great wings flapped, she shot up into the air, faster than Lisette had anticipated. Whiffs of Chaos, crackles of wild magic, brushed against Lisette’s face.
She turned and sped away from the village, Acidia following close behind.
Up above the forest, Lisette dodged. The Snoutbeck’s acid spray, now more powerful and longer in range, missed her by inches. The long arc of it fell into the trees and across a clearing with a scorching sizzle. The acrid scent nearly choked Lisette. She half-whirled away and caught sight of a rectangular building, all straight lines and sharp corners, by itself. It looked out of place, nothing she’d seen in a Frejalander settlement…
No time to think about it. Lisette zoomed above Acidia—she was the more experienced flier, faster and more agile than the newly-formed Snoutbeck. Acidia craned up her neck as Lisette targeted her wings with blades of light. If she could ground the beast…
Her attack glanced off the Chaos-made wings, making no cuts, no scores. Acidia’s mouth opened in a sneer. Her enormous wings beat the air, her body rising rapidly to Lisette’s position.
Lisette’s teeth clenched. She was almost out of magic, and she couldn’t pull light from the great blank moon face that stared down at her. She blurred herself, darted up to the Snoutbeck. Acidia snapped, her aim thrown off by the blurring. Lisette had a great up-close view of the sharpness of her beak as she sliced across her neck with bladed fans. Black blood bubbled and steamed out of the cut. Acidia shrieked and thrashed. A wing caught Lisette and sent her tumbling through the sky and into a tree top.
Lisette hit canopy and fell through leaves and branches. She fed magic into her wings and slowed her fall, landing on her feet with a jarring thud. Up above, the Snoutbeck circled, trumpeting a taunting cry.
Lisette could easily curl up and hide herself, but then Acidia might get bored and return to the village.
She couldn’t let that happen.
With a twist of her suns, Lisette sent out a pulse of light. The flash momentarily gilded the trees around her. With a shrill cry, Acidia plummeted down, talons extended.
Lisette sprang back, and Acidia hit the ground. Her huge talons clawed earth, throwing up clumps of soil. Fire jetted out of her open beak.
Lisette ducked and rolled. Trees went up in flames, twists of light and heat and smoke.
Lisette greedily sucked the meager light, but it could barely replenish her supply.
It’ll be enough.
She concentrated her magic and shot a flare of light into Acidia’s eyes. An agonized shriek tore out of the creature’s throat—Lisette knew the attack felt like twin stabs to the brain.
No time to waste. Lisette sprinted for the Snoutbeck’s side, vaulted up to her back, climbed up the neck. Under Acidia’s scaled and feathered hide, Chaos twisted and sparked. Lisette’s hands hurt, but she got herself into position behind the Snoutbeck’s head. She summoned the last of her magic into her closed fans. They sang out with vicious gladness, each a stabbing line of sun-dazzle.
There. Right behind the head, where the scales gave way to feathers. A joint line, a weak place.
Lisette took aim and stabbed.
Acidia bucked. One fan drove through hide and flesh, hit bone. The other slanted sideways, away from the creature’s brain.
Chaos mushroomed from the wounds, right into Lisette’s face. She shut her eyes just in time; it prickled against her skin. She took in one quick, shallow inhalation. Faintness came over her. Her grip slipped, her head felt dizzy…
No magic came to her aid this time. No light bloomed inside her, to buoy her up.
She hit the ground with a heavy thud, a metallic crumple.
Her muscles tensed. Move!
Something big and heavy slammed into Lisette. Pressure on her chest. Heat and animal reek in her face.
Acidia peered at her out of globular yellow eyes, pupils narrowed to slits. Her foot pinned Lisette to the ground. Lisette made a feeble movement, and the claws tightened, pressing in from all sides.
A sullen glow limned the Snoutbeck. Dark, stringy stuff oozed out of the wound and down her neck. Lisette saw one of her fans, still buried behind her head.
She had no idea where the other was.
Acidia bent her head, retribution in her eyes. There were so many ways the snoutbeck could kill Lisette here, right now.
Desperately, Lisette scrabbled in her suns for magic and came up empty. She heard the crackle of the fire, smelled the smoke of it, but its light slipped away from her grasp.
Blood pounded in Lisette’s ears. Her heart beat like a drum. Her vision narrowed until all that existed was Acidia’s cruel head. The Chaos-stuff from inside the creaure’s body splattered near Lisette’s head, raising smoke.
An ice-coldness seized Lisette. Shadows pressed in on her. She was back in the caves, weaving in and out of darkness, while nameless things chittered at her.
Lisette thought, I don’t want to die. The puncture wounds in her neck burned.
Her desperate, grasping mental reach found something, tangled in it, pulled.
Darkness rushed into Lisette’s body. Its leading edge pierced through her skin, sank into her chest. Something cold and hard and heavy burned above her heart. Lisette breathed shards of ice. Agony was a ball of lead behind her sternum—one of her suns, overfull with something she can hardly stand.
Darkness swept across her vision. Forest and fire and sky vanished. Acidia’s body sprang out at her in fluorescent colors, in eerie purple, ice blue, vibrant green. Inside the Snoutbeck’s chest spun a ball of glowing yellow, tangled in Chaos stuff.
Lisette didn’t think. She grasped the dark energy inside her throbbing sun. It slid down her veins and into her fingers in a wave of pain that left her gasping. A solid shaft of darkness formed in her hands.
Acidia’s head swung down, beak open.
Lisette flung the spear into the snoutbeck’s chest. It pierced through the glowing yellow sphere.
Acidia screamed. The foot holding Lisette down was wrenched away. The thick darkness and the fluorescence disappeared. Lisette was back in the forest, and the Snoutbeck thrashed in agony nearby, leaking magic and fluid.
Lisette half-scrambled, half-crawled away from the creature’s throes. Her chest hurt with every movement. Her aching arms trembled.
She wanted to be sick. She thought about throwing up darkness and her stomach heaved, twisting dryly. There was nothing left in it but bile. Lisette choked and spat in some nearby bushes as the Snoutbeck’s thrashing grew weaker and stopped.
After a while, Lisette stood up on shaking legs and staggered to where Acidia lay, smaller than she had been, neither human nor Snoutbeck. One of her arms was a shriveled limb to her side, the other outstretched was a limb that did not belong to her frame, a long thin arm with a fringe of feathers dangling from it. Her eyes were human again, staring blankly up at the canopy. Something wet and dark spread from the back of her head.
Lisette was glad she couldn’t see her body clearly. It would make her sick again.
Acidia’s eyes focused on Lisette face as the girl crouched beside her. Her mouth, human again, twisted. “So strong,” she whispered. “Frejalanders are so strong. So resistant to Chaos. I wish”—she coughed—“that I had dissected more of you.”
Lisette’s nostrils flared.
“They wouldn’t let me,” she continued on a fluttering sigh. “They wanted the children for the camps.”
A pit opened up in Lisette’s stomach. “What do you mean?” she rasped. “What camps?” Which children?
Was Micah one of them?
But Acidia was fading away, lost in her own thoughts, her own world. “It would take so long to raise them up, provided you could even do so properly. My way was faster, more efficient,” she insisted. “I was on the right track, I know it. If only I could adjust the serum, just a little more…”
Lisette grabbed the woman’s shoulders. “Tell me about the children. Where are they?”
Acidia twitched. “Not my department.” Her smile twisted. “They closed me down too early. I knew I was so close…”
Frantic impatience fluttered inside Lisette, almost banishing the pain in her chest. She had so many questions. “Who is they? Tell me!”
Acidia’s wandering gaze came to Lisette’s face. Recognition crept into her eyes. “Half-baked mage girl,” she whispered. Something thin and dark dribbled out of her mouth. “You cannot stop what’s coming.” Her breath hitched. “You cannot stop”—she gasped—“the Red Dawn.”
The malicious spark died from her eyes. There was no tension in the shoulders Lisette held. She let go of the dead woman and wiped her hands on her trousers. She felt the Chaos drain out of Acidia’s corpse, felt tree roots and small burrowing things reach for it, as they had for centuries. The inhabitants of the Spines, flora and fauna, could handle the periodic incursions of Chaos.
Supposedly that included the people, too. People that Acidia’s group—this Red Dawn—had stolen away to study—dissect—or put into camps.
That building she’d glimpsed above the forest. The one that looked out of place in the forest. Was that Acidia’s base?
Lisette planted her hands in the soil and pushed herself to her feet. The forest was wet from all the rain; Acidia’s fires had died down to smolders. Good. She didn’t need to worry about that now. She could find that building and…
Lisette swayed. A fist of ice rammed into her chest and stayed there. Cold and darkness swept over her. She felt herself falling, this time into unconsciousness.
She thought someone reached out and caught her before she hit the ground.
Author’s Note: I’m finally done writing the first draft of this arc! Three more episodes after this one will wrap it up. I also finally picked a name for the shadowy nefarious group behind some of the odd goings-on we’ve seen so far. Red Dawn was not on my original list of names, but I like it so much better than Cabal and Conspiracy and New Order (yeah, I clearly needed to clear away all the terrible, no-good names before I got to something good.)