The body of the beast writhed in the moonlight, gleaming wet brown-gray. Sera paced backwards as it twisted. Rune couldn’t fault her fear. But the beast, which tracked them so easily underground, made no indication it sought them now.
“Steady,” Rune said, shifting his sword, settling the contours of its twisted hilt more comfortably in hand.
The monster hit the ground, shockwaves rolling through the earth with such force that Sera fell to her knees. Buildings and arches around them shuddered and groaned, cracked and slid.
Rune extended his hand. “Then we’ll have to make this fast.”
She caught his clawed fingers, pulling herself up. “You have a plan?”
He nodded toward the beast. “Watch.”
“This isn’t the time to show off!”
“Watch the monster!” Rune growled.
Pieces of stone crashed to the earth, the creature’s eyeless head swiveling toward it.
“It can’t see us?” Sera readied her dagger again. “It’s… listening?”
The worm’s head lashed the other direction as plaster fell from a cracked building, then snapped back when another stone fell.
Her eyes widened. “No, it’s the vibrations!”
No wonder it had found them so easily underground. In its tunnels, they were the only thing moving. Now it whipped this way and that, unable to find them for all the impacts around it. Finally, the worm-beast lunged at the falling chunks of a broken arch, its curved, metallic teeth shredding the stone. The voices of terrified people hummed as an undercurrent beneath the crumbling city and the grinding rock in the monster’s maw.
Rune gritted his teeth. “We need to get it out of the city.”
“How?” Sera’s eyes narrowed with concentration, an exasperated scoff escaping her throat. “I can’t feel any more water.”
“Then we’re going to have to improvise.” He flipped his sword, catching the hilt in both hands.
“Don’t you dare!” she cried.
He drove his blade into the earth and opened his senses to the power in the air around him.
The magic rushed into him like a thrill, eager to answer yet dancing just out of reach. He snared it, fought it, dragged it and felt it surge unbidden, volatile and fighting, yet eager to answer and please.
For a half second, the world felt right, the raw power of the world humming just beyond his skin.
Then the seal on his power flared to life and pain surged behind his eyes.
“Rune!” Sera’s voice was weak and distant, torn away by wild wind that kicked dust into the air and swirled around him.
He’d never learned to focus well. His teachers had scolded him for the way his power bled between the elements. But they were limited by bound magic, tied to one energy that would answer their call, forced to use it to influence all the others.
And when it did, the world was at his mercy.
Pure power flowed down his blade, its gleaming edge a crutch most magelings outgrew in their first year. The earth rose to answer it, its might flowing around the three points of contact formed by Rune’s blade and his own two feet.
The ground quivered.
And slowly, the beast turned.
Sera snarled something under her breath, the words lost in the night. “You’ll draw it straight to us!” That protest was louder, though still faint beneath the rushing winds.
That was the point, but he wasn’t going to stop to say that now. He focused on the vibrations in the ground beneath his feet, his eyes trained on the worm as it twisted and reared, weaving its way around fallen stones, drawn to the tremors that pulsed at the tip of Rune’s blade.
Pain swelled inside his skull, burning white-hot down the length of his spine and lancing through him to his fingers and toes. He dared not move, pushing back against the seal that kept his magic at bay.
The seal was meant to protect him, locking the wild power at bay before it could do more damage to his already monstrous body. Instead it felt like a punishment, locking away the one thing he needed, the one thing that would have guaranteed this fight.
The ground shook so hard the monster’s attention couldn’t have been caught by anything else. It took everything in him to keep standing.
Then Rune’s hold of the magic slipped, the seal slamming shut between his will and the flowing power surrounding him, cutting it off. He gasped, falling against his sword for support.
“Look out!” Sera darted forward and grabbed his arm, but instead of flinging him out of the monster’s path, she clung to his side and made herself small.
The screeching beast veered left, shooting past them at speeds that would have made impact certain death. It wasn’t until he turned to watch its thick, slimy body glide by that Rune caught the way the earth beneath them had shifted. Beads of sweat beaded Sera’s brow, betraying her interference.
“I thought you said you couldn’t feel any water?” Rune jerked his sword free of the ground, watching the worm’s tail slip past, twisting new battle strategies into his head.
“I can’t,” she panted, “which means you’d better not do that again. It’s not so easy for all of us to manipulate the world around us, you know.”
Near the edge of the city, at the site of Sera’s deception, the monster lashed its head back and forth in search of its nonexistent prey. It struck an archway, stones crashing around it, making the beast squeal in rage.
“It’s charming that you think that’s easy.” Rune swallowed back the nausea that came with the pain, shaking his head as if that would free him of the throbbing in his temples. The pain would be worse before everything was over.
“Oh, excuse me. I forgot how powerless you are. What was it you said after the spat with the well diggers? Like a kitten dipped in whiskey?” A flash of fire sparked in her pale blue eyes.
Rune fought back a grin, scanning the horizon beyond the thrashing worm. “There. That arch, at the edge of the city. I need you to pull that down. Draw its attention, get it away from here.”
Sera followed his gaze and scoffed. “I appreciate your confidence in my strength, but that’s not going to happen.”
“Well it needs to happen, or it’s going to sense me running.” He started toward it—not running, not yet, but walking at a steady pace that let him regain his balance. “I can’t run and break past the seal at the same time.”
“And I can’t reach that arch from here!” Sera protested.
“Then you’d better start running,too!”
The monster’s distance from the heart of the city did nothing to quell the panic. Crowds bubbled out of cracked buildings, frothing in the streets in their confusion. The louder they screamed, the more attention they drew. People spilled from everywhere, flooding the walkways between Rune and Sera and the beast, pushing against them.
Sera struggled in the crowd, shoving hard and screaming protests.
For Rune, they moved.
With his sword out and his scales exposed, he was as big a threat in their eyes as the worm-beast that turned back toward the city’s heart.
“The people,” Sera shouted over the crowds. “It hears them all moving-”
The rest of her words were lost beneath the noise of people, but Rune heard enough. He turned, pointing toward another arch. Smaller, but close enough they could reach. “Pull!”
Her eyes darted to the people beneath it. “Are you crazy?”
Stifling her doubt, she turned toward the archway and pulled.
Rune stopped in the middle of the street, closing his eyes and letting the people flow past him. Theirs was a frenzied, wild energy all around him—one he dared not touch. Instead he reached to the older, calmer power that flowed beneath them, touching the earth and feeling it rise to his call.
The seal on his magic was never far behind. It rose with the tendrils of energy, a new surge of pain lancing through him, so fast and intense he almost buckled beneath it. But the arch was cracking. He couldn’t fail now.
Gritting his teeth, he pushed past the pain, snaring the power that lay beneath his feet and twisting it to his will.
The earth swayed beneath the archway just as Sera’s efforts took hold, the shattered stone falling the opposite direction. Great boulders struck the ground just behind the fleeing people, kicking up a dust so thick he couldn’t see the beast beyond the city’s edge.
But he felt it.
The vibrations grew more powerful as the worm tore toward them, lunging at the fallen arch with a scream.
It crashed into the stone and Rune twisted the threads of magic he held, catching the next arch.
Sera’s magic flowed up the pillars, reminiscent of water in his senses. He didn’t need her help for this, but he appreciated it.
In unison, they pulled.
The massive stone arch resisted, but it couldn’t hold when they held the strings of its very existence in their grasp. It fractured, slipping sideways before crashing down in a stone cascade across the worm’s back.
The monster squalled and thrashed, striking arches, sending showers of rock across the rest of its slick body, only enraging itself further.
Rune let the magic slip beyond his grasp, rocking on his feet. A moment to catch his breath and tamp down the pain was all he could spare. He’d felt worse. He’d survived worse. The seal would cripple, not kill.
“How’s that for a distraction?” Sera crowed beside him, slapping his shoulder and almost knocking him down.
He shot her a baleful glare, then swallowed hard and started for the edge of the city again. “We’ll draw it this way.”
She didn’t embarrass him by offering an arm, but she did give him a look from the corner of her eye that said the cost of his power showed.
Ignoring it—and the pounding in his head, the stitch in his side, the bone-deep weariness—he picked up the pace, sucking deep lungfuls of air and willing the weakness not to show. “Don’t want to keep pulling arches”—his voice caught on a ragged breath, and he gulped and tried again—“have to use magic.”
“I think you’ve used enough.” Sera’s voice was annoyingly unhindered, her breathing deep and even in spite of their trials. Rune tried to remind himself she was a ranger; she was better trained to endurance than he was, and without a seal on her power to worry about.
“Same.” It was all he could do to keep from punctuating the statement with a grimace. “That means the magic is up to you.”
“We can’t keep tearing down archways,” she protested.
“Then find another way to pull it before it realizes those are just rocks!”
Her complaint came too soft for him to hear as she sprinted ahead, putting distance between them. He didn’t try to stop her, casting a glance over his shoulder at the monster that still flailed among the rocks.
Magic was the fastest answer. But he’d already reached the limits of what he could do without rest, and Sera couldn’t defeat something that large on her own. If there were other mages in the city, he had them pegged for cowards, fleeing at the first sight of danger instead of banding together against it.
His hand tightened around the hilt of the sword he still held, that he’d refused to leave behind in their room at the end. That leaves one option then, doesn’t it?
At the edge of the city, a new rumble began. The monster’s head swiveled toward it.
Rune stood between the beast and his ally, both the best and worst place to be. Better get this right.
The worm twisted, surging toward Sera’s call—and Rune, in the center of its path.
Its maw widened, its curved teeth glinting in the light of the first moon. Rune sidestepped, bringing his sword around in one mighty swing, plunging the blade deep into the monster’s side.