The rider flicked his spear idly and Maran flew sideways into a bolder. The prince rose to his feet, shaking his head and looking disorientated. Before he could regain his bearings, the lightning wolf had him pinned to the ground. Two of his pack blocked the two storm sprites he’d called to aid him from reaching him. The wolf lifted his head long enough to look at Tonara.
“That was an admission of guilt, I think, but we still have a mission to complete.”
“Yes,” Tonara agreed dubiously. Mela could see the thunderbird observing the current state of the troops and wondering if the ones who weren’t tied up would be enough to complete it. “But can we?”
“No.” The rider sounded amused. “Even if half your troops weren’t having to stop the traitors among you from attacking your own, you couldn’t. Weâ€™re stronger than Valeria realises. Iâ€™ll demonstrate that if you insist, but I’d rather not. Itâ€™s not in my interests to kill you. Nor is it in your interest to get killed. Your duty is to warn your Queen of the plot against her.”
The thunderbird and lightning wolf looked at each other and then back at the Dark Rider, obviously wondering if what he had said was the truth or mere bravado. After a moment, they clearly decided that they had to at least try. A sharp command from Tonara lead to the unoccupied troops rushing human and unicorn as one.
The rider rolled his eyes and sighed. “Honestly, you people just will not take the hint.” He hefted his spear again. “Try not to kill any of them, Eb. I donâ€™t want Maran sneaking back and lying to his sister about what happened here, and I donâ€™t need to waste time hunting him down.”
He leapt clear of Ebona as she reared and shot a bolt of crackling darkness from her horn. It struck one of the thunderbirds before it could shoot lightning at her. Then she wheeled and speared a wolf as it reared up to claw at her.
In the meantime, the dark rider landed in a crouch amidst a cluster of wolves and began striking out at them with fists and feet rather than using his spear. Dark energy coruscated around his fists and feet as he sent them flying with each blow. Whenever any of the attackers got close to hitting either him or Ebona, the shield Mela had seen him use against her mother flared up. His speed obviously caught Tonara and the lightning wolf by surprise, because it took them far longer than it should have to call a retreat. As soon as the attackers pulled back, the rider and Ebona whirled to a halt.
“Convinced?” the rider asked. There was no reply because they were too busy fleeing, chasing their prisoners before them. The injured thunderbird was scooped up gently into the claws of one of his fellows and carried off as well.
“They look convinced to me,” Ebona said. She sounded amused, but then she stopped and nuzzled the corpse of the Lightning Wolf that she had killed. “Iâ€™m so sorry, Lupa. You were too close. I had no choice,” she whispered. Mela blinked at Ebona. How had she known her attackerâ€™s name?
The rider placed a hand on her flank. “She was a friend of yours, Eb?”
“I wouldnâ€™t go that far, but I knew her when she was just a pup,” she said. “We used to play together sometimes. I hadn’t seen her in years.”
“I am sorry, Eb,” he said. “No one should ever have to kill a friend.”
“This sort of bad crap happens in war.” Ebona didnâ€™t sound anywhere near as pragmatic as her words implied. “Itâ€™s no one’s fault. But can you bury her, please? She deserves that much respect.”
“Of course I can.” He took a spade from the pack on her back and began to dig a grave in the sodden soil.
Mela crawled out ofÂ her hiding place and walked shakily across to him clinging on the the trees for support. How did land creatures walk when they were scared?
He looked up as she approached and smiled. “Are you okay?” he asked softly.
She shook her head. “Y-Youâ€™re fighting against the dra-”
Before she could finish, he had paused in his digging and swiftly laid a finger against her lips. “Donâ€™t. He’ll hear you. I can’t block him from homing in on us if you say it,” he whispered. “And yes I am â€“ though he doesnâ€™t know it yet. I’d like to keep it secret until I’ve spiked his wheel.”
“Messed up his current plan,â€ he explained. â€œThe Core has only one weapon against the dragons. Heâ€™s attempting to use that against it. I kind of like this place, so I wonâ€™t allow it.”
“Weapon? You mean humans?” she asked and he nodded.
“We probably deserve to get used against the dragons, if you believe in racial guilt anyway. There’s certainly a delicious irony to it.” He paused and wrinkled his nose. “You smell bad. Iâ€™ll have to find a stream for you to bathe in.”
Mela looked at the Dark Heart Bracelet on his wrist. “What happens if you take that off?” she asked.
He gave her a long thoughtful look before he went back to digging the grave. She was about to apologise for asking when he spoke.
â€œIf I take it off? Not much. I have to refrain from using my powers here if I don’t want to collapse, but Iâ€™m okay. Now if someone manages to take it from me…” he trailed off and shuddered. â€œThat gets nasty.”
â€œIs that why you didn’t take the fire and ice bracelets?” she asked.
â€œYeah. I don’t want to hurt them if I can avoid it, but I need to warn the Core’s guardians about his plans, and to get to them I need the right bracelets. Hopefully the Life one will do it.”
“Shouldnâ€™t you warn the other three?”
“I would if I knew exactly what he was using them for. Heâ€™s been blocking the Core from summoning them until now. Iâ€™m not sure what changed.” He sighed and began to tug the wolf’s corpse towards the grave. “I just wish I could let them be.”
Mela sighed and sat down on a rock. There wasnâ€™t much she could say to that given the haunted look in his eyes. “People think youâ€™re a traitor like the Water Warrior, you know.”
â€œI know,” he said.
â€œI knew his heart friend,â€ she added softly. â€œHe was aunt Loriâ€™s eldest son. I wonder if Queen Valeria regrets saving his life?”
“What?” The rider stared at her.
â€œIt was before I was born, but my grandmother wanted to kill him when he was born. Queen Valeria stopped her. My grandmother didn’t survive the stopping.”
â€œShe wanted to kill a baby?” he said levelly. â€œAre all mermaids so mean to children?”
Mela shook her head. “Aunt Loriâ€™s a great mother. She raised me as well as her own kids because my mother was so… well, so like my mother is. That’s how I knew Darya.” Mela rolled her eyes.
“Was Lori the one I speared in shoulder?” he asked. “You said she was your aunt.”
She nodded. “Iâ€™m glad you didnâ€™t kill her.”
“She tried to kill me,” he said neutrally. “So forgive me if Iâ€™m a bit biased against her, but Iâ€™m glad youâ€™re glad.” He ruffled Mela’s hair and wrinkled his nose again. “Now, let’s find a stream and wash the swamp stench out of you.”