Lance of Earth and Sky - By Erin Hoffman

The blast of gale-force wind knocked Vidarian into the brush. He crumpled instinctively, protecting his torso with his arms and knees, leaving his back exposed to the reaching dry branches and rocks that littered the forest floor. With a snarl he leapt back to his feet, using momentum and fury to unleash an arc of fire energy. It sizzled through the brush, leaving smoke and char where it passed. A high-pitched yelp at the end of the sear told him he'd found his target.

Close thunder rattled the sky, and with it the first hissing drops of a cold rain fell through the trees. Tiny candleflames that dotted the brush with fire from his attack crackled their complaints before expiring into steam. Thunder called again, and with it Vidarian heard distant laughter. Her laughter.

It would have been easier if the laugh had been wicked or cruel. Instead it was joyous, the laugh of a little girl riding a horse for the first time, of lovers reunited. The Starhunter's storm was vast, his water sense told him, wrapping Andovar from pole to pole in a dangerous embrace. Her laugh reminded him, as the Starhunter always would, painfully of Ariadel, a searing memory that stopped him in his tracks. She hadn't spoken to him since the gate had opened.

The seridi came hurtling through the charred branches with a shriek, heedless of rain or fire. Her eyes, too large in a feathered but human face, were all pupil and full of hell and madness. Fingers that were elegant on a sane creature were warped into claws, and her wings were a tattered ruin. Worse still were the chaotic thoughts she radiated to anyone within a hundred feet—mad ravings and images of impossible machines, liquids that burned, a terrible light that flashed and devoured whole cities.

// Polyalphabetic substitution, // the creature said, barraging him with incoherent urgency. // Wehrmacht—Tirpitz, model T. Specification is appended! //

It was always more difficult when they talked. The words were mad, poisonously so—but Vidarian always had the disturbing feeling that to the seridi they made perfect sense. Like the others, this one reached out desperately with magic, grasping with elemental hands when words failed her. The rush of wind pulled fire from Vidarian's chest; his own ability wanted to dive into hers and combust, consume the air that gave fire life. It hungered.

But Vidarian had something besides hungry fire. Even as his own soul reached back toward the air, driven to grow, the water in him growled back at it, primally angry, mindlessly intent: water suppresses fire. Vidarian turned the water's smothering force onto the seridi, flinging out an arm. The rain spiraled at his command, making a cyclone of the seridi's energy, then wreathing itself around her throat.

He pushed, setting free more of the water's fury, and the seridi crashed against the oak behind her with a keen like a terrified rabbit, always just shy of human. Vidarian tightened his grip, and her keen stuttered into a choke.

For these creatures he had thrown away everything—his ship, his oldest friend, the only woman he had truly ever loved—and all they were good for was containment. For the past two months he had hunted these mad ones, risking life and limb and sanity to catch them before they could rage through the land spreading senseless destruction. But he had never killed one.

Who was this creature, to demand so much of the world? Of him? Vidarian looked into the seridi's eyes and tightened his grip again.

Branches cracked behind him as something large hurtled through the brush. Altair's presence struck Vidarian seconds before the gryphon appeared, crashing through the space around his mind that he only now realized gryphons always respected as personal. He was so startled that his grip on the seridi loosened, and she sprung free, lashing out with claw and magic—

But Altair was there, reaching out with his own formidable wind mastery and turning the creature's raw assault back against her. With one smooth movement she was suddenly contained, and as the sphere of air that spun around her took sound with it, silence fell in the woods, leaving only the patter of steady rain.

Vidarian almost jumped as Altair's massive foreclaw settled gently on his shoulder. Talons longer than Vidarian's fingers and three times as thick brushed his chest and shoulder blade, and he knew from the gryphon's wash of emotion that they were meant to reassure.

// It isn't her fault, my friend. // The white-feathered face was gentle, pensive. //