50. The Storm (3)
Nicolina was silent before the window of her study, staring into the looming night like a statue. She didn’t quite know what she was watching for. Beacons, maybe. The northern beacons would light if a Class Five made an appearance. But no, perhaps she was looking eastward; for daybreak, for a dawn that would mean this terrible ordeal was over.
Not that dawn meant the end of a Storm, but light did. Storm clouds had a way of strangling out any possible daylight.
Then again, with daylight comes paperwork, Nicolina thought ruefully. Paperwork and funerals. The guild would be sparse the day after the Storm. It always was.
Her attention returned to the window at the flicker of a distant orange light. The northern beacons had lit and were slowly spreading south. She released a slow breath.
A Class Five. Confirmed.
Asters help them all.
For a moment, Nicolina felt as she did with every Storm, and regretted her tactical decisions. Perhaps she should have sent more Hunters north, as no less than twenty were usually dedicated to securing the epicenter. But no, Northelm was too far from the capital, and the Hunters’ main advantage was their responsiveness and mobility; she needed them closer to the rest of the nation, ready to move at the turn of a dime. Then perhaps she should have put her foot down and convinced Northelm to be evacuated. But no, the debt would come due later, when no starshooters could be made and none of the new Hunters would own windsoles because of the mana quartz shortage.
Nicolina sighed and almost put her head in her hands, if not for little Sasha Privalt quietly polishing a statuette in the corner. As defeated, tired, and damn old as she felt, she wanted the kids to feel like they still had a future and not just a funeral.
“The Class Five sighting is confirmed,” Nicolina said.
Sasha hummed idly. “Someone’s getting a lot of points tonight.”
It was all just a big game to these kids. Nicolina sighed again. “The north will need reinforcements. Has anyone reported back yet?”
“No, ma’am. Maybe in a few hours? There should be a lull before the next wave.”
Nicolina tallied the numbers in her head, trying to place all the Hunters. One was missing.
“What about the crown prince?” she said. “He should have reported for dispatch by now.”
“Oh, didn’t he tell you?” Sasha said brightly. “He left to fortify the epicenter ages ago.”
The baton dropped from Nicolina’s fingers. She turned to look at Sasha.
“The epicenter,” she said flatly.
Sasha hummed as she shuffled through papers to wipe the shelves, completely ignorant of the new storm brewing in the room. “Yeah, you know, the one all the way up north. Northelm. Helming up the northern helm of Northelm, you could say—”
“And how,” said Nicolina, drawing out each word deliberately, “did the crown prince come to learn about the epicenter?”
Sasha’s hands hesitated. She raised her head, as if she’d finally realized the dangerous tint to Nicolina’s voice.
“Oh, uh, who knows?” she stammered. “Maybe the connection with the Observatorium and all—I’m sure they report to him, he’s very important—”
She stopped short at Nicolina’s sour glare, cold as steel. She swallowed.
“It…it might’ve also…maybe, slightly slipped my tongue, um, once, or maybe twice—”
Sasha squeaked and dropped the papers, cowering under the table.
Nicolina rubbed at her temples, which were already beginning to ache like a hammer pounding an anvil. Sethis was out on the frontlines, compelled by his equally endearing and aggravating sense of heroism. She knew she couldn’t entirely blame Sasha; the prince had always desired to protect the country in a way more concrete than giving inspiring speeches. He’d snuck countless hunts under her watch, despite her best efforts to hide commissions and open marks from him. But with a silent and ineffective reigning king, all hell would break loose if any tragedy were to befall him.
Now she thanked the Asters that Karis’s stubborn streak had sent her to Northelm, and Halcyon had followed her.
She turned to Sasha, forcing her tone to smooth over. “I know you’re in the habit of letting the prince bribe you for marks,” she said patiently, “but this is different. We’re talking Class Fives, Sasha. His life is in serious danger and he could very well die if he’s unsupported.”
Sasha wilted a little bit, feet shuffling on the floor. “I didn’t think he would leave without telling you,” she mumbled. “I’m sorry.”
Nicolina eased, the last embers of her anger genuinely fading away. “You’re right,” she acknowledged. “It’s not your fault.”
She turned back to the window where the sparks of the beacons spun into the night sky, and smiled grimly.
“I’ll just have to share a few choice words with him when he’s back,” she said.
She decided not to say what she really thought: if he came back at all.
Grey Dismas leapt to attention as the double doors to Lord Geppett’s study flew open, banging hard against the wall.
“Milord!” he blurted with a salute. “The companies have been dispatched, milord, except for your personal elite guard and Bramble and…Thorn…”
He trailed off as he noticed his lord’s attire. Roland Geppett was not in his formalwear, the coat and trousers often worn to deliberations. Instead he was formidably dressed in the plates and trappings of his battle armor, steel and gold intermingled with the unmistakable rich green of House Geppett. Slung across his back was the formidable weight of his warhammer, a hefty, jeweled weapon that could brutalize anything with a single swing.
Lord Geppett was going into battle. Personally.
Gobsmacked, Grey could only stare. Roland Geppett, venerated general, hero of the Lightbringer’s Rebellion, was taking up arms and joining the frontlines. Nobles did not go into battles personally. They raised and developed companies for that very reason, so that others could go in their name while their own lives were preserved. But Lord Geppett, it seemed, was not quite finished with war.
“Where is that wayward son of mine?” he fumed, his features as stormy as the sky. “Never around when he should be. What, is he off gallivanting around that Ingeniator’s Association with one of his new trinkets?”
Grey struggled to find his voice. “I, I saw him departing the estate, er, some odd days ago.”
Lord Geppett stopped suddenly, as if he had just noticed Grey’s presence, and fixed him with a harsh look. “And you mentioned this only now?”
Grey shrank a little, suddenly under the impression that he was about to be skinned and sewn as the latest addition to Lord Geppett’s Hundred Battle Cloak. “Ah, well, I, you see, milord, I merely thought, just perhaps, that it was another one of, er, the lordling’s fleeting fancies—”
Lord Geppett’s face only darkened further, which was really quite the accomplishment at this point. “You think the Geppett heir apparent to be flighty and irresponsible?”
“No!” Grey floundered. “I could never, milord! I, I only meant—”
“Enough,” said Lord Geppett, and Grey nearly shriveled from relief. “I shall personally captain the elite guard up to Northelm, while you, Captain Dismal, shall gather the Bramble and Thorn Companies as a reserve. I do not expect further trouble, but should it come, do not hesitate to dispatch any remaining forces.”
“It’s, ah, Dismas, milord. Grey Dismas.”
“Yes, Captain Dismal. I have high hopes for you.” Lord Geppett looked down the severe bridge of his nose. “And while you are out and about, see if you run into my heir. That foolish boy could be dead and rotting off in devil-knows-where!”
That gave Grey pause for a moment. He had nearly missed it past the snappish aggression of Lord Geppett’s words, but he could have sworn that right there, at the end of it all, Lord Geppett’s tone had slightly risen in…worry. Was Lord Geppett...concerned for his son?
“Well?” snapped Lord Geppett. “Are you moving, or need you the taste of a cattle prod to encourage you?”
“I’m moving,” Grey blurted, scrambling for the stairs. “I’m moving. Thank you for your trust, milord. I will not betray it.”
“See that you don’t,” Lord Geppett said. He strode down the hall, cloak rippling behind him, and disappeared. Grey could already hear the mustering horn calling in the distance, a mournful, piercing note that would not give way to the night.
“Your Highness! Class Four sighted by the northwest wall, half a league out!”
“Your Highness! Class Four sighted on the southern plain!”
“Your Highness! Class Four sighted westward, approaching from the Talebloom!”
Sethis grimaced at the deluge of ill tidings that hit like a cresting wave as messengers poured onto the wall. Multiple Fours had surfaced at once and seemed to be closing in on all sides, and with them would come more Twos and Threes. With a wave of his hand, he dispersed the winged veil that was protecting the wall. He would need every last bit of mana for this ordeal.
He looked to the small group of the leaders gathered before him: Halcyon and his stoic poise, Karis and her deadly grace, the captains of the National Garrison, the town-reeve and marshal of the Northelm militia, and the young Geppett heir, given command of a militia company to ease the reeve’s burden. They were too few, but they looked back at Sethis without fear, and he knew they were each worth a hundred men.
If only a force of a few hundred was enough to face the Storm.
“Hal and I shall occupy the Five and find a way to slay it,” Karis said, breaking the grim silence.
“Then I shall see to the heralds,” Sethis said. “Reeve Harvenfest, oversee the defense of the wall. Captains Augustine, Renegade, and Geppett, the reeve’s word is now law.”
“Aye, Your Highness.” The captains immediately saluted and returned swiftly to their posts, though Sethis did not miss the way Wesley spared a parting glance in Azalea’s direction. The moment gave him pause. Wesley had been searching for a Hunter in the Range, and Azalea Fairwen had brought the Whisperer as an ally. Could it be…
No, there was no time for idle musings. With a shake of his head, Sethis returned his mind to the task at hand.
“The Fours strike from northwest, west, and south,” he said. “I will see to them from closest to farthest. The militia and garrison will hold the fortress proper. Lady Fairwen—”
“Yes, Your Highness?” Azalea blurted, straightening and smoothing out her skirt.
Sethis blinked, momentarily unbalanced by her sudden enthusiasm. “Take the Whisperer and return to Mythaven to reinforce the Guild wherever necessary.”
“Mythaven?” The young Hunter’s face, so open and guileless, froze in surprise. “Not here?”
“I’ve no doubt that Guildmaster Cotton would greatly appreciate every pair of hands,” Sethis said. “The sooner central is secured, the better.”
“Your Highness,” Halcyon suddenly said, a light furrow to his brow, “with all due respect, I’m not convinced we can spare any pair of hands. Even the heralds include Class Fours.”
“Their arrival from a single direction would be difficult enough,” Karis added, “and they are coming from three.”
Sethis shook his head. “If our goal was victory, I would agree. But it is not.”
“Our goal is simple, and it is to outlast them.” Another low keen bellowed in the distance, and Sethis’s gaze lifted to where the shadow of a form lumbered on the horizon. “We cannot win here, not with three Hunters and a handful of the Garrison. But we have a fighting chance with fifty Hunters and a national army.”
Azalea’s expression dawned slowly. Sethis braced his hands on her shoulders, staring right into her eyes.
“Lady Fairwen,” he said, “you must return to central Airlea and secure it swiftly. Then do what you can to return with the full might of our country. Do you understand?”
Moisture began to film over her eyes, and he felt a sting of guilt, but would not give. War was cruel, but to get through it, even the young would have to find new strength.
Then she said in a very small voice: “Must I lose him again?”
Sethis was thrown for a moment, bewildered. His confusion must have shown plainly on his face, because Azalea quickly lowered her eyes and wiped at her face.
Ah, he mused. Does she return Captain Geppett’s regard?
Karis stepped forward with a little nod, and Sethis stepped aside to give her room. He watched as the Second Hunter touched Azalea’s shoulder with a gentleness he hadn’t thought possible from her.
“You knew what it meant to become a Hunter, little flower,” she said softly.
Azalea sniffled. “I thought I would be protecting the ones dear to me, not losing them.”
Karis was silent for a moment. “Come, be a brave girl,” she said, patting Azalea’s cheek. “Chin up.”
Azalea nodded and drew her feet together. Sethis felt the compulsion to say something before her windsoles pulsed.
“Should the situation become dire,” he said, “I will not keep the people of Northelm to their doom. We will draw back, south, retreat along the road. We would have at least bought Mythaven several days’ time to fortify their defenses.”
He sensed Halcyon shoot him a look of alarm, but the First Hunter raised no issue. The sentiment was a kind one, but unrealistic. Northelm was the only defensible terrain for leagues; the road was surrounded by open fields. But even if Sethis had to overburn to Form walls, he would do everything in his power to protect these people.
Azalea’s face warmed in a grateful smile, and she curtsied in his direction. She glanced further down the wall, where Captain Geppett had a bow drawn, firing down approaching heralds with the rest of his militia. Then, with a spark of green in her shoes, she arced into the sky and was gone.
Sethis turned to gather his bearings, and decided to target the southern Four first. If the worst should happen and an evacuation was necessary, the southern road would have to be cleared.
He was about to leave when, from the corner of his eye, he caught Halcyon stepping in front of Karis with a grim expression.
“Karis,” the First Hunter said. “If it comes down to it, don’t give up your life for his.”
“As if it would come to that.” Karis slid around him.
“Karis.” He gripped her arm and turned her forcibly to face him. “I’m serious. You’re not responsible for Geppett’s life just because it would grieve Fairwen.”
She pulled out of his grasp. “Then help me, Yuden, instead of playing the worrywart.”
She darted into the sky, and Sethis watched as Halcyon followed right behind her.
Azure was not happy to be parted from the Class Five, and he made certain that Azalea knew it for every league back to Mythaven.
“It was the mother of all monsters, ’Zalie,” he complained. “The greatest thing I have yet to conquer.”
“There’s plenty more at Mythaven.”
“Not like that one! And the spider queen shall claim first rights to it!”
Azalea’s brow twitched. “Isn’t it more important to keep Ma and Da safe?”
Azure fell into a contrite silence. Or perhaps it was a sulking one to be separated from his fine prey. Azalea continued springstepping, keeping an eye on her brother’s bewildering method of transport: what simply looked to be a swirling mass of dark flame that continually propelled him forward.
“Are you really going to keep burning mana like that?” she said.
“It’s fast, is it not?”
“It’s wasteful! It’s—what are you doing?”
“I call it Hellgate’s Stallion. A most noble steed, don’t you think?” He gestured to the trail of fire underfoot. “It’s a rather intricate propulsion system using the ignition of a fuel, similar to how that firearm of yours works. But I like to think of it as riding the heart of flame itself.”
The blood immediately drained from Azalea’s face. “And you—you don’t set yourself on fire?”
Azure shrugged. “A manacrafter does not usually harm themselves with their own Forms. As for my clothing, why do you think I wear so many dragon scales?”
“That’s very dangerous!”
“At this speed? Nonsense, it’s completely safe.” He brightened. “I can go faster. Would you like to see?”
Azure either ignored her or did not hear. He whooped, and with an awful flare from his manawell, the fire around him roared. He shot off into the distance like a firebolt, his laughter fading with his figure.
Azalea sighed and shook her head. He would be fine. Probably. He would likely get distracted by some remarkable prey near the Talebloom and swerve off to fight it, and it would be easy enough to find him. It was probably better that he didn’t follow her into the city anyway.
Fires lit the horizon as she approached Mythaven, and not just from the beacons. Fields blazed high as Garrison companies marched forth under torchlight, a line of vibrant bannered soldiers against the incoming writhing, roiling wave of shrieking shadows. Azalea nearly turned her steps to the frontlines, but she stopped at the sight of Hunters rippling down from the sky on their windsoles. They were a marvelous sight in their full splendor, robes rippling around their strong frames, mana crackling furiously through their beautiful weapons. Azalea saw the phantom blue of Jackal’s fire and the grey gleam of Loff’s stone shield, and knew immediately that the fight was in good hands.
Instead, she turned onward to the capital.
Mythaven was quiet as Azalea arced into the city and landed neatly before the Hunter’s Guild. She pushed through the doors and into the tavern, which was desolate and disconcertingly orderly, the tables pushed together and the chairs set in flanking rows, as if the guild had been frozen in time from that terrible night in Grimwall.
Squaring her shoulders, Azalea moved to the guildmaster’s study, raised her hand, and knocked firmly on the door—three times, in ringing, sharp noises that pierced the silence like arrows.
There was no reply.
Azalea frowned. Surely Nicolina was not away from her station at the most important time.
She raised her hand to knock again when she just caught a faint voice from behind the door:
Azalea blinked and lowered her hand. “How did you know?” she said.
The door opened, revealing the diminutive guildmaster arrayed in the weighty crimson cape that seemed too heavy for her small shoulders, eyes nearly black with an ancient weariness. She looked up at Azalea with a faint smile.
“I told you,” said Nicolina Cotton. “You’re the only one who knocks.”
At that moment, Azalea ignored propriety. She stooped down and threw her arms around the guildmaster, hugging her hard. Nicolina made a vague sound that went something like oof and then, after some hesitation, patted the top of Azalea’s head as if she were merely a distraught puppy.
“I can’t believe you’re alive,” the guildmaster said. “You really deserve to be dead, Fairwen. Several times over.”
“Did you burn a candle for me?”
Nicolina hesitated. “I did.”
Azalea pulled back, letting a smile of rare triumph curl her lips. “Well, you shouldn’t have. Because I succeeded.”
Nicolina laughed. Actually laughed. It wasn’t one of her coarse, hard chuckles either, but a soft and warm laugh, gentle with relief. “Did you, now?”
“Yes. I entered the Range, and…and spoke with the Whisperer.” Actually, Azalea had found out that he was her genuine brother, but that seemed too long a story to share in this moment of national crisis.
Nicolina laughed again. “Well, I’ll be damned. That’s incredible.” She quieted. “It’s not every day that someone leaves and then comes back, you know.”
“I know,” Azalea said softly. Then she smiled. “But today is one of them.”
The hopeful words seemed to fill Nicolina’s eyes with a new light. She smiled at Azalea again, and this time, it seemed less acrid.
Azalea looked out the study’s window, where the Storm still bubbled with festering light behind murky clouds.
“Where am I needed, guildmaster?” she asked.
Nicolina’s smile faded, and her features set into the grim look with which Azalea was now well-acquainted. “Reports from the second wave will be coming in shortly,” she explained. “Meaning, Hunters who’ve completed their first assignments. Those injured will retire to the medical ward, while those who can still fight will gather around the table for their third wave assignments. We’ll have you join the third wave.”
“How many waves are there?” Azalea asked curiously.
“Well, the Battle of Havenport had thirty-six.”
There was a dreadful pause. Then, from Azalea: “Oh.”
Nicolina waved a hand. “Thankfully, the waves aren’t as concentrated as surges. The first wave is almost always the worst, and there hasn’t been a thirty-six wave Storm since Havenport.”
“But…Northelm had a Class Five alpha.”
“So it did.”
“Then…aren’t we looking at thirty-six waves again?”
“Most likely.” Nicolina raised her head. “Ah, the Hunters are in.”
That hardly seemed the proper place to leave a conversation, but a score of Hunters was indeed trickling into the tavern. They were truly an imposing sight in their splendor of armor and colored cloaks—a varied crew of wild shapes and sizes, tall and short and broad and thin. The only one Azalea recognized was the Corpse Princess, a ghostly waif who was humming eerie tunes as she nestled a doll of bones on her arm.
“Right,” said Nicolina, clapping her hands once. “Any outstanding injuries?” She eyed them for a moment. “I guess not, or you would have been carried in. Take five minutes for refreshments.”
At that, the Hunters swarmed the side table, which was nearly overflowing with a bounty of pastries and roasts and other such delectable treats, offering a spoonful of morale in a rather dismal situation. Azalea hesitated, suddenly very aware of the lack of sigil in her pouches. She had voluntarily stepped away from the guild and was no longer a Hunter. What right did she have to their resources?
“Are you not eating anything?” came a soft, spectral voice just by her ear.
Azalea turned and nearly ran right into the beautiful, bone-white face of the Corpse Princess. She shivered a little and pulled her cloak tighter around her shoulders.
“Well, I—I haven’t really fought that much,” she said. “These aren’t for me.”
The Corpse Princess released an odd, trilling sort of laugh. “What a curious creature. Will you fight for the rest of the night?”
“Um, so long as I’m able, yes, of course.”
“Then eat, or you will die from overburn. Or perhaps exhaustion.” The Corpse Princess shrugged in a light, graceful way. “But if you won’t, then at least die where I might reach you. Your bones look very strong.”
With that pleasant comment, she drifted away and settled into the nearest chair, running a soothing hand over the frilly bonnet of her skeleton doll. Azalea shivered again, but she did help herself to a cinnamon roll before she took her own seat at the table.
The Hunters quieted as Nicolina stood at the head of the table, flicking tokens across the spread-out map with her baton. She wasted no time on pleasantries, and barreled right for the heart of the matter.
“The Observatorium has shared some important findings with us,” she said. “Through leyline detection, Fours have been noted in three separate locations, and several estates have requested reinforcements against Threes. Now, assignments.”
She went through them quickly, no doubt aware of the claps of thunder just outside the window. There seemed to be corruptions everywhere—from the Talebloom, from the ocean by Fletcher’s Fry, from the central leyline. Names and places spun past Azalea’s ears as Nicolina dispatched swift orders—Horace, take the west, with Greens and Marcele and Fardin on the heralds; Conductor to the east with Harborough; Startaler and Evans to the north —and she waited patiently, bracing herself for the eventual Azalea or Fairwen.
But Nicolina had just reached the final critical zone when the doors to the guild flung open. A man dressed in the crushed velvet of sage robes spilled into the tavern, out of breath and out of sorts.
“Guildmaster,” he gasped. “Urgent tidings.”
“Couldn’t have guessed,” Nicolina muttered. She raised her head and steeled her features. “What is it?”
The sage took a moment to catch his breath and draw himself to his feet, during which the Hunters waited in tense silence, silhouettes rimmed by dim candlelight and flashes of lightning.
“A Class Five,” the sage said. “A Class Five alpha has been spotted south, by Dead Rest.”
Silence. Raw, frozen silence. All eyes slowly swiveled to Nicolina, who stared at the sage with a slack jaw.
“That’s not possible,” she said hollowly. “There can’t be more than one Class Five. The concentration of mana needed—the epicenter is north, for Aster’s sake.”
“Yet there’s a confirmed Five, Guildmaster,” the sage says. He paused. “I’m sorry.”
The guildmaster that Azalea knew would have leapt on the table, eyes ablaze, and clocked the sage over the head with her palm. Sorry? she would have guffawed. Do you think this problem is only for me? For the Hunters? This is the problem of everybody in the damn country, and if you don’t muster two regiments of militia within the hour, I’m about to make it yours.
But this Nicolina did no such thing. This Nicolina stared down at the map, her gaze unseeing, as if her mind had suddenly been spirited away to some distant world. Faint whispers trilled around the room as Hunters leaned towards one another, glancing uneasily at the table.
Azalea had never seen Nicolina like this. Even in the most dire of circumstances, the guildmaster had only grimaced a little deeper and dug her heels in. She’d never lost the quick cadence of a strategist, the unbreakable spirit of a warrior. But now, as she stared speechlessly, her mouth shut and her hands still, she looked lost. She looked afraid.
Slowly, Azalea stood. The whispers fell to a hush, and she felt the heat of every gaze in the room resting on her small, unimpressive frame. She raised her chin and refused to cower.
“Guildmaster,” she said. “I’ll go.”
That broke Nicolina’s trance. Her eyes whipped up to Azalea’s face, grim and sharp.
“That is all but a wish for death,” blurted the sage beside her, aghast. “A Class Five? Alone? Do you not understand that they are the closest thing we know to a primordial titan?”
“You can’t beat a Class Five, Fairwen,” Nicolina said. “Even with the Whisperer.”
“I can’t,” Azalea agreed. She straightened. “But I can stall it.”
Nicolina’s eyes widened, and even the sage fell silent.
The words of the crown prince trickled into Azalea’s mind, an insistent beam of sunlight that refused to extinguish. “We just need to outlast them, don’t we?” she said. “To keep the Five far from Mythaven for as long as possible.” Encouraged by the stillness, she pressed on. “I can do that. I will do that.”
“How,” Nicolina said flatly.
“I don’t know,” Azalea admitted softly. “But I’m willing to try.”
Thunder rumbled through the floors, drawing closer.
Nicolina took a shuddering breath and threaded her fingers together.
“Go,” she said. “Mythics forbid, go and save us, Fairwen.”