51. The Storm (4)
It had been an aggressively, hatefully sunny day when Azalea received the letter.
She nearly burned it when it arrived. Good little law-abiding Azalea Fairwen held official magistracy correspondence over the fireplace, fingers trembling, misting eyes fixed on the taunting wax seal on the envelope’s flap. She recognized the crest too well—a shield that bore the thriving tree of Airlea.
It was the Roundtable Crest, representing the Magistracy of the Royal Hunters.
Azalea sighed and pulled back the letter, no matter how badly she wanted to burn it. The magistrate had the gall to not only make a mistake, but make the mistake an acceptance. How swiftly Azalea’s hopes had risen—until she recalled with icy clarity the fiasco that had been her Exam. Her failed windsole module, her terrible firing accuracy. The Guild would never admit such a lacking soldier.
Indignation made Azalea push into the Guild without a break in her stride, despite the chaos of her surroundings and the Hunters looming around her. The door to the guildmaster’s study was open, but it seemed overtly rude to barge in unexpectedly, so Azalea reluctantly knocked.
A bewildered voice promptly answered. “Yes?”
Azalea stepped inside and politely shut the door, though she would have liked to slam it. She turned with the acceptance letter in hand, ready to list out her grievances, but she was stopped by the sight of a very short woman with a lovely spill of silky black curls and big, grey eyes. The only evidence of her high station was the luxurious red cloak thrown over one shoulder, fastened by the magistrate emblem on her lapel.
The guildmaster was…cute.
Azalea blinked and closed her mouth, unsettled. Suddenly she was aware of her shabby peasant dress and unkempt hair. In the prestigious guildmaster’s eyes, she must seem like a ratty child who had lost her way. She dug her fingers into the acceptance letter—a reminder of why she stood there. At the answering crinkle of paper, she drew in a deep breath and steeled herself.
“Pardon me,” she said stiffly, extending the letter. “I believe there’s been a mistake with the post.”
The guildmaster did not even glance at the letter; her gaze remained unnervingly fixed on Azalea’s face, the grey irises piercing to the soul.
“Why’s that?” she said evenly. Her voice was deeper than Azalea expected. Deeper, and grounded, with a hint of texture.
“Well,” Azalea said, her determination beginning to flag under the intense scrutiny, “I, I received it.”
“It wasn’t addressed to you?”
“No, I mean, it was, ma’am. But the address is wrong. I mean, it was written correctly, but I shouldn’t be the one receiving this letter.”
A light frown crossed the guildmaster’s face. Then it was wiped away with a sudden nod. “Ah. You must be Fairwen.”
Azalea started. “How did you know?”
“The written portion of your Exam was about as timid as this.”
“Timid!” Azalea found a new flare of indignation. “I think it was clean and methodical. Um, Lady Guildmaster, ma’am.”
“First of all, never call me that again. Just ‘Nicolina’ will do.” Nicolina strode behind her very ornate desk and flopped down in a chair that towered over her. “Second of all, I didn’t mean that as an insult. It’s what I would expect from a Stabilizer. Hell, maybe we could use a timid Hunter. You might actually come to a Storm in one piece.”
Azalea had no words. She stared, flabbergasted, as Nicolina extracted a sheet of paper in quick, sharp movements, and slid it in her direction.
“See the aide for the guild tour,” she said briskly. “Then visit the crafters to get measurements for windsoles. Assignments begin in two weeks.”
It was all so fast. Azalea froze, her hand crumpling into the acceptance letter.
“But, but,” she stammered, “how can that be? The Exam. My Exam was awful. I missed so many shots.”
Nicolina only laughed and shook her head.
“Fairwen,” she said, “after your Exam, the proctors came straight to me. They couldn’t believe it, they said. They’d never seen anything like it. They had to examine your weapon with their own eyes, because surely, you’d been cheating.”
Azalea blinked, bewildered.
“Don’t you understand, Fairwen?” Nicolina said. “Forget the shots you missed. It’s a miracle that you could fire more than one.”
Nicolina called for volunteers to reinforce Azalea. There were only two.
Corpse Princess raised a delicate hand, but her strange, mirror-like eyes were fixed on Azalea, not the guildmaster, and her lips curved in a macabre grin.
After a long pause, a Former of electric mana raised his hand. His youthful face was unusually serious, and the sharp energy in his motions bordered on jitters.
The other Hunters remained at their assigned positions. That was important as well; if central Airlea crumpled, then there would be nothing left to defend. The heart of Airlea had to hold.
Three Hunters and a Whisperer against a Class Five and its army of heralds. The odds were nearly laughable.
If the goal was to win.
But it is not, Sethis had said. It is to outlast them.
And outlast they must. For as long as possible. Long enough for the waves on central Airlea to end; long enough for Northelm to be reinforced and conquered; long enough for the army to rest, then make the long march from the far north to the distant south.
Longer than was possible.
But, thought Azalea, her hand wandering to her left wrist where the blue ribbon quivered, stranger miracles have happened.
Their little band of Hunters leapt into the night, shining in the Storm like three dying stars.
Echo waited before the Observatorium with a sandwich in hand.
It was a rather quality sandwich—fairly fresh, with the lettuce still crispy and the sourdough crust golden and crunchy. He took a big bite as lightning crackled overhead, bathing his surroundings in white.
There was a garden to his left, and a pristine path to his right that led to the royal palace, and the grand spire of the Observatorium before him, stretching skyward. Glowing mana lamps slowly bobbed their way around rings of brass that encircled the spire, like moons caught in orbit. It was a rather delightful structure—whimsical and elegant, entwined with the filigree of the royal purse. On the floors within, sages toiled day and night—mostly night—over the study of manacraft, searching for groundbreaking theories that could save their country.
They hadn’t succeeded yet, but Echo supposed that some credit had to be given for their efforts. At the very least, their endless dissertations had filled out the national library rather nicely.
Echo had just taken another bite of his sandwich when the double doors to the Observatorium creaked open. A sage emerged, swaddled against the cold in a rich velour cloak, which shimmered even under the dim flicker of the mana lamps.
“Ah! My good man,” said Echo, raising his sandwich like a toast of the finest wine. “I was beginning to think I’d been forgotten.”
“Apologies, sir,” said the sage, eying him warily. “His Sagacity is unable to meet with you. I’m afraid that the Observatorium is rather…occupied at the moment. You understand.”
He spoke slowly, as if Echo were an idiot. Echo only smiled. “You conveyed my message, word for word?”
“I did.” The sage’s tone was quickening irritably. “His response is thus: ‘Go away. I’m busy.’”
Echo paused. Most unusual. Then he shrugged. “Well, that’s a pity. Should he ask after me once our kingdom is not in imminent danger of annihilation, tell him thus: ‘As the sun treks its course before it rises, so does the wolf seek where to prowl.’”
“Right, right. Good day.”
The sage disappeared back into the Observatorium, and the double doors shut behind him with finality. He was probably going to make a mess of Echo’s memorandum, but no matter. Wolf was the most important part, and it was the only unforgettable word.
Echo finished his sandwich, shoved his hands in his pockets, and strolled down the nearest road. How strange. His most eminent patron always put in many requests during Storms, but on this day, it seemed he had none. He hadn’t met Echo at their usual spot, and he hadn’t even had the presence of mind to respond in code.
Perhaps the situation was really an all-consuming level of dire.
A blaze of color in the sky caught Echo’s attention, and he quickly looked upward. Hunters were springstepping from the balcony of the Guild. He could see their silhouettes, large and distinct, as they bounded down Mythaven’s rooftops and headed right for the snarling knot of the Storm.
One of the figures captured Echo’s attention. He squinted, looking closer.
A red cloak. Golden hair. The faint glow of a starshooter’s fire chamber.
Why, hello there.
Despite himself, Echo grinned. So, the incessant little weed that kept springing up in his mind, no matter how terribly he tried to grind it under his heel, had stubbornly survived even the Noadic Range. How fitting.
He fired his windsoles and leapt after the Hunters as they passed over him.
“Doth mine eyes deceive me?” he called jovially. “A little red head who’s a little not dead?”
And sure enough, Azalea Fairwen, the young Hunter of Airlea, turned quickly at the sound of his voice. When she saw him, a warm smile spread over her young, round face, which was really quite shocking. Nobody greeted him with a smile. Well, nobody sane.
She turned to the two Hunters beside her and said something quickly, making a broad motion with her hand. They shot ahead as she turned, leaping from the roof and dropping in front of him with a smooth arc of her windsoles. How remarkable. She had improved dramatically, even in their short time apart.
“Echo!” she said cheerfully. “Off to take shelter?”
“Shel—? No,” Echo said indignantly. “What do you think I am, a child?”
She tilted her head. “Then what?”
“To seize the opportunity of the empty streets and indiscriminately rob shops, commandeer stalls, and otherwise make misery.”
To his surprise, she only snorted. “Is that why you’re holding a sandwich?”
“Mass crime often inspires mass hunger.”
“You talk big for a man who can’t take candy from a baby.”
“I bet you paid for that sandwich.”
“There’s only so much slander I will suffer.”
Azalea smiled, and for a moment, she looked so similar to Arya that there was an ache in the empty cavity where Echo’s heart should have been. He took that moment to look her over. No one, not even Little Red with a brick for a head, could possibly have passed through the White Labyrinth unchanged.
And she had changed. There was an actual curve to her spine instead of a rigid line, and though her face remained soft and unmarred, there was no longer the tight-lipped tremble of anxious energy. She had gained confidence. Confidence, or at the very least, calmness.
“Well,” Echo said quietly, “it seems like you found what you were looking for.”
“I did.” Azalea’s smile widened. “Through the Noadic Range and back in one piece.”
“That must make for quite a tale.”
“It’s mostly due to the Whisperer. He agreed to help.” Azalea’s look turned a little sly. It was an expression that Echo did not recognize on her face. “But…you must have known he would.”
He blinked. “Why’s that?”
“Well,” she said with complete certainty, “you knew he was my brother.”
The streets were silent for a long moment. Echo stared blankly at Azalea, mind scrambling as he attempted to piece together vague memories. When had he told her such a thing? He was always careful not to divulge information unless he specifically wanted to—and he was quite certain that something as dramatic as the Dragon Whisperer is your brother was a sentence he would have taken to his grave.
Azalea blinked back innocently. “I know you smelled it. From the very first time we met.”
Echo forced out a word. “Oh?”
“You told me that you find people from one of two things. Either you scent something they recently touched, or you scent an immediate family member—because the mana signature is close enough, I assume.”
“Well, when we first met, I saw your eyes change. You used your power…when I asked about my brother.”
“Coincidence. I was on a job.”
“You were scavenging a dead wolf pack. There was nothing for you to track. Nothing except my blood.”
Echo was silent.
“As a scavenger, you’ve probably picked up the Whisperer’s scent around all the, um, corpses he leaves. You must have recognized the similarity of my blood immediately. That’s why you told me that he was dead, or if he wasn’t, then I wouldn’t want to find him.”
“You remember all that?”
“I have a good memory. You’re the one who called me a baby bookworm.”
Echo shook his head. “Unbelievable.”
“If you knew he was my brother,” Azalea continued in that dead-even, practical cadence of hers, “then you could have us meet at Northelm with a clear conscience. Because we could kill even a Class Four without risk. I would Stabilize him, and he wouldn’t kill me. And you would still be following through on your patron’s commission.”
“Don’t give me too much credit. It was a guess.”
“That he was my brother?”
“That he wouldn’t kill you. He could have forgotten you, or hated you.”
“No, I think you knew.” Azalea pressed her hand over her heart. “Maybe not in your head, but right here.”
“Not this again. Little Red—”
“I know you delivered the letter to Wes,” Azalea continued stubbornly. “He knew what I’d written. Please be well. You’re kinder than you let on.”
“Absolutely not,” Echo said briskly. “The Geppett estate was conveniently on the way home.”
“Is it so bad to have a heart?”
“Considering that it’s a vital organ and thereby a very juicy target?”
“It’s also the greatest source of strength.”
Echo shook his head. “You say that now, but you will bleed.”
“Wounds heal on their own,” said Azalea, her voice softening, “but you know what doesn’t?”
It was very difficult to say anything to that. Echo looked skyward as the clouds blared white again, thunder rippling down the roads. Beside him, Azalea braced her windsoles.
“Where are you going?” Echo said sharply.
“Surely you’ve already sensed it,” Azalea said, surprised. “A Class Five has appeared. Southward, by Dead Rest.”
“A…Class Five?” Echo repeated. “But the epicenter. It’s north.”
“Yes, and there’s a Class Five there, too. This Storm is bad. Very bad.”
Echo felt a pinch along the back of his neck as he briefly recalled—from not too long ago—the colossal shadow that had hung over Havenport, ocean waves boiling with power around its impervious frame. He never would’ve admitted it, but the sight had unnerved even him.
Two Class Fives in a single Storm. Myths save them all.
“I didn’t sense the southern Five,” Echo admitted haltingly. “I’m on faelock for another hour.”
Azalea’s brows knitted in a moment of consternation, then cleared. “Your enhanced senses…do they hurt you during Storms?”
“Does that even matter? Red, you’re telling me that you’re riding out to meet a Class Five in battle.”
“It’s practically the bastard child of a titan and a demon.”
“Oh, is it?”
“Myth’s sake, Red, tell me you’re at least with the top Hunters.”
“No,” Azalea said. “They’re occupied with the Five up north.”
“Then it’s just you?”
“My brother, too. And two other Hunters who will handle the heralds.”
Echo stepped back inadvertently, his tongue failing him. “You’ve done it,” he said. “You’ve lost your mind.”
She turned away and crouched to jump, but Echo’s hand immediately lashed out, nails digging like a vice into her arm.
“Have you learned nothing?” he snapped. “You’ve just come back from the dead, and already you’re throwing yourself into the jaws of hell again?”
Azalea wrested her arm away without a moment of hesitation. “That Five is headed right for Mythaven,” she said calmly. “It will destroy everything if we don’t do something about it, now.”
“If we—? Oh, no no no, Red, you’re not dragging me into this. I’m plenty happy—”
“—to stand back? Watch the world burn? I don’t believe that.” She looked right at him, and the fire in her green gaze held him to the ground. “Or you wouldn’t have approached me tonight.”
Echo opened his mouth, but no words came.
“If you really don’t care,” Azalea said calmly, “then let me go. But if not, then join me.”
“I’m telling you that it’s suicide.”
“Not if we all fight together.”
He hated how she looked at him, limpid and kind, like she already knew what his decision would be. He stepped back, his lungs constricting.
“Don’t make such bold assumptions,” he snapped. “You don’t know who I am.”
“I don’t have to.” She reached up and gripped his shoulder. “Show me who you want to be instead.”
She turned and fired her windsoles. He watched her figure disappear into the shadows of the night, the last spark of a warmth that he never thought he wanted.
Azalea leapt south, pushing to catch up with the other two Hunters. The land was in chaos around her—monsters swarming, soldiers roaring, mana flaring—but she forced herself to stay the course. Delaying to help would only doom the country further if the Five broke through Dead Rest.
Corpse Princess and the Hunter of lightning—his name was apparently Timothy, but everybody called him ‘Moth’—nodded in acknowledgment as Azalea rejoined them. They asked her no questions and she gave no explanations. They did not even comment when a blood-splattered Azure peeled out of the shadows and merged in with their group, though they did cast him a curious glance.
“Hello there,” Azure said with a friendly wave. Killing a few things had cheered him up considerably. “Are you friends of ’Zalie’s?”
“Yes,” Azalea said quickly. She could not have Azure attacking more of her allies.
“For now,” Corpse Princess acknowledged with a giggle. “You must be the Dragon Whisperer.”
“Indeed I am.”
“You are fighting with us, then?”
“In your words, madame, for now.”
Corpse Princess giggled again and clapped her hands delightedly. Moth watched the exchange in silence, his eyes darting between them.
“Alright,” Azalea said nervously, “let’s focus on springstepping. Dead Rest is still quite some distance.”
Blessedly, her uneasy group of Hunters said nothing more, and pushed a quicker pace to burn through the sky.
After stepping and jumping and landing and stepping again, minute after minute and hour after hour until her feet throbbed and her knees ached, Azalea finally caught sight of Dead Rest in the distance. The outpost had once been the primary point of trade with the desert nation of Zuhad, and had routinely flowed with spices, aromatic oils, and blown glass. Of course, that was back when Zuhad still existed. Airlea had lost all contact with them, like it had every other nation.
Dead Rest now lay quiet and empty, a shrinking dot on the cusp of the Bone Canyon, boasting nothing but silent streets and dark huts. A single gatekeeper greeted them at the slipshod wall, dim iron lantern swaying in hand.
Hunters, he greeted, his face white. Bless you. The swarm is coming.
He led them through the town to the other side, where a winding trail snaked a steep decline into the canyon’s belly.
The vantage point was unimaginably impressive—towering crags dropping in ribbed cliffs, rock formations that climbed to the sky like pillars, eroded boulders dotting the ground like sculptures, all composed of a pale sandstone that glistened bone-white beneath every strike of lightning. The canyon had earned its namesake in the most dramatic way.
But when Azalea looked ahead, the horizon was invisible, swallowed up entirely by the distant shadow of a Class Five. A mass of beasts swarmed before it, tiny as black beads, numerous as grains of sand.
Azalea turned to Corpse Princess and Moth. “Can you handle the heralds?” she asked.
“Hm,” said Corpse Princess, tilting her head into a painfully sharp angle. “What do you think, Moth?”
“Absolutely not!” Moth blurted. He wrung his hands, looking very jumpy. “Fours. Multiple of them. And Threes and Twos and Ones. They’ll kill us! Kill us very dead. We’re two people against an army.”
“Hm,” Corpse Princess said again. “We’ll see about that.”
She spread her hands and raised them, humming mindlessly. Azalea felt the surrounding mana tremble on her skin as particles of dust slowly filtered up from the ground, coagulating into musty, grey clouds. They hung there, shimmering softly like silver powder.
“Ashes, ashes,” Corpse Princess sang, “we all fall down.”
She clapped her hands at the final word, a high noise that rang in the quiet.
One moment of nothing.
Then, like knives cutting through the air, the hanging clouds of dust snapped into form. Bones erupted into being and clattered together in a ripple of sharp, rapid noises, arms and legs and ribcages falling into place, skulls plopping down on top of spines. Gradually, the symphony of bone faded until a crowd of skeletal soldiers stood in rank and file behind Corpse Princess, utterly, inhumanly silent.
Azalea’s jaw fell open. Azure whistled lowly. Moth shivered.
“Now we’re an army against an army,” Corpse Princess said, laughing. “Until the skellies don’t want to play anymore. Be quick, Moth, or you’ll miss the party.”
And without hesitation, she leapt down into the Canyon, dropping as fast as steel until she disappeared into the canyon below.
Moth cursed and raised his weapon—a longbow fixed with a mana quartz. Azalea felt her manawell curdle again, and after a blink, lightning tore down from the sky and struck Moth’s bow. Blinding sparks licked down its limbs as resounding static raised the hairs on Azalea’s skin. She shivered as Moth turned to her, eyes aglow.
“Rest in peace,” he said, clipped and hurried. “If I live, I’ll say nice things at your funeral.”
Azalea lifted her chin, trying to look as strong as she didn’t feel. “I don’t intend to die,” she said.
“Of course! But you will. We all will. Goodbye!”
Moth jumped down after Corpse Princess, and just like her, disappeared in the darkness.
Azalea shook her head, attempting to regain her composure after the very unsettling exchange. She turned her gaze back over the yawning expanse of the canyon, watching the enormous shadow of the Five shift closer with a resonant groan. At this distance, it looked like an endless void swallowing up the earth. Azure stepped up next to her with a light jingle of bones and beads.
“Here we are,” Azalea breathed.
“Here we are,” Azure agreed. “At the end of the world.”
They were quiet for a moment, the silence broken only by the frantic baying of the animals below.
“I want to live through this,” Azalea whispered. Her fingers trembled as they slowly drew out Bluebell. The fire chamber cast a soft red glow under her face like a dying ember. “I want to go back to Ma and Da. Tell them that you’re alive. I want to have a family dinner, and take Wes to the night market again, and…and I want to bake. Bake sweet, yummy things for no particular reason, just because I want to.”
Azure looked at her, puzzled. “Why wouldn’t you?”
“We’re about to fight a Class Five, Azure.”
“I don’t think we’re coming back.”
Azalea expected Azure to meet this remark with his usual bravado, but surprisingly, he was silent for a long moment.
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” he finally said. “I’ve faced tougher. Probably.”
“I haven’t, definitely.”
“But you could.”
“No, I can’t.” Azalea sighed and rubbed at her eyes. “It doesn’t mean I won’t try. But I’m weak, Azure, maybe more than you understand. What we’re facing can kill most of the Hunter’s Guild, and I’m…I’m one of the lowest ranks. I’m nothing without my starshooter and I’m barely anything with it.”
“I see now,” said Azure, his tone adopting a hint of disapproval. “You are looking at a steeljowl wyvern with a hinge-jaw that can crush boulders and telling yourself, ‘Ah, because this cannot fly, it is a useless specimen.’ When, in fact, it ought to dawn on you to simply use its maw instead of its wings.”
“What are you talking about?” Azalea said, aghast.
“I, too, cannot fly,” Azure continued. “Or rather, if I cannot obliterate my enemy off the face of the known universe within ten minutes, you will find that there is little else to my power. So I think it is only natural.”
He turned and extended his hand.
“The fact is, ’Zalie,” he said, “that the two of us were born to fight together.”
Azalea felt the familiar sting of tears in her eyes. She reached out wordlessly and gripped Azure’s hand. She turned to look right into the gaping maw of that crackling, ravenous beast of a storm, hand in hand with her brother.
They stepped forth, unafraid, and were swallowed up by the darkness.