10. Unstable

Azalea paced in the lobby of the Guild, knitting and unknitting her fingers beneath her chin.

It was rare for Wes to carry on a conversation without a smile, even a forcibly polite one. In fact, Azalea had seen that pensive, grim look on his face exactly once: when he’d led a company of young students to the threshold of a battle-torn Havenport, rain and thunder crashing down on slats of crumbling rock and broken tile.

It was the look of someone preparing for war.

But why? she mused, fingers drumming up an idle rhythm on a wooden tabletop. Nicolina is a good person. Wes is a good person. They both want to protect the country and support the Hunters. Why wouldn’t they like each other?

She cast her mind back through the conversation, carefully recounting every word—Thank you for your service, my pleasure, very kind of you, it’s the least I could do—but nothing struck her as particularly odd. A little trite, perhaps, but first meetings always were. Then what had she missed?

Azalea frowned and shook her head. There was no point in twisting her brain around itself. She’d just ask him later, clear up all the confusion, and that would be that. It would be better to fill this time doing something productive.

Azalea drew towards the back of the room, where a block of wooden cabinets lined the wall. Every Hunter gained access to one at the time of their commencement, and it served as a personal chest for their belongings. They received their daily mail through these cabinets, as well as any important notices from the Guildmaster. Sometimes, there were even letters from admiring citizens. Three particular cabinets always looked fit to burst, and Azalea had a feeling she knew who they belonged to.

She reached for her own cabinet and disengaged the lock with a small key. It swung open soundlessly. There wasn’t much inside—just two envelopes. One was a bill notice from the Academy for her final semester. The other was a cream-colored letter that smelled like wood chips with a hint of maple.

Aleks Fairwen, read tidy, straight-backed letters in the sender’s address.

Azalea immediately sat at the nearest table and slid her thumb through the flap. Several large golden coins poured out of the envelope as she extracted the letter inside.


No need for coin. Your ma and I are doing just fine.

Buy yourself some sweets.

— Aleks

“Da,” Azalea mumbled, angrily stuffing the letter away. Da had worked tirelessly to scrape together her tuition fees for the Knight’s Academy, and she knew just how exorbitant the cost had been. While Ma had fallen deep into grief over losing her son, Da had spent years breaking his back with hard labor and care of the house alike. It couldn’t have been easy—providing for the family, saving for tuition, raising a child. But now that Azalea finally had the chance to repay him, he refused to take a single copper.

Azalea pressed her lips together and slipped the returned coins into another envelope. She inked in tidy letters on creamy paper:


Please accept this. If you can’t as a gift, then consider it a loan repayment. I will keep sending this amount and wasting more of my earnings on postage, so please just take it and find a doctor for Ma. Be well.

— Azalea

She sealed the envelope with finality and deposited it into the guild collection box. The Airlean Post would gather it in the morning, distributing it along their network until it was delivered to the lively town of Maple Point.

The letter had just dropped to the bottom of the box when the double doors to the guild swung wide open. Two figures strode through the door, their silhouettes ablaze with sunlight pouring over their fluttering cloaks. Azalea recognized them at once—and when she did, she leapt to her feet with a sharp salute.

“Lady Karis!” she said. “Lord Halcyon!”

The top two Hunters must have just returned from the field, but they did not look as if they had been engaged in combat with deadly beasts the entire night. They looked as powerful and effortless as ever, pristinely put together without a speck of dirt on cloak or shimmer-scarf. The looks on their faces, however, were uncharacteristically grim.

“Ah, Azalea,” said Karis, slowing by the refreshments table. She slid into a nearby chair and Halcyon followed suit. “Is the guildmaster presently engaged?”

Azalea straightened. “Oh, well, she’s just—she’s talking a little with my Support, I think. It should be over soon.” She peeked over at Halcyon, who was leaning back in his seat with an imposing, stone-cold expression. “Did you…make up?”

Karis’s brow arched. “Make up? Make up what?”

“You were fighting with Lord Halcyon, weren’t you? Or cross with him. For taking that kill.”

“Was I?” said Karis airily. She poured herself a cup of tea and sipped delicately.

“You were,” Azalea said, puzzled. “You said that you were going to scold him for taking your kill.”

Karis flinched from behind her teacup. Halcyon raised a brow.

“Bickering over Threes now, are we?” he said dryly.

Karis set down her cup. “Hardly.”

“Just report it as your own. It was your mark.”

“This has little to do with body count, Hal, and everything to do with manners.”

Halcyon’s jaw twitched minutely at the nickname. Apparently, Azalea realized, it was one that he hated.

“Didn’t realize there was a protocol for killing things,” he said.

“There is a protocol for everything to those with basic courtesy,” Karis shot back.

Azalea winced.

Halcyon’s mouth tightened. “Courtesy doesn’t net you kills,” he said. “I prefer efficiency.”

“Well, you can prefer efficiency away from my quarry.”

“Fair enough.” He looked at her flatly. “I’ll prefer it from the position of First Hunter.”

Azalea winced again.

Karis’s brow twitched minutely. Apparently, she hated to be reminded of her second rank.

“Um,” Azalea said weakly. “Your news. Is it…urgent?”

“No,” said Karis, just as Halcyon said, “Yes.”

They shot each other cutting looks, and Azalea shrank in her chair, quite wishing she could be anywhere but here, set between two of the greatest warriors in the nation…who hated each other with a burning passion.

“No,” Karis repeated, staring pointedly at Halcyon. “We’ve merely come to report on the status of the Bone Canyon.”

Halcyon met Karis’s gaze evenly. “What’s left of it, you mean.”

Azalea paled. “Left of it?”

“Don’t say things that others will misunderstand, Hal,” Karis said. “Such news could cause a panic, don’t you think?”

Halcyon looked away. Azalea leaned forward, fingers whitening as they clutched the edge of her seat.

“Please,” she said. “Now that you’ve mentioned it—what’s wrong? What happened?”

Karis glared frostily at Halcyon, but her features softened when she turned to Azalea. “We were hoping to get the thoughts of the guildmaster before spreading any…unsavory rumors.”

“Is that what we’re calling bad news now?” Halcyon said.

“It’s what we call reading the room, Hal.”

“This isn’t some nobleman’s parlor,” Halcyon said, waving a hand. “It’s the Guild. We’re all used to bad news.”

“Don’t be so quick to jade this one,” Karis said primly. “She only joined two weeks ago.”

Halcyon started. His mesmeric ocean eyes bore into Azalea with renewed interest, and she shrank further into her chair. “You’re the Fiftieth?” he said.

“Yes, Lord Hunter, sir.” She awkwardly saluted again, just to be safe.

Halcyon was quiet for a moment. His gaze flitted over Azalea, taking in everything from the braids in her hair to the silken ribbons tied on her tassets. He leaned back, his mouth pulled tight.

“They’re getting younger,” he murmured. His gaze fell back to the table, tracing invisible designs into the wood.

“If you recall, we were even younger when we joined,” Karis said.

“We were the exception. Now it’s the rule.” He shook his head. “Guess the city is running out of adults to carve through.”

“Reassuring as always, Hal.” Still, there was a troubled furrow to Karis’s brow, even as her posture remained perfect.

Halcyon nodded his head in Azalea’s direction. “Just tell her. We’ll probably be telling the Guild anyway. It could make the difference between life and death.”

Karis sighed. She folded her hands together, and for the first time since Azalea had met her, she bore no sign of a smile.

“I am quite certain that you possess the common sense to know as much,” she said, “but just so we are clear, this information is of the highest confidentiality. Do not disclose it to the public under any circumstance, unless the Thumb decrees otherwise.”

Azalea straightened, her nerves rampant. “Yes, Lady Karis.”

Karis exchanged one final glance with Halcyon before she continued. “We came upon the Bone Canyon, expecting to encounter a number of heralds and a Class Three alpha. However, when we arrived…we found nothing save for a vast sea of smoldering remains. The entire wave of beasts had been disintegrated before we set foot on the scene.”

Azalea pressed her hands over her mouth. Disintegrated? An entire wave? “What could possibly have that much power?” she said tremulously.

“Nothing good,” Halcyon said grimly. “But we know it wasn’t the Storm. Beasts don’t congregate until the surge has already struck.”

“Even a Storm could not compare.” Karis pressed a hand to her arm. “The whole area was…flooded with instability. I’ve never felt anything like it. I thought a new leyline might split beneath our very feet.”

A new leyline? Mythics forbid. Such a thing would throw off the entire mana balance of the world. Azalea shuddered to even think of it.

“I doubt it’s a leyline,” Halcyon said. “It’s more likely to be a disastrous experiment by the Observatorium. Or a new Class of beast.”

“Class Six,” Karis said softly. “What a remarkable idea.”

Remarkable was not how Azalea would put it. Class Fives were already known to be nation-ending threats—massive creatures the size of entire towns, often with power beyond mortal comprehension. What could possibly constitute a Class Six? A deity?

“Karis, you’re scaring the Fiftieth,” Halcyon said, watching Azalea’s face.

“You’re the one who mentioned a new Class,” Karis said.

Halcyon blinked. “Ah. Well, don’t take it to heart. If there were a Class Six, we would’ve seen it. Hard to miss something of that size.”

“A pity,” Karis hummed. “I would have enjoyed the challenge.”

“The challenge?” Azalea said faintly.

“Well, you know, the endless sea of Class Twos and Threes can get rather monotonous.” She scowled at her teacup. “Then again, we did not even find those.

“If the Bone Canyon was already cleared,” Azalea said, “then how did you just return?” It had been an entire day, after all. Surely the top two Hunters wouldn’t have taken so long to get back to the Guild.

“Oh, well,” said Karis idly, “we were a bit put out from everything already being dead. So we had ourselves a nice spar.”

Halcyon snorted. “You almost stitched me into a corpse.”

“So says the man who threw me into a typhoon.”

“Thought it would be a nice reprieve from the heat.”

“How very thoughtful. Next time we find ourselves in a desert climate, I shall repay the favor with my ice petals.”

“The razor-sharp ones.”

“Only if I despise my target,” Karis said serenely, and she sipped at her tea.

“Which includes me.”

“Only if I despise you.”

Halcyon glanced at Azalea, who was feeling very faint. “As you might’ve gathered,” he said, his eyes glittering and his mouth pulling up just slightly, “it was a fun duel.”

Azalea tried for a weak smile, but her face suddenly felt very stiff. Halcyon and Karis seemed more sane and put together than most, but in the end, they were Hunters. They shared that aggression, that hint of insatiable bloodlust. It was something that Azalea would never know.

She was fumbling for a proper response when the door to Nicolina’s study swung open. Wes emerged, his hands clasped behind his back and his face inscrutable.

“Well, I suppose that is our cue.” Karis stood, her expression once again masked with that mysterious smile. “Don’t forget to rest, Azalea. Surges can be taxing. Keep your manawell running hot.”

Azalea saluted. “Yes, my lady.”

“Oh, no, that—it was advice, not an order.”

“Um,” said Azalea, “yes, my lady.”

Karis sighed and floated into the guildmaster’s study without another word. Halcyon followed behind her with a parting glance, and they disappeared behind the wooden door.

Azalea turned to Wes, bouncing lightly on her heels. “Did you see them?” she said fervently. “Those were the top two Hunters. Lord Halcyon and Lady Karis. I never thought I would meet them in person. They’re everything we hoped for, Wes, and—and so much more. Confident and powerful and, and nearly unbeatable.”

Wes didn’t respond. His gaze was distant, lingering on the corner of the room where the standings board stood—fifty golden plates inscribed with the Hunters’ names, set into fifty wooden slots.

Azalea peered into his face and waved a little. “Wes?”

Wes startled. “Huh? Oh, yeah, uh. Sorry, what?”

Odd. Not that he was obligated to listen to every word that came from her mouth, of course—but Wes was not usually a very distractible person.

“Is something bothering you?” Azalea asked with a tilt of her head.

Wes waved a hand. “No, no. Nothing important.”

“Are you sure?”

That seemed to shake him. When he met her gaze, his eyes were solemn.

“I was just thinking,” he said hesitantly. “Make sure you stay on that board for a long time, okay?”

“The standings?”


Azalea blinked. “You want me to climb the ranks?”

“No, I…no.” He laughed weakly and ran a hand through his hair. “Just, you know, be careful. This is a dangerous job and all.”

“Oh.” She finally understood. She smiled, hoping that it came across as confident and comforting, like a proper Hunter. “Don’t worry. I’ll stay alive.”

“Good, good,” Wes said, relieved.

“I wouldn’t want to waste everything my father spent on tuition.”

Wes flinched. “Oh.”

“Come on,” Azalea said brightly. “Lady Karis gave me a rest order. If we leave now, we can make the night market.”

“Alright,” Wes mumbled, and he let Azalea grip his hand and pull him out the door.