24. Warning

Azalea had just stepped into Gallows Square when the sky throttled and the mana lamps went dark. Dismayed cries fluttered around the square. Doors were bolted, shutters were drawn, and the bell tower lowed its mournful call to arms.

Oh dear, was the first thing Azalea thought. Then: but I’m tired.

Then she chided herself for being selfish. She’d known the risk of heading to Fletcher’s Fry so close to a surge. There’d been the very real possibility that she would be called to duty as soon as she returned, and that was exactly what had happened.

Azalea sucked in a breath, straightened her shoulders, and shook out the soreness in her legs. The moment’s respite at Wes’s workshop would have to do. For now, her country needed her.

“Headed out already?” drawled a voice by the fountain. “Always such a busy little bee. Maybe that’s what I should call you instead.”

Azalea whirled around and squinted into the dark. She didn’t have to see to know the owner of that voice—bone-white hair, bland smile, wary slouch—but it was disorienting to feel blind. Without the constant glow of the mana lamps, the world was pitch black.

“Show yourself,” she demanded.

“Would that I could,” said Echo’s disembodied voice. “Alas, the lights are out. I don’t suppose you could Form a torch, could you?”

She bristled. “You’re the worst.”

He laughed dryly. “Yet here you are, one Class Four richer on the board. Something you would do well to learn, Little Red, is that the worst ones are often right.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Well, then, don’t think about it too hard.”

Azalea narrowed her eyes. More than anything, she wanted to sock him in the face and drag him to the Magistrate of Justice. He was aggravating. He was unbearable. He’d ignored her wishes and saddled her with a tip just before a surge, leaving her exhausted and the First Hunter badly injured. He had much to answer for, and Azalea was starting to think that he was a bigger problem than she’d originally anticipated.

But now was not the time. The bells were tolling. The surge was on its way.

“Enough,” she snapped. “I’m not in the mood to play your twisted little games.”

“Games? So you think they’re fun.

“Leave me alone, Wolf. You don’t want me to escalate.”

She turned and focused, ready to boost herself over to the guild with her windsoles, when—

“Shouldn’t you be wondering why I’m here?” the Wolf said softly.

It was a deadly, melodic sort of quiet, eerie as the strains of a funeral dirge, the kind that dug right into Azalea’s bones and made her shiver. Her footsteps stuttered to a halt, and unbidden, her fingers clamped on the hilt of her sword.

She heard the rustle of fabric as the Wolf stood. Stepped closer once, then twice. The sky flashed, outlining a lean silhouette in white fire. Azalea shuddered.

“Perhaps it’s for the same reason as always,” the Wolf said, still in that lulling, baleful voice. “Perhaps I know where the next Four will rise. Perhaps I know which area will be under critical pressure, which town is likely to fall. Wouldn’t you like to know that, Little Red?”

“I’m sure the guildmaster will tell me,” Azalea said staunchly, and turned, when—

“Ah, but I think you would be very interested to know this, Little Red. Very interested indeed.”

And, curse it all, Azalea felt tears biting at her eyes, giving voice to the churning frustration in her belly. Why did he insist on hounding her? She was worn out from her mission and anxious for this surge; the last thing she needed was additional pressure.

And yet.

She couldn’t dismiss the Wolf, and he knew it. Because he had been right. He was always right, and that was what made him so insufferable.

Gritting her teeth, Azalea turned in Echo’s general direction and crossed her arms tightly. “I hope your socks get very wet tonight,” she said.

There was a bark of surprised laughter. “Is that your idea of a threat?”

“Don’t underestimate it. It’s a very unpleasant feeling.”

“You’re so precious, Little Red.” Echo paused. “I wouldn’t worry about my socks. I’d worry about your Support’s.”

“What does that mean?”

“It’s Grimwall.”

Azalea blinked.

A click of Echo’s shoe on the cobbled stone.

“The next will be Grimwall,” he repeated softly, his voice hovering close like a specter, “and many will die.”

The name landed hard. Azalea’s gut dropped like a stone.

Grimwall. A bustling, prosperous town despite its rough beginnings. So far inland that it was considered to be a safe haven amidst the Storms.

The very place where Wes was to muster his company.

Azalea’s gaze jerked upward to the broiling sky, just as another bolt of iridescent light carved a wayward arrow. Wes must already be at Grimwall, briefing his company on the upcoming surge.

He was already in danger.

“So the Geppett heir is your Support,” Echo murmured, jolting Azalea back to reality. “Fascinating.”

She heard Echo sweep around her, his cloak shifting, mist-like.

“Are you afraid, Little Red?” he whispered, the thin trace of his voice resonant and eerie.

“No,” Azalea said.

“But you lie.” A rustle on her opposite ear. Azalea whipped around, breathing hard. “You’re terrified for your Support, aren’t you? That he will perish. That you will have to see him in agony, rent apart, disemboweled, a bloody mass of raw flesh, all your fault—”

Azalea’s skull was pounding, aching, spinning. She lurched desperately in the direction of the Wolf’s voice. Her hands fell through air.

“Use your bait,” she pleaded. “Lead them away.”

A moment of silence in the dark. “And why would I do that?”

“You’re a mercenary. Name your price. Bargain with me.”

The bell tower tolled again. She was tarrying too long. She had to leave. But she couldn’t, not without doing everything in her power to protect Wes.

“Ask the Observatorium,” Echo finally said. “They’ve known how to make bait for years, but have yet to lead a single creature astray.”

What? That wasn’t possible—wasn’t. Couldn’t be. No, it could be; if a solo mercenary from the underworld had figured out a working concoction, then the Observatorium, full of brilliant sages and researchers, had to have known.

Still, that wasn’t important. Not now. Not with the seconds ticking down to Wes’s fate.

“I’m not asking the Observatorium,” Azalea said. “I’m asking a mercenary. As a patron.”

Echo chuckled. The sound had no warmth. “You have no idea how dangerous that bait is, do you?”


“Some things cannot be bought, Little Red.” She heard a rustle of fabric as the Wolf turned away. “Blind heroism is one of them. My charity ends here.”

The mana lamps flickered. Azalea caught Echo’s silhouette just as his windsoles fired, as he arced to the Mythaven rooftops.

She followed.

With a flare of her windsoles, she shot towards him, swift as a hummingbird, and crashed right into his back. Echo choked out a note of surprise as they hit a shingled roof, hard tile slicing into their arms.

Azalea gave no reaction to the stinging pain as blood crawled down to her wrist. She honed her focus and threw her weight, pinning Echo down, hands pressing on his wrists. Abovehead, the mana lamps fluttered to life one at a time, sprinkling the rooftop with a dim, desperate glow.

“No more,” she said clearly. “No more running.”

The open surprise on Echo’s face promptly vanished. “Free information, and this is how you repay me?”

“I’m offering to pay you now, and you’re refusing.”

“True enough. For one simple reason.”

Echo moved. His hips throttled up, pitching Azalea forward. She released his wrists, scrambling for balance, but his hand chopped in the nook of her elbow and dropped her. In the blink of an eye, he had wriggled free.

Azalea dropped on her heels, prepared for his counterattack. But Echo only slipped his hands into his pockets and looked straight at her, his gaze cold.

“You cannot buy what is impossible, Little Red,” he said softly.

Azalea faltered. The sky bellowed another arc of lightning.

“What do you mean?” she said.

“Everything comes with a price.” He tilted his head. “Tell me, Little Red. When you eat food, what happens?”

She was silent.

“It makes you grow stronger,” Echo murmured. “Does it not?”

Azalea stepped back, the realization dawning, blazing bright and unforgiving.


“Those Fours that you led me to,” she said dazedly. “They were…they were Threes. Weren’t they?”

“Well, naturally. That’s what happens, Ones become Twos, Twos become—”

“The bait turned them into Fours, didn’t it?”

Echo said nothing.

“Myths above.” She stepped back, a raw vein of icy fear in her neck. “What have you done?”

“The bait merely accelerates the corruption’s natural growth,” Echo said. “But now you can see why I’m unwilling to use it on corruptions that are already Fours.”

“They would become Fives.”

“They might become Fives. But if they do, the entire nation could be destroyed. Not particularly great for business. Patrons tend to be late on payment when they’re dead.”

Azalea couldn’t speak. A common mercenary knew how to accelerate the growth of a corruption. And if he did, then who else? How many people in Airlea could destroy the nation with nothing more than a few scavenged remains?

Echo drew closer. “Take it from me, Little Red,” he said softly. “You want to save your Support, you don’t send bait. You don’t send a mercenary’s toys. You send yourself. To the people of Airlea, nothing is more powerful than the presence of a Hunter.”

She swallowed, the lump in her throat going cold. “What if they’re wrong?”

He smiled. The edge of his teeth caught the faintest gleam.

“Don’t let them be,” he said.

He turned and flew. This time, Azalea let him. His silhouette faded until it was swallowed whole by the night.