25. Muster

For the first time, the guild was not bustling and alight with activity, despite being crammed to the eaves. Rows of silent Hunters flanked a long table bearing an unfurled map, flag pins, and colored tokens. Nicolina stood at the head, clasping a wooden baton. She nodded at the last batch of Hunters filtering through the door, then returned her attention to the map.

Azalea slid into a far seat along the wall, every muscle tense and ready to spring as she listened for Grimwall’s fate.

You want to save your Support, you send yourself.

She waved away Echo’s sultry, taunting words, willing herself to focus. She could not afford to miss a single word tonight.

“Ah, little cub,” said a giant mass of furs as it plopped next to her.

Azalea turned, wide-eyed, and met the ice-blue gaze of the hulking bear-man. He was even larger up close, towering up until his head touched the roof. Her neck hurt as she craned up to look at him.

Oh no, she thought miserably. He’d sat next to her. It would be too rude to avoid him now.

“Your first roundtable!” the bear-man said. His resounding voice erupted in the silence, and every head swung in his direction, but he didn’t seem to care. “How do you find it?”

Azalea cringed and tried to slink further into the corner, but it was no use. “Um, well, I’m not sure,” she whispered. “It hasn’t started yet.”

The bear-man laughed, booming and lively. “That is fair. Then I will tell you something, little cub. There is no need to be silent before the roundtable. You can talk as much as you like! But most do not, because they are scared.”

A Hunter seated next to them scoffed, flipping a throwing knife with deft fingers. “Speak for yourself, Loff,” she said.

Loff’s eyes twinkled. “Aye, Jackal. The most scared of us all.”

The woman named Jackal turned away as if Loff had lost the right to exist. Loff turned to Azalea and lowered his voice to a murmur.

“You see, little cub,” he said, “the guildmaster only calls a roundtable when the situation is dire.”

Azalea paled. “Oh.”

“As in, very dire. Capital razed. Everybody dead. World ended. That level of dire.”

“I…I see…”

“Aye. But this is the first time the roundtable is called for surge and not the final strike. That is very bad!” He laughed again and slapped a hand on her back, as if making some great joke. Azalea nearly doubled over. “Imagine how bad the final strike will be!”

Azalea surreptitiously rubbed her aching back. She searched for words to say, but found none. There was no wisdom she could contribute, no encouragement. So she kept her mouth shut and instead glanced around the room, cataloguing the other Hunters and trying to put Loff’s omen out of her mind.

Most of the Hunters seemed unbothered, their features veiled and impassive. They certainly did not look scared. Azalea caught Halcyon Yuden leaning against the far window, arms crossed, face expressionless. His clothes had somehow been cleaned and his hair was back in order. No sign of injury, no sign of weakness. Airlea could not afford its First Hunter to show anything less than perfection.

It was, in a way, heartbreaking. Azalea wished that she was better. Good enough for Halcyon to sit out, rest in bed, sleep off whatever had been damaged by the Whisperer. But she could not replace the First Hunter. Nobody could.

Azalea’s eyes trailed to the opposite side of the room, where Karis stood, silk scarf flowing over her shoulder in a glittering river. She expected the Second Hunter to be immersed in the proceedings. But Karis’s crimson eyes were not pointed at Nicolina, nor the map on the table. Her gaze was adrift, resting quietly on Halcyon. A light frown crossed her scarlet lips, the slightest furrow digging into her brow.

Azalea blinked and rubbed her eyes, then looked again.

Karis was pointed back to the head of the table, watching Nicolina.

I’m seeing things, Azalea thought. I really must rest after this.

Nicolina promptly rapped her baton on the table with a sharp sound, and all Hunters stood at attention. It appeared that the time for pleasantries was over. Not that anybody had been doing much talking.

“Seems that most of us are present,” Nicolina said. “Any word on the Third Hunter?”

“Probably shut up in his royal cradle, soiling his smalls,” Jackal said.

Nicolina cast her a sharp glance, and she quieted.

“Then let’s get started,” the guildmaster said.

The overview was brief and to the point. Epicenter on the Midsummer Parallel. Critical zones at the inland roads. Most of the Hunters were assigned to the leyline to blockade the larger flow of beasts, while a few individuals were assigned to defend townships and the estates of taxpaying nobles. Azalea nearly jumped when Maple Point was announced as a critical zone, but relaxed when Nicolina dispatched Karis Caelute. Ma and Da could not be in better hands.

Azalea was tasked with overseeing the Lewis estate, known to cultivate medicinal herbs and train up physicians. An out-of-the-way location, unlikely to see much pressure. At the very worst, she would be facing Class Twos.

Azalea wove her fingers together tightly and waited for Grimwall’s assignment. Karis had already been dispatched to Maple Point, so the best she could hope for was another powerful Hunter. Perhaps Loff; she didn’t know his mana capabilities, but he seemed strong and sturdy. Or Jackal, the knife-wielding woman who seemed like she could take down anything.

“Next, Grimwall.” Nicolina glanced down at the map. Azalea sat up straighter. “Decent distance from the leyline. Still, I expect a bunch of heralds, maybe a few Threes.”

Loff, Azalea prayed under her breath. Loff, please, or Jackal.

Nicolina looked up. “Yuden, you’ll take this one.”

Azalea’s gut plummeted. Her gaze whipped to the First Hunter leaning by the window.

He only nodded.

No dismay, no consternation. If Azalea didn’t know better, she would have thought that he was in peak condition, ready to take on a critical zone without reservations.

Azalea looked around the guild. Surely somebody would raise an issue. They all knew that Halcyon had returned from an encounter with the Dragon Whisperer. They all knew that he was injured.

None of the Hunters raised a hand. Not even Karis Caelute, who was looking impassively upon the map.

Apparently, they didn’t think he was injured enough.

Azalea nearly raised her hand, but held back. Perhaps there was something else at play. She was new and she was young; there could very well be a nuance to this meeting that she did not understand. She fidgeted in her seat as Nicolina called the final assignments, then dismissed the Hunters.

Most of them tore out the door and soared into the sky, eager to get into position—for bloodshed, for glory, whatever their vice was. The only one who lingered was Halcyon, still leaning against the window. Like it was the only thing that could keep him upright. Something pricked at Azalea’s senses, and she squatted behind the attendant’s desk, where she would certainly be missed among the chaos.

She was rewarded almost immediately. Nicolina spoke as soon as the door swung shut.

“I couldn’t let them know how bad it is,” she said.

Tired. She sounded so tired.

“I know,” Halcyon said. He sounded tired, too.

“The Hunters won’t care. But the news will spread to the people, and they need to feel safe. They need their First Hunter.”

Halcyon didn’t respond.

“I have to know, Yuden. Can you take this?”

He chuckled softly. “Do we have a choice?”

“There’s always a choice.”

“There’s never a choice.”

Nicolina was quiet for a long moment. Azalea strained to hear.

“I’m hoping that it’s manageable. With the current estimate, the critical zone should be the leyline, with off-shoots on Maple Point and the Regale estate. Grimwall’s not far, but it should be well away from immediate danger.”

“You seem worried about it regardless.”

“The Geppett heir was dispatched to Grimwall. It cannot fall.”

Azalea stiffened.

“Geppett?” Halcyon’s tone rose at the end in surprise. “They say his heir is a coward.”

Azalea nearly leapt out right then and there. Just because Wes wasn’t always champing at the bit to shed blood—

“On the contrary,” said Nicolina. “Once he knows Grimwall is in danger, nothing could get him to leave.”

“Liability or boon?”

“Boon. One of the top students at the Academy. Led the junior unit at Havenport. Weapons ingeniator and passable with a sword.”

Halcyon fell silent. Not the calm, calculating sort of silence that Azalea had grown to expect from him, but a simmering one, uneasy and off-kilter.

“Yuden,” Nicolina said softly, “if you’re not sure, I can ask someone else.”

“Who?” he said with equal quiet. “The Third, whose head is worth half the royal treasury? The Seventh, who needs graveyard access? The Eighteenth, who needs to wall off the leyline?”

“I’ll find someone.”

“Everyone’s needed somewhere else, Guildmaster.”

Azalea’s legs pushed her to her feet. Azalea’s hand rose. Azalea’s mouth spoke.

“Let me.”

Nicolina and Halcyon turned in unison as Azalea stepped out from behind the attendant’s desk. Her voice rolled from her lips in a rush, one wave spilling over the next.

“Please. Send me to Grimwall.” Her head was spinning and her words were tangling and she wasn’t quite sure what she was saying. All she could think of was Wes in that juniper suit he hated so, sword slung across his hip, battle standard at his back, surrounded by bloodshed and mortal peril.

Halcyon glanced at Nicolina. The guildmaster’s gaze was terribly, hatefully even.

“There could be Fours, Fairwen,” she said. “You’re not ready.”

“I have to watch his back.” Azalea dropped to one knee and bowed her head. Outside, thunder bellowed and rattled the walls. “I have to be there.”

“He’s safer under the supervision of the First Hunter.”

“I can’t leave him.”

“You must.”

Azalea looked up, the rare liquid fire of rage welling up in her chest. Nicolina was unmoving, her gaze cold behind gold-rimmed spectacles. “Why?”

“Can you kill a Class Four, Fairwen?”

“Yes.” She had to.

“Then kill at least five of them.” Nicolina sighed. “I’ll reassign you as soon as you prove you can be consistent. That’s a promise. But tonight? No.”


“Wesley Geppett belongs to one of the most prestigious noble families in the entire kingdom. I can’t risk the safety of the young lord just for sentiment’s sake.” There was a weight to Nicolina’s gaze that crushed Azalea. “You may not believe me, Fairwen, but these decisions are in everyone’s interests.”

“It’s not a matter of sentiment.” Azalea stood sharply and turned to Halcyon. “You’re injured, Lord Halcyon. Badly injured. And your mana…you can’t have much of it after fighting the Whisperer.”

Halcyon met her gaze, but said nothing.

“He’s fought through worse,” Nicolina said. “Everyone at the Guild has.”

“Not with my Support on the line,” Azalea said firmly. “For that reason alone, this should be my responsibility.”

Halcyon blinked. “Your…Support?”

Nicolina’s brow furrowed. For the first time, she looked uncertain.

Azalea seized the chance and bowed her head again. “Please, Guildmaster. I beg you. Please.”

Silence fell over the room, broken by a low rattle of lightning outside. Finally, Halcyon spoke.

“It’s not a bad idea.”

Nicolina looked sharply at him. “Yuden.”

“Really, it’s not.” He gestured to the map on the table, wincing at the movement in his arm. “Grimwall has towers. Defensible layouts. Put Fairwen on a vantage point, and she’ll have free range over the entire town.”

“I don’t know…”

“She’s more suited to city combat than other Hunters. Infinite range. Lots of cover. Low impact and precision weaponry. I could see it working.”

“Gunfire doesn’t have the same scalability as Forming. If the horde is large, she’ll be overwhelmed in seconds.”

“Fairwen,” Halcyon said, so sharply that Azalea instinctively sprung to her feet in a salute. “Can you Stabilize multiple starshooters at once?”

“I, well, maybe. I’ve never tried—”


Azalea straightened. “Yes. A few. For some time, if they aren’t burst firing.”

Halcyon nodded. “Speak with the captain. See if you can get his marksman unit.”

Marksman unit! It couldn’t be; starshooters were so difficult to come by. Even the entire National Garrison only had the Marksman’s Core. “Will he have one?” Azalea asked.

“The Geppetts are a militaristic family and have the money to arm their private troops to the teeth,” Halcyon said. “He’ll have one.”

He looked at Nicolina, and so did Azalea. The guildmaster was silent, her fingers laced together like threads in a web, logistics in a plan. Finally, she sighed and fell back against a chair, the weariness written over her face.

“Very well,” she said quietly. “Swap places with Yuden. You’ll see to Grimwall, and he’ll see to the Lewis estate.”

Azalea saluted. “Thank you, Guildmaster.”

“Don’t thank me yet,” Nicolina said with a shake of her head. “Thank me when everyone comes back safe and you get a promotion.”

“I don’t want a promotion.”

“The world doesn’t care about what you want, Fairwen.” Nicolina’s eyes were like twin stars of burning ice. “It only cares about what you deserve.”