27. Grimwall (2)

Echo shoved his hands in his pockets and whistled a dry tune as he strolled through Mythaven’s streets. They were, of course, completely desolate, the houses dark, the cobbled roads picked clean by wretched poor and fat alley rats alike. No insistent hawkers, no tittering flirts, no screeching infants. He could get used to this. Except silence often meant that business was dead, which he couldn’t get used to.

He stiffened at the sound of clanking metal, but it was far too loud and careless to come from a threat. Sure enough, a youth draped in plate armor far too big for him barreled down the road, lance in hand. No doubt an emergency reserve on his way to claim his share of the glory.

The lad drew to a sudden halt when he saw Echo and straightened, tapping the butt of his lance on the cobblestone.

“Sir,” he said, dead serious, “get inside at once, please. For your own safety.”

For your own safety. Oh, the righteousness of youth. Now where had he heard that one before?

Echo grinned slowly and creepily. “But this is my favorite weather,” he drawled.

The lad visibly recoiled. Then he turned away and strode on.

“Crazy drunks,” he muttered. “Mad, the lot of them.”

And off he went to give up his life for a nation with more holes than fabric, a nation that would burn itself dry using vain hope as a fuel. The blood of children would paint the field scarlet.

Echo thought of another youth fighting a war too old for her, vibrant with innocence and idealism. He turned and kept walking, kept sauntering, unaffected. He didn’t whistle anymore, but only because he didn’t feel like it.

It wasn’t his problem. He’d already done his part, told her what his instincts had provided.

It wasn’t his problem at all.

The first strike of lightning raised an army of field mice.

Azalea watched as their bodies swelled, shaggy hides wobbling like jelly, unable to support the sudden flood of mana into their bodies. The once fist-sized critters ballooned to the size of squealing pigs. She swallowed the bile that rose to her throat and fired, striking one right between its beady, hungry eyes. Her unit followed suit.

Firebolts seared into the fields like falling stars, incinerating the mice and setting grass ablaze.

“Keep aiming,” Azalea commanded as her snipers began to lower their guns, reaching for short bows.

“Lady Hunter, it will be forty seconds before we can fire again,” Grey said. “We should use arrows to fill the gap.”

“Keep aiming,” Azalea repeated. She burned her mana and reached out. The knots of destabilized mana were thick and unruly, hanging over each of the five starshooters in a tangled web. She hadn’t tried to Stabilize multiple instances simultaneously, ever, in her life. Maybe it couldn’t be done.

Confidence, Fairwen, whispered Halcyon’s voice.

She took a deep breath. She could Stabilize in her sleep ever since she’d been born—if not just because Azure’s swords would have exploded and incinerated her crib otherwise. If anyone could do this, it would be her.

She found those five knots of instability and, like a hand spreading its fingers, branched out her mana over all of them. She flared her manawell and pulled.

The knots shuddered and—after a moment of resistance—fell away.

Four starshooters hummed. Four regulators clicked as they registered the stable environment, and four triggers were freed.

The snipers stared down at their weapons, jaws slack, mouths open.

“That’s not possible,” one of them said numbly. Even Grey was silent.

“Fire,” Azalea commanded.

They fired. No more questions this time. Azalea continued to Stabilize, leaving about five seconds of breathing room between volleys. Easier than burst firing, but still demanding on her manawell. She would have to monitor herself carefully to prevent early overburn.

Swollen sparrows and misshapen garden snakes barreled for the southern barbican and threw themselves at the gate, eyes dim with primal rage. As the portcullis groaned beneath their weight, the archers loosed waves of arrows and the local militia poured molten quicklime over the wall. Animal corpses littered the fields with seared flesh and black blood.

Just as the situation was looking hopeful, the small military force seeming well-equipped to handle the invasion—

—there was a low, keening moan from the distance, the kind that shook Azalea’s bones and made them ache.

She cast her gaze onto the horizon.

A shadow swallowed up the fields. Or so it seemed, until a flash of prismatic lightning underlit its figure: a sinewy body with a tawny speckled hide, four powerful legs upon four sharp hooves, and two gleaming antlers, wrapped with putrid growths of corrupted mana. It had to be a king stag from the Talebloom, beautiful and terrible, twisted beyond recognition. Swarms of woodland Ones and Twos—raccoons and hares and foxes—flooded around its hooves with a skittering cacophony of screeching and rasping.

Heralds and the alpha.

Azalea shoved down the cold knot of fear in her belly and seized her starshooter. If she let that Three approach town, it would tear apart the gates with a single charge of its antlered skull. She had to stop it while it was still at a distance, while she still had room to maneuver.

“Stay here and cover the gate,” she commanded her unit. “I’m going to engage the Three.”

“I’ll go with you,” Grey said readily, which surprised her. But then she supposed that courage had never been his problem.

She glanced down at his feet, which were covered in ordinary boots. “No windsoles,” she noted. “You’ll only get yourself killed.” When he opened his mouth to complain, she barreled on. “You’re in command of the marksman unit until I return. Lead them well.”

Grey’s mouth closed, then opened again, a flush of pleasure spreading over his thin face. Azalea didn’t stay to listen to what he had to say. She fired her windsoles and arced off into the night.

The stag was a worse sight up close. Horrifying, but also tragic. Azalea hated to see how mana corruption had taken this majestic creature and made it bow to anguish and misery. The painful red cysts constricting its head and legs, the black spines erupting from beneath its hide. By the time she was within firing range, she felt no fear, only pity.

I’m sorry, gentle thing, she thought. I will put you to rest.

Azalea slung her starshooter forward and raised the barrel. Just weeks ago, she’d lacked the confidence to kill a Class Three. It was time to see if she’d grown.

She waited a minute for the Ones to bolt past their alpha, enticed by the light and fire and smell of flesh from Grimwall. Engaging a Three would be difficult enough without other distractions.

Then she took her first shot. A solid one, right through the front leg. The firebolt tore through flesh easily and mangled the giant limb.

The stag roared, knocking together Azalea’s teeth with the deafening sound. She fired her windsoles and barely avoided a blind swipe of its head in her direction, antlers churning up the earth and whisking just past her.

It was fast. Faster than it had any right to be with its hulking size.

Azalea kept light on her toes, never stopping for more than one shot. She darted away as it reared its hooves at her, then shot out a hind leg. Big square teeth snapped down to take off her head, and she leapt spryly between its antlers, shooting through its eye and into its brain.

None of it was enough to kill a Three, but the stag was definitely slowing. With an eyeball ruptured and two legs crippled, its movements became withdrawn, more cautious. Still, Azalea didn’t rejoice. She couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t quite right. There was something she was missing.

Instincts prickling, she turned around.

Just in time to see a giant shadow barreling for her like a cannonball.

Azalea throttled her windsoles at full speed, but the shadow still clipped on the edge of her boot. She spun violently, the force wrenching her foot to an awkward angle, and cried out at the sharp pain that blazed from her ankle to her knee.

Not good.

She had a feeling that her foot was no longer load-bearing, so she twisted around, trying to land with one windsole. The flared momentum was fast, too fast. She crashed hard into the ground, chunks of grass and earth spewing up at the impact. Dirt stung her eyes and lungs as she spat up a mouthful of mud, her body aching all over.

Before her, the shadow dashed up to the king stag, then slowed to a gentle prance, taking shape beneath flashes of lightning.

A Class Three doe. Probably the stag’s mate.

Gingerly, Azalea dragged herself up and tested her leg. She was rewarded with a blistering pain in her ankle and a dull throb in her knee. Something, or multiple somethings, had been badly sprained.

Very not good.

She’d stood a chance as a healthy Hunter against one Three. Now she was injured, and her opponents had doubled.

The stag and doe charged as one. The uninjured doe leapt high, while the stag struck low with its antlers. Azalea threw herself to the side, but she knew. She just knew that she wasn’t fast enough, and the antlers were going to tear off her arm into a bloody stump. If shock didn’t kill her, then blood loss would.

The mutilated crown of bones surged towards her, and—

—suddenly, a thicket of brambles clawed out of the earth, weaving together in a lattice, and caught the antlers.

Not for long. The stag thrust its neck and the brambles were shredded and uprooted, but the collision had bought Azalea one precious second. She tumbled into the grass out of harm’s way, her arm hale and whole.

Those brambles had been Formed by a manawell that Azalea very much recognized. She turned to meet it.

A brilliant green cape fluttered beneath the silver moonlight like a rolling meadow, and Wes grinned boyishly at her. The verdant mana quartz embedded in his beautiful sword was glowing faintly from recent use. Because it wasn’t enough that he was a noble’s son, a master Threader, good at tactics, charismatic in leadership, and decent with a sword. He also had to be a respectable Former of plant mana.

“Sorry,” he called. He sounded surprisingly upbeat, like he’d just popped into a game of kickball. “Am I late?”

“Wes!” Azalea screamed. She rocketed to her feet, forgetting about her injured leg. It buckled beneath her and sent her back to the grass. “What are you doing?

“Helping, I hope,” said Wes. The stag bucked towards him. He vaulted over it with his windsoles and chopped at a corrupted spine growing from its antlers.

“You’re supposed to be behind walls!” Azalea said desperately. It was hard to breathe past her sudden surge of panic. Many will die, many will die. “You’re the—you’re in command, how could you leave your unit?”

“Grey has it under control,” Wes said. The doe struck at him with her hooves, but he sprung away again. “More or less. I’m the only other person with windsoles, ’Zalie, and I told you.”

Azalea raised her starshooter and fired, clipping the doe’s hoof. “Told me what?”

“I’m not letting you fight alone.” Wes sliced at the doe’s hind leg as it reared up. He drew a cut, but not deep enough to faze it.

“You should have,” Azalea said, fighting off the surge of warmth at his simple words. He was being naive and it shouldn’t please her. “I mean—thank you, for saving my life. But you really must go back.”

Wes waved his sword. The mana quartz in the crossguard bloomed a vivid green, attracting the stag’s attention. “Then come back with me and get healed up,” he said. “You’re the Hunter, the ace. Things will be very bad if you die.”

“I can’t,” Azalea said. “The Threes will follow me and charge down the walls.”

The stag lowered its head and charged Wes, a slight limp to its gait. “Well, then, sounds like we’re winging it anyway,” Wes said. “So I might as well be here.”

Oh, he could be so stubborn sometimes. “Fine,” Azalea snapped. “Fine. But don’t you dare get hurt, or I’ll—I’ll really have it.”

“Barnam’s Cross!” Wes suddenly called, and Azalea’s body instinctively reacted. Years of Academy drills seized her limbs, and before she knew it, she was springing on her good leg, starshooter slung back and short sword in hand.

Barnam’s Cross was one of many partner windsole maneuvers drilled into the Academy students—a double helix swerve into a charging strike, where one partner struck high and plunged low, and the other struck low and rose in an uppercut. It was an agile slash that countered charging animals, using their own momentum to drive the blades in a wicked cross.

And it was perfect for the stag charging right at them.

Azalea fired her windsole and dashed low, while Wes leapt high in the air, crossing over her. This part, the double helix swerve, could disorient animals who watched their prey while they charged.

As the stag blazed by, Azalea dug her sword deep into its chest and flared her windsole, dragging the blade upward. The stag sliced itself open as Wes mirrored her from up top. The blades tore through its flesh and emerged with a sickly pop. Blood and innards sloshed over the wet earth as the stag keeled and fell heavily. If it wasn’t dead, it would be presently.

Pity for the creature stirred, and Azalea fired once, twice, thrice in the center of its skull, until the light in its mad, roving eyes finally deadened.

Be at rest, she prayed.

Despite the heaviness of the moment, she sought Wes’s gaze. He was watching her, rueful pride written freely across his face. At least it had been a victory, and one they would gladly take. It had been so long since Azalea had fought with a partner that she’d forgotten how addicting the feeling was—to be side-by-side, moving as one, ready to take on the world. Despite her injured leg, she felt renewed and ready to fight.

A good thing, too, as a shrill, rattling scream had Azalea dropping her sword and clapping her hands over her ears.

It took her a moment to register that it was coming from the doe, and another moment to register the sound as pain. Pain of loss, pain of love. A sound as ancient as time.

For a moment, Azalea’s heart twisted in her chest. The doe had lost its mate, the love of its life. There was no feeling more universal or more sympathetic. She couldn’t imagine the hole that it would leave, the emptiness. It must be all-consuming.

Then the doe rose, a frenzied light in its eyes, and pounded a hoof into the mud.

“It’s enraged,” Wes said grimly. “At least it’s a Three. Can’t burn mana.”

But enragement meant nothing good, even for a Class Three. As far as Azalea recalled, enraged corruptions were numb to pain and injury. They would fight until their very last breath, never stymied and never staggered.

“Let’s kill it quickly,” she said.

They tried their best. The doe lashed out with all limbs and snapped impossibly fast with its teeth. They managed to avoid dying, but a hoof swiped at Azalea’s off-hand and Wes had a chunk bitten out of his lovely cloak. Wes called for more moves—Farloop, Mortar and Pestle, Acquister Slash—but even as they carved liberally into its hide, the doe never faltered.

“It has to die soon,” Wes said. He was breathing heavily, a sheen of sweat coating his face. “It’s lost too much blood.”

Azalea wanted to believe the same. Her leg had long grown numb and concerningly unresponsive, and her off-hand was pounding with a new sprain. Slowly, they were tiring out, while the doe was fighting with just as much vigor as when it had entered the battlefield. Azalea hated to admit it, but she would have died a long time ago without Wes.

The doe lowered its head, readying another charge, ignoring the fact that two of its legs were shredded, white bone peeking through torn flesh and hide.

“If I get you high,” Wes said, “can you burst shot its head as it passes?”

“I’ve been trying not to burst,” Azalea said, “in case I need the mana.”

Wes shook his head. “This is the alpha. No more holding back.”

Azalea swallowed and hefted her starshooter, nodding. “Get me up there.”

The doe charged, its pace slowed by two defunct limbs. Wes closed his eyes and exhaled. The mana quartz in his sword gleamed, and a current of power roared around Azalea—mana threads pulling from the surrounding grass, the fertile soil, chips of bark and pounded mulch, all weaving into a lush tapestry given Form. She burned her own manawell and reached for the knots and tangles, pulling them free, not knowing what she was helping with and not caring. It was Wes’s creation, and that was all that mattered.

The doe barreled closer. Wes’s shoulders tightened, but his eyes remained shut.

“Ready your windsoles,” he said.

Azalea glanced at her feet. Vines had woven into a loose, springy net beneath her, pulled taut with an anchoring bramble that kept it rooted to the earth. The net’s two endpoints were held up by sprouting wooden boughs that clambered skyward.

Wes was Forming an oversized slingshot from leaf and wood.

Before Azalea could say oh dear, his eyes snapped open. “Now!” he barked.

The net’s anchor snapped apart. The net pushed hard just as Azalea fired her windsoles, and she was flung high into the air.

Azalea fired as she came level with the doe’s head. The first firebolt seared right through its muzzle, burning flesh as it exited.

She kept soaring upward as the doe passed beneath her. She fired again. The second firebolt pierced the doe’s skull from above, blistered down the roof of its mouth, through its tongue, out the bottom of its jaw.

She twisted as she began to fall and fired one last shot. The last firebolt punched through the back of the doe’s head and spewed out between its eyes.

The doe’s charge faltered and it crashed into the ground. Its limbs thrashed senselessly, but it could no longer right itself.

Azalea fell.

Her gut wrenched as gravity yanked her down. She was spinning wildly, too far, too fast, with only one windsole—

A solid weight collided into her, encasing her with warmth.

“I’ve got you,” Wes said. His arms cradled her, careful of her injured leg, and he smiled with his face alight. “That was some brilliant shooting.”

Azalea flushed and almost said a dozen things—was it really, it wasn’t much, I have to train more. But Halcyon’s words drifted to her again: Confidence, Fairwen. Confidence.

She smiled back at him. “Thank you,” she said.

His ears flushed red and he quickly looked away. She felt a burst from his windsoles, and they landed with a soft splash in the mud.

“That’s the alphas down,” Wes said. He glanced at the thrashing doe with a tinge of sorrow, but then he turned back to Grimwall. “We have to get back to town. See how Grey’s holding up.”

“The poor thing,” Azalea mumbled. But if three firebolts through the skull hadn’t killed the doe instantly, she had no better ideas.

Wes turned, ready to take to the skies again. He had just fired his windsoles when an earsplitting roar nearly blasted them to the ground.

“What was that?” Azalea rasped.

“I don’t know,” Wes said, staggering to his feet. He glanced around wildly, then nodded to the distance. “There.”

Azalea craned her neck. She didn’t have to. The danger wasn’t far.

Past the flatlands, a swarm of corruptions poured over the crest of a hill like insects, darting towards Grimwall in a sea of chittering and barking and squeaking—jackrabbits and field mice and wild turkeys, all surging forward in a frenzy of bloodlust.

Just past them, more Class Three deer bounded close. One stag. Then two. Then two does, and one more stag. Six Class Threes, all in perfect health.

And finally, as the crown of the cavalcade—

—a towering silhouette blotted out the sky. Flashes of lightning gave it vague shape: a blunt muzzle, enormous clawed paws, a thick and bulky frame arced with a dorsal hump. It loomed high above the fields, immense and impervious.

A Class Four bear.

Azalea turned to look at Wes, and she saw her own horror reflected in his eyes.

The Threes hadn’t been the alphas at all.

They had been heralds.