28. Grimwall (3)
Grey Dismas had always wanted to be a hero. But command, he realized, was akin to playing governess for a house of scattered children.
The south gate was close to a breach, the portcullis dented and the mortar crumbling and the limestone bricks falling out of place. Corruptions had started to circle the wall to the east and west sides, looking for another point of entry, and Grimwall had no manpower to secure those gates. Quicklime was running low. So were arrows. Every time a soldier delivered a report, it was nothing but bad news upon more bad news.
“Well! Liking your new command, Dismal?” said Jellamie cheekily, elbowing him in the side. Grey did not like Jellamie. She called him Dismal and liked to put bugs and pinecones in his sleeping cot. She also never listened to what he had to say, even after Hunter Fairwen and young Lord Geppett had clearly designated him as the acting commander. Unfortunately, she was one of two field medics, and that meant she potentially held his life in her hands. She would probably save him out of duty even if he insulted her deeply, but she certainly would not make it enjoyable.
So Grey swallowed his pride. Slightly. He still raised his chin and said, “Isn’t there an injury somewhere that you should be tending, Jelly?”
Unfortunately, the nickname Jelly did not seem to bother her in the slightest. “I’m on break, Dismal,” she said spryly. “Like this whole night was supposed to be. A break. Time to kick back, relax, light it up. You know?”
“Light what up? The signal beacon?”
Jellamie started. “Are you joking? A smoke. The pipe. Hemp. Light it up. Honestly, Dismal, you never have any fun.”
It was idiotic for a doctor to imbibe narcotics, and even more idiotic to do so on the night of a surge, no matter how safe an area was supposed to be. Grey opened his mouth to say just that, but he was interrupted. In the distance, the looming shadow of the final alpha shuddered, then fell with a great lowing sound.
Jellamie cheered, throwing a fist in the air. “Look at that! The alphas are down! I guess a Hunter is good for something once in a while.”
“I doubt it was the Hunter,” Grey snapped. “It was likely the work of the captain.” It didn’t matter that Fairwen was mildly passable at the starshooter. She was still a Hunter, and a Hunter could never be trusted, not truly.
“It could be the work of an old granny for all I care.” Jellamie raced to descend the parapet. “I’m just glad this battle is almost over,” she called. “Mythics know that I could use a—”
What terrible, degenerate recreational activity she had been about to suggest, Grey would never know.
Because she was still six rungs from the ground when the south gate detonated.
The barbican burst apart, shooting chunks of limestone like a deadly ballista, portcullis falling bent and shredded as corruptions surged into the city, a thick, horrifying caravan of rabid eyes and fur and claws.
Jellamie hadn’t the time to utter a single sound. Her body rocketed at the force and crumpled against the limestone tower. She slumped down, blood soaking where her head had struck rock, and Grey knew she had died.
He didn’t bother rushing to her and looking for her pulse. If she was dead, there was nothing he could do. If she wasn’t, then she would be dying fast, and he couldn’t regen, nor could he reach the other medic in time. The south wall had been breached. Corruptions were flooding Grimwall. There were a thousand other things he had to see to, a thousand other fires he had to extinguish.
But as Grey clambered down from the parapets and rushed into the fray, blowing a sequence on his horn, he couldn’t help but think that he wouldn’t have minded more pinecones in his bed. Not if it meant that Jellamie had been alive to plant them there.
As quickly as the tide had turned, it capsized again.
Azalea watched helplessly as the countless sea of beasts trudged toward the city walls, a towering wave sent to choke a lonely flame. She was frozen to the ground, her tongue locked in her mouth. Rain bit at her pounding arm and her useless, trailing leg, reminding her of her mortality, her flaws. Grimwall couldn’t possibly fight off this overwhelming force when they’d been struggling against scraps. It was only a matter of time until they fell, and they would fall brutally and gracelessly.
Azalea had asked Nicolina for this town, and she hadn’t been strong enough to protect it.
Beside her, Wes shook himself to his senses and spoke quickly, his tone even and unperturbed. “We’ll have to get back to the city, find a medic. See to your leg and your arm.”
“It’s not life-threatening,” Azalea said, unfeeling. “I’ll be fine.”
“You’re our best fighter,” Wes said. “You have to be in perfect health for us to have a chance.”
Azalea bit her tongue and nodded. She didn’t have the heart to tell Wes the truth: they had no chance at all.
“Hey. Look at me.” She felt Wes’s fingers lifting her chin. The waves of corruptions were blocked off by two lovely amber eyes. “Don’t give up, ’Zalie. It’ll work out.”
Azalea’s eyes stung with tears. Of course he could see right through her. “How can you say that?” she blurted. “We barely dispatched two Threes. Now there are six. And all those heralds—”
“This fight isn’t just what you can see,” Wes urged. “How many times do I have to tell you that?”
She blinked, confused.
“Hunters will secure their zones and find us on patrol. My father will receive the critical zone report and send his reserve troops.” Wes squeezed her shoulder. “There will be reinforcements, ’Zalie. We just have to hold out until they get here.”
He looked so courageous and so confident that she wanted to believe him. She truly did.
We’re not alone, she told herself. Not alone.
“Alright,” she said, voice trembling. She drew herself up. “Let’s get back to town.”
She couldn’t springstep on a single leg, so Wes gathered her in his arms and flew back.
Grimwall had been breached. The south barbican lay in ruins, corruptions pouring through its open mouth and rampaging in the streets. The town was in utter chaos—fires roaring and smoke billowing, cries of anger and fear, clanging of metal and bone. Several houses lay collapsed and burning, and Azalea could only hope that the families remained safe in their underground shelters.
Wes landed by Grey, who was running along the rooftops with the other marksmen, issuing commands to the rest of the company. Azalea expected to see the familiar sneer curdle his mouth when he saw her curled up in Wes’s arms. But apparently, command had given Grey more important things to worry about. His eyes shot right to Wes, barely giving her a passing glance.
“Milord,” he said breathlessly. “Jellamie is dead.”
The name did not land with Azalea, but Wes’s face turned cold and pale. “How did—no. What about Lars?”
“Tending the wounded in the safehouse last I saw, but…I must admit, it has been some time since then.”
Wes instinctively grimaced, then quickly wiped it away. “Are the troops routed?”
“From what I can tell, milord, not yet. Many are fighting valiantly to protect their families and homes.”
Wes nodded. “Split the company into subunits of four. Have them divide and skirmish the beasts at a distance. Rely on flanks and ambushes around buildings—we can’t take them in a front-on fight.”
“I’ll be back after I’ve seen Lars.”
Wes took off, and Azalea couldn’t help but think that she didn’t mind Grey so much when he was terrified out of his wits.
The safehouse wasn’t far from the breach. Wes would only have to turn down two roads before he’d stop at a large granary, which had been emptied and turned into a makeshift infirmary earlier that night. But as Wes approached the granary, the acrid whiff of smoke trickled into their lungs.
“Oh,” Azalea whispered, her heart sinking.
Wes’s jaw tightened and his steps quickened around the corner. Then his feet ground to a halt, and a small, pained noise escaped his mouth.
Where Azalea expected to see stalwart brick walls and thick oaken doors, she only saw charred, scattered beams of wood and mortar dust. The few soldiers who’d been posted as guards lay scattered around the granary’s remains, lances and shields shattered.
The corruptions must have scented the wounded prey, Azalea realized. They came straight here.
Several feet away from them lay the limp body of a man wrapped in medical blue. Wes set Azalea down and moved quickly, kneeling by the man’s body and pressing two fingers to his neck. It was more of a formality than anything. The medic’s entire back was shredded and soaked in blood.
“Dead,” Wes said hollowly. His gaze was distant as he released the field medic and drew himself to his feet. “I should’ve…It was too close. Why didn’t I…”
A shadow flicked in the debris of the granary. Azalea instinctively threw up her starshooter in its direction.
“Wes!” she screamed.
Her cry roused Wes just as the shadow lunged into dim light, revealing the thin, sly face of a Class One fox. Wes barely drew his sword in time to block a feral bite at his head.
Azalea primed a shot towards the fox, but she couldn’t find a clean angle. Wes was grappling with the animal too close to guarantee his safety. She tried firing at the fox’s large, bushy tail. The firebolt tore through fur and muscle, but the fox only yelped and ignored the pain.
Wes roared, swinging his blade with a blaze of mana. Vines tore out of the ground, shattering the cobblestone. They thrashed in agitation as they tangled and twisted, ignoring the agonized squeals of the animal, whipping it and tearing at it like a piece of raw meat.
Through teary eyes, Azalea fired another shot. The firebolt seared through the fox’s head, and it slumped, silent.
Wes stumbled to the ground, his sword clattering out of his hand. The vines disengaged and slunk slowly back into the ground.
A disconcerting quiet fell over the road to the granary.
Azalea crawled to Wes’s side, dragging her leg behind her. His gaze was empty as it rested on the scattered bodies, soaking in every inch of gore.
“All of them,” Wes said, his voice numb with shock. “All dead.”
“Wes,” Azalea whispered.
“These soldiers…So many of them were young. Their first battle.”
“Wes.” She gripped his shoulders, tried to turn him to her. “Later. It has to be later. I’m sorry.”
Still, Wes was unmoving. And Azalea realized: he hadn’t witnessed death before. Not true, raw death, sudden and brutal. Most of his command had been over training sessions or Academy mock battles. Even during the Battle of Havenport, their company had been deployed near the tail end of the Storm and casualties had slowed. Wes had brought them out with no deaths.
In this tragic area, Azalea was more experienced than him. She’d witnessed the death of her brother at seven. She’d watched her mother wither away with confusion and grief. And she’d seen villagers dragged down by feral beasts during evacuations, villagers she hadn’t been fast enough to save.
Azalea’s hands moved up to cup Wes’s face, her palms scathing on his rain-iced skin. She forced him to look at her, even though his eyes were glassy and distant.
“Wes,” she said. He didn’t respond. “Wes, we will grieve. But right now, they need you. We need you, Wes.”
He surfaced at her voice, even if slowly, the shell over his irises finally cracking and warming. He blinked and squared his shoulders. The grief had faded to a faint cold across his face.
“Of course,” he said. “Of course. I’m sorry.”
She knew that something irretrievable had been taken from him. This night had changed him. Her heart ached to see it.
But for now, they were needed.
Wes rubbed his hand over his face, shaking fingers searching for a foundation. “Alright…first. First. The breach…no. Threes are coming. And the Four.” His gaze cast to Azalea. “We still need you at full health.”
“But the medics—”
Wes knelt and rummaged through the felled medic’s pouches. “I’ll do it.”
He found a pair of silver bracers—mana inhibitors. “I’ll patch up your leg. You’ll be able to peel off the Threes and Four. Don’t engage them by any means, but if you can keep them distracted, lead them away until reinforcements—”
“Wes,” Azalea said softly.
Wes fastened the mana inhibitors around her wrists. “Sync with them. We don’t have much time.”
“We don’t have any,” she said. She placed a hand over his. “They’re already at the gate.”
“What?” His head shot up. “That can’t—”
His words faltered. The south wall had been torn apart by the new stampede of beasts, leaving an entire side of the city wide open. In the fields just beyond, the Class Three deer pranced, and the Class Four bear ambled closer, every pawstep sending cracks scuttling across the ground.
Azalea slowly stood. Her injured leg dragged uselessly behind her, but it didn’t matter. She drew her starshooter and looked up into the cold, rainy night.
“Retreat, Lord Geppett,” she said calmly. “Get yourself to safety.”
Wes stood with her. “Wait.”
“If you return, make sure to recover the starshooter. Especially the firing cylinder.”
“No.” Wes gripped her wrist hard enough to bruise her skin and jammed a finger towards the sky. “Wait.”
Azalea followed his gaze.
A streak of diamond-white was tearing from the sky like a heavenly arrow.
She blinked, a flutter of confusion breaking the cold clarity in her mind. What was it? A meteor? A shooting star? A Class Five?
“There it is,” Wes said, the relief palpable in his voice.
“There what is?” Azalea asked.
His mouth lifted. “Reinforcements.”
The light consolidated, and Karis Caelute landed before them in an explosive swirl of sugar petals, the surrounding air charged with a terrifying, crackling power. There was no smile on those rosy lips; her eyes were sharp as cut glass, her brows pressed downward.
Azalea nearly dissolved into tears.
Karis shot down the corruption-thick roads, flitting in and out of sight like a dragonfly, glittering thread weaving and snapping in a dancing tapestry around her. In the blink of an eye, dozens of animal corpses fell hard, decapitated or neatly diced, filling the roads with the stench of rotting flesh. She was impossibly quick—quicker than when they’d first met, quicker than anything Azalea had ever seen.
Ones and Twos were barely pests to Karis. They snapped and swiped at her with jagged teeth and claws, only to fall to meaty pieces in the next blink. Such power, such precision. Azalea could not imagine possessing that level of strength.
“She’s forcing a death route,” Wes murmured.
Azalea glanced at him. “What?”
“Look.” He pointed. “She’s using corpses to block off certain roads. Everything will funnel through a choke to the central square.”
He was right. Karis’s strikes were strategic. The dull-witted corruptions would always take open paths over obstacles, and she had distributed corpses to sequester off everything but a single winding road to Grimwall’s town square. Wes could organize his company around the resulting kill zone, shooting and stabbing anything that dared to pass through.
Another minute passed when Karis apparently finished her work. She vaulted through the sky and landed effortlessly before them, her cloak fluttering around her like silken wings.
“I will see to the Threes and Fours,” she said, her melodic voice honed and sharp. “Fairwen. Geppett. I’ve set up a funnel. Are you able to dispel the Ones and Twos?”
“Yes ma’am,” Wes said immediately. Azalea tried to respond likewise, but it took all her active effort not to bawl like a child.
“Then I shall leave you to it.” Karis turned. “Keep vigilant. Even the lower Classes can prove deadly.”
And she shot into the night, her silhouette twinkling like diamond dust.
Six Threes and a Four, all at the same time. How could she possibly manage it? I’ll learn, Azalea decided. I’ll get that strong. I have to.
Wes reformed his company at the central square with a few blasts of the horn. Soldiers slowly trickled in, stationing themselves at the kill zone. Ten, fifteen, twenty…twenty-four. Less than half the original number.
It was sobering to see how the ranks had thinned, and even more sobering to see the weight on Wes’s face. He would take the losses as a personal failure, Azalea knew—even though it was a miracle that any of them were alive at all. Brand new troops, untested, none of them licensed manacrafters. As far as she was concerned, they had all cheated death.
Wes ordered the pikemen to flank the mouth of the funnel, striking as the corruptions emerged, while the archers and marksmen were given a clear line of sight down the entire road. The stream of beasts was constant, but Karis had pinned them down to a single point of entry, making them more than manageable. Between the sea of lances and volleys of arrows and firebolts, the creatures were unable to advance past the choke.
“Shake me if anything goes awry,” Wes told Azalea, sheathing his sword and kneeling next to her.
“What are you doing?” Azalea asked with a frown.
“Your leg is still injured,” he reminded. “I can’t have you debilitated in any way, just in case.”
He secured the mana inhibitors around her wrists. Azalea caught her snipers eyeing her curiously and blushed. “You don’t have to do this. Lady Karis is here. The battle is basically over.”
“It’s not over until the final beast is dead,” Wes said sternly. “Now let me heal you.”
She let him heal her. She set her mind on the funnel, firing volley after volley through the unending swarm of ravenous beasts. She ignored the warm tingle in her leg as Wes carefully ran through her system, mending things in his thorough, gentle way.
He had just stepped away, finished with soothing her sprains and bruises, when Grey pointed frantically into the sky and cried out in alarm.
“Fliers!” he called.
Azalea’s gaze snapped upward. Winged silhouettes were descending fast from the sky, bolting right towards the ragtag remnants of their company.
Not over until the final beast is dead, she thought ruefully. Indeed.
A giant hawk swooped from behind and snapped up Grey in its vicious talons. Azalea swiftly tilted her starshooter up and fired. The firebolt struck cleanly through the hawk’s tarsi, severing the talons from its legs. Grey dropped with a wild scream.
He would be fine. He’d only fallen four feet.
Unfortunately, Azalea couldn’t say the same for the rest of the company. The arrival of the fliers, the introduction of another dimension, had thrown the kill zone into chaos. The pikemen were swerving away from the choke to protect the backline—an admirable decision, if it had not opened up the entire funnel, allowing beasts to pour unchecked into the kill zone. Field and forest animals, twisted beyond recognition by the corruption, swarmed their tiny force and overwhelmed them in the blink of an eye.
Frantically, Azalea searched for Wes, firing blind shots into masses of fur and feathers. She found him cornered by five circling coyotes—four Ones and a Two.
“Pikemen, back to the choke!” he was yelling, his voice hoarse from exertion. “Hold the line! Hold the line!” But his voice was lost in the chaos, and his company continued to flail, panicked and disjointed.
Heart in her throat, Azalea swiftly raised her starshooter and fired at the coyotes around Wes. She managed to catch one, a clean shot through its skull, but two others leapt at him and avoided her rounds entirely. Wes fired his windsoles and shoot upward to dodge, but another coyotes leapt up, dug its teeth into his boot, and pulled him down. Wes cried out, and a bed of Formed clovers quickly bloomed beneath him to cushion his fall.
No. Azalea fired her windsoles, trying to get to his side. One of the coyotes peeled off and tackled her, teeth lashing right for her face. She jammed her starshooter in its maw and headbutted its nose, but it refused to move.
Beyond her, Wes was quickly becoming overwhelmed. The coyotes were synchronized enough to strike in unison, swiping their paws and biting viciously at his limbs as one. He swept his hand, Forming bramble walls to cover his back and flanks as his sword snapped out to counterattack, drawing blood from the coyotes’ legs and chests. But his pace was slowing, and an unwelcome thought dawned on Azalea in a cold baptism.
He’s running out of mana.
Wes did not specialize in Forming. He was an inventor, a Threader. Someone focused on keen, precise, detail-driven work. He was a decent Former and assisted by the mana quartz in his sword, but he had not trained in spellweaving efficiency or combat techniques. His Forming was nothing close to a Hunter’s.
The largest coyote, the Class Two, reared and leapt at him. Azalea watched as Wes raised his hand, and a bramble thicket pushed out of the ground, rising to block the coyote’s strike.
She wrenched away from the coyote on her and shot out its brain at point-blank. The mana quartz in Wes’s sword gleamed blindingly bright, a supernova about to extinguish.
Azalea leapt over the dying coyote, yanking the instability away from her starshooter. She was slow, too slow. Exhaustion was taking its toll.
She knew the moment Wes’s manawell ran dry. There was a cold snap in the air, the feeling of something disappearing, like sliding ice under her fingertips.
Then the protective bramble thicket disintegrated into nothingness.
Azalea screamed and raised her starshooter—
—too little, too late.
Wes’s eyes widened right as the coyote struck him full-force in the chest.
His body pinwheeled in the air, silent and limp like a ragdoll.
He crashed right into a stretch of limestone wall and landed hard on the road, blood trailing behind him. The impact echoed like a dull drum.
He did not rise again.