The world quieted.
Azalea took a step forward. Her knees buckled beneath her weight and she folded in, her legs hitting the mud-slick road.
There was water in her ears, water in her eyes, water in her throat. Deafening her, choking her, boiling in her lungs.
She tried to breathe in and coughed on icy rain. Her chest burned and trembled.
Her arms raised and her fingers pulled on Bluebell’s trigger. Once, twice, thrice, four times. Too fast. The instability soared until it tore into her temples, a throbbing headache. It boiled before her and threatened to explode.
The coyotes fell. So easily, mockingly so. Where had that ease been a moment ago?
Do not go to him, her training urged. Assist the company. Secure the area. Do not go to him.
Her training be damned. She anchored a foot below her. Burned her manawell. Fired her windsoles.
A drop sent her arcing into the sky like a shooting star, scarlet cloak tearing behind her in a dying tail. She landed softly with the wind whispering at her shoes.
Wes was crumpled in a heap, his limbs at strange angles and his blood running dark over the ground. Azalea dropped beside him. Her fingers trembled, wan as bones as she ran them over his neck. There was a heartbeat loping under his skin. Uneven, terrifyingly quick, clinging to life. But there.
He is dying. He needed immediate attention to have even a sliver of a chance. But no, both of the regeners were dead. There was nobody who could heal him. Nobody who could save his life.
Azalea choked back a helpless noise. Wake up, Wes. I can’t help you. Wes, please.
Behind her, bells tinkled faintly. The town square erupted in white and pale blue, dust shimmering like a sprinkle of rain. The flood of corruptions burst like dolls split at the seams. In the blink of an eye, all fell silent.
Karis surged into view in a ripple of sugar silk.
“Move,” she said sharply. She was already pulling slender silver bangles out of a satchel slung around her waist: mana inhibitors.
Karis Caelute had a regen license.
Azalea forced herself away from Wes, and Karis knelt, snapping the bangles around Wes’s wrists.
“Lady Karis,” Azalea said numbly. You can regen? When? How? She shook those questions away. “The inhibitors. He has to sync with them.”
“Does Geppett know you?”
For a moment, Azalea was unbalanced by the question. “He’s my—he’s—he’s very precious to me. He’s my Support. But if he’s unconscious, how do we—”
“Hand,” Karis demanded.
Azalea extended her hand. Karis grabbed it, pressed it to Wes’s palm, and waited.
The mana inhibitors clicked and hummed. They’d successfully synced with Wes’s manawell.
Azalea’s jaw slackened. “How?”
Karis ignored her. “Biokey,” she snapped.
Azalea stared blankly.
“I need his biokey,” Karis repeated. “A son of nobility won’t carry it on him. Do you have it memorized?”
His biokey. His unique life signature. Without it, Karis would have to spend precious time carefully Threading her mana through his body, studying the structure of his cells herself. The process could take hours. But if she didn’t, she would risk Threading mana that his body rejected—and in his current state, a manaimmune response would kill him immediately.
“I don’t know,” Azalea fumbled, winding her fingers tightly in her cloak. “He never told me his biokey.”
Karis’s eyes flickered over Azalea. “Your starshooter. It bears the leaves of House Geppett.”
“It exudes some passive instability. The firing cartridge has been tampered with.” She arced a brow. “He is an ingeniator?”
“Yes,” said Azalea, amazed.
“Then he is accustomed to contingency plans. And you were able to unlock his inhibitors, so he trusts you with his life. He would have told you his biokey somehow.” Karis’s hands gripped Azalea’s shoulders, digging in tight. “You must remember, little flower. If you don’t remember, he will die.”
Azalea’s breath froze somewhere in her chest, unwilling to move. She could feel every second ticking down, deep as the beat of a drum.
Wes had never told her his biokey. They hadn’t seen a need—Azalea didn’t have a regen license, and Wes would never be on the frontlines. Telling her would just be a potential vulnerability for the son of an influential noble.
But she had to know. She had to know, or he would die.
“He’s performed regen on me,” Azalea said uncertainly. She gripped Karis’s hand tightly like a lifeline. “I know what his manaflow feels like. I know what it’s supposed to feel like. That has to be enough. It has to.”
“That’s not…” Karis cut herself off. “Hm…if Stabilizing hones your distinction, and you are ninety-ninth percentile…yes. It just might be possible.”
Relief spread tentative wings in Azalea’s chest. A chance. At least they had a chance.
“We’ll have to cast a mold,” said Karis, stripping her gloves.
A mold? Azalea almost asked, but quickly held her tongue. The seconds were precious. She couldn’t waste a single one with inane questions.
“Listen closely, Azalea.” Karis’s scarlet eyes bore in Azalea’s soul, burning and bright. “Take his hand and enter his plait. Find the nearest node. Attempt to influence it by…shaping your presence into something it will accept. You will know whether it feels right.”
Azalea had never Threaded into a human body before. She swallowed, her lungs constricting on cold air.
Karis took Wes’s opposite hand. “I will be watching you, copying you. I will know his biokey by how you shape the mold. Are you ready to begin?”
Karis nodded. “Hurry.”
She would lose Wes if she delayed. Azalea gripped his hand tightly and closed her eyes. She burned her manawell low and quiet and reached out, not even knowing what she was looking for.
Entering Wes’s system—his plait—was like submerging underneath the violent waves of the ocean. The physical world was choppy, loud, chaotic. It slowed as she descended, the sounds becoming muffled, the sensations on her skin decaying to nothingness.
And then—like bioluminescence in the water, shining as the sun dipped below the horizon—the new world around her came to life.
The plait was treelike, living and pulsing, ancient yet growing, millions of boughs splitting into branches splitting into sprigs, each blooming with a thousand blossoms. It was terribly beautiful and complex, a puzzle beyond human comprehension. Mana coursed through every node in the intricate web, pouring from a pure, vibrant spring at the tree’s heart that must have been the manawell. At that moment, Azalea knew that she could study his plait for eternity and learn something new each day.
Azalea reached closer and her heart grew heavy. The tree was dying. Several boughs were withered, and others drifted off into nothingness. The blossom-like nodes were trembling, threatening to become dust. Azalea burned her manawell and nudged one, trying to hold it together. It rejected her touch, warding her off like a pane of glass.
The biokey. She realized then what a biokey was. She needed to shape her touch into something the plait would recognize, something it would accept—something that felt like Wes himself.
Slowly, Azalea burned mana and began to shape her presence. There were no dimensions in this realm, no true sense of height or depth, no slant or convexity. Only a vague impression. Threading a plait was like nothing she’d ever known—reaching into air to feel its thickness, looking at a stretch of water to know its taste. She tried to mold herself as best she could, mirroring the feeling of Wes’s manacraft: brickwork and pine fronds, vaulted ceilings, the color green.
A puzzle, she remembered Wes saying once. The plait is like a puzzle. Then she would become one of its pieces.
But the process was not as rigid and manufactured as she expected. It was a soft one, organic. She was a whorl of clay at the potter’s wheel, a bolt of cotton at the weaver’s needle, a ball of dough beneath the baker’s hand.
Unbidden, quiet memories of her childhood surfaced: tiptoeing on a cedar stool, scrunching a ball of floury dough with pudgy fingers as her ma hummed a rustic tune beside her. Ma had loved to bake. Spiced meat pies with a buttery, golden-brown lattice crust. Winter ginger cookies, softened with thick, sweet molasses. Maple-glazed roast boar dressed in onions and carrots, spooned over fragrant barley rice. She had baked unceasingly when Azure had been alive, and Azalea had loved to help her.
But thinking of Ma made Azalea remember the cold, quiet kitchen, the rusted broiling pans, the brick oven covered with a dustcloth. She remembered the silent figure lying among beaten patchwork pillows, eyes glazed and confused, waiting for a son who would never come home.
It nearly broke Azalea’s concentration. She returned to her work.
She focused; she continued shaping. Then, when the reflection was complete, she touched the plait’s blossom again.
I am one with you, she willed. Yield to me.
This time, it fluttered and bloomed, lying open to her touch.
There was no time to celebrate. Around her, entire boughs were rotting, falling, shutting down. Nodes fell from their branches and decayed into dust. Wes’s manawell gurgled as mana surged out to patch and regrow, but its flow was a mere trickle. Too much had been expended in combat, leaving little for healing.
Wes was dying, and Azalea did not know what to do.
A mana presence suddenly brushed past her, cold and sweet, as fluid as it was brittle. Karis Caelute. There was no speech in this strange, symbolic realm, but Azalea understood nevertheless. She was being dismissed. Her job was done.
Azalea pulled out of Wes’s plait and surfaced.
Surfacing was not as pleasant and idyllic as she expected. Coming into reality was brutal, violent, an assault of vivid color and sound. Azalea could feel the scratch of fabric on her skin, the searing heat of fire swirling with the icy spears of rain. Her eyes stung at the blinding rim of flame-lit houses. Her ears pounded as they soaked up every crack of wood, every weighted footstep, every call of the distant horn. The world drowned her in a wave of sensation and kept her down.
A voice cut through the muffled chaos and sounded right next to her ear, so close and so loud that Azalea nearly jumped.
“Breathe in slow,” it murmured. “Count to four.”
Azalea forced air down her throat and into her lungs. It festered and burned inside her.
She exhaled, and the noise reverberated in her skull, too loud.
The second breath was easier, marred with only a bit of stiffness and discomfort. By the third, most of the world had settled into shapes that Azalea recognized. Houses, streets. An endless sea of animal bodies. She swallowed and ran her thumbs over the dirt path beneath her, letting her body slip back into reality. Her frazzled mind slowly began to calm.
“The first Threading is always a jarring experience,” said the voice. She turned to it and saw Grey’s sallow face peering at her from beneath a helmet. “It’s unfortunate that yours had to take place on the battlefield. I cannot imagine a location more overwhelming.”
Azalea blinked. “You know how to Thread?”
“Of course,” Grey sniffed. “A well-rounded introduction to manacraft is a staple for every noble’s education.”
Azalea straightened. “Then…you have a regen license?” The company’s two field medics had died in battle, but if Grey could take their place and treat the wounded—
But Grey shot her a scandalized look. “Do you realize how difficult accelerated regen is?”
The hope in her quailed as quickly as it had risen. “I’ve…heard of it.”
“Hearing of it is nothing like experiencing it. You have been in the plait. Imagine reconstructing those branches, mending the right nodes—all just so, all without a single mistake. One wrong move can throw the system into manaimmune convulsions.”
Azalea looked to where Karis was kneeling by Wes’s broken body, still as stone, her brows knit together in focus.
Grey followed her gaze and nodded. “Lady Caelute is a Sylvester daughter and spent her life training in all combat arts,” he said. “She is more capable at regen than many a physician.”
The knot in Azalea’s shoulders loosened slightly. She did not know what a Sylvester daughter was, but his assured words gave her some comfort. If Wes had any chance at all, then Karis would see it through.
Azalea’s senses had just settled when Karis’s eyes fluttered open. If she was disoriented by Threading, she didn’t show it. She shifted Wes into her arms and rose to her feet without hesitation.
“See to the town,” she said, turning to Azalea. “The young lord Geppett must find immediate care.”
Azalea bit back a plea. It didn’t matter how badly she wanted to follow, how much she wanted to keep Wes in her sight. She was a Hunter. Her royal duties came first.
She was just snapping her feet together, bringing her hand up to a salute, when Grey tapped his lance on the ground.
“Go,” he said. “I can take command.”
That was unexpected. “Are you certain?”
Grey eyed her. “Captain Geppett may have granted you temporary authority over the starshooter unit, but I am the acting commander of the company itself. You have no place here.”
She decided that he was incapable of just letting himself be nice. “Thank you.”
“When Geppett wakes, of course, I shall still inform his father of this inappropriate fraternization. You can no longer convince me of your apathy—”
Azalea didn’t stay to listen. She fired her windsoles and arced after Karis, leaving Grey to gabble about whatever nonsense he so wished.
All of it paled in comparison to Wes’s life.
Azalea expected Karis to turn for the Geppett family estate, a proud manor sitting on countless acres of verdant land, protectively hedged in by groves of trees. There they would find the Geppett family physician, who would already be deeply familiar with Wes’s biosystem.
Instead, Karis turned for the Hunter’s Guild.
Azalea gave no protest as they burst through the door to the main area. Hunters were already trickling in, bloodied and bruised. Some were unconscious, carried in on the backs of comrades. All tables and chairs had been shoved against the walls, leaving a large, clear path straight to the medical ward.
Karis passed a line of injured Hunters waiting in the hall and headed straight into the head physician’s study. Azalea did not protest that either, even though it was another strike against protocol; Thom’s study was never to be disrupted during a surge. He was often operating, and disrupting an operation was a surefire way to kill or maim his patient.
Thankfully, Thom was not operating when Karis stepped through his door. He was changing the sheets on his table, throwing out linens soaked with blood and a trace of something Azalea did not wish to examine closely.
“Thom,” said Karis.
Thom stopped. His eyes fell on Wes’s broken body, and in a rare display of temper, he swore.
“I’m sorry,” Karis said quietly. “There was no time.”
It was harsh to demand emergency care for an extra individual when injured Hunters were already queuing up, but Thom didn’t waste time complaining. He only nodded at the table, pulling on a clean pair of gloves.
Karis laid Wes on the table. Azalea trailed after her like a little lost wisp.
“Status?” Thom asked.
Karis gave a running list of injuries that never seemed to end. The lines in Thom’s face deepened.
“And his biokey?”
Karis slipped a crumpled scrap of paper into his hand. Azalea blinked. When had she possibly had the time to write it?
“Burn it when you’re finished,” Karis said. She nodded briefly in Azalea’s direction. “She can unlock his inhibitors. Were there any other emergency sites?”
“Better you stick to regen if you’ve got mana left,” Thom said. “We could use the reserve. And Lina put His Highness on call.”
Karis nodded. “Then I will see to the injured.” She turned to the door, crooking a finger at Azalea. “Fairwen. With me.”
Azalea shook her head rapidly, panic erupting. “Please, let me stay,” she said breathlessly.
Karis placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. “I understand how you feel, little flower,” she said, “but there is nothing further you can do. Staying in this room will prove a distraction at best, and an obstacle at worst.”
Azalea should listen to Karis, but she looked at Wes lying there, pale and bloodless, and she couldn’t. She couldn’t walk away and leave him there.
“Please,” she begged. “I must. I—please, I just have to.”
Karis looked to Thom, who was already securing the mana inhibitors. He looked up and frowned lightly. He raised a hand, and Azalea stiffened.
But then he beckoned her closer.
“Then help me sync the inhibitors and secure the restraints,” he said. “We’re in for a long night.”