3. Mythaven (1)

It was a short walk back to the Hunter’s Guild, but every step ached.

Azalea grimaced as she dragged herself down the beaten path, her limbs creaking and her skull pounding. Her manawell was dry as a desert, perfectly matching the parched tongue that stuck to the roof of her mouth.

She hadn’t felt this exhausted since her first day at the Academy, and this mission was supposed to be easy. Those wolves had only been Class One: corrupted beasts that had survived a single Storm. They were hardly the strongest that the wild had to offer. Back at the Guild, Azalea had been regaled with stories of Class Five beasts. Such creatures, her seniors claimed, loomed over the very heavens. Impervious plates covered every inch of pelt and hide. Mana submitted to their will, forming deadly abominations or shaping the ground. Even a single glance into their eyes would turn your body to stone.

Azalea wasn’t sure how much color had been added onto the facts, but she wasn’t keen on finding out. There was a reason why only the top Hunters were assigned to such monstrosities. They were the only ones who could come back alive.

Within the hour, Airlea’s capital rose from the horizon, bold and bright beneath the sparkling sun. Azalea heard the lowing toll of the midday bell, hailing fishing ships from the sea into the bustling port, ushering merchants beneath the wings of the market, and rotating the city watch patrolling the ramparts. Despite the dangers looming at its doorstep, it was a civilization that refused to extinguish, forever blazing with the light of a thousand mana lamps. It was Mythaven, her pride, her duty, and her home.

Azalea passed wide swaths of fields, which were seeded with crops and attended by workers toiling beneath wide-brimmed hats. Such estates were owned and operated by Airlean nobility, responsible for most of the city’s food. While they lacked the safety of the Mythaven wall, set out in the open beneath the ravenous gazes of corrupted creatures, they were far from defenseless. The fields were offered protection by the Royal Hunters—in exchange for the king’s tax, of course. Whether by brigand or beast, ruin would not befall the precious food that grew beneath the soil.

Azalea drew closer to Mythaven’s frontal gatehouse, which commanded both elegance and power in its towering stature, beautiful latticed portcullis, and crowning decorative arches. Two guards stood at attention just outside, paying careful heed to the thin trail of merchants and artisans bustling in and out. One of them snapped his feet together with a rattle of metal and saluted her smartly.

“Lady Hunter Fairwen, ma’am!” the guard said sharply. She flinched a little at his volume, which was much louder than necessary. “Welcome back, ma’am! Good to see you’re not dead, ma’am!”

“Thank you,” she said. She paused, unsure. “It’s good to not be dead.”

“I can imagine that, ma’am,” said the guard solemnly. “Lying in a grave doesn’t sound particularly interesting. Ma’am.”

On that cheery note, he promptly stepped aside, and Azalea passed through.

The little throng of people at the gatehouse parted for her like a creek over stones, murmuring quietly among themselves. A Hunter. In the flesh. A Royal Hunter. Their whispers were reverent, almost fearfully so, and they strained to catch a glimpse of the shield-emblem on her armor.

Azalea tried to pay it little mind. Just weeks ago, she’d been another fumbling student at the Knight’s Academy. Other Hunters deserved such adoration and praise, but not her. She was barely functioning after a basic commission.

Azalea pulled her hood up, lowered her face, and pressed quickly through the gatehouse. The weight of all the eyes on her was suffocating, and if she headed to the Guild from here, it would only get worse; she’d have to trek through Mythaven’s main streets, which were constantly abuzz with crowds of merchants, citizens, and soldiers.

Maybe she could take a little detour. Just this once.

The southeast corner of Mythaven was quieter, quainter—an older part of town where merchants still set up their wagon-stalls in the fountain square, where lines of drying laundry were still strung across rooftops, and where the old gallows had been repurposed into a community stage for public theater. This part of the citadel still bustled with life, but it was a different kind of liveliness than uptown: the warm greetings of families who had known each other for generations, the loud bargaining calls from housewives who knew how to push the worth of vegetables, and the festive plucking of a lutist perched on a nearby barrel, hat laid out for loose change.

Azalea breathed in the briny odor of fresh fish as she passed the wagon-stalls blooming with produce and animal goods. She paused in front of an arrangement of breads and pastries, her eyes drifting past knots of spiced dough to the milk buns nestled in their greased wrappers.

An elderly woman hunched behind the display smiled toothily at her. “Well, if it isn’t Rachel,” she croaked warmly. “Will you be having your milk bun?”

Azalea was, in fact, not Rachel, but she didn’t have the heart to correct Granny Mabel. She’d tried already, about twenty times, but Granny Mabel’s hearing was not particularly accommodating. Eventually, Azalea had given up. There was no harm if her name was a little off anyway.

“Yes, please,” she said, fetching a few coins from the small purse stowed on her belt. She slid them across the counter.

Granny Mabel stashed the coins and pushed not one, but two squashy wrappers at Azalea. “One for your friend,” she said sweetly.

Azalea flushed a little as she accepted the buns. She refused to take anything for free, so she retrieved more coins for Granny Mabel.

A glint entered Granny Mabel’s eye. “One for your mother, too,” she said cheerily, plucking two more milk buns. “And your father.”

Azalea sighed as she pulled out more coins, plopped them on the counter, and ran from Granny Mabel before she could be buried beneath a mountain of milk buns and debt. Granny Mabel was always something of a swindler, a devious mind beneath that sweet, harmless facade. But in a way, Azalea preferred her life like this. In Gallows Square, she was just Azalea, or Aza, or Rachel—a shy girl who could be talked to, swindled, or pulled onto the stage as a last-minute pageant substitute. She knew everyone in this square by name, and they knew hers. It was far preferable to being worshipped with a title she was unfit to carry.

Azalea nibbled on a milk bun as she passed Gallows Square, turning into a cramped row of squat homes with soot-speckled shingled roofs. Sweet vanilla cream bloomed in her mouth, and she hummed a note of appreciation. Questionable business practices aside, Granny Mabel sure knew how to bake.

She stopped in front of a curious house equipped with steam pipes and a smoke-bellowing chimney, pale slats of drywall peeking out from beneath beams of cherry wood. A wooden sign had been staked by the front door, tidy letters etched over its surface and painted white to stand out:

Wes’s Workshop!
WARNING: Lots of weapon security.
Nice people: Beware! Criminals: Come on in!

At the corner of the sign, a doodle of a plushy-faced cat had been scrawled in charcoal pencil—Azalea’s own handiwork. She stepped past the sign and pushed into the workshop with nary a care.

The room that welcomed her was full of quaint, unrecognizable things. Wooden walls were packed with shelves of weathered books and pocket scraps and eclectic tools, and in the center of the room stood a large table, broad and sturdy and lofted over stacks of crates and drawers. Compared to the rest of the room, the table was kept quite orderly. Several strange contraptions lay half-finished on its surface as wooden wireframes and golden joints, sheets of paper laid in neat stacks at their bases. Azalea caught sight of concept sketches etched in charcoal. They were visions of the future: gliders like butterfly wings, a beautifully retrofitted compass that detected mana quartz, a talking parrot made of wood that could convey messages without risking Storm corruption.

She smiled as she drew further into the house. “Wes,” she called. Her throat sounded sandy and hoarse. She cleared it and tried again. “I’m here.”

From behind the jutting wall, a young man emerged, a splash of forest green adding fresh color to his otherwise earthy workman’s uniform. He pulled up his gold-rimmed goggles, face lighting up at the sight of her.

“’Zalie!” he said. He hurriedly set down his wrench and wiped his hand on a tattered rag. “You’re back!”

His sunshine smile eased the tension in Azalea’s shoulders, calming her nerves like a gentle balm. The soft breeze through the far window, the glow of the forge, the warm welcome. This was as close to a home as she’d ever get.

“Hi,” she said shyly. “Am I interrupting anything?”

Wes shook his head. “Actually, you came just in time,” he said eagerly. “Want to try out my new firing cylinder? I promise it won’t explode! This time. Probably.”

The hesitation dropping into his tone didn’t faze Azalea. Testing. Testing was always exciting, at least for her. Wes’s ideas were so strange and inventive that testing his creations was like going on an adventure every time. Even when the trials resulted in failure, the process was always loads of fun.

Azalea eagerly rushed into the workshop, completely forgetting about the state of her body.

Her legs did not.

She barely made it three steps before her feet gave out under her, sending her sprawling to the ground in an unseemly heap.

“’Zalie!” Wes cried, bolting to her side.

Azalea quickly pushed herself upright, wincing at the burning pain in her arms. “I’m alright,” she said. “Just tired.”

“Tired?” Wes shifted his goggles down and frowned at her from behind their colored lenses. “Tired is when you go to bed at four in the morning. This is—your manawell is totally shot. That’s way beyond tired.”

“It’s not so bad.”

“It’s very bad.” He sighed and pulled the goggles up. “Mission?”

“A simple one,” Azalea said. “Just Class One wolves. It should have been easy.” There was a tingle of shame blooming in her chest, and she shrunk a little. A Royal Hunter, overwhelmed by a basic evacuation. Disgraceful.

“Nothing is simple with the Hunter’s Guild,” Wes muttered. “Just varying levels of fatal.”

Azalea pushed her feet against the floor, but her legs refused to move. Apparently, her body had given out. She bit her lip. “Give me a hand?”

“Oh, you,” Wes said resignedly, and he scooped up Azalea without pause, letting her link her fingers around his neck. The added bulk of her accoutrements, with all her strapped sheaths and pauldrons and tassets, couldn’t have made it easy—but at least he was used to working with metal and wood all day. Perhaps this was no different.

He made his way across the room and settled her in a large, plushy chair in the corner of the workshop. Azalea liked this chair. She often nestled in it when she was practicing manacraft, studying a Hunter’s duties, or just keeping Wes company. Maybe that was why he consistently kept it free of ragtag parts, unlike every other surface in the workshop.

Azalea eased into the chair’s plush cushion, watching as Wes stooped down to rummage in the shelving installed under his worktable.

“So how many wolves were there?” he called over his shoulder. “Three? Four?”

Azalea counted in her head. “About twenty, I think.”

Wes fumbled. A small leather case in his hands dropped to the floor with a dull thud. “Twenty?!

“Yes. Oh, but the Garrison assisted. Seven were dead by the time the evacuation concluded.”

“Oh, yes, thirteen wolves by yourself,” Wes muttered. “Piece of cake.”

Azalea frowned. Thirteen was hardly a significant number. She imagined that it was the bare minimum required of a Royal Hunter. They were the top fifty soldiers in the entire country, after all; disposing of Class One corruptions should be akin to disposing of vermin.

“I’ll get better,” she promised. “I’m just a little too weak.”

Wes’s expression cleared for a moment. He leaned down and scooped up the leather case. “It’s not a matter of skill,” he said. “Thirteen wolves for, what, your third mission? They’re insane.”

Azalea didn’t say what she thought—not right then. The Guild wasn’t insane; they were desperate. The kingdom was desperate, barely welded together. And as a Hunter, it was her duty to protect the ones who could not protect themselves. She had an overpowering legacy to live up to.

Wes returned to her and popped open the leather case. It was full of various small appliances like sterile wrappings, a cauterizing iron, and vials full of dried herbs and flowers. He retrieved a pair of light silver bracelets and held them out towards Azalea.

“Wear this,” he said.

Azalea recognized them at once as resistance inhibitors—specially made accessories that lowered a human’s natural resistance to external manacraft. Several creatures, including beasts touched by the Storm and humans, repelled external mana influence. That was why it was nearly impossible to reach into a person and boil the water mana in their blood, detonate the light mana in their eyes, or crush the earth mana in their bones—the fact that those were all war crimes aside. Resistance inhibitors removed that obstacle, and were most often used in the medical field to treat patients.

These inhibitors looked like an expensive model, constructed to be especially slim and elegant. Their price point was accessible only by noble families. She wouldn’t mention that to Wes, though; not when it brought up such sour memories.

Azalea accepted the inhibitors, snapping them lightly over her wrists. She nudged them with her manawell and felt them resonate in response, syncing with her unique manaflow. Good; now they were active.

“Ready,” she said.

Wes knelt in front of her, took her hands, and closed his eyes. Azalea felt a thread of mana pass from the tips of his fingers up her arm, knitting her flesh together with a warm, refreshing touch, like sunshine on mint. She felt the tension bleed out of her shoulders and eased into the chair with a languid sigh.

Her injuries were far from life-threatening, but she hadn’t realized how much they’d hurt until the pain was leeched away.

Wes moved on, soothing the pounding ache in her shoulders. He was thorough and patient as he proceeded down, easing a bruised rib, sealing a bleeding scrape on her knee, then warming her legs, relieving the knots of pain up her calves and thighs. It was blissful, it was lovely, and it was using far too much mana.

“Wes, your manawell,” Azalea urged.

Wes didn’t respond, but his fingers squeezed hers reassuringly as the mana continued to flow. Azalea frowned.

Accelerated regeneration was no simple matter, nor was it mana-efficient. It was an advanced form of Threading—a manacraft known to imbue and manipulate certain objects with magical behaviors. Azalea wasn’t too familiar with Threading. It was by far her weakest craft. And the Academy had breezed over the subject, as was their right; Threading was a preparatory skill and saw very little use in active combat. But they had briefly mentioned the complexities of accelerated regeneration, often referred to simply as regen.

Mainly, Azalea knew that regen involved manually altering the human body with mana. When Wes was closing her wounds, he was, essentially, using his manawell to control her body’s cells in a localized area and magically stimulate the healing process. With the wrong touch, her body would reject the invading mana and throw up a manaimmune response, causing her to seize up, cough, or retch until the corruption had disappeared. And it was far too easy to apply the wrong touch; every human body was unique, carrying different properties, different affinities, and different reactions. All Academy officers had been strictly warned against attempting untrained regen for that exact reason.

Wes, of course, had always been an exception. As a son of the influential Geppett family and a talented Threader, he’d easily earned his emergency care license during their Academy days. He’d been kind enough to patch up Azalea more times than she could count.

“Alright,” Wes murmured, and he finally stepped away. Azalea felt the mana trail in her body dissipate. “I’m no physician, but that’s the best I can do.”

Azalea experimentally rolled her shoulders. It wasn’t really necessary, but she knew that the motion would put Wes at ease. Sure enough, there was no pain. Not even an aching soreness. Wes had been very thorough at the cost of a great deal of mana.

“Thank you,” she said, beaming at him. “It’s perfect. Your practice is paying off.”

A light flush of pleasure bloomed over Wes’s cheeks and crawled up to his ears, which Azalea had always considered rather endearing.

“Well,” he said, “good. Very good.” He cleared his throat. “I’m glad. But don’t get hurt. It seems, uh. Painful.”

Azalea’s mouth pulled upward as Wes released the mana inhibitors and slid them back into the leather case. “I’ll do my best,” she promised.

Wes shouldn’t have been wasting his mana on patching her up, anyway. He wasn’t a physician. His mana was better spent on ingeniment, the science of enchanted engineering. Using Threading to imbue mana quartz with parameters, ingeniators could design just about anything: mana weapons like Azalea’s starshooter, glowing lamps and light bridges, wind-powered galleons. It was the perfect occupation for a brilliant, patient boy like Wes.

“Now that I’m a Hunter, I have access to the Guild’s physician,” Azalea offered. “I don’t have to bother you anymore.”

Then she almost jumped. The Guild. The guildmaster would be expecting her report. She was already terribly late.

“Oh, you don’t have to worry about”—Wes was saying, but Azalea was already on her feet, digging into her pockets until she found the squashy milk buns, and—

“Here, from Granny Mabel!” she called, flinging two buns at Wes. The last one she kept for herself.

“Oh! Thanks,” Wes blurted, catching one of the buns against his chest. The other hit him squarely in the face. “Wait, two? Did she scam you agai—”

“Sorry, Wes, I have to go! See you later!”

A red blur tore out of the workshop. The door slammed shut, rattling the books on his shelves and the wireframes on his worktable. Wes stood there alone, still clutching a milk bun to his chest.

“Have a nice day,” he mumbled. He pressed a palm to his cheek with a sigh. It was still flushed warm.

When Azalea stepped back into Gallows Square, dark clouds were gathering overhead. The traces were small—lazy little wisps bundling up like dust bunnies above the hazy glow of the mana lamps—but she still frowned. The sight made her skin prickle in a way that ordinary rain clouds never did.

Something’s strange with those clouds, whispered her mind, a ghost, a memory. Do you feel it, ’Zalie?

Azalea adjusted the starshooter’s strap on her shoulder and walked on, melting into the bustling streets of Mythaven.

The Guild awaited her.

 

WES Geppetto / Pinocchio

An earnest inventor with a heart of gold, Wes pulls out all the stops to keep his dearest childhood friend Azalea alive.