30. Limbo


Updating from a hotel this week, so apologies for any formatting errors! I’ll fix them when I’m back next week :)

When Azalea was six, Azure came down with the fever.

She could still remember every detail in excruciating clarity. The thick weight of fear in the room, the encroaching darkness from the outside night, the rancid smell of sick in a bedside bucket. Sweat-soaked, trembling like a leaf, and wan as a sheet, Azure already looked halfway dead.

Their ma tirelessly stooped over the pestle all day, grinding herbs for a medicinal poultice. Their da roamed the woods beneath the scant moonlight, gathering more clean, cool water from the nearby stream.

And still, despite their efforts, Azure’s health continued to decline until he was motionless beneath that thick pile of blankets, quiet and still.

Azalea was scared that he’d drift away in the middle of the night, that the shadows outside the windows would steal him under the earth. So she stood in the corner and watched. She kept her eyes on Azure for minutes, then hours, then until dawn. She watched as their ma dozed off at the table in exhaustion. She watched as their da returned and scooped cold water over Azure’s forehead, brushing it away with a worn rag. She watched like a statue, nearly unblinking. It had been a certain kind of hell, waiting and watching with nothing she could do. But it would have been worse to fall asleep, only to wake up with the world forever changed.

This was no different.

Azalea watched silently, perched in the corner out of Thom’s way, as Wes underwent treatment. She did not dare to close her eyes or cover her ears. She watched as Thom brought Wes under with a touch, lulling him into a dreamless sleep, and she listened as he flared mana and wrenched Wes’s shoulder with a sickening crackle of bone.

She could not risk distracting Thom or berating him for his harsher methods. It was easy to see that Wes’s condition was still critical, and every second counted. Every move had to be at optimal efficiency. At least Wes was not awake to bear it.

But every noise his body made dug at her chest like a pick, shattered a little corner of her that she hadn’t known was there. Her thoughts ran wild and rampant in the dark, searching fervently for a scapegoat.

If Lady Karis had been faster. If Lord Geppett hadn’t deployed his son. No, Wes only ran out of mana because he had to heal my leg. Because I was weak. If I had listened to Nicolina. If I had told her that Grimwall, not Maple Point, was a critical zone…

Her fault. It was her fault that Wes lay here half-dead. She hadn’t been strong enough, fast enough. Always weak, always scared. Always getting other people to die in her stead.

Azalea, where’s your brother?

A tiny sob rattled from Azalea’s chest. She drew up her knees and linked her arms in a loose ring around her legs.

I’m sorry, Wes, she pleaded. You should have had a better Hunter. A better friend. I’m sorry.

She tried to keep awake, but exhaustion crept on her. She drifted away into the dark night, rain pattering softly on the windows.

A knot was beginning to form at the base of Karis’s neck, but she shook it away. She knew that she would feel much worse before the night was over.

The guild infirmary was an expansive room lined with wooden beds, open windows along one wall ushering some circulation into the stuffy air. Yet it was already overcrowded. Guild physicians scuttled between the beds, jars of poultices and tubs of herbs in hand. Mana economy was always a concern on high-traffic nights, so accelerated regen was reserved for critical wounds or emergency cases. Nicolina had even enlisted extra help this night; there were physicians sporting Second Class regen license pins that Karis did not recognize, likely comprised of the reserve force, medically inclined Supports, and a few individual contractors. This surge had been fast and short, but brutal, requiring every pair of able hands.

Karis tallied again. Five Hunters were still absent. One was the Third Hunter and crown prince, who was likely cleaning up the lingering dregs of any corruptions. But the remaining four…It had been hours since the surge had concluded, and still, there was no sign of them.

And one of the absentees was the illustrious First Hunter.

Karis was just about to slip into Nicolina’s study to make an inquiry when the door to the guild opened. Halcyon Yuden stumbled in a mess of bloodstained robes, leaning heavily on his glaive.

The pressure melted from Karis’s shoulders. She exhaled as she rose to meet him, her steps trim and refined.

He was in a bad way. Blood caked on his brow, limping, the left seam of his tunic shredded. He was plastering a fabric bandage firmly to his side. His blue eyes were stormy and glazed, unfocused.

“Status?” Karis demanded.

Halcyon shook his head. “I’ll live. Focus on the others.”

It had been a long time since she had heard him so bone-deep tired, his voice low and gravelly, lined with pain and raw with exhaustion. He had pushed himself beyond his limits this time. But if his injuries did not require immediate attention, then he would have to bear with them. Resources at the medical ward were too scarce.

Karis’s lips thinned, but she nodded. “Bed rest, then. I’ll see to you later.”

Take your time, he usually said. But not tonight. He slumped wordlessly into the nearest sickbed and stared into nothingness. She knew that look well: the look of somebody doing their damndest not to pass out cold.

It took longer to get to Halcyon than she wanted. Jackal had shattered ribs that pierced her lungs, on death’s door when Loff brought her in. Then a biokey error sent another Hunter into convulsions, and Karis jumped in to calm his system. By the time she reached Halcyon, he looked just about ready to faint—which would have been humorous in any other situation.

“Where?” she asked, snapping the mana inhibitors around his wrists.

He glanced at the silver bangles. “Don’t have to,” he said laboriously. “Poultices will do.”

“Where?” she repeated.

He gave in and told her. Fractured collarbone, gash in his left side, a half-dozen sprains along his limbs. He did not even include his lingering injuries from the encounter with the Whisperer—compounding overburn, fading concussion, and healing ribs.

What an absolute fool.

Karis did not ask for his biokey and Halcyon did not provide it. She knew a few Hunter biokeys by heart, and his was one of them. She closed her eyes and sunk into his plait, targeting the wound in his side first. It was concerningly deep, barely held at bay by the bandage plastered to his skin.

“This missed your spleen by an inch,” she said disapprovingly.

“Fancy that,” he said. “A whole inch.”

She shook her head and returned to her work, knitting together skin and muscle. Technically, Halcyon’s injuries were not critical enough to warrant regen. He would heal naturally with poultices and his recovering manawell. But the process would take a significant amount of time, and with how Nicolina liked to run the top Hunters ragged, he didn’t have time to spare. That was a ripple effect that Nicolina never truly understood: Halcyon had only been wounded because he’d come into the surge already injured. If he had been unhurt, he would still be in top condition. Instead, his injuries would beget mistakes, which would beget more injuries, all until his body could no longer sustain him and he died.

Better to heal him now than bury him later, Karis thought. She should have done so before the surge, but fear of a Class Five appearance had kept her from offering to expend any mana.

Karis moved on and mended Halcyon’s collarbone before she opened her eyes. She blinked for a moment past the disorienting sway, and found Halcyon holding one of the tankards from the taproom, filled with a rich, honey-colored tea.

“What is that?” Karis asked, arching a brow.

Halcyon thrust the tankard toward her. “Take a break,” he said. “You’ve been Threading too long. You’ll scramble your brain.”

She glanced at the tea. It was freshly brewed, the aroma fruity and delicate. “You couldn’t have prepared this,” she said, puzzled. She had been Threading his plait. He would have been immobile.

“Nurse got it for you,” Halcyon said.

“Hm,” Karis said, because that explanation made no sense. Thom’s team of physicians were overloaded with work. They hardly had the time to see to their patients’ every need, much less anticipate the inclinations of their colleagues. More likely, Halcyon had asked for the tea himself.

But she was rather thirsty and her eyelids were feeling heavy, so she did not dispute. She accepted the tankard and sipped. The tea contrasted a mature flavor with mild sweetness and a generous dollop of cream, just the way she liked it.

“Hm,” Karis said again. The nurses definitely did not know her favorite way to take tea.

“Better?” Halcyon asked.

Karis decided not to press the issue. It had been, frankly, just what she needed—a lift of sweetness to bring the slightest spring in her step. For now, no matter how dark the night, she could keep going.

“Yes,” she said. “Thank you.”

Halcyon nodded and looked vaguely satisfied.

Karis went back into Halcyon’s plait. She continued patching his ribs, but decided to leave the lighter injuries for poultices. She retrieved a jar of numbroot salve and fresh bandages while Halcyon stripped his shirt and rolled up the hem of his pants, revealing the bruises and scrapes that mottled the rigid expanse of bronze skin.

“What happened?” Karis asked as she settled behind him.

“What do you mean?” he said.

She dipped her hand in a jar of numbroot salve and lathered it over a bruise on his neck. His skin was hot against her fingers. “You swapped with Fairwen to the Lewis estate. There should have been nothing worse than Twos. Were there complications?”

He eased into her touch. “No. The estate was cleared within the hour.”

He paused.

“So I went somewhere else,” he admitted.

Karis barely withheld the urge to slap him on a very injured shoulder. “Hal.”

“There was a herd of wild boar coming out of the Talebloom,” he said. “Twos and a Three. Would’ve hit an undefended village.”

“A problem that is Nicolina’s, not yours.” She sat back and regarded him with a stern look. “You don’t seem to realize how foolhardy it is to take on assignments with an empty manawell.”

He avoided her gaze. “At least it was easier than Grimwall.”

Karis paused at that. If Halcyon had swapped assignments with Azalea, then he probably felt, in some way, responsible for the state of the young Hunter and her incapacitated Support.

“It’s hardly your fault,” Karis said primly, returning to the numbroot salve. She applied a layer to a swelling bruise on his shoulderblade. “No one could have predicted the critical zone to be Grimwall.”

“She knew.”

“She was worried because her Support was there. That is a key difference.”

Halcyon said nothing for a long moment. He released a tight breath as Karis rubbed salve over irritated teeth marks on his arm.

“I encouraged her to do it,” he finally said. “To take Grimwall.” His fingers pressed at his temples. “I told Nicolina to switch us.”

Karis’s hands paused. Ah. So therein lay the guilt.

“A recruit shouldn’t have to handle a critical zone,” Halcyon said. “Or shoulder the burdens that came after.”

Her lips thinned. “And you should have, thus injured?”

“I might have figured something out.”

Karis slowly pulled back her hands and settled them in her lap. “You would have summoned a flood despite your overburn,” she said softly. “You would have drowned every last corruption. And you would have killed yourself to do it.”

Halcyon avoided her gaze. “No one else would have died.”

“But they would have.” She dipped a rag into water and washed out the blood caking his side. “The bill would come later. In a week, say, with the Storm’s final strike. A Five would arise. Perhaps two. And in the moment when Airlea needed her First Hunter most, he would not be present.”

Halcyon stared at her for a moment.

“What?” Karis said.

He turned his gaze forward again. “Was that meant to comfort me or condemn me?”

“How did you take it?”

He chuckled dryly. “It was comforting. I’m not sure if that’s what you intended.”

She decided not to respond either way. He could interpret her words however he so pleased.

It took a few minutes to salve the remaining wounds, and another few to dress them. When Karis was finished, she wasted no time. She rose to her feet and gathered the salve, rag, and inhibitors.

“Rest for at least two days,” she instructed. “Do not move even a finger out of this sickbed. I will cut it off.”

Halcyon’s mouth turned upward. There was some color back in his face and light back in his eyes.

“Thank you,” he said, meeting her gaze.

They were heartfelt words, but Karis could not accept them, nor could she accept the slight stutter in her pulse, the little unanswered question in her mind.

She cleared her throat and turned to leave. “Then don’t get hurt,” she said. “It expends my mana.”

Azalea’s eyes peeled open to a blurry world of white sheep and blue seas. Then her vision cleared, and the sheep turned into a young woman dressed in medical blue, a white kerchief keeping back her hair. No doubt a reserve physician, hired as an extra hand for the surge.

Azalea took a moment to absorb her surroundings. At some point in the night, Wes had been moved, and her with him. They were now in a small, windowless room, equipped with a single bed, stool, and nightstand. From the wooden flooring to the furniture to the trappings of the bed, everything was a shade of brown, bland and inoffensive. Azalea recognized the room at once: it was one of three small quarantines in the medical ward, intended for patients who were suffering from particularly contagious diseases or bouts of temporary insanity. Hunters called them madrooms.

For a moment, Azalea wondered why the physicians had moved someone as harmless as Wes to a madroom, but the answer came to her just as quickly. Of course the Guild could not keep a noble’s son in an overcrowded infirmary. The aristocracy would be up in arms at the impropriety, the insult. Better for him to have private lodgings, even if it was a madroom.

“You must eat something and take some liquids,” the physician said, shifting closer. She was holding a wooden cup of water and a small plate of salted crackers.

Azalea had no appetite, but she forced the crackers down and drank the full cup of water. Even those few crumbs made her belly feel swollen.

“Thank you,” she rasped. She nodded to where Wes lay in the bed. “How is he?”

The physician glanced over, and a shadow touched her gaze. “He is out of critical condition,” she said.

There was more to the story, and Azalea knew it. But the physician had no time to elaborate. A medical assistant darted into the room and called for her—the Forty-First Hunter was vomiting blood—and in the blink of an eye, the physician was gone.

Azalea shuffled over to Wes’s side and studied his face. His skin was pallid and cold, but washed clean. He was peaceful in sleep, the blankets rising and falling with each deep breath. She ran a finger over his eyelid and traced the line of his jaw.

He is alive. That was what mattered. Complications would follow, but in the end, all she wanted was for him to be safe.

Azalea did not expect Wes to startle awake at her touch, the bedframe rattling as his legs jerked abruptly. She nearly jumped as his eyes feverishly roved the room, still coated with the film of sleep.

“Back,” he gasped. He coughed hard, and flecks of blood dotted Azalea’s hand. “Fall back. We can’t…I can’t…”

Azalea brushed back the sweat-caked strands of hair clinging onto his forehead. “I’m here,” she said, heart in her throat. “Wes, I’m here. You’re safe. It’s alright.”

“’Zalie,” Wes breathed, and he stilled. His body was still taut, but at least he’d stopped moving. “You’re…alive? What…where…”

“Don’t worry about it, Wes. Just rest.”

“The company.” He breathed in, the sound wet and bloody and stuttering, but his eyes were fixed on her. “Jellamie. Lars. Grey. Are they—”

“Later, Wes.” Her eyes stung with tears. “It will be alright. Please, just rest.”

His eyelids fluttered, and she knew he was losing consciousness. He could have asked her any of a thousand things. He could have asked her for the world, and she would have done her best to give it to him.

Instead he said: “Sing something.”

Azalea laughed wetly. She had sung to herself as a child, whether skipping down the forest path with wildflowers in hand, or spinning around with her ma while they waited for bread to rise in the oven. But as she had aged, she’d found less and less reason to sing. Sometimes she had hummed while baking or studying with Wes, and that was the extent of it.

But she wouldn’t deny him anything. She said: “Of course.”

She sang quietly, an old tune, a morbid but beautiful folk song from Lumber’s Hollow. Sleep, my darling, while the big bad wolf prowls. Sleep through its scowls, and every one of its howls. Sleep without a peep, and don’t you dare dream—for a dreamless sleep is the last you will glean.

She expected to find Wes asleep when she finished, but he was watching her intently, half-lidded gaze warm and confident, like he was watching the sun rise on the first day of spring, a promise of a gentler tomorrow.

“There you are.” The breath was gone from his lungs, each word barely there. “A firebolt. Always lighting the way.”

His eyes pulled to a close. Then he was still.

“Wes,” Azalea called hoarsely. She felt for his neck. No pulse. “Wes!

The door flung open and Thom bolted in, coat flapping around his legs. Azalea scrambled away so he could fasten the mana inhibitors, reach into the plait, do what he did best. She helped him unlock the inhibitors, then dropped back on her heels, staring numbly at the specks of blood on her hands.

A firebolt.

She let Wes’s voice carve a scar in her heart. She let it ache.

Always lighting the way.

What had made him say such a thing after she’d failed at Grimwall? What had he seen while she’d sat there, singing her silly little village song? Had he looked at her tear-stained cheeks and seen a hero? Had he looked at her shabby, disarrayed appearance and seen an angel?

Oh, Wes, Azalea thought miserably. You’ve always thought too highly of me.

An eternity seemed to pass before Thom turned to her and gestured her over. Azalea sprinted to Wes’s side and nearly tripped over his bed.

“Easy,” Thom said, gripping her shoulder. “He’ll be alright.”

“But his pulse…”

“Arrhythmia is a common symptom of overburn,” he explained. “It was only severe because of all the other damage that his plait has sustained.”

Azalea exhaled heavily, her eyes and lungs burning. Alive. Wes would live. Wes would be alright.

“Is there anything I can do?” she pleaded. “Anything.” Mythics, she’d hunt a Class Five at this very moment if he told her to.

Thom smiled gently. “The worst is over. All that’s left is to wait for him.”

“Wait?” Azalea echoed.

Thom nodded. “Mainly, he needs rest. The recovery process can take anywhere from three days to ten months.”

“Ten—” Azalea choked back the strident sound that had torn out of her throat.

“I expect his recovery will be swifter than that,” Thom said. “He’s young, strong, healthy, and highly capable in manacraft. His manawell is probably repairing him as we speak.”

Azalea slumped on the stool at Wes’s bedside. Ten months. He had lived, but at the cost of so much time. Was that why the nurse had hesitated to say more?

Thom’s gaze was soft with pity. “As long as he stays within the capital, he’ll be safe.”

“No,” Azalea murmured.

Thom glanced at her inquiringly, but Azalea said nothing more. She didn’t speak the dreadful knowledge that was bubbling up in her, slowly, a simmering pot finally coming to a full boil.

Mythaven would not be safe. Not with the Storm looming overhead. This surge had struck at the Midsummer Parallel, terrifyingly close to the heart of the nation. The Hunters and the National Garrison and the aristocracy’s private companies had not been enough to defend it. Airlea was not—and could not be—made secure.

And if Azalea could not run from the danger, if she could not take Wes from it, then there was only one thing left to do.

Light the way.

She pressed her lips to Wes’s hand and closed her eyes. Deep inside, her heart hummed, vibrant and waiting.

Even if it means I must burn.