47. Red Dawn
Echo woke to a dawn that smelled like blood.
The cloying, fetid scent swelled in his nostrils, and he nearly choked as he kicked the blankets from his bedding, struggling to breathe. The harsh movement unbalanced him and he tipped over the bed, falling hard to the floor. The odor flayed mercilessly at his throat. For one terrifying moment, he wondered if this was the inelegant way he would pass on: in agony, strangling on absolutely nothing. An embarrassing way to die, even by his standards.
His shaking hand clawed up to his bedside table, fingers clutching a small glass vial. He quickly popped the cap and downed the shimmering, blue-silver liquid within. It tasted pungent and prickly, like tiny thorns scraping at the inside of his throat—but still, he forced himself to swallow.
The relief was nearly immediate. He could feel the poison seep into his veins and drag down his manawell, dulling his senses. Gradually, the slick sensation of blood drained from his lungs until he was left on the floor, wheezing for breath, shaking and weak as a newborn.
Damn this Sense, he thought idly. It was a useful skill for tracking, no doubt, but sometimes he swore it had a mind of its own. In such times, he had grown dependent on faelock—a mana-inhibiting herb found in the Talebloom, classified as a mild poison. Most people despised faelock for the peculiar way it numbed the manawell, likening the sensation to losing a limb. But that was the very reason Echo needed it. At least Heidi did not extort him for the draughts, as many apothecaries within the city might have.
The door to Echo’s room opened. It was a magnificent door, ivory-and-ebony with bronze paint decorating the fringes, dressing the magnificent room of Lord Magnum Valence’s bedchambers. But that was of little consequence compared to the woman who stepped through it, the folds of an elegant tea dress fluttering behind her. With piercing teal eyes and sleek mauve hair that fell perfectly straight down her back, she made for quite an intimidating sight.
“I thought I heard some commotion,” said the woman, staring at where he lay on the floor, twisted up in silk sheets and quill comforters.
He held up his hand and shot a cold look in her direction, as if daring her to treat him like an invalid. “I’m fine, Marin.”
“Fine lying worn out on the floor like an old carpet. Yes, that much is obvious.”
“A particularly handsome old carpet, you have to admit.”
“Handsome or not, all old carpets are burned.” Marin waited for him to rise. When he did not, she only raised a monocle and turned her gaze to a stack of papers nestled in her arm. “I assume this is a premonition that the Storm will be especially severe.”
“One could say that,” Echo said. He should have pulled himself up so he didn’t look weak, but he remained lying flat on his back like a starfish. The rugs in the Valence estate were surprisingly comfortable.
“Then as House Valence has restored enough capital to contribute a fighting force,” Marin said, “I put forth the suggestion to dispatch a company under the Valence name to reinforce one of the inland towns. If not for any sense of loyalty or nationalism, then at least to further the Valence influence among the nobility.”
Echo raised his head. “We have a soldier’s company?”
“You approved it with your own sign and seal several months ago,” Marin reminded.
“Curious. I don’t remember such a thing.”
“You remember little about the estate. Are you going to keep lying on the floor?”
He wiggled his arms and legs like a child. “I am admiring my fine taste in rugs.”
“I bought that rug.”
“Then I am admiring my fine taste in stewards.” For Marin Telliore was a fine one indeed. As a fellow orphan from Aster Carmine’s Blessed Home, she’d practically been a sister to him. He would forever be grateful that she had accepted his offer of authority over the Valence estate, giving him the freedom to remain a mercenary. He had never liked the snooty, highbrow world of endless prattle and boring operas and drinking from overpriced teacups with raised pinkies. He preferred to make his deals in shady back alleys with a knife, not beneath flower garlands with a poisoned smile.
Marin Telliore, his very fine steward, only sighed. “I need a decision, not flattery. The deadliest Storm the world has ever known is about to strike. What would you have me do?”
Echo looked at the red dawn rising outside the window, searing and thirsty. The pigment of it was rich with the promise of spilled blood. He had stood back and watched in silence for many years, letting that red dawn claim more and more lives until it bled across the entire sky.
“Do as you see fit,” he said distantly. He kicked to his feet and snapped up his trusty grey-green traveling cloak. “I have other matters to see to.”
He was about to slide into the outdoors, but Marin’s voice stopped him. “You would not lead the company yourself?”
“Why would I?”
“Well, it is nearly the end of the world. A decent person would consider contributing to man’s last stand.”
“How inconvenient. For the decent people of the world.” Perched on the windowsill between the safety of his bedchambers and a three-story fall outside, Echo crossed his legs and leaned his chin on his hands indulgently.
“Quite.” Marin eyed him warily. “You don’t count yourself as one of them?”
“Why, do you smell weakness? Shall I slaughter some innocent orphans for your peace of mind?”
“Slaughtering orphans would put you at no advantage. At least slaughter somebody of status.”
He snorted. “Words to live by.”
“Then before you go off and throw away your life doing whatever new foolishness you’ve invented, bequeath the estate to my name,” Marin said smartly, brandishing a stack of papers. “You’ve barely lifted a finger for the place, anyway.”
Echo barked out a laugh. “And here I thought you were concerned for my wellbeing and personal growth.”
“I am concerned for the wellbeing and growth of your assets, as you’ve hired me to do.”
“Yes,” Echo said softly. “Hired. That’s correct.” He took in her angular, unforgiving face, so very familiar and endearing to him. How odd. Somewhere along the line, he’d grown to consider her family. But apparently, that was all his own delusion; for Marin, their relationship had been purely transactional, a symbiotic means to a shared end.
Ironic, really. He treated everybody else the same as she did, and yet now he found himself craving something different. Perhaps he would make for a family man yet.
Marin, who had been watching his face, frowned lightly. “Well?”
He laughed dryly and pulled his hood over his head. “My dearest Marin, were I to sign the estate to you, there would be no further reason for you to keep me alive.”
There was no flicker of dismay, or even surprise, on her face. She only nodded. “Then what will you do?”
Echo’s smile widened to mask the sting in his chest. “Oh, who knows,” he said. “Something that will disappoint you, I’m sure.”
He leaned back and fell out of the window, racing to the courtyard below.
Wes woke to the fragrance of hearty stew and baking bread.
He pulled himself out of the bed he’d been provided—a humble floor cot with worn twill blankets, much like the one at his workshop. It was almost enough to lull him into a drowsy, peaceful complacency, as if war was not crouching at the doorstep and waiting to strike.
Wes dressed quickly and moved out into the main room, where the town-reeve’s family was bustling around a large, rustic table. The children, small and brimming with nervous energy from their boots to the tips of their bouncy curls, were helping their mother serve breakfast, while the adults sat at a whetstone just outside, sharpening their knives and pickaxes. Wes also recognized a few standard-issue Garrison spears and breathed a small sigh of relief. More troops and supplies must have arrived in the night.
Wes looked around for something to occupy his hands, but then the town-reeve’s wife, who was surveying the cookpot, caught sight of him.
“Fair morning, young one,” she said, though she couldn’t have been more than a few years his senior. “Have a seat. Make sure to eat your fill.”
“Any way I can help?” Wes ventured.
“Nonsense,” she said with a gentle click of her tongue. “You’re a guest. And a city boy. Wouldn’t know a field mouse from an adder if it bit you.”
Wes paused, vaguely wondering whether to feel insulted or not. Perhaps that was merely an idiom for being new to a place, and not knowing one’s bearings or the local customs. Which would only be the truth.
He decided to simply take a seat. Across from him sat the oldest of the children—Zack, if he remembered correctly. The lively boy beamed eagerly the moment he saw Wes.
“Two Hunters showed up today,” Zack said excitedly. “Did you see them?”
There was a hollow ache like a pit in Wes’s chest. He tried to shrug it away. “I haven’t.”
“They’re the first two Hunters, I think. Milady Caelute and Milord Yuden. I heard they’re really, really strong.”
“I see,” said Wes carefully. Karis’s harsh and unsettling gaze flashed before his eyes and he fought the instinctive urge to flinch. Still, her presence was welcome. They needed her strength now more than ever.
“Do y’have a favorite Hunter?” said Zack. He plowed on before Wes had a chance to respond. “Mine’s the Scarlet Rider! Milady—Fairwen, I think? She’s the best. She’s pretty new, but she saved our whole village! Isn’t that amazing?”
Wes jolted. “The—the Scarlet Rider?” he repeated slowly.
Zack nodded, his eyes vibrant and alight. “Uh-huh. ‘Cus of the red cape, I think. So cool and, and so strong…just like an Aster. I’m gonna marry her!”
He was cuffed lightly over the head by his mother, who looked at him sternly. “You’re not marrying anyone, skinny as that. Eat up already, you tiny bean.” But her eyes were twinkling. She set two bowls of hearty stew in front of them—mutton, potatoes, and leeks with a sprinkle of spices and pepper, served with oil-crisped flatbread and churned butter.
Wes ate silently, trying to enjoy what he could of the food. A brutal concoction of heavy grief, icy shock, and warm affection had numbed his palate. Azalea had been a hero to these young boys and girls. Of course she had. He only wished she’d been around to see their regard for her, to gain some confidence in who she was. But of course, it was too late.
Zack seemed to notice his despondency and nudged his foot from under the table. “Hey, it’s okay,” he said innocently. “You’ll see her soon.”
Wes’s head shot up, an ominous chill trickling down his back. “What?”
“I’m good at reading faces,” Zack said proudly. “I betcha thinking about your own wife, huh? She’s waiting for you. That’s why we’re gonna win.”
Wes strangled a wry laugh into a manageable smile. Perhaps Azalea was watching and waiting, in her own way. He could easily imagine her at his side, urging him on with those soft, blazing eyes, guiding his steps.
“That’s a weight to a smile if I’ve ever seen it, child,” came a rasp to his right.
Wes turned to face an elderly woman bent over a gambeson, mending it by embroidering red poppies over the seam. Her wrinkled fingers were deft, her steel-blue eyes fixed with an unbending glimmer.
“Surprised?” she said, smiling.
I didn’t think that the children and elderly would stay, Wes nearly admitted. Prince Sethis had taken the evacuation call days ago, but apparently, not one of the villagers had budged an inch. Wes wasn’t sure whether to count it as bravery or folly.
He searched for a diplomatic answer, but the elder read him easily. She set down the gambeson and looked right at him.
“We will not run,” she said, her voice withered, yet strong, like the knots of a willow tree. “I have raised three sons in this town. They have taken wives. Those wives have born sons, who have taken wives of their own. Their houses we built with our own hands, stone by stone. This is our land and our family, young one. It is our fight as well.”
Her words resounded like a drum deep in his bones. Wes looked out the window and saw, etched on the face of every villager, that same resolute, unshakable will. This was not a people who would rout. They would fight to the very last, until every one of them was nothing but ash on the wind.
“Your hands look ill to be idle,” the elder said, watching his face. “Are you fond of any handiwork?”
Wes blinked and turned back to her. How odd to be lectured just like any other village child. And yet, he found he wasn’t opposed to it.
“I can whittle,” he said.
“Very good,” said the elder. She materialized—out of nowhere, he swore—a small block of soft wood and an angled knife. “Then you can make some quick carvings.”
“What for?” he said, surprised. It seemed like futile work with doom so close at hand.
“For the graves,” said the elder simply. She returned to her gambeson. “It will be good to set them at the burial places as a tribute.”
Wes’s mouth ran dry. His hands moved before his mind did, holding the block firmly with his right, and chiseling in swift, sure strokes with his left. He already knew what his hands were creating. Soft, ruffled petals. Nestling leaves. Long notches to represent the delicate stamen. He bit his tongue hard, and his eyes threatened to burn.
The elder peered over at his handiwork. “That’s a pretty posy you’ve got there, son,” she said. “What kind is it?”
Dainty in appearance and selective in their environment, yet hardy in adversity when least expected. Slow in growth, yet long-lasting. A beautiful blossom with hidden toxins in its leaves, a strength invisible to all.
“Azalea flowers,” said Wes. “They’re azalea flowers.”
Nicolina woke with a crick in her neck and an ache deep in her bones.
She raised her head, grimacing at the pain that lanced down her spine. She’d fallen asleep at her desk, far from the comfort of her bed. Ink blotted in a puddle under her hand, staining through what had once been a Garrison dispatch request. She sighed and crumpled it, lobbing it into the last embers of the hearth.
Asters know I’m getting too old for this, she mused. She needed a protégée to take up the mantle after her, and soon. Maybe if they survived this Storm. Azalea Fairwen would have made for a suitable candidate with her attention to detail and staunch loyalty. A pity she had decided to throw it all away by flinging herself into the Range.
The door to the study creaked open, and Nicolina raised her head. The loyal doctor Thomys Privalt and his sister Sasha stepped into the room. Thom’s brows were drawn and Sasha was blinking sleepily. Clearly, neither of them had found any meaningful rest.
“All supplies are stocked and the reserve physicians are arriving at midday,” said Thom. He glanced uneasily at the red sky beyond the window. “I would have preferred to establish an emergency clinic further north. It’ll be too late if any of the injured manage to actually reach us.”
Even by windsoles, the trip was certainly was too far, and Nicolina felt a sting of pity—not just for the Hunters who would have to drag themselves back injured, but Thom, whose compassion was often more of a burden than an asset.
“We’ll just have to make do,” Nicolina said. “A northern epicenter doesn’t mean we can leave central undefended.”
Thom only sighed.
“Oh, I’m sure it’ll be fine,” Sasha said with a yawn. “There’s no way that a Storm can be equally strong across the country. That’s like trying to split a batch of cookies to fill up two children, instead of giving them a batch each.”
“Cookies, the spitting image of leylines,” said Nicolina.
“Hey, I’m just making sense,” Sasha said defensively.
Nicolina chose to say nothing. Not that the Observatorium had already measured the energy index through the leylines. Not that factually speaking, they were about to witness a phenomenon as strong as the Battle of Havenport. No, she would say none of it. In the bleakness of the red dawn, she craved the spark of innocence and levity that Sasha could bring. Better not to squash the tiny bit of light left in the world.
Better to hope, instead, that leylines were just like cookies.
Azalea woke to a sky that seemed to weep like an open wound.
She rubbed the fatigue from her eyes, her veins abuzz with nerves. She should have rested more, but she simply could not. She had tossed and turned without pause, her skin on fire from her scalp to the tips of her toes.
Azure was different too. He was already on his feet and crouched outside the cavern’s mouth. The muscles of his back and neck were knotted up, tense with anticipation, and there was an unusual sheen to his eyes like the reflective wax of a lake.
“Tonight,” he said distantly. He raised his head toward the sky, as if basking in its crimson rays. “The beast rears its head.”
Azalea’s pulse throttled and she gripped her starshooter. “The Storm?”
“Yes.” A low rumble came from his chest, and it took Azalea a moment to realize he was laughing. “At last, an opportunity for vengeance. I am glad you have manifested to witness justice rendered, ’Zalie.”
His cryptic words served to do nothing but unsettle her. “What do you mean?”
“When the time comes, you will see,” he said. He smiled without amusement. “I will honor the last rites.”
Last rites. Vengeance. Azalea shivered and gripped her starshooter closer. She didn’t like to see this side of Azure—feral and morbid, not only willing to kill and destroy, but eager to do so. But there had been loyalty and heroism in him, too, and she’d caught echoes of it during their time at the caves. She would not let him lose it.
“If you’re going to fight,” she said softly, turning to look right at him, “why not fight with me? We can protect Airlea together.”
Azure stopped and stared at her. The moments stretched on and on until they felt cold and empty, like looking up into the frozen, lovely glitter of the night sky.
Finally he spoke, in a voice softer than she had ever heard from him. “What has Airlea done for us?”
Icy shock raced through Azalea’s blood. She stared at him with every word stolen from her tongue. Did he truly feel not even a shred of allegiance for the country and the family that had birthed him? Was he rid of all sense of gratitude, of affection?
It was all so much worse than she ever thought it would be.
“You…turned your back on your own home?” she whispered. “On your people?” On me and Ma and Da?
Azure blinked languidly. “My home was razed to the ground, its people scattered and slaughtered like vermin. As for my country…what did it do for one of its children, stranded in a world of ice amidst beasts?”
His past was too easy for Azalea to picture. A lonely, frightened boy, bruised and broken from falling into an abyss, miraculously survived, yet surrounded by primal rage and hostility. No da to help him, no Hunter to save him. Nothing to trust but his own strength. Anyone lesser would have died that day. Perhaps, in a way, someone still had.
“You were alone?” Azalea said, voice shaking. “For that long?”
Azure looked off silently. Azalea wondered if there were memories too terrible for even him to recall.
“The bottom of the chasm where I fell,” he said eventually, “was not hard ground, but a river. A river of something that overflowed with raw, unfettered power. A leyline, perhaps, or the lifeblood of the Storm. It boiled my blood. Twisted my bones into something else. Since then…well, you have seen it. My manawell is nearly bottomless, and if a blow does not kill me, I appear to regenerate from any—are you crying?”
Azalea felt the moisture speckling on her cheeks, threatening to freeze in the frosty winds. So much terrible, heartwrenching pain for a small child to go through.
“It…it must have hurt,” she mumbled, wiping quickly at her face.
“Everything. All of it.”
Azure silently stared at the ground. It was a long moment before he spoke again.
“A brood-mother chanced upon my silent husk at the foot of the Sovendyret,” he murmured. “Perhaps it was confusion, perhaps compassion. Something prompted that brood-mother to save me, and raise me until I was self-sufficient. Far more than anything that…my country, as you put it, had done for me.”
Under the blood-soaked dawn, Azalea saw her brother—really saw him, for the first time. He was not an eccentric hermit with no interest in society, not even a madman thirsty for bloodshed. This was a person who had lost everything, even himself.
But Azalea would not give up on him.
She could not.
She took a deep breath to steady herself before she selected her words. “After you fell,” she said softly, “the forest was overrun with wild things. A Royal Hunter of Airlea saved my life from a crazed wolf.”
“Did he, now,” Azure said.
“He did,” Azalea said. “And he spent his very life in an attempt to reach you.”
“He shouldn’t have done. He did not succeed.”
The words cut at her, though she knew that had not been Azure’s intention. They were said practically and without malice, and yet they stung like a slap to the face.
“What he did was heroic,” Azalea said with a tinge of rising anger. “I owe him and what he stood for a life debt. And I owe you the same.”
Azure’s mouth opened. Then closed.
Azalea’s fury quelled just as quickly as it had risen. “You may no longer care for our home, Azure,” she said softly, “but I know you. If things had been different—if you had been able to stay, if you hadn’t sacrificed yourself to rescue me—you would have become a hero. A Hunter. One of the strongest and bravest. And…since I was the one who had taken you from your rightful place in life, I had to honor that in your stead.”
For a moment, there was no response. Azalea braced herself. Perhaps Azure would finally see reason. Perhaps he would finally understand that she was the reason for his suffering.
“Well, that’s silly,” Azure finally said.
Azalea’s head shot up. “What?” she blurted.
Azure’s green eyes were not fiery and cutting, but limpid and vibrant as a mirror. “If I sacrificed my life for you, it was not so that you could become me in my stead,” he said plainly. “In fact, that’s rather insulting. I would like to think I’m irreplaceable.”
“’Zalie, I did not die, but became the strongest warrior on this side of the world.” He reached out and ruffled her hair fondly. “And even if I had died, it was so you could do all those things you enjoyed. Like baking pastries or building fairy houses or doing whatever you liked to do. Also, I think the fairies would appreciate having a fantastic house-builder more than humans would appreciate having a very tired Hunter.”
Azalea gaped wordlessly at him.
“What is it?” said Azure curiously.
She quickly shook her head. “Nothing.”
But it had been everything. Azure’s death had been everything, really. Her every waking moment in her youth had been consumed by an overwhelming need to fill the hole made in his absence, the hole that she’d dug with her own hands. The strength of the first son on whom Da would have relied; the liveliness of the child that Ma had lost; the power of the Royal Hunter that he would have become. By taking Azure away from the world prematurely, she made herself responsible for fulfilling them all. Sacrificing herself and her desires had been her only chance at redemption.
What was she without it all?
She did not know.
“Now,” said Azure, the smile on his face gaunt and ghoulish, “while this chat has been most illuminating, it is time for retribution.”
“What?” said Azalea numbly.
“The tempest calls,” he proclaimed. “And I, its most wretched child, must answer.”
He gave no further explanation. With a running start, he plummeted down the face of the cliff, searing towards the boundary of the Sovendyret like a shooting star. His figure was engulfed by the shadows below.
can you believe
it's not butterit's the final arc because I sure can't!