Airlean Tales

Dreams rippled in and out of Wes’s vision, like rays scattering through clouds, like stones disappearing beneath the surface of a lake.

He saw an eager little boy climbing onto his father’s knee, grinning toothily beneath an untidy shock of dirt-brown hair. His father patted him on the head and spun him a tale of Excalibur, the sword of light and legend, forged with the foundation of the world. The boy gasped in delight to hear how Excalibur, wielded by the first king of Airlea, felled the primordial evils and sealed away the darkness of the world, a radiant beacon of mankind’s hope. He cried, heartbroken, when it was sheathed in stone and left in a lake lost to time.

But Father, he wailed, grabbing his father’s sleeve, that poor sword! How could they just leave it there? Now it’ll rust and waste away forever.

But his father’s mouth only turned up, and his eyes crinkled in the barest shadow of a smile.

Wrong you are, boy, he said. A weapon that slumbers is merely waiting for the right moment. Its time will come.

That must have been long ago, Wes thought. Very, very long ago, before the boy had grown up, before he’d proven himself to be a disappointment. It was back when his father actually had high hopes for him as a son of the Geppett family.

The dream tugged him down in a whirling current, and he surfaced somewhere else.

He was standing before a large crate pushed up against a stone wall, its shadow looming over him in a deadly omen. Wes recognized the area immediately. He was in the back area of the Knight’s Academy—an empty and quiet yard with nothing but blank walls, sparse grass, and large barrels and crates to hold waste and other old items. Beside him stood three classmates, each from noble families who were nearly as wealthy as they were snobbish: Bracklebrook, Farsend, and Pinley.

Ah, Wes remembered this day. He’d been walking alone, trying to escape from all the pressing attentions and responsibilities of the Academy faculty. He’d run into three students surrounding a crate, and thinking it odd, had decided to investigate.

How he wished now that he’d simply walked on.

Wes eyed the crate. The edges shimmered in a dreamlike haze. The face gleamed in cold ash wood. “What is this?” he said uncertainly.

Bracklebrook’s weaselly face split into a greasy smile. “Ah, Geppett. What fortunate timing.”

The uncertainty simmering in Wes’s gut rolled into dread. “Fortunate timing?”

Farsend and Pinley circled him like hyenas. For one deluded moment, he was convinced they were about to seize him and throw him into the crate. He’d rejected their advances of friendship countless times, after all. Surely their pride could only take so many snubs before they lashed out.

But no; Wes dismissed the idea as quickly as it rose. His father owned the Academy, and House Geppett was simply too large a threat to discredit. So long as he was on Academy grounds, Wes was untouchable.

“You see, Geppett,” drawled Bracklebrook, pacing slowly in front of him, “this is a good opportunity for you to prove your loyalties.”

Wes stiffened. “Loyalties. You think me subservient to another?”

“No, no. Perish the thought.” Bracklebrook covered his mouth with a hand. “But, well…some might.”

Wes’s eyes narrowed.

“It’s that lowly forest dog,” Farsend blurted, his angry, beady eyes squinting at Wes. “She keeps hanging around you, and you let her. She covers you in her stench. You bring shame to your station by putting up with it!”

“You bring shame to all of us,” Pinley corrected, tossing her head of golden curls. “Honestly, Geppett. Your charity ought to have a limit.”

Wes barely reined in a fist, forcing a slow breath in and out through his teeth. Azalea was the only person in the entire Academy who treated him like a normal person. But a heated defense would serve her no good here. Wes had to pick his battles carefully, or he would risk drawing more attention to her.

“And that’s what you mean by proving my loyalties?” he said, tone clipped. “You want me to…what, denounce her? Forbid her from approaching me because she’s not a noble?”

“That would be a good start, but hardly adequate,” Bracklebrook snorted. He waved a hand towards the crate. “There is a better way. Show us that you’re above this, right here and now.”

Wes turned to regard the crate again. It only took him a second to realize that the lid had been bolted shut. He glanced at Bracklebrook, who only grinned.

Surely not, Wes thought disbelievingly, his hands going numb. His first thoughts drifted to a place nearly too dark for him to bear—the lynchings of the Lightbringer Rebellion, where innocents were locked into crates and set on fire. His class had received a lecture on those sordid events earlier that week. Surely it hadn’t filled his schoolmates with any insane ideas.

But Bracklebrook’s face told him otherwise. Power-drunk, self-righteous, a hint of glee. The look of a boy satisfied with his own cruelty.

There was a living, breathing person locked in that crate, and Wes had a feeling that he knew who.

“Oh, don’t be dramatic,” said Pinley, reading Wes’s expression with a breezy laugh. “We’re not barbarians. Obviously, we’re not going to run around and set crates on fire.”

“The girl just needed a lesson,” Bracklebrook said, nodding. “A little reminder of her proper place on the ladder.”

Wes’s hands began to shake, his fingers twitching. “You’re insane. You’ve all lost your minds.”

Bracklebrook’s face darkened. “Don’t tell us that you’ve grown genuinely fond of her.”

“He has. Oh, look at his face. It’s almost pitiable.”

“You disgrace your name, Geppett.”

Wes could not listen. He could only think of Azalea curled up, struggling to breathe. Shut in the oppressive, cold dark of a crate. Dizzy. Exhausted. All sides pushing in. For hours.

Rage seared his vision red.

He raised a shaking hand to the crate. His manawell flared, a pulse so deep that it shook his bones. He could sense it—the threads of wood mana within the planes of the crate, sturdy and flourishing, woven like a rugged bolt of twill. Easy enough to bend to his will. His affinity for plant mana would serve him well.

Wes crooked his fingers and blazed, yanking hard on every thread of wood mana at once.

The crate shattered.

Shards of wood sprayed across the yard. A gush of water burst forth and shoved a pathetic, shriveled mess out of the crate’s remains. It was Azalea, gagging and gasping for air, uniform pasted to her skin.

Wes fell beside her with a distressed noise, his hands cupping her face. She felt as cold as ice. Her lungs were wheezy and her coughing was as weak as an infant’s.

I’m here, he was mumbling incoherently. He pressed his lips to her forehead, to her hair. I’m here, ’Zalie. I’m sorry. So sorry.

She shivered against him and retched again. He tried to rub some warmth into her arms, but her skin was clammy and refused to retain heat. He cradled her closer, wanting to sob at the torment she’d been through.

Perhaps if Bracklebrook had said nothing, Wes would have forgotten his presence. Perhaps he would have taken Azalea to the infirmary and nothing of note would have happened.

But Bracklebrook chose that exact moment to say: “How disappointing. To think you would fall so low.”

Wes did not even realize he was turning until he had already leapt for Bracklebrook, swift and sure as a panther. He tackled the boy to the floor and throttled him down. Then his fists moved. Once, twice, thrice.

Like lightning, they crackled down. The first strike sent Bracklebrook’s head snapping to the side, blood spraying from his nose. The second burst his lip and cracked a tooth. The third cracked something in his jaw, and he spat out blood.

It wasn’t enough. He deserved to writhe. He deserved to die.

Farsend and Pinley dove for Wes to restrain his arms, but Wes swiveled around and knocked them to the ground with a sweep of his leg. He turned back and wound up for another strike, but Bracklebrook had recovered. He lashed out with a fist of his own and caught Wes solidly in the jaw.

Wes lurched back with a groan, and Bracklebrook scrambled to his feet, Pinley and Farsend with him. Wes rubbed his sore jaw, and unbidden, felt a chuckle rattle out of his throat, dry and foreboding. Bracklebrook stopped in his tracks and glanced at his friends. They only returned puzzled looks.

“Go ahead,” said Wes. He straightened, his vision terrifyingly clear, his every limb ice-cold. A hint of mirth curled his voice. “Strike me. Take me apart. And then, when the headmaster discovers what you’ve done, he’ll relay it to Lord Geppett. And when Lord Geppett learns that you’ve touched his heir apparent, see what he does to you. Which will he let you keep, your skin or your family estate?”

He saw the blood drain from their faces in unison, leaving nothing but ghost-white flesh. He laughed again.

“What’s wrong? Throw a punch. You were being so brave. It’d be a shame if you stopped.”

He stepped towards Bracklebrook, but the boy only shuffled away, avoiding his gaze.

“Go on,” Wes said.

Hate flared in Bracklebrook’s eyes, but he shook his head.

Wes crushed his fist into Bracklebrook’s solar plexus, sending the boy tumbling to the ground with a feeble, broken noise. He watched Bracklebrook curl helplessly before him, choking, legs twitching.

“What, can’t hit someone who will fight back?” he said quietly. He flexed his fingers. His knuckles ached.

“Wes,” Azalea rasped from behind him.

He stepped forward and nudged Bracklebrook’s ribs with the sole of his foot. Bracklebrook groaned.

“Get up,” Wes said. He nodded at Pinley and Farsend. “Come on. I’ll even let you gang up three on one, since you seem to prefer those odds.”

Farsend bared his teeth, fists curling low by his waist. “You wouldn’t be playing so bold if it weren’t for your daddy, Geppett.”

“Yes, that’s rather my point, Farsend. Because neither would you.”

He drew his feet together and looked him in the eye. “You’re picking the wrong side. Backing the lowest dung-eating street whore—”

Wes’s fist was blindingly fast, crushing Farsend straight in the mouth. Farsend’s head snapped back at the blow, and he let out a strangled noise, lashing out blindly with a kick. Wes wove between Farsend’s heavy, aggressive strikes with ease. The adrenaline of combat had only honed his focus to crystal clarity, every motion a simple move on a chessboard.

“Your family will be nothing!” Farsend screamed. “Even your father’s strength won’t be enough to save you! You will damn your own house to oblivion, Geppett, you’ll damn everybody you know—”

He simply talked too much. Wes slammed his elbow into Farsend’s throat. The boy crashed hard to the ground, and this time, he did not move.

“Wes,” begged Azalea’s voice, weak and thin and barely there. “Stop. Please…stop.”

Wes shoved her words out of his mind. He turned on Pinley, who blanched and stepped away.

“You don’t want to hurt me, Geppett,” she said shakily. “I know you. You wouldn’t hurt me. I’m weaker than you. You wouldn’t hurt somebody weaker than you.”

“Maybe you should have thought of that,” he said, “before you tortured somebody for a few hours.”

“It was harmless. She was never in any danger, so you shouldn’t—”

He cracked his knuckles into her nose and let it gush. She screamed and squeezed at her bleeding nostrils.

“Harmless?” Wes said shakily. “Shall we pop you underwater for that long and see how you turn out?”

He stepped closer, but before he could say anything more, a heavy weight crashed into his back and barreled him into the grass. Bracklebrook was up again. Wes’s shoulder slammed into the ground, and for one moment, his senses were flooded with white-hot pain, shoulder pounding and skull rattling.

He pushed the agony away and kneed Bracklebrook hard in the gut, throwing his weight up and over until he had Bracklebrook pincered to the ground beneath his hips. Bracklebrook thrashed, but could not break free.

Wes curled his fingers in Bracklebrook’s collar and yanked his head up. Bracklebrook’s eyes were shuttering in fear. Wes did not care. Bracklebrook had been the leader; he was the one who decided to stick an innocent person in a crate, fill it with water, and seal it shut, just to be cruel for cruelty’s sake. Lowlife piece of filth. He needed to die.

Wes struck. At that hateful mouth, that proud nose, those beady eyes that were already swelling shut in bruises. He struck again, again. His fingers were numb and covered in blood. He struck until Bracklebrook’s sharp cries of pain had descended to low, pitiful moans, dazed and indiscernible.

Then small arms, shaking from exhaustion, hooked around his hands and yanked them back.

“Stop it—stop it, Wes, he’s learned his lesson,” Azalea begged.

Her voice was still rubbed raw, and Wes could only think of how she must have cried and pleaded and struggled to breathe, all while these three bastards had laughed and cheered.

Fresh rage filled him. He shook free and slammed his fist into Bracklebrook’s jaw. He was rewarded with the sickening, thrilling crunch of soft bone. A jolt of agony raced up his arm as Bracklebrook screamed.

Wes,” Azalea sobbed, and she grabbed him again, her arms flinging around his waist. “Please, Wes, stop. Please, for me.”

He felt his raised hands stutter in the air. He stared at Bracklebrook’s ruined face, once handsome and proud. His eyes drifted to the blood dripping from his knuckles, the crate that had shattered into shards of wood, the beaten bodies of Pinley and Farsend slumped against the wall.

Slowly, his hands fell to his sides. He felt them trailing limply there.

He knew he should have felt repentant. Horrified. He should have thought himself a monster. But staring at the carnage around him, he felt nothing.

And that terrified him more than anything else.

The dream shifted. Wes watched as day melted into night, the sun melting towards the horizon as clouds spun by like tufts of cotton. He blinked, and he was in the Academy infirmary—a spacious room with tall windows and arched ceilings, patterned curtains dividing the row of beds along an ornamented wall.

He was resting in one such bed, propped up by fluffy pillows. Azalea should have been, too, but she was sitting at his bedside instead. For now, they were alone; Bracklebrook and Farsend and Pinley were in private rooms, under the focused care of Academy physicians.

Azalea patted at Wes’s blood-caked hands with a wet rag, her fingers studious and careful. There was a blanket bundled over her shoulders, but her skin still felt cold. She should be resting, pampered and cushioned with a warm drink, not caring for Wes.

There were a thousand things he wanted to say. I was just trying to scare them. I didn’t mean it. That wasn’t me. But all of them were untrue, and she would know that. Every bit of cruelty and selfishness in him had been laid bare before her eyes.

He had thought he was different from his brothers and their thoughtless lust for violence. He’d been wrong.

“I’m sorry,” Wes mumbled. Azalea’s eyes flickered to him, and he quickly looked away. “You shouldn’t have seen that. No…no, I shouldn’t have done that.”

Azalea’s hands paused over his. She was quiet for a moment. Wes couldn’t bear to look at her. He wished she would leave. No, stay. Her kindness was only a stinging poison that would prolong the agony. I need it. It would be better if she got it over with and walked out, right now. Don’t go.

She pulled back and folded her hands in her lap. Wes closed his eyes and waited for her fading footsteps. She should leave. It would be a wise decision, an honorable decision.

But Azalea did not move. Instead, she spoke, her voice so soft that it barely carried over the evening wind.

“When I was five,” she murmured, “my mother made a stuffed kitty for me. This one afternoon, we went to the village square, and this one boy, he threw my kitty into the well.”

Wes’s eyes sprung open. “What? Why?”

“Da said he liked me and didn’t know what to do with it,” Azalea said. She looked at the ground. “I cried and begged him to get my kitty out, but he just said, ‘Get her yourself then.’ And he and his friend grabbed me and started to push me over into the well.”

Wes stood.

“It’s okay,” Azalea said softly. She tugged at his arm until he sat down. “They were leaning me over the edge when Azure found them.”

“They got thrashed, I’d hope.”

“More than that,” she said. “He almost killed them.”

Wes fell silent at that.

“Da told him to make it right,” Azalea said. Her gaze shifted. “But Azure said he wasn’t sorry. That they had nearly killed me, so he was just returning the favor. That if anybody tried to touch his baby sister again, he’d rip their arms off.”

Wes knew he should have felt horrified. Such words should never be spoken by a seven-year-old child. A good person would feel horrified to hear it.

“You must have hated him,” he said quietly.

Azalea shook her head, still looking at the floor. “Maybe I should have. But I was just grateful.”


“He had beaten my tormentors. He was scary while he did it, but he had protected me.”

Wes stared at the bandages wrapped around his hands. He curled his aching fingers in and out, in and out. Feeling the flesh crumple beneath his bones again.

“He was almost a murderer,” he murmured.

Azalea was quiet for a moment. Then her hands—small but nimble, lithe fingers and velvet skin—wrapped around his.

“When it was all over, Da placed Azure on his knee,” she whispered, “and said, ‘Son, you don’t hurt anybody like that again. When you hurt people, you hurt your own soul. Never do that unless you’ve no other choice.’”

She slid off the chair and knelt before him, the sunlight flaring over her hair, bathing her in a golden glow.

“’Zalie, your knees, they’re still—stand up,” Wes said breathlessly, trying to pull her to her feet. “Don’t, ’Zalie.”

She didn’t listen. She remained kneeling, her eyes fixed on him, unmoving.

“Wes,” she said, her words as soft as a whisper but clear as an autumn night. “Don’t hurt your own soul. Not for me or anybody else.”

Wes’s pulse shattered in his chest. Time dragged down to the languid, silent drip of dew from a leaf. He saw her then. Her meadow-green eyes, her golden hair rimmed with twilight that flared like a halo. She was beautiful. Wes felt vertigo and he was falling. He did not deserve her, but he knew then that he loved her, loved her with a keenness that knifed his own chest.

“I won’t,” he promised, hushed. “For as long as I live.”

He decided then that he would be better. He would take that part of him that craved blood, craved power, and he would lock it away and flee from it. He would not become his father or his brothers.

The last thing the dream gave him was an unguarded, radiant smile from Azalea. Then it slipped away, and before his eyes, so did she.


Echo took the envelope with him.

He hadn’t wanted to. He had intended to let it lie there in the snow, idle and abandoned until it was swallowed up by dampness, the ink blotting illegibly over the page.

He had turned away and taken two steps. Then his legs had frozen and refused to move further.

It wasn’t his problem. The fault lay with Azalea for selfishly imposing her final wishes on him, for believing that he was a better man. He had done his duty. He had gone above and beyond, even—taking her to Heidi and teaching her how to hunt. He owed her nothing.

And yet, here he was. Trudging away from the Range…with the letter in hand.

“Look at you now, Lone Wolf,” he muttered. “You’ve gone so soft. So weak.”

Well, it was fine. The girl with Arya’s eyes and Arya’s hair was gone forever. All that was left was for him to deliver this single envelope, and he would be done with her. His stint of good-boy playacting would be finished.

After all, he was a mercenary. Not a hero. He very much wanted to keep it that way.

There was no use in someone like him trying to do anything good.

The moment Azalea stepped over the boundary and into the Noadic Range, the air changed.

A breeze swept over her like a brush running over paper. Her cloak rippled in an unseen current, and she flinched at its pull. The wind brushed over her cheeks in hushed, wandering laughter, then spiraled into silent snowdrift. She shut her eyes against its sting, bracing her feet in the snow.

The air settled. Azalea’s cloak descended.

She opened her eyes.

Before her sprawled a vibrant, outlandish forest—fuchsia wildflowers, turquoise shrubbery, magnolia trees with slivers of glowing crystal embedded in their trunks. The rampant flora spilled up the mountain in an untamable sea of mangled, beautiful overgrowth. It was nothing like a White Labyrinth, still and silent and devoid of life. It was a flourishing place where the very air resonated with ancient, indescribable mana. She could feel it washing over her skin in a light tingle, humming in her bones.

Azalea breathed in deeply and stepped through. She lifted her chin and walked steadily as the trees sealed behind her.

Echo stopped at the Northelm inn. It was more of a house that happened to have a free room than an inn, really; the town didn’t receive many visitors. He called it an inn in his mind, because it held the most valuable thing an inn could.

An insatiable gossip.

The lady of the house was Mam Gerta, a stout spitfire of a woman who took one look at him, clicked her tongue, and set a heaping bowl of stew before him with a sharp So thin, you plucked chicken! What do they feed you in the capital, sticks and hay? Then she pulled up a chair and sat right next to him and began chattering away a mile a minute, which ordinarily would have irritated Echo quite a bit, but in this case, was welcome. He didn’t particularly feel like thinking and the prattle helped keep him distracted.

Mam Gerta began with rather inane topics, though admittedly less inane than some of the women Echo had entertained in the Mythaven nobility. So-and-so’s son and how he’d gotten strong enough to push ore carts and carry bags of flour, so-and-so getting wed and so-and-so bearing children, so on and so forth. She talked as if the sky were not dark and thick with mana, waiting to rain down hell. She talked as if civilization would still be around tomorrow and the day after and for years to come.

What was it like, Echo wondered, to live in such a way? To live thinking of a lasting future, to build a legacy one stone at a time? To not look at a day as something split into hours and profits, but as something more.

Then he waved the thought away, for it was nothing like him. He was a mercenary, not a family man, and that suited him fine.

You keep telling yourself that, whispered fragments of Azalea’s voice in his mind.

Echo pushed it away.

Just as he was beginning to despair of learning anything useful, Mam Gerta mentioned something that made his ears perk.

“None’s at the mines no more, not with the mess brewing up there. Heavens no. Even His Highness tromped here himself in those fancy boots. He’s working with all the able men and women, you know, with the—forts and spear-fighting and whatnot, whatever young people do nowadays to keep themselves from dying.”

Echo’s brow arched high at that and he set down his remarkably delicious stew. “The crown prince, you say? He’s here, in Northelm?”

Mam Gerta clucked her tongue again. “Why, you didn’t catch a look-see when you came in? Pity, really. He’s the kind of boy whose smile could put the sun to shame. His mother must be so very pro—but oh, wretched mouth, of course Her Majesty passed on long ago, the poor thing.”

Echo had already paid fare for a room that night, but he passed another coin for the stew. “The crown prince!” he exclaimed. “What an honor to see him. And a greater honor for him to personally look after the safety of your town.”

“An honor it may be, or an omen, child. The presence of a royal can only mean that we’ll be right center of the next Storm.” Mam Gerta looked at him sharply. “And what are you doing with that coin?”

“Payment rendered for the marvelous stew, of course.”

“Land sakes, child. All dirty and scraped up like that, and you try to give me extra coin? Keep it for the bathhouse.” Mam Gerta shook her head. “You small ones can’t even take proper care of yourselves.”

Echo almost laughed aloud. If she had any notion just how wealthy and dangerous he really was—but an odd part of him was glad that she didn’t. He slipped the coin in her box behind her back and, before he retired for the night, stepped out to see the crown prince with his own eyes.

Snow crunched underfoot as Azalea pressed through the vibrant forest, which stretched endlessly in every direction. She caught glimpses of strange creatures everywhere she looked—tall birds with outlandish plumage, silver wolves with wispy tails, delicate and fluid elemental spirits that looked like spun glass. They all fled from her, peering skittishly at her from behind gnarled trees and towering ivory bone formations, no doubt unused to human presence.

Azalea considered squatting down with soft, calming clicks of her tongue, the way her father did to coax little birds and squirrels into stealing breadcrumbs from his palm.

Show kindness to the forest, Aza, he’d said, mouth turned up fondly at the small animals, and one day it might show kindness back.

Hesitantly, Azalea crouched down and whistled low and soft. She clicked her tongue lightly, keeping very still. It took only a few minutes for a creature to indulge its curiosity and toe closer. It was an elegant thing, about the size of a large dog, yet sleek and foxlike with feathery ears and a sweeping tail. But what was most stunning was the color of its coat—pearly white and soft in a way that entranced the eye, with parts of it blending into iridescence, shifting into pale pinks and blossom greens and diamond blues.

Mystified, Azalea reached out a slow hand. The creature’s ears flattened and it drew back a step, so she stopped.

She waited for it to move again, but it did not, and only stared at her with wide, limpid eyes, starfields glimmering in its pupils as it blinked slowly.

Listen, those magical, beautiful eyes seemed to be saying.

Azalea did. And she felt it then, in the silence—a subtle, bone-deep rumble beneath her boots, pulsing like a lonely heartbeat. It took her a moment to place the odd sensation.

Footsteps. Giant ones.

The rumbling strengthened, approaching, and the fox creature darted away. Frowning, Azalea straightened and drew her starshooter, ducking behind a bony tree to await the oncoming threat.

She felt it before she saw it. Mana, wild and flourishing, not like the curdling instability of a Storm’s corruption, but fragrant and torrential. The aura of a beast as fey as it was fierce. Such was everything in the Noadic Range, Azalea was beginning to realize; ancient and terrible, endless, and infinitely so much bigger than her.

The beast slithered into the clearing, sleek and impossibly fast. This was no ambling, cumbersome, overgrown forest animal. Its hide rippled powerfully in a vibrant sheen of scales, crowned with shining membrane wings—a dragon, a butterfly, a doe. Hunter and dancer, killer and artist.

Immediately, Azalea knew that if she had to face it, she would not win.

And yet she had to try. Heidi had been clear enough: When you enter the Range, challenge a powerful beast. Azalea wanted to speak with the Dragon Whisperer. What better way to draw his attention than to challenge a dragon?

Perhaps she would not have to win. She would merely have to survive until he arrived.

Voluntarily engaging an ancient dragon in the Noadic Range with completely unknown combat capabilities, Azalea thought distantly, and almost laughed. A dangerous creature, an unsecured environment, a volatile manaspace. The Academy would have my head if this were an exam.

But this was not an exam, and back in the heart of Airlea, the Storm was threatening everything she loved. Wes, mortally wounded and bedridden, Ma and Da, and—

—even skulking mercenaries like Echo, people who had done wrong things but needed second chances, people who could be so much more.

Azalea clung all of them close to her heart as she stepped out into the cold. For it was for them that she was here, and it was for all of them that she would keep going.

The dragon’s head immediately lifted, its pupils narrowing to slits at the sight of her.

Despite the thrall of its terrifying, bottomless gaze, Azalea managed to push one foot ahead of the other. She approached slowly. Then she spoke, her voice even and soothing, a confident tone that did not waver.

“I am Azalea Fairwen, a Royal Hunter of Airlea,” she called. “I have come for your master.”

There was a moment of quiet. A moment where the dragon crooked its neck, its gaze unmoving. A moment where Azalea grew hopeful and believed she could resolve the situation without any violence.

Then the dragon’s maw snapped open, and a blaze of mana seared right for Azalea’s head.

It took scarcely any time for Echo to find the crown prince. He had expected as much, of course. Surely the prince would be lofted high upon his palanquin, gazing down the auspicious bridge of his imperious nose at the meager commoners swarming beneath his diamond-studded boots. Not that Echo had ever met him. He’d had the opportunity, but he preferred to keep his distance. Royalty tended to be more trouble than they were worth.

Prince Sethis Galen Lunaren, however, was not up on some high perch, but on the ground. He appeared thoroughly occupied even in the dead of night, conferring with the townspeople and issuing orders to soldiers for fortifications. He had one of those trustworthy faces that all manner of people likely found attractive; striking green eyes, a strong-cut jaw, a composed yet empathetic bearing. Prince Charming, his many admirers liked to call him. A silly, ridiculous title for what was likely to be a silly, ridiculous man. No doubt the sword strapped to his hip was one of pure decoration.

Still, Echo was not about to squander this convenient opportunity. Even five minutes of observation was enough to divulge an entire life story. He kept to the shadows, watching silently.

The little gathering was broken by the rapid clop of hooves as a cloaked figure tore into town on horseback, dismounting in a flurry of robes. Echo recognized the sprawling seal of the Observatorium on his cloak at once, the ornate insignia of woven constellations that must have inflicted upon many a seamstress a dire headache.

“Pardon the interruption, Your Highness,” panted the Observatorium sage. “I bring urgent tidings.”

Prince Sethis took one look at the sage’s tight, panicked features and dismissed the townspeople and soldiers with a calm smile. A competent deceiver, like the many generations of kings before him. Once they were alone, he nodded at the sage, who spoke.

“Northbound mana fluctuations within the leylines have confirmed the estimated critical zone, Your Highness,” said the sage. “The epicenter of this Storm shall be in northern Airlea, as predicted. High Sage Myrdin himself bade me bring you these tidings.”

The sage paused, and Sethis waited.

“His Sagacity also emphatically requested that Your Highness be returned to safety at once, and for—ah, to quote verbatim—some other Hunter who isn’t in direct line to the throne to pretty up the defenses.

Sethis’s mouth lifted. “That sounds like his fussing indeed.”

“And—and will you accept his counsel, Highness?” said the sage hopefully.

Of course he will, Echo thought scornfully. The princeling must preserve his royal bloodline.

“I will,” Sethis agreed.

And there it is.

“Once Northelm is secured and its people are counted safe,” Sethis continued.

Echo blinked, surprised.

The sage all but wilted. “That…that would be after the Storm, Your Highness.”

“Well, then, my withdrawal shall have to wait until after the Storm.”

The sage groaned. “You would make me the bringer of bad news twice.”

“My apologies,” said Sethis unapologetically.

The crown prince himself, risking his very life to fortify the critical zone. Either he was a dullard or a naive idealist, Echo mused.

“Might you not reconsider, Your Highness?” said the sage. “Truthfully, this Storm—it bears a dangerous anomaly…”

Echo inhaled and waited.

“An anomaly?” Sethis said.

“Yes, Highness. The leylines are, ah, reacting with unnaturally high levels of…”

The sage trailed off. Sethis waited for a long moment—certainly longer than Echo ever would have tolerated.

“High levels of?” the crown prince eventually prompted.

“Forgive me, Highness, and put it from your mind. It is a mere hypothesis, and I daren’t—”

Sethis’s expression clouded. “You think there shall be a Class Five.”

“Oh, oh, but I shouldn’t have said anything.” Trembling, the sage fell to his knees. “These are naught but fancies of a fool! Strike me dead, Your Highness, this miserable, shriveled husk with nothing to offer but the doomsaying of a raucous crow—”

“Stand at once,” Sethis said immediately, startled. “Tell me, what is the likelihood of such a travesty occurring so soon after Havenport?”

The sage peered up from where he was groveling. “All but impossible, Your Highness.”

Sethis’s eyes were steely until the scholar caved, grimacing.

“Only, ah—you see—His Sagacity believes he has sensed significant turbulence within the reacting leylines. Enough to give rise to concern.”

Sethis exhaled, his brow taking on a grim weight. “Guildmaster Cotton is aware of this development?”

“Yes, Highness.”

“Then we must prepare as if a Five shall surface, even should we hope for the best.” Sethis straightened, features settling into a determined look. “Take a message to the Garrison at once, as follows…”

Echo had heard enough. He drew back into complete darkness.

Well, Little Red, he thought wryly, turning his steps back to Mam Gerta’s. Perhaps your wild hero’s charge wasn’t in vain after all. On the minuscule chance she succeeded, she might have just made the singular move that could save Airlea.

Azalea frantically threw herself aside. White mana seared right past her ear, splitting open the tree behind her into shards of ivory.

This dragon was no mere oversized animal, like the bloated, ambling Storm corruptions. It was faster than any beast she had ever faced, with pinpoint precision and deadly power, the very nature of its being heavily intertwined with mana.

Azalea thought that now, perhaps, she might understand a little of what it was like to fight a Class Five.

The dragon continued its onslaught, spewing lightning-quick bursts of mana that had Azalea pivoting wildly on her toes. Her windsoles were unnervingly warm from constant firing and refiring as she struggled to keep distance. Her cloak continually escaped searing flame and gnashing jaws by a hair. There was no time to strike back; she could barely keep herself from death.

If she could not best it, then it was time for her to run. She could not afford to lose her life before she met the Whisperer.

Azalea turned her steps northward, further into the Range, and flared her windsoles. She blazed through the vivid forest, weaving around trees and vaulting through bone piles with her arms tucked in and her movements sharp. The dragon followed tirelessly. Iridescent scales gleamed with snowlight as it slid seamlessly after her.

Surely it won’t keep following me! She had not antagonized the creature, so it was displaying territorial behavior. Once she left the vicinity, she expected it to calm.

Her gut churned with the incessant burn of mana as she continued sprinting. Still the dragon pursued her, swift and silent. Another jolt of mana shattered the tree before Azalea, sending wooden shards spewing towards her face; she ducked her head and shielded it with her arms as she pushed through.

The momentary blindness almost killed her as she soared right into another carapace.

Azalea fired her windsoles on instinct at the sight of a sudden scaly wall looming before her. The shoes vaulted her body high—too high—and she flailed momentarily to find her balance. She was lucky to land without shattering her knees.

Behind her, the carapace rumbled, then slowly rose, like a mountain coming out of the earth. Its blocky shape unfurled and two filmy eyes with piercing crescent pupils blinked beneath a crown of earthen plates.

Azalea swallowed. This new beast was enormous—larger than her previous pursuer. Yet another dragon, or a wyvern, or some other ancient creature that she had no knowledge of.

But the titan took no notice of her. Those unnerving eyes were fixed on the butterfly-like dragon. A low keen erupted from its maw, a deep and full noise that rattled Azalea’s teeth and filled her skull. She was only human, but her instincts understood it immediately: a warning.

The butterfly dragon made a chittering noise, wings flashing bright. It craned its neck high and roared loud, clear and melodic as rippling dewdrops.

Then it blitzed right at the titan, and with a surge of mana, barreled right into the enemy’s skull.

The impact was explosive. Plumes of dust and sparks erupted and Azalea was thrown back, her vision hazy and her ears ringing. Dazed, she could only watch as the two mythical beasts contended, the butterfly dragon agile as wind while the titan was immovable as earth.

She was so far beyond her limits here. She never should have come.

The titan growled, and with a churn of mana, the plates on its crown pushed outward and hardened. It flung its head and crashed into the butterfly dragon with the reinforced plates, blasting the elegant creature into the ground. Snow and rock sprayed up in deadly chunks at the impact.

Breathless, Azalea tried to raise her hands to pull herself up. Her vision was swirling and spotted, her consciousness threatening to give out at any moment.

Get out, her Academy training urged in a calm, rapt voice very similar to Nicolina’s. Get to immediate safety, then assess the situation and decide on a plan of action.

But Azalea had scarcely wrapped her fingers around a tree branch when she felt it—a turbulent coil of instability simmering in the horizon. One that she immediately recognized.

He’s here.

Dark fire swirled in a tempest beyond the snow-topped peaks. Then it plummeted right for her, streaked with crimson and silver smoke. Both dragons raised their heads at the commotion, then lashed their plated tails, bellowing in warning.

Azalea could no longer hold on. Slowly, her spotted vision faded to darkness. The last thing she saw before she fell unconscious was the warm, brilliant blaze of sunfire wings.


By evening, Azalea and Echo broke out of the forest and onto a flat plateau dotted with weeds and wildflowers. The air was gathering a distinctive chill, fresh and sharp like ice. The Range loomed in the distance, clouds hanging low on its inclines and powdered snow swallowing up the stony peaks. Azalea could see Northelm lying to the east, a sprinkle of lodges against jutting stone caves. She wouldn’t dare approach it, though. At this point, a sojourn would only serve as a distraction.

Echo set up camp in the hollow of a small cave. He used his knife to take down a few quail and a small hog for dinner. He began to strip and prepare the animals for cooking, but Azalea stopped him, drawing her travel knife.

“Teach me,” she urged, gesturing to the spread of dead animals.

“Teach you?”

“How to dress animals.” She bit her lip. “Da always bought from the butcher, so I’ve never had to.”

“You mean—you were planning to go to the Range without any plans for sustenance?” Echo said incredulously.

“Not exactly,” Azalea mumbled. “I packed dried food. I’ve read a book or two on hunting. And…I can shoot.”

Echo shook his head. “Well, it’s good that you mentioned this now. Prepping something for consumption is very different from simply killing it.” He tapped his fingers against his knife. “I don’t even know if the creatures on the Range are edible, Little Red. They could be full of nasty diseases. Or they could be too big to reasonably dress by yourself.”

“Regardless, if I don’t know anything at all, I’ll starve.”

“Fair enough.” And he sat Azalea down by the animals, instructing her through cleaning and butchering the carcasses with surprising patience. He walked her through making clean incisions and splits, gutting the innards safely, and peeling away hide or plucking feathers. As Azalea followed his instructions faithfully, his eyes began to take on a boyish light, his words warming to be friendly and animated.

If you have access to a pot, drain the blood first and save it for stew. Soup is one of the most efficient ways of making food.

There’s a thousand ways to use a carcass. Bones for tools, pelts for leather, intestines for catgut. Not that you’ll have the time to do all that.

Try to butcher away from your camp. Well, unless you want a bunch of animals setting upon you in the middle of the night.

Azalea absorbed every tidbit and filed it away as she carefully skinned and gutted the game. It was messy and bloody work, but when she had finished and hung the meat to roast over the campfire, she felt gratified. It was such a small thing to feel a sense of accomplishment over, but her odds were already looking better.

Echo clapped her on the shoulder with an uncharacteristic grin. “There you go, Arya. Something even you can do with your tiny stick arms.”

“Azalea,” she corrected. “That’s the second time you’ve called me Arya.”

His gaze flickered, but before she could read any emotion, he shrugged off the comment. “Arya, Azalea. Basically the same.”

“They’re very different.”

“Names that start with an A. Fitting for small little creatures.”

“Was that who Arya was?” Azalea challenged. Her voice slid against the walls of the cave, resonating lightly.

Echo stared at her quietly for a moment, head tilted, mouth slightly curved in an unaffected smile. The crackle of quail flesh roasting over the fire barely broke the silence.

“Do I look like her?” Azalea finally said, lowering her gaze to stare at the dancing flames.

She expected him to turn away and ignore her. To deflect her question, as he always did.

She was surprised when he spoke.

“Very much,” he said, his voice unusually quiet. “Nearly inch for inch.”

Azalea looked up at him. Now he was the one watching the fire, avoiding her gaze.

“You cared for her.” The moment the words fell out of her lips, she knew them to be true. “She was dear to you.”

“A bold assumption to think that anything is dear to me.”

“Everybody holds something dear,” Azalea said. “Or they wouldn’t have a reason to live.”

Echo chuckled behind closed lips. He reached out and turned the quail once. Azalea waited, but he didn’t speak.

One more time. She would push one more time. It was the last night she would see him, after all—perhaps the last night she would see a human being ever again. Maybe the Wolf would show pity and indulge her curiosity. Or maybe he would understand that his secrets would die in the Noadic Range, wherever her body lay.

“Who was she?” Azalea asked carefully.

Echo leaned back, his gaze distant in the embers of the campfire. For one moment, she thought he would simply pretend that she didn’t exist. But a wistful mood must have seized him, because he looked out into the murky sky, puffed a ring of warm vapor with pursed lips, and spoke.

“This may surprise you with my impeccable etiquette, but I was raised an orphan,” he admitted, his voice soft, nearly sleepy. “My mother left me on the doorstep of a ratty orphanage in the Mythaven underworld. Aster Carmine’s Blessed Home for Children. They were kind enough, I suppose. Certainly kinder than all the parents who had abandoned us.”

Azalea’s heart ached. “I’m sorry,” she said gently.

Echo’s mouth twisted. For a moment, Azalea thought he would shut up and say nothing more. He leaned over the fire and pushed some drywood around with a stick. Then, surprisingly, he sat back and kept talking.

“Among the kids, there was a girl called Arya,” he said. “A tiny little thing. Had fluffy straw hair and the biggest, most pathetic eyes you could ever imagine.”

Quite like yourself went unspoken, but was clearly implied. Azalea couldn’t find it in herself to be angry.

“She always hopped after me like a little sparrow,” Echo continued. “The older kids helped care for the younger ones, so I would tie her shoelaces and cut her vegetables into bites and such. Dull, inane things that cause little children to love you, I suppose.”

Azalea pictured it with a smile. A young boy with rumpled white hair, sullenly snipping up salted cabbage while a little girl watched him with a wide, adoring gaze.

Echo breathed out again. “But I didn’t like how she looked at me with those big, watery eyes. So I was cruel to her. Got mud all over her shoes, put bugs in her pillow, snapped the head off her doll. I thought she would leave me alone if I was awful.”

He went quiet, so quiet that Azalea could only hear the crackle of the fire and the distant song of a nightingale.

“Did it work?” she asked.

“No,” he said ruefully. “She clung to my leg and cried for me not to leave.”

“What did you say?”

“I said I would. That everybody leaves the orphanage at some point.” He turned the quail again, then the hog.

Azalea’s heart pinched. What a terrible thing to say to a desperate child. But she didn’t scold him; she could read the odd, distant expression on his face as bitter regret.

“What happened to her?” she asked softly.

Echo tilted his face up and breathed in. The firelight threw his features into sharp relief.

“Certain people did not appreciate the existence of the orphanage,” he said. “They packed bundles of drywood around the entrances, poured over oil, and set fire to it in the middle of the night.”

Azalea’s jaw slackened. She stared at him wordlessly.

“The structure, which was already decaying, fell to pieces. Most of the doors were barred by debris. Arya burned alive in a closed room, screaming and wailing, pinned to the ground by a fallen beam.” He smiled without meaning and flicked a leaf into the campfire, watching it sputter and burn.

Azalea stared at her hands, her bones cold and hollow.

“The older kids ran through the house, trying to save as many as we could. She was trapped in the playroom. I don’t know why she was there in the middle of the night, but she was by herself, with no one around to help her.”

“No one but you,” Azalea said softly.

He snorted. “Oh, yes. I fed her all sorts of sweet lies while I pulled and pried at the door. I’m right here, I’ll get you out, it’ll be okay. Sweet, wonderful lies. So kind. So worthless.”

Azalea realized then that she had never heard him say anything comforting—only the harsh brutality of reality. She’d thought that it had come from a place of cruelty or derision. Now she wondered if it came from his fear of being unable to keep his word.

Echo removed the quail from the fire and kept the hog roasting. “I spent several minutes like that, clawing at the broken door to no avail. Tore up my nails, shredded my hands. Then a beam shattered and part of the roof fell on me.” He gestured to his face. “I was lucky to live with just a damaged eye.”

Azalea looked into his milky pupil and suppressed a shiver. “Who would do such a cruel thing?” she whispered.

He laughed, a double-edged blade of rawness and mockery. Then he reached out and ruffled her hair. “That’s enough bedtime story for one night, Little Red. Look, the roasts are done.”

But Azalea could not shake the feeling that there was something more to the story. She fixed Echo with a steely look as he casually divvied up the quails into two equal portions.

“Arson goes beyond the simple dislike of an orphanage,” she said staunchly. “It was a crime of hate. A sin from somebody soulless.”

“Oh, hatred had nothing to do with it,” said Echo, moving on to the hog. “Only cold, calculated rationale. A decision made by nobility that saw us as an inconvenience.”

“It was only an orphanage in the underworld. What could the nobility possibly find inconvenient about it?”

“Me.” Echo’s teeth flashed white in a quick grin. “I was a bastard son, you see. The product of an improper dalliance by a nobleman who couldn’t keep it in his trousers.”

Azalea fell silent and stared at her quail.

“Such children are a shameful secret. A blot on the record.” Echo spread his hands. “Perhaps my mother was attempting to save my life by hiding me at the orphanage. I’ll never know. The important thing was that my noble father learned of my existence, and took it as a personal insult—as well he should. It would be a stench to his name, and potentially the laws of inheritance. Better to dispose of me in secret.”

Azalea could not fathom such a terrifyingly brutal way of thought, for death to be the first solution.

“But…arson,” she stammered. “I mean, an individual assassination would be so much safer…”

“Assassinations beget questions. Arson is safe and clean. Burn the bodies, burn the evidence. Everything looks to be nothing more than an unfortunate tragedy.”

“But all the innocent lives lost…”

“What do they care? We’re rats to them. Less than dirt. Always will be.” Echo began to tear into his quail, smacking his lips loudly. A clear ploy to end the conversation. “You should eat before your dinner gets cold.”

Azalea refused to be distracted, even as she picked at her fowl. Echo hadn’t said as much, but she knew that finding such a difficult and terrible truth would have taken years of dogged pursuit—especially when people with power and influence had done their best to cover up every step. He must have been driven by that anger and vengeance for a long time. Perhaps even most of his life.

“You killed them, didn’t you?” she said quietly.

Echo paused on his quail. “I didn’t just kill them,” he said. The corner of his mouth pulled up in a small, eerie smile. “I made them suffer.”

Azalea swallowed. Echo lowered his food and turned over a log in the campfire.

“Every wound, every minute of miserable pain…yes, by the end of it, they knew precisely how it feels to cook in your own flesh, abandoned, in helpless agony. They were intimately familiar with everything they had inflicted on innocent children.”

The fire shifted as he tended it. The shadows writhed on his face.

“Did you feel better when it was done?” Azalea whispered.

Echo’s mouth twitched again. “Yes. Immensely.”

Her da had said otherwise. That vengeance was a poison to oneself. Echo must have read the skepticism on her face, because his lips tilted into a full smile.

“Only good people feel awful about things like bitterness and revenge,” he said. “Terrible people feed on it, live off it.”

Azalea regarded him for a moment. “You’re not terrible,” she finally said. Admitted, really.

“But I am,” said Echo. “I am terrible, and I’m happy to remain so to the end of time.”

Azalea shook her head. “You lie a great deal,” she murmured, “but you lie the most to yourself.”

Echo sucked in a breath. She waited for his witty reply, but none came. He’d silently returned to polishing off his dinner. After a moment of waiting, Azalea turned back to her own helping. The meat was tender and juicy with a rich, seared flavor. Although it lacked the spices and salts easily found at the capital, very little could replace the taste of fresh game right off the fire.

“It’ll be best if you die at the Range,” Echo finally muttered. “If you come back alive and start babbling all these secrets, I’ll have to kill you myself. And that’s simply no fun.”

“You can’t kill me,” Azalea said. “I’ll give you the most pathetic look ever.”

He gaped openly at her. “You wouldn’t.”

She blinked innocently at him, wide-eyed and watery.

“Treacherous cutthroat,” Echo said. “I shouldn’t have told you anything.”

The pathetic look vanished from her face. “It will be my last resort for self-preservation.”

“Alright, you rascal,” he said. “Come here and watch how I bundle the leftovers.”

Azalea squatted at Echo’s side as he sliced the rest of the hog into strips, then wrapped the meat in long leaves from Heidi’s garden. He tied the packets with thin twine and divided them into two pouches. He instructed Azalea to consume her portion over the next day; even protected by leaf wraps, the meat would not keep for long without salt or smoking.

“How did you learn all this?” Azalea asked curiously, slipping the meat into her pack. “Hunting, dressing, curing, cooking…You grew up in an orphanage, not out in the wild.”

Echo shrugged. “Instinct.”

“That’s not possible.”

“Then consider me a miracle child.”

Azalea huffed. “I bet you learned lots of things from being a mercenary,” she guessed. “You’ve probably done all sorts of strange things, like, like—catching crabs, or painting chicken eggs.”

Echo snorted. “That does not rank anywhere near the top of the strangest things I’ve done, but close enough.”

“Then what’s the strangest?”

He pondered this for a moment as he turned over logs in the campfire. “Once, I fixed a bunch of sandwiches and lined them up on the roof of the royal library.”

“What?” said Azalea dumbly. “Why?”

“The patron paid well and I didn’t ask. But goodness, I’d never seen so many pigeons in my life. Ah, yes, and there was that one lad who wanted a portrait defaced. Which isn’t particularly unusual; nobles like to be so very petty. Except the portrait was his own. And then he wanted to sell it after it was defaced. I’ll never understand that one.”

Azalea stared. Neither would she, apparently.

Echo snapped his fingers. “Oh, and playing midwife. I helped deliver a child in a moving carriage. Haven’t the slightest why somebody would hire a man as a midwife, much less an underground mercenary, but to each their own.”

“I thought you did very shady things,” Azalea said, dazed. “Like stealing and killing and kidnapping.”

“Oh, make no mistake. I did and do.” He looked at her flatly. “Like I said, I’m a terrible person. Crimes are my normal fare. Except kidnapping. I do not touch children, ever.”

“Because they’re your weak spot.”

“They are not a weak spot, they are simply a nuisance. More of a nuisance than they’re worth.” He leaned back against the stone wall. “Speaking of which, Little Red, I believe it’s past your bedtime.”

She bristled. “I don’t have a bedtime.”

“Really? Well, I do, and you’re wearing me out by making me talk.” He flopped down on his bedroll. “So good night.”

“So suddenly?”

He didn’t respond. Azalea watched as the fire flickered low, casting warm shadows on the unmoving facades of the cave walls.

“I’m grateful you told me,” she whispered in his direction. “Truly.”

There was a moment of silence. Then it was punctured by the loudest, most fake snore possible from Echo.

Azalea rolled her eyes and crawled into her bedroll. She let sleep take her, and found that surprisingly, she felt safe.

It was a cold and bright morning when they approached the boundary of the Noadic Range, which was demarcated by a startlingly severe line of powdered snow. Up close, the mountains seemed infinitely taller, stretching up until they disappeared into the sky, the rock faces sheer and insurmountable.

“Not too late to turn back,” Echo remarked, watching Azalea’s stunned face. “No one would fault you for it.”

She shook herself to her senses and lifted her chin. “This is the only chance we have to enlist the Whisperer.”

He only sighed as she turned to him to retrieve her pack, which somehow, he’d ended up carrying for her. Strange, when had that happened? She took it from him and shrugged it over her shoulders.

“Don’t forget about the dangers of sweat,” Echo warned. “It’ll freeze you inside that cozy cloak if you’re not paying attention.”

“I know,” Azalea said.

“Remember what the nice witch said. Dragons can manipulate mana. Don’t only watch their claws and teeth.”

“I know.”

“And don’t travel if you’ve overburned. Darkness and depth will be your greatest enemies, and your windsoles could save you from a nasty fall.”

“You fret like a mother hen.”

“I’m not fretting, I’m briefing you through a very basic checklist.”

“For the third time. That’s what we call fretting.”

“It’s not fretting. It’s called being prepared.”

“It’s fretting.”

Echo hummed and pressed his thumbs together. “Are you quite certain you want to go?”

Azalea stifled a laugh. “Goodbye, ma.

“I’ll have hot cocoa and milk buns waiting on the porch when you get home,” Echo responded at once.

She did laugh then, the sound strangely bright among their barren surroundings. She extended her hand, this time without guile, without anger.

“Take care, Wolf,” she said.

Echo eyed her hand for a moment. Then he sighed and shook it firmly. “For what it’s worth, Red, I hope you come back in one piece.”

“Thank you.”

“Because you’ll be worth a lot of money if we strike that Stabilizing deal.”

Her softness turned into a scowl. “Oh, for once in your life, don’t ruin the moment.”

“But I’m so good at it.”

Azalea shook her head with a light, exasperated noise. “Do me a favor, would you?” she asked.

“Shut up? Afraid I can’t.”

“I’ve given up on that. No, it’s something else.”

“So very demanding. I’m not usually one for favors, Little Red.”

“Even for dying wishes?”

He snorted. “Go for the throat, why don’t you.”

Azalea pressed on, her face growing serious. “Your predictions of critical zones could save entire cities. Please, consider sharing that knowledge with Guildmaster Cotton.” She saw him open his mouth, and hurried to finish. “You don’t have to reveal yourself. You can feed the information anonymously. But please. I don’t think you realize how important it is.”

Echo stared at her for a moment. “I don’t do things for free,” he finally said.

“But what if you did? What if you didn’t force yourself to be cold and greedy and lonely?” She reached out and brushed away a lock of hair that had fallen into his damaged eye. “You’re making yourself into something you don’t have to be.”

He scoffed and stepped away from her touch. “What, poor?”

“Ask for money, then, if that’s what will make the difference. But you could do it. The right thing. Many right things. You could be—”

“Good?” he said, an edge to his voice. “Perfect and law-abiding, like you?”

She swallowed. “Fulfilled. A part of something more.”

Echo didn’t even take a moment to consider her words. He only jerked his chin to the mountainside, the emotions in his eyes shuttered closed. “Your mission is over there, Little Red. Get to it.”

Azalea hesitated, biting her lip. She reached into her satchel and withdrew a cream-colored envelope, holding it out towards Echo.

“Then a different wish,” she said. “My Support, Wesley Geppett. He…deserves to know what I’m doing. That I’ll be gone.”

Echo’s face was stony as he folded in his arms. “You seem to be under the impression that I am your personal butler.”

“Please,” Azalea said. “You needn’t visit his estate. Truthfully, I—I don’t even know when he’ll wake. He was badly injured in the surge, and…it could be a very long time before he recovers. But if he wakes and starts looking for me—”

“Then you shouldn’t have left him in the first place.”

“I had to,” Azalea whispered. “But I can’t leave him without answers. Please, Echo.”

She tried to push the envelope into Echo’s hand. He pulled away and shook his head.

“You’ve misunderstood me, Little Red,” he said evenly. “You think me to have some kind and delicate soul for you to redeem, hm? But it’s not there. I am a mercenary, and money is the only language I speak.”

“A lonely language indeed.”

“All the better,” said Echo. “For I despise most of humanity.”

Azalea dropped the envelope. It wafted down and rested among the snow-dampened grass.

“Alright,” Azalea said softly. “You keep telling yourself that.”

Let those be the final words that haunted his dreams. She turned, and with the snow crunching lightly underfoot, disappeared into the maw of the Noadic Range.


It took Azalea an embarrassingly long moment to regain her ability to talk. By the time she had finally found words, Echo was already strutting into the garden with an easy smile and a friendly wave.

“Heidi, my girl,” he called. “How do you fare on this lovely afternoon?”

Woodland animals scattered at his approach—deer that had been lapping at the brook, raccoons that had been rummaging through the flowers, squirrels that had been digging up nuts. They retreated to mill around a young woman with a basket of vegetables swinging on the crook of her arm. She straightened at the sound of Echo’s voice, her eyes searching for its source.

Azalea blinked. The woman was…cute.

Short, pale hair the color of butter lettuce swayed below her chin, topped with a flowery pointed hat. A loose blouse was tucked into a floral skirt, cinched at her waist with a braided belt. She looked more like a cottage farmer than any sort of witch.

Azalea’s eyes narrowed. This couldn’t be Echo’s friend. She was so…soft. So normal.

The young woman—apparently named Heidi—gave a bright smile at Echo and waved back. “Why, if it isn’t Mr. Wolf!” she said. “What a lovely surprise!”

Echo grinned and gestured Azalea over. The animals around Heidi’s ankles scuttled off into the safety of the forest; two intruders were apparently too many for them.

“Heidi,” said Echo, pointing at Azalea, “this is—who was it? Ah, yes. Eat Dirt Wolf.”

Azalea cast a dour glare in his direction and turned to Heidi with a pleasant smile. “Azalea. Pleased to meet you.”

“Azalea!” said Heidi, beaming. “What a lovely name. It sounds so familiar.” Then she clapped her hands together. “But of course! I have a skull with the same name.”

Azalea blanched. “A…a skull?”

“Yes, I believe you’re right next to Katherine the Seventh. Or was it Pimpernel?” Heidi turned on her heel. “But where are my manners? You simply must come in for tea.”

As she sashayed to the base of the oak tree with a light, absentminded tune on her lips, Azalea leaned over to Echo.

“She has a skull,” she whispered urgently. “With my name.”

He shrugged. “You should be flattered. That’s the Cabbage Witch for you.”

“Cabbage Witch?”

He spread a hand towards a plot of dotted green. “From all the cabbages she grows.”

“That’s lettuce, not cabbage.”

“Does it matter?”

“It’s different as night and—never mind. Why does she have skulls?”

“Never thought to ask.”


“What? I’m not one to judge somebody’s hobbies.”

“I am if it means she’s killing people!”

“Nonsense. There’s no one to kill around here.”

“Then where are these skulls coming from?”

“Who knows? Maybe she bought them on market day.”


Heidi’s soft, cheery voice broke through their train of heated whispers. “Come on up,” she called.

She led them to the base of the oak tree. Azalea expected to see a flight of stairs winding around the trunk, or perhaps a ladder nailed to the wood. Instead, there was only an impossibly long braided rope leading up to the house’s front porch. Perhaps a pulley system, then? Or some other manner of hidden entryway?

But before Azalea could ask any questions, Heidi had sprung upon the rope, spry as a monkey, and scaled it with disturbing speed. In a manner of seconds, she was standing on the porch with her basket of vegetables easily in hand.

“I’ll put on the kettle,” she called down. “Climb at your own leisure. There’s no rush.”

She disappeared into the house, leaving Azalea to gape wordlessly at the rope.

“Cat got your tongue?” Echo said amusedly.

Azalea pointed at the rope. “Does she climb this every day? Just to get inside her own house?”

“Seems like it.”

Azalea craned her neck up, up, up to look at the house in the tree boughs. “All the way up there?

“Seems like it,” Echo repeated. He bowed. “After you.”

Azalea gritted her teeth and seized the rope, pulling herself upward. The fibers were remarkably silky under her fingers. Up close, she could even see a hint of color in the strands—pale green, almost like…

Oh, Myths. It was Heidi’s hair. The entire length of rope was braided out of her hair.

Azalea didn’t know how to feel about that. Impressed? Disgusted? Fascinated? How long had it taken for Heidi to grow her hair to that length? How many times had she brushed it? How had she washed it, dried it? Azalea couldn’t imagine the amount of oils and extracts necessary to have kept that much hair in good condition.

“We don’t have all day, Red,” Echo said from below.

She glared down at him, but doubled her pace, scaling the rope carefully. She had no fear of heights, but swinging from a rope at this distance made all the vegetable plots spin together in a sickening way, so she fixed her eyes upward. A few more agonizing minutes and she pulled herself on the porch, dusting off her skirt.

“Well?” she called down to Echo.

He crooked his neck to one side, then the other. Leaned over to stretch his waist. Cleared his throat.

“Oh, just hurry up and climb,” Azalea said.

Then Echo fired his windsoles, arced up in the air, and landed nearly on the porch. All without lifting a finger.

Azalea’s jaw slackened. Echo only clicked his tongue.

“You really should have thought of that first, Red,” he said.

She flushed. “Well, I—I saw Heidi, and I just assumed—”

“I know, I know. You watched who went before you and followed their example to the letter.” Echo shook his head. “That’s the tragedy with Academy students. They have such good instincts, but they never use them. Nope, follow who’s in front of you. Follow them off a damn cliff.”

Azalea blinked owlishly at him for a moment, wordless. Echo arced a brow in her direction.

“What?” he said.

“You were an Academy student, weren’t you?” Azalea said slowly.

He chuckled. “Do I look like I had that kind of money, Red?”

“Do you need money to infiltrate those kinds of places?” she challenged.

Another chuckle. “You’re learning fast.”

“Da used to say that hatred comes from one of two places,” Azalea said. “The first is ignorance, which turns into fear. The second is a love that turns sour.” She regarded him carefully. “You don’t seem to be ignorant about anything. So I think…you hate things that you used to love.”

Echo shoved his hands into his pockets with a wry smile. “Well, Red, your da’s a sage fellow, but he also happens to be very wrong. People hate things for all sorts of reasons, and most of them are irrational.”

Azalea frowned. “You’re saying that you’re irrational?”

“Oh, very. You should see my histrionics when the baker’s out of blackberry pie.” He turned and pushed the front door of Heidi’s house wide open. “Now, are you ready for tea?”

The treehouse—tree-cottage, really—wasn’t quite so idyllic and fastidious on the inside. It was a messy yet charming brew of an antique shop and an evil witch’s lair. Rustic wooden shelves were stuffed with jars, some with herbs, some with powders, some with body parts and organs and eyeballs steeping in a viscous liquid. A large cauldron sat on a firepit in the center of the room, mint-colored and painted with wildflowers. Skulls were placed on knit table scarves and hung on the walls next to embroidery samplers—large, brutal, animalistic skulls with harsh angles and horns, too outlandish for Azalea to recognize.

She sighed, relieved. They weren’t human skulls.

Heidi was pulling out little jars of tea leaves and setting them on a pastel table covered with lace doilies. “Have a seat,” she said, gesturing to the bone-white chairs—oh no, they were actually made of bone, weren’t they?—dressed with cute embroidered cushions.

Azalea sat gingerly on the nearest chair and tried not to think about what creature it was pulled out of. Echo sprawled opposite her as if it were common practice for him to lounge on piles of bones.

“The rope out there,” Azalea said, turning to Heidi. “Is it hair? Your hair?”

“Why, yes it is,” Heidi said brightly. Her fingers reached up to flutter once through her cropped locks. “My mother, you see—she used to say my hair was enchanted and I oughtn’t cut it. But goodness, it could be inconvenient. So I eventually did.” She frowned. “Mother never came home after that, though. Maybe she couldn’t forgive that betrayal.”

Azalea opened her mouth. Then closed it. Heidi’s answers had a nasty habit of spawning infinitely more questions, and Azalea was beginning to fear asking them.

Heidi grabbed a cutesy kettle and made her way to a large clay jug. She peered inside, then gasped.

“But pardon me!” she said. “It seems I’ve forgotten to refill the water pot.”

“Oh, it’s alright,” Azalea said reassuringly. “We don’t need beverages.”

“Nonsense, everybody needs liquids. Bodies are mostly made of water.” And with that delightful comment, Heidi plunged out of the porch, diving eighty feet to the ground below.

Azalea squeaked and reached for her, but she was already gone. She gaped at the empty space where the witch had once been. Had Heidi gone all the way down just to fetch some water? Did she have to do that every time she needed water?

“There has to be a more convenient way to retrieve things,” Azalea said dumbly.

Echo shrugged and leaned in close to examine one of the skulls. “No harm in a bit of exercise.”

“She must climb hundreds of feet every day!”

“And has the muscles to prove it. You should see her biceps.”

“What happens if the hair rope burns up? Or if it’s a rainy day?”

“Oh, I’m sure she’s resourceful enough to figure it out.” He flicked at the skull’s snout with his finger. “Say, is this the ‘Azalea?’ I see the family resemblance.”

Azalea buried her head in her arms. Hopeless. Her entire journey was utterly hopeless.

She was distracted by a soft feeling brushing along her legs. She peeked through her fingers. It was not a bolt of silken fabric that had spontaneously gained sentience, like she expected, but a beautiful black cat with huge eyes and a pink button nose.

“Oh!” Azalea said softly. “She has a cat.” She picked up the cat and rubbed two fingers over its head, between its soft ears. She partially expected it to thrash or claw at her, but it only curled lazily in her lap. Something warmed in her chest.

Echo snorted, eying the cat distrustfully. “Of course she has a cat. What self-respecting witch doesn’t?”

“You shouldn’t call girls witches.”

“It’s just an occupation. I say a baker is a baker, and a witch is a witch.” He squinted at the cat. “Maybe you have latent witch blood. That cat seems to like you.”

“There’s no such thing as witch blood. Everyone is capable of magic. And loving animals.” Azalea scratched under the cat’s chin, and it purred. “I wonder what its name is.”

“Her name is May May,” came Heidi’s voice. She clambered in from the porch, a bucket of water precariously balanced on her head. “Oh! And she’s getting along with you! That’s wonderful. Usually she tries to claw out the eyes of anybody new.”

Azalea recoiled a little bit. May May hissed at her until she returned to patting her head.

“Something about you must feel familiar to her,” Heidi mused. She filled the kettle with water and snapped her fingers. Fire blazed to life under a small wood-fired stove in the corner. “What tea would you like? I’ve all the regulars like jasmine, chamomile, peach, rose hip—oh, and some you’ve probably never tried, like mercurial zest or aurora stardrop.”

It seemed like a waste to take regular tea at a witch’s cottage, so Azalea requested aurora stardrop. Echo asked for bloodhemp and sulfur, which sounded completely inedible. Still, Heidi mixed leaves without complaint, humming cheerily as Echo’s cup began to give off a foul odor.

“Heidi, my dear,” said Echo, “we’ve come to you for a bit of advice.”

“Advice!” said Heidi. “How rare.”

“Yes, well, this small child is headed to the Noadic Range.” He clapped Azalea on the shoulder. She glared at him, and May May hissed. “Any words of wisdom for her that could potentially keep her alive?”

Heidi slowed. For the first time, her lips thinned and her eyes lost their gleam.

“That’s a very dangerous journey,” she said softly. “Are you quite certain?”

Azalea swallowed. Somehow, being told that a location was dangerous by a witch who daily climbed hundreds of feet and made bloodhemp and sulfur tea and decorated with skulls gave her mission more weight. But she couldn’t back down. Not with the Storm looming.

“I have to,” she said firmly. She raised her chin. “Please, Miss Heidi. If you can tell me what you know about the dangers…”

“Oh, I don’t enter the Range,” Heidi said. “I glean what I can from the outskirts, but any further, and it’s simply too easy to get lost. The Range is always changing, you know, much like the Talebloom beyond the Hedge.”

“But you navigate the Hedge all the time for ingredients,” Echo said. “You must have discovered some secret.”

Heidi gasped. “The Talebloom is completely different from the Range! Don’t mention them in the same sentence.”

“But you just—”

“It’s full of life, and color, and delicious things to eat, while the Range is too cold for anything tasty, or the tasty things are too magical to be edible.” Heidi shuddered. “That is the most potent predator of the Range: hunger.”

Echo grinned at Azalea. “Sounds like somebody better get used to butchering intestines.”

“I’m fine with butchering,” Azalea said sullenly. “You’re the one who has to make it look all gross.”

In the corner, the kettle began to sing on its stove. Actually sing. It wisped out an airy little tune like a small flute. Heidi plucked it from the stove and began to pour boiling water into the teacups.

“Other than hunger,” she said, humming thoughtfully, “there are loads of vicious creatures to look out for. Dragons. And ghosts. But mostly dragons, all sorts of them. What would you like in your tea?”

Azalea blinked, unbalanced. She wished Heidi would stick to one topic. “Oh. Um. Uh, what do you have?”

Heidi waved a hand toward her shelves of powders and eyeballs. “All sorts! Pickled luckroot, ground leviathan’s tooth, extract of Sera’s Clover…”

Azalea swallowed. “Do you have…honey?”

“Let me check.” Heidi uncapped a plump clay jar and peered inside. “Oh dear. It looks like I’ve run out. I suppose I’ll have to ask the bees for some more—”

“Wait!” Azalea blurted, as the young witch looked ready to plunge out the door again. “It’s fine! I take my tea plain.”

“Are you quite certain? It’s no trouble.”

It seems like immense trouble! Azalea thought, but she managed to smile disarmingly. “Yes, it’s fine. Thank you.” She eyed her teacup, which seemed to be sparkling, little pinpricks of prismatic light bubbling in the liquid. “You were saying…about dragons?”

Heidi returned to her seat and idly stirred her cup of tea. “The dragons, yes. You see, fighting a dragon is quite different from corruptions. They are noble creatures, wrought with mana themselves, and thus cannot be maddened or corrupted. If anything, the terrible flood of mana from a Storm simply makes them sleepy.”

“Sleepy,” Azalea repeated, disbelieving.

“Oh, yes, like a child who’s suffered too many sweets,” said Heidi will a gleam in her eye. “Nevertheless, the mythical beasts will demand your fear and respect. They are decently large and often endowed with great wings, sharp claws, and impervious scales—but the true threat, like the greater corruptions, lies in their ability to manipulate mana.”


“Breathing fire or water, releasing electricity from their spines, spewing venomous bile, even changing the ground about them. Abilities that you might see from a grand, ah, what is it you city folk say—Class Four or Five.”

Azalea paled and pressed shaking hands around her warm teacup, willing some of the heat to bleed into her bones.

“My,” said Echo. She almost jumped at the sound of his voice right next to her ear. “That sounds absolutely dreadful. I guess we’d better stay away from the Range.”

She shot a glare in his direction and tried a sip of her tea to regain her composure. The taste was sweet and full with a shimmering aftertaste, like dancing lights over snow-capped mountains. Aurora stardrop was a very fitting name.

Rejuvenated, she turned back to Heidi. “Is there any way to pass peaceably? Or even tame the dragons?”

Heidi tapped her cheek. “I don’t think so. Dragons do not answer very kindly to orders.”

“But the Whisperer has found a way with them.”


“You must have met him,” Echo said. “He’s the ominous-looking fellow who lives in the Range. Black mask, red cloak made of dragon scales—”

“Oh!” Heidi said, smiling brightly. “The nice skull seller. Yes, he’s quite lovely.”

“Skull seller?” Azalea said faintly.

“Lovely?” Echo said amusedly.

“Yes, where else would I have gotten all these wonderful skulls?”

Azalea decided not to answer that particular question.

Heidi leaned forward and laced her fingers together. “The Whisperer is more dragonkin than mortal,” Heidi replied. “He was raised by a brood-mother since childhood. Or, well, so he has claimed. I suppose I wouldn’t know any better if he were lying.”

“Oh, yes, people lie all the time about who they are,” Echo observed sagely, sipping at his noxious tea.

“I don’t want to hear that from you,” Azalea said dourly.

“Don’t be too hard on him,” Heidi said sympathetically. “What’s to say the lies are not more truth than the truth, after a certain point?”


“Ah, the metaphysical question as old as time,” Echo said with a wise nod. “What makes us ourselves?”

“That’s not—what? Who cares?”

“Why, everybody,” said Heidi, surprised. “It’s the question that drives people to live.”

“You’re not making sense,” Azalea said crossly.

“What is sense,” hummed Echo, stroking his chin, “but collective learned behavior adopted by a culture over several generations?”

“Oh yes,” agreed Heidi. “That’s why I’ve lost all sense. My mother died rather young and I haven’t a grandmother, so there goes my hope of having generations. And having sense.”

Azalea’s head was beginning to hurt. “The, the dragons,” she stammered. Yes, back to the initial topic. That was her best option. “I can’t—I can’t quite tame a dragon, so, um, I’ll need some other way to survive on the Range.”

“Yes, any chance that we could find a more…accessible method?” Echo said, rubbing his chin. “I imagine that friendly dragons are in short supply.”

“Perhaps we could call the skull seller here,” Azalea tried. “I mean, he has to sell skulls somehow…”

“Oh, I’m sorry, but he only comes calling as he so pleases,” Heidi said sympathetically. “He’s very inconsistent, you see. Sometimes he’ll come every day for a week, and other times, he’ll disappear for months on end.”

Azalea slumped a little. She’d expected as much; the idea was simply too convenient to be true.

“What about where he lives?” Echo said. “Has he mentioned his residence at all? A nest, perhaps, or a den?”

Heidi shook her head. “If you must have an immediate audience with the skull seller, I’m afraid that there’s only one way.”

Azalea leaned forward in her chair. Echo raised a brow.

“When you enter the Range, challenge a powerful beast,” Heidi said. “He will seek you out then, hopefully before you perish to the trial.”

Azalea trembled as Echo whistled. “A…beast?” she repeated.

“The seller is drawn to powerful things,” Heidi said. “He feels the insatiable need to challenge them, conquer them, grow from them. If you make a big spectacle, I’m sure he won’t be able to resist. He’ll flock to the sight at once.”

Of course. Was that why the Whisperer had appeared in Northelm—to fight the Class Four basilisk? And why he had attacked Halcyon—to challenge a powerful Hunter? It certainly explained several of the Whisperer’s appearances. Yet Azalea could not shake the feeling that there was something more to the story. Sometimes she wondered if the Whisperer was also following her.

Azalea squared her shoulders. She brushed a protesting May May off her lap and got to her feet. “Then it seems that I have my plan,” she said. “Thank you for your time, Miss Heidi, and your generous knowledge.”

Echo stood quickly. “Hold on, Red. This all sounds lovely and convenient, but let’s take a moment to think it through. You’re going to willingly challenge not just any beast, but a beast on the Noadic Range. This will be the strongest enemy you’ve ever faced in your entire life. Quite possibly as strong as a Class Five. What’s to say you won’t get crushed like a bug in five seconds flat? Or what if the Whisperer never shows up and leaves you to die?”

Azalea met his mismatched gaze. His face was placid and devoid of emotion, but it almost sounded like he was…concerned. It deserved a truthful response.

“When I left Mythaven, I had already come to terms with the fact that I will probably die,” she said quietly. “The important thing now is that I do my best to find the Whisperer.”

“What makes you think he’ll listen to you?” Echo demanded. “No, even if he does listen…what makes you think he’ll stand a chance? He’s one person.”

“He’s one more person,” Azalea corrected. “Which is what we need.” Karis Caelute had been only one person, and without her, all of Grimwall would have perished.

Echo’s eyes scoured Azalea’s hard face and the stubborn set of her jaw. He sighed and slumped back in his chair, shrugging loosely.

“It’s your life, Little Red,” he said. “I won’t tell you how to ruin it.”

Azalea nodded, trying to veil the depth of her nerves. It was impossible for her to conquer a creature that was as powerful as a Class Four; she would simply have to rely on a timely interruption from the Whisperer before she was inevitably roasted into an afternoon morsel.

Suddenly, with her doom close at hand, Azalea found the future rather difficult to face.

“Well, I think it’s very brave,” said Heidi sympathetically. “Would you like some treats to hurry things along?”

“Treats?” said Azalea.

Echo waved an arm. “Ah, yes. I forgot to mention. Meet the vendor of my bait.”

Bait. Bait?


Of course Echo would not have synthesized corruption bait himself; he would have purchased it from a contact. And it only made sense that his contact would be a reclusive witch with great familiarity in unstable brews.

Azalea’s shoulders loosened. At least terribly dangerous concoctions were not being cooked up by the average unknowing housewife or ill-meaning thief.

“I thought…I was a little worried, you know, that all sorts of people were making bait,” she said, relieved. “I’m glad that it has to be made by a witch or a sage.”

Echo shook his head. “Little Red, you have an overwhelmingly high opinion of the average civilian’s magical capabilities.” He glanced at Heidi. “I think it’s best to forego the bait. Better for her to pick and choose her target.”

“Thank you, though,” Azalea added quickly, flushing. “You’ve been so very hospitable. And very helpful. Really, it might save my life.”

“Oh, I hardly said anything useful,” Heidi said. “But you’re very welcome. I do hope you survive. I imagine the skull seller would be quite put out to see you die.”

Azalea frowned. “Why’s that?”

“Look at the time!” Echo said promptly, leaping to his feet. “I daresay we’d best get going.”

“Wait,” Azalea said. “What does she mean?”

Echo was hurrying to the door. “I’m sure she would love to say, but you know how it is, occupational secrets, forbidden draughts and brews, world-ending prophesies, things that witches must not share.

“Ah,” said Heidi after a belated pause. “Yes, I’m very secretive.”

“Lovely seeing you, dear Heidi, and thank you for the pleasurable company. I’ll slip in something extra on our next trade.”

“Think nothing of it,” Heidi said with a wave. “It’s good for me to practice mortal tongues from time to time!”

“Um, thank you, Miss Heidi,” Azalea said quickly, even as Echo was not-so-subtly gripping her shoulders and pushing her out the door. “You’re very nice. And you have a lovely cat. Have a good—good day, night, um, bye!”

The door clicked shut. Silence fell over the porch of the tree-cottage.

Azalea turned to Echo, putting her hands on her hips. “You were very rude.”

“Absolutely,” he agreed. “You should see my bedside manner. It’s atrocious.”

Azalea sighed and jumped down from the porch, landing with a soft swell of her windsoles. It had been plain enough, even to her, that Echo was trying to conceal something from her. But in a way, he was right. There wasn’t much time afforded to her, and in the end, the Whisperer’s secrets did not matter in the face of his sheer power.

“Then onward we go,” she said, turning her steps north. “The Range awaits.”


Azalea overslept.

She knew it as she fuzzily came to, the sun hot on her cheek, the air alight with a racket of birdsong. She sat up and squinted against the blaring sunlight and the broad, open sky.

It was a beautiful, clear day, and far past dawn. It was almost noon.

Infuriated, Azalea threw aside her cot and stormed to Echo, who was hunched over the fire, smothering the final embers with soil.

“Why didn’t you wake me?” she demanded.

Echo glanced up at the bright blue sky. “Oh, fancy that. The sun’s risen.”

Insufferable. Her jaw tightened. “You act as if we have all the time in the world. Has it dawned on you that we have very little at all?”

“Apparently it just dawned on you,” Echo chuckled.

How badly she wanted to kick him in the shin.

“Have a drink.” He tossed her a flask. Her flask. “You’re dehydrated from sleeping.”

She glowered at him as she popped it open and took a generous sip. “Don’t touch my things.”

He shrugged. “Tall order for a thief and a murderer. I make no promises.” But he clasped his hands behind his back as they finished putting out the fire and headed out.

Echo led them off the road and into the Talebloom Woods, the massive stretch of forest that covered Airlea’s entire western border. The outskirts were mostly safe, speckled with a ring of rural villages that subsisted off its fertile land and plentiful wildlife. Azalea’s birthplace, Lumber’s Hollow, had been one of them. But the further one traveled to the Talebloom’s heart, the greater the risk. Ancient magic weighed the air and seeped into the gnarled roots of the oaks, bringing the forest to life in an ever-shifting maze of trees. Countless secrets were hidden within the boughs; a particularly intrepid cartographer had glimpsed the ruined remains of an old castle, only to be driven mad by a beast that lay within.

So many ways to die, Azalea mused. So many natural dangers surrounding Airlea, most of them yet unknown. Yet here she was, voluntarily walking into one of them.

“Your friend lives in the Talebloom?” she asked Echo, who was picking his way deeper into the forest.

He glanced back at her. “Surprised?”

“I didn’t think people lived this far in,” she said. She frowned. “How much time will this trip lose us?”

“Don’t worry your little red head.” He turned back to pathfinding. “She’s far north. Rather close to the Noadic Range herself.”

Azalea wondered what this friend was like. Was she an ex-mercenary? Forged by the underground, like Echo? Then she would be cold and hard as steel, rough on the edges. A person had to be to survive the perils of both the Talebloom and the Noadic Range. Azalea would have to prepare herself for the worst.

There wasn’t much else to do other than talk, so she fished for information as they walked. “How do you know where to go?” she asked. The Talebloom seemed to expand endlessly in every direction, an ocean of trees and brambles.

Echo tilted his head. “I can smell her, of course.”

Azalea frowned. “That sounds like a lie.”

Echo hummed. “Why’s that?”

“The woods are full of fragrant things,” she said. “Flowers. Grass. Skunks. Manure. Something would block the scent.”

“Somebody likes horticulture.”

“I grew up in the woods.”

Echo ducked beneath a low branch. “Well, I do make a habit of lying, but this is one of those boring times when I tell the truth,” he said. “I’m smelling her…metaphorically. Or rather, magically.”

“Magically?” Sensory manacraft was very rare. Most people could not change their bodies to have better sight or smell or hearing. But Azalea supposed that he had to be telling the truth; he was known for tracking people, after all. “How does that work?” she asked curiously.

Echo smiled amusedly. “Nope, that’s all I can say. Can’t be giving away my trade secrets, now.”

His steps slowed and he raised his head. His crimson eye burned, the pupil constricting into a slit, and his nostrils flared. Then it was gone in the blink of an eye and he seemed normal.

Azalea squinted. Wait. Hadn’t she seen him do that before?

“Hmm,” Echo muttered, rubbing his chin. “It moved her a mile inland. Cutting it rather close, but an eastern detour should avoid the Hedge—”

“You did that,” Azalea said suddenly. “When we first met.”

Echo’s eyes snapped to her and he tilted his head. “Did what?”

“The—the eye thing. The nose thing. Does that happen when you’re picking out a scent? A magical one, I mean.”

“Haven’t the slightest what you’re talking about.” He stepped over the thorny bush and continued trotting, his direction apparently determined.

“That’s a lie,” Azalea accused.

“Yes, aptly spotted.”

“That’s what you look like when you use your manacraft. That’s how you’re tracking her.”

Echo shrugged. “Very possible.”

Azalea glared at his back. She jogged at his heels to keep up with his quickening pace. “How does anybody hire you when you never give a straight answer?”

Echo chuckled dryly. “Most wealthy people don’t want straight answers. They’d rather twist them up.”

“That makes no sense.”

“Oh, it makes plenty. It just means you haven’t been wealthy.”

Azalea lifted her chin. “Well, I think you lie because you’re scared.”

“Terrified, in fact,” Echo said without hesitation.

He was unflappable. Impossible. He had an answer to everything.

Azalea glared harder at his back, not that it would do anything. “Terrified of what?”

“Can’t say. I’m too scared to not lie about it.”

This awful man. “I think that you’re scared of being genuine,” Azalea said staunchly. “Maybe it’s because it would make you vulnerable. Or maybe you’re scared to see who you truly are.”

He smiled enigmatically. “And who am I, Little Red?”

She eyed him for a moment, then sighed. “I wouldn’t know. You don’t share anything about yourself.”

Echo opened his mouth to respond, but whatever glib words were forming on his silver tongue quickly died. His eyes darted to the boughs above them and he frowned, tilting his head again.

“No more comebacks?” Azalea challenged.

He was quiet for another moment. Curious, Azalea listened with him. The forest was peaceful at this hour, devoid of the usual birdsong and chittering of insects, still and silent. It was almost eerie.

“It’s shifting,” Echo said suddenly.

Azalea’s head jerked up. “What?”

“Follow.” Without any further explanation, his windsoles fired and he shot off into the woods.

Bewildered, Azalea sped after him, darting between tree boughs as fast as she could. Echo was not as quick as Karis, but he was just as maneuverable, winding over brambles and around trunks and through branches like a slinking fox. His white hair rippled softly behind him like a silken scarf.

“Is this another one of your tricks?” Azalea called, barely avoiding a nasty face-plant into a thorny shrub.

Echo did not respond and only vaulted over a fallen log. Azalea reached out to follow him, but right as her hand touched the dry wood—

—it splintered under her weight, cracking in two.

Azalea stumbled. She just managed to right herself with a quick burst of her windsoles, but she couldn’t regain her balance. The trees were spinning before her, the ground shaking beneath her feet. The entire world seemed off-kilter, out of sync. Did she have a fever? This would be a terrible time to fall ill.

Then, just to her left, a broad tree groaned heavily, toppling right toward her.

“Arya!” cried Echo’s voice sharply.

Who’s that? Azalea thought. But she had no time to entertain the question. She fired her windsoles and arced easily out of harm’s way, but her landing was shaky. All around her, the earth rattled in a low grumble, churning like a pot of boiling porridge.

It hadn’t been her imagination. The ground was actually moving.

Oh, Azalea thought. Oh. Oh dear.

She felt something seize her arm in a painful grip, and her head shot up. Echo’s burning, mismatched gaze wobbled in her vision.

“Pick up the pace if you don’t want to be lost forever, Red,” he said curtly. “The entire forest is shifting.”

Questions bubbled in Azalea’s mind, one after the other in a never-ending stream, but she shut her mouth and nodded. She had never seen Echo look quite so serious, and it gave her the sinking feeling that they were genuinely in danger.

They sped through the forest with new urgency in their steps, windsoles flaring in rhythm. Over and under, left and right, around. The trees smeared by them in streaks of earthy colors, moaning and shaking as the world turned sideways. Echo only pushed them faster, rushing forward like a charging bull.

When they broke into an idyllic, sunlit clearing of wildflowers, he finally slowed his pace to a leisurely stroll, catching his breath. Azalea did the same. In the distance, the forest shook once more, then calmed.

“What was that?” Azalea demanded.

Echo glanced over his shoulder. “The shift? You’ve lived by the Talebloom. You know about the Hedge.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about.” She did know about the Hedge. She’d known of it ever since she was a child, with Lumber’s Hollow being a stone’s throw from the forest. It was the name of the invisible boundary that demarcated the dangerous, ever-changing heart of the woods.

Echo tilted his head in his typical, aggravating fashion. “Then what were you talking about?” he said.

Azalea crossed her arms. “Why did you lead us through the Hedge? You might have gotten us out, but if one thing went wrong—”

“Well, good thing nothing did.”

“We could have died.

“You’re on your way to an early grave anyway.”

Echo.” His mercenary experience be damned. Azalea grabbed his shoulder and forcibly turned him.

He whirled around like the wind. One moment, he had been strolling easily with his hands in his pockets; the next, his knife was pointed right at her throat. Azalea felt the brush of bone at her jugular, but she stood there, meeting his gaze without faltering.

“We would have died for nothing,” she said evenly. “You took an unnecessary risk.”

Echo’s crimson eye burned. “If I wanted you dead, Little Red, your body would already be rotting. Many times over.”

The child inside her wanted to quail and step away, to cry in fear, but she didn’t. She raised her chin. “I know that,” she said. “I know you’ve been trying to make good on your deal. But I still want answers.”

Echo stared at her for a long moment—a moment that lingered until the first chirp of a tentative birdsong fluttered in the air. Then he sighed and slid his knife back into its sheath. The knot between Azalea’s shoulders slowly unfurled as the forest filled again with the soft noise of animals and insects. She hadn’t thought he would kill her, but it was always difficult to tell.

“The Hedge is expanding,” Echo said placidly. “Probably because of all the Storms.” He gestured to the trees around them. “We shouldn’t have hit the border for another two miles…if my old information had been correct. I won’t make the same mistake again.”

Azalea nodded. “Alright,” she said. Then, quietly: “Thank you.”

“It’s hardly an occasion for gratitude.” He sighed and picked a thistle out of his shirt. “Just another thing the rural folk have to worry about. Come, our destination is right through this cave.”

The cave in question was more of a dingy, narrow tunnel that forced them to drop into a crawl. Thankfully, it was a short way—only a few yards before the tunnel opened back into fresh air.

“Who’s Arya?” Azalea asked as they inched through the crawlspace.

“Hm?” said Echo. “Who’s who, now?”

“You just called me that,” she said. “When the tree fell on me.”

He paused for just a moment before the reply came, smooth and unaffected. “It just seemed to fit you. It’s not like I know your real name.”

She bristled. “Yes, you do! I told you when we first met!”

“Oh, did you now?”

“There’s no way you didn’t look up everything about me. My name, my battle records, my academics, my birthplace—wait, you knew the full names of my parents!”

“Only because they grow rather stunning tomatoes. Very important distinction.”

Oh, she hated him. She hated him. She thought she’d come close to trusting him today, just a tiny bit, but she’d been so very wrong.

“Silly me, forgetting your name like that,” Echo said. His voice was so smug and she wanted to wring it dry. “What was it again?”

“Eat dirt, Wolf.”

“Odd name, but whatever suits you.”

He pulled out of the tunnel and reached out a hand towards Azalea. She slapped it away and pushed herself to her feet, taking in a lungful of fresh, sweet air, letting her eyes adjust to the sudden influx of light.

When her vision cleared, she audibly gasped.

The scene before her was like a painting. A crystalline brook wove through a vibrant, open glade, fine blades of verdant grass nodding at its banks. Plots of flowers and garden vegetables sprawled in a canvas of bright, splashing color. At the very center towered an enormous oak tree, boughs spreading to the sky like flowering arms. Nested high on its branches was a remarkable cottage, lovely and quaint with pointy corners and smooth edges, looking just like a fairy house from Azalea’s childhood picturebooks.

It was a vision, a paradise, a dream.

“And here we are,” Echo said, a hint of mirth coloring his voice. “Welcome to the cottage of the Cabbage Witch.”


The roads were beaten and empty where Azalea walked. Trade had temporarily ceased and travelers were scarce, leading to a very quiet journey up the northern path. Echo had been trailing behind for some time, uncharacteristically silent. Azalea didn’t know why, but she would count her blessings. The encounter with her parents had left her feeling sore, and she was not in the mood to entertain witty repartee.

She tipped her head up and breathed in the damp air. Being like this—alone, in a quiet place where the world ignored her—reminded her of the beginning, when the Knight’s Academy of Mythaven had seemed so fresh, so new, and so very, very big.

In those days, she’d been alone. None of the other students wanted anything to do with her. When she smiled and greeted them, they ducked their heads, or turned away, or in rare cases, met her with a sneer. She tried sitting with others at mealtime, but whenever she set her plate on a table, the others would make themselves scarce. Or kick her from the table.

“I’m sorry,” a pretty student said once, tossing her head so her golden curls bounced on her shoulders. “We don’t allow animals at this table, forest girl.”

Azalea hadn’t understood at first. “That’s alright,” she said, moving to sit. “I don’t have one.”

“I’m talking about you, uncultured swine. Now get your filthy mitts off this table!” And she kicked Azalea hard in the shin. Azalea stumbled, spilled her beef roast and baked potato all over the floor, and learned her lesson.

It was because, she learned later, she was poor and lacked influence. Of the Academy’s many students, only three were commoners who lacked any tie to the noble houses. The Academy was not merely a battle school, after all, but a prestigious institute that primed its pupils to become officers, captains, and Hunters through a myriad of illustrious connections. Admission was not limited to the aristocracy on paper, but the astronomical tuition practically made it so. Commoners would find better luck enlisting in the National Garrison and attempting to climb the ranks there.

But because Azalea had been sponsored by not just her da, but all of Maple Point—the town-reeve who liked the cookies she baked, the militia captain who taught her bladework, the carpenter who bought lumber from her da, the teacher who loved the fresh fruit from her ma’s garden—she had just narrowly been able to afford enrollment. It had demanded a price from her, too; she’d trained with the militia day and night to win the Academy’s Grant for Promising Youth, which would quarter her tuition.

Of course, none of her efforts would change the fact that she was poor as dirt and lacked any noble backing. So long as that was true, the other students would have nothing to do with her.

It was a few weeks into the academic year when Azalea walked into the dining hall and saw a group of students crowding around a table, deep in discussion. She recognized one of them as the boy who had given the perfect windsole demonstration, the one who everybody was always whispering about—chestnut hair, downy brows, and a pleasant face.

He spoke heatedly until his cheeks flushed. The other students yelled back at him, then turned away and left him sitting alone at the table. He slumped back in his chair, looking so tired and dejected that Azalea’s heart ached for him.

She glanced around the dining room. All the other students had formed their own little circles, chatting and laughing and having a lovely luncheon. Only the windsole boy was sitting alone.

But if I sit with him, he might kick my shins, Azalea thought. Or take up his plate. Or say something dreadful.

The boy ran a hand through his hair, pushing up the neatly combed locks into fluffy, unruly spikes. The shape softened his face and made him look somewhat endearing.

Azalea made her decision.

Silently, she approached the windsole boy’s table. Her grip tightened on her plate of boiled chicken until her knuckles turned white. She found herself desperately hoping that his kind face would not twist in scorn at the sight of her.

She needn’t have worried. The boy didn’t even look up as she stepped up to his table.

“Look,” he said tiredly, “if your parents put you up to this, then don’t bother. My father ignores me anyway. Go find my brothers or something, if you’re that wanting of connections.”

Azalea paused, her plate suspended over the table. What strange words. She took a moment to turn them over in her mind, to try to understand them.

“My parents haven’t put me up to anything,” she eventually said. “I haven’t spoken with them in weeks.”

The boy wearily looked at her. Then he suddenly jumped in his seat, banging his leg against the table in the process. He hissed through his teeth and sank back down.

“You’re the—you’re her,” he said quickly. “The girl everyone’s talking about. I didn’t—sorry, I didn’t realize.”

He shoved some of his books back into a bag, clearing some room for her. Azalea took this as assent and set her plate next to him.

“I think you’re mistaken,” she said plainly, swinging her legs over the chair and sitting at the table. “No one’s talking about me.”

“No, it’s definitely you. You’re the no-name from the forest, right?” He flinched. “Sorry, sorry, not a no-name, that’s—that’s rude, sorry. We just don’t hear much about the border villages here in Mythaven.”

“That’s alright,” Azalea said. “There’s not much to hear. Most of us are dead.”

The windsole boy flinched again, looking distinctly apologetic. Azalea couldn’t figure out why. Nothing he said had been inaccurate. Except, she had technically come from Maple Point, which was an inland town and not a border village, but she supposed that it was all the same to the aristocrats.

“What brings you here?” the boy said, sweeping away more of the clutter under an arm. “To this humble table, I mean. Not that the wood is humble, the wood is quite nice. Quality mahogany, surprisingly expensive. The table is humble because—well, I’m sitting here—and all of this is besides the point. What brings you here?”

Azalea tilted her head, then pointed at her plate of boiled chicken and potatoes.

“I need tablespace to eat,” she said.

To her surprise, the boy threw back his head and laughed. It was an earnest laugh, the cozy kind that felt like spiced cider in the winter. Azalea almost smiled.

“Alright then,” he said, still grinning. “Eating. Yup. That’s what mess tables were made for.”

His eyes were the color of amber, she realized, and caught the light in a mesmerizing way, like an earthy chunk of mana quartz. She stared at them curiously as she tried the boiled chicken, which was a bit lemony, with some pepper. She liked it.

“So,” she said, “you’re…Wesley.”

The windsole boy glanced at her. “That’s it?” he said carefully. “You don’t know my family name?”

Azalea shook her head. “It’s already difficult to keep everyone in the school straight. Family names would double the number of words I have to memorize.”

Wesley choked on something and quickly covered his mouth. “That’s—yes, true. You’re not wrong. But just between us”—and he made a vague gesture with his arms—“if you’re talking with anyone else in the school, you might want to memorize their family name instead of their given name. People can get rather…sensitive about it.”

She watched him for any tricks, but he seemed to be genuine. Just a bit nervous.

“Alright,” she said, even though she didn’t understand why. “Then what’s yours?”

Wesley started a little. “My what?”

“Your family name.”

Wesley looked at her for a long moment, his face blanched white. He eventually ducked his head, poking at his potatoes.

“I mean, anyone else but me,” he mumbled. “I’m not very sensitive about it. Call me—I know, call me Wes! How’s that?”

Azalea nodded. “Okay. Wes sounds nice.”

His cheeks colored a bit, and he cleared his throat. “And you’re Azalea, right?”

She blinked. “Yes. How did you know?”

“Oh, well.” Wes waved a hand awkwardly. “I have…a pretty good memory. I mean, we’re in the same class.”

“We are,” Azalea agreed. “I saw your windsole jump.”

Wes blinked. “Windsoles?”

“Oh, it was so beautiful,” said Azalea, beaming. “Smooth as a gazelle. I would love to learn how to jump like that.”

A tinge of nervousness flitted across Wes’s face, which Azalea would later pinpoint as suspicion. He sat back in his chair and regarded her for a moment, the thoughts fluttering too quickly across his face for her to read.

“Alright, yeah,” he finally said. “During the next free practice, I’ll spot you.”

Azalea beamed again in gratitude, and Wes quickly lowered his head and stared at his boiled chicken.

He stayed true to his word. At the next windsole class, he watched over Azalea’s hesitant attempts at springstepping. He encouraged her with you’ve got a great sense of balance and it’s alright, it’s only your third week, and gave helpful pointers like focus on the angle of your sole at liftoff, it determines the entire trajectory. He even caught her during a few disastrous jumps where she flailed head-over-heels.

She walked out of the class confident in her ability to practice by herself. But to her surprise, Wes didn’t stop talking to her after he fulfilled his promise. He continued to guide her in windsole classes, and during sparring sessions, he stood with her when none of the other students wanted to. He never kicked her out when she sat at his table to dine. Sometimes, he would even join her at the library, where they would study quietly until closing hours.

It was nice. Very nice. It gave Azalea a reason to smile in the days that seemed too long.

The other students still did not talk to her or acknowledge her presence, but that was alright. Azalea had a friend. She passed through the days happily, ignorant of the looks of resentment and envy that were slowly accumulating around her.

“What are you thinking about?” came Echo’s voice suddenly, jerking Azalea out of her thoughts.

Afternoon had become evening, the sun a low golden orb dripping below the horizon. Azalea blew out a breath into the evening cold, watching the vapor curl in a grey vine. “Nothing,” she said. These memories were precious, hers to keep safe. She wouldn’t share them with anybody.

“Seems like some very engrossing nothing,” Echo said, raising a brow. “You haven’t said a word all day.”

“Neither have you.”

“Of course not. I’m very quiet and demure. Would make for a great housewife.”

That wrung a surprised chuckle out of her. But then she remembered that she was supposed to be cross at him, and he’d brought terrible suffering upon her parents. She crossed her arms, turned away, and walked faster.

“Aww, Little Red, don’t be like that,” Echo cajoled. “You’re so cute when you smile.”

“I’m not supposed to be cute,” Azalea said, glaring at him. “I’m supposed to be fierce.”

“Well, that’s never going to happen, so you might as well stick to cute.”

“Eat dirt, Wolf.”

“Ooh, never mind. You might be fierce yet.”

She didn’t respond, and they dropped into silence again. This time, it lasted until Echo called for a stop with a raise of his hand.

“We’d better set up camp,” he said.

Azalea frowned. “So soon?” They could easily walk by moonlight for a few hours. Time was not a generous commodity.

Then a jolt ran through her. Time. She’d been so preoccupied with her own thoughts, she’d forgotten.

“We should have been springstepping,” she said in horror.

Echo waved a hand. “No need. At least for our first destination. Save your mana for the Noadic Range.”

“Our first destination?” Azalea’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Where are we going?”

“To see a friend.”

“If you’re leading me in circles—”

“—then you wouldn’t have realized until it was too late,” Echo said dryly. “Come, give me that much credit.”

Azalea sullenly acknowledged this.

“This friend would know more about the Noadic Range than anyone else in the world,” Echo continued. “If you want even a chance at survival, you need to speak with her.”

Azalea considered this for a moment, uncertain. But in the end, what choice did she have? Somewhat mollified, she gave a nod and sat down. Echo sighed as he pulled dried grass and pine needles into a small pile for tinder.

“Look at me,” he muttered. “Providing extra services, free of charge. Next thing you know, I’ll be running the soup kitchen.”

Azalea knew that she should thank him, but whenever she looked at his face, all she could remember was his thin, cold expression as he drove her mother to tears.

She silently passed him a packet of spicy crunchpeas instead.

Echo waved away her offering. “This may qualify as a dinner for tiny rodents like you, Red, but not grown men like me.”

She glared at him, but rose to her feet and unslung her starshooter. “Then I can hunt.”

He raised a brow. “Your firebolts will incinerate half the meat.”

She paused at that, but refused to be shaken. “There’s still the other half.”

“Oh, you small child.” He shook his head and drew his bone knife with a casual flip. “Watch and learn.”

The surrounding fields were hardly ripe with game, as animals tended to withdraw into hiding during Storms. Thankfully, a few hungry animals had braved the risk to nibble on the lush swaths of grass: wild pheasant, rabbits, and a few weasels.

Echo stalked a pheasant with an impressively silent tread, rolling his weight gradually over his feet with each step. With his carefulness, even the dead leaves and grass were quiet beneath him. A quick, clean throw of his bone knife later, and the pheasant fell, the knife cleanly pierced through its head. None of the prized meat was damaged.

Azalea grudgingly admitted: he was good. Very good.

Echo selected a stretch of dirt for them to set up camp—no setting any forests on fire under my watch, Little Red; the wind will treat us nicely here—and set to work. While Azalea gathered dead branches and fallen wood for the campfire, Echo cleaned and gutted the animal, plucking the feathers and draining the blood and removing the organs. He took great care to make exaggerated retching noises and dangle any particularly nasty intestines in front of her. He laughed as she turned green and walked away, calling after her, but wouldn’t you like to see the bladder?

Once the game was ready to cook, Azalea struck a flint against the tinder and tended it into a flame. She hung the pheasant to slowly roast golden on a makeshift turnspit. On the other side of the fire, Echo cleaned his knife with a small bottle of oil and a worn rag. The firelight was warm on the angles of his face and made him look softer.

Echo noticed her gaze and looked up with a lifted brow. “What? Never seen a hunter clean his weapon?”

Azalea tilted her head. “When you throw knives, they don’t come back.”

He blinked, then chuckled. “I certainly hope not.”

“So you lose your ammunition. What do you do when you run out?”

Echo gave an odd smile. “You assume that I need knives to kill people.”

He’d killed people. Azalea forgot that, sometimes. Despite his dangerous airs, she had never seen him do anything particularly harmful. But Echo was a mercenary forged in the Mythaven underground; moreover, he was one of the best. One did not ascend that ladder without a steep blood price.

Azalea swallowed. “Who have you killed?” she whispered.

“What, you want a list?”

“Were they all jobs? Or did you…” Azalea stared at her shoes. “Do you…like to kill people?”

“Does murdering for money make it any less distasteful in your eyes?” Echo said dryly. He returned to cleaning his knife. “You’re asking pointless questions, Red.”

Prickly. She’d landed on a soft spot, then. Or something close to it. She could never quite tell with the Wolf.

Azalea reached out and turned the pheasant. “You act terrible, but you’re actually nice,” she said. Slowly, testing each word. “Nicer than you want to be. You’ve been kind to me.”

Echo laughed, but there was an edge to it. “Well now. Somebody’s finally learning gratitude.”

She would not let him turn this on her. “Why do you favor me?” she pushed. “With the tips. The lessons. I turned down your proposition, and you still informed me of Grimwall. You’ve fought me, but you’ve always tried not to hurt me. Why?”

“There’s a saying, you know, to not look a gift horse in the mouth.” Echo looked at her flatly. “It means that when something good happens, you don’t ask questions.”

“That’s not what it means at all,” Azalea said. “It means that you shouldn’t find fault with a charitable gift. Instead, you should be grateful.”

“Yes, which you’re not. You’re being suspicious.”

“I’m being curious.”

“Agree to disagree.”

“No, I just disagree.”

“Oh, look, the pheasant’s done,” Echo said, and he busied himself with removing the pheasant from the rack.

Azalea tried to nudge him into another answer, but he was clearly done with the conversation and could not be budged. Eventually, she gave up. She was rather hungry, and the roast pheasant smelled like a piece of heaven. Even without special herbs or a seasoning rub, it was fresh off the fire, moist and savory with crispy skin, hot enough to burn her fingers.

They ate mostly in silence. Azalea hummed contentedly as she tasted the rich meat of the leg. Echo went for the head and slurped the eyeballs out noisily just to make her wrinkle her nose.

“Right,” Echo said, polishing off his half of the pheasant and licking his fingers. “Now off to bed you trot. It’s quite late.”

Azalea shook her head. “We should keep going while we have the time.”

“You don’t want to go where my friend lives at night.” He lowered his voice ominously. “There might be ghosts.

She huffed, but her eyes were droopy. The warm fire, the tasty pheasant, and the calm, temperate air were lulling her to sleep despite her best efforts. And her body craved sleep. She could feel it in the dull ache behind her eyes and the sluggishness of her hands. How long had it been since she’d had a full night’s rest?

“Fine,” she mumbled, curling against her roll. “Just until the sun rises.”

The last thing she saw before darkness was the slight turn of Echo’s mouth.

“Until the sun rises,” he agreed. “On some part of the world.”


Nicolina lit the candle with a spark of fire mana and sat back in her chair.

She watched the little wisp dance in the darkness of her study—a lonely little star defying the pressing black of night. The wax was pleasantly scented. Strawberry fields and azalea flowers. Nicolina breathed in and let the sweet smell press into her lungs. It laid heavily on her chest.

“She’s not dead, you know,” said a voice by the doorway.

Nicolina looked up at the figure rimmed by dim candlelight. “Only a matter of time,” she said plainly.

“She could succeed. Stranger miracles have happened.”

“I plan around probabilities, not possibilities, Thom.” She sat up and reached for her quill. “How many?”

Thom paused. His eyes flickered to the candle. “Maybe I should come back later.”

“How many, Thom?”

He sighed, a grimace crossing his mouth. “One. Two, if you’re counting Fairwen.”

“And the wounded?”

“Most will recover in time.”

“The top Three?”

“The First took some hits, but he’s got a strong system. He’ll bounce back quick. The Second’s got some overburn—she helped with the triage. Also fine. The Third’s basically untouched, he left to raise morale at Grimwall.”

Nicolina’s shoulders slumped. “Well. About the best I could ask for.” She stood and descended the steps from her chair. “I’ll make the rounds.”

“Lina, you need sleep.”

“So do you, yet here we are.” She stepped past him and vanished into the medical ward.

Every bed was occupied, and several chairs had been pulled into the room for yet others to rest. Nicolina was greeted by the endless chaos of beaten and battered bodies sprawled over rumpled covers, tattered clothing and dented armor, discarded weapons.

Every face, Nicolina knew. They were files in her cabinet, names in her journal, and one day, waning candles on her desk. She had long grown desensitized to the anguish written on their faces, but she looked, and absorbed, and her heart tried to remember what it was like to ache.

Markod, the Thirty-Sixth Hunter, was missing. Then he was the casualty Thom had spoken of. Nicolina would have to pen the condolence notice, vacate his cabinet, and slide his file into her already overburdened shelves. She’d pick a candle, too. Cinnamon and chocolate, maybe. He was always thieving triple dessert portions from the refreshments table—probably to pass on to his doting wife. Another widow, another funeral.

Nicolina’s gaze moved on. She passed over Loff, snoring and spread-eagled on a bed sagging under his bulk. Then Corpse Princess, the Seventh Hunter, reclined in the corner playing with a doll made of human bones, a cheery lullaby on her lips.

But then Nicolina stopped. Halcyon, the First Hunter, was awake.

He’d been so quiet and still that she almost hadn’t noticed, but he was there, in a sickbed, watching something intently with unmoving eyes. Nicolina followed the line of his gaze and found that it ended at Karis, currently sleeping in a chair with a drab blanket pulled up to her shoulders. He watched her like the ocean watched the moon, swept in by its lovely, inescapable pull.

Death and life, Nicolina thought. The unstoppable cycle.

She withdrew from the room and closed the door softly. She’d debrief him later. And find out why the hell the Dragon Whisperer had come inland.

When Nicolina stepped back into the tavern area, she was met with a small retinue of soldiers, tabards vibrant and trimmed with gold, armor engraved with beautiful, swirling vines. The retinue of a noble.

Asters above. She barely suppressed a groan. Just her luck. Complaints from the aristocracy.

The leading soldier stepped forward and bowed. “Announcing the presence of His Lordship, High Lord Roland Geppett of the Eminent House of the Heavenward Tree,” he said.

The soldier fell back in line, and Nicolina relaxed, just a little. It could certainly be worse. Lord Geppett was a hard man, but civil, and often open to reason. And he had a good reason for visitation; his son was, after all, currently in the Guild’s care.

The man in question swept into the room after his grandiose heralding. He was just as tall and foreboding as ever, towering high enough to put a permanent crick in Nicolina’s neck. Despite the late hour, he had spared nothing in appearance, donning all of his trappings and lapel pins and even his famous Hundred Battle Cloak, lined with the furs of beasts from a hundred different battles. Had they been borne by any other man, the grand garments would have seemed like needless posturing. But Nicolina knew better. Lord Roland Geppett was a man who valued status and power in equal measure, choosing to appear just as intimidating as he could enforce. He was not a humble man, but nor was he one to put on airs.

“Guildmaster Cotton,” Lord Geppett said. His voice was a low burn out of consideration for the late hour, but gilded with a stone-cold authority that was impossible to shake. “I’ve received word that my son has been admitted to your infirmary.”

Nicolina resisted the urge to clasp her hands behind her back. “That he has,” she said, forging her tone into something round and smooth, elegant, the preferred tone of the nobility.

“Then I will return him to the family estate at once,” said Lord Geppett.

“Very good,” said Nicolina.

“And I will question the attending physician on the matter of his biokey.”

Nicolina’s mouth tightened. Thom was on the brink of collapsing after tending Hunters for forty hours. The last thing he needed was an interrogation for a kind sacrifice he had made.

“The physician in question is otherwise occupied,” she said. “I have instructed him to take no note of the biokey. It will pass from his memory soon enough.”

“And how did he learn of it?” Lord Geppett said without pause. “I presume he had not the time to decipher it from scratch.”

“Of that I do not know.” But Nicolina had a feeling that the reason was related to the pretty little Hunter that Wes was always watching.

“Then I must question him,” Lord Geppett said.

Not on your life, Nicolina thought. Then, diplomatically: “The discretion of the Guild physicians is under my purview. I shall discover the source of the biokey and take according action.”

There was a flash in Lord Geppett’s eyes before it disappeared. “You? My heir’s wellbeing is my responsibility. I would thank you and your Hunters to remember that.”

Nicolina suppressed a flinch. Yes, Karis had taken a risk by bringing Wes to Thom. Had it been any other heir, the house lord would have been livid, accusing the Guild of subterfuge or house insurrection. Of course, if Karis had done anything differently, Wesley Geppett would probably be dead. House physicians were highly skilled in technical work, but they were unused to the pace and pressure that Thom weathered on a daily basis. To him, keeping someone from immediate death was as regular as morning coffee. A lesser man would have frozen up or shattered under the pressure long ago.

Lord Geppett nodded at a few of the soldiers, and they marched off to the madroom to retrieve Wes.

“I expect that, in the future, the sons of nobility are to be returned to their own estates,” he said in veiled warning.

“And on that day, Lord Geppett,” Nicolina said softly, “you would be the father of a corpse.”

Lord Geppett did not deign to acknowledge her comment. He swept from the room in just as much poise and grandeur as he had entered, the retinue of soldiers carrying Wes out on a stretcher.

Nicolina slumped in the nearest chair as the door slid shut. She would have to decide how to resolve this mess. Technically, she could place the blame on one of the dead field medics in Wes’s company. In their dying moments, they shared the only thing that would keep the young lord alive to the presiding Hunter, Karis Caelute, who enacted regen on grounds of medical emergency. A tidy testimony, and mostly believable. But such a falsehood could result in terrible repercussions for the medics’ families. A certified regener was to take their biokeys to the grave, even if it might result in the death of their charges. Nicolina could not make this decision lightly and endanger innocent people.

She closed her eyes and laid her head on the tavern table. No matter. It could wait. Some decisions were not meant to be made without sleep, and this was one of them.

If only she had that luxury all the time.


Azalea rose when it was still dark.

She dressed warmly: a heavy cloak lined with fox furs, ribbed knit thermals beneath a woolen dress and waxed trousers, fleece gloves embroidered with wildflowers. She pulled on fur-lined socks before she slipped into her windsoles. The shoes hadn’t been made for snow, but keeping the ability to springstep was more important. Her feet would just have to be a little cold.

She left her armor on its rack. Traveling light would be essential in a long trek through snow, and every creature in the Noadic Range would be powerful enough to blitz right through metal plates. Mobility had a better chance of saving her life than protection.

Azalea tried to think of other significant things that her da would bring on longer excursions to the woods. A flintstone. A knife. A pouch of numbroot salve and fresh bandages. Flasks of water—less important, as snowmelt on the Noadic Range was safe for drinking.

She had just finished bundling up her warmest sleeping roll when a light, springy knock sounded on the door. Odd. Who would come calling at such an hour?

Azalea opened the door and was met with a young girl in hempen dress, eyes wide and owlish beneath rich chestnut hair. It took her a moment to place the face; it had been a while since she had last seen it. But after a second, she was certain. This was the young, sprightly aide who managed send-offs and rankings for the Hunters.

“Sasha,” she said, recalling the name. “Hello.”

Sasha blinked. “Um, hi.”


“Why are you here?” Azalea asked uncertainly.

Sasha shrugged. “I don’t know. Nicky told me, ‘Hey, go to this house and be yourself for a few hours.’ And I said, ‘What, organize or clean or something?’ And she said, ‘No, be a nuisance.’”

Azalea frowned. What cause did Nicolina have to dispatch her aide at this time of the morning? To the residence of a resigned Hunter, no less? Azalea was no longer part of the guild. Nicolina owed her nothing.

“Well,” Azalea said awkwardly, “I’m afraid that I must be heading out soon, so…”

Sasha’s eyes blew wide open. “You’re leaving?”

“Well, um—”

“Say no more! I get it now. I’m supposed to buy Nicky time to talk you down!”

And Sasha pushed through the threshold, shut the door behind her, and planted herself right there, spreading her limbs out like a marooned starfish.

“Ha!” she said triumphantly. “Now you can’t go anywhere!”

Azalea stared at the brazen slip of a girl. She found herself shrugging, unbothered. “Alright.”

Sasha’s eyes were on her back as she returned to packing. “That’s it?” said the young girl hesitantly. “You’re not going to knock me out? Kill me? Take my purse?”

A scarf, a length of thin cord, cinnamon-glazed cashews and spicy crunchpeas purchased at the market. “Of course not,” said Azalea. “That wouldn’t be very Hunterly of me.”

“But you’re not a Hunter anymore.”

“Oh.” Azalea added a small pouch of salted jerky. “That’s true.”

“So you tried to quit? Poor Nicky.”

“I didn’t try, I did quit.” Azalea glanced at the slight figure planting herself in the doorway. “And you shouldn’t call the guildmaster ‘Nicky.’ That’s very rude.”

“I think it’s ruder to quit just before the final Storm without two weeks of notice,” Sasha replied, which was difficult to refute.

So Azalea didn’t refute it. She stashed a roll of thread and a sewing needle, and lastly pocketed a small compass.

“It’s hard for Nicky, you know,” Sasha said presently. “Sending people to die every day. I don’t know what exactly is going on, but maybe you should rethink it. She’s already lost so many people close to her. Like the previous guildmaster. She was his Support, you know. She handled the paperwork while he went out to fight. But then one day, the Great Storm happened, and he never came back. Nicky waited so long for him. She did the paperwork and kept things running until everybody started calling her the new guildmaster. I mean, I assume this is all true, I wasn’t actually around when that happened. I was four years old and just ate and burped a lot. Hey, are you listening?”

Azalea had unlatched the window and pushed it outward. She closed her eyes at the gentle morning breeze, feeling the coolness prickle on her skin like dewdrops.

“Just feeling the breeze before I go,” she said.

“Oh, okay,” said Sasha. Then: “Wait a minute.”

But Azalea had already vaulted out the window, windsoles swelling to cushion her fall. She landed gracefully and trotted off to the main gate at an easy pace.

“Hey!” shrieked Sasha’s voice from above. “That’s cheating!

Dawn was cold and colorless over a quiet Mythaven. Only a precious few were on the streets so soon after the frenzy of a surge. Azalea passed by a fruit seller and a metalworker, then a baker rushing to light his ovens for the day’s first rolls. Then the roads were quiet until she found Echo standing by the main gate, cloaked in his usual grey-green and smiling indulgently.

“Well, you’re looking cozy,” Echo said. “It’ll be awhile until we hit the Range. Are you sure you won’t cook in your own cloak?”

“That’s my business, not yours,” Azalea said. She was, in fact, extremely warm, but she hadn’t packed a lighter set of clothes, wishing to shed as much weight as possible.

“But it is my business,” said Echo, folding his arms. “I can’t have you swooning all over the road in the midday heat like some pampered princess. Actually, maybe I can. That would be quite a humorous sight.”

Azalea glared at him and pulled off her heavy cloak, bundling it under her arm.

“Oh well,” Echo said. “Maybe some other time.”

He began to turn to Mythaven’s main gate, but Azalea’s hand shot out and gripped his arm. She felt him jolt under her touch, saw a flash in his eye. His fingers skittered towards his knife, but then he stopped and breathed out through his teeth.

Right, she realized, releasing him. Do not grab an underground mercenary without warning.

“Sorry,” she said aloud, “but there’s something I wanted to address. The issue of payment.”

Echo gave no indication that anything had bothered him. With a lift of his eyebrow, he was back to humored and blasé.

“Backing out already?” he said easily. “I’ll admit the price is a bit steep for a civil servant’s income.”

“Not that,” said Azalea. Amount no longer mattered to her—not when she was likely to die anyway. “I want to discuss the timing.”


“If I pay you up front, then there’s nothing stopping you from slitting my throat in the night and going on your merry way.”

She expected Echo to feel insulted, but he only nodded sagely. “Very true.”

“So,” Azalea said, emboldened, “I’ll pay you half in advance, and half before I enter the Noadic Range. You’ll still get your full payment before I die, and I’ll have some insurance that you’ll follow through on your word.”

“You do realize,” said Echo with a hint of humor, “that I could still slit your throat in the night, rob you, and make off with your money.”

Azalea opened her mouth. Azalea closed her mouth.

“Yes, of course,” she said warily.

Echo barked out a laugh. “Little Red, you are absolutely not cut out for making these kinds of deals. There are fifty different ways I could betray you, and you have safeguarded against none of them.”

“Surely there aren’t fifty,” Azalea muttered.

“I could kill you in your sleep, lead you into a trap, guide you in circles to scam you for room and board, steal your purse, slip poison into a meal—no, no, at this point, you’d best just blindly trust me. Less embarrassing for the both of us.” He nodded towards the gate. “Now, off to Maple Point before we lose any daylight, and I’ll receive the full payment thereafter.”

He set off at a brisk walk, and Azalea sullenly trailed after him. As usual, he was correct, and she hated it.

“Well,” she muttered, “what could I have done instead?”

Echo waved a hand. “Oh, all sorts of things. For one, never carry the money on your person. Keep it at a bank or a safehouse. Then offer the pass phrase as payment.”

Azalea perked up, intrigued. “But then…how would the mercenary know that it will work? Couldn’t I lie about the pass phrase and keep the money for myself?”

“Ah, now you’re learning.” Echo smiled darkly. “You could indeed. But in that case, you’d best hope that all your loved ones are already dead. Or they will pay the price for you.”

From the look on his face, he didn’t seem to be talking about money. Azalea shut her mouth and turned back to the road, deciding that it was better for some secrets to be left unknown.

They reached Maple Point at midday. It was beautiful at this time of the year, when all the trees liked to flower in hues of orange and golden red.

The town walls had seen some damage, bits of it fallen in here and there, large sections black with ash, the gates pounded in until they threatened to snap. But the town proper was unscathed, not one tree felled and not one brick overturned. Karis Caelute had protected it impeccably, and even the festering animal corpses piled outside the walls could not dampen the mood of Maple Point’s citizens. Many of them turned and waved cheerily to Azalea, recognizing her from the six years she had spent in the town, but she could not idle around to chat. She gave them a polite bob and continued on her way.

The Fairwen residence was small but idyllic, a diminutive cottage with one bedroom, one washroom, and one common area for cooking and dining. But what it lacked in estate was made up for in a beautiful, decently sized lot of tilled rows and planters, every inch blooming with an assortment of flowers and produce that warmed the soul. Caring for a garden had been good for restoring Anna Fairwen’s health and awareness, and it had also blessed her family.

“Charming place,” said Echo. “Thriving tomatoes. I ought to ask for tips.”

Azalea could not tell whether he was mocking her or not. She ignored him and pushed through the threshold.

They were met with a splendid spread on the dining table. Hearty stew with carrots and boar meat, clam-dotted creamy pasta, nutmeg bread filled with raisins. Fresh fruits and vegetables from the garden were abundant, painting the table in vibrant color. At the end sat a platter of sweets—ginger cookies, chocolate-dipped berries, and honeyed candies.

“Special day?” said Echo, examining one of the ginger cookies. “Or exceptionally large appetite?”

Azalea didn’t respond for a moment. The sight of the feast filled her with horror, the delectable scents curdling into nausea at the bottom of her gut. Despite her heavy garb, she was cold all over.

“I’d completely forgotten,” she whispered.

Echo glanced at her. “Forgotten what?”

She stared at the feast plated on the table and swallowed the lump in her throat. “It’s the anniversary of my brother’s death.”

For a moment, Echo said nothing. The silence lay heavily on Azalea like a shroud. How foolish of her to have forgotten, how disrespectful. Perhaps she shouldn’t have come. Her parents had borne enough grief for the day.

The door to the garden swung open, and in tromped Aleks Fairwen, just as big and broad as she remembered. He moved to deposit a bucket of forest mushrooms in the kitchen, but stopped at the sight of his daughter by the table.

“Aza,” he said softly.

Seeing him in the flesh was like a knife to her gut. The flecks of grey crawling in his hair, the weight pulling on his back, the lines digging deeper into his brow. Her da had been slowly aging while she’d been busy with studying, training, fighting. Too busy to write, too busy to visit. Now she saw the evidence of all the time she couldn’t get back.

“Da,” Azalea whispered. She tried to straighten and dust off her skirts, looking capable, looking presentable. “I—I’ve come to, to…I mean, I…”

It was disconcerting to look into meadow-green eyes that so closely mirrored her own, piercing and knowing, light and sharp as blades of grass. She wondered if he was disappointed in her. If he would scold her for being so silent and busy, never visiting home, never caring for her mother.

Words left her. Azalea stared at her da, tongue-tied.

Silently, he opened his arms.

She couldn’t help it. The Wolf’s presence be damned, the Storm above be damned. She ran and threw her arms around her da, folding into his embrace.

“There, there,” he murmured, running a hand through her hair. “My little girl.”

Something in her shattered, and she pressed her nose into his shoulder, hiccuping in strangled sobs. She hadn’t let herself realize just how tired she was, how haggard and run ragged. She hadn’t stopped in what felt like ages. Her manawell may not have overburned, but she was spent. Beyond spent.

Azalea sank onto her da’s arms, craving the warmth and surety that she always found there.

“We can speak later,” Da said, brushing back her hairline with callused thumbs. “For now, sleep. You’ll feel better tomorrow, Aza.”

Oh, more than anything, she wanted to. How she would adore to curl up in her soft, fleecy cot, surrounded by fragrance jars of vanilla blossoms and wild lavender. But every day she lingered was another day closer to the Storm.

“I can’t, Da,” she said, drawing back. She sniffled. “I can’t stay. I only—”

Then the garden door opened again, and in stepped Anna Fairwen.

It had been so long since Azalea had seen her ma up and about that she’d nearly forgotten what it was like. There was a healthy flush in Anna’s pale cheeks, a lovely blue dress swishing about her hips. Her golden hair poured down in waves from beneath a sunhat. Blue eyes smiled in a brilliant sparkle, clear as the sky.

So much improvement. For years, Ma had only lain in bed and stared into nothingness, her eyes blank and unseeing, broken by losing her son. To see her like this, vibrant and alive, the doctor and the garden and the country air doing her much good, made Azalea’s heart ache sweetly.

“Oh, ’Zalie, sweetie,” she said brightly. Azalea nearly cried again at that. It had been years since Ma recognized her. “You’re just in time. There was a bloom of strawberries, perfectly ripe, and I’ve got some milk from Mrs. Emel’s cow. We’ll have fresh strawberries and cream, your favorite.”

Azalea’s eyes watered. Her ma was so happy and beautiful and healing. “Oh, Ma,” she whispered. “Ma, I would love to. I’m sorry, but I really can’t stay. I just came to offer my greetings.”

“Surely it can wait an hour for strawberries and cream,” said Ma insistently. She tilted a woven basket in her hands, proudly showing Azalea the fruits of her labor: fragrant and fat and gorgeously red, the finest strawberries anybody could ask for. “Don’t they look delicious?”

Azalea swallowed, close to caving in. “They do.”

“Anna, love,” said Da with a hint of humor, “the strawberries will keep for when Aza gets back.”

Azalea flinched. Any sense of appetite vanished.

Ma took a closer look at her daughter, absorbing her woolen dress, her waxed trousers, her fleece gloves. “Where are you going, ’Zalie? You’re all bundled up and cozy.”

A ball of panic was beginning to gather in Azalea’s chest, but she shooed it away. “Oh, here and there,” she said, trying to sound upbeat. “You needn’t fret.”

“She’s heading to the Noadic Range,” said a cold voice behind her. “So best say your final goodbyes.”

Azalea jolted and turned around. She had been so caught up in a flurry of emotions that she’d nearly forgotten about the Wolf’s presence. He was watching them now with his arms folded across his chest, his face as cold and unmoving as ice.

How dare he say that? she thought numbly. So sudden, so insensitive…

“The Noadic Range?” said Ma, confused. Uncertainty flickered in her beautiful blue eyes. “All the way up north? That dangerous place?”

“No,” Azalea blurted. “No, I don’t—this man is saying nonsense.”

“Is he?” said Da. Those piercing green eyes made her shrink.

“Well, I…” She was trapped. “I…I am heading in that direction, yes…”

“You’re leaving,” Ma whispered. The clarity in her eyes was misting over. Distant, confused. “You’re leaving us.”

“She is leaving,” Echo said, blunt and unapologetic, “and the journey is especially perilous. She likely will not return.”

No. Azalea’s steps stuttered towards her ma, but Anna backed away to the wall, pulling her sunhat over her ears. The shadows flickered eerily over her face, pronouncing the wild, roving look in her eyes.

“The wolves,” Ma whispered. “The wolves are taking her. Oh, Aleks. We’ve failed them.”

“Anna,” said Da. “Wait, love—”

The basket fumbled out of Ma’s hands as she staggered for the bedroom. Bright, ruby red strawberries spilled across the ground, crawling leisurely towards the cracks in the wooden flooring.

Da shot Echo a dark look that could have quailed bears, then turned to Azalea. “Do not leave,” he said. “We’ll talk about this. Do not go until we’ve had a word, Aza.”

He vanished around the bedroom door and shut it softly behind him. Anna Fairwen’s muffled sobs eked through the wood.

Azalea’s hands began to shake, her mind an endless blur. She was blind with anger, frozen with fear, nauseous with guilt, emotions too many and too severe to name all at once, each consolidating into a horrible skein in her throat that she could not unravel. She stared at the fallen strawberries, the forgotten pail of forest mushrooms, the banquet on the dining table.

She tore out of the house wordlessly.

The air cut against her face, but she ignored it. She heard footsteps from behind and Echo pushed in front of her, his expression still stony.

“Hold on, Little Red. He said not to go.”

She shoved him away from her, hard. He stumbled against the garden gate, but righted himself just as easily. She walked on, her feet finding the road out.

Echo pushed forward. “Red—”

Azalea turned on him harshly. “You had no right,” she said, her voice low and trembling. “None at all, Wolf.”

He met her gaze evenly. “On the contrary, Red. You had no right to keep the truth from them.”

“You were cruel.” Ma had been healing. All that progress, gone.

Echo shook his head. “They’ve already lost one child,” he said. “They don’t need another to disappear. Without answers. Leaving them to hope, to wonder, until the decades have spilled on and that feast on the table is for two, not one.”

“They wouldn’t have cared.” Tears stung at her eyes and she angrily rubbed them away. “If you hadn’t said anything, they wouldn’t have cared at all.”

Echo’s mouth tightened. “You don’t believe that.”

“Why did you even bring me here?” she cried angrily. “For more misery? So you could see me suffer?”

“To show you, Red, that this mission comes with a heavy price to pay,” he said softly. “And perhaps, after seeing it, you would rethink your decision.”

Azalea had enough. She turned north and stormed away. Nothing could stop her. Not even the Wolf’s cruel schemes.

Echo watched her disappear around the corner. He sighed, ran a hand over his head, and strode after her, giving her enough space to cry in peace.


The Soaring Pig looked just as busy and seedy as ever, even on the brink of the world’s end. It was uniquely comforting to know that no matter the circumstances, the taverns of Mythaven’s underground would never change.

Azalea slipped past a few grimy figures hunched over worn cards and settled into a seat at the back of the room. She ordered a beer without any intention of consuming it. She was a year past the legal drinking age, but she intended to enter this encounter with all her faculties. She would need it. The beer would simply help mask her presence and stay the barkeep’s temper.

Only a few minutes passed before trouble stirred. A hulking man rose from his table, squashed head nearly touching the mold-spotted ceiling, and clomped over to her. He loomed over her, a messy sight of battered scars and yellowed teeth.

“Nice shooter,” he said, nodding at the starshooter slung across her back.

Azalea said nothing. She’d sheathed Bluebell in a dull leather sleeve to try to avoid attention, but the fire chamber was embedded into the protruding stock, glowing bright like a beacon.

The man leaned closer. His breath reeked of beer and fried fish morsels. “Where’d you nab somethin’ so pretty, little rat?”

She looked up into his beady eyes and found she was not afraid. He could not particularly compare to a Class Three stag.

“Back off,” she said quietly. Under the table, her fingers curled around her sword.

The man eyed her starshooter, then her young face. He seemed to be contemplating his chances. Would he be so brazen to rob her right here? It seemed unlikely. Even Mythaven’s underground had silent rules; this tavern seemed a neutral zone, a haven for trade and negotiation.

Then Azalea understood. A canary’s nest, Karis had told her. Information was the currency of choice here, not gold or contraband. This man was not looking to mug her. He was looking for the selling point, the fence. Weapon trade was no doubt a booming industry in the black market, and a starshooter provider would be a revolutionary find.

Azalea casually drew her sword and placed it on the table, running a finger down the flat of the blade. “My sources are my own,” she said.

Her message went through. The man grunted with a dour expression, but he wordlessly returned to his seat. Azalea stretched her fingers, trying to rein in her pulse. She hoped he would not attempt anything further.

For the rest of the hour, the customers of the Soaring Pig left her alone, though her starshooter attracted many more glances than she would have liked. Azalea tried to shake off her nerves and tell herself it would be alright. She wasn’t planning on staying long, nor was she planning on coming back.

The tavern door opened right as the clock tower announced the next hour with a heady chime. A familiar figure prowled to Azalea’s table—lanky, sinuous, wrapped in a grey-green cloak. Two eyes, one crimson and one milky white, regarded her from beneath the hood with a hint of amusement.

“Well,” said Echo, sliding into the seat across from her, “someone’s causing quite a stir. Felt like showing off your toys to the entire underground today, Little Red?”

Azalea let his jibe slide off of her. She straightened, willing herself to look alert. “I see you received my message.”

He tilted his head. “That I did. What made you think of using the bartender?”

“A mentor told me that taverns are where the information travels.”

“And a lot of it is useless.” Echo tilted his head, eyes gleaming. “You’re lucky that you were so sloppy in concealing that weapon of yours, or it never would’ve reached my ears.”

Azalea squared her shoulders under his keen gaze. “I would have found a way,” she said. “I’m not as naive as you think.”

“Yes, you are,” Echo snorted. “But you’re more resourceful than I expected, I’ll give you that. Now, what did you—”

But he stopped. His crimson eye slowly trailed over the purple bags under her eyes, the torn flesh on her lip, the skittering, uncontrollable tapping of her fingers on the table.

“Say, Little Red,” he mused, “you’re not looking so peppy. When did you last sleep?”

Azalea scowled. “It doesn’t matter. I have a proposition for you, Lone Wolf.”

“It does matter, actually,” Echo said. “I think your proposition is going to be a few sandwiches short of a picnic, so before you make it, why don’t you catch some rest?” He nodded at a ratty three-legged chair in the corner. “Go on. I’ll make sure nobody slits your throat for a few hours.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Do you always order around your potential patrons, Wolf?”

“Just the children. It’s my paternal instinct.”

He reached out to pat her head. Azalea slapped it away.

“If you’ll pardon my rudeness,” she said staunchly, “the Storm is about to enact its final strike, I am no longer a Hunter, and my Support is almost dead. I am not in the mood for idle jesting.”

Echo withdrew his hand. He blinked once, twice.

“Ah,” he said. “Been busy ruining your life, I see.”

Azalea’s fraying patience snapped. “Because I had so much choice in the matter.”

“That you did,” Echo said, shrugging. “It was your choice to care about your city, your choice to care about your Support, and your choice to care about your profession. If you cared about nothing, like yours truly, then I daresay your life would be dandy as a lion.”

This was a mistake. She shouldn’t have come here. She should have set out on her own. The Wolf would be nothing but an obstacle and a nuisance.

Her mind cold and clear, Azalea drew herself to her feet and left the tavern.

She did not expect the Wolf to follow her, trailing on her heels like an abandoned puppy.

“Come now, Red, you can’t leave it at that. Piqued my interest and all. Now you have to deliver.”

Azalea said nothing. She let her boots strike loudly against the ground with each step. The wet smell of mold and pipe smoke was thick on the uneven slats of the underground streets.

“Reddy Red. Little Red. Reddle Dee Reddy Ree.”

“Oh, would you stop,” she snapped, turning on her heel.

Echo only grinned unapologetically. “You said you had a proposition. I’m listening now.”

“You could have listened earlier.”

“Well, better late than never, no?”

Azalea took a long, slow breath. She needed to be practical. Poised. Patient. Much as she hated it, she needed to find something, and the Wolf was in the business of finding things.

“I need a pathfinder through the Noadic Range,” she said.

She expected a big reaction, but the Wolf gave none. He leaned back on his heels, considering her words for a moment.

“Why?” he finally said.

“Do I pay you to ask questions?”

“No, that one comes for free.” He folded his arms. “And it’s warranted. What kind of lunatic would want to explore the Noadic Range?”

“I’m going to find the Dragon Whisperer, convince him to ally with Airlea, and bring him to the next critical zone.”


Echo regarded her for a long moment. Then he shrugged and turned away.

“Well, have fun,” he said.

“What?” She seized his arm. “That’s it?”

“What else could I say?”

“You could accept my proposition.”

“Yes, and while I’m at it, I’ll take on a patron who wants a flying pig on a cold day in hell. And a pony. Red, what you’re asking for isn’t difficult, it’s impossible.”

“It’s not.”

He sighed. “Alright, let me count the ways. First: nobody knows where the Dragon Whisperer resides. Second: nobody has been able to communicate with him outside of duels to the death. Third: traveling the roads right before a Storm’s final strike is an idiotic idea. And finally, the Noadic Range.”

“I know that it’s dangerous.”

“Dangerous?” He laughed sharply. “Jumping off a roof without windsoles is dangerous. Entering the Noadic Range—Red, there isn’t a person alive who’s gone in and come back out. Not a cartographer, not a merchant, not an alchemist. What, do you think the White Labyrinth is just a cute little nickname?”

“Yes,” Azalea said hopefully.

No. All who enter are doomed to wander until they perish among the cold mists, their souls lost to time.” Echo crossed his arms behind his head and leaned back. “Or so the legend goes. Haven’t tried it myself. I don’t fancy dying before I’ve bought myself a chateau, a gold-plated carriage, and a nice little row of tomato plants.”

“You have lofty goals.”

“Right? I can’t even keep a succulent alive. Tomatoes are but a dream.”

Azalea opened her mouth, then closed it. There was no use in pursuing that line of questioning.

“If the Noadic Range is unexplored territory,” she said, trying to dip her voice to be sultry and tempting, “then there’s bound to be untold riches. Waiting right there, just for you.”

Echo burst out laughing. Azalea flushed.

“Was that—were you seducing—oh, priceless. Do that to your little ingeniator sometime. I’d pay to watch that. I bet he’d turn red to the tips of his ears and swoon all over.”

“Don’t disrespect Wes like that,” Azalea snapped. “He wouldn’t look twice at a commoner like me.”

He shook his head. “Unbelievable. How does it feel to be denser than a brick of lead?”

“Lead isn’t used in bricks. An Observatorium study showed that a high concentration of lead in building materials can contribute to—”

“Mythics, Red, alright.” He tilted his head. “I’ll tell you now. Wealth isn’t much of a motivator for me. I don’t need riches, see.”

“What?” Azalea said, shocked. “Then why do you charge so much?”

“Vetting patrons.” At her blank expression, he shook his head. “Never mind. You wouldn’t understand. Cheap people tend to treat you like you’re cheap when you’re a mercenary. You want to find patronage that knows your true value.”

“True value?”

“Case in point: you. I’ve been giving you free tip-offs this whole time, and here you are, treating me like a secondhand slipper with a hole in the heel.” He leaned in, his crimson eye gleaming like a ruby. “You don’t even know what I do, or how I do it.”

She met his gaze unflinchingly. “I know you can find the Dragon Whisperer. And get out of the Noadic Range alive.”

“You have no idea how my power works, do you?”

“You haven’t told me, so no.”

“In order to find a person,” Echo said, “I need one of two things: either something that has recently been in their possession, or the scent of somebody directly related in bloodline. Do you see how this might prove difficult?”

“Because…he has no family?”

“I was more thinking of the fact that he explodes everything he touches.”

“So you can’t do it?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“So you can do it?”

“Am I saying these things, or are you just wildly guessing?”

Azalea raised her chin. “Well, I believe you can. I’ve heard the Lone Wolf can do anything and track anyone. Hunting down the world’s most powerful manacrafter must be a walk in the park for you.”

Echo stepped back, looking thoughtful. He tasted the words for a moment. Then he smiled.

“Wealth. Ego. Going through High Sage Helvin’s List of Human Motivators like a checklist, are we?” he said.

“We—I am not,” Azalea protested weakly, in a way that very much implied she was.

“Well, you skipped number one, which was love.” Echo spread his hands. “Go ahead. Hit me with it.”

“I won’t bother. You’re not capable of it. Number four, though, is—”

“Ouch? Really, ouch.

“—self-mastery and growth. I think that going to the Noadic Range would be a very growing experience.”

“Growing underground, perhaps. I don’t feel keen on hopping into a coffin.”

“Then what would convince you?” Azalea blurted, and curses, she was beginning to feel the familiar sting of tears at her eyes. It felt like ages since she had slept, and yet her body was throttled awake, her nerves constantly on edge. “I need to do this. I need to find the Dragon Whisperer. And I need your skillset to do it. Please, just tell me what you want. I’ll get it for you.”

The ever-present smile on Echo’s face quickly faded, darkening into a cold, stony look.

“Never make that kind of offer, Red,” he said softly. “You don’t know what people could take from you.”

It was the first time she had seen anything other than glib amusement from him, but she did not cower.

“I’ll have nothing left if my country dies,” she said evenly.

She let that silence drip between them, cold and heavy. Because that was their reality. The Hunters, the garrison, the nobles—all of Airlea’s fighting force was at their limit, and the last strike of the Storm could easily make them all crumble. Even the most selfish mercenary would have nothing to gain from a nation of ashes and dust.

Finally, Echo stepped back. He blew a ring of vapor into the chilly air.

“Alright,” he said. “You get your wish.” He raised a finger as Azalea brightened. “On a few conditions.”

“Name them,” Azalea said, nodding.

“First: I will not set foot on the Noadic Range.” She opened her mouth, and he raised his finger again. “I will lead you to the entrance and provide instructions, but I’m not risking my life, Little Red. So, if that’s what you want, then give it up.”

“I won’t be able to find the Dragon Whisperer without you.”

He shook his head. “You will.”

“How do you know?”

“Second,” Echo continued, “payment will be rendered in advance, in full. There is a ninety percent chance that you will die, and it’s annoying to resolve outstanding transactions with a corpse.”

“You didn’t answer—”

“I never answer anything, Little Red, you ought to know that by now. And third: we’re going to stock up on those bags of cinnamon-glazed cashews and spicy crunchpeas.”

That caught Azalea’s attention. “Why?” she asked curiously. “Will they help us through the Noadic Range? Is there a terrible beast we’ll have to tame?”

“Of course not. They’re my favorite snack.” He ignored the sour look on her face and nodded down the road. “Pack up and meet me at the main gate by sunup. We’ll head to Maple Point.”

Azalea blinked. “Maple Point?”

“To visit your parents, of course. Anna Fairwen, retired apothecary, and Aleks Fairwen, lumberjack. Nice cottage, little garden for your mother to work on to keep her sane—”

“Alright, yes.” Of course he would know everything about them. Azalea did not like the idea of letting the Wolf anywhere near her parents, but her curiosity won out. “But why?”

“Well, when one is about to die, one ought to set one’s affairs in order, no?”

“I don’t have time for that.”

“You don’t have much time for anything when you’re about to die, so you might as well make an exception.” He turned around with a flutter of his grey-green cloak and gave a lazy wave. “See you tomorrow, nighty-night, sleep tight, all those platitudes.”

“Wait,” Azalea blurted, stepping forward. “Which of High Sage Helvin’s motivators was it? What convinced you to accept my commission?”

Echo paused, then turned to face her.

“The first, of course.” Before she could stop him, he pinched her cheek. “I love to make you suffer.”


Nicolina denied Azalea’s request immediately.

The guildmaster was tight-lipped and pale-faced, exhausted in the wake of the surge. Azalea was sorry to burden her during such a trying time, but not sorry enough to rescind her request.

“Fairwen,” said Nicolina evenly, “do you know what you’re asking?”

Azalea squared her shoulders and did not back down. “We require reinforcements to survive the final strike, Guildmaster. Powerful reinforcements.”

“That’s not your responsibility, and I’ll thank you to remember as such.”

Azalea only lifted her chin against the gentle reprimand. “But it is, Guildmaster. I may only be the Fiftieth Hunter, but I have a responsibility to do everything in my power to protect our nation.”

The edges on Nicolina’s face softened. “Fairwen,” she said, her voice hatefully steady, like coaxing a small child. “This is not a burden for you to shoulder. I don’t think you realize just how much you’ve accomplished in these short months. You went from hunting Class Ones to taking point on the defense of a major town during a surge. You’ve killed a Four. And I hear that you cast a mold as a first-time Threader. Your progress is, frankly, prodigious.”

Azalea pressed her hand on the desk until her fingers ran white. “It wasn’t enough. So many people died. Wes”—her voice broke for a second—“was nearly one of them. It doesn’t matter, it wasn’t enough.”

“It was enough,” Nicolina said sharply. “What wasn’t enough was me. You went into that defense undermanned.”

“That’s no excuse—”

“Nobody would expect a new Hunter to hold off a Class Four and its heralds. That’d be a challenge even for Hunters with years of experience.” Nicolina sat up straighter, her grey eyes heavily weighted. “You should’ve had more allies with you, Fairwen. I failed you.”

Perhaps an Azalea one month younger would have been placated. Or comforted. Or maybe flustered.

But the Azalea of today only felt a cool, deadly calm.

“There aren’t allies to spare,” she said quietly. “The Garrison was dispatched, as was every Hunter. Even the noble houses were sending out their private companies. And still, still we were overwhelmed.”


“If Lord Halcyon hadn’t been wounded, then he could have taken Grimwall, and no one would have died.” Her eyes lifted to Nicolina’s paling face. “And he was only wounded because of the Whisperer.”

There was a rare, haunted kind of fear in Nicolina’s eyes. “No.”

“I must speak with him,” Azalea said firmly. “We need the Whisperer as an ally. Or we need him dead.”

Nicolina’s fingers curled into her desk. “I said no, Fairwen.”

Azalea was unmoving. “He might be dangerous, but if we could strike a deal, find something he needs, his power could be a great boon.”

“Your burden is to fight, not to negotiate.”

“I don’t think we have much of a choice.”

Nicolina slammed a hand down on her desk. “I’m not sending you to die in the Noadic Range.”

“I don’t think,” Azalea said quietly, “that you have much of a choice either, Guildmaster.”

“I’ll have you court-martialed and called to a tribunal.” Nicolina’s eyes were burning. “Don’t think I won’t.”

The study fell into silence. In the distance, the Mythaven clock tower sounded, tolling like a death knell. Midday. The citizens would be breaking for lunch, bravely attempting to carry on with their lives past the dread of hanging clouds over the capital.

“Very well,” Azalea whispered.

She reached into a pouch and withdrew her Hunter’s sigil. The shield-emblem of Airlea gleamed in bright, promising gold, the undying color of hope. She placed it on Nicolina’s desk.

“I, Azalea Fairwen,” she said, “hereby resign from the Royal Hunters of Airlea.”

Nicolina stood, her chair scraping against the floor. “Fairwen.”

“Would you like for me to return the subsidized equipment, like my windsoles?”

“Sit down. I’m not processing your withdrawal.”

Azalea shook her head. “You must. A Hunter’s term is not set for a fixed interval, nor compulsory.”

“Then you must first submit your discharge request and be interviewed on concern of national security—”

“The concern of national security only applies to magistracies with access to confidential internal information,” Azalea responded readily, “such as the Magistracy of Justice, the Magistracy of Commerce and Trade, and the Magistracy of Culture.”

Nicolina blinked in surprise, but plowed on quickly. “Then you’ll need to submit advance notice a fortnight before your resignation becomes effective—”

“The fortnight notice is a courtesy, not a legality. Technically, it is not required.” Azalea blinked slowly. “I read the contract.”

Exhaustion passed over Nicolina’s face, and she slumped back in her chair with a weary laugh.

“Myths alive, Fairwen,” she said.

Azalea lowered her gaze. “I’m sorry, Guildmaster. But I must leave for the Noadic Range. I must find the Dragon Whisperer.”

“Why?” Nicolina demanded.

Because I have to save them. Wes. My family. My country. I would rather die trying than wait for us to be massacred.

But Azalea said none of those words. Instead, she rummaged in her pouches until her fingers found a slim, creamy envelope sealed with cheap wax.

“Please relay this to Wes when he wakes,” she said. She placed it on the desk beside her Hunter’s sigil.

Nicolina pushed both items back across the table, her jaw locked hard. “Relay it yourself,” she said. “This is a fool’s errand, Fairwen, and I won’t be encouraging any part of it.”

Azalea slipped the letter back into her satchel, but let the sigil lie there, perched precariously on the edge of the desk. She bowed respectfully and turned for the door. A rare panic bled over Nicolina’s features.

“He won’t see your letter,” Nicolina said, her voice rising, her syllables quickening until they were crashing together in an unusual display of lost composure. “He won’t hear from you again. He’ll search for you for months, wait for you for years. He’ll listen for his door every night and he’ll be heartbroken at every visitor who isn’t you. If you go like this, Fairwen, he won’t be able to grieve you.”

“But he’ll be alive,” Azalea said, “and that’s what matters.”

She slipped out of the study and left the guild without looking back.


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