1. Prelude

Sometimes Azalea dreamed of when her brother was still alive.

Deep in the forest, away from their family’s cottage at the edge of the woods, they often scavenged for toadstools and lizards. Azalea built a makeshift fairy garden out of flowers and old bottles, and it lit up like a pretty little thing in the dead of night. Azure, her brother, was more partial to using stones and twigs to build battle stables for his pet lizards.

“One day, ’Zalie,” he proclaimed very magnanimously—or, as magnanimously as a nine-year-old could proclaim—“these little lizards will grow into magnificent dragons, unparalleled beasts of war! Just you watch!”

Azalea looked at the current object of his enthusiastic attentions: a tiny forest lizard with dingy scales the color of mud, barely spanning the breadth of his palm. It could probably fit in her bottled fairy house.

“Will they?” she asked doubtfully. She drew the hem of her red capelet over her pale brow, dabbing away the sweat from the afternoon sun.

Azure nodded firmly, his untidy shock of hair bouncing like wheat sheaves. “That with the humblest beginnings grows to become the greatest power,” he said with surprising wisdom. “You know the seeds of the great oak trees, ’Zalie? Such tiny kernels grow to be bigger and stronger than the mountains!”

This was actually not accurate. But Azalea decided to accept his word. She, at seven, was hardly as wizened to the world as her brother.

“If the lizards get all big,” she said, “then where will we keep them?”

“In our house, of course,” Azure said matter-of-factly.

Azalea blanched. Dragons, in the house! Think how much dirt they would trek in. Think of all the wooden tables and chairs, set aflame! Their ma would be beside herself!

“Um, Azure,” she tried timidly, but Azure was already chattering on, green eyes bright and immutable—

“We can sleep on the roof! We’ll get more sun that way. Plants need a certain amount of sunlight, or they stay small and weak. Do you want to stay small and weak, ’Zalie?”

“Um.”

“Exactly! I think we could use more sunlight. Maybe we’ll grow as tall as the oaks. No, as tall as the heavens! No, no, as tall as Da!

Azalea gasped. Da was the last straw. As a seasoned, weathered lumberjack, cut like a wind-beaten bluff with a jaw of stone, nothing could possibly be taller than Da. Even the very forest seemed to quake under his footsteps.

“That’s impossible,” she said firmly.

“It won’t be impossible,” Azure said, just as firmly. “Not if we train hard enough. C’mon, ’Zalie, let’s practice.”

Training would actually not help one grow any taller, but Azalea was seven and didn’t know that. It sounded very reasonable to her, mostly because everything Azure said sounded very reasonable.

Azure took a grounded stance across from her, feet a shoulder’s width apart, knees slightly bent. Azalea mirrored him. She didn’t actually like fighting him, even for practice. She would much prefer to bake some apples over a little fire, or fold some fairy clothes out of fabric scraps. She just wasn’t much of a fighter. But Azure cared so deeply about training his manawell and growing strong, and he made strength sound so very exciting. She couldn’t help but be swept along.

Azalea saw Azure breathe in, deep and steady, and close his eyes. She followed suit. This was the beginning of sensing mana: focus.

It took her a moment to catch it past the distractions of singing birds and scuttling lizards and chirping insects, but finally Azalea felt something. It was a subtle sensation, like the scent of baking cookies or the warm pulse of sunlight. Ever-present and threaded into the air was a tingle of something, like brushstrokes on a canvas of atmosphere. If she concentrated, she could pick out distinct traces: the breezy, restless wind mana, the fertile earth mana, the speckled fire mana from the sunlight, and still others that she couldn’t name.

“Form your weapon,” Azure said in a commanding tone. “Then we spar.”

Azalea winced. He made it sound so simple—and for him, it was simple. Azure had been Forming mana weapons practically since birth. Azalea, on the other hand, had yet to Form anything larger than a raindrop.

Once, Azalea had asked Azure if she could participate by using mana in some other way. Azure had looked at her with a puzzled frown and said, What other use for mana is there? Which, really, he had a point—Forming could shape explosive fireballs, Forming could create weapons out of the elements, Forming could bear its users on a wind current like makeshift wings. In comparison, other manacraft like Stabilizing or Threading felt pitiful.

No, Azalea would have to learn how to Form a weapon, or be left behind.

She concentrated hard, trying to remember Da’s instructions: See the trace. Pluck it. Weave it in like thread. There, Azalea, just like your fairy blankets.

She sensed it in her mind, felt its presence there: a thread of mana laced with wind and sunfire, loose and supple. On a calm, cloudless day like this, it was steady, easy to form.

Azalea reached out and burned a little of her manawell. At least, she thought it was her manawell, that flask of quiet energy sitting somewhere inside her chest, waiting like a motionless lake. Every person was born with a manawell, some larger than others. Burning it offered a way to harness the mana within and around them, and like every other source of human energy, it replenished with food and rest. Azalea’s manawell was rather small, but even so, it was more than enough to Form a weapon.

Azalea burned a little of her manawell and brought in that thread of wind and sunfire mana. She wove it together, balling it up into something solid. And there—it dropped in her hand, warm and spherical like a marble.

A good start, but hardly a weapon. She wouldn’t even be able to fit it into a sling.

Azalea breathed in deep, burning her manawell and pulling in more traces from the air. More wind, more sunfire. Over and under, like weaving on her little loom. Over and under, another thread, over and under, yet another. The marble began to grow and lengthen, pulsing until it melted into the shape of an arrowhead.

Then sparks skittered in her hand, and the arrowhead dusted away like dandelion seeds. The mana traces dispersed.

Azalea bit her lip, eyes watering. She kicked at the grass.

“I can’t do it, Azure,” she blurted. “I just can’t.”

Azure looked up with a slight frown. He had, true to his natural talents, already Formed a shadowy sort of sword. From the night-black blade to the onyx hilt, it was made of alluring darkness that seemed to swallow up all the surrounding light.

Something about the weapon set Azalea on edge. She squinted, her manawell tingling. There was a minute shift, and then her nervousness eased.

Azure stepped a little closer, his blade humming. “Don’t worry about it, ’Zalie,” he said gently. “You’re a whole two years younger than me. I couldn’t make the Aphotic Blade of Calamitous Void until last month.”

He was trying to be nice, but really, Azalea knew she was a lost cause. Two years ago, Azure had been Forming the Darker Blade of Void, which was basically just a prototype of the Aphotic Blade of Calamitous Void. He had apparently been Forming blades of void since three years old—a habit that routinely gave their ma conniptions.

“It’s okay, Azure,” she mumbled. Having given up on manacraft, she sat down and returned to stitching together her third fairy quilt. “Sorry. I think you have to find a better training partner.”

“You’re the best training partner I could ever ask for, ’Zalie,” Azure said emphatically, raising his blade. “Here, why don’t you toss some pebbles my way?”

Azalea tried. Her first throw was completely off, missing Azure by the length of a horse. After a bit of cajoling, she gathered enough courage to toss three more, which arced smoothly through the air. Azure cut them into smaller pebbles, Azalea clapped delightedly, and just like that, world peace was restored.

They continued with this little game for a while: Azalea tossing smaller and smaller pebbles, Azure practicing enough finesse to slice through them each time. It wasn’t until the sky began to blacken, dark clouds rattling over its face like coal dust, when Azalea looked up nervously.

“Azure?” she tried. “Maybe we should head back.”

Azure glanced at the sky and frowned. The grey cover of clouds rattled once, and the forest shook, trembling like the surface of a drum.

“Something’s strange with those clouds,” he said tightly. “Do you feel it, ’Zalie?”

Azalea did feel it. She wasn’t sure how to describe it—a strange presence hanging in the air, thick as the scent of baking bread, pulsing like a wild heart. It seemed to be leaking from those dark, dark clouds.

“Let’s go home,” she said nervously. “I’m, I’m scared.”

Sparks began to crackle from the boiling sky, carving vibrant aurora strokes that flashed and glittered like fairy dust. The clouds were set alight with iridescent lightning, blazing like magic torches in the sky.

Azalea stopped short, transfixed by the sight. It was so beautiful, so ethereal, so…fairy-like.

“Pretty,” she whispered.

“Such power,” Azure whispered.

And it was powerful—enchanting like a siren’s song, luring meager sailors to dash their ships upon the rocks. Azalea could feel it prickling at her skin like wool too hastily spun.

She’d often listened to stories of mana that was untamable. Chaos mana, celestial mana, time mana—elements that had never submitted to human hands. But this was the first time she’d come so close to such a source, and for the first time, she understood. The power. The instability. This storm could never be Formed, no matter how hard the greatest manacrafter might try.

“Alright,” Azure said wistfully. He pulled his eyes away from the vibrant storm clouds with intense effort. “Let’s get you inside, ’Zalie.”

That was when the earth split from under their feet.

One moment, Azalea was standing on solid ground, perched on tiptoes to peer into the sky. The very next, a web of cracks seared over the earth, glowing with iridescent light. The whole world seemed to lurch from side to side, groaning and shaking. Azalea was thrown off her feet with a pitiful cry.

“’Zalie!” Azure yelled.

The ground shuddered, and the spiderweb fissures tore apart, opening a chasm right under Azalea. Down, down it reached into the heart of the earth, its formless void consuming fallen dirt and tree boughs as it yawned open. Azalea flailed for the edge. It was no use; her hands tore up loose tufts of grass as she tumbled over.

The wind hurtled past her ears and her stomach turned end over end, she was falling so fast, and around her, trees and rocks collapsed into the widening rift, swallowed up by the nothingness below—

—and Azure moved without hesitation.

He hurtled off the edge of the cliff, diving towards Azalea. The moment he seized her arm, he plunged his manasword into the face of the earthen wall. Dirt scrabbled from the impact as the blade dragged down, grinding into earth until—it lodged against stone.

The two children dangled from that lone little blade above an endless abyss, supported only by Azure’s hand.

Azalea whimpered, clinging desperately onto Azure’s arm. His grip on the sword was shaking. He could not possibly hold on—not with her weighing him down.

“Azure,” she said pleadingly, but Azure was already taking action.

Mana flared from his body, so sudden and so intense that Azalea felt her own manawell tremble in response. It swirled around her in a powerful gust, weaving over and under, over and under, like thousands of threads knitting together in the blink of an eye—

—and brilliant wings of sunfire and wind lifted her up, arcing her over the ridge and onto safe ground.

Azalea tumbled into the grass, her arms and legs scraping against stone and earth.

Go!” Azure barked, his eyes flashing.

And his manawell winked out.

Where Azalea had once felt brilliant, coursing power was nothing but emptiness. The dark blade in Azure’s hand disintegrated to black dust.

Azure fell.

Azalea screamed, but the rumbling earth was drowning her ears in a dull, hollow noise that pulsed with every aching heartbeat. She reached out frantically, pulling together every tendril of mana in reach. Wind. Fire. Earth. Stone. Even the strange, unstable traces radiated by the storm. It didn’t matter. She had to make something now, now, now—overunderoverunder—

Azure’s small body faded in the distance until it was swallowed by darkness.

The patchwork net that Azalea was weaving fell to threadbare tatters.

She stared numbly into the abyss, her hands cold and shaking.

Azure—fallen—gone.

Her eyes had seen it, but her mind could not accept it. He couldn’t have fallen. He couldn’t be gone. Surely he could have Formed his own wings and flown himself back up, because Azure was powerful and Azure could do anything—but no, he’d run his manawell dry. She’d felt it extinguish, like a star vanishing from the sky.

And it was her fault.

The ground gave another jolt, knocking Azalea out of her stupor. More fissures erupted across the forest like cracks over a plate. She couldn’t stay here. Not even to look for Azure. She would end up falling again, and then she would really be no help.

Help!

Ma. Da. She had to get them, she had to—they would fix everything, they would find Azure, she just had to get home—

Azalea stumbled to her feet.

Get home.

Another fissure opened to her left, throwing her back onto the grass. A gash opened on her knee, raw and bleeding; the pain pounded into her leg like a nail, and she sobbed.

Again. Again. She must.

Azalea dragged herself upright, limping three steps on shaky ground. Her leg screamed with every step, but she gritted her jaw and kept forward. Azure would have.

Above her, the storm clouds bellowed. Light bolted down and struck the great oak right in front of her. A blast of wild mana erupted, flinging Azalea back like a rag doll. Her head hit the ground, and even padded with grass, the impact lanced painfully down her neck and made her vision swim. Blue fire licked down the oak’s boughs to its roots, searing the air with heat.

Azalea dragged herself up on one knee, her arms shaking with the effort. She squinted through the shimmering haze, searching frantically for something that could help her—a small branch for a makeshift cane, perhaps, or a discarded weapon.

Miraculously, she could make out the vague silhouette of a person just past the roaring inferno. One of the village sentries? Perhaps he was looking for survivors.

“Help!” she called pleadingly. Her throat was raw and it hurt, but she pushed even louder. “Help!

The figure raised its head and stalked through the smoke, coming into shape. A cruel muzzle. A greying pelt. Black eyes, tangled with a violent, strange red.

Not a person, but a wolf.

Azalea’s heart sank. Da had always warned her about the creatures of the wild and their feral, territorial ways. This one seemed even worse. Its eyes rolled in its sockets and there was red froth at its mouth. From its twisted back jutted black, razor-sharp spines, and a putrid sac was swelling out of its left flank.

The wolf snarled and lunged right at her, maw snapping open with a gleam of serrated teeth—

—Azalea feebly raised her arms, bracing for terrible pain—

—and a shadow sliced in front of her.

The wolf was flung aside in a spray of blood, a large gash torn right across its muzzle. It howled in agony, clawing blindly at the air.

The shadow materialized again, taking shape in front of Azalea: a man, shrouded in a vibrant blue cloak, holding a beautiful silver sword with peace and confidence.

The man moved. His sword-point flashed blue, and Azalea felt a rush of icy mana. White crystals erupted over his blade as the weapon seared straight into the skull of the wolf, driving through its brain. It slumped over, dead.

The man scooped up Azalea, and suddenly, they were flying.

Up close, the man had angular, elegant features that Azalea had never seen before. She tried to place him—not a neighbor, not even a passing merchant. With that beautiful sword of his, mana quartz glowing pale and bright in the silver crossguard, he could only be a knight of high status.

Then she saw the emblem pinned proudly to his cloak: a golden shield engraved with the sign of a thriving tree. It bloomed warm and yellow even in the frantic darkness of the storm, like the comforting embers of a fireplace.

Azalea relaxed. She recognized that emblem. This man was a Royal Hunter from the nation’s capital.

He was a hero.

The Hunter carved a gentle slope through the air, landing nimbly on the branch of a tree. There was the smallest nudge of wind mana, and he pushed back into the air, bounding through the forest one graceful arc at a time. It was so controlled, so flawless. With such small drops of mana, he was able to propel the weight of both himself and a small passenger. Azalea stared in amazement.

“Are you alright, little one?” the Hunter asked softly. His voice was rumbly and warm, like Da’s.

My brother, Azalea wanted to say. Help Azure, please, mister. Please, my brother.

Her mouth wouldn’t move.

The Hunter glanced at her. He seemed to understand her terror, because his gaze softened and his mouth pulled up. “You’re safe now. You were very brave, little one. Well done.”

She wasn’t brave. Azure was brave. Azure had been brave, and because of that, now she was here, and Azure was gone.

Azalea stared at that golden emblem and tried not to think of light and fire and Azure tumbling into the abyss.

“The, the wolf,” she managed tremulously. “Was sick.”

The Hunter started a little at her voice, but nodded. “The animals have been stirred by the mana storm. I believe the overload is corrupting them.”

“Cor—corrupting?”

“The storm’s mana is too much for them to handle,” he explained gently. “That’s why their bodies are twisting up and growing things when they shouldn’t. It drives them mad.”

Azalea winced. “Scary,” she mumbled.

“It’s alright, little one,” he said. “That is what the Hunters are for.”

He landed smoothly on the ground, which was still green and verdant, untouched by the storm. Azalea recognized this place: it was a little glade of wildflowers just outside their house.

She was home.

Her da was at the door of their cottage, shouldering a large pack and roll on his back, wood-cutting hatchet in hand. He raced over as the Hunter lowered Azalea to the ground, stony features easing in relief.

“Azalea!” he said. He quickly swung her up, settling her in the crook of his arm. “Thank you, Lord Hunter. Thank the Mythic Stars.”

Azalea buried her face in her da’s shoulder, squeezing her eyes shut. She liked it here, safe and high, nestled in the warmth of her family’s embrace, far from harm. The storm suddenly seemed so very far away.

“Oh, Azalea!” That was the voice of her ma, rushing forward as she fastened a knife to her belt. She pressed a hand into Azalea’s hair, her voice shaking. “We were worried sick, where have you and Azure been—”

And then she stopped, her eyes flickering from Azalea, to the Hunter, and back.

“Azure,” she whispered. “Where’s Azure? Azalea, where’s your brother?”

Azalea opened her mouth, then closed it. She felt sick and dizzy all over.

Azure falling. Azure vanishing. Azure gone.

“I’m sorry,” said the Hunter quietly, “but I found no one else. You have to leave before the storm gets any closer.”

“I can’t,” said Ma, wringing her hands. Her voice was rising higher, strident. “My son is still out there! He’s alone!”

“Anna.” Da, now. His voice was tight, yet weary. “We have to go.”

The Hunter watched Ma wordlessly, his face troubled. She noticed his expression and grasped his cloak desperately.

“You have to find him, Lord Hunter,” she pleaded. “Please. Please, save him! You’re a Hunter—you can, you can save him—if anyone could do it—he’s my child, please—”

“Anna!” said Da.

She released the Hunter. Da gripped her hand, and they quickly strode down the beaten path, heading to the village. They’d keep going until they reached an outpost, or maybe a larger town.

Azalea peered over her da’s shoulder, looking into the gaping maw of that crackling, ravenous beast of a storm.

The Hunter was going back.

He’d drawn his sword, swift and fluid, letting the icy blade glow softly. He stood at the edge of the woods for a moment, staring up at the angry clouds above. The golden emblem gleamed on his chest.

There was a distant boom, a hiss, a crackle. The trees groaned.

The Hunter stepped forth with his sword, unafraid, and was swallowed up by the darkness.

He never returned.

NOTES:

After a year of work, it’s here! Thanks for joining me for this ride, I’m really excited to show this magical world and its characters at long last.

Feel free to join the Airlean Tales Discord server where I post wips and sneak peeks from time to time :)