13. Northelm (1)

The northward road was silent and empty, dotted every so often by grimy statues and mossy, crumbling walls. An old, beaten fountain marked the ruins of Luton, once a lively trading town; several pillars and a broken platform were the remains of Skydrift, once a port for air-trade with the flying islands of Kahu Tei; beyond that lay Stormgate, a towering arch of rough stone boulders, monument to where Airlea had fought off the Great Storm ten years ago. Every mile was painted in history, old and forgotten, left to be grown over with vines and flowers and wild things.

Seeing the emptiness filled Azalea with a distant sense of loss, knowing that these places were once vibrant and lively, full of joy. How weak Airlea had become, and how terribly its borders had shrunk. With each passing day, it seemed more inclined to fade into nothingness like the morning mist.

Azalea shook away the feeling and pressed further north, where the air thinned and minerals flecked the rocky ground, where a fortified outpost nestled at the foot of the mountains: Northelm.

Northelm was one of Airlea’s last remaining border villages. The Storms had forcibly closed most others, whether by beast, quake, or plague. The few border villages that remained were not only fortunate; they were tough, accustomed to fending for themselves with capital so far away. Northelm was one of the old guard, and it showed. What had once started as a small mining village had flourished into a rustic stronghold, equipped with a stone wall and two watchtowers—impressive defenses for its moderate population. It was certainly better guarded than Azalea’s town, Maple Point, which hosted a single veteran guard and a barebones squad of militia. And so it had to be; Northelm was one of the final mines where exceedingly rare and precious mana quartz could be found.

As Azalea neared the gate, she recited the checklist in her head. Set up tonight’s lodgings, check in with the outpost guard, scout the border. Assuming nothing was amiss—which was most likely the case—she’d stay for a day or two, quietly monitoring the area, then would return to the capital in time for the next surge.

Her plans were disrupted by a crossbow bolt whistling right towards her face.

Oh dear.

Azalea fired her windsoles to drop sideways, then fired again to soften her landing. She rolled nimbly on a patch of soft grass, and leapt to her feet to gather her bearings.

She could see Northelm’s gate looming in view. The crossbow bolt had, undoubtedly, come from one of the watchtowers. The townspeople had opened fire on her without attempting to verify her identity.

Not accustomed to visitors, I take it.

Still, most Airleans would hesitate to fire on a human being. The people of Northelm were more hardened—and possibly, in a more dire situation—than Azalea had thought.

Careful of her every movement, Azalea drew herself upright and raised her hands. She looked right at the watchtowers and raised her voice.

“I am the Scarlet Rider, the Fiftieth Hunter of Airlea, and come in the name of the king!” she called. “Lower your weapons!”

A moment of stillness.

Then—

—another crossbow bolt whistled toward her.

Azalea dropped to the grass and the bolt pealed overhead. The message had been clear: she was not welcome.

Technically, this was obstruction of civil duty—maybe even as serious as treason. Azalea was authorized to fire back, but she couldn’t. Not on Airlean citizens.

Perhaps they just hadn’t heard her.

She was ready for the third bolt. With a spark of her windsoles, she arced into the air, closing distance with the closest watchtower. She tucked in her legs and neatly vaulted through the opening. Her landing was spry and she drew her starshooter—Bluebell—in a smooth arc, flicking off the safety.

“Cease your fire,” she commanded. “I come in the name of—”

The words were torn out of her mouth.

Three pairs of wide, terrified eyes blinked back at her. Children half her size were reloading their crossbows with shaking arms, barely strong enough to wind back the cranks. Beaten tin bowls were sitting on their heads as some sort of ramshackle helmets.

Children. Myths alive, they’re all children.

Azalea reengaged the safety and slung her firearm away, just in time—the tallest boy with knobby knees had tossed aside his crossbow. He lunged at her with a ragged cry, fist aimed right for her gut.

Azalea caught his arm and pulled him aside. “Where are your parents?” she demanded.

He lashed out against her grasp, clawing blindly. He was going to hurt himself if he kept thrashing. Azalea held his other arm fast.

“Look at me,” she said, her voice calm, but firm. “Look at me, young man.”

The boy froze and squinted at her through teary eyes. Azalea exhaled, loosening her grip on his arms.

“I’m a Royal Hunter,” she said soothingly. “I’ve been sent here to help you. I want to help.”

He saw the boy’s gaze dart to her scarlet cloak, her flower pin, the shield-emblems on her armor. His eyes went big and round, his voice hushed in reverence.

“Are you really a Royal Hunter?” he whispered.

“Of course.”

“But we never get them in these parts.”

That made her chest ache a little. Airlean outpost or no, with their distance from the capital, Northelm must have learned not to rely on outside help. They must have only suffered brigands, or at best, the occasional trader.

“What’s your name?” Azalea asked.

“Zack. Zack Harvenfest.”

“And you’re in charge?”

He nodded, eyes still wide. Myths, he couldn’t be older than nine.

“Of the youth,” he amended quickly. “Mam Gerta, she’s been taking care of town. The mams and dads who stay home. The babes.”

Elders, beset mothers and fathers, infants. Hardly a rousing force.

“Can you tell me what happened?” she asked, patting his shoulder.

He nodded and spoke, his words remarkably clear for his age.

Most of the town’s able-bodied souls had entered the mines days ago. That was the way of Northelm; the caves glimmered with pockets of unrefined mana quartz, their precious and primary export. Those who stayed behind were usually the elderly, the children, and the homedwelling parents who maintained the village in the miners’ absences.

But this time, no one came back, Zack said. The other two children in the watchtower—his little siblings, if the same vibrant curls of hair were to be believed—moved in close at this point. The youngest, a small girl, perched on Azalea’s knee and huddled in.

Miners usually returned well before nightfall, Zack said. This was the first time that they had disappeared for so long. There had been no quake, no warning bell, no rousing catastrophe. The entire workforce had simply vanished.

A search party of four able-bodied men had set out in search of the miners. None returned. Then another party of four able-bodied women had set out. They, too, were lost. One final party—of older youth aged twelve to fourteen years—was soon to set out.

But there’s not much time left, Zack said fearfully. The people of Northelm were likely still alive—the village had stowed food, water, and emergency supplies in several caverns throughout the route in case of a cave-in. But they would not last, and certainly not with a sizable population.

Not a surge, still a crisis. Azalea felt unexpectedly grateful towards the Wolf, even if his information hadn’t been spot-on.

Azalea gently pried the children off her lap and smoothed their clothes with a few quick tugs. She couldn’t help fussing, even when they were standing with crossbows in a cold, stony watchtower. Then she stood, bundling her cloak tightly around her. This far north, the wind began to develop a bite, and it nibbled lightly at her cheeks.

“Stop the search party,” she instructed. “Do not let any villager enter the mines.”

“What about you, ma’am?” said Zack nervously.

His eyes were too big, his head too small for that tin helmet. Azalea thought of the Hunter who had saved her as a child—that calm, gentle man who exuded strength, courage, heroism. She tried to do the same. These children needed it.

“I’m going to find your family,” she said softly, her face upturned. “And I’m going to bring them home.”

The northern caves were beautiful.

Azalea wasn’t used to beautiful caves. There had been one by Lumber’s Hollow, a musty, cramped old cavern that wound into a ditch of snakes. The boys sometimes threw pebbles inside and dared each other to jump in. The girls yelled to hear the stone yell back in an echo.

These caves were nothing similar. They loomed downward in huge, yawning rooms, the open space bridged by stone arches that spindled across like knotted boughs. The walls rippled with luminescent veins, and collecting in hollows throughout the ground were calcified pools of water, vibrant blue and unmoving.

Azalea dropped down with a whisper of her windsoles. This cavern was immense, stalactites arcing from the roof like chandeliers. She exhaled softly as she ran her fingers along the eroding wall, its peeling layers another sort of beauty.

This was no skein of cramped, dingy tunnels. This was a wild, living place, the air thrumming with an undercurrent of mana. And of course it would. Mana quartz grew from a miraculous combination of climate, soil type, and magic potency that could only be found in a handful of places.

Azalea followed the scant trail of carts, rails, and pulleys. Her mother would have been fascinated with this place. Would have retrieved her blade and dug out clumps of fungus, fragments of colored rock, cuttings of peeping moss, and studied them all later to determine any medicinal use. But that was before Azure’s death, when she was a bright and compassionate apothecary.

How empty and silent Ma had become after Azure’s death, a husk of a woman who drifted listlessly about the house like a wraith. She was distant, the look in her eyes glazed and confused, lost at sea. Da had tried to bring her back and anchor her, because despite it all, he loved her too. But it proved unfruitful. A part of Ma had died with Azure, and it was irretrievable.

Still, Azalea knelt by a patch of dewy, vivid moss and sliced away a handful. For Ma, she told herself, wrapping it in a handkerchief and stowing it away.

One day. One day, it would see use.

A bitter stench throttled Azalea back to present, and she drew her weapon without hesitation. No, stench wasn’t quite the right word; it wasn’t a physical smell that burned her nostrils or made her throat close up. Rather, it was a sense of putrid magic: writhing forces, a horrible weight of dread.

Something dark was waiting in the caverns beyond.

Her breath quickened. This is it. Whatever happened to the villagers, I’m approaching it.

She hoped they were still alive. Oh, how she hoped. Little Zack and his sweet, round face came to mind. He was too young to play father to his little siblings.

Azalea slowly crept down the open passages, the luminous veins pulsing in the wall. The stench was growing stronger, pulsing in the back of her head like a dull ache.

Bracing herself for the worst, she peered around a cavern wall and looked down.

Her first impression was a silver sea. Soft, still waves, gently rippling from time to time like a liquid mirror. Then the sea flexed and undulated, and twisted up, and the silver melted into bits of emerald green, striped and segmented like the…scales on a…

Scales. She was looking at the scaly hide of a massive snake, body large enough to eat up the floor of the entire cavern.

Azalea’s steps faltered backward. Cold horror hollowed out her bones.

They mined into a corruption’s den.

The serpentine body coiled, then rose slowly, winding lazily around a column of stone. Even from this distance, she could tell it was enormous. A Class Four, no doubt.

Bad, bad, bad. Very bad. Azalea was in unfamiliar territory, restricted quarters, and she’d never faced a Four before. One misstep would mean her death, and it was easy to misstep in this terrain.

If she had her way, she wouldn’t go within ten miles of these caves. But an entire village was trapped. Their fates depended on her abilities here and now.

Myths, what if they’ve already been found and eaten?

No, she had to believe they’d survived. She had to believe that there was something worth fighting for.

Or she’d flee from this place, sobbing and screaming like a child.

Azalea took a moment to steady her breathing, then crept out to a stone ledge. From this perspective, she could see everything—the serpent’s great, winding coils, its slotted eyes, the corrupted fins pushing out from under its skin. Her vantage point gave her a clear shot, not that it mattered. The beast’s scales looked too thick to penetrate with a starshooter’s firebolt. She’d need a direct line to its mouth to inflict any lasting damage.

A direct line. To its mouth.

The realization swept over her like an icy river. That was her only fighting chance. She needed the serpent to look right at her and open its mouth, and she needed to fire in the split second before it killed her.

Would one shot be enough? She didn’t know. It seemed impossibly foolish to hope that one round could fell a Class Four, even if perfectly placed. But if one didn’t work, then she’d just have to fire two, three, more until it died. She had no other option.

Grimacing, Azalea braced Bluebell against her shoulder and aimed. The first shot would draw its attention; the second would seal her fate.

With a pull of the trigger, all hell would break loose.

Azalea flicked off the safety and, after a moment of hesitation, flipped the toggle that Wes had added to her starshooter. She was going to need all the firepower she could get. Bluebell hummed in her hands, and a low snarl of instability gathered around the regulator. Energy was funneling properly into the mana quartz.

Thank you, Wes.

She could pretend that he was here now. By her side, guiding her hand. His breath warm in the hollow of her ear, his hand pushing down her shoulder to relax.

Keep loose, he’d say. Don’t tense up. You have the technique to hit the mark, ’Zalie. Now just believe it.

She inhaled, exhaled.

She believed.

She fired.

The bolt exploded from the muzzle, a trailing star that nearly blinded her in the dim light of the cave.

And seared right through the serpent’s slotted eye.

Her first shot just had to get its attention, but that didn’t mean it had to be useless.

The serpent shrieked, a shrill, horrifyingly human noise that rattled up the walls and into Azalea’s bones.

There it is, she thought. All hell.

That was the last coherent thought she had for a good long while.

The serpent moved with a speed she hadn’t expected—not from something of that size. It snapped around the cavern, blood sopping from its damaged eye socket, forked tongue spearing the air for her scent. Rock dust crumbled down with every sharp movement.

Every instinct inside Azalea screamed for her to move, but she managed to stay put. She unraveled the instability around her starshooter and primed her next shot. And waited.

A breath later, and she knew the serpent had pinpointed her position. Its head swiveled in her direction and slowly, its coiled body rose, ready to strike. Then its mouth yawned open, revealing rings of fangs tapered to deadly points and dripping with caustic venom.

Azalea fired.

The bolt streaked right into its maw and pierced its throat.

The serpent throttled violently with another screech, and rubble peeled from the ceiling. Its head snapped towards Azalea, but she’d already fired her windsoles, arcing neatly to another stone ledge.

Not a kill. Not even close. Maybe it had only been tantamount to a bee sting.

Azalea’s palms began to sweat. Could she even kill this beast? Her two opening shots—the best she’d had to offer—had done little to slow the creature. Maybe it was impossible for her. She wasn’t powerful enough, strong enough. Maybe she had just locked herself in combat until her inevitable demise.

The serpent struck again, fangs snapping, terrifyingly fast. Azalea fired her windsoles again and darted behind a jutting crag. It lashed out again, destroying the crag in an explosion of rock as she arced back into the air.

Not good. She was on the run, barely able to find her footing before she was forced to springstep again. She’d never get another shot in like this.

Azalea pinwheeled around a column of stone and sprang up with a burst of her windsoles. She braced her starshooter and waited.

She hit the apex of her jump, the single moment of deadly stillness.

At that one moment of stability, she fired.

The firebolt sizzled into the serpent’s other eye, piercing through until scales splintered at the exit wound.

The beast entered a blind rage, thrashing and screaming. The cavern shook as viscous liquid discharged from its mouth, spouting in Azalea’s direction. She was barely able to spring away as the spittle scraped her cloak and seared a good chunk of fabric, leaving nothing but burning fringe.

Azalea hissed. Acid. On top of everything else, the serpent’s venom was lethally acidic. One drop could burn a hole right through her flesh.

Blessedly, she didn’t have time to dwell on the fact until it festered into fear. Because the creature’s body was transforming.

The serpent bulged, contorting beneath its scaly skin—as if its bones were growing too fast for the rest of it. A needle-sharp onyx growth shredded through its tail like a scorpion stinger, spines erupted from its back, and the scales of its neck feathered out, a lethal mane of razor blades.

Then it rose, and rose, and kept rising, until its bloated body swallowed up the whole cavern, blotting out the crystal-blue light until only pinpricks remained.

I’m going to die.

The thought was quiet, calm, and utterly clear in her mind. She stared up at the towering monstrosity, her hands steady on Bluebell.

I can’t win. I’m going to die.

Was this how the man in her youth felt, she wondered—deep in the forest, searching for Azure, staring up at the yawning maw of the insatiable Great Storm? Had he always known that it was futile? Had he realized that he wasn’t going home?

She should have told him. Told him that Azure was dead, that he should save his own skin. She’d been silent and scared, and somebody’s son and brother and maybe father had died for it.

Azalea exhaled and raised her starshooter.

Take it, her mind whispered. One more shot. Make it count.

Her dying shot. The last that this beautiful weapon would see.

Take it now.

But her feet were frozen to the ground. Her hands were clamped on her firearm. She couldn’t move. Her limbs were trapped, under the thrall of an invisible spell.

She was always like this. When it came down to it, whenever it really mattered, she was a coward, possessed by fear. It didn’t matter how much training she put herself through, or how many accolades she worked to earn. She would always be frozen, helpless, weak. A little girl suspended over the edge of an endless abyss.

I’m sorry, Wes. Master Nicolina.

Da.

She watched, still and silent, as the transformed serpent lunged, snapping like a lightning bolt—

—and the world went dark.