14. Northelm (2)

Azalea had been here before. In the dark, helpless, alone.

She’d been a child at the time. She went into the forest to smell the fresh rain in the trees, and fell into some kind of earthen pit, the leaves and muddied soil giving way to a deep cavity of the forest. She cried over her scraped knee for a few minutes, but eventually, gathered the resolve to clamber out.

Only to find that every fistful of earth came away wet and crumbling, impossible to grip or make a foothold.

She tried again, and again. Tried her luck in different areas of the wall. She shoved her foot into the soil, dug out handholds, gave herself a running and jumping start. Every time, she slid back to the bottom, the dirt caving in beneath her, slick and muddy.

It was about half an hour before Azalea stopped trying, her knees bleeding and her hands covered in welts.

She remembered being so scared that she couldn’t even cry. She laid on that filthy ground, staring at the grey sky, her mind completely empty. She was going to die in this pit, alone and forgotten—buried alive by a mudslide, eaten by wild beasts, starving to death, the possibilities were endless. She was going to die without having seen a single fairy.

“Why, ’Zalie,” came a surprised voice, “what are you doing down there?”

Azalea sat up. A blond head was poking over the edge of the pit, brows wrinkled in consternation. Meadow-green eyes, the color mirroring her own, narrowed slightly.

She almost sobbed. “Azure,” she said, raising her arms.

Azure glanced over her bloodied hands and knees and the mud soaking her dress. His frown deepened.

“I fell,” Azalea said in a small voice.

“Hm,” he said. He straightened. “Then we’ll have to get you out.”

Azalea saw the catastrophe before it happened. Azure pushing back his capelet. Azure squatting down. Azure raising his arms for balance.

“Wait, Azure!” she shrieked.

But it was too late. Azure fearlessly skidded into the pit, his capelet fluttering behind him like blue wings, wet earth churning at his shoes.

And he landed in a crouch beside her.

Azalea stared at him, her jaw slack. He’d jumped down without any planning, any thinking, any consideration for his own life. Like a blind fool.

Azure paid her no mind. He plunged his hand into the mud and rummaged a bit, then pulled it out.

“Hm,” he said.

He prodded again. Then he nodded to himself.

“Yes, this looks rather unclimbable,” he said.

Azalea nearly burst into tears. “You should’ve stayed out of the pit and—and got me a rope, or got Da, or something!”

“Oh,” said Azure, surprised. “Now that you mention it, yes. That sounds like it could have worked.”

Why was her brother so dumb and why was she so weak. Azalea couldn’t help it; she buried her face in her hands and sobbed. Now they were stuck here, and they would starve, or be attacked by wild bears, or, or—

“Well,” said Azure brightly, “let’s get out of here.”

And before Azalea could snap out anything, she felt the familiar flare of his manawell. Threads of sunfire mana spooled together and anchored to her back. A moment later, they flared out, shimmering and vibrant like blazing feathers.

Azure waved his hand, and a gust of wind bore Azalea up, arcing her neatly out of the pit. She descended slowly, buoyed by the sunfire wings on her back. They fizzled away once her feet touched solid ground.

Wings! He’d just made wings like it was nothing! Did Azure know how incredible that was, how difficult? Sunfire mana was already a flighty thing; just the thought of trying to shape it into a functional structure made her feel dizzy. She couldn’t even Form a single feather, let alone an entire glider system.

Apparently, invention was unnecessary in the face of sheer power.

Azalea gaped as she peered back down into the pit, where Azure was grinning up at her.

“You made wings,” she said in awe.

“Surprised?” said Azure. “So am I. I’ve never done it before.”

Had Azalea been older, she would have realized that Forming wings was extremely mana inefficient—that a simple blast of wind, or Forming a grass rope, would have done the job in half the mana. But Azalea was not older. Azalea was seven and easily impressed.

“Why aren’t you flying up?” she asked eagerly. “We need to show Ma and Da.”

“Ah,” said Azure thoughtfully. “Well, you see, it seems that I don’t have any mana left to make myself a pair of wings.”

Azalea stared.

And blinked.

She laughed, teary and bright-eyed, hiccuping through the relief and incredulity.

Then she left to fetch Da and a climbing rope.

Azalea waited to die.

Her eyes had screwed shut, darkening her world, waiting for the flash of agony before nothingness.


—there was a fat thunk of a sharp edge meeting flesh, and a wild scream.

No pain rattled up her fragile bones or tore her limbs apart or melted away her skin.

Azalea exhaled and forced her eyes to peel open.

The serpent was pinned like an insect, writhing beneath twin pillars—no, blades, so immensely large and sturdy that they looked like pillars driven into the ground. And standing calmly on the ridge of its spine was a broad figure, silhouette haloed by crystalline blue.

He was garbed in jagged and harsh edges: obsidian plates on his shoulders, dragon scales falling in a crimson cape down his back, a harsh horned mask crowning his nose and cheeks. Weapons of bone, spiked and crooked at the crossguards, gleamed ivory at his hip. Bones and spears, crimson and black. A huntsman, a killer, a reaper.

The serpent twisted its head, spewing venom at the huntsman’s bladed pillars, melting them down to nothingness.

The huntsman seemed undisturbed by the serpent’s deadly show of poison. He vaulted—not away from the venom, but right into it.

Madman! Surely his flesh would sizzle off his bones, surely he would die in agony—

Then his figure became a pinwheel of dark fire.

Azalea’s manawell shivered as raw power pulsed from the huntsman. Mana threads yanked into his inferno as the odor of smoke flared in the cavern. Black flames licked up the tendrils of iridescent, deadly venom, and—

—the venom frayed into bits of ash, utterly consumed.

Azalea’s jaw slackened as the huntsman plunged forward, untouched. He’d Formed that dark fire in the blink of an eye. Barely stable, yes—but powerfully, terribly made. The sheer focus, the breadth of manawell required for that level of weaving, all rivaled the top Hunters of the guild.

She watched silently as the huntsman’s hand snapped out, reaching for the serpent’s maw.

The serpent vanished.

The huntsman careened into empty space. He swept around with the momentum, regaining his balance.

The cavern was silent.

Azalea drew herself upright, eyes alert as they darted about. The serpent could cloak itself, she realized. More than a chameleon, more than a simple camouflage. Somehow, it could shroud itself from both sight and sound. To locate it, she—and the huntsman—would have to rely on instinct and reflexes alone.

Myths help us. She’d always known that Class Fours could manipulate their bodies, but she hadn’t thought that extended to new abilities and traits. Spines, or fins, or growing in size. That had been her expectation, not magical powers.

There was a flicker at the edge of Azalea’s periphery.

To the left.

She immediately fired her windsoles and shot away.

Out of nowhere, the serpent’s head snapped forth, scales surging into glittering view. Fangs lashed down on empty space where she’d been standing a moment prior.

Then, as quickly as it had struck, it faded back into nothingness.

The huntsman turned and tilted his head, listening closely. So did Azalea, raising her starshooter, waiting with bated breath.

There was silence for a breath. Then two.


Again, the serpent’s head lashed out. This time, its fangs crushed down on the huntsman.

He pulled aside, but a row of teeth caught on his pauldron and dragged down it with an unearthly shriek. A tooth’s edge tore into his arm. Blood blossomed on his sleeve, soaking the fabric with crimson.

With a hiss, the huntsman lashed out in a sweep of dark fire. But the serpent had already disappeared.

They would both die if this continued. Azalea breathed deep and opened her manawell, concentrating.

She felt it before she saw it. A presence slithering on the wall like a loose thread. A slow burn of barely-there magic. A resonance.


She primed her starshooter and fired at a stretch of empty wall.

The firebolt seared through the air like a shooting star, burning brilliantly, and then—

—there was a flicker of silver scales. A shudder of power. Then nothing.

A hit. Not one of any consequence—the scales of a Class Four would be too thick for her ammo to penetrate—but she had, at the very least, successfully detected the creature’s position.

I can sense it.

Of course she could. A talent for Stabilizing made her especially sensitive to mana presence. So long as the creature was cloaking itself—and burning mana to do so—she would be able to find it.

Azalea rose, a rare smile dancing on her lips.

Perhaps she could not slay the beast, but she could negate its advantages.

Keenly aware of the huntsman’s sharp gaze following the tip of her barrel, Azalea raised her weapon. She waited patiently for that hint of a line, that little tug.

She found it on the far wall, cautiously snaking around. She fired.

This time, the huntsman lunged in sync with the round exploding from her barrel. He tore across the cavern and reached out with his bloodied hand.

As her firebolt struck the serpent, forcing its scales to ripple silver—

—the huntsman’s arm shot upward.

Giant blades snapped up from the earth, thrice his height and black as night. The ground buckled beneath the weight of their power as they drove into the serpent’s jaw, through its tongue, and up into the roof of its mouth, impaling it in place. Pulsing blood spewed from the serpent’s head, and it thrashed with an unholy shriek.

Mana instability hit Azalea like a battering ram to the face, and she gaped in horror.

Those blades weren’t forged of metal. They were mana blades.

The huntsman had, in the blink of an eye, woven immense Forms of mana that simmered with a festering energy. It was strung together into something barely stable—chaotic and deadly enough to pierce what even a starshooter’s firebolt could not.


Frantically, Azalea reached out and unraveled the blades’ instability, calming their boiling energy into stable, humming Forms. She breathed out a sigh of relief—

—but the battle was already moving on.

The serpent’s tail whipped around, its deadly stinger lancing right at the huntsman’s head. The huntsman pinwheeled around, and somehow—without any regard for safety—seized the stinger by the root and plunged it right into the serpent’s head.

He was a blink slow, and the stinger’s ribbed edge sliced open his shoulder as he did so. But he didn’t seem to care. More mana flared from him, wreathing the stinger in an acrid black substance as he slammed it through the creature’s skull. There was the sound of parting flesh, shattering bone.

The black substance seemed to consume—no, absorb—the essence of the stinger, spinning into dark tendrils that wailed down on the serpent, tearing away its scales, plunging into its damaged eye sockets, brutalizing anything in reach.

Azalea’s hands trembled. She lowered the starshooter, speechless.

Impossible. This whole battle, impossible. The huntsman was Forming complex constructs left and right, each brimming with power and instability—and he showed no sign of stopping. How? How was it possible for his manawell to be so deep? Azalea would have run dry ages ago, but here he was, conjuring blades and fire as if they were little more than pebbles. A Hunter would have been censured for such inefficient uses of mana when safer, more effective techniques were plentiful. But this man seemed to care about nothing other than absolute power, no matter the risk.

A burst of venom seared down the huntsman’s mana blades, freeing the serpent. It flickered, then vanished from sight again. But its power was beginning to flag; Azalea could feel it, and no doubt the huntsman could too. One way or another, the hunt was coming to an end.

Silence fell over the cavern again. Azalea sensed the huntsman’s eyes on her, waiting. Watching that damning point of her barrel.

They were winning. Winning. She had no reason to feel apprehensive, dizzy, nauseous. Because they were winning.

Swallowing, Azalea raised her firearm. The serpent was giving off a stronger trail now, the severity of its injuries bogging it down. It was easy to find, curling up in the corner of the cavern, gathering the last reserves of its strength.

A pitiful thing. Her barrel wavered.

The huntsman did not.

The moment her starshooter hesitated on that fateful spot, he lunged.

A cross of blades speared from the surrounding rock and through the patches of shorn scales, pincering the serpent in place. Unstable mana festered as he bashed his fists across its maw, hands wreathed in black fire. Shadowy talons crowned his knuckles, and he tore into its neck, splitting it open.

The serpent writhed with a helpless wail.

Stop, Azalea wanted to scream.

The huntsman plunged his gauntlet deep inside the beast. Dark flames erupted from within, a pillar of fire. The air turned thick with the acrid odor of charred flesh and organ as the serpent screamed, burning from the inside out.


Mana from the shadows snapped into form, and the huntsman raised a horrible, jagged sword, something that was made to gut and eviscerate. He plunged it in and tore it out, yanking apart raw flesh, again and again, drenching himself in blood—


She wanted this to stop. She wanted it to keep going, to finish quickly until it was dead. She wanted to look away. She wanted to stare at the brutality and etch it in her memory forever. She wanted to vomit. She wanted to be strong. She wanted everything and nothing, both sides of the same coin.

The huntsman didn’t care.

His quarry was burbling. Burbling, and still moving. The huntsman melted down his sword into shadows and poured it into the serpent, bloating it until black mist leaked from its damaged eyes, poured out of its mutilated mouth, drowning it in suffocating darkness—

Kill it—please, by the Myths, kill it—

It was still alive, the poor thing. Its thrashing had weakened to nothing but twitching, but still, it moved.

The huntsman, stone-faced, reached out his hand again. The shadows retreated from the serpent, coalescing into a swirling, squirming orb that swallowed up all the surrounding light. Azalea felt the mana building, building. A whirlpool of chaos that indiscriminately swallowed every surrounding thread. She felt it rearing its head like a wild beast, ready to detonate, to destroy.

Whatever spell he was weaving, if it went off, it would obliterate the entire cavern.

Frantically—instinctively—she yanked at the screaming instability in its Form, the threads that writhed and boiled, too quickly pulled together without thought and clarity. Still the Form built, its energy rising, barely held together by her rapid efforts—

The huntsman detonated it just as it reached a fever pitch.

The serpent’s body shredded and burst like thin paper. Scales and gore splattered like debris, coating the stones, the walls, the beautiful blue crystals, until every surface was slick with blood.


No movement, no breath, no sound.

Utter silence.

The stench, the sight, it was all too much. Azalea stooped over and retched until her throat burned and her vision was swimming. Her legs were jelly and the adrenaline had bled out of her veins, leaving nothing but a bone-crushing exhaustion.

Over. It was over.


She felt the huntsman’s gaze on her from beneath that mask. His magic weapons had dissipated, but he could recall them at any time. And even if he didn’t, there were those bone weapons swinging at his hip, waiting in the event his manawell ran dry. If such a thing was even possible.

He stepped towards her. Azalea pulled herself away, forcing her boots to find a grip on the blood-soaked stone floor. She tried to stand. Her legs gave out and she stumbled on her knees, the caps smarting as they crashed into rock.

There was still plenty in her manawell, but it didn’t matter. She couldn’t fight him. Not somebody that powerful, that brutal.

The mask tilted slightly, evaluating her. Azalea stared back.

She was looking Death in the eyes.

Her only hope was that she had proved herself an ally in this encounter, someone worth sparing. And beyond that…the huntsman had a human form; maybe there was a shred of humanity somewhere in there. If she begged for a quick and painless death, maybe he would give it.

Coward, coward. A real Hunter would fight to their last breath and protect for everything they were worth, not beg for death. Maybe a real Hunter would have relished the serpent’s final misery. Azalea could certainly imagine Karis’s face, mildly amused as she carved up the beast with sugar-thread, or Halcyon’s face, cold and unfeeling as he drowned it and boiled it.

But not her. Her, a weak link, a fresh-faced country girl.


She watched the huntsman, unblinking, every word frozen in her mouth.


The huntsman inclined his head.

Then he turned and, with a pulse of a dark current, shot down a tunnel and vanished.

Azalea blinked. And blinked again.

Where she had been expecting death—or, at least, a struggle—she’d been met with only silence. A permission to live.

Shakily, Azalea braced her hands on a blood-splattered stretch of rock and pulled herself up. She surveyed the carnage around her: the shattered pillars of rock, the little shards of crystal dust, the splattered remains of a decaying beast.

She staggered over and vomited.



Exciting little mini-announcement that Airlean Tales will now update twice a week! New chapters will now air on Tuesdays and Thursdays :]

why, well, just because I feel like it. and besides, I've got 51 chapters prewritten, there's no way I'll run out of chapters to post before I finish the book right laughs weakly