17. Moonlighter

It was still dark when Azalea jolted awake, every sense blaring and alert.

At first, she didn’t know what had set her off. The workshop was quiet and calm, hearth dimmed to low embers, a light mist of rain pattering at the window. Wes was asleep—hunched over the table with his head bracketed between his arms, scattered pages of charcoal scribbles splayed under him. Nothing looked amiss.

Then a shadow passed just outside the window, and a puddle sloshed underfoot.

Eyes narrowing, Azalea swiftly drew to her feet. She took her blanket and bundled it around Wes’s shoulders, grabbed Bluebell and her short sword, and stepped outside.

Thin, cold drops of rain dotted her face and cloak, more like a greeting than any real obstacle. The alley road to Gallows Square was utterly dark; not one of the windows glowed with candlelight, and the distant mana lamps were clouded with fog and rain.

Azalea turned, starshooter pointed at the ground but braced on her shoulder, ever ready. Perhaps it had only been a passing animal.

Or perhaps it had been something truly awful, because at that moment, a playful voice rang out among the cobbled stone.

“Careful not to hurt anybody with that toy of yours, Little Red.”

Azalea whipped around and looked up. Perched on the roof of the workshop, leg dangling lazily over the edge like a swinging vine, sat the Lone Wolf. She caught a dim sheen of white from beneath his rain-slick hood. It took her a moment to realize that it wasn’t from his hair, but his smile.

She kept Bluebell pointed at the ground, but every vein flared to life, ready to fight.

“You,” she hissed.

“Me,” Echo said amicably with a nod. How infuriating.

“What are you doing here?”

He held up his hands disarmingly—a motion that belied the amusement tugging at his lips. “Easy there, Little Red. Just taking a midnight stroll.”

“In the rain?”

“Some people like it.”

“On the house of my Support?”

He tilted his head. “Is it, now?”

Azalea lightly bit her tongue. She shouldn’t have said that. If the Wolf grew curious, learned about Wes and who he was…yes, it was time to change the topic.

“You should be under investigation,” she said sharply. “You’re still charged for illegal scavenging, assaulting a Hunter—”

Echo laid a hand over his heart, looking positively devastated. “I thought I paid my dues for that by now.”

How, exactly?”

“Wasn’t it obvious? By being your benevolent informant, of course.”


“Remember who tipped you off for Northelm? You slayed a Class Four, saved an entire town from being trapped and exterminated like vermin, and no doubt made yourself a household name overnight. All without paying a copper.” He shook his head with a light click of his tongue. “I’m not usually such a saint, but alas. We all have our weak moments.”

But Azalea was no longer listening, because some of his words had captured her mind, turning over endlessly in her head.

Northelm. Saved a town…from being trapped?

She’d just returned from her expedition today. She’d only reported to Nicolina and Thom. How could the Lone Wolf possibly be aware of every detail?

“You followed me,” Azalea said faintly. “Again.”

Echo tipped two fingers in a sardonic salute. “You didn’t notice. Again.”

No. No, that couldn’t be. Not because she wanted to believe in her powers of observation—no, she was starting to recognize the Lone Wolf’s presence. It was what had woken her. He was…loud, in some way, his proximity picking at her senses like a nail on a scab. Or maybe it wasn’t him, personally; maybe it was something about his manawell.

His manawell. That was it, she realized. It wasn’t that he was physically loud, with clumsy hands and stumbling feet.

No, he was a messy Stabilizer.

Azalea watched him calmly as she slung Bluebell back and engaged the safety. No one was directly threatening Wes, so the firearm would not be unnecessary.

“You weren’t there,” she said evenly. “I know you weren’t.”

“Make up your mind,” Echo replied, amused. “Did I follow you or not?”

Yes. No. Yes and no. Echo hadn’t followed her into Northelm; that, she knew for sure. She would have sensed him. But he was aware of Northelm’s situation, so when had he arrived?

Certainly not after Azalea herself. He couldn’t have, not without causing a stir. Northelm was surrounded by flat plains on three cardinals, and the fourth was the caves and mountains at which they mined. His approach would have been obvious, and marked—especially by the skittish, crossbow-bearing children who had taken up residence in the watchtower.

Azalea’s mind began to barrel faster, gaining momentum.

If Echo hadn’t arrived after her, then he could have only arrived before her.

If he had arrived before her, then it was before the miners were stranded—because afterward, the town was on high alert.

And if he had been at Northelm before the miners were stranded…

Slowly, the pieces of information began to slot into place. Azalea wet her lips, even though the rain was already dampening them.

Echo. Northelm. The early arrival.

Not just an early arrival—a setup.

The bait from the cave. The poultice that had lured the basilisk from its den. It had been composed of decaying parts of corrupted beasts.

Something that could have only been made by a master trapper…or, say, a scavenger.

The moment Azalea landed on the idea, she knew that she was right. The brand of instability that had radiated from the poultice had been, somehow, familiar. And now that she was aware of it, she knew exactly why.

Just like a person could smell a dish at dinner and pinpoint what it was—cookies, fresh bread, a bowl of soup—any manacrafter could vaguely tell the makeup of an unstable reaction. And Azalea was more sensitive than most, affording her an even greater discernment.

The poultice had held traces of decaying wolves.

The Lone Wolf had placed that bait. Doomed those miners to die. Sent the town into a panic.

Then he’d approached her during the surge and pointed her to Northelm under the pretense of playing hero.

Azalea straightened. Her mind fell into a brutal chill, sharpening her vision until every dim outline leapt at her in shapes of silver. She looked up at the Wolf, his chin propped on a hand, smile lazy and uncaring. He wasn’t even sorry.

She burned her manawell and pulled.

Echo cursed at the sudden blast of Formed wind that pummeled his back, sending him sprawling over the edge. He fired his windsoles to right himself. He just managed to land on his feet when Azalea lunged at him and slammed him into the wall, digging the flat of her short sword into his neck. Echo coughed, flecks of paint and mortar dust splashing over his cloak.

“My, someone’s excited,” he said. “Shouldn’t we take this somewhere more private?”

Azalea felt nothing but cold and empty all over. “Is that all they are? Your accomplishments, your so-called gift of finding? A lie?”

“Specifics, Red. I lie about many things.”

You made the bait. You damned that town.”

Echo did not bother denying her. His face transformed into a mirror of her own—unfeeling, deadly.

“That would depend on your point of view,” he said.

“All those families. You nearly killed them all.” Her voice sputtered, raw. “Children. They were just children—”

Echo moved.

She hadn’t even seen him reach for his hip, but suddenly, his bone knife throttled her crossguard away. He kneed her in the gut, sending her staggering back, stomach bursting with pain.

Myths help her. She shouldn’t have gone for close combat. Not against a man who’d grown up fighting in the streets.

It was too late to regret; Echo wasn’t stopping. Agile as a wildcat, he leapt on her, pincered her torso with his legs, and drove her to the ground. She slammed hard into the stone. Agony exploded all up her limbs, and she heard the clatter of her short sword as it fell out of her hand.

“I killed no one, Little Red,” Echo said as he leaned in, his voice barely above a whisper. “I sent one of the fifty greatest soldiers in the country so that they wouldn’t die.”

She fired her windsoles and tore out from under him, springing on her hands to land on her feet.

“Then your plan failed,” she hissed, wiping dirt from her mouth. “I didn’t do anything. If the Whisperer hadn’t appeared, you would have murdered an entire town.”

“And why do you think he appeared?”

That made her falter. “You…surely didn’t lead him there. On purpose.

“If I had?”

“That would be even worse! You would have known his reputation as the reaper. He could have killed me and destroyed all of Northelm.”

For a moment, there was a lull. Echo’s bone knife spun between long, pale fingers, rain sprinkling over his hood like dust.

“Oh, I see,” he said softly. “Little Red is blinded by insecurities.

Azalea thought herself a mostly patient person, but Echo always managed to get under her skin with a single word, tearing away just the right spot that would leave her raw. Insecurities? As if staring into the maw of a venomous beast, about to disintegrate into a puddle, had been some sort of emotional obstacle. The Lone Wolf was always so thoughtless, so crude, throwing together shallow excuses for endangering so many lives.

“Don’t mock me,” Azalea snapped. “You couldn’t have possibly thought that a fresh graduate could slay a Class Four and walk out alive. So either you were trying to get Northelm killed, me killed, or both.”

“Or I believed that you could slay it without much trouble. In which case, I turn from some murderous villain to a terribly delusional lunatic.”

“There’s no distinction.”

“I disagree.” He smiled wryly. “One serves a lighter sentence than the other.”

Azalea had enough. She blazed at him with a touch of her windsoles and lashed out with her fists. But—

—Echo readily twisted around her, bolstered by his own windsoles. She barely darted away from a kick that would have cracked her spine.

How? How had he read her so easily? It was obvious that she would use her windsoles, yes, but the speed provided by the burst of wind was swift enough to make human reaction impossible.

Then there was only one explanation; Echo had not reacted, but had predicted. He had known what she would do before she herself.

Echo read her bewilderment and clicked his tongue. “Is that it? Windsoles? Nothing new, nothing fresh?”

Azalea’s eyes narrowed. “It’s better not to try anything revolutionary,” she said. “It gets people killed. Instead, one should master what is known.”

Echo snorted. “Where did you hear that, Little Red? Some stodgy old instructor at the Academy?”

Her silence was answer enough.

“And they wonder why every Hunter dies the exact same way,” he muttered.

White flowers pouring out of a cabinet flashed before Azalea’s eyes. Her face grew very still as she circled him slowly.

“Is death nothing but a joke to you?” she said quietly.

Echo tilted his head. “If you find the humor in it, you’ll die happy.”

“I fail to see that humor.”

“Then I suppose you won’t die happy.”

He snapped her thinning patience yet again, and she swiped. Echo slid away, and Azalea quickly reversed—only to sprawl over several squat crates that peeked into the alley. She barely recovered with a quick, frantic step, unbalanced.

She had forgotten, in the darkness of the night, about the little obstacles that dotted the road. And she had paid for it. But not Echo—never Echo, who was as swift as a sparrow, dancing on the rooftop eaves like a ray of moonlight.

This was his domain.

Weathered with fog, the dark, rain-slicked alleyways of Old Town were his kingdom, and he knew each one as if they were the veins carrying his blood. He knew how to fight with leverage and in confined space, how to read hands and eyes like Azalea read letters, how to maim and kill unflinchingly.

Here, she didn’t have the advantage of a leyline’s instability, and Echo was built taller and stronger than her, equipped with windsoles of his own. If she refused to use her starshooter—and she refused to fire upon a Mythaven citizen save for emergencies—then she would not win.

Azalea’s hand reached back for Bluebell, but her fingers hesitated, trembling as they brushed the lovely barrel.

The moment was enough.

Echo struck like lightning, tackling her to the wall and wrenching her arms behind her back. His fingers dug hard into her flesh, bruising her wrists.

“This is your problem, Little Red,” he said quietly. “Your emotions get in the way.”

“Yes,” she spat. “A pity I have a heart.”

“Pity indeed. You’d have so much promise without one.” She thrashed against his weight, but his hold only tightened. He pressed the edge of the bone knife to her neck, forcing her to still. “Take a moment and think, Fairwen. Let’s say you hadn’t taken care of that Class Four. What would have happened?”

“Northelm would have died, which I already said—”

“Not that. Ignore Northelm for a moment. What would have happened to the corruption?

Azalea glared silently at him. Echo’s mouth pulled into a smile.

“Ah, you already see what I’m getting at.”

“I don’t.”

“But you do. That’s right, it would have turned into a Class Five. Rather difficult to manage, don’t you think?”

Azalea staunchly looked away.

“Isn’t it better to remove the threat while it can still be handled?” Echo said coaxingly. “Class Fours may prove a mild obstacle, but Fives—why, I hear that only the top two Hunters have dispatched one without dying.”

“It takes a long time and a significant mana anomaly before a Four turns into a Five.”

“But if it did?”

He had a point, even if she didn’t agree with it. The Class system, as specified by the Royal Observatorium, did not scale linearly. Instead, higher Classes were often exponentially more dangerous than their lower counterparts. For how dangerous that serpent had been, it would’ve been much worse as a Class Five. Perhaps even unstoppable.

“But you didn’t have to set the bait so it trapped the villagers,” she accused. “You should have set it farther away.”

He raised a brow. “To where? Further into the unexplored caves, which hold unspeakable dangers? Or outside, right into the heart of the town? I thought it better to prepare a favorable arena.”


“You’re thorough. I’ve no doubt you’ve seen the other caverns. How much cover was present?”

Azalea glared silently at him. Then Echo suddenly released her and stepped away, and she was so caught off-guard that she didn’t bother lunging at him.

“Well. The sentence, Your Honor?” Echo said with a smile.

There it always was: that derision, that caustic sense of pride. She wished she could throw it back in his smug face.

But she wouldn’t. Not tonight.

“I know you’re not telling me the whole truth,” Azalea said. She looked away. “But I’m not going to arrest you.”

“How charitable. I daresay it would have been difficult.”


“Well, I bested you.” He caught the flash in her eyes and raised his hands. “Don’t feel too bad about losing, Little Red. Fighting people is a mite different from fighting mana beasts. People adapt, for one.” He winked. “And we tend to be more handsome, which makes us distracting.”

“In the eyes of somebody else, I’m sure,” Azalea said.

Echo touched his chest. “Ouch. The kitten’s developed a bite.”

Somebody in the world probably would be very taken with Echo’s rakish looks—the sharp jaw, the piercing gaze, the lean cords of muscle. But it wouldn’t be Azalea, who was accustomed to being surrounded by beautiful people. The Academy and the Hunter’s Guild had been full of them—the lovely and the wealthy and the powerful and the otherwise highly marriageable. Over time, Azalea had found herself somewhat deadened to beauty. Except maybe Karis, who was all but a fairy incarnate.

She folded her arms and glared. “You shouldn’t take this so lightly. You assaulted a Hunter and scavenged parts without permission.”

“Tack it on to my extensive list of crimes,” Echo said dryly.

She hesitated. “But…you did tip off a Hunter, which technically saved Northelm. And the bait did technically distract the creature. And…I don’t know if you led the Whisperer there, but if you did, his presence technically served as a boon. It was only because of your actions that no one died.”

Surprisingly, Echo quieted. His fingers tapped together for a moment, bone-white beneath the dim lamplight.

“Precisely,” he said softly. “No one died. An outright miracle in today’s world, wouldn’t you say?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“What a mercenary always means.” His fingers stopped. His mouth pulled up. “Little Red, what say you to a bargain?”

Azalea froze.

That was, quite possibly, the very last string of words she expected to come out of his mouth. Perhaps it just barely beat out I’m so very sorry, please arrest me.

Her response was immediate. “I decline.”

“You haven’t heard the terms.”

“I don’t wish to. Side ventures with accomplices from outside the Guild can be considered as bribery or embezzlement, and are strictly—”

“Not that sort of deal, baby bookworm,” Echo snorted. “This falls completely within the scope of your primary job.”

“I don’t believe that.”

“Well. You should.”

He folded his fingers together in the semblance of an elegant gentleman, and not an underground merc slinking around private property.

“My offer is simple,” he said. “Much like how I warned you about Northelm, I’ll provide tips on the whereabouts of priority marks. And in return—”

“I’m not interested,” Azalea said.

“There are Hunters who would pay good money for this info, you know. In fact, they do.”

He was starting to rile that familiar sense of boiling anger in her—again. Somehow, it was a talent uniquely attributed to him.

“I don’t even know if you can find anything,” she snapped. “Northelm was all a hoax. You used bait.”

He tilted his head. “To lead the Four to the right place, yes. I still had to know where it originally was.”

He had a point, and that only irritated her further. “Fine, then,” Azalea said stiffly. “Let’s say you truly know where every dangerous beast in Airlea is. Then you shouldn’t keep that information to yourself.”

“Precisely why I’m offering this deal, no?”

“You should share it with the Guild.

He sighed. “Tell that to the other Hunters and their own special informants. This has been going on for ages, Little Red. It’s practically a necessity in the current system.”

That can’t be right, Azalea wanted to say. But she couldn’t. She hadn’t been in the Guild for very long, but she was already familiar with the competitive aura, that knife’s edge of danger and respect. She knew that anything posted to the public commissions board was often snapped up in the blink of an eye. The idea that Hunters resorted to external means of finding additional marks was completely unsurprising.

Still, she hated the thought. Civilian lives shouldn’t be bandied about like a footbag. All for a shiny medal or a bonus to the stipend.

“And what would you be getting out of this deal?” Azalea said.

Echo’s response was immediate. “There’s a patron of mine. One of considerable…influence, shall we say.”

“A lord.”

“Now, now, let’s not ruin the mystery.” Echo leaned back. “This patron is rather taken with studying manacraft, particularly the potential of Stabilizing. Believes it to be an unexplored field, you see. And after seeing you in action, I’m inclined to agree.”

Azalea stared at him.

“We don’t have to be enemies, Little Red,” Echo continued. “This could be a mutually beneficial arrangement. I provide the tips, you destroy the monsters. The patron gets his research, I get my wages, and you get a promotion. Everybody wins.”

“And that’s why you’ve been following me?” Azalea said. “To study a Stabilizer?”

He nodded. “Simple as that.”

“I don’t trust you.”

“But you think I’m telling the truth.”

She did. That was the worst part: his reasoning made sense. It explained why he’d picked a fight in the middle of a leyline. It explained why he’d sent her to Northelm. It even explained why he’d led the Whisperer to her—if he truly had, of course. He would want to push her to her limits; then he could deliver Stabilizing research to his curious client.

“Unfortunately,” Azalea said coolly, “I have no interest in working with you.”

“That is unfortunate,” Echo agreed.

He seemed completely unsurprised, and that made her nervous.

“That means I reject your offer,” she said hesitantly.

“I know what it means.” Echo shrugged. “Well, let it never be said that I didn’t try.”

He pulled his cloak overhead, fussed with a strap on his arm, knelt and retied a lace on his boots. He seemed to be preparing to leave. Finally.

Then he spoke again.

“There will be a sea creature by Fletcher’s Fry,” he said. “Coastal town, nice place. Good for a spot of fishing.”

Azalea blanched. “Don’t you dare,” she said.

“Good luck, be careful, all those nice platitudes.” He waved. “I’ll drink to your success.”

Azalea lunged at him. Echo fired his windsoles with a dry laugh and disappeared into the night.