2. Wolf

The village was overrun.

Azalea hurriedly ushered a mother and her screaming, blotchy-faced child out of a straw house breaking at the seams. The air was acrid, laden with the thick scent of blood and smoke. Around her, a horde of crazed, ravenous wolves swarmed a scant unit of soldiers.

Something snarled nearby. Without hesitation, Azalea whipped around, raised her firearm, and pulled the trigger. A mana bolt shot from the muzzle and pierced the twisted hide of a hollow-eyed wolf. It fell, twitching and frothing at the mouth.

Off-target. Not enough to kill. Azalea didn’t have the time to properly aim. Her weapon was a potent one known as a starshooter—a firearm that was powered by an enchanted quartz, wielding deadly rounds of fire mana—but the chaos of the battlefield was proving difficult for her. She missed the stability of the shooting range where she’d been able to bullseye every time.

“Lady Hunter! There’s too many of them!” cried a voice to her left.

Azalea turned to catch a glimpse of a vibrant cape, signifying the captain of this company. Despite the blue plume affixed to his silver helmet, he sounded young—far too young to be a captain.

Not that she was one to talk. She was barely out of the Academy herself.

Azalea ripped her short sword through another wolf’s stomach, pouring blood on the ground. A coppery stench filled her nostrils as it fell with a foul shriek. She stood to gather her bearings and gauge the situation, but a heavy weight bowled into her shoulder, knocking her to the ground—yet another wolf.

“Fall back,” she commanded, jamming her starshooter into the beast’s maw as it tried to snap at her neck. “Take the civilians to the citadel.”

The young captain, to his credit, lanced the wolf straight through the ear, harpooning into its skull. It slumped over, dead. “Lady Hunter,” he said tremulously, “I don’t think—pardon me, milady, but the wolves might give chase—”

Go,” Azalea said firmly. Her tone brooked no room for argument.

The captain scurried away, calling to his troop. Azalea heaved the wolf’s corpse off of her, wiping at the blood that had washed across her cheek and matted in her hair. She’d been traveling since dawn, then darting around without pause to evacuate villagers and strike down wolves. The exhaustion was starting to settle in her bones, heavy as iron.

But now wasn’t the time to be tired. Now was the time to do her job.

Azalea ignored the trembling pain in her sore legs and leapt forward, planting herself between the pack of wolves and the retreating soldiers. These wolves were crazed, like all beasts touched by the Storm: eyes roving, jaws frothing, hungry for blood. She could see their warped muscles rippling beneath thick, hardened hides, veins pulsing a painful red.

Pitiful things, some would say.

Azalea knew better.

The pack fanned out and circled her warily, beady eyes fixed on the deadly weapon in her hands. Perhaps they could sense the mana quartz stirring inside, gathering the surrounding fire mana and Forming it into inch-long firebolts. Or perhaps they’d already seen what it could do. The starshooter had been responsible for the violent ends of several in their pack.

Azalea braced the weapon against her shoulder and breathed in, slow and steady. She took a moment to gauge her manawell. It bubbled inside her, ready and waiting, about two-thirds capacity. She’d been conserving it carefully, specifically for this moment.

She fired once. She felt the mana quartz flare in the starshooter, and a firebolt exploded out of the muzzle, lancing right through the first wolf’s eye.

One down.

Before the pack had a chance to react, she was already turning her starshooter onto a second target. Ordinarily, the trigger would be locked; a small regulator within the starshooter would have detected the mana instability caused by the first shot, and sealed the firing mechanism. Starshooters were powerful weapons, but volatile, prone to destabilize and explode. They were required to cool down for thirty seconds before firing again.

Unless, of course, one was a Stabilizer.

Azalea burned her manawell and reached for the mana instability: that prickling, churning sense of wrongness that hung in the air, vibrating with an energy about to boil over. She found the aching thread and pulled.

The instability unraveled in wisps of mana, and—

—the regulator clicked. The trigger released.

Azalea fired again.

Her next firebolt crushed right into the second wolf’s skull. It lurched backwards like a limp doll, then slumped.

Two down.

The regulator closed the trigger again, sensing the tangle of destabilized mana around it. Azalea easily reached out and unraveled it with her swift and gentle touch.

Forming had never been her specialty, but Stabilizing? That was a different story entirely. She’d had all the practice in the world, growing up with a brother whose potent Forms were constantly on the verge of meltdown.

The mana dispersed; she aimed; she fired. It came to her as naturally as breathing.

Three down.

Click. Unravel. Fire.

Then four down.

It was a good start, but the wolf pack was almost on her. Azalea slung back her starshooter and drew her short sword. As a standard-issue steel blade, it could hardly compare to her starshooter, but it would have to do—at least until she could gain some distance.

The wolves descended, and she moved.

Field combat was nothing like the Academy. The instructors had been adamant on drilling that through their students’ skulls. We do not teach you skills, but habits, they’d said sternly as their charges suffered through a siege race, bombarded with arrows and hellfire. Every exercise and every drill is nothing but a habit. Mythic Stars willing, you can take that habit onto the field and live long enough to turn it into a skill. So make your habits good. Learn bad habits, and you will die.

And the instructors had explained further. Between the haze of adrenaline, the unpredictable environment, and the emotional trauma of loyalty and loss, no amount of sparring or training could prepare a student for the chaos of warfare. No amount of meditation or mock battles could prepare a human for the horror of death.

Azalea was not, strictly speaking, a newcomer; she was on her third mission as a Hunter. Not that it really made a difference.

Wrangling the remaining wolf pack was a blur of splattered pelts, overgrown teeth, and razor claws. Azalea swooped and slashed completely on instinct, keeping herself light on her feet, weaving away from the bloody, matted mess whenever it was possible to step away. She gasped for air as she cut down one wolf, then two, then three, metal sinking deep into organ and sinew.

She caught a sharp claw across the arm for her trouble and felt the agony lance up her shoulder, bright and fiery. A cry wrenched from her lips, but she pulled her focus and leapt away. Her arm dangled limply at her side, slick with blood. At least it was not her sword-arm.

The smell of her blood seemed to spur the other wolves—six of them remaining. Their eyes roved wildly, and they leapt at her with renewed vigor, jaws snapping hungrily.

Enough was enough. Azalea had been hoping that her swordsmanship was enough to put her mana on reserve, but she’d been wrong. She would die if she had to sustain this pace of combat.

Azalea burned her manawell, grabbed every surrounding thread of wind mana, and pushed as she leapt backward. The resulting blast propelled her up and over, arcing her into the air. She landed solidly on the pitch-slathered roof of a nearby house, beaten and half-toppled by the surrounding chaos. The elevation was enough to grant her a breather for a precious second.

She looked down at the wolves, which were recoiling at the burst of wind and shaking themselves alert. She breathed deep, reaching for every drop in her manawell, feeling it pour through her.

About half full.

Azalea sheathed her blade and pulled up her starshooter, bracing it on her shoulder. Her injured arm ached, the pain barely dulled by the coursing adrenaline in her veins. She forced it to keep steady.

She could not fall here. She refused.

A starshooter was equipped with a mana quartz that could Form one firebolt every ten seconds. That rate of fire was not enough to outpace these wolves. They’d be on her before she had a chance to fire again, and she didn’t have enough mana for a wind blast to distance herself every time.

But she could remove the starshooter’s limitations by Forming the firebolts manually. It would be taxing—simultaneously Stabilizing the starshooter, Forming its ammunition, and aiming to fire—but at this point, there was no other option.

Azalea flared her manawell and blazed.

The first firebolt had barely torn out of the starshooter’s muzzle when she Stabilized the fluctuation, Formed the next bolt, and—

She fired again. Then pulled and compressed, and fired yet again.

Her manawell drained alarmingly, but still she flared more and more, tearing at the tangle of instability with one part of her magic, shoving more fire mana into the weapon with the other, and—

—fired, fired, fired.

The six deadly rounds sizzled through the air, burning trails forward like falling comets, and—

—the six wolves fell as one, each punctured right between the eyes, a single overgrown mass of fang and fur collapsing into the dirt. They lay still.

Eerie silence fell over the village, with no living creature to break it.

It was over.

Azalea’s manawell withered, empty.

She reeled over, the starshooter fumbling out of her cold and weak hands. There were agonizing lights pulsing behind her eyes and an acidic fire burning in her gut. She tumbled down the thatched roof and collapsed on the dirt path and retched. Nothing came up. She felt drained, like her soul had been sucked dry.

She lay on that crumbling path for a moment, warmed by the sun, too weak to move. It was peaceful. A low breeze sifted through her hair, stirring bits of wood and straw and tar across the earth: remnants of a ruined village that people once called home.

Then, amidst the silence of the broken battlefield, Azalea heard a small, soft noise:

Dry clapping, accompanied by a tinny rattle of metal.

Azalea winced as she propped herself up pitifully with her starshooter, arms and legs screaming in pain. She forced her fingers to cross her hip and close around her short sword, then turned to the source of the noise.

There was a man standing in the wreckage, and not one with a friendly look. He was built of sharp and slender lines, lithe and loose as a panther. A patchwork lattice of leather, scuffed iron plating, and black chains sat over his shoulders and hips. If Azalea looked closely, she could just make out the countless seams of tiny pockets dotted over his belts, concealing anything he could possibly want—lockpicks, jewelry, even throwing knives.

But most jarring were his eyes. One was crimson like blood, and the other—the other was damaged, milky white with a scar running down his eyelid.

“Nice show,” the man said. He grinned, showing a row of gleaming white teeth. “For a moment there, I thought you were actually going to die.”

He didn’t seem immediately interested in killing her, but Azalea kept her hand on her short sword. Something about him was off. He looked at her like a wildcat stalking after its prey.

“If you’re a villager, sir,” she said evenly, “follow the trail eastward. Join up with the royal company. They’re finding refuge in Mythaven—”

He barked out a laugh, cutting her off. The sound was bold and rough and prickled at her nerves.

“Thank you for the advice,” he said. “I’ll be sure to come to you if I ever lose my basic sense of direction.”

Azalea fell silent. She was new to the Hunter ranks. And even if she wasn’t, she had a feeling that protocol didn’t address situations like these. Most civilians were hysterical and irrational, not calculating.

“You’re not a villager,” she eventually tried, hand trembling around her short sword. “So why are you here?”

He smiled without humor. “I think that’d be obvious,” he said.

His hand brushed out one side of his cloak, revealing a viciously serrated bone dagger dangling from his hip.

Azalea’s heart sank in her chest.

In her current state, haggard and exhausted, she might as well be a sitting duck. She could barely swing her sword, much less best a man built taller and stronger than her. From his loose and limber stance, he was no combat amateur, either.

She steadied her breathing and sensed her manawell. No luck. She’d used every drop against those wolves.

Her only chance was to take one shot, and make it count. If she missed, that would be the end.

Azalea sucked in a breath, gathering the last vestiges of her strength—

—and pulled her starshooter up into firing position, ignoring how the muscles of her damaged arm screamed and burned into her bones. The barrel whipped up, and her finger closed on the trigger, and—

—the man casually stooped down to the nearest wolf carcass.

He pressed his hand on a stretch of pelt to steady it, then began sawing away at a glowing onyx spine erupting from the wolf’s back.

Azalea faltered.

She waited, her back tense and her legs shaking, waiting for him to pounce at her with his knife aimed at her gut. The mouth of her starshooter wavered as her arm threatened to fail.

The man stayed at his task, calmly sawing away. There was a high, sharp sound as his bone knife collided with something in the spine. He pulled away, and pungent black pus squirted from the spine’s incision, sizzling as it made contact with a cluster of grass. Without any sign of alarm or disgust, he returned his knife to the spine and continued to carve.

Azalea waited. Still no aggression.

“What are you doing?” she managed.

“Scavenging, of course,” the man said. He glanced at her, then stopped, staring right down the barrel of the starshooter. “Wait, did you think I was going to kill you?”

Azalea didn’t lower her weapon.

The man scoffed quietly, then continued sawing at the glowing onyx spines on the wolf’s back. “I would only kill for profit, Little Red. And killing a Royal Hunter would hardly be profitable.”

“You shouldn’t kill at all.”

He shrugged. “Ah, well. If wishes were fishes.”

One of the spines broke into fragments in his fingers. He cursed lightly and moved on to another one.

“How did you know I was a Royal Hunter?” Azalea managed.

This time, he cleanly severed a spine, then slipped it carefully into a leather pouch. “Oh, I don’t know,” he said dryly. “The crest on your tassets. The starshooter that you sling around. The fact that you faced a pack of Storm-infused wolves without batting an eye. Any one of a million things. Do you take me for a fool, Little Red?”

He returned to extract three more spines from the wolf, then moved on to the creature’s enlarged teeth. He moved with confidence and expertise, almost as if he owned—

“Wait a minute,” said Azalea. “Do you have a permit to scavenge that?”

“Nope,” said the man.

“Storm-touched corruptions must first be appraised by a sage of the Royal Observatorium before the carcass is released for any other purpose, as per Ordinance 31.”

He dismissively waved a hand. “What’s one carcass between friends?”

She frowned. “I’m not your friend.”

“Ouch.” He clutched his chest. “That one stings.”

Azalea didn’t know what to say to that. This exchange was far beyond protocol. She was fairly certain that nothing like it could be found in the Handbook.

“Tell you what, I’ll fight you for it.” The man carelessly waved his bone dagger, which was now soaked with the mutilated wolf’s blood. “Winner gets the corpses. Loser dies.”

Azalea was unfazed. “Duels to the death are illegal, as per Ordinance 78,” she said.

He balked. “Damn, what do you all do for fun at the capital? Drink tea?”

He sounded like he was joking, but she didn’t understand why. Then again, her classmates at the Academy accused her of having no sense of humor.

“If people have the resources to be dueling to the death,” Azalea said, “then it’s better for them to enlist.”

The man quieted. “You take everything very seriously, Little Red,” he said.

Azalea didn’t respond to that. She wasn’t sure what to say even if she wanted to.

The man’s smile returned, loose and humorless. “Got a name beneath that poker face?” he called cheerfully. When she didn’t reply, his grin widened. “I’ll give you mine if you give me yours.”

She hesitated. “Azalea, Fiftieth Royal Hunter of Airlea.”

“Azalea?” he said vaguely. Then he shook his head. “Nah. Little Red suits you better.”

She felt a rare spark of irritation. “Then why did you ask?” she said.

“Great question. I’ll have to think about it.” He returned to his work on the carcass, carefully extracting its claws. “I’m known as Echo, or the Lone Wolf. Whichever suits your fancy.”

“The Lone Wolf,” she repeated. She frowned. “I’ve heard that name before.”

He waved dismissively. “I’m sure you haven’t.”

Azalea sheathed her short sword and drew herself upright—slow, laborious movements. “You’re an underground mercenary,” she said. “They say you can do anything for the right price. Theft, sabotage, murder. And you can find anything, or anyone.”

Echo paused. “Oh. You have heard.” He tilted his head. “So you’ve been skulking around the Mythaven underworld, have you? Browsing for a merc?”

“I wasn’t skulking.”

“But you were browsing. Fascinating.” Echo lifted his dagger and tapped the tip idly against his chin. A drop of blood dabbed his face. “For what, exactly?”

“I don’t see why it matters.”

“A goody two-shoes like you would have no reason to commission—what was it you said?—theft, sabotage, murder. Which means, Little Red, that you wanted a merc to find somebody.”

Azalea stiffened. “Even if you were correct—”

“I usually am.”

“—I would dispatch an investigator from the Magistracy of Justice, not a rogue mercenary.”

Echo looked at her dryly. “Exactly. The fact that you didn’t implies that you’re looking for someone out of the Magistracy’s reach. In other words, someone who is dead, a criminal, or both.”

Azalea flinched.

“So who is it, Little Red? Lost cat? Pet goldfish? Nobleman who caught your fancy?”

Azalea sighed. There was no point in withholding information. Echo seemed to know everything anyway—and what he didn’t know, he easily pieced together. He lived up to his reputation as the crafty Wolf.

“I was looking for my brother,” Azalea admitted.

Echo raised a brow. “Was?”

“I’ve been told that it would be impossible to find him.”

“Whoever told you that lacks ambition,” Echo said wryly. “Or the right amount of greed.”

“You can find a dead person?” Azalea asked, surprised.

“For the right price. How dead are we talking?”

“Um. Legally dead?”

Echo snorted. “I meant, how long ago?”

That made more sense. “He passed ten years ago,” Azalea said. “During the Great Storm.”

There was a moment of silence as Echo’s expression flattened, unreadable. “Then what are you looking for?” he asked softly. “Ashes? Rot? Bones?”

Azalea’s gaze dropped to the blue ribbon fixed on her left wrist, which trembled in the breeze. A reminder of her failure. A motive to grow stronger.

“If necessary,” she said. “At least something to bring home and bury.”

Echo regarded her for a long moment, strangely silent. And then—his undamaged pupil suddenly narrowed into a slit, burning bright crimson, and his nostrils flared.

Then, as quickly as it started, the peculiarity was gone. Maybe Azalea had imagined the change in his eyes, or maybe it had been a trick of the light.

Echo shook his head with a quiet exhale. “I do love to be contrary, Little Red, but in this case, I agree with my contemporaries,” he said. “That would be a fool’s errand. The body of your brother is long gone. Or if it remains, trust me: you won’t wish to see it.”

He dusted off his hands and slipped all his pouches and his little wrapped fragments into a velvet bag. He seemed to check the contents once more, then nodded to himself and clasped it shut.

Azalea frowned. “You’ll have to surrender that bag,” she said. “You’re not authorized to scavenge.”

“I told you,” said Echo, smiling without humor, “I’d fight you for it.”

“Then you’d be adding the threatening of a Royal Hunter onto your list of charges.”

“I’ll consider it another fine addition to my collection.”

He gave a sardonic salute and leapt spryly onto a nearby tree branch, perched like a songbird. And Azalea knew—she couldn’t follow him. Not in her current state, exhausted and bone-dry. She’d have to let him go this time.

She glared staunchly at him, and he only responded with a little wave.

“See you later, Little Red,” Echo called. “I’ve no doubt that we’ll meet again.”

“Please don’t,” Azalea said. “I’d rather you stay away.”

Echo grinned. “No can do, I’m sorry to say. You seem like the kind of girl who leaves behind a lot of carcasses.”

His smile turned wider and darker.

“And wouldn’t you know?” he said. “Where the carcasses are, wolves are sure to follow.”