The Soaring Pig looked just as busy and seedy as ever, even on the brink of the world’s end. It was uniquely comforting to know that no matter the circumstances, the taverns of Mythaven’s underground would never change.
Azalea slipped past a few grimy figures hunched over worn cards and settled into a seat at the back of the room. She ordered a beer without any intention of consuming it. She was a year past the legal drinking age, but she intended to enter this encounter with all her faculties. She would need it. The beer would simply help mask her presence and stay the barkeep’s temper.
Only a few minutes passed before trouble stirred. A hulking man rose from his table, squashed head nearly touching the mold-spotted ceiling, and clomped over to her. He loomed over her, a messy sight of battered scars and yellowed teeth.
“Nice shooter,” he said, nodding at the starshooter slung across her back.
Azalea said nothing. She’d sheathed Bluebell in a dull leather sleeve to try to avoid attention, but the fire chamber was embedded into the protruding stock, glowing bright like a beacon.
The man leaned closer. His breath reeked of beer and fried fish morsels. “Where’d you nab somethin’ so pretty, little rat?”
She looked up into his beady eyes and found she was not afraid. He could not particularly compare to a Class Three stag.
“Back off,” she said quietly. Under the table, her fingers curled around her sword.
The man eyed her starshooter, then her young face. He seemed to be contemplating his chances. Would he be so brazen to rob her right here? It seemed unlikely. Even Mythaven’s underground had silent rules; this tavern seemed a neutral zone, a haven for trade and negotiation.
Then Azalea understood. A canary’s nest, Karis had told her. Information was the currency of choice here, not gold or contraband. This man was not looking to mug her. He was looking for the selling point, the fence. Weapon trade was no doubt a booming industry in the black market, and a starshooter provider would be a revolutionary find.
Azalea casually drew her sword and placed it on the table, running a finger down the flat of the blade. “My sources are my own,” she said.
Her message went through. The man grunted with a dour expression, but he wordlessly returned to his seat. Azalea stretched her fingers, trying to rein in her pulse. She hoped he would not attempt anything further.
For the rest of the hour, the customers of the Soaring Pig left her alone, though her starshooter attracted many more glances than she would have liked. Azalea tried to shake off her nerves and tell herself it would be alright. She wasn’t planning on staying long, nor was she planning on coming back.
The tavern door opened right as the clock tower announced the next hour with a heady chime. A familiar figure prowled to Azalea’s table—lanky, sinuous, wrapped in a grey-green cloak. Two eyes, one crimson and one milky white, regarded her from beneath the hood with a hint of amusement.
“Well,” said Echo, sliding into the seat across from her, “someone’s causing quite a stir. Felt like showing off your toys to the entire underground today, Little Red?”
Azalea let his jibe slide off of her. She straightened, willing herself to look alert. “I see you received my message.”
He tilted his head. “That I did. What made you think of using the bartender?”
“A mentor told me that taverns are where the information travels.”
“And a lot of it is useless.” Echo tilted his head, eyes gleaming. “You’re lucky that you were so sloppy in concealing that weapon of yours, or it never would’ve reached my ears.”
Azalea squared her shoulders under his keen gaze. “I would have found a way,” she said. “I’m not as naive as you think.”
“Yes, you are,” Echo snorted. “But you’re more resourceful than I expected, I’ll give you that. Now, what did you—”
But he stopped. His crimson eye slowly trailed over the purple bags under her eyes, the torn flesh on her lip, the skittering, uncontrollable tapping of her fingers on the table.
“Say, Little Red,” he mused, “you’re not looking so peppy. When did you last sleep?”
Azalea scowled. “It doesn’t matter. I have a proposition for you, Lone Wolf.”
“It does matter, actually,” Echo said. “I think your proposition is going to be a few sandwiches short of a picnic, so before you make it, why don’t you catch some rest?” He nodded at a ratty three-legged chair in the corner. “Go on. I’ll make sure nobody slits your throat for a few hours.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Do you always order around your potential patrons, Wolf?”
“Just the children. It’s my paternal instinct.”
He reached out to pat her head. Azalea slapped it away.
“If you’ll pardon my rudeness,” she said staunchly, “the Storm is about to enact its final strike, I am no longer a Hunter, and my Support is almost dead. I am not in the mood for idle jesting.”
Echo withdrew his hand. He blinked once, twice.
“Ah,” he said. “Been busy ruining your life, I see.”
Azalea’s fraying patience snapped. “Because I had so much choice in the matter.”
“That you did,” Echo said, shrugging. “It was your choice to care about your city, your choice to care about your Support, and your choice to care about your profession. If you cared about nothing, like yours truly, then I daresay your life would be dandy as a lion.”
This was a mistake. She shouldn’t have come here. She should have set out on her own. The Wolf would be nothing but an obstacle and a nuisance.
Her mind cold and clear, Azalea drew herself to her feet and left the tavern.
She did not expect the Wolf to follow her, trailing on her heels like an abandoned puppy.
“Come now, Red, you can’t leave it at that. Piqued my interest and all. Now you have to deliver.”
Azalea said nothing. She let her boots strike loudly against the ground with each step. The wet smell of mold and pipe smoke was thick on the uneven slats of the underground streets.
“Reddy Red. Little Red. Reddle Dee Reddy Ree.”
“Oh, would you stop,” she snapped, turning on her heel.
Echo only grinned unapologetically. “You said you had a proposition. I’m listening now.”
“You could have listened earlier.”
“Well, better late than never, no?”
Azalea took a long, slow breath. She needed to be practical. Poised. Patient. Much as she hated it, she needed to find something, and the Wolf was in the business of finding things.
“I need a pathfinder through the Noadic Range,” she said.
She expected a big reaction, but the Wolf gave none. He leaned back on his heels, considering her words for a moment.
“Why?” he finally said.
“Do I pay you to ask questions?”
“No, that one comes for free.” He folded his arms. “And it’s warranted. What kind of lunatic would want to explore the Noadic Range?”
“I’m going to find the Dragon Whisperer, convince him to ally with Airlea, and bring him to the next critical zone.”
Echo regarded her for a long moment. Then he shrugged and turned away.
“Well, have fun,” he said.
“What?” She seized his arm. “That’s it?”
“What else could I say?”
“You could accept my proposition.”
“Yes, and while I’m at it, I’ll take on a patron who wants a flying pig on a cold day in hell. And a pony. Red, what you’re asking for isn’t difficult, it’s impossible.”
He sighed. “Alright, let me count the ways. First: nobody knows where the Dragon Whisperer resides. Second: nobody has been able to communicate with him outside of duels to the death. Third: traveling the roads right before a Storm’s final strike is an idiotic idea. And finally, the Noadic Range.”
“I know that it’s dangerous.”
“Dangerous?” He laughed sharply. “Jumping off a roof without windsoles is dangerous. Entering the Noadic Range—Red, there isn’t a person alive who’s gone in and come back out. Not a cartographer, not a merchant, not an alchemist. What, do you think the White Labyrinth is just a cute little nickname?”
“Yes,” Azalea said hopefully.
“No. All who enter are doomed to wander until they perish among the cold mists, their souls lost to time.” Echo crossed his arms behind his head and leaned back. “Or so the legend goes. Haven’t tried it myself. I don’t fancy dying before I’ve bought myself a chateau, a gold-plated carriage, and a nice little row of tomato plants.”
“You have lofty goals.”
“Right? I can’t even keep a succulent alive. Tomatoes are but a dream.”
Azalea opened her mouth, then closed it. There was no use in pursuing that line of questioning.
“If the Noadic Range is unexplored territory,” she said, trying to dip her voice to be sultry and tempting, “then there’s bound to be untold riches. Waiting right there, just for you.”
Echo burst out laughing. Azalea flushed.
“Was that—were you seducing—oh, priceless. Do that to your little ingeniator sometime. I’d pay to watch that. I bet he’d turn red to the tips of his ears and swoon all over.”
“Don’t disrespect Wes like that,” Azalea snapped. “He wouldn’t look twice at a commoner like me.”
He shook his head. “Unbelievable. How does it feel to be denser than a brick of lead?”
“Lead isn’t used in bricks. An Observatorium study showed that a high concentration of lead in building materials can contribute to—”
“Mythics, Red, alright.” He tilted his head. “I’ll tell you now. Wealth isn’t much of a motivator for me. I don’t need riches, see.”
“What?” Azalea said, shocked. “Then why do you charge so much?”
“Vetting patrons.” At her blank expression, he shook his head. “Never mind. You wouldn’t understand. Cheap people tend to treat you like you’re cheap when you’re a mercenary. You want to find patronage that knows your true value.”
“Case in point: you. I’ve been giving you free tip-offs this whole time, and here you are, treating me like a secondhand slipper with a hole in the heel.” He leaned in, his crimson eye gleaming like a ruby. “You don’t even know what I do, or how I do it.”
She met his gaze unflinchingly. “I know you can find the Dragon Whisperer. And get out of the Noadic Range alive.”
“You have no idea how my power works, do you?”
“You haven’t told me, so no.”
“In order to find a person,” Echo said, “I need one of two things: either something that has recently been in their possession, or the scent of somebody directly related in bloodline. Do you see how this might prove difficult?”
“Because…he has no family?”
“I was more thinking of the fact that he explodes everything he touches.”
“So you can’t do it?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“So you can do it?”
“Am I saying these things, or are you just wildly guessing?”
Azalea raised her chin. “Well, I believe you can. I’ve heard the Lone Wolf can do anything and track anyone. Hunting down the world’s most powerful manacrafter must be a walk in the park for you.”
Echo stepped back, looking thoughtful. He tasted the words for a moment. Then he smiled.
“Wealth. Ego. Going through High Sage Helvin’s List of Human Motivators like a checklist, are we?” he said.
“We—I am not,” Azalea protested weakly, in a way that very much implied she was.
“Well, you skipped number one, which was love.” Echo spread his hands. “Go ahead. Hit me with it.”
“I won’t bother. You’re not capable of it. Number four, though, is—”
“Ouch? Really, ouch.”
“—self-mastery and growth. I think that going to the Noadic Range would be a very growing experience.”
“Growing underground, perhaps. I don’t feel keen on hopping into a coffin.”
“Then what would convince you?” Azalea blurted, and curses, she was beginning to feel the familiar sting of tears at her eyes. It felt like ages since she had slept, and yet her body was throttled awake, her nerves constantly on edge. “I need to do this. I need to find the Dragon Whisperer. And I need your skillset to do it. Please, just tell me what you want. I’ll get it for you.”
The ever-present smile on Echo’s face quickly faded, darkening into a cold, stony look.
“Never make that kind of offer, Red,” he said softly. “You don’t know what people could take from you.”
It was the first time she had seen anything other than glib amusement from him, but she did not cower.
“I’ll have nothing left if my country dies,” she said evenly.
She let that silence drip between them, cold and heavy. Because that was their reality. The Hunters, the garrison, the nobles—all of Airlea’s fighting force was at their limit, and the last strike of the Storm could easily make them all crumble. Even the most selfish mercenary would have nothing to gain from a nation of ashes and dust.
Finally, Echo stepped back. He blew a ring of vapor into the chilly air.
“Alright,” he said. “You get your wish.” He raised a finger as Azalea brightened. “On a few conditions.”
“Name them,” Azalea said, nodding.
“First: I will not set foot on the Noadic Range.” She opened her mouth, and he raised his finger again. “I will lead you to the entrance and provide instructions, but I’m not risking my life, Little Red. So, if that’s what you want, then give it up.”
“I won’t be able to find the Dragon Whisperer without you.”
He shook his head. “You will.”
“How do you know?”
“Second,” Echo continued, “payment will be rendered in advance, in full. There is a ninety percent chance that you will die, and it’s annoying to resolve outstanding transactions with a corpse.”
“You didn’t answer—”
“I never answer anything, Little Red, you ought to know that by now. And third: we’re going to stock up on those bags of cinnamon-glazed cashews and spicy crunchpeas.”
That caught Azalea’s attention. “Why?” she asked curiously. “Will they help us through the Noadic Range? Is there a terrible beast we’ll have to tame?”
“Of course not. They’re my favorite snack.” He ignored the sour look on her face and nodded down the road. “Pack up and meet me at the main gate by sunup. We’ll head to Maple Point.”
Azalea blinked. “Maple Point?”
“To visit your parents, of course. Anna Fairwen, retired apothecary, and Aleks Fairwen, lumberjack. Nice cottage, little garden for your mother to work on to keep her sane—”
“Alright, yes.” Of course he would know everything about them. Azalea did not like the idea of letting the Wolf anywhere near her parents, but her curiosity won out. “But why?”
“Well, when one is about to die, one ought to set one’s affairs in order, no?”
“I don’t have time for that.”
“You don’t have much time for anything when you’re about to die, so you might as well make an exception.” He turned around with a flutter of his grey-green cloak and gave a lazy wave. “See you tomorrow, nighty-night, sleep tight, all those platitudes.”
“Wait,” Azalea blurted, stepping forward. “Which of High Sage Helvin’s motivators was it? What convinced you to accept my commission?”
Echo paused, then turned to face her.
“The first, of course.” Before she could stop him, he pinched her cheek. “I love to make you suffer.”