39. White Labyrinth

Echo took the envelope with him.

He hadn’t wanted to. He had intended to let it lie there in the snow, idle and abandoned until it was swallowed up by dampness, the ink blotting illegibly over the page.

He had turned away and taken two steps. Then his legs had frozen and refused to move further.

It wasn’t his problem. The fault lay with Azalea for selfishly imposing her final wishes on him, for believing that he was a better man. He had done his duty. He had gone above and beyond, even—taking her to Heidi and teaching her how to hunt. He owed her nothing.

And yet, here he was. Trudging away from the Range…with the letter in hand.

“Look at you now, Lone Wolf,” he muttered. “You’ve gone so soft. So weak.”

Well, it was fine. The girl with Arya’s eyes and Arya’s hair was gone forever. All that was left was for him to deliver this single envelope, and he would be done with her. His stint of good-boy playacting would be finished.

After all, he was a mercenary. Not a hero. He very much wanted to keep it that way.

There was no use in someone like him trying to do anything good.

The moment Azalea stepped over the boundary and into the Noadic Range, the air changed.

A breeze swept over her like a brush running over paper. Her cloak rippled in an unseen current, and she flinched at its pull. The wind brushed over her cheeks in hushed, wandering laughter, then spiraled into silent snowdrift. She shut her eyes against its sting, bracing her feet in the snow.

The air settled. Azalea’s cloak descended.

She opened her eyes.

Before her sprawled a vibrant, outlandish forest—fuchsia wildflowers, turquoise shrubbery, magnolia trees with slivers of glowing crystal embedded in their trunks. The rampant flora spilled up the mountain in an untamable sea of mangled, beautiful overgrowth. It was nothing like a White Labyrinth, still and silent and devoid of life. It was a flourishing place where the very air resonated with ancient, indescribable mana. She could feel it washing over her skin in a light tingle, humming in her bones.

Azalea breathed in deeply and stepped through. She lifted her chin and walked steadily as the trees sealed behind her.

Echo stopped at the Northelm inn. It was more of a house that happened to have a free room than an inn, really; the town didn’t receive many visitors. He called it an inn in his mind, because it held the most valuable thing an inn could.

An insatiable gossip.

The lady of the house was Mam Gerta, a stout spitfire of a woman who took one look at him, clicked her tongue, and set a heaping bowl of stew before him with a sharp So thin, you plucked chicken! What do they feed you in the capital, sticks and hay? Then she pulled up a chair and sat right next to him and began chattering away a mile a minute, which ordinarily would have irritated Echo quite a bit, but in this case, was welcome. He didn’t particularly feel like thinking and the prattle helped keep him distracted.

Mam Gerta began with rather inane topics, though admittedly less inane than some of the women Echo had entertained in the Mythaven nobility. So-and-so’s son and how he’d gotten strong enough to push ore carts and carry bags of flour, so-and-so getting wed and so-and-so bearing children, so on and so forth. She talked as if the sky were not dark and thick with mana, waiting to rain down hell. She talked as if civilization would still be around tomorrow and the day after and for years to come.

What was it like, Echo wondered, to live in such a way? To live thinking of a lasting future, to build a legacy one stone at a time? To not look at a day as something split into hours and profits, but as something more.

Then he waved the thought away, for it was nothing like him. He was a mercenary, not a family man, and that suited him fine.

You keep telling yourself that, whispered fragments of Azalea’s voice in his mind.

Echo pushed it away.

Just as he was beginning to despair of learning anything useful, Mam Gerta mentioned something that made his ears perk.

“None’s at the mines no more, not with the mess brewing up there. Heavens no. Even His Highness tromped here himself in those fancy boots. He’s working with all the able men and women, you know, with the—forts and spear-fighting and whatnot, whatever young people do nowadays to keep themselves from dying.”

Echo’s brow arched high at that and he set down his remarkably delicious stew. “The crown prince, you say? He’s here, in Northelm?”

Mam Gerta clucked her tongue again. “Why, you didn’t catch a look-see when you came in? Pity, really. He’s the kind of boy whose smile could put the sun to shame. His mother must be so very pro—but oh, wretched mouth, of course Her Majesty passed on long ago, the poor thing.”

Echo had already paid fare for a room that night, but he passed another coin for the stew. “The crown prince!” he exclaimed. “What an honor to see him. And a greater honor for him to personally look after the safety of your town.”

“An honor it may be, or an omen, child. The presence of a royal can only mean that we’ll be right center of the next Storm.” Mam Gerta looked at him sharply. “And what are you doing with that coin?”

“Payment rendered for the marvelous stew, of course.”

“Land sakes, child. All dirty and scraped up like that, and you try to give me extra coin? Keep it for the bathhouse.” Mam Gerta shook her head. “You small ones can’t even take proper care of yourselves.”

Echo almost laughed aloud. If she had any notion just how wealthy and dangerous he really was—but an odd part of him was glad that she didn’t. He slipped the coin in her box behind her back and, before he retired for the night, stepped out to see the crown prince with his own eyes.

Snow crunched underfoot as Azalea pressed through the vibrant forest, which stretched endlessly in every direction. She caught glimpses of strange creatures everywhere she looked—tall birds with outlandish plumage, silver wolves with wispy tails, delicate and fluid elemental spirits that looked like spun glass. They all fled from her, peering skittishly at her from behind gnarled trees and towering ivory bone formations, no doubt unused to human presence.

Azalea considered squatting down with soft, calming clicks of her tongue, the way her father did to coax little birds and squirrels into stealing breadcrumbs from his palm.

Show kindness to the forest, Aza, he’d said, mouth turned up fondly at the small animals, and one day it might show kindness back.

Hesitantly, Azalea crouched down and whistled low and soft. She clicked her tongue lightly, keeping very still. It took only a few minutes for a creature to indulge its curiosity and toe closer. It was an elegant thing, about the size of a large dog, yet sleek and foxlike with feathery ears and a sweeping tail. But what was most stunning was the color of its coat—pearly white and soft in a way that entranced the eye, with parts of it blending into iridescence, shifting into pale pinks and blossom greens and diamond blues.

Mystified, Azalea reached out a slow hand. The creature’s ears flattened and it drew back a step, so she stopped.

She waited for it to move again, but it did not, and only stared at her with wide, limpid eyes, starfields glimmering in its pupils as it blinked slowly.

Listen, those magical, beautiful eyes seemed to be saying.

Azalea did. And she felt it then, in the silence—a subtle, bone-deep rumble beneath her boots, pulsing like a lonely heartbeat. It took her a moment to place the odd sensation.

Footsteps. Giant ones.

The rumbling strengthened, approaching, and the fox creature darted away. Frowning, Azalea straightened and drew her starshooter, ducking behind a bony tree to await the oncoming threat.

She felt it before she saw it. Mana, wild and flourishing, not like the curdling instability of a Storm’s corruption, but fragrant and torrential. The aura of a beast as fey as it was fierce. Such was everything in the Noadic Range, Azalea was beginning to realize; ancient and terrible, endless, and infinitely so much bigger than her.

The beast slithered into the clearing, sleek and impossibly fast. This was no ambling, cumbersome, overgrown forest animal. Its hide rippled powerfully in a vibrant sheen of scales, crowned with shining membrane wings—a dragon, a butterfly, a doe. Hunter and dancer, killer and artist.

Immediately, Azalea knew that if she had to face it, she would not win.

And yet she had to try. Heidi had been clear enough: When you enter the Range, challenge a powerful beast. Azalea wanted to speak with the Dragon Whisperer. What better way to draw his attention than to challenge a dragon?

Perhaps she would not have to win. She would merely have to survive until he arrived.

Voluntarily engaging an ancient dragon in the Noadic Range with completely unknown combat capabilities, Azalea thought distantly, and almost laughed. A dangerous creature, an unsecured environment, a volatile manaspace. The Academy would have my head if this were an exam.

But this was not an exam, and back in the heart of Airlea, the Storm was threatening everything she loved. Wes, mortally wounded and bedridden, Ma and Da, and—

—even skulking mercenaries like Echo, people who had done wrong things but needed second chances, people who could be so much more.

Azalea clung all of them close to her heart as she stepped out into the cold. For it was for them that she was here, and it was for all of them that she would keep going.

The dragon’s head immediately lifted, its pupils narrowing to slits at the sight of her.

Despite the thrall of its terrifying, bottomless gaze, Azalea managed to push one foot ahead of the other. She approached slowly. Then she spoke, her voice even and soothing, a confident tone that did not waver.

“I am Azalea Fairwen, a Royal Hunter of Airlea,” she called. “I have come for your master.”

There was a moment of quiet. A moment where the dragon crooked its neck, its gaze unmoving. A moment where Azalea grew hopeful and believed she could resolve the situation without any violence.

Then the dragon’s maw snapped open, and a blaze of mana seared right for Azalea’s head.

It took scarcely any time for Echo to find the crown prince. He had expected as much, of course. Surely the prince would be lofted high upon his palanquin, gazing down the auspicious bridge of his imperious nose at the meager commoners swarming beneath his diamond-studded boots. Not that Echo had ever met him. He’d had the opportunity, but he preferred to keep his distance. Royalty tended to be more trouble than they were worth.

Prince Sethis Galen Lunaren, however, was not up on some high perch, but on the ground. He appeared thoroughly occupied even in the dead of night, conferring with the townspeople and issuing orders to soldiers for fortifications. He had one of those trustworthy faces that all manner of people likely found attractive; striking green eyes, a strong-cut jaw, a composed yet empathetic bearing. Prince Charming, his many admirers liked to call him. A silly, ridiculous title for what was likely to be a silly, ridiculous man. No doubt the sword strapped to his hip was one of pure decoration.

Still, Echo was not about to squander this convenient opportunity. Even five minutes of observation was enough to divulge an entire life story. He kept to the shadows, watching silently.

The little gathering was broken by the rapid clop of hooves as a cloaked figure tore into town on horseback, dismounting in a flurry of robes. Echo recognized the sprawling seal of the Observatorium on his cloak at once, the ornate insignia of woven constellations that must have inflicted upon many a seamstress a dire headache.

“Pardon the interruption, Your Highness,” panted the Observatorium sage. “I bring urgent tidings.”

Prince Sethis took one look at the sage’s tight, panicked features and dismissed the townspeople and soldiers with a calm smile. A competent deceiver, like the many generations of kings before him. Once they were alone, he nodded at the sage, who spoke.

“Northbound mana fluctuations within the leylines have confirmed the estimated critical zone, Your Highness,” said the sage. “The epicenter of this Storm shall be in northern Airlea, as predicted. High Sage Myrdin himself bade me bring you these tidings.”

The sage paused, and Sethis waited.

“His Sagacity also emphatically requested that Your Highness be returned to safety at once, and for—ah, to quote verbatim—some other Hunter who isn’t in direct line to the throne to pretty up the defenses.

Sethis’s mouth lifted. “That sounds like his fussing indeed.”

“And—and will you accept his counsel, Highness?” said the sage hopefully.

Of course he will, Echo thought scornfully. The princeling must preserve his royal bloodline.

“I will,” Sethis agreed.

And there it is.

“Once Northelm is secured and its people are counted safe,” Sethis continued.

Echo blinked, surprised.

The sage all but wilted. “That…that would be after the Storm, Your Highness.”

“Well, then, my withdrawal shall have to wait until after the Storm.”

The sage groaned. “You would make me the bringer of bad news twice.”

“My apologies,” said Sethis unapologetically.

The crown prince himself, risking his very life to fortify the critical zone. Either he was a dullard or a naive idealist, Echo mused.

“Might you not reconsider, Your Highness?” said the sage. “Truthfully, this Storm—it bears a dangerous anomaly…”

Echo inhaled and waited.

“An anomaly?” Sethis said.

“Yes, Highness. The leylines are, ah, reacting with unnaturally high levels of…”

The sage trailed off. Sethis waited for a long moment—certainly longer than Echo ever would have tolerated.

“High levels of?” the crown prince eventually prompted.

“Forgive me, Highness, and put it from your mind. It is a mere hypothesis, and I daren’t—”

Sethis’s expression clouded. “You think there shall be a Class Five.”

“Oh, oh, but I shouldn’t have said anything.” Trembling, the sage fell to his knees. “These are naught but fancies of a fool! Strike me dead, Your Highness, this miserable, shriveled husk with nothing to offer but the doomsaying of a raucous crow—”

“Stand at once,” Sethis said immediately, startled. “Tell me, what is the likelihood of such a travesty occurring so soon after Havenport?”

The sage peered up from where he was groveling. “All but impossible, Your Highness.”

Sethis’s eyes were steely until the scholar caved, grimacing.

“Only, ah—you see—His Sagacity believes he has sensed significant turbulence within the reacting leylines. Enough to give rise to concern.”

Sethis exhaled, his brow taking on a grim weight. “Guildmaster Cotton is aware of this development?”

“Yes, Highness.”

“Then we must prepare as if a Five shall surface, even should we hope for the best.” Sethis straightened, features settling into a determined look. “Take a message to the Garrison at once, as follows…”

Echo had heard enough. He drew back into complete darkness.

Well, Little Red, he thought wryly, turning his steps back to Mam Gerta’s. Perhaps your wild hero’s charge wasn’t in vain after all. On the minuscule chance she succeeded, she might have just made the singular move that could save Airlea.

Azalea frantically threw herself aside. White mana seared right past her ear, splitting open the tree behind her into shards of ivory.

This dragon was no mere oversized animal, like the bloated, ambling Storm corruptions. It was faster than any beast she had ever faced, with pinpoint precision and deadly power, the very nature of its being heavily intertwined with mana.

Azalea thought that now, perhaps, she might understand a little of what it was like to fight a Class Five.

The dragon continued its onslaught, spewing lightning-quick bursts of mana that had Azalea pivoting wildly on her toes. Her windsoles were unnervingly warm from constant firing and refiring as she struggled to keep distance. Her cloak continually escaped searing flame and gnashing jaws by a hair. There was no time to strike back; she could barely keep herself from death.

If she could not best it, then it was time for her to run. She could not afford to lose her life before she met the Whisperer.

Azalea turned her steps northward, further into the Range, and flared her windsoles. She blazed through the vivid forest, weaving around trees and vaulting through bone piles with her arms tucked in and her movements sharp. The dragon followed tirelessly. Iridescent scales gleamed with snowlight as it slid seamlessly after her.

Surely it won’t keep following me! She had not antagonized the creature, so it was displaying territorial behavior. Once she left the vicinity, she expected it to calm.

Her gut churned with the incessant burn of mana as she continued sprinting. Still the dragon pursued her, swift and silent. Another jolt of mana shattered the tree before Azalea, sending wooden shards spewing towards her face; she ducked her head and shielded it with her arms as she pushed through.

The momentary blindness almost killed her as she soared right into another carapace.

Azalea fired her windsoles on instinct at the sight of a sudden scaly wall looming before her. The shoes vaulted her body high—too high—and she flailed momentarily to find her balance. She was lucky to land without shattering her knees.

Behind her, the carapace rumbled, then slowly rose, like a mountain coming out of the earth. Its blocky shape unfurled and two filmy eyes with piercing crescent pupils blinked beneath a crown of earthen plates.

Azalea swallowed. This new beast was enormous—larger than her previous pursuer. Yet another dragon, or a wyvern, or some other ancient creature that she had no knowledge of.

But the titan took no notice of her. Those unnerving eyes were fixed on the butterfly-like dragon. A low keen erupted from its maw, a deep and full noise that rattled Azalea’s teeth and filled her skull. She was only human, but her instincts understood it immediately: a warning.

The butterfly dragon made a chittering noise, wings flashing bright. It craned its neck high and roared loud, clear and melodic as rippling dewdrops.

Then it blitzed right at the titan, and with a surge of mana, barreled right into the enemy’s skull.

The impact was explosive. Plumes of dust and sparks erupted and Azalea was thrown back, her vision hazy and her ears ringing. Dazed, she could only watch as the two mythical beasts contended, the butterfly dragon agile as wind while the titan was immovable as earth.

She was so far beyond her limits here. She never should have come.

The titan growled, and with a churn of mana, the plates on its crown pushed outward and hardened. It flung its head and crashed into the butterfly dragon with the reinforced plates, blasting the elegant creature into the ground. Snow and rock sprayed up in deadly chunks at the impact.

Breathless, Azalea tried to raise her hands to pull herself up. Her vision was swirling and spotted, her consciousness threatening to give out at any moment.

Get out, her Academy training urged in a calm, rapt voice very similar to Nicolina’s. Get to immediate safety, then assess the situation and decide on a plan of action.

But Azalea had scarcely wrapped her fingers around a tree branch when she felt it—a turbulent coil of instability simmering in the horizon. One that she immediately recognized.

He’s here.

Dark fire swirled in a tempest beyond the snow-topped peaks. Then it plummeted right for her, streaked with crimson and silver smoke. Both dragons raised their heads at the commotion, then lashed their plated tails, bellowing in warning.

Azalea could no longer hold on. Slowly, her spotted vision faded to darkness. The last thing she saw before she fell unconscious was the warm, brilliant blaze of sunfire wings.