The Hunter’s Guild was in chaos when Azalea pushed through the doors.
Chaos was nothing new. She’d only been a Hunter for three weeks, and she knew that much. As it turned out, when fifty of the nation’s strongest fighters were tossed into the same room, thrust into a brutal, bloodthirsty schedule, and left to compete among each other for the highest stipend, the environment became a bit concerning. Tricks, threats, and potentially fatal sparring were an everyday occurrence.
But this was a new level of chaos entirely.
A pair of throwing knives whistled in from Azalea’s left; she ducked just before they took off her head. They struck the wall next to her, wobbling violently with the force of the throw. There was a raucous laugh in the distance, and a swig of ale. No apologies were uttered in her direction. Whoever had thrown the knives probably hadn’t even noticed she was there.
Azalea took a step forward, but that was a mistake. A damaged floorboard gave way under her foot, and she caught herself by gripping a nearby chair. She proceeded through the room, this time with more caution.
The guild was built more or less like a tavern: squat, coffered ceilings with rough-hewn iron chandeliers, wooden stools set around round maple tables, and colorful refreshments arrayed on a long counter that lined the side wall. Most of the furniture was replaced on a monthly basis due to breaking—or rather, being broken—and as a result, the guild always looked new. It would have been a beautiful, cozy place if not for the surrounding chaos. The door to the guildmaster’s study, placed at the opposite end of the room, had never felt so far away.
“Ah, new girl!” called a boisterous voice, and a man dressed in lively green waved her over with his half-full tankard of ale. There were flowers and vines plastered all over him like a plant-based mural, which would make him—if she remembered correctly—Jack, the Beanstalk Botanist, Fortieth Hunter of Airlea. “Rosie!” he said. “Or was it Candy? Or Susan? Are you new, new-new, or new-new-new? I can’t remember, you all die off so quickly.”
Azalea wasn’t entirely sure how to respond to that. “I haven’t died yet,” she offered practically. She ducked right as an arrow soared overhead. “My name is Azalea.”
“Azalea! I’ll be sure to forget that.” Jack gave her a lopsided salute, and raised his tankard to intercept a serrated throwing star. Ale sloshed out the side and poured down the metal projectile. He drank from the cup anyway as if nothing had happened.
Perturbed, Azalea moved on.
She kept her senses alert as she approached the guildmaster’s study. On the table beside her, two men were locked in an arm wrestle with one of their hands, and trying to stab at each other’s throats with the other. At the refreshments counter, several burly fighters were immersed in a drinking competition with a mysterious, potentially poisonous liquid that radiated bright blue. In the corner, two women were playing what seemed like a fast-paced shedding card game, fingers flying with every deal to the center pile—which would have seemed normal enough, were not the cards rimmed with metal and sharp enough to slice through wood. From the looks of it, they were trying to cut off each other’s fingers faster than their opponent could off their cards.
The job of a Hunter was already so dangerous, and yet here the guild members were, tempting fate even further on their time off.
Azalea’s own idea of vacation involved wandering around the night market on Main Avenue, or reading by the fountain of Gallows Square, or watering the herbal plants that lay on the workshop windowsill. Even when she and Wes had sparred at the Academy, it was always in preparation for an exam: a necessity, not a hobby.
She sometimes wondered if she was a Hunter at all.
Azalea ducked her head, pulled her hood further over her face, and hurried her steps. She’d just reached the guildmaster’s study when she heard a low whistle by her ear. Instinctively, she pivoted, and watched the black gleam of a throwing axe skate just before her nose, burying into the door with a heavy sound.
“Hey, little kit!” jeered a strident voice from the distant corner. “Watch your head! Wouldn’t want to lose it now, would you?”
She didn’t bother turning around. Striking or maiming another Hunter was grounds for immediate expulsion and severe punishment. The veterans might taunt her as the newest member, but she would never face any true danger in this room.
It’s just your fear that they want, ’Zalie, Wes had told her back at the Academy—back when her commoner’s stench had offended the highborn nobility of her class. If you don’t give them that, they can’t take anything from you.
Azalea raised her head high and calmly stepped around the throwing axe, pulled open the door, and slipped inside.
The guildmaster’s study was the complete opposite of the main hall: calm, quiet, and perfectly pristine, not one sheet of paper out of place in the mass of shelves that lined its walls. Similarly, the woman behind the stately oaken desk—Guildmaster Nicolina Cotton, as Azalea knew her—was arrayed in an immaculate uniform, a large golden badge on her lapel denoting her station.
The badge was a handsome thing, engraved with vinelike tracery and dotted with multicolored gemstones. Azalea had read about it in one of her history classes. Garnet for bloodshed, sapphire for loyalty, sunstone for justice—these were the stones that represented the three main values of the Hunter’s Guild, and they were embedded proudly on the lower part of the badge. Other important government magistrates had their own unique badges and gemstones. Aquamarine for seafaring. Emerald for wisdom. Rose quartz for harmony. The list was endless, but it made it possible for national leaders to be recognized with a simple glance at their badge.
Other than the ornate emblem, Guildmaster Nicolina’s attire was, more or less, nondescript. Her dress was clean and sharp, fastidiously kept, but lacking any jewelry or loud embellishments. She didn’t seem much one for status. The entire study lacked the usual burnished lions, hunting trophies, and mounted plaques that were ordinary fare in guildmasters’ studies. Azalea had the distinct feeling that Nicolina had been strong-armed into wearing her badge and cloak at all.
Nicolina looked up from across the desk as Azalea pushed into the room. “Ah, Fairwen,” she said mildly. “Congrats on returning from your third mission. I’m glad to see you’re still alive.”
The words were hardboiled and blunt, but there was a hint of genuine warmth. Most likely, she was honestly happy that Azalea hadn’t perished in some terrible manner, if not just because it would be a nuisance to replace her.
Azalea saluted sharply and from the shoulder, as was expected of all Airlean military personnel. “Hail, Guildmaster. May I ask what’s going on out there?”
“The main area.” There was a heavy thud
as the floor shook. Azalea winced. “I think there’s a brawl happening.”
A resigned look crossed Nicolina’s face, and she sighed. “One moment,” she commanded.
She slid out of her chair and plodded to the door. On foot, her small stature was exposed—she was surprisingly short, barely reaching the height of her own desk. Word had it that she’d once been teased with the name Thumbelina,
mocked for her naturally petite size. Then she’d been sworn in as the right hand to the leader of the Hunter’s Guild, selected for her administrative capabilities. And after his passing, she’d taken up the mantle as the guildmaster herself.
Now, the Thumb
was a title whispered reverently, even among the upper ranks of the Hunters. No one dared to cross the Thumb, for she had tamed that which would listen to no other man: paperwork. A Hunter could take down any hulking beast without batting an eye, but reports? Bylaws? Taxes? Those were creatures that few men dared to approach, and even fewer were able to fell.
Nicolina yanked open the door and kicked at the throwing axe sunken into its surface. The weapon fell heavily to the ground with a resonant clang,
and immediately, the main hall hushed into silence. All eyes swiveled to the cherubic woman standing beneath the doorframe, hands on her hips.
“For any damages caused in the course of your shenanigans,” Nicolina said sharply, “the cost will be taken directly from the stipends of those responsible. Proceed at your own risk.” She looked at her door and grimaced. “And avoid my door, dammit. The noise it takes to install a new one is the worst.
She shut the door and plodded back to her chair. Azalea could hear the noise resuming in the hall—but it was at a much tamer, more respectful level. There were probably less sharp objects being bandied about.
Hunters,” Nicolina groused, flopping on the cushion of her chair. “Only twelve Hunters in reserve, and still, not one moment of peace. They’re all hopeless.”
“Are they always like that?” Azalea would need Wes to touch her up after every mission, if so. She wouldn’t have the reflexes to avoid death otherwise.
“Not usually.” Nicolina kneaded at her temples. “It’s those damned clouds in the sky. Means bad business. It keeps everyone on their toes, makes them antsy. Unfortunately, they don’t know how to express it any other way than spontaneous duels to the death and highly questionable hobbies.”
That was…interesting. And nothing like Azalea’s cautious, stalwart personality.
“The clouds shouldn’t mean anything serious,” Azalea said. “Surges are almost never preceded by poor weather, as per the Fourth Omen listed in Omens of the Mythical Tempest and Its Tribulations.
Nicolina balked. “You actually read that book?”
“Of course. It was assigned reading at the Knight’s Academy. For the class in Magick Phenomena, I think.”
“It’s so dry that it could put hardtack to shame,” Nicolina said. Which was probably to be expected from a book titled Omens of the Mythical Tempest and Its Tribulations, As Observed by Scholastics, Officially Certified by the Observatorium.
“And it’s also wrong,” she continued, “which you’d personally know.”
Azalea blinked. “I would?”
“You fought in a Storm, didn’t you?”
“There wasn’t much fighting. My company just stood watch.”
Nicolina raised a brow. “Stood watch? Really.”
She pulled out a drawer in her desk. Small, deft fingers ran along sheaves of paper divided by tabs, each labeled with tidy lettering. Azalea counted the number of times Nicolina’s fingers hit a tab. Fifty. There were fifty sections, one for each of her current Hunters.
Now Azalea wondered what all the papers in the shelves stood for.
Nicolina pulled out a slim folder and snapped it straight with a flick of her wrist. “Deployments on the Battle of Havenport, Mythaven Academy Company,” she read aloud. “Captain: Wesley Geppett. Cadets…ah, here. Azalea Fairwen.” She paused and looked up, tapping her finger on the paper. “Is this you?”
Azalea flushed a little. “Um. Yes,” she admitted.
“Fifty recorded kills from a student company. Impressive. Outperformed some active companies of soldiers. I suppose that’s to be somewhat expected, with a Geppett as the commanding officer and the Academy’s top performers as his unit.” Her eyes raised slowly, piercing green like summer leaves. “But do you know who was credited thirty-five of those fifty kills?”
The heat on Azalea’s cheeks deepened.
“Personnel Notice: Cadet Fairwen is attributed thirty-five recorded kills. Demonstrates a Stabilizing rate of 15 rounds per minute with a Firefly Mark II. Highly recommended to investigate for marksman potential.” Nicolina tapped her finger on the report. “Do you know what the previous record for the Firefly Mark II’s firing rate was, Hunter Fairwen?”
“A little slower?” Azalea guessed.
“Four rounds per minute.
” Nicolina leaned back, her gaze cutting. “Starshooters were never seen as truly viable in combat. They were powerful, yes, lethal, absolutely. But viable? No.”
Azalea had heard as much during her time at the Academy. Although every cadet had taken sharpshooting lessons, in which they’d learned to aim and fire a standard-issue Firefly Mark I, the instructors had actively warned against relying on firearms. The instability from starshooters’ explosive reactions took too long to dissipate—especially
in the middle of a Storm, where the air was already saturated with chaos mana. Two to four rounds per minute was outclassed by a trained bowman. Combined with their ludicrous production cost, starshooters were more of a fashion statement for the nobility than any real weapon.
But something had been different that day. Surrounded by peril and given a unit to protect, Azalea had found her aim impeccable, her focus heightened, her manawell nearly bottomless. Thirty-five kills. She’d never heard of a record like that from a non-Hunter.
Nicolina filed the sheet back into its proper place and closed the drawer. “You’re the first Hunter who has ever been recruited on the premise of Stabilizing capability, Hunter Fairwen. You made what was once considered a useless manacraft look like an enviable asset. No need to downplay your achievements.”
Azalea’s hands knitted together, white and shaking.
“I have high hopes for you. We all do. A breakthrough in Stabilizing could change the landscape of manacraft as we understand it.”
She swallowed. “Yes, Guildmaster.”
Inside, her heart was fluttering like the wings of a dying bird. She hadn’t been able to replicate the success of the Battle of Havenport. Even today, she’d struggled against fighting twenty Class One wolves. Whatever perks Stabilizing lended, they were nowhere near as reliable as Forming. She couldn’t Form blades of darkness or waves of water on a whim; she only found success with a starshooter, and limited success at that.
She hoped that Nicolina wouldn’t rely on her too
“Now, your combat report,” said Nicolina, retrieving a fresh sheet of paper. “Proceed when ready.”
Azalea brightened. Combat reports. That, at least, she knew. She’d learned the procedure at the Knight’s Academy.
“Westshire has been successfully evacuated,” she said smartly. “Citizens were directed to the nearest outpost as per protocol. Type of opposition encountered: Class One lupus. No major deviations detected. Quantity encountered: twenty specimens.”
Nicolina’s quill slowed. She looked up at Azalea, who waited.
“Twenty wolves?” she repeated. At Azalea’s nod, her mouth tightened. “The average is rising.”
“Creatures per encounter.” She waved a hand. “Never mind. It’s nothing you need to worry about. You did well staying alive.”
Nicolina asked several more questions, and Azalea gave her prepared responses. Casualties, time elapsed, mana anomalies. She considered reporting the appearance of the Lone Wolf, but decided to refrain. He may have been a suspicious figure, but he had nothing to do with the actual fighting.
When the report was finished, Nicolina stamped the corner with a wax seal and slid it into Azalea’s folder.
“Your responsibilities are growing fast,” she noted. “You’re going to need more assistance. Are you familiar with the guild’s Support System?”
Azalea straightened. The Support System had been detailed in the handbook she’d received upon acceptance into the Hunter’s Guild. This must be a test.
“Introduction,” she recited dutifully. “This formal agreement between the Subsidized Nonmilitary Partner—henceforth referred to as ‘the Support’—and the serving soldier of the Royal Hunters of Airlea—henceforth referred to as ‘the Hunter’—is intended to promote and produce profitable collaboration within the socioeconomic structure of—”
“Mythics alive, Fairwen,” Nicolina choked, “you read the fine print?”
Azalea wilted. “Was I not supposed to?”
“No, it’s just—there’s a much simpler way of understanding it than what those old farts threw in the handbook.”
Nicolina pulled out another drawer in her desk, raced her fingers nimbly atop the sheaves of paper within, and withdrew a single sheet.
“This is all they’re yammering on about. As there are only fifty Royal Hunters in the entire kingdom, they must
be kept in top condition. This is where the Support System comes in. Hunters are strongly recommended to enlist an associate who can support them, whether through providing goods, equipment, or services. Hence the title.”
“Strongly recommended, or required?” Azalea asked, surprised. She’d never seen a Hunter without a Support.
“Strongly recommended,” Nicolina said grimly, “if you don’t want me to break your kneecaps.”
She slid the paper across the table with a flick of her fingers. Azalea stopped it with a quick hand, skimming the lines neatly penned on its surface. It was a written agreement for taking on a Support, with ample room left on the bottom for notarized signatures.
“Supports are, more or less, subsidized,” Nicolina said. “In addition to your regular wage, you will receive a bonus stipend to fund your Support. Originally, this was meant to assist each Hunter and encourage local partnerships with citizens. But I’m really not that picky. Sign up your doctor, your blacksmith, your cousin, I don’t care. As long as they’re involved and they help keep you sane in this godforsaken world, they’re doing their job.”
Azalea carefully slipped the paper into her pack without folding or rolling it. “Understood. I’ll carry this out at once.”
“There’s really no rush.”
But Azalea only snapped back to attention, saluting for good measure. To her, it was another assignment. One that she’d carry out with swiftness and pride. It wouldn’t take long, anyway. She already had someone in mind.
“One last thing, before you go.” Nicolina reached under her desk and withdrew a plain box wrapped with green fabric and a pale ribbon. “This just came in from the armory. Your windsoles are ready.”
Azalea brightened, her hands snapping towards the box before she caught herself and drew back.
“You can go ahead,” Nicolina said amusedly. “They’re yours.”
With much more restraint this time, Azalea pulled away the ribbon and removed the lid. The prettiest pair of shoes lay within—high-topped riding boots of fine leather trimmed with gold, identical to the form of her current shoes, but with one crucial difference. Resting on the throat of each shoe was a green-tinted mana quartz that beamed in the light, vibrant as a precious emerald.
Azalea ran a careful hand over the quartz and nudged it with her manawell. She felt the quartz resonate as it attuned to her flow. Now she’d be the only person authorized to control these shoes.
“Thank you,” she murmured. She knew how expensive windsoles were. Much like her starshooter, they required a precious, mana-sensitive mineral that was carefully refined over the course of months through the process of ingeniment, the intersection between engineering and enchantment. Someone like Wes had spent a good bit of their year to get the wind quartz on these special shoes to work.
“Like I said, they’re yours,” Nicolina said. “No need for thanks. Just don’t break them.”
“I could never,” Azalea said. “We ran lots of courses at the Academy, expressly to use them properly.”
“Courses,” Nicolina echoed, raising a brow. “That’s quite a…mild term for those hellish races. You can be honest. What did you think of them?”
Azalea paused. What did she think of the courses? Did it matter? They were simply another method of training, like most of the activities at the Academy. Yes, they were quite dangerous, involving sections of leaping over fire coals, running through subzero temperatures, and dodging venomous arrows—but unlike real life, instructors were always monitoring to prevent any actual deaths.
But had she enjoyed them? Not particularly.
“I thought they were hard,” she eventually said. “They weren’t very pleasant.”
Nicolina laughed, which sounded oddly young and spry. “Unpleasant. I’ll have to remember that one.” She waved a hand at the shoes. “These are custom-made by the top artisans in the country. You’ll find them much more efficient than the standard-issue pairs provided by the Academy.”
“I didn’t make them, so you’re not welcome. Wear these from now on. It’ll markedly improve your travel.”
Azalea saluted at the shoulder, and that was that. The meeting had been easy, fast, and efficient, just the way Nicolina liked it.
She had just turned to go, her fingers wrapping around the handle of the door, when Nicolina spoke.
“Hunter Fairwen,” she said, her voice adopting a strange edge, “this field can be a lonely one.”
Azalea stopped short. “So…I should make friends?”
“On the contrary. You should keep it that way.” Nicolina’s tone softened. “As you were.”
Frowning, Azalea slipped out of the room, putting the words out of her mind.