7. Fangs Bared

Where the carcasses are, Azalea thought, the wolves are sure to follow. Just as he said.

Echo was holding a few extracted vulture feathers in his hands, which were gloved this time. He carefully slipped them into a little hempen bag and pulled the mouth shut.

“Mind lowering that sparkle stick of yours?” he said lightly. “I don’t feel like turning into fireworks today.”

Azalea kept her starshooter trained on his head, unmoving.

Echo only sighed and rested his hands on his hips, surveying the sprawling field of dismantled carcasses before him. He clicked his tongue like a harried parent stumbling upon the paint-splattered footprints of their unruly toddler.

“I don’t like the Second Hunter,” he said firmly. “Never leaves things in good condition. Why does she always cut through the good bits?”

“Good bits?”

“Livers, stomachs. Leg meat. They’re all rather tasty. Ever tried corrupted vulture as a local delicacy?”

“That’s illegal. And dangerous.”

“Just my taste.”

“Who’s distributing corrupted carcasses before they’re cleared by the Observatorium?”

“I may be called the Wolf, Little Red, but I’m hardly a rat.”

Echo sauntered out from behind the large vulture corpse. Azalea followed his movement with the barrel of her weapon, endlessly wary.

“What are you doing here?” she demanded.

“Everyone in the world wants to find someone. A mother, a brother, a lover.” Echo stooped by a mangled pile of bones fallen by the wayside. He grimaced. “A son.”

Azalea frowned. “You have a son?”

Echo cast her a wry look as he pulled something small and shiny from the bones—a slim silver bracelet. “Yes, I’m a happy father of four.”

“That sounds like a lie.”

“How very astute of you. It’d be three with one dead.”

Echo moved to the fallen body of a Class One vulture and drew his bone dagger. He began sawing away, this time at the talons.

Azalea was not amused. “That is lawful property of the Observatorium,” she said.

“Well, now it’s unlawful property of mine.”

She slung back her starshooter and drew her sword. She was not willing to shoot to kill, but she would fight if she had to.

“Step away from the cadaver,” she said.

Echo sighed. “Must you begrudge me but one dead body, my lady?”

“Corrupted remains may invoke mana sickness, insanity, or death when improperly handled. For your own safety, I urge you to step away.”

“What if one is seeking mana sickness, insanity, or death?”

Azalea blinked. “That’s very strange of you.”

“Hardly,” said Echo. “The world is already mad. One might as well enjoy it.”

As usual, Echo had completely diverged from the scripted responses of the Handbook. Azalea had no idea how to deal with this situation.

Eventually, she decided to just arrest him. Then she could submit him to the Magistracy of Justice, and it would no longer be her problem. Some other poor sop could deal with this raving madman.

“Step away,” she warned, “or I’ll have to arrest you.”

“That would be an awful waste of a nice evening.”

“You have five seconds to comply.”

“I see you are done with games,” Echo said softly. “Very well. So am I.”

His form crackled like lightning.

Azalea was prepared, but barely. He moved faster than she’d expected from a non-Hunter, darting over the yawning stretch of ground in the blink of an eye with his bone knife aimed right at her jugular. Windsoles. She hadn’t noticed before, but his shoes were windsoles. Somehow, this underground knave had commandeered a pair.

She twisted with her short sword, deflecting his strike. A quick burst of her own windsoles put distance between them, and she perched on the edge of a vulture’s crumbling wing.

“You are adding on to your list of charges,” she said. “Assaulting a Royal Hunter is punishable up to ten years of prison.”

“Then I suppose I’ll be making an extended stay,” Echo said, and he lunged again.

His dagger chopped up the edge of the wing, and would have taken three inches off her foot if she hadn’t leapt in time. Azalea turned nimbly as she dove away, carving her sword at his chest. He angled slightly and let the blade skim just a hair away from his body. An experienced fighter, not one motion wasted.

They landed softly on the ground and circled.

“You’re not using your manawell,” Azalea said.

“Neither are you,” Echo said. “Though that’s no surprise, little miss Stabilizer. What are you going to do with your powers, calm my frazzled nerves?”

Azalea refused to rise to his goading. He was trying to distract her because she was approaching his weakness, and she knew it. No fighter, no matter how cocky, would ever underestimate a Royal Hunter. They would throw everything into the battle, manawell and all—if they wanted to live. If Echo was Forming no weapons and no obstacles, it was simply because he couldn’t Form.

Then what was his specialty? Every person was born with the ability to craft mana in some way. Perhaps he was a Stabilizer like herself, but without specialized equipment to utilize his powers. Or perhaps he was a Threader, lacing his bone knives with deadly magic.

Echo struck again, his weapon an ivory blur on Azalea’s periphery. She deflected it, but a blink slow; the tip nicked her pauldron with a tinny ring.

No. She sensed nothing from his knife. No laced venom, no explosive trail. He hadn’t touched the blade with his manawell.

“Why are you holding back?” she demanded. “If you have the gall to assault a Hunter, then aim to kill.”

“Too much effort,” Echo said. “I prefer to do things by halves.”

She didn’t laugh.

Echo swooped in for an onslaught of fast, brutal blows, jabbing everywhere from Azalea’s face to her neck to her stomach. She remained calm, deflecting his strikes and putting more space between them. He was faster with the lighter weapon, but she had more range with a short sword.

“What’s wrong, Little Red?” Echo called. “Can’t do anything without your peashooter?”

Azalea burned her windsoles again and leapt to an adjacent carcass. She had nothing to say, because he was right. She wasn’t willing to shoot at a civilian, knowing full well the firebolt could kill them.

But she hadn’t graduated from the Knight’s Academy for nothing, and she certainly hadn’t become a Hunter for nothing.

Everything is a resource. Everything is a weapon. Karis had shown her that firsthand. It was time for her to learn it well.

Azalea crouched at the ready. This time, when Echo darted toward her, she met him in the offense.

She fired her windsoles briefly to cut past him, then fired again to reverse, slicing at his back. He barely twisted in time, meeting her blade with a clumsy parry at the base of his knife. The surprise on his face was almost enough to make her smile.

Azalea pressed her advantage. She boosted her arm as she sliced forward, boosted her feet as she swiveled into a kick, boosted her shoulder for a faster turn. Echo stumbled backward, on the defensive for the first time.

“I see you’ve taken a liking to your new toys,” he panted.

“You could do this too,” Azalea pointed out.

“I told you,” Echo said. “I only do things by halves.”

He leapt back with a pulse of his windsoles, and Azalea sensed it then. He wasn’t trying to do things by halves; he was trying to not do things by doubles. Like most equipment powered by mana quartzes, windsoles required Stabilizing in areas with heavy chaos saturation. Azalea hadn’t even noticed—the shoes’ reactions were a mere fraction of the explosive instability expelled by her starshooter. But for someone with a low efficiency rate in Stabilizing, every boosted step came with a price to pay.

In this environment, Azalea had Echo sorely outmatched.

The revelation only confused her further. Echo had seen her burst fire on the starshooter. From that alone, he’d know that she had one of the best Stabilizing rates in the country. And yet the arena he picked for the fight was here, right next to the rift of a leyline? He didn’t seem particularly foolish, so that left only one option: he’d never intended to win.

Then she would oblige. It was about time to end the fight, anyway.

Azalea boosted her foot into a sweeping high kick. Echo dropped below—partially to dodge, partially to knife at her calf.

She chose that exact moment to flare her windsole.

Her boot blazed down, a sudden change of direction bolstered by wind mana, and slammed into Echo’s shoulder with a sickening crunch. Echo made a strangled sound as he crumpled into the dirt. He clutched his shoulder, which was definitely sprained, and possibly broken.

“Myths alive, Red,” he swore through his teeth. “You don’t play nice.”

Azalea slung a leg over him. She pinned him down with her weight as she procured a thick pair of cuffs, shackling his wrists behind his back. “Resistance to arrest must be met with adequate force.”

“Always relying on your damn trinkets for the upper hand,” Echo muttered. “When will you face me with your own power?”

“When you become someone I need to kill.”

“What, I’m not already there? And here I thought we had something special.”

She secured the shackles and pulled him to his feet by his uninjured arm. She would have liked to target his other arm for giving lip, but that would be cruel and unusual, a direct violation of the guild handbook.

“You can bond with the Magistrate of Justice instead,” she said.

“I’d rather not,” Echo said, wrinkling his nose. “He smells like cat sick most days. Really puts a damper on the appetite.”

Azalea blinked. “You’ve met him already?”

“Oh yes, plenty. We’re practically chums. His wife makes a lovely pork lasagna.”

Azalea did not want to think too deeply on that statement. Or any of them. Everything Echo said was varying degrees of bothersome, and the bother increased the more she thought on it. So instead, she returned to protocol.

“You are being detained for the infringement of Ordinance 31, pertaining to the unauthorized seizure of creature remains under the influence of mana,” she recited.

“Isn’t this procedure usually for wardens and inquisitors, Little Red?” Echo said with a lift of his brow. “Since when did Hunters enforce the law?”

“The Hunter’s Guild is authorized to make arrests outside the Magistracy’s operating range. We are outside city bounds; therefore I have temporary authority.”

“According to?”

“Ordinance 71, Clause A.”

“Of course you have it memorized.”

Azalea started to march away, but Echo did not move. She turned on him with a frown.

“If you do not follow willingly,” she warned, “I will have no choice but to render you unconscious and carry your body back to Mythaven.”

“A charming notion, no doubt,” Echo said. He tilted his head with a dangerous gleam. “But I have something more interesting to offer you, Little Red.”

“A written confession?” Azalea said hopefully.

He snorted. “A secret. A juicy one.” His teeth flashed. “Don’t you want to climb the guild, take First Rank for yourself?”

“Not particularly.”

“Sure you do.” He surveyed the macabre pile of vulture carcasses. “Who wouldn’t want to be a full-time mass butcher?”

“You’re stalling your arrest,” Azalea accused. She stepped towards Echo, but he suddenly blurted—

“I know where the surges will strike before they happen.”

Azalea froze.

“Call it a kind of true sight,” Echo said smoothly. “Or a true smell, more like. I can sense unique mana signatures. It’s what lets me track down anyone in the world.”

“That’s impossible.”

Echo canted a brow. “Is it? You’ve heard my reputation firsthand, Little Red. You know I can find anyone, absolutely anyone—for the right price.”

He was right. Even though Azalea’s stint in the underbelly of Mythaven had been brief, she’d heard more than enough about the legendary Lone Wolf and his feats. He’s one of those folks who can find pigswill in a sewer, she’d heard whispered fervently at a tavern table. Blindfolded. In five seconds. Damn bloodhound, he is.

“What does that have anything to do with predicting surges?” Azalea asked warily.

“The town of Northelm,” Echo said suddenly. He rolled his uninjured shoulder. “If you don’t believe me, then just wait and see.”

A chill crawled up Azalea’s spine. Whether Echo was correct or not, one thing was certain: he believed in what he was saying. But if he really could predict surges, then how could he keep that knowledge to himself? Countless lives were lost, even in the short amount of time it took for Hunters to reach the surge sites. If Echo truly was blessed with foreknowledge, then he should have used his gifts to protect the country.

Then the alternative was looking more likely: he was, in fact, a madman.

“Now, if you’ll excuse me,” said Echo, “I’ve my evening chores to get to. Fixing supper, kissing my three remaining children, all that good domestic stuff.”

Azalea glared at him. “You’ll do nothing of the sort. We’re going to the Magistracy of Justice.”

“Alas, would that my schedule allowed.”

Echo drew his hands from behind his back. A pair of fine silver cuffs dangled from his fingers. Unlocked.

Azalea’s jaw slackened. “How—”

He looped them around and tossed them to Azalea in a slow arc.

“Don’t lose these, now,” he said. “It’ll reflect on the ledger.”

“Put them back,” Azalea said weakly.

“No thanks. They don’t match my eyes.” There was a pulse from his windsoles, and without further ceremony, he was gone.



After an additional year of prewriting, Airlean Tales is finally back! Chapters will release weekly on Thursdays, with live readings on my YouTube channel every Friday! Hope you guys enjoy as the exploration of this magical world and its vibrant characters resumes ❤️

48 chapters are currently prewritten, with 55 chapters the expected final.