Airlean Tales

Nicolina was silent before the window of her study, staring into the looming night like a statue. She didn’t quite know what she was watching for. Beacons, maybe. The northern beacons would light if a Class Five made an appearance. But no, perhaps she was looking eastward; for daybreak, for a dawn that would mean this terrible ordeal was over.


The Storm was a curse upon humankind, nature’s retribution for man’s bygone sins. Or so it was believed among many. Yet Karis could not help but feel its driving pulse in her veins, could not help but be drawn into it, could not help but think it beautiful.


It took only a single stroke of lightning for the world to burst into chaos around Sethis’s ears.


Echo woke to a dawn that smelled like blood.


The rest of the evening and the following day was dedicated to the kill. Azure took several trips out to the wyvern carcass to bring the entirety of it back to his den. He made use of a large, somewhat clumsily crafted wooden wagon, which was originally used to cartgoods to Heidi’s.

“Why don’t you use mana to Form a large cart?” Azalea asked curiously, stepping alongside him. The wagon tended to drag against the snow and did not seem convenient in the least. “You Formed that rack to drain and dress the carcass back in the cave.”

Azure stopped in his tracks. He looked back at the pile of wyvern flesh in his cart and frowned. “Now that you mention it, I haven’t the faintest.”

“You what?” said Azalea, startled.

“Well, I just saw Da cart wood this way many times.” Azure shrugged. “Never thought to try any other way.”

Azalea couldn’t speak. Every time she thought Azure couldn’t possibly say anything to surprise her anymore, she was proven wrong.

“But you use mana for everything,” she stammered. “You’re reliant on it.”

“Well, yes,” Azure acknowledged, “but I don’t always have enough left in the manawell after the fight. Most of the time, I end up dry, in which case a physical cart is necessary.”

“Dry? But—how, with your manawell?”

“Well, partially from implosion,” Azure said cheerfully. “I’ve never been able to use Paradox for more than five minutes without spontaneously combusting. Unstable implosions do tend to eat up the manawell.”

Azalea felt faint. “You mean…you just…let your Forms implode.”

“Can’t particularly Stabilize them in time, so yes.”

She bristled. “Then you shouldn’t be making them in the first place! That’s—that’s unspeakably—awful! You’ll end up blowing yourself up!”

Azure waved a hand dismissively. “That’s what my dragonscale armor is for. Ah, and my manawell has learned to do a splendid job with natural regeneration over the years.”

Oh, it was terrible. It was all so much more terrible than she could have expected. Azalea wanted to throttle her brother into next week. He simply let his Forms destabilize and explode, relying on his mythical armor and manawell to save his life every time. What an absolute loon! How many years had he shaved off his lifespan with such reckless behavior?

Azure seemed to notice her simmering glower and stopped, his wagon sinking briefly into the snow. “Are you upset, ’Zalie?”

Her anger slowly ebbed away and she stared at her shoes. It wasn’t Azure’s fault. He had been estranged from his family, alone in the world at only nine years old, reliant on his own strength to survive. Little wonder that he had developed some very unsafe habits, all in the name of survival.

“Just be more careful,” she mumbled. “At least until Ma and Da can see you again.”

Azure was quiet for a moment, then nodded. “That shouldn’t take long. Perhaps a week, by my estimation.”

That suprised Azalea. Then he was planning on visiting them? But why hadn’t he done so earlier? Azure had known all along who and where they were, and yet he’d refused to reveal himself. He had let them grieve and had let Azalea believe he was some distant, unfamiliar barbarian. All for what, a cruel surprise?

“Why?” Azalea blurted. “We missed you. I missed you, so terribly. If you knew where we were—why didn’t you visit?”

Azure hesitated, taking a moment to puff a warm breath into the air.

“How could I, before my time has come?” he said. His tone was subdued and unusually doleful. It unsettled her. “That request asks too much of me, ’Zalie. Even for you.”

“I—I don’t understand,” Azalea stammered, and that was putting it lightly. Azure’s nature was so very cryptic, with each question only spawning a hundred more.

But Azure was already walking on, pulling the cart behind him. After that brief, disorienting exchange, Azalea found herself winded, as if she had been the one to pull the cart all this way. She wanted to be cross with Azure, but she simply couldn’t. Perhaps he was simply beyond reason. Perhaps the Noadic Range had twisted his mind. She certainly could not imagine attempting to survive in such a wild, hostile place—not without being changed forever.

Perhaps there was nothing for her to do but wait, and trust that Azure would explain once he was ready.

It took some time to haul up the snowy incline; the wagon truly was in a sorry state. Azalea found herself wishing that Wes could have a look at it. He was so very good with wagons and carts and anything with moving parts; he could fix it by just looking at it. But of course, perhaps he couldn’t, Azalea realized somberly. Perhaps he was bedridden for the rest of his life, or blinded, or had forgotten her entirely.

“You called the Aphotic Blade something else,” Azalea said, searching for something to distract herself. “Paradox?”

“Ah, yes,” said Azure, perking up. “Long titles are very intimidating in the eyes of children, to be sure. But as an adult, it is all about the single word that strikes fear into the hearts of all who hear!”

He released the cart for a moment and burned his manawell, swiftly pulling together the Form of an intricate weapon: the Aphotic Blade, a greatsword of dark fire.

“Paradox,” he introduced.

He released the greatsword’s Form and wove something new: a spear of sharp, clear ice mana.

“Hoarfrost,” he said.

Next was a sinuous dagger dripping with shadow mana.

“Nightstinger,” he said.

Nightstinger dissipated and was followed by a looming hammer of fire mana and a halberd of bone mana.

“And this one is Buttermilk and this one is Bacon.”

Azalea, who was already in shock at seeing so many intricate and demanding Forms in such a short period of time, nearly fell over. “Buttermilk and Bacon!” she whispered. “But that’s so unhealthy. Where are the vegetables?”

“Please, ’Zalie, what sort of person would fear the strike of Broccoli or Bell Pepper? Why, I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

She didn’t think anyone would particularly fear the strike of Buttermilk, either, but she was not one to judge.

Azure dissipated Buttermilk and Bacon, then pulled the cart into his den. He promptly set about slicing and scaling the wyvern. With nothing else to do but to make herself useful, Azalea assisted in removing the scales and collecting them in a large pot. At least Azure wasted nothing. Scales could be sewn into clothes, fashioned into arrowheads, and plated onto weapons; blood could be collected for stew; intestines could be scraped for catgut. A portion was set aside for trading with Heidi, and the rest was thrown into baskets for later use.

Several hours into the painstaking work, a glint caught Azalea’s periphery, and she looked up. At the entrance of the den, peering with its nose just inside the doorway, was the lovely, snowy fox-creature she’d first seen when she’d entered the Range.

Stifling a gasp of delight, Azalea lowered the tail she was scaling and crouched, eking slowly towards the entrance. The fox watched her carefully, but didn’t move.

“Ah,” said Azure in a voice so loud that Azalea flinched. “I see we have a visitor.”

“What is it?” she whispered in his direction.

“That is an everfox,” Azure said, thankfully lowering his voice. “Or so I call it, and there hasn’t been a living human being around here to claim otherwise.”

An everfox. The name was fitting for the elegant, iridescent creature.

“I think it followed me here,” Azalea whispered. She watched how the everfox pawed at the cave’s soil, then drew back, ears flattening. “But it seems scared to enter.”

Azure frowned. “Hm. But I’ve never killed an everfox.” He paused. “Wait, there was the one. And…ah, two, actually. Or was it three?”

Azalea stifled a sigh and knelt by the entrance, making soft crooning noises and rasping her fingers together, the way Da did to entice animals from the forest. Azure eyed her and shook his head.

“I wouldn’t bother, ’Zalie,” he said. “Most creatures can smell the reek of death from my den. They tend to fear one when one makes a habit of killing everything in sight.”

“You don’t kill everything in sight,” said Azalea. Then she jolted up and turned to look at him, only vaguely hearing the soft patters of the everfox scrambling away. “Or was that why you picked a fight with Lord Halcyon? To kill him?”

“Who, now?”

“That powerful warrior at the beach!” Azalea said incredulously. “The one with—with the glaive, who commanded the ocean, who—why, you nearly incinerated the entire shoreline with him!”

Azure straightened. “Ah, yes. The Atlantean.”

“Airlean, but a powerful manacrafter of water,” Azalea corrected. Airlea hadn’t heard from Atlantis since the Great Storm.

“Indeed, what a sporting battle! A strong and courageous warrior, a credit to his brood.” Azure grinned at the memory. “And he does not pull his punches. I could scarcely walk for three days after. One of the most exciting spars ever fought.”

Spars! An unfamiliar wave of fury barreled over Azalea and left her breathless. What Azure had considered innocent, friendly sparring had led to Halcyon sustaining serious injuries, which had, in turn, left Wes’s company vulnerable and underprotected. It had been because of sparring that half of the Geppett company died, and Wes himself lay on death’s door, possibly crippled for life.

Never do that again,” she said sharply, rising to her feet. “So many Airleans died because of what you perceived as a little friendly sparring. They need Lord Halcyon at his best, especially when Storms are so near. Promise me you’ll never, ever do that again, Azure.”

Azure drew back, startled. A long moment stretched before he finally nodded.

“Then why would he respond to the challenge?” he said, looking genuinely perplexed. “He could have simply disengaged, and I would have understood.”

“You were right next to a town! Lord Halcyon had every right to believe you were aggressing into Airlean territory!”

Azure recoiled. “That would have been a fool’s ploy! Had I any serious intention of invading, I would have been accompanied by at least one flight of dragons, if not two!”

“A flight of—of dragons?!” Azalea spluttered. She was beginning to feel very faint, and she couldn’t quite tell anymore whether it was from anger or shock.

“Naturally, one does not invade a country alone!” Azure said.

Azalea numbly sat back down and stared at the ground. She made no move to retrieve the tail and return to scaling. In fact, she made no move at all. She could not. Her mind was frozen between two thoughts somewhere in the distance.

“I’m sorry, ’Zalie,” Azure said quietly, breaking the silence. “I meant no harm. And I certainly did not mean to upset you.”

His words leeched the tension from her shoulders. Azalea rubbed her face with her hands.

“I know,” she whispered. “You weren’t…you couldn’t help it. I know.” Azure must have grown up among beasts and dragons, and it was hardly fair to expect the same behavior of him as an ordinary Airlean civilian. His upbringing came with its own advantages, she was certain—wild strength, boundless courage, unstoppable will. But it only made Azalea feel the distance more keenly. His understanding of the world was so very different from hers, and somehow, he felt even farther away than he had while she thought he was dead.

“I love you, ’Zalie,” Azure suddenly said. “You and Ma and Da. Family was all that compelled me to survive.” His gaze met hers, so piercingly familiar to Da’s. “But I can no longer play the part of the kind and civilized brother you remember. Perhaps I never was one. Only a beast at heart.”

Heart sinking, Azalea shook her head. “You were never a beast.”

“But I am,” Azure said. “And perhaps I was back then, too. I do not resent this life, ’Zalie. I am proud of it and it suits me. But I was raised among beasts and I have become like them. If you resented me, or the fates for having a beast of a brother, I would not hold it against you.”

She thought of the dark, wild look on his face as he had clawed and spit at the boy who nearly pushed her into the well, even as a child. She stared at the ground again. “I could never resent you,” she said. “You will always be my brother.”

Azure brightened immediately. “If you could procure more books from Heidi that adequately demonstrate the qualities of a civilized human being,” he said, “then I could attempt to simulate such behavior when the appropriate situation arises.”

“No, no,” Azalea said instinctively. “I don’t want you to have to become something you’re not.” And surprisingly, she found her words to be true. Her mind was a storm of questions and muddled thoughts, but several facts she knew for certain.

“I love you too, Azure,” she said aloud, looking up. “You’re my family and you always will be. I’ve missed you so terribly that I don’t even know how to accept that you’re alive. But…I am glad, you know, that you’re alive. I suppose…it will just take some time to get used to it all, and—and to figure it out again. How to…well, I don’t know.” How to navigate his penchant for bloodshed, perhaps. It was still difficult for Azalea to stomach, but then again, she suspected that top Hunters like Karis and Halcyon shared much of Azure’s outlook on the world.

“I see,” said Azure, his voice soft with relief. He put down his gutting knife and, shedding his blood-soaked glove, extended a hand in her direction. It was strong and flecked with calluses, fingers hardened from years of hunting. “Then…family?”

Azalea gripped his hand with surety and soaked in the warmth of life from it. “Family,” she said.

Halcyon knew the exact moment when Karis detected him.

She hadn’t gone far outside the borders of Mythaven before she stopped abruptly, face lifting toward the grey sky. Then she turned right to where he was concealed in a thicket of trees, her mouth thin, and he knew the jig was up.

Halcyon stepped out of cover and fired his windsoles, smoothly arcing to her side. Karis only folded her arms and regarded him with a piercing look.

“And here Nicolina was blustering about not sending out Hunters,” she said. “What are you, then? An exception?”

“Visiting friends,” Halcyon said without skipping a beat. “Just happened to be headed in the same direction.”

“The same direction…as me.”


“All the way to Northelm.”

“Is that where you’re headed?” he challenged. “Despite Nicolina’s orders?”

“Is that where your friends reside?” Karis lobbed back. “Despite the fact that you’ve never been that far north?”

“You don’t know that.”

“I certainly do. I’ve been—” But Karis abruptly stopped and, with an exasperated noise, turned back to the road. “Never mind. Don’t try to stop me, Yuden, or you will find your journey made exceedingly unpleasant.”

She launched back into her swift, even springstep, and Halcyon followed, loping easily at her side. They fell into a comfortable silence that was familiar. Even if they hadn’t been fond of each other at the start, time and competence alone had enforced a deep sense of trust.

“You might as well admit it,” Karis suddenly said, breaking the lull. “What did Nicolina put you up to this time?”

Halcyon decided there was no point in hiding anything further. She knew the Guildmaster too well to believe any shoddy excuses.

“She asked me to keep an eye on you,” he admitted.

She clicked her tongue. “Like a wayward child.”

“Like a child of her own,” he corrected lightly. “She doesn’t want to lose you.”

Karis’s face fell still, and she said nothing more.

They could have reached Northelm in record time, but to Halcyon’s surprise, Karis motioned for them to stop and set up camp while they were still a league out.

“The moment we step into that town, our duties shall be upon us,” she said simply. “I wouldn’t mind a night’s reprieve before that time.”

Halcyon understood. Where the Hunters went—especially the top Three, him and Karis and Sethis—expectations tended to follow. Weighty expectations that were difficult to bear. The moment he and Karis entered town, they would find themselves inundated with questions, requests, responsibilities. There was none of that out in the quiet of nature. Just two simple travelers seeking shelter for the night.

It took only a moment to make camp and kindle a fire. Karis, who had apparently planned to shelter in the wild, had packed boiled eggs and small bread loaves for not one, but two people. When Halcyon cast her a curious glance, she only said, “I knew Nicolina would send some poor sop after me.” In return, Halcyon split the salted jerky he’d brought along. Altogether, it made for a decent meal.

They ate in silence, but Halcyon found his gaze drifting to Karis, as if he could discern answers just by looking at her face. Her eyes slid to him in a gleam of crimson stars and he quickly looked back to the fire, absorbing its clawlike dance.

Sometimes, when he didn’t have a firm grip on himself, when his concentration slid just a little, he found himself watching her, too frequently and too long. It was difficult not to. She was queenlike in peacetime, vengeful in war, enchanting and engrossing no matter the scenario. He wondered if she knew it. She had to, with the adoring letters that flooded her postbox daily.

“You look like you wish to say something, Hal,” Karis said.

Halcyon withheld a flinch, as if he had nothing to be ashamed of.

Karis tilted her head. “You think that I’m being foolish. Impetuous.”

No, actually, that had been the furthest thing from his mind. But Halcyon could hardly admit the truth. He remained silent.

“Look at me, Yuden,” Karis said.

Every bone of reason in him cried out to disobey. He met her gaze anyway. Blood-red plum blossoms, flecked gold by the firelight. They pulled him in and drowned him under.

“You would be correct,” Karis said. Her eyes refused to budge, holding him captive. “I am being a fool. But if one person, just one, had searched for my father when he disappeared…well, it’s wishful thinking that he might have lived. He was doomed the moment he set out for the Talebloom.”

She paused, the red in her eyes flickering.

“But my mother wouldn’t have waited at the door for years,” she whispered. “And she would have ashes to spread on the roots of the apple tree in our garden. The cruelest gift, I think, is an empty tomb.”

Halcyon imagined that Karis had waited too, a young girl huddled in her bed with the window open, listening for the heavy tread of her father coming home.

“You’re not a fool,” he said. “Just kind.”

Karis’s slender mouth pulled up in a wry smile. “In our station, they mean the same thing.”

“It’s only foolish if you don’t succeed. If you do, then it’s called bravery.”

Her smile widened and became genuine. “You’re known as the brave one, Hal.”

No, he thought, watching how the evening breeze combed a cold finger through a lock of her hair, how the moon kissed a silver line on her shoulder. I’m a fool.

“Good night,” he said shortly, turning away. “I’ll take first watch.”

“Good night,” she replied, and slid into her bedroll.

Those two words were warmer than the summer sun on a meadow. Halcyon looked up, staring at the moon, hoping that the silver would sear through his eyes and burn some sense into his skull.


My name is Azure.

Azalea’s eyes were fixed on the looming back of the stranger before her as they plodded through the snow. It was cold and unfamiliar, plated in dragon scales and layered with hides. How could it be Azure who lay beneath that wall of armor? He had died. She had seen him die. She had killed him with her own incompetence. It was not possible. It simply was not.

She had imagined him reappearing many times, of course she had. Whenever Ma had one of her spells, or whenever Da laid down, back too sore to move, she had thought of it. She had imagined a knock on their door in the middle of the night, rapt and unapologetic. She had imagined opening the door to a bright and bold face with a ragged, boyish grin. She would gasp and burst into tears very dramatically and throw her arms around him, and it would all be like some grand tale straight from the storybooks.

But as the years had passed, that’s all it had become—a fairy tale, a nice little dream to have when reality grew too dark and dismal. Because it would never happen.

Around them, snow drifted down in a whimsical dance. Azalea hadn’t planned to follow the Whisperer out on one of his hunts, but after his outrageous claim, she could hardly let him out of her sight. Not until she had verified that he was lying—which was the most likely case.

But he called me ’Zalie, whispered the childlike voice within her.

She pushed it away.

The tracks of the Whisperer’s quarry were enormous in the snow. Big, sprawling clawed imprints the size of Azalea herself. She shuddered to imagine the creature behind it. The Whisperer, on the other hand, fearlessly knelt beside the print, scooped his finger into the snow, and sniffed at it. What that was supposed to accomplish, she did not know, but he gave a satisfied nod.

“Seems it’s gone northwest looking for snowflower syrup,” the Whisperer said. He didn’t look at Azalea, which made her think that he was simply talking to himself. “Hm, yes, good. It will be sated, sleepy, weaker. A fitting time to strike.”

He rose and walked on with purpose. Azalea followed him cautiously.

She had too many questions to ask, and too few answers she would trust. Where have you been—how did you survive—are you truly him? Her mind spun with thoughts, each one more convoluted than the last. She simply could not accept a world where Azure had lived, where he’d grown to adulthood, where he had been hale and whole and—she had never looked for him, she had let Ma and Da suffer all these years for no good reason, she had done nothing.

Azalea bit her lip hard to silence the welling, sickening emotions broiling in her chest, and instead turned her attentions to her surroundings. The Whisperer had led them out of the caves and back into the lush, alien forest. He walked with surety, unafraid to snap bones and trod over vivid lichen. Odd flowers with clawlike petals, large insects with layered wings, and peculiar nests of scaled birds all dotted the landscape before them. Azalea couldn’t resist the curiosity that bubbled within her.

“I didn’t realize the Noadic Range was so fertile,” she said.

The Whisperer paused in his steps for a moment, as if he had forgotten she was there. Then he walked on. “The Noadic Range?” he echoed. “What’s that?”

Azalea stared at him, aghast. “Um. Where we are. This mountain range, um, I think.”

“Ah,” he mused. “What funny little names you give things in Airlea.”

In Airlea, he’d said. As if he were an outsider.

Azalea frowned as she ducked under a bony branch. “What do you know it as, then?”

“How the dragons know it,” said the Whisperer matter-of-factly. “We call this dominion the Sovendyret—the Slumbering Beast. It is a living, shifting place, nothing like those stoic crags you like to call mountains. You can think of it as the kingdom of dragons.”

The Slumbering Beast. It was rather fitting, Azalea had to admit, seeing the litany of dormant bones and the soft, falling snow. “Surely it isn’t—actually a beast though,” she said.

“Who can say?” The Whisperer rolled his shoulders in an odd shrug. “The dragons speak of the First Mother who came to this land to rest, grieviously wounded from a terrible war among the Primal Ones. She spent seven days to prepare a nest for her hatchlings, then laid down to slumber for millennia, until the day she is needed again.”

Azalea squinted. “Primal Ones? Such creatures exist?”

“Whether they exist in a literal fashion—that is a different matter entirely.”

“Literal?” Her head was hurting now.

“In draconic legend, there exists three ancient Primal Ones larger and more terrible than anything you could ever imagine: the amphiptere of the sky, the wyvern of the earth, and the leviathan of the sea. But in all my travels, and in all the books Heidi has procured for me, I have never met such a creature.”

Books, Azalea realized. He speaks as though he’s mostly learned from books.

Azure had been a voracious reader as a child—a love that he had passed onto her. But she did not want this strange man to be Azure.

“The Primal Ones could be an artifact of the dragons’ oral tradition,” continued the Whisperer, picking his way up a hefty cliff. “Metaphors, you see. Symbolic imagery of a powerful force that populates the sky, land, and sea all at once.”

It took only a moment for Azalea to come upon the answer. “Humans.”

“Just so,” said the Whisperer approvingly. “Each Primal One could represent humanity in its various realms. Or so is my thinking.”

Azalea fell quiet. Before the Great Storm, there had indeed been humans throughout the whole world—multitudinous kingdoms that lived on the sky-islands, on the continents of the earth, and within the ocean’s depths. But most of them had gone silent after the calamity, and the Observatorium expected that most of them had fallen to ruin beneath the strain of the Storm. Of course, the Observatorium could be incorrect; they hardly had the bandwidth to dispatch cartographers and explorers to see for themselves.

She couldn’t help but think it would be nice. Nice to still have sea kingdoms and sky kingdoms. Nice to know that Airlea was not alone in this vast, hostile world.

Azalea was roused from her thoughts by the Whisperer humming an easy, aimless melody. She placed it at once—low and buttery, an easy rhythm. Da had sung it many times while lumbering.

Once, it had been one of her greatest comforts. A song that could soothe her to sleep, even amidst the terror of crashing lightning and booming thunder. Now, it was chafing. A reminder that she was either with a hoax of a brother, or a haunting shadow of who he once was.

“Don’t sing that,” she said.

The Whisperer stopped at once, but frowned. “Why not?”

Wes would have cleverly finessed around the question, Echo would have diverted the topic, Karis would have met it with imperious grace. But Azalea was none of them.

“It hurts,” she said, her voice small.

The Whisperer’s feet drew still, and he turned to face her. Now that he was not so far, she began to realize that he was quite tall—and foreboding. He stared at her with no give of emotion on his face.

“Why would it hurt?” he said.

There was nothing familiar about him. None of the compassion, none of the warm glow. There was only the bloodlust and the bravado, neither to which she could relate.

“If you were my brother,” Azalea said softly, “then we tromped around the woods together. Raised for those lizards and caterpillars with our own hands. Listened to all of Da’s stories by the fireplace and snuck into the kitchen to eat Ma’s pastries in the middle of the night.”

“Yes,” the Whisperer said.

“That’s all gone now.” Azalea’s gaze dropped. “Even if it’s you, even if you’re alive, that’s never coming back. Who I knew you as…he’s lost forever.”

The Whisperer eyed her silently. She found herself wishing for his anger, his fear—something, anything that might indicate he, too, felt any sense of loss or injustice at what had been taken from him. Because they had been family, and they had been forcibly torn apart. If he truly was her brother, then surely he would feel similarly.

But after the long, dreadful silence, all he finally said was: “I see.”

He turned to continue along the cliff’s edge, and Azalea found she could not leave the discussion there. She jogged after him, clasping her cloak tighter around her as a shield from the bitter cold.

“Why? It doesn’t hurt you?” she said desperately. Perhaps he really was not Azure, and just some delusional, crazy man who had spent too much time around dragons and scrambled his brains with mana.

The Whisperer did that roll-shrug again. “I don’t particularly think about what I’ve lost. Only the grand potential of what things could be.”

“What things could be?”

“For example, ’Zalie,” he said, and pointed right at her, “we shall never tromp around the woods again, but here we are, tromping around the Sovendyret. We can raise dragons instead of caterpillars. And there will be no need to sneak out for Ma’s pastries, because we can feast upon the spoils of our conquered foes. Just because things will be different does not make them worse. In fact, I dare say it shall be leagues better! For we have both grown very strong, and nearly as tall as Da before he died.”

He glanced down the cliffside and, seeing a large, scaly beast, brightened visibly.

“Shall we test our limits now?” he said.

“Wait, Da’s not dead,” Azalea said, puzzled, but the Whisperer was already bolting into the sky, a smear of dark fire against the silver clouds.

She watched in horror as he plummeted down like a vengeful comet, explosive mana festering around his entire body, threatening to burst with instability. Reckless! she chided, and promptly dove after him, struggling to yank his aura into something managably chaotic. It was a miracle that his own spells had not obliterated him into dust yet.

The Whisperer blasted right into the scaly beast’s skull, sending it crashing into the snow with an unholy screech. Azalea clapped her hands over her ears as she angled for a soft landing, but the Whisperer seemed wholly unperturbed by the racket. He plunged his bone lance right into the creature’s eye without faltering.

He had probably Formed something to plug his ears, wildly inefficient with mana as he was. Or he was simply unconcerned with going deaf.

With the Whisperer engaging the beast’s immediate attention, Azalea had the time to prime her starshooter and analyze its fighting patterns. The creature was large and stocky, scales plating nearly every inch of its body from spiked tail to heavy head. It was the sort of formidable monster that would have haunted Azalea’s nightmares, once upon a time. She still felt the uncontrollable urge to flee as she looked up into its tazor teeth and twisted horns and wicked talons, each of which could eviscerate her in one swipe.

She desperately tried to clear her mind and forced herself to examine the creature analytically, the way she’d studied Academy texts for exams. Though this animal possessed wings, it never used them beyond the occasional flutter to rebalance, or a spread just before it charged. A wyvern, then, at least by the Whisperer’s classification—a landbound drake with wings. She watched carefully as it swiped its claws, gnashed its teeth, lashed its tail, each strike missing the Whisperer by a hair. It was strong, and though not especially nimble, had powerful legs for leaping and lunging. If they could sever its tail, they would cripple its balance and thus severely impede its movement.

The wyvern screamed again, corkscrewing right into her eardrums, and she winced, nearly dropping her starshooter. The Whisperer, on the other hand, reached up and whacked the wyvern soundly across the head with the butt of his lance.

“Oh, quit your bellyaching and fight me,” he said. He was rewarded with a spurt of fire erupting from the wyvern’s jaws, which he nonchalantly deflected with his dragonscale cloak.

Fire! Azalea thought disbelievingly. Was every creature in the Range capable of manipulating mana? The thought was horrifying, considering these beasts were already physically intimidating. They hardly needed another weapon in their arsenal.

Enough with your bellyaching, too, scolded the voice in her mind, quick and practical as Nicolina. You are a Hunter and a valedictorian of the Knight’s Academy. For star’s sake, act like it.

Grimacing, Azalea fired a shot at the wyvern’s tail. She watched as the firebolt dissipated on its scales, and nearly groaned. Of course. Dragonscales seemed immune to fire. Her weapon was as good as useless against this beast.

The commotion drew the wyvern’s attention, and it turned its beady gaze right onto her. She tensed, preparing to move at any moment. When it leapt, she was ready; she tore out of the way with a burst of her windsoles and perched on the branches of a tree.

“Alright, now, none of that,” the Whisperer said sternly, jumping after the wyvern. “Don’t you bully my baby sister.”

Baby sister. Azalea’s mind ran blank as he extended his hand, and with a sudden, terrifying vortex of power, wove a thousand threads of mana into—

death, rampant chaos, a tapestry so keenly familiar to her

—until a dark and misty greatsword, broiling with the unstable power of ancient magic, took form in his hand.

The moment its aura washed over Azalea, she knew. It was as intimately familiar as the smell of woodchip and pine fronds and baking loaves. It was the hiss of fear and the weight of dread, the sound of thunder in the night.

It was, without a doubt, the Aphotic Blade of Calamitous Void.

The greatsword seemed to hum in the Whisperer’s grasp, eager at the prospect of bloodshed. It was every bit as dangerous as Azalea remembered: glowing veins, bleak edges, simmering mana. Yet it had been refined over the years, she could see; what was once a raw cesspool of energy was now a sturdy, elegant weapon, dark and striking like the clouds crowning a stormbitten night.

He was the boy once known as Azure Fairwen. She could deny it no longer.

He was her brother, miraculously returned from the dead.

At the sight of the Aphotic Blade, even the wyvern shrank back for a moment, no doubt sensing its power. Then its wings flared, and it lashed out its talons at Azure.

He did not flinch even in the face of a horrifying beast thrice his height. He swung the Aphotic Blade, which seared right through the wyvern’s stumpy leg. At the moment of impact, Azalea felt the form of the greatsword shudder, and a blast of instability pushed into the air, enough to make her teeth rattle. She knew then that the Aphotic Blade was soon to implode from the resistance of the beast’s hide.

Panicking, she slung back her starshooter and focused completely on Stabilizing. Her manawell seared with the effort of keeping the Blade bound together, but she was successful. The Blade sliced clean through the wyvern’s thigh, rendering its leg little more than a shriveled, blackened stump.

Azure’s mouth slackened in surprise. He looked in Azalea’s direction confusedly, as if—as if he had been expecting the implosion.

But she had no time to think on his odd reaction. The wyvern fell heavily with a piercing scream of agony, limbs flailing. The noise seemed to shake Azure from his stupor, and he swiftly turned to the beast, and with another fell swing of his blade, cleanly lopped off its head.

Immediately, silence fell. The flailing body went still.

Azalea looked away from the corpse of the creature, her stomach churning. But Azure only hummed, satisfied, and let the Aphotic Blade’s form dissipate.

“Marvelous work, ’Zalie,” he commended. He knelt by the carcass and, with a large bone knife, began to extract large chunks of the meat and scales.

“Did we have to hunt this poor thing for sport?” Azalea said reluctantly. “All it wanted was some food.”

“Sport is never an adequate motive for a hunt,” Azure said, looking puzzled. “Not on its own.”

Despite the recent violent display, Azalea felt a cool prickle of relief. Perhaps deep down, Azure still held on to the sanctity of life and the hunter’s respect for his prey.

“The cycle of life cannot be disrupted,” he continued. “Species must have the chance to rear offspring, for if they are slain before they are able, everything powerful would vanish from the face of the earth. And that would make the Sovendyret a rather dull and uninspiring place.”

Oh. So, he merely did not wish to render his foes extinct.

“So, we killed it…”

“To grow stronger, of course,” said Azure. “And wyvern chuck makes for rather delicious stew.”

Well, she should have expected as much. But as Azure scooped up the creature’s monstrous tail and hauled it across his back, returning to the den, Azalea found herself unable to resent him.

Different, she thought, watching how his Fairwen-gold hair glittered in the grey light, how his steps cut through the snow with fearless strength. Different, but not necessarily worse.

Sethis Galen Lunaren may have been the crown prince of Airlea, but he had never felt more powerless.

From a high vantage point on the cliffs, he eyed Northelm grimly—the old stone walls, ramshackle archer turrets, last-minute elevated platforms where ballistae were being mounted. It would have been wiser to evacuate the area entirely. But the people of Northelm, with generations of pride and tenacity, refused to leave. Nor was Sethis inclined to impel them to do so; Northelm was the last Airlean mine of high-grade mana quartz, and securing enough for precious windsoles and starshooters was already difficult. Loathe as he was to admit it, the crown needed them to stay.

Still, the coming bloodshed weighed heavily upon him. Most of the homes would be razed, and many of the villagers, who had bravely volunteered to take up arms, would be killed. Even the coming reinforcements from the Garrison would do little.

Sighing, Sethis dropped down from his perch. The night was rising again, the moon shrouded behind the gathering clouds. The town only remained lit by a few braziers set around the roads. In the darkness, he would have missed an approaching visitor, if not for the scurry of quick steps.

“Beg pardon, Highness,” came the voice of a young man. “Don’t mean to disturb you.”

Sethis raised his hand and Formed a sun-orb—a little bauble of light that levitated over his palm, casting a warm glow down the road. A villager wrapped in a traveler’s cloak stood before him, hood pulled carefully over his face.

“It’s no disturbance,” Sethis said. He glanced skyward. “But you may wish to retire for the night. The hour grows late.”

“Aye, that.” The villager bobbed into a rustic bow. “I was just wonderin’ if a Hunter mighta passed hereabouts?”

Sethis instinctively moved to reply, but something gave him pause. The villager’s body language and physical mannerisms were impeccably similar to others around Northelm, but his way of speech seemed odd. A bit stiff, a bit too much.

Now that he thought of it, no villager would be hooded at this hour. There was no threat of rain nor sun, and all it would serve to do was obfuscate the vision already limited by night.

Sethis moved his sword-arm closer to his sheath, but did not draw. He examined the boy closer. The traveler’s cloak was untattered and spotless, made of quality wool and embroidered at the inner edges. A noble’s cloak, despite its simple appearance. His suspicions were confirmed by the small leaf pin that cinched the cloak together; only one noble family used the leaf as their primary motif, and it was House Geppett.

“What business has a High Lord’s son this far north?” Sethis said mildly.

The boy jerked upright, stunned. Then his shoulders slumped, and he pulled off the hood at once, revealing a ruffled shock of brown hair and glimmering amber eyes. Sethis did not recognize him by appearance alone, but he knew his name. Lord Roland Geppett prized only one of his sons as heir, and this boy could be none other than he: Wesley Geppett.

“I was hoping I wouldn’t be recognized,” Wesley said grimly, his country air falling away immediately.

“Perhaps you should have secured a different cloak,” Sethis said.

“This was the sturdiest one I could find,” Wesley said with a touch of glumness.

Sturdy? Sethis mused. Curious.

Wesley sat on the rocky ground and leaned heavily against a boulder. With his hood off, Sethis could see sweat lining his brow and lines of exertion around his eyes. The boy must have springstepped without pause today, likely from Mythaven. Even more curious. An urgent matter had clearly impelled him, and yet he had come alone without a contingent.

“You were seeking a Hunter?” Sethis asked, sitting beside him.

Wesley’s expression did not change, but Sethis immediately sensed the chill in the air as his walls surged back up. “Of a sort,” the boy said cautiously. “Have you seen one pass this way?”

“I’m afraid not,” Sethis admitted. He paused for a moment before he braved: “They must be dear to you.”

Wes’s eyes swiveled onto him. “Who must be, now?”

“The Hunter you are searching for. You’ve traveled all this way, which means the Hunter’s Guild did not provide the answers you sought. And…you are alone.”

But here the crown prince stopped, because a rather disturbing fact was beginning to dawn on him.

Surely Lord Roland Geppett would not have sent his heir to Northelm without a contingent, unsupported and vulnerable. Not willingly, and certainly not just before the Storm.

Wesley Geppett was probably here against his father’s will.

But if such was the case, and Wesley had come with such swiftness and urgency, dressed in his sturdiest cloak and prepared for harrowing travel…

“Has a Hunter entered the Noadic Range?” Sethis asked carefully. It was a bewildering thought, but the most likely situation.

Wes looked away. “That would be a death wish.”

The evasive response was answer enough. Whoever he was searching for had, for some unfathomable reason, entered the Range. But even more unfathomable was the fact that Wesley seemed keen on following them. He would not have dressed heavily otherwise, bundled in a sturdy cloak and boots, sneaking away from his House alone.

So young and full of promise, yet he was willing to throw away his life in the Range.

Alarmed, Sethis considered his next words with care. He had to dissuade the young Geppett from his dangerous mission, but what could he possibly say? He recognized the vice of grief when he saw it, and it was not one that afforded logic and rationale.

Sethis considered smiling diplomatically, then decided against it. Better to seem serious, and even harrowed. Perhaps the thought of protecting a village would appeal to the young lord’s empathy and national pride.

“Your timing is fortunate, Lord Geppett,” he said. “The Storm is gathering and the epicenter is right along the northern ridge. We could certainly use a trained officer such as yourself to fortify Northelm, if you would be willing to lend your talents.”

Wesley looked completely taken aback at the offer, which surprised Sethis in turn. Surely he was accustomed to such requests. His excellent training and lineage alone would have cemented many opportunities among the noble houses. Perhaps he was startled that Sethis would move to trust him so quickly? It was a well-known fact that the nobles harbored a keen distrust of the crown, and perhaps Wesley expected to feel some of that hostility returned.

But Sethis was not his father, and the past few years of Storms had taught him that even the most spiteful of Airleans could set aside differences for the survival of their country. More often than not, the faith he’d placed in people had been returned tenfold.

After a moment’s pause, Wesley spoke. “I’ve brought no company, and my proficiency in single combat is hardly noteworthy…” His eyes wandered to the snowy peaks of the Noadic Range.

“A soldier’s contributions are not merely in his own strength,” Sethis said hurriedly. He tried to veil his apprehension. “A fact of which I’m certain you are well aware.”

A thousand little expressions flickered over the boy’s face. A thousand hidden thoughts. Whoever was at the Range, it was plainly evident that he did not wish to leave them to fate. But to pursue someone into the Range—unsupported, nonetheless—was far from prudent. Hopefully, some of Sethis’s words were landing past the haze of grief.

After a moment that stretched too long, Wesley met his gaze, young face set in a grim line. “Very well,” he said. “I’ll lend you my aid. My strength is yours to command, Your Highness.”

Sethis did not show his relief. He knew the weight behind such a decision—that Wesley was practically accepting the death of his friend—and it had not been made lightly. He nodded gratefully and, after finding the young lord a host for his lodging, turned to his own quarters.

The dawn would bring a thousand other problems, but for this night, a life had been saved. He would sleep peacefully.


Wes did not linger at the Geppett estate.

The moment Lord Valence departed the estate with his retinue, he ran for his bedchambers and hurriedly stashed a water flask, a hunting knife, and a warm change of clothes into his bag. But an unwelcome, sallow face was waiting for him as he tore out into the hallway.

“Hello, young master,” said Grey Dismas sourly. “You’ll notice that I have not yet informed your lord father of the depths of your betrayal, regarding your scandalous choice of partner—”

“Yes, very good,” said Wes distantly. He shouldered past Grey and hopped on the banister, sliding down the flight of stairs.

“I am talking!” came Grey’s cry from above. “Return here at once so you can be properly chastised!”

The most important thing was to confirm Azalea’s whereabouts.

It was very possible that Lord Valence had invented his entire story. But this was unlikely, Wes had to admit—because Valence had nothing to gain from making such a bold ploy on somebody who had no authority or influence.

Wes burst through the estate’s opulent iron gates and began springstepping to Mythaven at an urgent pace. His legs screamed in protest with every leap, but he refused to give in to the pain. Not before he had confirmed the truth.

He pushed into his workshop, but was only met with silence. The same applied to her little rented room, where her belongings lay untouched, dust gathering on the windowsill.

Panic rising, Wes turned his steps to the Hunter’s Guild.

He pushed through the main area, ignoring the restless groups of Hunters congregating around tables of beer flagons and cards, and barreled into Nicolina’s office without preface. The guildmaster was sitting behind her desk several feet away, studying a map sprawling over her desk. At her side stood Karis Caelute, who seemed likewise occupied. Their faces, ordinarily placid and well-controlled, were drawn and grim.

Wes stepped forward, but paused when he felt the sharp, cold bite of steel at his throat.

He blinked, disoriented. Nicolina and Karis were standing too far to be of any threat, and they had drawn no weapons. But he most certainly felt something cold and thin pressing right on his jugular.

As his gaze slid around, searching for the source of the dangerous prick on his neck, Karis spoke in a soft and deadly hum.

“Do not be so eager to approach the guildmaster unannounced.” Her blood-red eyes lifted and caught his, freezing him in place. “Despite her…approachable behavior, she is a top-ranking magistrate. Her station warrants respect. And an appointment.

A sharp chill pricked at Wes’s spine. He knew then what threatened his neck: a single thread of Karis’s deadly sugar-line, tough enough to slice his head right off his shoulders. For it was not a cord spun from the delicate mana of the sugar cane plant. It was a blend of her own invention—the cold sting of ice mana, spun with flower mana for supple flexibility. The result was a deadly thread that could slice through any hide but weave into any shape.

He tried to sound calm and placating through the pounding roar of blood in his ears. “I’m here on a matter of urgency, Lady Caelute.”

“Most excellent. Get in line.”

“Caelute,” Nicolina said warningly, “that’s the Geppett heir.”

“I am aware.”

“The commanding officer who defended Grimwall.”

“Yes, I was the one who Threaded his system.”

Nicolina gave a long, exhausted sigh. “Disperse your mana before he indicts us before a tribunal.”

Karis clicked her tongue and waved her fingers, and the icy pressure on Wes’s throat disappeared. “One of these days, Guildmaster, some knave is going to stroll into this room and kill you, easy as you please.”

“Yes,” Nicolina said. “And that knave will be you or Yuden, giving me a coronary with your ridiculous antics and sending me to an early grave.”

“You’re far too accessible, Guildmaster. No other magistrate in the country is as easy to approach as you.”

“All the better. Nobody likes those stodgy old coots.” Nicolina’s grey eyes raised and locked with Wes. “Now, Geppett. Your business?”

Wes’s eyes flickered towards Karis, who looked somewhat miffed, but stayed silent. The Second Hunter truly was every bit as beautiful and elegant as Azalea had claimed—the striking lines of her face, the grace of her movements, the dignity of her bearing. But there was more, more that Azalea probably had not seen. Wes recognized the deep, familiar hint of darkness in those crimson eyes, biding quietly, waiting to flower in a violent storm and consume everything in reach. It was the same vengeful bloodlust that he knew in himself—only Karis had not denied it, but embraced it. She was a venomous blossom, a flytrap, waiting for the perfect moment to unleash chaos.

He turned back to Nicolina. “My apologies for the untimely interruption,” he said, gathering his thoughts. “I’ve been…indisposed for a week, and find myself somewhat disoriented. Do you know the whereabouts of Azalea Fairwen?”

Karis’s mouth curled into a slight upward curve that looked utterly furious. “Do you believe the Guildmaster to be your personal maidservant? As Fairwen’s Support, you ought to know better than anyone.”

Nicolina raised a hand. “Don’t, Caelute,” she said quietly.

“Guildmaster, the nobility always treats you in this manner. Storming into your study and pushing you about—”

“I’ve been expecting this visit for some time. Let him speak.”

Karis quieted, clearly bewildered. Wes inadvertently stepped back. Nicolina’s receptiveness only served to fill him with even more trepidation.

“Geppett,” said Nicolina, hatefully gentle.

He already knew what that meant. “Stop,” he said.

“I thought somebody would have already relayed the news to you.”

Don’t. I don’t need to hear it.”

“You came here to hear it, didn’t you?”

No. He had come here to hear that Azalea was safe.

“As of last week,” Nicolina said quietly, “Fairwen is missing in action. She submitted her resignation and turned in her sigil, citing personal reasons.”

Resigned. Gone without a trace, all loose ends neatly tied up. As if she had never been.

Wes sat down heavily. All he could think of was a cold workshop and an empty cushioned chair.

Karis was speaking, her syllables agitated—the most emotion Wes had ever heard beyond her immaculate exterior. “Resigned! How is that possible? That child has worked herself to the bone to become a Hunter. She would hardly just leave.”

“Believe me, I did my best to talk her out of it.”

“And you only saw fit to tell us now? Seven days after the fact?”

“I’ve been…reluctant to process her resignation.”

“In the event she returns?”

“The near-impossible event. Yes.”

Near-impossible event. Wes wanted to laugh.

“Guildmaster, this is simply absurd,” Karis said. “You are telling me that the most law-abiding Hunter in the history of the guild chose to resign just days before the final strike, the time of greatest need, and would not provide a valid reason?”

“It’s because it’s the time of greatest need,” Wes said emptily. His mind began to churn forward slowly, one thought at a time. “It’s the last chance to find a secret weapon. Something that could save the country from the next Storm.”

Karis’s gaze cut to Nicolina. “Should something like that exist, Guildmaster, I am certain that many Hunters would have a keen interest in acquiring it.”

“It doesn’t exist,” Nicolina said sharply. “It’s only Fairwen’s—” She stopped short.

This time, Wes did laugh. A strange, unearthly sound, even to his ears. “Fairwen’s delusions?”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“But it’s what you were going to say.” His hands trembled as he pulled himself to his feet. “What a poor, pitiable little girl, throwing her life away for a fantasy.”

“You’re in shock, Geppett,” Nicolina said steadily. “You need to go back and rest.”

Rest.” He laughed again. His fingers curled into his palm. “I’ve rested enough. I rested a whole damn week. It’s time for me to get something done.”

“The best thing you can do, Geppett, is keep safe until the Storm strikes.”

“Because I’m a noble! Rich and powerful! Which makes my life worth so much more than others, is that right?” He gripped his traveling bag closer. “While a simple village girl, say, from Maple Point—she’s not worth searching for. Even if she’s more noble than all of the nobility, and risked her life to save the country. No, she’s poor, so she’s not worth anything.”

Nicolina finally rose to her feet, her mouth a hard line. “She is worth plenty, Geppett, but she made the choice herself. I cannot sacrifice resources to amend that.”

“I’m aware. Which is why I’ll find her myself.”

Karis gaped openly, and Nicolina faltered for a moment.

“Geppett,” she said sharply. “That isn’t smart and you know it. You’ve just come back from death’s door. Don’t throw away your life again like a fool.”

“I’m not,” Wes said calmly. “I’ll find Azalea and get both of us out.”

“You can’t guarantee that. You can’t even guarantee that she’s still alive.”

“True.” He turned and opened the door.

Get back here, Geppett. If not for your sake, then for your father’s. What would he say about this lunacy?”

Wes stiffened. “He’d thank you for getting rid of me.”

He strode out of the study and shut the door behind him. His steps were steady as he left the guild, filled with purpose.

He was too far to hear Nicolina’s voice rise desperately, halfway shrill: “Geppett!

It had been an aggressively, hatefully sunny day when Nicolina lost the love of her life.

The previous Guildmaster left the world in the same way most Hunters did: he marched off to save the country one day and never came back. But Nicolina waited patiently. She continued to handle guild paperwork as his loyal Support, filing contracts and shelving reports and organizing all the orders that needed to be signed and sealed upon his return. She waited days, then weeks. Surely he would saunter in when she least expected it, face dressed in his wry little grin. Hey there, Nicky, he’d say, and she’d kick him out the window and shave him bald for daring to worry her.

Then the weeks turned into months. The stack of orders grew so tall that Nicolina began to sign them off just to save space. Hunters began to refer to her as Guildmaster and asked her for assignments. Tables were broken during a brawl and she approved the order for new ones as Guildmaster. Months turned into years until one day, Nicolina found herself in the chamber of the Grand Tribunal, officially inaugurated as the High Magistrate of the Royal Hunters. The simple silver pin on her lapel was traded out for the heavy, ornate stone-studded magistrate badge.

Nicolina’s betrothed never did come back. But watching the young Lord Geppett depart her study, heavy weight on his brow and sickly pallor in his cheeks and tension in his mouth, a spitting image of how she looked on that terrible, sunny day, she wondered if the two of them would ever stop waiting.

Halcyon had been acquainted with Karis for nearly nine years now. In those nine years of very professional, distant acquaintanceship, he had grasped a basic understanding of the nuances in her expressions and body language. When her smile was irate—which was most of the use cases—and when it held a genuine glitter of mirth. When her aloof demeanor was a hostile wall, and when it was a front for her loneliness. When her teasing was out of a twisted sense of affection, and when it was an omen for an immediately relevant, painful death.

Which was all to say: when Halcyon strode into Nicolina’s office and found Karis standing with folded arms, a tight spine, and a thin mouth, he knew it meant bad news. Very bad news.

“Ah,” he automatically said, stepping back through the door frame. “Didn’t mean to intrude. I’ll come back lat—”

Don’t move,” Karis and Nicolina ground out in near-perfect harmony with a force that pasted his shoes to the floor.

Halcyon grimaced, but softly shut the door behind him.

“We ought to send at least one searcher,” said Karis irritably, turning back to Nicolina. “It’s the least we could do.”

“We can’t take the risk right before the Storm, Caelute. You know that.”

“It’s hardly a grand expedition, Guildmaster, going by springsprint.”

“And if the Storm strikes tonight? If you’re caught in Northelm, sprint back, and have to enter the final strike already winded?”

“Simply assume my post to be the northernmost critical zone. It would negate the inefficiencies of travel.”

“I didn’t realize you’d grown attached to Fairwen.”

Halcyon’s ears pricked slightly at that. Fairwen? The diminutive, unsure little crack-shot of a Hunter?

“Attachment!” said Karis disbelievingly. “You know full well that she made this choice in self-sacrifice to aid the entire country, Guildmaster, yet you will not even deign a basic, minimum-risk—”

“This is not the first time a Hunter has voluntarily left our ranks, Caelute,” Nicolina said warningly. “And it won’t be the last.”

Halcyon flinched. Karis’s spine stiffened and her crimson gaze hardened with a sheen that was unbearably frigid.

“Then you will not spare a searcher,” she said softly.

“With the Storm on our doorstep?” said Nicolina, a trace of grit lining her words. “No. I absolutely won’t. Send out a Hunter at the wrong moment, and a whole town could be eradicated as the price. You know that much, Caelute.”

Karis’s mouth pressed thin. “Ah, yes,” she said distantly. “The way of the Guild. To abandon its members when met with the least inconvenience.”

Nicolina’s fingers tightened on her quill. “Fairwen made the decision herself,” she said. “If she dies, then—”

“—she deserves it?”

“She’d understand, was what I meant. The Storm is almost here, Caelute. Do you get that?”

Karis’s face was still as stone. Cold, sharp, unforgiving.

“Easy for the hero to understand,” she said softly. “For the loved one, not so much.”

She turned and slipped out of the study, silent and deadly. A winter breeze waiting to strike.

Nicolina slumped back in her chair, fingers kneading at her temples. Halcyon had never seen her so exhausted. He was just about to step out and give her some privacy when she raised her head and laced her fingers back together.

“What news, Yuden?” she said.

“Nothing important,” he said quickly. “Thom read my plait today. Said I made a full recovery. I’m ready for dispatch whenever needed.”

He expected Nicolina to relax, but she only sighed. “That makes the both of you. Ready to fly at a moment’s notice when I need you to stand still.”

It wasn’t difficult to deduce who she was talking about. Halcyon glanced at the study door.

“She’ll come around,” he said. “She knows the risks.”

“You don’t know about her father.”

“Her father?” That threw him for a loop. “Wasn’t he a Hunter? Master of Forming ice.”

Nicolina drew up her legs and crossed them in her chair, which made her look unnervingly young. “He also resigned.”

That was surprising to hear. As far as Halcyon was aware, Karis’s father had died a Hunter. Nicolina probably hadn’t processed the resignation. She was soft in that way—withholding resignations if Hunters were about to die, so their families could receive the full reparations.

“We had to make some tough calls during the Great Storm,” Nicolina said. “Who we could save. Who we couldn’t.” Her fingers trailed over the sprawling map of Airlea’s shrinking kingdom. “A lot of rural villages didn’t make the list.”

Halcyon said nothing.

“Karis’s father didn’t agree with the decision,” Nicolina continued. “So he resigned. Risked his life to save a rural village by the Talebloom, and lost the gamble. The residents lived simply and had no influence. There would be no grand reward, no commendations of honor. It was, in every way, a fool’s errand.”

“Did he save their lives?”

“Saved everyone but a single child,” Nicolina confirmed. “A remarkable feat.”

Then he did his duty and more, Halcyon thought. Not that he would say it aloud. No amount of honor could soothe the aching loss of a father, brother, son.

“For all her passing front as a cold and mercenary warrior,” Nicolina said gently, “Karis has the heart of a true hero. Like her father before her.” Her gaze was unusually soft, like grey velvet. “It makes her prone to the same mistakes. Look after her, Yuden.”

A jolt ran down his spine. “You think she’s going to look for Fairwen.”

“Caelute was always the type to beg forgiveness rather than ask permission. Not that she ever did much of either.” Nicolina flicked a token with her thumb. It landed face-down among the whispery ink peaks of the Noadic Range. “It’s only a matter of time before she makes her move. Just…go at a loose follow. Keep an eye on her, you know?”

Was he hearing her correctly? “Thought all Hunters were on standby until the Storm.”

“Observatorium forecasted a ninety-eight percent chance of a northern critical zone. Which is the only reason I haven’t strapped Caelute to a cradle.” Nicolina sighed. “She probably knows it too. Both of you can read me too well.”

“Then if the Storm strikes before our return, we’ll default to the northern critical zone.”

“Yes. It might be a Class Five.”

“We’ve done it before.”

“Just once. Don’t get a swelled head about it.” Nicolina flicked another token, which landed face-up on Northelm. The lines on her face softened. “Be cautious, Yuden. I can’t afford to lose you. Either of you.”

Halcyon felt a rare, warm stir of pity. He was looking at a woman who had lost too much. More than Karis. More than him. He would make certain she didn’t lose anything more.

He saluted and pushed out of the study, taking quick strides away from the guild.


Dreams wafted before Azalea’s vision, like wafting fragrance, like the shimmer of summer heat.

She was sitting in a different white labyrinth—a grand hall of cold marble dressed with luxurious rugs, lined with suits of armor and decorative shields. Her knees were shaking and her hands were weak as a fawn’s. Years of training and study had all led up to this moment, this one singular Exam that would determine her future.

As she waited, Azalea could feel weight dragging down her shoulders: the beaming smiles of the villagers from Maple Point, the proud wave of the town-reeve, the silent dedication of her da, each a hope that she could sour and an expectation that she could fail. She was only here because of the support of those who believed in her. She could not misplace it now.

A figure cloaked in blue and red, dark shades of the Airlean military, approached her from the depths of the long, pristine corridor. “Azalea Fairwen, number fifty-eight,” they said quietly. “Please proceed to the examination hall.”

They turned and drifted down the corridor, leaving Azalea with no choice but to follow.

The examination chamber was through a set of towering double doors embossed with golden filigree that depicted a sword crossed over a flowering blossom. It was an immense and ornate room, one wall lined with an array of weapons, another lined with a luxurious, elevated desk behind which four distinguished proctors were seated. Each looked impossibly tall and steely in their grand chairs, their faces severe and sharp. Lofted on high pillars were stately, intimidating gargoyle statues hewn from ebony, eye sockets gleaming with inset mana quartzes.

Swallowing, Azalea pulled before the proctors’ desk and saluted. It was a little too stiff and a little too high; her fingertips touched her hairline instead of the corner of her brow. She saw one proctor frown and scribble something in his journal.

“Cadet Azalea Fairwen, by recommendation of Instructor Alberry Himmel,” said the head proctor smoothly. His tone was relaxed but his eyes were deathly cold. “We will begin with the foundational proficiency test.”

She lifted her chin and desperately hoped it wouldn’t tremble. “Yes sir.”

“Select a weapon. You may begin when ready.”

Azalea marched to the weapon rack by the wall, skating her fingers over the sword pommels. Most of them were too heavy for her, cumbersome weapons with broad steel blades. She selected the lightest short sword with a slight flush of shame on her cheeks.

The proctors wrote something in their journals.

The nerves fluttered in Azalea’s fingers and nearly made her drop her weapon. She forced herself to take a steadying breath, then flicked her sword in a prompt salute, indicating that she was ready.

A proctor waved a hand, and the room shifted.

The mana quartzes blazed from within the eyes of the gargoyle statues. Flecks of light shot throughout the room, darting around intermittently like fireflies—agile targets that would disperse upon contact.

Azalea tapped a boot against the ground, testing her windsoles. They were far from ideal—about two sizes too large, with old socks crammed at the toe—but they would have to do. Keenly aware that every second counted, she fired her wind soles sharply and careened to her first target. Her sword carved easily through the luminescent wisp, scattering it into dust. Immediately she pivoted and shot to the other side of the room, slicing through another flittering wisp.

The others began to scatter to the high vaulted ceilings, far above normal reach. To the unstudied, their movements may have seemed random. But Azalea had pored over windsole maneuvers and Exam preparation manuals for months; she knew better. The wisps wove in high, latticed arches between the pillars.

Azalea gritted her teeth and braced her windsoles. The butterfly step was one of the most advanced windsole maneuvers taught at the Academy. She doubted she could perform it with oversized, ragged old shoes. But this was the Exam and she could not put forward anything less than her best effort.

She fired, and soared.

She tore from pillar to pillar, bounding off of the scant marble planes, redirecting her momentum in sharp, snappy pivots. As she fluttered between perpendicular surfaces, she struck out with her sword, cutting through one wisp, then two, then three. A maneuver that demanded the utmost dexterity and agility.

But there—oh no. Despite the extra stuffing in her boots, Azalea could feel her right shoe beginning to slip. It wouldn’t fall off—she knew that much—but it certainly disrupted her balance as she was vaulting at already precarious angles. Azalea jerked her heel in a sorry attempt to redirect the shoe, but it only dislodged further.

She knew the next landing would be a disaster before it happened.

Her foot met the surface of the pillar two inches too far right. The sole skidded, and her ankle twisted uncomfortably, and her shoe could not find nearly enough purchase to rebound.

Azalea slid off the pillar and, momentum lost, plummeted to the ground at a terrifying speed.

Pure instinct, honed by months of training, had her twisting and firing her windsoles, slowing her descent just in time. Her landing was still awkward, barely broken with a lopsided roll.

Not a disaster, if had been an everyday class. But in the Exam? She looked lost. She looked clumsy. She had been under no threat of beasts and no adverse weather, and she had still failed the butterfly step.

She could not possibly be a Hunter, who would have to execute the butterfly step in rain and wind and while assaulted by scores of creatures.

Panicked, Azalea sprung to her feet, ready to leap again. But a proctor swiftly snapped his fingers, and the wisps vanished into nothingness.

“Thank you, Miss Fairwen,” he said evenly. “You are dismissed.”

Azalea’s heart crashed low and cold. Dismissed. Her only chance, gone. One mistake had undone years of training and months of preparation. She felt her throat beginning to burn with tears, but she lifted her chin. She could not be shaken.

When Wes had walked her to the Hall of Knights this morning, he had gripped her shoulders and looked her straight in the eye. Promise me something, he’d said, deathly serious. Promise me you’ll demand a chance to shoot. The proctors are not patient. They might try to dismiss you after the close combat test. But don’t let them do that, ’Zalie. They have to see you shoot.

Gripping those words tightly, Azalea’s hand shot in the air, prompting the proctors to glance in her direction.

“Let me shoot,” she said. She cleared her throat and tried again. “Please, just one minute of your time. Activate the wisps again and grant me access to a starshooter.”

A bespectacled woman on the proctor bench frowned. “Sixty seconds is hardly enough time for a firing test,” she said.

“It’s all I need,” Azalea said, trying to feel as confident as she sounded. She returned the short sword to the rack and drew Wes’s starshooter from where it was slung over her back. Shooting. She could shoot. It was what Instructor Alberry Himmel had based his entire recommendation on.

The proctor looked skeptical, but after a brief word with her neighbors, she gave a nod. “Sixty seconds, then,” she said. And she snapped her fingers.

The gargoyle eyes glowed again and the wisps shot forth. With no time to lose, Azalea immediately raised her starshooter and began to fire.

The first target was a hit. She flared her manawell and pulled away the instability, then fired through another wisp. Clean, but she had to go faster. Ten wisps in sixty seconds left her only six seconds per shot.

But it was so very difficult to aim while flaring the manawell while focusing on pulling apart the instabilities while being extremely aware of the proctors’ burning gazes on her back and—

Azalea missed the next one. Gritting her teeth, she blazed her manawell and took another second to prime her next shot. A hit. Then another. Then a miss. By the end of it, she’d hit six targets cleanly, but missed four.

If each wisp had represented a beast, then innocent civilians would have died four times over.

Azalea lowered the starshooter. The proctors were watching her with heavy, expressionless gazes. A chill danced down her spine. It was not enough. Certainly not for them.

She opened her mouth to stammer out a ragged I’m sorry, but the head proctor was already raising a hand.

“Thank you, Cadet Fairwen,” he said mildly. “Allow us to examine your starshooter.”

Confused, limbs still shaking from adrenaline, Azalea obediently set Wes’s starshooter on the table. The head proctor opened the bridge and examined the firing cylinder. After a moment, he shut the bridge and nodded for her to take it up again.

“Dismissed, cadet,” he said without emotion. “You will receive results within the next four months.”

Azalea’s eyes widened. “The—the Forming section of the Exam—”

“It is unnecessary,” he said. “You’re dismissed.”

Azalea’s gut plummeted to somewhere below the ground.


Years of training, all to crash and burn at the crucial moment.

She hadn’t expected to enter the ranks of the Hunters on the first try. Well, maybe she’d hoped, but her hopes were always overly ambitious. But with a display like that, she could forget entirely about becoming a Hunter. She’d be lucky to graduate.

Throat swelling painfully, Azalea slung the starshooter over her shoulder. The room was utterly silent, save for the faint scratches of quills on paper.

She left without looking back.

The daylight was golden and fading when Azalea walked out of the Hall of Knights, squinting against the setting sun. The grand steps outside, wide as three avenues laid side by side, were nearly empty at this time of day. At dawn they had been thick with young hopefuls, Academy graduates and high-ranking soldiers seeking to make their name among the fifty Royal Hunters. But now, any remaining applicants were waiting indoors, lining the halls until their numbers were called.

Azalea caught sight of Wes’s silhouette on the far side of the steps. He was wrapped up in a cozy cloak, fingers dancing a charcoal pencil back and forth over a sketchbook. He was probably humming. Designing things made him inexplicably happy.

Azalea raised her chin, even as she felt it wobble, even as there was the telltale sting of tears in her throat. Don’t cry. For all that is good and holy, do not cry. She could not worry Wes. She refused to.

Wes’s eyes lifted and found hers. He pocketed his sketchbook and rose to his feet, face alight.

Perhaps all would have been well, if he had smiled and chattered about something, or assumed that she had done well, or said he was looking forward to the results—but the moment those amber eyes landed on her face, his expression melted into concern.

“What happened?” he said softly.

And Azalea burst into tears.

Wes was quick to move. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders and guided her around the corner of the council building, where they nestled under a tree for privacy.

He could always read her too well. It was her biggest boon and curse. Azalea buried her face in her knees, ashamed of the hot tears running down her cheeks.

She hadn’t cried in years, not since she left home for the Academy. She hated how it felt. It made her angry, crying after she’d gotten so much stronger—after she thought she’d grown out of it. She’d worked herself to the bone since Azure’s death so that she didn’t have to feel weak.

Except now, she didn’t just feel weak. She was weak.

The test replayed behind her eyelids, vivid as a painting. The elusive wisps, weaving mockingly around her. The moment of panic as the muzzle of her starshooter wavered, passing awkwardly from target to target. The sinking hopelessness as the wisps faded into the distance, too fast and too far for her to reach.

For all her training, she still wasn’t good enough. No, she would never be good enough to hit all those wisps, and that hurt infinitely more. If she could eventually pass it, with enough hard work and training, then she’d at least have something to aim for. But she’d already performed at the top of her game, and she hadn’t even come close.

No matter how hard she tried, she would never pass that test.

What do I do now? she wondered listlessly, her hands tangling in the hem of Wes’s sweater. Being a Hunter was out of the question. Even an officer’s position felt unattainable. Then what, would she only suffice for a footman? Was that all the potential she had?

Wes was running a hand through her hair, gentle and rhythmic. He didn’t say a word, but she could sense that he was confused. Kind Wes, who believed in her, who always saw the best in her. He probably thought she would have passed with flying colors.

Azalea barely lifted her face so her voice wouldn’t be muffled. It still came out small and choked.

“I failed,” she repeated, barely stable. “The firing test. I missed so many.”

Wes’s hand paused in her hair. His brow furrowed.

“The firing test?” he said doubtfully.

She knew what he was thinking. He always thought of her as a crack shot. With all the praise from the instructors and the top scores easily secured, she’d grown to believe it. Maybe that had made her complacent.

“Yes,” she whispered. Her voice was starting to bubble again, so she buried her face back in her knees. Who cared if it was muffled. “I did—the best I could, but I—I still missed so many.”

Wes’s hand resumed. It felt…nice. It would have felt nicer if she didn’t feel so ashamed.

“Maybe it wasn’t as bad as you thought, ’Zalie,” he said softly. “You’re the best shot in our whole class. If you couldn’t do it, then—”

“Then our whole class is made up of poor shots,” Azalea mumbled somewhere into her leggings.

Wes pulled away for a moment. Azalea looked up, startled—Was he leaving? Had she been too harsh?—but then he was back, bundling his soft cloak around her shoulders. Grateful, she huddled into the fabric, trying very hard to stop crying. It wouldn’t do to get water and snot all over Wes’s cloak.

“You’re an amazing shot, ’Zalie,” he said earnestly, gripping her hand. “Maybe this result was disappointing. But you’ll be completely prepared for next year. If anyone can do it, it’ll be you.”

He was so kind, but she couldn’t. She couldn’t do any better. She had felt her hard limit right then, right there. She didn’t know how to explain it to Wes, but she knew deep down: another year wouldn’t make her shoot any faster or any better. That result had been it.

“I can’t,” she said miserably. Some ugly emotion was rising from the pit of her stomach, writhing in her throat. “I can’t do it. This is as far as I can go.”

Her mind grasped frantically for the right words, but they didn’t come. How could she possibly convey how powerless she’d felt? How much of a waste the past few years had been? Training and tuition costs, frugally scraped together by her diligent father, had all gone to waste.

Mythic Stars. She’d have to go back home and tell her father that she failed.

A fresh wave of sobs hit her, and she pulled the cloak over her, hiding her face. She couldn’t go back empty-handed. She couldn’t face her father with nothing to show.

Wes laid a gentle hand on her back. He said nothing. He waited there in silence until she cried herself to sleep.

Azalea woke slowly, like floating up to the surface from the bottom of the ocean.

Sound and light faded into being as her eyes fluttered open. And pain. Dull aches between her temples and around her ribs, scrapes scattered over her arms and legs. Azalea dragged herself upright, intent on gathering her bearings.

From what she could tell, she was in a cavern linked to others by a network of tunnels. Only, it was nothing like the dark and musty stone caves she was accustomed to; it was vibrant, alive, the arched walls blooming with colorful shrubbery and wildflowers, inlaid with pretty veins of luminous minerals that glittered like the constellations. She was most certainly still on the Noadic Range.

Around her lay a few unusual fixtures—a wooden table for butchering, a basin and rack for tanning hides, a shallow oil dish. Everything was made from ashen wood, animal furs, and rough fibers, but there was a rustic beauty to it that drew her in.

Next, Azalea examined herself. She was unfettered—no ropes, no chains. The scrapes along her limbs had been bandaged with strips of cloth, but that was for her own health. Then she was not a prisoner, and her host was a kind one. Two critical pieces of information.

The sound of heavy footsteps echoed from one of the tunnels. Azalea did not bother reaching for a weapon. Given her current state of being, her host did not seem to mean any harm.

The footsteps from the tunnel materialized into a figure, and the Dragon Whisperer emerged. It was difficult to recognize him at first. He was lugging an enormous beast on his shoulders, something with a furry speckled pelt that swallowed up his entire body. The only recognizable feature under the imposing mass of fur was his dragonscale cloak, which glittered under the pale light of the luminous minerals.

The Whisperer dumped the animal carcass in a heap by his butcher’s table, then turned to Azalea. He said something in a guttural language where the consonants clipped and grated, then tilted his head, waiting.

Oh. Of course he would speak a different language. Shame flushing her cheeks, Azalea only shook her head confusedly. Airlean was the only language she spoke.

The Whisperer spoke again. A lilting language this time, with sweeping tones and a melodic rhythm.

He was multilingual? That was unexpectedly impressive. Azalea did not think he spoke to people at all, much less in different languages.

“I’m sorry,” she tried hesitantly. “I don’t understand.”

The Whisperer straightened. “Ah, Airlean,” he said, his voice falling easily into the fluid diction of Mythaven. “Figures. Odd, I thought you spoke Draconic.”

Azalea blinked. And blinked again.

Hearing fluent, assured Airlean from the lips of such an unusual man made her feel a bit off-kilter, as if she’d stepped into a dream. And his speech was eloquent, nearly courtly. Was he once a nobleman? Perhaps a well-read scholar?

She’s received one answer, but only found it replaced with infinitely more questions.

“Where am I?” she tried, sitting up and leaning against the bony wall.

“You,” said the Whisperer ominously, “are in the belly of the beast.”

Azalea blinked, her eyes darting about the cavern. It didn’t look very fleshy or intestinal. In fact, it all seemed rather clean.

The Whisperer reached out and rapped the hard knuckles of his gauntlet against the wall. “That’s what the dragons called it. The Belly of the Beast. But I vanquished the actual beast ages ago, so now it’s just a belly. I’ve made it into my home as a trophy of conquest.”

“Oh,” said Azalea, who didn’t know what else to say.

“Would you like a tour through the Digestive Tract?”

She didn’t have much of a frame of reference, but this huntsman seemed like a very odd person. “No, thank you,” she said.

He rolled his shoulders. “Just as well. Haven’t completely cleaned that part out yet.”

He stooped by the oil dish, removed an ivory box hanging from his belt, and dug out a fistful of something pasty inside. He spread it over the dish, then shut the box. With a light flick of his manawell, the pasty substance ignited, spreading a warm and vibrant fireglow along the edge.

An oil lamp, Azalea realized. Using animal blubber. Given the Whisperer’s occupation, it made sense that he would rely on animal products more than horticulture or lumbering.

His workspace now better lit, the Whisperer waved a hand. Azalea felt the air tingling in response to his manawell, bone mana trickling from the cavern walls and floor. It amassed in a large Formed rig that propped up the animal carcass, allowing the Whisperer to slit its throat and drain the blood into a pail—just like Echo had shown her.

Azalea gaped openly. All that mana, for simply draining an animal? The thought was bewildering. She could not possibly imagine having such a profuse manawell where she could simply make whatever she wanted without considering its cost.

“One moment,” she said numbly. “Isn’t this—isn’t there something wrong with all of this?”

The Whisperer stopped and turned to regard her from beneath that cold black mask. “How do you mean?”

Oh, where could she start? “I just think…should you really be using that much mana to hang up the carcass?”

The Whisperer frowned. “Well, I’ve got to drain it somehow.”

That was not the problem. “Yes, but, um—wouldn’t it be better to build a rig out of wood or stone? So that you can save your mana.”

The Whisperer tilted his head. “What would I need to save mana for? The creature’s already dead.”

This was difficult to refute. Azalea promptly shut her mouth. The Whisperer had a way of making her question her sanity and everything she believed, which was a very surreal feeling. She missed the Academy library and its profound selection of books that always held very sensible and correct information.

“I see,” she said timidly. “Um, then it’s alright to butcher and dress at your camp?”

“How do you mean?” the Whisperer said again, which made her a little more anxious than she would like to admit.

“I’ve just heard that you’re not supposed to handle carcasses at your camp,” Azalea said, recalling Echo’s lessons. “Or monsters will be drawn by the smell and attack you.”

“Ah,” the Whisperer mused with a hand on his chin. “That would be splendid. It would certainly save me a great deal of trouble in finding them.”

Oh dear, was all Azalea could think. It didn’t seem very safe nor sanitary. Though she supposed she should have expected as much from a wild man known as the Dragon Whisperer who very much liked to indulge his every waking hour in murder and bloodshed. It was really quite remarkable that they could hold a conversation at all.

“What did you do with those dragons?” she tried nervously, staring at the pelts hanging on the racks. She couldn’t imagine that even the Whisperer had bested such powerful creatures alone, and yet…

“Dragons?” said the Whisperer, puzzled.

“The one that looked like a butterfly, and that big earthen turtle-like one.”

“Ah.” The Whisperer chuckled in a surprisingly warm and human sound. “Those were no dragons, though I can hardly fault you for mistaking them. What you saw was a borealis amphiptere and an armored drake. Exceedingly different from dragons.”

“You’re quite certain?” said Azalea hesitantly. They had all looked the same to her.

“It’s all quite simple once you get used to it,” said the Whisperer. “Drakes have no wings, dragons have wings, wyverns have useless wings and are landbound, Yuerai wyrms fly without wings, lindwyrms are long snakes with legs, amphipteres are long snakes with wings, guivres are long snakes with a forehead horn, cockatrices are part-chicken, pyraustas are part-insect, and basilisks turn you into stone and therefore are quite hard to miss.”

“Oh,” said Azalea.

The Whisperer nodded firmly. “But dragons are the greatest because they are the only ones with sentient intelligence. And immortal.”

Azalea blinked. “Ah.”

“Would you not like to be immortal?” said the Whisperer. “Doesn’t that sound rather grand?”

“It—does, I think,” Azalea said faintly.

“Very good.” The Whisperer drew a vicious knife and began carving apart the drained carcass. “How long do you plan to stay?”

Azalea glanced over to where her starshooter lay. Ideally, she would try to build a little rapport with the Whisperer, make her bargain, and leave the Range with him in tow, all in the span of a day. But if she failed to convince the Whisperer to join her cause, then she could hardly trek through the Noadic Range back to civilization; her short time in the wilds had shown her as much. She had to succeed. Or face a death on the cold mountaintops when the Whisperer inevitably evicted her from his camp.

“I wasn’t planning on staying long,” Azalea said hesitantly. For now, it was best not to appear a burden.

“Well, stay as long as you like,” said the Whisperer charitably. The visceral sound of tearing hide nearly drowned out his next words. “Ma and Da, they come and go too.”

“You have parents?” Azalea blurted, before realizing this was possibly a very rude question.

He glanced over his shoulder as if she had grown another head. “Just like you.”

Ah. Yes. She supposed he would have to, since he had been born and all.

The Whisperer finished his initial cuts and carefully extracted certain little artifacts—claws, tail tufts, a smattering of scales growing around the ears—that he folded in a cloth and set aside. Perhaps for trading later, if he did that sort of thing. Oh, but he did; Azalea remembered that he was often in contact with Heidi the cabbage witch, selling skulls and whatnot. No doubt these mythical extracts could serve as potent agents for her poultices.

“How long have I been here?” Azalea braved, still trying to gather her bearings.

The Whisperer frowned. “Couldn’t say. I’m not much one for telling time.”


“It’s all the same, at any rate. You live, time passes, and then you die.”

She didn’t have the time to process that morbid statement. “But the Storm. Has the Storm struck?”

He stopped his work and stared at her blankly.

“The Storm,” she repeated. “When all the clouds darken and the mana corrupts animals and terrible monsters rise…” A horrible thought haunted her. The Whisperer seemed reluctant to reveal the truth. What if she had been asleep for weeks? What if the Storm had struck, and everybody had died? Perhaps Airlea had been demolished, the last remnants of human civilization destroyed—

“Is it, ‘has the Storm stuck,’ or ‘has the Storm stricken?’” the Whisperer mused. “It seems my Airlean is out of practice. I shall have to procure another book from Heidi. But ah, the Storm? I suppose it will strike, yes, but it hasn’t yet.”

Bewildered, Azalea stared for a moment, trying to make sense of his words. Then slowly, her shoulders eased. The Storm had not yet struck. Civilization had not yet ended. The Whisperer had only paused to debate grammatical semantics, because apparently, most of his Airlean was gleaned from literature, which really made quite a lot of sense.

“Now, would you like to go kill something with me?” said the Whisperer abruptly.

Azalea started. “No!”

“Pity. It’s by far the superior method of bonding.” The Whisperer took up a bone lance that seemed to glimmer beneath the light of the minerals.

“Surely we don’t have that much time,” Azalea said, bewildered. “The Storm is almost here.”

“Nonsense, we’ve got ages before anything happens.” The Whisperer paused. “Well, days, at least.”

“How do you know that?”

“You can’t smell it?”

She blinked. “No…?”

“Well, the leylines smell weak and boring. When it starts smelling interesting, that’s when you know it’s approaching.” He shifted the weapon on his shoulder. “Are you coming?”

“I thought I said no.”

“But then we can’t bond.”

“Why would I want to bond with you?” Azalea blurted. “You’re a stranger. A dangerous one.”

The Whisperer recoiled slightly, his gaze heavy on her from beneath that sharp and impersonal mask. His shoulders slumped.

“I hoped you would have remembered, ’Zalie,” he said quietly, moving into the snow-bright outdoors. “My name is Azure.”


Lord Magnum Valence. A fearsome aristocrat, an influential financier, a recluse from the inane soirées of the gentry.

And merely another mask that Echo wore when it suited him.

It was all a lie, of course, as most of Echo’s identities were. The real Magnum Valence—Echo’s half-brother—had burned to death in his own bedchambers four years ago. The entire Valence manor had. Lord, lady, and heir, all gone in the span of a single night. What a tragedy, the aristocracy would whisper. What a horrifying accident.

But months later, Magnum would rise from the ashes and take command of what little holdings remained for House Valence. Only it was not Magnum himself, but Echo claiming his identity, and with it, all rights to the Valence people and property.

Not that anyone would know otherwise. Echo would pass every blood test of which Airlea could conceive. For he truly was the son of his father, Lord Rufus Valence. Any physical differences could easily be explained away by errors in regen reconstruction after irreparable burn damage.

It was a despicable thing Echo had done, killing his blood family and seizing their assets as his own. Awful, as Azalea would have put it, in every way.

He paid for it sometimes. He could still remember every moment of that heinous night. Stalking silently into Rufus’s bedchambers. Chaining him to the headboard and dragging away his drugged wife. Letting Rufus wake to a cold night and an even colder smile.

How sweet the begging had been. I’ll give you anything. Money—you want money? Property? Take anything. Just spare my life.

Echo had leaned in slowly, his smile broadening. What I want, he’d said, is for you to burn in hell.

Then he’d taken his time with his bone knife. He’d spoken soothingly as Rufus had writhed and screamed to a silent, empty house that would not hear him.

Let me tell you a story, he’d begun. A sweet little girl, growing up in a ratty orphanage at the edge of the Mythaven underworld…but oh, you don’t seem to be listening. Then what good is it to keep your ears?

Once his bloodlust had been sated, Echo had concluded his story by setting fire to the bed and walking away, leaving it to spread. Eventually it would consume the house—the lord shut in his bedchambers, the heir shut in his bedchambers, and the lady shut in the wine cellar. The entire manor would burn to ash and leave nothing behind.

Echo had expected relief. Vindication. A sense of justice. But the searing bite of fire, the stench of burning flesh, the raw screaming and cursing to high heaven—they were phantoms that haunted his dreams and throttled him in paralysis when he woke. He loathed it. He wanted to be stronger than regret. He had planned his revenge for two years and craved it for seven. It was a sin he could not erase, and had no business trying.

But as Echo regarded the Geppett heir before him, he wondered.

The young man’s face attempted to appear stern and carefully controlled, but there was still that unmistakable gentleness, that innocence—the open look that always reminded Echo of Arya, even though they looked nothing alike.

You could be fulfilled, whispered Azalea’s voice in the dark recesses of his mind. A part of something more.

There was something to the integrous light in Wes’s eye, the determined set of his jaw—something that made him look so keenly, painfully similar to Azalea. A kind soul, a boy who believed that the world could be made right with enough love and hard work. He could be Echo’s second chance.

Second chance? Echo realized, bewildered. But for what?

He waved the thought away. Azalea had made her choice when she had walked straight into the jaws of death. It was not his fault that she was a foolish idealist, and it was not his responsibility to fish her out.

Not my problem, he told himself. Deliver the letter. Deliver the letter and be done with it all.

He would skulk back to what he knew—the comforting shadows of the underworld, and the hidden machinations of the aristocracy. He did not need to be fulfilled. There was simply no such thing.

Lord Magnum Valence did not speak for a very long moment, which left Wes enough time to collect his thoughts.

Lord Valence was rarely seen in public, which was often a point of gossip for the aristocracy. Perhaps he was of unsound mind, they said. Perhaps he was ashamed of his disfigurement. Perhaps he was hiding a dishonorable mistress or child.

The actual answer, Wes thought, was probably much more practical. In the years leading up to the fire, House Valence’s influence had dwindled significantly from scandals, embezzlement, and broken treaties, as if somebody had been setting it up for failure. When Lord Valence had returned, his first priority was likely to restore the former glory of the house. He’d simply been too busy to entertain any events that would not directly further his efforts.

Which makes this meeting all the more intimidating, Wes thought to himself. A busy lord, the head of a notable estate, had taken time out of his schedule to visit in person, without warning.

It certainly couldn’t lead to anything good.

Wes sipped his tea and served himself one of the sandwich bites. Whatever the reason, it was apparent that Lord Valence would not be the first to speak.

“Thank you for coming all this way, Lord Valence,” he began politely. “I trust your journey was pleasant.”

Lord Valence’s crimson eye swiveled to Wes. It was unnerving, but Wes did not flinch or look away. To do so would show fear. Cede power. Numerous things that were not good for a noble to do.

“Pleasant,” Lord Valence said softly. “Is anything pleasant with the noose hanging around all our necks, I wonder?”

“I suppose not,” Wes admitted. “Then to what do I owe the pleasure of your visitation?”

Lord Valence chuckled. “I see you’re getting right to it.”

“Pardon my curiosity,” Wes said readily, “but I believe a meeting of this nature to be rather uncommon.”

Lord Valence’s smile widened. “Between the lord of a manor and an unrelated heir apparent? Particularly one without a marriageable daughter?”

Wes did not respond.

“Fear not, young lord. I’ve no wish to complicate your prospects.” Lord Valence slid a hand into his coat and extracted a simple cream-colored envelope. “Your own life seems to do so rather splendidly.”

The envelope fell upon the table. Wes’s eyes fixed on it, attempting to dissect its appearance. It was plain and unmarked, sealed with simple red wax. There was no hint of its contents, save for a few dirt smudges and a moisture crease on the corner.

If it had been pristine, he could have guessed what lay within—gold, a property deed, some critical document. But no, it was slightly worn, probably due to passing from hand to hand.

Hand to hand?

Your own life seems to complicate your prospects splendidly, Lord Valence had said.

The answer dawned on Wes instantly.

Ill rumors.

Something confidential—and incredibly damaging—lay in that envelope.

But then Wes was bewildered. Blackmail over his romantic life? What blackmail? He wasn’t in courtship or betrothed. He wasn’t even involved with a girl. His only secret was his identity as an ingeniator, and his entire House already knew it.

Wes’s gaze flickered back to Lord Valence. He managed to blanket his confusion with a cold, imperious look.

“A rather audacious claim, Lord Valence,” he said.

Lord Valence cocked a brow. “Then you deny it?”

He had to be bluffing. Most lords and their heirs partook in questionable dalliances. He must have assumed that Wes was like them and had something to hide.

Wes spread his hands. “I have nothing to deny,” he said easily. “Though I find your attempts endearing.”

Something clicked in Lord Valence’s gaze. A dangerous gleam that had Wes’s fingers drifting to the knife strapped to his waist, ready to draw it at a moment’s notice.

Until Lord Valence threw back his head and burst into full, hearty laughter.

“Myths and stars!” he whooped, brushing away a tear of amusement. “Do you think this a threat? Blackmail, perhaps—an allegation of some hidden sin? How small-minded I must appear in your eyes.”

Stunned, Wes’s hand dropped from his knife. He flailed to find words. “But I—isn’t it—I mean—”

“Please, little lordling.” Lord Valence flicked the envelope across the table with slender gloved fingers. It spun to a convenient halt right before Wes. “Had I any information of actual use, you would be the last to hear it.”

Wes stared at the missive before him. If it was being given to him so freely, then it could only be a trap. Reading it was quite possibly the last thing he should do. Not that he had any choice in the matter; Lord Valence was watching him expectantly, and to return it would not only be rude, but come across as weakness.

Wes warily broke the seal and thumbed open the envelope. He unfolded a simple page.

The familiar penmanship on its surface gutted him.

Wes stood inadvertently and his eyes scoured the page. Devoured those crisp, flowery little letters that bloomed over the rough surface. Stopped on the little doodle of a cat by a signed name.


I always knew that our paths would diverge one day. I hoped it would be much later, but it seems that now is the time.

I’m making good on my promise. I will do everything I can to keep you safe. You’ll be the most wonderful leader, ingeniator, husband, father. Please be well.

I’m sorry to leave like this. Thank you for the past years. I was truly happy.

— Azalea

The world was spinning. His chest felt tight, his head feverish. He couldn’t see properly.

Azalea. What happened to Azalea? Why hadn’t he thought of her earlier? Where was she?

He slammed a hand on the table. “Where did you get this,” he ground out.

Lord Valence only smiled wolfishly. “Ah. Now you’re listening. Good, good. Listening is the first step to effective communication.”

Wes felt that blinding, crystal clear rage crawling up to his eyes, embers burning in his veins. He forced it down with a sharp breath, willing himself to stay calm.

Focus. The tea table is just another battlefield. You’ve always known that.

The last he’d seen of Azalea was a pale, stricken face as he slumped into darkness, the countless silhouettes of terrifying beasts converging on her. An entire week had passed since then. Seven days. Seven days where he lay useless and unconscious, seven days whereshe could have died or disappeared.

I’m sorry to leave like this, she’d written.

Where was she now? What happened during the surge? Her presence had always been solid and constant in his life. Now he had no idea of her possible status, and it was dangerously disorienting.

Please be well.

Wes tilted his head up and forced an unaffected smile. “Consider me surprised. I did not realize we shared such an…unusual mutual acquaintance.”

“Acquaintance seems too light a term,” said Lord Valence with a glimmer in his eye. “You should hear how she fawns over you. Wes this, Wes that. What a precious little creature.”

A muscle twitched in Wes’s jaw, but thankfully, his expression remained otherwise blank. He could not further betray just how much Azalea meant to him. Anyone in the aristocracy who caught wind of his affection would surely drag her into the unending purgatory of high society and use her as a pawn.

If she was alive.

Don’t think of that. Focus, Wes. Focus, damn you.

Her sweet voice echoed those crippling words over and over: Please be well. Be well. Please—


Wes bit his tongue hard enough to draw blood. The shock of pain, thankfully, startled his mind into temporary clarity.

Yes, he had to consider the more important detail here: Lord Valence had spoken with Azalea at a length, and was in possession of her final words. Evidently, he was not just a mysterious noble lurking in the shadows. He knew her, somehow, beyond mere passing familiarity.

Somehow being the key word. Azalea had not mentioned the Valence estate, not once. Was she keeping secrets?

No, this was Azalea. A book so open she may as well have been a flat page. So unaware of political agendas and social tensions that, when they’d first met, she hadn’t realized that Wes belonged to an important family.

Most likely, she had interacted with Magnum Valence at a length without the slightest suspicion that he was a noble. But who, then? Who was he?

Wes thought hard, recounting everybody Azalea had recently mentioned.

Karis, the Second Hunter. Halcyon, the First Hunter. The guildmaster, Nicolina. Then the Dragon Whisperer. And…

A scavenger and mercenary from the underground? The one named Echo?

Wes’s eyelid twitched as he studied Magnum Valence’s perfect, polished, unaffected air. A far cry from the congested, grime-coated thoroughfares of Mythaven’s slums. Yet, through process of elimination, there was simply no other explanation.

Wes sank back into his chair, sliding his fingers together.

“I would ask how you came upon a letter intended for me,” he said smoothly, “but I presume that nothing is out of your reach, Lone Wolf.”

A minute pause from Lord Valence. Tiny, but successful nonetheless.

“Are you well, young lord?” he said mildly. “I fear that your thoughts are not quite coherent.”

“Not coherent, you say?” Wes set down the letter and leaned on the tea table. “Then allow me to speak plainly. You are the Lone Wolf, the scavenger and mercenary who was often in contact with Hunter Fairwen. That is how you secured this letter, whether through fair or foul means. You now convey this letter with the aim of eliciting an unbecoming response from me—something that can later be used as ammunition to hold sway over me. Am I wrong?”

To Lord Valence’s credit, not a single emotion passed his face during Wes’s accusation. He only smiled emptily, invincibly.

“Was I successful?” he said.

There was no thrill of victory for Wes, even though Lord Valence had admitted to his wild claims. Instead, he only felt a deep, permeating dread sinking in his veins.

A dangerous scavenger, a cutthroat mercenary, a powerful noble with his sights set on Azalea.

Now, more than ever, it was important for Wes to break his ties with Azalea. He would never let himself be the reason for her suffering.

“You thought wrongly,” Wes drawled. He tried to sound bombastic and cavalier, like his brothers speaking of one of their distasteful conquests. “The girl was an amusing diversion, I admit. But that was the extent of it.”

“Really, now? It seemed as if she cared tremendously for you.”

“A problem that is her own.”

Lord Valence’s mouth twisted slightly. “So cruel. Yet another commoner girl, thrown away by yet another incorrigible noble.”

“A common enough tragedy.”

Lord Valence heaved a long-suffering sigh. “Will you truly continue this charade, young lord? I saw the look in your eyes when you read her penmanship. Terror. Complete, delicious desperation.”

“I simply did not wish to leave a loose end,” Wes said.

Lord Valence stiffened, his impervious shell finally cracking. “A loose end?” he whispered, dangerously soft.

Finally, Wes had drawn blood. He sat up straight, gathering his senses. It was time to strike while he held the advantage.

“Like my father before me, I value tidiness,” he said. “Any loose ends and outstanding liabilities must be eliminated. That is the way of perfection.”

Lord Valence’s fingers slowly pulled in, forming a loose fist. The closest he’d ever come to losing his composure.

“You wish to know where your loose end is?” he said darkly. “Allow me to tell you.”

A slow chill crawled down Wes’s back. He opened his mouth to speak, but it was too late, and Lord Valence was talking, the words spilling out in a slick, black flood—

“The guilt of your near-death broke Hunter Fairwen and made her desire martyrdom. She took it upon herself to enlist the strongest ally possible for the Storm’s final strike—the volatile Dragon Whisperer himself. A foolhardy enough notion, only made more ridiculous by the fact that she must scour the Noadic Range to do so. All in a sorry attempt to protect you.

Wes’s hands shook as he clamped his fingernails into his palms, his knuckles flushing white with exertion. Lies. He has to be lying. “You forget yourself,” he said hoarsely.

Lord Valence’s smile widened. “She is certain to encounter nightmarish creatures of which you can only imagine, who will peel off her skin, tear her from limb to limb, send her mind into the throes of madness unknown. There, lordling, is your loose end. See? You have nothing to fear, for she will certainly die, alone and in utter agony.”

Wes could not stop himself. His hand shot out and wrapped in Lord Valence’s collar, yanking him over the tea table. Lord Valence’s weight jolted the furnishings, sending crockery rattling dangerously close to the edge.

An utter breach of etiquette. Enough to have Wes barred from gatherings for years.

Lord Valence’s damned smile did not falter.

“What’s this, lordling?” he said softly. “Could it be that you harbor some feelings for the Hunter after all?”

Let go, screamed every voice in Wes’s mind. The pragmatic voice of his tutor who wished for civility, the stern command of his father who wished for power, the gentle urge of Azalea who wished for peace. Release him. Betray no weakness. Inflict no pain.

Wes’s jaw locked. He forced his fingers to pry open one at a time, slowly hooking away from Lord Valence’s coat. Index, middle, ring finger. Pinky and thumb.

He stepped away, his control barely reigned in by a single fraying thread.

“You’ve overstayed your welcome,” he said, his syllables biting and frigid. “Hailing unannounced and bearing no honorarium, demanding a private audience without notice, and spewing lies with such vitriolic fervor. You have sullied the Valence name this day, and you will depart the premises. Now.

Lord Valence only laughed harshly. “Lies? Oh, you would like it if I was lying, wouldn’t you? But you already know, lordling. You already know that every word I speak is truth, or it would not disturb you so.”

He gathered his cloak around himself and gave a mocking bow.

“Run, son of Geppett,” he said softly. “Run before your precious little songbird strays off the path and is swallowed up by the wild wolves. Run and save her. If you dare. If you are anything more than your father’s puppet.”

He turned, and in a flash of white, strode out of the pavilion, leaving Wes cold and shaking behind.


Wes woke to a throbbing, percussive headache that nearly put him out again. He squinted into a bright fog, his eyes slowly working to recognize shapes again. After a long, painstaking moment, his vision settled.

He was in his room. Not the little property on Gallows Square, but his luxurious personal chambers in the country estate of House Geppett, all of its pretentious wooden tracery and florid weaponry and five-foot ceiling mural of the legend of Excalibur. It had been a long time since he’d last set foot in this cold and gaudy room, which had always managed to feel empty despite the crowded piles of books, fine apparel, decorated instruments, and other paraphernalia befitting a son of nobility.

Wes turned his aching neck. He found, surprisingly, Lord Roland Geppett himself sitting at his bedside, engrossed in a stack of papers bearing majestic seals. His father, here? Waiting like a common servant? Perhaps House Geppett was hosting guests and he needed to keep up appearances. Lord Geppett was not one to waste even a second of time, could he afford it.

Wes tried to speak. His tongue was clumsy and sandy in his mouth, his throat so hoarse that he swore he could polish stones by swallowing them.

“Lord Father,” he croaked.

Lord Roland Geppett glanced up from his papers. His eyes were severe beneath thick brows, his rugged beard crowning a harsh mouth.

“So, you wake,” he said, moving to stand. “I shall hail the physician.”

“Wait,” Wes blurted, and winced as the noise scraped up his throat.

He wouldn’t be weak, wouldn’t be pathetic—wouldn’t be subject to his father’s scorn. He schooled his features appropriately. A Geppett was not to show pain, even with his head hurting like hell and his body feeling like a bruised apple.

“How long has it been?” he asked, his tone all business, if not hoarse business.

Lord Geppett’s face was stony. “Seven days.”

Wes nearly choked.

He’d been out for a week. The Storm above had been accumulating, the anxious tensions among the nobility had been building, and the city had been prepping for the final strike, all for an entire week. And—no, surely Lord Geppett hadn’t been perched at his side for seven days. The very thought was ridiculous.

“The Storm?” Wes tried.

“It has yet to strike.” Lord Geppett looked to the windows. It must have been around midday, but the daylight was grey and shrouded with gathering clouds. “But it shall soon. Perhaps in another week.”

“The Thorn Company?”

“Twenty casualties.” Lord Geppett glanced in his direction. “They died honorably, in protection of their homeland. I doubt they harbor regrets.”

Twenty. Wes shut his eyes and breathed. He knew that many would die because he’d been underprepared. He hadn’t realized just how many. Those soldiers had had lives, families, betrothals and weddings. And he’d failed them. Nearly half of his company, dead.

“I have to meet with their families,” he mumbled, pulling the covers away. “Give my condolences. And the money—”

“Sit down, boy,” Lord Geppett barked. “You are in no condition to present yourself to company.”

Wes flinched and sat back in his bed. It was true; if he looked anything like he felt, then he was a mess, and his image would reflect poorly upon the Geppett family.

“Does image really matter?” he bit out. “When other families have lost their only sons, their breadwinners?”

“I have already seen to the bereaved,” Lord Geppett said harshly, “so there is no need for you to be redundant.”

This surprised Wes. Certainly, he had been unconscious for a week, which was a long time to wait on condolence notices—but his father was also a man who prized responsibility and authority. Sending condolences was a captain’s duty, and Lord Geppett would have made Wes learn it.

Then why had he taken on the responsibility himself? Surely it couldn’t have been for the sake of sparing Wes’s feelings, or showing compassion to the grieving families. Kindness was simply not in his nature.

“Still,” Wes managed, eying his father carefully, “a loss of twenty in a company of fifty is unacceptable. The soldiers of Thorn deserve a direct apology—”

“Which they shall not be receiving,” said Lord Geppett, “as an apology is not in order, but a commendation. Grimwall was an unexpected critical zone. To prevent all civilian casualties with a novice unit is unprecedented. As a captain, you have done your duty and beyond.”

Now Wes stared at his father as if the man had sprouted an extra head. Lord Geppett was being gracious. Uncharacteristically gracious. It put Wes on edge and made him want to squirm.

“Just get it over with,” Wes said tightly. “I know that you’re not here to sing my praises. You’re here to scold me.”

Lord Geppett’s face turned thunderous. “I would not waste the better part of a week waiting to censure an unconscious soldier.”

Waste. Censure. Soldier. Every word lanced Wes through the chest. “Well, sorry for not waking up earlier,” he said bitterly. “I did have to make the long journey from death’s door.”

Lord Geppett pounded his fist onto Wes’s bedside table. Small implements jumped on its surface. “Your histrionics are unnecessary, boy. You were far enough from death.”

Wes closed his eyes, suddenly weary. Myths, what did it matter? What did any of it matter? He’d expected absolutely nothing from his father, and still, he felt cut down.

He fell into stony silence. Lord Geppett pulled back his hand and returned to his papers.

“Reports say that you led well,” he said gruffly.

“What a surprise,” Wes muttered.

Lord Geppett’s eyes narrowed. “You never lacked the talent, boy. But you lacked the courage.”

“A coward unfit for the battlefield. There goes your plan of succession.”

“Silence,” Lord Geppett snapped. “Your cowardice is a matter of choice, not temperament. You shun battle because you are afraid to look like me.”

Wes fell silent.

“Your fears are childish,” Lord Geppett said. “Do you think that the citizens of Airlea can thrive and do business and keep their hands free of blood, all without a cost? No. The sacrifice comes from someone else. Garrison soldiers, Hunters, militia—countless others must dirty their hands to protect the fragility that is peace.”

Wes’s fingers tightened in his ornate duvet. “I’m aware of that.”

“Are you? Then why are you not willing to stave off the beasts that threaten your homeland?”

Wes lowered his gaze. Because he’d tasted power before. The thrill of prestige, invincibility, ultimate authority. Its seductive lure had dragged him into a darkness that had almost consumed him.

“I’m…not fit to wield it,” he forced out. “Power, I mean.”

Lord Geppett’s brows knitted together. “Power is nothing but the greatest shield, boy. To cast it aside is merely to cast the burden upon someone else.”

Wes flinched. His father thought he was afraid of power, but no; Wes’s fear was only of himself. He had made a promise, and he would not break it.

A sudden and sharp knock on the door disturbed his thoughts. Wes raised his head, and Lord Geppett frowned.

“State your business,” Lord Geppett commanded.

The voice outside was tentative and diminutive. A house servant, then. “A visitor has come calling, most eminent liege.”

“I was not expecting guests,” Lord Geppett said. “To whom is credited the audacity?”

“I, I believe it would be Lord Magnum Valence himself, my liege.”

“Lord Valence?” Lord Geppett’s brows knitted together. “Curious. Has he stated the nature of his business?”

“He wishes for a private audience with the young lord Wesley Geppett, my liege.”

Lord Geppett’s eyes cut to Wes, who instinctively slumped back against his headrest. He hadn’t the slightest why the lord of a major House would be seeking a private audience with him. Surely it meant nothing good.

Surprisingly, Lord Geppett did not make any accusations, nor did he press for answers. “Your response?” was all he said.

Wes jerked upright. “Uh. Pardon?”

“A major lord has made an excursion specifically to speak with you.” Lord Geppett folded his hands together. “Naturally, his business must be urgent for him to hail without prior arrangement.”

“Ah,” said Wes numbly. He did not quite understand what was happening. His father was the lord of the estate. His father was the one with knowledge, influence, holdings. Not Wes. Who would want to visit an absentee heir who had lain unconscious for the past week?

Wes would understand if Lord Valence had daughters of marriageable age—but if he recalled correctly, Lord Valence was rather young himself, coming to power only after a tragic fire had killed his father and mother four years earlier. His business was unlikely to be related to marriage.

“I, I suppose we should host him,” Wes said slowly. His mind still felt sluggish and it was difficult to force it ahead. “It would…be rude to turn him away when he’s gone through the trouble.”

Lord Geppett nodded with an impassive expression and clapped his hands once. He commanded the servant at the door to accept Lord Valence, tend to his steeds if he had any, and set the pavilion by the lush flower garden for tea.

Wes stared at his father, dumbfounded. Had he been unconscious for longer than a week? Since when had Lord Geppett asked him for his opinion? Or, for that matter, listened to him at all?

Sensing his gaze, Lord Geppett turned to him. “You are to one day inherit this estate,” he said. “It is time you grew in your responsibilities.”

Wes looked down. Of course. His father only listened when it already suited his own agenda. He shouldn’t have expected otherwise.

After Wes dressed quickly in his ordinary formal fare—gritting his teeth through the shrieking agony of his every limb—he was guided to the pavilion out on the estate’s magnificent, immaculately kept flower garden, which bloomed with a countless assortment of camellias, daylilies, lavender and snapdragons, all painting a rainbow of color over verdant green shrubbery. The gazebo, covered with white wooden tracery and lush vines, had been dressed with cushioned chairs and an intricate tea table. Porcelain crockery, bite-sized sandwiches, and pastoral cookies generously decorated the table’s surface.

What commanded Wes’s attention, though, was the prominent guest occupying one of the chairs.

Lord Magnum Valence was not large and looming like Lord Geppett, but he lacked nothing in poise. Layers of white silks, black furs, and copper accents highlighted his alabaster skin. The flecks of bloodlike crimson in his accessories brought out his single visible eye. His other eye was covered with an ornate silver half-mask; allegedly, it had been irreparably damaged in the fire of his estate.

Wes closed his eyes and breathed. Slowly, he felt his scattered senses honing into complete focus. When he opened his eyes, he was back in the realm of socialites, ready for the rhetorical battles of pleasantries and parleys.

Something told him that for this encounter, every bit of perception would be necessary.

“Hail, young Lord Geppett,” said Lord Magnum Valence. “So nice to finally meet you.”

He greeted Wes with an incline of his head and a sharp smile. A white wolf greeting its prey.

Very well, strange lord. Wes laced his fingers together and smiled back. Let the hunt begin.


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