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.”