Some people are destined for greatness. Others, not so much.
I’m one of the others and that’s fine by me.
Most people look at the crowds that line the roads, eagerly waving at the hunters returning from their hunts and screaming with joy when a hunter deigns to notice them, and want nothing more than to be a hunter, to bask in all that acclaim and adoration.
Me, I look at the hunters. They look tired. Exhausted, even. Numb, sometimes. In pain, almost as often. Sure, they’re returning triumphant, but they’re dirty and sweaty, covered in mud and blood and the guts of the monsters they’ve killed. I’m happy to scream with the rest of the citizens, but more than grateful not to be returning from the badlands myself.
I’m more of a domestic type. I figure I’ll go for a cook as soon as I’m old enough. I’m already thinking about what my specialities should be. Biscuits, maybe. Everyone loves a good biscuit and I think I could develop a light hand with them. My pa used to say that about our cook, back in the day when we had one, before Pa died and our house became just Ma and me. I don’t think ma has a light hand with a biscuit. Hers taste like rocks. But I’ve got plenty of time to learn.
First, though, I have to make it through the trials.
Well, not through. That makes it sound like I’m every other tweener in the city, hoping to pass the hunter initiation. Actually, I’m hoping to get booted out quick. Not so quick that it’s embarrassing — I’d just as soon not be the first person they send home. But maybe the third or fourth? Yeah, that’d work for me.
Of course, no one really knows how the trials work. The bazkide decide and sometimes their decisions are… well, confusing. To human beings, that is. The bazkide must know what they’re doing.
The bazkide are our allies in the war against the monsters. Technically, they’re monsters, too. They showed up when all the other monsters did, a few hundred years ago, and they can be pretty scary-looking. But a while back, they started fighting with us, instead of against us.
How it happened was a kid human met a kid bazkide in the forest. They were both too scared to try to kill one another and then a troll stumbled into the clearing they were in. Trolls are big and stupid and hungry and the right thing to do when you see one is run like hell. They’re not fast. But the kid human and the kid bazkide were so busy trying to outstare one another that the troll was on them before they noticed it.
Long story short, they wound up fighting it together and when they’d defeated it — which couldn’t have been easy, trolls have hard heads and thick skins — the kid human went home with the kid bazkide.
That was Regan. She’s pretty famous as the first hunter, but back then, she was just another orphaned tweener, scavenging in the woods.
I wonder if she was scared when she went home with the bazkide. They don’t live in towns on the ground like we do, but in these kind of pavilions in the trees. She must have been a pretty good climber to get up into their nests or maybe the bazkide shifted into a form that could carry her up. But she lived there with them for a few years and when she finally came back to a human town, well, everything changed. Since then, humans and bazkide pair up to hunt.
The trials are how the bazkide pick their partners. Every three years, a flock of bazkide come to town. They set up in the big empty fields outside of town, putting up these gorgeous silky tents in all the colors of the rainbow. Us humans immediately start setting up stalls around the tents, with food and crafts for sale, music and storytellers, jugglers and acrobats, everything you can think of.
All the tweeners are excited, bouncing around like baby goats, because the trials are held on the third day after the bazkide show up. And like it or not, every tweener takes part.
We need hunters, see, because the hunters are all that stand between us and the monsters. Back before we partnered with the bazkide, life was a lot harder. We human beings mostly lived in the ruins of the old towns, the ones that existed before the monsters appeared, struggling to survive and dreaming about days gone by. Most everyone went hungry at least some of the time and they never knew when the monsters would attack. The cities didn’t have solid walls like they do now, because people didn’t have time to build them.
Nowadays things are better, but that’s cause the hunters and the bazkide are keeping the rest of us safe. It’s an important job. An essential job. So all tweeners give the bazkide a chance to pick them in the trials,
I don’t know if it’s the same for the bazkide. Is there some bazkide kid just like me, keeping her fingers crossed that she doesn’t wind up stuck with some human being? Well, not her fingers — bazkide don’t have them. Some people say that’s why they like us, but bazkide are all shifters. I figure they could have fingers if they wanted them and they must just not.
Anyway, I’m not worried about the trials, not really. I’m just not hunter material. To start with, I’m little. I might be twelve already, but I’m barely taller than Caz and Jal, my ten-year-old neighbors. And they’re twins, they’re supposed to be small. Ma says it’s ‘cause she didn’t have enough milk when I was little, so I got stunted. But Ma always blames herself for everything and she’s not real big herself. I think maybe I’m just meant to be small. Doesn’t matter for a cook, anyways, so what do I care?
Well, all right, truth is… I’m a little worried. Not that I’ll wind up a hunter, but that I’ll get hurt during the trials. It happens. Two trials ago, when I was a little, the first trial I really remember, two kids died. Last trial, this tweener lives down the street from us, he came back with a twisted-up leg. Never walked right again. ‘Course it’s only been three years, so maybe someday… but mostly he sits in his pa’s shop and glowers at people now.
That can’t happen to me. There’s nobody to take care of Ma if I get hurt or I die, so I’m not going to do either. That’s firm. Kicked out early, but not first, and no getting hurt or dying. That’s my plan.
And it’s good that I have it, because tomorrow’s the day.
I joined the line of tweeners waiting to go into the first tent. It’s the prettiest of the five, I think, sort of a blue-gray color. The biggest, too, but that’s ‘cause about half of us don’t go on to the next tent after this one.
At the entrance to the tent, Samuel, the duke’s steward, was checking names off a list. He peered over his glasses at me. “Kasea? Are you old enough to be here?”
For half a second, I was tempted to pretend I wasn’t. I could wait ’til the next time the Bazkide came around and try then. But no one hires a kid. Until you’ve passed your first trials, you can’t get a job. I needed a job. As soon as I got scratched out of the trials, I’d be headed to the employment hall to see what work was waiting for me. “On your list, ain’t I?”
He tapped his way down the list, then nodded. “So you are. Good luck to you.”
Behind me, Benjamin Overlock snorted. “She’s gonna need it. She’s so little, the bazkide ain’t even gonna see her.”
“Shut up, Benjamin,” I said in chorus with another female voice behind me. I glanced over my shoulder and grinned. Martine, Benjamin’s big sister, and Rafe, his best friend, were right behind Benjamin in line. Rafe was rolling his eyes and Martine had grabbed Benjamin by the ear.
“What’d I say?” he complained.
“Personal comments are rude.” Martine tugged his ear. “If Mama could hear you, she’d tell you to apologize, so I’ll do it for her. Apologize to Kasea.”
“What for? It’s the truth! She’s never gonna be a hunter.”
“It’s all right, Martine. You can let him go.” I wasn’t worried about anything Benjamin said. Any thought he ever had went straight from his brain onto his tongue and out his mouth. Ma said he probably couldn’t help it, that he was just made that way, but whether he could or not, I knew not to listen to him.
“You’ll be fine, Kas,” Martine said. “There have been plenty of small hunters.”
“Name one,” Benjamin grumbled, rubbing his ear.
“Move along, children,” Samuel said sternly, frowning at us. “You’re delaying the line.”
Martine’s lips tightened and I could see that she wanted to complain about being called a child. She was probably seventeen or eighteen already. This’d be her last time at the trials, and it looked like she really wanted to pass. She was dressed in leggings and a tight-fitting vest that clung to her shape, and I could see from the defined muscles in her arms that she was a lot stronger than studying would have left her. But she didn’t say anything, just gestured with her chin for Benjamin and me to move on.
We entered the tent and I glanced around curiously. The trials aren’t a spectator sport, so I’d never seen the inside of one of the tents before, except for one time when I peeked under the edge, just to see. But I hadn’t seen much that time before I got shooed away.
It was as pretty on the inside as on the outside, and lighter than you might expect. The fabric must let a lot of light in because it was more like being under a sheet hung out to dry then being in a building with walls. Up top, there was a complicated web of ropes and netting. I traced the ropes with my eyes, trying to see if there was a pattern to them. Did they do something? Were they holding up the tent? Some of them dangled to the ground, but most of them twisted and twined around each other like ladders, only ladders lying in the air instead of hanging.
And then my breath froze in my chest.
A bazkide was sitting on one of the ropes, in the corner against the wall. He — or she, not like I knew how to tell the difference — was gorgeous. Well, of course it was. They’re shifters so they can look like whatever they want. But this one was in what we think are the natural form of the bazkide, the way they look when they’re not shifted, and it was just about the prettiest thing I’d ever seen in my life.
Its feathers were lavender, shading to a much deeper purple along the tips of its wings, and the scales along its torso and tail were an iridescent, pearly white blue. The plumes along the top of its head were pure white. The plumes were so puffy and dense that they ought to have looked silly, like some ridiculous hat, but they didn’t. Not at all. Maybe it was the dark, watchful gaze from the bazkide’s eyes. The eyes that really truly seemed to be looking straight at me.
I bobbed a curtsy.
I felt a fool two seconds later, when Benjamin said, “Whatcha doing, Kasea? Trying to get tinier?” but it seemed the right thing to do. I’d never seen anything that was simultaneously so lovely and so terrifying. Sure, I know the bazkide are our allies, but this one was big enough to swallow me in two bites. Maybe a bite and a half.
In the center of the tent, Samuel called for attention. As everyone fell silent, I pulled my eyes off the bazkide. It wasn’t going to eat me. At least I was pretty sure it wasn’t.
As Samuel started rambling through stuff we all knew — la-di-da, trials, hunters, responsibility, you get the picture — I wondered how I’d cook human. Not that I ever would, of course, that’s gross. Also probably dangerous. You probably get weird diseases from eating people, like the stomach-churning wasting disease that takes them as eats gremlins. But flavor-wise, would we be good with herbs or would we need something spicy to cover up an unpleasant aftertaste? It might depend on what the human in question had been eating themselves. Like pigs, really. Grain-fed don’t taste the same as wild-fed.
I started paying attention to Samuel again when he started giving us instructions. We were supposed to form lines. Ranks, like we did during morning lessons. In fact, that’s exactly what he wanted us to do. The same exercises that we did at the start of every school day and had been doing since we were littles.
I got into place, with Martine on one side of me, Benjamin on the other side of her, and we all started on morning flow. Stretch, twist, lunge, step back, arms up, down, drop to the ground, lift, bounce up, arms up, down, and then the other side. Three times slow, holding in each position for a count of ten. Then we started to go faster. I liked morning flow and I could have done it in my sleep, but after ten rounds or so, Samuel called us to a stop.
“Full elevens,” he ordered.
Elevens are the stretches we do mid-morning at school. Littles — the real littles — go home then, so you only start doing elevens when you’re maybe six or seven. Plus, elevens get mixed up according to the day. Full elevens means the pattern that we do on the week of the full moon. There’s also new elevens, first elevens, and third elevens. Samuel made us do all of them, five rounds each.
By the time we were finished, I could hear heavy breathing all around me. Benjamin was panting on the other side of Martine. Martine looked as composed as if she’d just gone out for a morning stroll to the market, but I could feel sweat trickling down the back of my neck and along my spine.
“Ten minute break,” Samuel called out.
I glanced around the tent. Some kids were dropping to the ground, others were pulling out water or nut bars. That’s what we did after elevens at school, but I wasn’t sure it was the right thing to do here. I flicked a glance upward to the bazkide in the corner. It was still and motionless, but its eyes were open and it was watching us.
It’s not going to eat you, I told myself firmly. It’s an ally. You ain’t dinner. Besides, if I were a monster, a predator monster, I’d never pick me for a snack. I’d pick one of those resting kids. They’d have to get up before they could run away, so they’d have a tougher time escaping.
As dumb as all that sounds, I decided to stay on my feet. Martine was still on hers, too, but Benjamin sat down.
“Water, Kas?” Martine held out her water bottle to me.
I hadn’t brought water or a snack. I didn’t figure I’d be here that long. But my mouth was parched. I reached for the bottle, then hesitated. Martine wanted to make it through. She was hoping to be here all day. If I took her water, she might run out before the end. “You sure?”
“It’s fine.” She shot me a quick smile. “If I move on, I’ll get a chance to refill it. If I don’t…” She lifted a shoulder in a shrug, but her smile was tight and she left the rest of the words unsaid.
I wondered why she cared so much, why she wanted to be a hunter so badly. Hunters never went hungry, but the Overlocks had probably never been hungry a day in their lives. Their ma was a medic and their pa did maintenance, good jobs both of them. They had a nice house, solid, one where the wind didn’t blow through gaps under the doors and windows on cold days, and probably plenty of blankets on their beds. And Martine was pretty, not that that should matter, but it did. She’d pair up easy if she wanted to. She was too far ahead of me in school for me to know how smart she was, but I would have guessed plenty smart. She could do anything.
But I took the water and didn’t ask questions. I only swallowed a mouthful, though, before handing it back to her. She might say she could refill it, but who knew how much longer we’d be here?
The break was half over and Samuel was moving among the crowd. He tapped a tall boy on the arm and murmured something to him. The boy smiled fiercely in response, dipped his head in a nod and then strode out of the tent.
I guess that meant I wouldn’t be first to leave.
My eyes met Martine’s and I lifted my chin a tiny bit to indicate Samuel. He was coming our way. She glanced behind her and saw him approaching. Her shoulders straightened, but she bent her head and fastened her water bottle back on her belt as if she weren’t paying any attention.
I watched him come shamelessly. He wasn’t sending people home, I realized. The ones he tapped looked too happy and they were… well, the right ones, if that makes any sense. He wasn’t tapping the kids collapsed on the ground or the ones who looked red and miserable already. The arms he touched belonged to kids who looked like they could be hunters, should be hunters.
Next to me, Martine took a deep breath. I could see her lips moving as if she were whispering something under her breath. A mantra maybe, words of a spell to keep her strong and steady.
Samuel stopped right between us. He touched Martine’s arm like he’d touched the others. My face broke out into a full grin even before he said the words. I was so happy for her. I didn’t understand why she wanted it, but her chance wasn’t over, not yet.
“You’ve been selected to move on to the yellow tent,” he said to her, keeping his voice soft. “Please join the others there.”
Martine beamed and gave him a crisp nod. But as she turned to leave, his brows drew down in a frown. She paused.
Samuel didn’t pay any attention to her. His eyes lifted to the bazkide in the ceiling and he tilted his head to one side, as if he were listening to words we couldn’t hear. He put a finger to his ear and his frown deepened.
And then he turned to me.
He didn’t tap my arm. I was too little for that. Instead he put his hand on my shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. Looking troubled, he glanced at the bazkide in the corner again, before giving me a tight smile. “You’ve been selected to move on to the red tent. Please… wait for the others there.”
The grin I’d been wearing for Martine’s success washed away like dish suds down the drain.
The red tent? Martine was going to the yellow tent, the next size down from the big one we were in. But the red tent was the one after that, another level smaller.
I wanted to object, to protest, or at least to ask questions and maybe complain a little. What the heck? I didn’t even want to be a hunter, why was he sending me on? I hadn’t done anything. But Samuel was already moving away from me. I stared after him, too shocked to speak.
Martine turned to Benjamin, still sitting on the ground, his mouth open in surprise, a half-eaten nut bar in his hand. “Quick,” she hissed at him. “Give me your water and your food.”
“What?” He put a protective hand over the open bag on the ground next to him.
She snapped her fingers at him, big sister to little brother. “Now.”
He started to fumble with the water bottle on his belt, protesting. “But Martine…”
She crouched, scooping the bag off the ground. She glanced inside, then tugged it closed, and took the water bottle he handed her. “If you make it to yellow, I’ll share mine with you,” she told him. She rose and pressed bag and bottle into my hands. “Here.”
“I can’t take those.” I shook my head, even as my fingers closed around the objects. Water bottles, good ones like the ones the Overlocks had, cost money. The bag was just a cloth bag with a cord tie, nothing special, but the bottle was valuable, a generous loan.
“You’ll need them,” Martine said. “It’s going to be a long day.”
“I told my ma I’d be home for lunch.” I couldn’t believe it. The red tent?
“You won’t be.” Martine put a hand on my arm and began tugging me along. I could feel eyes on me, some envious, more puzzled, and a little ripple of conversation following us through the tent.
We came out of the tent into the bright sunlight. People were waiting in the open space between the tents, a crowd of parents and townsfolk eager to learn the results. Two in hunter garb standing by the door broke off their conversation.
The first, a man with hair as dark as Martine’s own, stepped forward. “Yellow tent?”
“Aye.” She dropped my arm.
“We need to get you fitted out first,” he told her. “Practice gear and padding. We want no injuries this year.”
The second, a woman with an ash blonde braid wrapped around her head, looked to me. “Eliminating candidates already?” She sounded surprised, but her smile was kind when she added, “Don’t worry, child, you’ll have other chances. It’s not often someone so young makes it through.”
For a moment, I was wildly tempted to agree with her. Too bad, so sad, sent home first, but hey, that’s the way it works when you’re destined to be a cook. A good cook. One that knows exactly the right herbs to make a roast that’s seen better days taste like the finest and freshest cut. I don’t know those herbs yet, but I will by the time I’m a head cook.
But Martine turned back before I could say anything. “She’s been sent to the red tent.”
“The red — oh.” The woman blinked several times.
“What?” Martine’s hunter looked me over, scrutinizing me from top to bottom and back again as if I were a fine goat he was considering for the dinner table. When his eyes reached mine, I gave him my best glare, curling my lip in scorn. If I’d been a cat, I would have hissed at him.
He raised a hand defensively, not trying very hard to hide his laugh. “No offense intended, candidate.”
I might have liked to snap at him, but I knew it was Samuel — or maybe that bazkide in the ceiling — that I really wanted to snap at, so I didn’t. Instead I said, as coolly as I could, although I could feel heat in my cheeks, “Do I need practice gear as well?”
“No, you don’t.” He gave me a lopsided grin. “Apparently, Shiashia, the bazkide judge of the first round, deems you such an exemplary fighter that you don’t need to participate in the sparring round.”
For a minute, I was so distracted by the name — Shiashia — that I didn’t hear the rest of what he said. He said it soft and fast, like wind rustling leaves in trees. Or like a mother hushing a baby, the letters all blended together. It was nothing like any name I’d heard before. And then the rest of his words broke through my fascination.
I practically choked on my own spit. An exemplary fighter? Sparring round?
Maybe you’ve figured this out by now — honestly, if you’re not stupid, you should have figured it out by now — but I’m not a fighter. I don’t fight people. Kids get into spats at school or in the streets, but not me.
Sure, when I turned ten, I started learning Twos, the early afternoon exercises that we all did, and those are… well, more fighter-ly than morning flow and Elevens. When you pair off and you start bouncing people around and kicking them in the face, you kind of do know that you’re practicing for a fight. But I get bounced a lot more than I do the bouncing.
And when I get old enough, of course I’ll join all the townfolk in Sticks practice because everyone who’s healthy does. Yeah, we have the hunters and we have walls and we have the bazkide, but nobody — not even a cook in a merchant’s kitchen — makes it all the way through life without running into a monster of one kind or another.
I mean my plan, such as it is, means that any monsters I’d see would probably be small. Like maybe I’d have to stomp on a vamrat in my kitchen sometime, one that came up through the drains. Those are like rats, except bigger. Well, and with glowing red eyes. Oh, and fangs, too, of course — big ones that hang down over their little rat lips. But a sharpened stick through the skull would take care of one of them, no problem, and anyone that did Sticks learned that move fast.
And a cook might have to go outside the walls sometimes, to the fields or the orchards or one of the farms. Might even want to. A good cook might think it worth the risk to get the freshest food for her kitchen, to pick out her eggs special or make sure the dairy was clean enough for her tastes. Beyond the walls, there’s plenty of monsters — kelpies, manders, pixels, gorhawks, gremlins. The hunters keep the area around the city mostly safe, but the monsters are always trying to break through and the small ones do.
Plus, of course, there’s always the chance of a big wave attack. There’s not been one in my lifetime, nor yet even my ma’s lifetime, but the last one was just before she was born. They think what happens with a wave is that the doors that let the monsters onto our world to begin with open again letting a new batch through. New ones and different ones, like someone with a big monster kettle is cooking up new nightmares for us. It hasn’t happened in a while, but the oldsters always fret that just means we’re due.
So yeah, maybe someday I’d have to fight a monster. Probably someday I’d have to fight a monster. But that didn’t mean I was a fighter today. And sure as heck didn’t mean that I’d make it through the yellow tent. Put me up against Martine or the kid in blue or any of the biggers for a Twos match and I’d be bouncing on my butt in no time flat.
“I… I…” I spluttered. I wanted to explain that there had been some kind of mistake, that the bazkide with the swishy name had gotten me mixed up with somebody else, but behind me a big tweener I vaguely knew from the market, simmering with excitement, emerged from the tent. Another hunter stepped up to escort her to get her practice gear while the hunter with the braid put her hand on my back and began steering me away.
“The bazkide choose and Shiashia has spoken,” she said, as if she could hear the arguments that I hadn’t quite managed to form.
But it hadn’t, I wanted to complain. It hadn’t said a word. This was all Samuel’s fault.
At the entrance to the red tent, the blonde hunter dropped her hand from my back. “Don’t be afraid.”
I wanted to snort at her. What kind of advice was that? Might as well tell me not to breathe. Tweeners died in these trials and I didn’t want to die.
Couldn’t afford to die, I reminded myself. No leaving Ma alone.
She lifted the panel of fabric that covered the entrance and gestured for me to go inside.
My mouth was dry and my hand tightened on the water bottle I still held. I should tie it to my belt, the way Martine had, so I didn’t lose it.
So I had my hands free in case I needed them.
In case something jumped me the second I went inside.
“Go on.” The hunter nodded at the dark space beyond the opening.
Why was it so dark in there? The blue tent had been nice and bright. The red tent wasn’t a bright red, but a deep maroon color. Was it woven more closely or of a denser material? I eyed the fabric as I fastened the water bottle and the bag to my belt. It looked just as silky and light as the other tent. But I couldn’t see a foot past the opening.
The hunter waited patiently while I fumbled with the items Martine had given me, but now she tried again. “You’ll be fine. Go on in.”
I lifted my chin. I wasn’t sure she and I thought about fine the same way. Fine would be me heading home for lunch, thinking about how I could stretch the soup we had on the fire for another three or four meals and hoping Ma had gotten out of bed. She didn’t always and she hadn’t before I left in the morning. I’d called into her room to say “good-bye” and she’d murmured something in response, but I wasn’t sure she even remembered that today was the trials. Sometimes she forgot things.
But I wasn’t minded to argue with the hunter. I gave her a brusque nod and stepped into the tent. She let the panel drop behind me.
I was right, it was too dark inside. Too dark and too quiet. The sounds from the crowd outside — vendors calling, musicians playing, the hustle and bustle of people going about their business — dropped away like night had somehow fallen all at once.
I took two quick steps to the side and froze, listening as hard as I could. I couldn’t hear a thing, not a blame thing, but somehow I knew there was life inside the tent with me. Lots of life. I could feel it in the air, wafts of movement as if the darkness held dancers, spinning around a floor above me.
But that made no sense.
Wings, I realized, when the air stilled. The life had been in flight. There were birds in the tent. Well, or bazkide. Obviously bazkide.
I swallowed. I let my hand skim the surface of the water bottle, seeking some kind of reassurance. Martine had been through the trials twice before, although I didn’t know how far she’d gotten, and she’d thought I would need this water bottle, so nothing bad was going to happen to me right now, not this soon, anyway. And I was just supposed to wait here.
Maybe it was dark because they didn’t expect me? Maybe the lights would come on if they knew that I was supposed to be here?
“I’m here for the trials,” I called out. My voice sounded small and thin in the darkness. It annoyed me, so I took a deep breath and used a louder, stronger voice when I added, “I know I’m early but that ain’t my fault. Samuel told me to come here and wait.”
Slowly, a cool grey light, sorta like the light of very, very early morning, began to fill the tent.
My mouth dropped open and I pulled it closed right quick. I was in a forest. A serious forest with trees reaching way above my head, trunks as wide around as two of me. That just wasn’t possible. I’d walked into the tent and it was half the size, if that, of the blue-gray tent. The ceiling couldn’t be more than ten feet high and no way would these trees fit inside it.
Illusion, I realized. I was walking in an illusion.
Well, that was interesting. And kind of cool. I knew the bazkide were magic, of course. But I’d never seen magic in action before, not really. People would say spells and charms, little ones, but who knew if they actually did anything?
Our next-door neighbor, Billy Mackey, always said a charm when he lit his fire, swore by it. But he still used a fire-starter to do the actual lighting. Not like the charm worked without the spark.
I felt rather than heard words. Find what does not belong.
That doesn’t describe it right. The words — it was like I’d overheard something from another room, words that were distant but still real. I didn’t imagine them and I knew I didn’t imagine them. They weren’t just in my head. They were outside me, but they weren’t a sound, they were… well, more like a breeze. A motion in the air that had meaning. It was weird, but not weirder than giant trees in a tent.
I didn’t move from where I was, still two steps away from the panel covering the door, but I let my eyes survey everything I could see. Find what doesn’t belong, huh? I didn’t know much about forests. I was a city girl, lived inside the walls all my life. I’d seen pictures, but how was I supposed to know what was right and what was wrong in a place I’d never been?
It looked pretty cool, though. The cool light was turning more golden, as if the sun was actually rising, and it was angling through the leaves the right way, as if the light had density of its own.
The shadows were wrong, though.
After my pa died, my ma spent a lot of time in the dark. I didn’t much like sitting with her, but I did anyway, ‘cause it felt like if I didn’t, she’d just fade away and disappear. I’d light our old oil lamp or a candle if we were outta oil, and tell her about my day and what happened at school and how the garden was doing and the news from the neighborhood. Eventually I’d run out of stuff to say, and then we’d just sit together.
It gave me a lot of time to learn about shadows.
The illusion shadows were gray, with sort of a bluish tint to them, like sunlight shadows. They overlapped, the way shadows do, different sizes and shapes, so that I couldn’t really tell where one shadow ended and another began. But there was a much darker area of shadow pretty near me, a deep black shadow, like it was made by light from a lamp, not the sun.
I didn’t move but I looked real hard at it, tracing it back to its base. It belonged to one of the trees. The tree looked like all the other trees, tall, leafy, your basic plant made out of wood and plant stuff. Except the more I considered it, the more I wasn’t so sure it was like the others. The bark was smooth and sort of shiny and all the other trees had bark that looked rough and scratchy.
I lifted a hand and pointed at the tree. “That tree don’t belong.”
One sounded around me. It came flavored with a feeling, sorta surprised. Not mean surprised, though. Just… interested.
The tree shimmered and shook, the gray of the bark melting into a deep royal blue shade. I stepped back, my breath catching in my throat, as the tree dissolved and a bazkide slid into the air, lifting off the ground and driving up in a way that I’d never seen a bird do. It was like it was diving almost, only in the wrong direction, up instead of down. It swooped in a lazy circle, a dark eye on me, and then disappeared.
I swallowed, licking suddenly dry lips. I rested my hand on Benjamin’s water bottle. Long day, I reminded myself. Nothing bad was going to happen to me, at least not yet.
I waited, but the voice didn’t say anything else.
One, huh? Okay, maybe that meant there was supposed to be a two. I started looking around again. Nothing else looked wrong. Top to bottom and back up again, it all seemed to fit together the way things do. Leaves up top and in the middle, trunks down below, scrubby bushes on the ground. A couple trees had vine-y things growing on them, but they didn’t look like they weren’t supposed to be there.
A path led into the forest. The steps I’d taken away from the door had taken me away from it. From where I was, if I tried to walk straight, I’d be walking plumb into a tree trunk. If it was illusion, maybe I’d go right through. Probably I’d go right through.
I wondered if I could find the things that didn’t belong by closing my eyes and staggering around the tent, hands outstretched, feeling for objects that were solid, that were casting real shadows. My lips twitched at the picture. Wouldn’t I look a right fool then? That ought to get me sent home nice and quick. But it would also be humiliating.
Plus, if I’d grabbed at that tree, I would have been grabbing a bazkide. I didn’t know how the bazkide would feel about some kid grabbing at it, but if I was the bazkide, I wouldn’t like it much. I might bite. Or snap off the kid’s fingers.
Instead, I stepped back onto the path. Sticking close to the edge, I tentatively stepped deeper into the forest, letting my gaze slide over everything I could see and paying particular attention to the shadows. Illusion or not, under the trees, it was harder to distinguish one shadow from the next.
A large rock sat next to a stump. I eyed it. Sure looked like a rock. You could maybe even call it a boulder. It was big and solid, yellow with streaks of gray running through it. Nothing strange about it. Just your basic granite. But how did it wind up so close to a tree stump? Wouldn’t it have been hard for the tree to grow up with that rock looming over it?
And why a big granite boulder here, in this forest? Were there other yellow rocks around? The ground was mostly covered in leaves — leaves that didn’t crunch underfoot — so I couldn’t see any other stones, but that didn’t mean they weren’t there.
Still, I didn’t like the rock. I was too far away from it to see the ground around it clearly, so I stepped closer. The shadows were definitely darker, too dark. I pointed at the boulder. “That rock don’t belong.”
Two. It was a chime on the wind. It sounded pleased.
In front of me, the boulder unfurled, doubling, tripling, quadrupling in size as its wings lifted. I managed to swallow my eep of shock as dark eyes met mine before the wings drove down and the bazkide shot into the air.
The voice didn’t say anything else, which had to mean that I wasn’t done. I took a deep breath and started looking again.
The third bazkide was a bush, one with green berries on it. Nothing so unusual about green berries — most of ‘em are green for a while before they get ripe and it was too early in the season for any berries to be ripe, not even the earliest of them. But these berries were shaped like strawberries, not blueberries or raspberries or blackberries. I love strawberries. Ma and me had planted them all along the border of our garden, so I know exactly how they look when they’re growing, little leafy plants with white flowers and the berries hiding right next to the dirt. Not on bushes.
I considered a vine with red leaves on it for a bit. The red was bright, the colors crawling up a tree. But the vine didn’t cast any strange shadows and it seemed to me like maybe those leaves were just meant to be red. It was early in the year for leaves to get colorful, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t. I finally left that one alone without saying anything about it. Maybe it was wrong, but it didn’t look wrong enough to bother me.
The fourth bazkide wasn’t so well hidden. It was disguised as a big cat, sitting on a high branch. I spotted it from the shadow first, but its tail was making a lazy sort of movement in the branches that caught my eye, too. I considered it for a few seconds. Nothing wrong with a cat in a tree. It might belong in a forest.
But this cat was big and golden and had a face surrounded by lush golden fur. The name finally popped into my head. Lion. It was a lion in the tree. Did lions climb trees? Did lions live in forests like this one?
I couldn’t say as I knew much about lions — mostly one from an old, old story my pa used to tell before he went off on one of his merchanting trips, where the lion wanted more than anything to be brave — but I didn’t think this lion belonged in this forest. It was too big for the branch it was on and too yellow for a forest with so much green and gray and brown.
When I pointed it out, the voice agreed with me, chiming Four right away.
When the bazkide transformed back into its proper self, it wasn’t much bigger than its lion self. And it looked at me for a long, long minute.
Well, okay, it probably wasn’t a minute. It was probably more like twenty seconds. Maybe not even that. Maybe five seconds. But five seconds is a long time when you’re being stared at by a magical monster that had just been pretending to be a ferocious predator.
I was scared. I admit it. My heart was beating fit to join a band, one of the ones heavy on syncopated rhythm. Maybe one of the ones outside having fun right now. So I narrowed my eyes and said, “You were the one waggled your tail. If you didn’t want me to find you, you shoulda kept still.”
The bazkide’s faces aren’t like ours. Their mouths look sort of like a bird’s mouth would if a bird had a mouth instead of a beak, kinda triangular and straight, instead of curvy and flexible like ours. Their noses are flat, not like noses at all, more just holes in their scales. And their eyes are round and sort of shiny, but they don’t seem to have lids. I don’t know how they blink or even if they do. I sure hadn’t seen one blink or smile. But this one opened its mouth wide right before it leaped into the air, and I sort of thought it was laughing at me.
I wasn’t sure what I thought about that. Did bazkide laugh? Did it think I was funny in a bad way? Like maybe it was laughing that I even thought I could be a hunter? Not that I did, but it didn’t know that.
But maybe it was a good laugh. Maybe it thought I was funny. Laughs could be hard to understand. Course, I didn’t really even know if the bazkide was laughing. Maybe it was yawning to show how bored it was.
I shook my head at myself. No point in trying to figure out the bazkide. Once I failed out of this trial, I wouldn’t see them again for another three years.
The fifth bazkide was even easier to spot than the lion, ‘cause it was pretending to be a gremlin. Gremlins aren’t the biggest or toughest monsters, but they’re mean as anything. They’ve got sharp teeth and they aren’t afraid to use ‘em. Unless there’s a swarm of them, though, you don’t have to be scared of them. One gremlin can’t do much damage. Not to people, anyway. Some say there used to be a lot more house cats in the world before the gremlins came through the doors.
But gremlins don’t live in forests. They like people stuff. Ruins, sewers, broken pipes. The things that we built a long time ago, the old cities especially. They don’t want to be out here in nature anymore than I did. So I pointed out the gremlin quick as could be, soon as I got near enough to hear it rustling in the undergrowth and see its orange shaggy head. It transformed into a bazkide almost as pretty as the one I saw in the first tent, with feathers of an iridescent blue that started out light as a daytime sky and shaded down to midnight.
I was starting to feel okay. This wasn’t as scary as it’d felt at first. The forest illusion was kind of pretty even, the ways the branches arched off the trees, the colors of the leaves blending together. Then the voice said, Five minutes until conclusion of trial.
Five minutes? I couldn’t tell how far the forest extended and I didn’t have any idea how it all fit into the tent, but it felt like I had a lot more to look at. I wanted to say bad words under my breath. Then I remembered that I didn’t want to pass this weird little test. Last thing I needed was to be out in some real forest, looking for lions in the treetops and gremlins in the grass.
Feeling more cheerful, I kept walking. Maybe I’d make it home by lunchtime after all. I started thinking about what we’d be eating — soup, of course, but if Ma had gotten out of bed, she might be making bread.
Her bread’s better than her biscuits, ‘cause she’s got a sourdough starter that we’ve been feeding for years. She’s promised me that when I finally get my job as a cook and have a kitchen of my own, she’ll give me some to take with me. I already know how to make sourdough pretzels. When I was little we used to have sourdough pancakes and I really want to learn how to make those. But they make Ma sad so we don’t eat them much anymore. When I get a job, though, I’m gonna buy syrup, real syrup.
Even though I was thinking about food, my eyes kept scanning, watching the shadows as I slowly followed the path.
The shadows didn’t help me spot the monster, though.
It wasn’t much of a monster, but I stopped walking as soon as I saw it.
Mostly, it looked like a wet patch in the path, as if it were a low spot collecting rainwater and making the leaves and the dirt damper than the surrounding area. But I was pretty sure — even though I’d never seen one like it before — that it was a pudzu.
People argue about pudzus. There are at least two different kinds. The first kind is everywhere and they’re like little pools of acid. Step in one and it’ll burn off your shoes and your socks and your skin and down into bone, fast as can be. If you’re not smart enough to get away from it right quick, it’ll eat you all up eventually, although if you’re alive enough to step in one, I’d think you’d be alive enough to run out. But let’s just say you shouldn’t take your time about it.
Depending on how big it is and what color it is, there’s stuff you can throw in a pudzu to make it go away. You don’t want to feed it — giving it meat or blood or anything like that will just make it get bigger. But everyone keeps pudzu powder around to get rid of the little ones that show up out of nowhere. The powder dries them up and turns them into dust.
The other type of pudzu are much rarer. They hardly ever show up inside the city walls and I’d never seen one, only heard stories. Those pudzu look just like the others — exact same, a wet patch where there shouldn’t ought to be one, or if they’ve gotten big, a puddle with water that looks murkier than it ought.
But they’re not the same.
Some people say they aren’t monsters at all, that they’re portals to the monster world. Others say we can only see part of the pudzu, that the part on the top of the ground is the mouth and when you step into it, you slide on down into the belly, which is hidden either under the ground or in some other dimension, and then they digest you slowly.
Me, I’m not sure it makes a difference. If you step on the wrong kind of pudzu, there’s no running away from it. Swish, down you go and then you’re gone. And if they are a portal to the monster world, no one’s ever come back to say what it’s like over there. Safe bet, it’s not nice.
Anyway, I was still sticking close to the edges of the path and it seemed to me that there was room to go around it. But was it really a bazkide? The question the voice had asked was “Find what does not belong.” A pudzu… well, maybe it belonged in the forest, maybe it didn’t. It wasn’t unusual, not like a lion. Not like a gremlin.
Of course, by human standards none of the monsters belonged. This was our world before the monsters came. Back in the day, there were no pudzu. Some kid went walking in the forest, maybe they had to worry about bears, but not puddles that might eat them up.
That was a long time ago, though.
If I had a stick, I’d poke it in the ground, see what happened. If the stick slid way deep, I’d know for sure the wet spot was a pudzu. Then I could decide whether to point it out to the voice or not. But I didn’t have a stick.
The bag of nut bars Martine had given me was still hanging off my belt. I hadn’t eaten any yet — hadn’t needed to. But I opened it now and pulled a bar out. They were nice ones, not just grains, but with real bits of nut and even what looked like some dried berries. I sniffed it. Blueberries, maybe.
I broke off a tiny corner — hardly bigger than a crumb — and tossed it onto the wet patch in the path. It sizzled and smoked and then disappeared.
Yep, that was a pudzu. But the normal kind of pudzu, not the hole-that-would-swallow-you-whole kind.
I thought about it for a little bit while I took a nibble or two off the nut bar, then I stuck the remains of the nut bar back into my bag and walked around the pudzu, steering clear of its edges. A pudzu wasn’t out of place in a forest. Heck, it wasn’t out of place anywhere anymore. If it didn’t belong in an illusory forest, then neither did the bazkide and I wasn’t going to be the one to tell them so.
I ought to only have a few minutes left before my time was up, but I didn’t hurry and I watched the ground and the shadows even more carefully.
I only had time to find one more bazkide, though, and no one could have missed that one. It was disguised as a lamp post. Not like one of the lamp posts in the old cities or along the old roads, twenty feet high and arching over the street, and not a hook in the wall where you could hang an oil lamp to light the path to your door, but a black metal pole, sort of ridged, that stuck up out of the ground with a light on top sitting in a little house of its own. It was cute as anything. But I pointed to it and said, “That doesn’t belong,” and the voice chimed Six and then This trial is complete.
The lights came up and for a minute, I could see red walls, glowing with a warm light as if the fabric was letting in sunlight from the other side, through the forest. And then the forest faded away like it had never existed. Which I guess technically it hadn’t, since it was all illusion. If I had touched the pudzu, would it have burned me, or was the smoke and sizzle just part of the magic?
I glanced behind me in time to see a bazkide launch itself into the air. A couple others on the ground did the same. Up in the rope rafters of the tent, more bazkide sat.
I wasn’t scared of them anymore, not like I was with the first one I saw. I just stuck my chin up and waited for what they’d say next.
Can you believe it?
Okay, sorry, I’m getting a bit boring here, aren’t I? But I couldn’t believe it.
The bazkide all looked at me for a while. I stood there, my chin up in the air, feeling like a little speck of a person. It’s not that the bazkide are so big —bigger than a person, sure, but not like dragon-sized or anything.
And no, there aren’t real dragons. At least not that I know about, not around here. The biggest monster I’ve ever heard of is a thing called a ramoosa. I know, it sounds like a toy, like something little kids should play with, but it’s not. It’s a huge furry creature with a long, long neck. Flat teeth, and it doesn’t eat people, but by huge, I mean enormous. A fully-grown ramoosa can stomp a field into nothing and probably doesn’t even notice when it knocks over a house or two. Fortunately, they’re rare and it takes them a long time to grow enormous. Mostly people manage to kill them these days when they’re young, the size of a horse or a cow, before they can start trampling over houses.
Anyway, the bazkide are big, but nowhere close to ramoosa-sized. But having a lot of them looking at you, all very silently, while roosted up above you, would make you feel small, too. I guarantee it. I think they were talking to one another, even though I couldn’t hear them. I’m not sure why I think that — it’s not like they were all opening and closing their mouths or anything, but it was just a feeling I had. Like there was a big silent argument going on.
I tried to see if I could recognize any of them, and I could, right away. The bazkide that had been a lion was up front, looking down at me. It wasn’t very big for a bazkide, lion-sized like I said before, and it was still colored yellow and brown, sorta like a lion. I wondered if that was why it had picked that shape. Was it easier to shift into a shape if you didn’t have to think about changing size and color? Did the bazkide have to learn the different shapes they could shift into?
People didn’t know much about the bazkide. Well, the hunters did probably. They probably knew lots about them. But they didn’t talk. You’d think they would. That they’d come home and tell all sorts of stories, that they’d be down in the serving houses knocking back pitchers of ale and bragging about all their adventures and the monsters they’ve defeated, but they don’t much. Partly that’s ‘cause they don’t spend a lot of time in town. But even when they do, they mostly spend it with other hunters.
The lion bazkide was staring at me so I stared back at it. It wasn’t like the first bazkide I’d seen, the one that made me feel like I oughta be really polite and respectful. It made me want to stick my tongue out at it. But I didn’t. I was thinking about it, though, and then the lion bazkide opened its mouth, the way it had before, like it was laughing at me, and the voice said, Approved.
I looked all around, trying to see where the voice came from, but I couldn’t tell. It felt directionless, as if it came from the air around me, not a chest and lungs of someone or something above me. Above, because I was the only one on the ground. Something, because I was the only human being in the tent.
At least until a fold of the tent lifted and the blonde hunter stuck her head in. “Congratulations,” she said, but I could hear the doubt in her voice. “You get to move on to the purple tent now.”
Approved. That was what the voice had meant. I wanted to protest. I hadn’t finished. There was lots more forest to look through. I’d been slow! What were they thinking?
“But…” I started.
“Come along,” she said briskly. “The next candidate needs to start this trial.”
I gazed up at the bazkide. The lion one was still looking at me, still laughing. If that was a laugh.
I frowned disapprovingly at it. Didn’t it understand what a serious business this was? I would be a terrible hunter. Really, terrible.
But there wasn’t anything I could say. Reluctantly, my feet dragging, I followed the hunter out of the tent. A short line of hunter candidates had formed at the entrance. The boy in blue was there and so was Martine. She looked a little the worse for wear, with a red welt along her cheekbone that was sure to form a bruise.
“Ouch,” I said to her, nodding toward her face.
She grinned, a fierce light in her eyes. “Not a problem.”
“I guess you won, huh?”
“Something like that.”
The boy behind her in line, vaguely familiar to me from the market, snorted. I think he was the youngest of the baker’s kids, definitely old enough that this would be his last trial. If he didn’t make it as a hunter, he’d be carting trays of bread around for the rest of his life. Not a bad life if you asked me.
“If you can call that a win,” he said.
“The bazkide did, and that’s all that matters,” Martine said smartly, whipping her head around to face him.
“The rules of a fair fight…” the boy started heatedly
“There aren’t any rules in the trials,” my hunter escort interrupted him. “There aren’t any rules in the badlands, either.” She eyed Martine. “Kicked him in the balls, didja?”
Martine pressed her lips together.
The corner of the hunter’s lip curled up. “It’s always the guys that have a problem with that. Knowing your opponent’s weakness and targeting it is good strategy. Got to be careful not to leave yourself vulnerable, though.” She tilted her head, considering Martine’s face. “About two inches higher and you’d be having trouble seeing out of that eye until it healed up. That’s a disadvantage in the trials, and a danger in the badlands.” She let her gaze pass over all the candidates.
It came to rest on me. She pressed her lips together as if to stop herself from saying anything more and jerked her head at me. “Come on.”
She gave a formal nod to the others. “Make your luck, candidates.”
She set a fast pace, but I had no problem keeping up with her. I stayed close at her heels, ignoring the stares of townsfolk we passed, as she led the way past the food stalls. Smells of simmering broth and grilled meat were starting to drift into the air as lunch preparations began in earnest, but the weather was changing, the sky getting dark with clouds. Just what the day needed, rain.
I wondered if the tents leaked.
I wondered if that lion bazkide was young, if that’s why it was smaller than the others.
I did not wonder what the next test was going to be, because what would be the point?
And I really, truly, definitely didn’t wonder which tent had lost Kellum the use of his leg or killed the two tweeners back when I was a little. Was it the tent I’d skipped or was it the one I was headed to?
All right, that’s a lie. I was wondering that, hard, so hard it was twisting my stomach into knots. But I didn’t want to be. I pushed myself to wonder about other things instead.
What had the hunter been thinking right before she stopped talking? When she looked at me, and it was like she was going to say something but then she stopped herself?
Only one way to find out.
“What were you going to say?” I felt like I was asking the question to her elbow, she was walking so quick and I so close behind her.
“What?” She tossed the word over her shoulder.
“Back there. You wanted to say something and you stopped yourself.”
She stopped walking, so abrupt I nearly climbed right over her, and shot me another look. Just like the last one, like she was torn between saying something and keeping her mouth closed.
“Just say it,” I told her. “You know you want to.” I didn’t try to coax or look pleading. I’ll pull that sometimes, if I think it’ll work, especially in the market. Lots of traders are willing to throw in a little extra something if you make your eyes real big and hopeful. Once I got a whole basket of apples. Pretty bruised, but they made good applesauce. The hunter didn’t seem like the kind with a soft spot for cute little girls, though.
“Hoping for an edge up?” she asked, her voice tight.
“Pfft.” I rocked back on my heels. “I’m not looking to get myself killed, that’s all. I’ve got a ma as needs me and I aim to be headed home, safe and sound, at the end of this day.”
Her expression softened, just a little, her lips relaxing. She paused, looking me over again, and a tiny line formed between her eyes. “I’m not saying anything about the trials. The bazkide decide and…” She shook her head and let the words trail off, before her expression went intent again. “Remember who you’re fighting, that’s all.”
She turned away and strode off.
I hurried after her, with a new thought to wonder at.
I had plenty of time to wonder at it, too. She took me to the purple tent and left me there, on the empty inside, and then I waited. And waited. And waited some more.
I paced the entire edge of the tent, walking all the way around it. And then I did it again, the other direction. Then I decided I should be saving my energy and sat down on the ground. I stared up at the ceiling. There were no bazkide inside this tent, not yet anyway.
When the rain started, I could hear it, pattering on the roof of the tent. You’d think, cloth tent and all, that it would soak right through, that the cloth would get sodden and drippy, but that’s not what happened. It sounded like the pitter-patter of tiny mouse feet running across the ceiling, but it went on and on and on.
It was sort of a peaceful sound when it came right down to it, but I wasn’t feeling real peaceful. My stomach was getting growly, so I ate one of the nut bars, stretching it out, real slow, one nibble at a time, wondering if Ma was getting up for lunch, and then going back to thinking about what the hunter had said, and then thinking about the lion bazkide again.
I should have asked the hunter how bazkide laughed, that’s what I should have asked.
Knowing what she’d wanted to say got me nowhere because I didn’t know what she’d meant. We weren’t fighting anyone. Well, the other candidates, they’d fought each other, that was obvious. Martine had kicked some poor guy, taken a punch in the face. I wondered if any of the other tweeners standing in that line were hurt.
What was taking them so long?
I scrambled to my feet as soon as the first of them joined me. It was the boy in blue. He flashed me a grin.
“Lions and tigers and bears, oh, my,” he said by way of a greeting.
My eyebrows shot up. “Did you see a tiger?”
He looked surprised. “Didn’t you?”
I shook my head. “Nor a bear, neither.”
His turn for his eyebrows to rise. “That was the last one I got.” He glanced around. “But we’re the only ones here? So the two in front of me didn’t make it.” He eyed me and I could see the emotions crossing his face — curiosity, skepticism, doubt — but then he shrugged and touched his chest. “Ty.”
“Kasea,” I said, brushing my fingertips against my own jacket.
Martine was the next to join us, and the baker’s kid after her. His name was Jero, I learned, when he started hassling Martine again and Ty told him to shut up. Martine didn’t take offense at either of them, but she rolled her eyes and came to stand by me.
Others trickled in, one by one, until about twenty of us were gathered. I didn’t know most of the others real well: I recognized faces, sure, but they were older, mostly, not my friends. Some of them talked in quiet voices to one another, but all of us stayed hushed. Something about the ongoing rain on the roof of the tent made quiet seem right.
The last one in was a surprise: it was Rafe, Benjamin’s friend. He ducked his head at Martine and me, and came to join us.
“Good job, Rafe.” Martine squeezed his shoulder. He didn’t say anything — he never much did — but it looked like maybe his cheeks went a little darker, whether in pleasure or embarrassment, I didn’t know.
Four hunters, including the blonde one, followed Rafe in through the opening in the tent. Two of them were carrying something between them that looked a log, but heavy and made out of a wood darker than any I’d ever seen, almost black. Maybe it was a log that had been fire-charred? But as they brought it into the center of the tent and set it down on the ground, I could see that it wasn’t charred, nor maybe wood at all. And the edges were too perfectly round and even for it to be nature-grown.
More hunters were bringing in chests, then racks of weapons. They didn’t hold practice gear, but the real thing. Swords, bows, even some weapons I didn’t recognize. What were the long spiky things or the balls tied to chains?
“Candidates, welcome to the final trial before the bazkide make their decisions.” The hunter who’d taken Martine to the yellow tent was the one who spoke. He wore a friendly smile, but all the other hunters looked stern.
Smiling-hunter kept talking — about being a hunter, the risks, the difficulty, it not being meant for all, the honor of making it this far — sorta the same stuff Samuel talked about in the morning. I paid about as much attention as I had to Samuel.
The two hunters who’d carried in the not-log were kneeling next to it in the bare dirt of the tent floor and fussing around its edges. Between them sprang up a… thing. I’d never seen anything like it before. It looked like heat haze, like sometimes shows on the old roads in the hottest days of summer, when the air goes shimmery. But this was much too big, much too high, and much too dense. Like heat haze times a hundred, maybe.
Smiling-hunter gestured to the chests and weapons racks, and then the haze. “Take your choice of equipment and enter the door. The path is marked. Make your luck, candidates.”
Door? That was a door?
I was standing still, not sure what to do, but most of the biggers were already on the move, rushing to the chests and racks.
“This is the big one,” Martine said to me and Rafe in a low voice. “Be careful out there. Remember, the bazkide are watching every moment, so if you get in trouble too deep, call for help. You’ll have other chances.” She gave each of us a pat on the shoulder and headed toward a weapon rack on the other side of the tent, one that held bows.
I exchanged glances with Rafe.
There was a part of me that wanted to call for help right away. Walking through that heat haze seemed like just about the stupidest thing I’d ever been asked to do. It had to lead into the wilds, and I wanted no part of the wilds.
But… well, I was curious. Wouldn’t you have been? I’d never been outside the city walls before.
Rafe lifted a shoulder in a shrug.
“It’s why we’re here,” I said, my voice doubtful. Maybe the bazkide would rescue us, but what were we supposed to do out there?
He flashed a quick grin at me, and nodded, before heading for the nearest chest. Some of the biggers were already disappearing through the haze and the closest racks were empty. Someone had even taken the tall spiky job. What did they expect to do with it? Poke a monster in the chest?
I knew nothing about weapons. I’d never used a bow and I hadn’t started Sticks training yet. And the smiling hunter hadn’t said anything about killing monsters. Oh, sure, maybe it made sense that a trial for monster hunters involved some monster-hunting, but all he’d said was that the path was marked. Unless he’d said other when I wasn’t much listening.
I decided to skip the weapons. I’d go through the haze, I’d find the marked path, and I’d follow it far as I could. And when I got in trouble, I’d scream for help, the bazkide would rescue me, and I’d get sent home and not have to worry about the stupid trials for another three years.
But my mouth felt dry and I swallowed hard as I stepped up to the haze. I shot a glance at the hunter standing to one side of it, her arms folded across her chest. She wasn’t smiling, but she winked at me and I felt a little better.
“Hurry up,” snapped a voice behind me. Jero, of course. “Ain’t got all day.”
I was a mite minded to argue with him. We did so have all day, the trials always lasted a full day, if not longer. But he wasn’t worth the bother. I stopped hesitating and walked straight through the haze.
It wasn’t raining.
And it smelled. Not bad, just different. I sniffed, then took a deep breath, filling my lungs. The air held no smoke, no scents of cooking, none of the odors of people jammed together into small spaces. No hint of sewage or rotting food. Instead, the air smelled green, like vegetables and dirt.
I took a careful look around, trying to take it all in, as another candidate came out of the haze behind me, shoving me in his rush to get by. I staggered a couple steps sideways and said, “Hey!” right sharp, but he just shot me a scornful look and hurried past. It wasn’t Jero, but Jero smirked at me as he passed me by, too.
I let them go. I didn’t know why’d they’d decided this was a race to the finish line. Had the hunter said we needed to hurry? If so, I’d missed it. But I since I didn’t care about winning, I was going to take my own sweet time.
It was easy to see the path. The smiling hunter hadn’t lied about it being clearly marked. Yellow strips of cloth were tied to posts that marked the edges of one of the old roads. On either side of the road, buildings were being rapidly overrun with vegetation, plants breaking through the cracks in the concrete, shooting up in the shadows of the walls.
The plants weren’t ones I recognized. Not that I knew all that much about plants, but the trees weren’t like the ones that grew in town. They were taller, spikier. Some of them had bark that grew in ruffles, like a fancy dress, except pointed the wrong way, as if the tree trunk was an upside down skirt. And the leaves at the top of those swooshed out like enormous green flowers, instead of normal little leaves.
The air felt wrong, too. It was heavy and wet, like a deep summer day except without the heat, just with the damp. I glanced at the sky, wondering if we were in for a storm here, too, but although it was overcast, the clouds were white, not gray.
I felt my mouth twitching into a smile. Okay, so I ought to be terrified — out in the wilds and all — but I’d just stepped through a magic portal, maybe like the ones the monsters had come through so many years ago, and it had taken me to a place totally unlike anywhere I’d ever been. How cool was that?
Most of the candidates were disappearing into the distance down the road. I followed, my head swiveling from side to side as I tried to take it all in.
The buildings were the old kind, with lots of glass in their fronts. No one built like that anymore — glass broke too easy when the monsters swarmed — but these buildings had never been through an attack. Some of the windows still survived, although the buildings were clearly deserted, long since abandoned. They had the bright colors of old style buildings, too —signs in reds and yellows and greens — even though the colors were faded.
Rafe jogged up behind me. He had a long knife in his hand, not quite a short sword, but a solid foot long blade, and another two, not quite so long, tucked into his belt. He dropped to a walk next to me.
“You know how to use that?” I asked him with a nod toward his knife.
His head shake was so minimal I might have missed it if I hadn’t been watching so close. I pursed my lips but I didn’t say anything more. Maybe I should have taken a weapon of some kind. The hunters put them out, so they obviously expected us to use them, but what good was a weapon that you didn’t have the skill to wield? If I ran into a monster, my best skill — no, my only skill — was speed and maybe agility. And depending on the monster, maybe being little enough to hide in places the monster couldn’t get into. I didn’t think a knife or two or three would save me. And I didn’t think they’d save Rafe either.
“Don’t you want to run on ahead?” The larger pack of candidates was almost out of sight now.
His head shake was much more visible this time. He didn’t seem inclined to respond otherwise.
I didn’t know Rafe well. Maybe no one did. He was friends with Benjamin and Benjamin was the kind of kid who overshadowed the people around him. Benjamin was loud and boisterous and mouthy and Rafe was… a shadow. Had he decided to be my shadow in Benjamin’s absence? If so, I wasn’t sure I was complimented. I didn’t think of myself as having much in common with Benjamin. In fact, nothing at all.
On the other hand, Rafe was sticking by me and he was armed and I wasn’t. That seemed right nice of him.
I fell silent. I didn’t want to keep trying to get answers out of Rafe and it felt like a place where quiet was the right idea, even more so than the tent we’d just left. If there was anything around us, I’d just as soon it didn’t hear us.
If monsters attacked, would they attack the larger gang of candidates out in front of us? Or would those candidates make noise, attracting the monsters, who would then decide to attack the stragglers at the back of the pack, namely Rafe and me? Were we like vulnerable sheep in a herd, letting ourselves get cut off from the others?
Together, we walked along the road. It was broken in spots, but still made for easy walking. After a few minutes, I got tired of jumping every time the wind rustled a leaf in a tree and started to relax.
We came up to a corner. The building on the right must have been a fuel depot. The building on the right might have been a fuel depot or something of the like. It was a burned out wreck, with twisted metal pumps out front. The yellow strips of cloth continued to the side of it, the path leading off the smooth road and down a dirt path.
Ahead of us, I heard something. I put a hand out to stop Rafe, but he’d heard it, too. He’d already paused.
Not shrieks of fear, though.
Yelling, angry yelling.
Rafe and I exchanged glances.
I didn’t much want to go down the dirt path toward the yelling, but I wasn’t about to go wandering off into the wilds either. If the bazkire were watching, they were watching the path we were on. And the way home was to follow the path. Being in the wilds was all well and good, but I wanted to be safe at home by the end of the day.
But I had to hold back a sigh as I nodded toward Rafe. He moved ahead of me on the path, poking that big knife out in front of him like a torch.
The path led behind the building, past a wire fence and a lot of broken pavement and into some trees. By the time we got to the trees, the yelling had stopped. The path continued down a steep slope. At the bottom of the slope, Martine was crouched next to Ty.
He was rocking, white-lipped, holding his knee to his chest.
Rafe slithered down the hill, sliding down the last part in a pile of dust. I followed more cautiously, walking sideways in the steepest bits and being careful of my footing.
Martine glanced up at the sound of our arrival. She looked white-lipped, too, but with fury. Her eyes were snapping.
“Was all that yelling you?” I asked.
“Jero,” she replied briefly. “Well, me, too, yelling at him, but…” She shook her head. “He’s an ass.”
“So stupid,” Ty muttered. He didn’t seem to care that we were there. It was easy to see that it wasn’t his knee that had him on the ground, but his ankle. It was swelling up around the edge of his shoe already.
“Not your fault,” Martine said to him.
“You should go on,” he said. He nodded toward the yellow flags leading away through more trees. “It’s your last chance.”
“Do you think it’s broken?” she asked him.
He shook his head. “No idea.” His grin was weak. “Never broken a bone before. But I won’t be able to keep up either way.”
“It’s not a race, is it?” I asked. I’d been wondering ever since that tweener pushed me what the big hurry was. Did they all know something I didn’t?
Ty looked up at me in surprise. “Yeah, I think…” His words trailed off. He looked at Martine. “Do you know?”
Her lips pursed. She looked mad. Really mad. But it didn’t show in her voice as she said unhappily. “The bazkide choose. No one knows how many candidates they accept at a given trial, but as soon as they have enough, they stop the trial.”
“That sounds like a no,” I said doubtfully.
“It’s better to be first. Or close to it,” Martine said.
I lifted a shoulder. “Well, I’m not gonna be.” I wasn’t worried about it, for obvious reasons.
“You should go,” Ty repeated to Martine. “No reason for you to lose your chance.”
“Are you going to call for help?” she asked. “They’ll come get you, you know.”
He shook his head and smiled grimly. “I might be the last one in, but I’m not going to give up until they call the trials over.” He let go of his knee and set his foot down on the ground, but grimaced when he tried to stand.
I glanced around. Ty needed a stick, something to help him walk. There weren’t a lot of obvious choices — no handy walking canes waiting to picked up — but the trees weren’t that big. A lot of the near ones were sort of spindly, needly trees. I eyed the ones closest to us, then walked a little ways away from the others.
“Hey, Rafe,” I called over my shoulder, pointing at a tree that looked particularly skinny. “What do you think? Is that knife you grabbed sharp enough to take that tree down?”
He joined me, cocked his head to one side and considered the tree, then shot me one of his shy smiles. Pulling the knife out of the back of his belt, he began sawing at the trunk
I walked back to Martine and Ty. “You should keep going,” I said to Martine. “We’ll catch up.”
That was obviously a total lie — a stick and a helping hand might get Ty moving, but we’d be going slow if we stuck with him. Limping along, in fact. But the words were what she needed to hear.
She nodded at me, gave Ty a smile, called, “Thanks, Rafe,” to where he was working on killing that poor tree, and took off down the path, breaking into a run before she was ten steps away.
“You can go too, you know,” Ty said.
I held out my hand to him to try to pull him to his feet. “Nah,” I said. “I’m in no hurry.”
I also wasn’t strong enough to pull Ty up. He let go before he pulled me down with him.
“Ah, hell.” He sighed.
“No worries,” I said. “Rafe and me can do it together when he gets that tree down.”
Ty looked around. There were some fairly big stones at the bottom of the slope. Not boulders, just decent-sized rocks. He indicated one, quirked an eyebrow at me, and said, “My stepping stool.” Then he scooted on his butt, using his hands and his working foot, but letting his other ankle hover above the ground, over to the rock, where he pulled himself up.
I was impressed, actually. He was obviously hurting. A couple times he bumped his ankle and I could see the shudder of pain run through him. But the stone lifted him an extra foot off the ground, which gave him enough leverage from his other leg that he’d probably be able to stand on his own when Rafe got that little tree down for him.
Of course, sawing down a tree isn’t a small job, even when it’s a small tree and even when you’ve got a sharp knife. It took Rafe a solid twenty minutes to get the tree down. He took a few extra minutes to chop off some of the branches, so that they weren’t hitting Ty in the face as he tried to walk.
Finally, though, the three of us started walking again. Well, Rafe and I walked. Ty sorta hopped.
“What happened?” I asked Ty.