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 candidates need 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.