“Kasea,” I said, brushing my fingertips against my own jacket.
“How long do you suppose we’ll have to wait?” he said. “Do you know what we’re waiting for?”
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. But he wasn’t worth the bother. I stopped hesitating and walked straight through the haze.