38. Into the Depths

By evening, Azalea and Echo broke out of the forest and onto a flat plateau dotted with weeds and wildflowers. The air was gathering a distinctive chill, fresh and sharp like ice. The Range loomed in the distance, clouds hanging low on its inclines and powdered snow swallowing up the stony peaks. Azalea could see Northelm lying to the east, a sprinkle of lodges against jutting stone caves. She wouldn’t dare approach it, though. At this point, a sojourn would only serve as a distraction.

Echo set up camp in the hollow of a small cave. He used his knife to take down a few quail and a small hog for dinner. He began to strip and prepare the animals for cooking, but Azalea stopped him, drawing her travel knife.

“Teach me,” she urged, gesturing to the spread of dead animals.

“Teach you?”

“How to dress animals.” She bit her lip. “Da always bought from the butcher, so I’ve never had to.”

“You mean—you were planning to go to the Range without any plans for sustenance?” Echo said incredulously.

“Not exactly,” Azalea mumbled. “I packed dried food. I’ve read a book or two on hunting. And…I can shoot.”

Echo shook his head. “Well, it’s good that you mentioned this now. Prepping something for consumption is very different from simply killing it.” He tapped his fingers against his knife. “I don’t even know if the creatures on the Range are edible, Little Red. They could be full of nasty diseases. Or they could be too big to reasonably dress by yourself.”

“Regardless, if I don’t know anything at all, I’ll starve.”

“Fair enough.” And he sat Azalea down by the animals, instructing her through cleaning and butchering the carcasses with surprising patience. He walked her through making clean incisions and splits, gutting the innards safely, and peeling away hide or plucking feathers. As Azalea followed his instructions faithfully, his eyes began to take on a boyish light, his words warming to be friendly and animated.

If you have access to a pot, drain the blood first and save it for stew. Soup is one of the most efficient ways of making food.

There’s a thousand ways to use a carcass. Bones for tools, pelts for leather, intestines for catgut. Not that you’ll have the time to do all that.

Try to butcher away from your camp. Well, unless you want a bunch of animals setting upon you in the middle of the night.

Azalea absorbed every tidbit and filed it away as she carefully skinned and gutted the game. It was messy and bloody work, but when she had finished and hung the meat to roast over the campfire, she felt gratified. It was such a small thing to feel a sense of accomplishment over, but her odds were already looking better.

Echo clapped her on the shoulder with an uncharacteristic grin. “There you go, Arya. Something even you can do with your tiny stick arms.”

“Azalea,” she corrected. “That’s the second time you’ve called me Arya.”

His gaze flickered, but before she could read any emotion, he shrugged off the comment. “Arya, Azalea. Basically the same.”

“They’re very different.”

“Names that start with an A. Fitting for small little creatures.”

“Was that who Arya was?” Azalea challenged. Her voice slid against the walls of the cave, resonating lightly.

Echo stared at her quietly for a moment, head tilted, mouth slightly curved in an unaffected smile. The crackle of quail flesh roasting over the fire barely broke the silence.

“Do I look like her?” Azalea finally said, lowering her gaze to stare at the dancing flames.

She expected him to turn away and ignore her. To deflect her question, as he always did.

She was surprised when he spoke.

“Very much,” he said, his voice unusually quiet. “Nearly inch for inch.”

Azalea looked up at him. Now he was the one watching the fire, avoiding her gaze.

“You cared for her.” The moment the words fell out of her lips, she knew them to be true. “She was dear to you.”

“A bold assumption to think that anything is dear to me.”

“Everybody holds something dear,” Azalea said. “Or they wouldn’t have a reason to live.”

Echo chuckled behind closed lips. He reached out and turned the quail once. Azalea waited, but he didn’t speak.

One more time. She would push one more time. It was the last night she would see him, after all—perhaps the last night she would see a human being ever again. Maybe the Wolf would show pity and indulge her curiosity. Or maybe he would understand that his secrets would die in the Noadic Range, wherever her body lay.

“Who was she?” Azalea asked carefully.

Echo leaned back, his gaze distant in the embers of the campfire. For one moment, she thought he would simply pretend that she didn’t exist. But a wistful mood must have seized him, because he looked out into the murky sky, puffed a ring of warm vapor with pursed lips, and spoke.

“This may surprise you with my impeccable etiquette, but I was raised an orphan,” he admitted, his voice soft, nearly sleepy. “My mother left me on the doorstep of a ratty orphanage in the Mythaven underworld. Aster Carmine’s Blessed Home for Children. They were kind enough, I suppose. Certainly kinder than all the parents who had abandoned us.”

Azalea’s heart ached. “I’m sorry,” she said gently.

Echo’s mouth twisted. For a moment, Azalea thought he would shut up and say nothing more. He leaned over the fire and pushed some drywood around with a stick. Then, surprisingly, he sat back and kept talking.

“Among the kids, there was a girl called Arya,” he said. “A tiny little thing. Had fluffy straw hair and the biggest, most pathetic eyes you could ever imagine.”

Quite like yourself went unspoken, but was clearly implied. Azalea couldn’t find it in herself to be angry.

“She always hopped after me like a little sparrow,” Echo continued. “The older kids helped care for the younger ones, so I would tie her shoelaces and cut her vegetables into bites and such. Dull, inane things that cause little children to love you, I suppose.”

Azalea pictured it with a smile. A young boy with rumpled white hair, sullenly snipping up salted cabbage while a little girl watched him with a wide, adoring gaze.

Echo breathed out again. “But I didn’t like how she looked at me with those big, watery eyes. So I was cruel to her. Got mud all over her shoes, put bugs in her pillow, snapped the head off her doll. I thought she would leave me alone if I was awful.”

He went quiet, so quiet that Azalea could only hear the crackle of the fire and the distant song of a nightingale.

“Did it work?” she asked.

“No,” he said ruefully. “She clung to my leg and cried for me not to leave.”

“What did you say?”

“I said I would. That everybody leaves the orphanage at some point.” He turned the quail again, then the hog.

Azalea’s heart pinched. What a terrible thing to say to a desperate child. But she didn’t scold him; she could read the odd, distant expression on his face as bitter regret.

“What happened to her?” she asked softly.

Echo tilted his face up and breathed in. The firelight threw his features into sharp relief.

“Certain people did not appreciate the existence of the orphanage,” he said. “They packed bundles of drywood around the entrances, poured over oil, and set fire to it in the middle of the night.”

Azalea’s jaw slackened. She stared at him wordlessly.

“The structure, which was already decaying, fell to pieces. Most of the doors were barred by debris. Arya burned alive in a closed room, screaming and wailing, pinned to the ground by a fallen beam.” He smiled without meaning and flicked a leaf into the campfire, watching it sputter and burn.

Azalea stared at her hands, her bones cold and hollow.

“The older kids ran through the house, trying to save as many as we could. She was trapped in the playroom. I don’t know why she was there in the middle of the night, but she was by herself, with no one around to help her.”

“No one but you,” Azalea said softly.

He snorted. “Oh, yes. I fed her all sorts of sweet lies while I pulled and pried at the door. I’m right here, I’ll get you out, it’ll be okay. Sweet, wonderful lies. So kind. So worthless.”

Azalea realized then that she had never heard him say anything comforting—only the harsh brutality of reality. She’d thought that it had come from a place of cruelty or derision. Now she wondered if it came from his fear of being unable to keep his word.

Echo removed the quail from the fire and kept the hog roasting. “I spent several minutes like that, clawing at the broken door to no avail. Tore up my nails, shredded my hands. Then a beam shattered and part of the roof fell on me.” He gestured to his face. “I was lucky to live with just a damaged eye.”

Azalea looked into his milky pupil and suppressed a shiver. “Who would do such a cruel thing?” she whispered.

He laughed, a double-edged blade of rawness and mockery. Then he reached out and ruffled her hair. “That’s enough bedtime story for one night, Little Red. Look, the roasts are done.”

But Azalea could not shake the feeling that there was something more to the story. She fixed Echo with a steely look as he casually divvied up the quails into two equal portions.

“Arson goes beyond the simple dislike of an orphanage,” she said staunchly. “It was a crime of hate. A sin from somebody soulless.”

“Oh, hatred had nothing to do with it,” said Echo, moving on to the hog. “Only cold, calculated rationale. A decision made by nobility that saw us as an inconvenience.”

“It was only an orphanage in the underworld. What could the nobility possibly find inconvenient about it?”

“Me.” Echo’s teeth flashed white in a quick grin. “I was a bastard son, you see. The product of an improper dalliance by a nobleman who couldn’t keep it in his trousers.”

Azalea fell silent and stared at her quail.

“Such children are a shameful secret. A blot on the record.” Echo spread his hands. “Perhaps my mother was attempting to save my life by hiding me at the orphanage. I’ll never know. The important thing was that my noble father learned of my existence, and took it as a personal insult—as well he should. It would be a stench to his name, and potentially the laws of inheritance. Better to dispose of me in secret.”

Azalea could not fathom such a terrifyingly brutal way of thought, for death to be the first solution.

“But…arson,” she stammered. “I mean, an individual assassination would be so much safer…”

“Assassinations beget questions. Arson is safe and clean. Burn the bodies, burn the evidence. Everything looks to be nothing more than an unfortunate tragedy.”

“But all the innocent lives lost…”

“What do they care? We’re rats to them. Less than dirt. Always will be.” Echo began to tear into his quail, smacking his lips loudly. A clear ploy to end the conversation. “You should eat before your dinner gets cold.”

Azalea refused to be distracted, even as she picked at her fowl. Echo hadn’t said as much, but she knew that finding such a difficult and terrible truth would have taken years of dogged pursuit—especially when people with power and influence had done their best to cover up every step. He must have been driven by that anger and vengeance for a long time. Perhaps even most of his life.

“You killed them, didn’t you?” she said quietly.

Echo paused on his quail. “I didn’t just kill them,” he said. The corner of his mouth pulled up in a small, eerie smile. “I made them suffer.”

Azalea swallowed. Echo lowered his food and turned over a log in the campfire.

“Every wound, every minute of miserable pain…yes, by the end of it, they knew precisely how it feels to cook in your own flesh, abandoned, in helpless agony. They were intimately familiar with everything they had inflicted on innocent children.”

The fire shifted as he tended it. The shadows writhed on his face.

“Did you feel better when it was done?” Azalea whispered.

Echo’s mouth twitched again. “Yes. Immensely.”

Her da had said otherwise. That vengeance was a poison to oneself. Echo must have read the skepticism on her face, because his lips tilted into a full smile.

“Only good people feel awful about things like bitterness and revenge,” he said. “Terrible people feed on it, live off it.”

Azalea regarded him for a moment. “You’re not terrible,” she finally said. Admitted, really.

“But I am,” said Echo. “I am terrible, and I’m happy to remain so to the end of time.”

Azalea shook her head. “You lie a great deal,” she murmured, “but you lie the most to yourself.”

Echo sucked in a breath. She waited for his witty reply, but none came. He’d silently returned to polishing off his dinner. After a moment of waiting, Azalea turned back to her own helping. The meat was tender and juicy with a rich, seared flavor. Although it lacked the spices and salts easily found at the capital, very little could replace the taste of fresh game right off the fire.

“It’ll be best if you die at the Range,” Echo finally muttered. “If you come back alive and start babbling all these secrets, I’ll have to kill you myself. And that’s simply no fun.”

“You can’t kill me,” Azalea said. “I’ll give you the most pathetic look ever.”

He gaped openly at her. “You wouldn’t.”

She blinked innocently at him, wide-eyed and watery.

“Treacherous cutthroat,” Echo said. “I shouldn’t have told you anything.”

The pathetic look vanished from her face. “It will be my last resort for self-preservation.”

“Alright, you rascal,” he said. “Come here and watch how I bundle the leftovers.”

Azalea squatted at Echo’s side as he sliced the rest of the hog into strips, then wrapped the meat in long leaves from Heidi’s garden. He tied the packets with thin twine and divided them into two pouches. He instructed Azalea to consume her portion over the next day; even protected by leaf wraps, the meat would not keep for long without salt or smoking.

“How did you learn all this?” Azalea asked curiously, slipping the meat into her pack. “Hunting, dressing, curing, cooking…You grew up in an orphanage, not out in the wild.”

Echo shrugged. “Instinct.”

“That’s not possible.”

“Then consider me a miracle child.”

Azalea huffed. “I bet you learned lots of things from being a mercenary,” she guessed. “You’ve probably done all sorts of strange things, like, like—catching crabs, or painting chicken eggs.”

Echo snorted. “That does not rank anywhere near the top of the strangest things I’ve done, but close enough.”

“Then what’s the strangest?”

He pondered this for a moment as he turned over logs in the campfire. “Once, I fixed a bunch of sandwiches and lined them up on the roof of the royal library.”

“What?” said Azalea dumbly. “Why?”

“The patron paid well and I didn’t ask. But goodness, I’d never seen so many pigeons in my life. Ah, yes, and there was that one lad who wanted a portrait defaced. Which isn’t particularly unusual; nobles like to be so very petty. Except the portrait was his own. And then he wanted to sell it after it was defaced. I’ll never understand that one.”

Azalea stared. Neither would she, apparently.

Echo snapped his fingers. “Oh, and playing midwife. I helped deliver a child in a moving carriage. Haven’t the slightest why somebody would hire a man as a midwife, much less an underground mercenary, but to each their own.”

“I thought you did very shady things,” Azalea said, dazed. “Like stealing and killing and kidnapping.”

“Oh, make no mistake. I did and do.” He looked at her flatly. “Like I said, I’m a terrible person. Crimes are my normal fare. Except kidnapping. I do not touch children, ever.”

“Because they’re your weak spot.”

“They are not a weak spot, they are simply a nuisance. More of a nuisance than they’re worth.” He leaned back against the stone wall. “Speaking of which, Little Red, I believe it’s past your bedtime.”

She bristled. “I don’t have a bedtime.”

“Really? Well, I do, and you’re wearing me out by making me talk.” He flopped down on his bedroll. “So good night.”

“So suddenly?”

He didn’t respond. Azalea watched as the fire flickered low, casting warm shadows on the unmoving facades of the cave walls.

“I’m grateful you told me,” she whispered in his direction. “Truly.”

There was a moment of silence. Then it was punctured by the loudest, most fake snore possible from Echo.

Azalea rolled her eyes and crawled into her bedroll. She let sleep take her, and found that surprisingly, she felt safe.

It was a cold and bright morning when they approached the boundary of the Noadic Range, which was demarcated by a startlingly severe line of powdered snow. Up close, the mountains seemed infinitely taller, stretching up until they disappeared into the sky, the rock faces sheer and insurmountable.

“Not too late to turn back,” Echo remarked, watching Azalea’s stunned face. “No one would fault you for it.”

She shook herself to her senses and lifted her chin. “This is the only chance we have to enlist the Whisperer.”

He only sighed as she turned to him to retrieve her pack, which somehow, he’d ended up carrying for her. Strange, when had that happened? She took it from him and shrugged it over her shoulders.

“Don’t forget about the dangers of sweat,” Echo warned. “It’ll freeze you inside that cozy cloak if you’re not paying attention.”

“I know,” Azalea said.

“Remember what the nice witch said. Dragons can manipulate mana. Don’t only watch their claws and teeth.”

“I know.”

“And don’t travel if you’ve overburned. Darkness and depth will be your greatest enemies, and your windsoles could save you from a nasty fall.”

“You fret like a mother hen.”

“I’m not fretting, I’m briefing you through a very basic checklist.”

“For the third time. That’s what we call fretting.”

“It’s not fretting. It’s called being prepared.”

“It’s fretting.”

Echo hummed and pressed his thumbs together. “Are you quite certain you want to go?”

Azalea stifled a laugh. “Goodbye, ma.

“I’ll have hot cocoa and milk buns waiting on the porch when you get home,” Echo responded at once.

She did laugh then, the sound strangely bright among their barren surroundings. She extended her hand, this time without guile, without anger.

“Take care, Wolf,” she said.

Echo eyed her hand for a moment. Then he sighed and shook it firmly. “For what it’s worth, Red, I hope you come back in one piece.”

“Thank you.”

“Because you’ll be worth a lot of money if we strike that Stabilizing deal.”

Her softness turned into a scowl. “Oh, for once in your life, don’t ruin the moment.”

“But I’m so good at it.”

Azalea shook her head with a light, exasperated noise. “Do me a favor, would you?” she asked.

“Shut up? Afraid I can’t.”

“I’ve given up on that. No, it’s something else.”

“So very demanding. I’m not usually one for favors, Little Red.”

“Even for dying wishes?”

He snorted. “Go for the throat, why don’t you.”

Azalea pressed on, her face growing serious. “Your predictions of critical zones could save entire cities. Please, consider sharing that knowledge with Guildmaster Cotton.” She saw him open his mouth, and hurried to finish. “You don’t have to reveal yourself. You can feed the information anonymously. But please. I don’t think you realize how important it is.”

Echo stared at her for a moment. “I don’t do things for free,” he finally said.

“But what if you did? What if you didn’t force yourself to be cold and greedy and lonely?” She reached out and brushed away a lock of hair that had fallen into his damaged eye. “You’re making yourself into something you don’t have to be.”

He scoffed and stepped away from her touch. “What, poor?”

“Ask for money, then, if that’s what will make the difference. But you could do it. The right thing. Many right things. You could be—”

“Good?” he said, an edge to his voice. “Perfect and law-abiding, like you?”

She swallowed. “Fulfilled. A part of something more.”

Echo didn’t even take a moment to consider her words. He only jerked his chin to the mountainside, the emotions in his eyes shuttered closed. “Your mission is over there, Little Red. Get to it.”

Azalea hesitated, biting her lip. She reached into her satchel and withdrew a cream-colored envelope, holding it out towards Echo.

“Then a different wish,” she said. “My Support, Wesley Geppett. He…deserves to know what I’m doing. That I’ll be gone.”

Echo’s face was stony as he folded in his arms. “You seem to be under the impression that I am your personal butler.”

“Please,” Azalea said. “You needn’t visit his estate. Truthfully, I—I don’t even know when he’ll wake. He was badly injured in the surge, and…it could be a very long time before he recovers. But if he wakes and starts looking for me—”

“Then you shouldn’t have left him in the first place.”

“I had to,” Azalea whispered. “But I can’t leave him without answers. Please, Echo.”

She tried to push the envelope into Echo’s hand. He pulled away and shook his head.

“You’ve misunderstood me, Little Red,” he said evenly. “You think me to have some kind and delicate soul for you to redeem, hm? But it’s not there. I am a mercenary, and money is the only language I speak.”

“A lonely language indeed.”

“All the better,” said Echo. “For I despise most of humanity.”

Azalea dropped the envelope. It wafted down and rested among the snow-dampened grass.

“Alright,” Azalea said softly. “You keep telling yourself that.”

Let those be the final words that haunted his dreams. She turned, and with the snow crunching lightly underfoot, disappeared into the maw of the Noadic Range.