45. Sovendyret

My name is Azure.

Azalea’s eyes were fixed on the looming back of the stranger before her as they plodded through the snow. It was cold and unfamiliar, plated in dragon scales and layered with hides. How could it be Azure who lay beneath that wall of armor? He had died. She had seen him die. She had killed him with her own incompetence. It was not possible. It simply was not.

She had imagined him reappearing many times, of course she had. Whenever Ma had one of her spells, or whenever Da laid down, back too sore to move, she had thought of it. She had imagined a knock on their door in the middle of the night, rapt and unapologetic. She had imagined opening the door to a bright and bold face with a ragged, boyish grin. She would gasp and burst into tears very dramatically and throw her arms around him, and it would all be like some grand tale straight from the storybooks.

But as the years had passed, that’s all it had become—a fairy tale, a nice little dream to have when reality grew too dark and dismal. Because it would never happen.

Around them, snow drifted down in a whimsical dance. Azalea hadn’t planned to follow the Whisperer out on one of his hunts, but after his outrageous claim, she could hardly let him out of her sight. Not until she had verified that he was lying—which was the most likely case.

But he called me ’Zalie, whispered the childlike voice within her.

She pushed it away.

The tracks of the Whisperer’s quarry were enormous in the snow. Big, sprawling clawed imprints the size of Azalea herself. She shuddered to imagine the creature behind it. The Whisperer, on the other hand, fearlessly knelt beside the print, scooped his finger into the snow, and sniffed at it. What that was supposed to accomplish, she did not know, but he gave a satisfied nod.

“Seems it’s gone northwest looking for snowflower syrup,” the Whisperer said. He didn’t look at Azalea, which made her think that he was simply talking to himself. “Hm, yes, good. It will be sated, sleepy, weaker. A fitting time to strike.”

He rose and walked on with purpose. Azalea followed him cautiously.

She had too many questions to ask, and too few answers she would trust. Where have you been—how did you survive—are you truly him? Her mind spun with thoughts, each one more convoluted than the last. She simply could not accept a world where Azure had lived, where he’d grown to adulthood, where he had been hale and whole and—she had never looked for him, she had let Ma and Da suffer all these years for no good reason, she had done nothing.

Azalea bit her lip hard to silence the welling, sickening emotions broiling in her chest, and instead turned her attentions to her surroundings. The Whisperer had led them out of the caves and back into the lush, alien forest. He walked with surety, unafraid to snap bones and trod over vivid lichen. Odd flowers with clawlike petals, large insects with layered wings, and peculiar nests of scaled birds all dotted the landscape before them. Azalea couldn’t resist the curiosity that bubbled within her.

“I didn’t realize the Noadic Range was so fertile,” she said.

The Whisperer paused in his steps for a moment, as if he had forgotten she was there. Then he walked on. “The Noadic Range?” he echoed. “What’s that?”

Azalea stared at him, aghast. “Um. Where we are. This mountain range, um, I think.”

“Ah,” he mused. “What funny little names you give things in Airlea.”

In Airlea, he’d said. As if he were an outsider.

Azalea frowned as she ducked under a bony branch. “What do you know it as, then?”

“How the dragons know it,” said the Whisperer matter-of-factly. “We call this dominion the Sovendyret—the Slumbering Beast. It is a living, shifting place, nothing like those stoic crags you like to call mountains. You can think of it as the kingdom of dragons.”

The Slumbering Beast. It was rather fitting, Azalea had to admit, seeing the litany of dormant bones and the soft, falling snow. “Surely it isn’t—actually a beast though,” she said.

“Who can say?” The Whisperer rolled his shoulders in an odd shrug. “The dragons speak of the First Mother who came to this land to rest, grieviously wounded from a terrible war among the Primal Ones. She spent seven days to prepare a nest for her hatchlings, then laid down to slumber for millennia, until the day she is needed again.”

Azalea squinted. “Primal Ones? Such creatures exist?”

“Whether they exist in a literal fashion—that is a different matter entirely.”

“Literal?” Her head was hurting now.

“In draconic legend, there exists three ancient Primal Ones larger and more terrible than anything you could ever imagine: the amphiptere of the sky, the wyvern of the earth, and the leviathan of the sea. But in all my travels, and in all the books Heidi has procured for me, I have never met such a creature.”

Books, Azalea realized. He speaks as though he’s mostly learned from books.

Azure had been a voracious reader as a child—a love that he had passed onto her. But she did not want this strange man to be Azure.

“The Primal Ones could be an artifact of the dragons’ oral tradition,” continued the Whisperer, picking his way up a hefty cliff. “Metaphors, you see. Symbolic imagery of a powerful force that populates the sky, land, and sea all at once.”

It took only a moment for Azalea to come upon the answer. “Humans.”

“Just so,” said the Whisperer approvingly. “Each Primal One could represent humanity in its various realms. Or so is my thinking.”

Azalea fell quiet. Before the Great Storm, there had indeed been humans throughout the whole world—multitudinous kingdoms that lived on the sky-islands, on the continents of the earth, and within the ocean’s depths. But most of them had gone silent after the calamity, and the Observatorium expected that most of them had fallen to ruin beneath the strain of the Storm. Of course, the Observatorium could be incorrect; they hardly had the bandwidth to dispatch cartographers and explorers to see for themselves.

She couldn’t help but think it would be nice. Nice to still have sea kingdoms and sky kingdoms. Nice to know that Airlea was not alone in this vast, hostile world.

Azalea was roused from her thoughts by the Whisperer humming an easy, aimless melody. She placed it at once—low and buttery, an easy rhythm. Da had sung it many times while lumbering.

Once, it had been one of her greatest comforts. A song that could soothe her to sleep, even amidst the terror of crashing lightning and booming thunder. Now, it was chafing. A reminder that she was either with a hoax of a brother, or a haunting shadow of who he once was.

“Don’t sing that,” she said.

The Whisperer stopped at once, but frowned. “Why not?”

Wes would have cleverly finessed around the question, Echo would have diverted the topic, Karis would have met it with imperious grace. But Azalea was none of them.

“It hurts,” she said, her voice small.

The Whisperer’s feet drew still, and he turned to face her. Now that he was not so far, she began to realize that he was quite tall—and foreboding. He stared at her with no give of emotion on his face.

“Why would it hurt?” he said.

There was nothing familiar about him. None of the compassion, none of the warm glow. There was only the bloodlust and the bravado, neither to which she could relate.

“If you were my brother,” Azalea said softly, “then we tromped around the woods together. Raised for those lizards and caterpillars with our own hands. Listened to all of Da’s stories by the fireplace and snuck into the kitchen to eat Ma’s pastries in the middle of the night.”

“Yes,” the Whisperer said.

“That’s all gone now.” Azalea’s gaze dropped. “Even if it’s you, even if you’re alive, that’s never coming back. Who I knew you as…he’s lost forever.”

The Whisperer eyed her silently. She found herself wishing for his anger, his fear—something, anything that might indicate he, too, felt any sense of loss or injustice at what had been taken from him. Because they had been family, and they had been forcibly torn apart. If he truly was her brother, then surely he would feel similarly.

But after the long, dreadful silence, all he finally said was: “I see.”

He turned to continue along the cliff’s edge, and Azalea found she could not leave the discussion there. She jogged after him, clasping her cloak tighter around her as a shield from the bitter cold.

“Why? It doesn’t hurt you?” she said desperately. Perhaps he really was not Azure, and just some delusional, crazy man who had spent too much time around dragons and scrambled his brains with mana.

The Whisperer did that roll-shrug again. “I don’t particularly think about what I’ve lost. Only the grand potential of what things could be.”

“What things could be?”

“For example, ’Zalie,” he said, and pointed right at her, “we shall never tromp around the woods again, but here we are, tromping around the Sovendyret. We can raise dragons instead of caterpillars. And there will be no need to sneak out for Ma’s pastries, because we can feast upon the spoils of our conquered foes. Just because things will be different does not make them worse. In fact, I dare say it shall be leagues better! For we have both grown very strong, and nearly as tall as Da before he died.”

He glanced down the cliffside and, seeing a large, scaly beast, brightened visibly.

“Shall we test our limits now?” he said.

“Wait, Da’s not dead,” Azalea said, puzzled, but the Whisperer was already bolting into the sky, a smear of dark fire against the silver clouds.

She watched in horror as he plummeted down like a vengeful comet, explosive mana festering around his entire body, threatening to burst with instability. Reckless! she chided, and promptly dove after him, struggling to yank his aura into something managably chaotic. It was a miracle that his own spells had not obliterated him into dust yet.

The Whisperer blasted right into the scaly beast’s skull, sending it crashing into the snow with an unholy screech. Azalea clapped her hands over her ears as she angled for a soft landing, but the Whisperer seemed wholly unperturbed by the racket. He plunged his bone lance right into the creature’s eye without faltering.

He had probably Formed something to plug his ears, wildly inefficient with mana as he was. Or he was simply unconcerned with going deaf.

With the Whisperer engaging the beast’s immediate attention, Azalea had the time to prime her starshooter and analyze its fighting patterns. The creature was large and stocky, scales plating nearly every inch of its body from spiked tail to heavy head. It was the sort of formidable monster that would have haunted Azalea’s nightmares, once upon a time. She still felt the uncontrollable urge to flee as she looked up into its tazor teeth and twisted horns and wicked talons, each of which could eviscerate her in one swipe.

She desperately tried to clear her mind and forced herself to examine the creature analytically, the way she’d studied Academy texts for exams. Though this animal possessed wings, it never used them beyond the occasional flutter to rebalance, or a spread just before it charged. A wyvern, then, at least by the Whisperer’s classification—a landbound drake with wings. She watched carefully as it swiped its claws, gnashed its teeth, lashed its tail, each strike missing the Whisperer by a hair. It was strong, and though not especially nimble, had powerful legs for leaping and lunging. If they could sever its tail, they would cripple its balance and thus severely impede its movement.

The wyvern screamed again, corkscrewing right into her eardrums, and she winced, nearly dropping her starshooter. The Whisperer, on the other hand, reached up and whacked the wyvern soundly across the head with the butt of his lance.

“Oh, quit your bellyaching and fight me,” he said. He was rewarded with a spurt of fire erupting from the wyvern’s jaws, which he nonchalantly deflected with his dragonscale cloak.

Fire! Azalea thought disbelievingly. Was every creature in the Range capable of manipulating mana? The thought was horrifying, considering these beasts were already physically intimidating. They hardly needed another weapon in their arsenal.

Enough with your bellyaching, too, scolded the voice in her mind, quick and practical as Nicolina. You are a Hunter and a valedictorian of the Knight’s Academy. For star’s sake, act like it.

Grimacing, Azalea fired a shot at the wyvern’s tail. She watched as the firebolt dissipated on its scales, and nearly groaned. Of course. Dragonscales seemed immune to fire. Her weapon was as good as useless against this beast.

The commotion drew the wyvern’s attention, and it turned its beady gaze right onto her. She tensed, preparing to move at any moment. When it leapt, she was ready; she tore out of the way with a burst of her windsoles and perched on the branches of a tree.

“Alright, now, none of that,” the Whisperer said sternly, jumping after the wyvern. “Don’t you bully my baby sister.”

Baby sister. Azalea’s mind ran blank as he extended his hand, and with a sudden, terrifying vortex of power, wove a thousand threads of mana into—

death, rampant chaos, a tapestry so keenly familiar to her

—until a dark and misty greatsword, broiling with the unstable power of ancient magic, took form in his hand.

The moment its aura washed over Azalea, she knew. It was as intimately familiar as the smell of woodchip and pine fronds and baking loaves. It was the hiss of fear and the weight of dread, the sound of thunder in the night.

It was, without a doubt, the Aphotic Blade of Calamitous Void.

The greatsword seemed to hum in the Whisperer’s grasp, eager at the prospect of bloodshed. It was every bit as dangerous as Azalea remembered: glowing veins, bleak edges, simmering mana. Yet it had been refined over the years, she could see; what was once a raw cesspool of energy was now a sturdy, elegant weapon, dark and striking like the clouds crowning a stormbitten night.

He was the boy once known as Azure Fairwen. She could deny it no longer.

He was her brother, miraculously returned from the dead.

At the sight of the Aphotic Blade, even the wyvern shrank back for a moment, no doubt sensing its power. Then its wings flared, and it lashed out its talons at Azure.

He did not flinch even in the face of a horrifying beast thrice his height. He swung the Aphotic Blade, which seared right through the wyvern’s stumpy leg. At the moment of impact, Azalea felt the form of the greatsword shudder, and a blast of instability pushed into the air, enough to make her teeth rattle. She knew then that the Aphotic Blade was soon to implode from the resistance of the beast’s hide.

Panicking, she slung back her starshooter and focused completely on Stabilizing. Her manawell seared with the effort of keeping the Blade bound together, but she was successful. The Blade sliced clean through the wyvern’s thigh, rendering its leg little more than a shriveled, blackened stump.

Azure’s mouth slackened in surprise. He looked in Azalea’s direction confusedly, as if—as if he had been expecting the implosion.

But she had no time to think on his odd reaction. The wyvern fell heavily with a piercing scream of agony, limbs flailing. The noise seemed to shake Azure from his stupor, and he swiftly turned to the beast, and with another fell swing of his blade, cleanly lopped off its head.

Immediately, silence fell. The flailing body went still.

Azalea looked away from the corpse of the creature, her stomach churning. But Azure only hummed, satisfied, and let the Aphotic Blade’s form dissipate.

“Marvelous work, ’Zalie,” he commended. He knelt by the carcass and, with a large bone knife, began to extract large chunks of the meat and scales.

“Did we have to hunt this poor thing for sport?” Azalea said reluctantly. “All it wanted was some food.”

“Sport is never an adequate motive for a hunt,” Azure said, looking puzzled. “Not on its own.”

Despite the recent violent display, Azalea felt a cool prickle of relief. Perhaps deep down, Azure still held on to the sanctity of life and the hunter’s respect for his prey.

“The cycle of life cannot be disrupted,” he continued. “Species must have the chance to rear offspring, for if they are slain before they are able, everything powerful would vanish from the face of the earth. And that would make the Sovendyret a rather dull and uninspiring place.”

Oh. So, he merely did not wish to render his foes extinct.

“So, we killed it…”

“To grow stronger, of course,” said Azure. “And wyvern chuck makes for rather delicious stew.”

Well, she should have expected as much. But as Azure scooped up the creature’s monstrous tail and hauled it across his back, returning to the den, Azalea found herself unable to resent him.

Different, she thought, watching how his Fairwen-gold hair glittered in the grey light, how his steps cut through the snow with fearless strength. Different, but not necessarily worse.

Sethis Galen Lunaren may have been the crown prince of Airlea, but he had never felt more powerless.

From a high vantage point on the cliffs, he eyed Northelm grimly—the old stone walls, ramshackle archer turrets, last-minute elevated platforms where ballistae were being mounted. It would have been wiser to evacuate the area entirely. But the people of Northelm, with generations of pride and tenacity, refused to leave. Nor was Sethis inclined to impel them to do so; Northelm was the last Airlean mine of high-grade mana quartz, and securing enough for precious windsoles and starshooters was already difficult. Loathe as he was to admit it, the crown needed them to stay.

Still, the coming bloodshed weighed heavily upon him. Most of the homes would be razed, and many of the villagers, who had bravely volunteered to take up arms, would be killed. Even the coming reinforcements from the Garrison would do little.

Sighing, Sethis dropped down from his perch. The night was rising again, the moon shrouded behind the gathering clouds. The town only remained lit by a few braziers set around the roads. In the darkness, he would have missed an approaching visitor, if not for the scurry of quick steps.

“Beg pardon, Highness,” came the voice of a young man. “Don’t mean to disturb you.”

Sethis raised his hand and Formed a sun-orb—a little bauble of light that levitated over his palm, casting a warm glow down the road. A villager wrapped in a traveler’s cloak stood before him, hood pulled carefully over his face.

“It’s no disturbance,” Sethis said. He glanced skyward. “But you may wish to retire for the night. The hour grows late.”

“Aye, that.” The villager bobbed into a rustic bow. “I was just wonderin’ if a Hunter mighta passed hereabouts?”

Sethis instinctively moved to reply, but something gave him pause. The villager’s body language and physical mannerisms were impeccably similar to others around Northelm, but his way of speech seemed odd. A bit stiff, a bit too much.

Now that he thought of it, no villager would be hooded at this hour. There was no threat of rain nor sun, and all it would serve to do was obfuscate the vision already limited by night.

Sethis moved his sword-arm closer to his sheath, but did not draw. He examined the boy closer. The traveler’s cloak was untattered and spotless, made of quality wool and embroidered at the inner edges. A noble’s cloak, despite its simple appearance. His suspicions were confirmed by the small leaf pin that cinched the cloak together; only one noble family used the leaf as their primary motif, and it was House Geppett.

“What business has a High Lord’s son this far north?” Sethis said mildly.

The boy jerked upright, stunned. Then his shoulders slumped, and he pulled off the hood at once, revealing a ruffled shock of brown hair and glimmering amber eyes. Sethis did not recognize him by appearance alone, but he knew his name. Lord Roland Geppett prized only one of his sons as heir, and this boy could be none other than he: Wesley Geppett.

“I was hoping I wouldn’t be recognized,” Wesley said grimly, his country air falling away immediately.

“Perhaps you should have secured a different cloak,” Sethis said.

“This was the sturdiest one I could find,” Wesley said with a touch of glumness.

Sturdy? Sethis mused. Curious.

Wesley sat on the rocky ground and leaned heavily against a boulder. With his hood off, Sethis could see sweat lining his brow and lines of exertion around his eyes. The boy must have springstepped without pause today, likely from Mythaven. Even more curious. An urgent matter had clearly impelled him, and yet he had come alone without a contingent.

“You were seeking a Hunter?” Sethis asked, sitting beside him.

Wesley’s expression did not change, but Sethis immediately sensed the chill in the air as his walls surged back up. “Of a sort,” the boy said cautiously. “Have you seen one pass this way?”

“I’m afraid not,” Sethis admitted. He paused for a moment before he braved: “They must be dear to you.”

Wes’s eyes swiveled onto him. “Who must be, now?”

“The Hunter you are searching for. You’ve traveled all this way, which means the Hunter’s Guild did not provide the answers you sought. And…you are alone.”

But here the crown prince stopped, because a rather disturbing fact was beginning to dawn on him.

Surely Lord Roland Geppett would not have sent his heir to Northelm without a contingent, unsupported and vulnerable. Not willingly, and certainly not just before the Storm.

Wesley Geppett was probably here against his father’s will.

But if such was the case, and Wesley had come with such swiftness and urgency, dressed in his sturdiest cloak and prepared for harrowing travel…

“Has a Hunter entered the Noadic Range?” Sethis asked carefully. It was a bewildering thought, but the most likely situation.

Wes looked away. “That would be a death wish.”

The evasive response was answer enough. Whoever he was searching for had, for some unfathomable reason, entered the Range. But even more unfathomable was the fact that Wesley seemed keen on following them. He would not have dressed heavily otherwise, bundled in a sturdy cloak and boots, sneaking away from his House alone.

So young and full of promise, yet he was willing to throw away his life in the Range.

Alarmed, Sethis considered his next words with care. He had to dissuade the young Geppett from his dangerous mission, but what could he possibly say? He recognized the vice of grief when he saw it, and it was not one that afforded logic and rationale.

Sethis considered smiling diplomatically, then decided against it. Better to seem serious, and even harrowed. Perhaps the thought of protecting a village would appeal to the young lord’s empathy and national pride.

“Your timing is fortunate, Lord Geppett,” he said. “The Storm is gathering and the epicenter is right along the northern ridge. We could certainly use a trained officer such as yourself to fortify Northelm, if you would be willing to lend your talents.”

Wesley looked completely taken aback at the offer, which surprised Sethis in turn. Surely he was accustomed to such requests. His excellent training and lineage alone would have cemented many opportunities among the noble houses. Perhaps he was startled that Sethis would move to trust him so quickly? It was a well-known fact that the nobles harbored a keen distrust of the crown, and perhaps Wesley expected to feel some of that hostility returned.

But Sethis was not his father, and the past few years of Storms had taught him that even the most spiteful of Airleans could set aside differences for the survival of their country. More often than not, the faith he’d placed in people had been returned tenfold.

After a moment’s pause, Wesley spoke. “I’ve brought no company, and my proficiency in single combat is hardly noteworthy…” His eyes wandered to the snowy peaks of the Noadic Range.

“A soldier’s contributions are not merely in his own strength,” Sethis said hurriedly. He tried to veil his apprehension. “A fact of which I’m certain you are well aware.”

A thousand little expressions flickered over the boy’s face. A thousand hidden thoughts. Whoever was at the Range, it was plainly evident that he did not wish to leave them to fate. But to pursue someone into the Range—unsupported, nonetheless—was far from prudent. Hopefully, some of Sethis’s words were landing past the haze of grief.

After a moment that stretched too long, Wesley met his gaze, young face set in a grim line. “Very well,” he said. “I’ll lend you my aid. My strength is yours to command, Your Highness.”

Sethis did not show his relief. He knew the weight behind such a decision—that Wesley was practically accepting the death of his friend—and it had not been made lightly. He nodded gratefully and, after finding the young lord a host for his lodging, turned to his own quarters.

The dawn would bring a thousand other problems, but for this night, a life had been saved. He would sleep peacefully.