46. Wax and Wane
The rest of the evening and the following day was dedicated to the kill. Azure took several trips out to the wyvern carcass to bring the entirety of it back to his den. He made use of a large, somewhat clumsily crafted wooden wagon, which was originally used to cartgoods to Heidi’s.
“Why don’t you use mana to Form a large cart?” Azalea asked curiously, stepping alongside him. The wagon tended to drag against the snow and did not seem convenient in the least. “You Formed that rack to drain and dress the carcass back in the cave.”
Azure stopped in his tracks. He looked back at the pile of wyvern flesh in his cart and frowned. “Now that you mention it, I haven’t the faintest.”
“You what?” said Azalea, startled.
“Well, I just saw Da cart wood this way many times.” Azure shrugged. “Never thought to try any other way.”
Azalea couldn’t speak. Every time she thought Azure couldn’t possibly say anything to surprise her anymore, she was proven wrong.
“But you use mana for everything,” she stammered. “You’re reliant on it.”
“Well, yes,” Azure acknowledged, “but I don’t always have enough left in the manawell after the fight. Most of the time, I end up dry, in which case a physical cart is necessary.”
“Dry? But—how, with your manawell?”
“Well, partially from implosion,” Azure said cheerfully. “I’ve never been able to use Paradox for more than five minutes without spontaneously combusting. Unstable implosions do tend to eat up the manawell.”
Azalea felt faint. “You mean…you just…let your Forms implode.”
“Can’t particularly Stabilize them in time, so yes.”
She bristled. “Then you shouldn’t be making them in the first place! That’s—that’s unspeakably—awful! You’ll end up blowing yourself up!”
Azure waved a hand dismissively. “That’s what my dragonscale armor is for. Ah, and my manawell has learned to do a splendid job with natural regeneration over the years.”
Oh, it was terrible. It was all so much more terrible than she could have expected. Azalea wanted to throttle her brother into next week. He simply let his Forms destabilize and explode, relying on his mythical armor and manawell to save his life every time. What an absolute loon! How many years had he shaved off his lifespan with such reckless behavior?
Azure seemed to notice her simmering glower and stopped, his wagon sinking briefly into the snow. “Are you upset, ’Zalie?”
Her anger slowly ebbed away and she stared at her shoes. It wasn’t Azure’s fault. He had been estranged from his family, alone in the world at only nine years old, reliant on his own strength to survive. Little wonder that he had developed some very unsafe habits, all in the name of survival.
“Just be more careful,” she mumbled. “At least until Ma and Da can see you again.”
Azure was quiet for a moment, then nodded. “That shouldn’t take long. Perhaps a week, by my estimation.”
That suprised Azalea. Then he was planning on visiting them? But why hadn’t he done so earlier? Azure had known all along who and where they were, and yet he’d refused to reveal himself. He had let them grieve and had let Azalea believe he was some distant, unfamiliar barbarian. All for what, a cruel surprise?
“Why?” Azalea blurted. “We missed you. I missed you, so terribly. If you knew where we were—why didn’t you visit?”
Azure hesitated, taking a moment to puff a warm breath into the air.
“How could I, before my time has come?” he said. His tone was subdued and unusually doleful. It unsettled her. “That request asks too much of me, ’Zalie. Even for you.”
“I—I don’t understand,” Azalea stammered, and that was putting it lightly. Azure’s nature was so very cryptic, with each question only spawning a hundred more.
But Azure was already walking on, pulling the cart behind him. After that brief, disorienting exchange, Azalea found herself winded, as if she had been the one to pull the cart all this way. She wanted to be cross with Azure, but she simply couldn’t. Perhaps he was simply beyond reason. Perhaps the Noadic Range had twisted his mind. She certainly could not imagine attempting to survive in such a wild, hostile place—not without being changed forever.
Perhaps there was nothing for her to do but wait, and trust that Azure would explain once he was ready.
It took some time to haul up the snowy incline; the wagon truly was in a sorry state. Azalea found herself wishing that Wes could have a look at it. He was so very good with wagons and carts and anything with moving parts; he could fix it by just looking at it. But of course, perhaps he couldn’t, Azalea realized somberly. Perhaps he was bedridden for the rest of his life, or blinded, or had forgotten her entirely.
“You called the Aphotic Blade something else,” Azalea said, searching for something to distract herself. “Paradox?”
“Ah, yes,” said Azure, perking up. “Long titles are very intimidating in the eyes of children, to be sure. But as an adult, it is all about the single word that strikes fear into the hearts of all who hear!”
He released the cart for a moment and burned his manawell, swiftly pulling together the Form of an intricate weapon: the Aphotic Blade, a greatsword of dark fire.
“Paradox,” he introduced.
He released the greatsword’s Form and wove something new: a spear of sharp, clear ice mana.
“Hoarfrost,” he said.
Next was a sinuous dagger dripping with shadow mana.
“Nightstinger,” he said.
Nightstinger dissipated and was followed by a looming hammer of fire mana and a halberd of bone mana.
“And this one is Buttermilk and this one is Bacon.”
Azalea, who was already in shock at seeing so many intricate and demanding Forms in such a short period of time, nearly fell over. “Buttermilk and Bacon!” she whispered. “But that’s so unhealthy. Where are the vegetables?”
“Please, ’Zalie, what sort of person would fear the strike of Broccoli or Bell Pepper? Why, I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
She didn’t think anyone would particularly fear the strike of Buttermilk, either, but she was not one to judge.
Azure dissipated Buttermilk and Bacon, then pulled the cart into his den. He promptly set about slicing and scaling the wyvern. With nothing else to do but to make herself useful, Azalea assisted in removing the scales and collecting them in a large pot. At least Azure wasted nothing. Scales could be sewn into clothes, fashioned into arrowheads, and plated onto weapons; blood could be collected for stew; intestines could be scraped for catgut. A portion was set aside for trading with Heidi, and the rest was thrown into baskets for later use.
Several hours into the painstaking work, a glint caught Azalea’s periphery, and she looked up. At the entrance of the den, peering with its nose just inside the doorway, was the lovely, snowy fox-creature she’d first seen when she’d entered the Range.
Stifling a gasp of delight, Azalea lowered the tail she was scaling and crouched, eking slowly towards the entrance. The fox watched her carefully, but didn’t move.
“Ah,” said Azure in a voice so loud that Azalea flinched. “I see we have a visitor.”
“What is it?” she whispered in his direction.
“That is an everfox,” Azure said, thankfully lowering his voice. “Or so I call it, and there hasn’t been a living human being around here to claim otherwise.”
An everfox. The name was fitting for the elegant, iridescent creature.
“I think it followed me here,” Azalea whispered. She watched how the everfox pawed at the cave’s soil, then drew back, ears flattening. “But it seems scared to enter.”
Azure frowned. “Hm. But I’ve never killed an everfox.” He paused. “Wait, there was the one. And…ah, two, actually. Or was it three?”
Azalea stifled a sigh and knelt by the entrance, making soft crooning noises and rasping her fingers together, the way Da did to entice animals from the forest. Azure eyed her and shook his head.
“I wouldn’t bother, ’Zalie,” he said. “Most creatures can smell the reek of death from my den. They tend to fear one when one makes a habit of killing everything in sight.”
“You don’t kill everything in sight,” said Azalea. Then she jolted up and turned to look at him, only vaguely hearing the soft patters of the everfox scrambling away. “Or was that why you picked a fight with Lord Halcyon? To kill him?”
“That powerful warrior at the beach!” Azalea said incredulously. “The one with—with the glaive, who commanded the ocean, who—why, you nearly incinerated the entire shoreline with him!”
Azure straightened. “Ah, yes. The Atlantean.”
“Airlean, but a powerful manacrafter of water,” Azalea corrected. Airlea hadn’t heard from Atlantis since the Great Storm.
“Indeed, what a sporting battle! A strong and courageous warrior, a credit to his brood.” Azure grinned at the memory. “And he does not pull his punches. I could scarcely walk for three days after. One of the most exciting spars ever fought.”
Spars! An unfamiliar wave of fury barreled over Azalea and left her breathless. What Azure had considered innocent, friendly sparring had led to Halcyon sustaining serious injuries, which had, in turn, left Wes’s company vulnerable and underprotected. It had been because of sparring that half of the Geppett company died, and Wes himself lay on death’s door, possibly crippled for life.
“Never do that again,” she said sharply, rising to her feet. “So many Airleans died because of what you perceived as a little friendly sparring. They need Lord Halcyon at his best, especially when Storms are so near. Promise me you’ll never, ever do that again, Azure.”
Azure drew back, startled. A long moment stretched before he finally nodded.
“Then why would he respond to the challenge?” he said, looking genuinely perplexed. “He could have simply disengaged, and I would have understood.”
“You were right next to a town! Lord Halcyon had every right to believe you were aggressing into Airlean territory!”
Azure recoiled. “That would have been a fool’s ploy! Had I any serious intention of invading, I would have been accompanied by at least one flight of dragons, if not two!”
“A flight of—of dragons?!” Azalea spluttered. She was beginning to feel very faint, and she couldn’t quite tell anymore whether it was from anger or shock.
“Naturally, one does not invade a country alone!” Azure said.
Azalea numbly sat back down and stared at the ground. She made no move to retrieve the tail and return to scaling. In fact, she made no move at all. She could not. Her mind was frozen between two thoughts somewhere in the distance.
“I’m sorry, ’Zalie,” Azure said quietly, breaking the silence. “I meant no harm. And I certainly did not mean to upset you.”
His words leeched the tension from her shoulders. Azalea rubbed her face with her hands.
“I know,” she whispered. “You weren’t…you couldn’t help it. I know.” Azure must have grown up among beasts and dragons, and it was hardly fair to expect the same behavior of him as an ordinary Airlean civilian. His upbringing came with its own advantages, she was certain—wild strength, boundless courage, unstoppable will. But it only made Azalea feel the distance more keenly. His understanding of the world was so very different from hers, and somehow, he felt even farther away than he had while she thought he was dead.
“I love you, ’Zalie,” Azure suddenly said. “You and Ma and Da. Family was all that compelled me to survive.” His gaze met hers, so piercingly familiar to Da’s. “But I can no longer play the part of the kind and civilized brother you remember. Perhaps I never was one. Only a beast at heart.”
Heart sinking, Azalea shook her head. “You were never a beast.”
“But I am,” Azure said. “And perhaps I was back then, too. I do not resent this life, ’Zalie. I am proud of it and it suits me. But I was raised among beasts and I have become like them. If you resented me, or the fates for having a beast of a brother, I would not hold it against you.”
She thought of the dark, wild look on his face as he had clawed and spit at the boy who nearly pushed her into the well, even as a child. She stared at the ground again. “I could never resent you,” she said. “You will always be my brother.”
Azure brightened immediately. “If you could procure more books from Heidi that adequately demonstrate the qualities of a civilized human being,” he said, “then I could attempt to simulate such behavior when the appropriate situation arises.”
“No, no,” Azalea said instinctively. “I don’t want you to have to become something you’re not.” And surprisingly, she found her words to be true. Her mind was a storm of questions and muddled thoughts, but several facts she knew for certain.
“I love you too, Azure,” she said aloud, looking up. “You’re my family and you always will be. I’ve missed you so terribly that I don’t even know how to accept that you’re alive. But…I am glad, you know, that you’re alive. I suppose…it will just take some time to get used to it all, and—and to figure it out again. How to…well, I don’t know.” How to navigate his penchant for bloodshed, perhaps. It was still difficult for Azalea to stomach, but then again, she suspected that top Hunters like Karis and Halcyon shared much of Azure’s outlook on the world.
“I see,” said Azure, his voice soft with relief. He put down his gutting knife and, shedding his blood-soaked glove, extended a hand in her direction. It was strong and flecked with calluses, fingers hardened from years of hunting. “Then…family?”
Azalea gripped his hand with surety and soaked in the warmth of life from it. “Family,” she said.
Halcyon knew the exact moment when Karis detected him.
She hadn’t gone far outside the borders of Mythaven before she stopped abruptly, face lifting toward the grey sky. Then she turned right to where he was concealed in a thicket of trees, her mouth thin, and he knew the jig was up.
Halcyon stepped out of cover and fired his windsoles, smoothly arcing to her side. Karis only folded her arms and regarded him with a piercing look.
“And here Nicolina was blustering about not sending out Hunters,” she said. “What are you, then? An exception?”
“Visiting friends,” Halcyon said without skipping a beat. “Just happened to be headed in the same direction.”
“The same direction…as me.”
“All the way to Northelm.”
“Is that where you’re headed?” he challenged. “Despite Nicolina’s orders?”
“Is that where your friends reside?” Karis lobbed back. “Despite the fact that you’ve never been that far north?”
“You don’t know that.”
“I certainly do. I’ve been—” But Karis abruptly stopped and, with an exasperated noise, turned back to the road. “Never mind. Don’t try to stop me, Yuden, or you will find your journey made exceedingly unpleasant.”
She launched back into her swift, even springstep, and Halcyon followed, loping easily at her side. They fell into a comfortable silence that was familiar. Even if they hadn’t been fond of each other at the start, time and competence alone had enforced a deep sense of trust.
“You might as well admit it,” Karis suddenly said, breaking the lull. “What did Nicolina put you up to this time?”
Halcyon decided there was no point in hiding anything further. She knew the Guildmaster too well to believe any shoddy excuses.
“She asked me to keep an eye on you,” he admitted.
She clicked her tongue. “Like a wayward child.”
“Like a child of her own,” he corrected lightly. “She doesn’t want to lose you.”
Karis’s face fell still, and she said nothing more.
They could have reached Northelm in record time, but to Halcyon’s surprise, Karis motioned for them to stop and set up camp while they were still a league out.
“The moment we step into that town, our duties shall be upon us,” she said simply. “I wouldn’t mind a night’s reprieve before that time.”
Halcyon understood. Where the Hunters went—especially the top Three, him and Karis and Sethis—expectations tended to follow. Weighty expectations that were difficult to bear. The moment he and Karis entered town, they would find themselves inundated with questions, requests, responsibilities. There was none of that out in the quiet of nature. Just two simple travelers seeking shelter for the night.
It took only a moment to make camp and kindle a fire. Karis, who had apparently planned to shelter in the wild, had packed boiled eggs and small bread loaves for not one, but two people. When Halcyon cast her a curious glance, she only said, “I knew Nicolina would send some poor sop after me.” In return, Halcyon split the salted jerky he’d brought along. Altogether, it made for a decent meal.
They ate in silence, but Halcyon found his gaze drifting to Karis, as if he could discern answers just by looking at her face. Her eyes slid to him in a gleam of crimson stars and he quickly looked back to the fire, absorbing its clawlike dance.
Sometimes, when he didn’t have a firm grip on himself, when his concentration slid just a little, he found himself watching her, too frequently and too long. It was difficult not to. She was queenlike in peacetime, vengeful in war, enchanting and engrossing no matter the scenario. He wondered if she knew it. She had to, with the adoring letters that flooded her postbox daily.
“You look like you wish to say something, Hal,” Karis said.
Halcyon withheld a flinch, as if he had nothing to be ashamed of.
Karis tilted her head. “You think that I’m being foolish. Impetuous.”
No, actually, that had been the furthest thing from his mind. But Halcyon could hardly admit the truth. He remained silent.
“Look at me, Yuden,” Karis said.
Every bone of reason in him cried out to disobey. He met her gaze anyway. Blood-red plum blossoms, flecked gold by the firelight. They pulled him in and drowned him under.
“You would be correct,” Karis said. Her eyes refused to budge, holding him captive. “I am being a fool. But if one person, just one, had searched for my father when he disappeared…well, it’s wishful thinking that he might have lived. He was doomed the moment he set out for the Talebloom.”
She paused, the red in her eyes flickering.
“But my mother wouldn’t have waited at the door for years,” she whispered. “And she would have ashes to spread on the roots of the apple tree in our garden. The cruelest gift, I think, is an empty tomb.”
Halcyon imagined that Karis had waited too, a young girl huddled in her bed with the window open, listening for the heavy tread of her father coming home.
“You’re not a fool,” he said. “Just kind.”
Karis’s slender mouth pulled up in a wry smile. “In our station, they mean the same thing.”
“It’s only foolish if you don’t succeed. If you do, then it’s called bravery.”
Her smile widened and became genuine. “You’re known as the brave one, Hal.”
No, he thought, watching how the evening breeze combed a cold finger through a lock of her hair, how the moon kissed a silver line on her shoulder. I’m a fool.
“Good night,” he said shortly, turning away. “I’ll take first watch.”
“Good night,” she replied, and slid into her bedroll.
Those two words were warmer than the summer sun on a meadow. Halcyon looked up, staring at the moon, hoping that the silver would sear through his eyes and burn some sense into his skull.