Twilight’s hollow wind swirled by in a low howl and brutal touch as Azryle Wintershade walked in a frigid, snow-laced forest, crunching the snow beneath his feet as he went, leading Raswell by reins.
Tonight—only tonight would he harbor in this city and get the damn task done, he could adjourn to his own then. Olkfield. Because otsatyas knew Azryle longed the warmth of his country, never minding that he’d been in Yharia for only a week or so.
The Otsatya City, he’d heard people call Yharia in his own country. Everywhere, really.
Azryle had been to fair share of places in the world, he wondered why his queen had never assigned him here before, not that he particularly gave a shit. But … the Otsatya City, indeed.
If otsatyas were considered snow. Lots and lots of it.
Azryle would prefer to never revisit such gelidness ever again, but that wasn’t entirely his verdict. His queen could have him nose-dive into the Abyss if she willed. Literally.
He felt, before he heard the distant steps approaching, munching the snow as they did. Hastened, hushed.
One person. Light steps.
Though Azryle knew better, he found his gloved hand reaching in closer distance to the hatchet dangling from his hip as he turned.
Female figure, cloaked and hooded, clad in purple gown. Not a well-trained warrior, but powerful with mejest, he knew even as he hadn’t scented it. Heard many whispers tattling about Deisn Rainfang. The Sorceress of Yharia, worked for King Leonast Onriemn.
As if recognizing the silhouette, Raswell knickered at her sight.
The sorceress lifted her purple hood to reveal the mass of curly golden-brown hair and freckled face. “I mean you no harm,” she stated as she came to a halt a few steps from him. “Deisn Rainfang.”
Azryle didn’t particularly relish the recoiling feeling he discerned from the sorceress—but he wasn’t fool enough to let that on. His only reply was a dip of chin, even as his each ripper instinct protested against her statement.
“What they say is true, then.” She angled her head, lilac eyes glinting. “Prince Azryle Wintershade, not a chatty one.” The grin that followed was purely animal.
Azryle repressed his cringe. “I suppose I wasn’t assigned for chitchatting?” He ran a hand over Raswell’s silken cot of dark hair. “And I’m fairly certain the monster is nowhere near this forest.”
Her heavy-lidded eyes narrowed, then she smiled like a fiend. “I’d gotten the wind of your haughtiness, Your Highness.”
Azryle waited. As patiently as he could in the frigidness.
“Your heart is unnaturally calm, ripper.” Her gaze sloped to his chest, as if she could see right beneath the coat of leathers and skin. Maybe she could—sorceresses were as much of a riddle as any enigma. “Is your kind immune, or have you done mejest for tonight’s task?”
Not many were left of his kind, unfortunately, to tackle this task tonight in his stead. And he had no doubt the Sorceress of Yharia was already aware of that. “One would think a sorceress as powerful as yourself would be able to tell where mejest was utilized.”
He hadn’t meant it an insult, but she seemed to have taken it as one—if the cold chuckle she gave was any indication. “Whom you call monster, ripper, is a friend of mine.” She added coolly, “You make a mistake and kill her tonight, and I will see how calm your heart remains with my mejest on your throat.”
“Spare me the details of threats and whatnots, I know my chances almost as well as I know you ought not provoke the Enchanted Queen’s wrath, should any harm come to her only ripper.” He smiled. “We’re both aware it matters not whether you’re the Duce of Tribes or a mere sorceress. Not to Queen Felset.”
Whether the sorceress took his words to heart, she didn’t let on.
“Remember,” Rainfang said as they ambled down the stone castle’s hallway of dungeons, “you will have two hours, the moment she shoves the antidote down her throat, lift the curse. Read the right words. Not a single alteration.”
It was all inscribed on the piece of paper she’d dealt Azryle. He supposed if he messed up, Queen Felset will not be very pleased. And he knew better than to trigger the temper of the Enchanted Queen.
“Precisely when she is in the moonlight. Don’t delay.”
If he did and botched, they will be obliged to wait untold years for this night. For another ripper these royals would never treasure. “How long has Syrene Alpenstride been confined in this form?”
The sorceress paused before a wide steel door as she answered, “Three decades.”
Deisn waved a hand, lilac fog emerged and fell to unveil keys. Fingers not callused, not a fighter at all. “Yes.”
And Syrene Alpenstride had been sixteen when she was cursed. Having had lived a life in a monstrous body, Azryle was almost certain she would have low to no humanity in her human form. Whether these royals had considered that, he hadn’t the faintest idea, but he supposed if the human woman turned out beastly, he would be appointed again to tackle another monster—in human form this once. Just the thought of it sent thrill hurtling down his ripper mejest.
But so long he returned to his own country after tonight, brought about Felset’s task and his queen remained calm with him, it mattered little to him.
Gate unbarred, revealing the bridge to Syrene Alpenstride’s tower.
Azryle stepped towards it, but Deisn said, “Bring her back.”
He just nodded. No confirmation—no fake promises. Anything could ensue.
Unsheathing Silencer from across his back, Azryle stepped onto the stone bridge—his sword’s ruby glinting like fire in moonlight. Wintershade heirloom. Felset had handed him it. Where she clutched it from, Azryle never asked.
The door shut behind him and he sized up the tower he approached. The myriad small windows, gapping enough for Alpenstride to abscond. Why she hadn’t, Azryle wasn’t sure he wanted to know. His dark hair was clutched back, at least he had remembered that.
He’d stuck Deisn Rainfang’s vial of antidote there. It was of glass, would break in clothes if he indeed had to put up a fight.
There was no light inside the windows. Utter dark. The first thing, he supposed, he’d have to find a place where moonlight flowed directly in and set traps.
One breath—he allowed one long breath to flee as Azryle stepped in the dark hollow of a tower. In the gelidness. Numbing coldness.
He could have sworn the temperature was even curtailed here, the dark alive. Fire burning the torch in his hand winked and guttered.
Only the light oozing from the small windows on the spiral of stairs he stepped in on was the blessing, but it wasn’t enough. Looked like a few blocks of moonlight were stationed there.
Such darkness that creature had been living in for three decades … it would be a miracle if Syrene Alpenstride turned out humane at all.
Azryle began ascending the spiraling stairs.
His ears picked no sound other than the crackling of fire burning the wood in his hand. It took all the centuries of his training to uphold his steps silent and clothes from rustling in such dead quiet.
The stairs came to a pause, there was no shed of light on this level, not even the moonlight.
There was a distant, inhuman snarl rumbling lowly. She was not on this level. Lower. It was too soon to weigh whether it was good thing. Though he wished a certain firebreather had been by his side to burn like a fireball and illuminate the whole damn tower.
But Vendrik was in Olkfield. Felset hadn’t sent him here, this mission was Azryle’s alone.
He continued ascending the stairs. For the moonlight, he had to be on highest level, on the rooftop of the tower.
So, higher and higher he went, his grip tight on Silencer’s hilt. The creature might know, might have sensed him and was sketching his own death, waiting for him to descend to the tower gate.
But at least she wasn’t ascending and hurling for him.
Syrene Alpenstride, heir of wolves’ tribe. How was she even cursed under supervision of the Lady of Wolves, only otsatyas could tell. The Lady of Wolves, the shifter each Vegreka’s very soul trembled before, Azryle had gotten the wind.
Azryle paused when he reached the rooftop. “Shit.”
It was sheltered with steel, no room for the moonlight to venture. The room as dark as any other. He felt the carpet beneath. Torn. There were tables set.
The snarl grew louder and louder. She was mounting, must have heeded his scent.
Retracing to the stairs was not an option, Azryle’s hand reached in his hair, just to make certain the antidote remained. He continued uttering the spell to lift the curse, settle it on his tongue and not mess up while reading it—
Faster than any Vegreka had the right to be, the creature lunged for him.
Azryle ducked, the fire on the torch quivering. “Not fond of sweet introductions, I see.”
Her only reply was the vicious snarl that echoed in corners of the hushed rooftop, and he could have sworn the steel shuddered in its wake.
He could not perceive her in the dark, only his predatory senses allowing him to know when she lunged, and the snarl she filled the crammed air with hinted she was on the move.
And when Heir of Wolf Tribe did indeed lunge again, Azryle made sure fire didn’t blow out as he whirled.
Silencer a dance in his hand, his blood a song.
Been a while since he’d been dealt a foe worth putting an effort against. Because life or death, Azryle was sure as Saqa content to acquire a thrill out of this dance with the beast.
Ruby of Silencer glinted the fire as Azryle rolled and ducked again. His breath a steady rhythm. Each pulse of his veins roaring: Do not kill her do not kill her do not kill her
Indeed, that had been Felset’s command. To not kill the beast. His blood echoing the command to him, prompting him to keep the Heir of the Lady of Wolves alive.
Two hours—he had two hours. He needed to find the moonlight—
The creature attacked again, screeching, and Azryle swept.
But not fast enough.
Rip of leather and cotton sounded as filthy cold nails tore the flesh of his arm and it was his own snarl that tainted the cold, thick air. Do not kill her.
The creature grew frantic at the scent of his blood, the screech had Azryle covering his ears.
Still, as he sensed her swiping those filthy nails for his head, Azryle curved back. Straightening, he did not breathe as Silencer’s blade plunged in what he supposed was her arm.
The revolting scent of rotten blood filled his nostrils, turned his stomach.
As Syrene was busy with plangent screeching, Azryle leapt for the door. Find the moonlight, find the moon—
She zoomed her nails again from behind, Azryle dodged in time, only the flesh of his ear tore.
Breaths becoming shallow, he crouched and whirled to side, spun to her, clearing the doorway. Do not kill her.
Syrene dashed. Not for him.
The torch from his hand felled to the carpet and the fire began swallowing the tables too. Azryle swore.
Rooftop illuminated soon, unveiling the vile creature.
He did not know what he’d expected her to look like, but something so grotesque bearing body that simulated dark mud, wet grayish skin that bulged the ribs and all the other bones a human body was not meant to bear, face like teemed nightmares, was not it.
She was licking his blood on her hideous, black nails.
“Well, hello there,” Azryle breathed, gripping Silencer tighter.
As if driven by the crimson liquid, she had dismissed his presence from her mind, Alpenstride’s gaze snapped to him, opened her wide mouth of horrors and screeched out, echoes of it settled in his wound. He did not dare gaze down at it.
And she attacked, utterly unfazed by the fire around them, heating the rooftop.
“You’d love feasting on me,” he said, blocking the attack with Silencer’s hilt, “I’ve been told I’m delicious.” Do not kill her.
Around the rooftop they danced, Azryle’s breath turning ragged leaping past the fire as it continued spreading like a wave, avoiding the arising burning in the new bruise on his temple, slithering the warm blood down his cheek. Syrene’s screeches growing unbearable to his ears.
He lost track of how long had he been here, how long was he left with.
So, as the beast was occupied with the dagger Azryle struck in her back, he leapt past the fire and charged towards the door.
Azryle skipped a few steps as he descended and descended and descended the spiraling stairs, still struggling to catch a full breath, his arm a rippling agony, the blood trickling—he made sure it did. The split skin of his cheek and temple burning as Saqa.
Stygian dark soon swallowed him wholly. But Azryle did not pause and continued tunneling down. Couldn’t afford to pause, because Alpenstride had begun following.
Soon, he entered the ward with windows, moonlight leaking in.
Here—it had to be here.
Azryle crouched on the steps where moonlight seeped in and stretched on the wall, the creature’s low snarls growing louder. He slid out a dagger from his boot, and tugged up his sleeve.
A cut on his tattooed forearm had the blood slithering down his frozen skin.
Slow, it was too damnably slow.
He didn’t think twice before carving two more cuts over the first. Crimson blood trickled on the dusty steps and shone in moonlight as the ruby of Silencer.
Azryle’s hand reached for the vial of antidote tucked in his clutched hair and slid it out; uncorked it and decanted the shiny maroon liquid in his blood.
The whine of stone sounded as Syrene dragged her filthy nails against it, her unpleasant scent hinting she was too near.
As soon as the vial drained, Azryle lifted to his feet, gripping Silencer, and raced down a few steps. He lurked behind the wall and overheard the creature licking all his drops of blood. So compelled by the thirst that she’d almost forgotten whom she was following.
That sorceress had forgotten to mention that thirst.
She crouched before the antidote mixed with his blood and Azryle hoped she wouldn’t sniff it—
Syrene licked the antidote in the moonlight, and he heard the swallow.
As if the taste was diverse and the beast just now grasped it, she shook the tower with her screech. That antidote must have been a waking call indeed, because the creature sniffed … his scent no doubt.
Azryle slid out the piece of paper from his jacket’s pocket and stepped before her. “Hello, again.”
And as Syrene Alpenstride loomed in the moonlight, Azryle began reading the spell Deisn Rainfang had dealt him.
As the foreign words from his mouth echoed in the stairwell, Syrene screeched and screeched and screeched. His ears threatening to split, but no way in Saqa did he pause reading.
Over and over he read, her grayish skin began oozing the smoke as if being burned.
After the tenth repeat, Azryle slid the paper back in his pocket. She cut her screech short and he thanked the otsatyas for it.
The beast’s eyes were wide, almost as if she had known that antidote and had kept herself distant from it. As if it were her death.
Wrath like no other Azryle had ever encountered, and the terror simmering in it, unleashed upon the tower in that shriek of abhorrent, unforgiving dreads.
Not towards him, but began ascending the stairs, as if some other antidote was stashed there to refrain herself from turning. But—
The beast slammed into the invisible barrier Azryle had assembled with his mejest to keep her around the tempting blood, lest she sniffed and caught the antidote.
Wrath—frantic, hideous wrath flicked in her as she charged towards him with a pace no one bore.
But Syrene slammed into another barrier before him, rippling a flash of light.
Panting, Azryle slid against the wall and waited for dawn, for the curse to lift and return to Olkfield tomorrow. And hoped the beast’s nails hadn’t contained venom, and the split flesh of his arm would begin knitting together soon.
Azryle did not kill Syrene.