Faenon woke with a start to the sound of a door closing. Although it took a minute of sluggish thought, he remembered the events of the previous day that had led him to this underground fort, where he had fallen asleep sitting at the foot of a bed in which Kari eventually curled up for sleep. It was one of two beds in the room. The Vessel occupied the other.
He had, at least, not fallen on top of Kari when he dozed off. She lay behind him, only halfway underneath the blankets. A quick, soft touch told him that her cheek was still warmer than the skin on the back of his hand, though he could not tell whether that was a fair metric to judge by. He had donated his red sweater to the Vessel to replace her soaked jacket, leaving him with only a thin, sleeveless undershirt. Had he crawled into a bed of his own, he might not have felt so chilly. But instead he had watched the Vessel sleep, brimming with questions to ask her, until sleep claimed him, too.
It occurred to him that, though he had woken to the sound of the door closing, Kari lay asleep beside him. Faenon could not see the other bed in the room by the light that crept inside from under the door, but the possibility that the Vessel had escaped made him leap to his feet in pursuit.
She stood in the middle of the narrow hallway, pressing a slender hand against the wall. The striking structure of her face captured Faenon’s eye again, from her high, strong cheekbones to her pointed chin. The shadows cast by the hall’s elven lights brought out every cool undertone in her warm bronze skin. Her short hair had dried fluffy and white as milk, with two longer tendrils hanging in wispy curls in front of her long, furry ears, which twitched and rotated.
She leaned on the balls of her feet and pivoted herself to face Faenon. She was taller than he; the bottom hem of the sweater did not hang low enough to hide more than an inch of the length of her muscled legs. His eyes snapped up to her face and he concentrated on keeping them there, on tracing the amber edges of her white irises and never straying.
“Who are you?” she asked in a low voice.
He did not know how to answer her question. His name did not matter to her, and his name was all he had. He was nothing that she would recognize.
“I’m just… nobody,” he admitted, scratching his head. “My name’s Faenon. Faenon Winter.”
“Winter,” she repeated, holding his gaze with her intense stare. “Where are we, Winter?”
“Somewhere in the Highlands—the forest. I’m not really sure, exactly,” he said, eyes drifting to the floorboards for a moment before he remembered that maintaining eye contact would be his best option.
Her eyes narrowed. “Of course we’re in the Highlands,” she snarled. “Why are we underground?”
“How did you know we were underground?”
“I can smell it. Where are we?”
“I—I really don’t know—I’ve never been in the Highlands before,” he stammered. “It’s an oak forest? Daion said—you’re pretty close to wherever you, uh, were. When you were…”
“Out in the rain. Right,” she recalled with a softened tone to her voice, gazing at the hallway again before she looked down at herself.
Faenon did not follow her gaze; he stared at her horns for something to look at that was up. “We, uh, didn’t have spare clothes,” he mumbled.
“Right,” she said. “How old are you?”
“Seventeen,” he answered automatically, then shook his head quickly. “It’s—eighteen. Just turned eighteen last week.”
She looked up with raised eyebrows and an impressed pout. “That’s a lot of restraint for a teenage boy,” she remarked.
His earlier problem of feeling chilly in his undershirt seemed to have resolved itself somehow. “Thanks?” he squeaked.
“If you didn’t have spare clothes, then this sweater,” she said, pulling at the sweater in places that made its lower hem rise, “must be yours.”
He stared pointedly at cracks in the ceiling. “S’my dad’s,” he mumbled through unconsciously clenched teeth.
“Huh. Is it Northern Plains?” she asked. “You don’t look Gardenian, but then I don’t get why you’ve never been to the Highlands.”
“What?” he asked, daring to meet her eyes now that she had lowered her arms again.
“That’s where you’re from, isn’t it? The Plains,” she said. “I’m going off of your complexion, so if your family’s from there, it still counts.”
“Going off my what?”
“How red your face got. You’re not lily-white like the Gardenians.” Her smile made her narrow eyes glint with mischief. “Everyone in the north has a little Fiallan color in them.”
Fortunately for him, he was too impressed to be embarrassed. “Northern Plains, yeah,” he said. “Azier, if you know it.”
Her smile spread wider, and the mischievous glint turned to a sparkle. “Of course I know Azier,” she said with a musical tone to her low voice that struck Faenon as unfeminine, yet womanly. “You’re from the border, of course. But what’s an Azierite your age doing all the way out here?”
He did not know how to answer her question, because after a day of people warning him of Vega’s might, he no longer knew what he was going to do. He began his explanation in a number of ways but never got more than two words into it before his gaze shifted downwards and he had to start over. Eventually he asked, “Do you want a blanket or something?”
She shrugged. “Nah, I’m alright.”
His brain stalled when it received a negative response to a question that he thought only had a positive answer. The next thing of which he was aware was the Vessel’s raucous laughter.
“Okay, that time was just for fun. Your face is too cute,” she confessed. “I’ll take a blanket.”
Faenon crept back into the bedroom to retrieve the comforter from her bed and the plate from her bedside. Her eyes widened with delight when she saw apples and slices of bread. They moved to the dining room, which had a long, wooden table with benches on either side, like a lunch table in a school canteen.
“Kerioth, by the way,” she said between bites.
He was too drowsy to comprehend. “What?”
“My name. I’m Kerioth,” she repeated, smiling. “Sorry about the hostile introduction. I saw some unfriendly faces in the forest earlier today and I’ve been on edge since then.”
“Unfriendly faces? Is that—did you see Vega’s people?” he stammered.
She froze. “Yes,” she said.
“I need to find them,” he said, rising from his seat, then hovering over it with uncertainty. “Did you see where they went? Was there anyone with—?”
“I’ve got nothing to tell you.” Her face settled into the scowl she had been wearing when they first met. “I didn’t even really see them. I recognized their tracks and ran about ten miles in the opposite direction. What are you doing looking for them, anyway? Feel like dying today or something?”
“They took my dad,” he said.
Pity took her face, a genuine pity that gripped his chest and stopped any other words he might have had to say. “Oh, sweetheart, no,” she uttered. “Are you okay?”
She was the first person to ask him this question. “I’m fine,” he said as he sank back into his seat, because until that moment, he had managed to hide his fear underneath his conscious thoughts. As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he realized he was lying.
“So you’re trying to find him? Shoot, in the time it would take you to get out here from Azier, they’ve probably gotten their hands on an ennostone,” she muttered to herself. “Why did she take him?”
“We’re… trying to piece it together. He knows someone who knows a… a Vessel,” Faenon said. “I didn’t even know what a Vessel was until today.”
“No one knows what a Vessel is,” she said with a smirk. “I don’t even know what a Vessel is. I’ve been one for almost a thousand years and I don’t know what a Vessel is.”
When the words sank in, Faenon stared at her. “A thousand years?” he repeated.
She tilted her head and smiled wistfully. “Almost. Nine hundred eighty-four. It’s not a lot compared to the demons,” she said with nonchalance. “Demons are so old, they predate surnames. That’s why Vega is just Vega. Except I was born in the southern peninsula, and no one there is keen on last names either.”
“You’re from the South?” he repeated in surprise. He knew little of the region except its rocky landscapes and its savage inhabitants with dark skin.
She rolled her eyes. “Not everyone in the South is black,” she answered before he could find a way to ask the question. “Only the desert tribes are that dark. Most of the mountain tribes are lighter than the Fiallans.”
“Of course there’s deserts, dummy! There’s miles and miles of mountains, so behind it is a desert.” She rolled her eyes, coiling a longer tendril of white hair around her finger. “I looked more like a mountain girl before I became a Vessel. White isn’t exactly my natural color.”
Faenon suddenly had so many more questions about Vessels than ever before. He had figured that the ears and the horns were a part of what made her a Vessel, but when she brought up her hair, he wondered how deep it ran. He wondered if Vesseldom had shaped her tall, broad, muscular physique, if it inspired the pale color of her eyes, if it was why her fingernails tapered to sharp points, if it was what gave her such unearthly beauty. That was all before he even considered what she had said about becoming a Vessel, as if she had not been one of these beings for her whole life.
“What… what is a Vessel?” Faenon asked.
Kerioth grinned. “See, you’ve met one now, and you still don’t know what it is,” she said. “We’re called Vessels because we’re supposed to carry a piece of a god. I’d tell you more about it if I knew anything more, but the gods don’t tell us jack. They find a kid—it’s always a kid, because if you tell a kid you can make him immortal if he wants, he’s gonna agree. They give the kid a piece of their energy, he turns into a man-beast, then that’s the end. The god leaves. No explanation for why they did it or anything. Just a thousand years of wondering what you’re here for.”
Faenon pressed his palms into his forehead and raked through his hair with his fingers as he listened but barely understood. “I think I need more sleep,” he exhaled, lowering his heavy eyelids.
He felt her hand on his shoulder. “You poor kid,” she cooed. “What are you gonna do when you wake up?”
His throat tightened. “Is it really impossible? To get him back.”
“Well, are you alone?” Her hand fell away. “You were with someone else when you found me.”
He took a while to process her mistake. “No, that was Daion who found you,” he corrected. “He’s also blond, but he’s about a foot taller than me.”
“Oh, so I wasn’t just imagining that,” she said. “I thought he just seemed like a giant because he could have killed me. So the little girl probably isn’t as little as she looked next to him, is she?”
“Kari?” Faenon guessed. “Well, she’s… she’s thirteen, but she’s small for her age. How little is little?”
“Wait, so is she the big guy’s kid or his sister?” Kerioth asked.
“What? Neither,” he laughed. “Kari’s with us. We just met Daion. He’s not—he was just helping us out today.”
“I think he’s going to help you out more than that,” she said. “First thing the big guy did when I tried to kill him was to tell the girl to run. He was going to hold me off until she was safe. He’s on your team.”
Faenon furrowed his brow and tried to make sense of the story. He felt the same way he had felt when Daion had covered their auras and taken the lead in a walk through the forest to trail the mercenaries, but stronger. Althea had been suspicious; he remembered hearing it in her voice. He was trying to wrangle his tired brain into feeling suspicious, too, now that it had gone this far. But he could not coax out an ounce of wariness about Daion.
“So there’s you, him, and her. Who else?” Kerioth asked.
“Just two more,” he mumbled. “My brother and my best friend.”
“So are you all fierce Azierite warriors, at least?” She raised an arm to flex it and winked.
He wrinkled his brow with an incredulous smile and opened his mouth. It took a moment for the words to come out when he saw the broad stripe on the sleeve of the sweater that fit him easily, albeit snugly, stretching out around Kerioth’s bicep. “What?” he said finally.
She shrugged, lowering her arm. “You know, like the stories go,” she said. “Azier trains all their kids to be warriors soon as they’re old enough to hold a sword, right? Rest of your crew oughta be tough as nails.”
“Hardly. My best friend is a healer,” he laughed.
Kerioth fell still and her smile changed nature. “Oh,” she said. “Oh, that’s something. That’s something very good.”
“Very good?” he repeated.
“Yeah, that kind of changes everything. Is he good at it?”
He winced on reflex to hear someone call Althea a boy. “She is, yeah,” he corrected. “She’s been practicing since she was four. She’s eighteen now.”
“Oh, so she’s not your best friend, she’s your girlfriend.” Kerioth gave an airy sigh.
“She’s not my girlfriend, she’s my best friend,” he said with a shudder. “I know too much about her to be her—to have her be my… more than just a friend.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Kerioth asked.
“I mean, I’ve known her since she was a... a kid,” he mumbled, scratching his head to sever their eye contact. Althea’s childhood had been a tumultuous one, but because she had come out of it composed, acting as if she had no such history, Faenon felt obligated to do the same.
“That’ll stop being a problem for you in a few years, I bet,” Kerioth said with a smile. “So are we down to two fierce Azierite warriors? You and your brother.”
Faenon scoffed. “My brother is twelve years old and under five feet tall.”
Kerioth laughed with no restraint. “This isn’t the big, bold Azierite crew I was expecting,” she remarked. “Even you, with the way you talk. You’re not a typical one. You’ve got your wits about you.”
“The hell’s that supposed to mean?” Though Faenon was still smiling, Kerioth was toying with a nerve. “I’m the epitome of an Azierite. And I’m not even that smart—how dumb do you think we are?”
She rested her chin on her folded hands, half of an apple dangling from her fingers. “I think you’re all plenty clever, but only in the moment,” she said. “Always a little too quick to charge in without thinking. You know, like running straight to Vega without a plan.”
“What am I supposed to do?” he shot back, but when his head had cooled, he stared at Kerioth, hoping she would have an answer.
The pity returned to her eyes. “Get some sleep, sweetheart,” she murmured. “We’ll talk more tomorrow morning and figure out a plan for you and your friends. I’ll tell you all everything I know about Vega.”