An Origin Story in the Comstock Chronicles
CHAPTER 2 – A GIFT AND A CURSE
Azroth paced before the stone hearth in his room, wincing as the throbbing pain from his burned arms increased with every lap. The cream-colored stone walls lit up in the bright afternoon sunshine pouring through the square panel windows. The sunny room stood in stark contrast to the storm of emotions raging inside him.
He wished he could change into smoke and drift through the keyhole of his locked door. However, that ability had always eluded him. No matter what he tried, his door remained lock, and he remained stuck in here with no news about his friend.
After he and Wesley arrived last night, soldiers had dragged the senator from his horse and hauled him off toward the dungeons. He’d cast a worried and almost apologetic glance back to Azroth before disappearing into the mass of uniforms. Those eyes had haunted him all night.
Azroth shot a fireball into the grate of the cold hearth in frustration as he turned another lap. He hissed as the pain in his arms increased so intensely that for a moment it drove all thoughts of his friend from his mind.
Wesley was deep in the dungeons, enduring horrors Azroth only guessed at. Traitors to the crown, even ones only suspected of wrongdoing, were treated with the greatest severity. He swore screams drifted through the stone floors, but the dungeons were on the other side of the castle.
“Do you remember how to make a Fire Compass?” Wesley had asked him in a whisper as they rode in the middle of the soldiers.
Azroth repeated the instructions back in Wesley’s ear.
“Wes, is it true?” he’d asked when he’d finished. “Are you part of the conspiracy Nero is searching for?”
Wesley had ignored that question and said, “The moment you get a chance to flee, make for Tellidus. With any luck, Imogen can get away from here too.”
“What about you?” All Azroth felt was cold. His fear for the senator and his family mounted with every mile they rode.
Wesley’s hands tightened on the reins before reaching for Azroth’s fingers and giving them a squeeze. “I will meet you one day. I don’t know when, but I will see you again, my son.”
Azroth’s breath hitched hard in his chest, making it near impossible to breathe. This sounded more like a goodbye. He leaned his head on Wesley’s rigid back as the realization hit him. The man’s heartbeat thundered against his skull. Wes was terrified, which only increased Azroth’s own fear.
What have you done?
As the memory faded, Azroth hurled a fireball at the panes of glass of his bedroom window, anger and frustration at everything boiling over. The glass absorbed the fire energy and rippled with red light. He shot more flames around the room, trying desperately to find a weak spot in the fireproof magic that clung to his walls.
He had to find Wesley before it was too late and he lost the man he wanted to call father for six years. He didn’t care what the senator had involved himself in. Azroth would get him out. They’d find Imogen and the little ones and get out of Ballitus, where they’d be a real family. He’d learn a trade that used his hands for something other than hurting people.
Just as Azroth aimed another fireball for the door, it burst open, catching the guard behind it hard in the chest. The boy grinned in pleasant surprise as the guard spluttered and cursed, tamping out the flames. The man burst into the room, followed by Barley Breath, who, if possible, smelled even worse today. Azroth wrinkled his nose as the man leered at him.
“The king ordered your presence,” Barley said.
“I’m not going,” Azroth declared, sounding much braver than he felt.
“You have no say in the matter,” Barley said, grabbing the scruff of Azroth’s shirt and tossing him backwards. “Now, smarten up and change your clothes.”
He wanted to fight back, hit this man who’d beaten him senseless while his father watched on the sidelines. Experience; however, had taught him to get moving if he didn’t want to be nursing a black eye for the next fortnight. He quickly changed his clothes and splashed water on his face, though it did little to shake the fear coursing through his insides.
Once out in the hall, Barley Breath led Azroth and three other guards through the white stone castle and into the dungeons. Nero and Zared were likely already there. When they discovered he could enter a person’s mind and leave it intact, that was all his father wanted of him ever after. Though powerful fire users, his father and brother couldn’t infiltrate minds and steal memories the way Azroth did.
He didn’t resist at first. It intrigued him to step into people’s minds. The things they hid from the rest of the world intrigued him. But the day he did more than view the memories, things went wrong.
Azroth’s boots scuffed the landing of the dungeon floor. The stone here was darker, made from a material that pulsed like a black heart. Lead gathered around his feet, making each step slower than the last. The guard shoved him to the torture chambers.
Barley Breath spoke over his shoulder. “As you didn’t finish the interrogation yesterday, you’ll be helping with this one. The king hopes you won’t be such a disappointment today.”
Azroth’s head snapped to Barley Breath. This must have to do with the conspiracy. As if to confirm that thought, a man’s screams echoed around the torture chamber as Barley and Azroth entered. The man’s face was hidden around the backs of Nero and Zared, hovering around their prisoner like vultures, but an icy dread doused him from head to toe. He drew closer and saw the man tied to a stone slab with his hands tied above his head. His feet were bound to the opposite end, secured by tight metal cuffs.
“It’s about time,” Nero snapped when he spotted his son. “If you walked any slower, Azroth, you’d go backward.”
The multitude of rings on Nero’s right hand struck the side of his face with enough force to knock him to the ground. He clutched his face, trying to stem the blood seeping through his fingers.
“You leave that boy alone,” wheezed the man on the stone table.
He strained at his bindings, and Azroth saw blood weeping from his chest. Ice filled his veins as he met Wesley’s stare. What had they done to him?
“You do remember that he is my son and not yours, don’t you? He may run to your house and hide behind the skirts of that worthless governess who filled his head with grand ideas, but he is still my son.”
“Then treat him the way a father should. With love.” Wesley glared defiantly at Nero.
“Love yields nothing but weakness.”
“So says the king who can’t do half of what his son can.”
Nero’s eyes shifted to Azroth for a moment, and the cold, calculating look within those dark windows stole any fire that remained within the boy.
“I hear you planned to run away with my son in an effort to make him your own. If you love that sorry excuse of a boy so much, I’ll make you a deal. Give up your compatriots and tell me who else is involved in the coup, and I’ll give you Azroth. What matters more to you? A useless, layabout boy, or those other traitors you’ve aligned yourself with.”
Wesley pressed his lips together. As his eyes caught on Azroth, the struggle was plain, but so was his answer. The apology shining in the senator’s face begged him to forgive the answer.
“That boy is far from useless. He’s far more gifted than you will ever be. He is my son, Ross Galbraith, and he will become a great man one day.” Wesley gasped and pulled at his binding. The red splotch on his shirt spread farther over his chest. “But even my family must come second to this.”
“Have it your way.” Nero turned away from Wesley, a malicious smile twitching beneath his thin goatee.
He gripped Azroth’s shoulder and steered his reluctant feet to the stone table.
“Senator, do you know what happens when a person’s mind is forcibly invaded?” Nero asked.
Wesley’s eyes widened, and what color had remained in his face drained away.
“One of two things will occur.” Nero seemed to savor every word. He was so close to extracting the information he needed. “If the person gives up their memories willingly, then there is little danger of injury in the extraction process. However, if they resist, the victim’s mind can shatter. Especially if the extractor continues to burn away memory after memory until they find what they’re searching for.”
Nero leaned closer to Wesley, keeping his vice-like grip on Azroth’s shoulder to prevent him from fleeing.
“You won’t recognize your own wife or children. This ‘boy’ would be a stranger to you. You’ll becoming a shade, forever disgraced in the eyes of your king.”
“What I don’t recognize is the king,” Wesley spat. His chest shuddered as he spoke. “All you’ve ever done for your people is beat them like disobedient dogs. The gods gave us our gifts of fire for good, to lift and help others. You’ve squandered your power, choosing instead to oppress the people, ruling them through fear. You abuse those you should cherish most.”
Tears welled up in the corners of Wesley’s eyes. “Kill me, Nero Phoenix. I won’t tell you anything.”
The corners of Nero’s mouth turned up, creating cruel points. Azroth’s eyes widened in alarm. His father had wanted this.
“I won’t kill you, you worthless plebeian. No, Azroth will destroy your mind. Then I’ll give you back to your family, a broken husk and a traitor to your fellow mutineers. You’ll serve as an example to all those who think of threatening me again.”
Wesley’s pitying gaze fell on Azroth before blinking rapidly and staring at the ceiling.
“Take his memories, Azroth,” his father commanded.
The back of Nero’s hand struck him again. “Do as you’re told, boy.” Nero raised his hands to strike a third time if he didn’t obey.
Blood trickled into Azroth’s hairline as he placed his shaking hands on the sides of Wesley’s face. The senator gazed up with pity into his face.
Please, give me what he wants. I can spare your mind if you give me memories you don’t mind parting with. I don’t want to lose you, Azroth pleaded in Wesley’s mind.
Wesley gave him a sad smile. Do you remember how to make a Fire Compass? Let me show you what Tellidus looks like.
Wes, this isn’t the time, Azroth said, but Wesley filled his vision with towering pines. Rolling grasslands as far as the horizon spread out before him, and the library he’d seen in Solomon. So many books.
This awaits you in Tellidus, Wesley said. I’m sorry I can’t take you there as I had hoped, but there is still a chance for you. Flee this place as soon as you’re able. Get away from Nero. Find your home in the north.
“Get on with it, boy,” Nero ordered, grabbing the scruff of his neck.
Azroth tried desperately to get his Firespark to ignite. Dread whisked away all the heat inside, like a cold northern wind. Nero would kill them both if he didn’t get any information.
I don’t want to go alone, Azroth whispered in his mind.
I will never leave you, and neither will Imogen. No matter what happens to us, we’ll always be with you.
No! Azroth wiped his eyes on his sleeve. You’re coming with me. We’re all going to flee Ballitus together. Please give me the information, and I’ll get us out.
Wesley’s look of pity rose again. I can’t. Some things like freedom are worth dying for. If I perish, another stands ready to take my place, and another after them. The king can’t know the information I carry, and I’m afraid I can’t share it with you either.
“What have you found out?” Nero pressed.
The words stuck in his chattering teeth. He raised his eyes to the ceiling, begging for anything or anyone to help, but the gods were silent. His gaze fell upon Wesley again. If the senator wouldn’t speak, he needed to make something up. He refused to lose this brave man.
Nero raised an eyebrow impatiently.
“The assassin fled. The plan changed once we captured the senator.” Azroth’s voice quavered as he spoke.
Nero narrowed his eyes. “Is that so?”
“Let’s see if that story changes once you steal his memories.”
Nero squeezed the back of Azroth’s neck tighter, causing red energy to spark from the boy in uncontrolled spirals. Some hit Zared, who cried out, patting out the stray flames. Others landed on the guards, who cursed as they eliminated the flames from their uniforms.
Azroth stepped carefully into Wesley’s mind. There were some memories he could take that wouldn’t cause damage. Forgotten dreams were usually the best place to start. Though the conscious mind forgot them, the subconscious did not, and willingly gave them up when he called.
However, as Ross pressed into Wesley’s subconscious, he was met by a palisade of barriers.
Please, Wesley, give me something. I don’t want to force this, Azroth pleaded.
A memory of when Wesley first sat upon a horse as a toddler surfaced.
Take this one.
He carefully singed the edges, leaving it a dull gray. Nero pressed his hands to Azroth’s and forced his way into the connection like a rampaging bear. His father’s disgust was plain.
Is this the best you can do? He said as he viewed the darkened memory. Try harder, or you’ll feel more than the backside of my hand. This is your natural ability, boy. You form bonds with your victims and win out their secrets. You did it with that thief, even if you didn’t realize it. He pitied you, just like this traitorous senator, and let slip the information that led me to this scum. When Zared ascends to the throne of Ballitus, your job will be to protect him and the kingdom from threats like this cockatrice.
With Azroth as the medium, Nero hammered against Wesley’s defenses, causing the senator to writhe in pain as they razed his mind. Azroth tried his best to stop his father, but fear spread through him like a cancer. He feared the back of his father’s hand. He feared for Wesley and Imogen. His emotions railed inside him, causing his power to shoot out sweeping arcs of light, striking the walls and making everyone dive for cover.
Nero crowed in triumph as Wesley wrestled with the chains binding him, oblivious to the red light blistering his arms.
“You shouldn’t have let that face slip, senator. Mario Persius will be next. Keep pushing, Azroth. Stop being so weak!” the king shouted in his ear.
The sound broke any hold Azroth had over his gift. All the power sitting below the surface burst outward. His love for Wesley tangled with his fear of his father, insoluble and wild. Flames erupted around him in a protective ring, just like he’d made around Wesley and Imogen last night. The bristled head of a fire-born dragon rose and snapped, flinging Nero into a wall.
Find something worth fighting for, Ross. Become a man of honor and live up to your name as my son, Wesley’s desperate voice echoed in his mind.
The fire, goaded by Azroth’s panic and the finality in Wesley’s voice, whirled around the room. He threw up his arms to protect himself as he fell backward. His connection to Wesley vanished. Guards shouted in fright as the flaming teeth of the dragon pursued them.
After several long minutes, the blaze dimmed, and Azroth peered over at Wesley’s still form. Fire smoldered around them as the fire dragon nuzzled his arm and shrank back into the red tattoo that stretched from his wrist to his elbow.
“Wesley?” Azroth croaked.
The senator didn’t respond.
Nero strode over and checked for a pulse on the senator.
Shaking his head, he said, “When did you learn to create a Fire Drake?”
Azroth’s jaw worked up and down, but no sound came out. His world was falling into flaming ruins around him. He’d killed Wesley. He’d destroyed any chance he had of being free.
“Whatever the case, well done. You’ve rid this kingdom of one more traitor and we have a lead for another. Though we need to figure out how to control your outbound power, you have the potential to be a great protector, my son.”
Azroth whirled on the man who’d brought him so much pain and fear. Echoes of the fiery dragon’s bellow rang in his ears like the thunderclaps of a wild summer storm. For the first time, hatred filled his small heart, and heat rose in his fingers to match.
“I am not your son.”
Nero raised his eyebrow. “You just killed the man who claimed to be your father, usurping my place. YOU killed him. How will Imogen treat you once she finds out? Her husband is dead and her family is ruined. All because of you. You are my son. Not hers and certainly not this vermin’s. You are Azroth Phoenix, the second son of the king of Ballitus, destined to be the next protector of this land.”
Azroth glanced back at Wesley’s burned and blackened form. How would Imogen greet him after this? It wrenched the air from his lungs as the weight of what had just happened landed on him.
The throbbing blisters on his arms wished for Imogen’s healing touch, but he could never face her again. He’d just murdered Wesley and helped further expose the plot to kill the king. Nero had made sure no one could trust Azroth, not even himself.
Without another word, Azroth ran. He bolted up the narrow stairs as his father’s voice railed against the stones behind him, ordering the guards to stop him. The guards upstairs only gave him a passing glance, assuming his lessons were going poorly, and that he was headed to the estate on the hill.
He’d never go there ever again. He leaned into his run, pushing his feet faster than they’d ever gone before. The guards attempted to stop him as he fled out of the city gates, but he was too small and too fast. He needed to get as far away from this place as possible.
As the sun slipped to the horizon, jagged stone spires and arches rose in the distance. Azroth ran toward the Black Waste and the broken remains of the once mighty city of Liteya, the land of his forefathers. Now a land of thieves, beggars, murderers, wights, and jinns sheltered beneath the sharp expanse of the volcanic peaks.
Tears streamed through his hair as Azroth pressed on. He’d never return to this city. Imogen’s stricken face floated in his mind. News of what happened to her husband would shatter any respect she had for him. All thoughts of the home he thought he had vanished.
Azroth ran faster, letting all traces of his Firespark dissipate. He begged the heavens to give him a different gift. He never wanted to feel that heady rush the red energy gave him again.
As he crossed into the lava fields, his sable tunic melted with the shadows, transforming him into another wraith on the dunes.