An Origin Story in the Comstock Chronicles
Did you miss Chapter 1? Read it here.
CHAPTER 2 – A GIFT AND A CURSE
Azroth paced before the stone hearth in his room, doing his best to ignore the throbbing burns on his arms. The sandstone walls lit up in the bright afternoon sunshine pouring through the square panel windows. After he and Wesley arrived last night, a castle guard had picked Azroth up and slung him over one shoulder like a sack of potatoes. He screamed and thrashed, even using his fire gift to get back to Wesley, but the guard and his clothing were immune to flames.
The burley guard hauled Azroth up to his room, dumped him on the floor, and slammed the heavy wood fireproof door shut, locking it. Some fire users could turn themselves into smoke and sneak into or out of locked rooms. Azroth wished he was one of them. He needed to find Wesley before his father did.
Riding in front of Wesley on the way to the castle, Azroth hissed questions into the senator’s ears. He needed to know if the soldier’s allegations were correct. But Wesley refused to speak about it. Instead, he whispered the instructions for making a fire compass in Azroth’s ear, ensuring the boy could repeat everything back to him exactly.
“The moment you get a chance to flee,” Wesley whispered. “Make for Tellidus. With any amount of luck, Imogen can get away from here too.”
“What about you?” Azroth asked. All he felt was cold. Nothing remained of his Firespark, and he shivered in its absence.
Wesley’s hands tightened on the reins. “I will meet you one day. I don’t know when, but I will see you again, my son.”
Wesley’s arms encircled Azroth, giving him a momentary feeling of safety, but the feeling wouldn’t linger. Something was wrong. Azroth feared if he didn’t get to the bottom of it soon, the consequences would be dire.
As the memory faded, Azroth hurled a fireball at the panes of glass of his bedroom window. 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 only man he wanted to call father. With how Wesley evaded his questions, Azroth knew the senator was involved in a plot to murder the king. But why? The senate worked with the monarch. Why would Wesley be trying to kill Nero?
No, this had to be a mistake. Wesley would never try to kill anyone. Azroth would get them out. He wasn’t staying in this city any longer. Wesley and Imogen would adopt him, and he’d be their son. He would 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 guard burst into the room, followed by Barley Breath.
If possible, the man smelled even worse today. Azroth wrinkled his nose as the man leered at him.
“I’ve got a summons for you to the dungeons,” Barley said.
“I’m not going,” Azroth declared, sounding much braver than he felt.
“You have no say in the matter,” Barley said. “Now, smarten up and change your clothes.”
Azroth wanted to defy the man. 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 sandstone castle and into the dungeons. Nero and Zared were likely already there. Though powerful fire users, his father and brother could not infiltrate minds and steal memories the way Azroth could. When they discovered he could enter a person’s mind and leave it intact, that was all his father wanted of him.
Azroth 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 when he proved he could do more than look at the memories, things went wrong.
The boy’s feet lifted off the bottom step and landed on 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 led him to the torture chambers.
Barley Breath spoke over his shoulder. “As you didn’t complete your lesson again yesterday, your father feels it necessary for you to practice again today. He hopes you won’t be such a disappointment.”
Azroth looked up sharply. Would they try to make him take the memories from another thief?
A man’s screams echoed around the torture chamber as Barley and Azroth entered. A man lay on one of the stone slabs with his hands tied above his head. His feet were bound to the opposite end, secured by tight metal cuffs. Azroth couldn’t see the man’s face around the backs of his father and brother, hovering around their prisoner like vultures.
“It’s about time,” Nero snapped when he spotted his son. “If you walked any slower, Azroth, you’d go backward.”
Azroth cried out as the multitude of rings on Nero’s right hand struck the side of his face.
“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.
Azroth froze as he met Wesley’s stare. What had they done to him?
“You want me to leave my son alone, Senator? Then give up your secrets. Tell me who else is involved in the assassination attempt.”
Wesley pressed his lips together. It was clear to Azroth that the senator wouldn’t divulge anything, which scared him more. He knew what Nero would do next.
“Have it your way.” Nero turned away from Wesley, a malicious smile twitching beneath his thin goatee.
Nero gripped Azroth’s shoulder and steered his reluctant feet to the stone table. Fear reflected in Wesley’s eyes as they drew near.
“Senator,” Nero said. “Do you know what happens when a person’s mind is forcibly invaded?”
Wesley didn’t answer.
“One of two things will occur,” Nero explained. “If the person gives up their memories willingly, then there is little danger of them getting injured in the extraction process. However, if they resist, and the one extracting it continues to burn away memory after memory until they find what they’re looking for, the victim’s mind will become ruined.”
Nero leaned closer to Wesley while keeping a hand on Azroth’s shoulder to prevent him from fleeing.
“You won’t recognize your own wife or children, becoming a shade of who you are, forever disgraced in the eyes of your king.”
“What I don’t recognize is the king,” Wesley spat. “All you’ve ever done for your people is beat them like a dog. 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.”
With a sympathetic glance at Azroth, he continued. “You abuse those you should cherish most. 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. I’ll let Azroth destroy your mind. Then I’ll give you back to your family, broken. I’ll watch your fall into disgrace, letting you 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.
“Place your hands on the sides of his head at his temples, Azroth,” his father instructed.
“I can’t––” Azroth tried to say, but the back of Nero’s hand struck him again.
“Do as you’re told, boy.”
Azroth’s hand went up to the side of his face, coming away wet with red, sticky blood. Wesley’s eyes were riveted on him, an apology written across his face. The boy shuffled his feet over to the stone slab, moving faster as Nero raised his hands to strike again if he didn’t hurry.
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 as Azroth peered down.
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 the fire compass?
Yes, Azroth said.
Recite the steps for me, Wesley said.
That’s my boy, Ross. 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. However, dread was the only thing he felt.
I don’t want to go alone, Azroth whispered.
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.
“He… he says…”
Azroth couldn’t get the words out. If Wesley couldn’t tell him, he needed to make something up. He wouldn’t hurt the only man who’d ever treated him kindly.
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 and others landed on the guards. They cursed as they took cover.
As carefully as he could, Azroth stepped into Wesley’s mind. There were some memories he could take that wouldn’t cause damage. Forgotten dreams were usually a good 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.
Azroth carefully singed the edges, leaving it a dull gray. Nero pressed his hands to Azroth’s and broke into the connection between Azroth and Wesley.
Azroth could feel his father’s disgust. Is this the best you could get? 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.
Using Azroth as the medium, Nero hammered against Wesley’s defenses, causing the senator to cry out, writhing in pain as they razed his mind. Azroth tried his best to stop his father’s power, but so much fear was inside him now that his power was doing more than sparks.
Nero crowed in triumph as Wesley wrestled with the chains binding him.
“You shouldn’t have let that face slip, senator. Mario Persius will be next. Keep pushing, Azroth. Stop being so weak!” Nero shouted in his ear.
The sound broke any hold Azroth had over his gift. All the power sitting below the surface of his skin 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. Azroth 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. No one could get near Wesley for several minutes as Azroth calmed down, and the fires dissipated.
As the blaze dimmed, Azroth peered over at Wesley’s still form. His features were blackened in places, and his bare chest didn’t move.
“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 couldn’t answer. His jaw worked up and down, but no sound came out.
“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 swung his attention to the man who’d brought him so much pain and fear, echoes of the fiery dragon’s bellow rang in his ears.
“I am not your son.”
Nero raised his eyebrow. “Really? Do you plan to hide behind the skirts of Imogen again? How will she treat you once she finds out you killed her husband and ruined their family? Do you think she’ll be keen to take you in after what you’ve done? No. You are my son. Not hers and certainly not this vermin’s. You are Azroth Phoenix, second son of the king of Ballitus, destined to be the next great protector of this land.”
Azroth glanced back at Wesley. How would Imogen greet him after this? The throbbing blisters on his arms wished for her 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.
With shuffling steps, Azroth backpedaled to the doorway.
“Where are you going, boy?”
Azroth continued to back toward the door.
“You leave here, and you will feel my wrath,” Nero threatened.
Without another word, Azroth ran. He bolted up the narrow stairs as his father’s voice railed against the stones behind him. The guards upstairs only gave him a passing glance, assuming his lessons were going poorly again, and that he was headed to the estate on the hill.
Azroth couldn’t go that way today. He couldn’t go there ever again. Pushing his feet faster than they’d gone before, Azroth fled out of the city gates. He didn’t care where his feet led him, other than he wanted 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. These days, thieves, beggars, murderers, wights, and jinns all lived out beneath the sharp expanse.
Tears streamed down his face 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. Azroth begged the heavens to give him another gift. He didn’t want fire. He never wanted to feel that heady rush the red energy gave him.
As he crossed into the lava fields, Azroth melted with the shadows, becoming another wraith on the dunes.