An origin story in the Comstock Chronicles
CHAPTER 3 – WIGHTS AND FRIENDS
The black spires rising from the lava flow stretched toward the cold light of the stars like fingers desperately clinging to life. Azroth shivered as the night pressed down on the desert, and frost crystals glittered on the craggy surfaces of the onyx rock around him.
His torn sable tunic, bleeding face and hands attested to the sharp rocks surrounding him. The soles of Azroth’s fine boots split open as he took his next step, exposing his foot to the unforgiving ground. He tripped on the ruined shoe and cried out as his knees struck the rocks.
There, in the silent expanse, he finally allowed himself to cry. He cried for Wesley, for Imogen’s healing touch, for the family he’d lost, and he cried for himself. At this moment, he was more alone than he’d ever been in his short life.
To make things worse, a gnawing hunger such as he’d never experienced clawed at his insides. The hunger; however, was nothing compared to the aching thirst. Azroth longed for anything to drink and crying had only made it worse.
He’d found a pool of water just as the sun was going down, but a lizard had guarded it, more giant than any Azroth had seen. The creature bore spikes from the crest of its head, down to its long whip-like tail.
When Azroth approached, the lizard hissed, revealing a blue forked tongue. Despite the danger, the desiccating thirst drove him to try for the water. He got within two feet of the refreshing liquid when the lizard leaped at him, revealing pointed teeth coated in a green substance.
He reeled back with a shriek as the snapping jaws came within inches of his face. The lizard hissed again before rushing the boy. Azroth screamed and fled several yards away before realizing the lizard hadn’t moved. Satisfied with chasing the boy off, the lizard settled into its original spot and closed its eyes. He wanted to try for the water again, but when the lizard opened one eye and hissed loudly, he gave up.
As the night deepened, Azroth’s shivers increased along with the pounding in his head. He could warm himself easily enough, but that would mean touching his fire gift, and he never wanted to feel the red energy again after what happened. Yet, when his fingers became numb, his resolve broke.
“I can’t hurt anyone out here,” he told himself. “I’ll die if I don’t get warm.”
After amending his promise never to use his fire gift against another person, Azroth rubbed his hands up and down his body. The warmth was a welcome comfort in that dark place. He found a smooth spot on the ground near a boulder and wrapped his arms around his knees.
It was dangerous to use his gift in such a barren place as this. When Nero sent his men to search for him, even this small usage of the Firespark would light up his trail like the fireworks used during the city’s celebrations. Despite his lesser qualities, Barley Breath was one of the most capable trackers ever employed by Nero. The moment they realized Azroth hadn’t gone to Imogen’s, Barley would be on his trail.
With thoughts of the stinking man’s grasping fingers around his neck, Azroth got up and started walking again, though he didn’t know which way.
Do you remember how to make a Fire Compass? Wesley’s words seemed to float around him.
For a brief, terrifying moment, he couldn’t remember the steps. Just as panic was about to engulf him, he saw in his mind’s eye Wesley taking his knife and setting it and his arm ablaze. He patted the ground until his fingers brushed against something long and hard. A piece of lava rock about half the length of his arm. With the rock in his hands, Azroth sent flames down his arm.
He touched the flaming tip of the rock to the rough ground before him and drew the compass rose like Wesley had shown him. The flames were weak, but the glowing embers provided enough light to see. He fixed his destination firmly in his mind and blew on the coals. A bright arrow shot out of the ring, pointing him toward two tall pillars that blotted out the stars. He stared at the flames before him in disbelief. It worked.
He was about to congratulate himself when a movement to his left caught his attention. A pale figure of a woman stood across from him. Her sunken eyes drank up the red embers. The rocks around them gleamed white as the woman drew near. He leaped backward, hands out, ready to fight. It was a wight, a ghost of the desert.
“It’s been so long since I’ve felt warm,” the woman said. Her voice echoed like she stood inside a deep well. “No one brings fire out here anymore.”
Instead of reaching for his fire compass, the woman’s skeletal hand reached for Azroth’s face. He scrambled out of reach. The cold of her hands penetrated his skin like the depths of winter.
“I need to feel warm,” the woman said, sounding desperate.
“I can’t help you,” Azroth said, edging away toward the columns in the distance.
A man emerged from the shadows next to Azroth with a cane and a hunched back.
“I need to feel warm,” the man rasped, coughing violently.
Before Azroth could react, the man snatched the boy’s arm with alarming strength. The wight sapped the heat from Azroth’s body as he struggled to escape. White crystals rose on his flesh as the bandages Imogen had wrapped around his blistered skin ripped.
Azroth wrestled his arm free of the wight’s grip, only to find himself surrounded as more spectral people shuffled forward. All the heat he’d garnered from using his fire gift vanished. The horde of ghostly beings hissed.
“Get the fire,” one of them moaned.
The otherworldly figures converged on him, and Azroth ran. The howls of the agitated souls rent the night.
“I need to be warm!” several voices cried.
Azroth tripped, and the scuffs of old boots reverberated behind him. He jumped back to his feet as curses flew from his mouth. The boy zig-zagged through the lava field, with the host of white figures dogging his every step. Blood seeped out from his torn boot, but he kept running. To stop meant being frozen to death, and he couldn’t imagine a worse way to leave this world.
In a desperate attempt, Azroth shot a volley of fireballs into the horde of wights. Several bodies went down in the onslaught, and those nearest dived at the fire, trying to heat their insubstantial bodies.
Seeing this, he blasted several spires with fire, and the wights tore after the heat. After a few more shots, Azroth forced himself to think of Wesley, and the fire immediately fled his body. The wights stayed behind with the fire still clinging to the black rock. He continued to run until his legs gave out, and he collapsed on the rough ground.
Hunger and thirst ached alongside his battered feet. The stars faded before the growing light of dawn. Azroth lay his forehead down on the cool rock. Maybe he should rest. He should be safe enough if he didn’t produce more fire. Exhaustion overtook him, and within seconds, he lost himself to a dreamless sleep.
Something hard poked Azroth in the side. It was likely Barley Breath coming to wake him up for another day of lessons on torture.
“Wake up, boy,” a man said.
Another poke to his side, and Azroth moaned softly.
“He’s alive,” a woman said in relief.
“Aye, but who knows how long he’s been out here,” the man replied.
“He must have come from somewhere important. See his clothes,” the woman said.
Azroth tried to open his eyes, but black sand and grit coated them. Every other part of his body ached. Strong hands picked him up. As his eyes fluttered open, he recoiled as the sun blinded him.
A smooth hand pressed into his forehead, and the woman tutted. “He’s burning up.”
“He must have met the wights last night. See how his arm is blue?”
“Let’s get him in the wagon. Hanzi can care for him,” the woman said.
Azroth felt the sweet relief of shade from the wagon’s interior, though it wasn’t enough to quell the fire throbbing under his skin. The man laid him on a soft surface, then spoke to someone before his heavy steps retreated outside.
The rocking of the wagon soon lulled Azroth into a fitful sleep. When he woke again, the wagon had stopped. He tried to roll over, but his body seemed to weigh as much as a block of stone.
Azroth attempted to bring a hand to his eyes, but found the arm stuck. He blinked past the grit and saw what caused him to stop. His arm was tied to his chest in a sling. The fingertips appeared black in the dim light coming in through the small windows.
“Careful not to move too fast, mate. I can’t lift you back in bed if you fall out,” a boy’s voice said.
Azroth tried to find the source of the voice, making out indistinct shapes in the gloom.
“Who are you?” Azroth rasped. The pain behind his eyes was nauseating.
“Have some water first. Zella said you needed it when you woke up.”
A waterskin landed next to Azroth’s shoulder. He reached for it, uncapped the lid, and poured the cool contents down his throat. The small waterskin was emptied in seconds, and a second waterskin landed next to his shoulder.
“You must’ve been out there for some time to be this thirsty,” the boy commented.
“I was only out there for a day and a half, I think.” Azroth laid his head on the soft quilt. “Where am I?”
“You’re in the camp of the nomads,” the boy said. “You care if I light a lamp?”
“Have at it.” Azroth buried his face in the blanket.
Light burst into existence, and he recoiled, allowing his eyes to adjust slowly. The interior of the wagon was constructed of dark wood with a small window on either side draped with yellow curtains. The bed he lay on took up the front portion of the wagon, while another, smaller bed resided on one wall. A boy with dark eyes and heavy lashes watched him from the second bed. His black hair hung to his shoulders.
“What’s your name?” the boy asked.
“My name is—‚” Azroth paused.
Did he want to continue to carry his given name? It had only ever caused him pain. Plus, he didn’t want it to cause problems in this nomad camp. If the rumors he’d heard were true, his father had treated the wandering nomads like vermin. Learning Azroth’s true name would only make his situation worse.
He thought about the name Wesley and Imogen gave him, but the ache that opened inside his chest made the name of Ross Galbraith die on his tongue.
“That bad, huh?” The boy on the other bed stated. “Most strays who enter this camp never seem eager to claim their names. Perhaps it’s something to do with whatever you ran from.”
Azroth sat up, refusing to meet the boy’s curious gaze.
“In that case, I’ve developed a series of names for you to choose from. Each is a good name. You’re lucky I’m not like my friend Ryker. He tries to give every stray we find a name with ridiculous meanings so the strays get laughed at. I’m Hanzi, by the way.”
Azroth swallowed hard. The boy could have called him Pidgeon, and he would have taken it. Hanzi tapped his chin in thought.
“Since you actually woke up, which I’ll admit, I didn’t think you would with the wight’s touch on your skin, you could take the name Django, which means ‘I wake.’”
“Do most not wake up after you find them?” Azroth asked, inspecting his arm where the old man had grabbed him.
The skin had regained most of its natural color. However, the shape of a blue hand from where the old man had gripped his arm still clung to him.
“It’s been a while since we’ve found anyone, but sometimes they never wake up. It depends on how long they’ve been out there.” Hanzi brushed his dark hair out of his eyes.
A day and a half alone in the Black Waste was plenty for Azroth. He wondered how long others remained out there and managed to stay alive.
“Usually, encountering a wight means death. Those specters freeze their victims from the inside out. Zella tended to your arm while you slept. You’re lucky. She’s one of our best healers. She said for you to have withstood being touched, you must have the fire gift in your blood.”
When Azroth didn’t answer, the black-haired boy continued in a rush. “You’re certainly tougher than your scrawny frame suggests.”
“Scrawny?” Azroth asked in indignation. “You’re no bigger than I am.”
Hanzi flashed him a grin. “Most people who get caught by the wights don’t live long afterward, if they make it out at all. The wights seem most adept at finding fire users. If they sense one trespassing, they cause the night to become unnaturally cold. Then their victims usually try something to stay warm, and that’s when those ghoulish things pounce.”
“I nearly got caught by them after starting a fire last night.” Azroth shivered at the memory of those icy hands stealing away the warmth from his body.
“You’re definitely lucky. A fire would have attracted quite a crowd. How did you escape?” Hanzi leaned forward onto his knees, eager for the story.
Azroth eyed Hanzi. No one except Imogen and Wesley had wanted to hear what he said. “I used more fire and sent the rocks behind me blazing as I ran.”
Hanzi nodded sagely. “That was probably the best move you could have made, mate. The fire would have distracted them, allowing you to escape.”
“That was the second time I nearly died that day. The first was when a giant lizard nearly ate me when I approached its waterhole.”
Hanzi sat up straight at this. “You saw an Aster dragon?” The boy stared at him in awe.
“Is that what that thing’s called? I wouldn’t have even gone near it if he hadn’t been guarding the only waterhole I’d found.”
Hanzi’s eyes were shimmering with longing. “I’ve wanted to get close to one for years, but these things won’t let me.” Hanzi slapped his legs in disgust.
“What’s wrong with them?” Azroth asked, inspecting the boy’s legs.
“What’s wrong is that they don’t work.” Hanzi grabbed hold of his pant leg and lifted his limb. It was small and twisted oddly at the ankles.
“What happened to them?”
Hanzi shrugged as he let his leg drop. “I was born this way. I’ve learned to get around since, but it doesn’t come without challenges. It’s why I get put in charge of the strays. I can be useful, though not like the other boys.”
Azroth dropped his eyes. “I’m sorry. It must be hard.”
“Not as hard as you might think. Many come to the nomad camps with injuries. All are welcome here. And I daresay I have a better home than the one you came from, judging by the blisters on your arms and the bruises on your face.”
Hanzi seemed to take pleasure in Azroth’s discomfort.
“How do you know so much about me?”
Hanzi’s grin became brighter. “I watch people and puzzle them out. Which reminds me, you still need a name since you don’t want to claim the one you came with.”
“What other suggestions do you have?” Azroth asked, picking at a spot on the quilt.
“Alafair could be fun. It means elf-warrior. You look like you’ve handled a sword before. Your hands are calloused, and your forearms are slightly larger than average.”
Azroth stared at Hanzi. “You’re almost scary with that ability of yours.”
“Like I said. I’m useful in other ways.” Hanzi waved off the comment. “How about Kaven, Marik, Vano, Credi, or Pyramus? That last one means fire.” Hanzi eyed the blisters on Azroth’s arms.
“Hmmm.” Hanzi tapped his chin with his forefinger again. “What about Fenix? It means dark red, and you seem to have a red haze around you.”
Azroth shivered. Hanzi would have all his secrets if he stuck around here much longer.
“Sure, call me Fenix. But I’m afraid I can’t stay, as much as I’d like to. I need to get north into Tellidus.”
Hanzi’s eyebrows shot up. “What in the blowing sands do you want with the wolves of the north? You know they’ll eat you, right?”
Azroth kept his eyes on the quilt. “Someone I knew had gone there. He said all the tales they spread here in Ballitus are lies. The people who live in the north are good, and their king is just.”
Hanzi burst out laughing. “No king is good. They’re all tyrants and seek power over the weak. That’s why there’s no king among us nomads. Sure, we have leaders, but they were elected. Not this ‘divinely chosen at the Guardians’ hands’ rubbish. If you ask me, we should do away with all the royals and nobles.”
There was such a bitterness in Hanzi’s tone that Azroth couldn’t help asking, “Were you born a noble?”
Hanzi narrowed his eyes. “What if I was? If you’d been born into a wealthy family who cast you off because your legs didn’t work, you’d hate them too. Though I gather you came from a similar situation.”
“You’d be right. However, I don’t want to bring ruin on you by saying more. The less you know about me, the safer you are.”
Hanzi leaned back against the wooden wall of the wagon with his arms behind his head. The boy studied Azroth with such intensity he brought his gaze back down to his quilt.
“Well, you can’t run off yet. Zella needs to finish taking care of your arm. The wight’s touch still lingers on your skin, and you won’t want to be dealing with that while making your way north. More trouble likely awaits you, and you need to be ready.”
“You’re probably right.” Changing the subject, Azroth asked, “So, if you are a runaway too, who are the people you live with?”
“Radachio and Zella Codona. Two nicer people you’ll never meet. They adopted me as their own after chasing off the coyotes trying to make a meal of me, though in the nomad camps, children are raised by all, both old and young. We take care of one another. Are you sure you don’t want to stay? You seem like you could use friends.”
Hanzi gave him such a pitiful look that Azroth wanted to stay, if only to make the boy cheer up. However, he had no illusions of what Nero would do should he find his son in the middle of the nomad camps. No one, especially not Hanzi, would live to see another day.
“I can’t. I’m not safe here, and while I linger, I put everyone else in danger.”
Hanzi gave an exaggerated sigh. “Well, if you’re certain, Fen, let’s find you some food and different clothes. More than wights’ll hunt you if you keep running around in black silk out here.”
“Thank you, Hanzi.”
The boy gave a halfhearted smile. “If Tellidus is as wonderful as you say it is, come back and find me one day.”
“How will I find you?” Azroth asked. “I don’t even know where we are?”
Hanzi gave him a sly grin. “You have the fire gift, right?”
“Yes,” Azroth said slowly.
“Do you know how to make a Fire Compass?”