An origin story in the Comstock Chronicles
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CHAPTER 5 – THE FIRE DRAKE
The ancient wooden staircase leading up to Gabe’s home sported so many holes, Azroth wondered how he was supposed to not fall through. Several times, the boards creaked with enough force he skipped up several at a time, causing the old wood to groan more. Gabe, however, walked up the steps as though he’d hewn them from marble.
The main room was empty, but bottles, blankets, and other debris littered the floor, revealing that more people lived there than just Gabe. Or maybe the boy was just that messy.
“Are you still hungry, or did Marjorie stuff you full of cheese and bread?” Gabe asked.
“Um,” Azroth said.
He was still hungry but didn’t gather that food was abundant here in this dank space. Paint was peeling off the walls in several places and the petite fireplace on one side was barren of ash or wood.
“Here,” said Gabe, tossing him a bright red apple from a basket resting on a low table Azroth had missed in the dim room. He caught the apple easily, which seemed to please Gabe.
“You’ve got good reflexes for a scrawny little git,” Gabe said.
“Oh,” Azroth said, embarrassed. “Thanks, I think.”
Gabe sat down on the couch and two moths took flight, their wings catching the light from the rising moon. Azroth tried not to wrinkle his nose. This was better than trying to sleep out in the Black Waste.
“So, little Balli, what brings you to Lambswell?” Gabe took a bite of his own apple.
Azroth couldn’t stop the barrage of images that blazed before his eyes. The dragon tattoo on his arm burning. His desire to protect Wesley and get back to Imogen. His father yelling at him to push further into Wesley’s mind and find the heart of the murder conspiracy. Fire exploding in his vision, so white hot and terrifying that he couldn’t control it. Wesley dead on the stone bench, and the loss of a home he almost had.
He blinked rapidly, grateful that Gabe hadn’t lit a lamp.
I’m a murderer. I ran away because I’m a murderer.
He couldn’t say that out loud. If he did, it would make his awful reality that much more tangible.
“I didn’t want to be like my family. I wanted a different life,” Azroth finally said.
“And you chose Lambswell?” Gabe asked, raising an eyebrow.
“I’m trying to get to the capital, Solomon.”
Gabe choked on his next bite of apple. “What’s in Solomon? You got family there or something?”
“That’s where my father told me I should go. That I would be safe there.”
Azroth clamped his lips shut. He didn’t even know this kid. What if Gabe sold him out when someone came looking?
“Safe from what? All these cities are the same.” Gabe wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. “They’ve all got the snooty ones, the sellers, the buyers, the debtors, the debtees, and the street urchins like us. Solomon may only differ because the darker side of the city hides deeper in the shadows. We’re stuck in the cycles of life that were handed to us. The royals live their royal life, while those of us on the bottom, stay here.
Gabe leaned forward and motioned for Azroth to come closer.
“I’ve got a dose of reality for you. We don’t go to the university. We don’t become merchants or do anything of renown. Nobody leaves this life. We just stay in this rat trap and scrap out a living as best we can.”
“Have you ever tried to leave?” Azroth asked.
Gabe’s smirk held a bitter edge. “You don’t become leader of the southern gang by trying to get out. You learn to play the game.”
Gabe stood up and stretched. “You’re free to eat more. You’ll sleep out here on the couch. Don’t open the door if anyone knocks,” Gabe said.
“Who would come knocking?” Azroth asked, a hint of fear in his voice.
“Just do us both a favor and don’t answer it.”
The older boy walked to a room in the back, and Azroth heard the door close with a soft click.
He eyed the blankets on the floor, unsure of how clean they were. Deciding he’d rather be warm tonight than worrying about cleanliness, Azroth grabbed a large gray one and curled up on the couch. Another moth flew up as he sat.
It wasn’t the best night’s sleep, but Azroth at least slept without fear of some ghostly personage trying to suck the life from him.
When sunshine peeked in through the small window, Azroth stirred. He found several missing blankets that had been on the floor the night before. He patted himself and found two of his coppers missing as well.
In a rage that ignited on his fingertips, Azroth threw off his blankets and marched toward Gabe’s room in the back.
“I wouldn’t go in there if you value your life,” a girl’s voice said casually from the corner of the room.
Azroth spun around to find a pretty girl about his same age. Her black hair was pulled into a knot at the base of her neck, and she leaned casually against a wall in a manner much like Gabe.
“Why shouldn’t I go in there? He stole my money, and I want it back,” Azroth said.
“I took the two coppers. You didn’t think you could stay here for free, did you? Everything has a price.”
Azroth scowled. “How do I get them back?”
“You don’t. You spent the night here, and you paid for it. No refunds. I had to get blankets for the others because they couldn’t come back.”
“How many people live here?” Azroth asked.
“Fifteen of us sleep here on an average day. There are a total of thirty-seven, however. I’m Ariel, by the way.”
“Why did I keep the others away?” Azroth asked.
“We have to protect ourselves. Gabe rarely brings people to the Haggis without some kind of ability that could benefit our operation. Unless you count his latest girl. She’s less than special if you ask me.”
Ariel threw a contemptuous look to the back bedroom.
“However, as you are an unknown, we all slept at one of our other locations last night. That way, if you caused problems, Gabe could take care of you. Balli’s sometimes do.”
“Why does everyone keep calling me a Balli?” Azroth asked, tossing his hands in frustration.
“Because that’s what you are. You came from Ballitus. All you have to do is listen to how you speak and observe the way you strut. You’ve got enough confidence that you likely came from a well-bred family, too.”
“Have you been watching me?” Azroth asked. If this girl could follow him, it made him wonder who else could.
“Of course. I helped Gabe keep track of you yesterday. I still can’t fathom how you convinced Marjorie to let you help her in the cheese stand.” Ariel sniffed and wrinkled her nose. “If you came from a well-bred family, you certainly don’t smell like it. Come on. I’ve got extra clothes that will help you blend in and a place you can get the stink off you.”
Azroth bristled at the insult, but followed Ariel out of the ramshackle house and down the rickety stairs. She led him to a house a few buildings down with a nondescript door on ground level. Ariel knocked twice before it opened, and a tousle-haired boy of about eight opened the door.
“Why’re you back so early, Ariel?” the boy rasped.
“Because I got a live one who stinks. Out of the way, Brewster.”
The little boy squinted up at Azroth with curious eyes. Ariel pushed past the boy and led Azroth down a narrow hall.
“There’s a pump with fresh water, soap, and several sets of clothes on a shelf. Clean up. We have work to do today.”
“What kind of work? And who says I’m joining you all?” Azroth protested.
“If you had anywhere else to go, you wouldn’t have gone with Gabe,” Ariel pointed out.
Azroth didn’t reply. It was true. He brushed by Ariel and entered the small washroom. Several minutes later, he emerged wearing a brown tunic, trousers, and a close-fitting vest. He’d tucked his remaining coppers into a slight hole in the seam of his vest where it would be hard for someone else to steal it.
Ariel snorted with suppressed laughter when she saw him.
“You certainly weren’t raised on the streets. No one dresses like that, but it may win you some favor with the merchants. I’m glad to see the vest I swiped last year is finally getting some use after we couldn’t sell it.”
Azroth blanched at his clothes. “All of this is stolen?”
“Yeah. You didn’t expect us to be bleeding coins to pay for clothes like that, did you?” Ariel said derisively.
Actually, he had. The only thing he’d stolen before was his brother’s marble set, which he paid dearly for, and snacks from the kitchens.
“Do I need to pay you for the clothes?” Azroth asked, thinking about how she’d taken two of his coppers.
Ariel lit up at the possibility.
A hand fell on Azroth’s shoulder, making him jump. Turning around, he saw Gabe, a giant grin on his face.
“All you need to do, Fen, is bring in more coins today, and we’ll consider it even,” Gabe said.
“And how am I to do that?” Azroth protested.
Gabe cocked his head to the side. “Don’t you have an appointment to help Marjorie today?”
“You’re helping Marjorie? The cheese lady?” Brewster asked in awe.
“Fen, here, has a silver tongue. He convinced Marjorie to not only feed him but pay him as well.”
Brewster’s jaw dropped open in shock.
“You can’t imagine how hard we’ve tried to nab some of her cheese. It’s the best in the city, or so I’ve heard,” Ariel said. “We’ve stopped bothering because that woman watches things like a hawk.”
“I just offered to help her if she’d pay me with some of her cheese. It had been a while since I’d eaten,” Azroth said with a shrug.
“Let’s go, Fen. The market is waking up, and you need to be there.” Gabe steered him out of the tiny house and into the narrow streets.
In no time, Azroth was helping Marjorie set up her stand again and keeping her table stocked as her customers came by.
Unease, lined with guilt at wearing stolen clothes, settled on Azroth. What if the original owner of these clothes recognized them? Was Ariel trying to get him thrown into prison? Or the “Bricks,” as people seemed to call it here.
“Here you go, Fen.”
Marjorie handed him a wedge of white cheese and a hunk of bread.
“Thank you,” he said, gratefully accepting the food.
Marjorie gave him a kind smile. “You’re welcome.
This pattern remained unbroken for the next four days. Each morning Azroth would wake up in the common room of the Haggis, eat an apple or whatever other food was lying around, then head to the market to help Marjorie. Some of the other vendors had noticed, and when Azroth had lulls in helping Marjorie with her cheeses, they’d ask him to do minor jobs for them. By the end of the market, one merchant gave Azroth a basket to carry home all his food and a hard-to-steal pouch to carry his coins.
Gabe, and the street kids under his command, did not enter the markets openly while Azroth sat among the vendors. He noticed Ariel watching him occasionally, but the others stayed away.
The problem came on the fifth day. Azroth was moving crates of white cheese to the front of the stand when Marjorie nudged him.
“Fen,” Marjorie said in a quiet voice.
Azroth looked up at the older woman.
“Don’t stare at me, boy, but give me your ears.”
Azroth nodded as he kept working, curious about her request.
“The next time you move a crate, glance up toward the water fountain. I’ve noticed a man staring at you, and I get the worst feeling from him. Be careful doing so.”
Azroth was alert as he surreptitiously looked toward the fountain in the middle of the square and his heart stopped mid-beat.
It was Bartley Westrimus. Barley Breath.
He returned his attention to the cheese crate in his hand. How did Barley get into the city? Azroth needed to think fast if he was going to get out of this. He set the crate down.
“You know that man?” Marjorie asked.
Azroth nodded. “It’s been my pleasure to help you, Marjorie, but I’m afraid I have to leave.”
As he made to sneak out of the booth, Marjorie caught hold of his arm in a firm grip.
“Whatever trouble you’re in, you’re always welcome to come back when it’s over. And so long as that street girl who follows you can behave herself, she’d be welcome too.”
Azroth glanced past Marjorie and saw Ariel looking anxious a few stalls down.
“Thank you.” Azroth’s throat grew tight.
Marjorie released him, and Azroth slipped between the stalls, silent as a shadow. He tried to slip past Ariel, but the girl caught up to him.
“Where do you think you’re going?” she demanded.
“It’s not safe to be around me,” Azroth panted as they rounded a corner.
“Oh, right. Like you’re such a big hot shot.” Ariel sneered. “You haven’t even met the Bosses yet.”
Azroth shot her a look. “Go back to the market, Ariel.”
A fireball grazed the top of their heads, and Azroth risked a glance back, cursing. Barley was nearly upon them.
“Run!” he urged.
Azroth leaped over refuse bins as they shot down an alley between two tall buildings.
“Who’s that?” Ariel asked, ducking as Barley shot another fireball at them.
“A Balli of the worst sort.”
Azroth dodged down another side street, but Barley was gaining on them.
“Why are your people after you?” Ariel called out. She was clutching her side.
“I ran away from them,” Azroth said shortly.
A fireball hit Azroth square on the back, knocking him to the ground and making his vest smoke. Ariel screamed and landed a few paces ahead of him.
Red sparks lit up his hands. Azroth had promised himself not to use his fire gift to hurt other people, but he wasn’t about to die at the hands of Barley Breath for the sake of keeping it.
Azroth flipped over and launched a fireball that hit Barley in the face. The man cried out as flames hit him.
Ariel stared in shock at Azroth.
“You can do that, too?” she asked in alarm.
“Later! Run!” Azroth shouted at her.
He grabbed Ariel’s arm and hauled the girl to her feet. They needed to get out of there. Barley was recovering too quickly, and now he’d be angry.
Fire erupted at the end of the alleyway, blocking their escape.
“You’ve made me chase you through the Black Waste and into this rat-infested city,” Barley growled as he advanced on them. “Your king demands your return, Azroth. Come quietly, and I’ll let you walk out of here on your own feet. Otherwise, I will haul your sorry carcass out of here and let the crows peck at your back as we do.”
Ariel clenched her jaw, giving Azroth a sideways glance. “Azroth?” she hissed. “Like Azroth Phoenix? The son of the king?”
Azroth cringed. He didn’t think his name was so far known.
“I’m never going back,” he said fiercely.
“Yes. You. Are,” Barley said.
The soldier pounced, but Azroth leaped out of the way. Barley missed him by several feet. However, when Azroth turned around, he saw Barley hadn’t been aiming for him. The soldier held his knife at Ariel’s throat, pressing her tight to his filthy jacket.
“I know you, boy. I know how you feel compelled to protect those you call friends. I’ve seen it with your governess and her late husband.”
Barley’s smile coiled like a viper around his mouth. “Protect this girl by walking out of here and returning to Ballitus.”
Azroth’s attention flicked to Ariel, who showed no fear as Barley pressed the knife into her skin. Without warning she stomped the inseam of his boot with her heel and elbowed him hard in the ribs. Barley gasped as he released his hold on her.
However, as Ariel tried to run away, Barley encased her in a cocoon of fire. The screams from the blaze sent Azroth’s gut into a spiral.
“Release her!” shouted Azroth.
The red dragon tattoo on his left forearm burned white-hot. He had to get to Ariel and get her out of there. The fire drake issued from his hand and reared up as an angry, towering monster advancing on Barley.
Azroth ran into the circle of flames around Ariel and wrapped her in his arms. So long as he held onto her, the fire wouldn’t eat her.
“Get your hands off me,” she demanded, scrambling to get away.
“If I do, this fire will consume you,” Azroth said, readjusting his grip.
“Who are you?” Ariel asked in a scared voice.
“I was born to be the protector of Ballitus. But I refuse to protect something without a heart.”
Azroth returned his attention to Barley, who was backing away from the snapping dragon. Using the dragon’s eyes, Azroth saw Barley’s terrified face. In a flash, the flaming dragon lashed at Barley’s legs with its tail and knocked the man flat on his back, searing his legs.
“You’re getting better at controlling that beast,” Barley said, his voice an octave higher than usual.
The flames around Ariel and Azroth died and he let Ariel go. Advancing to the side of his fire drake, he glared down at the man who’d made his life a living inferno.
“You return to Veridon and tell my father that you found me dead in the Black Waste. You will stop pursuing me because I’m never going back. Find someone else to serve as protector of such a cowardly kingdom.”
“They’ll murder you if you stay here,” Barley hissed. “In this land, the elemental gifts are seen as black magic. They’ll never accept you, especially with that firebrand you carry. You are a Phoenix, Azroth. You may be dead to Ballitus now, but you just wait. All phoenixes are reborn, carrying forward the hatred that gave us life amid the empire’s destruction. You will return to Ballitus one day and I’ll be waiting. You have a destiny you can’t escape.”
“Leave, Bartley Westrimus. Before I kill someone on purpose.” Azroth clenched his hands, and the air shimmered with heat.
The soldier got to his feet and gave Azroth a grudging nod of approval. “I’ll be watching for you, Azroth and so will all of Ballitus.”
Azroth was too angry to reply. He shook as he watched Barley exit through the other end of the alley and into the bright afternoon sun.
Once Barely was gone, Azroth released his hold on the drake and allowed the fire beast to dissolve back into the tattoo on his arm.
He turned back to see where Ariel had gone, only to find she wasn’t there. Rubbing his hands together, he blew sparks onto the ground, igniting the places where Ariel’s foot had touched.
A confused tangle of footprints was all around him. However, he found a set of prints leading back out of the alley. Azroth followed them until he found her sitting with her knees up to her chin, eyes wide in shock.
“Why did you run?” Azroth asked, startling her.
“Stay away from me, demon,” she said, jumping to her feet and backing up.
“Ariel, I won’t hurt you. Barley’s gone.”
“What was that thing that came out of your arm?” Her eyes were the size of gold coins.
Azroth swallowed hard. “A fire drake. The symbol for the protector of Ballitus.”
“Why are you here?” Ariel asked, taking a step back.
Azroth’s shoulders slumped. “I want freedom, to use my gifts for good.”
“The elemental gifts are dark magic,” Ariel said with a shudder. “They were exterminated from Telldius for a reason.”
“They aren’t bad,” Azroth said defensively. “It all depends on the person using them.”
“You’re lucky there isn’t a reward on your head as the son of the king because Gabe would turn you in without question,” Ariel said, tucking her hair behind her ear.
“And what about you? You know who I am and what I’m capable of. What will you do? If you tell people who I am, I’ll have to leave. Barley may tell my father that I’m dead, but I wouldn’t be surprised if others come looking as well.”
Ariel looked him up and down, like she was estimating his value. “I think you’re fairly useful, and it would be a shame to lose someone who brings in such easy money.”
Azroth cracked a smile. “You mean works for a wage?”
“It’s too simple with no risk at all,” Ariel quipped.
“No one would hire a street kid to work for them, you mean,” Azroth countered.
He could tell he’d touched a nerve.
“Don’t you want more excitement out of your life, than just living, waiting for someone to pay you? That can be taken away in a moment.”
Ariel snapped her fingers to emphasize her point.
“Why not take charge of your life? Take some risks, and reap the rewards. The Bosses love giving out rewards.”
“Who are the Bosses,” Azroth asked. “It sounds a lot like you’re waiting to get paid, to me.”
“The Bosses find us the jobs, and we pull them off. The bigger the risk, the greater the rewards and with a fire dragon on our side, we could take on much bigger jobs than we’ve ever had before. With over ten thousand people in this city, the possibilities would be endless.”
“You want me to become a thief,” Azroth said.
“Anyone can become a thief. Only a few are good enough to steal and not get caught.”
“And if I refuse to join the gang?” Azroth said. He searched for anyway out of this. He didn’t escape the life of a murderer only to trade it for a thief. Both paths led down a dark road he didn’t want to take.”
“Then, I’m afraid this will be the end for you. No one enters the Haggis and gets out. You’re one of us whether you like it or not.” Ariel spat into her palm and held it out. “What do you say?”
Azroth gave her a hard stare before spitting into his own palm and taking her hand. “I’m in.”
“Welcome to the gang, Fire Drake,” Ariel said, shaking his hand then letting go and wiping her palm on her trousers.
“Keep calling me, Fen.”
“Alright, Fen, though word of this is going to get out. It’s best to have a name you can distance yourself with. Come on, let’s get back to Gabe. He’ll be wondering where we’ve gone.”
Azroth followed Ariel back toward the marketplace, alert for Barley or another soldier possibly lurking in the shadows. Gabe strode toward them from behind a pole holding up a balcony, and Azroth made a new promise to himself.
I will get out of here if it is the last thing I do.