CHAPTER 8 – THE PROTECTOR
Azroth dropped the wooden chest to the floor in shock as the burly man from the night before stepped away from the window. Light from a flickering torch on the wall illuminated half his grim face, a deep blue gem as big around as a loaf of sourdough bread in his large hands.
“You emptied the chest?” Azroth asked in surprise.
“I’d have thought someone with your know-how on sneaking around would have been more subtle, however,” ignoring Azroth’s outburst.
“Once I get in there, Fen, I’m going to tie you up and cut every one of your fingers and toes off, and if that doesn’t kill you, I’ll keep working up your arms and legs until you bleed to death, all the while knowing that Ariel was always mine.”
“Sounds like you would’ve done better to take my offer from the night before,” the man commented. A touch of sadness colored his voice. “You seemed to have the potential to do more than steal.
“Believe me, if I knew of any way out of this life, I would have taken it,” Azroth said, mentally begging the man to understand.
The door crashed open, and Riddick’s wild face appeared in the gloom. “You’re mine, Fen. Hand over that chest.”
“You got it,” Azroth said, his emotions raw. He chucked the chest into Riddick, nearly knocking him backward, but the young man caught hold of the door frame before toppling back. Then Riddick’s eyes saw the blue gem in the man’s hands.
Kicking the chest aside, Riddick came at Azroth, knife poised to strike. Riddick lunged, but Azroth blocked his way. The man clutched the gem tighter and began backing toward the corner.
“Get out of my way, you worthless rat. Do you know the Vixens told me to kill you once you had the gem? You refused their offer of a better life to remain with Ariel.”
Riddick shook his head in disgust. “If you’d done that, I might have convinced Ariel to come to my side of the city before now. Once Hambrick and Roger dispatch Gabe, I’ll have control of the whole city, and I won’t have to share it anymore.”
“You think Ariel will want to join you now after you’ve tried to kill her brother? If you do, then you don’t know her at all.”
Riddick’s knife sliced toward Azroth’s middle, forcing him back. A snarl on his face.
“I’m giving you one chance to get out of here, Riddick. Otherwise, you’ll find out the true reason I’m called the Fire Drake,” Azroth said, widening his feet.
Riddick scoffed. “You think I don’t know? Ariel’s given up your secrets. Plus, you’ve shot two fireballs into my face. You’re a filthy Balli with their black magic. Gabe should have killed when you arrived five years ago, but he’s always been too soft.”
“You must be soft too. Otherwise, you’d have tried to take the southern part of the city away from him,” Azroth hissed.
The man in the corner watched the exchange with fearful curiosity.
“Last warning,” Azroth said.
“Fat chance, Balli rat.” Riddick dove to stab Azroth in the chest. Azroth leaped aside, fire gathering along his arms.
Azroth hoped Ariel and Gabe had already made it out as he called the dragon back to him. The sound of a hissing kettle climbed up the stairs, and a smaller version of the dragon appeared behind Riddick in the doorway. The color drained from the crime lord’s face as he glanced behind him.
However, the cold fury that replaced it as he turned back around made Azroth’s courage stutter. The next thing Azroth knew, the knife from Riddick’s hand sailed toward the man in the corner.
No, thought Azroth.
He rushed to pull the man out of the path of the danger, tugging him to one side before the knife found its mark. A groan escaped Azroth’s lips as his body recoiled against something cold in his belly. He staggered as he caught sight of the knife in his stomach.
A cruel smile turned up the corners of Riddick’s mouth. The flaming dragon bellowed in outrage, flaring its wings as it advanced on the crime lord. The sound of crackling wood echoed around the room as Azroth tenderly pulled the knife from his middle. He felt cold. So many times, he’d escaped death, only for it to find him tonight.
Flaming talons struck out at Riddick, and the young man screamed. The sounds of fighting broke out again downstairs, and Azroth prayed to anything that would listen that his friends were all right. Despite what Ariel had done to him, he found his feelings for her hard to shake.
Pressing his fingers into his wound to slow the bleeding, Azroth walked forward, grimacing as the pain mounted. He begged the dragon to stop, but it snarled at him.
Extending his trembling left arm, he said, “I command you to return.”
Riddick was still beneath the flaming dragon as it bared its fangs at Azroth.
“You are mine,” Azroth said, giving his arm an insistent shake. “Return.”
Then accept who you are and allow us to be one, the dragon whispered in his mind.
No. That is not who I am.
No, it isn’t. It’s who you’re meant to be—a Protector.
With that, the dragon approached, pressed its rippling snout to Azroth’s forearm, and vanished. The red tattoo reappeared, but Azroth could feel the unruly power writhing beneath his skin. It would take weeks before it would grow dormant again.”
Azroth’s legs gave out and he collapsed to his knees. Pressing a hand to the wound on his belly, he knew this wouldn’t be a fatal wound initially. Yet, because of how the street kids lived and their lack of medicine, Riddick’s knife wounds were almost always fatal.
At least I saved the man and the cathedral, Azroth thought.
A large hand pressed down on his shoulder, and Azroth gazed up with bleary eyes.
“You saved me,” the man said. His fear popped between the calm exterior on his face. “Why did you help me?”
Azroth’s body was coming out of shock, and the pain in his middle worsened.
“I didn’t want to steal from you,” he whispered. “I want to live a life that means more than this. I saved you because I wasn’t about to let Riddick hurt you. I don’t like killing.”
Azroth gestured at Riddick’s still form. “But, I couldn’t save you without killing him. He never did anything halfway.”
Shouts from below drifted up as well as the smell of smoke. Azroth clenched his hands. He shouldn’t have left that dragon alone, unsupervised. He knew better.
“Master Monroe!” came a shout from the stairwell. “Master Monroe, answer me!”
“I’m here. I’m fine, and so is the gem,” the man beside Azroth called back.
Pounding footsteps raced up the stairs, and a soldier burst through the doorway. “The whole attic is on fire!” A touch of hysteria colored the man’s voice.
“We’ve evacuated everyone else, but we must get out of here now before it’s too late.”
The man, Azroth now knew was called Monroe, tucked the gem into his coat and took Azroth’s arm, swinging it up and around his neck.
“What happened to him?” the soldier asked, then squinted. “This is one of the thieves who broke in.”
The soldier began to reach for his blade when he noticed Riddick’s body on the floor and froze.
“This boy, Ross, protected me against the one on the floor.”
The soldier gave Azroth a curt nod.
“I’ll grab this one, and we’ll get him out of here.”
The soldier lifted Riddick over his shoulders with a grunt and charged out the door with Azroth and Master Monroe on his heels. Azroth was trying to make sense of what he was feeling. He was free of Riddick and the constant threat of death. He’d lost Ariel, the only girl he’d loved. He was never returning to the Haggis. Master Monroe had called him “Ross.”
It was almost like hearing Wesely say his name. Was that what Wesley had been trying to tell him? That he could trust this man and the woman who’d been with him?
Azroth forgot about these thoughts as soon as they hit the landing for the attic. The entire wood floor was in flames, and the holes for the windows were breathing jets of fire just like the blasted dragon.
Gritting his teeth he ducked under Master Monroe’s arm and turned to the gleeful fire ravaging Azroth’s beloved sanctuary.
“What are you doing, boy? We need to get out of here!” Master Monroe shouted.
“I can stop this,” Azroth called back. Hoping the words were true. “I can’t stop the fire.”
“I know you had some control over that dragon thing earlier, but this is an out-of-control blaze,” Monroe protested.
Azroth squared his shoulders. “I know. I am its master, and I need to stop it.”
Taking a deep breath, Azroth plunged into the roaring flames. He could hear cries behind him, but he had to keep his attention on the situation around him.
“Hear me!” Azroth shouted, pushing aside the pain racking his body and calling on the full strength of his power. “I am a Protector. You obey me!”
The flames crackled with laughter. “Make us. You haven’t fully claimed your title. Your power holds little sway.”
Azroth had no desire to fully accept his title as the Protector of Ballitus, as that would mean returning to the palace in Veridon. However, with a glance back at Master Monroe’s panicked face, a new idea formed in his mind. Perhaps he didn’t have to be the protector of Ballitus to command the flames.
“I’m not the Protector of Ballitus but of the house of Monroe.”
The tattoo on his left arm wriggled as Azroth placed his hand on the charred floor. Red light wrapped around him, and he smiled as the heady rush from the influx of power infused his body. The flames fought him, struggling to maintain their hold on this world. Azroth pushed harder, and the fire relented, burning out of existence.
When Azroth next opened his eyes, all that remained were glowing embers glittering against the darkness.
Azroth’s head snapped up. A figure was walking to him out of the ashes, senator’s robes spotless.
“Wesley?” Azroth’s voice cracked.
“I’m here, my boy. I’m here.” Wesley kneeled before him, looking just as Azroth had always remembered.
Tears fell fast and thick as Azroth stared into the face of the man he’d wanted to call father.
“I’m so sorry, Wesley. I’m so sorry. I ruined everything. I—” his next words choked him.
“No,” Wesley said, placing a hand on Azroth’s shoulder. “It was my mistakes that broke our family. I put you in a position I never wanted you to be in. I am sorry I never gave you the family I promised. But you have a chance to change that.”
Azroth blinked away the liquid. “What do you mean? Street kids never leave this life except through death.”
“For all anyone knows outside of you, me, and Frank over there, you are dead.”
“Frank? You mean Master Monroe?” Azroth turned to look for the man, but the attic was filled with smoke, and the darkness gathered closer as the embers died.
“Take your chance to get off the streets. You are needed elsewhere.”
“I miss you. And Imogen. So much.” The tears were back with a vengeance.
Wesley pressed his forehead to Azroth’s. “When it’s your turn to cross the veil that parts this life and the next, I’ll be there waiting. With any luck, you’ll get to see Imogen before that day.”
“She’s alive?” Azroth whispered. It was as though the floor was disintegrating beneath his feet.
“Yes, and she thinks of you every day.”
Azroth threw his arms around Wesley, and the senator embraced him back.
“Take care, Ross. My son.”
It was gradual, but too soon, Azroth was only holding smokey air.
Ross. That is who I am, and I am the son of Wesley and Imogen Galbraith.
“Ross! Are you in there, lad?” Master Monroe’s voice rang out in the dark, still room.
“I’m here,” he called back. He wiped the trail of tears still clinging to his face and stood.
“Are you hurt? Well… more hurt than you were?” Master Monroe asked.
“No. Stay where you are. I’ll come to you.”
With a grunt of pain, Azroth rose to his feet and pressed his hand back to the wound on his belly. After the rush of the Firespark, Azroth felt cold and weak. However, he’d never felt more alive. Imogen lived, he’d spoken to Wesley, and if Master Monroe’s offer still stood, he had a chance to get out of Lambswell in a way that didn’t include a burial box.
Lighting a small flame on his free hand, Azroth made his way to Master Monroe. The man’s wide eyes almost glowed in the dark.
“How did you do that?” he asked when Azroth got close enough. “How did you put out the flames? It shouldn’t have been possible. Then he glanced down at Azroth’s hand and shied away.
“I came from Ballitus. Nearly every person there can manipulate fire to some extent.”
“I thought the people of Ballitus didn’t like Tellidus,” Master Monroe hedged.
“It’s mostly just the king. And I want nothing to do with what that king desires,” Azroth said.
“What about the streets?” Master Monroe asked. His shock seemed to be fading. “Do you still want to stay there?”
“If the offer of an apprenticeship still stands, I will accept it wholeheartedly. I’m done with thieving and death.”
Master Monroe considered him. “Why did you try to steal from me if you love this cathedral so much?”
Azroth gave a half smile. “A pair of women who like shiny objects and all things that glitter blackmailed me into stealing that gem after finding out that I’d been lurking around here for the past two years. They were going to kill my friends if I didn’t cooperate, and then they’d sent the rival gang after us to ensure we delivered the prize. I would never have stolen from you willingly, but neither would I allow my friends to die because of me.”
“You’ve got honor, boy, I’ll give you that,” Master Monroe said with a cough, waving away the smokey drifting near.
Monroe took his arm and slung it around his shoulders again to help Azroth down the stairs. Soldiers were running frantic when they arrived out in the yard. The woman from the other night rushed over to them once she’d spotted them.
“Frank! Frank! Are you all right? I saw flames coming from the attic, and they told me you were still up there–– oh!”
She paused midstep when she saw Ross dangling off of Frank’s shoulders. “Ross?” Turning to Frank, she asked, “Was he in there when the fire started? Were the thieves who broke in the ones that started it?”
Questions continued to fly at them until Frank held up a hand to stay the tide. “Jenna, dear. The poor boy is hurt and hurt badly. We need to get him to a healer. I’ll answer questions later, but right now, we need to ensure Ross lives.”
Frank let Azroth down carefully, and one of the soldiers ran over.
“Master Monroe! Are you all right? Is the gem safe? I saw four kids run out of the building and back into the night after the fire started. We couldn’t catch up to them, but Jeppson hauled out the body of a fifth. Do you know if that was all of them? Who is this boy?” The soldier gestured at Azroth, now lying on the ground.
“Wilks, this is my new apprentice, Ross Galbraith. He’d been working on the cathedral at night.”
Jenna gave a small gasp, but Wilks didn’t seem to notice.
“He was working in the cathedral tonight when the thieves broke in,” Frank continued. “He protected me from the thief Jeppson hauled out. Without his aid, it would have been me that was carried out of there. The thief, however, stabbed Ross. We need to get him to a healer as soon as possible.”
Ross groaned inwardly. Frank was making him out to be some hero. Despite the fog in his mind, he didn’t miss that Frank had called him his apprentice. Maybe Wesley had been right, and he could have a chance for a better life.
“Right away,” Wilks said, then ran off.
“Ross, dear, are you still with us?” Jenna’s small hands pressed into his cheek, and Ross’s eyes flitted open. When had they closed?
“I’m here,” he whispered. I am Ross Galbraith.
A warmth spread through him.
Behind Jenna, Ross could see Wesley standing with a soft smile on his face.
You’re safe now, Ross. Be strong, my son. Be a man worth knowing.
Thank you, Wes. For everything, Ross thought to him.
Wesley dipped his head before his shadowy form disappeared.
The next few days were a blur for Ross. Jenna fussed over him like a mother hen. Frank would check on him often, and the day Ross could sit up without blacking out, he was invited to the cathedral to see the progress. The crews had worked overtime to repair the attic floor and scrub all the soot from the stone.
The structure had always impressed him when he visited it at night, but today, seeing it in the sunshine and walking around it with full permission brought him such joy that he couldn’t speak as Frank showed him around, introducing him to all the crew members. They even allowed Ross to help add some of the stained glass panels.
The day before the cathedral was opened to the public, Ross helped Frank place the Sapphire Star into its casing where it would shine for all the land to see.
Frank cleared his throat as Ross admired the star glinting in the sunlight.
Ross turned to him, a crease in his brow.
“Jenna and I were talking last night about something.”
“What about?” Ross asked. Had he done something to upset them? He’d tried so hard to be a good guest, but maybe the years he’d spent on the streets had ruined his manners.
Frank gave an embarrassed smile. “I know you’re practically a man now and well on your way to becoming a fine one, despite your struggles.”
Frank hesitated. Ross couldn’t figure out where this was going.
“If you have any desire to have a family, well, uh… What would you say to becoming part of… What I mean to say is, Ross, son…”
Ross’s breath caught. Was Frank trying to say what he thought?
“Jenna should have come up here. She’s better at this than me.” Frank ran a large hand through his stubbly hair.
“Good thing I did,” Jenna said from behind them. “I was afraid you wouldn’t be able to get the words out.”
Jenna gave her husband a kind look before turning to Ross. “Frank is trying to say that we’d like you to become part of our family. You need a home, and we need a son.”
Ross’s gaze flicked between the couple. “You don’t have any children?” he asked.
Jenna’s face saddened. “It wasn’t our lot to have children, despite how often I felt certain we’d have a son. Then you walked into our lives, or rather, crept in. If you will have us, we’d like to adopt you into our family.”
Frank cleared his throat again. “Now, this won’t come without responsibilities. I expect you to learn the family trade and become a leader in masonry. We––“
Frank’s words were cut off as Ross hugged him. “I want a home.”
Frank’s meaty hands slowly patted Ross’s back. “I want to have a family. A real family, and I want to use my hands to help others. Not hurt them.”
Jenna’s arms joined Frank’s as they encircled Ross even tighter.
“I have one request, however,” Ross said, pulling away.
“I’d like to keep my last name. My father was a strong and courageous man. He died defending what he knew to be right, and it’s a name I want to carry forward.”
“I think we can work with that,” Frank said. “Your father sounds like a good man.”
The shadowy form of Wesley watched in approval when Ross spotted him in the corner.
“He was a great man,” Ross said.
“As will you be,” Jenna said, hugging him tighter.
As will you.
Thank you for joining me on this journey with Ross Galbraith. This concludes this version of the story, but I have plans to flesh it out more and publish it as a novella after my fourth book, THE SIREN”S CALL is published sometime this year.
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