Chapter 11 – The Protector
The wooden chest slid from Azroth’s hands and landed with a solid thunk on the floor. 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. In his large hand rested a deep blue gem as big around as a loaf of sourdough bread but far more valuable.
“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,” the man said, ignoring his outburst.
The door vibrated with the force of Riddick ramming his shoulder into it. “Once I get in there, Fen, I’m going to tie you up and cut every one of your fingers and toes off. Then I’ll keep working up your arms and legs until you bleed to death. And I want you to die with the knowledge that Ariel has always been mine. You were just a convenience when she couldn’t get over to me.
Azroth glowered at the door. What does that say about you, I wonder?
“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 be a thief.
“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. As he righted himself, Riddick’s eyes landed on the blue gem in the man’s hands.
Kicking the chest aside, Riddick stalked toward Azroth, knife poised to strike. Riddick lunged, but Azroth blocked his way. The man clutched the gem tighter and began backing toward the corner.
“Do you know the Vixens told me to kill you once we got the gem? That Ariel played you, tricking you into coming. They’re done with you and Gabe. They, like me feel its time to shift the order of power in this city, and I’m going to be lord over it all.”
“And what will you do once the Vixen’s decide to take you out? One day you’ll outgrow your usefulness and they’ll have Ariel do you in one night while she’s lying next to you. Something she’ll relish after you tried to kill her brother.”
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, blocking the man in the corner.
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 you the day you walked into Lambswell.”
“Then who would’ve taught Ariel how to kiss?”
Riddick dove to stab Azroth in the chest, the blade narrowly missing its target as he leaped aside. Fire gathered along his fingertips and he heard a gasp behind him. He hoped Ariel and Gabe had made it outside 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. Azroth grinned savagely as the color drained from the crime lord’s face. However, the cold fury that replaced it as Riddick turned back around, unnerved him. 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, waves of dizziness struck him.
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.
He pressed his fingers into the wound to slow the bleeding. He limped 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’s body was unmoving beneath the flaming dragon as it bared its fangs at Azroth.
“You are mine,” he 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. He met the dragon’s fiery glare.
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, larger than it had been before. The unruly power writhed beneath his skin. It would take weeks before it would grow dormant again.
Azroth’s legs gave out and he collapsed to his knees. Wounds like these weren’t initially fatal, despite the agony they caused. It was how the street kids lived and their lack of medicines that usually took victims of knife wounds.
At least I saved the man and the cathedral, Azroth thought.
A large hand pressed down on his shoulder. He 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?”
His body was coming out of shock, and the pain in his middle worsened.
“I wasn’t about to let Riddick hurt you,” he whispered. “If I’d had any other choice I wouldn’t be here tonight, but they were going to kill my friends. I couldn’t let them die, and I couldn’t let you get hurt.
Azroth gestured at Riddick’s still form. “But, I couldn’t save you without killing him. It was the only way.”
Shouts from below drifted through the doorway along with 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. I saw him run with the chest.” The soldier began to reach for his blade when he noticed Riddick’s body on the floor and froze.
Monroe adjusted his hold on Azroth, ensuring he stayed on his feet. “This boy, Ross, protected me against the one on the floor. Stealing the chest was a diversion.”
The soldier gave Azroth a curt nod. “Then, I suppose we owe you thanks, boy. Now let’s get 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. He wasn’t sure what would happen to him once they got outside. Would the soldier clap him in irons and haul him to the Bricks for breaking and entering? What if Monroe decided to press charges for the burned building.
Other thoughts drifted through his mind. 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 last night? That he could trust Monroe and the woman?
These thoughts fled from his mind as soon as they hit the landing for the attic. The entire 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 the cathedral.
“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 stop the fire.”
“I know you had some control over that dragon thing earlier, but this is an out-of-control blaze,” Monroe shouted, on the verge of hysteria.
He squared his shoulders. “I know. I am its master, and I need to stop it.” Azroth plunged into the roaring flames. Cries echoed in the blaze, but he had to keep his attention on the situation at hand.
“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 Meheritia. 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, mingling with the flames. 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. The fire relented, ceding to his power, and 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 choking the air from his throat.
“No,” Wesley said, placing a hand on Azroth’s shoulder. “My mistakes broke our family. I put you in a position I never wanted you to be in. I’m sorry I never gave you the family I promised. But you have a chance to change that.”
Azroth blinked. “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 thick smoke obscured the room. Darkness gathered on the edges as the embers cooled.
“Take your chance to get off the streets. You are needed elsewhere.”
“Needed for what?” Azroth asked, smearing soot across one cheek.
“You have a greater part to play in the events about to unfold. Pursue those opportunities boldly, embrace your new family and become more than what you are.”
“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 smoky air.
Ross. That is who I am, and I am the son of Wesley and Imogen Galbraith.
Read Chapter 12