Scene III Redux
A journey into the detritus of the Titan was a descent into the putrid maw of death itself. But Azat made the descent into the foul wasteland without complaint, a hand clutched onto the pommel of a sheathed blade. From the bleak skies above, a ferocious storm churned the noxious stench in the Titan’s bowels. Rain came crashing down, relentless and in great torrents, until a roiling tide of sewer filth surged from out of the lowest, flooded depths. Undeterred, Azat waded into the filthy streams that churned about him, the great rain crashing down upon him from above.
Distant, urgent whispers nigh lost in the roar of the storm lingered about every footfall Azat planted forward. Indistinct shapes flickered and hovered just out of reach of any defining light. The malformed apparitions only withered and shrunk forward from the aether-sight, as if they could sense Azat through the biting wind. Souls destitute in body, mind, and spirit, even the gods would stamp out the overbearing misery in this wretched slum, should they ever bear witness to its tragedy.
Whether the gods actually kept watch over such a forsaken lot of mankind’s malformed refuse, Azat may have had his suspicions, but certainly no foundation of wisdom. He was not above the thought that perhaps even the Old Ones touched the abyssal corners on the edge of mankind’s periphery. Did they too breathe the spark of life into the miasma of misery and suffering that not even their children could gaze upon without horror or disgust?
A fell wind weaved thoughts of malice and omen upon the breath of its current. Azat paused for a brief moment to shudder from the numbness imprinted onto his sodden skin and wretch from the vile stench pooling around his armored boots. The Zarquin Guard pitched forward and emptied his stomach in one great heave.
Azat covered his nose with a thick leather gauntlet in a vain attempt to shield it from the stench of sewer. He lifted his head toward the black sky and let the deluge clean his face. He smiled in that strange way he had whenever he could detect irony playing out before him and wondered aloud to the storm itself.
A grimace flashed over Azat’s becalmed features as realization dawned upon him. “One of the children of the Old Gods… led astray into the Kraken’s bowels?” He shrugged, but cursed the Zarquin Guard under his breath anyway. “What immeasurable wealth could lay buried beneath this heap of soiled stone? Damn him, I would wager my own hand that Aslan put Erasyl up to this idiocy… I waste nothing but my dignity in this hellish ruin.”
Azat continued to gaze up into the storm for any glimmer of the moon, some sign of respite that would soon come of its own accord. Lightning forked from the heart of the storm, so nearby that Azat was momentarily blinded from the bolt’s descent. He flinched from the abrupt burst of light, two fingers pinching the bridge of his nose, and sighed with resignation. A rapid maelstrom of thoughts on how to best unravel Erasyl’s cryptic command raged in his mind. How could he even proceed in such dismal conditions? What time and earth had not removed from the lowest depths of the Titan already, seemed ready to be torn away in the winds of the storm before the night’s end.
Never had Azat witnessed such a manifestation of wrath from the Heavens. He was never one to be fearful of nature or her indifferent cycle of destruction, but not even himself could deny that the Gods were about to strike Titan Fortress from the face of the Storm Peaks tonight. Azat willed himself to carry on without hesitation. He wanted eagerly to simply leave this place to the ceaseless decay that would prove its own demise.
“Onward then.” Azat encouraged himself. Amber eyes drifted warily around the maze of ruin that crawled up into the sky to entomb him in a crypt built for both the living and the forgotten.
Azat sighed once more and made to march further into the depths when a nearby sound, weakened from hunger and many nights spent without rest halted him.
“You there, wanderer…” A feminine voice called from behind a veil of shadow. “Fear me not, wanderer, but come nearer to me.”
“Be gone, vermin!” Azat flicked the hand upon the sheathed blade at his hip off of the pommel until his fingers coiled around the actual grip. “I would waste no more time to hear your pathetic begging. Ply your trade in the higher markets. Too many words I have already spared you.”
A derisive snort, followed by an embittered cackle erupted from the woman hidden in myth and shadows. “But why, Zarquin? Here you are in search of destiny itself, yet you would march blindly by your master’s prize and willingly into your own death? That is what awaits you should you march with such enthusiasm into the lowest depths of the Titan itself. I would wager that you could wield that blade like few ever could, but that will not save you once you crossed into the Catacombs of Saints. I implore you to turn back and come find me instead.”
“Hah.” Azat made the sound, but it could scarcely be called a laugh. “Why find you when you have already found me? I won’t crawl through the shadow or hovel to meet you, I am right here. Reveal yourself and bring with you your message. I promise not to remove your head too quickly, should your words have merit.”
A sound reminiscent of dry laughter, but possessed of something more enigmatic in its undertone, erupted from the woman yet again. “You would have a woman come out into the storm and rain simply to greet you? Arrogant and egocentric, aren’t we? Very well, if you must have our meeting on your terms…”
“Your name?” Azat casually requested, hand still planted on the grip of his blade. He spied the fragile form of a Halish woman on the brink of starvation gingerly emerge from behind a small barricade of discarded barrels and crates stacked on the porch of a decrepit hovel. Swirls of layered grime coated her worn dress of dark emerald linen cloth, of which Azat could still trace the faded pattern of sunflowers embroidered across her shoulder blades. Burnished bronze skin glimmered in each burst of lightning from the storm, then guttered back to a dim luminescence from the light of torches that somehow continued to defy the ill weather. “Do you know of us? Do you know who you disturb? Quickly speak or forever hold your tongue.”
“Of course,” The woman snorted and marched off of the hovel’s porch and into the oppressive rain. Azat could now clearly define that she cradled a great bundle of cloth in either hand and held it up to her chest rather protectively. He understood that the woman was wisely uncertain about whether she should trust the man before her. She believed that she possessed a prize worth taking, something worth bartering for. But he knew that that remained to be seen. “Why would I bother anyone aside from you, when I am in search of no one but Azat?”
“Enough.” Azat considered throttling the woman by the throat and rattling off demands, but it would not please him to do so. It would be quickest simply to hit straight for the mark with words alone. “No mind games from me and none from you. Speak your mind and spell out what it is that you desire. Or more importantly, why I should desire something that you have?”
As if frightened by Azat’s becalmed demands, a childish squeal raged from beneath the bundle of cloth cradled in the woman’s arms and interrupted his train of thought. His thoughts seemed to drift into another world, somehow overcome with confusion and an unfamiliar sense of impending dread. In a brief instance, he shook off the strange sensation and fixated the strange woman with eyes of amber contempt.
Azat folded his arms in an act of patience. “But first, you have not told me your name.”
The Halish woman shook the rain out of her eyes, an nigh imperceptible gesture of disagreement. She flicked away long and sodden strands of coal black hair and sighed in frustration as she tried in vain to shield her eyes from the storm. “What importance is my name to you? You do not seek me and already you want to distance yourself from my presence. You should merely content yourself about what I bring into your presence. He is what you have been searching, is he not?
“I know my task.” The mysterious woman lifted her hands to present the bundle of cloth carried in them to the Zarquin Guard before her. “As you know your own. Your master would want him for his own, and I can barely care for myself now, not for him too.” Bright, emerald eyes glanced up into Azat’s own. “So, what say you, Zarquin Guard?”
“What I say?” Azat nearly laughed at her, a mirthless and hollow sound that he heard without making it. He fixated her with a knowing look and softly inclined his head. The woman understood the gesture and leaned forward to transfer the child into the Zarquin’s arms. “No, not me. Say that he is of the Old Gods, and swear on the fate of your very life and the gods that you hold most dear. Kneel before me and say that what I demand is true.”
“Of course,” The woman knelt upon the rain-slick stone and did not seem to mind what exactly that she knelt into. Azat gently removed the swaddle from out of the woman’s hands and began to unravel the cloth that hid the child. “By the fate of my very life and upon the honor of Hinariath herself, that to break my word and oath for you, Zarquin Guard, shall forfeit my body, mind, and spirit. I swear before your own gods, that this child is of the Old Blood himself. Cleave my head from my shoulders should I ever prove false!”
Azat unraveled the rest of the swaddle and met the curious stare of innocence with a calmed expression. Large eyes that shone like the infinite void, framed in soft concentric rings of lavender, ensnared Azat in their otherworldly trance. Unblemished russet skin shimmered in the storm light, reminiscent of the forgotten kingdoms that once marked the Desolation of Qarth. Azat gently weaved his leather-clad fingers through the unkempt clumps of coal-black hair on the child’s head and traced one finger down the discolored rune etched on the center of the child’s forehead.
A rare and genuine smile graced Azat’s features for the first time in what felt like millennia. For many years, Azat had undergone many ceremonies such as this and pried countless children from the hands of their families, both willing and not-so-willing. But he had never felt such a profound sense of triumph, joy, and martial pride that he felt in this very moment. There was something special about this one, he could practically envision it.
“Born of the Old Gods…” He forced himself to look away from the child back into the expecting gaze of the woman before him. “I mark him for my kindred and one of my own blood. And you, shall have our undying gratitude and the fulfillment of a promise that has long been denied you since the day of your birth. I shall see to it personally.”
An abrupt and exaggerated cleaning of someone’s throat somehow caught both Azat and the mysterious woman’s attention in spite of the storm raging around them. Azat understood the sound for the warning that it was and shifted himself to peer over the kneeling woman’s shoulder.
A broad and intimidating Halish man stood scant feet away from them, arms crossed over his chest. Quilted Leather armor of a deep sapphire clad him from head to toe, inlaid with a trim of radiant golden yellow. A kempt golden blonde beard covered much of his facial features and an ornate nasal helm polished steel covered much of the rest of his face. From out of the semi-open slits in the helmet, a single unblemished, crystal blue eye studied the child in Azat’s arm with undisguised fascination. Another eye, squinted and the color of fresh milk, studied Azat with cold and indifferent calculation.
“Begging your pardon, good woman,” The grizzled warrior sketched a surprisingly elegant bow belying for a man of such menacing stature. Azat detected some measure of grace in the small movement, and again in the bold words he spoke. “But I must have a word with our mutual acquaintance here. And rather urgently, might I add. Fear me not and follow my order, then perhaps you’ll live without the Zarquin Guard burying a dagger in your back. You’ll quickly find that I too can make quite a few luring promises, Chosen of the Old Gods, some of which maybe in her interest.”
Azat appraised the warrior with an acute intensity and sneered at the man’s broad grin. “You must forgive me my failing memory, traveler, I cannot seem to recall you from anywhere that I’ve roamed. I hope you do not mind that I deem you a traveler, for you do not seem of…” He gestured around the crumbling ruin. “This place by any stretch of my imagination.”
The warrior shrugged, but the broad grin on lips remained. “That point-of-view is quite shared between the two of us then. You would rather be somewhere else and so too would I. Catch my drift?”
Azat flashed pointed canines in a wolfish grin. “Good, you are not one for an extensive dialogue. A shame that we seem somewhat similar considering what shall befall one of us. Neither do I consider myself an honorable man, but you do yourself a great disservice with no introduction for yourself, road warrior. Seeing that you are already here challenging me, I assume that I require no such introduction?”
“Fair enough,” The warrior inclined his head in agreement. “Not that you would remember me from anywhere specifically. If you must know, however, my brethren know me as Vindiaccos. You too may know me such by such a name, Azat, should that satisfy your curiosity.”
“Vin-di-ac-cos…” Azat enunciated the name across several syllables. “Vindiaccos… turn around and leave the way you came. I can find no reason why you should perish on the edge of my sword, friend. Go back to the place that your master’s first bid you to come here and do not look back.”
Vindiaccos paused as if he considered the thought for a moment, but Azat knew that a warrior like him would only pretend to do so as a courtesy. The warrior contemplated for a brief moment, then snapped back into the waking world to peer through the rain and deep into the essence of Azat’s own soul.
Vindiaccos grimaced. “Afraid that I cannot do that. Do us both a favor and get the woman and her child out of the way. I am here only for the child, but you must first be removed from the board. You need me dead and buried to be on your way. As far as I see it, only you and I need to settle this score.”
Azat held the child in one arm now and gently pushed it back into the woman’s waiting hands. No sooner had the woman reclaimed her child did she rush back behind the cover of the stacked barrels and crates in front of the hovel. He did not watch her leave, but kept his eyes fixated on the challenger before him, even as he unsheathed the weapon hanging on his waist. The scimitar screamed a keening cry as the curved sword was ripped free of the scabbard. Azat unslung the buckler resting on his back and equipped it across his left hand.
Thunder crashed from the heights of the heavens, deafening in its great cacophony. Somehow the deluge from the storm seemed to intensify to the point that Azat could scarcely trace Vindiaccos’ outline through the dense sheets of falling droplets. But he could still see the challenger before him unloosen an unadorned bludgeon weapon from his belt with one hand. A larger kite shield emblazoned with the sapphire-golden yellow scheme of his armor was unslung off of the challenger’s back and into the warrior’s off-hand.
“Honor. I would rather fight with you to the end than surrender that child to the Zarquin Guard.” Vindiaccos punched the storm-wracked winds with a mailed fist and shouted the swift declaration.
“I think that you would say the same, Azat, but I have a feeling that you are not known for your honest word. So let me pretend that you said it, for my own peace of mind.”
“Said well enough!” Azat replied and followed up with a few practice strokes. “And well-versed too, as if you could read my intent as if it were some mighty tome of knowledge.” He fell into a combat stance and began a cautious advance toward his opponent. “Our Gods honor our blood sacrifice.”
Vindiaccos hunkered behind his shield and fell into his own stance. “May neither of us be found wanting.”
Unlike Azat, Vindiaccos held his ground as if pondering the best course of action. A boom of thunder deafened shook the Zarquin Guard down to his core and lightning forked overhead, but none of that could leave him shaken. A thought struck him in mid-stride and he halted for a brief moment. Azat ripped the plumed helmet hung on his belt free and threw it over his head in a hurry. Despite the interruption, Vindiaccos seemed content to allow the sudden break in the tension and remained planted firmly where he stood.