Under Death's Shadow - Scene III
Khios shook underneath Voshki, the Veiled Mountains trembling amid an ominous thunder. A northern stormfront laid siege to the craggy peaks, breaking the brunt of its momentum against Cressa’s Lantern. Inside Azat’s pavilion, she languished in chains, with only the gloom outside to light her surroundings.
Shackled like imprisoned royalty, Voshki curled into herself by the corner where Azat’s Immortals had originally laid her down. Dawn’s first light had come and gone since she waited, much like the sun’s zenith, until dusk encroached upon the Veiled Mountains.
Voshki waited in absolute silence for Lord Zakarian’s return. As she waited, the storm’s thunder never seemed to cease. She relished its deafening cries, finding reprieve from the endless solitude of her isolation.
The storm broke against the ancient mountains, and the deluge came down harder than before. As night descended, she heard the first signs of armed forces on the march. Distant cries, commands from unfamiliar champions, flitted through the void of silence. She waited, until the encampment was revived with the sounds of human civilization.
She heard hundreds of warriors disarm themselves for the night, throwing their weapons back onto weapon racks and laying their shields back down in their war tents. As the deafening sound of armies marching back into the encampment lessened, cries of agony became louder than the dissipating stormfront.
Voshki listened to the horrific wails of the wounded, who survived on the battlefield long enough to be relocated to the encampment infirmary. She continued to wait, for anyone, or any sign of intervention, until the night sky glimmered in the eerie light of a full moon.
As the Old Myrians lifted their voices in ancient war songs, did Lord Zakarian come staggering through the silk—veiled entrance of his pavilion. Surprised, Voshki concealed her initial gasp, blinded by a bright light carried in the Immortal’s hand.
Azat sat something down on the council table with a loud clatter. Voshki’s vision cleared after a time, discerning Azat from the fading light as he fooled around with the contraption. She blinked the vivid shades of orange, sunburst yellow, and white out of her eyes, listening to the Immortal’s staggered breathing. As her vision returned, she witnessed the blurred image of a man exhausted from an entire day’s battle.
Gory, crimson blood soaked Azat’s priceless laminar from head to toe, so much that its brilliant white sheen was utterly lost. Thick sword cuts were gouged across his chest plate, and his left shoulder guard was smashed to splinters.
He smiled through a veil of soaked and matted coal black hair, that failed to conceal several new scars etched on his face.
“I’m surprised,” Lord Zakarian looked her over once, “I more than half—suspected you’d break your bonds. You’ve waited all day for my return?”
Voshki, too exhausted from faint echoes of hunger, extended him a weak nod. She almost turned from him, when Azat whistled, then tossed her a burgeoning pouch that she caught between her chained wrists.
“Here,” Lord Zakarian approached, concealing the pained sighs born from his aching body. As he knelt beside her, she caught the scent of perspire, gore, and storm rains that soaked him through. He produced a key in one hand, and beckoned for Voshki to offer her chained wrists in turn.
Azat twisted the key into the hidden insert of her cuffs, the leaden iron clattering to the ground, useless. His gaze leveled with her own, he looked her in the eyes. “I trust that you’ll not become a danger without these?”
Voshki ignored him, proceeding to tear into the overfull purse he had tossed her after catching the merest whiff of sugar—sprinkled fruits.
Azat said nothing when she crushed the first few pieces between her teeth. Gradually, he managed to stand. He made to return to his chair at the head of the council chamber. He said, “Gods, I am not as young as I used to be. That is certain. I’m crippled with aches I’ve never experienced in my life.”
Voshki spoke after wolfing down several pieces of fruit. “Are you going to live, old man?”
Azat glanced at her skeptically, then boasted with laughter that made him cringe with regret. He slammed his fist down on the table, and spat out a thick a wad of blood on the strategic map of Cressa’s Lantern.
Voshki ceased her eating, and almost made to move nearer to him, if that were possible.
Lord Zakarian lifted a hand to still her concerns. He sighed, “I am not injured. A Zar’qin caught me with a fist full of chainmail earlier in the day. One of my physicians had to remove a tooth. The pain is killing me. He promised me a sedative some hours ago, but considering the hundreds wounded on the field today… I would be unsurprised if he never returned tonight.”
Voshki could not conceal her curiosity, and asked, “How did the battle go? Did the Old Myrians fare well?”
Azat shrugged, “The battle for Cressa’s Lantern is only beginning. However, our forces achieved our initial goal. The Dominion’s slave hordes were repulsed from Reaper’s Lantern, and the mountain pass has fallen under our direct control. Our forces shall now have access, an entry point, to spearhead into the rest of the valley.”
Voshki sighed, “It sounds like the coming days will be more difficult for Old Myria still. Zar’qin warriors prefer to fight to the last, then dishonor their Immortal God King. Trust me, Sukhan has dealt with their like more often than Old Myria by far.”
“Don’t underestimate our resolve.” Azat suggested, “The common folk of the Ardent Vigil managed to secure us the mountain pass. The fate of Cressa’s Lantern now falls squarely on the shoulders of the Knights of Myr, and their commander, Vahe of Grand Damira…”
Her voice weakened, Voshki chortled, “A wise decision to sit the next battle out. You should be commanding from the backlines in either case. Keep wading into battle like you did today, then I’d wager you won’t have much time left to you.”
Lord Zakarian grinned, “I will heed your advice, for tomorrow. Vahe is a brash commander and prefers great confrontations over tactical and well-organized strategies. There can be a place for both on the battlefield, but one must not dominate the other.
“I am considering that perhaps… I could break your chains and send you alongside him. To be my eyes and ears, and more importantly, keep Vahe alive and safe.”
Voshki arched her brow. “Do I seem to be in any condition to fight to you?”
Azat nodded, “Give yourself a few days, and I shall make certain you’ll eat well. You act as if years have passed since you’ve left Ember Hearth. It has only been a few weeks, and you’ve barely suffered.” He paused, then acknowledged. “Except in isolation.”
Voshki sighed, “Then you’ll return me back into these chains. Where I’ll sit here until the war is won or lost… and then what?”
“Our war is far from lost, Voshki.” Azat corrected, “but, to address your point… I think you’ve suffered enough. I will allow you sometime tomorrow to walk freely among the encampments. No one here knows of your origins or who you are. You’ll find a practice field hidden behind my pavilion. You may practice alone, should you wish.
“Agree to accompany Vahe on his mission into Cressa’s Lantern and I’ll vouch for you you before him myself.”
Voshki cocked her head at Azat. “Why not the Autumn Queen?”
“She would not spare you no matter how much I pleaded.” Azat admitted, “you murdered her younger sister, and nothing can change that. However, Grand Damira is Vahe’s court. That is where you are headed to serve the rest of your term. A quick word to him can end your entire plight before Hazan would, or perhaps ever, even find out…”
Voshki chose to remain silent on the matter, careful not to show signs of either denial or acceptance.
“I must ask for your forgiveness, assassin.” Azat confessed, “Old Myria is on the eve of war and terrible battle. I should never have dragged you into this crimson mire. Hazan desires justice for her sister Sirvat, so leaving you alone in Ember Hearth was not an option. You would have been drawn and quartered the moment I departed for the southern Autumn Realms.
“It was never my attention to have you trapped in this ensuring war. Just wait here patiently, until the battle’s end. Then I’ll think of some further uses for your services, should you remain willing.”
Voshki perked at his emphasis of ‘willing’. She asked, “How much is an Ashen Blade’s skill worth on the battlefield these days?”
Azat considered her opening for negotiation, and nodded. “To most of my kin, it would be nothing at all. But I can be pragmatic if you volunteer to help us win back Cressa Valley. So, Voshki of the Black Bane Mercenaries, what is that you desire?
Voshki inclined her head, “Gold would be a reasonable start.”
Azat guessed again, “A warm hearth and a home to return to on gloomy days and cold nights?”
Voshki arched her brow, confused. She would never have thought of that one. “Here? In Old Myria?”
“Where else?” Azat scoffed, then sniggered. “You would return home to the Southern Wastes of your own volition? From what I understand, most Sukhanites youths that have a chance to flee their kingdom, never return. For good reason, too.”
Voshki decided to not outright decline his offer, but not accept it either. “Go on, I’m listening.”
Azat shrugged, pondering, “Would you love to command another band of mercenaries again? Old Myria has many willing swords, who look for prime commanders.”
Voshki could not conceal her smile. Neither could she dispel the burden of grief that came over her. She shook her head, “As kind as that offer would be, I’ve only ever commanded one band of mercenaries. I failed them. I have no right to command others anymore. But you are kind to give me hope of reliving my aspirations again.”
Azat placed an emphasis on his final suggestion. He countered, “Or, perhaps you’re searching for something far rarer and more invaluable. You obviously do not lust for wealth, or you would have accepted my first offer.
“You reminisced about your old home in the Southern Wastes, and yet you entertained the thought of living here in Old Myria with interest.
“You say you’ll never command another band of mercenaries, but you still desire to aspire to—something, anything…” Azat trailed off, then picked up again. “It takes an individual of great courage, to admit to someone they may not trust, that they are lost. Perhaps you’re not lost, but merely choose to wander through life, as I believe you’ve always done.
“You’ve seen the endless beauty of the world and of humanity, as well as the darkest depths to which our kind can descend. You choose not to become either extremity, but to adhere to balance as a way of life. That, Voshki, is the way of the Children of the Moon. It is Jumunah’s path.
“Those who seek balance, naturally strive to find perfection and a sense of place. So, why not find perfection in what you’ve already devoted your whole life to? Continue training to become a master of blades, but turn your purpose to an even higher cause. If it is a sense of belonging that you seek… you have brothers and sisters right here, ready to stand beside you.”
Voshki snorted. “Like whom?”
Azat placed a hand over his heart. “You have a mentor and a father in myself, so long as I live. You seem to think fondly of Prince Qallin, and he sees many great qualities in you.”
Voshki sighed. “And your sons? Are you going to tell me that they do not despise me?”
Azat flashed a knowing grin. “I believe that you and my sons are far more alike than you could ever imagine. Aslan and Ara, they simply know nothing about you, outside of the mistakes you’ve made. You cannot blame them either, considering your crimes. All that said, I hope Ara comes to know you as I have. I would pray, that you both see each other in the same light that I’ve come to see both of you.
“I only ask that you not hate my sons for their ignorance… They’ve suffered much at the hands of Sukhanite blades, but that is an entirely different, and lengthy story to delve into.”
Vohski was silent, her head bowed slightly. She spoke after a brief quiet. “I didn’t know.”
Azat shrugged. “You could never have known. It is a black stain on the Zakarian name that we have chosen to keep near to our chests.”
Daring, Voshki asked the question plaguing her thoughts. “I trust that Lord Zakarian avenged himself for house and family? It is the way of Sukhan, and I hold no grudge for those who live by the creed of my kin. Nor those who die by it.”
Lord Zakarian frowned in disapproval, but thought the matter over. He replied, “For the peace of the sons that I still had to raise from childhood to where they are now, I made my decision to forsake vengeance. Hunting down my old war brother would not change what happened, and it could certainly have costed me more than my family has already lost.
“They lost their mother. I decided against being the fool, and stealing from them the presence of their father. Truthfully, I’ve not thought of the Scarred Child since then. I only remember my wife and the life I’ve spent with Ara and Aslan, and her when she still lived.”
Azat sighed. He rubbed his temple with a pair of fingers. “That is the reason why they cannot trust any man or woman from Sukhan. So, now you know. I’ve often told them that their hatred is weakness—”
Voshki pointed out, “You have a similar weakness.”
“A similar mistrust, to be certain.” Azat quipped. “But that is not hatred. Besides, you’ve changed my mind quite some time ago.”
“I apologize,” Voshki proclaimed. “I believe you were offering me something?”
“Ah,” Azat slammed his fist on the table. “Where was I? If it is a sense of place that you’re searching for, then why not try your hand at becoming one of the Annahir Immortals?”
Voshki cocked her head. “The Autumn Queen’s bodyguard that you command? Why would you have me anywhere near the Autumn Queen, defending her person?”
Azat confessed, “I wouldn’t have you within Ember Hearth at all, truth be told. Yet, there is no reason you cannot operate beyond Annahir and even Old Myria. Prince Qallin and my sons also aspire to join, and Hazan and I have a test in mind worthy of their skills. Without her knowledge, you could take up the trial with them. Prince Qallin will do right by you as a brother. I know Aslan and Ara shall take time to adjust to you, but they will, I’m certain.”
Voshki imagined her return to the Southern Wastes, against Shoushan’s wishes for her to return as an Ashen Blade at all. Her mission in Old Myria was meant to grant her permanent freedom. Independence. Voshki was meant to define herself from then on.
She was never meant to see Shoushan again. As much as she desired to return only for her, Voshki knew she could never do so considering her failure. She could only fade back into obscurity, and become someone different than the Voshki she had always known.
She would become the Voshki she always desired to be. From where she stood, Azat and his offer for mentorship in the Annahir Immortals, was likely her best chance at success.
Voshki looked an exhausted Azat in the eye. She grinned. “Do I also get the gold and home and hearth?”
Despite his miserable pain, Azat smiled in that knowing way he had.