When Aylan’s eyes finally opened and the world came slowly into focus, he wondered if it was yet again another dream. The air was hot and dry on his face, and his parched tongue grated against the roof of his mouth like sandpaper. He regretfully noticed that he was once again tied up, but the revelation did not surprise him. Aylan was bound in an upright sitting position in an open wagon, different from the last one. He blinked to try and adjust his eyes to the burning midday sun; a task complicated by the constant jostling the wagon was giving him. When Aylan focused his eyes properly he saw nothing but a barren wasteland all about him. Rocks, dried shrubbery and a few oddly shaped plants he did not recognize were the only things that inhabited the area. Were it not for those few residents of the area, however, one would not be able to tell the road from the rest of the ruined land.
Not recognizing the area they were traveling through, Aylan turned his attention to the two figures seated at the front of the wagon. Aylan peered at them through squinted eyes, and immediately recognized the man driving as Bolden Leine. A beaten and battered Bolden Leine, Aylan noted with some satisfaction. The man to the mercenary’s right had his back turned completely to him however, and Aylan did not immediately recognize him. Something about the seated man’s shape was tugging at the strings of Aylan’s memory, however. He leaned forward to see a little better, and gasped loudly.
Both men turned to look back at Aylan. Bolden was smiling wickedly, broken teeth and all. The second man bore no smile, or rather any expression at all. The man by all appearances was Ogden, yet his eyes were hollow and unseeing. His hair was a bit more unkempt than usual, and his skin was several shades lighter, and had almost become a pasty green. He did not speak, but he snorted as if displeased to see Aylan.
“I thought I killed you, you rotund bastard.” Aylan attempted to spit after he spoke, but found his mouth too dry.
Ogden only grunted and snarled in response, contorting his pasty facial features into what almost passed for an angry look.
“You’ll have to excuse poor Ogden, he jutht hathn’t been himself thince you killed him,” Bolden cackled jovially. “But oh boy, wath he mad at you when I firtht raised him! Took me quite a while to convinth him we needed you jutht a bit longer.”
“How…” Aylan started, confused and not sure how to word his question. He was still staring agape at almost-Ogden with wonder.
“The old man that you killed… Hell, I don’t know how you managed that, but anyway, he wath one of the Damned. A Vau’Kir. You know what they are, boy?” Bolden was only half looking back at Aylan now, returning most of his attention to the road ahead of him.
“Only that they were rumored to have dark powers, and that they fled the mainland in exile during the Divine War,” Aylan kept what happened in his dream to himself, not quite sure what any of it meant.
“Quite the proper anthwer. I’m thure your profethors would be tho proud if they could thee you now,” the mercenary japed, his voice dripping with derision. “Anyway, those pale, black haired exileth can raise the dead. Normally they go through a lot of rituals and thuch, but thith one left me a pot of raise dead.”
“A pot?” Aylan queried incredulously.
“A potion,” Bolden hissed through his disfigured mouth. “Ith there anything you do know?”
“I know I’m the reason you ‘thound like thith’,” Aylan retorted, smiling mischieviously.
Bolden opened his mouth to respond, but just frowned and glared at Aylan hatefully. I’ve dealt a serious blow to that man’s pride, Aylan thought. Good.
After a long moment of silence, Aylan spoke. “So why didn’t you use the potion on that old wizard? Surely he would be more useful than that meatpile.”
“I don’t know how it workth on Vau’kir,” the mercenary answered honestly. “But on humanth it bringth you back completely mindleth. You might remember who killed you, or who you hate, but that ith about it. I’d rather have a big throng ox of a man than a witleth doddering old former wizard. Not to mention thith pot is temporary, and thoon Ogden will rot away. It doethn’t recreate a complete tranthformation that the Vau’kir can do over time.”
“It sounds like you’ve worked with a few of them.”
“Whatever payth, boy. Gold cointh in my pocket.”
“Still calling me boy? I thought we had moved past that since I handed you a-”
In one swift movement Bolden Leine spun around and lashed at Aylan with his leather driving whip, catching him across the face with a painful crack.
“I know the damn wizardth need you to arrive alive, but they never thaid you had to arrive with all your teeth intact. One more word from you and I’ll thtart yanking out teeth and fingernails.” Bolden glared at him unwaveringly for a moment, with seething hate in his eyes. Aylan cringed in spite of himself. He could feel his own warm blood slowly trickling down his cheek, helpless to even wipe it away because of his restraints. He rested against his ropes hopelessly, and said nothing more to the angry, lisping sellsword.
Bolden himself relaxed a bit in his seat, glad to be done talking for a bit. He ran his tongue over his jagged and missing teeth with regret. The whores in the tradeslands might charge a bit more now, he thought. I can’t believe I let a boy get the best of me. His teeth weren’t the only things bothering the scabrous sellsword, however. Bolden was trying to puzzle out exactly how that wretched prince had managed to kill an immortal Vau’kir. He had faded into unconsciousness just as he saw the wizard approach and attack Aylan. By the time he regained consciousness, the boy was out cold and the wizard was dead. Bolden could find no signs of struggle in the area, aside from those of his own encounter with the young prince.
Bolden had been torn at that point. Something inside told him to cut his losses and run, but then he remembered who his employer was and thought the better of it. So he pilfered a raise dead potion off the deceased wizard, brought back Ogden, and loaded Aylan the Vau’Kir Vanquisher into the wagon. It had been very hard for the mercenary to not slit the boy’s throat and dump him in the ditch, but he resisted. He had heard very nasty rumors about the man funding this journey, and if any one of them proved true, he would be better off slitting his own throat than Aylan’s. One such rumor claimed that Cotul Croth was in the man’s employ, an assassin with a reputation like none other. No one could say for sure, of course. Some fools had even claimed the mysterious benefactor was more beast than man, able to grow into a giant black, man-devouring monster at will.
Bolden Leine had discounted that notion immediately, of course. He was intelligent enough to fear a skilled knife in the dark or a malevolent Vau’Kir spell from afar, but he did not consider any stories of old magic and beasts to be credible. Aside from the Damned scurrying around secretly beneath Tel’Aran’s visible society, Bolden knew that in the country north of Yser’s Wall magic was dying and no mystical beast would dwell there long.
The only thing the sellsword knew for sure was that the man in question was well connected with the newly crowned royal family. The fact that he was trusted enough to be privy to the new king’s activities and still had the unmitigated gall to orchestrate such an insidious plan spoke volumes to Bolden. The mercenary decided he would finish the job he had been paid for, namely delivering Prince Aylan to the Ruins of Sarys for a ritual. He didn’t even know what that was about, just that they wanted it done and he wasn’t being paid to ask too many questions.
All of that led him here, only a few miles from the heart of the ruins, where no doubt more Vau’kir would be waiting for the boy. The setting sun cast a blood red glow about the blasted land around him, as if in anticipation of the events to come