Later that night the rickety wagon rolled through the Ruins of Sarys clumsily yet steadily¸ rumbling and bumbling over the torn, unkempt roads. The vehicle’s ludicrous demeanor belied the true intent of its journey, however. Aylan felt a growing sense of dread wash over him as he surveyed the ruins about him, illuminated only by the cold, stark moonlight. He still was unaware of the purpose of his captivity, though the nature of it was obviously sinister. His chest tightened with apprehension as he sat behind Bolden and the fat still-breathing-yet-deceased Ogden, watching them sit complacently ahead of him in the wagon.
It was not long before the group reached their destination. The wagon pulled into a large circle, bordered by fallen columns from a great structure of years past. Torches lit the ring eerily, nearly clashing with the bright moonlight. Figures clad in black moved about silently, some moving strange artifacts about, and some riffling through pages of some unknown texts. Aylan shuddered as one walked directly through the torchlight and revealed a snow white face, just like the wizard he had encountered not so long ago.
“More Vau’kir, boy,” Bolden commented over his shoulder, his lips curling over his broken teeth in an attempt at a smile. “Quite amathing, to thee tho many here at one time.”
“What are they going to do to me?” Aylan queried tremulously.
Bolden only laughed and pulled the wagon to a complete stop.
Two large hands grabbed Aylan from behind nearly as soon as the wagon stopped. Aylan tried to jerk away, but the hands clutching at him were incredibly strong and he was still tied as well. He felt himself being hauled roughly out of the wagon, banging and bumping into every obstacle in the way. The prince attempted to lash out at his brutish adversary but found he was only held tighter as a result. Aylan could hardly breathe; he was being squeezed so tightly. It was then that he noticed the horrid smell about him, while trying to suck a little precious oxygen into his lungs. It was a stench of death, very much like the one that accompanied Ogden these days.
Without warning, Aylan found himself dumped onto the hard ground unceremoniously.
“Careful with the package, Uchta,” hissed a cold voice from somewhere above Aylan. He was too busy trying to catch his breath to look up and see who the voice belonged to, but he knew it had to be one of the Vau’Kir. This ‘Uchta’ that had carried his so easily interested Aylan more, however. If I somehow manage to get loose, whatever that thing may be is going to be a challenge, he thought.
“Bind him to the post,” the chilling voice ordered. Aylan was jerked to his feet this time, and the ropes about his arms were untied then clumsily retied to bind them behind his back around a cold stone post. During this process, Aylan finally got a good look at the beast that had been manhandling him.
Uchta may have once been called a man, but such a thing could no longer be said of him. He stood at least seven feet tall, towering over Aylan in the torchlight, his huge frame casting a long, twisted shadow amidst the ruins. The thing’s skin was stretched tight over the exposed parts of his body, and seemed almost cured like rough, worn leather. His black eyes reflected the light from the torches vividly, yet they seemed to possess no intelligence, no will. Aylan knew at once that the thing was a slave, completely under the control of the Vau’kir with no mind of its own. Still, killing it or even getting away from it seemed a large task.
Finally, Aylan mustered the urge to speak.
“What is it that you want with me?” he questioned as loud as he dared.
At first, there was no answer. Uchta grunted and took a few steps back, apparently satisfied that his tying job was complete. A moment passed, then a hooded Vau’Kir appeared in front of Aylan. He did not speak, and as he stared at the bound prince another Vau’kir stepped into the torchlight beside him. Then another, and another.
Soon Aylan was ringed by the black clad, pale faced men, how many he could not say. Finally one of them spoke.
“It is our master that wants something of you,” he hissed.
“Yes, he wants your soul, and the power that will come along with it,” spoke another cold voice.
“Who-who do you speak of?” Aylan asked nervously, testing his bonds as discreetly as possible. Nothing, no room to slip out at all,he thought to himself. That freak Uchta tied these ropes too tight!
“The black dragon of Tel’Aran, of course. With you, he will undoubtedly have the power to tear down Yser’s Wall!” Yet another hooded Vau’Kir spoke, this one from behind Aylan.
“This very night you will become a dread lord, Aylan Rothowar,” explained one of the Vau’Kir. “You will awaken dead yet living, and with the power to slay armies with one sweep of your sword!”
“You will be bound to our lord, and do his bidding across the four worlds!”
“If I awaken with a power such as you say, you will all be the first to perish!” Aylan threatened, trying to regain his composure through his confusion. Dread Lord? What in the hell are they ranting about?
“Only if that is the will of our lord the black dragon,” hissed the closest Vau’kir, his stinking breath blowing hotly across Aylan’s face. “You see, you will not be able to lift a finger without his consent!”
“Oh, but you will be a magnificent sight to behold!” yelled another zealous fool.
“Enough!” The first chilling voice Aylan had heard returned. The prince could see him now, but he was hardly discernible from any of the others. All of them are a bunch of pale-faced, smelly cloak wearing asses,he thought. Oh, if I get a chance-
“We must begin the ritual. Our master is impatient and awaits his new dread lord!” the Vau’kir continued. “Prepare him!”
At that, the nearest Vau’kir reached over to Aylan and ripped his tunic away, leaving him bare from the waist up against the stone pole.
“You could have asked, I would have taken that off,” Aylan remarked snidely. None of the pale faces seemed to pay him any mind, however. They had formed a complete circle around him now, chanting loudly in some unintelligible language. A few moments passed like this, and then one Vau’kir stepped from the ring and kneeled in front of the bound young man. The paleface reached swiftly into his robes and produced a wicked gleaming dagger, sparkling menacingly in the torchlight.
Aylan inhaled sharply as he saw the blade nearing his abdomen, a small attempt to brace himself for what he expected. The blade did not puncture him, however. The Vau’Kir turned the blade over in his hand in one fluid motion and lightly slid the edge of the dagger along Aylan’s stomach.
The blade was so sharp that Aylan felt little pain, but he could see the thin trickles of blood now running down his torso. The Vau’kir did not stop. He cut this way and that, tracing some kind of design across the young man’s torso. Aylan looked down out of curiosity, but could not make out what the hooded figure was carving into him. The blood on his torso was running free now, obscuring the Vau’kir’s handiwork.
All the while, the rest of the Vau’kir stood chanting in the circle surround Aylan. Their voices rose, and as they did Aylan’s head began to swim. Whether it was the loss of blood he was surely suffering, or the lulling song sung by the old wizards, he did not know. He struggled to maintain his wits, inhaling deeply and gritting his teeth. That field of flowers sounds pretty good right about now, he thought.
The voices of the Vau’kir reached a wailing crescendo, and then Aylan’s world changed forever. The old wizard that had been carving on Aylan’s torso stepped back abruptly, and slit his wrists. With the blood now flowing over his decrepit yet skilled hands, he cupped his palms to gather it and used it to wash over his handiwork on Aylan’s midsection. The young man roared in pain. It felt like acid to the prince, eating its way inside his body slowly. The bloody Vau’kir whispered a few words, his eyes burning with intensity, or maybe insanity, and fell away from Aylan. Still the singing continued, their wailing boring incessantly into the poor young man’s brain through his aching ears.
Suddenly, the blood mixing on Aylan’s torso ignited into a bright flame. He screamed in pain yet again, nearly driven insane by the situation. The singing. The blood. The pain. The fire. He just wanted out. Aylan’s head lolled to the side, and he was no longer conscious.
But he was conscious somewhere else now.
“You held on longer than I thought you would.”
Aylan could not see who was speaking. As a matter of fact, he could see nothing whatsoever. There was only blackness about him. He tried to wave a hand in front of his face, and could not even determine if he had done so. He felt, detached.
“I apologize, this must be very confusing and strange for you. Let me, shed a little light on the situation. This might be easier for you to accept if you believe your physical body is here.” Aylan heard the snap of a finger, and the darkness lifted from his surroundings, or actual lack thereof. There was only a man standing in front of him, standing on nothing. There was no floor, no ceiling, no sky, and no ground. Only a man. He was as pale as death, though not bald as the Vau’kir seemed to be. His facial expression was cold and his features sharp, with cheekbones so stark that they could have been chiseled from marble. His long black hair floated about him as though it were weightless. Bare from the waist up, his chest was covered in an intricate tattoo of a menacing black dragon. The sight reminded Aylan of something, and he looked down at his own chest.
“It almost matches, doesn’t it? Yours will be a bit brighter than mine, since it was drawn in blood and burned in.” The man smiled as he gazed upon Aylan, seeming pleased. Aylan noticed that one of his eyes was milky white, with traces of a scar marking the flesh around it. Aylan also noticed something else: he was very afraid of this man.
“Come, do not be afraid.” The man beckoned, and Aylan felt himself involuntarily moving toward the tattooed man, propelled by some intangible force. In moments they were face to face. The pale, long-haired stranger looked Aylan up and down with his good eye, examining him closely.
“You will make an excellent dread lord,” he announced decidedly. “Possibly the most powerful in ages. You see, you should consider yourself lucky. Few men over the centuries have been granted the power you will receive tonight. It is only too bad that it will bemineto wield, not yours.”
Aylan listened, confused yet also enthralled by the man’s presence. He had not even noticed that the man was reaching out to grab him until it was too late. His touch was cold as ice, and Aylan felt as if all the warmth in the entire world had been snuffed out in an instant.
“Do not be scared, little one. This will all be over very soon,” the pale floating entity hissed, smiling wickedly.
Aylan struggled to pull away, but it was no use. He felt as weak as a newborn calf in the clutches of this unknown man. Something was happening, he knew. Something bad. His captor grinned at him like a madman, his one good eye glowing with evil intent.
Then it started. Aylan howled as he felt himself being torn apart. His consciousness itself began to split as the tattooed stranger dug his fingers into Aylan’s flesh. Aylan resisted, not with physical strength, but with his mind. He felt something prying at his thoughts, trying to slash at them, wipe them away. The pain was intense, but Aylan struggled to block it out and fight back. It was too hard, however. And the pale, long-haired man just kept smiling. Smiling so goddamned hard, Aylan thought.
But something went wrong terribly wrong for the tattooed man. Aylan felt himself being yanked inexplicably away from his tormentor. The last thing he saw in the world of blackness was the face of that man contorted in rage. Aylan even thought he heard him scream something, but he was too far away to hear it.
Just as suddenly, Aylan was back in his body, tied to the stone post. He drank in a huge breath of air, shocked at the sudden change. He took a moment to gather himself, to try and shut out the pain his body was feeling. His entire torso was raw and sore, and his head felt as if he had been clubbed. Repeatedly.
What Aylan saw when he regained his wits astonished him. The ritual site was in complete chaos. The Vau’kir were running amok, some screaming, some barking orders at their undead servants. Aylan noticed a few of them lay dead around him, with dark pools of their own blood spreading about them. The prince could hear sounds of battle behind him, but could not turn his neck far enough to see. The best part was, however, no one was paying attention to him any longer.
All right, now’s my chance,he thought. I gotta get these damned bindings off. He took a deep breath, then flexed his muscles and pulled. With a sharp crack, the stone pillar he had been tied to snapped in half and crumbled behind. His bindings fell to pieces, and amazingly enough, he was free. Stunned at the unexpected turn of events, he looked at his own hands in disbelief and shrugged. Should’ve done that earlier, he thought.
“Maridus!” shouted a nearby Vau’kir who had spotted him. “Help us, he is killing us all!”
“Maridus? Who is Maridus?” Aylan queried, turning his head to the side as bit in confusion.
“Oh no,” the pale faced Vau’kir stepped back, his hood dropping off, revealing eyes wide with fright. “Surely you toy with me? Did the soul bonding not complete?”
“No Maridus here,” explained Aylan, already charging at the Vau’kir. He launched one fist to the wizard’s stomach and drew back for a second, but to his astonishment a second blow was far from necessary. The Vau’kir froze in shock, looking down at Aylan’s arm, which had punctured straight through his body. Aylan himself wore a surprised look, though not lined with near the horror the poor Vau’kir’s was.
Well, this changes things, Aylan thought as he scraped the dead Vau’kir from his arm. He looked around the ritual circle for more Vau’kir, now completely intent on using his newfound strength for revenge.
What he found was a man, or maybe a beast, like nothing he had ever seen before. There before him, locked in mortal combat with several of the Vau’kir’s powerful undead slaves was a dragonslayer. Aylan knew what the half man, half dragon was from his early learnings from his tutors. Even in the dim torchlight and the fading light of the moon the dragonslayer’s blue scales shone brightly, reflecting a deadly light from the two razor sharp swords he was swinging skillfully. His eyes shone red as he bore down on his opponents, only to leap away gracefully as another would attempt to flank him. Great leathery wings provided him with stability as he spun about magnificently, dealing death with every swing of his sword.
Although Aylan was not sure the halfdragon needed it, he decided to help. He charged at one of the undead trying to get an angle on the dragonslayer, bowling it to the ground. It was Uchta.
“Hello there, good to see you again,” Aylan quipped, face to face with the monstrous Uchta. The thing only grunted and kicked Aylan off with impressive force. Undaunted, Aylan charged in again, swinging this time. His punch caught the powerful but slow moving undead square in its jaw. Aylan thought he heard something crack, but Uchta only grunted and backhanded Aylan. The blow staggered the prince, but it did not hurt nearly as bad as he had expected.
“Is that all you’ve got, rot face?” Aylan taunted. Rot face? I could’ve done better than that. Maggot breath, maybe? Aylan thought to himself, growing confident in his newfound power.
Uchta just grunted again, and came after Aylan. This time Aylan knocked the big undead off his feet and leapt atop him, immediately swinging down at Uchta’s face. He brought down blow after hammering blow, allowing no moment of respite for the creature. Pieces of leathery, stinking skin began to fly about as Aylan mashed Uchta’s face into an unrecognizable pulp.
When Uchta finally stopped moving, Aylan stopped swinging. He was panting heavily, and his eyes were wide with rage and exhilaration. He stood up, almost forgetting that there were other events transpiring. As good as it felt to let out his frustration in a fight, Aylan knew he would have to pay more attention to his surroundings.
As it turned out, the dragonslayer had finished his fight as well. Aylan saw a few Vau’kir fleeing still, but the halfdragon did not turn to chase them. He had turned his full attention to Aylan. His red eyes flashed angrily, and his head tilted down and to the side slightly, framed majestically by two great, razor sharp horns.
“It is a shame that your minions did not complete your transformation,dread lord.” The being’s voice sounded almost musical to Aylan’s ears, although the words themselves were rather alarming.
“I am no dread lord, nor do I wish to be!” Aylan held his hands up, trying to show he had no ill intent. The dragonslayers had fought on his people’s side long ago, and Aylan had no desire to cross this creature.
“Where is the black dragon that killed my brother?” The dragonslayer was almost roaring now. He was advancing steadily on Aylan, his eyes burning red and his scales shimmering in the torchlight. His two swords gleamed wickedly, both being held at the ready.
“I do not know of any black dragons!” Aylan was backtracking now, preparing to leap away if the dragonslayer were to strike. Suddenly he felt tired, and his torso began to burn again. His will to fight the magnificent halfdragon was not strong.
“Do not lie to me!” the dragonslayer bellowed, breaking into a dead run right at Aylan, his swords poised to strike. The prince, weaponless, dodged to the side and leapt desperately away, attempting to get some breathing room between himself and the crazed dragonslayer.
“You run like a coward and lie like a lowborn thief! Meet your fate like a man, you simpering dragonfriend!” The dragonslayer paused, spitting vehemently.
“I do not wish to fight you.”
“Because you cannot win. Your kind only prefers to strike when the odds are in your favor. Since your kinfolk have perished at my hands and your transfromation appears incomplete, I'd say your chances are slim.”
“I bear you no ill will, dragonslayer. I am not-” Aylan raised his hands defensively, again trying to calm the situation.
“You are who you appear to be, and I will wring the truth from you before this night ends!” The dragonslayer charged angrily, but his swords cut at thin air again as Aylan rolled defensively away.
“Fine, if we must fight, then allow me a weapon,” Aylan challenged.
The dragonslayer grinned. It was a fearsome sight in the flickering torchlight, his sharp teeth glistening and his burgundy eyes narrowing wickedly. “Find one. I grant you pause.”
Aylan eyed the dragonslayer warily and picked his way through the carnage. The Vau'kir only bore ceremonial daggers, and those would not do. He coughed and touched his burning chest absently, then continued to poke around. The giant undead minions, such as Uchta, had carried real weapons, he noticed. He found a large worn maul first, but continued to search.
“My patience is not infinite,” called the dragonslayer, although his voice betrayed a hint of crazed amusement.
Aylan did not respond. He found what he was looking for under the massive body of one of the Damned's slaves. It was a bit larger than what he was used to, but the massive two handed broadsword seemd light as a feather with his newfound strength. The weapon was of a simple make, and strong to boot. The previous owner had taken shit care of it, Aylan noted, eyeing the blade's nicks and marks, but it would have to do. Mindless as those servants seemed,Aylan thought,it's a wonder they could even swing one of these.
All hints of amusement died from the dragonslayers face as Aylan approached, weapon in hand. “I trust you are ready?”
Aylan nodded, steeling himself mentally and trying to evade the questions swirling around his mind. He wanted to focus on one thing and one thing only; survival.
The two met fiercely, blades flashing and colliding in a deadly flurry. To his surprise, Aylan found himself able to keep up with the dragonslayer, although there were no flaws in the halfdragon's swordplay.
“You fight like a nobleman,” the slayer noted amidst their exchange.
“Thank you,” Aylan responded through gritted teeth, parrying another impossibly fast attack.
“It wasn't necessarily a compliment.” With that, the dragonslayer brought down both of his swords in an overhand killing blow. Aylan brought his broadsword up to block in time, but the force shattered his inferior weapon into pieces. He could not twist away in time and one of the slayer's blades dug deep into his right shoulder.
The dragonslayer kicked Aylan to the ground, freeing his blade that was deeply entrenched in the young man's shoulder. Aylan rolled to his left side in agony, grinding his teeth and rolling his eyes. The halfdragon savagely laid a boot to his side, forcing him to lie on his back looking up.
“I would have you see your death coming, dragonfriend,” he stated solemnly, a quiet rage boiling behind his eyes. “I thank you for dying honorably.”
“As you would,” Aylan spat. He drew a ragged breath and stared past the dragonslayer and into the starry night sky. “Send me to the Mother. I tire of this place anyway.”
The dragonslayer stayed his upturned blade, confused by the wretch's last words. With a sigh he turned the blade around struck Aylan across the head with his hilt, rendering the would-be dread lord unconscious. He would have his answers before his vengeance.