Azeas and the leustra

This is a tale featuring Azeas from this story. This time around he's asked to hunt down something entirely different.

Also, Oloi is the country, Oloii is the adjective/genitive.


Azeas of Unn Vergo found himself in the Oloii port of Arstelope one breezy afternoon. The western sky over Mialta was dark and leaden, the threat of a vile storm near at hand. Azeas sat uneasily at his table in the nameless tavern, surrounded by mostly silent Oloii and the odd foreigner such as himself. The beer he was drinking was light-struck and smelled as bad as it tasted. He supped it down stolidly, not wanting to give any observer the impression he was fastidious. A thin Oloii girl slid an earthenware bowl of soup in front of him and departed before he could thank her.

The soup was as stale and lifeless as his beer, but Azeas ate his fill. In the meantime, he kept one eye out at the harbour, watching for the pilot to bring in the ship he was expecting. It would not be far away, he told himself. No captain would want to be at sea with what lurked off the coast. Even now, Azeas caught a scent of the coming storm and the wind picked up in pace.

‘You’re from Real Movier,’ said a voice nearby. It was not a question.

Azeas shifted on his stool to better see the speaker. It was an Oloii sailor, burlier than most of his kin, but still as pallid as a sun-starved people could be. His raiment marked him as a sailor, a rare profession for an Oloii, but the tracery of scars across his face bespoke much experience with violence.

‘Aye. Waiting for the Lovelorn Zeal to make it in,’ Azeas answered, naming a ship he knew would be in Arstelope within the week. Not his target, but enough of an answer for this fellow.

‘Just made a run down from Tilander,’ the man said, offering Azeas a tabacit. ‘Was hoping to keep going south, perhaps around to Tosban.’ He gestured at the empty plate before him. ‘But this is as far as I got. Here in this rheumy hole.’

Azeas cracked a grin. ‘Not a friend of Arstelope’s?’

‘If it weren’t for trade with the world, none of my people would even piss in this direction.’ He held out a large, calloused hand. ‘Name’s Sydro.’

‘Azeas.’

There came a rhythmic thudding from outside and Azeas suppressed a shiver. He forgot about the Oloii sailor momentarily as one of Oloi’s famous automatons strode into view along the dockside road. Twice as tall as Azeas it stood, an enchanted creation of iron and crystal in the rough shape of a man. Two pale yellow lights viewed the world from a squat cylindrical head. That head rotated slightly, and Azeas felt the full brunt of those unearthly eyes. The automaton did not break its stride and after a second where Azeas’s heart stopped, it walked out of view.

‘Legend says the anima of condemned men power them,’ Sydro said from behind him.

Azeas, who had heard the same fable, only nodded.

‘Someone important must be afoot if one of those is here,’ Sydro said. The big sailor rose from his seat and joined Azeas at his own table. ‘They’d give a fetch from the Khuyor the creeps.’

‘That they would,’ Azeas murmured. His attention was drawn to the glow of lightning in the dark clouds over Mialta. ‘Rare to get storms in these parts, no?’

‘You must’ve brought them up with you,’ Sydro jocularly suggested. ‘Don’t like the wind that’s in that, but we could use the rain. Look yonder! It’s a ship flying Real Movier colours. She’s making a spanking pace too.’

To be sure, a galleon of moderate size was cruising into Arstelope’s wide harbour, turning slowly to starboard as to come alongside a pier. Azeas watched her with curiosity. This was the Brazen Mora, a vessel he knew to be captained by the renegade Zalkorth, the man he was in Arstelope to punish. Zalkorth had stolen something priceless belonging to Azeas’s pay-mistress, the Archon Sisbana of Real Movier and Azeas was under orders to return it. He had received no specific instruction as to what it was that was stolen. Indeed, the Archon had merely stated that Azeas would know it when he saw it.

That cryptic order puzzled Azeas somewhat, as he was accustomed to receiving precise commands from his liege. Much of his time sequestered here in Arstelope had been devoted to musing over exactly what it was he was going to find on Captain Zalkorth’s ship.

‘Do you know this ship at all?’ Sydro asked, interrupting Azeas’s thinking.

‘The Brazen Mora. She runs up and down the coast, probably as north as Tilander, maybe farther. I know she’s done the run to Huuna.’

‘I think she’s just in from Real Movier,’ Sydro said. Something in how Sydro said that gave Azeas much pause and his counter-espionage instincts kicked in. He gave his head a nonchalant shake and kept an eye on Sydro while the Brazen Mora eased in to the pier. The water of Mialta was getting choppier and more treacherous with every passing moment.

To add to Azeas’s unease, the automaton strode back in to view, setting the crockery in the inn rattling. Its lambent eyes were fixed on the approaching ship but it kept moving inexorably, as if nothing short of the godly could break its stride.

Sydro excused himself and went out of the inn. Azeas watched him carefully, suspecting many things about the man. He had been in the subterfuge business for too long to assume any passing stranger was merely harmless.

The Brazen Mora had berthed by the time the sky unleashed its fury. There was a bout of hurried activity on deck as hatches were shut against the downpour. Azeas spotted his prey immediately. Captain Zalkorth was a large burly yet pale man, a denizen of the far northern land of Orlanda. He had served Real Movier for many years and faithfully until recently. Azeas was not privy to why this trust had foundered and it didn’t matter. There was something that was stolen and he must retrieve it.

From the cover of the tavern’s awnings Azeas covertly observed the ship, marking the movements of each sailor. Getting on board the ship would be a simple task as nobody actively guarded it. Azeas was still discomfited by the automaton but it was gone from the dockside and he could not hear its thudding walk. Perhaps it had left Arstelope and was climbing the high pass eastward into Oloi proper.

The man Sydro was nowhere in sight either.

Azeas spent a further half hour watching the ship from the shadows before he sensed the opportune moment was upon him. The docks were nearly deserted in the rain by now and he huddled as he crossed the open space between the tavern and the berth where the Brazen Mora was moored. It was dark now, partly from the hour of the day but mostly from the intensity of the storm overhead. Azeas loosened his knives and padded across the age-worn timbers of the wharf to the gangplank. With nobody to challenge him, he crept on board and found himself on the main deck. The sound of carousing came from the forecastle and a wan light showed through a thick glass window. Azeas ignored that and sought the way below deck.

A narrow door set into the forecastle wall led downward and Azeas descended, squinting as he did as there was no light. Twice he nearly lost his footing as the ship was buffeted by strong winds. He discovered the bottom of the stairs rather than saw them. There he squatted and waited for his eyes to adjust to the gloom.

A soft light coming from somewhere. Azeas edged his way among bales and crates in search of its source. Strangely, it was not the wavering glow of a lantern but a steady pale light, like that coming from the sun on a sad, cloudy day. Another wind blast rocked the ship and Azeas was thrown against a bale. He got to his feet, silently cursing. He chided himself for paying too much undue attention to the light and not enough to his environs. He noticed now that there was only one available exit to the hold and that was the way he came in. The hatch above was sealed from the outside. If he had to escape, it would be a close-run thing.

The light had not changed and now he thought to hear a faint singing or crooning. Curious, Azeas crept through the goods until the source of the light was in plain sight. There he stood stock-still, his mouth agape in bewildered wonder.

In an open space there stood a tall, finely-wrought cage the shape and cast of an elaborate birdcage. Within this stood a luminescent humanoid that would have struggled to reach Azeas’s waist even at full height. Completely bereft of clothes it was and it was standing at angle to Azeas, small hands folded across a flat stomach. It was a female from her shape, her bald head tilted back and eyes closed. It from her that the indistinct singing was coming from.

Azeas stood a moment longer goggling at this small wonder before stepping into her line of sight. She opened her eyes slowly and the small head swung around to face her visitor. Her pupil-less eyes, in contrast to the lambent yellowish hue of her skin, were large and the irises a deep brown.

‘It’s the Archon’s hunter,’ she said, her voice high-pitched and oddly sibilant.

‘You’re what I was asked to retrieve? You?’

‘So you would take me back to the Archon, who views me as a signal part of her oddity collection?’

‘It’s what I was tasked to do.’ Azeas stepped closer to the cage. Someone had placed a ewer of water and a bowl of hard biscuits inside her cage. The biscuits had not been touched. ‘What are you?’

‘I’m the last of my kind.’ She smiled, her teeth large and luminous like her skin. ‘Which tells you nothing, I know but I have been a prisoner of Archon Sisbana for many years. She treats me well but I am a prisoner still.’

‘I am to take you back to her.’

‘Have you dealt with men who took me from her collection?’

‘I will do so as soon as I secure you.’

The creature came up to the cage and stared at Azeas plaintively. ‘If you free me I can tell you many secrets, some of which will fulfil almost all your desires.’

Azeas blinked and pulled himself away from this astounding being. ‘Almost all? I’ve heard such inducements before. What are you? Some kind of Hjoll-demon or spawn?’

Strange creature she may be but she did the purely human gesture of putting her hands on her hips. ‘I am some kind of neither. If you must know, hunter, I am a leustra. How much does Archon Sisbana pay you? The secrets I hold will make you rich for life, never needing to scrabble for food and drink again.’

There was a noise from the stairs and Azeas gave a start. He unsheathed a knife and went to stand on the far side of the cage, his heart thumping.

Sydro came into view soon after, the geniality on his face gone. Azeas concealed himself behind a crate.

‘There you are,’ Sydro said. For an instant Azeas thought he was the target of that declaration but it was the creature instead. ‘You are what the Chieftain has spent many a year in pursuit of.’ Azeas heard the heavier man’s footfalls as Sydro circled the cage. ‘What an odd thing you are. Dainty and petite. Your animus will power the greatest automaton this world has ever seen. Let Oloi’s enemies tremble! Let Nae perish!’ There was a deep, unctuous chuckle that made Azeas’s skin crawl.

So, that was to be her fate. The fuel that fired Oloi’s terrible machines of death. Azeas mentally debated over one course of action after the other before coming to a decision. Deftly, he crept around the corner of the crate and plunged the knife deep into Sydro’s neck. The larger man gave a startled roar of pain then fell to the floor, his life’s blood escaping from the wound. He was dead not longer after that. Azeas retrieved his knife and then regarded the creature, who was standing still watching him, her expression unreadable.

He examined the lock on the cage and his eyes widened in surprise. ‘Chon’s balls, but this is all rhodium! A fortune in rhodium metal.’ He glanced at the creature. ‘Are you a sorcerer of some variety?’

‘More than that, I am a being of magic itself. Did you kill that man to free me? If so, then release me. I will reward you.’

Azeas worked on the lock which presented his abilities with a middling challenge. Soon he had it open and the door to the cage swung wide. The leustra stepped through and beamed a smile at him.

‘I wonder if your Archon thought this through,’ she said. ‘How would you have gotten me, cage and all, back to Real Movier?’

‘I would’ve managed,’ Azeas said, though his tone was redolent with doubt.

‘You never would have made it past the automatons that haunt this cold land.’

‘What are you suggesting?’

‘That your beloved Archon set you up to fail. I suspect strongly that you were never meant to survive this jaunt. Think on this.’

Azeas shrugged. ‘I’ve served the Archon for years and faithfully.’

‘So have dozens of others. You are neither unique nor special.’

She giggled girlishly and then took one of Azeas’s hands. He recoiled as a strange jolt juddered through his body. ‘I said I would reward you and I will.’

Azeas tried to remove his hand from hers but found her grasp surprisingly strong. ‘I fear your reward might be more than I am willing to deal with.’

‘I think not. Let us be away.’

Moments later, they were somewhere else. The twilit sky was both dark blue and clear, and the air colder and drier. Before them rose a stone structure both massive and dilapidated, its once-proud walls and columns eroded by the merciless action of wind and sand. Tumbled stones and buildings lay scattered around its periphery, all half-buried in bright yellow sand.

A breeze blew across Azeas’s face bringing with it hints of the desert.

The leustra had relinquished his hand and was walking slowly toward the great ruin. Azeas mentally remarked on how incongruous this luminous creature appeared among the detritus of the ages. He had never seen anything more out of place.

‘Where are we? What it this place?’

‘We are on a high mountain in the Jagged Fangs, those mountains that bisect the Khuyor Desert. This ancient edifice was the high seat of the Conglomerate in its heyday.’

‘The Conglomerate?’

‘A nation that perished millennia ago.’

‘I’ve never heard of it.’

‘It’d be strange if you had. It is rare to find a student of history in modern lands.’ She looked over her shoulder at the stationary Azeas, who was still taking his new location in. ‘Go within. There’s much for you to find. Call me when you are ready to leave. You will know how.’ There was a final smile and with that, she vanished. Azeas gaped at the vacant air before him and let out a huge sigh.

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