“…not that I’d let that happen, either,” Azael said, careful to keep the monster’s attention focused solely upon him.
The beast charged at the wizard, his fearsome sword vibrant with blue flame. Though Azael had protected himself with one spell, he still avoided the blow and attacked his opponent with another that blinded the devil. As the creature slashed frantically at the air around him, the wizard calmly circled him and spoke.
“I failed you.”
The beast struck toward the sound of his voice, but the wizard was still moving.
“It was nothing less than my youthful arrogance that led us here…to this most dreaded day,” the wizard continued. “I thought I could handle whatever came of all this. That whatever curse those witches had stitched to your soul would, one day, be within my power to quell.”
The creature lunged and struck once more to no avail.
“I should have gone to the Host. I should have swallowed my pride. But, as much as I grew to care for you, your life wasn’t as important to me as my freedom. I never allowed such a thought to enter my head, of course, and would’ve likely denied such a charge. But, ultimately, I always chose my own desires over your safety. I was a selfish fool and, for that, I am so very sorry.”
The beast roared, so focused on his enemy that he was unaware of Darke’s approach.
“My selfishness has lived on each time you have faced me,” Azael admitted. “I could not bring myself to do what must be done. Three times now, I have had the chance to strike you down and each time sought another way. The many lives you have ended since only add to my sorrow and shame. Their blood is on my hands as much as the Dark Queen’s.”
Azael motioned for a spell and the creature’s vision began to clear. The monster swung his blade again and, though he missed his target, it came close enough to the wizard that Azael could feel the heat from its flames.
“My regret, great though it is, will not save you from this moment. This, at long last, is an act of friendship and compassion. If any part of you remains within this beast, my friend, I hope the saints will see you free…that they will not hold my many transgressions against you.”
Azael held out his arms.
“Come for me, now,” he said. “Let this be the end of our tale.”
The beast charged and struck an invisible barrier of magick between him and the object of his great wrath.
“That’s it, old brigand,” the wizard said, unable to look too closely at the monster that had once been his friend. “Stay with me but a moment longer.”
The blow struck by Darke was as clean as any Azael could have hoped for. The sword the wizard had loaned him struck through the beast’s back, past flesh and bone, to pierce the heart. The demon spun and struck Darke with the back of his hand, but it was too late. Dark blood issued from the wound in a great flood and strength left the creature’s limbs.
Darke watched in awe as a light from somewhere within Azael’s sword came radiating out and into the creature. It pulsed through the beast and, before their eyes, changed his appearance to that of a man…a man familiar to the wizard.
“My Captain,” Azael said, kneeling next to the dying man. “What would you ask of me?”
No answer came from the husk of a man left in the demon’s wake. Azael removed the enchanted sword, closed the fatal wound with a spell, and shed a single tear before wiping it on the back of his sleeve.
“Thank you, Darke,” he said just above a whisper. “For doing what I have lacked the will to do.”
“Who was he?” Darke asked. “Before his metamorphosis into that awful creature, I mean.”
“Ven’s father,” the wizard replied. “Thought by her to be long dead.”
“I see,” Darke said. “And he was your friend?”
“For his part.”
“Well, I understand now your sense of urgency. No daughter should see her father like that.”
“Thanks to you, she will not have to.”
“Well, your distraction helped. That’s quite a talent.”
Azael nodded solemnly.
“You should know,” the wizard said, “that the beast was your friend as well, when he was yet a man. You once made him a promise and, today, I believe you kept it.”
“I don’t know this man, Azael.”
“Not yet, no. But you will come to care for him one day soon. In fact, it’s the story in which you first wielded this fine sword. Or so I thought.”
“And you didn’t think any of that worthy of a mention before you had me kill him?”
“Telling you he was your friend might have stayed your hand…as it has stayed mine for so long.”
“I’ve suddenly got a strong desire to punch you in the mouth,” Darke admitted.
“You’re welcome to try. But I’m needed elsewhere and lack the time and patience required to be delicate with you. Never grow so accustomed to having me as an ally that you forget I still have a choice in the matter.”
Azael cleaned the dead man’s blood from his sword and spoke to it.
“Will you not now take your rest, Kara Witchslayer? What you did for him today was grace upon grace. You have more than earned your peace.”
“Are you talking to the sword?” Darke asked.
“Yes. Though it has done me no good. She is determined to remain with me until the end.”
“Me, perhaps,” the wizard said. “Or the dark reign. Whichever is reached first, I would wager.”
“I’m not sure I even want to understand what or who you are talking about.”
“You will, nonetheless.”
“I should go,” Darke said. “Think you can magick me past the gates? I suspect that, given who currently sits upon the throne, the guards aren’t likely to let a strange-looking guy like me inside.”
“I’ll get you to a door,” Azael replied. “But you should know that, given some of our previous encounters, I believe it won’t be long before we meet again in Greyfolk. It was you that saved me from Meri’va’s blade that day. As we’ve managed to meet before that moment, it’s likely that you used this to protect me.”
The wizard handed the traveler a small envelope.
“What is this?” Darke asked.
“A spell for a later time. Consider it a gift from a powerful wizard to his younger, foolish self. When you find yourself in the Forest of Marn, overlooking the port town of Greyfolk, simply rip the envelope and burn it.”
“I may remember some of the theatrics,” Darke argued, “but I’m no wizard.”
“Not anymore, no. But do as I’ve instructed and trust my knack for self-preservation,” Azael said. “Also, you should reach out to the crew of The Sea Drake when next you find yourself in this world. Ven Islen will be with them and the crew has a part to play on that miserable day in Greyfolk.”
“Greyfolk…Greyfolk…I remember reading that one a long time ago. Witches, yes?”
“Demons,” the wizard corrected. He stood and shook the dust from his robe. “Legend only cast them as witches.”
“All offense intended, Azael…I’m not sure I ever want to run across you again much less help you,” Darke said. “You tried to convince me you’ve changed because of whatever happened to you in the Evermore and yet you sent me out to kill a man you claim was my friend. I see no good in that.”
“I never claimed to be good,” Azael said. “I only said I wasn’t evil. There’s a vast space between the two where I have room to thrive.”
“And go on giving people hell?”
“Cheer up,” the wizard said. “When next we meet, you’ll be the one with venom in your tongue. But, once that tale is complete, you’ll come to realize that what we did for our friend today was a great mercy.”
“Just…help me get to a door.”
“I’ll do what I can but, first, there are some other details that you should know.”