Voidwalker: Chapter Three, p6

Aziz hummed to himself as he strolled along the road. He wasn’t just in a good mood, he was happy. He had purpose again; a clear goal, something beyond just daily life, and he was out on the road instead of being cooped up in some frontier backwater. All around him the world seemed more alive, too.

Birds soaring high in the clear blue sky. All around him the rustling green ocean of grasslands, dotted with vibrant bursts of colourful flowers and island copses of trees. And the wind- Oh, how good it felt to have a warm wind rushing past him! One of the few things he remembered fondly from life in the Sultanate was the feeling of winds bringing relief from the scorching heat.

The Ireha had called him mamluq. Aziz tried to imagine himself as a knight, then chuckled to himself at the thought. She’d not been entirely wrong; he had been a soldier among the ghilman at one point, which was the source for his more vivid memories of wind. A particularly common motif among those memories was that of rushing into battle amidst the stinging sands of a haboob, though rarely were they natural and more often than not summoned by his side.

Feeling his mood darken, Aziz turned his attention to the landscape around him. Rolling hills and peaceful farmlands flanked the busy road he was walking, with the occasional farmstead visible in the distance. The scents of freshly tilled fields intermingled with those of other crops awaiting harvest, while insects buzzed in the late midday sun.

***

“Come now, magistrate,” the woman cooed in her relentless attempt to wear Aziz down. “Surely you can see the benefits of replacing that worn out old axe of yours with something-”

“No.” Aziz stopped, scowling as he watched her halt her wagon and turn her fake smile on him again.

He fingered the tiny brooch denoting his rank. He had completely forgotten he was wearing it until the halfling addressed him by rank just now.

“But surely you can see the quality of my merch-”

“I’m not buying.” Aziz’ scowl deepened as he attempted to stare her down.

“Does that ever work?” She didn’t bother waiting for a reply. “With all this talk about war, you need a proper weapon to defend yourself. What if someone mistakes you for a Sollim spy? Or one of them ‘maim lucks’ thinks you a traitor or escaped slave?”

“Look, lady, yer weapons are too small for my hands. I get it, yer guild fees are due and yer trying to get sales where ye can to help earn ye a promotion, but pestering random travelers ain’t gonna help.”

The merchant looked rather crestfallen for a few moments, chewing her lip and attempting to play on his sympathy. Finding it didn’t work, she tried a different tack. “Fine, but at least let me sharpen your axe. It has got a few notches too many, and certainly-”

“Fine.” Aziz tossed her the axe and started walking again. “But ye’d better keep up while ye work, or yer doing it for free.”

Rather than protest the difficulty of such a task, she set her wagon rolling and then climbed into the back. The sickeningly sweet smell of her perfume remained in the air even after she had disappeared into the wagon, so Aziz opted to step over the roadside ditch and walk in the grass just to get away from it.

He eyed her cautiously through the open side as they continued, grateful that the Royal Guild did such a fine job maintaining the major roads. One sudden jolt of the wagon and his axe would be ruined. She worked with a practiced ease suggesting it was not the first time she had done this sort of thing while on a moving wagon, and Aziz soon returned to watching the countryside.

They continued in silence until the woman eventually climbed back out and handed him his axe. Grudgingly Aziz had to admit to himself that she had done quality work, especially under the circumstances.

“Alright,” he handed over the coin for her work, including a little extra. “Ye earned yer pay, lass.”

“Thanks!” She beamed him a genuine smile.

Aziz grunted awkwardly, then nodded and picked up his pace. With luck he’d reach the Savage Petal by nightfall, one of the few inns with beds his size he’d stayed at during his and Ky’s trip to Raven’s Nest.

***

Walking along a pasture full of cattle, the stench of fresh manure recalled to Aziz one of his previous adventures with Ky. They had been investigating a series of thefts and kidnappings in the city, together with the man now known as Shadow.

A series of clues had led the trio into the sewers, and there they had encountered the self-proclaimed Sewer King. Something felt off about the title… Hadn’t he used a different one? King of Bugs? Roach Lord? Roach King!

A shudder ran down Aziz’ spine as he remembered the Roach King’s court. The “King” had turned out to be a minor mage with an unhealthy obsession for bugs. One who had used his magic to warp his kidnapped victims into creatures more insect than person.

The vile wretch hadn’t stood a chance. The “King’s” spells had been warded off by Aziz’ tattoo, shortly before Aziz’ charge had slammed the mage against a wall and crushed him like the insect he sought to be. Ky had used the man’s notes to do the best he could to save the “courtiers” but in the end most needed more than his meager magical skills could achieve, and even among those Ky could reverse some had been driven mad by the experience.

Aziz sighed to himself. Ky’s magical skills had never been deep, so it had been no surprise that he knew nothing about whatever was going on around Wyrm’s Edge. How could he? It would be like expecting a ghulam to serve as a general. For all the Roach King’s twisted ideas, he hadn’t been a master wizard. Even Ky had considered his work crude and simplistic.

This new threat, the one responsible for the disappearing crops… This was on a different level entirely. Throughout his cursedly long life, Aziz had never seen or even heard of anything quite like it. There was no shortage of magic in the world, but rare was the time it was so powerful.

The only ‘recent’ event with magic as potent that Aziz knew of was that of the Vanished King, but that had been almost a century ago and far removed from Wyrm’s Wood. While the same person would hardly be responsible for both, it was an unpleasant possibility that someone might have figured out the secrets. And were now honing their craft against the defenseless villagers of the Edge.

Aziz scoffed. Magic was no more than a tool, and as such relied entirely on the skill of the wielder. Whoever that was, no matter their skill, Ky and Aziz would find them and stop them. Just as they had done with the Roach King.

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