Old Friends

This is the introduction chapter of one of the main protagonists in The Tree of Dreams, Aban.

This work is copyrighted 2013 by Nathan Washor. All rights reserved.

Aban’s considerable bulk was masked by the narrow alley’s shadows. He lowered his head to the ground to study the ruined metal grate. Its thick iron bars looked as though they had been cut by something very hot. Their melted tips protruded about an inch creating a large hole through which almost anyone could pass. Aban rubbed a tentacle over a severed prong and held up a glass vial with a tiny jellyfish bobbing within. He gave the flask two quick shakes. In response the creature lit up with a bright blue glow. Under the expelled light Aban looked at his tentacle inspecting for rust. He found none, the cut was fresh. He squeezed his massive frame through the grate into the sewers below.

He landed in a crouch, his hands and feet splashing in a shallow runnel of waste from the city above. The water barely crested his naked toes and although it wasn’t drinkable, the smell could have been much worse. Aban breathed in surprised relief when he realized the upper crust of Krasnyi must have their filth carted and dumped in the slums’ sewers.

There was only one way to go. He clutched the jelly lamp high with one of his tentacles. Its light extended far illuminating a long tubular corridor. Aban waddled forward, his feet and hands quietly slipping forward as he crawled. He held his other four tentacles free of the filth not wanting to get unnecessarily fouled. After half a league the first man-sized connection joined with his tunnel.

Before approaching the intersection, Aban slipped the jelly lamp inside his tunic extinguishing its light. He approached silently, probing with his tentacles for any clue of Sindar’s passing or a trap he may have set. It wouldn’t be the first trap Aban discovered that could have proved fatal. As he approached the corner of the adjacent tunnel, he heard a clatter of metal on stone followed by two cries of surprise. He withdrew his kukris holding one in each hand and turned the corner to confront the commotion.

Two human men, Aban figured most likely Wealdish by their size, struggled with a monstrous snake. It coiled about the farther man’s waist. The free man, seeing struggle was pointless, nearly slammed into Aban’s form as he turned to abandon his friend. His metal oil lantern clanged on the floor and almost went out after being dropped in shock. Another lantern lay snuffed next to the serpent’s body. Two blurs of Aban’s kukris were nearly invisible as they separated chunks of the snake from the trapped man’s torso.

“Another t-t-toad.” The reeling man stuttered as he looked up in horror at Aban.

“I, am not, a toad,” Aban wheezed from the sudden exertion. After a few more breaths, his breathing steadied. He said, “I am a negroil. I am here looking. Looking for another. Another like me. You said another. You have seen another? Tell me. How long ago? Where?” Aban’s stare held the man fixed in place. The coward seemed to lose all senses, able to reply only in stammers. Aban snapped his mouth open and shut and croaked, “Listen! Answer me. Time is short.”

The man, startled by Aban’s flashing teeth, sobered up. He replied, “Yes, this, this morning. I, we saw it, him, she.” The man seemed to falter, not wanting to offend this creature that could so quickly end his life. When no provocative action was taken, the man continued, “Apologies if I offend…” The man paused, unsure of how to address the toad-beast in front of him. “Sir?” He added.

“My name… Aban. Continue please. Where was he?” Aban asked in a grating croak.

The other man, now clearly recovered from having his life nearly squeezed from him, answered for his terrified friend. “Sir, we see’d him. Yes, we did. We see’d him this morning, yes we did. Aaron and I see’d him near the slum pits we did sir. We can take you there sir. Take you there sir, we go. Come sir, follow Jarek, we take you,” The simple man stooped down, grabbed and re-lit his lantern with the twist of a switch, and ran down the hall with Aaron in tow who was too fearful to be left alone.

Aban followed the pair along winding corridors and down steep stairways until Jarek grabbed Aaron by the shoulder and hissed, “Jarek, you bear-brained fool. I don’t think our master here wishes us to alert his friend. We should let him go alone from here.”

Only a stairway back, Aban had noticed a faint wind pulling him forward. Here, the wind was stronger and an audible roar could be heard ahead in the distance. Aban knew he was close.

Jarek said, “Right, right. You so smart Aaron. That’s why you is the leader, it is.” Then Jarek screamed as Aaron’s head toppled forward.

Aban croaked, “I am sorry.” Mercifully, he did not give the child-like man time to truly understand what was happening. He quickly decapitated him in the same manner as Aaron, sighed sadly and hopped onward.

Aban turned a corner. An intense heat washed over him from the mouth of a cavern less than a stone’s throw away while the howling wind he’d been following sucked him onward. An ancient stone bridge crossed a dark lake connecting the tunnel to an island. At its center a great column of fire was devouring a huge pile of refuse. The flame’s light reflected off still waters illuminating giant stalactites poised overhead as if aiming to bring down the whole cave’s weight on those within. The city’s trash was collected and incinerated here, though never were the flames so greedy in their voracity. Most of the smoke poured up and out through pits in Krasnyi’s slums. Still, a choking haze hung low and thick enough to burn Aban’s windpipe even as he remained in the hallway. Standing in front of the great pyre and commanding it was Sindar. There was no mistaking the other negroil even from this distance.

All five of Sindar’s tentacles were raised in the air tracing patterns of command as he stared upwards, a look of determination etched in the squint of his eyes. His left hand held straight forward the silvery rod those of his order require to focus their energy in the casting of flame and metal. His right moved like a child feverishly digging in the sand, seemingly directing the base of the fiery tornado as the monstrosity danced in similar fashion.

Aban drew shadows about himself, making his form impervious to the light flooding the entry into the chamber. Wary of his quarry siting him, Aban crept forward onto the old bridge probing with both his tentacles and shadows for the inklings of the trap he knew Sindar would have placed to warn him of any intruders. The stones beneath him burned with absorbed heat. Aban knew he’d need to reconsider his slow approach across the expanse. He hopped forward, but as he landed the stones beneath his bulk screamed in protest. Together, they fell away into the waters below.

Surfacing, Aban heard Sindar bellow, “Aban, old friend! There is no sense denying. I know it is you who joined me here. Only one so fat as you could have smashed through those stones I weakened so cleanly.” He chuckled and added, “You took down half the bridge, Aban! And besides, I’ve known you’ve been following me for quite some time, old friend.”

Old friend. Indeed the two were old friends, but only in the sense they were friends a long while ago. Different choices on life’s journeys brought the two to very different destinations. Those decisions shaped who they had now become. Sindar’s path was often found delving into the darkest regions of the world. Aban now pitied his childhood playmate for the task he was set on more than three years earlier. Aban had been sent to kill Sindar.

His high pitched croak sounded almost sickly. With sucking shallow breaths Aban responded as the illusory magic he commanded threw his voice in all directions. “Oh Sindar. You have fallen so far. Yes. My body is fat. My movements slow. My voice winded. But don’t underestimate. My spirit. Or my body. They are powerful. I regret. Regret I could not spare. Spare you the knowledge. The knowledge of your impending death. I wished you that last mercy.” He eyed Sindar from the concealing depths.

A chortling croak erupted from Sindar’s thick lips. “Aban, old friend. Must we war? We were spawn brothers. I would have you an ally, not another victim of our masters’ wills. Throw aside your delusions. Join me. I will show…”

Aban cut him off. “Show me Sindar? Tell me lies? Feed me poison? Throw my flesh to Yrdel? Like you did to Khalil? No. Old friend. You know why. Why I have tracked you. Tracked across nations.” Aban dove beneath the surface. An enraged Sindar bent the column of fire over on itself to churn and burn the waters where he had been hiding only moments earlier.

Aban’s massive legs kicked as his powerful arms pulled. The giant webs on both thrust him far from the hellish cauldron that section of the lake had become. Sindar’s fury was relentless. He cast the flame across the waters all around the island. The bowed jet carved furrows into the surface leaving a boiling wake as it passed. If Sindar were allowed to keep torching the water, Aban would be cooked alive.

Aban swam deep below the passing flame. He came up silently and quickly swam to the island’s shore. The ripples would give away his location, but Sindar’s back was turned. Aban’s magic muffled his noise as he remained shrouded in shadow, all light passing right through him. He crouched on the trash strewn soil a mere three hops from Sindar. He unsheathed the khanjar his masters entrusted to him for this purpose only and leaped.

Something warned Sindar of his presence. He whipped around, just as Aban had closed in for the kill. The tower of flame lashed Aban’s leg, burning skin and muscle, charring bone. Aban spasmed. The artifact fell free of his hand to fall useless at Sindar’s feet as agony racked his body.

Sindar shuffled back in shock. He looked down at the blade. Crafted of violentium, sheer ribbons of purple danced just below the dull-silvery surface. Realization dawned. Sindar grinned savagely at the sight of his old friend twisting in agony at his feet. Two flicks of the flame and Aban lay motionless. “Old friend.” Sindar said with only a hint of remorse. He crouched down, gathered up the blade and its sheath off of Aban’s corpse. Sindar turned back to his task, searching through the pile of refuse, for something.

* * *

Aban awoke. He was shackled in chains. His leg throbbed, his back burned, his left eye was blinded. He looked about with his good eye, but saw nothing more than shadowy outlines. A small square room, a shallow puddle of water pooled in the low corner. No, not water. Ordure and urine by the rank smell of it. The pain was too much. He blacked out.

“Wake friend. We have some questions for you.” The velvety voice lulled him from his fevered dreams. A torch now sputtered in the far corner by the room’s only entry, a heavy wooden door with a small barred window. A man stood near in crimson robes, head cast in the shadows of his cowl. “Yes. That’s right. Wake up now. We would like to know who you are and how you came to inhabit our sewers.” The man asked Aban as he slowly came awake.

Aban’s body agonized, his leg most of all. He tried to make out his injuries, but the shackles held him tightly. Straining against his bonds only resulted in increased pain that was just too much to bear. Aban looked at his captor, finally understanding his situation. He had failed. Sindar was gone and now he lay in some rank dungeon beneath the Rhokian capital city of Krasnyi. Worse, the labyrinthine tattoos snaking over the hooded man’s exposed hands marked him as a seer – the bane of his own order, the illusionists.

The seer said, “I can ease your suffering, but you need to first tell me who you are.” The man’s voice seemed to pull at Aban’s very nature. He wanted to tell this man the truth, and all of it. From when he and Sindar were children to the day his masters tasked him to track and slay the renegade negroil. Aban knew this was sorcery tugging at him, imploring the truth free itself from his mouth, but there was nothing he could do. Resistance was hopeless. He was trapped, bound, and unable to control his umbra. He had no defense save his own willpower and that was so weak. The honeyed words worked their magic.

He said, “My name is Aban.” With those words, the truth flew from his mouth in a torrent.

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