As Azure Fades

Estinien Varlineau was quickly discovering the potency of Hannish spirits.

Back when the hunting of dragons consumed his every waking moment, he had seldom partaken of drink. Indeed, he might well have abstained completely were it not for the cajoling of a persistent friend. But having cast off the mantle of Azure Dragoon and taken to the road at the end of the Dragonsong War, he had been surprised to find that he rather looked forward to the reward of a drink in the evening. And this evening, he had met his match in a new variety of liquor. More fire than water, this... Trust an alchemist to concoct such stuff.

He followed his first sip with a strip of dried squid. Supplied by a local fisherman, the savory morsel was the equal of any he had tasted in the Far East. It served to settle the palate, and he dared to drain his cup of the rest of the fiery liquor, its warmth spreading through his body as he reclined in his lavish chamber in Radz-at-Han.

After the exertions of his quest to the very edge of existence, life in the city as the satrap's honored guest suited Estinien well enough. Yet despite the lack of an impending threat, he continued to train as diligently as ever. He had taken up the lance that he might avenge himself upon Nidhogg for the murder of his family, and even having done so, found that a habit formed over a lifetime was not so easily shed.

Thus did an old custom meet a new one, and after Estinien had trained to his satisfaction each day, he permitted himself the indulgence of a drink or two. But given the enthusiasm of the Hannish alchemists, only one was required on this occasion. He had scarcely savored a second strip of dried squid when exhaustion and liquor swept over him like a tide, gentle yet insistent, bearing him away to the land of slumber.

Beyond the veil of consciousness, in the depths of dream, he was fighting a dragon.

The beast roared, and he felt its unbridled rancor as plainly as the stirrings of his own heart thanks to the Eye, the source of the Azure Dragoon's might. He leapt high to avoid his opponent's snapping maw, twisting in midair as he channeled the dread orb's power into his lance. Then, like a blazing meteor hurtling from the heavens, he plummeted back down to the earth.

The lance found its mark, piercing the seam of scales along the dragon's neck and sinking deep into flesh, where it released its energy in a fiery explosion that shattered bone with a telltale crack. Be still.

The great beast howled in agony, thrashing desperately to throw him off, but it could not long sustain the effort. With a final shudder, it collapsed and moved no more.

Another victory, he thought, though he felt neither joy nor relief. Now let us count the cost...

No sooner had he set foot on the ground than the searing pain racked his chest, bringing him to his knees. Worse than expected... While the Eye lent him strength, in harboring Nidhogg's undying malice, it was also slowly corrupting his being. Ere long it would finally consume him, leaving naught but a vessel for the beast's dark will─an untaught truth he knew to his very core.

"Silence, wyrm."

Though little more than a whisper, his voiced defiance served to staunch the pain. But words could not halt the Eye's growing influence. The fits grew more frequent by the day, and more intense. The hour is nigh...

He slumped against the body of his fallen foe and closed his eyes. Just a moment's rest...

He awoke on the floor of an unfamiliar room. Furs laid under him tickled his cheek. Struggling to his elbows, he blinked his surroundings into focus. Battered stools crowded around sturdy tables, and a counter spanned the length of one wall. The lingering scent of charred meat and mulled wine completed the story─this was a tavern.

"Father!" A maiden's voice rang out. "He has awakened!"

The call was answered by pounding footsteps, and a brawny man well into his middle years burst into the room.

"Halone be praised," he said, relief plain in his voice. "How do you feel, Lord Haldrath?"

Estinien's mind reeled for a moment. Oh. This was a dream of the past, and he was experiencing events as Haldrath, one of Ishgard's founding fathers. Together with his sire, King Thordan, he had slain the great wyrm Ratatoskr and later gouged out her brother Nidhogg's eyes, whose power he had harnessed to become the first Azure Dragoon. As these memories rose up, he found he could remember the man regarding him with such worry.

"Ser Aureniquart...?"

"I'm no ser, my lord. Haven't been for a good while," Aureniquart replied with a grin. "Just the keeper of a tavern now, as you can see."

Twenty long years ago, Haldrath had sworn to live out his days in exile as a solitary hunter of dragons. In the course of stopping for supplies in nearby settlements, however, he had learned of Ser Aureniquart de Cordillelot's retirement from service and subsequent purchase of the establishment in which he now found himself. The news that one of their number had chosen a quiet life had come as something of a shock, but to behold his old comrade in his new home, he could not help but feel assured.

"And neither am I a lord, my friend─be it yours or anyone else's. But tell me─how did I come to be here?"

"Berteline, my daughter," Aureniquart replied, gesturing at the dark-haired maiden beside him. "She found you lying next to a dead dragon."

"Father has regaled me with tales of your deeds ever since I was little," said Berteline, her words tumbling out with ill-concealed excitement. "You are an inspiration to me, my lord. Like you, I wish to protect our people from the Dravanian menace."

"She's bent on joining the Temple Knights," Aureniquart interjected with a grunt, "and nothing we say or do will dissuade her. As a matter of fact, she was out training with her lance when she stumbled upon you."

As he gazed at Berteline, Haldrath knew a twinge of sorrow, for in her determined eyes he saw the fire that had once burned in his own. Long since extinguished...

"My first thought was to seek the Temple Knights' aid," Berteline continued, "but you spoke my father's name in your sleep, so I brought you here instead."

"Well, now," Haldrath grinned, "what good fortune to be found by the daughter of an old friend, and not a friend of my fallen foe."

Berteline did not return his smile.

"Begging your pardon, my lord...'twas more than good fortune. A voice led me to you."

"A voice? Whose?"

"I...I do not know," she conceded, frowning in the act of recollection. "But I heard them in my mind, and they sounded like storm winds."

More than good fortune indeed. Haldrath looked to the heavens, thanking the goddess Halone for ordaining this meeting. At long last, he had found the one to whom he might entrust all.

"What you heard," Haldrath began, "was the will of Nidhogg."

So speaking, he laid a hand upon his silver breastplate, where a grotesque object had fused itself: one of the great wyrm's eyes, pulsing with baleful light.

"His eye calls to those who seek power. To corrupt and conquer their minds, that it might be free once more."

"Then...mayhap we should take you to the Temple Knights after all!" Berteline exclaimed, taking a step forward. "The chirurgeons might be able to help you─"

Haldrath stayed her with a raised hand. "'Tis no use, child," he said gently. "It is already joined to my body, armor and all. When Nidhogg could not claim my mind, he turned his attention to my flesh, and he will not be denied. Soon, I will be his puppet."

The revelation stunned both father and daughter into silence. Haldrath allowed them a moment before turning to look his old friend squarely in the eye.

"Ere I cease to be myself, I want you to end it."

Anger flashed across Aureniquart's face. "You've lost your bloody wits if you think I'm going to kill you!" he spat. "Damn you for even asking!"

The erstwhile knight had been wont to betray his lowborn roots in moments of passion, and Haldrath couldn't help but smile to see that the years had done little to change him.

"It is no small thing I ask of you, I know," he continued. "But were I left to become Nidhogg's thrall, I would deliver his prize unto him. And I need not say what would befall should that come to pass."

Shorn though the great wyrm was of his full strength, he and his horde remained a dire threat to Ishgard. Thus did the nation's new ruler, the archbishop, establish the Temple Knights to lead the fight against dragonkind. Bolstered by the noble houses, the order had managed to hold the walls so far, but only barely. If Nidhogg were to reclaim his eyes, he would visit untold devastation upon the Holy See.

"Damn it all... I swore an oath, Haldrath. To you and you alone."

"That you did. And then we made our choice together, when we learned Nidhogg's mind─that he believed mankind weak and unworthy. In order to preserve our sovereignty, we committed the grave sin of betrayal. We chose a path of blood, for ourselves and our children both, and we cannot now turn back. Lo─though you have laid down the sword, your daughter has taken up the lance."

To that, Aureniquart could offer no reply, and so he stood there, jaw clenched, staring at the floor.

Haldrath turned his gaze to Berteline. "To you who would hunt dragons─who did answer Nidhogg's call─I entrust his eyes. As custodian of their power, I charge you with the protection of our people."

Berteline's eyes widened, her lips parting as if to speak, but Haldrath pressed on. Time was running out.

"So long as justice burns in your heart, Nidhogg will never claim your mind─yet your flesh will eventually succumb. Ere it does, you must find another to take up the burden and carry on the fight in your stead. Lest you forget, our enemy is nigh immortal. This war will rage on long after we have returned to dust..."

This much he managed before the pain seized him once more, doubling him over. Somewhere beyond his stifled scream, he heard the cries of father and daughter, desperate to help but with no means to do so─save one.

"Do it, Aureniquart," Haldrath rasped. "If your oath to me was true, I bid you end it now!"

Through the haze of agony, Haldrath saw his old friend take up his faithful lance with trembling hands. The deadly point came to rest at the seam of his breastplate.

But there it stayed, and as Haldrath beheld his old comrade, torment writ plain upon his face, he was struck by the true enormity of his request. He had extended the hand of fellowship to Aureniquart, raising him up from ruffian to knight, and Aureniquart had never forgotten the debt. He had rewarded Haldrath's faith with absolute loyalty, and could no more harm him than he could his own kin.

Cursing himself, Haldrath sought for the words to compel his friend to do that which his heart forbade when Berteline's voice rang out.

"Let me help, Father." And without waiting for an answer, she wrapped her hands around the shaft of the lance, just below her sire's. "The burden of this sin, I shall bear with you."

The pair shared a solemn glance, and Aureniquart nodded with a look that was equal parts sadness and pride. Haldrath managed a smile, in spite of the pain.

"Thank you, my friend, my successor─and farewell. May the bloodshed come to an end one day, and our progeny know peace once more..."

With that, the mighty lance that had slain countless dragons plunged into his chest, impaling his heart and bringing an end to the dream.

Estinien woke with a start. A film of sweat had formed on his brow, and as he wiped it away, his eyes wandered to the fearsome halberd propped in the corner of his chamber─a weapon which bore the name of his nemesis.

Of all the things to show me...

Once upon a time, he had taken both of Nidhogg's eyes in hand and been possessed by the wyrm's vengeful spirit for his trouble. Could it have been the Eye's twin, once embedded in Haldrath's ageless corpse, which had given rise to the vision?

Estinien shook his head. Why waste time wondering when the few who might feasibly know were long dead.

Besides, it's over now. Rising to his feet, he walked to the window and opened it to let in the breeze. It took a thousand years, but we have peace again. Rest well, Haldrath.

Outside, beneath the veil of night, Radz-at-Han shone resplendently at him in all its many colors.