Aza woke up to the groaning of shifting ice.
He was cold, he realised groggily, flexing his numb fingers as he forced his eyes open. Frost clung to his thick eyelashes and cast everything in a strange blurriness until he blinked the little ice-flakes away. Deep, pale blue loomed over him, churned up snow ilms from his nose, his shuddering breaths rising as a cloud of white. He took a moment to just breathe.
He had no idea where he was or what happened.
Gingerly, he shifted his arm to press his gloved hand flat against the floor, groaning in pain when the muscles in his shoulder felt like they were pulling taut over razor wire. Dark spots wobbled in his vision, but he gritted his teeth and took that pain, teasing it into energy-giving aether and pushed himself up-
And almost seized from the white-hot agony that ripped through his side the second he lifted an ilm off the floor. Something had- oh, fuck. He felt something tear, and he just- he collapsed, panting and gasping like a beached fish, wet warmth blossoming at that white-hot pain spot. He had to- he had to, not. Not think. He took that pain and breathed and breathed and breathed until the bile stopped trying to rise in his throat and his head stopped spinning nauseously. His vision was all blurry again, his cheeks wet as he shook violently from the shock of that pain.
Oh, fuck, a part of his brain was squeaking, oh fuck, that had hurt. That had hurt.
He didn’t know how long he stayed like that. Eventually the shaking stopped, and he choked out short, wet gasps as he made himself roll onto his back. The ripping sensation didn’t happen again, but… oh Gods, he felt like he was going to puke, his side alight with a cold, burning ache. Above him, he saw… ice. Broken chunks and pillars of ice, all collapsed in a precariously balanced heap a scant few fulms above him, not even high enough for him to stand up. All the air left his lungs when he saw it, realising that was the groaning thing. The ice above him, looking one stiff breeze away from collapsing and crushing him beneath unyielding, solid permafrost.
Aza picked up that moment of terrified realisation, boxed it up, and put it in the corner of his mind to deal with never. He painfully moved his head to the side, saw that was lying in some kind of… ravine? A hole? He didn’t know, but the wall next to him was dark, frosty granite, and when he turned his head the other way, he saw where a massive chunk of ice had pierced the snowy floor, acting as a makeshift, cracked pillar for the ice creaking above him. There was a gap wide enough for a Miqo’te to squirm through.
It looked as if… right, he’d been in Coerthas, near Witchdrop. There was an emergency, a… a King Behemoth? Emmanellain had been… with cannons and… it was like a gaping, black hole in his memory. He couldn’t quite remember…
Not important, survival instincts said in Fray’s voice, it doesn’t matter how this happened. Figure out how you can get out.
Right. He needed mobility.
Despite this determined conclusion he didn’t immediately move. The pain was so intense that he had to build himself up to it, breathing deep and slow and flexing his fingers and tensing his muscles, feeling where all the pain hotspots were (everywhere), feeling which way felt easier to move (neither), preparing himself for the burst of agony (difficult). After ten minutes where he dithered and procrastinated and tried not to throw up and then pass out, he tried propping himself up on his… ‘okayish’ elbow.
It hurt like fuck.
He swallowed the sob that almost left him, biting down on his tongue as he forced himself up and looked down to see- his side, split open. Something sharp (-King Behemoth’s horn catching edge of his gambeson, spurt of bright red as it gored through his side, fuck-) had torn through him, and the wound had frozen. He could see the glitter of ice where the blood had frosted over into some ugly, frozen scab, the gambeson fused into it like some makeshift seal. A thick dribble of bright red pushed past it all though, and next to him he could see the dark brown patch on the snowy ground. He must’ve… the wound must’ve frozen to the snow beneath him. Oh, Gods, he was lucky he hadn’t torn the whole scab off when he moved. No doubt he would’ve bled out or passed out again and then died of hypothermia or something equally stupid.
Everything else, though… it all seemed intact. His left leg was broken, he could tell at a glance, and his left hip was… just agony. He didn’t even dare try to touch or move it. Every inhale brought stabbing pains against every rib and even his sternum shifted weirdly. He gingerly lowered himself on his back, a whimper catching in the back of his throat even every nerve just lit up. Pain was power, suffering was strength, but this was… this was just broken. Everything felt broken. He had a fleeting, desperate idea of maybe bullying himself to try and slither out of here but, Gods, he doubted he could even crawl anywhere, let alone climb through those narrow gaps in the ice.
Above him the ice creaked, tiny chips dusting down. It was all shifting, and Aza knew it was only a matter of time before his pocket crumbled in on itself. He couldn’t just lie here, hoping for rescue. Teleporting was out too, as the pain was so absolute he couldn’t even try to focus on the spell – not even getting into the dangerously low levels of his aether. What little fumes he had left was fuelling Living Dead keeping him conscious and semi-alert. No, he needed to move.
He tried to do that.
Aza passed out from the pain after crawling exactly one ilm.
“The Lord Commander is going to kill me.”
Emmanellain whispered this under his breath as he anxiously wrung his hands, taut as a stressed bowstring. His knights were bustling around him, equally worried and grim, as they began setting up a rope pulley system to try and traverse the massive crater the King Behemoth and Aza left behind during their epic battle on Witchdrop.
The entire cliff shelf had collapsed in on itself after one too many Meteor spells barraged the frozen earth. Emmanellain had witnessed the entire thing from a ridgeline quarter a malm away from the battlefield, commanding his knights to launch cannon fire and ballistae shots at the King Behemoth in support of Aza. The way his stomach had dropped when the entirety of Witchdrop had splintered apart and crumbled… Aza had disappeared from all the ice and stone that collapsed into the now gaping ravine, and the King Behemoth had howled in rage as it followed him. Hopefully the fall killed it… but if it had, then Aza’s prospects were… well.
Emmanellain felt a cold sweat bead his brow at the thought of dragging himself to Ishgard, to present himself to Ser Aymeric and tell him that he failed to keep Aza safe. That the Warrior of Light had died by being crushed to death under ice and snow and a possible King Behemoth carcass after plummeting over one hundred fulms. Oh, Gods, there was no way he could survive, was there? No one survived Witchdrop! It was why they used to throw people off it!
Halone help him. He was going to have to fish Aza’s corpse out of there, and it was going to be all mangled and… Emmanellain felt queasy at the thought, remembering the bodies that he had the misfortune to see after they were tossed from Witchdrop. The Holy See used to parade them as ‘Devout Martyrs’ who proved their loyalty and piety by leaping from Witchdrop and into Halone’s Halls. But, really, they had been thinly veiled warnings, that this was the fate of all who didn’t stay in line, who doubted the wisdom of the Holy See. It didn’t happen anymore, but those mangled, crushed corpses still gave Emmanellain nightmares to this day.
I cannot be cruel enough to show Ser Aymeric that… he thought gloomily, but he also knew Ser Aymeric wouldn’t accept that he was dead without proof. He would have to find a body at least, even if it meant traversing the creaking ice-trap that Witchdrop had become.
“Lord Emmanellain,” a low, smooth voice interrupted his spiralling thoughts, and Emmanellain turned to it.
It was Ser Basile, who was born into the branch family of House Dzemael. They were all highly encouraged to join the builder’s guild to perpetuate Dzemael’s superiority in stonework and architecture, but Basile was considered a bit of a black sheep in his family and pushed to join the Dragoons. Emmanellain knew that if Basile hadn’t been incredibly talented at it, Dzemael would have kicked up quite a bit of a fuss for some lowly branch family member having a more prestigious and influential position than their heir, Lord Tedalgrinche.
“Ser Basile,” Emmanellain said with some relief. Basile had been busy tackling reports of a dragon excursion near Skyfire Lockes when this mess happened, so he was pleased he got here so quickly, “I assume you have been briefed on the… situation?”
Basile nodded solemnly. The Dragoon helmet gave him an intimidating, mysterious air, with how it hid his eyes, but his mouth could be clearly seen quirking into a reassuring smile, “I’ve clambered into such death traps before, m’lord,” he said, “And the Warrior of Light would find some way of surviving, I’m sure. I will have him out before the hour is out.”
“I appreciate your optimism…” Emmanellain sighed, “But we need to take into consideration the- the worst-case scenario. If he’s-”
“I’ll get him out, m’lord,” Basile said, almost gently.
Emmanellain wrung his hands again. He was aware he looked horribly anxious and not- not the staunch pillar of unflappable professionalism that Haurchefant would have been, but would his half-brother be calm in this situation? Knowing Haurchefant he would’ve most likely dived headfirst into that ice-trap the moment he realised Aza was trapped in it. No, he was not Haurchefant, so… so.
He took a steadying breath and forced his hands to lower, “You are to search as well as you can, Ser Basile,” he said, relieved when his voice didn’t wobble, “Your ability to Jump will mean you will have a better chance finding a path down, but… but you are not to endanger yourself unnecessarily. If it becomes too dangerous, you will withdraw up here and we will find another way.”
Basile, thankfully, did not protest. He nodded solemnly, “Yes, m’lord.”
“If you find him alive, Halone willing, use the potions and the like to stabilise him if necessary,” Emmanellain continued, “Depending on his condition, you may have to climb back out and lead chirugeons back to him, but it’s preferable that you get him out if he can be safely moved. If you find him dead…” Here, he faltered but swallowed the lump down in his throat, “I-If you find him dead, and his body is recoverable, bring it back up here, and we will… prepare it for… the Lord Commander.”
Basile nodded again, and Emmanellain turned to the remains of Witchdrop. The sun was shining brightly down on it, making the chunks of ice and snow and frosted granite glitter prettily in the light. The entire ravine was almost filled in now, and Emmanellain wasn’t sure how to feel about Witchdrop no longer having the deadly height it once had. It was like burying a very unpleasant part of Ishgard’s past without really… confronting it. No one really spoke about the ‘heretics’ who died here.
Emmanellain only prayed that Aza wasn’t the last victim Witchdrop claimed.
Basile was a little nervous.
He’d been present during the Steps of Faith, for both Vishap and Nidhogg’s assault. He’d seen what an absolute force of nature the Warrior of Light was, and he found it difficult to consider how out of everything Ser Aza fought against, it was a collapsing cliff that killed him. It just seemed too… mundane of a way to go. He had to be alive, just trapped and irritated. Basile liked to stay positive, after all.
It was what got him through the darkest days of the Theocracy, before the Lord Commander changed everything for the better. Staying positive let him endure House Dzemael’s petty sniping and manipulations – well, that and quietly asking Estinien to post him as far as physically possible from his family’s grasping claws. The Azure Dragoon had obliged him by pulling strings to have him posted to Camp Dragonhead, which also managed to double as an insulting slap to House Dzemael. Basile still smiled at the memory of Lord Dzemael’s horrified face when he realised that Basile would be subordinate to House Fortemps’s infamous bastard.
His chest twinged at the thought of Haurchefant, with his warmth and friendly smiles, and he quickly buried those feelings as unnecessary. Positive thinking, he told himself, standing at the very edge of what used to be Witchdrop and scanning for a good location for him to leap to. It was a maze of stone and ice, with gaps and shifting tunnels for a lanky Elezen like him to shimmy through. He ran his gauntleted hand over the rope around his waist, double checking it was firm and wouldn’t come loose.
From the corner of his eye he could see Medic Leona marching up to him, clutching a thick, leather bag between her hands. He turned to face her, pasting on one of his smiles, and readily accepted the bag she pushed into his arms. She was one of the few Ishgardian Hyurs posted at Camp Dragonhead, and she was always so grumpy at having to ‘get a crick in my neck staring at you tall assholes all day’.
“I don’t need to explain half of these to you,” she said, pulling the flap of the bag open and revealing the brightly coloured potions in fortified vials, “But just in case: the potions will seal up any open wounds or serious internal bleeding, the orange tonic there- no, there, that’s if he has difficulty breathing or a punctured lung. This…”
Leona carefully withdrew a vial with its glass an ilm thick. Inside was a feather, a softly glowing one where its colours gently rippled from red and orange, like a flickering flame, “This is Phoenix Down. This is if he’s completely fucked, okay? If you use this, you got to get him out of there within the Golden Hour before the aether starts burning through him. Are we clear?”
“Crystal,” Basile said, watching as she carefully put the volatile vial back, closed the lid, and took a step away. He shouldered the bag, tightening its straps until it was snug against him. For this adventure, he had changed out of the spiky, dark Dragoon armour – if he was going to be squirming through narrow gaps and the like, it’d just be a hindrance. So, he wore simple leather armour and furs instead, with spiked boots to help him keep purchase on the slippery surface.
“Lord Emmanellain is currently praying to Halone for the Warrior of Light to be safe,” Leona confided to him, “He’s literally sat in the snow, promising to give up all kinds of things. I guess he doesn’t want to tell the Lord Commander that…”
She went awkwardly silent.
“Hm, it’ll be fine,” Basile said airily, turning back to the hole he was going to crawl around in, “Ser Aza is not so easily killed. I saw him survive Vishap stepping on him, you know. If he can survive that…”
Leona just sighed. She was oddly cynical for a medic, he thought wryly, but he didn’t prod her about it. A cold, cutting wind was beginning to bluster around them now, and he adjusted his footing, considering.
“Either way, he’ll be coming back up,” Basile said, “Alive or as a corpse.”
Somewhere below them, ice shifting with a low, scraping groan, and for a moment, it looked almost as if something was moving down there. But it was so brief that Basile passed it off as his imagination and nerves. It was fine. Positive thinking. The Warrior of Light will be injured but fine.
Buried beneath several tonze of ice and rock, half-crushed against the bottom of Witchdrop, a King Behemoth heaved a ragged, hot breath, its pale eyes squinting open. With a violent twitch of its shoulder, it began, slowly and carefully, to wriggle free. It nostrils flared, hot pants of air whistling past bared fangs as it tasted blood on the wind. Nearby was Prey. Nearby was wounded Prey.
Nearby was the owner of the sword buried hilt deep between its shoulder blades.
With a snarl, the Behemoth slowly, determinedly, began to claw itself free.