“Hubris ex Ante”
Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Jennifer Lange
Copyright April 3rd, 2018
This story is dedicated to my family, my friends, and my most generous subscribers, whom I have listed below. Without their help, support, and contributions, this production would not be possible.
“What do you mean, the advance is halted?”
The captain coughed, worn out from running. He was a cleric of the second order. It wasn’t fitting that he should pant. General Hightower reached over to the table and hefted up a skin of water. He tossed it to him.
The captain obliged.
The general turned back to face the city. He’d set up his tent on a low hill outside the denser part, an effort to monitor the advance. The attack had gone well in the early stages, before the defenders set the city alight. Every hour since then had been a brutal and costly struggle; nevertheless, he had been confident that the city would ultimately have been theirs. Now, he wasn’t so sure.
The captain handed back the skin.
“Thank you, general.”
He set the container aside.
“Now, tell me what’s happened to my army.”
The captain thumbed over his shoulder.
“The soldiers have run amok. We can’t control them. It started when that thing came out of the clouds. My whole regiment was wiped out, murdered by our own regulars.”
The general frowned.
The man didn’t answer right away.
“I was cut off. I thought it best to return and report.”
The general suppressed a bemused look. In other words, he ran.
“How many are lost?”
The captain shook his head.
“I don’t know, but the problem is spreading. At first it was just the units on the front line, but as I was coming back fights were breaking out all over.”
“And the defenders?”
“The regulars are attacking them as well. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s like they have minds of their own.”
The general glanced at the guards around the tent, heavily armed and armoured soldiers, meticulously embalmed first order clerics. They stood silent and still.
“Very well. Find messengers and send instructions to pull back. Anyone who can’t control their regulars is to leave them behind.”
The captain looked at him quizzically.
“We’re calling off the invasion?”
The general shook his head.
“It will be postponed until we learn more. Clearly the situation has changed. We mustn’t squander our resources.”
The captain saluted.
He began to leave, but stopped a few paces away.
The general turned.
He hesitated for a moment.
“That voice…do you think it really is the gods?”
The general looked at the sky and shook his head. In truth, he had his suspicions, but he also knew what the man needed to hear.
He shook his head.
“I don’t think so. More likely it’s a deception meant to stagger our advance. Don’t worry. Just send those messengers.”
The captain saluted again.
He trotted off. The general turned his eyes back to the tower in the sky.
Could it really be?
He eyed his silent bodyguards again. They still hadn’t moved. With his left hand he grasped his amulet and murmured a brief incantation. The soldiers shuffled a few extra paces away.
Couldn’t be too careful.
Polly ducked, stabbing. The blade punctured the undead through the stomach. It kept coming.
This, she thought, was why she didn’t like zombies.
It brought its arms down like a pair of clubs. She rolled out of the way just as its friend came barrelling in. It smashed into the wall.
The third appeared behind her and grabbed. She went into a split to evade its grip and stabbed her knife into its calf. It wasn’t even fazed. There was no blood, only a puff of musty ash.
It fell down on top of her. She yelled and slashed, hacking at its limbs as its two friends closed in.
This was how they got you.
The fallen soldier’s arm came away in her grip. She flung it at the other two and crawled, staggering to her feet a few paces away. The other two helped the third to rise and they moved back into their circle.
What she wouldn’t give for a torch.
Azarelle sprinted through the streets. Without her cloak of darkness she was fully exposed, but in midst of the chaos no one was really paying attention. They concerns of the city were elsewhere.
She looked up into the sky. The tower loomed.
She had to find the others. She’d considered heading back to Polly’s hideout, but there wouldn’t have been any point. There was no way they were still there, especially with everything that had happened. It was more likely that they were heading south, out the city, or—she hoped—searching for Valis in an effort to rescue her.
She’d stolen a torch from Valis’s basement, along with a some other choice materials he’d left behind. It was a good thing that she had. The magic had come in handy when her two hijacked servants had suddenly turned on her in the street. She’d barely escaped with her life.
She kept her eyes on the tower. It was hovering over the city. Below it she could see three winged figures swooping back and forth through the smoke, casting beams of destructive light down into the city. It was an expression of magic she had only seen once before: in her lab back home.
Godsbone. Was there a method to their madness after all?
She glanced at the object in her other hand, a locator spell, made from materials purloined from Valis’s safe house. Ordinarily the spell wouldn’t have helped her find her friends. She didn’t have anything that belonged to them to use as a focus. Thankfully, those things weren’t necessary tonight.
Valis had taken her cloak.
It had been a simple matter to re-string the spell to seek out a particular arrangement of magic. As far as she knew, her cloak was unique. The locator was homing in on it like a trained pigeon.
She just hoped she would reach them in time.
She was tired of losing people.
Azarelle sat on the floor. She peeked her eyes open.
It was working.
Jyll sat across from her. They’d been maintaining the incantation for nearly fifteen minutes. The armature was spinning like a top. She couldn’t even see its rings any longer. It was as though the two of them had encapsulated a globe of pure light. Its surface undulated like ripples across still water, and its glare was so bright it burned.
The power was impossible to describe. She scarcely dared to look at it, partly due to the brightness, but mostly due to the fact that the experiment’s stability depended upon their remaining focused.
The authorities were pounding on the door.
The pounding was not helping.
She shut her eyes again. They had already reached the armature’s threshold for power. They only had to hold it for a few more minutes to allow their measuring equipment to log an adequate record.
And what an astonishing record it would be. There were no leaks; no sign of harmonic interactions or cascading effects. The pattern was perfect. The weave was held at bay, leaving their spell free to channel its amplified magic into the construct.
Her benefactors had been true to their word.
The applications were positively limitless. With power like this, whole cities could be lifted into the air, people could be teleported across the world, or between worlds, and even the most terrifying storm could be swept aside like so many motes of dust.
A whole new era of magic was theirs for the taking. Their names would go down in history.
She heard something crack.
Her eyes snapped open.
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