Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Jennifer Lange
Copyright June 11th, 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.
Valis stood outside the central chamber. The door was shut tight, a tall obelisk of pure white stone, chipped and traced with age. Thin fractures interlaced its featureless surface.
The tower was called Nayathim. Valis had visited it before, shortly after he came to the continent. The gods themselves had led him to it, deep in the mountains to the north. The name meant: sleeping place. The formidable tower was all that remained of the ancient gods’ last stronghold. After so many eons, there wasn’t much left, but even in its degradation the structure was still a marvel to behold.
As of this morning—such as it was, as dark as any other day during the night—the tall portal had been shut for nearly a week. Valis visited it often, but had yet to be taken inside. There were no guards. No need. He dared not enter uninvited.
What could they be doing?
Morgan said they had taken the body of Generosity inside, and that since then there had been almost no contact at all, only cryptic messages and simple instructions delivered by undead servants.
The city was in tatters. The fire had burned unchecked for two days until a blizzard finally blew in and snuffed it out. Precious few buildings remained. Dead soldiers stood sentry over the wreckage, Tormar’s clerics worked feverishly to embalm and reanimate the fallen, while the leaders of the expeditionary force remained in the tower under house arrest, waiting for the chancellery’s envoys to arrive.
Valis frowned. The original plan didn’t include involving Tormar’s leadership. They were meant to be subjugated; instead, they were being enlisted. Why?
Valis knew the gods better than most. They were powerful beings, but they weren’t indestructible. But of course that was no secret. After all, it was a well-known historical fact that the mortal races had slain the gods in ancient times. He always knew they could be killed, but it had never occurred to him that they might prove to be so vulnerable to the contrivances of man. Asterious’s strange magic had cut Generosity from the sky like pheasant impaled by a hunter’s arrow.
Perhaps that was the reason for their silence and the sudden change in strategy. The fall of Generosity was a blemish on the otherwise pure face of the gods’ expression. Better not to be seen at all than to be seen as weak, and in the face of a new threat, perhaps new allies were in order.
If they could be trusted.
Valis’s ears picked up the low grind of stone against stone and he turned. A linen-wrapped servant emerged from the doorway and gestured for him to follow.
Finally, some answers.
Nathanius was driving. He sat outside on the bench, wrapped in a dozen layers of fur-lined cloak, keeping their course. The rest of them lay in the wagon. With all of them inside, their body heat and the blaze of the ever-burning stove kept the interior warm indeed.
Polly sharpened her knife.
“There’s still one thing I don’t understand.”
Asterious looked up. He was sitting by the miniature stove, stirring the contents of a little iron pot with a wooden spoon. They’d managed to snare a pair of rabbits. He’d drained and dressed them the previous night; now he was making stew. It was almost done.
He tasted it.
Polly brushed her thumb across the edge of her dagger.
“It’s about the gods. They’re so powerful. Why bother with Tormar’s army? Why not just take over the city themselves?”
She raised an eyebrow.
“The gods have always been a paranoid bunch.”
He took a pinch of salt from a bag they’d dug out of Valis’s supplies and added it to the stew.
“They’re strong, but they can be killed, and while they can tell when someone is thinking about them, they don’t know everything. They need worshippers and supporters, not just to increase their power, but to solidify their rule. What better way to achieve that than to install themselves as emperors and kings?”
He took the pot off the stove and began to portion out the stew.
“It was the same way back in the old days. The gods weren’t just religious icons. They were spiritual and civic leaders.”
He handed her a bowl.
Polly started eating.
“You make it sound like people loved them.”
Asterious opened the little front window and passed a steaming bowl out to Nathanius.
“They did. Even during the revolution, there were as many people who fought for them as against them.”
Polly looked up from her soup.
“People fought for them?”
“Right up until the end. When it became clear that the revolution would be victorious their support began to drop away, but in the early years we probably spilled more mortal blood than they did. You have to understand, most people didn’t want to believe that their gods could be evil. They’d spent their whole lives thinking of them as benefactors. They brought rain, harvests, and wealth. They cured the sick and healed the injured. They were even known to prevent natural disasters. The people revered them. They built their palaces gladly, and being selected to live among them was society’s highest honour.”
He took a sip of his soup and let out a sigh.
“Artists and artisans used to study all their lives, praying that one day they would be chosen. Even after the truth became known, most couldn’t bring themselves to accept it, and even if they did, a great many believed their gifts were worth the price.”
“Do you think that’s going to happen again?”
Asterious finished his stew.
“They’re going to try. Of that you can be sure. Kalkonu is the perfect place for them. This whole valley is filled with desperate people. It won’t take the gods long to garner a following, and the longer we give them to establish themselves, the harder it will be to force them to relinquish their hold.”
He picked up the last two bowls.
“I’ll be right back.”
He crawled in between the crates to the rear of the wagon.
Polly put her knife away.
She knew what it was like to be alone in the dark, cold, scaredc and starving. She couldn’t help but wonder what she might have been willing to sacrifice if someone had come along and told her that they could save her.
No. She didn’t have to wonder.
Ellyn looked over as Asterious sat down.
He handed her a bowl.
She sipped the broth.
“Glad you like it.”
He passed a second bowl gently to Azarelle and returned to the front.
Azarelle set her bowl aside. She was working. She had some kind of drawing spread out on the floor. It took up almost the whole space, and according to her, what she had out wasn’t even half of it.
“So you worked at the university in Sylarea?”
Azarelle nodded absently.
“Twelve years in the capital.”
“And you were a teacher?”
She glanced up.
“A professor. I taught a few classes to maintain my tenure, but my job was mostly research.”
Ellyn pointed at the paper on the floor.
Azarelle sat up and cracked her back. She grabbed her stew and drank deep.
“Not really. This is more of a personal project. I’m hoping to work on it while we travel. The work I did at the university was more complicated.”
Ellyn leaned down and examined the markings.
“I wish I could do magic.”
Azarelle finished her soup and picked up her stylus.
“I feel so useless. I mean, what good is music in a place like this?”
“It’s not without its uses. You can sing for your supper, or a room; none of us can do that.”
“I don’t do a lot of singing these days.”
Azarelle looked up.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to bring it up.”
Ellyn waved her off.
“It’s alright. I almost don’t notice it anymore.”
Azarelle finished her stew and set the bowl aside.
“Do you mind if I ask how it happened?”
Ellyn hesitated. She’d never planned to share the story. It wasn’t something she was proud of. Of course now that she was here, maybe it didn’t matter anymore.
“It was after I left the chora. I was working for someone. They asked me to keep a secret.”
Azarelle leaned down and started making fresh marks on the drawing with her stylus.
“And you didn’t?”
Ellyn shook her head.
That was enough for now. The rest didn’t matter.
“What about you?”
The professor looked up.
“How did you end up here?”
She resumed her work.
“A friend and I were going to change the world. I got carried away. In the end it blew up in our faces.”
Ellyn picked up her guitar and began to play.
“Do you mind?”
Azarelle shook her head, eyes still on the paper.
“By all means. It’s no bother.”
The song wandered, neither fast nor slow, neither cheerful nor sad. It was an idle tune, what the journeymen of the chora called a carriage piece.
Azarelle listened as she worked.
“You know, back when I was taking my undergrad I audited a course on instrumental magic. It’s a shame we don’t have any reference material. I bet you’d be good at it.”
Ellyn stopped playing and lifted an eyebrow.
Azarelle nodded absently.
“Mhmm, magic words are just sounds in the end. There are spells that are cast by playing tones rather than speaking phrases. It’s a whole field of study. I’m surprised you didn’t come across it in the chora.”
Ellyn resumed playing.
“I wasn’t with them for very long.”
Azarelle set down the stylus and massaged her hand.
“I don’t recall much from the course, but maybe we can find you some books when we get to Hane.”
“At a logging town? I doubt it.”
“You’re probably right. In the meantime, I’ll see how much I can remember.”
Ellyn kept playing. She stared up at the ceiling and wondered.
“You really think I could do it?”
Azarelle picked her stylus back up.
“Probably. Magic isn’t as hard as it looks. It’s mostly memorization. The rest is expense. Components don’t come cheap.”
Ellyn looked around. The wagon was packed with the crates from Valis’s stash.
“At least we don’t have to worry about that.”
Ellyn leaned back against the wall. The wagon smelled like rabbit stew. She shut her eyes and carried on playing, thinking back to the moment when she’d decided to save Asterious and Nathanius. Who would have ever thought that one, impulsive, desperate decision would have led to all this? The strange part was: knowing what she knew now, she wasn’t sure if she wouldn’t do it all over again.
She chuckled. Who the hell was she kidding? They’d cut out her tongue and sent her into exile. Of course she wouldn’t.
But maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.
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