“Daggers and Souls”
Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Rachel Mrotek
Copyright September 16th, 2017
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.
Asterious was lying face-down in the mud.
He’d fought hard, ducking and dancing around the huge, sweeping strikes that the half-man, half-beast hurled around the bottom of the pit. It was like watching a wild elephant try to stomp on a mouse. The beast lunged forward again and again, delivering deadly blows to the air. Asterious cut and thrust with his two hatchets, striking at Krael’s legs and arms to wear his enemy down.
It was the pit that did Asterious in. It was too small. He could only run for so long. Krael had struck him with the butt of his broad axe and he’d crumpled into the dirt. He rolled over and stared up, slack-jawed from the blow. The hatchets slipped from his hands. If he weren’t still breathing it would have been easy too mistake him for one of the other corpses that littered the bowl.
The crowd howled as Krael stood over him, rolling his shoulders and hefting his axe to deliver the final blow.
Ellyn glanced. Nathanius’ was standing beside her, mouth set in a grim line. What was he thinking? Was he concerned for Asterious?
She frowned. No, it was probably about the bet.
The little promoter on the dais began to shout over the din.
“It looks like we’re coming to the end of it folks! Look away if you’ve got a weak stomach!”
The crowd cheered.
Ellyn couldn’t bring herself to look away as the ogre of a man loomed over Asterious and brought up his axe.
Why did she care? So he’d been nice to her, once, and she wasn’t entirely sure it hadn’t been motivated by some financial or lascivious interest.
She knew men like him. Her master’s court had been full of them.
He was smiling.
Why? At whom?
At her? At Krael? At the sky? The world? She smiled in spite of herself at the bizarre comedy of his expression. It was a joke that only he understood, and his bright expression shown up from the blood and mire like a lantern on a dark night.
She couldn’t bring herself not to care.
Krael brought the axe down. The crowd roared. Nathanius winced and looked away. Ellyn’s breath left her and she leaned forward on the railing as though she’d felt every bit of the blow herself. It wasn’t until a moment later that her eyes came back into focus and she looked back down into the pit.
The axe was stuck in the dirt an inch to the left of Asterious’ head.
She drew back.
Nathanius turned back, but before he could answer or even see what was happening, Asterious had sprung up into a crouch. In his hands flashed one of Krodyn’s two slender knives. He drove upwards with both hands, one braced on the pommel of the blade, well inside the reach of the enormous half-man. The brute yelped in surprise and threw himself backwards to avoid the spearing point, but it was too late. The long steel penetrated a narrow space between his ribs, spurting blood.
The man gasped for breath and coughed, spitting red foam. Asterious brought his knee crashing up and into the butt of the blade, which all but disappeared into the man’s chest.
The crowd gasped.
Nathanius let out a long breath of relief. The railing practically creaked as he eased his grip. Ellyn kept her eyes on the two men in the pit.
The half-man grunted and staggered back from Asterious, reaching in vain to his right and left for something to steady himself, but there was nothing, only the long wooden spikes that lined the pit. Finally he clutched at his chest, clawing in vain at the wound. Asterious watched him warily, the second of Krodyn’s blades ready in his grip.
Nathanius put a hand on hers.
“You shouldn’t watch this.”
Ellyn shook her head.
“Asterious risked his life for this…and that man is going to lose his. We owe it to them both to watch. It wouldn’t be happening if it weren’t for us.”
Nathanius raised an eyebrow.
“How do you figure?”
Ellyn stared down at the gasping half-man in the pit. He had sunk to his knees, one arm braced against the earth to keep his head off the ground. It was as though he were crumbling into the mud. Asterious stood a short distance away. He’d dealt a lethal blow to his enemy and he knew it. There was no need to take risks by approaching. He was just…letting him die, and with each passing second Ellyn felt her stomach turn.
“We did this.”
Nathanius ran a hand through his hair.
“It would have been someone else if we didn’t.”
“We did it for money.”
“Everyone does it for money.”
“That doesn’t make it right.”
Krael finally collapsed. He lay still in the dirt. Asterious waited before drawing near, not wishing to fall for his own ploy. Finally he approached and rolled him over, retrieving his knife. He held the blades aloft and the crowd went up in cheers.
Asterious’ face was flat, his expression as still as stone. Ellyn regarded him silently. He understood.
“You’re wrong. You don’t know it yet, but you are. You haven’t lived here. When the long dark comes and the lights start to go out you’ll see. You’ll realize that this place doesn’t care whether you forgive yourself or not.”
“Is that what you told yourself when you worked for Kurdak?”
“Yes,” he said as he turned too leave. “It is.”
He went to find the bookie.
Azarelle sat alone at her table.
She was early. She’d spent the morning watching the café from an alley across the street, just to make sure it wasn’t a set up. Lon had warned her shortly after he and his brothers had taken her in that a sorcerer with her skills would be a target; a dangerous target but a target nonetheless. There were plenty of people who would risk her considerable magical wrath for a chance to capture her.
They’d decided it would be easier to buy it.
She hated this feeling. She was using Lon, but she didn’t have any choice. She had to survive. She had to escape. Lon would never leave his brothers, or the city. Maybe they could fight off the invasion; maybe not. The augury hadn’t revealed the outcome of the battle, but the other images did not bode well. The darkness. The fire.
She couldn’t take the risk.
So she waited, sipping bad coffee and choking on guilt. Her mysterious lunch date would arrive soon. Maybe he could shed some light on her situation.
The throng on the street passed with their eyes to the ground. It was just like Polly said. She’d been to a dozen merchants across the city before coming here, and barely half of them had accepted Lon’s ingots. The rest had demanded food, firewood, or alcohol in trade.
It was illegal to refuse ingots, but with the long dark looming the traders were getting bold. Polly was right. The Jaspers’ grip on the city was already beginning to loosen.
She could turn them in. Lon would straighten them out, or one of his brothers. Probably his brothers. Lon didn’t like it when things got messy. He preferred to say “yes” to people. He gave you what you wanted. It was always one of the others who came and took what was owed. Lon didn’t hurt people. He convinced them.
She groaned into her cup. What a hypocritical load of crap.
He was a mobster. He just put a pretty face on it. That’s all. He could dress up the kind of man he was in all the expensive clothing and charming looks he wanted, but it wouldn’t change anything. And that meant she was perfectly justified in doing whatever was needed to ensure her safety.
She stared into her cup.
Keep telling yourself that.
Valis approached quietly. He wasn’t trying to sneak up. Subtlety was simply his way. She jumped when he said hello and took a seat. They sat quietly for a long moment before anyone spoke. She sat back, maximizing the distance between them. Valis wasn’t offended. It only made sense that she would be suspicious. He would have to go slowly.
“I didn’t mean to startle you.”
She shook her head.
A transparent lie. He knew it and so did she. He needed to get past this stage, and he wouldn’t get many chances.
He spoke calmly.
“You probably have some questions you want to ask before we get to talking. I’d like to answer them for you if I can.”
She gave a slow nod and took a breath.
“How did you get a note into my room?”
Valis smiled. He did his best to appear cheerful. It was not a look he wore well.
“I had some help.”
He whistled. His friend swooped down from the edge of the roof and landed gently on the table. He put out a hand and brushed the ebony feathers of its head.
“My associate here dropped it off.”
Azarelle regarded the crow with a wary eye. Valis rubbed a curled forefinger under its beak.
“Come on. Say hello.”
The bird called.
Azarelle raised an eyebrow.
Valis turned back to her.
“His name is Nexus. He’s been with me for a very long time.”
Valis shook his head and answered.
Azarelle nodded. Valis wasn’t surprised she understood. As an academic she would certainly be acquainted with the practice of taking a familiar, though few sorcerers did. Most preferred the quiet solitude and privacy of the library and the laboratory. It wasn’t easy to share your head with another creature, especially one who could be so annoying.
Valis listened. He was right. They needed to stay on task. Azarelle grabbed her cup and sipped.
“Have you been spying on me?”
Valis sat back.
“Not specifically you.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I’ve been keeping an eye on the Jaspers. You’re living with them. It was unavoidable.”
“You’re saying it was a coincidence?”
She’d never believe it if he said yes. And the whole reason for approaching her was to convince her to join his side. He was willing to tell her the truth, up to a point.
“Not entirely. You’ve been with the Jaspers for months, so you know how paranoid they are. It was easier to observe you than them. I thought if I watched you long enough I might find a way in.”
“You thought I was a security risk?”
He shrugged, trying to appear nonchalant. The laughter was a good sign.
“In so many words.”
“So why the note?”
Valis took a breath, leaning back in his seat. They’d gotten to it faster than he’d have liked. He answered.
“Because the situation has changed.”
“You work for Tormar?”
He nodded again. She sipped her coffee.
“Were you hoping I wouldn’t tell them about the invasion?”
Valis shook his head.
“I knew you wouldn’t have a choice.”
“So why are you here?”
“Because there’s something else we have to talk about.”
Nexus ruffled his feathers.
Again, he was right. They didn’t actually know how much she knew. He had only deductions, but they were conclusive. The note had instructed her to keep her secrets, but she’d already told the Jaspers about the invasion. They were already sending out runners to gather soldiers and weapons. The only reason she would have come was if the augury had revealed a second, greater secret.
They would know by now. He hadn’t spoken with them yet. This had to come first. She didn’t know it but this was, in point of fact, her only chance.
He leaned forward.
“You saw something else during the augury. Something impossible. It is for that reason that I have come.”
She shook her head.
“I didn’t see anything.”
Denial. It wouldn’t help her.
“You know that isn’t true.”
“It isn’t, and you have to believe me when I say that lying to me won’t change that. They already know what you saw.”
“I don’t even know who they are?”
“Yes, you do.”
She kept shaking her head. Her lip was trembling and her cup was shaking in her hands, yet she remained fiercely determined not to believe the very thing she had seen with her own two eyes.
He reached out and took the cup from her.
“You have to listen. We may not know each other, but I’ve seen enough of you to know that you will be able to understand.”
She took a long moment to steady herself.
“Fine,” she finally said. “Explain it.”
Valis set the cup down.
“Very well,” he said. “Let me tell you about the gods.”
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