“Three Little Bottles”
Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Rachel Mrotek
Copyright September 19th, 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.
“So who is this guy again?”
“His name is Valis.”
“And he works for Tormar?”
“Aren’t they invading?”
“So why are we going with him?”
Polly pursed her lips. Azarelle stared ahead, regarding the dark man in front of them with a pondering frown. It was an expression Polly had become increasingly accustomed to seeing on her friend’s face. It fretted her eyes and sharpened her otherwise thoughtful features. She didn’t like it.
She also didn’t like this new friend of theirs, but apparently he had agreed to show them everything he’d been up to, and provide some assistance with regard to Az’s side-project. To be honest, it sounded like a lot of horse dung. Nevertheless, they were now following him through the outlying districts of Selapak to his evil apartment lair, which Polly fully expected to find full to bursting with heavily armed thugs.
They crossed the street. Her boots crunched in the roadside slush. The snow was starting to get deep. As they left the city centre it crept slowly up from her ankles to her calves. The winter was closing in; behind it would come gangs, raiders, predators, and all the other nightmares of the long night that still haunted her dreams. She looked up at Azarelle. She could get them through it.
She had to.
Valis led them to a run-down hotel on the edge of a deserted stockyard. Not much cargo coming and going these days. No one stopped them on the way in. There were no guards at the door, and no sign of anyone waiting in the shadows. Good signs. Of course where sorcerers were concerned, certain special precautions were required. She reached into her bag and quietly drew out a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles.
They both had plenty of magic on them. The outlines of the objects and the scintillating shapes of the enchantments began to glow faintly through the glasses. Azarelle had come prepared. Protection spells of a variety of types draped over her like a cloak of woven thread: guards against fire, cold, electricity, even mind-reading. Polly had never studied magic, but she’d learned enough through her own stock and trade to recognize what spells could kill you or get you caught. There was only one she saw she couldn’t recognize.
It was in Valis’s pocket. Three objects, each one no larger than a human finger. The musical patterns of magic that surrounded them shimmered with cloudy white light. She would have to keep an eye on them. Something that small could move around on you even if you were looking.
The lenses began to crack. She heard it before she saw it. Polly frowned and put the spectacles back in her pocket. They’d been working overtime with all the work she’d been doing for her friend. All spells consumed the components that drove them. That’s why magic so expensive.
Well, when you paid for it.
Anyway, the glasses were no exception. She wouldn’t get much more out of them, and she had a rule: never use up a spell unless it was life and death. She probably had a hundred nearly-spent spells in her bag, tucked away in case of emergency.
She could deal with Valis the old fashioned way. She kept her eyes on his hands. It was a shell game. Nothing more and nothing less.
And she’d played follow the lady before.
Azarelle surveyed the room.
“You seem surprised.”
She looked back at him.
“I was expecting something else.”
“Something more official?”
“Actually a trap.”
He smiled. It didn’t look good on him. His eyes made the expression look threatening.
“Maybe it is. You still don’t have any reason to trust me.”
And the dialog wasn’t helping.
She stayed in the door. He’d made her an offer she couldn’t turn down, or at least one she couldn’t reject out of hand. Now it was up to him to prove he could hold up his end of the bargain.
The apartment was a single-room studio. The curtains were drawn. The light of the waning winter afternoon crept in dully through the cracks. It was sparsely furnished: mattress on the floor, desk in the corner, cabinets, and a wardrobe. The only significant feature was a long table in the middle of the floor draped with cloth.
Valis drew the covering aside and took a step away.
“Have a look.”
She looked down at Polly. Her friend gave a nod. It was her job to keep an eye out for danger. Valis would have preferred she come alone. She had insisted. As an academic she was capable of whatever the practice required, but her career hadn’t exactly prepared her involvement in a military conspiracy.
She saw what she expected to see on the table: boxes, bottles, and other components, all carefully labelled with names and expiration dates. From the spread it looked like Valis was engaged in precisely what he said: observation and communication.
He went to the cabinets.
“You see? Clairvoyance and clairaudience, just as I said. Something to drink?”
He held out a bottle of wine.
Azarelle looked at Polly. She shook her head. Valis shrugged, poured himself a glass, and came back to the table.
“Want to see the rest?”
He picked up a candle and went to a blank space on the wall. He struck a match and held it gently against the wick, whispering.
Azarelle let a smile slip. The candle didn’t produce a flame, but still an orange light began to glow. She knew the spell. Her professors used to use it to conceal test answers. The light blew up onto the wall like a cloud of sunlit dust, settling on the bricks in the shape of numbers, arrows, names, and dates.
Polly’s eyes widened. She practically bowled Valis over as she ran to the wall.
“Is this the invasion plan?”
“Now you have seen all my secrets. My superiors in Tormar would be furious, but as you can see it matters very little whether the Jaspers know the details of the plan or not. The outcome is clear. Were you to leave here and lead them back immediately, it would not change a thing.”
The candle burned out and the drawing faded, leaving only a brick wall and a puddle of wax on the table. Valis sipped his wine.
“Of course your friends would certainly kill me, and that might be enough. It would certainly increase your standing in the short term, but I have a feeling you’re the sort of person who might see the further view.”
Azarelle remained silent. He set his glass aside.
“I’ve placed myself entirely in your hands. Do you trust me?”
Azarelle shook her head.
“Not in the least.”
“But you believe me?”
Azarelle frowned. In a way, she’d been hoping he’d turn out to be full of crap. It would have been simpler. He came over and slid a piece of paper across the table.
“This is a requisition form. I send it to my commander once a month. They reply with whatever I ask: currency, supplies, equipment, anything. I don’t need anything at the moment, but there’s still time before the attack. Help me and I will send the next one on your behalf.
She and Polly looked at each other.
“Think about it. No more playing games with the Jaspers, no more substandard components, no more plundering the gem cutters district. No more risk.
Polly started to shake her head.
“I don’t know.”
He opened a window.
“Just look around you. This place isn’t your home. It’s barely even a real city. Who cares who’s in charge? The same could be said of any place in the world. None of us have the power to influence events like these. You might as well sign on.”
Azarelle gave him a flat look.
“Nice speech. It makes me wonder why you need our help in the first place.”
He poured himself another glass of wine.
“I don’t,” he said with casual certainty. “But it couldn’t hurt, and it’s certainly better than the alternative.”
He raised the glass to Azarelle with a smile. She stared back into his dark expression. It was the first real smile she’d of his since they met, cordial and sinister, like a devil offering you a pen.
She looked down at the piece of paper; then back at Polly.
She turned to Valis.
“What do you want us do?”
The door shut. Valis took a long breath and went to the table. It had gone well, or at least as well as could be expected.
He chuckled as Nexus landed on the table beside him.
“You’re right. Not bad for a day’s work.”
His friend was always a little more cavalier than he. They were far from out of the woods.
Another good point. They still had a backup plan. He reached into his pocket and drew it out. Three little bottles. They appeared to be empty, but he knew better than to be fooled by their appearance. These tools were not given to him by his superiors in Tormar. They were gifts from the gods. If all else failed they could be used to wipe away the troublesome memories of Azarelle and her wary friend, replacing them with whatever fiction he saw fit to contrive.
Terrifying and beautiful are the magics of foreign lands, or so the scholars wrote. If they were right, then surely the spells of the gods would be the most lovely and most frightening of all.
They were such strange, majestic creatures…only barely at the edge of comprehension. Though he communed with the choir regularly, he’d met them only once. The power of their presence had been the most awe-inspiring moment in his life. It was an irony that he should finally find purpose in such a winnowing land.
He went to the wardrobe. There was a mirror hung in the door. He straightened his appearance.
He preferred her as she was. It would be a tragedy to betray her. All that came after might be somehow spoiled by it. Of course there would be nothing of her at all if she failed to please his superiors. He worried he would be left with no choice.
He shook his head. There was always hope. Perhaps she would see reason in the end.
Or if nothing else, obey.
“We’re not actually going to help him, are we?”
They were on the street, making their way back across the city.
It was quite an offer.
Polly wasn’t taking it as well as she was.
“I’m not sure.”
“But we know the Jaspers. We’ve worked for them for like…a year. We can trust them.”
“Maybe for now, but weren’t you the one who said all bets are off during the long night? And what about the invasion? You saw the wall. There’s no way they’re going to beat them.”
Polly stood in front of her.
“We don’t know that. Did you see the armies? I didn’t. All we saw was a drawing.”
“An invisible drawing.”
Polly gave her a hard look.
“You’re telling me you couldn’t make something like that on a whim if you wanted to?”
Azarelle stepped around her. She made a good point, but that wasn’t all there was to it. She still hadn’t told Polly about the augury; about what she’d seen at the end. What was coming…her friend couldn’t possibly imagine.
Valis had been very clear. His superiors—his real superiors—could detect when they were perceived. He couldn’t fully explain how, but it was a form of sensation, not unlike taste or touch. They didn’t read your mind—at least he didn’t seem to think so—but when you thought about them, they knew.
She took a breath and thought about history class.
The word meant “to pull down.”
It was a world the elves seldom used, out of superstition. It was the name given to the final conflict between the mortal races and the ancient so-called gods. There were no histories of the event. No accounts. No stories. Only the name.
It was common knowledge that the gods were dead. Apparently they were wrong. Some survived, fleeing the grim fate of their brethren to heal and nurture their hatred in this forgotten corner of the world, living for the day they might return.
And she was supposed to help them.
Polly tugged on her sleeve.
She snapped out of it.
“What are we going to do?”
She framed her answer carefully.
“We have to keep our options open, at least for now. Play along until we know more.”
Polly didn’t seem satisfied. She answered slowly.
“If you say so.”
They turned a corner. The Jaspers’ place was up ahead. Polly reached into her pocket.
“Hey, take a look at this.”
She held out a bottle. It looked empty.
“It’s a bottle.”
“It’s not just a bottle. It’s magic!”
Azarelle looked it over.
“Where did you get it?”
Polly grinned. Azarelle’s eyes went wide.
“You stole it? From Valis!?”
“His fault for not showing it to us himself. Full disclosure my ass. So what do you think?”
Azarelle took it. It didn’t seem like there was anything inside, and there didn’t seem to be anything special about the container.
“So what do you think?”
She handed it back.
“I don’t see any evidence of components. No powders or liquids. If there were a spell inside there would be materials. I suppose I could test it, if you’re really sure.”
Polly stuck it in her pocket.
“Don’t trouble yourself. You’re busy with your own project, not to mention Lon. I’ll take it to a friend of mine and see what they think.”
She turned to leave. Azarelle stopped her.
“Wait. Won’t he realize it’s missing?”
Polly shook her head.
“Not a chance. I took it when I went to the map, poured it off into one of mine, and put it back. If you can’t tell this one’s not empty, he sure as hell won’t know his is.”
“You opened it without knowing what it does?”
“Hey, weren’t you just telling me it’s just an empty bottle?”
“You didn’t know that!”
Polly smiled and held her hips.
“Lighten up! Everything turned out fine. It’ll be alright. I promise.”
“Well, I guess it’s too late anyway.”
Polly let go.
“Now go on. You’ll be late.”
“Late? For what?”
“Don’t tell me you forgot.”
Azarelle looked at the sky. It was late afternoon. What else wa—
Her eyes went wide.
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