Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Rachel Mrotek
Copyright November 3rd, 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.
“You’re sure it was them?”
Azarelle shook her head.
“There’s no way to be completely sure. Augury isn’t exact.”
“But you recognized the girl?”
“I did. And she did bring two others with her.”
Polly continued her circuit, back and forth across the room. If she kept it up she was going to wear a hole in the carpet.
“But I’ve seen them. They’re all our age. I thought you said there was supposed to be an old man.”
“That’s what I saw, but it might have been an artefact.”
“An artefact, a distortion of the real content of the augury. They’re caused by defects in the spell. The subconscious fills in the gap. All sorts of images can get pulled in.”
“You mean you might have messed up?”
Azarelle gave her a stern look.
“I did not ‘mess up.’ Thank you very much. The conditions for the spell were terrible.”
She leaned back against her headboard. It was piled with pillows.
“That or one of them is a lot older than they look.”
Polly gave a sceptical look.
“They looked pretty young to me.”
“There’s magic that could do it.”
Polly raised an eyebrow.
“Stop you getting older?”
Azarelle shook her head.
“Magic can’t prolong life, at least none that I’ve ever heard of.”
“Think it was an illusion?”
Azarelle shook her head.
“I don’t know. Maybe. It doesn’t seem like it.”
“So what do we do?”
Azarelle took a breath.
“I’m meeting with Valis tomorrow to pick up the rest of our supplies. I’ll get the details of his plan.”
“What about me?”
“You check in with your friend about those potions. Then we’ll meet up and decide if we stick with him or not.”
Polly hopped up into the chair.
“I really hope it turns out he’s full of crap. Then we can turn him over to Lon and forget about all this.”
Azarelle nodded, frowning.
It was a nice idea; it just wasn’t likely, and it didn’t change the fact that if she wanted to have any hope of finding a way home, Valis was the better bet.
“How are things going with him?”
Azarelle looked up.
She let out a long breath.
“Not well. I think he might suspect something, and I’ve been getting a lot of strange looks from his brothers.”
Polly lowered her voice.
“You think they know what we’re doing?”
Azarelle shook her head.
“I don’t think so. If they did they would have done something.”
“Yeah, like kill us.”
“I’m hoping it’s just because we’ve been moving around a lot more than usual. Money is changing hands and we’re meeting with people they don’t know. It makes sense for them to be suspicious. All we can do is hope we get what we need before the situation gets any worse.”
“I wish we didn’t have to do all this. You’re sure we have to?”
“It’s the prudent thing to do.”
Her friend slumped forward onto the table.
“I guess so.”
Azarelle looked out through the frosted glass of the window. It hadn’t stopped snowing since yesterday. There were already a few inches on the ground. The streets were empty.
“There’s one thing we do know.”
Polly looked over.
“If those people are the ones from the augury, we’re running out of time.”
“He did what?!”
Ellyn threw up her arms.
“I don’t know! He just said he was going out!”
“He didn’t say.”
“Of all the idiotic!—”
“Don’t yell at me. It’s not like I could have stopped him.”
Nathanius rubbed his forehead.
“Lon told us to sit tight. We just got here. This is just the kind of thing that’ll get us thrown right back out.”
“Well, what do you want me to do?”
Nathanius took a breath.
“Nothing. Just…stay here. I’ll go talk to Lon. They liked your music, by the way.”
“That’s good to hear. Now what about you?”
“Lon seemed to have something in mind for me. He’ll let me know.”
Ellyn gave him a sceptical look.
“You don’t sound very sure.”
Nathanius scrunched up his mouth.
“There’s something happening in the city…maybe even in the syndicate itself. The Jaspers have always been a little paranoid, but the tension around here is just too damn high.”
“What do you think it is?”
Nathanius shook his head.
“I don’t know. Something just feels…off, but I can’t talk to anybody until Lon lets me off the leash. I’m hoping that’ll be this afternoon.”
“You’re meeting him?”
“For lunch. It’s strange. He wants to meet out in the city.”
“What’s so strange about that?”
“I already said how paranoid they are. It would be safer to take a meeting at home.”
Ellyn picked up her guitar and strummed. She started tuning it.
“Well, be careful.”
“I’ll do my best. In the meantime you keep an ear to the ground. They’ll have you playing for the house. Get to know the staff. Maybe someone knows something.”
He went to leave. Ellyn called after him.
“What about Asterious?”
“Just cross your fingers and pray he doesn’t get us all killed.”
It was colder than usual.
Of course the weather was always an adjustment. The last time he’d been in the desert. Never quite managed to make it out. Still, it had been a nice change of pace. Life as a nomad was peaceful, if a little dull.
They’d found a way to end it: fighting over water. He’d guessed it years earlier, the moment his tribe had decided to stop roaming and settled by that oasis. After that it had only been a matter of time.
Difficult to deny. Easy to predict.
At least for him.
After so many violent ends, he’d come to the realization that there were only so many ways to kill a man.
This time would be…political conflict. Probably. It was actually kind of hard to tell, which was unusual given his experience on the subject. Maybe it was the unfamiliar setting. He hadn’t visited Kalkonu in…two, three lifetimes? They still hadn’t changed the name. It was funny. After so many centuries the only conclusion he’d been able to come to about the evolution of the world was that there was no telling what would stick.
Waltzing, for example.
Hadn’t expected that.
At least he was between wars this time. That was nice. By his reckoning more than ninety years had come and gone since his last visit. Someone must have lived a good, long life.
He smiled. Good for them.
Visits. That’s what he had come to call them. It was the best way. No long-term attachments. Just checking in on things. Were the monuments still standing? Were the nations the same? Were the old watering holes still around—under new management of course. Always under new management. Those were the rules.
Selapak was the same as it ever was. Cold. Dreary. No fun at all. He’d visited a few times. Never for more than a year. There were too many ways to get into trouble.
He had to get his bearings. After so much time the landscape had changed quite a bit, but the major points of interest were still there. Misery, for example. It was still around. Even had the same name.
Gold star for Misery.
The central valley of the continent, the Hral—which he noted no one called it anymore—remained the only habitable territory. It was, of course, under new management.
Asterious looked slowly back and forth. The streets had moved since his last visit. There must have been a huge fire. He did his best to guess his position using the mouth of the river that fed the lake. Once upon a time they’d called it the Snow Run. Now it was the Whitecourse. It traversed nearly half the central valley, all the way to what the people were now calling Tormar.
He walked along the shore. Three hundred paces. Then he turned, moving into some sort of fishing district. It was amazing there were still fish to be caught. The Kahut was a wreck.
Same name though.
Four-hundred paces. It would be on the right. His path brought him to the door of a small, square dwelling, one of many extending in a long grey row from the wharf. The windows were all boarded up.
There would be a barricade behind the door. Asterious looked around. The street was dark. The sun had set. Only a few lingering orange rays broke free from the horizon, tracing across the sky like a breath of distant fire. No one would be wasting fuel on light. Not now. Not when the number of daylight hours before the night could be counted on one hand.
He knocked on the door. No one answered. Asterious frowned. They would have to repair their barricade.
He’d help them fix it after. Right now he had to get inside. With a grunt he threw himself against the door. Once, twice, three times. The barricade buckled and the door pushed open a crack. A frightened face appeared in the gap. It was a man. He looked to be in his mid-fifties. Old, for Kalkonu.
He spoke in a harsh whisper.
“I don’t have anything. Please go away.”
Asterious shook his head and held out a bag. Leftovers from lunch.
“It’s alright. I’m not here to rob you. Here. I just need a minute.”
The face disappeared. A wrinkled hand reached out and snatched up the bag. It disappeared inside. He heard chewing.
“What do you want?”
Asterious leaned in close.
“This is going to sound a little strange, but I used to live here.”
The face reappeared.
“Impossible. You’re a kid. I’ve lived here longer than you’ve even been alive.”
“You’re probably right, but there is something here for me. Please, I need to get into the basement.”
The man shook his head.
“Now I know you’re lying. I don’t even have a basement.”
“You have no idea how glad I am to hear that.”
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