Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Rachel Mrotek
Copyright December 28th, 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.
There was a knock at the door.
Azarelle looked up with a grin. It was Jyll. They’d been working together for six months and he still insisted she give him permission to enter. It was a shared lab for goodness sake.
The door swung open and he came through, struggling to manoeuvre a heavy cart from the storage room in behind him. It was loaded with supplies. The glass containers rattled against each other in their crates.
“I think this is everything.”
He swung the door shut with his foot. Azarelle went over and gave him a peck on the cheek. It was allowed. Jyll had been granted a fellowship by the board of deans, and since their specialties were similar, he’d been assigned to her department: theoretical magic and weave theory.
Which was, incidentally, the topic of the evening.
She waved him over.
“Come look at this.”
He pushed the cart aside and came to the table. It was made from limestone, carefully harvested from one of the purest quarries in Gelande and shipped in filtered beeswax across the sea. The university had paid a tidy sum.
Azarelle didn’t care about the money. Neither did Jyll. The two of them were poised to make the greatest discovery in the history of modern sorcery. Everything else was crap.
Jyll examined her setup.
“You think it’ll work.”
She smiled from ear to ear.
“I know it does.”
He turned. His expression was just barely short of shock.
“You didn’t wait for me?”
Azarelle grabbed a tall stool, set it by the table, and sat him down.
“I’m sorry. I couldn’t resist.”
“I thought this was our project.”
She put her hands on his shoulders and gave him a pitying look.
“Oh, hush. You know I’m not trying to horn in on you. This all started with your thesis.”
He grumbled. She kissed him again.
“Come on. We still have to verify the result. Help me. Then we can get some lunch. My treat.”
He maintained his frown for another moment before he finally relented.
“Fine, I forgive you.”
“Now let’s see it.”
Azarelle grinned and climbed up on the table.
The experiment was simple; or rather it was easy to define. The work itself was incredibly complicated. It all started with Jyll’s thesis: On the Possibility of Peak Harmonics by way of Inverted Sorcery. Not exactly a thrilling title. The dean’s board had dismissed the work as clever but unproductive theoretical musing, not worthy of further study. Azarelle disagreed.
And she had tenure.
Jyll did as the deans asked and dropped the project. Unable to resist the possibilities, she elected to continue it in secret, siphoning off odds and ends of funding from other projects to nurse the endeavour along. It wasn’t strictly speaking above board; but as the study quietly grew and Jyll’s theories began to congeal into cold, hard fact, the gains became more than worth the risk.
She’d told him about it eight days ago. They’d spent every night since then finishing it. The result was the construct in the centre of the table. It was an experiment, designed to serve as a kind of proof-of-concept, a concrete result they could take to the board. With a bit of luck, it would inspire them to loosen up some funding.
Sorcery is best performed upside-down.
It was common knowledge that magic was drawn into the world by using sound to create sympathetic vibrations in the weave of supernatural energy that blanketed the planes, but left to its own strange devices the effect was inevitably distorted by the ambient power of the surrounding weave. As a result, it was necessary to use physical elements to refine and amplify the sorcerer’s influence on the weave. Such was the practice of what the two of them were now calling “classical magic.”
Jyll described it as “shouting over the noise.” His theory maintained that it would be more effective to carefully insulate both sorcerer and spell from the movements of the wider weave, stilling the great strings in a localized area in order to allow the sorcerer’s to exert their will without impediment.
Even a soft note rings true in a quiet room.
And a loud one roars.
So stated his conclusion.
Azarelle was convinced. Jyll’s theories were going to change everything. The new method would allow magic to achieve a power no one ever thought possible. Which was why now, half-a-year later, she found herself sitting on a limestone table in the centre of her lab, surrounded by a carefully chosen set of components it had taken weeks to select. She stared at the subject of the experiment in front of her. It was a lamp. There were hundreds like it all over the city, maintained annually by a small army of municipal sorcerers.
Their job was about to get a lot easier.
She handed Jyll a pair of safety goggles.
“You’ll need these.”
He took them.
She put on a pair herself.
Azarelle began. She spoke the words aloud, but no sound escaped her lips. The components didn’t glow. The reagents weren’t consumed. There was no noise, no vibration, no…nothing. The room was silent.
The lamp began to glow.
Polly led the way.
Nathanius looked back over his shoulder. The streets were dark and utterly deserted, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that they were being watched. Asterious tapped him on the shoulder and whispered.
“You feel it too?”
Nathanius nodded, glancing up at the street’s shuttered windows. He saw one cracked open. It shut and he frowned.
“The city only looks empty. The people are all still here, trying to decide if we’re worth the effort.”
Ellyn spoke up behind them.
Polly turned around.
“Will you keep quiet?”
“How much further?”
Polly pointed ahead. The moon was barely a sliver in the cloudy evening sky. The grey buildings rose like the walls of a shallow ravine. None of them were tall, but in the darkneses and the cold, nonetheless, they seemed to loom.
Nathanius followed the line of Polly’s arm ahead. She was pointing at some kind of hotel. There was a broad weathered sign mounted on the roof. He looked back up the street the way they’d come. From up there, it had a perfect view of Selapak’s main square, not to mention the Jasper’s mansion.
Polly led them inside and up the stairs. Asterious shifted, moving his hands to rest on his weapons. He still had the two hatchets from the pit outside Misery, and more back in the room he’d left behind. Nathanius still had one of Krodyn’s old knives; Ellyn had the other. He shook his head.
“We’re not here to fight.”
Asterious curled up his nose. The boards in the corridor creaked and the stairs groaned under their feet. Behind every door they heard whispers and scuffling as they passed.
“Something smells off.”
“There’s probably a dead body somewhere.”
Asterious sniffed again and shook his head.
“It doesn’t smell like that.”
Ellyn spoke up.
“I don’t smell anything.”
Polly stopped. They were on the top floor. The door to the room was unremarkable.
A dark man answered.
Asterious stood quietly. The others were talking with Valis. He was about what Asterious had come to expect. Spies were all the same. They kept their hands where you could see them, smiled at you, moved slowly, and always looked you in the eye. After so many years Asterious had grown to recognize patterns in the way certain styles of people behaved. They didn’t vary much from era to era, founded as they all were on each culture’s way of responding to the relative constant of basic animal instinct: friend or foe, fight or flight, the familiar and the strange.
Spies always had a way. It was careful and it was calculated. They were always in the middle, far enough away to avoid seeming a danger, but close enough to look friendly; their words were pointed enough to come across as honest but not so forceful that they might appear to actually be in need of your help.
Keep the mark in control.
Keep the mark comfortable.
Keep them right where you wanted them.
Nathanius was canny enough to keep track of all that. He was a smart one, and certainly capable of deciding whether or not it would be a good idea to make a deal. Asterious allowed himself to focus on something else.
It hung in the air, not so much a scent as a sensation. He’d felt it the moment he entered the room.
When he was young his mother would make bread in the winter. The smell of honeyed fruit and almonds would fill the house for days, but what had always struck him most was that even when the season was over: weeks later, months later, or even decades later…walking through the rooms he was still able to catch the faint and fleeting fragrance of the bread.
Of the honeyed fruit.
Of the almonds.
There was something here and he feared it. It was nowhere to be seen, but he could feel it on his face as though someone had sprayed him with perfume. It had been so long, but the familiarity of it crashed into him like a sudden gust of hot wind.
Perhaps he was mistaken.
He prayed he was mistaken.
But then, he knew better than to pray.
He wandered slowly away from the group, doing his best to appear bored. He examined the wall Valis had used to display his map. Like a dog sniffing out a rat below the floor, he worked his way around slowly, following the ebb and flow of the sensation until he reached the cabinets by the spy’s long table.
Don’t look back. A spy would always catch someone checking over their shoulder. The man had been open with them so far. Perhaps he wouldn’t mind one of his new partners taking a look around.
The uneasy feeling scratched against his memory, evoking all the old alien sensations he had not quite forgotten how to dread. It was like recalling a nightmare. The fear had faded. All that remained was the knowledge of it.
Do not think the word. Do not frame the thought. He put his hand on the latch of the centre cabinet.
Had it all been for nothing?
The door swung open, revealing a deep wardrobe hung with woollen clothing and a long fur cloak.
He took a step back.
“Looking for something?
Asterious turned. Valis was beside him. He thought up a lie and he thought it up quick.
“I was hoping for wine. I’m parched.”
Valis shut the wardrobe. The latch clicked.
He opened the next cabinet over and drew out a smoked-glass bottle. He held it out.
“I’m afraid it isn’t good.”
Asterious smiled cheerfully.
“I’m sure it will do.”
He took the bottle.
He uncorked it and drank. The man seemed satisfied, but as a spy he would have seemed that way in any event.
Asterious sat in the corner. It was too soon to be sure. He would have to tell the others, but not here…and certainly not yet. If he was right, telling them would only make the situation worse. It was prudent to be certain.
No, it was imperative.
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