Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Rachel Mrotek
Copyright July 1st, 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.
Selapak, Beside the Lake.
The full name sounded a lot different in the tongue of the barbarian peoples. They called the lake Kahut, and it was every bit as sacred as the city.
Neither seemed it now.
The breeze reeked of dead fish and offal. Runoff from the city had turned the beach a sickly greenish-brown. Excrement, workshop waste, ash, and blood: it all washed into the Kahut. It was a wonder the whole city didn’t come down with dysentery.
Valis finished his wine. He’d been pleased to discover he could get wine here. The taste was bitter, probably from old must, but it would serve for the time being. With luck he wouldn’t have to bear it for long.
He left a pearl on the table and left. The local shops wouldn’t take his money. Wrong stamp. The syndicate was the only source of legal tender in Selapak. Of course the people still bartered, or used pearls, but all major transactions were required to be done using stamped iron ingots. Through them, the syndicate could keep tabs on everything of importance.
Well, almost everything.
It was a twenty minute walk back to his place. He tried to range as widely as possible to get what he needed. That way, if someone came around asking questions, there wouldn’t be any new regulars to report. His apartment was far in the warehouse district, where the lumber and metals from Hane and Coil came in. It was easier to barter in that area, and with all the comings and goings there was plenty of temporary lodging that was more-or-less anonymous.
Of course, the true value of the apartment wasn’t anonymity, it was the roof. It had a sign on it.
It was thirty feet tall, built on a wooden scaffold, creaking with age and wear in the face of the subcontinent’s remorseless wind and weather. The words and pictures on the surface had long since faded to a dull pallet of pale grey. He wasn’t a fan of the rickety structure, but it was the only way to view his target from a distance.
He called it the crow’s nest, and it was aptly named. His familiar was waiting for him in the perch. He sat down and peered through the viewing glass he’d placed there.
The bird didn’t say anything aloud.
“No, I am not excited.”
It smirked at him. He could tell.
“I am not.”
The building he observed was secure. It only had windows on the top floor. A tough nut to crack, but that was the syndicate. No one ever said it would be easy.
His eyes were drawn by a subtle movement to the window in the top-right corner. It was the only one that ever opened. The rest remained shut at all times with the curtains drawn.
A woman pulled the glass aside and sat on the sill. She leaned against the frame, idly smoking a long pipe. Valis smiled. The crow was right, not that he would ever admit it. Through the viewing glass he could see her eyes: long, dark, and sharp. Her form was slim, and quite shapely despite her unusual height. Her hair was raven black, a rare trait for an elf. It fell long in waves.
He glanced at the crow.
“I am not gawking. This is surveillance.”
“Yes, it is whatever I say.”
He was telling the truth…more or less. The leaders of the syndicate took paranoia to a clinical extreme. He’d been watching their house for weeks and had yet to discover a gap in their security. The woman might prove to be his only way in. He needed to know everything about her.
The crow squawked.
He turned and glared.
“Will you shut up!”
He whacked the bird. It chortled and fluttered a few paces away.
“Why don’t you get over there and do your job?”
He grumbled. The bird flew off.
Valis kept his eyes on the open window.
She scraped out her pipe with the butt of a long pen and went inside. He resisted the urge to activate the viewing glass’s magical properties to look through the walls. It would only work so many times before its components were expended, and he couldn’t afford replacements.
There was only one truly certain property of magic, and it wasn’t that it was mysterious or fickle. It wasn’t even difficult if you had the knack for it, or the right kind of schooling. Magic was rare, but not because it was fated. The reason was far more mundane.
It was just plain expensive.
Azarelle lumbered back to her workbench. Her mother always used to tell her that she was the only woman born who could lurch gracefully. She said she had the spirit of a dancer.
Polly said it was because she was tall, and that long legs were cheating.
Polly was a Halfling.
It had been a late night. A couple of rush orders had come through. They had paid extra.
If it hadn’t been for that—and a lot of coffee—there would have been no way the shipment would have been ready on time. She could be a team player, but there were limits.
Today was her own. She insisted on at least one day a week to pursue her own projects, and the Jaspers were kind enough to oblige. It was the least they could to. They were making a bundle off her talents, to say nothing of the fringe benefits of having an in-house magic user, especially one with her pedigree.
The drawings on the table were starting to blur. She had to rest. What good was a day off if she spent it passed out from exhaustion?
She glanced at her bed, then again at the table. The calculations were beginning to pile up. She needed more paper, not to mention gemstones, glass, and a dozen varieties of ore; then there was the plant life, all of which had to be brought in at great cost from the druids at Tanglewood and the Howling.
Money, money, money.
It would take years to finish.
She flopped onto the bed and put a pillow over her eyes. Could she wait years? Time takes on a new perspective when you’re exiled for life.
There was a knock at the door.
A pint-sized woman scampered in. Her bright red curls and rosy cheeks were unmistakable. She hopped up onto the bed with a smile.
Azarelle lifted the pillow and looked up at her.
The woman’s face fell. She unslung a leather pack from her shoulder and tossed it heavily onto Azarelle’s stomach. She grunted.
Polly crossed her arms and pouted.
“I spend all night risking life and limb and all I get for my trouble is ‘Hi, Polly!?’”
“And twenty-two ingots.”
The Halfling jumped on top of her, straddling her waist and grinning.
“You have my money?”
Azarelle nodded and pointed to a leather bag on the table. Polly squealed and leapt off of her, scrambling to the bag which she dumped out into her palm. The ingots clinked.
Azarelle smiled. She liked Polly von Toffel. She was a ray of hard-drinking sunshine on an otherwise cloudy day, and underneath her bouncy exterior was one of the most talented sneak-thieves in the city. At least half of the progress she’d made in her lab was attributable to her new friend’s talents. Some things money just plain couldn’t buy.
She looked in the pack. The contents were packed in black cloth.
“Did you get them?”
The woman looked up with a devilish smile.
“You don’t want to know.”
Good enough. Azarelle didn’t actually care. There were plenty of powerful people living in the city by the lake, all of them dangerous, but there were certain advantages to working so closely with the Jasper brothers. It would take a lot to convince the syndicate to flip on their new favourite pet. The concoctions and devices she created for them were generating huge profits. She was a one woman factory. If any of Polly’s thefts came out, she would be the last one to suffer for it.
Polly, on the other hand…
She lifted herself out of bed and went back to the table.
“I wish you would be more careful.”
Polly bagged up her ingots and jumped up onto one of the chairs. She stood on it with both feet and propped herself on her arms, examining the drawings. They were incomprehensible to her for sure. Polly was smart, but the symbols were in fabric script. You needed training to even know where to start.
“I don’t remember this part. Is it new?”
Azarelle came over. She didn’t take offence that Polly had sidestepped her concern. Her job was the only thing she knew. She didn’t like to talk about the risks.
“It looks important.”
Azarelle raised an eyebrow.
“What makes you say that?”
Polly looked up at her.
“Well, look at this circle. All these squiggly lines go to it.”
“What does it do?”
Azarelle opened the pack and gently removed the contents. Polly had done well. They were two, well made and in perfect condition.
“Nothing yet. This was all you could get?”
“That’s all there were, and you’re lucky there were that many. Not much call for crystal balls, except for people like you.”
“People like me?”
She scrunched up her lips and nodded.
Azarelle chuckled. It would be enough. She’d been was hoping for more in case she needed a spare, but Polly was right. It was a stroke of luck there were any to be had at all.
She re-wrapped them and set them aside.
“Want to watch?”
Polly smiled and hopped down from the chair.
“Good. Go downstairs and get us some coffee.”
She scampered off. Azarelle turned back to the table. Polly had smudged one of the lines. She took up a pen and corrected it.
Magic was delicate work. It was like composing music. For every tone there was a harmony; for every point, a counterpoint. The more powerful the spell became, the more complicated became its ever-multiplying strings. Together, they would strike a chord that, amplified by the reagents she planned to expend, would ripple across the weave of magic that covered the world to impose her will upon the fabric of reality…and teleport her off this rock.
At least that was the plan.
First, the spell.
There were so many elements to account for: longitude, latitude, wind and rain, temperature and pressure, not to mention the peculiar concentration of magic in this part of the world.
And there was something else.
At every turn there seemed to be some force acting against her. The first time she’d encountered it was during her first attempt to teleport back home. She’d spent weeks gathering the components for the spell. It was a procedure she knew by heart. Back at the university it would have been a simple matter.
The casting went perfectly. She’d even felt the familiar, tell-tale sensation of electricity and movement that was the hallmark of the spell. But something went wrong. The spell backfired, violently and without explanation. The force knocked her unconscious. She’d awoken hours later with a splitting headache that had taken more than a week to pass. Since then, she had devoted all her time to researching an explanation.
She surveyed the table.
This was the result, laid out in what had to be two-hundred square feet of paper and ink, and it wasn’t finished yet.
Polly came back with the coffee.
She got back to work.
The crow on the windowsill stood quietly and watched.
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