“A Bloody Business”
Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Rachel Mrotek
Copyright January 10th, 2018
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.
Nathanius ran, tearing down a line of low, square structures made from mud, old brick, and clapboard. Polly was right. They never would have found the shelter on their own. The shipping district was a labyrinth. All the buildings looked the same, and the streets were laid out in an endless grid of alleys and rutted thoroughfares.
Three more, then turn left, then four. Look for a blue star.
That was all she’d been able to get out in the final moments before she fell unconscious. The syndicate had opened fire the moment they made it to the roof. Fortunately it was pitch black outside, and one assumed at least half of them couldn’t see in the dark. Still, with all the arrows in the air it was only a matter of time before someone got lucky.
Polly had taken it in the leg, mid-jump as she leapt to the next roof. Her footing gave out when she landed. If they hadn’t caught her she would have rolled all the way off the edge and to the ground. Asterious had carried her from there while she gave directions. He still had her in his arms. The man was a machine. His shirt and pants were covered in her blood.
“How’s she looking?”
Asterious looked down.
“Pale. We better get there soon.”
Nathanius kept running. His jaw ached. He was sure it was broken, or at least fractured. It hurt to talk, but it was bearable as long as he didn’t open his mouth too wide.
Turn left. Four buildings down.
He stopped in the middle of an intersection. They’d managed to lose their pursuers in the maze. Now they just had to find Polly’s holdout.
A blue star.
Asterious wasn’t going to be any help. There were no lights in the street and the sky was overcast. It was pitch black. Even his own eyes were having trouble.
Azarelle spoke up. She was a standing shadow, all but invisible in her enchanted cloak. It was an amazing piece of magic. He’d have to ask her if she could make more.
Asterious looked around.
“We can’t see you point.”
“On the left. Across the corner.”
Nathanius looked. It was a depot of some kind, but there was no star.
He heard footsteps. They all took off after them and the front door of the structure swung open.
“But there’s no star.”
Ellyn raced past.
“It’s on the sign.”
He looked up. Indeed. There was a shingle hanging from a wooden pole stuck in the wall. It was old and the writing had faded, but it had a picture of the constellation Siren on it. The guide star was drawn oversize and highlighted in blue.
Asterious ran inside.
Nathanius followed him. The structure was obviously abandoned, not surprising given the time of year. There was no trade in the winter. The layout was exactly as Polly had described: a poor shelter, but good enough to hide in for a few days. The ground floor was indefensible. There were too many doors, none of which had locks, and there were no shutters on the windows.
Asterious stood in the center of the space.
Ellyn looked around. The room was huge. A handful of tables lay about the space, bare and weathered.
“I don’t see anything.”
Nathanius shook his head.
“Me either, but she wouldn’t have led us here for nothing.”
Asterious cast his glance to every corner.
“Maybe it got raided.”
Azarelle answered from the shadows.
“She wouldn’t leave her things out in the open. There must be a hidden door or something. We have to keep looking.”
Polly’s eyes fluttered. Asterious held up her head.
“Hey, she’s awake!”
Nathanius came over. She lifted her hand a few weak inches and extended a finger, pointing at a table in the middle of the floor. Asterious looked up.
Nathanius nodded. Asterious passed her into his arms and ran to the table. With a single swift kick he upended it across the floor.
“There’s a trap door here!”
Ellyn ran over.
He did. There was a rickety staircase leading down. Ellyn peered through the gap.
“It looks dry. There are a bunch of crates. They’ve got some kind of symbol on them.”
Azarelle spoke up.
“It’s safe. That’s the emblem of Tormar. The crates belong to us.”
“Let’s go. Somebody get the door.”
The basement was small, and piled high with stacked crates. There was a stove in the corner. The flue went into the wall. It was anybody’s guess where it came out. There was a table up against the wall. Nathanius pointed.
“Bring that over here.”
Ellyn climbed up the steps and shut the trap. Asterious pulled the table out for Polly. Nathanius set her down.
They heard whispering. From out of nowhere a light appeared, caught on a pendant suspended by a hand extending from a slowly retreating shadow. Azarelle’s invisibility peeled away into the dark.
“Will she make it?”
Nathanius shook his head as he examined Polly’s leg. The arrow was still sticking out of her thigh. The wound was seeping blood.
“I don’t know. I don’t have any medical training. Asterious?”
He looked up.
“Other things too?”
Azarelle raised an eyebrow.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
Asterious came over. Nathanius pulled her back.
“We’ll explain later. What’s in these crates?”
“Tools and equipment, mostly for composing magic. We wanted to make sure we had everything we needed in case we had to leave town.”
“Any medical supplies?”
Azarelle faced the pile.
“There should be.”
Nathanius waved Ellyn over.
“We have to find them.”
He glanced at Asterious, who shook his head and frowned. Nathanius turned back to the others.
Lon slammed the door. Rias looked up.
“Can I help you?”
His brother was fuming.
“You didn’t tell me it would be tonight.”
“I was going to go. I was going to bring her in.”
“Be glad you didn’t. She wasn’t alone.”
“What do you mean?”
“It seems our problem was larger than we thought. Nathanius was with her, along with Polly von Toffel, his swordsman, and the musician. They killed three men on their way out. A fourth is still bleeding in the ward. The nurse doesn’t think he’ll make it.”
Lon went to the window and looked out in the direction of the hotel where the fight had taken place.
“You should have let me talk to her.”
“I did. You said she lied.”
“I wanted to give her another chance!”
“She’d been given enough chances. I didn’t make her choose to betray us and neither did you.”
His brother frowned.
Rias shook his head.
“Still, nothing. At your request she was given both the benefit of the doubt and a warning. Let it go.”
Lon turned from the window.
“So where is she?”
Rias stood up from the desk.
“Gone to ground. The beacon is dark. For now, she and the others have escaped. I’ve got the word out but I’m not expecting anything. Between the invasion and the night all our people are dedicated to other tasks.”
His brother’s grim expression brightened ever-so-slightly.
“You have to know that if she does eventually re-surface, nothing will have changed.”
“I still don’t understand what you saw in her.
“Well, you and I are very different people.”
Lon’s mood remained bright. He went to the sideboard and poured them both a drink, nurtured by the hope that his girlfriend was safely away. Even if he never saw her again, he could take comfort in that. Rias’s only comfort was the fact that the report from the hitters clearly indicated that their quarries had indeed been taken by surprise.
Lon hadn’t leaked.
His brother handed him a glass and returned to the window.
“What about the operative?”
Rias shook his head.
“More bad news. The entire team was wiped out.”
Lon furrowed his brow.
“The whole team? How many?”
“A dozen of our best.”
“Magic, we assume.”
“To get a report you need survivors, but the carnage at the scene was conclusive enough.”
“You think he’s gone back to his lines?”
“We don’t know.”
“But we’ll be ready?”
Rias joined his brother. The city was dark. The pool of light around the house was the only sign of life for six blocks. He could see the Blind-Deaf Ladies’ hotel across town. It would be open all winter. They considered it an imperative for morale; plus, they had almost as many guards as their own syndicate. They would need their help in the end.
His brother would always be the man that he was, and in the grand scheme of things, the invasion was more important than a handful of fugitives.
Rias sipped his drink.
“We’ll make it. The undead move slowly in the cold. Wess was right. We forced their hand. They couldn’t wait and give our base of power a chance to grow. Our fighters will have the advantage.”
“That’s good news.”
“It is, as long as the battle is decisive. Our men cannot survive in the weather.”
“Doesn’t the enemy know that?”
“They do, but they cannot nibble around the city forever. If they want to seize control, eventually they will have to come to us. That will be our moment to strike.”
He turned to Lon.
“If your girlfriend is as smart as you say she is, she’ll find a way to get out of town before then.”
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