Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Rachel Mrotek
Copyright January 11th, 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.
“We can’t leave town.”
Nathanius sat by the stove. He stared through the tiny grate at the peeking red glow of the fire.
“Polly can barely stand, let alone walk, and by the time she’s well enough to travel the vanguard of Tormar will already have arrived. Selapak will be surrounded.”
Ellyn frowned. Polly hadn’t yet regained consciousness. Asterious had patched her up nicely, but Nathanius was right. They weren’t going anywhere for a while.
The safe house wasn’t much more than a hole in the ground under the floor. Nathanius said that it was probably a smuggler’s hold. There was wood under their feet, but the walls were mostly dirt.
At least it was arm.
Well, warm enough.
They were eating porridge. It was all they had. The bulk of the supplies Polly and Azarelle got from Valis were for magic. There wasn’t much food, a fact for which Nathanius had levelled considerable criticism.
She set down her bowl.
“Couldn’t we carry her? We could steal a wagon.”
“I suppose we could, but it’s a risk.”
Azarelle raised an eyebrow.
“What do you mean by that?”
Nathanius ate his porridge. He frowned at it. They were all frowning at it.
“Until we know she’s stable, we shouldn’t move her. We’re better prepared to deal with an emergency here. Plus, and I know I’ve said this before: it’s too cold to travel. We’d never make it anywhere.”
Azarelle spoke up. She’d been sitting quietly for almost an hour, right around the time Asterious finished up with Polly and they started playing the waiting game.
“So we just…stay here?”
Nathanius shook his head.
“We can’t do that either. We’ve got a plan and it’s still our only real chance. We have to carry it forward.”
Ellyn gave him a sceptical look.
“Isn’t that a little ambitious at this point? I mean, Polly is the only one of us with real experience at this sort of thing, and she’s laid up.”
“We still have steps we can take while we wait for her to recover. With a little luck she’ll be well enough to work when the time comes.”
There were a lot of steps.
The first was to get an accurate picture of the mansion’s defences. Good news there. They’d all been inside, and according to Ellyn, Polly had explored every nook and cranny of the estate. It would be easy to come up with a plan for the grab after she woke up. In the meantime, they had only to figure out the rest.
That was where he came in.
Nathanius shifted closer to the stove and warmed his hands. The others were asleep, apart from Asterious, who’d gone out hours ago, despite his protestations. Wouldn’t say why. Said he had to follow up on something. He’d stayed up on his own to make plans.
It would be difficult. With the five of them in the wind and the invasion on the horizon, the house would be locked down tight. It didn’t matter how they got in, there would be no way to get through the security; at least not without getting bogged down in a drawn-out fight that would probably end in all of their deaths. Asterious was good, but no one was that good.
The problem was the organization. They’d been in control for months, more than enough time to perfect their security. The only way to penetrate it was to create some kind of a disruption to force them to adjust their plans. If they could do that, they might expose a weakness.
The invasion would do it, but that solution was no good. Security would be low with all the heavies in the field, but by then the Jaspers would already have pulled the amulets out of the vault, and even if they got in before they did, it would be too late to cut a deal.
They needed a better plan. He’d been up for the past three hours in the dark trying to figure out what on earth that plan might be.
Azarelle sat down. Nathanius jumped in his seat. Apparently she was still awake. It was hard to keep track of her in that cloak.
“That’s really creepy, you know.”
She was very pretty, and her skills were undeniable. He could understand why Lon had been taken with her.
She lit a long pipe.
She leaned back against a heavy crate and nodded.
“Just chase weed.”
“That’s a Gelan herb.”
“I thought elves all smoked amaane.”
She took the pipe out of her mouth.
“It’s a stereotype.”
Nathanius smiled sheepishly.
She shook her head.
They sat quietly. Nathanius ruminated. It would have to be something big. The fire popped in the stove. Azarelle blew a smoke ring.
A thought occurred. He dismissed it. They couldn’t set the building on fire. The Jaspers wouldn’t forgive a stunt like that; plus, they had to leave them with their infrastructure intact or there would be no deal.
He turned to Azarelle. She put out her pipe.
“I’m trying to stretch it.”
“Where did you get chase weed anyway?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well it certainly doesn’t grow here.”
She gave him a forlorn smile.
“Lon gave it to me.”
“Do you regret betraying them?”
She put the pipe away in her cloak and warmed her hands.
“I had no choice. Tormar is going to take over Selapak.”
“You sound pretty sure.”
“I’ve seen it, remember.”
“Right, the augury. Aren’t those supposed to be unreliable?”
She gave him a flat look.
“Not when I perform them.”
“So you’re not in this for the backup plan. You just want to get in good with Tormar.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“I don’t know. I just…know.”
“And what if Valis is dead? They came after us. It stands to reason they went after him too.”
“He’s a sorcerer. I’m sure he made it.”
“So are you, and you almost didn’t.”
She fell silent.
Nathanius grabbed a smaller crate and slid it across the floor. He put his feet up.
“How did you meet the Jaspers?”
She lay back against the crate and slid her feet towards the fire.
“They approached me shortly after I made it to Selapak. I moved in with them three days later.”
“How long did you live with them?”
“Three or four months, I guess.”
“Ever see anyone get through their security?”
She shook her head.
He grumbled in his head.
“Anyone get close?”
She leaned her head back.
“I wish we had some coffee.”
“Come on. Humour me.”
“Lon told me he caught someone raiding the alcohol in the storeroom once.”
She shook her head.
“How’d they get in?”
“Security was light. His brothers were all out of the house.”
Nathanius sat up.
“And they took a portion of the guards with them.”
Azarelle noted his attention.
“Yes, of course.”
“I don’t remember.”
Nathanius leaned forward and stared at the fire. Sparks were flying in his head.
“It would have to have been at least half. They wouldn’t risk walking around with any less.”
Azarelle looked at him incredulously.
“You’ll never get them to go out with things the way they are. It would be too dangerous.”
Nathanius waved her off.
“But what if they had to?”
“You going to set the building on fire?”
Nathanius gave her a flat look.
Nathanius looked around the room. It was filled with magical components and equipment. Azarelle could probably put something together to draw them out, but an attack would only put them on the defensive. The first thing they would do would be to secure the vault. There had to be something else; something benign, but important.
His eyes fell upon Ellyn, asleep on a stack of boxes.
He turned to Azarelle.
“I’ve got it.”
Some people never change.
Asterious regarded the structure in front of him. It was gaudy, even in darkness, and by all visible appearances it was completely deserted. The gate was open, the windows were shuttered and boarded over, and a layer of deep snow had settled over the length of the walking path. It had built up against the door. It gave the impression of an icy tomb or a haunted house, to ward off superstitious looters who might be tempted to come calling.
The frozen corpses littering the yard didn’t hurt.
Asterious could see them, poking up out of the snow. How many had died here because they didn’t know just who it was they were dealing with?
He took a breath.
Walk softly. Touch nothing.
It was a risk coming here, but one worth taking. Asterious entered the yard and walked directly up the path from the front gate to the door. No sneaking. No ulterior motives. The old man would be watching, and there was no one else.
It was always this way. His punishment ensured that there would never be old friends to call.
It didn’t say anything about old enemies.
He chuckled. A loophole of the divine.
The door was shut. It looked like it hadn’t been used in years. Asterious knew better. He knocked.
No one answered.
He knocked again, louder.
“Come on. I know you’re in there.”
A few minutes passed. Asterious waited. Under ordinary circumstances he would have been tempted to break in and take a look around, but these odd times were hardly ordinary, and there were times where even he found it prudent to exercise caution.
He pounded his fist against the wood.
“Open the door, Del Rossi. It’s me.”
He heard a grumble. The door opened quietly at the hand of an unseen servant. It was light inside, and warm to the point of discomfort. The smell of spice and opium emerged in a smothering cloud. It draped over his face like an oil-soaked cloth.
Some people never change.
A monogrammed cotton towel was draped over his the arm of his invisible guide. He followed it through a cloud of burning incense into the parlour.
The walls were hung with brocade drapes. He found Del Rossi seated in the middle of a broad silk pillow, appearing as he always did: old, fat, and drunk. A low wooden table squatted in front of him set with a tall hookah. The smoke filled the top half of the room, a twisting haze of bluish grey.
Asterious rubbed his eyes and coughed. Del Rossi waved him over. His voice was a slurred drawl.
“Something to eat?”
Asterious approached and sat down.
“No, thank you.”
The man snapped his fingers and a plate of spiced dates appeared on the table, materializing from nowhere along with a crystal decanter filled with deep red wine. Asterious could smell their price.
He was tempted for a moment. It had been a long time and the old goat knew it, but if there was one thing he had learned about Lamion Del Rossi in the course of their dealings, it was that he was not to be trusted.
He was dressed in gold silks and jewellery, the result of many lifetimes spent in the pursuit of depredation and the peddling of magical mischief.
“I thought you were dead.”
The invisible butler disappeared into the hall. Asterious answered.
“I’ve been dead before.”
Del Rossi nodded.
“Indeed so. What a nuisance you are, always turning up to stick in your immortal nose where it doesn’t belong.”
“Then you know why I’ve come.”
The old man set down his pipe.
The old man leaned back on his pillow. His eyelids drooped.
“All the old familiar evils in all the old familiar places.”
Asterious’s stomach turned.
“Then they’re here?”
“And they’re coming?”
He nodded again. Asterious leaned back and took a long breath; then he looked up.
“Wait, why haven’t you left?”
Del Rossi chuckled, hacking and wheezing as he did.
“There’s nowhere to run from a calamity so large; and certainly not for a man in my position. They already know me.”
“So you’ve given up?”
The old man shook his head.
Asterious tensed. This was bad.
“You’re going to join them?”
The old man smiled.
“Dear boy, have you become dull as well as old?”
“What do you mean?”
Del Rossi tut-tutted.
“I’m disappointed you haven’t realized it already.”
Asterious’s heart stopped. The drugs in the air, the smell of the food…of the incense. It was all to dull his senses.
He stood up.
“You already have.”
The sorcerer clapped. In an instant a hundred gleaming weapons appeared around the room, hovering in the air, their flashing blades bent angrily towards him.
Del Rossi smiled.
“They don’t do it like they used to, do they?”
Asterious put up his hands.
“You can’t do this.”
The sorcerer smiled.
Asterious took a step back. The weapons inched forward.
“You owe me, sorcerer. We had a deal.”
“Long ago, and in another lifetime.”
Asterious shook his head.
“We both know that doesn’t matter.”
A long moment passed. The weapons hovered. Their enchanted steel whispered and sung softly in the hanging cloud.
Asterious took another step slowly away. Del Rossi lifted a hand and a single knife flashed down from the ceiling. Asterious ducked. It was too late.
It stopped a bare inch from his face and hovered. Asterious paused. He looked at Del Rossi, waiting.
The old man grumbled.
“Perhaps it is worth keeping you a while longer.”
“Hedging your bets?”
The sorcerer snapped his fingers and the weapons disappeared from the air and the butler returned.
“Go. You have the answer you came for. This conversation never took place.”
Asterious got up.
Del Rossi added.
“And my debt is paid.”
Asterious nodded slowly and went, following the butler cloth.
He stopped in the door and turned.
The man looked up.
“What is it?”
“How many are there?”
Del Rossi picked up his pipe.
Asterious furrowed his brow.
“After so long?”
The old man smiled.
“You know as well as I do, your highness. True evil doesn’t multiply—”
Asterious finished the phrase. He knew it well, and nodded grimly.
“…it only grows.”
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