“Fragments of the Past”
Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Rachel Mrotek
Copyright February 6th, 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.
They called it the armature.
Azarelle sat quietly, whispering cool silence into the air. Jyll sat across from her at the opposite focal point, doing the same.
Plucking the weave.
The armature spun between them, a towering monument to their combined intellect. Flashing gimbals of steel, gold, silver, and leaded crystal spun in flashing ribbons, a blur of energy and material, interspersed with light, pulsing in every colour of magic’s dizzying rainbow.
With each passing moment the power in the armature grew, revolution upon swirling revolution, wave upon swelling wave, each rising higher than the last. The great construct emitted a low hum, resonating as its heavy parts whipped through the steadily warming air.
The heat was a problem.
There were two spells being cast in the experiment: first, the spell; and second, the inversion to isolate a section of the weave. Despite their early successes, they were still perfecting the second half. Their first attempts had been at lower energy levels: simple spells with simple goals and minimal needs, but as they attempted more ambitious castings, the task of composing and stringing a stable spell for isolation grew exponentially more complicated, and while their current model functioned to a degree, for lack of a better term, it leaked.
Hence, the armature.
It was more of a measuring device than a spell; after all, the goal of the experiment wasn’t necessarily to cast powerful magic, but to determine by what magnitude a sorcerer’s power could be amplified by stilling the nearby weave.
It shone like a captured star.
The inversion weave spread out across the floor, a carefully graven arrangement of carved lines inlaid with gold, set at meticulously calculated increments with precisely cut gemstones, rare ores, and sealed phials of quicksilver and distilled water.
They’d given up on organic components. Too fragile.
A spray of multi-coloured sparks suddenly crackled, racing along the patterned lines of the weave, an arc of lightning along the clouds. The phials began to fracture, spilling their contents as the escaping power cascaded along the circumference of the pattern.
Azarelle’s eyes snapped open at the sound. She shouted.
Jyll opened his eyes. He dove to the wall and yanked down on a heavy lever. Directly above the armature, a huge leather bag suspended from the ceiling slipped open, disgorging a torrent of fine white sand. The spinning structure of the armature scattered the grains in all directions, blanketing the room. The light vanished. The device ground slowly to a halt.
Jyll turned to her.
She shook her head.
“I’m not sure. Maybe an asymmetric harmonic. Some kind of sympathetic vibration.”
She reached across the floor and brushed the sand away, revealing the pattern on the floor. The gold was encrusted with coal-black scale. The gemstones had fractured. She looked up at Jyll.
“Check the ones on that side.”
“That’s an asymmetric harmonic alright. We’ll have to recalculate. Damn it. We were so close.”
She went to the wall. They’d moved from the lab in the research wing to an unused storage space in the sixth tower. It used to be an observatory, but no one used it since they expanded the astronomy annex. Its circular shape was well-suited to their purpose, as well as their desire to remain undetected by the rest of the faculty.
Jyll went to the base of the armature. The measuring gauge was located there. Azarelle looked over.
“What’s the reading.”
Azarelle frowned. They would try again. The deans had rejected their first proposal, as well as their second, and while they had been willing to forgive the first two rounds of low-grade, off-the-books appropriations as the product of scientific zeal, the funds the two of them had embezzled since then easily amounted to verifiable grand larceny. It was only a matter of time before the bookkeepers figured it out.
Azarelle picked up a handful of sand and slowly let it run through her grip. They’d come so far. She couldn’t let it all be for nothing.
There were boots coming down the stairs. Azarelle started up at the sound. Asterious shut the trap door behind him. The draft flowed, a tide of chilling air that clung to the bones and stuck to the flesh. She pulled her cloak tight. The fire burned in the little metal stove, popping as the embers inside smouldered and cracked. They would need firewood pretty soon.
Asterious sat down. He looked a little shaken up.
Azarelle raised an eyebrow and took out her pipe. She lit it.
Asterious shook his head.
“No. Where’s Nathanius?”
Azarelle pointed her pipe up at the door. Everyone seemed to care about what Nathanius thought.
“Out with Ellyn. Where were you?”
He sat down. For a moment he seemed ready to say something, but he let the notion go.
“It’s not imporant.”
Azarelle huffed out a laugh. He was such a strange man. A clown, surely, but there was something thoughtful and distant about his aspect that gave her pause. He seemed weathered…disinterested. It was as though everything that came before him was old news.
Which was why his apparent unease was so unsettling.
It was evident on his face: the distant look, fading slowly to a focused expression and back again. Now and then he shook his head, as though rejecting an errant thought.
He pulled off his boots and put his feet by the fire. The stench was abominable. Azarelle took a long draw from her pipe. The herbs crackled in the bowl. The musk was fragrant. It always used to relax her. Tonight it didn’t seem to help. Her thoughts were elsewhere.
Magic. Power. The accident and her dismissal, the augury. Valis. Was it an indulgence to believe they were all connected? Was it ego? She thought back to her day in court. They’d called her unfeeling. They’d called her cold and condemned her to this place.
She’d missed Jyll’s funeral.
A tear slipped her cheek. She never seemed to be able to hold onto anything.
Polly groaned. Azarelle ran over.
Azarelle nodded rapidly.
“Yes, I’m here. Thank goodness. I was so worried.”
Polly tried to sit up, only to wince and lie back down.
“They shot me in the leg.”
She gave her some water. Polly drank eagerly, sputtering as she gulped it down.
“Did we all make it?”
“Everyone. You were the only casualty.”
Polly almost laughed.
“Figures. So where are the others?”
Azarelle took her hand.
“They went out. We’re moving forward with the plan. We need your help.”
Polly turned her head and smiled up at her, ignoring the comment. Her face was one of soft gladness. She spoke softly.
“You didn’t leave me behind.”
Azarelle started to cry.
She knew exactly from whence the tears came. She’d lost so much, too much to think about and too much to mull over quietly. Her grip tightened hard on Polly’s hand.
The basement door gave way and splintered. Valis braced himself against the ground to shove the portal open. His boots were soaking with mud and melted snow. The hole in the ground that served as the basement stairwell the was filled with ice and fresh snow up to his waist.
The door shoved open. He shivered and slipped inside.
The basement felt like a tomb. A sheet of black ice had crept across the floor almost to the far wall, the result of so many days and nights of freezing, melting, and re-freezing. The table remained where he had left it, as well as the bed, the tools, and the shallow graves, all undisturbed.
Back to square one.
He clapped his hands, addressing the ground.
“Come on. Get up. There’s work to do.”
He turned to the stove. He’d salvaged it from the ground floor. There was no one living in what remained of the house upstairs. He’d burned it down when he arrived. All that remained was the rubble. The wreckage obscured any evidence that there was ever a basement at all.
This was his first place. He’d acquired it before he got his apartment in the shipping district. The ice on the floor cracked and crumbled open. A grey hand emerged from the loose earth, followed by a pair of arms, a chest, shoulders, and finally a head. He was a man, perhaps in his early thirties; beside him, a second man about the same age was also in the midst of exhuming himself.
Valis examined their condition briefly. They were the original owners of the house, only a little worse for wear for their time in the cold ground. The smell was minimal, but present. He wrinkled his nose. He’d been spoiled by the cadavers back in Tormar, wrapped in clean linen and smelling of the evergreen resin they used for the embalming.
He’d killed these two and left them behind, along with some supplies in case of emergency. There’d been no reason to bring them along, and it would have been risky to attempt to sneak them across the city. Undead were easy to spot, and besides, it had comforted him at the time to know his bugout stash was be well guarded.
They stood up silently and waited.
He pointed to the corner.
“Dig out the supplies.”
Valis got back to the squat iron stove. It was freezing. He had to start a fire.
The dead complied.
He didn’t have to provide detailed instructions. Undead didn’t have a will of their own, or instincts, or motivations for that matter of any kind. The magic didn’t bring the dead to life; it merely allowed the sorcerer to press his own will into a lifeless body. You only had to keep the instructions clear in your own head, and avoid letting your thoughts wander.
The kindling struck. A warm red glow began to flower in the heart of the stove. Valis blew on it gently. He wasn’t worried about his cover, nor the fact that the Jaspers’ had managed to root him out. The task for the evening was not to flee, nor was it to retaliate, nor to change tactics; the task was to determine what damage, if any, had been done to the plan already in motion.
Nexus perched on the corner of the table.
“You guessed it.”
“Find all of them, actually.”
He reached into his pocket and drew out a bit of paper. He scribbled on it and tied the note to Nexus’s leg.
Valis raised an eyebrow.
“Just do your best. I have complete faith in you.”
“Yeah, I know. I’ll report in after you find out what happened. Give me some good news.”
“I’ll see you in a few hours.”
He took the bird to the door and cracked it open. The bird hesitated.
He thought it over.
“You’re right. I’d like you to find her first.”
Nexus flew out and he shut it again. Valis took a long breath and smirked at his parting words.
Nexus was right.
It was too cold out for a war.
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