“The Last Day”
Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Jennifer Lange
Copyright February 14th, 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.
Ellyn winced, forcing herself not to touch her face. The tattooist had done her best to be gentle. The needle only hurt when she got close to the eyes. She barely noticed the lingering pain during her assessment by the masters.
The oath had been brief.
Ellyn regarded herself calmly in the mirror, pulling her hair back and away from the design as it swept over the arch of her cheek, painting a line across her ear before descending the line of her jaw to disappear behind the cut her of chin. Now that the skin had begun to heal, it itched like mad.
Nathanius was with her. They were sitting in her room, which was on the performers’ floor, second from the top of the hotel. The top floor was for the dominaa and her confidantes. Below them, a third staff floor was home to practice areas and a cafeteria. Nathanius had a room in the back.
The room they’d assigned her was fairly comfortable. The bed was stuffed with heavy cloth batting, the blankets and pillows were wool, and a glass oil lamp burned on a dresser across from the bed, shedding warm orange light into the room.
They’d given her clothes, not as nice as the ones she’d seen on her new guildmates downstairs, but they were nice. They reminded her of her time at court, albeit less elaborate, and certainly not made from the silks she’d worn at the time. These were wool, dyed a deep crimson and brushed smooth. The neckline was surprisingly conservative, an oddity given the reputation of the establishment.
Ellyn spoke over her shoulder.
“You think this’ll come off?”
Nathanius was sitting on the bed, back propped up against the wall. Ellyn smirked as he massaged his jaw, still purple from the blow to his chin he’d suffered during their escape from the hotel. He grumbled out an answer.
“By magic, if we’re lucky.”
Ellyn frowned. The tattooist had given her a salve. She applied it liberally with the tip of her finger.
“This had better be worth it.”
Nathanius ran a hand through his hair.
“It should be.”
She spun around.
“Don’t get all panicky. Pull this off and we’re in the clear. Lon and his brothers will trade for the amulets and by the time Valis’s comrades in arms get here, we’ll be long gone. No muss. No fuss. No trust.”
Ellyn gave him a flat look.
“I bet you think you sound pretty clever when you say things like that.”
He thumped his head back gently against the wall and shut his eyes.
“It’s gotten me this far.”
He gave a forlorn chuckle.
She sat down.
“Ever wonder if maybe we’re not doing this right?”
Nathanius opened an eye.
“What do you mean by that?”
Ellyn let out a long breath. Every step they’d taken had brought them from bad to worse. Would it have been too much to ask to be able to just work for the Jaspers?
She frowned. Of course it was.
This continent would never allow an innocent to live in peace. Nathanius was right. A place with the Jaspers would have been good enough for the long night, but the only way to be sure they would survive was to get away, and for that they needed leverage.
“I just wish we could have trusted your friend.”
“Yeah, me too.”
Polly was on her feet, though her leg still ached. She was leaning up against a makeshift table, a broad piece of leather spread over a pair of low crates. She’d sketched the main house of the Jaspers’ estate upon it while Azarelle and Asterious quietly watched.
She set down the quill.
They looked. Azarelle nodded.
“Alright. What’s next?”
Polly drew her eyes along the line marking west wall. It fronted an alley between a low building and the taller main house. Both were owned by the syndicate, but the close quarters and the darkness would give them space to work and a measure of cover from the guards standing watch in the square.
Asterious raised an eyebrow.
Azarelle looked down.
“But there aren’t any windows on that wall.”
“The Jaspers sealed up all the ground floor windows when they took over the house, and the ones on the top floor are locked.”
Asterious gave her a questioning look.
“But you could get in, right?”
Polly looked up at him. Bless his heart. It was a good thing he was so pretty.
She tapped her wounded limb.
“Not like this. To use a window on the second or third floor I would have to climb up and hold myself in place with my legs while I worked on the lock. It takes two hands.”
His mouth fell open.
Polly smiled. She pointed to another area of the drawing.
“If we can’t use a window, all that’s left is the roof. There’s a skylight here that leads to the Jaspers’ office. It’s locked as well, but if Asterious can climb up, he can throw down a rope and pull me up; then I can open it.”
“Then we go to the vault.”
Polly nodded back.
“I never saw it, but there are only a few places on this map where it could be, and we should expect it to be sealed somehow, probably by magic.”
Azarelle leaned in.
“I can take care of that.”
“We’ll be counting on it.”
“Still, that leaves us having to check every hiding place one-by-one until we find it. That’s a long time.”
Polly returned his frown and agreed. It was risky. The search would take time, and every minute they were in the house was a minute they might be discovered. She shook her head.
“It’ll take too long.”
Asterious nodded agreement.
“We’ll have to come up with something else. Maybe we can get to one of the guards and make them tell us where it is.”
Polly looked up at him.
“In twenty-four hours?”
The table fell silent.
Azarelle looked around the room and the stacks of crates and supplies that Valis had provided.
Polly looked up.
She looked over.
“I was just thinking. Do we still have those crystal balls you got me?”
“We do. I think they’re in your stuff from the hotel.”
“Then maybe we won’t have to look.”
Lon read the report with a deep frown. His brothers had already been over it. He was reading it again, as though somehow a second look would change its implications.
Tormar was close.
The scouts had withdrawn from the outskirts, pressed back into the core of the city by the steadily rising density of wandering undead, uncontrolled skirmishers cut loose from the main body of the force; meanwhile, in the hinterlands, the first groups of the enemy’s cleric-soldiers had already been sighted. The bulk of the army could not be far behind.
Lon massaged his head. It was like watching a plague. It advanced invisibly and with agonizing slowness, marked only by the appearance of pins on a map, each grim sighting a new outbreak.
Lon set the report aside. His brothers remained confident. The mob would respond. The lottery had been a huge success. Thousands of volunteers had registered their names, thieves and brigands all, and each now with a vested interest in their victory. Perhaps one horde would prove as good as any other.
But the armies of the dead were not their only enemy.
Lon glanced at the calendar on the wall. It was old and out of date, left by the previous owners of the house when they took over. It only showed one fact, and with little accuracy: the long night was almost upon them.
Years of preparation spent to position themselves, one ambitious year to seize control, and scant few months to solidify their hold. It all came down to this. No government ever survived the long night.
Would they be the first?
Lon found himself wondering how many others had asked themselves the same question.
The answer would come soon enough. One or two days. Three if they were lucky. The night and the invasion were set to coincide, which was almost certainly Tormar’s plan all along.
Lon sighed. The long breath escaped his lips slowly. He missed Azarelle. What would become of her when the storm finally came? Would she ever come back? Could he trust her if she ever did?
He frowned. His brothers would say no, and in the end it was a waste of thought to ponder the matter. She was long gone.
The sound of boots thumped on the stairs. The door swept open and his older brothers paraded into the office.
They fanned out. Rias had a letter in his hand. He threw it on the desk. The envelope was deep crimson.
Lon reached out and took it up.
Wess shook his head and smiled.
“From the ladies. They want to host us for a party.”
Kiel cut in.
“Not a party, a gathering.”
Lon read the letter.
Rias loomed over him. He pointed to the bottom of the page.
“Not as interesting as their new star performer.”
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