Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Jennifer Lange
Copyright March 19th, 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.
Lon stared out from the broad window of the office, missing the mechanical clock he’d owned back home. He’d been staring for almost an hour, but it wouldn’t be long now.
His brothers were getting ready to leave. They’d already met together and given out instructions to the district bosses. If the enemy attacked while they were at the Blind-Deaf Ladies’ ill-timed gathering, the city’s response would be no less prompt, and he could always take over if the need arose.
Lon had decided not to go. The last thing he needed to see right now was his brothers hauling Azarelle out of the hotel by the hair. They’d promised to be gentle if she cooperated, but he knew Azarelle pretty well, to say nothing of Nathanius and his new friends, all of whom knew exactly what they were in for.
There was going to be a fight.
He couldn’t help but wonder how long they had all been working together and whether or not Rias been right all along.
The horizon was still dark.
He sipped his coffee. The mug steamed. It was his third so far this morning. He didn’t normally have so much, but he had to start getting through it. There was too much in the storehouse and he didn’t want to let it go to waste. Of course, the stash was meant to be for two. He’d bought enough for the whole winter.
He frowned. Not much chance of that now.
The sky brightened, barely. He stared out at the endless plain: black, grey, and white. Somewhere in the distance there were mountains, frozen rivers, and home.
He shook his head. Home was here now. He knew that. His brothers knew that. Everyone knew that. That was the reason for the struggle. Selapak, Tormar, and countless other scattered settlements, each one supporting its own example of the latest crop of annual kings, every one as desperate as the last to reclaim some small measure of the power and dignity they had all been forced to leave behind.
That was the trap: the house, the money, the girl. It couldn’t be done. Not in this place. There wasn’t enough for everyone. Hell, there wasn’t enough for anyone. He and his brothers had taken control of the largest city on the continent, and he had only managed to get close. Two out of three.
Problem was, these days he only seemed to be able to think about the one that got away.
The door opened up on the ground floor. Lon looked down through the glass. A broad pool of orange light spilled out into the street as three dozen guards exited, followed closely by his brothers. There was a carriage waiting for them. It was a short trip to the blind-deaf ladies hotel, but they weren’t taking any chances.
The house would be operating on a skeleton crew until they returned. Just enough to hold it. Lon had put them all on the ground floor.
A sliver of sunlight peeked over the horizon. Lon looked up, but it was too late. It lasted only for the barest of instant. His glimpse met only its final fading rays, and then the light vanished and was gone.
It was night.
Nathanius tied a rope off to the bedpost, crept to the window, and dropped it out. They’d made it from the bedsheets.
Ellyn nodded. It was strange. She thought she’d be more nervous.
He grabbed his things.
“Everything’s been arranged for the performance?”
Ellyn nodded again.
He opened the window.
“Then let’s just hope no one comes looking for me.”
Ellyn picked up her guitar. It was the one she’d purchased at the Notch.
“I’m sure everyone will be busy downstairs. The Jaspers’ get here in less than an hour. My concert alone is supposed to last for another three.”
Nathanius climbed out the windows and hung on the rope, bracing his feet against the wall.
“Let’s hope it’s enough time.”
Polly wrapped a bandage tight around her leg and stood up. They couldn’t wait any longer.
“We don’t have everybody.”
Polly shook her head.
“We can’t wait. The timetable is everything. The only thing we can do is stick to it.”
Asterious grabbed the bundle of equipment.
“And if we can’t?”
Polly shrugged. Asterious had been quiet all evening. As a matter of fact, he’d been quiet since he returned from getting their supplies. What could make a man like that keep his mouth shut, she had no idea.
“We’ll figure it out when we have to.”
Azarelle gathered her cloak and closed the grate on the stove. The fire would snuff itself out. Shadows gathered around her like a cloud of moths to an invisible flame. She pulled up the hood and all but disappeared.
Polly wished they had a cloak like that for each of them. She’d asked about it, but apparently Valis’s pile of materiel only included enough of a certain necessary component to create one.
Azarelle’s voice emanated from the shadows.
“I wonder what happened to Valis.”
Polly grabbed her pack.
“Probably hiding out like us.”
“Do you think he knows what we’re planning? How are we supposed to deliver the amulets if we don’t know where he is?”
Polly thought about a moment. In the end she shrugged.
“He might have guessed what we’re up to, especially if he’s heard about the gathering at the Blind-Deaf Ladies, but whether he’s figured it out or not, he’s definitely looking for us. I’m sure he’ll make contact once the job is done. We can hand over the amulets then if we don’t end up trading with the Jaspers.”
Azarelle shook her head.
“The Jaspers’ won’t trade. Valis will be the one that saves us.”
Asterious lifted an eyebrow.
“You always sound so sure of that.”
“I know what I saw.”
Polly frowned. The augury. Her friend had told her about it: the invasion during the night, the fire, the fighting in the city streets, the “encounter” with Lon, but it was only recently that she’d revealed the details about the ending that she now seemed so certain of. For some reason Polly found her confidence disquieting.
Asterious walked over to Azarelle. He peered into the empty space where he was standing and sniffed.
“Are you feeling alright?”
The darkness shifted as Azarelle moved past him.
“I’m fine. Let’s just do this.”
Polly watched as Azarelle’s bag vanished, disappearing into her friend’s robes.
Asterious turned around.
“You sure that spell’s going to work?”
Polly chuckled. Azarelle’s magic always worked.
“It’ll work. Once the casting is complete, the magic will guide us to the vault like a compass, but it doesn’t last for very long. We’ll have about ten minutes.”
Asterious took a breath and nodded. Polly watched him. Clearly he had something in his head, but whatever it was, he wasn’t willing to share it.
She went to the stairs.
“Be ready to think on the fly. In my experience nothing ever goes exactly according to plan, and we’ve already hit at least one complication.”
“Nathanius. If the cart isn’t outside when we’re done we’ll have to escape on foot. And you’re not exactly in sprinting shape.”
Polly thumped her leg and winced.
“Don’t remind me.”
She opened the trap door. The black chill of the long night poured in through the gap. She shivered. This job was a mess: too many variables and far too little time to prepare, and she couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something else going on.
She hated jobs like that. They were always more treacherous than they appeared. It was a job like this one that landed her here.
Well, that and the gambling.
Never take a job where the pitch starts out with: we can give you a fresh start.
They never say where.
Three cloaked figures.
Right on schedule.
The crow’s eyes picked out their forms dimly, even through the deep of the night and the sorceress’s shadowy magic. Valis smiled as he watched them creep away along the street.
He whispered aloud.
Nexus took flight. The gaze of the bird soared over the city, its buildings reduced in the darkness to a dark field of thinly scattered lights.
Valis raised an eyebrow.
Indeed. What next.
“We’ll deliver them a message.”
“You’re right. You’ll deliver them a message.”
“I know it’s cold.”
“Yes, fine. I suppose it’s finally time to check in.”
There was a long pause.
Valis nodded. He was right.
It wouldn’t be long now.
For how many centuries had their names been whispered? For how many eons had their forms been recalled only as fragmented history?
Truly, it wouldn’t be long now.
The gods were coming. No one would be whispering anymore.
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