Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Jennifer Lange
Copyright March 28th, 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.
Well, it was big.
Asterious looked up at the massive gate, smashed open by his father’s siege engines during the bombardment the day before. His men stood around him. They’d cut the horses loose to prevent them being preyed upon after they’d gone. At least in the field they would have a chance. They could always collect them later if they succeeded, and if they failed…it wouldn’t matter.
His general stood beside him, stoic, a heavy-set man named Lamion Del-Rossi. They’d been together for whole back half of the campaign. He was a fighter of middling quality, but his skills as a sorcerer were not to be trifled with. He kneaded his chin and regarded the gaping corridor beyond the shattered door.
“You think it’s safe?”
Asterious huffed out a laugh.
The comment drew a low chuckle from a few of the men. Del Rossi drew out his pipe and lit it. Asterious raised an eyebrow.
“Do you think now’s the time for that?”
Del Rossi waved the stem of the pipe at the field.
“Our losses were heavy crossing the plain, and your father is tied up in the enemy centre. We should wait and move when he arrives.”
“Put out the pipe.”
Del Rossi laughed.
“You can’t be thinking about going in? There are barely fifty of us.”
Asterious gave him a sharp look.
“Keep your voice down. You’ll unnerve the men.”
He drew his sword and hefted up his shield from where it had been resting against his knee. The man had a point, but his father and the rest of the army had hurled themselves full into the face of the enemy to give them this chance to attack. He could not allow it to go to waste.
He turned to Del Rossi.
“We are exposed here, and there’s no guarantee that anyone else will break through. If we wait, we may lose everything.”
Del Rossi held up the pipe.
“We only may. If we wait, we assure our victory.”
“Only if they break through.”
Asterious glanced back out at the field, a furious inferno of fire and steel burned across the sloping plain. He finished the thought grimly as he turned back to face the frowning sorcerer.
“Do you think there’s much chance of that?”
Del Rossi looked out for a moment, forced to concede. He snuffed out his pipe.
“We will be direly overmatched.”
Asterious shook his head.
“We don’t know how many there are left. Perhaps the numbers will break in our favour.”
Del Rossi shook his head.
“I suppose fortune favours the bold.”
He motioned the men forward.
The heavens of the gods are tall and pure, or so the poet said. The mortal races stain them with their ever-dying breath.
Asterious had seen the inside of fully eleven of the gods’ palaces—their so-called “heavens.” Tall, they were, and clean, and white.
But pure? No.
The corridor was set with the bones of their victims: collected once a season, scoured clean, bleached, and polished until they gleamed like worked alabaster. It made Asterious sick. For how many generations had their brightest and most innocent been spirited away to these soaring…charnel houses?
For thousands of years they were told that they had been chosen, selected to live with the gods and to bask in their majesty, a glorious destiny reserved only for the finest among them: the brightest, the wisest, the most beautiful, the most talented. It was the divine carrot, dangled in front of the nose of the world so that its people would forgive the ever-present burden of the gods’ weighty dominion.
It was only when one of the “selected” managed somehow to escape that mortal kind learned the truth. To be chosen was tantamount to murder. They were kept in thrall, tortured, subjected to every kind of horrible depredation to entertain the gods’ carefully concealed appetites for adulation, violence, and lust. In the end, they murdered their favourites and kept their bones, coldly positioned in whatever pursuits had earned them their masters’ favour. Their skulls were carved with their names.
To preserve their memory.
A disturbing irony, given their even more unsettling penchant for modifying the minds of their subjects, bending their hearts and wills toward the service of their obscene vices.
The truth gave rise to the first stirrings of the resistance. It began with the elves: a small group that called themselves the Iiari. The name’s meaning was “to pull down,” and while the group itself was slaughtered before the war even began, their name became a rallying cry for revolution.
Asterious glanced back over his shoulder.
“I don’t see any selected.”
Del Rossi nodded.
“They’ll be keeping them with the choir.”
Asterious nodded. The Halcyon Choir. It was the name the gods had given to themselves. They had been called by it since time immemorial. It used to refer to them all. Of late, it was only used to describe their leaders.
They marched. Each man held his sword and shield aloft. Asterious let his gaze wander to the ceiling. The choir would attack from above, using their magic to appear from thin air. They always began with the advantage.
It didn’t help that when one fought the gods, the first and foremost imperative was to think of something else.
Speak of them sparsely.
Think of them rarely.
Pray to them, never.
The gods drew power from the thoughts of those who dwelled upon them, whether for good or ill.
The palace hall was ahead. The door yawned open, shedding a blinding light. They would not see the interior until they passed through.
The light flickered briefly with a spot of black, like a sparrow flitting across the sun. Asterious had seen it before.
They were coming.
The air over their heads began to shimmer. Asterious raised his voice and roared at the top of his lungs.
“To arms! Iiari!”
Polly stopped in the middle of the hall. Asterious turned.
She had her eyes fixed on the wall. Azarelle’s spell had gone still almost ten minutes ago. They’d been operating on the thief’s dead-reckoning ever since.
She looked up at him.
“This is it.”
Asterious looked around. There wasn’t a door in sight.
“I think so. If I’m remembering the layout correctly, there’s a dead space behind this wall.”
She nodded again.
“About the size of a closet.”
Asterious drew his swords and stood against the wall.
“You check it. I’ll keep watch.”
Polly knelt down and began examining the panelling that lined the corridor. Asterious watched the hall on either side. So far they hadn’t run into any guards. Rias and his brothers must have cleared the place clean out. The only voices they heard were coming from downstairs: Lon and Azarelle, shouting at each other in the foyer. The rest of the guards had probably all been drawn by the commotion.
Asterious whispered to Polly with a smile.
“They seem to be getting along well.”
Polly chuckled, moving to the edge of the panel in front of her. She ran her fingers up the edge.
“Well, I guess if I would be angry too, if I were him.”
The shouting continued. Polly kept searching. Asterious stood up from the wall and stood behind her. She was examining the floor. He looked over her shoulder.
“You think they’ll make up?”
He drew back, puzzled.
Polly looked up at him and grinned.
“Let’s just say I have a hunch it’s going to be a good night for both of them in the end.”
Asterious lifted his brow.
She chuckled again and turned back to her work.
“Azarelle saw it during her augury. The two of them were enjoying a moment alone, if you know what I mean.”
There was another shout froom downstairs.
“You think that’s likely? They sound pretty angry.”
Polly got out a long, thin bar of metal from her pack and stuck it into a crease in between the wall panels. She started bumping it upwards with the heel of her palm, speaking over her shoulder.
“Azarelle is pretty good when it comes to magic.”
Asterious nodded, but Polly seemed to pause.
She went on, wiggling the bar.
“It’s strange, though. I mentioned it earlier on the roof and she didn’t seem to remember that part. Of course these days the only thing she seems to talk about is Tormar taking over Selapak and how much we need to help Valis with his mission.”
Asterious’s chest tightened.
“What do you mean?”
Polly glanced back at him.
“Well, to be honest I think she was pretending. You were standing right there, after all.”
Asterious felt a sinking feeling in his gut. Gaps in the memory; sudden and furious devotion. It was all too familiar, and to top it all off…the smell.
He knew it had to have been more than his imagination. Valis wasn’t just some spy. He was working with them, and somehow he had gotten to professor, Azarelle. It was the only explanation.
There was more going on here that a simple heist. Valis was manipulating them, and probably others as well.
The gods needed the Jaspers’ amulets. Why? He didn’t know. He only knew that they had to stop.
Polly stood up, pulling hard against her makeshift lever. She twisted it back and forth. Asterious put a hand on her shoulder.
She grunted and heaved. The bar clicked and the panel in the wall swung open.
A piercing sound filled suddenly the air.
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