“The Great Escape”
Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Jennifer Lange
Copyright April 4th, 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.
Asterious bolted down the corridor after Polly. It was dark. The cry of the alarm filled the house, piercing their ears until blood ran.
He shouted forward.
“Which way is it?”
Polly glanced back over her shoulder.
“Up on the right!”
The corridor was dark. Only a few dim candles flickered and sputtered in glass flutes affixed to the wall. They ran. Polly stuffed the box they’d taken from the vault into her bag. It was the only thing in the vault, apart from a few bottles of whiskey and a bag of gemstones: the Jaspers’ cash reserve for the long night when their stamped ingots would no longer be any good for trade.
He’d hoped to find whatever magic the Jaspers had tucked away for their supposed escape plan. Sadly, no luck. Still, they’d got what they’d come for. Now all they had to do was get out.
The stairs were up ahead. Two men came running up. He could hear more behind them.
Polly ducked around them. A pair of hands snaked out. They were aiming for Polly; they got the bag instead. The thick strap went suddenly taught and practically lifted her off the ground. Polly yelped. Her knife flashed out, slashing.
The hand came off at the wrist.
The man howled and lurched back. Asterious barrelled into him and pushed him down the stairs into his partner. They both fell off balance and tumbled back.
There were six more on their way up; probably every guard in the whole damn place.
They kept running. The rope in the office was a no go. Polly was leading the way across the house to Azarelle’s former apartment. It had a balcony facing the street.
Her leg gave out. She stumbled and hit the floor with a grunt. Asterious caught her up by the collar as he bounded down the hall.
It was locked. Asterious took a step back and kicked. The wood didn’t budge.
He turned to Polly.
“Any other ideas?”
She reached into her bag.
“Buy me some time.”
Asterious drew his swords. The metal flashed in the dim light as five men came running up the hall.
He took the first one almost without effort. The first was always the easiest. Brutes always came charging in without a thought. The long blade pierced his leather armour like a needle through a bolt of cloth.
They weren’t his swords. The true High Blades of Gondavol were lost long ago. He’d had them when he’d gone to his first death, but one of the more miserable points of his curse was that while he would never truly go to his end; neither would he simply die. He would always be killed.
The fact that he never returned until all of his friends had lived out their lives inevitably gave whoever killed him a hell of a head start. He’d managed to reclaim his possessions once or twice, but in the end they all were all lost to time. As was Gondavol.
As was he.
He’d had these two swords made during his last visit to Kalkonu. That was…a hundred years go? Two? It was hard to keep track. Luckily, the last time he’d had a chance to stash a few things before the end.
They were enchanted. He’d performed the magic himself. He’d never been much of a sorcerer, but every mortal soldier during the Iiari knew at least two spells: one to allow a weapon to pierce the gods’ flesh, and another to guard against their magic.
Of course he named them. It was the only proper thing to do. The long blade was Whisker. He’d named it for a cat he’d kept in his youth—Over the years he’d used all the more sentimental names he could think of on other weapons, and it didn’t seem right to re-use them—It was a duelling sabre. The blade was thin and perfectly balanced. It held the enchantment to slay. The short blade with the basket hilt was called Lamp, because it drove back darkness. It held the enchantment to guard.
He’d enchanted them purely out of habit, and because the magic gave them a keener edge. He never imagined that they would ever see their old enemies again, or that he would.
But what about Valis? Just how exactly was the dark sorcerer from Gelande involved? Was he in league with them? Or was he merely an agent of Tormar as he said?
There was so little time to find out.
The second man charged in with two more of his friends behind him. The metal of their weaons flashed dully in the candlelight. Axes. They were cheaper than swords. The blade came down. Asterious brought his right hand around and deflected it with the basket of his sword, bringing his knee up into the man’s gut. He groaned and staggered but he didn’t go down.
His friend swung in. Asterious rolled backwards to avoid the cut. The head buried itself in the floor. He slashed out with his left hand, severing the leg of the groaning man as he struggled to get up. He yowled and collapsed to the floor, clutching the wounded stump.
The two in the back drew crossbows.
Asterious spoke over his shoulder.
“Polly? Are you ready?”
She was attaching something to the door.
“Just a second!”
The first crossbow fired.
Asterious lunged to the side. The bolts missed him by inches and whipped down the corridor, imbedding themselves in the wall. The guards began to reload as their friend recovered his axe from the floor and moved in.
The crossbows cranked, their bolts glinted, and the scene was starting to feel just a little familiar. Asterious smiled. He’d been killed so many times even death had taken on an air of monotony. He lashed out as the third man swung again, striking at his hands and arms.
The crossbows fired again. He dodged, managing to avoid the first, but the second’s aim was too true. The bolt struck him in the shoulder. Asterious winced and gritted his teeth as he felt his left arm go slack.
He looked back again at Polly.
She jumped back from the door and struck a match, which she flicked at a bundle of sticky oiled cloth she’d attached to the door.
“Fire in the hole!”
The bundle exploded in a cloud of flame that filled the corridor with choking black smoke. The guards were blown off their feet. Asterious covered his face as a shower of splintered wood and broken plaster filled the hall.
Polly was already moving.
She ran into the room. Asterious coughed and staggered in after her. The door swung loose on its hinges. The lock had been blown apart. They shut the door behind them and tipped a cabinet over in front of it.
The apartment was bare. Azarelle must have packed everything up before she left; that or the Jaspers had come in after and cleaned it out. There was only a huge iron stove, sitting cold in the corner of the workspace.
Polly ran to it.
“Get the window!”
He did. The shutters weren’t locked. He threw them open and looked out at the square. It was empty.
Polly ran up beside him.
“I don’t see the wagon.”
Rias finished his wine. The meeting had gone well. As expected, the dominaa had not been pleased when informed of Nathanius’s deception. It was one thing to take in refugees; quite another to harbour fugitives.
She’d led them all backstage and ordered the guards to fetch Nathanius and Ellyn at once. Now they waited.
The dominaa frowned.
“I knew there was something wrong about the two of them the moment they came back.”
Rias raised an eyebrow.
“I took them in for a night when they came to the city. They’d rescued one of my girls. It’s sad, really. I had a good feeling about Ellyn. I even offered her a place.”
Rias straightened up.
They’d sorted out the terms over dinner. As expected, she wouldn’t be turning over Ellyn. To do so would go against everything her organization stood for. It was acceptable. Besides, he was certain the dominaa would conjure up an appropriately severe punishment for the musician. It would surely be merciful when compared to the plans he had in store for her friends.
As for the dominaa, they’d come to a simple arrangement: the sharing of supplies and information during the night. He’d hoped for more. An alliance would have been preferable, but she was hedging her bets…just in case their enemies were victorious.
Still, it was a beginning. Larger empires had been founded upon less.
The guards returned. They only had Ellyn with them. She was taller up close. Rias had only ever seen her on stage. The dominaa regarded her coldly for a moment before turning to the guards.
“Where is her partner?”
They shook their heads.
“We checked his quarters. There was a rope out the window.”
“It seems he never intended to stay.”
The dominaa turned to Ellyn.
“Where is he?”
She shook her head, cowering.
“I don’t know, dominaa.”
The woman loomed.
“You took an oath young lady and I will to hold you to it. Now straighten up!”
“The truth! Now!”
Ellyn looked at the floor.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know where they went.”
Rias’s head snapped around.
A look of alarm flashed briefly across the young elf’s features as he slowly came forward.
Nathanius. Their old fixer was clever. He always hit you in the ways you didn’t expect.
Wess raised an eyebrow.
“What’s wrong, brother?”
Rias extended a hand and gently took hold of the young woman’s jaw.
The dominaa turned.
“What are you doing?”
Rias waved her off.
“It’s alright. I’m not going to hurt her.”
He turned back to Ellyn, hoping to be mistaken, but the puzzle was slowly becoming clear, or rather the question was: why would Nathanius and Ellyn exchange something as valuable the dominaa’s favour and good will, only to deceive her? And why would they bring him and his brothers here to re-capture them?
He pulled gently. Ellyn’s face came away in a gentle shower of fine red mist, transforming to paper in his hands. It was marked with magic.
The dominaa’s eyes went wide.
“I knew she looked too tall.”
The woman was human. Judging by her markings and the magic, she was a journeyman of the guild. She turned and spoke to her master.
“I’m sorry, dominaa. I couldn’t refuse her. She saved my life.”
Rias turned to his brothers and growled.
“We have to go. Nathanius has drawn us out.”
“There they are!”
They were just about to jump when the wagon came barrelling up the street. It was the same one they’d had when they came to the city. Nathanius and Ellyn had been tasked with retrieving it from the Jaspers’ livery.
Polly looked back. The guards were pushing through the door.
“What about Azarelle?”
Asterious frowned as he stowed his swords and got ready to jump.
“She’s a good sorcerer. If we’re lucky she’s already outside.”
Polly stopped him.
“And if she’s not?”
He shook his head.
“Polly, we have to go.”
The wagon pulled up under the window. Nathanius was on the driver’s bench with Ellyn beside him. He looked up and shouted.
Asterious turned to face her. The wound on her leg had re-opened. Her trousers were running with blood. She would never manage the landing.
“I’ll go first. I can catch you.”
Asterious leapt from the balcony and rolled across the roof to his feet. He turned and raised his arms. His shoulder twinged and he winced.
Polly suffered a final look back into the room before she jumped.
Asterious caught her, grunting in pain. They crumpled to the roof. Polly yelped, clutching her leg as she rolled over to face Nathanius.
“Has Azarelle come out?”
“She’s not with you?!”
Asterious answered bluntly.
“It hasn’t exactly been an easy ride.”
The front door to the house cracked open. Orange light spilled out into the square.
Azarelle emerged in a daze. She approached at a slow walk, clutching a bag of coffee in her arms.
Polly raised an eyebrow.
“You stopped for coffee?”
She looked down, confused.
“No…no, I…Lon gave it to me.”
Polly furrowed her brow.
“Gave it to you?”
“He let me go.”
“We’ll he’s not going to be as kind to the rest of us. Get on!”
Azarelle climbed aboard, a sort of strained expression on her face. Her eyes were vacant; her cheeks were red from crying. Polly jumped down and climbed in after her.
The sound of drums rose up suddenly in the dark. Asterious turned looked out at the city. A red glow was rising in the east.
He cracked the whip. The animals kicked and brayed and the wagon rumbled off into the dark.
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