Exiles – Issue #42: Loose Ends

Exiles - Issue #41: The Great Escape
Exiles - Issue #43: Dark Designs

 

Exiles

Issue #42

 “Loose Ends”

Written by Aaron McQueen

Illustrated by Jennifer Lange

Copyright April 5th, 2018

www.patreon.com/McQueenBooks

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.

Jeannie McQueen

Donald McQueen

Theresa McQueen-Uber

Duana McQueen

Jeff McQueen

Eden Odhner

 

I.

 

Valis strode up the corridor. It was a grim business, but the time had come.          The sorcerer’s task would be completed by now, nearly the last of the great many that would ultimately bring about his masters’ dominion.

The carpet shifted. Valis stepped around it. As he passed, the material mounded up and followed, drifting behind him like a wave on the air.

Valis grumbled.

“Very well, then.”

He shook his shoulder, letting the chain fall. Shadows and smoke began to pool at his feet. He kept the chain wrapped around his arm. It was fast becoming his favourite tool. As it fell, he caught a curl of its black links in his palm.

He turned, flinging the long chain out. Black tentacles of darkness and smoke lashed out across the hallway, catching up the rising folds of the sorcerer’s parlour trick: a catching carpet.

Quaint.

He tore it to shreds. The red wool tatters fell in ribbons and frayed clumps to the now bare floor.

He heard a man laugh in a room just off the hall. Del Rossi’s bilious tone was unmistakable. Valis approached with caution. The sorcerer was a glutton and a buffoon, but a dangerous buffoon was still a danger to the unwary, and a treacherous glutton, a threat. It was a fool who believed otherwise of the masters of magic.

Valis kept up his guard as he entered.

Del Rossi was seated on his silken cushion, enrobed as he always was in a cloud of fragrant smoke. The trappings of luxury lay around him and hung upon the walls: food, drink, and a hundred glistening blades of silver and gold.

He looked up.

“Sorry about the carpet.”

Valis raised an eyebrow.

“You should be more careful with your defences.”

The old man coughed out a chuckle.

“My defences are adequate. I assure you I have nothing to fear. It’s time then?”

Valis nodded.

“You’ve certainly had more than enough. Is it ready?”

Del Rossi nodded.

“It is.”

Valis stepped forward.

“Give it to me.”

Del Rossi leaned back in his pillow. It seemed to swallow him up.

“Of course.”

He gestured with one hand. A fragment of broken stone floated up from one of the side-tables, turning gently through the air as if it were borne up by a draft.

Valis caught it.

“This is it?”

Del Rossi nodded.

“Mainly.”

Valis examined the slab. The sorcerer’s notes were extensive. It would take weeks to familiarize himself with the casting, especially since it appeared to be…

He looked up.

“It’s incomplete.”

Del Rossi chuckled.

“You’re a quick one.”

Valis put the slab in his pocket and held out his hand.

“The rest of it, now.”

Del Rossi shook his head.

“I’ll need a few things.”

Valis growled.

“You’ve been well compensated.”

Del Rossi shrugged.

“That’s a matter of opinion.”

Valis took a forced breath. The chain in his hand began to stir. Smoke bled down the iron links.

“We had a deal, wizard.”

Del Rossi raised an eyebrow.

“Wizard, eh? I haven’t been called that in a while.”

He genuflected in his seat.

“I’m honoured.”

Valis roared.

“Give me the casting!”

Darkness swirled around him in rising waves, infested with grasping tentacles and ribbons of slicing black shadow. The lights in the room plunged into oblivion.

The objects on the wall twitched.

Valis checked himself.

“What do you want?”

Del Rossi smoked, idly.

“Assurances.”

Valis gritted his teeth.

“Such as?”

“That when all is said and done, I will have my curse lifted, and that your masters’ will ensure that I am deposited on a suitably…enjoyable plane.”

He thumped his chest.

“Quite a few skeletons in this man’s closet, though not so many, I think, as in your masters’”

Valis shook his head.

“I don’t know what curse you speak of, but no one can make that kind of guarantee.”

Del Rossi smiled.

“Oh? I thought they were gods?”

Valis glared.

“They are.”

Del Rossi shifted his weight in his seat, straightening up.

“Then it should be a simple matter.”

He went on.

“I also want to live out this life in plenty, accompanied by…”

He paused.

“Perhaps twenty servants of my choosing; oh, and there must be a hot bath.”

Servants? A bath?

Valis’s face darkened.

“You’re stalling.”

Del Rossi smiled.

“Of course.”

“Why?”

Del Rossi brought up his arms and gestured to the walls. The weapons upon them trembled.

“Because I know the real reason you have come.”

The weapons flung themselves from the walls, whipping like arrows from the sky towards Valis. He shook the chain. The dark responded. A hundred tentacles and ribbons slashed out, deflecting the blows and catching the weapons out of the air.

Del Rossi stood.

“There was never to be any reward.”

Valis shook the chain again and flung the weapons at him. He brought up a hand. There was a flash of coloured light. They all turned to paper.

Valis chuckled.

“Were they ever real?”

Del Rossi bobbed his head.

“Is anything?”

Valis shook his head.

“My masters know you. They would never allow someone with your skill and knowledge to exist.”

The old sorcerer grinned.

“Odd. If it weren’t for them, I would have died of old age many centuries ago. Funny little world, isn’t it?”

Valis tightened his grip. He detested this man and his insufferable turns of phrase. They’d been discussing his progress for weeks, and he’d yet to utter a single plain sentence.

He reached into his cloak and gripped the godsbone. The shadows in the room expanded and grew, until there was no light and no space except the few feet between them. He extended a hand.

“Give me the rest, Del Rossi. If you do…I might just let you leave here alive.”

Del Rossi smiled.

“You still don’t see it, do you?”

Valis looked around.

“See what?”

He smiled.

“I told you already. I have nothing to fear.”

The table and the tall smoking pipe suddenly crumpled, falling to shreds of parchment, along with the table, the cushion, the rug on the floor…and the man.

“I departed this place the same night you knocked on my door. You have been dealing with a puppet.”

Valis’s eyes went wide.

“Power blinds. You really should pay closer attention.”

Valis growled, wrenching the chain forward. Darkness rushed in, rending and tearing.

A flurry of paper disbursed onto the floor.

Valis roared.

A throatless voice echoed in the black.

“Take heed, young sorcerer. The last son of Gondavol approaches. You would do well not to stand in his path.”

 

II.

 

Asterious grabbed a box and lifted it up. They were stacking the roof of the wagon with as much of Valis’s materiel as they could carry, hauling it up from the hidden basement into the workshop. Ellyn shoved the box into place and began to tie it down. They couldn’t bring it all. Azarelle was prioritizing the flotsam.

Asterious picked up another.

Azarelle shook her head and pointed.

“Not that one. Get the one next to it.”

Asterious complied, regarding her quietly. He’d been keeping an eye on her the whole night, thinking. There was no telling what Valis had commanded her to do. She wouldn’t even be aware of it until it was too late.

He lifted the crate she’d indicated and pushed it through the rear door of the wagon; then he climbed in and called her over.

“Come here.”

She turned.

“What is it?”

He pointed to the crate.

“Help me shift this.”

She climbed in after him and took hold of the crate. Asterious braced himself. He would have only moments to act.

His right hand drifted to the hilt of his sword.

Move fast.

“Okay, push!”

Azarelle lurched.

Steel sang. Asterious whipped the sword out and reached forward, catching hold of her collar. She yelped as he yanked her forward, pulled her down, and pressed the flat of the blade against her forehead. The blade flashed against her skin.

Asterious frowned. That was it then.

He lowered his voice.

“I’m sorry, but this is really going to hurt.”

The blade blazed. Azarelle’s eyes burst with white light. She shrieked as her body wrenched and contorted, arms thrashing and knuckles bent askew.

Asterious held her down as Nathanius came running over to the door.

“What are you doing?!”

Asterious turned to look at him.

“Don’t worry. She’ll be fine!”

Polly arrived. Her eyes went wide with rage.

“Get off of her!”

Asterious shook his head.

“No, wait!”

She leapt through the opening with her blade drawn, diving for his exposed back. He let go of Azarelle as the Halfling drove into him. She planted herself on his chest and drove the knife down towards his neck.

He caught her wrist.

“I’m not trying to hurt her!”

She pressed down harder. He struggled with all his strength to hold her back.

The point of the blade touched his throat.

Nathanius came up behind them.

“Enough! Polly, stop!”

She shouted back.

“You saw what he was doing!”

Nathanius climbed into the wagon.

“I don’t know what I saw. Now stop it, will you?”

Asterious looked up at her.

“She’ll be fine. There was a spell on her. I had to remove it.”

Nathanius looked at him.

“A spell?”

Asterious nodded stiffly. Polly didn’t move.

“I suspected it before. I would have told you but I wasn’t sure until tonight when Polly told me about the augury.”

Nathanius eyed him skeptically.

“We already knew about her vision.”

Asterious shook his head.

“Not all of it.”

Nathanius turned to Polly, his face suddenly suspicious.

“What does he mean?”

Polly eased off, shaking her head insistently.

“It was nothing! A personal matter. It didn’t mean anything.”

Asterious sat up.

“No…”

He turned to face Azarelle.

“It means everything. It means we have another enemy. I would have said something sooner, but I had to be sure. Even after I knew…it wasn’t safe to say until I figured out how far they had come.”

Polly gave him a flat look.

“And who are ‘they,’ exactly?”

Asterious looked him in the eye.

“The gods.”

 

III.

 

It was preposterous. Nathanius laughed aloud.

“The gods? That’s impossible.”

Asterious shook his head.

“I wish you were right, but they’re here. They’ve been here, hiding, probably for eons.”

“Not a chance.”

Asterious insisted.

“It makes sense. Just think about it: a remote continent, barely populated, no government. It would have been the perfect place to hide.”

Nathanius crossed his arms. They were sitting in a circle at the back of the wagon. Azarelle was still inside. She was unconscious, knocked out cold by whatever strange magic Asterious had used to “cure” her.

It was an impossible story, and yet coming from Asterious it seemed almost believable. There was a kind of dour, fearful honesty couched in his voice. Nathanius was accustomed to reading people, and in this case his intuition was leading him to an inescapable conclusion:

Asterious, at least, did not believe that he was lying.

Nathanius chuckled.

“You’re going to have to help me on this one. How do you know it’s them?”

Asterious pointed at Azarelle.

“The gods can alter the memories of mortal creatures, removing and replacing them with their own will, with their own thoughts, and with their own ambitions.”

He leaned forward.

“Polly said that Azarelle was unsure about aiding Valis until a few days ago; then suddenly all she could think about was helping him…and then that she had forgotten how the augury ended.”

Nathanius raised an eyebrow and looked at Polly.

She answered.

“That part is true.”

Asterious’s voice tightened.

“The gods can sense when someone is thinking about them. They draw power from it. She must have seen something in her vision that drew their attention. They must have ordered Valis to bring her under their control.”

He tapped the hilt of his short sword.

“The magic in this blade dispels their magic. I was freeing her from their influence.”

Nathanius looked over at Azarelle.

“Assuming I believed you, did it work?”

Asterious shook his head.

“No way to know until she wakes up.”

Polly raised her hand.

“I have a question.”

He turned.

“How do we know you aren’t out of your mind? The gods can sense when someone is thinking about them? The gods alter memories? How do you know any of this? The gods have been dead for thousands of years. Everyone knows that. The mortal races killed them during the Iiari. Remember? The Iiari?”

Asterious chuckled.

“Yes, I remember the Iiari.”

Nathanius cut in.

“Then you know what you’re saying can’t be true.”

He leaned forward.

“So tell us then, how do you know?”

Asterious grumbled. This is where he always lost them. He rarely told anyone about the peculiar nature of his existence; not because he didn’t care to share, but because it always seemed to cause more problems than it solved.

He answered reluctantly.

“Because I was there.”

Polly got out her knife.

“That’s it. This is where I get off the ride. Let’s just leave him and get out of here.”

Nathanius raised an eyebrow.

“Leave him?”

She nodded.

“He’s out of his damn mind, and obviously dangerous. I mean give me a break. He just told us that he is thousands of years old. Are we really supposed to buy that? And the gods are alive? And here? It’s a load of crap!”

The conversation lapsed.

Someone started clapping. A dark crow settled on the roof of the wagon. They turned.

Valis was standing in the door.

“No, Miss Toffel,” he said. “I’m afraid that it is not.”

Special Thanks To:

Kristi Bubrig

Ryan Lewis

Nathan Liss

Kayla Liss

Zachary Grey

Timothy Tortal

Matt C

 

Exiles - Issue #41: The Great Escape
Exiles - Issue #43: Dark Designs

Join the discussion!