Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Jennifer Lange
Copyright April 5th, 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.
Nathanius stood up slowly.
“How did you find us?”
“You don’t expect me to answer that, do you?”
A long cluster of iron chain dangled from his hand. They glided across the floor, seeming to move entirely on their own. The long strands ran like rivulets of water, heralding his steady approach.
Asterious drew his weapons.
Valis shook his head.
“I don’t think I will.”
Nathanius turned to Ellyn.
“Get in the wagon.”
She shook her head.
“What good is hiding going to do?”
She glared at him.
“What do you want?”
He tilted his head.
“What we agreed upon, of course.”
Asterious shook his head.
“Not going to happen.”
Valis shook the chain. It clattered against the weathered wood of the workshop floor. Darkness began to flood off his fist, a spill of black oil, serpents, and smoke.
It spread at a disturbing pace.
Nathanius took a step back.
Valis shook his head.
Asterious stepped forward. The short blade in his right hand glowed. He growled.
“I knew it. The gods’ magic.”
“I’m surprised you’re familiar with it.”
Nathanius’ glance shifted briefly to Asterious. The man looked back and subtly shook his head.
He didn’t know.
The darkness closed in around them, keeping a slim distance from the group.
Valis came forward.
“Miss Toffel. The box, please.”
Nathanius glanced back at the wagon. Polly was by the door. The situation was no good. They didn’t have any choice.
He nodded to her.
“Give it to him.”
She started rummaging in her bag.
“What do you want with them anyway?”
Valis shook his head.
“That is not for you to know. It is only for you to comply.”
He extended a hand.
“Now, hand them over.”
The box emerged from the bag. It was a nondescript container, a simple wooden case without a latch.
She dropped it. The amulets spilled out. There were more than a dozen in all.
She looked up in a panic.
Valis growled. The shadows edged closer. Thin tendrils of sinuous smoke slithered out.
“Pick them up!”
She did, stuffing them back in the box. Ellyn helped her. Nathanius watched her closely as the thief flipped the box lid shut. Ellyn pulled a scarf from her clothes and tied it shut. They held it out.
The bird, Nexus, swooped down from the wagon and snatched it from her hands. It carried the parcel to its master, still standing sentinel in the dark.
Nathanius nodded to him.
“There. As promised. Now we let us go.”
“I never agreed to let you go.”
Nathanius took a tentative step forward. The darkness curled around his heels. Its touch was cold as ice. He shivered as he took a breath.
“We kept to the deal. You have what you need. If you really do work for the gods, we can’t possibly harm you now.”
Valis gave a grim laugh.
“You can’t possibly run from what’s coming. You should embrace it as I have. The three of you could be of use, and you…”
He looked towards Ellyn.
“You would make a lovely statuette.”
Asterious’s knuckles cracked.
Nathanius waved him off and took another step. The shadowy tendrils now formed around his knees.
“What can we offer you? We’ll pay? Surely we can come to an arrangement.”
Valis tutted in his cheek.
“Bribery? Nathanius, I expect better from my opponents.”
Nathanius shook his head.
“We’ve never been your opponents. You hired us to do a job and we did. We’re reliable. I’m sure you can see that. What harm is there in letting us go? Leave us alive and you can hire us again in the future.”
“I think you’ll find there’s very little future left.”
He paused, contemplating.
“But perhaps you’re right.”
Polly raised an eyebrow.
Valis nodded, walking in an idle circle in the pool of shadow.
“Good help is hard to find, after all, and good help that owes you…well that’s even harder.”
He turned back to them.
“But there will be a price.”
Ellyn spoke up. Her voice was hard.
“My masters offer power, but few material rewards. Perhaps a little bribe would be in order.”
Polly looked around.
“You want money?”
Valis shook his head and pointed at the wagon.
He shook the chain. The darkness rose up the narrow wagon ladder and slid inside.
Ellyn held her back as Azarelle’s limp form was dragged slowly out from the compartment and floated to the ground, swimming on a river of smoke.
“Let go of her!”
Ellyn held her fast.
“Stop it. We can’t do anything.”
Valis put up a hand.
“You should listen to her.”
The smoke shifted and began to coil around Azarelle’s neck.
Polly stopped. She growled.
“It is the payment that I have chosen. Her life in exchange for all of yours. I can assure you she will be well…kept.”
He turned to Nathanius.
“Do we have a deal?”
Nathanius ignored her.
Polly turned to him in rage.
She lunged forward. Asterious and Ellyn dove on top of her and wrestled her to the ground.
Ellyn looked up at Valis. Her eyes were like ice.
“Just take her and go.”
Valis snapped his fingers. The sound echoed across the room. The darkness retreated, carrying Azarelle with it to his feet.
“A wise choice.”
He walked out. In the door, he turned and suffered a final glance back at Asterious.
“Most odd,” he said. “I wonder if you truly are as remarkable as he said.”
The door shut.
“I can’t believe you let him take her! Don’t you realize what he has in mind? You’re willing to leave her to that? You rotten, detestable, filthy, slave-merchant!”
She hit him. Asterious stepped in between before she could do it again.
Nathanius massaged his jaw.
“It was the only choice.”
“There is always a choice! We could have done something! We could have fought him!”
Nathanius shook his head.
“You know that isn’t true. He had the drop on us. If we had fought him we would all have been killed; alive we still have a chance to save her.”
Ellyn looked up.
“So we are going after her.”
Nathanius turned to her and nodded. A weak smile flitted across his face.
“Not long ago, someone insisted on teaching me a lesson: that sometimes it pays to risk your neck for someone else’s. Azarelle is a powerful sorcerer. It would be a crime to leave someone so useful to such a…base end.”
Ellyn gave him a flat look.
“So it’s still just self-interest then?”
“Baby steps, Ellyn.”
She nodded, a ghost of approval flicked across her grim features.
He turned away.
“Besides, she helped us. We owe her, and even I wouldn’t leave someone in the hands of that sociopath.”
Nathanius turned to Polly.
“I promise: we won’t leave her behind. Do you trust me?”
She seemed to calm. Asterious stepped aside.
Asterious turned to face him.
“So what do we do now?”
Nathanius turned to the wagon.
“We finish packing. We’ll figure out the rest while we work.”
“You want us to pack? Is that really what’s important right now?”
“It is. Whatever happens, when it’s over we’ll have to leave the city in a hurry. We’ll need those supplies if we’re to have any hope of making it through the night.”
He turned to Asterious.
“In the meantime, start talking.”
Asterious raised an eyebrow.
“Tell us everything you know about the gods.”
Asterious nodded and moved to the pile of crates. He picked one up and took a breath.
“Alright,” he said. “I guess I’ll start at the beginning.”
Valis moved quietly along the street. The spell pulled Azarelle along behind. Her dark hair blended with the smoke. Her fair face caught the moonlight. Her skin glowed like new snow.
An unexpected bonus.
He would have to keep her hidden, at least until his masters had control of the city; after that, no one would notice an extra concubine wandering around.
He raised an eyebrow.
True. Wandering would probably have to wait. Her will was strong. There was no way that she would simply submit, and for now there were more important matters to attend to.
“Yes, back to the basement.”
“No, I’m not going to tell them about the sorcerer.”
“No, not that one either.”
Valis glowered. He took the half-tablet out of his pocket. It was inscribed on slate. There was no telling how long Del Rossi had been leading him on. The man was full of lies, but this fragment at least appeared to be legitimate. He must have taken the other half.
It would take months to compose the casting without it.
Maybe even years.
He put it away.
He shook his head.
“Yes, I’m sure. First things first.”
He would tell his masters after the invasion was complete. He shook the wooden box under his arm. The amulets jostled inside, their magic would be more than enough.
He heard a shout.
The sounds of battle were beginning sound in the streets. The horns had sounded. Tormar had come, and the so-called armies of the syndicate were responding to the call. Soon battle would be joined: a host of puppets against a legion of fools. His masters would arrive to the fanfare mayhem and destruction.
Then it would all be over.
Special Thanks To: