Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Jennifer Lange
Copyright May 16th, 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.
Azarelle sat quietly in the back of the little wagon. Polly lay down on the floor beside her, resting her leg. Ellyn was outside with Asterious. He was navigating. They’d tied a strip of cloth tight around his arm to staunch the blood. Ellyn held the reins.
Generosity’s apparent death had applied a temporary brake to the undead advance. They’d used it to escape. Now they were on the run. The city was in chaos. Blood and fire ran in the streets. Ashes fell like snow.
Azarelle peered out the little window and watched. She didn’t feel like talking.
She’d murdered the man. She’d murdered him and stripped him bare on the ground.
Polly reached up and put a hand gently on her calf.
“You did what you had to do.”
Azarelle shook her head.
“I didn’t have to do it. I wanted to do it.”
Her friend shrugged.
“Sometimes that’s just the way it goes.”
Azarelle kept her eyes on the street. There were bodies everywhere.
“But I did do it.”
She looked down at her.
“How can I… I never… I mean I never intentionally—”
Polly leaned up.
“Stop it. You did what you needed to do. Maybe you didn’t have to do it, but people like Valis never get what they deserve. He did. You can live with that.”
Polly cut her off.
“No. No buts.”
Nathanius leaned in.
“I hate to break this up, but we still have a problem.”
Azarelle looked over.
“What do you mean?”
He pointed out the window.
“We still have to get out of the city, and if we manage to do that, we have no way to get anywhere. Am I the only one who remembers the plan? We were supposed to trade the amulets back to the Jaspers in exchange for a way out of town.”
Polly reached over and picked up her bag.
“Maybe we don’t have to anymore.”
She drew out a package wrapped in oiled cloth.
Azarelle recognized it as her own work.
“My stove spell?”
“I took it from your room when Asterious and I were in the house.”
She pointed to the little stove in the wagon.
“You can use it in that, right?”
Azarelle nodded. She felt the corners of her mouth twitch in a little smile. And Polly was worried about being left behind. They would all have died if it hadn’t been for her. She was a light in the dark.
Nathanius’s whole body seemed to ease.
Ellyn leaned down to the window.
“The crowds are getting pretty thick.”
“Just keep heading south.”
“What’s to the south?”
“Nothing. Barren wilderness.”
“So…what? We’re just going to hide in the forest?”
Polly shook her head and answered.
“If we can make it to the other side we’ll arrive at Hane.”
Ellyn cocked her head.
“And what’s that?”
“A timber colony on the edge of the Deep Fell, a forest that goes on for hundreds of miles.”
“What do we know about it?”
He shook his head.
Ellyn rolled her eyes.
“It’s no use, general.”
Hightower nodded grimly. The captain had returned. The retreat had failed. Whatever strange control these creatures had over his army had spread too quickly. There was an interruption when the one of the strange “gods” had been brought down. The undead had paused, but it hadn’t lasted long. Its allies reasserted control after only a few minutes. Fewer than five percent of the force managed to return, and there were already reports on the outskirts of the camp that the regulars were turning on their controllers.
It was only a matter of time.
He rolled up his maps and turned to his errant captain.
“Signal a general retreat. Leave the soldiers: controllers, captains, and living servants only. Pack only enough materiel to get us back to Tormar. The captains can drive the carts.”
The captain balked.
“General? Are you sure?”
“You can drive a cart, can’t you?”
The captain sputtered.
“Of course, general, but to leave the army…the chancellery will be incensed.”
The general nodded. He was right. It was unlikely he would be forgiven when the defeat became fully known.
The maps went into a long, heavy trunk. He lifted it onto a cart.
“I will take full responsibility for the defeat. The rest of you should be spared.”
The captain frowned and gave a salute.
“It’s been a pleasure, general.”
Hightower turned to the man and chuckled.
“Don’t write me off just yet.”
The captain nodded quickly and scampered off.
Hightower gathered up his weapons. In truth, he had no intention of returning to Tormar. The long night had descended, and no government had ever survived the winter. During his time in exile he had seen more than a dozen empires rise and fall. After this excursion, it was likely Tormar would be no different. He’d opposed the attack on Selapak. Waste of resources. Had they left the city-state alone, their own government would almost certainly have survived. In the end it was decided that the conquest was necessary. The chancellery was concerned the syndicate would become too powerful if it continued for another season.
Now they would pay for their ambitions.
The captain returned.
“The orders are given, general.”
“Very well, then it’s time for us to go.”
They headed for the wagon seat.
The bodyguards had moved. The ring was at least twenty feet closer than it had been before they’d started packing.
The captain looked around.
Hightower drew his weapon slowly.
“Stay close to me.”
The soldiers turned, drew their weapons, and closed in.
Lon threw another crate onto the barricade, but it was hopeless. The city was burning, strange gods wheeled across the sky, and undead soldiers ravaged rampant in the streets. Within hours the city would be theirs.
His brother came running over and surveyed the scene.
Lon opened his mouth, but Rias cut him off.
“So what’s the plan?”
Rias shook his head. What was left of the citizenry had gathered in the square. It was pandemonium.
Rias lowered his voice.
“We have to leave.”
Lon took a step back. That wasn’t the kind of plan he’d had in mind.
“What about all these people?”
“There’s nothing we can do for them now.”
He pointed to the sky.
“We can’t fight creatures like that.”
Lon looked around. The truth of his brother’s words dawned on him slowly. He was right. The fire was out of control, their army was routed, and their supplies were captured or destroyed.
The tower loomed over them.
“Alright. We’ll go.”
Rias led him away. The others were already waiting by a wagon in the corner of the square. The gods circled the city like vultures. Lon was heartened by the fact that he had already seen one of them die, slain by a blast of strangely coloured magic. They would have to discover how it was accomplished if they were ever to regain control, but that would take time. For now it would have to be enough to stay alive…and await their chance.
He turned to Rias as they neared the wagon.
“Where do we go?”
His brother answered.
“Someplace we can hide.”
“And where is that?”
Rias grumbled, screwing up his nose in distaste.
“Let’s just say it’s a place that specializes in secrets.”
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