Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Jennifer Lange
Copyright June 25th, 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.
The Halcyon Choir.
Valis stood in awe. Many years had passed since the day he first stood in their gathered presence. The chamber was exactly as he remembered it.
The ceiling rose up forever, a soaring column of air, cloud, and diffuse light. The walls were made from pure white stone, impaled by massive shards of jagged crystal the colour of fresh blood. They seemed to grow from the rock, keening with power, each producing its own note. Together, they sounded almost musical.
Generosity was entombed inside the largest crystal. He towered over the space, flanked by his remaining brothers and sisters. His eyes glowed dimly. A huge scar of white-stained flesh marred his pristine chest and obsidian skin.
When he spoke, his voice rang like a great bell in Valis’s mind. The power of it echoed in his bones.
Valis fell to his knees.
The god’s eyes shrank to a pair of angry points.
You will be punished.
Valis felt a sudden pain clutch the centre of his chest. His vision grew dim and he collapsed onto the floor. A kind of sinking darkness invaded his mind. His thoughts fled, slipping away like ribbons of candle smoke. He cried out, gripping his head, but the only sound that escaped his lips was a low and baleful moan.
Then it was gone.
The darkness abated and his thoughts returned. Valis climbed back to his knees.
“What was that?”
There was a pause.
Your true fate. You are dead. Your body is a husk. Only our power sustains your mind. Were it not for your success securing our foothold, you would already be consigned to oblivion.
Valis gritted his teeth. He had never failed his masters before. Curse that damned sorcerer! He’d allowed himself to be distracted. It would not happen again.
He bowed his head.
“I beg your forgiveness.”
There was a long silence. The sound of the red crystals hummed quietly. Valis waited.
Forgiveness is earned. Continue to serve. Succeed, and you may yet be among the selected.
“What would you have me do?”
The sorcerer has gained the power of the Iiari. She must be eliminated.
Valis lifted his head.
“The power of the Iiari? You mean the magic from the rooftop?”
“What is it?”
The air seemed to rumble.
That is not for you to know. The magic is of the past.
“Then how did the sorcerer get it?”
Valis remembered Del Rossi’s words. The last son of Gondavol.
The other gods turned their heads. Their impassive, stone faces flared suddenly with angry light.
Generosity spoke again.
An old enemy. All but the last. He too must be removed. You will see to it.
Valis bowed his head again.
“Yes, master. But how?”
This city will be the centre of our new dominion. We will create a new army from its inhabitants. The rewards will be great. They will follow us.
The son and the sorcerer have gone to the south. You will go there. Search the cities. When you find them, send word and we will grind them into dust.
The door opened.
Valis stood up and bowed again.
“It will be done.”
He left. As he re-entered the corridor, a final thought echoed lowly in his mind.
Do not disobey again.
Hightower sat alone. The activity of the bar rumbled low and muted in his ears.
His drink was empty.
The citizens of Selapak kept their distance, eying him suspiciously as they passed. When they were forced to get close they nodded, smiling with a kind of forced deference the general recognized all too well.
Morgan Hightower, war leader for hire. Prior to his exile he had conquered a dozen cities, and no matter what flag he flew, the invasions always ended the same way: occupation, a slow and treacherous grind. Seizing a city was easy; convincing the locals to let you keep it was the true task. A conquered city was an open wound. Ill-managed, even a powerful empire could bleed to death attempting to close it.
He got up from the table, passing a member of the chancellery on the way to the bar. Tormar had chosen to accept the gods’ offer, or so it was now being called. The general chuckled. He’d been around long enough to recognize an ultimatum when he heard it. Every city-state in the region, no matter how large or small, had been given the same order to submit. The first to accept would be given pride of place at the right hand of the gods; the rest…
No matter. Tormar had donned the mantle gladly. The general wasn’t surprised. The chancellery had always been a little zealous.
He and the other officers had all been returned to their units. He’d appointed the captain he’d been captured with to serve him on an interim basis. All his own aides were dead. At the moment the captain was busy gathering readiness reports. The general had decided to retire for the evening while he contemplated his first assignment: to locate and capture the Jasper brothers, the former rulers of the city, still at large. He’d never met them. He didn’t even know what they looked like. A bar seemed like a good place to start.
The establishment he’d chosen was the last in the city. The rest had all burned, or were shuttered for the night. It was a nice place, especially given the normally meagre circumstances found on the continent. It was called the House of the Red Silk Curtains. It was owned by the Blind-Deaf Ladies, a kind of elite hospitality guild, offering everything from trained bartenders and musicians to personal escorts. Their members all wore red, and could be found in almost every major city in the valley. It was rumoured that their intelligence network was unequalled. If anyone knew where to find the Jaspers, it was them. Unfortunately, their guild’s first and highest oath was never to divulge its secrets.
But if there was one thing he had learned over the years, it was that during an occupation, an oath could not always be trusted.
He arrived at the bar. It was long and made from oak, with a brass rail. A curiosity. He couldn’t help but wonder where they’d found the materials.
He waved the bartender over.
Oh, how the mighty fall.
Lon looked at his hands. His fingers were raw and pruned from the hot water. The sink was deep. A waiter swept by and dropped a fresh load of plates on the scrub counter. With a sigh, Lon picked up the first, dipped it in the suds, and grabbed a brush.
He hadn’t done this sort of work since he was a teenager in his father’s restaurant.
His brothers were spread around the room, cooking and cleaning, while the head chef and his assistants buzzed from station to station. It was a busy night; in fact, that they were open at all was highly unusual. Under ordinary circumstances the Blind-Deaf Ladies’ hotel was closed through the long night, if for no other reason than to keep out vandals and thieves. He and his brothers had planned to do the same. The occupation had certainly done away with all of that, to say nothing of the so-called gods’ arrival.
His face itched. He forced himself not to scratch.
The dominaa hadn’t asked them to take the oath, but in order to keep up appearances she’d arranged for the house tattooist to apply some kind of semi-permanent makeup to their faces to create the illusion that they bore the organization’s distinctive markings. It caused a hell of an irritation, but at least it wouldn’t rub off.
He grabbed the next plate.
As it happened, the occupation was also the reason for the evening’s rush. Tormar’s leaders had established an alliance with the “gods.” Their officers had been released from confinement and the units around the city had been placed back under their control. There weren’t many locals left in the city. Most had died in the fire, or fled, or frozen when their shelters were destroyed. The few that survived were now huddled in the ruins, waiting to see what would happen next.
The barman popped his head back through the dining room door.
“I could use a hand out here.”
The head chef turned to Lon.
“Get on it.”
Lon set the brush aside and dried his hands. He would have preferred not to go out, but he had to blend in and obey instructions. The dominaa and the tattooist were the only ones who knew who they really were. His brothers watched him as he put on a red vest and went out the door.
The barman pointed.
“Down there. The soldier on the end.”
Lon went. The “soldier” was too old to be an ordinary footman, and his uniform suggested a far higher rank. He had an empty glass in front of him. Lon picked it up.
The man looked up.
“Gin, if you’ve got it.”
He went to the bottles.
He poured the man a double and brought it back. The man reached into his coat.
Lon waved him off.
“It’s on the house.”
The man raised an eyebrow.
Lon picked up a rag and started wiping down the bar. The wood wasn’t dirty, but it seemed like the kind of thing a real bartender would do.
“They told us to keep an eye out for flag officers.”
It was a lie. Lon and his brothers had their own plans, and positioning themselves to bring down the new government was priority number one.
The man smiled.
“Looking for friends in high places?”
“It’s only natural.”
The man sipped his gin. Lon had given him the good stuff. He seemed satisfied by it as he set the glass down empty.
“So how did you know?”
“Your uniform; plus, you seemed a little too experienced to be on the front line.”
The man chuckled.
“Too old, you mean.”
“I wasn’t going to say anything.”
He refilled off the glass.
“I heard they let you all out today.”
The man looked up.
“You did, eh?”
“Word gets around.”
The officer turned the glass in place on the bar.
“I don’t suppose you’ve heard anything else? I’m looking for a group of men…brothers.”
Lon paused. Oh, dear.
He forced himself to smile and tapped his “tattoos.”
“Sorry. Rules are rules.”
The man nodded and finished his drink.
Lon held up the bottle.
The man shook his head.
“No, I’ve had enough. I have work to do.”
Time to set the hook.
“What kind of work?”
The man pulled out a coin purse and left a tip. Tormar money. It wasn’t any good in Selapak, even before the long night. Still, it was a nice gesture.
The man answered.
“Securing the city. We’ve got to get these people though the night.”
Lon sneered internally. How noble.
He leaned in.
“And you need these ‘brothers’ to do that?”
He gave a slow nod.
“In a way. I think you know the men I’m talking about. They could be trouble, and this city doesn’t have time for trouble.”
Lon straightened up, looked him dead in the eye.
“Sounds like a worthy cause.”
He put his hand over the tip.
“It’s a shame we aren’t allowed to come to an…arrangement.”
The man raised an eyebrow.
Lon smiled and picked up the money from the bar.
“Well, it was a pleasure meeting you…colonel?”
The man thumped his hand on the bar.
“General, actually, but you can call me Morgan. And you are?”
Lon caught himself. Crap. He hadn’t thought of that. He reached out a hand and blurted out the first name that came to mind.
The general shook his hand.
“Friends in high places.”
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