Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Jennifer Lange
Copyright July 18th, 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.
“What exactly do you mean by that?”
Lon sat back in his chair.
“Just that. I’m not sure she’s with us.”
He and his brothers didn’t get many chances to meet in private. The dominaa had them on opposite shifts, and he was beginning to think this was the reason. She didn’t want them talking.
It was Rias that had asked the question. Ordinarily he would have been working the kitchen with Wess, prepping ingredients for breakfast. Tonight, by some miracle of social engineering that Wess had managed to contrive, the two of them had the evening off. They’d decided to meet in one of the sub-basements. The hotel sported an impressive array of root cellars and underground storerooms. As a result of Tormar’s arrival and the subsequent drain on supplies, the ones at the back were already empty.
Wess threw up his hands.
“Well, that’s just great. Here we are, the five us, in a basement, trying to stage a revolution! And the woman who holds our lives in her hands might not be on our side?”
Lon understood his frustration. Wess had been having more trouble than the others since they’d moved into the hotel. He’d always been impetuous. Lon suspected his brother didn’t imagine staying more than a few days before they launched some kind of counterattack. As the weeks wore on, his patience was slowly wearing thin.
Lon put out a hand to steady him.
“It’s not so strange. The ladies are their own organization. Is anyone surprised that the dominaa would act in her own interest?”
Kiel stood with his arms crossed. He raised a pointed finger.
“What are her interests, exactly?”
“She didn’t make it clear, but she’s concerned about the rate we’re going through supplies. She’s prioritizing the guests.”
Alto spoke from the wall.
“Tormar has promised food and supplies. It would be a strong motivator.”
“And there’s no way their help won’t come with strings attached, especially with the gods involved. Any action we take could damage her position.”
Wess stood up.
“So there are risks. Who cares? Brothers! We planned for this the moment we heard of the invasion! There are weapons all over the city. If the battle was lost, we would re-gather our forces and stage a coup, before they got a chance to recover, and the clock is ticking! Our people are out there waiting for us to make a move!”
Lon stood up across from him.
“That was before the damned gods got involved! We can’t fight that kind of power!”
“How do you know!?”
Rias stepped forward
They fell silent.
“You’re both right. We don’t know how to fight the gods.”
Lon let out a breath.
Rias shook his head.
“But Wess has a point. The longer we delay, the stronger their position will become. We have to get moving.”
Lon started to object.
Rias put out a hand to silence him.
“Preliminary steps. We’ll reach out. Find our people in the city, gather weapons and supplies, and see where we stand. The priority is information. We’ll take it slow. Assess the state of Tormar’s forces: their numbers, their positions, and their weaknesses.”
Lon ran a hand through his hair.
“And the gods?”
Rias shook his head.
“We’ll just have to hope something develops.”
Morgan took a step back.
“I beg your pardon?”
Calandra looked up from the table. She was a woman of small stature, human, with blonde hair that she cut very short. Her cheekbones were sharp, her limbs were slight, and her eyes were narrow. From a distance Morgan would have guessed she was an elf, but she lacked the ears and the nose. At the moment she was hunched over a table strewn mortar bowls, pestles, jugs, and a complex assembly of alchemical equipment made from copper and twisted glass.
She raised an eyebrow.
Morgan was flabbergasted.
“You want to use live subjects?”
Calandra nodded absently.
“I did. The frozen bodies are too fragile. Once they’re thawed only one in ten survives the embalming process. The city is filled with destitute survivors. We can’t feed them anyway or keep them warm. We might as well use them before they starve to death and freeze.”
Morgan’s stomach turned. There were still thousands of people alive in the city, spread across six districts. The deacon was already prepared to write them off.
“We came here because we were worried about Selpak. We came because the Jaspers had to be removed. It’s done. There’s no danger anymore. Why do we need this army so quickly?”
“Orders from above. I don’t ask questions.”
Morgan started to pace. Frustration simmered in his chest.
“I thought the gods needed the people.”
Calandra slid her chair back and turned.
“I guess they need an army more. I’ve already been given orders to investigate a carrier.”
“What do you mean: a carrier?”
Calandra turned back to her table.
“The chancellery is concerned that sending patrols out to collect prospective soldiers will incite resistance.”
“I can’t imagine why.”
She went on.
“So, they’ve asked me to investigate some other way to neutralize the population, something we can control so that we can anticipate the numbers we’ll have to convert. I was thinking poison, but it might interact with the embalming chemicals, so for the last few days I’ve focused on finding some kind of disease: something communicable but manageable, and innocuous enough to avoid widespread suspicion.”
Morgan couldn’t tell if he wanted to laugh or wretch on the floor. The bizarre depravity of it all was almost too much to take seriously.
“I can’t believe we’re discussing this.”
“Well, believe it.”
Morgan shook his head slowly. Calandra kept her eyes on her work, measuring some kind of liquid into shallow dishes. She spoke aside to him as though she were assembling a model or sorting mail.
It was nothing to her.
This was insane. He’d conquered a dozen cities and countries, and you didn’t maintain control by exterminating the locals!
He would talk to the chancellery. They were fanatics but perhaps they would listen to reason. No army was worth the kind of backlash that an action like this would call down…or rather call up. There would be a huge partisan response. It was inevitable. Word would get out. Someone would see something or say something, and before long there would be sabotage, riots, and assassinations. And on the continent…all those roads led to chaos and death.
He’d been down this road. Everything they had risked their lives for would bleed away until all that was left was darkness and chaos.
He would have to make them see.
It was their only hope.
The fire popped. Polly damn-near shot out of her shoes.
Nathanius leaned forward.
“It’s alright. There’s no one here.”
She groaned and sat up.
Nathanius poked at the fire. Asterious was still fast asleep. He had no idea how the man did it. It was freezing outside.
They’d set up open. There were shelters in the camp but they didn’t want to give the circle a chance to kill them without seeing them first. It had taken them an hour and a half to clear a space in the snow and start a fire. The citizens of Hane had taken almost everything with them when they pulled out, and it seemed the druids had burned or collected everything they left behind. All that remained were a few earthen huts. They’d set up next to the largest to cut the wind. The firewood they’d gathered was from the edge of the forest, only a few dozen yards away. Nathanius pushed himself tight against the wall and pulled up his blanket. If the druids didn’t show up soon, it wouldn’t matter. They would have no choice but to move into the huts.
Polly grabbed her blanket, walked over, and sat down next to him. She shuffled under his blanket and threw her own over the top.
She gave him a hard look.
“Don’t get any ideas. It’s freezing out here.”
She grabbed his arm and pulled it around her shoulder.
The fire crackled.
“You know. I swore I would never let myself get into a position like this again.”
Nathanius raised an eyebrow.
“Huddled under a blanket with a stranger?”
She gave him a flat look.
“No. I mean being stuck outside during the night. I was all set up to settle in with the Jaspers and then you had to come along.”
“Hey, I didn’t start the invasion, and it was Valis who roped you in.”
“Still, I never seem to be able to catch a break.”
“Story of my life.”
She hunkered down.
“Well, as long as we’re stuck here. What are you in for?”
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