“Into the Night”
Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Rachel Mrotek
Copyright January 9th, 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.
Asterious was thrown back. He thudded against the wall and thumped down to the floor. His pack slid under the bed. Nathanius tightened his grip on the long knife in his hands. The blade glinted white in the darkness of the tiny room.
Four men burst in. Surprise was evident on their faces. Clearly they hadn’t expected more than an elvish academic and perhaps a Halfling thief to contend with.
They were using clubs. Clearly the Jaspers intended Azarelle and Polly be taken alive. A point in their favour, at least in the short run; unfortunately it also meant that whatever tortures Rias had in store for them were probably far worse than death. They would be made an example of. A line of freshly-flayed corpses hanging outside the main house would go a long way toward warding off intruders during the night.
Still, their enemies’ surprise gave them an opening.
Nathanius lunged forward.
To his credit, he’d been in very few fights.
The man brought his club around in an upward swing, catching him at the point of his chin. He felt something crack and reeled, collapsing to the floor with a groan. He looked up at the man through blurred vision. The club came up.
Ellyn appeared, leaping from nowhere onto the man’s back. She stabbed down. The knife slid into his shoulder and he yelped. With a grunt, he reached back to grab her, only to have his hand cut by the blade as she pulled it from his body and thrashed.
Polly darted forward, stabbing with a stout, leaf-bladed dagger. The knife went into the man’s gut and he howled as a wash of blood and entrails poured from the wound.
One of the others swung around at her. She ducked out of the way and rolled back, but quick as she was the room was too small for her to gain any real distance. He closed in with the third man, trapping her against the wall. The fourth yanked Ellyn off the back of the first and threw her to the ground with a grunt. She sprawled flat.
Nathanius’s eyes were still swimming. Azarelle cowered in the corner. She had no weapons, only a walking stick, and no idea how to use it. The man standing over Ellyn brought up his foot. It came crashing down towards her head.
There was a flash of shimmering metal, reflecting the solitary light of the room’s one sputtering candle. The light shimmered back in a dozen scintillating rays, a brilliant and luminous blue.
Asterious was on his feet, left arm outstretched, knee bent sharply in a long lunge. The man’s foot flopped down onto the floor. A spurt of blood gushed out as he screamed and fell backwards, gripping stump of his severed limb.
The third spun around, breaking from Polly and the fight at the wall. He brought his great club down. Its iron head fell like a boulder.
A second blade. Asterious’s right arm came up. Steel sang like the chime of a rung bell. The blow was utterly stopped. Asterious’s wrist was locked tight. He had yet to shift his footing or move at all to adjust his balance.
Nathanius stared. The brute stared. For a moment time slowed to a crawl as Asterious’s head cranked slowly and smoothly around.
There was only darkness in his eyes.
Nathanius looked under the bed. Asterious’s pack was open. Oilcloth lay discarded on the floor.
The two remaining men moved in swinging. Asterious sprang to full height, lashing out with the blade in his left hand even as he brought his right up to guard. The left was longer and thinner than the other; the right was short and thick with a sturdy basket around the hilt.
Asterious pirouetted around the incoming blows. The left blade snaked out and thrust, catching the first man in the side of the throat. Blood spattered the wall. He gurgled and slumped to the floor, coughing red mist.
The last man turned and ran for the hall. Asterious kicked his leg out and he pitched forward, piling face-first into the door jam. Asterious followed him in and stabbed him through the back. The long blade protruded bloody and gleaming from his chest.
The room fell silent, but for the sound of pain and ragged breaths.
Nathanius struggled to his feet.
He grunted and clutched at his face. His jaw was broken.
Ellyn got up.
“Let’s get out of here.”
Polly led them down the hall and up to the roof, accessible via a ladder to the crawl space. Ellyn couldn’t reach the cord. Azarelle reached up and pulled the ladder down. As she climbed up into the darkness, her cloak seemed to grasp and collect the shadows. She disappeared. Ellyn went up next. She didn’t have time to be surprised. They crawled through the attic.
“That’s a neat trick.”
Azarelle was invisible, but Ellyn could hear her moving.
“It’s a tool. I’ve been going out at night.”
“Fantastic. Hey, do you still have that pin?”
A hand appeared from nowhere in the black. The pearlescent pin glinted despite the darkness. Ellyn took it and moved to throw it away into the corner.
Polly came up from behind. She swung her leather drawstring bag around from her shoulder and pulled it open.
Ellyn furrowed her brow.
“Won’t they just—”
Polly shook her head.
“Not in here. Trust me.”
Ellyn looked her in the eye. Polly just stared back and pointed into the hole at the top of the bag. There wasn’t time to argue. Ellyn cursed and threw it in. The object vanished the moment it fell inside.
Polly cinched it shut. Nathanius and Asterious were coming up the ladder.
She led them forward. Ellyn called to her.
“How do you know the way?”
Polly answered back.
“I’ve memorized the layout of almost every property the Jaspers own.”
“In case of something like this?”
She shook her head.
“In case I ever had to break back in.”
She flipped onto her back and kicked open a panel on the roof. She turned to Ellyn.
“Try to stay low.”
Ellyn nodded. Polly jumped up through the gap.
Valis turned from the fire.
“Are you sure?”
He sighed and stood up. It was only a matter of time, he supposed.
He went to the wardrobe. His cloak hung disused over his boots. He didn’t wear it often. No need. He didn’t go out much, and even less since he acquired his cohorts. The thick bearskin felt heavy on his shoulders. It was black. He pulled on his boots.
Nexus was right. He confessed to himself: he was excited. As troublesome as the evening was soon to become, it had been a long time since he’d had the opportunity to indulge himself.
He reached a second time into the wardrobe. There was a hidden compartment at the back. He flicked the catch and it swung open, revealing a smooth, white stone.
Right where he left it.
He put it into his coat. It hummed in his thoughts. The power of the gods was like a purifying light. With it, the force of his magic would be multiplied a hundredfold.
Nexus perched over the door.
“Just the eyes?”
Valis nodded assent. He was a crow, after all. He swept a bottle of black fluid from the table, took up a brush, and knelt. He drew a twisting pattern on the floor. The black mixture dried instantly. He stood in the centre of the design.
The sound of heavy boots thumped in the hall. Valis closed his eyes, drew a long black chain from his cloak, and began to whisper. No sound escaped from his lips. The stone in his coat trembled. The fire in the hearth grew dim. In actuality, the light was the same.
There was simply more darkness.
The door flew open. Six men stormed in.
The chain began to tremble. It moved like a snake. Shifting darkness began to drip from its coils, forming tendrils of black smoke that split, multiplied, and grew until they became an undulating swarm of sickly cords.
Valis tightened his grip on the chain and smiled. His would-be assassins flinched and began to shuffle back into the hall.
He shook his head.
“Too late for that.”
He rattled the chain. Darkness surged.
The screaming lasted only a moment.
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