Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Jennifer Lange
Copyright March 20th, 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.
Jyll thumped his head down on the desk and sighed.
“Maybe I was wrong. Maybe it can’t be done.”
Azarelle shook her head.
“I don’t believe that. We’ve been getting closer.”
He tilted his head up. The desk was covered in paper, diagrams upon layered diagrams surrounded by an encyclopaedia’s worth of hand-written annotations. One of the sheets stuck to his head. He rested his chin and muttered.
“Not much closer.”
Azarelle peeled off the sheet and looked at the data. They were up against a wall. It was like some kind of mathematical limit. Every time they increased the power, every time they contrived some new means of firming up the isolation, the magic pushed back that much harder. They’d been chewing on the project for three months and all they’d managed to do was paper the floor with endless trial and error.
Magic was tricky. The weave was like a labyrinth. The moment you thought you understood how to navigate it, you discovered that you had only become more deeply ensnared.
They’d come up with a few explanations: errors in the composition was the first. It wasn’t just about the calculations. There was music to it, but she was fairly certain that they were correctly stringing the spell. Of course, the experiment was really two spells: the actual casting in the armature and the isolation pattern to amplify it, the second of these being the focus of the study. There was always the possibility that the pattern was incorrectly designed, but she found it hard to believe that the two of them had failed utterly to make progress over nine weeks.
That left only one, and it was a killer:
Jyll’s theories were right. They’d proven it. They’d put their careers on the line to prove it. Would it all be for nothing because they couldn’t get their hands on reagents that were up to the task? Because of the expense? Would that be the end of it?
Then again, that was magic too. It wasn’t just a maze. It was a hole in the air you poured money into.
The inquiry was already under way. You could only misappropriate funds for so long before the book-keepers got wise. So far the deans hadn’t mentioned any suspects, but it was only a matter of time. Her fingerprints were all over it. They had another day, if they were lucky.
She hadn’t told Jyll. The board had only informed the department heads and some of the more senior professors. And so she knew, but there was no way to stop it.
It was like watching a tsunami approach. It wasn’t even worth it to run.
She stood up from the desk.
“We have to try again.”
Jyll looked up.
“We can’t. We’re still doing calculations and we haven’t even reset the room. The sand bag’s empty. What if something went wrong?”
Azarelle looked down.
“We’ll work through the night.”
“You get down to the cafeteria and find some food. I’ll make some coffee.”
“Honey, I’m really tired. What’s the rush?”
She didn’t answer. He leaned up in his chair.
“Is something wrong?”
She was a terrible liar, but she wasn’t ready to tell him the truth. He wasn’t an idiot. He knew she’d been cooking the books to keep the project running, but as long as it looked like she was keeping him in the dark, he would be protected when the walls came tumbling down.
They had to finish the work. It would be the greatest discovery in the history of magic. If they succeeded, it wouldn’t matter how far they’d had to go.
She tried to answer calmly.
“No. Nothing wrong.”
Nathanius leaned out from the alley, waiting. His eyes were trained on a dark carriage rolling up the block. It came on like a funeral procession: slow, black, and quiet. The dim glow of a single lantern heralded the wagon’s approach, while a crowd of armed guards skulked at the edge of the flickering light.
It was them.
Rias descended first, followed closely by Kiel, Alto, and Wess. They wore stern looks and dark fur cloaks made from the pelts of black bears.
The carriage door shut.
Lon wasn’t there.
Nathanius cursed under his breath. They must have left him back at the house. The four men entered the building and the door swing heavily shut.
Asterious had his legs planted against the sides of the alley. With a grunt, he jumped and braced himself again. Polly watched. Another five or six jumps and he would be able to reach the edge of the roof.
Azarelle whispered to her.
“How long has it been?”
Polly shook her head.
“Probably thirty minutes.”
Azarelle frowned. Polly could barely see her face. Her long cloak had already soaked up the darkness of the alley. She was practically invisible. And yet she fidgeted, nervous.
“It feels like it’s taking too long.”
Polly glanced briefly back up the alley and out at the square. The guards were nowhere in sight. She whispered back.
“It’s alright. It always feels that way. Try to stay loose. We’re on schedule.”
Her friend nodded and took a short breath.
Polly looked back up. Asterious would only get one chance. The wall was too smooth to free-climb, which was why he was leaping up the way he was, slow and steady, but Azarelle was right. It was taking a while. If he slipped and fell, they probably wouldn’t have time for a second shot.
She wished her leg weren’t injured. They would already be in the building and well on their way to the vault. As a people, Halflings possessed uncommon strength for their size. It was nothing spectacular, but it was enough to give her light frame a reliable six feet of vertical rach, with an iron grip to match.
Asterious’s foot slipped on a bit of smooth stonework. Polly’s breath caught in her throat. He slid down a few inches before he caught himself. She could see him gritting his teeth as he jumped again.
Four. His hand caught the edge of the roof. Polly let out a breath as she watched the man slowly haul himself up, twisting his torso like the coils of a boa constrictor. He disappeared up and over the edge. A few minutes later a rope fell down in front of their faces.
Polly turned to Azarelle.
“Got all your stuff?”
Her friend nodded rapidly. Polly nodded back, grabbed the rope, and tugged.
“Then here we go. Stay quiet.”
Asterious hauled her up hand over hand. They would bring Azarelle up together. He smiled as she reached the top.
“This is a good plan.”
Polly flipped around, tied a loop in the rope, and dropped it back down over the edge. She spoke over her shoulder.
“Don’t jinx it.”
There was a tug on the rope and they started pulling.
Polly looked around and frowned. It was brighter up here than she’d expected. The moon was out. She grumbled to herself. Of all the days for the overcast to clear. Worse, the sky was filled with long, shimmering bands of polar aurora. The roof was lit up like a performance stage. They would have to move fast.
Azarelle emerged from the alley and crawled onto the roof. The darkness clinging to her flooded back down into the alley. She looked down at herself, startled.
Polly helped her up.
The skylight was halfway across the roof, positioned above the Jaspers’ office. Polly knelt down beside it and rolled out her tools while the others waited a short distance away. She was about to get to work on the lock when she spotted movement. Lon was sitting at his desk, working.
She ducked back, returning to the others.
“Lon is still in there.”
Azarelle’s eyes went wide.
Asterious glanced over at the window.
“Is he alone? Maybe we could get the drop on him.”
“Not a bad idea. You’d have to do it quick.”
Azarelle shook her head and interjected.
“No! Don’t hurt him.”
Polly looked over and raised an eyebrow.
“I thought you walked out on him? Besides, didn’t you say he’s going to die in the invasion anyway?”
Azarelle shook her head.
“We don’t know that.”
Asterious furrowed his brow.
“You said you were sure about the augury.”
Polly giggled as a thought occurred to her. It was hardly the time for it, but she couldn’t resist.
“Or are you just hoping that a certain special part of the vision will still find a way to come to pass.”
Azarelle looked over at her.
“What are you talking about?”
“Oh, you know.”
She shook her head and returned a stern look.
“I really don’t.”
Polly sighed. Either she was playing coy because Asterious in earshot or somewhere along the line she’d been hit in the head. Polly was betting on the former. She decided to let her off the hook.
“Well, if we can’t hurt him we’re going to have to get him out of the room.”
There was a pause. Polly drew a blank.
Asterious raised his hand.
“I think I’ve got an idea.”
Special Thanks To: