“The Storm’s Approach”
Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Jennifer Lange
Copyright April 6th, 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 city was burning.
The enemy was moving in from the northeast, following the long path along the Whitecourse from Tormar. They’d been in the city for six hours. Lon stood with his brothers, watching from the roof of the mansion.
Wess spoke first, keeping his eyes on the blaze.
“I don’t understand. I thought they wanted to take the city. Why start a fire?”
“The volunteers started it.”
Wess raised an eyebrow.
“The undead burn. They wanted to slow the advance.”
“Not a bad idea.”
“According to the block captains the fire already covers three districts. We’ll never be able to put it out.”
Rias pointed to a distant street.
“We’ll have to demolish the buildings in its path. If we create a fire break, maybe we can save the centre city.”
“We were never going to be able to save everybody. I hadn’t expected to cull them this way.”
Lon looked over.
“That’s pretty cold.”
“Not as cold as they’re going to be.”
Rias spoke to Kiel.
“What do you predict?”
He kneaded his chin between his thumb and forefinger.
“The men are fighting hard. We may yet be victorious.”
“They all want a place in the estate. They’re killing the undead by the dozen; turning in the heads to the block captains.”
Lon raised an eyebrow.
“To count their kills. They are one-to-one.”
Lon chuckled and turned to Alto.
“So, how many can we save?”
His brother thought about it for a moment.
“A few hundred. It would have been more if your woman hadn’t gotten involved.”
“I apologized for the amulets.”
Rias’s put up a hand to silence them. His face was firm as he looked out into the city.
“An apology doesn’t fix it. We promised them five hundred living spaces. Thanks to the, we’ll be able to accommodate less than half that. There will be a revolt when they find out, which is precisely what we’d hoped to avoid.”
Wess cut in, raising his hand.
“Where do you suppose they took them? The amulets, I mean.”
“To the spy from Tormar, no doubt. He will deliver them to his masters.”
“He’ll have to cross our lines to do that. I’ll tell the block captains to keep an eye out. Maybe someone will pick him up.”
Rias shook his head.
“Don’t bother. We’ll never find him in this chaos, and we keep the situation a secret. The last thing we want is for them to get wise and turn coat in the middle of the battle.”
He turned and headed back indoors. Wess clapped Lon on the shoulder as he moved to follow.
“I swear, brother. You and your girlfriends.”
They headed for the stairs. Lon stayed where he was.
“Come on. Inside. There’s work to do.”
Lon pointed to the clouds overhead.
“Over there. What is that?”
“I don’t see anything.”
Lon squinted. The glare from the fire and the smoke was slowly filling the air, a tidal wave of flames and ash, but high above, the plume seemed to turn aside, swirling around an unseen form.
“There’s something in the sky.”
Valis steadied his hands. He was back in his basement holdout. He’d chained Azarelle to the stove. For the moment she was still unconscious, but it was heavy enough to hold until he got back, and his servants would watch over her.
The undead stood quietly by the wall, waiting for instructions.
A kind of strange thrill had begun to tighten in his chest. He had butterflies in his stomach. There was so little time left to wait.
“Of course I’m excited. You should be too.”
The bird squawked.
“No, we won’t be made into statues. There’s too much work still to do.”
Valis took a long breath.
“I suppose I don’t know.”
Valis went to the table. Azarelle’s possessions were laid out upon it. The cloak was interesting. She must have made it herself. There was certainly nothing like it available on the continent. He put it on. The shadows gathered pleasingly in the dim light. It was perfect.
He emptied the pockets of his old cloak onto the table and threw it over her.
She looked up at him.
“Valis? What happened? Where are the others? Where am I?”
“Oh, just a little place I set aside in case of emergency. I know it’s not what you’re used to. Don’t worry. We won’t be staying long.”
She began to crawl away. The chain went taut and stopped her after only a few feet. The undead shuffled in her direction.
Valis looked over his shoulder.
“Don’t move around too much. I wouldn’t want them to hurt you.”
“And who are they?”
She fixed him with a hard stare.
“I remember now. I know what you did to me.”
He turned, raising an eyebrow.
“You took away my memories and made me a puppet.”
He nodded, loading up his pockets. Only the fragment of white material remained. His link to his masters will and power.
He’d never heard of anyone able to break free of their power. Valis was driven to wonder if Del Rossi’s cryptic words had anything to do with it.
He answered her.
“It was for your protection.”
“I don’t think so.”
“It’s true. My masters ordered me to kill you. They were worried you wouldn’t cooperate.”
He turned and knelt down in front of her. He tapped the side of his head.
“They can tell when you’re thinking about them. When you saw them in the augury you became a risk they weren’t willing to take.”
She shrank back, pulling his cloak tighter around herself.
He stood back up.
“Soon, it won’t matter. The city will be theirs in a matter of hours.”
She shifted her leg. The chain rattled against the floor.
“And this? Is it for my protection too?”
“No. It’s for mine. I can’t afford interference. It’s a temporary measure. It won’t be necessary once it’s over.”
She was quiet for a long moment.
“And when it is over…you’ll let me go?”
Valis took a long breath. There was no reason not to play nice. Best to make a professional impression, at least for now.
He shrugged, turning back to the table.
“That will be up to you. There are many palaces in the kingdom of the gods. One of them could be yours if you decide to help them.”
She shook her head slowly.
“No. The old gods are evil.”
“You seem very certain. Why is that?”
She answered firmly.
“It’s been recorded.”
He nodded, pursing his lips.
“Ah, yes. History.”
He knelt down again.
“Who wrote that history? Who recorded it? Who passed it down?”
He swept up the godsbone fragment from the table.
“The very people who committed genocide against the gods. The same people who wiped away every trace of them from history.”
He held the fragment out.
“Now tell me, as a scholar, can you trust that?”
She regarded the object with a critical eye.
“What is it?”
“Godsbone, and the name is no play on words, and though it appears to be stone, there is no vein of rock in the world where you will find it. Fragments such as these were hewn from the bodies of the gods themselves.”
She inspected it.
Valis reached into his pocket and drew out a handful of the Jaspers’ amulets.
“Godsbone amplifies the power of magic by hundreds of times. The mortal races slaughtered the gods as a means to steal their power.”
She seemed to perk up.
“See? Even you are tempted by the prospect.”
A sort of intrigue seemed to play across her features, as though she knew more than she was willing to reveal.
So much the better.
Valis stepped away.
“The gods’ reclaimed many of their dead when they were forced to retreat from the world. I’m sure they would be willing to allow you to research them…if you proved your worth.”
She jerked the chain as she replied.
“Your credibility is strained.”
“I understand that. Frankly I sympathize. You hardly know me, but don’t worry. You don’t have to decide now. I’ll leave you plenty of firewood and some food. When it’s all over I will return here and you can make your decision.”
She regarded him coolly.
“And if I decide to go?”
“Then you will go. You have my word.”
“And the others?”
He frowned and opened up a cask on the floor. It was filled with cured meat and wax-covered cheese. He snapped his fingers and the undead moved. They began to stack wood by the stove.
“I’m afraid that they have already they have already gone.”
She straightened up as she sat against the wall.
Valis shifted the cask of food across the floor. He set it beside her.
“They weren’t willing to give me the amulets. I had to convince them to turn them over. You were unconscious at the time. They were so frightened they offered you up in exchange for their own lives. I took you, of course. I could hardly leave you with such untrustworthy folk.”
She didn’t answer. He couldn’t tell if she believed him or not. If she did, her transition into his company would be much easier; if she didn’t…
Well, he could be patient.
He went to the door.
“I have to go out. I hope you don’t judge me too harshly for your circumstances.”
She leaned back against the wall.
He tied his cloak shut.
She looked up.
“That’s my cloak, by the way.”
“I’m only borrowing it. I have to get across the city.”
He opened the door. The cold wind blew in with a flurry of snow. He paused.
“Think on what I’ve said. Would you?”
She grumbled. Nexus flew to his shoulder as he went out the door.
He locked it shut behind him.
Nathanius drove the wagon quietly up the street. The snow was deep and muffled the creak of the wheels. Asterious stood over him, eyes on the dark alleys. In this time of chaos there was no telling from what direction danger might come. Polly stood beside him
Nathanius turned to Asterious.
“So, what’s their plan?”
Asterious looked down.
“Valis seemed intent upon the amulets. The gods’ are capable of multiplying vastly the power of any magic they take hold of. Clearly he means for them to use them.”
“The clerics of Tormar use the amulets to manipulate the undead. They control only a few at a time, but if what you say is true, the gods could seize control of their entire army.”
Ellyn spoke up through the wagon’s window.
“I’m not sure I want to be around to see that.”
“I don’t give one wit about the zombies. We have to rescue Azarelle.”
“I agree, but we’ll never find her just by looking. Our best bet is to locate Valis. If we can subdue him we can force him to give her back.”
Ellyn gave a wary grumble.
“Confronting him didn’t go so well for us the last time.”
Polly drew her blade.
“Just keep him distracted. I can take care of him. You have my word on that.”
Nathanius was willing to believe her. A Halfling thief was not to be underestimated, especially one with a grudge.
He looked up at Asterious.
“So where would Valis go?”
The human looked long down the dark street.
“The gods prefer a grand entrance. The more that see them, the more fear they instil and the greater their power will be.”
“Then they’ll go to the heart of the battle. Judging by the fires it’s in the old quarter.”
He cracked the reins. Asterious suddenly groaned.
Nathanius raised an eyebrow.
He took a long breath.
“Did you say the old quarter?”
“I know where we have to go.”
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