“Blame and Animus”
Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Jennifer Lange
Copyright April 10th, 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.
It was a brawl, as though all the chaos and rage of the long night had been distilled into a few hours of merciless bloodshed. Groups of armed men moved through the tangled streets in packs, hauling nets behind them filled with piles of embalmed heads
Trophies for the lottery.
The two sides were evenly matched. It was a surprise, but not much of one. Nathanius had seen it before: former nights, past winters, other battles…all bloodbaths. Everyone always thought they had the upper hand. No one ever did.
But if what Asterious said was true, Valis and his gods were going to change all that. For the first time, a single force would seize control of the continent: impervious to weather, immune to starvation and thirst, and single-handedly powerful enough to maintain control indefinitely. The valley would come first: Selapak, Tormar, and Kuld; then the coasts, then the Blue Lands of the barbarians to the east.
And after that, the world.
Or so the immortal said.
It was still a crazy story. Always to be slain; never to perish; every life alone. It was a heck of a curse. No wonder he didn’t like to share. Why bother? In the end he would leave them all behind.
It was probably less painful to remain anonymous.
So why sign on with them?
The simplest explanation was practical necessity. No one could survive Kalkonu alone, but if he wouldn’t stay dead anyway, why not just jump off a cliff and come back to life someplace else? Why live on? To fight the gods? No, that wasn’t it. It couldn’t be. Asterious had warmed to them almost the moment they met, and he didn’t know about the situation with the gods until they reached Selapak.
Nathanius looked up at him. He was still on top of the wagon, perched on the cargo, keeping an eye out for anyone on the prowl for more than just trophies for the lottery.
He tapped his food. Asterious looked down.
“Are we almost there?”
He pointed to a building up the street. It was a mansion, well built and quite old, probably one of the few that had survived the great fire that had swept through the city the previous winter. There was a wall and a tall gate fronting it.
Ellyn came out from the rear of the wagon and climbed forward.
“What is it? Where are we?”
Nathanius looked around.
“This is the old quarter.”
Ellyn raised an eyebrow.
“I would have thought the centre of the city was the oldest.”
He shook his head.
“Long ago, the Daludur tribes controlled the valley, including the city of Selapak.”
“It means ‘Valley People.’ They were still in charge the last time I was here. Exiled immigrants were required to build in specific boroughs. I can only assume they eventually outnumbered the locals, though I don’t know why they moved the city centre.”
“There was a fire last winter. It destroyed almost the entire city.”
Asterious nodded and looked up at the sky.
“It looks like there’s going to be another.”
Nathanius looked out ahead. He was right. The fire was already spreading. In a matter of hours it would consume the entire district; then it would spread. The city was a tinderbox of makeshift buildings. There would be no saving it.
He bobbed his head toward the house.
“So, why here?”
“It’s near the battle, and the house ahead belongs to a man I know. I have reason to believe he’s in league with Valis and the old gods.”
Nathanius raised an eyebrow.
“And why is that?”
“He told me.”
“And when were you planning on sharing that little detail?”
“Now, of course.”
Nathanius rolled his eyes. The man never changed.
Ellyn spoke up.
“I thought you said you can’t have friends because of your curse.”
“I said I knew him.”
He turned to the house and drew his weapons.
“I never said he was a friend.”
Valis surveyed the battle from the roof: Tormar on one side; Selapak on the other. The fires burned brightly in the dark, filling the courtyards, filling the markets, filling the streets.
Filling the sky.
The world would be reborn. All nations. All peoples. All in the glorious image of the gods.
The amulets dangled on their dark cord, wrapped around his ready fingertips. He smiled. It felt good to hold the future in your hands.
Above, the clouds began to part.
The door was open a crack. A current of warm air issued out, melting the snow. Asterious approached the gap with caution.
He spoke over his shoulder.
Ellyn came up behind him.
“What do you mean?”
“The man I know would never leave his door open.”
Polly spoke up. She already had her dagger out.
“Who is this guy, anyway?”
“An old general of mine: Lamion Del Rossi, a powerful sorcerer. The last time I came here he had to let me in.”
“Maybe he’s not at home?”
“Or he’s dead.”
Asterious shook his head.
Nathanius raised his hand.
“Begging your pardon, but did you say general? Just how old is this acquaintance of yours?”
Asterious bent his head, staring down at his swords.
“He was with me in the beginning, and he received the same curse.”
His voice quavered.
Ellyn paused. She’d seen the man happy and she’d seen him resolute. She had seen him thoughtful, excited, and even distant, but she had never seen him…upset. As she observed him now outside the door, shoulder sagging and avoiding her eyes, she couldn’t help but feel the unseen burden he carried. As old as he was, with the weight of so many memories upon him, so many wounds and so many losses, and how long held and great were they, she could only imagine his pain.
She put a hand on his shoulder.
“How can you both be here?”
He turned to face her. His eyes were red with sorrow, but there were no tears.
“I think they meant for us to leap-frog through time. It worked at first. We didn’t see each other for…too many years to count. Del Rossi and I rarely saw eye-to-eye, but we were at least…united.
“As the centuries of separation drew on, something changed. The memory of the war we’d fought together dimmed, hope of dispelling the curse was lost, and the faces of our enemies were forgotten.”
“I guess it was inevitable. He came to hate me, and suddenly we could encounter each other again.”
“Why does he hate you?”
Asterious took a long breath and looked up. His stoic expression had returned.
“Because it was my fault. The curse, I mean. It happened because of me.”
The light was blinding. Asterious stepped forward. Del Rossi hesitated at the threshold.
The men were dead.
They’d fought well, but the general had been right. The floor was awash with blood and choked with butchered corpses: split helms, broken bones, shattered armour, and torn black-feathered wings. He and Del Rossi were the only ones to survive.
And their task was not finished yet.
Asterious tightened the strap on his shield. It was beaten badly out of shape. The seal of Gondavol on its face was scorched and cracked.
He lowered his voice as he addressed the sorcerer.
“We have to keep moving.”
Del Rossi pointed at the door.
“In there? Just us? You’re out of your mind. We have to wait for the others.”
Asterious shook his head.
“If they were coming they would have arrived during the battle. We’re on our own.”
“I bet you never thought you’d be humanity’s last hope.”
Del Rossi chuckled and out his pipe.
Asterious raised an eyebrow.
Del Rossi let out a humph.
“If I’m to be executed, I might as well take my time. Our hosts can wait.”
“I suppose. This is the only party in town.”
He set his shield down and leaned on it, sheathing his sword. He listened.
“I can’t hear the battle anymore.”
Del Rossi looked around.
“It’s this place. It keeps the sound out. Don’t worry. I’m sure our people are still fighting.”
Asterious looked back at the outer door. It seemed so distant at the end of the hall. Their progress had been hard fought. His men paid with time and blood for every inch.
“Unless they’re dead.”
The pipe smoke curled lightly. Its pungent musk did little to mask the smell of death that hung in the once tranquil corridor.
“Do you think any of them made it?”
Del Rossi shrugged.
Asterious frowned, regarding the old general. He couldn’t help but consider everything that the two of them—that all of them, really—had been through, everything they had worked for and given up: everything they owned, the lives of their comrades, the lives of their families, all in the name of revolution.
They owed at least their own.
They could not fail now.
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