“In Medias Res”
Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Jennifer Lange
Copyright May 14th, 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.
A beam of light cut down from the sky, ripping along the street. Polly dove out of the way, rolling out from under the grasping arms of a pair of mummified soldiers. They were caught in the blast. The heat from the magic incinerated them both.
Two down. Five to go.
They kept coming. The undead were overwhelming the city. Polly had been watching the defenders flee. None of them stopped to help her. It was every man and women for themselves.
She’d killed four zombies, for all the good it had done. Every time she managed too hack one apart, two more arrived to take its place. Pretty soon she would have to turn tail as well.
Stupid potion. The spell for flight should have taken effect by now. There must have been less in the bottle than she thought.
The zombies closed in again. She had never seen the undead work together so intelligently. Whatever magic that god creature possessed, it was certainly doing the trick.
Polly looked up. The god creature soared, raining hellfire down onto the roof. If she didn’t get back up there soon, it would be too late. She backed up against a nearby wall and jumped, willing herself into the air.
She came back to the ground. Still nothing.
The first zombie lunged. It came in from the left. Polly caught it by the wrist and lurched, pivoting on the balls of her feet. She pitched the soldier over her shoulder, threw it to the ground, and planted her knee on its chest. She swung her heavy dagger. Its head was lopped off at the neck.
The other four rushed in. Polly tried to roll away, but there was no room to move. She was cornered against the wall. She stood up and began to climb, scrambling in an effort to get out of reach. She managed to catch hold of the protruding sill of a high window.
She felt a hand close around her ankle. With a grunt, she kicked hard to knock it loose, but its hold was like an iron vice. A second hand joined the first and clamped down, followed by a third on her other leg. Gripping with one hand she lashed out with her knife, only to find herself staring down at a dull crowd of blank faces tightly wrapped in clean linen. It was as unnerving as it was terrifying. They didn’t even make noise.
They pulled. Polly held on with all her strength, but it was no use. She dropped her knife on the ground and clung desperately to the window with both hands. Her fingernails dug grooves into the wood. She screamed as the enemy ripped her away from the wall and hurled her to the ground. Her head struck the snowbound cobbles with a crack. Her vision blurred as the zombies piled onto her limp form. A pair of hands closed around her neck.
Polly felt her wind pipe close in her throat. She struggled to get free, but the soldiers held her down, too heavy to shift. A desperate pressure began to build in the pit of her lungs. Blood pooled behind her eyes. She clenched them shut and forced them open as the world started to go black. Her mouth gaped open, straining for breath.
She felt weak. Her limbs began to feel heavy. She stopped struggling and lay on the ground. She felt her legs start to twitch. Her eyes fluttered shut.
A blast of intense heat suddenly swept over her. The grip on her throat disappeared. Her eyes snapped open and she raked in a breath. The undead soldiers had been blown back, reeling as bright red flames licked at their embalmed bodies. They fell to the ground and burned. Polly crawled slowly away, casting her eyes about for the source of the spell.
Azarelle stepped out of an alley across the street. She gripped a fragment of burned-out torch in her right hand. A bag of spent components lay open at her feet.
Polly staggered to her feet and lurched over.
Her friend smiled and steadied her wobbling legs.
“But how? Where were you?”
Azarelle shook her head.
“It’s a long story. Where are the others?”
Polly pointed to the roof. It was going up in flames.
“How do we get up?”
Polly suddenly felt a strange lightness in her feet. The feeling rose up from her legs, hung upon her back, and took hold of her arms.
She rolled her eyes. Of course. It would work now.
She jumped. Her body hung in the air like a drifting snowflake.
Azarelle raised an eyebrow.
She leaned forward and sniffed her shoulder.
“My last one. I should be able to carry us both.”
She swept over the ground and picked up her dagger.
Azarelle cast her eyes up at the roof a second time.
“Valis is up there.”
Polly followed her gaze.
They paused, regarding the roof for a moment before Polly spoke again.
“Are you ready?”
Polly floated over and held her under her arms.
“Then let’s go.”
Asterious took cover. He was starting to feel faint. His shoulder was bleeding heavily. Another ten minutes and it would be all over. Luckily, his right arm was still good. He couldn’t attack without his dominant hand, but at least he could parry the god-angel’s magic away.
Generosity swung around. He raised his spear. The point flashed like a glimpse of the sun.
Asterious dropped Whisker on the ground, brought up Lamp, and braced himself. Magic surged out from the angel’s weapon, a dazzling beam of tightly focused light.
Unlike mortals, the gods required few reagents to work magic. Their own power was more than enough for most arcane works. They required only the words of the casting, which were, after all, the true heart of any spell.
Lamp’s blade flashed a brilliant white and blue. The incoming magic curved away. Asterious put both hands out, bracing his feet against the ground and his other palm against the flat of the blade. The metal cracked. The deadly beam doubled back on itself and slashed into the sky.
He would not be able to stop another attack.
Generosity wheeled around.
Asterious called up to him.
“Ready to surrender?”
The creature laughed. The sound boomed.
“You are a fool, prince, and I will torture you for centuries for your foolishness. When I am done, your bleached skeleton will stand as a monument to your folly.”
“I always looked good in white.”
The creature growled.
“Words, words, words. I despise your race.”
“Then why don’t you do us both a favour.”
“Go back to whatever hell you came from.”
Generosity’s grip tightened on its weapon.
The spear flashed.
Asterious threw Lamp into the path of the magic. The blade shattered at the impact, scattering the beam in all directions as its protective enchantment sundered and broke. Generosity lurched back and brought up its hands to shield itself from the rays.
Asterious kicked whisker up from the ground and caught it in his right hand. He flung it like a javelin through the air. It was an ugly throw. He was much better with his left, but his aim was good enough to sink the blade deep into the creature’s exposed ribs.
Generosity shrieked as the blade flashed with blackened light. The magic of the god-killing enchantment pulsed as it invaded the body of its ancestral enemy. Generosity fell from the sky and crashed down rolling from the roof out of view.
Asterious took a tired breath and ran a hand through his hair.
“Another blow for freedom, my brothers.”
Valis’s chain suddenly appeared around his leg. He looked down.
Asterious was hurled through the air. He crashed into a tall peak at the edge of the roof. She ran over to him.
“Are you alright?”
He groaned, bloody and barely conscious.
Valis came forward.
“Do you realize what you’ve done? You will all be punished. I promise you.”
Nathanius jumped in between them.
“Don’t bet on it. Your master can’t protect you now.”
Valis’s face twitched with rage.
“Others will come.”
Nathanius gave him a sly look.
“Won’t you be in trouble? You know, for letting him die like that? Not exactly a gold-star performance.”
Valis’s hand gripped the chain hard. The links cracked.
“You’re wrong. My master will return, and when he does I will present your mangled corpses to him as a trophy of our victory.”
Ellyn helped Asterious out of the crater in the roof. He could barely stand up. She turned to Valis.
“If it helps you to believe that…”
He raised the chain. The shadowy tendrils of the spell rose up around them.
“…so be it.”
Ellyn braced herself. The coils struck. Nathanius was still standing in the front. He tried to parry them away in vain, slashing and stabbing. Magic sparked and burst as his enchanted dagger struck the conjuration.
“Leave me. Help him.”
Ellyn nodded. She set him down and ran forward. The chains lashed out and wrapped around her legs. They yanked her forward off of her feet. She struck the ground with a scrape and a thud.
Nathanius called out.
Valis pointed at her with his free hand.
“Still yourself, musician! Behave and I my masters may yet spare your life.”
Ellyn shouted back.
“Go to hell!”
She slashed at the chains. They scattered. She threw herself back to her feet beside Nathanius.
“Very well, then. Death it shall be.”
He raised the chain high over his head. Darkness rose.
A voice called from the sky.
Their eyes snapped up as Polly and Azarelle came plummeting down to the roof.
Polly dropped Azarelle. She drew her dagger and flung it at Valis with all her strength. The heavy blade spun through the air, flashing as it traced a vicious line down from her outstretched palm.
His hand was sliced clean off.
The chain fell to the ground. In the same instant the dark tendrils disbursed from the rooftop. Valis shrieked and fell backwards, writhing in pain as he gripped the severed stump of his arm.
Polly landed and rolled, pointing with her left hand. A coil of black rope was wrapped around her wrist. It sprang from her arm, leaping through the air along the path of her finger to wrap around Valis. The coils tightened and tied, but began to loosen almost the moment the knots were secure.
Azarelle hit the roof with a thud and shouted.
“Grab him! The magic is weak! It won’t last long!”
Ellyn didn’t hesitate. She looked over at Nathanius, who nodded. The two of them ran forward and threw themselves onto Valis, pinning him to the ground. Ellyn put her knife against his throat.
Valis hissed through his teeth.
“Are you prepared to kill me? I don’t think so.”
He smiled, even as he groaned in pain and gripped the stump of his lost hand.
“You don’t have it in you.”
Ellyn stared into his eyes. His face reminded her of Krodyn, the man who had captured her on the coast.
It seemed like so long ago.
She pressed the blade hard against Valis’s skin until he bled. She whispered.
“I’ve killed before.”
Nathanius put a hand on her shoulder.
Polly came over.
“Why not finish it? He’d kill us in an instant if he got the chance.”
Azarelle groaned as she slowly got to her feet.
“There’s been enough blood shed for one day. Besides, he’s right. The god may be back, and we only came here to find Azarelle. We should go now, while we have the chance.”
Polly looked down at Valis.
“I guess it’s your lucky night.”
She spat on the ground.
“Do me a favour and bleed to death.”
She walked away.
Ellyn stood up and put her knife back in her belt. As much as she hated to admit it, Asterious was right. Valis was helpless. It would be wrong to simply execute him.
They weren’t murders.
Azarelle and Nathanius picked up Asterious and they all turned to leave.
The rooftop exploded.
A hole opened up in front of them, crumbling down into the mansion below, a swirling pit of fire and rubble.
“You’re too late.”
A long arm rose up through the burning gap. It gripped a silver spear shot through with veins of white and silver. Red eyes blazed. Great wings unfurled as the creature rose up into the sky, skin as black as the deepest midnight.
A gushing wound burned across its chest. Its ribs ran white with strange blood.
Ellyn stared at it in wonderment and fear. She could see why ancient mortals thought them gods, but to see it here in front of her, full of mad violence and rage, she knew this being was no divine being.
She saw only a monster.
Its voice rumbled.
“Now, you will all die.”
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