Revision of last month’s short story.
It’s substantially longer now, and more polished. Unnecessary details have been omitted and necessary details have been added. Again, things have changed since the writing of the Crystals of Mana. In this draft, I have taken out all references to Guardian Lord/Heir/Throne; there is merely a Lord Tryn who rules Tryn (what was once a province of Libra and is now what Libra was). Mana is explicitly named in this draft, but his name has been changed to Mantha.
This draft is going to a second workshop round next Monday (November 2nd).
Loen pushed his way through the throng of drunken gray-cloaks, occasionally ducking under a punch thrown his way by the more irritable type. Every now and then, one of the men would look at him with hazy half-recognition. Loen didn’t stop to pay these glances any heed―as often as not, they came from strangers. It was a day of riotous celebration for members of The Line. Mist’s signature fog-ale, famous worldwide for the powerful inebriation it delivered, had been passed around by the barrel. Loen wanted only to avoid the rowdy celebrants and cross the assembly hall, his goal the third of eight numbered doors lining the far wall. He had tasted celebration at the last such event, and celebration had left him a mess of bruises.
He finally reached the end of the hall and, with great difficulty, opened the door marked with a silver “3.” Brief apologies made to those he had displaced in his efforts, Loen slipped out of the hall and into a dark room smelling of incense.
Some light from the assembly hall reached halfway into the room, revealing the edge of a cluttered desk and an array of swords hung on one wall.
“Close the damn door, would you?” the voice of The Line’s Third Architect rasped from the darkness. “The stench of that fog-ale will distract me from my studies.”
Loen complied. The room was now completely dark, save for the glowing tips of incense in the corner.
“Come closer, Loen.”
Stepping gingerly lest he stumble, Loen walked toward the voice, coming to a stop before the desk. Though he couldn’t see anything, Loen knew that behind this desk sat a chair, and in that chair, one of the few men in The Line with whom he could hold a conversation.
“What’s troubling you? Why seek me out on a rare free day?”
“Nothing troubling me, Lord Miles,” responded Loen. He absentmindedly rubbed his side where a lucky drunk had landed a blow. “I just felt the need to report as usual.”
“Nothing else to do on a sun-day?” asked Miles.
“Lord Miles, disregarding that we’re underground, the sun hasn’t burned through the fog in―”
“It’s an expression, damn it. You and I were both working The Line down in Verga; you and I are both familiar with the sayings of the brighter lands. Look, Loen. If you don’t want to take the day off, you can work. I’m sure you have some unfinished job somewhere.”
“With all due respect, Lord Miles, that’s hardly in line with my reputation.”
“Ever the over-achiever, I see.” The man behind the desk sighed deeply. “One thing I have learned in this profession, Loen, is that sometimes it is important to slow down.” He paused. “Some say that I have slowed down too much. Lord Lex in particular is critical of my habits. Another thing, actually, while I’m imparting all this wisdom: politics is boring, Loen.”
“I just want to make a living.”
“Everyone enters The Line saying that, and few ever manage to leave. They make a living but they also make a dying. It would be a shame for you to remain a petty thug for the rest of your life.”
Loen frowned. Miles had been patronizing him for years, and it grated on his nerves as much as ever. The kind words and apparent concern belied Miles’ true identity as a master of crime. Lord Miles, Architect of the Third Circle, had been coordinating The Line’s activities for decades, almost two of which had seen Loen as his subordinate. Miles had more blood on his hands than ran through the veins of all the inhabitants of Mist.
“You’re still testing me, aren’t you?”
“I would be a bad mentor if I didn’t,” admitted Miles. “That said, the answer is no. When you fled four years ago, I was glad. I still don’t know why you came back.”
Loen’s jaw tightened.
“And you still refuse to tell me, and that’s acceptable. But relax occasionally, will you? You take things around here too damn seriously—don’t want you becoming another Lex.” Miles laughed a harsh laugh. “You make up for those drunk fools out there all by yourself.”
The sounds of another fight breaking out on the other side of the study door accentuated his point.
“I’m honored,” Loen replied, his jaw tightening further. It’s just today. Tomorrow, the gray-cloaks would be sober and working once more, efficiently thieving, robbing, spying, informing, kidnapping, ransoming, and murdering. The apparatus of The Line was slick and rarely missed a beat. Days of celebration were the only exception, and they were few and far between. Loen himself was but one cog in the machine, a Runner, one charged with hunting down bounties—bounties that usually didn’t need to be brought in alive.
“Well, that’s how it is. The only thing I need help with is my research on demonic magic. The Boss showed interest in developing some new weapons for our assassins in the meeting last night, and I’m short on scholarly hands.”
“Research? I could help with that, Lord Miles.” Books would be a nice change from daggers.
“You’re not of much use to me if you can’t see in the dark.”
“If you have me enchanted like you…”
“A bad idea,” Miles laughed. “If I do, you’ll spend far too much time in the lore-halls, and The Line will have problems. Its number-one Runner would be sorely missed.”
“I still don’t see why you can’t use lanterns in the lore-halls here.”
“Some things are best read in the dark, Loen.” Miles sighed and drummed his fingers on the desk. Loen couldn’t see the action, but he was familiar with the noise, and he was familiar with its meaning: Miles was annoyed. “Either way, lantern or no damn lantern, I can’t use up your time.”
“It’s a free day, right?”
“See here. Know what they’re celebrating out there, all those drunk idiots? Us Architects are being promoted today. Lord Kand of the Second Circle is moving up to First. That means I’m being promoted to Second from Third, and Lex from Fourth to Third. Effective immediately, I’m no longer your Architect. He is. Now. You’ve done more distracting than the damn fog-ale could have, so I’ll ask you to leave.”
“Lord Miles, I really could help―”
“Damn it, I shouldn’t have mentioned it. I told you that damn Lex was looking for an excuse to get rid of me. You want work? See Lex. You want play? Get drunk. You want neither? Go outside, see the surface. Get some fresh air. Relax a little.”
Loen shrugged and turned around. With one arm extended, he sought out the doorknob. He hadn’t known that Miles was no longer the Architect of his Circle, and returning to this pitch-black study was a habit that he knew would be hard to break. Miles was the only member of The Line who knew Loen from Verga, the only one who knew that Loen was a deserter who had returned to the organization. Though Loen had hated the older man for years, there was now a certain comfort in talking to him.
As he turned the doorknob with a sharp creak, Miles called after him.
“Come by once in a while if you really need me. I’ll be in the office one door down.”
Loen pushed the door open and slipped once more into the crowd. He struggled back through the celebrants, eventually passing over an ornate threshold and into a smaller, less populated corridor. Loen took a moment to breathe deeply and then he strode down to a T-intersection, taking the right fork. Lanterns, hung evenly along the passageway, cast light on the smooth stone walls and high ceiling. Sturdy oak doors set between these lanterns opened onto innumerable meeting rooms and mess-halls. With the refined architecture, it was easy to forget that The Line’s base was a series of caves far below the surface.
The distinct scent of fog-ale permeated these artificial caves, inspiring Loen to follow Miles’ last suggestion and head aboveground. He marveled at how empty the halls were as he traversed them―was the whole of The Line really crowded into that single assembly hall, drunk beyond belief? Loen wondered if a good citizen would alert Vergan military officials. The few authorities still in Mist were paid off by The Line, and the organization had always proved powerful enough to fend off the armies of neighboring countries, but on this day The Line seemed defenseless.
As Loen rounded a corner and began scaling an immense spiral staircase, he shrugged off the speculation. In any case, I’m not a good citizen.
Thirty minutes later, Loen stepped out of the stairwell and into an abandoned warehouse on the east end of Mist. The town’s perennial fog leaked through countless holes in the building’s roof and walls, and its chill bit at Loen.
He stretched, shivering slightly. It was his first time on the surface in almost three months. Most of his work these days were jobs within the organization: taking out detractors, coercing minor officials to comply with the Architects, and so forth. The sizable population of non-members living below ground sheltered deserters, men run afoul of both Law and Line―deserters Loen was often tasked with hunting down. It was a very different life from that which he had lived as a member of The Line in Verga, a life of serene moonlight, refreshing breezes, and exhilarating roof-top chases.
Loen exited the warehouse, turning back to inspect the various signs posted above the entrance. There were warnings to keep out. There were posters declaiming against The Line’s violence. One sign caught Loen’s eye with its horrendous penmanship, and he read it aloud to himself.
“You don’t fuck with The Line, ’cause it’ll Circle right around and fuck you up worse.” Loen chuckled. At least one of my colleagues has a sense of humor.
He trudged westward through the fog, his hands in his pockets. He supposed he enjoyed the fresh air, but there was little else to absorb. Mist, as if to make up for the abundance of moisture, was a very dry town. The gorgeous forests common in Verga were nowhere to be found; Mist’s trees had all been felled for construction purposes and hadn’t been replaced. The land had been cut up with wagon wheels rather than plows; whereas most villages would be surrounded by fields of crops, Mist only had well-traveled trade roads leading south and east. Loen frowned as he walked. Miles had mentioned “seeing” the surface. Loen supposed that maybe two hundred years ago, before The Line had come up from Verga to set up another base of operations, Mist—then a bustling mining town—might have been interesting to tour. Now, the town’s only interesting feature was its fog, and that grew old quickly.
All the walking had whetted Loen’s appetite. The brightness of the mist told him it was midday, so he wandered into a small restaurant in the middle of town. The building, like all others in Mist, was constructed of drab gray wood harvested locally.
The restaurant was empty save for the cook and a couple old men snoozing at a corner table with empty tankards resting between them. The cook, a stout, middle-aged man with black hair and brown eyes, looked up from the counter in surprise. Loen could tell that customers were rare.
“What can I do for you, Master…?” The cook squinted. “Don’t believe I know you. Are you one of those below-ground types?”
“My name is Loen. I’m just passing through.” That much was true―he was just passing very slowly. Loen hadn’t intended to remain long in Mist. He had been back with The Line a full year now, every month noting that another month had passed and that he needed new plans soon.
“Master Loen, then. Odd name.” The cook chuckled.
Loen shrugged. “Yeah.”
It is an odd name. It was not the name his peasant parents had given him before they succumbed to plague and left him an orphan. Loen had been adopted and named by Ji’Lopan, a maverick Infernal who appeared one day in a shower of golden sparks. Ji’Lopan was the first of two demons who had mentored him, and Ji’Lopan was the one who had taught Loen—”Legend,” in the old language—that he was the reincarnation of a demigod fated to struggle against the Infernals on behalf of man.
Thinking back on his previous mentors, Loen noted with a snort that Lord Miles was far less human.
“Well, Master Loen, what can I do for you?”
“Heh. Everything’s good, or nothing is.” The cook’s grin grew less exuberant. “It’s hard to tell, when I’m my only regular.”
“Business isn’t good?” asked Loen, donning a sympathetic smile.
“Nothing’s good, Master Loen. The town is gradually emptying out into those pits of crime down there. Abandoned homes everywhere, people moving down into the earth to find warmth… and maybe better food. Most merchants deal directly with the criminals now, they don’t trade with us surface-dwellers.”
Loen nodded. He had seen more and more civilians moving into The Line’s caves, and he had wondered where they were all coming from. The possibility that Mist was slowly becoming a ghost town as people descended into the caves hadn’t occurred to him, but it made sense.
“How about this, Master Loen, I make you a nice steak? I like my steaks, beef’s the good stuff from east Verga.”
The cook disappeared behind a curtain and into the kitchen, judging by the clanging of pots and pans that ensued. Loen seated himself at one of the dozen unoccupied tables, shifting the many daggers beneath his cloak until he was comfortable. He ran a hand through his prematurely graying hair and looked out the nearest window. An old man hobbled by, eyes hidden beneath bushy white eyebrows, gnarled hands blending with his warped cane.
Everything ages here, everything gets old and gray and loses vitality. Loen remembered a book he had read in one of the well-lit Vergan lore-halls, a book that described the mythology of some far-off land. The inhabitants of that land believed that the whole world would one day die of old age, plants and animals alike disappearing together with sky, earth, and ocean. Even the gods would fall, they believed, succumbing one by one to the passage of time.
Loen wondered if he wasn’t waiting for something similar to befall the world he knew. Month after month, he noted his failure to leave The Line; month after month, he made no move to redeem it. He knew he needed to escape Mist. He knew he needed to find a cleaner environment. He knew he needed a purpose more compelling than his current role as one criminal hunting down others.
A few minutes later, the cook reappeared, a plate in each hand. Each bore a darkened steak and a steaming heap of potatoes. He put one down in front of Loen and made to sit across from his customer.
“You’re not going to eat with your family?” Loen asked, surprised. Back in Verga, while it wasn’t odd for lonely elders to seek comfort in the company of the young, a man in his prime would usually shut down his shop in order to enjoy a meal with his wife and children.
The cook gave Loen a pained smile.
“Wife took the kids and left for the caves, maybe four months ago. Said it was too lonely up here.” He furrowed his brow, expressive wrinkles dominating his forehead. “I was never lonely until she left.”
Loen bit his lip. Lonely. Mantha… I was never lonely until Mantha left. The events that had led to his flight from The Line four years earlier had also led to the loss of his closest friends. Ji’Lopan’s disappearance, Ji’Luc’s suicide, Mantha’s banishment… his first foray away from The Line and into a world of adventure had consisted of disaster after disaster. It had taken him two years of solitary wandering to recover from the wounds both physical and psychological, and when he had stopped wandering he had looked up to see a damp gray sky.
“Are you alright, Master Loen?”
“You looked lost in the mist.”
“Ah, I’m fine, thanks.” Loen blinked again. “I was just thinking about why I ended up here in Mist.”
“One good thing about this town is that it’s far from most conflict,” the cook noted. “Well, excepting The Line, but they’re everywhere. I hear Infernals are ravaging Tryn these days, that they’re pushing toward Verga and Eldra. Lord Tryn’s doing a poor job of protecting the people, they say.” He paused. “Hell, you probably know more about these matters than me. Where are you from, anyway?”
“Born in Eldra, raised in Verga,” Loen answered truthfully. “But most of my wandering has been in the wilderness north of Tryn,”―another truth―”and I don’t know much about what’s going on in the south.”
I’d rather not think about it… Ji’Lopan had told Loen that because he was the incarnation of Legend, he would be hunted by Infernals until he died. What Ji’Lopan hadn’t told him was that the longer Loen survived the hunt, the greater the collateral damage would be. When a group of shades attacked Verga four years ago, Loen had set out to free himself from his fate. Shrugging off the hunt had incurred ill consequences Loen hadn’t imagined. I succeeded… and now those Infernals are ransacking Tryn instead of searching for me. This knowledge had lingered in the back of Loen’s mind for three years, haunting him whenever he wasn’t immersed in work.
He had seen colleagues curse up storms over failed missions. The only failures that vexed Loen to that degree were that he had been powerless to protect Mantha—the incarnation of Life, whom he had encountered in his travels—and that he had inadvertently jeopardized mankind by skewing his own fate. The curses he’d learned while working The Line had been inadequate to express his frustration; by the time he had finished wandering, he had exhausted them.
Loen banished the memories from his mind and cut into his steak.
“What’s there to do here in Mist, anyway?” he asked between mouthfuls.
“If you’re not running a business or spending time with your family, not a whole lot. Hell, even if you’re running a business…” The cook made a sweeping gesture to indicate all the empty tables. One of the snoozing men in the corner snorted in his sleep.
It was as Loen had expected. Why would Miles suggest seeing the surface? It’s so bland… then again, Miles hasn’t left that pitch-black study in the four years he’s been in Mist. A dismal existence. A dismal existence, and it saddened Loen that he seemed bound to follow in Miles’ footsteps.
If I don’t get out of this place…
“Done already?” asked the cook as Loen stood and dropped some coins on the table. The man was clearly sad to see him go.
“Yes.” Loen felt a twinge of sympathy, something nigh foreign to him three years after the final disaster of his adventure. “The steak was good.” It hadn’t tasted good, Loen realized as he mulled over the unpleasant aftertaste, but it had been emotionally satisfying.
“Enjoy your travels,” called the cook as Loen exited the restaurant.
Is there nothing else to see…? The fog cleared in Loen’s memories and a patch of blue made itself visible. He recalled that there was a lake just a mile to the southeast of Mist, and he headed in that direction. He clutched his gray cloak tightly about himself as he walked, trying to keep in his warmth. The cold reminded him of his first time in Mist, four years ago, at the beginning of his adventure. After a night of fleeing from pursuing gray-cloaks, he had stumbled upon a lake over which no fog hung. He had huddled for warmth on its shore, and on its shore he had met Mantha, also a refugee, also cold.
As Loen surveyed the lake again four years later, he marveled at how small it seemed. I once thought there couldn’t be more water than this in the world. Heh… Crossing the eastern oceans seems to have changed my standards.
Loen gazed out across the sparkling blue water, to the southeast. That’s where Tryn is…
In that direction lay an army of Infernals, of shades and wraiths and reapers and hellhounds and imps, and that army was laying waste to the oldest and most powerful nation in the world. Neither Verga nor Eldra could match Tryn’s military might, and neither Verga nor Eldra would survive long once the Infernals moved west from Tryn. Loen sighed. Tryn was falling because he had succeeded in his attempts to stop the merciless forward march of fate.
Everything has gone to hell, and I have no one to blame but myself.
Loen picked up a pebble and tossed it forward. It made a single ripple in the lake’s surface before disappearing from sight. He felt like the pebble: he had escaped inertia long enough to make a single, meaningless ripple, and then he had stopped moving again.
He waved good-bye to the blue sky above the lake, and then turned and walked back into the fog.
Loen swept through the empty streets of Mist, into the abandoned warehouse and down the stairs leading into The Line’s caves. As he descended, he grew gradually warmer. His muscles relaxed and a smile crept across his face. He was here with The Line, one criminal among others. If I don’t get out of this place… then what?
He passed back through the network of tunnels, back through the crowded assembly hall, back through the door marked with a silver “3.” There he saw an unfamiliar sight: a lit lantern on the otherwise clear desk. The walls were bare, and the room reeked of fog-ale. A short man in a gray cloak looked up from the boxes he was placing behind the desk. His neatly-trimmed brown hair was flecked with gray. Bright blue eyes gleamed under heavy eyebrows.
“Greetings, Runner Loen,” said the man, straightening himself and stepping around the desk. “We’ll be working together from now on.” He extended a hand.
“Lord Lex.” Loen took his hand and shook it. “Congratulations on your promotion.”
“I’m aiming for the top,” he laughed, a laugh that unsettled Loen.
“I’ll warn Lords Miles and Kand.” Loen smiled with false sincerity. He did not want to work with Lex. No one wanted to work with Lex. If Miles was the cruelest man in The Line, Lex was the slimiest. Loen made a note to fill out a Circle-transfer application as soon as possible. He didn’t particularly want to work for Miles again, but he would take anything over an appointment with Lex. The biggest danger of staying in the Third Circle, he knew, was that Lex was sure to order Miles’ assassination sometime, and he didn’t want to be the one tasked with carrying out those orders.
“Speaking of Miles, that geezer’s in the room next door if you were looking for him.” Loen made to leave, but Lex wasn’t done. “Or if your blade was looking for him. That’s fine, too.”
With a deep breath, Loen slipped out of the office and into the one marked with a silver “2.” As expected, this room was pitch-black. A couple sticks of incense smoldered in a corner; the familiar aroma was comforting.
“I believe I said ‘once in a while,'” Miles commented. “It hasn’t been a while.”
Loen, unsure of how to react, remained silent.
“Well, you’re here now. How was the surface?”
“Apparently, there’s more town down here than up there,” Loen replied. “It’s grim. And worse the further south you go.”
“Something about rampaging Infernals?”
“Something like that,” answered Loen, treating the words with a sarcastically light tone.
“Don’t you want to do something about them? Go out there, save the world or something?” Miles chuckled. “Heh, you tried that once, didn’t you.”
“Not much I could try against an army of Infernals.” Loen sighed. He hadn’t told Miles of his adventure and so he knew the Architect was joking. The joke still hurt.
“No indeed. You’re better suited to fighting armies of books than armies of demons, judging by the hours you wasted in the Vergan lore-halls. It’s a shame that you’re so damn good at your job, you know. If you weren’t, I could hire you for research.”
“I’m going to try to transfer Circles,” Loen said.
“Even if you make it into the Second, I’m not going to pull you off the bounty beat. You’re too great an asset as a Runner.”
“What’s there to stop me from getting Lord Lex before he gets you?”
“Damn it, Loen. I told you: politics is boring. Let’s not go there… hell, even before we consider the Architects, we have to consider the Boss, you know! And Lex is his favorite, a shoo-in as his successor. You have three options, as I see it. The first is to try escaping. The second is to keep doing what you’ve been doing for the last year. The third is to die. The Boss doesn’t want your talent wasted.”
Loen knew the first option wasn’t feasible. He had no friends or family left on the surface. All he had was his memory of his demonic mentors, both dead, and of Mantha, now banished somewhere far away, somewhere inaccessible. He felt like the pebble: he no longer had any attachment to the surface, and even if he did, he couldn’t defy gravity and fly back out of the lake.
“Well, I have some work to do―outlining assassination plans for the next month, tedious things of that nature.” Loen heard Miles shuffle some papers around.
Miles was deciding the destinies of dozens daily, callously choosing whom to capture and whom to kill, whom to punish and whom to let go. The targets were of all walks of life: disgraceful members of The Line, deserters from The Line, civilians who defied The Line, politicians who sought autonomy from The Line, generals who considered fighting The Line… and then there were the random executions with which The Line terrorized the general public. Loen looked in the direction of the Second Architect, the cruelest man he knew, and he laughed, shaking his head sadly. What else can a criminal do, besides laugh? I’m the one turning the paper deaths into real deaths. I’m just one more cog in the machine.
What else could he do, he wondered, as that pebble cast deep into the lake?
“I’ll try to transfer tomorrow,” Loen said. “For now, I’ll retire to my room.”
Loen left Miles and set back out into the assembly hall. It was the same turbulent mess of mass, and once more Loen navigated it with all the grace his time on the Vergan rooftops had afforded him. He reentered the intricate network of tunnels that connected the various offices of The Line. Branching off from the main corridor, he headed for the residence caves.
Soon he was entering the Runners’ common area, a spacious room littered with armchairs and wooden crates in equal quantities. Loen and his ilk had a tendency to prefer makeshift furniture, and The Line was all too happy to oblige its workers in matters of cutting costs. The room, usually bustling with noisy gray-cloaks, was empty save for one man.
“Loen!” he exclaimed. “I was wondering where you’d gone.”
“Talking to Lord Miles,” Loen replied. “You still haven’t joined in the celebration, Doan?”
“And I don’t think I will.” Doan sniffed expressively. He was short, with a sharp nose, and his black hair was receding into his gray cowl. He sat in his usual spot: an armchair near the end of the common area. “Odd habit, drinking. I don’t much care for revelry.”
“Understandable.” Loen looked around. “We’re the only two here. I guess we’re the odd ones.”
“You’re the oddest of all, number one. I feel important just talking to you.” Loen grimaced. “Yes, Loen, yes, I know. You don’t like standing out. I’ve told you before, just curb your performance.”
Loen shrugged. “I’m retiring for the night, I think.”
“It’s pretty early. What’d the man say?”
Loen, already halfway across the common area, paused. “Said nothing. I’m going to fill out a transfer app tomorrow morning, see if I can move out of Third.”
“Scared of the slime?” Doan smiled. “You fit in just fine.”
“Hah. If our only unifying trait is our hatred of management, we’re done for.” Loen began walking again, passing Doan on his way into the narrow hall beyond the common area. “Good night, Doan.”
“Sure you want to sleep? It’ll be fun ribbing the drunkards as they trickle back.”
“Positive. Enjoy your fun.”
“Heh. Good night, Loen.”
Loen exited the common area and stalked down the hallway lined with bedroom doors. Arriving at his, he fished a key out of the pouch at his belt. With a routine twist of the wrist and a familiar click, he was inside. His room was tiny, like those of all the Runners, and sparsely furnished. A sturdy bed occupied half the room—The Line valued its members’ sleep—and a tiny desk sat next to the bed, a diminutive stool tucked under it. An empty oil lamp sat collecting dust on the desk. Loen didn’t spend much time in his room. When he wasn’t sleeping, he was working, or talking to Miles.
He closed the door, flooding his room in the same complete darkness that enveloped Miles’ study, and undid the clasp on his cloak. Balling it up, he dropped it on the ground. A multitude of knives and daggers covered his body, secured with three belts and a gray silk sash. One by one, he drew them and deposited them on his desk, pausing with the fourth as his fingertips alerted him of a sheet of paper lying next to the lamp. It wasn’t hard to imagine how it had gotten there—any member of The Line could, as a baseline, pass through a locked door without a trace.
Curious as to what might be written on the paper, Loen fumbled with his lamp. It refused to ignite, and he propped his door ajar, allowing light from the hall to trickle in. He picked up the note and unfolded it, squinting in order to read the tiny writing.
“Today’s celebrations are no accident. The Architects’ promotions come on the heels of the deposition of the previous Lord of the First Circle, a man known among his subjects as irrational and demented yet until recently favored by the Boss for who knows what reasons… politics is boring, and the Boss is hard to understand, so I’ll just give you the short version: I made a case against the First Architect, he was dismissed, promotions followed, and celebration was announced. While keeping an incompetent man in the First Circle was favorable for us lower Architects—we could look good in comparison—I decided it was time to for him to go. The celebrations are no accident, Loen, they are a diversion. A diversion I created for you.
“I don’t know why you left Verga four years ago, but you left spunky with shining eyes, and you came back here to Mist three years later, graying at twenty-five. I figured it must have been something heavy you got involved in. I’m no wizard, but it doesn’t take magic to tell that you have a lot to deal with. And you can’t deal with it by penning yourself up down here.
“If it helps for you to think of this as work, consider this my last mission to you as Lord of the Third Circle—it’s not quite midnight as I scribe this. The Line’s business will be in danger if the human world is obliterated by Infernals. This should be obvious to all, and we have already sent a few Runners into Verga and Tryn to scout out the military situation there, but they are not our best men, they are not reliable. I think this task is a good fit for our ace. Head to Tryn and investigate possible strategic alliances with Lord Tryn.
“Whether you do this as a member of The Line, or merely as a hero bent on saving the world, is up to you. Good luck.”
Loen crumpled the note in his fist.
“That asshole,” he laughed. “That damned asshole.” He slipped the note into his belt pouch and re-sheathed his knives. With one fluid motion, he stooped down, grabbed his cloak, and flung it over his shoulders.
I can’t win. Miles is too good. Miles has always been too good, from the moment sixteen years ago when Ji’Lopan threw me into Miles’ Vergan office and said, “use this brat well.” Loen smiled at the memories. He had some good ones, after all. Training with Ji’Lopan in a clearing outside Verga, daggers flashing hither and thither in an intricate dance of steel. Joining The Line and feeling for the first time that he had a home. Cashing in his first real bounty, basking in the glory of his accomplishment. Rising rapidly through the ranks to become renowned in Verga’s First Circle. Sitting on a rooftop in Verga with Ji’Lopan, enjoying a history book pilfered from a lore-hall.
And then there were all the wondrous things he had seen on his adventure, the magic and beauty of the world. It came to him suddenly—sitting on a river bank in northern Tryn, ignoring his worries and enjoying some rare downtime. Mantha had sat down next to him and begun juggling a handful of stones smoothed by decades on the riverbed, propelling them upward with magic. A wizard can lift a pebble from the bottom of a lake.
Gravity isn’t the only force in the world.
Loen closed his door behind him and headed back toward the common area. Miles was quite the wizard, he realized. No real magic, but a very real effect.
“Heading out again?” asked Doan.
“Yeah. I tried to escape years ago, and I’m going to succeed this time. This is good-bye.”
Doan narrowed his eyes.
“Ditching The Line, eh? I don’t know what you mean by ‘surfacing,’ but I’m supposed to kill you or something if you do that.” Loen’s hand instinctively flew to one of the daggers beneath his cloak. Doan threw his hands in air and smiled nervously. “Relax, Loen, relax. I’m kidding. We all knew you’d leave us some day.”
Loen nodded, a nod of confirmation and of thanks, and started running.