Second revision of my short story for my short story workshop. This version won’t be workshopped; it’s the ‘final draft’ as far as the class is concerned. It clocks in just under 8000 words. I hope it’s alright—I added a lot of new scenes that I’m not entirely confident about. You be the judge.
“Loen, help me!”
Loen chased after the voice, running through eerily empty hallways at top speed. Fuzzy half-thoughts buzzed in and out of his awareness, their urgency dulled by the smoke that blurred the complex. Every so often, a word or phrase would burn bright in Loen’s mind, but three repeated themselves over and over: Fay—Save—Banishment—
Faysal’s voice was clear in his mind, cutting through ceilings and walls as it sought to guide Loen closer. “I’m here,” it was saying, “I’m here—and there isn’t time.”
A large plume of purple smoke erupted out of nowhere and extinguished all the braziers along the walls. Loen didn’t stop running. He didn’t have time. He had to reach Faysal. He had to reach him before the gates to the Inferno opened—and something clamped tight around his heart and lungs told him that the ritual had already begun.
“Loen, help me!”
Suddenly, the braziers blazed back to life, reincarnated as oil lanterns. They illuminated a hallway completely different from that which Loen had been running through moments before. The fine scarlet tapestries were replaced with walls carved of plain stone, the soft carpeting with a series of rough mats, the ornate arched ceiling with a cold shaft. Loen stopped running and looked around. A couple rough-looking men in gray cloaks strolled by, one juggling daggers, both ignoring Loen. They were muttering as they walked, something about a gruesome murder.
“Loen, help me!”
The cry had become softer, more muffled, farther away, as though it were traveling all the hundreds of miles between the rich halls of Tryn Palace and the stony confines of The Line’s headquarters.
“Loen, help me!”
Loen shut his eyes tight and shook his head as the plead echoed in his ears. I can’t change my past. I am not someone who helps others. I am a criminal, and I failed to save you.
Loen cracked his eyes open. That he was peering into nothingness comforted him; the darkness of his room was always relief from the turbulence of his dreams.
Dressed and divested of his dream, Loen slunk down the halls of The Line’s base. They were oddly empty, much like the hazy corridors of his nightmare, but the din from the central assembly hall reassured him that his colleagues hadn’t all vanished overnight. Opening one of the assembly hall’s side doors, Loen beheld a gathering so immense that almost the entire organization had to have been present. Loen immediately noticed the smell of alcohol, usually forbidden for its negative impacts on The Line’s productivity.
That’s right, he remembered, rubbing the last of the sleep from his eyes, we have today off.
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. As on most days of celebration, Mist’s signature fog-ale, famous worldwide for the powerful inebriation it delivered, had been passed around by the barrel. Loen however 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 nauseous 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 daggers 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, Loen walked toward the voice, coming to a stop before the desk. Though he couldn’t see anything, Loen knew that behind this desk was a chair, and that in that chair sat 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 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 fantastic 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. You’re too good for that.”
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, from time to time,” said Miles. “That said, the answer is no. When you fled four years ago, I was glad—Speaking of which, I’d like to applaud your timing once again. Verga was in so much trouble when you left, we didn’t have the resources to hunt you down properly. And now the Vergan branch has been disbanded, and I’m the only one here who knows about you.”
Loen narrowed his eyes.
“You say this every time we talk.” My timing was abysmal.
“Yes, yes. I’m still amazed by how smoothly it worked out! Think about it: you escaped The Line! And you came back in one piece! … I still don’t know why,” added Miles as 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 Infernal smithery. 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.
“I do remember you loving to read back in Verga. You were a fabulous student. But you’re not of much use to me here 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, especially by Lex and the Boss.”
“I still don’t see why you can’t use lanterns in the lore-halls here. Back in Verga, everything—”
“Some things are best read in the dark, Loen. Did the Vergan lore-halls house any secrets? No.” Miles sighed and drummed his fingers on the desk. “Either way, lantern or no damn lantern, I can’t use up your time.”
“It’s a free day, right?”
“See here. Know what all those drunk idiots are celebrating out there? 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, 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 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 once hated the older man, 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 noted again 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 local authorities still were paid off by The Line, and the organization had always proved powerful enough to fend off the armies of neighboring countries. Today, however, 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 lower management 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 with no other place to hide―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 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 crop fields, Mist only had well-traveled trade roads leading south toward Verga and southeast toward Tryn. Loen frowned as he walked. Miles had mentioned “seeing” the surface. Loen supposed that maybe two hundred years ago, before The Line had expanded from Verga to set up another base of operations, Mist—then a bustling mining town supplying sundry materials to the entire world—might have been interesting to tour. Now, the town’s only export was crime and its 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. Customers must be 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 had appeared one day in a shower of golden sparks. Clad in armor carved from basalt and wielding a radiant sword with a viridian sheen, Ji’Lopan had educated Loen in history, swordplay, and survival. Ji’Lopan was the first of two renegade demons to mentor 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.
“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. Lots of merchants come through town, but most 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 eastern 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. Loen closed his eyes, leaning back in his seat. Everything gets old and gray and loses vitality. He 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 across the eastern oceans. 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, sea, and earth. Everything would fall, they believed, succumbing all at once to the passage of time.
Loen wondered if he wasn’t waiting for something similar to happen. 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 a purpose more compelling than his current role as one criminal hunting down others. He knew he needed to find a cleaner environment, one in which he could forget his history of crime and start afresh. I’ll never forget my mistakes.
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. Faysal… I was never lonely until Faysal 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, Faysal’s banishment… Loen’s first foray away from The Line and into a world of adventure had consisted of one huge 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.”
“One good thing about this town is that it’s far from most conflict,” the cook noted. “Well, excepting The Line, but there is nowhere unsullied by their touch. 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 was fated to be hunted by Infernals until he died. Ji’Lopan had emphasized how painful it would be to lose to the Infernals, how horrid their executions were, and he had drilled self-defense into Loen’s bones. What Ji’Lopan hadn’t told him, and what only became apparent much later, 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 swear up storms over failed missions. The only failures that vexed Loen to that degree were that he had been powerless to protect Faysal—the incarnation of Legend’s brother Life, whom he had encountered in his travels—and that he had inadvertently jeopardized mankind by skewing his own fate. The profanities 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 conclusion of his disastrous 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 an enormous 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 Gray-cloaks (Surprisingly ineffectual, Loen realized in retrospect; The Line should have been able to do better, hell, I would have done better), 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 Faysal, also a refugee, also cold.
As Loen surveyed the lake again four years later, he marveled at how small it was. I once thought there couldn’t be more water than this in the world. 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 sat down on a large boulder by the lakeshore. Closing his eyes, he felt wind rippling through him. It urged him to lean back, to rest his arms on at his sides, to lie there, with nothing but the unobstructed blue sky before him, his eyelids slowly falling shut.
Loen stood panting at the door to the heart of Tryn Palace. Faysal’s cries were closer, but more urgent. Did I make it on time? The door opened, pushed wide by invisible hands. Loen dashed into the throne room, glancing around frantically for some sight of Faysal.
Loen blinked, and there he was—Faysal Tryn, heir to the throne, blazing red hair, green robes a tangle of verdant vines, eyes the color of the sky but maybe a little cloudy—and there they were, the impostors, agents of the would-be usurper of the Tryn throne, their filthy claws clenched around Faysal’s sleeves. Behind the throne, hell gaped wide, hideous visages peeking out between the spurting flames. Two black marble pillars marked the threshold. Loen’s hands flew to the daggers under his cloak, but grasped at nothing.
“What could possibly be under your cloak?” asked Faysal, an innocent curiosity on his face, as though he were not worried about the men dragging him closer to the Infernal gate.
“Fay, I—” Loen stopped short. Of course. I’m not a member of The Line right now. Loen reached down and unsheathed the sword at his hip. The weapon felt heavy, unfamiliar, awkward, and Loen dropped it. It was useless in his hands.
“Stop it!” he pleaded. “Please, I beg of you—” He fell to his knees, touched the throne room floor with his forehead. “Take the throne! Take my life! But leave Fay—let Fay live here in peace!”
“What were you looking for under your cloak?” asked Faysal again, more insistent. “I want to know, brother. You said no secrets.”
Loen’s throat dried. He looked back up at Faysal, but he couldn’t focus. The heat of the Inferno had seeped out of the gate, into the room, and through his body. He was burning up.
“Fay, I’m not hiding anything—”
“You’re lying,” snarled one of the men holding Faysal.
“You’re packing thirty daggers,” growled the other. Suddenly, Loen’s body felt heavier, covered in belts and holsters and steel. “Line trash.”
“Line?” asked Faysal, looking from one of his captors to the other before fixing Loen with a withering gaze.
“Don’t listen to them, Fay, I—” Loen broke off into coughing sobs as both captive and captors disappeared into the furnace. The gates closed abruptly, a shockwave of warmth washing over Loen, and then all that was left was Faysal’s accusing glare, staring down at Loen from the far wall, two pools of angry azure.
Loen was lying on his side, looking into two pools of azure: the lake and the sky. He dragged himself into a cross-legged sitting position and sighed deeply. Why do I try to save Fay in my dreams? It won’t change the past.
He picked up a pebble and tossed it forward. It made a single ripple in the lake’s surface before disappearing from sight. Loen felt like the pebble: he had escaped inertia long enough to make a single, meaningless ripple, and then he had stopped moving again. One thing his dreams were always right about was that he was a member of The Line, for better or worse. Another thing they were right about was that there was no saving Faysal. He was gone.
Loen waved good-bye to the blue sky above the lake, and then hopped down from his perch and walked back into the fog, conscious every step of the way of the daggers strapped about his person. He 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. Loen 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. None of the rank and file wanted to work with Lex. Lex was as slimy as Miles was cruel. 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. Lex is sure to order Miles’ assassination sometime. I won’t be the one 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 southeast 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 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 back in the Vergan lore-halls.”
“I’m going to try to transfer Circles,” Loen said. “Then I could—”
“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.”
“Why? Are you afraid of Lord Lex? What’s there to stop me from getting him 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! 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 past year, only for Lex. The third is to die. The Boss doesn’t want your talent out of his control.”
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 Faysal, now banished 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 like that.” Loen heard Miles shuffle some papers around. “Would you go back to your room already? You’ve done a lot of distracting today.”
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 locals. Loen looked in the direction of the Second Architect 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. “Next time I see you, I will be a member of the Second Circle, and I look forward to working with you on your research.”
“Damn it,” cursed Miles, “are you trying to irk me? No books for you, no research for you! You’re dismissed now, before you ask again. Go get some rest, Number One. Lex is going to work you hard starting tomorrow.”
Loen rubbed his forehead in irritation and made for the door in silence.
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 three men.
“Loen!” one exclaimed. “I was wondering when you’d turn up.”
“Talking to Lord Miles,” Loen replied. “You still haven’t joined in the celebration?” Loen tried and failed to remember the other Runner’s name. He knew his face, which was more than he could say for the other two men in the room, but he wasn’t truly familiar with anyone in The Line, save for Miles.
“And I don’t think I will.” The man sniffed. 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.” The other two men, both tall with heavy brows and wide shoulders, looked up at each other from their perches in the corners of the room and exchanged dark glances.
“Understandable.” Loen looked around. “We’re the only Runners here. I guess we’re the odd ones.”
The other men chuckled.
Loen shrugged. “Well, I’m retiring for the night.”
“It’s pretty early. What’d the man say?” asked the short Runner.
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 Lex?” leered one of the tall men.
“Aren’t we all?” asked the other sympathetically.
“Hah. If our only unifying trait is our hatred of management, we’re done for.” Loen began walking again, his goal the narrow hall beyond the common area. “Good night, sirs.”
“Sure you want to sleep?” asked the short man. “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 to which he had awoken that morning, 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 many pockets that doubled as sheathes. 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 at the very least 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.
“I need to put this in ink, because I know you don’t listen to me when I speak. You treat all my advice with skepticism, but you need to take this letter to heart.
“Today’s celebrations are no accident. I made a case against our joke of a First Architect, he was dismissed, promotions followed, and celebration was announced. The celebrations are no accident, Loen, they are a diversion. A diversion from the day-to-day monotony of work that you have lost yourself in. 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 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 and whittling your life away as a criminal.
“If it helps for you to think of this as work, consider this my last mission to you as Architect 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 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. I’ve watched out for you, just as I promised Ji’Lopan back when you were a kid. I watched you grow, I watched you mature. You can do this. 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 day 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, swords and 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 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. Faysal 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. All these years, all the tough love, the patronization, the sarcasm and fake caring—that was Miles’ magic, Loen understood. This whole time, he’s been looking out for me.
“I’ll do it,” he muttered as he walked. I can’t escape my crimes. I can’t change the past. “I’ll go to Tryn.” But I can fix my mistakes. I don’t need to be a wizard. Faysal’s disappearance into the Infernal gate burned bright in Loen’s memory, and he smiled. I’ll need to restore the real Lord Tryn before any alliances are established.
“Heading out again?” asked the short man—Bretlan, Loen remembered suddenly—, wrinkling his nose at Loen.
“Yeah.” Loen glanced around the room. All three Gray-cloaks were glaring at him. “You guys are all Third Circle, aren’t you.”
The short one narrowed his eyes.
“You read the note and now you’re going to try to split, huh.” He spat on the floor at Loen’s feet. “Note the ‘try,’ Loen. Treason is bad. We’re going to have to stop you.”
“You were waiting this whole time?” Loen smiled disarmingly. “Just waiting to see if I’d stay here and go to bed like a good little boy?”
“Don’t get funny,” warned one of the tall men, hefting a mace. “One foot out of these quarters, and you’re meat.”
“Right,” muttered Loen. “Let’s get this over with.”
That said, he began falling forward, catching himself repeatedly with a series of midfoot-strikes, letting gravity pull him closer to the entrance of the common area. His soles slapped the stones beneath his feet in quick succession as he darted forward, occasionally dodging an awkwardly-placed chair or crate. As he ran, his hands were busy under his cloak, loosening daggers before flinging them left and right. One, two, three—and one of the tall men was pinned to the crate he’d been lounging against. Four, five, six, seven—to knock Bretlan’s own flurry of daggers off course. Eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve—enough force to stop a flung armchair in midair. Thirteen, fourteen—knocking the mace out of the mace-wielder’s hand. Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty—to counter another volley of Bretlan’s daggers, and to force him to lose time parrying. Loen smiled, more than halfway across the common area. Lex’ll need more than this to stop me.
Twenty-one and twenty-two to make sure the mace-wielder stayed disarmed, blood dripping from his arm onto the fallen mace. Seven more to corner Bretlan against the common area door, and the thirtieth pressed against the shorter man’s neck nine seconds after Loen had started running.
“Relax, Bretlan,” Loen said. “I’ll make sure Lex doesn’t punish you for your failure.”
Bretlan’s eyes grew wide.
“Don’t go after him,” he breathed, “The Boss will shut the complex, and all our heads will roll—”
Loen shoved Bretlan aside, and with him, the door.
“I have no intention to go after him,” Loen laughed. “I intend for him to come after me. I’ll see you again, I’m sure.” And with that, Loen ran into the hallway, leaving seven daggers pinning Bretlan’s cloak to the door and a dumb smile on the man’s face.
“You’re back?!” exclaimed Miles. “What the hell are you doing, you damn fool?”
Loen knelt on Miles’ desk, dagger at the older man’s throat and one open hand outstretched.
“Be quiet,” said Loen, “and hand me the keys to the Mist lore-halls.”
“What are you planning?”
“I’m robbing you, Lord Miles, at knife-point, and then I’m running away. You’re going to send the Second Circle’s Runners after me to make sure I pay for my treason, and Lex is going to try to outdo you for political reasons.”
Miles sighed deeply.
“You’re crazy, you know that?”
“No,” said Loen. “This was my fate, to always be hunted. I’m going to draw all the daggers, and I’m going to save you. This will also save Lex’s henchmen—there’s no shame in failing to capture The Line’s number-one Runner, right?”
“Just tell me why you want the keys, damn it.”
“I need maps and a travel guide. One day off wasn’t enough for me. I’m taking vacation time in the Inferno.”
“Crazy!” spat Miles. “You know that?!”
“No,” repeated Loen. “There’s someone I need to find. Trust me, Miles.”
“Well, crazy as it is, I’m glad you’ve found some direction.” The door to the office burst open, two Gray-cloaks rushing in with knives in hand. Loen pressed his dagger closer to Miles’ throat. “Right then. TAKE THE DAMN KEYS, BUT SPARE ME!”
“Damn right, old man,” growled Loen, roughly grabbing the proffered keychain and stuffing it into his belt pouch.
In a flash, Loen was past the intruders and dancing over the shoulders of the celebrants in the assembly hall. As he cartwheeled and vaulted across the hall, he noted that he would need more daggers. And a sword.