Happy Monday, everybody! You know what? I missed posting on Friday. Sorry sorry sorry! The vicissitudes of life, you know how that works. I still had a Fun Friday, vicissitudes or not, and my weekend was good. I had a lovely lunch with fellow writer Stanley Ford (hi, Stanley! Give the family a big hug from Auntie AJ!) Also, Big Sister and I crossed the darkest jungles of Appalachia into the deepest, wildest part: West Virginia. Why go? To see a live simulcast of the Monty Python stage show! Oh, my goodness, it was grand fun. My butt is still tired from all the sitting, but my brain and my heart are very happy.
But I still failed in my duty to post. How do I make it up to you, Gentle Reader? How’s about Part 2 of the story I started last Monday? At least it’s a start, right? So here you go…..
by AJ Clarkson
Shrapnel peppered Ellie’s face. “Holy crap!” She ducked instinctively. Two more shots rang out. “Come on, Paul, we can’t stay here!”
“I’ll handle this. You just get that door unlocked,” said Paul. He looked and sounded as calm as ever; only a tightening of his words betrayed his tension. As he spoke, four men stepped out the shadows. All wore nondescript suits and fedoras. Three of the men aimed pistols at Paul and Ellie. The fourth held nothing, but held one arm out in front of him. His hand was twisting in a sequence of delicate movements; Ellie could see his lips moving, but couldn’t hear what he was saying.
A mage. Great. “Paul?” said Ellie.
“I see him,” said Paul. He let his briefcase fall to the pavement and held his splayed hands in front of him, as though warding off an attacker. He began muttering softly, words that Ellie had heard him speak before. They were terrible words, unnatural. It shouldn’t have been possible for the human voice to make those sounds. Ellie instantly felt the air close in around her, stuffy and hot. Another shot rang out, and Ellie saw a splash of red light in front of Paul, concentric circles that expanded and faded, like the ripples in a pond after a rock had been dropped into the water. Paul had them inside a shield.
“How long can you hold them out?” said Ellie.
“Not long enough. Get that damned door open!” said Paul. Strain was now evident in his face and voice.
Ellie turned back to the lock and pushed the lockpicks back into the keyhole. But her hands were shaking and she dropped one of them. “Damn it!” she growled under her breath. It was dark, so it took a few seconds of fumbling around on the ground before she found it again. She got it back into the lock and started turning, finding the wards of the lock and trying to get them to move into the right positions to unlock.
Behind her, there were more shots fired. They were getting closer. Paul was quiet, concentrating on keeping them protected. Suddenly, there was a flash of red light, impossibly bright. Even with her back turned, Ellie’s eyes were dazzled by the flash, leaving spots dancing in her vision.
“What was that?” Ellie shouted over the sounds of gunfire. It was the mage launching a deadly attack at them, it had to be. Nothing else would have that kind of power.
“Is the door unlocked?” was Paul’s only answer.
Ellie felt the rod in her left hand catch on something. Was that the ward? It should be. Ellie gave the rod a turn. There was an audible click from the door. She grabbed the doorknob, turned it and pushed. The door swung open, revealing only blackness beyond.
“Paul, come on!” Ellie jumped to her feet and grabbed Paul’s arm. He gasped sharply, but allowed her to pull him backwards through the door. He kept his hands up, maintaining the shield until Ellie was able to close the door, cutting off their anonymous attackers. Only then did he drop his hands and, sagging, staggered over to lean against a low counter.
There was a loud thump on the closed door. As the doorknob began to turn, Ellie ran forward and braced her foot against the door so it couldn’t open. She dropped to her one knee and pushed her lockpicks back into the lock from this side. Now she knew where to feel, she found the ward easily and twisted it back into the locked position. Only then did she sigh and relax. “There. That should hold them,” she said to Paul.
“Only for a minute or two,” Paul said, out of breath. Magic was not a matter of simply saying the right words and doing the right gestures. Magic was formed from the chaos that birthed the universe. It was raw power, dark and dangerous. Mages, like Paul and like their attacker on the street, acted as channels for that dark power, drawing it up into themselves and shaping it with their incantations and actions. It was dangerous; “burn out” was not simply a figure of speech for the magical practitioners. Too much power drawn in, or power inexpertly utilized could cause immolation, or worse.
Paul had just generated a shield spell on the fly, while under fire. It was risky and exhausting. Ellie looked at him; he was pale and his face shone with sweat. “You okay?”
Paul drew up a breath, nodded, swallowed. “I’ll live,” he said. He straightened, and brushed imaginary lint off the sleeves of his natty suit jacket. “It won’t take them long to get through that door. We need to keep moving.”
“Where do we go?” said Ellie. For the first time, she looked at her surroundings. The room was more white marble. The counter Paul leaned against was dark oak with brass fittings, and two oak benches were set against the wall opposite. The walls had posters that Ellie couldn’t see clearly. To the left was the beginnings of a spiralling staircase that led up into the darkness.
“Give me one of your shoes,” said Paul suddenly.
“What? No!” said Ellie.
Paul turned to her and sighed. “Do you want to get out of here alive or not?”
Ellie sighed. “Fine.” She knelt and unbuckled the ankle strap of her left shoe; she always dressed sensibly in trousers and low-heeled shoes when she was working. She got the shoe off and handed it to Paul. “I’m getting that back, right?”
“Doubt it,” said Paul. He knelt and untied both of his shoes, slipping out of them. One shoe he set under the ticket counter. The other he kept, and, accepting Ellie’s shoe, put the two together on the bottom step of the spiral.
“What are you doing?” said Ellie. Following suit with Paul, she slipped off her other shoe and hid it under the counter with Paul’s spare.
Paul straightened and opened his briefcase. Ellie seldom looked inside that briefcase; it acted as Paul’s mobile magical lab, and she was afraid of what she might find in there. This time, however, he only pulled out two small glass vials with cork caps. He opened one, held it close to Ellie lips and said, “Say something.”
“Huh? Say something? Like what?” she said.
“Good enough,” Paul corked the bottle. He opened the other one, held it to his own lips, and said, “God save the King.” He corked that vial. He tucked the vials into the shoes sitting on the bottom step. Now he pulled a metal lancet out of his pocket, stabbed his finger with it, and let a drop of his blood fall onto the shoe. He turned and looked at Ellie, patient expectation on his face.
“Blood? Again? Jesus, Paul!” said Ellie. But she held out her hand to him.
“Don’t blaspheme, Eleanor. You never know who might be listening,” said Paul as he stabbed her thumb with the lancet. She hissed in surprise and pain. Paul milked a drop of her blood onto his finger, and touched it down to the instep of her shoe.
Instantly the shoes disappeared. But now there were the sounds of quick footsteps going up the stairs. “Paul, we gotta hurry!” said Ellie’s voice above her head. “Just wait a second, I have to tie my shoe!” Paul’s voice answered. There was a pause, and then the foosteps began again.
The real Ellie looked to Paul, surprise and delight on her face. “That’s us!”
Paul nodded. “There are over three hundred steps to the stop of the monument. With a little luck, our pursuers will follow the sounds instead of us, and exhaust themselves on the climb,” he said. “Come on.”
With that, he led the way to a nondescript door behind the ticket counter. Ellie had dismissed it as a broom closet or bathroom. Paul opened the door. Behind it was a small room, and the top step of another spiral staircase leading down into darkness.
“Miss Perdue lives down here. Come on,” said Paul. He started down the steps. Ellie swore under her breath and started down after him. The marble steps were cold under her stockinged feet, and, once the door closed at the top of the stairs, the darkness closed around them, an almost palpable thing. Ellie pressed her hand against the wall, using it to guide her and keep her anchored. She couldn’t see Paul ahead of her. Thanks to leaving their shoes upstairs, she couldn’t follow his footsteps, either. She reached forward blindly, fumbling.
“Paul? Paul!” she hissed into the darkness. “Where are you?”
A hand grabbed hers so suddenly she nearly screamed. “I’m here,” Paul whispered. “Stay close, and keep quiet!” He held her hand as they quickly descended the stairs. Finally they reached the bottom, and Paul hesitated.
“What?” said Ellie. “Why are we waiting?”
“I can’t see,” said Paul.
“Have you got a flashlight? A magical torch? Anything?” said Ellie. “We can’t afford to stay here. Those goons upstairs are going to figure out your trick pretty soon, and then we’ll be in real trouble.”
A low growl came out of the darkness, loud and deep and echoing out of every direction at once. Ellie felt her skin crawling into gooseflesh at the sound.
“I think we’re already in trouble,” said Paul.
And that’s it for today. Stay tuned for more later. In the meantime, if you’re enjoying what you see here, please do comment, share, tweet. Your comments — good, bad, indifferent — are all the payment I receive. And please do write if you have questions, suggestions, or contributions for upcoming Fun Fridays. Enjoy your week!