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Running on Aether

by Jonathan Wood

Once it was fun to courier packages through Orphir’s confluxes of alien architecture. This was a city of shadows and politics. But things are changing—now the knives emerge from the shadows, and tonight they point at me.

The assassins emerge from an Aethergate. A hole in reality opens and they dash forward from another where, another plane. The slash at me, my package. I see a keyhole tattooed on one palm. The Order of the Silver Key. A few hours ago I would have called them the most enlightened of the cabals skulking around the back halls of power. But things are changing in Orphir.

I make for the roofs, climbing something that may be a drain pipe or a feeding tube for a piece of sentient stonework. My feet pound over slate and silica.

My lead narrows and I descend to the streets, crashing down fire escape stairs. One assassin has flanked me. He slashes with his knife as I dance backwards. His blade catches the package, unseals it.

It goes without saying that I do not know what I carry. You do not open the package. That is the rule. But now the package is opened, and a blue-bladed aether knife falls free, spilling from its scabbard. It spits and crackles in the night.

I catch it before it hits the floor, slash the assassin’s knees. He screams and falls.

I run, they pursue and corner me in Flex Plaza. Five aethergates--one on each side of the space. I eye them, expecting fresh assailants. The assassins close. I lash out, and my blade severs theirs. Steel hits the floor. I slash again, hands join the blades. Three drop. One—holding back—remains. He run for a gate and vanishes. I smile.

Then the gate behind me opens and the assassin steps through. He has navigated the space between realities in a blinking. He is Aetherblessed, and I am screwed.

I run, but he’s always before me, stepping out of one gate, then another, outstripping all the speed of my feet. Eventually I am exhausted, cannot run from his approach, only wheeze.

The blow doesn’t come.

“This is not death,” he says. “This is rebirth. This is recruitment.” He holds out a hand, a silver keyhole tattooed there.

I pause then accept the hand. It feels right. Feels smart. After all, things are changing in Oriphir.

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