Ten old men and women sat in cushioned chairs and argued, as they did each time the Council of Mages met. They debated topics that few people outside of their Order understood, and even fewer would care about if they did. These arguments were comforting to them, like old friends with familiar stories that they could laugh at, even though they’d heard the stories dozens of times. Each of them knew that there would be no resolution to these arguments, but that was fine, because it was the act of arguing that they enjoyed.
An eleventh person sat silent. Daerphantis was one of them, yet as different as a wolf is to a dog, and had no patience for their petty squabbling. Even as near as ten years ago, he could have silenced them all with a raised eyebrow and a curled lip, but not anymore. It had become difficult to control the magic, and took far more out of him when he did. They all believed he wasn't long for this world, and that one of them would take his chair soon.
"What are your thoughts, Daerphantis?" Alluvian asked and the rest of the mages quieted.
Daerphantis reluctantly focused his attention on Alluvian. He hadn't been listening to a word they were saying, but had no intention of admitting that and making himself look like a fool. "I think that I've heard enough of these tired old debates. Last time we met I tasked you with ingratiating yourself with King Yargon. I trust you've met with success," Daerphantis said.
Holly prayed for the 403 bus to crash. "Go and join the queue," her mother repeated, as their car idled by the sidewalk.
She prayed for it to happen at the top of Dane's Hill two miles back, with a long skid into the heather. Sore ribs, nose bleeds. Nobody should actually die, unless they were perverts or terrorists.
The 403 arrived in perfect roadworthy condition. In the waiting car, her mother’s impatient fingers tapped on the wheel. Mom didn't ask about the bleeps in her pocket that started at breakfast: eighty, maybe ninety text messages hitting Holly’s phone, each ping like a drop of acid. Holly gathered her coat and bag, and left the car without a word.
She messaged Sheryl as the queue shuffled forward.
"Where u at?"
The tightness in Holly’s shoulders eased a little.
The next time Don's really, truly awake again, it's in the early hours of the next morning. He must have been out for the whole day.
He supposes he'd walked back to the hotel, but he doesn't remember. He can sketchily recall, though, stepping into the lobby and being hit by a sudden crippling wave of exhaustion despite the few hours of sleep he'd gotten, stumbling into the lift while the television buzzed loudly with the report of a gang shoot-out on the bayou
He pops out into the dark and silent corridor and buys a few packets from the closest vending machine. His first thought, when he enters his room again and looks over the small amount of luggage that has somehow managed to fling itself everywhere, is that there's no reason to stay anymore.
It takes a long time to pack. It doesn't have to, but Don finds himself putting things in then taking them out again, refolding and rearranging. It almost feels like reluctance.
He wonders if it's all another dream. If what he heard and saw was nothing more than one last flashing nightly vision. If everything will go back to normal once the daylight comes again.
He makes it to the bayou in less than half an hour. The run is done on rote.
There's not even a moment of doubt before he spies the glow on the waterfront, a few hundred yards from where the St John's University back gates open out. He twists his arm to see his watch, and subtracts the hour he's still yet to set.
In the distance, he hears the first beat of a drum. It's deep, resonating, pounding in a steady rhythm that matches the rush of blood in his ears. But it's not loud, not very. It probably can't be, in an urban area like this. A chant starts up, sibilant and undulating, though he can't make out the words.