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Chapter 6 of The Culling of Casimir
Written by Harlequin in portal Fantasy

Chapter 6: The Signet

    Night’s sable ebbing beyond the panes turned all windows into mirrors, their smudged and fogged edges reflections of the charming squalor within the The Craven Phantom. The meager few who were left in the gambling house were snoring in a drunken torpor, and those that had left, either satisfied or dejected from the night’s gambling, strode briskly through empty streets to their homes, wary of what shadows lingered closer to dawn than they. Doubtlessly, some curdled vows of vengeance or of never returning to their voracious vice of avarice ever again, lying to themselves all the same.

    Biding for his moment, Shamus and I lingered at our table, picking at a plate of sliced candied apple, fried tarantula limbs and roasted quail, a common triple pairing in the north for commoners, also known as the Imp’s Platter. Though our subjects stretched too wide a variety to seem regular between two recently paired strangers, our conversation never dwindled, only hushed in volume, as less and less noise from below covered our words.

    The bond of chance had imbued in both of us an odd feeling of pity that we had not met before, and a paralleled excitement, that our meeting could no longer be constrained by time alone.

    Shamus dug between his teeth and picked out a strip of flesh. “Do you intend to be William’s fool for long?” he asked, a sudden departure from our discussion of the various academies now cropping up in the capitals. Basic education in the manipulation of lesser spells was becoming more and more available to the public, revolutionizing an art and talent reserved for the wealthy to an almost commonly-practiced hobby for the middle classes. At least, in some cities.

    My thoughts switched to William’s intermittent outbursts which, at the time, were just beginning to become as frequent as once every month. I nearly explained the recent trepidation I felt in his presence, but stopped myself, all too aware of Shamus’ grudge against royalty—one that was justified. “My time in Portsworth has favored me well,” I explained instead, “but I prefer my life chapters to be like shots of liquor: short, invigorating, and leading to the next. There is little reason for me to linger in one place for too long. Life should be explored, not suffocated.”

    “How very elegant to compare your choices of fate to something that causes intoxication,” he chuckled. “But I must agree. So your plans, then?”

    “At least it’s not misleading when you think about,” I clarified quickly. But it was humorous, truly, to imagine someone like me with plans. His reminder that it was common practice to entertain plans around life made me slightly startled. Thankfully, the feeling passed as quickly as it came. I am content in my abnormalities. Shouldn’t we all be? “In the broad sense of life, I believe that chance is the only certainty. Individual actions are another matter. I don’t make plans, I stumble from one opportunity to the next. Which brings us,” I said as I wiggled a spider leg at Shamus’ face, “to you.”

    “Me?” He seemed taken aback, as if he wasn’t used to people wondering about him.

    “No, the other person at this table.” The leg’s carapace broke in satisfying crunches in my mouth, before I chased it down with another sip of spirits. “Yes, you.”

    “Yes, me,” he repeated with a sigh. Faltering candles cast his face in wavering light, spawning shadows which seemed to cling to him comfortably. “Would it be rude to say that the … let’s say ‘guild’ I belong to does not allow me to share any details of my profession?”

    “A vow you took, I suppose?” I asked, feeling just that much more free, realizing I had managed to come this far without any.

    “Yes,” he replied as he observed the room again. “And I may not look it, but I hold those vows with solemnity … sometimes.” Besides a drooling drunk at a nearby table, the three individuals we had been eyeing were the only remaining bodies in the upper floor. They were just as boisterous as they had been when we arrived, despite the fact that many of the candles had long since dwindled to the bottoms of their wicks, the fatty wax now solidified beige against their cracked, bone candelabrums.

    His expression changed from thoughtful consideration to excitement. “But it appears, once more, that you are in luck. There is no longer a need for explanation. I do suspect it’s time to pay that debt I owe you of an unforgettable performance. Maybe you can glean something from it that words cannot tell you.” Shamus stretched his neck from side to side until his bones popped.

    “Oh? It’s happening now, then?” I asked, now a little doubtful that this was going to end anyway different than how my confrontation with the thugs did. “Be a good friend … don’t kill them, please.”

    “Kill? Who said anything about killing? That would be against my vows, Casimir.”

    “… ‘sometimes’,” I quoted.

    “Regardless. The hour has struck its ripest moment. Tell me, have you ever heard of the poet Vadeville?” Carefully, Shamus began taking off his gloves. Now bare, I saw that the flesh of his palms, fingers, and wrists were covered in scarified runes, to the point where there was little untouched flesh throughout his hands. The largest were set in his palms, the smallest in the knuckles of his fingers, intertwining like a mage’s brutal calligraphy, wrapping his wrist in circlets and trailing into his sleeve.

    “Oh, I—Hmm.” I strummed my fingers on the table, attempting to appear nonchalant at the suggestion that he was about to cast higher spellwork. If it was in the class of destruction magick, it was a crime befitting a jail sentence, or a hangman’s noose, rather, if the spells happened to strike anyone. More importantly, it was damnably hard to make higher magick anything but subtle, and I was a little less than enthusiastic about running more tonight. “I believe I have. What was he in, the 1100’s romance era? I might’ve read—oh who gives a damn? Shamus please don’t tell me you are using that here.” I jabbed a finger at his hands. “We’re in the city limits, remember?”

    “You just killed two people, remember?”

    “Presumably rapists,” I added quickly.

    “Don’t change the subject. But, no. You were close, though. Vadeville was just a century before our own: 1200’s,” he said haughtily, taking pleasure in my agitation. “There was something he wrote that has stayed with me since the moment I read it. Something I always think of before I begin something like this.” He stood up from the table, grinning, then made a motion for me to stay seated as his gaze transfixed itself upon the owner of The Craven Phantom, who went by the name: Filch. “May I recite it for you? It always sends shivers down my spine.”

    “Please do,” I surrendered, getting comfortable in my seat for whatever carnage he was about to summon.

    He closed his eyes and ran his fingers over the symbols etched into his flesh, dark smoke writhing up like worms from their pale surfaces as he did.

What whispers intoned words

Inspires craven and courage alike

Auspicious is this clarity

Breathed only in subtlety

   “Beautiful, isn’t it? It is rather strange,” he said, his tone stripped bare and replaced with a detached reflection, as if he was watching everything he planned unfold before him, “how everything and anything can be interpreted countless times until infinite meanings spill from precisely the same thing?”

    “Shamus—”

    It is here that I break my rhythm, in feeble hopes of sparing you the confusion I felt as these moments tumbled after one another. They transpired so quickly, so fluidly, it seemed any attempt to mirror that was all but disastrous. Even as I recollect it now, I find fragments that my memory forgot to impart to me previously.

    Following his poetic recitation, time seemed to forfeit its hold on Shamus, becoming not an outside constraint but his own liberty and tool—dispersed in brief, minute whispers when he so desired. It was a simultaneous act of expertise and vengeance, in retribution to time’s nature, that terrible god who seems relentless in her reign. Shamus held its essence and wielded it as it so wields us—painfully constrictive.

    Of that evening, the one detail that remains positively fixed is this: within three seconds Shamus spoke three words, and within those three seconds, he made me doubt any notions I previously had of the impossible, the unimaginable, the grandeur behind reality’s seemingly conspicuous, mundane surface.

    Shamus whispered:

    “Wreathe.”

    Shadows gushed in gouts from the burning candles, dousing the room of all its light, before more leapt from the symbol carved in his left palm. They swarmed the room as if they had been held in for far too long, hungering to devour the air as foxes of shadow.

Filch began muttering about candles, before realizing it was more than just the end of their wicks that changed the atmosphere, rather an aggressive darkness swallowing every patch and corner. His mutters became panicked, reckless shouting about magick and demons.

    Shamus whispered:

    “Shift.”

    As he placed his right hand over my eyes, and ice poured into their sockets, too quickly for me to do more than grunt in pain. When his hand left, my eyes sparked with a transcendent vision, the room now appearing as if bathed in a filmy light, every dilapidated detail of the fading interior was illuminated to brilliance. The shadows became rivulets of luminous silver swirling in that same thickness.

    Shamus whispered:

    “Fade.”

    The counters of his body dropped as if smoke rushing to escape through a window, fleeing to unify with the enveloping shadows that now glowed in our shared perception. What remained of his silhouette was little more than wisps fighting to resemble the body that was once corporeal.

    He raised a finger to his lips, then he plumed, wraithlike, into the space between us and Filch, losing all silhouette entirely as he traveled, before appearing again several strides closer. A phantom in careful consideration, he dissipated once more, his form conjoining with the darkness in unmatched freedom between intermittent bursts of materialization.

    I waited for his figure to appear again amidst the shadow-wreathed air. Filch had a weapon drawn and was brandishing it so drunkenly that the two others had to avoid his reckless swipes. Momentarily, I suspected Shamus had lost himself entirely to that immaterial realm, that his ambitious spell casting had damned him to intangibility.

But, sure as his confidence, Shamus’ figured gushed into the air behind Filch. He kicked the table onto its side, knocking the two individuals over who had been sitting across from him. As they cried wordlessly, Shamus wrenched the signet from Filche’s unarmed hand. The burly gambler whirled around at the sensation and slashed at the space where Shamus was, the one he disappeared from before the attack could do any harm.

Instead, he appeared, well, right in front of me … grinning.

    “Time to go,” he whispered through a gasp, while Filch continued to hack away at the ghost that had just been behind him.

    “You ...”

    “Take a deep breath.”

    I did.

    Before I lost sensation entirely, I felt Shamus’ firm grasp on my arm. Then I was weightless. My perception blurred as I felt myself being hauled through the air in a swift arc down the tavern’s stairs and through the main room. The bone chandelier, the cracked, wooden walls and scattered furniture, spilled tankards, a sleeping barkeep and a doorway, damp cobblestone, dim streets, a crumbling roof, a shattered window, an alleyway soaked in blood, the head of a black statue glowing in violet, all swam by as if the images were a rushing current and I was caught in its undertow … before I slammed into the ground, groaning, shaking, stuttering with laughter and enthusiastically alive after I thought I had surely died.

    “Au fek ex killna,” I cursed, grateful to feel the wet stone beneath me, and my body corporeal once again.

    The familiar, comforting and gently pulsing violet light of Nocturos’ statue breathed down on the courtyard where Shamus and I had first spoke, a meeting that had been only hours before, but now seemed a distant memory in our friendship.

I reached out towards my hat, which had fallen from my head after we had tumbled like fleshy boulders into the courtyard, and placed it back on my head.

    I looked up to see Shamus laying on his back, panting, trembling. I rushed, or rather stumbled, over to him.

    “Gods, are you—”

    Shamus held up a finger, heaved, retched, then vomited until all of his dinner was utterly squandered.

    “Well, that is one answer I suppose,” I muttered, surprised to find that, besides the violent shaking in my body, I wasn’t feeling the effects he was. He may have forced me into an ethereal state, but I had exerted none of the spells’ required energy myself.

    “Actions speak lou—” he tried to say, before more spider bits came up with his brandy.

After his body finished expressing its strong distaste for higher magick, I helped him to his feet and carried his rather inert body to the statue. With fluttering eyes, he looked up at Nocturos and sighed, a grin like a man who just bathed for the first time in weeks spread across his face as he drank in the color. On his cheek, a line of blood flowed down his chin from where a shallow cut had appeared.

    He held one of his hands out to me, bearing William’s signet. It was then that I noticed that the carved symbols across his skin were glistening with blood as if they had been reopened.

    “You … this …” I stammered, taking the ring from his hand. “Thank you.”

    He coughed for awhile, clutching his stomach. “I wanted to show you something different. Could have come to the courtyard sooner, but I took a more leisurely journey so it lasted longer. Perhaps not the smartest idea,” he admitted, pointing to the gash on his cheek. “The debt is payed, I trust.”

    “Twice over,” I murmured. “Was that, was it … shadow magick?”

    He nodded proudly, placing his gloves over his hands. “Wait, before you begin. This is when you tell me those stories are only legends, yes?”

    “No, this is when I tell you that you are a legend.”

    He nodded again. “Thank you. I cannot explain how frustrating that vow is, sometimes.”

    I was beyond confusion, only stunned by the realization. As I do when I am utterly confused, I laughed. “But you—you almost killed yourself to cast those spells!”

    “Just like any other higher magick,” he explained, “practicing it can be rather suicidal in less careful hands. I am not the least careful, but not the most, either. I’d say my gamble payed off.”

    “Why did you do that for me? Someone you hardly know?”

    “It’s true, we could have devised a plan, perhaps used the sum that you were given to pay him off. But it had nothing to do with the ring, for me, at least.”

    All the same, I placed it into my satchel and thanked him again. Above us, thick, grey and opaque clouds dispersed in patches to reveal the splintered stars glinting in shards of shattered brilliance. Winter’s hold clutched dawn’s light far from the horizon, but all the same, the crisp silence of the city mingling with the fresh air spoke of a new day breathing its first sighs.

    Just a handful of minutes before then, I would have laughed like most others at the rumors of the Shadow Syndicate: thieves who used a magick lost to a niche tradition that had died out centuries before, or perhaps never existed at all. Legends that brought hope to the impoverished, legends who stole only from the wealthiest and most corrupt, using their talents to tip the imbalanced scales of prosperity in favor of the destitute. If you had told me I was going to meet a member of that Syndicate, I would only have laughed harder.

    Yet here I was, again, the fool, not only stunned by reality, but inspired by its unpredictability.

    “Did you really mean what you said?” Shamus asked me.

    “Shouldn’t I be the one asking you some things?” I laughed.

    “You showed me something different the night of your performance, and I have done the same. We can leave our interpretations to silence, I think,” he said with a shrug.

    “Then what did I say, before, that you were wondering about?”

    “You said, ‘All is fortune in the eyes of chaos’.”

    “Yes, I meant it.”

    “Suffering, poverty, misfortune, bad luck, murder, and all the curses of living, you see that as fortune?”

    “I don’t. Chaos does. Sometimes, in our best moments, we can embody that which inspires us, and briefly, we may even become it. Chaos inspires me; it’s the infinite hands that turn our world, which shape our lives. It’s the seemingly insignificant details and moments that cascade into the ones we remember. They are just as important, and yet because they are so elusive, constantly lurking behind fate, we cannot possibly predict or think to manipulate them. Pain, somewhere along those infinite, branching paths, always comes along, and there’s no telling how the most brutal tragedies or shallowest of wounds can, at a later time, blossom into the most blissful happiness. There’s no telling what happiness may curse us later, either. Yes, Shamus Dodge, I meant it.”

    He wiped at the blood trailing down his cheek, with closed eyes as he breathed deeply through the nausea caused by his sudden exertion. “Is a man foolish to chase happiness, then?”

    “That is a harsh word. I would call him nearsighted. Is a man foolish for nearly killing himself to show me an elaborate performance?” I arched an eyebrow and chuckled at him. “No, that still is a harsh word. I would call him mad, my kind of mad. I would call him my friend, too.”

    The thief chuckled, before coughing. “I would, too,” he agreed. “That is how I felt that night after I watched your performance: utterly mad. It was as if all of my ambitions seemed rudimentary in the faces of your expression. It seemed that you took my ideas of what was possible, crushed them, stomped them, and laughed while you explained to me, so effortlessly, what opportunities beckon when we attempt the unimaginable. Could I live with myself if I had squandered the opportunity to show you the same? No. Wonder is a rare commodity in a world with so much drudgery, and I couldn’t bear the idea that you could live without knowing how you changed me, even if you were, that night, just a masked stranger.”

    My body’s twitching lessened from the spell’s evaporating effect. I watched as the moon caught its moment between clouds, shining upon us before being tucked away again behind the dense overcast. Perhaps it was the tiredness, the aching in my body, or the pounding in my head that reminded me this wasn’t a dream, but I felt strangely close to tears.

    “It seems there are two realms in this world,” I said. “The first, where all is simply living, tasks, duties, ambitions, wealth, and so on. And the second, where living seems to exist beyond mere touch, beyond actions. A transcendence of thought into motion, a play of will against chance, a game, you might say, and nothing more than what we make of it. One that has only one end, but countless possibilities before it. I prefer to live in the second realm, Shamus.”

    “A place that even ghosts and many others don’t see.”

    “But a place that for those that do, is one they will never forget.”

    Shamus’ face erupted with a smile, and we began laughing like two children with a joke only they understood, chilled by the air, but enchanted by its sacred silence that held our words so attentively, lending no distraction from their delicate utterances, as if we were merely two spirits passing another moment of our infinite, with discussion of things well beyond our understanding, but just within reach of making any sense, any sense at all.

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Chapter 6 of The Culling of Casimir
Written by Harlequin in portal Fantasy
Chapter 6: The Signet
    Night’s sable ebbing beyond the panes turned all windows into mirrors, their smudged and fogged edges reflections of the charming squalor within the The Craven Phantom. The meager few who were left in the gambling house were snoring in a drunken torpor, and those that had left, either satisfied or dejected from the night’s gambling, strode briskly through empty streets to their homes, wary of what shadows lingered closer to dawn than they. Doubtlessly, some curdled vows of vengeance or of never returning to their voracious vice of avarice ever again, lying to themselves all the same.
    Biding for his moment, Shamus and I lingered at our table, picking at a plate of sliced candied apple, fried tarantula limbs and roasted quail, a common triple pairing in the north for commoners, also known as the Imp’s Platter. Though our subjects stretched too wide a variety to seem regular between two recently paired strangers, our conversation never dwindled, only hushed in volume, as less and less noise from below covered our words.
    The bond of chance had imbued in both of us an odd feeling of pity that we had not met before, and a paralleled excitement, that our meeting could no longer be constrained by time alone.
    Shamus dug between his teeth and picked out a strip of flesh. “Do you intend to be William’s fool for long?” he asked, a sudden departure from our discussion of the various academies now cropping up in the capitals. Basic education in the manipulation of lesser spells was becoming more and more available to the public, revolutionizing an art and talent reserved for the wealthy to an almost commonly-practiced hobby for the middle classes. At least, in some cities.
    My thoughts switched to William’s intermittent outbursts which, at the time, were just beginning to become as frequent as once every month. I nearly explained the recent trepidation I felt in his presence, but stopped myself, all too aware of Shamus’ grudge against royalty—one that was justified. “My time in Portsworth has favored me well,” I explained instead, “but I prefer my life chapters to be like shots of liquor: short, invigorating, and leading to the next. There is little reason for me to linger in one place for too long. Life should be explored, not suffocated.”
    “How very elegant to compare your choices of fate to something that causes intoxication,” he chuckled. “But I must agree. So your plans, then?”
    “At least it’s not misleading when you think about,” I clarified quickly. But it was humorous, truly, to imagine someone like me with plans. His reminder that it was common practice to entertain plans around life made me slightly startled. Thankfully, the feeling passed as quickly as it came. I am content in my abnormalities. Shouldn’t we all be? “In the broad sense of life, I believe that chance is the only certainty. Individual actions are another matter. I don’t make plans, I stumble from one opportunity to the next. Which brings us,” I said as I wiggled a spider leg at Shamus’ face, “to you.”
    “Me?” He seemed taken aback, as if he wasn’t used to people wondering about him.
    “No, the other person at this table.” The leg’s carapace broke in satisfying crunches in my mouth, before I chased it down with another sip of spirits. “Yes, you.”
    “Yes, me,” he repeated with a sigh. Faltering candles cast his face in wavering light, spawning shadows which seemed to cling to him comfortably. “Would it be rude to say that the … let’s say ‘guild’ I belong to does not allow me to share any details of my profession?”
    “A vow you took, I suppose?” I asked, feeling just that much more free, realizing I had managed to come this far without any.
    “Yes,” he replied as he observed the room again. “And I may not look it, but I hold those vows with solemnity … sometimes.” Besides a drooling drunk at a nearby table, the three individuals we had been eyeing were the only remaining bodies in the upper floor. They were just as boisterous as they had been when we arrived, despite the fact that many of the candles had long since dwindled to the bottoms of their wicks, the fatty wax now solidified beige against their cracked, bone candelabrums.
    His expression changed from thoughtful consideration to excitement. “But it appears, once more, that you are in luck. There is no longer a need for explanation. I do suspect it’s time to pay that debt I owe you of an unforgettable performance. Maybe you can glean something from it that words cannot tell you.” Shamus stretched his neck from side to side until his bones popped.
    “Oh? It’s happening now, then?” I asked, now a little doubtful that this was going to end anyway different than how my confrontation with the thugs did. “Be a good friend … don’t kill them, please.”
    “Kill? Who said anything about killing? That would be against my vows, Casimir.”
    “… ‘sometimes’,” I quoted.
    “Regardless. The hour has struck its ripest moment. Tell me, have you ever heard of the poet Vadeville?” Carefully, Shamus began taking off his gloves. Now bare, I saw that the flesh of his palms, fingers, and wrists were covered in scarified runes, to the point where there was little untouched flesh throughout his hands. The largest were set in his palms, the smallest in the knuckles of his fingers, intertwining like a mage’s brutal calligraphy, wrapping his wrist in circlets and trailing into his sleeve.
    “Oh, I—Hmm.” I strummed my fingers on the table, attempting to appear nonchalant at the suggestion that he was about to cast higher spellwork. If it was in the class of destruction magick, it was a crime befitting a jail sentence, or a hangman’s noose, rather, if the spells happened to strike anyone. More importantly, it was damnably hard to make higher magick anything but subtle, and I was a little less than enthusiastic about running more tonight. “I believe I have. What was he in, the 1100’s romance era? I might’ve read—oh who gives a damn? Shamus please don’t tell me you are using that here.” I jabbed a finger at his hands. “We’re in the city limits, remember?”
    “You just killed two people, remember?”
    “Presumably rapists,” I added quickly.
    “Don’t change the subject. But, no. You were close, though. Vadeville was just a century before our own: 1200’s,” he said haughtily, taking pleasure in my agitation. “There was something he wrote that has stayed with me since the moment I read it. Something I always think of before I begin something like this.” He stood up from the table, grinning, then made a motion for me to stay seated as his gaze transfixed itself upon the owner of The Craven Phantom, who went by the name: Filch. “May I recite it for you? It always sends shivers down my spine.”
    “Please do,” I surrendered, getting comfortable in my seat for whatever carnage he was about to summon.
    He closed his eyes and ran his fingers over the symbols etched into his flesh, dark smoke writhing up like worms from their pale surfaces as he did.

What whispers intoned words
Inspires craven and courage alike
Auspicious is this clarity
Breathed only in subtlety

   “Beautiful, isn’t it? It is rather strange,” he said, his tone stripped bare and replaced with a detached reflection, as if he was watching everything he planned unfold before him, “how everything and anything can be interpreted countless times until infinite meanings spill from precisely the same thing?”
    “Shamus—”
    It is here that I break my rhythm, in feeble hopes of sparing you the confusion I felt as these moments tumbled after one another. They transpired so quickly, so fluidly, it seemed any attempt to mirror that was all but disastrous. Even as I recollect it now, I find fragments that my memory forgot to impart to me previously.
    Following his poetic recitation, time seemed to forfeit its hold on Shamus, becoming not an outside constraint but his own liberty and tool—dispersed in brief, minute whispers when he so desired. It was a simultaneous act of expertise and vengeance, in retribution to time’s nature, that terrible god who seems relentless in her reign. Shamus held its essence and wielded it as it so wields us—painfully constrictive.
    Of that evening, the one detail that remains positively fixed is this: within three seconds Shamus spoke three words, and within those three seconds, he made me doubt any notions I previously had of the impossible, the unimaginable, the grandeur behind reality’s seemingly conspicuous, mundane surface.
    Shamus whispered:
    “Wreathe.”
    Shadows gushed in gouts from the burning candles, dousing the room of all its light, before more leapt from the symbol carved in his left palm. They swarmed the room as if they had been held in for far too long, hungering to devour the air as foxes of shadow.
Filch began muttering about candles, before realizing it was more than just the end of their wicks that changed the atmosphere, rather an aggressive darkness swallowing every patch and corner. His mutters became panicked, reckless shouting about magick and demons.
    Shamus whispered:
    “Shift.”
    As he placed his right hand over my eyes, and ice poured into their sockets, too quickly for me to do more than grunt in pain. When his hand left, my eyes sparked with a transcendent vision, the room now appearing as if bathed in a filmy light, every dilapidated detail of the fading interior was illuminated to brilliance. The shadows became rivulets of luminous silver swirling in that same thickness.
    Shamus whispered:
    “Fade.”
    The counters of his body dropped as if smoke rushing to escape through a window, fleeing to unify with the enveloping shadows that now glowed in our shared perception. What remained of his silhouette was little more than wisps fighting to resemble the body that was once corporeal.
    He raised a finger to his lips, then he plumed, wraithlike, into the space between us and Filch, losing all silhouette entirely as he traveled, before appearing again several strides closer. A phantom in careful consideration, he dissipated once more, his form conjoining with the darkness in unmatched freedom between intermittent bursts of materialization.
    I waited for his figure to appear again amidst the shadow-wreathed air. Filch had a weapon drawn and was brandishing it so drunkenly that the two others had to avoid his reckless swipes. Momentarily, I suspected Shamus had lost himself entirely to that immaterial realm, that his ambitious spell casting had damned him to intangibility.
But, sure as his confidence, Shamus’ figured gushed into the air behind Filch. He kicked the table onto its side, knocking the two individuals over who had been sitting across from him. As they cried wordlessly, Shamus wrenched the signet from Filche’s unarmed hand. The burly gambler whirled around at the sensation and slashed at the space where Shamus was, the one he disappeared from before the attack could do any harm.
Instead, he appeared, well, right in front of me … grinning.
    “Time to go,” he whispered through a gasp, while Filch continued to hack away at the ghost that had just been behind him.
    “You ...”
    “Take a deep breath.”
    I did.
    Before I lost sensation entirely, I felt Shamus’ firm grasp on my arm. Then I was weightless. My perception blurred as I felt myself being hauled through the air in a swift arc down the tavern’s stairs and through the main room. The bone chandelier, the cracked, wooden walls and scattered furniture, spilled tankards, a sleeping barkeep and a doorway, damp cobblestone, dim streets, a crumbling roof, a shattered window, an alleyway soaked in blood, the head of a black statue glowing in violet, all swam by as if the images were a rushing current and I was caught in its undertow … before I slammed into the ground, groaning, shaking, stuttering with laughter and enthusiastically alive after I thought I had surely died.
    “Au fek ex killna,” I cursed, grateful to feel the wet stone beneath me, and my body corporeal once again.
    The familiar, comforting and gently pulsing violet light of Nocturos’ statue breathed down on the courtyard where Shamus and I had first spoke, a meeting that had been only hours before, but now seemed a distant memory in our friendship.
I reached out towards my hat, which had fallen from my head after we had tumbled like fleshy boulders into the courtyard, and placed it back on my head.
    I looked up to see Shamus laying on his back, panting, trembling. I rushed, or rather stumbled, over to him.
    “Gods, are you—”
    Shamus held up a finger, heaved, retched, then vomited until all of his dinner was utterly squandered.
    “Well, that is one answer I suppose,” I muttered, surprised to find that, besides the violent shaking in my body, I wasn’t feeling the effects he was. He may have forced me into an ethereal state, but I had exerted none of the spells’ required energy myself.
    “Actions speak lou—” he tried to say, before more spider bits came up with his brandy.
After his body finished expressing its strong distaste for higher magick, I helped him to his feet and carried his rather inert body to the statue. With fluttering eyes, he looked up at Nocturos and sighed, a grin like a man who just bathed for the first time in weeks spread across his face as he drank in the color. On his cheek, a line of blood flowed down his chin from where a shallow cut had appeared.
    He held one of his hands out to me, bearing William’s signet. It was then that I noticed that the carved symbols across his skin were glistening with blood as if they had been reopened.
    “You … this …” I stammered, taking the ring from his hand. “Thank you.”
    He coughed for awhile, clutching his stomach. “I wanted to show you something different. Could have come to the courtyard sooner, but I took a more leisurely journey so it lasted longer. Perhaps not the smartest idea,” he admitted, pointing to the gash on his cheek. “The debt is payed, I trust.”
    “Twice over,” I murmured. “Was that, was it … shadow magick?”
    He nodded proudly, placing his gloves over his hands. “Wait, before you begin. This is when you tell me those stories are only legends, yes?”
    “No, this is when I tell you that you are a legend.”
    He nodded again. “Thank you. I cannot explain how frustrating that vow is, sometimes.”
    I was beyond confusion, only stunned by the realization. As I do when I am utterly confused, I laughed. “But you—you almost killed yourself to cast those spells!”
    “Just like any other higher magick,” he explained, “practicing it can be rather suicidal in less careful hands. I am not the least careful, but not the most, either. I’d say my gamble payed off.”
    “Why did you do that for me? Someone you hardly know?”
    “It’s true, we could have devised a plan, perhaps used the sum that you were given to pay him off. But it had nothing to do with the ring, for me, at least.”
    All the same, I placed it into my satchel and thanked him again. Above us, thick, grey and opaque clouds dispersed in patches to reveal the splintered stars glinting in shards of shattered brilliance. Winter’s hold clutched dawn’s light far from the horizon, but all the same, the crisp silence of the city mingling with the fresh air spoke of a new day breathing its first sighs.
    Just a handful of minutes before then, I would have laughed like most others at the rumors of the Shadow Syndicate: thieves who used a magick lost to a niche tradition that had died out centuries before, or perhaps never existed at all. Legends that brought hope to the impoverished, legends who stole only from the wealthiest and most corrupt, using their talents to tip the imbalanced scales of prosperity in favor of the destitute. If you had told me I was going to meet a member of that Syndicate, I would only have laughed harder.
    Yet here I was, again, the fool, not only stunned by reality, but inspired by its unpredictability.
    “Did you really mean what you said?” Shamus asked me.
    “Shouldn’t I be the one asking you some things?” I laughed.
    “You showed me something different the night of your performance, and I have done the same. We can leave our interpretations to silence, I think,” he said with a shrug.
    “Then what did I say, before, that you were wondering about?”
    “You said, ‘All is fortune in the eyes of chaos’.”
    “Yes, I meant it.”
    “Suffering, poverty, misfortune, bad luck, murder, and all the curses of living, you see that as fortune?”
    “I don’t. Chaos does. Sometimes, in our best moments, we can embody that which inspires us, and briefly, we may even become it. Chaos inspires me; it’s the infinite hands that turn our world, which shape our lives. It’s the seemingly insignificant details and moments that cascade into the ones we remember. They are just as important, and yet because they are so elusive, constantly lurking behind fate, we cannot possibly predict or think to manipulate them. Pain, somewhere along those infinite, branching paths, always comes along, and there’s no telling how the most brutal tragedies or shallowest of wounds can, at a later time, blossom into the most blissful happiness. There’s no telling what happiness may curse us later, either. Yes, Shamus Dodge, I meant it.”
    He wiped at the blood trailing down his cheek, with closed eyes as he breathed deeply through the nausea caused by his sudden exertion. “Is a man foolish to chase happiness, then?”
    “That is a harsh word. I would call him nearsighted. Is a man foolish for nearly killing himself to show me an elaborate performance?” I arched an eyebrow and chuckled at him. “No, that still is a harsh word. I would call him mad, my kind of mad. I would call him my friend, too.”
    The thief chuckled, before coughing. “I would, too,” he agreed. “That is how I felt that night after I watched your performance: utterly mad. It was as if all of my ambitions seemed rudimentary in the faces of your expression. It seemed that you took my ideas of what was possible, crushed them, stomped them, and laughed while you explained to me, so effortlessly, what opportunities beckon when we attempt the unimaginable. Could I live with myself if I had squandered the opportunity to show you the same? No. Wonder is a rare commodity in a world with so much drudgery, and I couldn’t bear the idea that you could live without knowing how you changed me, even if you were, that night, just a masked stranger.”
    My body’s twitching lessened from the spell’s evaporating effect. I watched as the moon caught its moment between clouds, shining upon us before being tucked away again behind the dense overcast. Perhaps it was the tiredness, the aching in my body, or the pounding in my head that reminded me this wasn’t a dream, but I felt strangely close to tears.
    “It seems there are two realms in this world,” I said. “The first, where all is simply living, tasks, duties, ambitions, wealth, and so on. And the second, where living seems to exist beyond mere touch, beyond actions. A transcendence of thought into motion, a play of will against chance, a game, you might say, and nothing more than what we make of it. One that has only one end, but countless possibilities before it. I prefer to live in the second realm, Shamus.”
    “A place that even ghosts and many others don’t see.”
    “But a place that for those that do, is one they will never forget.”
    Shamus’ face erupted with a smile, and we began laughing like two children with a joke only they understood, chilled by the air, but enchanted by its sacred silence that held our words so attentively, lending no distraction from their delicate utterances, as if we were merely two spirits passing another moment of our infinite, with discussion of things well beyond our understanding, but just within reach of making any sense, any sense at all.
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I love hearing poetry recited and It's been a while since we've had a spoken word challenge. Let's read poetry out loud. I remember how nice it was to hear the voices of our Prosers when we had this challenge. Let's give it another go? You can recite your own poetry or choose a Proser to choose from your work to read. You can also choose to read another Proser's poetry if they allow you to. Post the link of your recording on your challenge entry. (sound cloud, google drive, etc.)
Written by Harlequin in portal Spoken Word

Readings for Soulhearts & Concerto: Bishop

Soulhearts' Poems

https://drive.google.com/open?id=0BwtqyZ6L7FpjeWFIeFVLdXoxaEk

Concerto: Bishop

https://drive.google.com/open?id=0BwtqyZ6L7FpjcFgzOE5hU0t5QmM

Here are some belated readings requested by Soulhearts with the following pieces: Disenchanted and Strangers, as well as my most recent poem, Concerto: Bishop. With all the lengthy stories I write, I suppose there's no harm in being able to hear the narrator's voice. It is a little raspy, however, recorded at a late hour.

Disenchanted

Happy endings

and forever, we left it all

in pages of books.

Where tales told

Of starry skies,

and moonlit nights.

Reading words

Of what we wanted to

and not of what was

right in front of us.

Disillusioned interpretations

where the moon

was really hidden

behind heavy clouds

and the stars were

actually fireflies

dying to the

colder air.

Strangers

strangers are we

in faces and names

not in the words we bleed

for all the world to see

a little of you and I

in the pages we read

we are kindred you know

not strangers are we

Concerto: Bishop

Crystalline air simmers

Between blades cutting

Dawn in broad whispers

Stained glass, their vectors

Hymns a choir their resonance

In rising echoes enraptured

Now fading hums to capture

A silence without dissonance

Myrrh's enveloping tendrils

Accent the chapel's song

For tithes kept only for him

Bishop entreats the throng

A hypocrite's homily

Intones from his lips, his mitre

Inspires a proud crowning

His head, this bullet's finale

Beneath tolling bell I lay

Timorous their ringing

Ubiquitous in expectation

Setting death's messenger

In cradle of the chamber

The sun assents a flare

Glinting in my lenses' glare

Our last, final inhalation

Before the performance begins

The trigger begs reprieve

A tug, a shudder, a squeeze

Before booming in ecstasy

Cracking air and glass asunder

Her deadly flourish descends

And death's messenger sings

Before blooming in revelry

For Bishop's final homily

Scarlet graces the altar

A sacrifice, indeed, ignites

The congregations' screams

Their cries, their applause

Beseech an encore from me

But a perfect performance calls

The crimson curtains drawn

Now reverently I leave

His masterpiece for the dawn

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I love hearing poetry recited and It's been a while since we've had a spoken word challenge. Let's read poetry out loud. I remember how nice it was to hear the voices of our Prosers when we had this challenge. Let's give it another go? You can recite your own poetry or choose a Proser to choose from your work to read. You can also choose to read another Proser's poetry if they allow you to. Post the link of your recording on your challenge entry. (sound cloud, google drive, etc.)
Written by Harlequin in portal Spoken Word
Readings for Soulhearts & Concerto: Bishop
Soulhearts' Poems
https://drive.google.com/open?id=0BwtqyZ6L7FpjeWFIeFVLdXoxaEk
Concerto: Bishop
https://drive.google.com/open?id=0BwtqyZ6L7FpjcFgzOE5hU0t5QmM

Here are some belated readings requested by Soulhearts with the following pieces: Disenchanted and Strangers, as well as my most recent poem, Concerto: Bishop. With all the lengthy stories I write, I suppose there's no harm in being able to hear the narrator's voice. It is a little raspy, however, recorded at a late hour.

Disenchanted
Happy endings
and forever, we left it all
in pages of books.
Where tales told
Of starry skies,
and moonlit nights.
Reading words
Of what we wanted to
and not of what was
right in front of us.

Disillusioned interpretations
where the moon
was really hidden
behind heavy clouds
and the stars were
actually fireflies
dying to the
colder air.

Strangers
strangers are we
in faces and names

not in the words we bleed
for all the world to see

a little of you and I
in the pages we read

we are kindred you know
not strangers are we

Concerto: Bishop
Crystalline air simmers
Between blades cutting
Dawn in broad whispers
Stained glass, their vectors

Hymns a choir their resonance
In rising echoes enraptured
Now fading hums to capture
A silence without dissonance

Myrrh's enveloping tendrils
Accent the chapel's song
For tithes kept only for him
Bishop entreats the throng

A hypocrite's homily
Intones from his lips, his mitre
Inspires a proud crowning
His head, this bullet's finale

Beneath tolling bell I lay
Timorous their ringing
Ubiquitous in expectation
Setting death's messenger
In cradle of the chamber

The sun assents a flare
Glinting in my lenses' glare
Our last, final inhalation
Before the performance begins

The trigger begs reprieve
A tug, a shudder, a squeeze
Before booming in ecstasy
Cracking air and glass asunder
Her deadly flourish descends
And death's messenger sings
Before blooming in revelry
For Bishop's final homily

Scarlet graces the altar
A sacrifice, indeed, ignites
The congregations' screams
Their cries, their applause
Beseech an encore from me

But a perfect performance calls
The crimson curtains drawn
Now reverently I leave
His masterpiece for the dawn
#poetry  #readings 
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Written by Harlequin in portal Poetry & Free Verse

Concerto: Bishop

Audio:

https://drive.google.com/open?id=0BwtqyZ6L7FpjcFgzOE5hU0t5QmM

_____________________________________________________________________

Crystalline air simmers

Between blades cutting

Dawn in broad whispers

Stained glass, their vectors

Hymns a choir their resonance

In rising echoes enraptured

Now fading hums to capture

A silence without dissonance

Myrrh's enveloping tendrils

Accent the chapel's song

For tithes kept only for him

Bishop entreats the throng

A hypocrite's homily

Intones from his lips, his mitre

Inspires a proud crowning

His head, this bullet's finale

Beneath tolling bell I lay

Timorous their ringing

Ubiquitous in expectation

Setting death's messenger

In cradle of the chamber

The sun assents a flare

Glinting in my lenses' glare

Our last, final inhalation

Before the performance begins

The trigger begs reprieve

A tug, a shudder, a squeeze

Before booming in ecstasy

Cracking air and glass asunder

Her deadly flourish descends

And death's messenger sings

Before blooming in revelry

For Bishop's final homily

Scarlet graces the altar

A sacrifice, indeed, ignites

The congregations' screams

Their cries, their applause

Beseech an encore from me

But a perfect performance calls

The crimson curtains drawn

Now reverently I leave

His masterpiece for the dawn

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Juice
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Written by Harlequin in portal Poetry & Free Verse
Concerto: Bishop
Audio:
https://drive.google.com/open?id=0BwtqyZ6L7FpjcFgzOE5hU0t5QmM
_____________________________________________________________________
Crystalline air simmers
Between blades cutting
Dawn in broad whispers
Stained glass, their vectors

Hymns a choir their resonance
In rising echoes enraptured
Now fading hums to capture
A silence without dissonance

Myrrh's enveloping tendrils
Accent the chapel's song
For tithes kept only for him
Bishop entreats the throng

A hypocrite's homily
Intones from his lips, his mitre
Inspires a proud crowning
His head, this bullet's finale

Beneath tolling bell I lay
Timorous their ringing
Ubiquitous in expectation
Setting death's messenger
In cradle of the chamber

The sun assents a flare
Glinting in my lenses' glare
Our last, final inhalation
Before the performance begins

The trigger begs reprieve
A tug, a shudder, a squeeze
Before booming in ecstasy
Cracking air and glass asunder
Her deadly flourish descends
And death's messenger sings
Before blooming in revelry
For Bishop's final homily

Scarlet graces the altar
A sacrifice, indeed, ignites
The congregations' screams
Their cries, their applause
Beseech an encore from me

But a perfect performance calls
The crimson curtains drawn
Now reverently I leave
His masterpiece for the dawn
#poetry  #beautyinhorror 
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Juice
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Chapter 5 of The Culling of Casimir
Written by Harlequin in portal Fantasy

Chapter 5: Rogues

    “Where are you off to?” Lady Elise asked me, barely looking up from her book at the empty dining table in the main hall. Her voice attempted to reach the height of the ceilings in search of an echo, but fell instead softly between us.

    “You would make a good thief, Lady Elise, do you know that?” I asked her, inspiring a mischievous look.

    “Perhaps I already am one. But why in the stars would you say such a thing? Coming from you, I expect it was meant as a compliment.”

    “Because I hardly noticed you were there. Otherwise, I would have surely given you a farewell before I left. I hope I didn’t appear rude to you. And, indeed, it was intended as such. A good thief has to be talented in many things, but silence is imperative, and that is quite the precious quality.”

    “Consider yourself forgiven by the high court, jester, saved by your flattery. Our verdict is thus: your head shall remain affixed to your shoulders.”

    “Thank you, Lady Elise.” I bowed deeply. “Now that you have relieved my soul of its heavy burdens, I must be going,” I insisted.

    “Now, now, Casimir. You still haven’t answered my question. Where exactly it is you are going.” She closed her book.

    I watched her onyx eyes, our silhouettes cast across the floor by broad sheathes of light cutting through the towering windows of the entrance hall, where the throne, and all other chairs besides hers, sat empty. “Your curiosity is the kind that makes one feel cared for, did you know that? But, if you must know, our dearest William sent me on an errand, and one I intend to put off as long as possible, likely for the intent of exploring some of the inner city’s taverns or museums, depending on how the evening goes.”

    “To be drunk or to be well informed, now that is a battle we all face every day,” she laughed. “What did he send you to fetch like some cleavage-toting barmaid?”

    “Ah, you honor me. He requested a particular type of quill from one of the city’s copy houses, a kind that the scribes use there. Something about it being durable and unlike any other, apparently crafted with a metal interior that stores ink.” It unsettles me, as much as it comforts me, how deception rolls of my tongue easier than honesty.

    “Ah yes, he is quite particular when it comes to his writing instruments.”

    “Indeed. You don’t need to tell me. Well then!” I said, turning away.

    “Wait, Casimir.”

    “Hmm?”

    “Your hat.”

    “Yes? What’s wrong with it?” I fiddled with one of its bells, causing it to chime blithely.

    “You’re still wearing it. You don’t leave the castle with it, do you?”

    “Of course I do. Everyday, in fact. Why shouldn’t I? It keeps my head warm.”

Her face pinched together in thought, as if I was an enigma beyond her fathoming. I arched an eyebrow at her. “Won’t people think you are …”

    “Strange?” I finished for her.

    “Well, yes.”

    “Let me ask you this: is it strange for a woman to put makeup on her face every morning?”

    “No.”

    “Is it strange for men to wear lengths of cloth that serve little purpose in the summer?” I asked, grasping my half-cloak as I did.

    “No, not at all. You look rather dashing with one.”

    “I’m forced to agree. And still, is it strange for armies to stand opposite one another, and in orderly fashion, charge and hack into one another into they’re a sopping mound of flesh and blood?”

    She flinched a little at the depicted scene. “Well, when you—”

    “Is it strange for folks to imagine that they are speaking to gods in their own heads? To eat with forks in their left hand when it could very well be their right? To roll up a dried plant into a leaf and inhale the smoke from burning it? To cut, beat, dry, and stretch wood until it forms an object capable of emitting sound when horsehair is dragged across attached strings?”

    At last, the confusion in her face lessened. Something I always enjoyed about Lady Elise, and William for that matter, is that they had an indomitable sense of reason when logic was presented clearly. “No. No, it’s not.”

    “And why?” I asked, stepping even closer.

    “Well, because …” she paused, the confusion at last resolved, “I suppose because everyone does those things.”

    “And that is precisely the only reason why anything isn’t strange. My hat is nothing more than cloth fashioned in a manner so that three cuts of it hang beside my head. The silver on my vambraces do not enforce the leather, merely embellish it. The hilts of my daggers, painstakingly carved from the bones of some poor creature, do not add any strength to the weapons, only to their allure. Strangeness, my lady, is subjective, perpetuated only by the delusions of what a culture has deemed normal. There is nothing strange about my hat, only the people that think so.”

    “Fine! I surrender!” she laughed, then sighed as if I was missing something. “Still, Casimir, everyone will think you are a fool.”

    “In many senses, I am one. And I sincerely hope others think so.”

    “Oh?”

    “I am always Casimir, often a fool, but not always. Often, folks take one look at the hat and assume I’m mad. You’d be surprised just how much that puts me at an advantage to cutthroats,” I said with a tirelessly practiced flourish of my daggers that ended with them being sheathed almost as quickly as they were brought out. “The underestimated opponent is a deadly one, and this city, if you hadn’t noticed, is rife with men of ill intent. Many blessings, Lady Elise.” I grasped the end of my cloak and flared it as I whirled towards the colossal doors of the Foxfeather Castle, rather pleased with myself.

    Two guards stood at either end of it. The one on the left nodded at me after I did the same. “Casimir,” Hamor, the one on the right, said with a nod. “Looking ridiculous as ever,” he muttered beneath his breath. I noted the insult but said nothing, humming as I strolled out into the wintry air. Perhaps one day I will return the favor.

    Soft winds breathed snow onto the two gates beneath Nocturos’ gaping, stone arms, the white flakes on his cowl fighting to layer themselves while the violet flame of his insignia melted them, suspended above his head, rotating slowly.

    “Spare a coin?” a child asked me as I strode through the Northern Square. He was no taller than my waist. His practiced expression of sorrow, the limp in his leg, and the crutch he used to support his weight, was all too conspicuous.

    I took scarcely a moment to turn and look at him, offering not a coin but a grin. “Maybe next time, if you work harder on your theatrics.”

    “Hmph. Prick.”

    I knew far better than to play into his scheme, likely resulting with some men waiting for the child’s haul at the day’s end. In all likelihood, more than half of Portsworth’s beggars worked as a network that brought in more coin in one day than an honest business did in several.

    The child scampered away towards a street dwindling with late evening strollers, his broken leg miraculously healed. 

    In quivering winds, phantom fingers of snow and frost swirled around my feet, sweeping across the even cobblestone of the nearly empty square that bathed in the flame's violet hue. “In the City of Thieves, nothing is as it seems,” I mumbled to the air. I wondered what I would do if the man William sent me to trade with had no interest in more wealth. Would I have to fight him, kill him for what William needed?

    “You’re right, it never is,” a voice said behind me.

    I whipped my head around, hand already on the handle of my dagger. “What—”

    “And that child was no poor actor. In fact, he’s quite talented," he said with a laugh. "It’s difficult to pretend to be someone pretending to be someone. Rest assured, my friend. He got exactly what he wanted.”

    The young man who had appeared from behind Nocturos’ statue was dressed entirely in black. The high collar of his tunic rested neatly beneath a heavy cowl that obscured his face. He had a single, leather spaulder on his right arm and a cloak that draped the other, falling to his ankles in a slanted cut that rose short on his back. Both of his knee-high boots had a spare dirk strapped to the ankle, though I doubt he used them, because his belt had more than just a few, and another slew of them were strapped to the rugged cuirass over his tunic. Judging by the size of them, they were meant for throwing.

    I wanted to ask him who he was, but his observation panicked me. “What do you mean?”

    “You saw the boy, but did you spot the young girl before she snuck down the side street to your right? She was hiding behind that bench, right there, before the other one got your attention.”

    “What did she take?”

    He just laughed, the lower half of his face obscured by a black mask. Only his eyes, charcoal with flecks of white, showed beneath his hood, while a few locks of black hair strayed from within. “Am I assuming too much in saying you don’t have time to ask me?”

I cursed and ran away off towards the street he indicated, startling a couple who were were teetering and laughing outside of a raucous tavern at the corner. Scrutinizing the curve of the walkways ahead, I found little else besides quiet shops closing for the evening, and faerie lamps that illuminated the fog swirling low in the street. Winds picked up and howled at me. When I looked behind me, the stranger was leaning back against Nocturos’ statue. He jerked his head to the left as he twirled a blade around his finger.

    Turning into the alleyway besides the tavern, I spotted a girl crouched over my coin pouch, counting its contents. With what little light the moon leaked into the darkened passage, her blonde hair gleamed and glittered with snow.

    With a surreptitious tread, careful enough not to jostle the bells of my hat, I closed the distance between us, her attention all too transfixed by the small fortune in her hands to notice me. It was the sum that William had given me to retrieve something of importance that evening. Getting closer, I could see the now severed ends of the chords that previously attached the pouch to my belt, ones she had cut so deftly, I hadn’t noticed the movement.

    “I believe you have something of mine,” I said, now that I was close enough to grab her if she tried to run. And she did, only her mind ran faster than her feet, and she tripped onto her back. The coins scattered, danced about and trickled into the cracks of the cobblestone. By then, she was too surprised to move, perhaps because no pursuer of hers ever thought to approach gently, rather shout for the city watch or aid as they chased frantically.

    I outstretched my hand towards her. “No, this isn’t a trick, even if you played one on me. It was a good one, I must admit. But I’m not angry,” I replied to the suspicion in her eyes.

    Warily, her small hand grasped mine. She rose to her feet, oddly unashamed and all too willing to meet my gaze with eyes that shone a bold turquoise, fearless and cold in a body that should know only frivolity in all its frailness.

    “You are quite the bandit,” I informed her as I bent to collect the pieces. “In truth, you did your job well enough. I wouldn’t have noticed you if luck hadn’t been in my favor. For that, I suppose, you deserve some compensation.” I picked up one of the silver pieces, a bulfur, the equivalent of ten evenings at a dingy inn or triple as many meals.

    Much like Lady Elise when I riddled her with questions, the child’s face contorted with confusion as the silver piece beckoned her hand. Her silence said little, but the bruises on her face spoke more than I needed to hear.

    “I won’t hurt you. Take it.”

    When the child gave a meek grin, at first, I felt pangs of pity swell in me. She didn’t necessarily choose this life, no more than any child chose their parents. Portsworth had a way of breeding thieves from its orphans, teaching them wit and guile instead of manners, quiet footsteps in lieu of curtsies, pickpocketing and lock picking where, in a more fortunate start, reading or the basics of lesser casting might’ve taken their place.

    Her grin turned to the sharp edges of a smirk, her eyes flickered to something behind me. And all at once, she snatched the coin from my hand, I turned my head, reached for my dagger, but far too late, as someone’s knuckles slammed into my cheek.

    The child ran off as more blows descended, before I could even look to see who the accomplices were, or how many were kicking me into the wall of the alleyway.

    “Fuckin’ fool, he is,” a hoarse voice remarked with a snarling cackle. I could hardly disagree with him.

    “Highborn, by the looks of it. But that Stella’s a charmer, ain’t she?” the other replied. “Always picks the right ones.”

    “Aye, she does. Give it a few years, she’ll be a good fuck.”

    Briefly, they argued over who would be the first to take advantage of her. I made an attempt to get to my feet, but was kicked harder against the wall, the point and heels of their leather soles became sharp, staccato beats of pain before they finally subsided.

    Squinting through an eye already swirling with blood, I spotted two pairs of feet standing over me, before one boot connected with my jaw and sent the blood from my nose spattering across the silver pieces on the ground. My eyes fluttered as my consciousness dared to do the same, but I latched onto the pain and remained there, inert yet seething.

    I played dead, breathing through the iron in my throat, the throbbing in my skull where one of their rings broke the flesh, where needles of bright pain sprang each time a snowflake touched the wound, where the rage boiled vivid images of me leaving their corpses for the city watch to find the next morning.

    “Think he’s dead?” the other asked, his voice a higher pitch and trembling with the shaky laughter of a hyena.

    “Nah, just out. Search ‘im, quick like. I’ll grab the purse.”

    The scrawnier one’s fingers groped all over my clothes. He went through the pockets of my trousers, filched a coin, a quill. He slipped the ring off my thumb, unhooked the Foxfeather signet that clasped my cloak, before digging into the satchel strapped to my left leg.

    “The fuck’s all this?” he asked, finding the dual-glass vials I used for performances. If the glass separating the two chemicals inside broke, it activated thick clouds of smoke. He got up from his crouched position to show the other one. “You think it’s for drinkin’?”

    “Who cares? Grab them daggers and let’s get out of here. I got his purse a’ready.”

    I heard the pop of the vial’s tiny cork, the inhalation of his nostrils. “Smells good enough.”

    “Well don’t just drink it!” The gruff one shouted as he slapped the concoction out of his hands before his lips touched it. “It could be—”

    Glass shattered. The components sizzled, simmered then snapped with a loud burst of fumes. I shot up from the ground, grabbed the smaller one’s head and rammed it into the wall, kneeing his jaw before he hit the ground. His skull cracked louder than the vial’s eruption as he fell down groaning.

    Fury compelled my hand, an instinct beyond quelling, a movement irrepressible as chance became consequence. I looked up from my shaking fist, now gripping a dagger hilt-deep in the man’s back, trembling from the last, feeble throbs of his impaled heart. I stood up and flicked the excess substance off the blade before drawing its pair. “It’s one thing to beat someone senseless before robbing them,” I told the remaining thug as I brandished my blades and stretched my arms. “Quite another, to raise a child to be your whore.” Blood continued pouring from my nose. I breathed raggedly through my mouth, swallowing gulps of it periodically.

    “Easy now,” the bigger one said, now holding a studded cudgel. “Meant nothin’ by it. Just the way the world is, you see.”

    Having now been taught the painful way that there were not just two, but three layers to this scheme, I looked behind me, but found the end of the alleyway empty. I returned my gaze to the silhouette of the bandit, growing ever more distorted as the smoke thickened around us.

    “Give back what you took and I won’t kill you,” I threatened and spat my blood at his feet. “Even if you deserve far worse.”

    His body shook with another set of cough-ridden cackles. He was far larger than me and built better, his muscles roped with thick veins from arduous labor. “How about you hand over what I haven’t already got, and you walk away? Luck can only get fools like you so far.”

    Now that it was missing its clasp, my cloak slid to the ground. I belted my satchel shut before anymore of its contents could spill out, preparing myself as I did. The stinging in my head became harsher as blood beat faster through me.

    “What’ll it be, then?”

    “Luck certainly played her role back there,” I admitted, nodding towards the body, where crimson was spreading greedily through the snow, steam rising up in tendrils to join the fog. “But I wouldn’t bet she had any favors in store for either of us, now. And oh,” I laughed, “I would like to see what that’s like. Care to humor me?”

    “Gladly,” the thug replied. He advanced, thrashing his cudgel so wildly that it collided against the walls of the passage. Stone particles and dust sprang out of the impacts that left heavy indents behind. Each time, images of the cudgel bashing my skull flashed in my mind. I shook them out and retreated while he advanced, the spiked edges of the cudgel nearing me as his slow push turned into a charge.

    His movements seemed sporadic, but contained a rhythm: left, right, down, left, right, the beat of an idiot.

    As I neared the end of the passage, as snowdrift fell over our heads, as his crude attacks reached a frenzy of arrogance, I picked his next swing in the rhythm and made a motion as if to parry a strike to the left while he raised the cudgel for a downswing. Triumph flashed in his expression as he caught the feigned mistake. Enthused, he continued the cudgel’s arc for my head.

    I twisted my body, and with a sudden thrust, impaled his wrist with the dagger in my right hand, snarling as the blade sprang out the other end, just as delighted as I was to breathe the air after his blood was drawn.

    His hand spasmed as my steel played with their ligaments. The cudgel dropped to the floor in a defeated clatter. Before he could retaliate with his free hand, I twisted his arm down, a puppeteer of his flesh and screams. “Meant nothin’ by it,” I told him as my other blade thrusted between his ribs and found his heart, twisting. “Just the way the world is, you see.”

    Surprise, a gnarled anguish in his eyes, received only malice from mine as he staggered to the wall, his blood now mingled with mine on the ground; there, a quiet communion of murderer and victim, of the ardent and the pathetic, mixing in sworn shades of the same hue.

    “Yora kemmin dek,” I muttered to the corpse as it slid to the ground. I collected my purse and placed it in my satchel.

    “Is that how you say ‘Good riddance’ where you come from?” a now familiar voice asked behind me as his shadow drew closer. I hadn’t even heard his feet approach, his tread snowfall on the ground. Despite having just killed two people, I chuckled, figuring that if he was apart of the triple ploy, he would have already done the same to me by now.

    “How the Qalmorian Moon-elves do, at least. Though it is a little harsher, I would say.” I got to my feet and took in his appearance, surprised to find he’d drawn back his hood and mask, and beyond that, that I was comforted by his presence. He outstretched my cloak to me, the clasp on it already refastened.

    His face contained the rushed maturity of a difficult upbringing, not perturbed by the past, but illuminated by the challenges overcome. His dark eyes were considerably brighter now, as he smiled at me. He looked just a year or two older than myself at the time: seventeen, with a soft, rounded nose and lips set in a tight line when they weren’t smirking.

    I thanked him and drew the black-and-red motley cloak back over my shoulder. “Harsher?” he asked.

    “Loosely translated, it means ‘You met your intended end’ or rather, the only one that was fitting for someone like you. It’s not exactly something you say for your wife’s eulogy.”

    The stranger snickered and knelt to search one of the bodies before he tossed up a smaller, patched coin purse and tucked it in his sleeve. “Fitting, indeed. Can’t say that I pity them.”

    “Nobody should. You’ve a name?” I wiped the blood spattered on my face, both mine and the bandit’s, on my cloak, before doing the same for my blades. The frozen air helped to stop the steady trickle coming from my nose.

    “Oh, many, though I am assuming you want the true one. I must admit, I watched all of this unfold. I just couldn’t help myself. I was curious. So I suppose I owe you that much, at least.”

    “And a drink,” I added quickly. “At least two, one for each of them. I’ll even do you a favor and pretend like you didn’t help in the slightest with that tip you gave me back there.”

    The stranger laughed, already privy to my humor and all too willing to play along. “Nobody owes anybody anything, thus possession,” he replied as he produced the rest of my belongings in his other hand, “is simply an illusion. Danger, on the other hand, is quite real, and in this instance, is taking form in the guards now heading towards the screams that our friend here made. Shall we continue this elsewhere?”

    The frozen air had embraced my silver ring, but it felt soothing to have it returned to my thumb, all the same. “I know just the place.” It was the only place, in fact, that I had intended to be that night.

    “Lead away.”

    I snatched the quill and coin from his hand, and together we abandoned the scene, heading east of the Northern Square, where the rest of my evening’s business lay waiting. Portsworth might have lacked virtue, but narrow crevices and tunnels, it did not. There was a reason why thievery was rampant here. The sheer size and twisting passages of the city made losing pursuers easy.

                                                                ~ ~

    Both of us pretending we were less winded than we were when we stopped running, now standing outside The Craven Phantom, a gambling house that only became louder as the night deepened and the snow thickened around us. The fogged windows glowed from the candlelight inside, the myriad silhouettes within emitted laughter, shouts and insults muffled through the wall. A heavy thud shook the establishment after someone went down to a pair of flying fists.

    “Now, about that name."

    “Drinks first. It’s not every night that I'm free to roam like this, and I intend to make the most of it. I just watched someone fight for their life, so it can only get worse from here.”

    “Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure of that,” I said, still smiling despite the steady hammer beating my head from where I’d been pummeled. “But I’m not one to argue. After you.”

    Before the winds could freeze us to our leathers, we let ourselves into the tavern, immediately overwhelmed by the stench of sweat, mead, nitskel and unfavorable chances over dice boards, cards, and backhanded insults. Bones made up the sconces and candlesticks inside, the most impressive piece being a gently swinging chandelier that hung beneath the rafters, where eight skulls adorned each point, fashioned to look down upon the patrons with hanging jaws. Some human, some not. We made our way through the most boisterous and drunk, the patrons too entrenched in their current dealings to pay us more than a glance. I scanned the crowd, spotting a woman with an eyepatch and a glare in her working eye as she observed the expressions of the men sitting around the same table, all of them holding cards before a stack of coins.

    “What are you looking for?” the stranger asked me, his gaze just as watchful.

    “Nothing that’s in this room,” I muttered. “Follow me.”

    We ascended cracked and groaning stairs to the second floor. Upstairs, the noise from below still bellowed after us, but more tables were empty, and for the ones that weren’t, hushed conversations rolled over closely-clutched drinks and wary eyes. At the far corner of the room, a man with cropped hair was leaning back in a chair in front of two others and a woman, laughing as he swigged from a carafe. One of his fingers glinted from a silver Foxfeather signet—William's signet, the only one, for that matter. The collars of his beaten, leather coat rose obnoxiously high, a wide breadth of his head, which was covered in all manner of scars.

    “It appears I haven’t used all of my evening’s luck up, yet,” I said as we sat down at an empty table.

    “Something tells me you’re not the type of person that runs out of it.”

    “All is fortune in the eyes of chaos.”

    When one of the servers took their queue and followed us upstairs, the stranger payed for gin and brandy before I could insist. Not that it was all too burdensome, considering he used the coin from one of the corpses. I kept my eye on the man in the corner as the first beginnings of our companionship arose. The unexpected friendship that sparked between us was nothing short of odd, but I had a taste for the unexpected and the happenstance, especially when it came to the bonds of kindred souls.

    “I do feel guilty for not stepping in,” he admitted after a short silence. “But you should understand that someone like me can’t afford to make allies of fickle people. Watching you deal with those rats proved more than just a few things to me. Despite your inability to see that the boy was only a ruse, I thought you could handle yourself with the others. Luckily, you did. And now, what was an innocent evening of people watching turned into this,” he gestured between us, “and I don’t take my friends lightly.”

    “Neither do I. If it weren’t for you, I would have lost that purse, so let’s call it fair. But what if I hadn’t handled myself?” I took off my hat, not surprised to find more than a little blood on the inside of it. I prodded the wounds on my head to judge their seriousness.

    He scoffed. “Don’t be a fool. I would have dashed in there like a golden legend, of course.”

    Our words stopped as the server returned with two small, ivory cups. He took the brandy.  

    “This golden legend could have saved my head from three welts, and that’s not even mentioning the bruises on my body.”

    “Ah well, I had to know you were worth your mettle. Ladies love black eyes, in any case. And that one’s going to be a monster,” he said, pointing towards my left socket.

    We clinked the cups and drank. With a trailing finger, I admired the cup’s surface, heavily engraved in filigree. 

    “Shamus Dodge,” he told me after we swallowed back the liquor. After the initial bite, the smooth texture left minty notes in the back of my throat, to an almost bittersweet finish before leaving a pleasant burn that chilled and trailed down my stomach. 

    “Casimir Foxfeather.”

    He finished his second sip in sputtering coughs, hearing my second name. “Gods, I thought you had stolen that clasp and ring.” His expression flashed, seemingly without control, to confused frustration. “So you’re a highborn then? And here I thought the hat, the motley cloak, it was all some elaborate mockery of royalty! Gods!”

    It had been a long while since I laughed as hard, the irony much sweeter than the ale. “No and yes. I wasn’t born into the Foxfeathers. I was raised in a small town north of Westrun, long, long before I was brought into their court. I took the second name because, well, pasts are meant to be left with the dead. Names have a way of erasing things.”

    “Fair enough. So then, you have no royal blood in you?”

    “If I did, it would come as a surprise to me, and not a welcome one.”

    At that, the urge Shamus had turn the table over and run seemed to leave, but he quickly lost himself to thought as if the question of my trust lay there in the stained wood. “Yet you live with them, eat and drink with them.”

    “I am one of the King’s advisors, and entertainers, but gods know I prefer the latter. Why should a fool have to lend his opinion on warfare or trade treaties? The intricacies of royal politics befuddle me.”

    “Wait!” Shamus exclaimed and grasped my arm. The white flecks in his eyes seemed to ignite, burning up any judgements he might’ve had of me. “You are that Casimir? You were that acrobat in this year’s Hallow’s Eve Reverie performance? The second act, was it?”

    “At your service,” I said, then wiped a less charming, lingering trail of blood coming from one of my nostrils.

    “Gods, you were magnificent! How did you summon all those illusions? You made it appear as if there were dozens of you, all at once. And then …” he trailed off, shaking his head as his words faltered to describe the vivid conjurations of that night’s performance. “That was three bulfurs well spent, my friend. How did you do it?”

    “You think I’ll unveil my secrets to you only after one drink? Tsk, tsk. You’ll have to be more cunning than that.”

    “Cunning?” Looking about the room, a roguish smile came to his lips. “You’re here for something from that man in the corner, yes?”

    “Well, I didn’t stroll out into Portsworth’s late evening to be robbed and nearly murdered, even if it was rather exciting.” I took another sip, wondering if the pains in my abdomen were from cracked or bruised ribs.

    Shamus didn't seem interested in his drink anymore. He leaned over the edge of the table. “Tell me what you’re after. I’ll retrieve it for you."

    “Just like that?” I asked, all too eager to accept his help now that the adrenaline had begun to fade, and in its absence, an even angrier ache swelled in my head, a tiredness like lead forming beneath my eyes. Simultaneously, I could leave the evening where it stood and return another time. Surely, William would understand if I had told him the story, but I had a self-destructive tendency to do things that weren’t entirely rational, especially if they came wrapped in a challenge.

    “Just like that. But,” he continued, “if I get the object, you’ll tell me the mechanics behind your illusions in that performance. In my profession, deception is gold, and you might as well be a mine.”

    The man in the corner laughed uproariously, spluttering his drink all over the table. The longer I thought about it, the more intrigued I was to see what Shamus had in mind.

“I must confess,” I told him, “I was given a rather large sum to trade for that object. Hence the small fortune I nearly lost to a child.”

    “To the worms with it. Keep the sum, the reward is in the execution. Where’s the fun if we do this the polite way?”

    “I couldn’t agree more.”

    “Now, what is it?”

    “You see the ring on his forefinger? That’s the Northern King’s signet. If that man had half a mind to do so, he could send off commands to ambassadors, tradesmen, even executioners, and stamp the wax with that seal. Luckily, he doesn’t appear to be the type that enjoys penmanship, much less speaking well. I doubt he understands that he is, at this moment, far more powerful than he ever dreamed he'd be. William has a, erhm, slight concern that one day he might just figure it out.”

    “How did he lose something so godsdamned valuable to a drunk like that?”

    “Shamus, that ‘drunk’ owns this tavern and half the brothels in Portsworth,” I whispered, careful not to look at him anymore than I already was. 

    Dumbfounded, he shook his head and pushed his drink away. “That still doesn’t explain what a highborn was doing in a place like this.”

    “William isn’t all that different from us,” I confessed. “Every now and then he puts on disguises, changes his wardrobe, and goes to lowly places like this to gamble, to drink, to laugh, to pretend like he never was a king to begin with.”

    “That’s oddly … admirable,” Shamus admitted. 

    “And probably one of his worst habits,” I grumbled. “He lost that ring while he was gambling.”

    “Less admirable!”

    “Regardless ... are you still up to the task?”

    “Stealing a king’s signet, making a fool out of some wealthy, drunk bastard, what’s not to love? Forget your secrets, I’ll do this for pleasure. You gave me a performance I could never forget, how about I return the favor?”

    "You know, I think I may at least come to forgive you for letting me get beaten bloody in that alley."

    "Oh, gods no! After tonight, you're going to thank me for it. After all, if I hadn't felt guilty, I wouldn't have bought you the drink."

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Chapter 5 of The Culling of Casimir
Written by Harlequin in portal Fantasy
Chapter 5: Rogues
    “Where are you off to?” Lady Elise asked me, barely looking up from her book at the empty dining table in the main hall. Her voice attempted to reach the height of the ceilings in search of an echo, but fell instead softly between us.
    “You would make a good thief, Lady Elise, do you know that?” I asked her, inspiring a mischievous look.
    “Perhaps I already am one. But why in the stars would you say such a thing? Coming from you, I expect it was meant as a compliment.”
    “Because I hardly noticed you were there. Otherwise, I would have surely given you a farewell before I left. I hope I didn’t appear rude to you. And, indeed, it was intended as such. A good thief has to be talented in many things, but silence is imperative, and that is quite the precious quality.”
    “Consider yourself forgiven by the high court, jester, saved by your flattery. Our verdict is thus: your head shall remain affixed to your shoulders.”
    “Thank you, Lady Elise.” I bowed deeply. “Now that you have relieved my soul of its heavy burdens, I must be going,” I insisted.
    “Now, now, Casimir. You still haven’t answered my question. Where exactly it is you are going.” She closed her book.
    I watched her onyx eyes, our silhouettes cast across the floor by broad sheathes of light cutting through the towering windows of the entrance hall, where the throne, and all other chairs besides hers, sat empty. “Your curiosity is the kind that makes one feel cared for, did you know that? But, if you must know, our dearest William sent me on an errand, and one I intend to put off as long as possible, likely for the intent of exploring some of the inner city’s taverns or museums, depending on how the evening goes.”
    “To be drunk or to be well informed, now that is a battle we all face every day,” she laughed. “What did he send you to fetch like some cleavage-toting barmaid?”
    “Ah, you honor me. He requested a particular type of quill from one of the city’s copy houses, a kind that the scribes use there. Something about it being durable and unlike any other, apparently crafted with a metal interior that stores ink.” It unsettles me, as much as it comforts me, how deception rolls of my tongue easier than honesty.
    “Ah yes, he is quite particular when it comes to his writing instruments.”
    “Indeed. You don’t need to tell me. Well then!” I said, turning away.
    “Wait, Casimir.”
    “Hmm?”
    “Your hat.”
    “Yes? What’s wrong with it?” I fiddled with one of its bells, causing it to chime blithely.
    “You’re still wearing it. You don’t leave the castle with it, do you?”
    “Of course I do. Everyday, in fact. Why shouldn’t I? It keeps my head warm.”
Her face pinched together in thought, as if I was an enigma beyond her fathoming. I arched an eyebrow at her. “Won’t people think you are …”
    “Strange?” I finished for her.
    “Well, yes.”
    “Let me ask you this: is it strange for a woman to put makeup on her face every morning?”
    “No.”
    “Is it strange for men to wear lengths of cloth that serve little purpose in the summer?” I asked, grasping my half-cloak as I did.
    “No, not at all. You look rather dashing with one.”
    “I’m forced to agree. And still, is it strange for armies to stand opposite one another, and in orderly fashion, charge and hack into one another into they’re a sopping mound of flesh and blood?”
    She flinched a little at the depicted scene. “Well, when you—”
    “Is it strange for folks to imagine that they are speaking to gods in their own heads? To eat with forks in their left hand when it could very well be their right? To roll up a dried plant into a leaf and inhale the smoke from burning it? To cut, beat, dry, and stretch wood until it forms an object capable of emitting sound when horsehair is dragged across attached strings?”
    At last, the confusion in her face lessened. Something I always enjoyed about Lady Elise, and William for that matter, is that they had an indomitable sense of reason when logic was presented clearly. “No. No, it’s not.”
    “And why?” I asked, stepping even closer.
    “Well, because …” she paused, the confusion at last resolved, “I suppose because everyone does those things.”
    “And that is precisely the only reason why anything isn’t strange. My hat is nothing more than cloth fashioned in a manner so that three cuts of it hang beside my head. The silver on my vambraces do not enforce the leather, merely embellish it. The hilts of my daggers, painstakingly carved from the bones of some poor creature, do not add any strength to the weapons, only to their allure. Strangeness, my lady, is subjective, perpetuated only by the delusions of what a culture has deemed normal. There is nothing strange about my hat, only the people that think so.”
    “Fine! I surrender!” she laughed, then sighed as if I was missing something. “Still, Casimir, everyone will think you are a fool.”
    “In many senses, I am one. And I sincerely hope others think so.”
    “Oh?”
    “I am always Casimir, often a fool, but not always. Often, folks take one look at the hat and assume I’m mad. You’d be surprised just how much that puts me at an advantage to cutthroats,” I said with a tirelessly practiced flourish of my daggers that ended with them being sheathed almost as quickly as they were brought out. “The underestimated opponent is a deadly one, and this city, if you hadn’t noticed, is rife with men of ill intent. Many blessings, Lady Elise.” I grasped the end of my cloak and flared it as I whirled towards the colossal doors of the Foxfeather Castle, rather pleased with myself.
    Two guards stood at either end of it. The one on the left nodded at me after I did the same. “Casimir,” Hamor, the one on the right, said with a nod. “Looking ridiculous as ever,” he muttered beneath his breath. I noted the insult but said nothing, humming as I strolled out into the wintry air. Perhaps one day I will return the favor.

    Soft winds breathed snow onto the two gates beneath Nocturos’ gaping, stone arms, the white flakes on his cowl fighting to layer themselves while the violet flame of his insignia melted them, suspended above his head, rotating slowly.
    “Spare a coin?” a child asked me as I strode through the Northern Square. He was no taller than my waist. His practiced expression of sorrow, the limp in his leg, and the crutch he used to support his weight, was all too conspicuous.
    I took scarcely a moment to turn and look at him, offering not a coin but a grin. “Maybe next time, if you work harder on your theatrics.”
    “Hmph. Prick.”
    I knew far better than to play into his scheme, likely resulting with some men waiting for the child’s haul at the day’s end. In all likelihood, more than half of Portsworth’s beggars worked as a network that brought in more coin in one day than an honest business did in several.
    The child scampered away towards a street dwindling with late evening strollers, his broken leg miraculously healed. 
    In quivering winds, phantom fingers of snow and frost swirled around my feet, sweeping across the even cobblestone of the nearly empty square that bathed in the flame's violet hue. “In the City of Thieves, nothing is as it seems,” I mumbled to the air. I wondered what I would do if the man William sent me to trade with had no interest in more wealth. Would I have to fight him, kill him for what William needed?
    “You’re right, it never is,” a voice said behind me.
    I whipped my head around, hand already on the handle of my dagger. “What—”
    “And that child was no poor actor. In fact, he’s quite talented," he said with a laugh. "It’s difficult to pretend to be someone pretending to be someone. Rest assured, my friend. He got exactly what he wanted.”
    The young man who had appeared from behind Nocturos’ statue was dressed entirely in black. The high collar of his tunic rested neatly beneath a heavy cowl that obscured his face. He had a single, leather spaulder on his right arm and a cloak that draped the other, falling to his ankles in a slanted cut that rose short on his back. Both of his knee-high boots had a spare dirk strapped to the ankle, though I doubt he used them, because his belt had more than just a few, and another slew of them were strapped to the rugged cuirass over his tunic. Judging by the size of them, they were meant for throwing.
    I wanted to ask him who he was, but his observation panicked me. “What do you mean?”
    “You saw the boy, but did you spot the young girl before she snuck down the side street to your right? She was hiding behind that bench, right there, before the other one got your attention.”
    “What did she take?”
    He just laughed, the lower half of his face obscured by a black mask. Only his eyes, charcoal with flecks of white, showed beneath his hood, while a few locks of black hair strayed from within. “Am I assuming too much in saying you don’t have time to ask me?”
I cursed and ran away off towards the street he indicated, startling a couple who were were teetering and laughing outside of a raucous tavern at the corner. Scrutinizing the curve of the walkways ahead, I found little else besides quiet shops closing for the evening, and faerie lamps that illuminated the fog swirling low in the street. Winds picked up and howled at me. When I looked behind me, the stranger was leaning back against Nocturos’ statue. He jerked his head to the left as he twirled a blade around his finger.
    Turning into the alleyway besides the tavern, I spotted a girl crouched over my coin pouch, counting its contents. With what little light the moon leaked into the darkened passage, her blonde hair gleamed and glittered with snow.
    With a surreptitious tread, careful enough not to jostle the bells of my hat, I closed the distance between us, her attention all too transfixed by the small fortune in her hands to notice me. It was the sum that William had given me to retrieve something of importance that evening. Getting closer, I could see the now severed ends of the chords that previously attached the pouch to my belt, ones she had cut so deftly, I hadn’t noticed the movement.
    “I believe you have something of mine,” I said, now that I was close enough to grab her if she tried to run. And she did, only her mind ran faster than her feet, and she tripped onto her back. The coins scattered, danced about and trickled into the cracks of the cobblestone. By then, she was too surprised to move, perhaps because no pursuer of hers ever thought to approach gently, rather shout for the city watch or aid as they chased frantically.
    I outstretched my hand towards her. “No, this isn’t a trick, even if you played one on me. It was a good one, I must admit. But I’m not angry,” I replied to the suspicion in her eyes.
    Warily, her small hand grasped mine. She rose to her feet, oddly unashamed and all too willing to meet my gaze with eyes that shone a bold turquoise, fearless and cold in a body that should know only frivolity in all its frailness.
    “You are quite the bandit,” I informed her as I bent to collect the pieces. “In truth, you did your job well enough. I wouldn’t have noticed you if luck hadn’t been in my favor. For that, I suppose, you deserve some compensation.” I picked up one of the silver pieces, a bulfur, the equivalent of ten evenings at a dingy inn or triple as many meals.
    Much like Lady Elise when I riddled her with questions, the child’s face contorted with confusion as the silver piece beckoned her hand. Her silence said little, but the bruises on her face spoke more than I needed to hear.
    “I won’t hurt you. Take it.”
    When the child gave a meek grin, at first, I felt pangs of pity swell in me. She didn’t necessarily choose this life, no more than any child chose their parents. Portsworth had a way of breeding thieves from its orphans, teaching them wit and guile instead of manners, quiet footsteps in lieu of curtsies, pickpocketing and lock picking where, in a more fortunate start, reading or the basics of lesser casting might’ve taken their place.
    Her grin turned to the sharp edges of a smirk, her eyes flickered to something behind me. And all at once, she snatched the coin from my hand, I turned my head, reached for my dagger, but far too late, as someone’s knuckles slammed into my cheek.
    The child ran off as more blows descended, before I could even look to see who the accomplices were, or how many were kicking me into the wall of the alleyway.
    “Fuckin’ fool, he is,” a hoarse voice remarked with a snarling cackle. I could hardly disagree with him.
    “Highborn, by the looks of it. But that Stella’s a charmer, ain’t she?” the other replied. “Always picks the right ones.”
    “Aye, she does. Give it a few years, she’ll be a good fuck.”
    Briefly, they argued over who would be the first to take advantage of her. I made an attempt to get to my feet, but was kicked harder against the wall, the point and heels of their leather soles became sharp, staccato beats of pain before they finally subsided.
    Squinting through an eye already swirling with blood, I spotted two pairs of feet standing over me, before one boot connected with my jaw and sent the blood from my nose spattering across the silver pieces on the ground. My eyes fluttered as my consciousness dared to do the same, but I latched onto the pain and remained there, inert yet seething.
    I played dead, breathing through the iron in my throat, the throbbing in my skull where one of their rings broke the flesh, where needles of bright pain sprang each time a snowflake touched the wound, where the rage boiled vivid images of me leaving their corpses for the city watch to find the next morning.
    “Think he’s dead?” the other asked, his voice a higher pitch and trembling with the shaky laughter of a hyena.
    “Nah, just out. Search ‘im, quick like. I’ll grab the purse.”
    The scrawnier one’s fingers groped all over my clothes. He went through the pockets of my trousers, filched a coin, a quill. He slipped the ring off my thumb, unhooked the Foxfeather signet that clasped my cloak, before digging into the satchel strapped to my left leg.
    “The fuck’s all this?” he asked, finding the dual-glass vials I used for performances. If the glass separating the two chemicals inside broke, it activated thick clouds of smoke. He got up from his crouched position to show the other one. “You think it’s for drinkin’?”
    “Who cares? Grab them daggers and let’s get out of here. I got his purse a’ready.”
    I heard the pop of the vial’s tiny cork, the inhalation of his nostrils. “Smells good enough.”
    “Well don’t just drink it!” The gruff one shouted as he slapped the concoction out of his hands before his lips touched it. “It could be—”
    Glass shattered. The components sizzled, simmered then snapped with a loud burst of fumes. I shot up from the ground, grabbed the smaller one’s head and rammed it into the wall, kneeing his jaw before he hit the ground. His skull cracked louder than the vial’s eruption as he fell down groaning.
    Fury compelled my hand, an instinct beyond quelling, a movement irrepressible as chance became consequence. I looked up from my shaking fist, now gripping a dagger hilt-deep in the man’s back, trembling from the last, feeble throbs of his impaled heart. I stood up and flicked the excess substance off the blade before drawing its pair. “It’s one thing to beat someone senseless before robbing them,” I told the remaining thug as I brandished my blades and stretched my arms. “Quite another, to raise a child to be your whore.” Blood continued pouring from my nose. I breathed raggedly through my mouth, swallowing gulps of it periodically.
    “Easy now,” the bigger one said, now holding a studded cudgel. “Meant nothin’ by it. Just the way the world is, you see.”
    Having now been taught the painful way that there were not just two, but three layers to this scheme, I looked behind me, but found the end of the alleyway empty. I returned my gaze to the silhouette of the bandit, growing ever more distorted as the smoke thickened around us.
    “Give back what you took and I won’t kill you,” I threatened and spat my blood at his feet. “Even if you deserve far worse.”
    His body shook with another set of cough-ridden cackles. He was far larger than me and built better, his muscles roped with thick veins from arduous labor. “How about you hand over what I haven’t already got, and you walk away? Luck can only get fools like you so far.”
    Now that it was missing its clasp, my cloak slid to the ground. I belted my satchel shut before anymore of its contents could spill out, preparing myself as I did. The stinging in my head became harsher as blood beat faster through me.
    “What’ll it be, then?”
    “Luck certainly played her role back there,” I admitted, nodding towards the body, where crimson was spreading greedily through the snow, steam rising up in tendrils to join the fog. “But I wouldn’t bet she had any favors in store for either of us, now. And oh,” I laughed, “I would like to see what that’s like. Care to humor me?”
    “Gladly,” the thug replied. He advanced, thrashing his cudgel so wildly that it collided against the walls of the passage. Stone particles and dust sprang out of the impacts that left heavy indents behind. Each time, images of the cudgel bashing my skull flashed in my mind. I shook them out and retreated while he advanced, the spiked edges of the cudgel nearing me as his slow push turned into a charge.
    His movements seemed sporadic, but contained a rhythm: left, right, down, left, right, the beat of an idiot.
    As I neared the end of the passage, as snowdrift fell over our heads, as his crude attacks reached a frenzy of arrogance, I picked his next swing in the rhythm and made a motion as if to parry a strike to the left while he raised the cudgel for a downswing. Triumph flashed in his expression as he caught the feigned mistake. Enthused, he continued the cudgel’s arc for my head.
    I twisted my body, and with a sudden thrust, impaled his wrist with the dagger in my right hand, snarling as the blade sprang out the other end, just as delighted as I was to breathe the air after his blood was drawn.
    His hand spasmed as my steel played with their ligaments. The cudgel dropped to the floor in a defeated clatter. Before he could retaliate with his free hand, I twisted his arm down, a puppeteer of his flesh and screams. “Meant nothin’ by it,” I told him as my other blade thrusted between his ribs and found his heart, twisting. “Just the way the world is, you see.”
    Surprise, a gnarled anguish in his eyes, received only malice from mine as he staggered to the wall, his blood now mingled with mine on the ground; there, a quiet communion of murderer and victim, of the ardent and the pathetic, mixing in sworn shades of the same hue.
    “Yora kemmin dek,” I muttered to the corpse as it slid to the ground. I collected my purse and placed it in my satchel.
    “Is that how you say ‘Good riddance’ where you come from?” a now familiar voice asked behind me as his shadow drew closer. I hadn’t even heard his feet approach, his tread snowfall on the ground. Despite having just killed two people, I chuckled, figuring that if he was apart of the triple ploy, he would have already done the same to me by now.
    “How the Qalmorian Moon-elves do, at least. Though it is a little harsher, I would say.” I got to my feet and took in his appearance, surprised to find he’d drawn back his hood and mask, and beyond that, that I was comforted by his presence. He outstretched my cloak to me, the clasp on it already refastened.
    His face contained the rushed maturity of a difficult upbringing, not perturbed by the past, but illuminated by the challenges overcome. His dark eyes were considerably brighter now, as he smiled at me. He looked just a year or two older than myself at the time: seventeen, with a soft, rounded nose and lips set in a tight line when they weren’t smirking.
    I thanked him and drew the black-and-red motley cloak back over my shoulder. “Harsher?” he asked.
    “Loosely translated, it means ‘You met your intended end’ or rather, the only one that was fitting for someone like you. It’s not exactly something you say for your wife’s eulogy.”
    The stranger snickered and knelt to search one of the bodies before he tossed up a smaller, patched coin purse and tucked it in his sleeve. “Fitting, indeed. Can’t say that I pity them.”
    “Nobody should. You’ve a name?” I wiped the blood spattered on my face, both mine and the bandit’s, on my cloak, before doing the same for my blades. The frozen air helped to stop the steady trickle coming from my nose.
    “Oh, many, though I am assuming you want the true one. I must admit, I watched all of this unfold. I just couldn’t help myself. I was curious. So I suppose I owe you that much, at least.”
    “And a drink,” I added quickly. “At least two, one for each of them. I’ll even do you a favor and pretend like you didn’t help in the slightest with that tip you gave me back there.”
    The stranger laughed, already privy to my humor and all too willing to play along. “Nobody owes anybody anything, thus possession,” he replied as he produced the rest of my belongings in his other hand, “is simply an illusion. Danger, on the other hand, is quite real, and in this instance, is taking form in the guards now heading towards the screams that our friend here made. Shall we continue this elsewhere?”
    The frozen air had embraced my silver ring, but it felt soothing to have it returned to my thumb, all the same. “I know just the place.” It was the only place, in fact, that I had intended to be that night.
    “Lead away.”
    I snatched the quill and coin from his hand, and together we abandoned the scene, heading east of the Northern Square, where the rest of my evening’s business lay waiting. Portsworth might have lacked virtue, but narrow crevices and tunnels, it did not. There was a reason why thievery was rampant here. The sheer size and twisting passages of the city made losing pursuers easy.
                                                                ~ ~
    Both of us pretending we were less winded than we were when we stopped running, now standing outside The Craven Phantom, a gambling house that only became louder as the night deepened and the snow thickened around us. The fogged windows glowed from the candlelight inside, the myriad silhouettes within emitted laughter, shouts and insults muffled through the wall. A heavy thud shook the establishment after someone went down to a pair of flying fists.
    “Now, about that name."
    “Drinks first. It’s not every night that I'm free to roam like this, and I intend to make the most of it. I just watched someone fight for their life, so it can only get worse from here.”
    “Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure of that,” I said, still smiling despite the steady hammer beating my head from where I’d been pummeled. “But I’m not one to argue. After you.”
    Before the winds could freeze us to our leathers, we let ourselves into the tavern, immediately overwhelmed by the stench of sweat, mead, nitskel and unfavorable chances over dice boards, cards, and backhanded insults. Bones made up the sconces and candlesticks inside, the most impressive piece being a gently swinging chandelier that hung beneath the rafters, where eight skulls adorned each point, fashioned to look down upon the patrons with hanging jaws. Some human, some not. We made our way through the most boisterous and drunk, the patrons too entrenched in their current dealings to pay us more than a glance. I scanned the crowd, spotting a woman with an eyepatch and a glare in her working eye as she observed the expressions of the men sitting around the same table, all of them holding cards before a stack of coins.
    “What are you looking for?” the stranger asked me, his gaze just as watchful.
    “Nothing that’s in this room,” I muttered. “Follow me.”
    We ascended cracked and groaning stairs to the second floor. Upstairs, the noise from below still bellowed after us, but more tables were empty, and for the ones that weren’t, hushed conversations rolled over closely-clutched drinks and wary eyes. At the far corner of the room, a man with cropped hair was leaning back in a chair in front of two others and a woman, laughing as he swigged from a carafe. One of his fingers glinted from a silver Foxfeather signet—William's signet, the only one, for that matter. The collars of his beaten, leather coat rose obnoxiously high, a wide breadth of his head, which was covered in all manner of scars.
    “It appears I haven’t used all of my evening’s luck up, yet,” I said as we sat down at an empty table.
    “Something tells me you’re not the type of person that runs out of it.”
    “All is fortune in the eyes of chaos.”
    When one of the servers took their queue and followed us upstairs, the stranger payed for gin and brandy before I could insist. Not that it was all too burdensome, considering he used the coin from one of the corpses. I kept my eye on the man in the corner as the first beginnings of our companionship arose. The unexpected friendship that sparked between us was nothing short of odd, but I had a taste for the unexpected and the happenstance, especially when it came to the bonds of kindred souls.
    “I do feel guilty for not stepping in,” he admitted after a short silence. “But you should understand that someone like me can’t afford to make allies of fickle people. Watching you deal with those rats proved more than just a few things to me. Despite your inability to see that the boy was only a ruse, I thought you could handle yourself with the others. Luckily, you did. And now, what was an innocent evening of people watching turned into this,” he gestured between us, “and I don’t take my friends lightly.”
    “Neither do I. If it weren’t for you, I would have lost that purse, so let’s call it fair. But what if I hadn’t handled myself?” I took off my hat, not surprised to find more than a little blood on the inside of it. I prodded the wounds on my head to judge their seriousness.
    He scoffed. “Don’t be a fool. I would have dashed in there like a golden legend, of course.”
    Our words stopped as the server returned with two small, ivory cups. He took the brandy.  
    “This golden legend could have saved my head from three welts, and that’s not even mentioning the bruises on my body.”
    “Ah well, I had to know you were worth your mettle. Ladies love black eyes, in any case. And that one’s going to be a monster,” he said, pointing towards my left socket.
    We clinked the cups and drank. With a trailing finger, I admired the cup’s surface, heavily engraved in filigree. 
    “Shamus Dodge,” he told me after we swallowed back the liquor. After the initial bite, the smooth texture left minty notes in the back of my throat, to an almost bittersweet finish before leaving a pleasant burn that chilled and trailed down my stomach. 
    “Casimir Foxfeather.”
    He finished his second sip in sputtering coughs, hearing my second name. “Gods, I thought you had stolen that clasp and ring.” His expression flashed, seemingly without control, to confused frustration. “So you’re a highborn then? And here I thought the hat, the motley cloak, it was all some elaborate mockery of royalty! Gods!”
    It had been a long while since I laughed as hard, the irony much sweeter than the ale. “No and yes. I wasn’t born into the Foxfeathers. I was raised in a small town north of Westrun, long, long before I was brought into their court. I took the second name because, well, pasts are meant to be left with the dead. Names have a way of erasing things.”
    “Fair enough. So then, you have no royal blood in you?”
    “If I did, it would come as a surprise to me, and not a welcome one.”
    At that, the urge Shamus had turn the table over and run seemed to leave, but he quickly lost himself to thought as if the question of my trust lay there in the stained wood. “Yet you live with them, eat and drink with them.”
    “I am one of the King’s advisors, and entertainers, but gods know I prefer the latter. Why should a fool have to lend his opinion on warfare or trade treaties? The intricacies of royal politics befuddle me.”
    “Wait!” Shamus exclaimed and grasped my arm. The white flecks in his eyes seemed to ignite, burning up any judgements he might’ve had of me. “You are that Casimir? You were that acrobat in this year’s Hallow’s Eve Reverie performance? The second act, was it?”
    “At your service,” I said, then wiped a less charming, lingering trail of blood coming from one of my nostrils.
    “Gods, you were magnificent! How did you summon all those illusions? You made it appear as if there were dozens of you, all at once. And then …” he trailed off, shaking his head as his words faltered to describe the vivid conjurations of that night’s performance. “That was three bulfurs well spent, my friend. How did you do it?”
    “You think I’ll unveil my secrets to you only after one drink? Tsk, tsk. You’ll have to be more cunning than that.”
    “Cunning?” Looking about the room, a roguish smile came to his lips. “You’re here for something from that man in the corner, yes?”
    “Well, I didn’t stroll out into Portsworth’s late evening to be robbed and nearly murdered, even if it was rather exciting.” I took another sip, wondering if the pains in my abdomen were from cracked or bruised ribs.
    Shamus didn't seem interested in his drink anymore. He leaned over the edge of the table. “Tell me what you’re after. I’ll retrieve it for you."
    “Just like that?” I asked, all too eager to accept his help now that the adrenaline had begun to fade, and in its absence, an even angrier ache swelled in my head, a tiredness like lead forming beneath my eyes. Simultaneously, I could leave the evening where it stood and return another time. Surely, William would understand if I had told him the story, but I had a self-destructive tendency to do things that weren’t entirely rational, especially if they came wrapped in a challenge.
    “Just like that. But,” he continued, “if I get the object, you’ll tell me the mechanics behind your illusions in that performance. In my profession, deception is gold, and you might as well be a mine.”
    The man in the corner laughed uproariously, spluttering his drink all over the table. The longer I thought about it, the more intrigued I was to see what Shamus had in mind.
“I must confess,” I told him, “I was given a rather large sum to trade for that object. Hence the small fortune I nearly lost to a child.”
    “To the worms with it. Keep the sum, the reward is in the execution. Where’s the fun if we do this the polite way?”
    “I couldn’t agree more.”
    “Now, what is it?”
    “You see the ring on his forefinger? That’s the Northern King’s signet. If that man had half a mind to do so, he could send off commands to ambassadors, tradesmen, even executioners, and stamp the wax with that seal. Luckily, he doesn’t appear to be the type that enjoys penmanship, much less speaking well. I doubt he understands that he is, at this moment, far more powerful than he ever dreamed he'd be. William has a, erhm, slight concern that one day he might just figure it out.”
    “How did he lose something so godsdamned valuable to a drunk like that?”
    “Shamus, that ‘drunk’ owns this tavern and half the brothels in Portsworth,” I whispered, careful not to look at him anymore than I already was. 
    Dumbfounded, he shook his head and pushed his drink away. “That still doesn’t explain what a highborn was doing in a place like this.”
    “William isn’t all that different from us,” I confessed. “Every now and then he puts on disguises, changes his wardrobe, and goes to lowly places like this to gamble, to drink, to laugh, to pretend like he never was a king to begin with.”
    “That’s oddly … admirable,” Shamus admitted. 
    “And probably one of his worst habits,” I grumbled. “He lost that ring while he was gambling.”
    “Less admirable!”
    “Regardless ... are you still up to the task?”
    “Stealing a king’s signet, making a fool out of some wealthy, drunk bastard, what’s not to love? Forget your secrets, I’ll do this for pleasure. You gave me a performance I could never forget, how about I return the favor?”
    "You know, I think I may at least come to forgive you for letting me get beaten bloody in that alley."
    "Oh, gods no! After tonight, you're going to thank me for it. After all, if I hadn't felt guilty, I wouldn't have bought you the drink."
#fantasy  #horror  #adventure  #chaos  #TCOC 
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Written by Harlequin in portal Poetry & Free Verse

Corvid

From winter's reign she breaks

In soulful flights to escape

A fledgling corvid taking wings

As feather falls so she sings

Until she drifts before the ground

Greets the hollow without sound

And tucks her bones beneath the earth

In resting once more to worth

So up again and flourishing

Leaves pass in seasons matching

'Till nest's next of kin hatches again

And out that heart a corvid begins

One day may pass that I witness

Her subtle passing over grasses

While your eyes glean the sight

Of your bird of black and white

Beyond mere feather does it say

How love's purpose may refrain

And echo as it does with us

Like the corvid's cycle

Harmonious.  

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Written by Harlequin in portal Poetry & Free Verse
Corvid
From winter's reign she breaks
In soulful flights to escape
A fledgling corvid taking wings
As feather falls so she sings

Until she drifts before the ground
Greets the hollow without sound
And tucks her bones beneath the earth
In resting once more to worth

So up again and flourishing
Leaves pass in seasons matching
'Till nest's next of kin hatches again
And out that heart a corvid begins

One day may pass that I witness
Her subtle passing over grasses
While your eyes glean the sight
Of your bird of black and white
Beyond mere feather does it say
How love's purpose may refrain
And echo as it does with us
Like the corvid's cycle
Harmonious.  
#poetry 
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9
Juice
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Chapter 4 of The Culling of Casimir
Written by Harlequin in portal Fantasy

Chapter 4: The Duality of Misfortune

    The Northern King William III showed me the Silver Pool just a year after I became his Fool, long before he’d descended into his mania. As we ambled away from our weekly advisory meeting with the rest of the magisters and court, he’d said, “Gods, I think we finally found an afternoon where both you and I are free of our responsibilities.” 

    Up to our necks in proper garb for the day, complete with layered tunics, ties, half-cloaks and embellished cuffs, the heat was stifling us from the inside out.
 A welcome change from the prolonged winters of the Northern Moonlands. “With all respect, William, it’s only you who ever has conflicting responsibilities,” I’d responded. “Sure, I have some appointments here and there, but I’m not as loyal when it comes to keeping them should something more … exciting turn up.”

    “True. Then again, you don’t have a quarter of the realm expecting your attendance with most of those occasions,” he replied, leading me to one of the reading rooms in the lower parts of the castle. "I can't wipe my ass without someone asking about it." He ran a hand through his hair and shook his head, as if the situation mystified him. 

    I shrugged. “Can’t blame yourself for that, really. You are a good king, William,” I said, shaking off the carelessness of my tone, if just for that statement. “Probably one of the best. Your parents would have been proud to see you handling all this so well, especially at this age, and with Portsworth, of all capitals.”

    “Oh.” He stopped walking. “I—well. Thank you.” He cleared his throat. “I’m sure they would have appreciated you, considering you've kept me sane throughout so much of it.”

    “A little laughter and companionship lessens any burden. It's the least I can do,” I assured him. “Then again, if they were here, it’s likely you never would have bothered with someone like me. The weight of Addoran wouldn’t be yours to carry, either.”

    At the time, the question of his reasoning for recruiting me from my chaotic past and into his court remained nearly untouched, something I respectively kept my distance from until he felt compelled to tell me, if he ever would. Not that I minded.

    “Strange how luck and misfortune seem to arise from each other,” he sighed, then opened the door to the library and ushered us inside. "I rather like how the events following their deaths tumbled. Could be worse," he shrugged.

    Extending outside the library was a terrace that matched my own, both in size and design, only it was eight floors beneath mine. “But I,” he said with an arch of his eyebrow as he checked to make sure no one had followed us, “have some plans for today that don’t involve the scrutiny of our court, nor any misfortune, for that matter.”

    “A library …” I hummed, eyeing the chandelier that hovered at the top of the ceiling, its enchanted globes and glass orbs slowly orbiting around one another, while a ring of upright swords circled the entire contraption. “Are we going to be reading for your day of reprieve?” I’d asked. “A perilous adventure into,” I slipped a leather-bound tome from one of the numerous shelves, “The Sovereign’s Crown: A Philosophical Approach to Governing? Gendric would be proud to see you crack open this monster. You know how riveting these tomes are.”

    He laughed with a glint of mischief in his eyes, one that I was all too familiar having stuck in my own. “Oh no … I think if I pour over another piece of parchment my stomach will churn and I will vomit a novel of some horrendous nature. You have no godsdamned idea how many writs, requests, and pleas I look at.”

    “Only I do,” I jutted in, “being the person that helps you judge their worth half the time.”

   He sighed, pretending to be annoyed by my remark. "It is a part of my daily routine to read things I can hardly organize or solve. So no, dear Casimir, we’ll not be doing any reading today.”

    “Well,” I said with a frown, “you don’t have to crush my dreams so damned hard. What about Lady Elise, where is she? Can’t she join us? I understand that your uncle more or less foisted the marriage upon you, but I actually enjoy her.”

    “Oh, the scholarly gentleman you are,” he praised with a slap on my back before opening the terrace doors and motioning for me to join him outside on the veranda. He stretched his arms and yawned, something that was rather rare. “Lady Elise is preoccupied today, discussing some diplomatic matters with a woman from the West Wrights Shipping Company.” He shook his head like any such thoughts were poison to him in that moment. “But please, let’s not talk about that. Gods! The sky is just glorious today. You see that pool down there, the one in the middle of the basin?”

    “You mean the one that nobody is allowed to swim in, something about Calan’s sacred nature and it being one of the six known Silver Pools in Addoran?”

    “Precisely that one! Oh, you are so perceptive!” he marveled while his fingers unbuttoned his tunic.

    “Naturally, you wish to—”

    “Swim in it. I am the Northern King after all. If anybody tries to stop me, I’ll just have their head!” he joked. At the time, it truly was humorous to imagine him doing such a thing.

    “The Priests of Calan are going to protest your reign if they catch us.” I imagined a whole horde of tan-robed acolytes marching up to the Foxfeather Castle, causing me to laugh more than a little. 
 He scoffed. “And here I thought you were the daring type. Now, I, the stern and relentless ruler, have to instruct my jester to swim in it? This is ridiculous. Don’t make me order you to enjoy yourself, now. It spoils the fun.”

    “You may just have to. It’s a steep height, my lord. Isn’t it dangerous? Is a little dip in the water worth a dive that could split your skull in half?” I looked over the edge of the veranda, passed the razor rocks that made up the basin’s borders, imaging just how much skin they would peel off my chest if I didn’t jump far enough passed them.

    “What happened to you? Did a prude crawl up inside the Casimir I know and replace his sense of frivolity with motherly concern? Don’t you know anything about Silver Pools? Gods, what do you do all day?”

    “Oh, well I feed my crow, walk around the markets, practice juggling, fencing tactics, I read and … all right, what is this? I’m not on trial here. But, aren’t these pools … eh … powerful? Some hogwash about purifying water used for healing spells? I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a touch concerned about the gods smiting someone like me for stepping into something so holy. There’s a reason why I keep my daily activities private.”

    William waved that away, rushed to the library’s doors and locked them before stripping down to this undergarments. “Undoubtedly, there is some magickal properties to them. But we’re not here for that. They are,” he explained as he pried off his socks, “not entirely what you would call ‘water’, or at least that is what Magister Katrin tells me. She says they gain their silver aura because of geysers that constantly release a substance into them, and simultaneously pump the water with so much air that it becomes less dense.”

I clapped my hands behind my back and said nothing, waiting for him to explain why this made any sense.

    “Meaning,” he continued impatiently, “you can jump from the heavens into them, and your body won’t slap like a fish against the surface. More importantly, it’s pleasantly warm as a result. Just dodge the rocks!”

    Despite what he said, my stomach tensed at the thought of jumping from such a height. I despise heights. Yet, I found myself undressing, cursing myself as I did. “If I die today, from god or rock or drowning or otherwise, I hope you carve on my tombstone, ‘murdered by his king’s dimwitted idea of fun’. Also, why do I get the feeling that Magister Katrine came upon these findings through the study of books and not personal testing?” I asked him dryly, placing my jester hat on one of the finials of the handrails.

    “Oh, probably because you are exactly right. Consider your tombstone arranged. I will admire it from my view of the gardens. Alas! I am a free man for this afternoon, and my reign shall not be questioned!” he mock bellowed. “Right then. Up and over!” And before I could pull the damned madman back, he sprinted from the back of the library, pivoted off the handrails and launched himself off, screaming with the most pure and godly joy I’d ever seen.

    He dove through the bubbling water like a spear, disappearing beneath its surface for quite some time before reappearing, screaming all the same, just without as much breath.

    “You are more mad than I am!” I shouted at him. “How is it? Did you feel a goddess smite you, yet?”

    “And much braver, more handsome, and talented too! Calan doesn’t give two shits! You’re not going to make me get prosecuted for this alone, will you?”

    “You know I would never miss an opportunity to be at the center of attention!” I hollered back.

    “Less talk and more action, Casimir! Are you a performer or not? I hear elves can’t swim for their lives. You’re not going to let the rumor stand, will you?”

    The last question is what did it. I walked to the back of the library, sprinted, and just as he did, pivoted my weight off the guardrails, shouting partly from thrill, but mostly from terror, as I plunged into the air and tucked my legs into my arms. He dove into the water almost flawlessly, but I aimed to make a splash of cataclysmic proportions.

                                                                ~ ~

    There are moments in ours lives when destiny is a star glimmering far above the horizon, a drudging journey towards a nearly imperceivable, and perhaps pointless, destination. Then there are those rare, blissful instances, when we’re grasping it like a gift dropped from the gods in our lap. Whether it came from hard toil or sheer luck, or a bit of both, our path is clear, our next step sure. Other times, you chase after it like a demon who just clawed out of the earth, mad and invigorated, unperturbed, indomitable. Should something get in your way, gods have mercy upon it.

    My body fell through the air towards that glimmer of silver water at the basin of the cliffs, all the death threats and shouts drowned out by the rush of cold air now drumming over my ears. Balls of fire from an angry mage chased me in my descent, whipped passed my head before fizzling out, only adding to my spasms of laughter.

    A cry of exultation and thrill streamed from my body as I somersaulted in my flight, memory and present merging while the night’s sharp winds whirled about my body. And as I flew through the air, I prayed to all the gods that the fall would be just as harmless from my chamber as it was from that library, eight floors down, five years ago.

    As William and I discovered that summer day, within the Silver Pool, there is a cove that leads into an intricate system of carved tunnels and paths, one beneath Portsworth that opens up at a cave far beyond the city limits. Filled with stone imps and the occasional rat, the tunnels are all but unknown. A good escape route as any, I reckoned.

At this height, anyone who saw me would be forced to assume I drowned, or simply died, upon hitting the surface. Luckily for me, the Silver Pool had an incredible depth, and one that William and I surmised was all but bottomless; it was more than enough distance for my body to dive through. The substance in the pool was indeed far lighter than water, and made swimming in it extremely easy, more like floating in air. Surely, it wouldn't harm me now.

    Or, at least, I assured myself of those facts frantically as I neared it in my descent. Halfway down, my trajectory seemed to point me towards the center of the pool. I braced myself for the impact into the shimmering water.

    Then, my thrilled hollering was replaced by screams of pain.

    Something halted my descent just as I was about to break the surface of the water. It felt as if my spine nearly snapped as claws dug into my back. The unknown creature struggled against the inertia of my fall before lifting me back up and carrying me away.

    “Kuilmore fek!” I roared at my airborne captor. “Let go! Damnit! What in the gods’ …”

    Massive, scarred and weather-beaten wings flapped above me me. Large, milky-white eyes briefly glanced at me as it carried me away from the Silver Pool. It was a gargoyle bat, characterized by its grey hid, four legs, and terrifying size. I pounded its furry torso with my fist, bewildered. The creature didn’t seem to care in the slightest. Its head was twice the size of mine, while its body seemed just larger than my torso. Each of its wings was the length of your average desk, if not longer.

    I drew one of my daggers and nearly stabbed it, before looking down and thinking better. The city streets glowed in with torchlight and swirling fog far beneath me, with only weathered rooftops and cobblestone to break my fall. A few citizens enjoying the night looked up and rushed to get the attention of others to see the spectacle, hooting and shouting up at me.

    Briefly, I considered dying just to spite the creature for ruining my nearly-perfect escape. Then again, I couldn’t immediately decide what was more notable, disappearing into a pool of water or being carried away by a monstrous bat. It was the sheer unexpectedness of it that annoyed me senseless.

    Glancing back at my shrinking terrace, I saw my pursuers pointing and shouting at me. At least it would make for quite the story, I thought bitterly, before realizing that the situation made no godsdamned sense. Gargoyle bats don’t eat people, so hunting and swooping them up while they are enjoying themselves was simply unthinkable, especially this close to the city. And yet, here I was in one's claws, admiring the bony anatomy of its wings as it carried me away from Portsworth.

    Its pointed, furry ears flapped as the wind rushed through them, the creature making no signs of considering this out of the ordinary. 

    “Of all the things that could have happened …”

    As the city fell away beneath our arc through the clouds, I watched our moonlit shadows swim over the Sea of Blood’s scarlet leaves. Behind us, the angry caws of Felix chased us in our flight, though his protest did precious little to amend the situation.

    “Felix, Felix! I’m fine!” I assured him. The bat shifted its claws to get a better grip on my waist, piercing my skin with another set of marks. I winced. “I need you to send something for me!” I shouted over the whistling air, thinking quickly.

    “Get close to me, Felix!” I called to him as he struggled to keep up with the bat.

    When Felix was in reach, I fumbled with the feather ring on my thumb, trying to drop it into his messenger pouch as he flew beside us. At the same time, the bird couldn’t simply stop flying, let alone slow down, to give me time to do so. At last, I snatched him from the air and placed the ring in the tiny pouch attached to its leg. “Forgive me for being so rough. I know, I know, this is strange. Get this to Magister Fahim’s chamber,” I instructed, three times over.

    The terrified crow was cawing, now seeing the face of the gargoyle bat, whose eyes seemed fixated and trancelike, unlike a normal animal’s, as it continued towards its destination.

    I let Felix go, who, after regaining his balance in the air, watched us briefly before flapping back to the Foxfeather Castle.

    “Wait, Felix!” I shouted, but it was too late. “Don’t forget to find me! Somehow!”

    I cursed at my mistake. I should have let him follow me, first. A touch of loneliness creeped up into my chest, watching his tiny silhouette fade into the clouds. 

    By then, the Sea of Blood was far behind us, with Portsworth’s expanse turning into a wood and stone oval spread across the mountainous terrain cut by the sea. Four points of light: the east, west, north and south squares, illuminated surrounding structures with the symbols of the four gods of fortune. The bat veered eastwards, alongside the mountains that loomed over the forest, where early snows had already settled at the basins. My hands had gone numb, my mind was reeling, and my stomach, twisting, at the thought of whatever would meet me after this bat stopped flying.

    I had that terrible feeling that it was nothing with the best intentions.

    I squirmed until I could get the whetstone from my satchel. To pass the time for the uncomfortable journey, I sharpened my daggers. What else was there to do?

    “Small chance you are one of those infernal beasts that can talk?” I asked the bat.

    Again, its eyes only glanced at me before returning to stare at the terrain as it slid beneath us.

    “No, I thought not,” I sighed. "You don't talk to your prey, do you? That wouldn't be good table manners."

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Chapter 4 of The Culling of Casimir
Written by Harlequin in portal Fantasy
Chapter 4: The Duality of Misfortune
    The Northern King William III showed me the Silver Pool just a year after I became his Fool, long before he’d descended into his mania. As we ambled away from our weekly advisory meeting with the rest of the magisters and court, he’d said, “Gods, I think we finally found an afternoon where both you and I are free of our responsibilities.” 
    Up to our necks in proper garb for the day, complete with layered tunics, ties, half-cloaks and embellished cuffs, the heat was stifling us from the inside out.
 A welcome change from the prolonged winters of the Northern Moonlands. “With all respect, William, it’s only you who ever has conflicting responsibilities,” I’d responded. “Sure, I have some appointments here and there, but I’m not as loyal when it comes to keeping them should something more … exciting turn up.”
    “True. Then again, you don’t have a quarter of the realm expecting your attendance with most of those occasions,” he replied, leading me to one of the reading rooms in the lower parts of the castle. "I can't wipe my ass without someone asking about it." He ran a hand through his hair and shook his head, as if the situation mystified him. 
    I shrugged. “Can’t blame yourself for that, really. You are a good king, William,” I said, shaking off the carelessness of my tone, if just for that statement. “Probably one of the best. Your parents would have been proud to see you handling all this so well, especially at this age, and with Portsworth, of all capitals.”
    “Oh.” He stopped walking. “I—well. Thank you.” He cleared his throat. “I’m sure they would have appreciated you, considering you've kept me sane throughout so much of it.”
    “A little laughter and companionship lessens any burden. It's the least I can do,” I assured him. “Then again, if they were here, it’s likely you never would have bothered with someone like me. The weight of Addoran wouldn’t be yours to carry, either.”
    At the time, the question of his reasoning for recruiting me from my chaotic past and into his court remained nearly untouched, something I respectively kept my distance from until he felt compelled to tell me, if he ever would. Not that I minded.
    “Strange how luck and misfortune seem to arise from each other,” he sighed, then opened the door to the library and ushered us inside. "I rather like how the events following their deaths tumbled. Could be worse," he shrugged.
    Extending outside the library was a terrace that matched my own, both in size and design, only it was eight floors beneath mine. “But I,” he said with an arch of his eyebrow as he checked to make sure no one had followed us, “have some plans for today that don’t involve the scrutiny of our court, nor any misfortune, for that matter.”
    “A library …” I hummed, eyeing the chandelier that hovered at the top of the ceiling, its enchanted globes and glass orbs slowly orbiting around one another, while a ring of upright swords circled the entire contraption. “Are we going to be reading for your day of reprieve?” I’d asked. “A perilous adventure into,” I slipped a leather-bound tome from one of the numerous shelves, “The Sovereign’s Crown: A Philosophical Approach to Governing? Gendric would be proud to see you crack open this monster. You know how riveting these tomes are.”
    He laughed with a glint of mischief in his eyes, one that I was all too familiar having stuck in my own. “Oh no … I think if I pour over another piece of parchment my stomach will churn and I will vomit a novel of some horrendous nature. You have no godsdamned idea how many writs, requests, and pleas I look at.”
    “Only I do,” I jutted in, “being the person that helps you judge their worth half the time.”
   He sighed, pretending to be annoyed by my remark. "It is a part of my daily routine to read things I can hardly organize or solve. So no, dear Casimir, we’ll not be doing any reading today.”
    “Well,” I said with a frown, “you don’t have to crush my dreams so damned hard. What about Lady Elise, where is she? Can’t she join us? I understand that your uncle more or less foisted the marriage upon you, but I actually enjoy her.”
    “Oh, the scholarly gentleman you are,” he praised with a slap on my back before opening the terrace doors and motioning for me to join him outside on the veranda. He stretched his arms and yawned, something that was rather rare. “Lady Elise is preoccupied today, discussing some diplomatic matters with a woman from the West Wrights Shipping Company.” He shook his head like any such thoughts were poison to him in that moment. “But please, let’s not talk about that. Gods! The sky is just glorious today. You see that pool down there, the one in the middle of the basin?”
    “You mean the one that nobody is allowed to swim in, something about Calan’s sacred nature and it being one of the six known Silver Pools in Addoran?”
    “Precisely that one! Oh, you are so perceptive!” he marveled while his fingers unbuttoned his tunic.
    “Naturally, you wish to—”
    “Swim in it. I am the Northern King after all. If anybody tries to stop me, I’ll just have their head!” he joked. At the time, it truly was humorous to imagine him doing such a thing.
    “The Priests of Calan are going to protest your reign if they catch us.” I imagined a whole horde of tan-robed acolytes marching up to the Foxfeather Castle, causing me to laugh more than a little. 
 He scoffed. “And here I thought you were the daring type. Now, I, the stern and relentless ruler, have to instruct my jester to swim in it? This is ridiculous. Don’t make me order you to enjoy yourself, now. It spoils the fun.”
    “You may just have to. It’s a steep height, my lord. Isn’t it dangerous? Is a little dip in the water worth a dive that could split your skull in half?” I looked over the edge of the veranda, passed the razor rocks that made up the basin’s borders, imaging just how much skin they would peel off my chest if I didn’t jump far enough passed them.
    “What happened to you? Did a prude crawl up inside the Casimir I know and replace his sense of frivolity with motherly concern? Don’t you know anything about Silver Pools? Gods, what do you do all day?”
    “Oh, well I feed my crow, walk around the markets, practice juggling, fencing tactics, I read and … all right, what is this? I’m not on trial here. But, aren’t these pools … eh … powerful? Some hogwash about purifying water used for healing spells? I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a touch concerned about the gods smiting someone like me for stepping into something so holy. There’s a reason why I keep my daily activities private.”
    William waved that away, rushed to the library’s doors and locked them before stripping down to this undergarments. “Undoubtedly, there is some magickal properties to them. But we’re not here for that. They are,” he explained as he pried off his socks, “not entirely what you would call ‘water’, or at least that is what Magister Katrin tells me. She says they gain their silver aura because of geysers that constantly release a substance into them, and simultaneously pump the water with so much air that it becomes less dense.”
I clapped my hands behind my back and said nothing, waiting for him to explain why this made any sense.
    “Meaning,” he continued impatiently, “you can jump from the heavens into them, and your body won’t slap like a fish against the surface. More importantly, it’s pleasantly warm as a result. Just dodge the rocks!”
    Despite what he said, my stomach tensed at the thought of jumping from such a height. I despise heights. Yet, I found myself undressing, cursing myself as I did. “If I die today, from god or rock or drowning or otherwise, I hope you carve on my tombstone, ‘murdered by his king’s dimwitted idea of fun’. Also, why do I get the feeling that Magister Katrine came upon these findings through the study of books and not personal testing?” I asked him dryly, placing my jester hat on one of the finials of the handrails.
    “Oh, probably because you are exactly right. Consider your tombstone arranged. I will admire it from my view of the gardens. Alas! I am a free man for this afternoon, and my reign shall not be questioned!” he mock bellowed. “Right then. Up and over!” And before I could pull the damned madman back, he sprinted from the back of the library, pivoted off the handrails and launched himself off, screaming with the most pure and godly joy I’d ever seen.
    He dove through the bubbling water like a spear, disappearing beneath its surface for quite some time before reappearing, screaming all the same, just without as much breath.
    “You are more mad than I am!” I shouted at him. “How is it? Did you feel a goddess smite you, yet?”
    “And much braver, more handsome, and talented too! Calan doesn’t give two shits! You’re not going to make me get prosecuted for this alone, will you?”
    “You know I would never miss an opportunity to be at the center of attention!” I hollered back.
    “Less talk and more action, Casimir! Are you a performer or not? I hear elves can’t swim for their lives. You’re not going to let the rumor stand, will you?”
    The last question is what did it. I walked to the back of the library, sprinted, and just as he did, pivoted my weight off the guardrails, shouting partly from thrill, but mostly from terror, as I plunged into the air and tucked my legs into my arms. He dove into the water almost flawlessly, but I aimed to make a splash of cataclysmic proportions.

                                                                ~ ~

    There are moments in ours lives when destiny is a star glimmering far above the horizon, a drudging journey towards a nearly imperceivable, and perhaps pointless, destination. Then there are those rare, blissful instances, when we’re grasping it like a gift dropped from the gods in our lap. Whether it came from hard toil or sheer luck, or a bit of both, our path is clear, our next step sure. Other times, you chase after it like a demon who just clawed out of the earth, mad and invigorated, unperturbed, indomitable. Should something get in your way, gods have mercy upon it.
    My body fell through the air towards that glimmer of silver water at the basin of the cliffs, all the death threats and shouts drowned out by the rush of cold air now drumming over my ears. Balls of fire from an angry mage chased me in my descent, whipped passed my head before fizzling out, only adding to my spasms of laughter.
    A cry of exultation and thrill streamed from my body as I somersaulted in my flight, memory and present merging while the night’s sharp winds whirled about my body. And as I flew through the air, I prayed to all the gods that the fall would be just as harmless from my chamber as it was from that library, eight floors down, five years ago.
    As William and I discovered that summer day, within the Silver Pool, there is a cove that leads into an intricate system of carved tunnels and paths, one beneath Portsworth that opens up at a cave far beyond the city limits. Filled with stone imps and the occasional rat, the tunnels are all but unknown. A good escape route as any, I reckoned.
At this height, anyone who saw me would be forced to assume I drowned, or simply died, upon hitting the surface. Luckily for me, the Silver Pool had an incredible depth, and one that William and I surmised was all but bottomless; it was more than enough distance for my body to dive through. The substance in the pool was indeed far lighter than water, and made swimming in it extremely easy, more like floating in air. Surely, it wouldn't harm me now.
    Or, at least, I assured myself of those facts frantically as I neared it in my descent. Halfway down, my trajectory seemed to point me towards the center of the pool. I braced myself for the impact into the shimmering water.
    Then, my thrilled hollering was replaced by screams of pain.
    Something halted my descent just as I was about to break the surface of the water. It felt as if my spine nearly snapped as claws dug into my back. The unknown creature struggled against the inertia of my fall before lifting me back up and carrying me away.
    “Kuilmore fek!” I roared at my airborne captor. “Let go! Damnit! What in the gods’ …”
    Massive, scarred and weather-beaten wings flapped above me me. Large, milky-white eyes briefly glanced at me as it carried me away from the Silver Pool. It was a gargoyle bat, characterized by its grey hid, four legs, and terrifying size. I pounded its furry torso with my fist, bewildered. The creature didn’t seem to care in the slightest. Its head was twice the size of mine, while its body seemed just larger than my torso. Each of its wings was the length of your average desk, if not longer.
    I drew one of my daggers and nearly stabbed it, before looking down and thinking better. The city streets glowed in with torchlight and swirling fog far beneath me, with only weathered rooftops and cobblestone to break my fall. A few citizens enjoying the night looked up and rushed to get the attention of others to see the spectacle, hooting and shouting up at me.
    Briefly, I considered dying just to spite the creature for ruining my nearly-perfect escape. Then again, I couldn’t immediately decide what was more notable, disappearing into a pool of water or being carried away by a monstrous bat. It was the sheer unexpectedness of it that annoyed me senseless.
    Glancing back at my shrinking terrace, I saw my pursuers pointing and shouting at me. At least it would make for quite the story, I thought bitterly, before realizing that the situation made no godsdamned sense. Gargoyle bats don’t eat people, so hunting and swooping them up while they are enjoying themselves was simply unthinkable, especially this close to the city. And yet, here I was in one's claws, admiring the bony anatomy of its wings as it carried me away from Portsworth.
    Its pointed, furry ears flapped as the wind rushed through them, the creature making no signs of considering this out of the ordinary. 
    “Of all the things that could have happened …”
    As the city fell away beneath our arc through the clouds, I watched our moonlit shadows swim over the Sea of Blood’s scarlet leaves. Behind us, the angry caws of Felix chased us in our flight, though his protest did precious little to amend the situation.
    “Felix, Felix! I’m fine!” I assured him. The bat shifted its claws to get a better grip on my waist, piercing my skin with another set of marks. I winced. “I need you to send something for me!” I shouted over the whistling air, thinking quickly.
    “Get close to me, Felix!” I called to him as he struggled to keep up with the bat.
    When Felix was in reach, I fumbled with the feather ring on my thumb, trying to drop it into his messenger pouch as he flew beside us. At the same time, the bird couldn’t simply stop flying, let alone slow down, to give me time to do so. At last, I snatched him from the air and placed the ring in the tiny pouch attached to its leg. “Forgive me for being so rough. I know, I know, this is strange. Get this to Magister Fahim’s chamber,” I instructed, three times over.
    The terrified crow was cawing, now seeing the face of the gargoyle bat, whose eyes seemed fixated and trancelike, unlike a normal animal’s, as it continued towards its destination.
    I let Felix go, who, after regaining his balance in the air, watched us briefly before flapping back to the Foxfeather Castle.
    “Wait, Felix!” I shouted, but it was too late. “Don’t forget to find me! Somehow!”
    I cursed at my mistake. I should have let him follow me, first. A touch of loneliness creeped up into my chest, watching his tiny silhouette fade into the clouds. 
    By then, the Sea of Blood was far behind us, with Portsworth’s expanse turning into a wood and stone oval spread across the mountainous terrain cut by the sea. Four points of light: the east, west, north and south squares, illuminated surrounding structures with the symbols of the four gods of fortune. The bat veered eastwards, alongside the mountains that loomed over the forest, where early snows had already settled at the basins. My hands had gone numb, my mind was reeling, and my stomach, twisting, at the thought of whatever would meet me after this bat stopped flying.
    I had that terrible feeling that it was nothing with the best intentions.
    I squirmed until I could get the whetstone from my satchel. To pass the time for the uncomfortable journey, I sharpened my daggers. What else was there to do?
    “Small chance you are one of those infernal beasts that can talk?” I asked the bat.
    Again, its eyes only glanced at me before returning to stare at the terrain as it slid beneath us.
    “No, I thought not,” I sighed. "You don't talk to your prey, do you? That wouldn't be good table manners."
#fantasy  #fiction  #books  #TCOC 
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Written by Harlequin in portal Poetry & Free Verse

The Artist's Pennant

                                                                    I 

                                                               do seek.

                                                           What eddies 

                                                      whirl until they pale

                                                 beneath, pushing purpose

                                         to flowing beyond me continuously

                                       losing myself to that maelstrom whose

                                          swirling, turning, circling breathes

                                                endless as it pulls me deeper

                                                   a storm now evermore

                                                         brewing within

                                                            this mortal

                                                                core.

                                                                  I

                                                            do fight.

                                                    A recurring battle

                                            reincarnated at each dawn

                                       carnal as the blood which spawns

                                     words without meaning to life again

                                  to death as the cycle begins another turn

                                     hands ticking seconds to the infinite

                                        surrender, I might, one day if my

                                            breath should indeed cease

                                                 but my feet march to

                                                    an endless beat to

                                                      the final hours 

                                                          I do not

                                                            await.

                                                               I

                                                          am one.

                                                 Amongst the fallen

                                              on the precipice, I am

                                       that banner which stands listless

                                   tattered, marking corpses overrun by

                                   armies whose hands murdered all my

                                          ardent desires and fulcrums I

                                            lost, to be found yet again

                                               as the dust settles in

                                                    to that silent

                                                      ever dying

                                                           din.

                                                            I

                                                      have lost.

                                                 Yet still I kneel

                                            to that ruling hunger

                                    synonymous to my nature both

                                  destructive and creative at its apex

                                which commands my hands yet again

                                    returning, I must then relinquish

                                         fear once more as the sun

                                            spawns dawn, so now

                                               yet another battle

                                                 calls me again,

                                                     and again

                                                       I shall

                                                       begin.

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Written by Harlequin in portal Poetry & Free Verse
The Artist's Pennant
                                                                    I 
                                                               do seek.
                                                           What eddies 
                                                      whirl until they pale
                                                 beneath, pushing purpose
                                         to flowing beyond me continuously
                                       losing myself to that maelstrom whose
                                          swirling, turning, circling breathes
                                                endless as it pulls me deeper
                                                   a storm now evermore
                                                         brewing within
                                                            this mortal
                                                                core.

                                                                  I
                                                            do fight.
                                                    A recurring battle
                                            reincarnated at each dawn
                                       carnal as the blood which spawns
                                     words without meaning to life again
                                  to death as the cycle begins another turn
                                     hands ticking seconds to the infinite
                                        surrender, I might, one day if my
                                            breath should indeed cease
                                                 but my feet march to
                                                    an endless beat to
                                                      the final hours 
                                                          I do not
                                                            await.


                                                               I
                                                          am one.
                                                 Amongst the fallen
                                              on the precipice, I am
                                       that banner which stands listless
                                   tattered, marking corpses overrun by
                                   armies whose hands murdered all my
                                          ardent desires and fulcrums I
                                            lost, to be found yet again
                                               as the dust settles in
                                                    to that silent
                                                      ever dying
                                                           din.

                                                            I
                                                      have lost.
                                                 Yet still I kneel
                                            to that ruling hunger
                                    synonymous to my nature both
                                  destructive and creative at its apex
                                which commands my hands yet again
                                    returning, I must then relinquish
                                         fear once more as the sun
                                            spawns dawn, so now
                                               yet another battle
                                                 calls me again,
                                                     and again
                                                       I shall
                                                       begin.
#poetry  #philosophy 
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Chapter 3 of The Culling of Casimir
Written by Harlequin in portal Fantasy

Chapter 3: The Cascading Tower

    Too many things had happened in the past few hours for me to believe they were anything more than the unfolding events of a nightmare. Fallen kings, slaughtered noblemen, tattered raiment, furniture thrown hastily behind me, the constant shouts for my head, the servants whom previously admired me, now shrieking away as I darted through the narrow corridors of the castle. I struggled to fathom just how quickly a collected life could turn into the blossom of a blooming, flourishing chaos. Not that I had to think hard about it. The blood splashes yearning to seep into the fabric of my clothes was telling enough.

    “I hear him, this way!” someone’s shouts bounced around me in the stone walls.

    I crushed another vial’s contents beneath my boot, holding my breath as the chemicals interacted with the air, and gas filled the hallway. I fled as my pursuers began retching again. “Back, back! Find another route!” someone said while others ignored the warning, held their breaths and chased me through the gas.

    I waited for one of their silhouettes to rush through the smoke, greeting their body with my dagger’s point. Briefly, I watched the stranger’s surprised expression before I pushed him stumbling backwards, to be swallowed by horrified cries and smoke once more. But you cannot scream without breathing. Those who reacted to the body inhaled the smoke, and their convulsions began.

    “M-m-madman!” someone choked.

    “Killer!”

    I ignored the shrill voices and rushed towards door ahead of me. To my left and right, a corridor swarmed with pursuers who all seemed to find me simultaneously. I opened the door and threw down the wooden bar as soon as I was on the other side, only to find three armored guards who had anticipated my movement, waiting inside with their blades drawn.

    My parrying dagger slid eagerly from its sheath, happy to be reunited beside its already drawn companion. The smooth, ivory handle that matched the other’s was comfortably cold in my palm. I breathed deeply, preparing myself.

Before tonight, I never considered the act of killing beyond a thought of intrigue. But here, dancing around the odds of my own death, morality became an increasingly distant consideration as murder became not only inevitable, but demanded, an ignorable opportunity for impassioned expression in a rare, quintessential art.

    I flourished my daggers until my grips were relaxed yet firm, melding flesh to steel.

    “Come on then, traitor!”

                                                              ~   ~

    Zakora, the woman who I owed my expertise in fighting to, was never one for tender instruction. Punching, slapping, and ridiculing was her preferred method for drilling technique into me. But, when it came to describing the more abstract details of fighting, she had a propensity for becoming intensely romantic. This always seemed to inspire in me a brief and overwhelming affection for her.

    After one of our sparring sessions, as Zakora helped me unstring some of the stitchings on the back of my leather armor, she asked me, “What makes a good swordsman, Casimir?”

    “This is one of those instances where you pretend to want my answer, but if we’re both being honest, you just want to—Agh!”

    “I’ll let go of your arm once you stop being so childish. Now, answer the question,” she’d insisted as she pulled my wrist up to my shoulders.

    “Childish, now which one of us is truly being childish?” I grumbled, only to earn another tug that pulled my shoulder that much closer to popping from its socket. “Fine, fine! I suppose a good swordsman is someone who is agile, cunning, practiced, and ah, swift as the wind and so forth, yes? You’ll let go of me now, won’t you?”

    “You are right, but not quite,” she said as she relinquished my arm and turned me around, now placing her hands on my shoulders. Her lips were a finger’s distance from mine, but I didn’t shy away. “When you are fighting, you must not be a swordsman, Casimir. Swordsmen die. We are born masters at dying, but living—ah, quite the opposite—that is the art of forgetting how to. When you are fighting, you must not even be Casimir. Forget yourself, your name, your body. Instead, be the steel of your daggers, the force that pushes them in, the strength of their metal. Be their instrument so that, through you, their song may be given a voice.” Her accent forced out stunted sentences between frequent pauses, between which, it seemed my ears perked to catch every syllable, to fill in her imagination where her words could not. And I realized, in that moment, that her passion, if taught through enough pupils, could destroy armies.

    “What songs do my daggers sing, Zakora?” I asked, seeking answers that words would not afford in the darkness rimmed by her ashen eyes.

    “That is for the instrument to discover on his own, for every blade is different, and every opponent is a unique score, their flesh a blank page.” As she said that, a chilled breeze breathed through my body, and I wondered just how much farther I would have to lean to kiss her. As I’d done before, I weighed the reward against the cost of her fist slamming into my cheek. The conclusion always seemed to be the same, but I had dreams of one day being foolish enough to think it was worth it.

    “You know, Casimir,” she said with almost a detectable touch of sadness, “My time left in Addoran is nearing its end. It has been nearly five years since our first sparring session.” She laughed and shook her head, doubtless, recollecting how I acted then. “After I return to Zorran, will your daggers sing melodies that folks talk about all over the realm? Performances that reach beyond the seas?”

    Could it be as I suspected? Was our mutual fascination with weaponry and fighting styles compelled by a darker fixation, an artist’s compulsion to force life out of its shell? Was death not the focal inspiration for so much of life’s meaning, with gods or not, with love or not? Was it not the most gratifying release, to force it to envelope opponents who offered the challenge?

    I watched her closely as she anticipated my answer. Her eyelids fluttered like a moth’s resting wings, just once, as they went from her sword and back to my gaze, seeking that same affirmation she had just offered me in the subtlety of her questions. A hopeless yearning of recognition for an unacceptable passion.

    “Perhaps, Zakora, if they are presented with scores worthy of playing, if I can be masterful enough to give them a voice to their music.”

                                                                   ~  ~

    As an entertainer, I search for that sacred place where intuition and imagination meet, where the body ceases struggling and becomes a conduit for an unperturbed mind. So few times have I reached that state, where nothing matters besides the task at hand, and art becomes a seamless, continuous rhythm, of stillness interrupted by bursts of expression. And here, in ecstatic mayhem, amidst the screams and struggling, I had found it. The castle had become my stage, the men seeking vengeance for the King, the scores to my daggers’ melodies, and I, their instrument. They struck their notes with scarlet, swelled the air in rapturous music, biding for another gruesome crescendo.

    Three guards took turns grunting and screaming as I darted between their attacks, discovering the vulnerabilities in their armor in the most painful ways possible. A small opening on the wrist, an unsheltered calf, a sliver of the neck. For all the armor keeping them heavy on their feet, I wondered if they felt caged beneath it as I found the open spaces between them.

    The number of fists banging on the barred door lessened after some of the pursuers got to thinking about other corridors in the castle, and just which ones would lead to me. The Foxfeather Castle mapped within my mind, I reckoned my time with the guardsmen had to near its end, and quickly, before mine would be met.

Beneath my feet, a macabre river flowed out of the first guard I’d slew, his hand twitching towards the sword I’d disarmed from him before his throat revealed itself to me.

    At one end of the chamber, I stared down the two remaining guards at the other end, their bodies already contributing crimson paths that led to the large puddle between us, paths I had opened when they attempted to defend the one who now lay in silence. The one on the right meant to shift his weight, but stumbled to his knee instead. His leg gave from the pain of a gash opened from the bottom of his calf to the back of his knee.

  “W-wait!” the kneeling guard begged. He tossed his sword aside and raised his hands up. “I never wanted this, Casimir. You know how the others are,” he whimpered. “I’d look like a coward if—”

    “Is that you, Hamor, behind that ridiculous helm?” I shot back, surprised to find myself speaking at all. “You never treated me well, anyways. You showed me no mercy when your numbers favored you.”

    “Please …”

    The one of his left, however, was poised and ready to match my steel. Meanwhile, footsteps thundered through the castle, louder than the heartbeat that thudded in my ears.

    “Time is not my ally, Hamor, and so long as you’re taking mine, neither are you,” I growled as I kicked Hamor onto his back before tearing into the other, whose silence entreated my attention.

    The remaining guard’s movements were deft despite his armor, parrying my attacks quick enough, responding with broad, sweeping strikes that made me duck and retreat. Still struggling to get back up, Hamor continued to whine like a limping dog.

    In a sudden rush of excitement having seen the opportunity, I caught the guard’s longsword between the blade of my parrying dagger and hilt, applying torque to keep his weapon trapped there. With his sword pointed far to the right of me, I closed the gap between us, close enough for my second dagger to find his side while his free fist slammed into my head. The blow burst sparks of darkness as he hit me again, and again, before I twisted, then wrenched my blade out of his side and leapt backwards.

    Amidst the calamity of bloodshed, chaos rose in my veins, and sighed at this release. I realized then that ecstazia was no fighting style. It was a state of mind, a philosophy, an art of being wholly present yet detached enough to relinquish fear. Death beckoned a performance befitting its absence from my close future, and perform I would, grateful for its pernicious presence that inspired so much beauty.

    Gouts of blood sprayed out of the man’s side, decorating the walls and floor around him.

    “I believe that trade,” I chuckled, “was not in your favor.”

    Enraged by his fatal mistake, he charged at me, raising the longsword above his head and roaring. Light continued to flash through the throbbing vision of my eye. I managed, using the majority of my weight, to send the arc of his blade to the ground with a parry from one dagger, before seeking his neck with the other, sinking in just as he attempted to grab mine, meekly, before the shock overwhelmed him.

    I freed my blade, spattering the wall in red torrents. With lurching legs he staggered back and forth, gurgling as he did, before collapsing to the floor.

    “As for you,” I said, turning to address Hamor. But he had stopped moving after the wound in his leg had, finally, relinquished enough. At the thought of brief interactions we’d had in the past, a twinge of pity rose in me, before I remembered how, just moments before, he’d tried to spit on me.

    The air now saturated in iron, I left the chamber, listening to my daggers’ dimming melodies as they settled into the breathless corpses.

Striding through a narrow hall, I reached an intersection of corridors. Down one of them, I could see shadows nearing the connecting point of the hallway. I reached for another one of the vials in my pouch and threw it to the far end of the corridor, where plumes of emerald smoke gushed from its now activated components.

    I left the shouts and scampering feet behind me and listened to them trail off towards the direction of the smoke. The corridor led me to a small set of stairs before a massive, duskwood door, one that led to the Cascading Tower. Once inside, I sighed in relief and wiped the blood on my blades against my trousers before sheathing them. The tower was empty.

    The architects of Foxfeather Castle had a taste for the dramatic. A stretching spire with thickened, glass walls at the apex, the Cascading Tower was built in the center of the keep, like a stone heart surrounded by a body. At this time of night, the moonlight leaked through the glass and shimmered against the walls in resplendent waves of water-like reflection.

    Inside, twelve staircases crisscrossed to opposite sides of the tower. Beneath them, a gaping pit yawned with darkness. Dozens of hovering, silverglass orbs encasing faerie light, illuminated the tower with pulsating shades of silver as they ascended from the bottom to the top in enchanted, repeating trajectories.

    Each staircase arches between two opposite faces of the tower. Behind their doors, they lead to other parts of the east or western keep, where ascending stairs could be found within to get to higher tiers at a much faster rate. The tower’s individual staircases, themselves, didn’t do more than ascend one tier each. And for some damned reason, the architects hadn’t fashioned guardrails to the staircases.

    Since my first months in the castle, I had grown accustom to running on the staircases, despite the fact that a misstep would lead to certain death.

    I sprinted up a set of arching steps, listening to the echoing of feet somewhere off in the keep, before meeting the opposite door facing me. Entering into another chamber was folly, I realized, as my hand stopped at the handle. Inside, although I would find stairs that would ascend all the way to my chamber at the highest floor, I would find countless more bodies determined to stop me. A gamble I wasn’t willing to take, considering I’d already survived too many unfavorable odds tonight, I had an inkling that the gods of fortune were a little more than irritated that I had dodged death thus far.

I turned around and stared at the door I’d just come from. More folly.

    Even still, it was unlikely anyone assumed I had come here in my escape. I had a moment to breathe. Bespattered with blood, down to the creases in my hands, I returned to the center of the staircase and sat down. Beneath me, the seemingly infinite, black throat of the pit stared back. My lack of options seemed to shackle me there.

The silverglass orbs slowly ascended and descended around me, cycling through their paths up the spire. I admired how their silver tinge shifted like wisps of smoke continually going in and out of volume. I reached out and touched one as it passed by me, surprised to find how heavy it was, and imagining how I might die that night, considering it was the most likely possibility now.

    Then, I stood up laughing, feet tingling, as I readied myself for the next orb ascending from the depths of the pit.

    I clasped my hands together, rubbed them, and jumped for one of the hovering spheres of faerie light, dumbfounded that I had never done this, before, in my spare time. The warm, smooth surface of the silverglass briefly bobbed beneath my weight, as if considering to grant me passage through the air, before returning to its usual, ascending motion. Nearly slipping off, I wrapped my entire body around it and hugged it. Merciful gods, I hugged it.

    As we slowly crept through the air, I craned my head to see the final set of stairs awaiting me, the door that led to the hallways on the eleventh story nearly in my view. The orb and I drifted passed the ninth staircase. Just as we did, one of its connecting doors slammed open, spewing out more of my pursuers.

Their heads whipped to catch the rather ludicrous sight of me floating gently upwards.

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen!” I called, rather wishing that I was standing atop the sphere rather than hugging it like an infant to its mother.

    “Wretched usurper!” The insult echoed into the spire.

    “An usurper implies that I would be taking the throne from our dearly departed,” I called back. “I assure you that I have no intention of doing so.”

    “He’s going up! Someone get an archer!” another man shouted, ignoring my clarification.

    “Nonsense,” one replied. “There’s no time.” He was dressed in dark red, formal attire, and wearing a total of eight glittering rings. He unscrewed the pommel of his sword and threw it at me. Uselessly, it fell short and dropped into the pit below, which gave me something of a chuckle, at least. That is, before his expression flared with anger and he threw the entire sword, itself. I braced myself.

    “William was one of the finest kings Addoran ever had!” he shouted.

    The point of the weapon glanced off the side of the sphere, narrowly missed my legs, and sent the ball into spinning rotations that fed on its own momentum and continued to become faster and faster. As the orb neared the staircase, my senses abandoned their attempt to grasp their surroundings, surrendering to the dizziness.

    “He’s still rising! Quickly now, to the stairwell!” someone in the back shouted, causing the crowd to retreat back into the keep. Simultaneously, doors all throughout the Cascading Tower began opening, with more voices to accompany them.

    In my blurred vision, I could see the uppermost staircase nearing as the spinning hastened. As soon as it was within arm’s reach, I let go of the sphere and grasped wildly for stone, catching the stairs’ edge after my body was nearly thrust off.

My hands wet with sweat, I hauled myself onto my knees, but I could barely stand. Just as I began to experiment with balancing on my feet, the door at the bottom of the steps opened with the same people who had just greeted me. I half-stumbled, half-crawled to a higher position on the steps, a safe distance from them.

    The man who’d thrown his sword had evidently borrowed another. His older, gaunt face with a trimmed goatee and dark eyes bristled with that fierce, reckless pride of those who stand beside authority almost unquestioningly.

    “You are at your end, traitor,” he informed me.

    “Oh? I am?” I inquired, happily looking down upon him. “Personally, it doesn’t appear that way to me.”

    He scoffed. “What will you do, hole yourself up there until we force our way in, or throw yourself from a window once inside? Surrender yourself peaceably and you’ll be granted a death more honorable than the one you gave the Northern King William III,” he continued while more guards appeared behind him, even an elf that I did not recognize, dressed in scholar’s layers. One of his gloved hands glowed with the beginnings of a spell. Together they advanced slowly towards me.

    I dug through my pouch, only to find that I had already used up all of Famir’s elixirs. To my knowledge, there was nothing to bar the door behind me. There was, at least, a large likelihood that there was nobody waiting for me on the uppermost floor, as it was one of the only floors without stairwells. It was accessible only through the final staircase in the Cascading Tower.

    “Running dry of your pathetic tinctures? Fool. Answer me!” the ambassador demanded, halting their ascent.

    “Well, that is no matter to me,” I said, unsheathing my weapons again and brandishing them. “That all depends on who am I answering.”

    “The High Ambassador of Gilimnor.”

    “Well, ambassador, you at least gave me a moment of thought, so I will offer the same to you. Fair is fair, after all. Consider the idea that the Northern King was not the man you once knew in his earlier years of reign.” At this, a few of the guardsmen from our castle exchanged glances. “Consider that his end was not only justified, but necessary, for the well-being of Addoran.”

    “He was the most benevolent ruler Addoran, possibly all of Netherway, ever saw,” the ambassador pushed. “A prodigy who promised little else than prosperity and peace. It is unthinkable that his actions deserved such a cowardly end, least of all from the likes of you.”

    “Are you so certain?” I asked, confident to hear my voice ringing clear through the tower, and the voices beneath us, at last silent in their pursuit. “Time has a way of changing men, and William was of no exception.”

    “You may plead your dismal case at your trial, but I have no doubt that a fool, not only guilty of regicide, but the murder of dozens during his act of fleeing, will be treated with a very forgiving eye.”

    “Oh, I thought not,” I sighed. “All the same.”

    “So surrender yourself!”

    “High Ambassador of, oh, what was it? Dying was not something I planned for this evening, so I must respectfully decline.”

    “You swine! Seize him!”

    I took the last three steps in a single stride, pulling open the door and leaning my weight backwards as I grasped the handle. In the unlit corridors of the eleventh floor, I heard nothing besides my own heartbeat, my labored breath, the slamming of feet against stone steps. Excitement begged me to leave the door, sprint for my chamber, and execute the final act of my escape. A smile tugged on the corners of my lips to feel everything falling into place, but I quelled the impulse. I pulled harder on the handle as resistance arrived. There was no sense in leaving any loose ends that I had the power to cut in this moment. I was going to leave hundreds in one evening.

    The ambassador and the other men continued to tug on the door. I dug my heels into the carpet on the floor and leaned further back.

    “This is futile. Surrender!” the Ambassador shouted through the door.

I could not help, as my muscles strained to resist three men, but to chuckle a little. Just as I felt their strength nearing its peak, I let go of the handle. Their strength did the rest.

    The door gave in to all their force in one violent surrender, sending them toppling backwards over one another, to the mercy of balance, height and the pit of the Cascading Tower.

    The guards tumbled off screaming, but the ambassador was fortunate enough to cling to one of the stairs’ edges as his body dangled. Steel armor clanged against stone as the guards’ bodies toppled below, with shrill cries of death to accompany the racket. The elf, smarter than the rest, was standing at a safe distance, glaring at me from the center of the stairs. As I eyed him, another swarm of people squeezed through the opposite doorway.

I didn’t bother shutting the door, just ran through the darkened hallways. A splash of fire erupted close to my head where one of the mage’s spells guttered against a wall.

    In my chamber, I threw down the iron latches that locked the door and swept over my belongings, the ones I hadn’t packed, as if looking at all of them would reveal to me some importance I hadn’t considered before. Excitement turned my fingers into useless, twitching nubs while memories flooded my head. Despite the horrors of the past year or so, I felt nostalgic to be leaving everything so hurriedly. I never intended to leave Portsworth this way. It was the first place I ever belonged to, even if it was only as someone’s Fool.

    Beside the satchel I had packed was the iron cage I never closed. Atop it, a strange and loyal little creature cawed in relief to see me, immediately joining me on my shoulder. His black beak shone in the moonlight granted by the terrace that jutted out of my chamber.

    “Felix, you would not believe me if I told you what kind of evening I have had,” I said as I belted the leather strips of the satchel across my chest, replacing my half-cloak over my shoulder afterwards. “It appears we’re rather pressed for time, however.”

    The pounding on the door started again. For the second time that day, I listened to the beat of countless strangers who desired nothing more than to kill me.

    “Unfortunately, there is little time for discussion.”

    Felix responded with a somewhat confused croak.

    “You will have to find something to eat sometime later. Perhaps … perhaps without me,” I said, realizing it aloud. “Do you remember when I showed you the Silver Pool? You thought I’d died after I jumped for it. Elves aren’t bred with wings, after all.”

    The noises stopped. I hushed Felix and tilted my head towards the door. There were murmurs and whispers that strung together with little to no pause, only for the intake of breath. The hairs on my body prickled at the sound of a long incantation. I strode quickly through the chamber and out the doors of the terrace, before balancing myself upon its guardrails, staring down at yet another dizzying height that made my hands perspire.

    Only this time, the height was not just a pit, but the steep descent of cliffs overlooking a small pool of water at its feet. It was a plummet that would turn an entire ship into driftwood.

    At this height, amongst the wind, Felix took to his wings and joined the clouded sky while I savored a final view of Portsworth’s decadence. The countless flames alight in the mismatching streets flickered. Carriages rolled over the uneven cobblestone, while fog swirled low over the steaming chimneys of taverns, homes, shops and chapels.

    Behind me, the drapes flapped in the same wind that coaxed me to go over the edge.

    “How things change,” I whispered to the wind. The flashing events of the evening played over again in my head.

    My chamber door erupted in an explosion that shook the floor. Flairs of heat licked my arms, sizzling pieces of wood spewed out, and embers of the mage’s spell burnt the ends of my hair. I closed my eyes and sighed.

    “He’s a madman!”

    “Stop him!”

    I let my body fall forward, arms spread as wings, embracing the plummet.  

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Chapter 3 of The Culling of Casimir
Written by Harlequin in portal Fantasy
Chapter 3: The Cascading Tower
    Too many things had happened in the past few hours for me to believe they were anything more than the unfolding events of a nightmare. Fallen kings, slaughtered noblemen, tattered raiment, furniture thrown hastily behind me, the constant shouts for my head, the servants whom previously admired me, now shrieking away as I darted through the narrow corridors of the castle. I struggled to fathom just how quickly a collected life could turn into the blossom of a blooming, flourishing chaos. Not that I had to think hard about it. The blood splashes yearning to seep into the fabric of my clothes was telling enough.
    “I hear him, this way!” someone’s shouts bounced around me in the stone walls.
    I crushed another vial’s contents beneath my boot, holding my breath as the chemicals interacted with the air, and gas filled the hallway. I fled as my pursuers began retching again. “Back, back! Find another route!” someone said while others ignored the warning, held their breaths and chased me through the gas.
    I waited for one of their silhouettes to rush through the smoke, greeting their body with my dagger’s point. Briefly, I watched the stranger’s surprised expression before I pushed him stumbling backwards, to be swallowed by horrified cries and smoke once more. But you cannot scream without breathing. Those who reacted to the body inhaled the smoke, and their convulsions began.
    “M-m-madman!” someone choked.
    “Killer!”
    I ignored the shrill voices and rushed towards door ahead of me. To my left and right, a corridor swarmed with pursuers who all seemed to find me simultaneously. I opened the door and threw down the wooden bar as soon as I was on the other side, only to find three armored guards who had anticipated my movement, waiting inside with their blades drawn.
    My parrying dagger slid eagerly from its sheath, happy to be reunited beside its already drawn companion. The smooth, ivory handle that matched the other’s was comfortably cold in my palm. I breathed deeply, preparing myself.
Before tonight, I never considered the act of killing beyond a thought of intrigue. But here, dancing around the odds of my own death, morality became an increasingly distant consideration as murder became not only inevitable, but demanded, an ignorable opportunity for impassioned expression in a rare, quintessential art.
    I flourished my daggers until my grips were relaxed yet firm, melding flesh to steel.
    “Come on then, traitor!”
                                                              ~   ~
    Zakora, the woman who I owed my expertise in fighting to, was never one for tender instruction. Punching, slapping, and ridiculing was her preferred method for drilling technique into me. But, when it came to describing the more abstract details of fighting, she had a propensity for becoming intensely romantic. This always seemed to inspire in me a brief and overwhelming affection for her.
    After one of our sparring sessions, as Zakora helped me unstring some of the stitchings on the back of my leather armor, she asked me, “What makes a good swordsman, Casimir?”
    “This is one of those instances where you pretend to want my answer, but if we’re both being honest, you just want to—Agh!”
    “I’ll let go of your arm once you stop being so childish. Now, answer the question,” she’d insisted as she pulled my wrist up to my shoulders.
    “Childish, now which one of us is truly being childish?” I grumbled, only to earn another tug that pulled my shoulder that much closer to popping from its socket. “Fine, fine! I suppose a good swordsman is someone who is agile, cunning, practiced, and ah, swift as the wind and so forth, yes? You’ll let go of me now, won’t you?”
    “You are right, but not quite,” she said as she relinquished my arm and turned me around, now placing her hands on my shoulders. Her lips were a finger’s distance from mine, but I didn’t shy away. “When you are fighting, you must not be a swordsman, Casimir. Swordsmen die. We are born masters at dying, but living—ah, quite the opposite—that is the art of forgetting how to. When you are fighting, you must not even be Casimir. Forget yourself, your name, your body. Instead, be the steel of your daggers, the force that pushes them in, the strength of their metal. Be their instrument so that, through you, their song may be given a voice.” Her accent forced out stunted sentences between frequent pauses, between which, it seemed my ears perked to catch every syllable, to fill in her imagination where her words could not. And I realized, in that moment, that her passion, if taught through enough pupils, could destroy armies.
    “What songs do my daggers sing, Zakora?” I asked, seeking answers that words would not afford in the darkness rimmed by her ashen eyes.
    “That is for the instrument to discover on his own, for every blade is different, and every opponent is a unique score, their flesh a blank page.” As she said that, a chilled breeze breathed through my body, and I wondered just how much farther I would have to lean to kiss her. As I’d done before, I weighed the reward against the cost of her fist slamming into my cheek. The conclusion always seemed to be the same, but I had dreams of one day being foolish enough to think it was worth it.
    “You know, Casimir,” she said with almost a detectable touch of sadness, “My time left in Addoran is nearing its end. It has been nearly five years since our first sparring session.” She laughed and shook her head, doubtless, recollecting how I acted then. “After I return to Zorran, will your daggers sing melodies that folks talk about all over the realm? Performances that reach beyond the seas?”
    Could it be as I suspected? Was our mutual fascination with weaponry and fighting styles compelled by a darker fixation, an artist’s compulsion to force life out of its shell? Was death not the focal inspiration for so much of life’s meaning, with gods or not, with love or not? Was it not the most gratifying release, to force it to envelope opponents who offered the challenge?
    I watched her closely as she anticipated my answer. Her eyelids fluttered like a moth’s resting wings, just once, as they went from her sword and back to my gaze, seeking that same affirmation she had just offered me in the subtlety of her questions. A hopeless yearning of recognition for an unacceptable passion.
    “Perhaps, Zakora, if they are presented with scores worthy of playing, if I can be masterful enough to give them a voice to their music.”
                                                                   ~  ~
    As an entertainer, I search for that sacred place where intuition and imagination meet, where the body ceases struggling and becomes a conduit for an unperturbed mind. So few times have I reached that state, where nothing matters besides the task at hand, and art becomes a seamless, continuous rhythm, of stillness interrupted by bursts of expression. And here, in ecstatic mayhem, amidst the screams and struggling, I had found it. The castle had become my stage, the men seeking vengeance for the King, the scores to my daggers’ melodies, and I, their instrument. They struck their notes with scarlet, swelled the air in rapturous music, biding for another gruesome crescendo.
    Three guards took turns grunting and screaming as I darted between their attacks, discovering the vulnerabilities in their armor in the most painful ways possible. A small opening on the wrist, an unsheltered calf, a sliver of the neck. For all the armor keeping them heavy on their feet, I wondered if they felt caged beneath it as I found the open spaces between them.
    The number of fists banging on the barred door lessened after some of the pursuers got to thinking about other corridors in the castle, and just which ones would lead to me. The Foxfeather Castle mapped within my mind, I reckoned my time with the guardsmen had to near its end, and quickly, before mine would be met.
Beneath my feet, a macabre river flowed out of the first guard I’d slew, his hand twitching towards the sword I’d disarmed from him before his throat revealed itself to me.
    At one end of the chamber, I stared down the two remaining guards at the other end, their bodies already contributing crimson paths that led to the large puddle between us, paths I had opened when they attempted to defend the one who now lay in silence. The one on the right meant to shift his weight, but stumbled to his knee instead. His leg gave from the pain of a gash opened from the bottom of his calf to the back of his knee.
  “W-wait!” the kneeling guard begged. He tossed his sword aside and raised his hands up. “I never wanted this, Casimir. You know how the others are,” he whimpered. “I’d look like a coward if—”
    “Is that you, Hamor, behind that ridiculous helm?” I shot back, surprised to find myself speaking at all. “You never treated me well, anyways. You showed me no mercy when your numbers favored you.”
    “Please …”
    The one of his left, however, was poised and ready to match my steel. Meanwhile, footsteps thundered through the castle, louder than the heartbeat that thudded in my ears.
    “Time is not my ally, Hamor, and so long as you’re taking mine, neither are you,” I growled as I kicked Hamor onto his back before tearing into the other, whose silence entreated my attention.
    The remaining guard’s movements were deft despite his armor, parrying my attacks quick enough, responding with broad, sweeping strikes that made me duck and retreat. Still struggling to get back up, Hamor continued to whine like a limping dog.
    In a sudden rush of excitement having seen the opportunity, I caught the guard’s longsword between the blade of my parrying dagger and hilt, applying torque to keep his weapon trapped there. With his sword pointed far to the right of me, I closed the gap between us, close enough for my second dagger to find his side while his free fist slammed into my head. The blow burst sparks of darkness as he hit me again, and again, before I twisted, then wrenched my blade out of his side and leapt backwards.
    Amidst the calamity of bloodshed, chaos rose in my veins, and sighed at this release. I realized then that ecstazia was no fighting style. It was a state of mind, a philosophy, an art of being wholly present yet detached enough to relinquish fear. Death beckoned a performance befitting its absence from my close future, and perform I would, grateful for its pernicious presence that inspired so much beauty.
    Gouts of blood sprayed out of the man’s side, decorating the walls and floor around him.
    “I believe that trade,” I chuckled, “was not in your favor.”
    Enraged by his fatal mistake, he charged at me, raising the longsword above his head and roaring. Light continued to flash through the throbbing vision of my eye. I managed, using the majority of my weight, to send the arc of his blade to the ground with a parry from one dagger, before seeking his neck with the other, sinking in just as he attempted to grab mine, meekly, before the shock overwhelmed him.
    I freed my blade, spattering the wall in red torrents. With lurching legs he staggered back and forth, gurgling as he did, before collapsing to the floor.
    “As for you,” I said, turning to address Hamor. But he had stopped moving after the wound in his leg had, finally, relinquished enough. At the thought of brief interactions we’d had in the past, a twinge of pity rose in me, before I remembered how, just moments before, he’d tried to spit on me.
    The air now saturated in iron, I left the chamber, listening to my daggers’ dimming melodies as they settled into the breathless corpses.
Striding through a narrow hall, I reached an intersection of corridors. Down one of them, I could see shadows nearing the connecting point of the hallway. I reached for another one of the vials in my pouch and threw it to the far end of the corridor, where plumes of emerald smoke gushed from its now activated components.
    I left the shouts and scampering feet behind me and listened to them trail off towards the direction of the smoke. The corridor led me to a small set of stairs before a massive, duskwood door, one that led to the Cascading Tower. Once inside, I sighed in relief and wiped the blood on my blades against my trousers before sheathing them. The tower was empty.
    The architects of Foxfeather Castle had a taste for the dramatic. A stretching spire with thickened, glass walls at the apex, the Cascading Tower was built in the center of the keep, like a stone heart surrounded by a body. At this time of night, the moonlight leaked through the glass and shimmered against the walls in resplendent waves of water-like reflection.
    Inside, twelve staircases crisscrossed to opposite sides of the tower. Beneath them, a gaping pit yawned with darkness. Dozens of hovering, silverglass orbs encasing faerie light, illuminated the tower with pulsating shades of silver as they ascended from the bottom to the top in enchanted, repeating trajectories.
    Each staircase arches between two opposite faces of the tower. Behind their doors, they lead to other parts of the east or western keep, where ascending stairs could be found within to get to higher tiers at a much faster rate. The tower’s individual staircases, themselves, didn’t do more than ascend one tier each. And for some damned reason, the architects hadn’t fashioned guardrails to the staircases.
    Since my first months in the castle, I had grown accustom to running on the staircases, despite the fact that a misstep would lead to certain death.
    I sprinted up a set of arching steps, listening to the echoing of feet somewhere off in the keep, before meeting the opposite door facing me. Entering into another chamber was folly, I realized, as my hand stopped at the handle. Inside, although I would find stairs that would ascend all the way to my chamber at the highest floor, I would find countless more bodies determined to stop me. A gamble I wasn’t willing to take, considering I’d already survived too many unfavorable odds tonight, I had an inkling that the gods of fortune were a little more than irritated that I had dodged death thus far.
I turned around and stared at the door I’d just come from. More folly.
    Even still, it was unlikely anyone assumed I had come here in my escape. I had a moment to breathe. Bespattered with blood, down to the creases in my hands, I returned to the center of the staircase and sat down. Beneath me, the seemingly infinite, black throat of the pit stared back. My lack of options seemed to shackle me there.
The silverglass orbs slowly ascended and descended around me, cycling through their paths up the spire. I admired how their silver tinge shifted like wisps of smoke continually going in and out of volume. I reached out and touched one as it passed by me, surprised to find how heavy it was, and imagining how I might die that night, considering it was the most likely possibility now.
    Then, I stood up laughing, feet tingling, as I readied myself for the next orb ascending from the depths of the pit.
    I clasped my hands together, rubbed them, and jumped for one of the hovering spheres of faerie light, dumbfounded that I had never done this, before, in my spare time. The warm, smooth surface of the silverglass briefly bobbed beneath my weight, as if considering to grant me passage through the air, before returning to its usual, ascending motion. Nearly slipping off, I wrapped my entire body around it and hugged it. Merciful gods, I hugged it.
    As we slowly crept through the air, I craned my head to see the final set of stairs awaiting me, the door that led to the hallways on the eleventh story nearly in my view. The orb and I drifted passed the ninth staircase. Just as we did, one of its connecting doors slammed open, spewing out more of my pursuers.
Their heads whipped to catch the rather ludicrous sight of me floating gently upwards.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen!” I called, rather wishing that I was standing atop the sphere rather than hugging it like an infant to its mother.
    “Wretched usurper!” The insult echoed into the spire.
    “An usurper implies that I would be taking the throne from our dearly departed,” I called back. “I assure you that I have no intention of doing so.”
    “He’s going up! Someone get an archer!” another man shouted, ignoring my clarification.
    “Nonsense,” one replied. “There’s no time.” He was dressed in dark red, formal attire, and wearing a total of eight glittering rings. He unscrewed the pommel of his sword and threw it at me. Uselessly, it fell short and dropped into the pit below, which gave me something of a chuckle, at least. That is, before his expression flared with anger and he threw the entire sword, itself. I braced myself.
    “William was one of the finest kings Addoran ever had!” he shouted.
    The point of the weapon glanced off the side of the sphere, narrowly missed my legs, and sent the ball into spinning rotations that fed on its own momentum and continued to become faster and faster. As the orb neared the staircase, my senses abandoned their attempt to grasp their surroundings, surrendering to the dizziness.
    “He’s still rising! Quickly now, to the stairwell!” someone in the back shouted, causing the crowd to retreat back into the keep. Simultaneously, doors all throughout the Cascading Tower began opening, with more voices to accompany them.
    In my blurred vision, I could see the uppermost staircase nearing as the spinning hastened. As soon as it was within arm’s reach, I let go of the sphere and grasped wildly for stone, catching the stairs’ edge after my body was nearly thrust off.
My hands wet with sweat, I hauled myself onto my knees, but I could barely stand. Just as I began to experiment with balancing on my feet, the door at the bottom of the steps opened with the same people who had just greeted me. I half-stumbled, half-crawled to a higher position on the steps, a safe distance from them.
    The man who’d thrown his sword had evidently borrowed another. His older, gaunt face with a trimmed goatee and dark eyes bristled with that fierce, reckless pride of those who stand beside authority almost unquestioningly.
    “You are at your end, traitor,” he informed me.
    “Oh? I am?” I inquired, happily looking down upon him. “Personally, it doesn’t appear that way to me.”
    He scoffed. “What will you do, hole yourself up there until we force our way in, or throw yourself from a window once inside? Surrender yourself peaceably and you’ll be granted a death more honorable than the one you gave the Northern King William III,” he continued while more guards appeared behind him, even an elf that I did not recognize, dressed in scholar’s layers. One of his gloved hands glowed with the beginnings of a spell. Together they advanced slowly towards me.
    I dug through my pouch, only to find that I had already used up all of Famir’s elixirs. To my knowledge, there was nothing to bar the door behind me. There was, at least, a large likelihood that there was nobody waiting for me on the uppermost floor, as it was one of the only floors without stairwells. It was accessible only through the final staircase in the Cascading Tower.
    “Running dry of your pathetic tinctures? Fool. Answer me!” the ambassador demanded, halting their ascent.
    “Well, that is no matter to me,” I said, unsheathing my weapons again and brandishing them. “That all depends on who am I answering.”
    “The High Ambassador of Gilimnor.”
    “Well, ambassador, you at least gave me a moment of thought, so I will offer the same to you. Fair is fair, after all. Consider the idea that the Northern King was not the man you once knew in his earlier years of reign.” At this, a few of the guardsmen from our castle exchanged glances. “Consider that his end was not only justified, but necessary, for the well-being of Addoran.”
    “He was the most benevolent ruler Addoran, possibly all of Netherway, ever saw,” the ambassador pushed. “A prodigy who promised little else than prosperity and peace. It is unthinkable that his actions deserved such a cowardly end, least of all from the likes of you.”
    “Are you so certain?” I asked, confident to hear my voice ringing clear through the tower, and the voices beneath us, at last silent in their pursuit. “Time has a way of changing men, and William was of no exception.”
    “You may plead your dismal case at your trial, but I have no doubt that a fool, not only guilty of regicide, but the murder of dozens during his act of fleeing, will be treated with a very forgiving eye.”
    “Oh, I thought not,” I sighed. “All the same.”
    “So surrender yourself!”
    “High Ambassador of, oh, what was it? Dying was not something I planned for this evening, so I must respectfully decline.”
    “You swine! Seize him!”
    I took the last three steps in a single stride, pulling open the door and leaning my weight backwards as I grasped the handle. In the unlit corridors of the eleventh floor, I heard nothing besides my own heartbeat, my labored breath, the slamming of feet against stone steps. Excitement begged me to leave the door, sprint for my chamber, and execute the final act of my escape. A smile tugged on the corners of my lips to feel everything falling into place, but I quelled the impulse. I pulled harder on the handle as resistance arrived. There was no sense in leaving any loose ends that I had the power to cut in this moment. I was going to leave hundreds in one evening.
    The ambassador and the other men continued to tug on the door. I dug my heels into the carpet on the floor and leaned further back.
    “This is futile. Surrender!” the Ambassador shouted through the door.
I could not help, as my muscles strained to resist three men, but to chuckle a little. Just as I felt their strength nearing its peak, I let go of the handle. Their strength did the rest.
    The door gave in to all their force in one violent surrender, sending them toppling backwards over one another, to the mercy of balance, height and the pit of the Cascading Tower.
    The guards tumbled off screaming, but the ambassador was fortunate enough to cling to one of the stairs’ edges as his body dangled. Steel armor clanged against stone as the guards’ bodies toppled below, with shrill cries of death to accompany the racket. The elf, smarter than the rest, was standing at a safe distance, glaring at me from the center of the stairs. As I eyed him, another swarm of people squeezed through the opposite doorway.
I didn’t bother shutting the door, just ran through the darkened hallways. A splash of fire erupted close to my head where one of the mage’s spells guttered against a wall.
    In my chamber, I threw down the iron latches that locked the door and swept over my belongings, the ones I hadn’t packed, as if looking at all of them would reveal to me some importance I hadn’t considered before. Excitement turned my fingers into useless, twitching nubs while memories flooded my head. Despite the horrors of the past year or so, I felt nostalgic to be leaving everything so hurriedly. I never intended to leave Portsworth this way. It was the first place I ever belonged to, even if it was only as someone’s Fool.
    Beside the satchel I had packed was the iron cage I never closed. Atop it, a strange and loyal little creature cawed in relief to see me, immediately joining me on my shoulder. His black beak shone in the moonlight granted by the terrace that jutted out of my chamber.
    “Felix, you would not believe me if I told you what kind of evening I have had,” I said as I belted the leather strips of the satchel across my chest, replacing my half-cloak over my shoulder afterwards. “It appears we’re rather pressed for time, however.”
    The pounding on the door started again. For the second time that day, I listened to the beat of countless strangers who desired nothing more than to kill me.
    “Unfortunately, there is little time for discussion.”
    Felix responded with a somewhat confused croak.
    “You will have to find something to eat sometime later. Perhaps … perhaps without me,” I said, realizing it aloud. “Do you remember when I showed you the Silver Pool? You thought I’d died after I jumped for it. Elves aren’t bred with wings, after all.”
    The noises stopped. I hushed Felix and tilted my head towards the door. There were murmurs and whispers that strung together with little to no pause, only for the intake of breath. The hairs on my body prickled at the sound of a long incantation. I strode quickly through the chamber and out the doors of the terrace, before balancing myself upon its guardrails, staring down at yet another dizzying height that made my hands perspire.
    Only this time, the height was not just a pit, but the steep descent of cliffs overlooking a small pool of water at its feet. It was a plummet that would turn an entire ship into driftwood.
    At this height, amongst the wind, Felix took to his wings and joined the clouded sky while I savored a final view of Portsworth’s decadence. The countless flames alight in the mismatching streets flickered. Carriages rolled over the uneven cobblestone, while fog swirled low over the steaming chimneys of taverns, homes, shops and chapels.
    Behind me, the drapes flapped in the same wind that coaxed me to go over the edge.
    “How things change,” I whispered to the wind. The flashing events of the evening played over again in my head.
    My chamber door erupted in an explosion that shook the floor. Flairs of heat licked my arms, sizzling pieces of wood spewed out, and embers of the mage’s spell burnt the ends of my hair. I closed my eyes and sighed.
    “He’s a madman!”
    “Stop him!”
    I let my body fall forward, arms spread as wings, embracing the plummet.  
#TCOC 
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Define what it means to be an atheist.
Written by Harlequin in portal Religion

Heretic

    To be an atheist is, essentially, a passive action. Theists believe, but atheists do not not believe, rather, they simply persist with an absence of belief. Synonymous to how our shadows behave, it is an effortless philosophy, demanding no practice or ritualistic behavior to maintain it. Agnostic atheists are, first and foremost, skeptics, as they often prefer questions over answers, especially if proposed 'answers' cannot be proven readily. Even when it comes to more abstract, less dogmatic philosophies that do not involve deities, they find themselves pinching their chins and considering alternatives to ideas presented to them. Happily, they will consider many different ideologies. But, (and sometimes to an annoying degree), they'll play the devil's advocate as they do so, if only to illuminate multiple perspectives at once.

    They resist constraints on thinking, behavior, and lifestyle choices, due to this constant desire to think for themselves. They possess a certain courage, ready to accept that death may, in fact, be simply The End, or that they truly are alone, even if believing in an alternative may make life more pleasant or bearable. 

    On the outside, they may seem narcissistic, or even militant against religions for not upholding any of their practices. Yet, more often than not, because of their nature as skeptics, they are the first people to say 'I don't know', preferring to leave the mysteries of the universe, of existence, of purpose, to individual consideration. This may (or may not) result in a certain humility of the heart, admitting no definitive answers to spiritual questions, and instead embracing life for its inherent value. 

    They are, at heart, blissfully mortal.

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Define what it means to be an atheist.
Written by Harlequin in portal Religion
Heretic
    To be an atheist is, essentially, a passive action. Theists believe, but atheists do not not believe, rather, they simply persist with an absence of belief. Synonymous to how our shadows behave, it is an effortless philosophy, demanding no practice or ritualistic behavior to maintain it. Agnostic atheists are, first and foremost, skeptics, as they often prefer questions over answers, especially if proposed 'answers' cannot be proven readily. Even when it comes to more abstract, less dogmatic philosophies that do not involve deities, they find themselves pinching their chins and considering alternatives to ideas presented to them. Happily, they will consider many different ideologies. But, (and sometimes to an annoying degree), they'll play the devil's advocate as they do so, if only to illuminate multiple perspectives at once.
    They resist constraints on thinking, behavior, and lifestyle choices, due to this constant desire to think for themselves. They possess a certain courage, ready to accept that death may, in fact, be simply The End, or that they truly are alone, even if believing in an alternative may make life more pleasant or bearable. 
    On the outside, they may seem narcissistic, or even militant against religions for not upholding any of their practices. Yet, more often than not, because of their nature as skeptics, they are the first people to say 'I don't know', preferring to leave the mysteries of the universe, of existence, of purpose, to individual consideration. This may (or may not) result in a certain humility of the heart, admitting no definitive answers to spiritual questions, and instead embracing life for its inherent value. 
    They are, at heart, blissfully mortal.
#philosophy 
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Chapter 2 of The Culling of Casimir
Written by Harlequin in portal Fantasy

Chapter 2: Ecstazia

    One moment chases another and bleeds into the next, in which the mud from my feet splashes against the sky beside me, indigo melting to night, senses wrought with tension. Something is chasing me, something without form. A shadow as pervasive as the darkness that encapsulates mountains after the sun sets. The inevitability of it grips me. Even if I had wings, I would be a prey to this entity. Still, I find myself sprinting.

    After reaching the top of a hillock overlooking the bog I emerged from, a dilapidated mansion shrouded by thick trees, whose roots have latched onto it like veins around a heart, beckons me with its refuge. I run harder, feeling that presence nearing. It frosts the ground, freezes my breath, transmutes all that is behind me into stillness. Should I turn and face it, it will undoubtedly be my end.

    A gate with hundreds of horizontal, blackened teeth that once closed it intricately is now a pair of rusted jaws with protruding fangs. I burst through, suffering gashes where the rotted metal cut my forearms as I used them to shield my head.

The gate clangs backwards from the force, ringing, before it is forced open again by my pursuer, causing another reverberation of knells that follow me inside the mansion’s gaping doors.

    With closed eyes, I turn and slam the entrance shut. To my surprise, no banging or attempts to enter follows. Whatever was chasing me made no attempt to throw its weight against the door. Still, my hands scramble for several latches and pull them shut.

    Only, as I turn towards a graveyard of furniture, shattered glass and scattered silverware, the looming windows of the home are swallowed by a blackness without shades. Dust fills my lungs as I pant, sweat dots the floorboards overgrown with fungus. What hues of a setting sun that should have bled through the cracked glass are snuffed swiftly by that same shadow consuming all. In my limited senses of molded wood and silence, I stumble up a spiral staircase, following a light leaking like melted silver down its steps.

    I follow the trail, towards another door, its frame illuminated stark against the pitch, and enter.

    A small chamber with walls made entirely of mirrors reflects an orb of light in its center. Despite it being the only source of light in the blackness, my eyes are unperturbed by its soft glow. I shut the door behind me and walk closer to the silvery orb, cradling the warmth before clutching it close, embracing it like you would a child you’d lost.

    It slips through my hands, and upon meeting the ground, shatters.

    A silver hue lingers in the air and colors my vision, but the dread returns.

Spawning from each mirror are shadows whose smokey outlines wave as they drift towards me, each one bearing a mask depicting an emotion. They stare, closing in soundlessly, the details more lifelike the longer I look. Seemingly harmless, yet terrifying all the same, I cannot suppress the tremors that start in my body. The phantoms surround me in rage, grief, trepidation, contentment, ecstasy, boredom, envy, terror, anxiety, patience, lust, and some that blend between others, their illustrations a masterful depiction of expression, yet, the epitome of torment.

    One mask pushes itself through the others. Humor: laughing inaudibly through cracked, faded paint and chipped stone. It turns itself to its hallow end and latches onto my face. Before I can attempt to pry it off, the rest follow suit, fading into one another as they crowd my head.

As the terror peaks to spasms in my chest, I look through the eyes of the mask, into the mirror directly facing me.

    While some of the guises had faded, seven or six remain, forming a rotating circle around my head. When I attempt to pull one of them off, a bolt of pain sparks through my body. I cease moving, succumbing to their possession. The carousel of masks spin, swifter each blink, until the emotions blur, wherein I am imprisoned within a chaos reflected in every possible peripheral of my vision: a mirrored maelstrom of me.

    I gasped. There was a puddle of drool beneath my mouth where my face had been pressed directly against the pillow, nearly suffocating me. I squinted partly in confusion, partly in annoyance, recalling glimpses of the nightmare as I wiped my chin and lips before sitting up.

    In the mirror across my bedchamber, I found my bright, dirtied gold eyes staring back at me, some of the view obscured by waves of burnt, umber hair. Even in the late morning, or perhaps midday light, I could still see glimpses of the phantoms circling my head, remnants of the nightmare lingering in reality.

In the journal by my bed, I confined the memories.

    After opening the terrace doors in the center of the room, a warm gust of summer air breathed into the room, brightening my senses as I puzzled over the dream’s meaning. Immediately, the nightmare’s grip relinquished itself. It had been a long while since Portsworth felt a forgiving breath of air. All to often does snow fall here in the late spring.

    I walked onto the terrace and let my arms rest against the marble guardrails. Far, far beneath me, Portsworth was a seemingly incongruous city thriving in its harried business. The northern docks were packed with sailors, merchants and workers carrying goods and bartering services, while others streamed onto barges for travel. The ports seemed as packed with variously sized vessels as it was with people. Across from the river where ships departed and unfurled their sails in response to wry commands, Addorian hills rolled upwards, intermittently cut by sea rivulets, arching towards mountains dotted by hamlets and villages, and farmlands flourishing beneath the three suns of summer. To the far east, where fewer and fewer villages sprouted up, the Sea of Gold shivered in the midday light. Though it wasn’t a sea at all, rather a forest, with leaves that took on the color of that metal men kill one another for. In the autumn it transforms into the Sea of Blood with bright, scarlet tones. And as winter descends, the leaves dry to a muddied burgundy, true to the metaphor.

    Where the paths that led to the ports wound back into the city, the streets twisted and tangled, packed in too closely between wooden structures that seem to slant towards the cobblestone in the poorer districts, and rise too high in more blessed areas.

The Northern Square breathed less crowded air, with a statue of Nocturos in the center, each of his arms draped with cloaks in the shape of massive doorways. Above him, his runic symbol blazed silver. After the sun would set, it would paint the surrounding stones in tranquil hues of pulsing violet. Much of the south, west and eastern parts of Portsworth weren’t in view from my chamber in the Foxfeather Castle, but I knew many of their streets as well as I did my own clothes and hair.

    “Lord Casimir,” a servant called through the doorway after a few knocks.

    I sighed. How many times must I ask them not to call me 'Lord'? “Yes?” I replied, but the realization had already struck me. I rushed towards my wardrobe, cursing myself.

    “Lady Zakora sent me, said you had training this afternoon. Said you were late … ‘again’.”

    “Yes, yes. Thank you! You can send her an apology and tell her I’ll join her shortly,” I said as I tripped on my britches, smashing my head against one of the legs of my desk. “Fek!”

    “What was that, my lord?”

    “Nothing!’

    The small bump on my head still forming, I licked the blood on my bottom lip, trying to ignore the pelting heat on my neck, the sting of sweat in my eyes, the sharp-scented herbs surrounding the grassy courtyard we had been sparring in for the last two hours.

    “Were you drinking last night?” she asked me in that thickened, Zorrian accent I could barely understand half of the time, swinging around a wooden broadsword while she waited for me to recover.

   “A poor swordsman, perhaps, but a drunkard? You hurt me, Zakora. No, I wasn’t.” It was the truth. “I had a nightmare that didn’t seem to let go.”

    “You are lying to me. I have other pupils, you know. I cannot waste time with the likes of you. Always, always late.” She snapped her head to the side, refusing to look at me. Her straight, auburn hair bordered her face and stopped just below her chin. Above her sharp nose and tight cheekbones, her grey eyes scrutinized me. When I didn't say anything, she advanced on me swiftly, retribution sparking in her movements. “Disarm me!” she commanded, pairing that with a heavy-handed attack.

    I threw up my longsword to parry, only for the force of her swing to obliterate my defenses, sending both me and my sword somersaulting backwards. She clouted me on the head with a gloved fist as she walked passed almost lazily. It was precisely where the desk had hit, too. I swallowed a scream.

    “Surely I did not wait all morning for this!” she huffed. “You’ve improved little since our last session. If anything, you are worse. What am I to tell your sire, hmm? He will think he is wasting his coin on me.”

    “Kuilmore dek,” I cursed in my native tongue, massaging the fresh welt on my thumb where her blade had slid past the guard. “You don’t need to tell William anything, Zakora. I asked for these lessons myself.”

    “Fine. But you are too small for longsword,” she noted aloud. “We will need something else.” Her accent replaced the ‘th’s with ‘z’s.

    “Not necessary,” I said as I stood back up. My arms protested the weight of the longsword, but I raised it back to a fighting stance all the same. “Once more."

    She continued digging out some dirt from her nails as her brows furrowed in contemplation.

    "Oh, come on, then. Again!" I said, just as frustrated as she was to see little improvement.

    She wagged her finger at me. “We have been doing this for weeks, for nothing. You are far too little for longsword. We’re done with it, forget it. Time to change tactics.”

    “But …”

    “End of story, Casimir,” she sang, smiling with an undeniable air of mockery and enjoyment. It didn’t help my pride that her rich, oak-colored skin glanced off the sun without a single bead of sweat, while I had tasted a nearly permanent line of salt on my upper lip since the last half hour. “You are a halfbreed, yes? Elf and man?”

    As I have explained countless times. She, as well as many others, seemed to find endless intrigue in this topic. “My mother was a Qalmorian elf, but my father was from here, Addoran.”

    “From my observation,” she said, tapping her finger against her chin, “you have gained all clumsiness of Addoran man and all tiny of Qalmorian elf.”

    Her lacking vocabulary in the common tongue made it only more frustrating to be insulted by her. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, trying to swallow my pride. ‘Short’ might have been technically correct but ‘tiny’ was another word entirely.

“How observant of you,” I said dryly.

    Zakora seemed thin at first glance, but every scrap of her spoke for itself. Hidden beneath the stringency of her impeccable stature and the tightness of her gait, was more technique in swordplay than most men could ever hope to possess, that made strength seem like a pitiable attribute to foster. Her height was, however, only a half a head above mine, which is better than the one or two I am used to looking up at.

   I sprang to my feet, determined not to look so ‘tiny’ and ‘clumsy’ in front of a woman who seemed to walk into flawless confidence every morning, as easily as she slipped on her cloak. She was, down to the fibers of her boiled leather raiment, comfortable in her own example of perfection. “Then again, why put a sword in the hands of a marksman? I am a fine bowman. Do you not have fighting techniques that involve a bow in close combat? I will not disappoint you there.”

    She was evidently lost in her own thought process, but stopped to shake her finger at me again. Her words quickened, as if making up for lost time. “Bows have no place in swordplay. You are nothing if you are not a fighter. Archers are good for war and archery tournaments, but close combat is … another thing entirely. You need to be fluent in blade language.”

    Her arrogance wasn’t unmerited. I’d seen Zakora outmatch some of the best fighters and swordsmen in the castle upon her arrival in the country, after William had hired her following my request. If I could glean a fiber of her skill, it could mean the difference between breathing and being dumped in one of Portsworth’s more popular, impromptu graveyards: the sea. “Fair enough. I will become fluent in the ‘blade language'.”

    “Indeed!” she exclaimed, waving away her poor grammar, all too aware that she was not conveying herself perfectly, but far too enthused to care. “The problem is not the man, but the sword, in this case. How rare. You will not hear me say that often. Count yourself lucky, jester. Ever heard of ecstazia?” Zakora walked to a large satchel with training blades spilling out of its stretched seams. She brought out two other weapons. One was smaller than the other, the size of a dagger, the other, a shortsword.

    I managed to keep them from falling to the ground after she tossed them to me. “Can’t say that I have,” I admitted, quirking an eyebrow at the pair of sparring weapons. "Who or what is it?"

    Several servants carrying platters of food passed by the outer ring of the training grounds. They slowed and eyed us before continuing into one of the many floors of the castle, whispering to themselves between snickers. The training grounds were not far beneath my own chamber, and from the edge of it, you could see the eastern sea ports. Even from here, the tolling of bells and commands echoed up the salt-sprayed cliffside.

    “It is a fighting technique from my own country, taught by few,” she explained with a glint in her eye. “If it is mastered, it is perhaps one of the best. Not my … what you say? Cup of caffek? But it works for a few, and I think,” she said, prodding my chest, “you belong to that ‘few’. Some say the Shadow Syndicate trains their thieves in this fighting style.”

    “You’re not being serious, are you? Duel wielding daggers …” I shook my head. “What happens if some brute with a broadsword swings sideways at me while I hold these? I'll be lamb's meat! No, I'll be worse. I'll be me meat! There is no way to defend myself with these, either, they are too short."

    “Oh?” Zakora folded her arms, let her weight fall on one side of her hips, and tilted her head with a feigned look of interest. "So you fail with longsword and now you know other fighting styles? It appears my training has taught you well."

     I ignored her comment and continued my argument. “It may seem rather menacing, I suppose, but it simply isn’t practical. Give me a rapier, instead, something light. Something I can duel with properly. This is folly.”

    Zakora threw up her head and started laughing until a few birds enjoying nectar nearby fluttered off. “You mock ecstazia and ask for a ‘rapier’. What will you do then, fight the enemy with your prick? The rapier is a sword of status, used for competitions, not true fighting. It has no place in combat. Here,” she motioned for the daggers, and I handed them back. “Take a lighter sword, something you can lift. Then throw yourself at me. We’ll see if this is folly or if you are the fool.”

    I dug through her weapons bag until I found a sword that suited my height and strength, then began to walk back.

    “Ah-ah!” she snapped before repeating “Shield, shield, shield,” and pointed to a bulwark leaning against one of the benches in the courtyard. “I want you to have every advantage.”

    Begrudgingly, I took it up and faced her.

    Without warning, as they often did, the bout started. Zakora coaxed for my attacks with a cunning patience, and I gave them to her, pressing my advantage in defense as much as I could. Her stance was different from anything that I’d seen before, relying on the balls of her feet more than anything, the spring of her legs to switch from attack to defense within half steps. It lacked structure, predictability, or cadence. And for every attack I gave, she used the dagger in her left hand to parry, the sword in her right to attack simultaneously. She manipulated my blade with both of hers when I gave her enough length or time to, using them like hands to shove it from harm’s way to open up attacks, flowing from defense to offense in seamless movements.

    Before long, I was the one retreating, my heels catching on the grass. What seemed like the uselessness of two small, mismatched blades, had turned into the overwhelming possibility of being vulnerable every time she deflected one of my strikes.

    Zakora knocked my sword back after one of my unsuccessful swings, jabbing my gut with her fist before wrenching the shield from my hand. I backpedalled in gasps, gaining some distance as she readied herself to spring on me.

    She lunged. I braced the sword to parry one of her daggers, managing to catch it and deflect its arc. With the other blade, she went for my stomach, but I dodged its point. She leapt from the ground as soon as the strikes proved unsuccessful, pivoting off a nearby pillar woven with ivy before landing on my sword arm and kicking me to the ground. The bruise on my head was hit for the second time that day as it slammed into the grass.

Through dizzied vision I found Zakora above me, her warm thighs straddling my chest, smiling with a wooden blade pushed against my throat.

    I coughed, only brief indulging my mind’s instinct to imagine something other than swordplay with her. “Fine, fine. I didn’t know what I was saying. I am the fool. What demon taught you that, anyways?”

    She just shook her head and laughed. “Yes, you are, but not for long—I’ll be sure of that. Ecstazia is more than dual wielding,” she explained as she helped me to my feet. “You use the dagger for parrying, the sword for striking, and switch, if needed, to overcome your opponent.” She demonstrated a few maneuvers slowly, swiping aside imaginary attacks and striking at the air in response.

    “That is why one blade is smaller than the other?” I asked, more intrigued.

    “Exactly! We call it the ‘trink'. Think of it has a shield, but you don’t take their hits, you turn them. Some ecstazia fighters use a something called eh … ‘blade breakers’ instead of a trink. Daggers with cuts in edge to trap and break enemy weapons. Of course, I would have one made for you if you wished.”

    “And you have seen men use this technique successfully?” I asked, rather stupidly.

    “Success does not describe a master in the art of ecstazia. Men in armor are slow, men with longswords, predictable. But men with ecstazia, ruthless.” She smiled at me, my excitement now rivaling hers.

    After nearly a month of feeble, bruised, and embarrassing practice, I stared at the pair of weapons in my hands. They were a gateway to proving myself in those situations where steel becomes a more honest style of conversation.

    “I think we found your style, jester,” she smirked at me. “I should have known you were a dirty fighter.”

    Our laughter echoed around the courtyard. “How else is someone as short as me supposed to best their opponent?”

    “As my father told me, honor and pride is no use to dead men. I will drill you later on ecstazia footwork, technique, thinking. For now, get used to the feeling of wielding two weapons. Enjoy yourself,” she winked, “this will take some time.”

    I tested the weight of their swing against the air, already feeling more comfortable. Longswords have history, tradition. When I picked one up, I felt centuries of technique and expectation breathing down my back. This felt like territory waiting for me to discover it, capable of showing me things just as I was willing to explore it.

    “Lost in thought again? Come on, then, Casimir!” she coaxed.

    “Come on, then, traitor!” a guardsman jeered at me as he bashed the hilt of his sword against his steel chest plate.

    I’d barred the door behind me, the result of that being the countless fists pounding on it at this moment. In front of me, however, it appeared guards from other parts of the castle had heard the commotion in the dining hall and pieced together what’d happened. They stood, blocking me from my route to the uppermost floors. From what little I could see of them beneath their visors, I thought I recognized their faces. So why would they avenge the corpse of a madman? Hadn’t they heard the stories?

    “How can loyalty blind you like this?” I asked them as droplets of blood pattered the floor from my blades. “You saw what he was like, how he killed without thinking! Someone had to do it!” I shouted, not caring who heard me. “Step aside! I have little time, and I’ll not have some armored idiots squandering it.”

    Spittle sprayed out of one of the visors at me. I sidestepped it.

    “You choose death, then?” I asked. “Is your life so meaningless that I must give it value by killing you?” I flourished my blades and readied myself.

    “I’ll not be killed by a fool,” the one in the middle taunted back, his voice muddled from his helm.

    “Loyalty has not blinded me, Casimir,” the guard on the right said, “you’ve just lost mine. The godsdamned murderer you are ... the King trusted you.” 

    The impending skirmish tightened the air. To each of us, the banging of the door, the incessant shouts for vengeance, the stampeding of boots throughout the castle, were drowned by the adrenaline in our ears. Torchlight flickered against our bodies, cast our shadow in dark spasms all around the room. 

   To them, the outcome was obvious. I stood alone, defended only by two daggers and some leather that would give to their sharpened blades. But to me, it was a challenge, another game of wit, of not rolling unfavorable odds, but finding that opportunity in which there are none at all: only certainty. And should it be my end, what of it? I deserve only what I earn, but never shy from what luck may offer. 

    “Always strike first when it is not suicide,” Zakora once told me. “Death enjoys a little arrogance, now and then.”

   I went for the one on the right, catching the flinch of fear in his eyes as I did, whetting my boldness as my daggers found their rhythm, flashing against his panicked defenses. When I broke through, I was not surprised to find my blades, now for the fourth time since I killed the king, tasting blood again, and all too willing to consume more.

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Chapter 2 of The Culling of Casimir
Written by Harlequin in portal Fantasy
Chapter 2: Ecstazia
    One moment chases another and bleeds into the next, in which the mud from my feet splashes against the sky beside me, indigo melting to night, senses wrought with tension. Something is chasing me, something without form. A shadow as pervasive as the darkness that encapsulates mountains after the sun sets. The inevitability of it grips me. Even if I had wings, I would be a prey to this entity. Still, I find myself sprinting.
    After reaching the top of a hillock overlooking the bog I emerged from, a dilapidated mansion shrouded by thick trees, whose roots have latched onto it like veins around a heart, beckons me with its refuge. I run harder, feeling that presence nearing. It frosts the ground, freezes my breath, transmutes all that is behind me into stillness. Should I turn and face it, it will undoubtedly be my end.
    A gate with hundreds of horizontal, blackened teeth that once closed it intricately is now a pair of rusted jaws with protruding fangs. I burst through, suffering gashes where the rotted metal cut my forearms as I used them to shield my head.
The gate clangs backwards from the force, ringing, before it is forced open again by my pursuer, causing another reverberation of knells that follow me inside the mansion’s gaping doors.
    With closed eyes, I turn and slam the entrance shut. To my surprise, no banging or attempts to enter follows. Whatever was chasing me made no attempt to throw its weight against the door. Still, my hands scramble for several latches and pull them shut.
    Only, as I turn towards a graveyard of furniture, shattered glass and scattered silverware, the looming windows of the home are swallowed by a blackness without shades. Dust fills my lungs as I pant, sweat dots the floorboards overgrown with fungus. What hues of a setting sun that should have bled through the cracked glass are snuffed swiftly by that same shadow consuming all. In my limited senses of molded wood and silence, I stumble up a spiral staircase, following a light leaking like melted silver down its steps.
    I follow the trail, towards another door, its frame illuminated stark against the pitch, and enter.
    A small chamber with walls made entirely of mirrors reflects an orb of light in its center. Despite it being the only source of light in the blackness, my eyes are unperturbed by its soft glow. I shut the door behind me and walk closer to the silvery orb, cradling the warmth before clutching it close, embracing it like you would a child you’d lost.
    It slips through my hands, and upon meeting the ground, shatters.
    A silver hue lingers in the air and colors my vision, but the dread returns.
Spawning from each mirror are shadows whose smokey outlines wave as they drift towards me, each one bearing a mask depicting an emotion. They stare, closing in soundlessly, the details more lifelike the longer I look. Seemingly harmless, yet terrifying all the same, I cannot suppress the tremors that start in my body. The phantoms surround me in rage, grief, trepidation, contentment, ecstasy, boredom, envy, terror, anxiety, patience, lust, and some that blend between others, their illustrations a masterful depiction of expression, yet, the epitome of torment.
    One mask pushes itself through the others. Humor: laughing inaudibly through cracked, faded paint and chipped stone. It turns itself to its hallow end and latches onto my face. Before I can attempt to pry it off, the rest follow suit, fading into one another as they crowd my head.
As the terror peaks to spasms in my chest, I look through the eyes of the mask, into the mirror directly facing me.
    While some of the guises had faded, seven or six remain, forming a rotating circle around my head. When I attempt to pull one of them off, a bolt of pain sparks through my body. I cease moving, succumbing to their possession. The carousel of masks spin, swifter each blink, until the emotions blur, wherein I am imprisoned within a chaos reflected in every possible peripheral of my vision: a mirrored maelstrom of me.

    I gasped. There was a puddle of drool beneath my mouth where my face had been pressed directly against the pillow, nearly suffocating me. I squinted partly in confusion, partly in annoyance, recalling glimpses of the nightmare as I wiped my chin and lips before sitting up.
    In the mirror across my bedchamber, I found my bright, dirtied gold eyes staring back at me, some of the view obscured by waves of burnt, umber hair. Even in the late morning, or perhaps midday light, I could still see glimpses of the phantoms circling my head, remnants of the nightmare lingering in reality.
In the journal by my bed, I confined the memories.
    After opening the terrace doors in the center of the room, a warm gust of summer air breathed into the room, brightening my senses as I puzzled over the dream’s meaning. Immediately, the nightmare’s grip relinquished itself. It had been a long while since Portsworth felt a forgiving breath of air. All to often does snow fall here in the late spring.
    I walked onto the terrace and let my arms rest against the marble guardrails. Far, far beneath me, Portsworth was a seemingly incongruous city thriving in its harried business. The northern docks were packed with sailors, merchants and workers carrying goods and bartering services, while others streamed onto barges for travel. The ports seemed as packed with variously sized vessels as it was with people. Across from the river where ships departed and unfurled their sails in response to wry commands, Addorian hills rolled upwards, intermittently cut by sea rivulets, arching towards mountains dotted by hamlets and villages, and farmlands flourishing beneath the three suns of summer. To the far east, where fewer and fewer villages sprouted up, the Sea of Gold shivered in the midday light. Though it wasn’t a sea at all, rather a forest, with leaves that took on the color of that metal men kill one another for. In the autumn it transforms into the Sea of Blood with bright, scarlet tones. And as winter descends, the leaves dry to a muddied burgundy, true to the metaphor.
    Where the paths that led to the ports wound back into the city, the streets twisted and tangled, packed in too closely between wooden structures that seem to slant towards the cobblestone in the poorer districts, and rise too high in more blessed areas.
The Northern Square breathed less crowded air, with a statue of Nocturos in the center, each of his arms draped with cloaks in the shape of massive doorways. Above him, his runic symbol blazed silver. After the sun would set, it would paint the surrounding stones in tranquil hues of pulsing violet. Much of the south, west and eastern parts of Portsworth weren’t in view from my chamber in the Foxfeather Castle, but I knew many of their streets as well as I did my own clothes and hair.
    “Lord Casimir,” a servant called through the doorway after a few knocks.
    I sighed. How many times must I ask them not to call me 'Lord'? “Yes?” I replied, but the realization had already struck me. I rushed towards my wardrobe, cursing myself.
    “Lady Zakora sent me, said you had training this afternoon. Said you were late … ‘again’.”
    “Yes, yes. Thank you! You can send her an apology and tell her I’ll join her shortly,” I said as I tripped on my britches, smashing my head against one of the legs of my desk. “Fek!”
    “What was that, my lord?”
    “Nothing!’

    The small bump on my head still forming, I licked the blood on my bottom lip, trying to ignore the pelting heat on my neck, the sting of sweat in my eyes, the sharp-scented herbs surrounding the grassy courtyard we had been sparring in for the last two hours.
    “Were you drinking last night?” she asked me in that thickened, Zorrian accent I could barely understand half of the time, swinging around a wooden broadsword while she waited for me to recover.
   “A poor swordsman, perhaps, but a drunkard? You hurt me, Zakora. No, I wasn’t.” It was the truth. “I had a nightmare that didn’t seem to let go.”
    “You are lying to me. I have other pupils, you know. I cannot waste time with the likes of you. Always, always late.” She snapped her head to the side, refusing to look at me. Her straight, auburn hair bordered her face and stopped just below her chin. Above her sharp nose and tight cheekbones, her grey eyes scrutinized me. When I didn't say anything, she advanced on me swiftly, retribution sparking in her movements. “Disarm me!” she commanded, pairing that with a heavy-handed attack.
    I threw up my longsword to parry, only for the force of her swing to obliterate my defenses, sending both me and my sword somersaulting backwards. She clouted me on the head with a gloved fist as she walked passed almost lazily. It was precisely where the desk had hit, too. I swallowed a scream.
    “Surely I did not wait all morning for this!” she huffed. “You’ve improved little since our last session. If anything, you are worse. What am I to tell your sire, hmm? He will think he is wasting his coin on me.”
    “Kuilmore dek,” I cursed in my native tongue, massaging the fresh welt on my thumb where her blade had slid past the guard. “You don’t need to tell William anything, Zakora. I asked for these lessons myself.”
    “Fine. But you are too small for longsword,” she noted aloud. “We will need something else.” Her accent replaced the ‘th’s with ‘z’s.
    “Not necessary,” I said as I stood back up. My arms protested the weight of the longsword, but I raised it back to a fighting stance all the same. “Once more."
    She continued digging out some dirt from her nails as her brows furrowed in contemplation.
    "Oh, come on, then. Again!" I said, just as frustrated as she was to see little improvement.
    She wagged her finger at me. “We have been doing this for weeks, for nothing. You are far too little for longsword. We’re done with it, forget it. Time to change tactics.”
    “But …”
    “End of story, Casimir,” she sang, smiling with an undeniable air of mockery and enjoyment. It didn’t help my pride that her rich, oak-colored skin glanced off the sun without a single bead of sweat, while I had tasted a nearly permanent line of salt on my upper lip since the last half hour. “You are a halfbreed, yes? Elf and man?”
    As I have explained countless times. She, as well as many others, seemed to find endless intrigue in this topic. “My mother was a Qalmorian elf, but my father was from here, Addoran.”
    “From my observation,” she said, tapping her finger against her chin, “you have gained all clumsiness of Addoran man and all tiny of Qalmorian elf.”
    Her lacking vocabulary in the common tongue made it only more frustrating to be insulted by her. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, trying to swallow my pride. ‘Short’ might have been technically correct but ‘tiny’ was another word entirely.
“How observant of you,” I said dryly.
    Zakora seemed thin at first glance, but every scrap of her spoke for itself. Hidden beneath the stringency of her impeccable stature and the tightness of her gait, was more technique in swordplay than most men could ever hope to possess, that made strength seem like a pitiable attribute to foster. Her height was, however, only a half a head above mine, which is better than the one or two I am used to looking up at.
   I sprang to my feet, determined not to look so ‘tiny’ and ‘clumsy’ in front of a woman who seemed to walk into flawless confidence every morning, as easily as she slipped on her cloak. She was, down to the fibers of her boiled leather raiment, comfortable in her own example of perfection. “Then again, why put a sword in the hands of a marksman? I am a fine bowman. Do you not have fighting techniques that involve a bow in close combat? I will not disappoint you there.”
    She was evidently lost in her own thought process, but stopped to shake her finger at me again. Her words quickened, as if making up for lost time. “Bows have no place in swordplay. You are nothing if you are not a fighter. Archers are good for war and archery tournaments, but close combat is … another thing entirely. You need to be fluent in blade language.”
    Her arrogance wasn’t unmerited. I’d seen Zakora outmatch some of the best fighters and swordsmen in the castle upon her arrival in the country, after William had hired her following my request. If I could glean a fiber of her skill, it could mean the difference between breathing and being dumped in one of Portsworth’s more popular, impromptu graveyards: the sea. “Fair enough. I will become fluent in the ‘blade language'.”
    “Indeed!” she exclaimed, waving away her poor grammar, all too aware that she was not conveying herself perfectly, but far too enthused to care. “The problem is not the man, but the sword, in this case. How rare. You will not hear me say that often. Count yourself lucky, jester. Ever heard of ecstazia?” Zakora walked to a large satchel with training blades spilling out of its stretched seams. She brought out two other weapons. One was smaller than the other, the size of a dagger, the other, a shortsword.
    I managed to keep them from falling to the ground after she tossed them to me. “Can’t say that I have,” I admitted, quirking an eyebrow at the pair of sparring weapons. "Who or what is it?"
    Several servants carrying platters of food passed by the outer ring of the training grounds. They slowed and eyed us before continuing into one of the many floors of the castle, whispering to themselves between snickers. The training grounds were not far beneath my own chamber, and from the edge of it, you could see the eastern sea ports. Even from here, the tolling of bells and commands echoed up the salt-sprayed cliffside.
    “It is a fighting technique from my own country, taught by few,” she explained with a glint in her eye. “If it is mastered, it is perhaps one of the best. Not my … what you say? Cup of caffek? But it works for a few, and I think,” she said, prodding my chest, “you belong to that ‘few’. Some say the Shadow Syndicate trains their thieves in this fighting style.”
    “You’re not being serious, are you? Duel wielding daggers …” I shook my head. “What happens if some brute with a broadsword swings sideways at me while I hold these? I'll be lamb's meat! No, I'll be worse. I'll be me meat! There is no way to defend myself with these, either, they are too short."
    “Oh?” Zakora folded her arms, let her weight fall on one side of her hips, and tilted her head with a feigned look of interest. "So you fail with longsword and now you know other fighting styles? It appears my training has taught you well."
     I ignored her comment and continued my argument. “It may seem rather menacing, I suppose, but it simply isn’t practical. Give me a rapier, instead, something light. Something I can duel with properly. This is folly.”
    Zakora threw up her head and started laughing until a few birds enjoying nectar nearby fluttered off. “You mock ecstazia and ask for a ‘rapier’. What will you do then, fight the enemy with your prick? The rapier is a sword of status, used for competitions, not true fighting. It has no place in combat. Here,” she motioned for the daggers, and I handed them back. “Take a lighter sword, something you can lift. Then throw yourself at me. We’ll see if this is folly or if you are the fool.”
    I dug through her weapons bag until I found a sword that suited my height and strength, then began to walk back.
    “Ah-ah!” she snapped before repeating “Shield, shield, shield,” and pointed to a bulwark leaning against one of the benches in the courtyard. “I want you to have every advantage.”
    Begrudgingly, I took it up and faced her.
    Without warning, as they often did, the bout started. Zakora coaxed for my attacks with a cunning patience, and I gave them to her, pressing my advantage in defense as much as I could. Her stance was different from anything that I’d seen before, relying on the balls of her feet more than anything, the spring of her legs to switch from attack to defense within half steps. It lacked structure, predictability, or cadence. And for every attack I gave, she used the dagger in her left hand to parry, the sword in her right to attack simultaneously. She manipulated my blade with both of hers when I gave her enough length or time to, using them like hands to shove it from harm’s way to open up attacks, flowing from defense to offense in seamless movements.
    Before long, I was the one retreating, my heels catching on the grass. What seemed like the uselessness of two small, mismatched blades, had turned into the overwhelming possibility of being vulnerable every time she deflected one of my strikes.
    Zakora knocked my sword back after one of my unsuccessful swings, jabbing my gut with her fist before wrenching the shield from my hand. I backpedalled in gasps, gaining some distance as she readied herself to spring on me.
    She lunged. I braced the sword to parry one of her daggers, managing to catch it and deflect its arc. With the other blade, she went for my stomach, but I dodged its point. She leapt from the ground as soon as the strikes proved unsuccessful, pivoting off a nearby pillar woven with ivy before landing on my sword arm and kicking me to the ground. The bruise on my head was hit for the second time that day as it slammed into the grass.
Through dizzied vision I found Zakora above me, her warm thighs straddling my chest, smiling with a wooden blade pushed against my throat.
    I coughed, only brief indulging my mind’s instinct to imagine something other than swordplay with her. “Fine, fine. I didn’t know what I was saying. I am the fool. What demon taught you that, anyways?”
    She just shook her head and laughed. “Yes, you are, but not for long—I’ll be sure of that. Ecstazia is more than dual wielding,” she explained as she helped me to my feet. “You use the dagger for parrying, the sword for striking, and switch, if needed, to overcome your opponent.” She demonstrated a few maneuvers slowly, swiping aside imaginary attacks and striking at the air in response.
    “That is why one blade is smaller than the other?” I asked, more intrigued.
    “Exactly! We call it the ‘trink'. Think of it has a shield, but you don’t take their hits, you turn them. Some ecstazia fighters use a something called eh … ‘blade breakers’ instead of a trink. Daggers with cuts in edge to trap and break enemy weapons. Of course, I would have one made for you if you wished.”
    “And you have seen men use this technique successfully?” I asked, rather stupidly.
    “Success does not describe a master in the art of ecstazia. Men in armor are slow, men with longswords, predictable. But men with ecstazia, ruthless.” She smiled at me, my excitement now rivaling hers.
    After nearly a month of feeble, bruised, and embarrassing practice, I stared at the pair of weapons in my hands. They were a gateway to proving myself in those situations where steel becomes a more honest style of conversation.
    “I think we found your style, jester,” she smirked at me. “I should have known you were a dirty fighter.”
    Our laughter echoed around the courtyard. “How else is someone as short as me supposed to best their opponent?”
    “As my father told me, honor and pride is no use to dead men. I will drill you later on ecstazia footwork, technique, thinking. For now, get used to the feeling of wielding two weapons. Enjoy yourself,” she winked, “this will take some time.”
    I tested the weight of their swing against the air, already feeling more comfortable. Longswords have history, tradition. When I picked one up, I felt centuries of technique and expectation breathing down my back. This felt like territory waiting for me to discover it, capable of showing me things just as I was willing to explore it.
    “Lost in thought again? Come on, then, Casimir!” she coaxed.

    “Come on, then, traitor!” a guardsman jeered at me as he bashed the hilt of his sword against his steel chest plate.
    I’d barred the door behind me, the result of that being the countless fists pounding on it at this moment. In front of me, however, it appeared guards from other parts of the castle had heard the commotion in the dining hall and pieced together what’d happened. They stood, blocking me from my route to the uppermost floors. From what little I could see of them beneath their visors, I thought I recognized their faces. So why would they avenge the corpse of a madman? Hadn’t they heard the stories?
    “How can loyalty blind you like this?” I asked them as droplets of blood pattered the floor from my blades. “You saw what he was like, how he killed without thinking! Someone had to do it!” I shouted, not caring who heard me. “Step aside! I have little time, and I’ll not have some armored idiots squandering it.”
    Spittle sprayed out of one of the visors at me. I sidestepped it.
    “You choose death, then?” I asked. “Is your life so meaningless that I must give it value by killing you?” I flourished my blades and readied myself.
    “I’ll not be killed by a fool,” the one in the middle taunted back, his voice muddled from his helm.
    “Loyalty has not blinded me, Casimir,” the guard on the right said, “you’ve just lost mine. The godsdamned murderer you are ... the King trusted you.” 
    The impending skirmish tightened the air. To each of us, the banging of the door, the incessant shouts for vengeance, the stampeding of boots throughout the castle, were drowned by the adrenaline in our ears. Torchlight flickered against our bodies, cast our shadow in dark spasms all around the room. 
   To them, the outcome was obvious. I stood alone, defended only by two daggers and some leather that would give to their sharpened blades. But to me, it was a challenge, another game of wit, of not rolling unfavorable odds, but finding that opportunity in which there are none at all: only certainty. And should it be my end, what of it? I deserve only what I earn, but never shy from what luck may offer. 
    “Always strike first when it is not suicide,” Zakora once told me. “Death enjoys a little arrogance, now and then.”
   I went for the one on the right, catching the flinch of fear in his eyes as I did, whetting my boldness as my daggers found their rhythm, flashing against his panicked defenses. When I broke through, I was not surprised to find my blades, now for the fourth time since I killed the king, tasting blood again, and all too willing to consume more.
#fantasy  #adventure  #Netherway  #TCOC 
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