Harlequin
Partner
A whispered word, a splash of blood, an enigma's mask. What's more to ask?
Donate coins to Harlequin.
Juice
Cancel
Written by Harlequin in portal Poetry & Free Verse

Ire

These letters descend as fallen stars

Cataclysmic showers ad infinitum

Leaving shimmers in their wake

Beguiling, mystifying, yet

Ephemeral in their trace

When silence comes, as silence does

Our stars' dust pervades all the same

With visions we forgot, or ignored

Still glimmering, now settled

Upon midnight's sifting shores

Their eternities are only waiting

Expecting a soul's graceless presence

That human made briefly divine

From our rough and uncouth

Core pining a god's essence

No more nor less, we listen

A scribe scratching for remembrance

Perhaps one evening or another

We may yet find ourselves once more

Gazing out upon the crystalline cracks

Our words left upon those shores

How easy it is, to dream

Beyond our hand's trembling dire

But to dig in searching screams

For meaning, another thing entirely

When impatience festers to ire

When all's left are those stars

We marked once before

Fading as memories often do

Before dawn's hungering fire

11
5
4
Juice
43 reads
Donate coins to Harlequin.
Juice
Cancel
Written by Harlequin in portal Poetry & Free Verse
Ire
These letters descend as fallen stars
Cataclysmic showers ad infinitum
Leaving shimmers in their wake
Beguiling, mystifying, yet
Ephemeral in their trace

When silence comes, as silence does
Our stars' dust pervades all the same
With visions we forgot, or ignored
Still glimmering, now settled
Upon midnight's sifting shores

Their eternities are only waiting
Expecting a soul's graceless presence
That human made briefly divine
From our rough and uncouth
Core pining a god's essence
No more nor less, we listen
A scribe scratching for remembrance

Perhaps one evening or another
We may yet find ourselves once more
Gazing out upon the crystalline cracks
Our words left upon those shores

How easy it is, to dream
Beyond our hand's trembling dire
But to dig in searching screams
For meaning, another thing entirely
When impatience festers to ire
When all's left are those stars
We marked once before
Fading as memories often do
Before dawn's hungering fire
11
5
4
Juice
43 reads
Load 4 Comments
Login to post comments.
Advertisement  (turn off)
Donate coins to Harlequin.
Juice
Cancel
Trident Media Group is the leading U.S. literary agency and we are looking to discover and represent the next bestsellers. Share a sample of your work. If it shows promise, we will be in touch with you.
Written by Harlequin in portal Trident Media Group

Inexorable: Introduction

"May you live like a rat, with your ambitions never beyond survival, the scramble for sustenance with a look of terror writhing in your eyes."

    I heard those words hanging in the air, their pungency evoked with a thick, rumbling slur of an even voice swathed in slow confidence. When I breathed, I felt that familiar stench of nightmares foul on my body, and so went to mask it, the way each of us masks the endless machinations of our innermost fears. I tucked the night terrors behind a high collar, I knotted them with a loose tie, and hid them beneath a faded pair of trousers and waistcoat. 

    In the reflection of a straight razor, I frowned at the expression of trepidation looking back before tucking the edge against the peppered stubble on my jaw. After wiping away the shaving cream, the loose strands, and disinfecting the crisscrossed cuts on my cheeks, I left the morning ritual to fade in the same light which then began it, now burning it away.

    At my doorstep, dozens of parcels of various size littered the path with the furthest dates reaching almost six months past. As always, or since the oldest deliveries, I strode by with the same hollow promise of opening them upon my evening's return. And, as always, the crows whom had a habit of toying with the unswept debris in my walkways, cawed in frustration as I interrupted their play.

    Low clouds and smoke from fires in the countryside covered the walkways of Rudmoore Avenue in thick exhalations of endless murk that had been rolling through for three days now. Despite the normal hour, there were no silhouettes to be seen through the haze, no clattering coaches, no shop windows hollering with bargains and fresh goods. Even the street lamps were still burning from last night.

    A hand grabbed mine. I drew back with a gasp, mistaking the hunched figure for another sack tucked between the crates crammed against the Rudmoore Bank.

    "The lamplighter," a beggar wheezed up at me with a broken nose encrusted with snot and dried blood. Her bloodshot eyes looked to me as if I could bring some divine clarity to her senseless greeting.

    "Excuse me?"

    "Lamplighter," she repeated, looking as if she might scramble to retrieve my hand once again, were it not for her apparent state of post-opiate exhaustion.

    "I'm no lamplighter. I ... good day," I replied, just as the four chapels in the city began their morning tolls. I flicked a coin onto the ground to distract her and moved on. My heart was beating too small from the nightmares this morning to have any room for sympathetic conversations with the destitute and deluded.

    When their final reverberations ended, I overheard the murmurs of a crowd up ahead, rising to their own kind of din, subdued only by what I imagined was some imposing obligation to reverence.

    "What's happened here?" I asked a passerby who had the look of someone with satiated curiosity, the look of someone who'd just seen something memorable and was prepared to go about their day without a second thought. You could say I aspired to be like him. Each of his fists were stuffed with fishlines heavy from their catch.

    He just grunted, nodded his head toward the gathered crowd, and continued on his way.

    "What a charmer," I murmured and continued toward the gaggle of citizens, now congregated in the middle of the street's intersections. Over their heads, the rounded tops of police caps bobbed with nods and shakes. And all around us, crows gated us in like black posts on eves, eyeing what everyone else was goggling at with doubled fascination.

    "Back away! Give us some room to breathe, for heaven's sakes!" one of the officers called over the murmurs.

    I politely, quietly refused and continued forward, shoving through someone whose eyes had clearly had their fill by then.

    "Oi!"

    " 'Oi' yourself."

    Circled by dusted, black boots and empty speculations was the decapitated remains of what appeared to be little else than a boy. Both his pinkie and his middle finger were missing from his hand. In the other, a rod for snuffing and lighting lamps was clutched by rigor mortis' grip.

    "How long has this been here?" I asked no one in particular.

    "I found him not half an hour ago," a woman responded, her voice recognizable from the pastry stand that typically opened on the street's corner every morning.

    "The body is fresh, but where's the blood?"

    "Blood?" She looked at the body again, her dumbfounded expression now matching the officers'.

    "There's hardly any ..." I murmured.

"May you die like a memory, faded and forgotten for what little worth it was, without comfort of innocence or a martyr's pity. A failure of expectations. A neglected trophy of refuse. A burnt page amongst millions in a raging fire."

    The voice trailed like cold acid from my ear.

    "Who said that?" I turned and stared at the bewildered gentleman behind me, whose hand went from shielding his child's eyes to instead protecting his own head. The woman beside him backed away from me, and the others followed suit. Somewhere in the throng, a baby began its best imitations of a banshee.

    I hadn't meant to shout, but now the crowd was hushed and facing me with indignant and confused stares.

    Too deep in embarrassment to stop there, I continued. "Go on then, who made that vile threat? Show yourself!"

    "Has somebody threatened you?" one of the officers asked. "Who? Was it the man who did this?"

    Some of the crowd disjoined themselves from the spectacle, to allow the dialogue between me and the officer to continue.

    "I ... I heard someone."

    "Who was it? Quickly!"

    I searched the faces of the crowd in a sudden desperation to find somebody to accuse. Shopkeepers, coachmen, a barber, a tailor, a baker, mothers and their children, and all of them with a look of unmistakable surprise and innocence. My fingers wrung themselves together before the expression of doubt reached my face. Looking back at the officer, he recognized the paranoia in my expression, that of a madman, or even a drunk, offset by an otherwise normal and clean-shaven face. When only stutters came, they shook their heads and continued investigating the body.

    Like swatting at a swarm of flies, the crowd was dispersed by my outcry, leaving only me, the lamplighter, and the officers.

    "I know who it was," someone whispered behind me. "I saw."

    Her stench, if not her voice, gave her away.

    The fog in the beggar's eyes was cleared away by eagerness and excitement. For that, I listened.

    "Who was it?" I asked.

    "Come with me. He went this way."

    And before I could question her anymore, she hurried past the body and down the street. I followed, with the air just then beginning to smell of decay. 

9
5
5
Juice
131 reads
Donate coins to Harlequin.
Juice
Cancel
Trident Media Group is the leading U.S. literary agency and we are looking to discover and represent the next bestsellers. Share a sample of your work. If it shows promise, we will be in touch with you.
Written by Harlequin in portal Trident Media Group
Inexorable: Introduction
"May you live like a rat, with your ambitions never beyond survival, the scramble for sustenance with a look of terror writhing in your eyes."

    I heard those words hanging in the air, their pungency evoked with a thick, rumbling slur of an even voice swathed in slow confidence. When I breathed, I felt that familiar stench of nightmares foul on my body, and so went to mask it, the way each of us masks the endless machinations of our innermost fears. I tucked the night terrors behind a high collar, I knotted them with a loose tie, and hid them beneath a faded pair of trousers and waistcoat. 
    In the reflection of a straight razor, I frowned at the expression of trepidation looking back before tucking the edge against the peppered stubble on my jaw. After wiping away the shaving cream, the loose strands, and disinfecting the crisscrossed cuts on my cheeks, I left the morning ritual to fade in the same light which then began it, now burning it away.
    At my doorstep, dozens of parcels of various size littered the path with the furthest dates reaching almost six months past. As always, or since the oldest deliveries, I strode by with the same hollow promise of opening them upon my evening's return. And, as always, the crows whom had a habit of toying with the unswept debris in my walkways, cawed in frustration as I interrupted their play.
    Low clouds and smoke from fires in the countryside covered the walkways of Rudmoore Avenue in thick exhalations of endless murk that had been rolling through for three days now. Despite the normal hour, there were no silhouettes to be seen through the haze, no clattering coaches, no shop windows hollering with bargains and fresh goods. Even the street lamps were still burning from last night.
    A hand grabbed mine. I drew back with a gasp, mistaking the hunched figure for another sack tucked between the crates crammed against the Rudmoore Bank.
    "The lamplighter," a beggar wheezed up at me with a broken nose encrusted with snot and dried blood. Her bloodshot eyes looked to me as if I could bring some divine clarity to her senseless greeting.
    "Excuse me?"
    "Lamplighter," she repeated, looking as if she might scramble to retrieve my hand once again, were it not for her apparent state of post-opiate exhaustion.
    "I'm no lamplighter. I ... good day," I replied, just as the four chapels in the city began their morning tolls. I flicked a coin onto the ground to distract her and moved on. My heart was beating too small from the nightmares this morning to have any room for sympathetic conversations with the destitute and deluded.
    When their final reverberations ended, I overheard the murmurs of a crowd up ahead, rising to their own kind of din, subdued only by what I imagined was some imposing obligation to reverence.
    "What's happened here?" I asked a passerby who had the look of someone with satiated curiosity, the look of someone who'd just seen something memorable and was prepared to go about their day without a second thought. You could say I aspired to be like him. Each of his fists were stuffed with fishlines heavy from their catch.
    He just grunted, nodded his head toward the gathered crowd, and continued on his way.
    "What a charmer," I murmured and continued toward the gaggle of citizens, now congregated in the middle of the street's intersections. Over their heads, the rounded tops of police caps bobbed with nods and shakes. And all around us, crows gated us in like black posts on eves, eyeing what everyone else was goggling at with doubled fascination.
    "Back away! Give us some room to breathe, for heaven's sakes!" one of the officers called over the murmurs.
    I politely, quietly refused and continued forward, shoving through someone whose eyes had clearly had their fill by then.
    "Oi!"
    " 'Oi' yourself."
    Circled by dusted, black boots and empty speculations was the decapitated remains of what appeared to be little else than a boy. Both his pinkie and his middle finger were missing from his hand. In the other, a rod for snuffing and lighting lamps was clutched by rigor mortis' grip.
    "How long has this been here?" I asked no one in particular.
    "I found him not half an hour ago," a woman responded, her voice recognizable from the pastry stand that typically opened on the street's corner every morning.
    "The body is fresh, but where's the blood?"
    "Blood?" She looked at the body again, her dumbfounded expression now matching the officers'.
    "There's hardly any ..." I murmured.

"May you die like a memory, faded and forgotten for what little worth it was, without comfort of innocence or a martyr's pity. A failure of expectations. A neglected trophy of refuse. A burnt page amongst millions in a raging fire."

    The voice trailed like cold acid from my ear.
    "Who said that?" I turned and stared at the bewildered gentleman behind me, whose hand went from shielding his child's eyes to instead protecting his own head. The woman beside him backed away from me, and the others followed suit. Somewhere in the throng, a baby began its best imitations of a banshee.
    I hadn't meant to shout, but now the crowd was hushed and facing me with indignant and confused stares.
    Too deep in embarrassment to stop there, I continued. "Go on then, who made that vile threat? Show yourself!"
    "Has somebody threatened you?" one of the officers asked. "Who? Was it the man who did this?"
    Some of the crowd disjoined themselves from the spectacle, to allow the dialogue between me and the officer to continue.
    "I ... I heard someone."
    "Who was it? Quickly!"
    I searched the faces of the crowd in a sudden desperation to find somebody to accuse. Shopkeepers, coachmen, a barber, a tailor, a baker, mothers and their children, and all of them with a look of unmistakable surprise and innocence. My fingers wrung themselves together before the expression of doubt reached my face. Looking back at the officer, he recognized the paranoia in my expression, that of a madman, or even a drunk, offset by an otherwise normal and clean-shaven face. When only stutters came, they shook their heads and continued investigating the body.
    Like swatting at a swarm of flies, the crowd was dispersed by my outcry, leaving only me, the lamplighter, and the officers.
    "I know who it was," someone whispered behind me. "I saw."
    Her stench, if not her voice, gave her away.
    The fog in the beggar's eyes was cleared away by eagerness and excitement. For that, I listened.
    "Who was it?" I asked.
    "Come with me. He went this way."
    And before I could question her anymore, she hurried past the body and down the street. I followed, with the air just then beginning to smell of decay. 
9
5
5
Juice
131 reads
Load 5 Comments
Login to post comments.
Donate coins to Harlequin.
Juice
Cancel
Written by Harlequin in portal Flash Fiction

Tristan's Invention

    Willow trees fluttered in the dozens on the backs of infantry units as they passed the afternoon absentmindedly, a luxury becoming more and more frequent with the final skirmishes on the Eastern Front more and more resembling the lazy batting of a cat at a maimed mouse. They had fashioned balls out of unredeemable scraps of leather armor to kick around, started squeezing oranges into their canteens, (artfully 'taxed' from the local farmers' groves), and perhaps most telling, began to trade stories and jokes with their superior officers, usually kept between peers. 

    Beneath the summer sun and swathed in humidity, many of them had abandoned the outer armor of their uniforms, left in individual piles along with letters containing, for once, handwriting made legible by patient hands speaking of the certainty of returning home soon.

    "Like a grove," one Lieutenant Karren remarked to herself with a smile as she observed her platoon relaxing on the field of trampled grass. She had almost finished jotting down the scene in her journal, when a loud burst like the hot sputtering of a geyser startled her.

    "Everybody look!" someone shouted.

    Immediately, the field jumped in synchronized panic.

    "It actually works!" Tristan shouted and pointed at a freshly-punctured scarecrow, only to inspire a rippling groan of annoyance throughout the field, punctuated by curses made in conjunction with Tristan's name.

    "A'right, a'right, it's my turn now," Jean advanced with his usual misplaced authority.

    Tristan dodged the hands groping for the steam-operated crossbow of his own devising, before righting his goggles and wagging his finger. "Ah-ah, no no," he laughed. "This is highly technical. I wouldn't want one of your temporal veins to burst."

    "Temp--what?"

    "Exactly."

    Jean rolled his eyes. "I might not wear welding lenses at all times to let everyone know I'm smarter than them, but I can pull a lever."

    "Trigger. It's a trigger. Be respectful, now. This isn't your standard crossbow," he hummed as he relented and handed it over.

    "Careful Jean, that thing is likely to do as much damage to you as it will to that dummy," Aurora interrupted, standing nearby with her arms crossed. "That being said, I would like to try after him."

    "Just what are you insinuating?" 

    "That it might erupt. Explode. Become shrapnel."

    "Oh don't be ridiculous," Tristan scoffed, pulling down one of his sleeves to hide faded scars earned precisely from the aforementioned consequence. 

    Meanwhile, Jean couldn't lend two shits. "Where's the string? You payed somebody to rune this damned thing?"

    "There is none, that's the beauty of it!" Tristan cackled. He rapped one of his knuckles against the steel canister strapped to wood. "That's compressed steam, sweetheart."

    "Don't call me sweetheart."

    Jean aimed down the fogged, scratched lens mounted on the crossbow. 

    Across the yard and laying beneath the only tree in the field, Raymon watched the three with idle curiosity, before averting his gaze to the forest at the field's edge, where a couple was kissing up in the shaded branches.

    "The spoils of war," he grinned to himself and looked skyward. 

    A loose seed of dandelion managed to navigate itself between the leaves, before liberating itself high above the canopy. As he watched, he noticed more in his peripheral view, hundreds of them, in fact, shrinking upwards with sunlight catching on their bristles. After surveying the field again, he noticed a few others of his squadron laying on their backs. The possibility of them having witnessed the same sight comforted him. 

    "Don't waste anymore of it!" Tristan panicked after Aurora discovered the self-reloading chamber on the weapon. Bolts spat in quick succession as she sang a taunting tune of nonsense.

    Jean, having realized he'd wasted his own opportunity to express wanton aggression, protested with redoubled effort and volume to have a second try.

   "Marksmen!" Lieutenant Karren hollered as she tramped towards them. "I'll have you know that I could have all three of you tried for treason, you understand?"

    "But Lieutenant!" Tristan stuttered.

    "What do you think you're doing? Hiding this newfound innovation from your superiors? I'll have each of your names in a written report before the day's end."

    "I was going to--"

    "That is, of course, unless you want to let me have a run at it."

    Tristan sighed in a lovestruck stupor.

    Like Aurora, the Lieutenant was weak. The temptation of loosing reckless bolts was too much to resist, and before she was done, Tristan had inadvertently rallied his entire squadron in a straight queue looking to do exactly the same.

    "It won't have enough for all of you!" Tristan cried meekly.

    "Stand down, marksman!" the Lieutenant commanded with a laugh before handing off the weapon to another bowman. 

    But Raymon, sleepy and a diehard swordsman to boot, was still transfixed by the ethereal scene above him. What's more, there were curious, black spots with orange rings joining the seeds in the heavens. Only they weren't getting smaller, they were getting larger, and the longer he watched, the more it seemed they brought with them whistling trails that opposed the staccato sputters of the mechanized crossbow.

    And when he turned his head to the forestry bordering the field, he didn't see the couple sitting aloft anymore, rather their bodies sprawled on the ground, and their assassins backed by dozens of archers, just now advancing from their hiding places.

    Raymon scrambled to his feet. "Lieutenant!"

    But his shout was drowned, obliterated and trampled by a deluge of trebuchet clusters raining hellfire and iron.

9
5
5
Juice
130 reads
Donate coins to Harlequin.
Juice
Cancel
Written by Harlequin in portal Flash Fiction
Tristan's Invention
    Willow trees fluttered in the dozens on the backs of infantry units as they passed the afternoon absentmindedly, a luxury becoming more and more frequent with the final skirmishes on the Eastern Front more and more resembling the lazy batting of a cat at a maimed mouse. They had fashioned balls out of unredeemable scraps of leather armor to kick around, started squeezing oranges into their canteens, (artfully 'taxed' from the local farmers' groves), and perhaps most telling, began to trade stories and jokes with their superior officers, usually kept between peers. 
    Beneath the summer sun and swathed in humidity, many of them had abandoned the outer armor of their uniforms, left in individual piles along with letters containing, for once, handwriting made legible by patient hands speaking of the certainty of returning home soon.
    "Like a grove," one Lieutenant Karren remarked to herself with a smile as she observed her platoon relaxing on the field of trampled grass. She had almost finished jotting down the scene in her journal, when a loud burst like the hot sputtering of a geyser startled her.
    "Everybody look!" someone shouted.
    Immediately, the field jumped in synchronized panic.
    "It actually works!" Tristan shouted and pointed at a freshly-punctured scarecrow, only to inspire a rippling groan of annoyance throughout the field, punctuated by curses made in conjunction with Tristan's name.
    "A'right, a'right, it's my turn now," Jean advanced with his usual misplaced authority.
    Tristan dodged the hands groping for the steam-operated crossbow of his own devising, before righting his goggles and wagging his finger. "Ah-ah, no no," he laughed. "This is highly technical. I wouldn't want one of your temporal veins to burst."
    "Temp--what?"
    "Exactly."
    Jean rolled his eyes. "I might not wear welding lenses at all times to let everyone know I'm smarter than them, but I can pull a lever."
    "Trigger. It's a trigger. Be respectful, now. This isn't your standard crossbow," he hummed as he relented and handed it over.
    "Careful Jean, that thing is likely to do as much damage to you as it will to that dummy," Aurora interrupted, standing nearby with her arms crossed. "That being said, I would like to try after him."
    "Just what are you insinuating?" 
    "That it might erupt. Explode. Become shrapnel."
    "Oh don't be ridiculous," Tristan scoffed, pulling down one of his sleeves to hide faded scars earned precisely from the aforementioned consequence. 
    Meanwhile, Jean couldn't lend two shits. "Where's the string? You payed somebody to rune this damned thing?"
    "There is none, that's the beauty of it!" Tristan cackled. He rapped one of his knuckles against the steel canister strapped to wood. "That's compressed steam, sweetheart."
    "Don't call me sweetheart."
    Jean aimed down the fogged, scratched lens mounted on the crossbow. 
    Across the yard and laying beneath the only tree in the field, Raymon watched the three with idle curiosity, before averting his gaze to the forest at the field's edge, where a couple was kissing up in the shaded branches.
    "The spoils of war," he grinned to himself and looked skyward. 
    A loose seed of dandelion managed to navigate itself between the leaves, before liberating itself high above the canopy. As he watched, he noticed more in his peripheral view, hundreds of them, in fact, shrinking upwards with sunlight catching on their bristles. After surveying the field again, he noticed a few others of his squadron laying on their backs. The possibility of them having witnessed the same sight comforted him. 
    "Don't waste anymore of it!" Tristan panicked after Aurora discovered the self-reloading chamber on the weapon. Bolts spat in quick succession as she sang a taunting tune of nonsense.
    Jean, having realized he'd wasted his own opportunity to express wanton aggression, protested with redoubled effort and volume to have a second try.
   "Marksmen!" Lieutenant Karren hollered as she tramped towards them. "I'll have you know that I could have all three of you tried for treason, you understand?"
    "But Lieutenant!" Tristan stuttered.
    "What do you think you're doing? Hiding this newfound innovation from your superiors? I'll have each of your names in a written report before the day's end."
    "I was going to--"
    "That is, of course, unless you want to let me have a run at it."
    Tristan sighed in a lovestruck stupor.
    Like Aurora, the Lieutenant was weak. The temptation of loosing reckless bolts was too much to resist, and before she was done, Tristan had inadvertently rallied his entire squadron in a straight queue looking to do exactly the same.
    "It won't have enough for all of you!" Tristan cried meekly.
    "Stand down, marksman!" the Lieutenant commanded with a laugh before handing off the weapon to another bowman. 
    But Raymon, sleepy and a diehard swordsman to boot, was still transfixed by the ethereal scene above him. What's more, there were curious, black spots with orange rings joining the seeds in the heavens. Only they weren't getting smaller, they were getting larger, and the longer he watched, the more it seemed they brought with them whistling trails that opposed the staccato sputters of the mechanized crossbow.
    And when he turned his head to the forestry bordering the field, he didn't see the couple sitting aloft anymore, rather their bodies sprawled on the ground, and their assassins backed by dozens of archers, just now advancing from their hiding places.
    Raymon scrambled to his feet. "Lieutenant!"
    But his shout was drowned, obliterated and trampled by a deluge of trebuchet clusters raining hellfire and iron.
9
5
5
Juice
130 reads
Load 5 Comments
Login to post comments.
Donate coins to Harlequin.
Juice
Cancel
Written by Harlequin

Epiphany

I awaken frail as frost

And slough away my dreams

Before dousing the morning light

And pacing dingy streets

The sun's smoldering done

I'm laced with pavement soot

And trail a charcoal cloak

In passionless pursuit

Hypnotic wandering, I breathe

Ashen dust and hear

All life's melodies ringing

Through the blackened streets

Until the ringing rises

And reaches a screaming pitch

That rings

and rings

and rings

A screeching babel and swell

Of banshee whims and wails

A cacophonous shrill

And deafening din which

Ends soon after it begins

Until I hear nothing

Nothing at all, again

21
8
12
Juice
81 reads
Donate coins to Harlequin.
Juice
Cancel
Written by Harlequin
Epiphany
I awaken frail as frost
And slough away my dreams
Before dousing the morning light
And pacing dingy streets

The sun's smoldering done
I'm laced with pavement soot
And trail a charcoal cloak
In passionless pursuit

Hypnotic wandering, I breathe
Ashen dust and hear
All life's melodies ringing
Through the blackened streets
Until the ringing rises
And reaches a screaming pitch
That rings
and rings
and rings
A screeching babel and swell
Of banshee whims and wails
A cacophonous shrill
And deafening din which
Ends soon after it begins
Until I hear nothing
Nothing at all, again
21
8
12
Juice
81 reads
Load 12 Comments
Login to post comments.
Donate coins to Harlequin.
Juice
Cancel
Chapter 17 of The Culling of Casimir
Written by Harlequin in portal Horror & Thriller

Chapter 17: Of Masks and Mendacities

    I had stumbled into a vibrant castle as a shadow of the world’s callousness.

    I had ascended gilded towers and secured a high seat of delusion, and having learned from the best, mastered deception as my common tongue.

    I wore masks belonging to none truly, but some god of greater consequence whom exists purely through the guises shared and stolen by all, and found their inner stitchings most comfortable on faces conscious of their potential for treachery.

    I had found companionship in a man bred to be the symbol of my abhorrence.

    In killing him, I’d constructed a staircase of bones, to usurp a throne and crown of bitter morrow, symbols visible to none besides their creator. In that same stroke, I’d fallen from all heights previously ascended, landing with little but memories of a past meant to satiate a lifetime, yet finding myself feeling hollow.

    In the right moments, we are fortunate if we manage to feel nothing, if only to avoid a darker despair.

     The self-perpetuated obligation of patrolling graveyards of past regrets and recollections is a burden that men have sought to forget for centuries, through every conceivable medium of addictions—some honorable, others less. The artist drowns himself in his work, the drunk in his drink, the devout in their prayer, but one way or another, the only differentiation is whether we face or run from ourselves.

    But you don’t care for all that, do you?

     You’re here to see how a dead man speaks. Curious, isn’t it, that you’ve been listening to one’s thoughts this entire time?

    Sarkana’s mouth hung agape with the last of her incantations deafened by the throbbing in my body, a heartbeat’s pulse magnified to fleshy quakes.

    “I thought you might never see,” she breathed through a wearied and relieved sigh, before slumping over slightly from the exertion of her casting. “You haven’t the faintest idea how I worried, how I feared you might despise me. I can hardly believe that you … that you,” she shook her head, a tear of joy about to fall from her eye. “But it’s finally over, now.”

    “Yes, I understand,” I repeated, shaking. The walls of the room dismantled, crumbs of stone falling like flakes of dust, crashing against the floor with what was left of my mental stability. “I understand, I do. Truly.”

    “Yes?” she echoed with a soft confusion.

    “I understand you.”

    When I got to my feet, it felt as if every fiber of my body had been satiated, strengthened, bolstered. But now, molten waves of revelation and animosity were beating against it. In the last glimpse I’d seen of myself from the mirror, I’d watched the pallor of my skin slowly fade to healthier hues. A corpse temporarily taking on the appearance of a living body.

    My corpse. A mask of the living, and only that.

    But not a moment could be afforded to process that. “I understand that you led me here under illusions of heroism. That you showered me with pleasant falsities, day by day, threading my trust through your needle, all so you could suture me with it.”

    “No Casimir, nothing false. I lied only because—”

    “There! That’s all I needed to hear,” I growled and closed the distance between us.

    “You’re confused, exhausted. Your body is still learning—”

    “Oh, I am anything but exhausted. I might be dead, but I’m more myself than I’ve ever felt since the first time I stepped foot on this damned cemetery you call a home. You played on my weakness until I was little more than a puppet beneath your fingers. Another body amongst your collection, a disgusting, revolting, pitiless representation of your obsession with death because you cannot bring yourself to reconcile a life amongst the living.”

    Her whispers drowned under my shouts. “Please don’t. Please don’t say such things.” Every word spat was another dagger, her excited expression shrinking to pain. “I only—”

    “You were alone. You had nobody. So you created someone who would be damned to you, to your life of feeding from the deceased, forever. Is that it? Is that why?!” I screamed.

    “No, no, no. Nothing like that.” She stumbled herself into a corner, with my teeth closing the finger’s width between hers.

    “You killed me, not so that I might live, but so that you could. You can’t bear the thought that the world finds you repulsive. You found the first person who had any scrap of empathy for you so you thought you’d keep them chained to you for eternity.”

    “I thought you would—”

    “What? ‘Enjoy’ it? Is that what you were going to say? As if this is a gift?!” I laughed. I laughed and I gripped her shoulders until my knuckles paled. “Just which delusion finally pushed you to do it? Or had you been planning this all along? Whether I died at the crossroads or at your doorstep, it hardly mattered. My life was an inconvenience to you, just another—look at me!— just another process in your ploy.” 

    My venom came stuttering, as I was surprised to find hateful tears spilling down my cheeks, not just for her betrayal, but for my stupidity. “And I … I let Fahim’s last words go wasted. Because he was right, that’s what I hate most about all this. That he got to die so you could carve my skin to ribbons. You were never to be trusted. You took something that can’t be fixed; you took my mortality. And that’s what you don’t understand, Sarkana. Death isn’t a disservice, an end for us all to ignore. It’s a part of living. Life is only beautiful because it ends, and somehow, we have to find a way to make our own eternity out of nothing. Don’t think just because you meddle with death that you don’t fear it. You’re too much a coward to face the notion that you fear death a great deal more than most. Why else would you hide away for a lifetime, never to live, never to love, if only to know protection from the one thing that should have pushed you to love and live in the first place?”

    And there, I watched her shatter. If ever I held doubts for words’ potential to afflict irreparable wounds, all of it was dispelled there. Despite her joy at seeing the success of me—the culmination of her experiments—my words had rent deeper than her obsession, deeper than her fears, to do precisely what any blade would do. It spilled them out for both of us to see.

    After the last word had been drawn, I felt her blood in the silence, palpable as the frost in the air. I almost regretted some of it. It wasn’t her her life practices I abhorred, it was that she made me a victim of them.

    “I …” I began a quiet apology, but fell silent instead.

    She sank to the floor between whimpers and stifled sobs.

    “I’m sorry,” she stammered. “I’m not a monster. You aren’t either. We aren’t. I only wanted to make you beautiful. I didn’t … I didn’t …” She was cracking at my feet, the years of solitude being cast in white, blinding scrutiny. “It is a gift. I promise you,” she whispered. “Please understand. I see you. Why can’t you see me? Why are you doing this to me?”

    I smeared a hand across the markings carved into my chest, before spreading the chilled blood across her cheek. My palm found a grip on her jaw, and I pushed her into my chest, uncertain if I wanted to embrace or suffocate her. I resisted the urge to apologize, then stifled the instinct to hurt her. She deserved one of those things, but of which, I couldn’t be certain, and from me specifically, it was impossible to decide.

    And didn’t I deserve precisely what she did to me? Wasn’t this fortune’s retribution for all the time’s I’d abused her?

    “What does this mean, what you’ve turned me into …” I continued. “Will I even need to breathe?”

    “Yes, as you always have.”

    “Must I rest?”

    “If you desire it.”

    “Only if I desire?”

    “Mostly.”

    “Should I eat?”

    “Rarely, if ever.”

    “Then how should I … ‘eat’?”

    “You won’t. You’ll take what nobody else uses. The dead. You’ll use what’s left.”

I saw Fahim's face frozen and bloodied in the road. A tear slid down and salted my tongue. “And how long do I have to live, now?”

    “As long as you can … eat.” She continued to repress her sobs, the staccato convulsions of her chest and body like a confused heartbeat in my arms. I pitied her. I hated her. I wanted her to die. I needed her to live, to show me how to survive.

    How would Zakora find this music? I wondered. If bloodshed and fighting was the epitome of humanity’s carnal heart, didn’t this make me the art and not the artist, to be swept into a maelstrom of devastation, to be one of Sarkana’s victims? I regarded her face. There was no triumph on her snot and tear-covered expression. I struggled to understand who was the victor and who was the fallen.

    “How am I supposed to live, now, like this?”

    “You were perfect for it, Casimir. You still are. That is why I chose you,” she wept as she squeezed herself further into the corner. “I thought you were the only one who might appreciate it, someone who could make the gods envious. I thought you would be grateful.”

    I never wanted to make gods envious. I wanted to disappoint them with how little I groveled at the feet of their imposed tragedies. Yet here I was at one of them. No hat, no laughter, no smiles. But I couldn’t see myself as a victim, not after all I’d done. How could I? “There is another … lingering question. Why the false affection? The long nights together? If you had planned this all along, why not kill me the first moment you saw me?”

    “It was not false. I had …” She shook her head. “Go. I can see I overestimated your intelligence. I cannot undo any of this, but if you are so eager to have your mortality back, wander off, die somewhere. Go on then. You are not beyond death, even now. If that’s how far you must go to be rid of me, I won’t stop you. I’ll even pretend like I never cared, either.”

    “You’re pitying yourself now? You made drawing parchment of my body and you are the one weeping? You owe me this,” I seethed.

    “Leave.”

    “You do. I didn’t pass into the realm of the dead just to keel over now. I had no intention of dying when I was alive and I have no intention now.”

    Somehow, she found it in herself to meet my eyes, her rims wet and scarlet as she must’ve found a indecipherable gaze of choked affection and malice staring back from mine. “You’re right.” She nodded and cleaned her face. I buttoned up my tunic, wincing as the wounds caught on loose threads of wool.

    “No lies. No half-truths.”

    “Not anymore,” she replied and got to her feet, leading me through one of the doors. “I’ll show you more. I’ll show you whatever you wish. What you think can’t change anything, now.”

    And that was more terrifying than anything else, that I was no longer an observer of her craft, but a piece of it. I might’ve imagined myself years later, neglecting these memories at the bottom of a glass in a tavern or in the sheets of a bed before greeting the morning light.

    But that had faded, I suppose you could say, with my life.

    At our entrance in another chamber of her catacombs, more torches spluttered to life, illuminating a room lined with bookshelves, parchment, countless quills and inkwells, half a dozen desks, and on their surfaces, jagged stones the color of a deepened twilight sky. Amongst them were contraptions whose purposes could not be deciphered by look alone.

    We continued through another door, another blaze of light, and into a hall of corpses affixed to stone beds behind panes of glass, the grey tongue of the stretching walkway hypnotic with its exceeding number of silent inhabitants.

    “When I first saw you, I saw somebody who looked into death’s eyes and wondered what more was there. You seemed to have a grip on yourself, like you could laugh at anything. Only fools think that death is the final mystery. And,” she added with spite, “only fools do not fear it. Even if there is so, so much more beyond it,” she said as some tears still squeezed from her eyes, tears that I liked to think had been waiting for decades. “But you were more timid than I thought, when we first met. After the killing at the crossroads and your reactions to my practices,” she paused and shook her head sadly, “I thought I had made a mistake in choosing you.”

    “So you never did save me, did you? My plan had been sound all along. The water would never have crushed my body.”


    “Yes,” she admitted. “That was my first lie, the first of three.”

    We walked through another door, this time in the left face of a wall, where we turned into a chamber that was filled with dozens of forest critters, many of them not wholly themselves. Their petrified, shriveled bodies beneath the curved glass of various-sized display cases, all showcased Sarkana’s talent of stitching limb from limb, eye to eye; their mismatching parts the only similarity between them all.

    “Must you force me to goad you on?”

    “This is not easy for me, Casimir.”

    "Good. It shouldn’t be.”

    “No, I suppose not.”

    “Then go on.”

    “The day you lost your eye, I thought better on that favor you promised me. I thought, perhaps, you would not be so agreeable with what it would ask of you.”

    “You mean to say that this is not the favor?” I boiled again. “What more could you expect?”

    “No, it is only one part of it,” she replied, ignoring the rest.

    She pushed on another door, into a room similar to the last, only this one’s subjects were not animals. They were humans. Their incongruous limbs as telling as a doll after it’s been sutured beyond recognition of its original state. We paced around them, each of us choosing opposite sides to observe, before we both lingered back to the center of the room, and ceased moving.

    “But then you had a willingness to take Fahim’s eye despite the ramifications, something that confused as much as excited me. You were grateful. I hoped, then, that you might still accept the task. I imagined that you would feel obliged, perhaps even enthusiastic.”

    I paused, only because her subtle manipulation and analysis rang all too familiar to the processes in my own mind. “And if I didn’t?” I asked.

    “Precisely.”

    “Precisely?”

    She held another pause, evidently pained by my slow grasp. “After our first meeting, I truly hoped we would be companions. I did. Your life was never an inconvenience to me, even if there was a time when all I saw you as was a means to an end. After everything, I had hoped our time together would not come to this.”

    “Come to what, mutilation?”

    “No,” she scoffed, “your alteration was never meant to be avoided. I had hoped you would be willing to help me, of your own accord.”

    “Well,” I laughed, “there is little chance of that.”

    “Yet here you are. You should know by now that I am not one to play with chances.”

    “I don’t think you understand. Why would I help you now? Why should I?”

    “No, Casimir. It’s you who’s misunderstood.”

    “How?”


    “I’m afraid you’re caught. ‘Should’ is the only reason you need.”

    I laughed. “After all this, you still boil down to petty threats? You’ll kill me, so to speak?”

    “No. I don’t have to, because I know you’d never let yourself die.”

    The pieces fell. Past frustration and hatred, I had said all I needed to, and what remained was a stale, unendurable silence.

    “Tell me, are you familiar with the Mancer’s Stone?”

    “All too well.”

    “I am sorry to admit—truly sorry—now that things have settled the way they have, but I have no means by which to replenish your life other than the slate. Of course, I am under no delusion that you wish to stay with me any longer, or that you even wish for me to remain in your life as soon as you can survive on your own.”

    I could see it in the flickers of her eyes, how she had imagined the splitting or conjoining of our paths. In one instance, I awoke in wonder to find myself changed, and in the other, so horrified that I attempted to kill her, only to be caged by her ultimatum. How terribly surprising it must have been, I realized, for her to find me in a confused and softened state somewhere between, where what affection there was between us was forced to be tortured in excruciating lengths, rather than severed or swelled by one fatal realization. “Survive on my own?”

    “At this moment, I have no device capable of transcribing energy from one vessel to yours. There must always be a median, but the only thing capable of that is the weight of a small castle, and is permanently affixed to this home. I need something of a stronger material if I am to craft something more … lightweight.

    “Previously,” she continued after bending close to one of her cadavers, “I could never dream of reducing something so intricate as the slate’s glyphs into a smaller device, until, well, until I did.”

    “The Mancer’s Stone.”

    She nodded. “There are perhaps other materials like it, but their existence or location isn’t certain, and if they are, they’ll be worth no small fortune. The Mancer’s Stone, however, is no gamble, and it’s been in hiding long enough for its protectors to grow careless. Retrieve it for me, and I’ll make you a fork only you can eat from. Until then … ” she flicked her head back towards the winding hallways, “I’m afraid you are rather dependent on me.”

    “You are horrifically crafty, Sarkana,” I relented. “There’s no doubt in my mind that you are not ‘afraid’ of my dependency anymore than you were afraid to drive your knives into my chest.”

    But even when she grinned, I could tell she was not convinced of her own heartlessness. There was a telling twitch that made me wonder how she’d managed to do any of this at all. “ ‘Horrifically crafty.’ I could only expect my favorite compliment to come from you. You understand why I did what I did, don’t you? Why I had to?”

    Fahim was right. Many people see life as a monotonous cycle of disappointments, habits, failures, with only a few rare moments of achievement and true bliss to brighten that bleary fog. Try as we might to make peace with it, there is nothing more intoxicating than seizing that bliss through our own indulgences, our own happiness and thrill, even if that means, sometimes, that it is found at the disadvantage of another. Perhaps, for some, that only makes it better. I recollected the burst of emotions as I killed the guards in Foxfeather Castle, the thugs in the alleyway. Although I had not waited decades, nor had any prediction of such invigorating rushes of blood, I had tasted what she had: an unparalleled gratification in one’s own peculiar and taboo choice of expression.

    “Yes. I do. This time, I mean it.” I was only disheartened to find myself on the wrong end of it. I switched the lens covering my left eye, and found myself being clung to by the stretching arms of the deceased, every one of them recoiling from Sarkana as if she was a torch and they were wary moths, all too conscious of being cast into oblivion by her touch.

    “This was your second lie,” I observed aloud. “Their spirits aren’t freed once they die. You’ve kept them here, to drain them.”

    “Yes,” she admitted. “And my third.”

    “Your third lie?”

    “I told you that I was no murderer.”

    “Did you really think I believed you?”

    “Would it have made a difference if you had?”

    “No.”

    She stared at me through the flowing ether of a dispersing phantom.

    “But you’re still hiding something.”

    “Do you think someone like me is ever in lack of skeletons for her closet?”

    “Fahim wasn’t just an infant somewhere in your distant memory. You knew him very well. He was one of your pupils, wasn’t he?”

    “Impressive deduction,” she said. “He was no brilliant child, but he had his father’s propensities for study.”

    “And his father, well, he had been your colleague for many, many years, not just for a handful. He had more than enough time to realize the danger behind your studies. In all likelihood, it must have been difficult for him to have you exiled from the Academy.”

    “Aha,” Sarkana hummed sadly. “So my stories are not as cryptic as I thought.”

    “And yet you told them to me.”


    “Lies are not so satisfying once they become the truth.”

    “How old are you?”

    “Eighty-seven or eighty-eight. I’m beginning to lose count,” she said with the carelessness of an adolescent.

    I swallowed my nausea. “One final question. If you had the power to transfer life into your own body using the slate, why put me through this? Why kill me?”

    “Do you know how many lives it takes to reverse one year of aging? Too many,” she answered before I could guess. “As I said before, it’s a matter of ice into water, that’s all. Souls resist living vessels, irritatingly enough. But a body only mimicking the mechanisms of one, well, that’s quite a different matter.”

    “Mimicking?”

    “Your body’s a clock, now. A more efficient skeleton of all the functions it used to perform. Those souls, think of them as the key to winding your spring.”

I leaned closer to one of the coffin-shaped panes of glass. Inside, I recognized the silversmith’s apprentice who had gone missing just a few days before William’s birthday. He was the apprentice to the man who’d crafted my feather ring. One of his eyes, incidentally, seemed to have been replaced.

    The boy’s spirit sloughed out from his skin, met my gaze briefly, then went to roam the catacombs.

    “It’s strange. I feel … only slightly different than before,” I admitted.

    “The years will tell the difference. But even I can’t answer how or when, or to what extent.”

    “And yet I am dead. You’ve killed me.”

    “Most would say so. But killing only begins with the body; it ends with the soul. You are far from dead. Trust me.”

    “And yet, I’m not truly living, am I?”

    Sarkana shrugged. “You never struck me as the type to have these kind of questions answered for you.”

    “No, I suppose I’m not.”

    “Then tell me, what’s changed?”

7
3
10
Juice
70 reads
Donate coins to Harlequin.
Juice
Cancel
Chapter 17 of The Culling of Casimir
Written by Harlequin in portal Horror & Thriller
Chapter 17: Of Masks and Mendacities
    I had stumbled into a vibrant castle as a shadow of the world’s callousness.
    I had ascended gilded towers and secured a high seat of delusion, and having learned from the best, mastered deception as my common tongue.
    I wore masks belonging to none truly, but some god of greater consequence whom exists purely through the guises shared and stolen by all, and found their inner stitchings most comfortable on faces conscious of their potential for treachery.
    I had found companionship in a man bred to be the symbol of my abhorrence.
    In killing him, I’d constructed a staircase of bones, to usurp a throne and crown of bitter morrow, symbols visible to none besides their creator. In that same stroke, I’d fallen from all heights previously ascended, landing with little but memories of a past meant to satiate a lifetime, yet finding myself feeling hollow.
    In the right moments, we are fortunate if we manage to feel nothing, if only to avoid a darker despair.
     The self-perpetuated obligation of patrolling graveyards of past regrets and recollections is a burden that men have sought to forget for centuries, through every conceivable medium of addictions—some honorable, others less. The artist drowns himself in his work, the drunk in his drink, the devout in their prayer, but one way or another, the only differentiation is whether we face or run from ourselves.
    But you don’t care for all that, do you?
     You’re here to see how a dead man speaks. Curious, isn’t it, that you’ve been listening to one’s thoughts this entire time?

    Sarkana’s mouth hung agape with the last of her incantations deafened by the throbbing in my body, a heartbeat’s pulse magnified to fleshy quakes.
    “I thought you might never see,” she breathed through a wearied and relieved sigh, before slumping over slightly from the exertion of her casting. “You haven’t the faintest idea how I worried, how I feared you might despise me. I can hardly believe that you … that you,” she shook her head, a tear of joy about to fall from her eye. “But it’s finally over, now.”
    “Yes, I understand,” I repeated, shaking. The walls of the room dismantled, crumbs of stone falling like flakes of dust, crashing against the floor with what was left of my mental stability. “I understand, I do. Truly.”
    “Yes?” she echoed with a soft confusion.
    “I understand you.”
    When I got to my feet, it felt as if every fiber of my body had been satiated, strengthened, bolstered. But now, molten waves of revelation and animosity were beating against it. In the last glimpse I’d seen of myself from the mirror, I’d watched the pallor of my skin slowly fade to healthier hues. A corpse temporarily taking on the appearance of a living body.
    My corpse. A mask of the living, and only that.
    But not a moment could be afforded to process that. “I understand that you led me here under illusions of heroism. That you showered me with pleasant falsities, day by day, threading my trust through your needle, all so you could suture me with it.”
    “No Casimir, nothing false. I lied only because—”
    “There! That’s all I needed to hear,” I growled and closed the distance between us.
    “You’re confused, exhausted. Your body is still learning—”
    “Oh, I am anything but exhausted. I might be dead, but I’m more myself than I’ve ever felt since the first time I stepped foot on this damned cemetery you call a home. You played on my weakness until I was little more than a puppet beneath your fingers. Another body amongst your collection, a disgusting, revolting, pitiless representation of your obsession with death because you cannot bring yourself to reconcile a life amongst the living.”
    Her whispers drowned under my shouts. “Please don’t. Please don’t say such things.” Every word spat was another dagger, her excited expression shrinking to pain. “I only—”
    “You were alone. You had nobody. So you created someone who would be damned to you, to your life of feeding from the deceased, forever. Is that it? Is that why?!” I screamed.
    “No, no, no. Nothing like that.” She stumbled herself into a corner, with my teeth closing the finger’s width between hers.
    “You killed me, not so that I might live, but so that you could. You can’t bear the thought that the world finds you repulsive. You found the first person who had any scrap of empathy for you so you thought you’d keep them chained to you for eternity.”
    “I thought you would—”
    “What? ‘Enjoy’ it? Is that what you were going to say? As if this is a gift?!” I laughed. I laughed and I gripped her shoulders until my knuckles paled. “Just which delusion finally pushed you to do it? Or had you been planning this all along? Whether I died at the crossroads or at your doorstep, it hardly mattered. My life was an inconvenience to you, just another—look at me!— just another process in your ploy.” 
    My venom came stuttering, as I was surprised to find hateful tears spilling down my cheeks, not just for her betrayal, but for my stupidity. “And I … I let Fahim’s last words go wasted. Because he was right, that’s what I hate most about all this. That he got to die so you could carve my skin to ribbons. You were never to be trusted. You took something that can’t be fixed; you took my mortality. And that’s what you don’t understand, Sarkana. Death isn’t a disservice, an end for us all to ignore. It’s a part of living. Life is only beautiful because it ends, and somehow, we have to find a way to make our own eternity out of nothing. Don’t think just because you meddle with death that you don’t fear it. You’re too much a coward to face the notion that you fear death a great deal more than most. Why else would you hide away for a lifetime, never to live, never to love, if only to know protection from the one thing that should have pushed you to love and live in the first place?”
    And there, I watched her shatter. If ever I held doubts for words’ potential to afflict irreparable wounds, all of it was dispelled there. Despite her joy at seeing the success of me—the culmination of her experiments—my words had rent deeper than her obsession, deeper than her fears, to do precisely what any blade would do. It spilled them out for both of us to see.
    After the last word had been drawn, I felt her blood in the silence, palpable as the frost in the air. I almost regretted some of it. It wasn’t her her life practices I abhorred, it was that she made me a victim of them.
    “I …” I began a quiet apology, but fell silent instead.
    She sank to the floor between whimpers and stifled sobs.
    “I’m sorry,” she stammered. “I’m not a monster. You aren’t either. We aren’t. I only wanted to make you beautiful. I didn’t … I didn’t …” She was cracking at my feet, the years of solitude being cast in white, blinding scrutiny. “It is a gift. I promise you,” she whispered. “Please understand. I see you. Why can’t you see me? Why are you doing this to me?”
    I smeared a hand across the markings carved into my chest, before spreading the chilled blood across her cheek. My palm found a grip on her jaw, and I pushed her into my chest, uncertain if I wanted to embrace or suffocate her. I resisted the urge to apologize, then stifled the instinct to hurt her. She deserved one of those things, but of which, I couldn’t be certain, and from me specifically, it was impossible to decide.
    And didn’t I deserve precisely what she did to me? Wasn’t this fortune’s retribution for all the time’s I’d abused her?
    “What does this mean, what you’ve turned me into …” I continued. “Will I even need to breathe?”
    “Yes, as you always have.”
    “Must I rest?”
    “If you desire it.”
    “Only if I desire?”
    “Mostly.”
    “Should I eat?”
    “Rarely, if ever.”
    “Then how should I … ‘eat’?”
    “You won’t. You’ll take what nobody else uses. The dead. You’ll use what’s left.”
I saw Fahim's face frozen and bloodied in the road. A tear slid down and salted my tongue. “And how long do I have to live, now?”
    “As long as you can … eat.” She continued to repress her sobs, the staccato convulsions of her chest and body like a confused heartbeat in my arms. I pitied her. I hated her. I wanted her to die. I needed her to live, to show me how to survive.
    How would Zakora find this music? I wondered. If bloodshed and fighting was the epitome of humanity’s carnal heart, didn’t this make me the art and not the artist, to be swept into a maelstrom of devastation, to be one of Sarkana’s victims? I regarded her face. There was no triumph on her snot and tear-covered expression. I struggled to understand who was the victor and who was the fallen.
    “How am I supposed to live, now, like this?”
    “You were perfect for it, Casimir. You still are. That is why I chose you,” she wept as she squeezed herself further into the corner. “I thought you were the only one who might appreciate it, someone who could make the gods envious. I thought you would be grateful.”
    I never wanted to make gods envious. I wanted to disappoint them with how little I groveled at the feet of their imposed tragedies. Yet here I was at one of them. No hat, no laughter, no smiles. But I couldn’t see myself as a victim, not after all I’d done. How could I? “There is another … lingering question. Why the false affection? The long nights together? If you had planned this all along, why not kill me the first moment you saw me?”
    “It was not false. I had …” She shook her head. “Go. I can see I overestimated your intelligence. I cannot undo any of this, but if you are so eager to have your mortality back, wander off, die somewhere. Go on then. You are not beyond death, even now. If that’s how far you must go to be rid of me, I won’t stop you. I’ll even pretend like I never cared, either.”
    “You’re pitying yourself now? You made drawing parchment of my body and you are the one weeping? You owe me this,” I seethed.
    “Leave.”
    “You do. I didn’t pass into the realm of the dead just to keel over now. I had no intention of dying when I was alive and I have no intention now.”
    Somehow, she found it in herself to meet my eyes, her rims wet and scarlet as she must’ve found a indecipherable gaze of choked affection and malice staring back from mine. “You’re right.” She nodded and cleaned her face. I buttoned up my tunic, wincing as the wounds caught on loose threads of wool.
    “No lies. No half-truths.”
    “Not anymore,” she replied and got to her feet, leading me through one of the doors. “I’ll show you more. I’ll show you whatever you wish. What you think can’t change anything, now.”
    And that was more terrifying than anything else, that I was no longer an observer of her craft, but a piece of it. I might’ve imagined myself years later, neglecting these memories at the bottom of a glass in a tavern or in the sheets of a bed before greeting the morning light.
    But that had faded, I suppose you could say, with my life.
    At our entrance in another chamber of her catacombs, more torches spluttered to life, illuminating a room lined with bookshelves, parchment, countless quills and inkwells, half a dozen desks, and on their surfaces, jagged stones the color of a deepened twilight sky. Amongst them were contraptions whose purposes could not be deciphered by look alone.
    We continued through another door, another blaze of light, and into a hall of corpses affixed to stone beds behind panes of glass, the grey tongue of the stretching walkway hypnotic with its exceeding number of silent inhabitants.
    “When I first saw you, I saw somebody who looked into death’s eyes and wondered what more was there. You seemed to have a grip on yourself, like you could laugh at anything. Only fools think that death is the final mystery. And,” she added with spite, “only fools do not fear it. Even if there is so, so much more beyond it,” she said as some tears still squeezed from her eyes, tears that I liked to think had been waiting for decades. “But you were more timid than I thought, when we first met. After the killing at the crossroads and your reactions to my practices,” she paused and shook her head sadly, “I thought I had made a mistake in choosing you.”
    “So you never did save me, did you? My plan had been sound all along. The water would never have crushed my body.”

    “Yes,” she admitted. “That was my first lie, the first of three.”
    We walked through another door, this time in the left face of a wall, where we turned into a chamber that was filled with dozens of forest critters, many of them not wholly themselves. Their petrified, shriveled bodies beneath the curved glass of various-sized display cases, all showcased Sarkana’s talent of stitching limb from limb, eye to eye; their mismatching parts the only similarity between them all.
    “Must you force me to goad you on?”
    “This is not easy for me, Casimir.”
    "Good. It shouldn’t be.”
    “No, I suppose not.”
    “Then go on.”
    “The day you lost your eye, I thought better on that favor you promised me. I thought, perhaps, you would not be so agreeable with what it would ask of you.”
    “You mean to say that this is not the favor?” I boiled again. “What more could you expect?”
    “No, it is only one part of it,” she replied, ignoring the rest.
    She pushed on another door, into a room similar to the last, only this one’s subjects were not animals. They were humans. Their incongruous limbs as telling as a doll after it’s been sutured beyond recognition of its original state. We paced around them, each of us choosing opposite sides to observe, before we both lingered back to the center of the room, and ceased moving.
    “But then you had a willingness to take Fahim’s eye despite the ramifications, something that confused as much as excited me. You were grateful. I hoped, then, that you might still accept the task. I imagined that you would feel obliged, perhaps even enthusiastic.”
    I paused, only because her subtle manipulation and analysis rang all too familiar to the processes in my own mind. “And if I didn’t?” I asked.
    “Precisely.”
    “Precisely?”
    She held another pause, evidently pained by my slow grasp. “After our first meeting, I truly hoped we would be companions. I did. Your life was never an inconvenience to me, even if there was a time when all I saw you as was a means to an end. After everything, I had hoped our time together would not come to this.”
    “Come to what, mutilation?”
    “No,” she scoffed, “your alteration was never meant to be avoided. I had hoped you would be willing to help me, of your own accord.”
    “Well,” I laughed, “there is little chance of that.”
    “Yet here you are. You should know by now that I am not one to play with chances.”
    “I don’t think you understand. Why would I help you now? Why should I?”
    “No, Casimir. It’s you who’s misunderstood.”
    “How?”

    “I’m afraid you’re caught. ‘Should’ is the only reason you need.”
    I laughed. “After all this, you still boil down to petty threats? You’ll kill me, so to speak?”
    “No. I don’t have to, because I know you’d never let yourself die.”
    The pieces fell. Past frustration and hatred, I had said all I needed to, and what remained was a stale, unendurable silence.
    “Tell me, are you familiar with the Mancer’s Stone?”
    “All too well.”
    “I am sorry to admit—truly sorry—now that things have settled the way they have, but I have no means by which to replenish your life other than the slate. Of course, I am under no delusion that you wish to stay with me any longer, or that you even wish for me to remain in your life as soon as you can survive on your own.”
    I could see it in the flickers of her eyes, how she had imagined the splitting or conjoining of our paths. In one instance, I awoke in wonder to find myself changed, and in the other, so horrified that I attempted to kill her, only to be caged by her ultimatum. How terribly surprising it must have been, I realized, for her to find me in a confused and softened state somewhere between, where what affection there was between us was forced to be tortured in excruciating lengths, rather than severed or swelled by one fatal realization. “Survive on my own?”
    “At this moment, I have no device capable of transcribing energy from one vessel to yours. There must always be a median, but the only thing capable of that is the weight of a small castle, and is permanently affixed to this home. I need something of a stronger material if I am to craft something more … lightweight.
    “Previously,” she continued after bending close to one of her cadavers, “I could never dream of reducing something so intricate as the slate’s glyphs into a smaller device, until, well, until I did.”
    “The Mancer’s Stone.”
    She nodded. “There are perhaps other materials like it, but their existence or location isn’t certain, and if they are, they’ll be worth no small fortune. The Mancer’s Stone, however, is no gamble, and it’s been in hiding long enough for its protectors to grow careless. Retrieve it for me, and I’ll make you a fork only you can eat from. Until then … ” she flicked her head back towards the winding hallways, “I’m afraid you are rather dependent on me.”
    “You are horrifically crafty, Sarkana,” I relented. “There’s no doubt in my mind that you are not ‘afraid’ of my dependency anymore than you were afraid to drive your knives into my chest.”
    But even when she grinned, I could tell she was not convinced of her own heartlessness. There was a telling twitch that made me wonder how she’d managed to do any of this at all. “ ‘Horrifically crafty.’ I could only expect my favorite compliment to come from you. You understand why I did what I did, don’t you? Why I had to?”
    Fahim was right. Many people see life as a monotonous cycle of disappointments, habits, failures, with only a few rare moments of achievement and true bliss to brighten that bleary fog. Try as we might to make peace with it, there is nothing more intoxicating than seizing that bliss through our own indulgences, our own happiness and thrill, even if that means, sometimes, that it is found at the disadvantage of another. Perhaps, for some, that only makes it better. I recollected the burst of emotions as I killed the guards in Foxfeather Castle, the thugs in the alleyway. Although I had not waited decades, nor had any prediction of such invigorating rushes of blood, I had tasted what she had: an unparalleled gratification in one’s own peculiar and taboo choice of expression.
    “Yes. I do. This time, I mean it.” I was only disheartened to find myself on the wrong end of it. I switched the lens covering my left eye, and found myself being clung to by the stretching arms of the deceased, every one of them recoiling from Sarkana as if she was a torch and they were wary moths, all too conscious of being cast into oblivion by her touch.
    “This was your second lie,” I observed aloud. “Their spirits aren’t freed once they die. You’ve kept them here, to drain them.”
    “Yes,” she admitted. “And my third.”
    “Your third lie?”
    “I told you that I was no murderer.”
    “Did you really think I believed you?”
    “Would it have made a difference if you had?”
    “No.”
    She stared at me through the flowing ether of a dispersing phantom.
    “But you’re still hiding something.”
    “Do you think someone like me is ever in lack of skeletons for her closet?”
    “Fahim wasn’t just an infant somewhere in your distant memory. You knew him very well. He was one of your pupils, wasn’t he?”
    “Impressive deduction,” she said. “He was no brilliant child, but he had his father’s propensities for study.”
    “And his father, well, he had been your colleague for many, many years, not just for a handful. He had more than enough time to realize the danger behind your studies. In all likelihood, it must have been difficult for him to have you exiled from the Academy.”
    “Aha,” Sarkana hummed sadly. “So my stories are not as cryptic as I thought.”
    “And yet you told them to me.”

    “Lies are not so satisfying once they become the truth.”
    “How old are you?”
    “Eighty-seven or eighty-eight. I’m beginning to lose count,” she said with the carelessness of an adolescent.
    I swallowed my nausea. “One final question. If you had the power to transfer life into your own body using the slate, why put me through this? Why kill me?”
    “Do you know how many lives it takes to reverse one year of aging? Too many,” she answered before I could guess. “As I said before, it’s a matter of ice into water, that’s all. Souls resist living vessels, irritatingly enough. But a body only mimicking the mechanisms of one, well, that’s quite a different matter.”
    “Mimicking?”
    “Your body’s a clock, now. A more efficient skeleton of all the functions it used to perform. Those souls, think of them as the key to winding your spring.”
I leaned closer to one of the coffin-shaped panes of glass. Inside, I recognized the silversmith’s apprentice who had gone missing just a few days before William’s birthday. He was the apprentice to the man who’d crafted my feather ring. One of his eyes, incidentally, seemed to have been replaced.
    The boy’s spirit sloughed out from his skin, met my gaze briefly, then went to roam the catacombs.
    “It’s strange. I feel … only slightly different than before,” I admitted.
    “The years will tell the difference. But even I can’t answer how or when, or to what extent.”
    “And yet I am dead. You’ve killed me.”
    “Most would say so. But killing only begins with the body; it ends with the soul. You are far from dead. Trust me.”
    “And yet, I’m not truly living, am I?”
    Sarkana shrugged. “You never struck me as the type to have these kind of questions answered for you.”
    “No, I suppose I’m not.”
    “Then tell me, what’s changed?”
7
3
10
Juice
70 reads
Load 10 Comments
Login to post comments.
Donate coins to Harlequin.
Juice
Cancel
Written by Harlequin in portal Poetry & Free Verse

The Heart's Foible

I welcome you as a host

To an ephemeral abode

Designed for deterioration

A rose's erosion 'for another

Hear my first encounter

Of a long-drawn silent shrill

As Death's hand caressed my face

Pallid then as star lace

As was no happenstance

Nor chance disaster

Which ended my brevity

Only my innate deafness

Holding fervency bereft

The same hand's negligence

Lending a fatal forgetfulness

A muddled dream, no less

Of blessed curses and hints

An amnesic grip of timelessness

Before absconding my breath

Buoyant and weightless I watched

Time intertwine in seams of ether

And felt my heart the foible

Flutter enigmas withered 

For my forlorn candor

Profound in hollow truth 

                                                              How should I breathe?

I asked timorously 

Syllables strung taught in throat

To the Keeper of the Quiet

Whom then unbound the knot

And replied in kind:

     

A soul-siphoning fracture with

an irreverent"Master or Master."

Split panes and cracked eyes

Divined the piteous sight

Of two human hands

Severed yet entwined

                                                                 By what means?

And timidly the question rings

To her motionless countenance

Shattering shivers of gold

And so payed my fate's pittance

A debt we all withhold

And"Master or Master." 

She still told

                                                                     And why?

Came the final question in intrigue

Tempting her tongue forked of fate

And eyes of Hadean trace 

She held me, or I held her,

In something not unlike an embrace

Here I felt the uncanny inkling

Of the Quiet Keeper's air

And saw by her onyx visage

That twofold destiny branded

Upon all flesh damned to share

Her mute violence struck me

An impending punishment's glare

And so"Master or Master."

Was all I dared

Thus slipped my soul thereafter

Returned my heart's dull patter

Back muttering to that same desk

Where dreams first made kinships

And "Master or Master."

Was the first transcription

Bled from the pen's lips

9
2
1
Juice
106 reads
Donate coins to Harlequin.
Juice
Cancel
Written by Harlequin in portal Poetry & Free Verse
The Heart's Foible
I welcome you as a host
To an ephemeral abode
Designed for deterioration
A rose's erosion 'for another

Hear my first encounter
Of a long-drawn silent shrill
As Death's hand caressed my face
Pallid then as star lace

As was no happenstance
Nor chance disaster
Which ended my brevity
Only my innate deafness
Holding fervency bereft
The same hand's negligence
Lending a fatal forgetfulness

A muddled dream, no less
Of blessed curses and hints
An amnesic grip of timelessness
Before absconding my breath

Buoyant and weightless I watched
Time intertwine in seams of ether
And felt my heart the foible
Flutter enigmas withered 
For my forlorn candor
Profound in hollow truth 

                                                              How should I breathe?

I asked timorously 
Syllables strung taught in throat
To the Keeper of the Quiet
Whom then unbound the knot
And replied in kind:
     
A soul-siphoning fracture with
an irreverent"Master or Master."
Split panes and cracked eyes
Divined the piteous sight
Of two human hands
Severed yet entwined

                                                                 By what means?

And timidly the question rings
To her motionless countenance
Shattering shivers of gold
And so payed my fate's pittance
A debt we all withhold
And"Master or Master." 
She still told

                                                                     And why?

Came the final question in intrigue
Tempting her tongue forked of fate
And eyes of Hadean trace 
She held me, or I held her,
In something not unlike an embrace

Here I felt the uncanny inkling
Of the Quiet Keeper's air
And saw by her onyx visage
That twofold destiny branded
Upon all flesh damned to share

Her mute violence struck me
An impending punishment's glare
And so"Master or Master."
Was all I dared

Thus slipped my soul thereafter
Returned my heart's dull patter
Back muttering to that same desk
Where dreams first made kinships
And "Master or Master."
Was the first transcription
Bled from the pen's lips
9
2
1
Juice
106 reads
Load 1 Comment
Login to post comments.
Advertisement  (turn off)
Donate coins to Harlequin.
Juice
Cancel
Written by Harlequin in portal Reviews

Mister B. Gone - The Horror of Ourself

This week I read an exceptional book, Mister B. Gone by Clive Barker, and having enjoyed it thoroughly, quickly went to write a review. Only, after everything had been written and I contemplated sharing my reflections of the piece with Prose, it felt as if it wasn't entirely finished.

So instead, I made the review into an audio piece. Which, you can listen to here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KdFhVsFsN9A

Just as well, I've copied the article if you wish to follow along. 

-Script-

    It is one of the oldest tricks. Tell someone not to think or do something, and they’ll feel that extra nudge of rebellion willing them to do precisely the opposite. After hearing the narrator beg me in his infernal voice to ‘Burn this book,’ I surrendered, (albeit embarrassingly easy) to the author’s ability to convince me to read more. Of course, his protagonist doesn't appreciate it much, but the thought of being able to torture him just by indulging in his story is all too enticing.

    Irrevocably, I was lured by the bait, and so found myself finishing this piece in two sittings alone.

    Clive Barker’s Mister B. Goneis a gorgeously graphic and insightful piece of metafiction centered around Jakabok Botch, a demon who is rather low on the totem pole in Hell. After being fished out by a corrupt priest, we’re asked to either relish or suffer the narrative style of a lamenting, depraved, cowardly, mischievous, mostly malevolent but sometimes benign demon as he travels and survives 14th century Europe, a demon whose lack of direction and morals provides a surprisingly effective stage for us to reflect upon our own.

    As long as Jakabok is lost and wandering, so are we as his readers, hanging onto both of his tails as he neither chases after nor desires any particular fulfillment other than survival. And yet, even in the dubious choices of a demon, the keenest listeners are able to divine some purpose underlying the nihilistic existence that Jakabok feels damned to pursue. Compounded by the strange nature of the story is the narrator’s method of speaking to us. Barker doesn’t just break the fourth wall. With Jakabok, he shatters it, and then asks you to step into the story with him. From the first page, you begin a continuous dialogue with the demon. So as a reader, you’re not just an observer, you’re an active participant, guiding Jakabok’s temper and emotions simply by the very act of continuing to listen to his gruesome past, which in some instances, is a mercy for the narrator’s loneliness, and others, a torturous confession for him to endure.

“Your kind has a superstitious terror of things ugly and broken; you fear that their condition may somehow infect you. ”

— Clive Barker

    Once the first page’s been cracked, the quick pace goes uninterrupted until its last, save for the occasional threats to have you destroy his manuscript. We’re thrown from one place to another as Jakabok tours Europe in search of inventions with potential to alter the course of history. Despite, (or perhaps even because) of this work’s peculiar style, Barker carves a rousing and distinct narrative with enough violence to keep the voyeur fascinated, and enough reflection to keep the philosopher questioning. Liberated by the morally unburdened perspective of a demon, Barker is able to poise questions about human nature that most authors are too timid to approach, the answers limited only by how comfortably we, ourselves, are able to digest Jakabok’s intriguing bursts of stream of consciousness.

    Due to the similarities in length, pacing, and narration, I would call Mister B. Gone the possessed and hellish brother of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, only the protagonist isn’t an intolerable brat; he’s an amusing and devilishly witty companion who makes you laugh often enough, as long as you can pardon his periodic atrocities. In spite of his origins, the protagonist is depicted like any young adult first leaving home. Its a nerve-racking experience all too familiar, and even with the odd cast of characters, we can find his tale to be relatable. Jakaboks’ tale is a bildungsroman and Greek tragedy which Barker wove together incongruously.

    Due to its individuality, the book comes with a few disclaimers if anyone’s to enjoy it. You can’t be nauseated by blood, you can’t be shy with Barker’s scathing observations of religious hypocrisy, and you certainly cannot be the person who reminds themselves ‘this isn’t real’ as they turn each page. Barker painfully stretches his hand out with this unwieldy style in an attempt to get you to suspend your disbelief so as to grant you a unique experience of speaking directly to someone who’s a murderer but not a psychopath, a lover but not a friend. Simply, a demon. For his repeated instances of speaking directly to the reader through Jakabok, Barker has been accused of using gimmickry to capture the attention of his readers with this piece. But with over thirteen books alone published before this one, we really have to ask ourselves. Is Barker forsaking his previous skill for a cheap trick, or is there something slightly more complex going on beneath the surface of his protagonist’s monologue to his readers? I believe that Barker was enjoying himself as he wrote this, but more than that, he was challenging himself in a style that he knew was difficult but daring, and one that would undoubtedly attract a smaller crowd of listeners.

    So, if you aren’t able to disregard your doubts, the experience of Mister B. Gone does risk feeling gimmicky or even childish. But, give Barker the extra inch he’s asking for, and the piece is a short yet incredibly engaging read.

    I think the causation of so many unsatisfied and confused readers is the mistake of taking themselves or the work too seriously. Many scathing reviews lacked any adequate criticism of Barker’s prose, but were so unnerved by the unusual method of deliverance that it caused them to disregard so many other attributes of the book. But part of what makes fiction enjoyable is the suspension of our own reality. We willingly let go of our world’s sharp edges so that we might enjoy a more varied perception of humanity through another lens, even if that means reading something with a setting and a narrator so otherworldly that it seems absurd. In this sense, the unusually violent and graphic depictions of Jakabok’s encounters aren’t unbelievable. To a demon, they’re only a consequence of his nature, and so his struggles with self-pity, his past, and his attempt to find ways to redeem himself are not only realistic, they’re grand, exaggerated reflections of ourselves.

    Perhaps I’m too gullible, or stupid. Either way, it’s only ever a matter of taste. But if it’s worth anything, by the final pages, I found myself hoping for some kind of sequel, and I found myself wondering, perhaps the reason why so many people would feel uncomfortable with this book, is the thought that, deeply hidden in the recesses of our delusions, we’re all denying an inner demon a little less free, a little less colorful, a little less human than Clive Barker’s very own Jakabok Botch.

10
3
13
Juice
94 reads
Donate coins to Harlequin.
Juice
Cancel
Written by Harlequin in portal Reviews
Mister B. Gone - The Horror of Ourself
This week I read an exceptional book, Mister B. Gone by Clive Barker, and having enjoyed it thoroughly, quickly went to write a review. Only, after everything had been written and I contemplated sharing my reflections of the piece with Prose, it felt as if it wasn't entirely finished.
So instead, I made the review into an audio piece. Which, you can listen to here:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KdFhVsFsN9A
Just as well, I've copied the article if you wish to follow along. 

-Script-
    It is one of the oldest tricks. Tell someone not to think or do something, and they’ll feel that extra nudge of rebellion willing them to do precisely the opposite. After hearing the narrator beg me in his infernal voice to ‘Burn this book,’ I surrendered, (albeit embarrassingly easy) to the author’s ability to convince me to read more. Of course, his protagonist doesn't appreciate it much, but the thought of being able to torture him just by indulging in his story is all too enticing.

    Irrevocably, I was lured by the bait, and so found myself finishing this piece in two sittings alone.

    Clive Barker’s Mister B. Goneis a gorgeously graphic and insightful piece of metafiction centered around Jakabok Botch, a demon who is rather low on the totem pole in Hell. After being fished out by a corrupt priest, we’re asked to either relish or suffer the narrative style of a lamenting, depraved, cowardly, mischievous, mostly malevolent but sometimes benign demon as he travels and survives 14th century Europe, a demon whose lack of direction and morals provides a surprisingly effective stage for us to reflect upon our own.

    As long as Jakabok is lost and wandering, so are we as his readers, hanging onto both of his tails as he neither chases after nor desires any particular fulfillment other than survival. And yet, even in the dubious choices of a demon, the keenest listeners are able to divine some purpose underlying the nihilistic existence that Jakabok feels damned to pursue. Compounded by the strange nature of the story is the narrator’s method of speaking to us. Barker doesn’t just break the fourth wall. With Jakabok, he shatters it, and then asks you to step into the story with him. From the first page, you begin a continuous dialogue with the demon. So as a reader, you’re not just an observer, you’re an active participant, guiding Jakabok’s temper and emotions simply by the very act of continuing to listen to his gruesome past, which in some instances, is a mercy for the narrator’s loneliness, and others, a torturous confession for him to endure.

“Your kind has a superstitious terror of things ugly and broken; you fear that their condition may somehow infect you. ”
— Clive Barker

    Once the first page’s been cracked, the quick pace goes uninterrupted until its last, save for the occasional threats to have you destroy his manuscript. We’re thrown from one place to another as Jakabok tours Europe in search of inventions with potential to alter the course of history. Despite, (or perhaps even because) of this work’s peculiar style, Barker carves a rousing and distinct narrative with enough violence to keep the voyeur fascinated, and enough reflection to keep the philosopher questioning. Liberated by the morally unburdened perspective of a demon, Barker is able to poise questions about human nature that most authors are too timid to approach, the answers limited only by how comfortably we, ourselves, are able to digest Jakabok’s intriguing bursts of stream of consciousness.

    Due to the similarities in length, pacing, and narration, I would call Mister B. Gone the possessed and hellish brother of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, only the protagonist isn’t an intolerable brat; he’s an amusing and devilishly witty companion who makes you laugh often enough, as long as you can pardon his periodic atrocities. In spite of his origins, the protagonist is depicted like any young adult first leaving home. Its a nerve-racking experience all too familiar, and even with the odd cast of characters, we can find his tale to be relatable. Jakaboks’ tale is a bildungsroman and Greek tragedy which Barker wove together incongruously.

    Due to its individuality, the book comes with a few disclaimers if anyone’s to enjoy it. You can’t be nauseated by blood, you can’t be shy with Barker’s scathing observations of religious hypocrisy, and you certainly cannot be the person who reminds themselves ‘this isn’t real’ as they turn each page. Barker painfully stretches his hand out with this unwieldy style in an attempt to get you to suspend your disbelief so as to grant you a unique experience of speaking directly to someone who’s a murderer but not a psychopath, a lover but not a friend. Simply, a demon. For his repeated instances of speaking directly to the reader through Jakabok, Barker has been accused of using gimmickry to capture the attention of his readers with this piece. But with over thirteen books alone published before this one, we really have to ask ourselves. Is Barker forsaking his previous skill for a cheap trick, or is there something slightly more complex going on beneath the surface of his protagonist’s monologue to his readers? I believe that Barker was enjoying himself as he wrote this, but more than that, he was challenging himself in a style that he knew was difficult but daring, and one that would undoubtedly attract a smaller crowd of listeners.

    So, if you aren’t able to disregard your doubts, the experience of Mister B. Gone does risk feeling gimmicky or even childish. But, give Barker the extra inch he’s asking for, and the piece is a short yet incredibly engaging read.

    I think the causation of so many unsatisfied and confused readers is the mistake of taking themselves or the work too seriously. Many scathing reviews lacked any adequate criticism of Barker’s prose, but were so unnerved by the unusual method of deliverance that it caused them to disregard so many other attributes of the book. But part of what makes fiction enjoyable is the suspension of our own reality. We willingly let go of our world’s sharp edges so that we might enjoy a more varied perception of humanity through another lens, even if that means reading something with a setting and a narrator so otherworldly that it seems absurd. In this sense, the unusually violent and graphic depictions of Jakabok’s encounters aren’t unbelievable. To a demon, they’re only a consequence of his nature, and so his struggles with self-pity, his past, and his attempt to find ways to redeem himself are not only realistic, they’re grand, exaggerated reflections of ourselves.

    Perhaps I’m too gullible, or stupid. Either way, it’s only ever a matter of taste. But if it’s worth anything, by the final pages, I found myself hoping for some kind of sequel, and I found myself wondering, perhaps the reason why so many people would feel uncomfortable with this book, is the thought that, deeply hidden in the recesses of our delusions, we’re all denying an inner demon a little less free, a little less colorful, a little less human than Clive Barker’s very own Jakabok Botch.
10
3
13
Juice
94 reads
Load 13 Comments
Login to post comments.
Donate coins to Harlequin.
Juice
Cancel
Written by Harlequin in portal Poetry & Free Verse

Mortality's Crux

No words ever kept still

Nor promises sought for peace

Save for the endless succession

Of subtlety's sanctuary 

No masks ever hid secrecy

Nor history sewn silent for long

Save for the details blazoned

By our blood burning sun

No silence ever shrouded wisdom

Nor tranquility in madness

Save for euphoria's sinless

Essence never left unwritten

Thus no lie coveted truth

Nor wrought clarity for fools

Save for what words whispered

Memory with seducing sincerity 

Unrivaled by any veracity, that

Spurious phantom ever possessing

Humanity since its first breath

Boundless and beyond death's

Measure and step, mortality's crux

And crook known simply as:

                                                                    "a book".

12
4
3
Juice
49 reads
Donate coins to Harlequin.
Juice
Cancel
Written by Harlequin in portal Poetry & Free Verse
Mortality's Crux
No words ever kept still
Nor promises sought for peace
Save for the endless succession
Of subtlety's sanctuary 

No masks ever hid secrecy
Nor history sewn silent for long
Save for the details blazoned
By our blood burning sun

No silence ever shrouded wisdom
Nor tranquility in madness
Save for euphoria's sinless
Essence never left unwritten

Thus no lie coveted truth
Nor wrought clarity for fools
Save for what words whispered
Memory with seducing sincerity 
Unrivaled by any veracity, that
Spurious phantom ever possessing
Humanity since its first breath
Boundless and beyond death's
Measure and step, mortality's crux
And crook known simply as:
                                                                    "a book".
12
4
3
Juice
49 reads
Load 3 Comments
Login to post comments.
Donate coins to Harlequin.
Juice
Cancel
Chapter 16 of The Culling of Casimir
Written by Harlequin

Chapter 16: Before & After

    Death always seems so distant.

    As time’s accomplice, her pervasive presence is no more ignorable than breathing, and yet we all seem to be experts at pretending she isn’t there.

    Like an adolescent whom fantasizes endlessly about the night of finally stomping out their virginity, I was surprised to find my death to be rather underwhelming, a surprising and unexpected end which, like any story, served only to provide the foundation for another beginning. I have found that the best stories are the unwritten ones, arriving in moments too willful to be captured adequately; their recreations never quite as compelling as their original song.

    Yet, here I am, attempting to do just that.

    A blood moon sunk into the soft folds of a hillside draped in shadow, the glow scintillating through the brushfire elm leaves twisted in rigor mortis, reaching toward the encroaching tides of darkness. The profuse, hanging moss that suffocated most of the tree’s limbs wavered in the wind, before that same gust sifted across the tangled vines, brushing against my face and bringing with it the scent of tilled earth.

    “Better we stop to feed old Christophe,” my father announced as he reigned the cart to a stop before hopping off the top seat. “This road seems safe enough.” And indeed it was, bordered on each side by flat farmland, lush for the final harvest before winter.

    Sazen, whom was mystifyingly immune to tiredness whenever we traveled at night, didn’t waste a moment and jumped off to stretch his legs. And no sooner was I made a victim of his restlessness, as he grabbed my head and smushed my cheek against his so as to guide my eyes to where his finger was pointing.

    “See the strange tree on top of that hill?”

    “You mean the only tree in that direction?”

    “Yes, most High Arrogance, I do mean that one.”

    “Yes, peasant. I see it."

     “It looks haunted,” he observed, though my brother was now looking directly at me as he said this, his lips already curled into a smile that was not at all mutual.

    My father sighed. “Sazen, you know how he gets when you tell him things like that. Don't go putting anymore notions in his head. Remember what happened when you told him there was a demon under your mother’s bed?”

    “It’s harmless!” Sazen protested. “He’s old enough to know better than that. And there aren’t any floorboards for him to dismantle here.”

    “And I am old enough to understand the basics of language. Quite well, I might add,” I pointed out to both of them. “Such that you might as well speak to me directly.”

    “That’s enough,” he disagreed. “Why can’t you two just get some rest like your mother?”

    Seeing this abrupt end to the conversation as a blessing to keep tormenting me, Sazen swiftly turned his attention back to me. “I dare you to go touch that tree,” he whispered to me as I sat peacefully on the same seat that had been splintering my ass since we’d left for the Stelmnest Festival.

    I didn’t have to look long at the hilltop to realize that its sight offered a better opportunity than most to practice hiding an expression of deep trepidation. “I’d rather not,” I replied, managing to fake a yawn.

   “Quilmore dek,” my father cursed.

   “Woah woah!” Sazen hollered.

    “Easy there with that language!"

    He only grunted at our remarks. “There’s no more feed for Christophe. I’ll go down the road and see if that farmer can spare some. No sense trying to wait out the night to have a tired horse in the morning.”

    “Father,” Sazen called, tossing a heavy bundle into the air.

    He turned, after having already taken the first few strides away from us. Before he could respond, the scabbard of my father’s sword smacked into its owner’s chest. He caught it in an awkward hug. “Quick thinking,” he admitted.

    Sazen clicked his tongue.

    “Just in case they need to be threatened. You don’t want to be leaving empty-handed. Gods know there are poor folk in these parts.”

    “Casimir …” was all my father could muster for a lecture at that hour. He and I had the same eyes, a detail that had bothered me since I was old enough to recognize his callousness and unenthused manner of engaging with the world. While Sazen, who wore his hair in a foxtail, had the muddied blood hue of my mother’s, both of ours aglow from her elven heritage.

    I thought that joining him in teasing our father was enough to earn the mercy of his imagination.

    “Now, about that tree,” Sazen hummed after he was out of earshot. He bent close enough until his nose was bending mine.

    Evidently, it hadn’t been enough.

    “You know what I would truly enjoy?”

    “What?” he asked, folding his arms.

    “You sparing me from your wild, useless whims for one day of my life, and for once to be allowed to sleep whenever we venture out into these gods-forsaken parts. ”

    He threw back his head and laughed, the sharp edges of his features (which had been my envy at the time) only made to look more sinister by the moonlight. “I’m your older brother, it is essentially my sworn oath to torment you. What kind of person would I be, to just leave you be? You’d grow up with the exoskeleton of a worm.”

    “Worms don’t have exoskeletons, they’re …”

    “Ahah! See? I thought it through.” He tapped his head.

    “Oh, you thought something through for once? I better go get father and wake mother, to share the good news.”

    He shrugged. “If you grow up with the mind and I get the women I’ll be satisfied.”

    “As if I would follow your lead in settling for just one. But I suppose you would do so, because it takes a mind the size of a rabbit’s to glorify sex above intellect.”

    He patted me on the shoulder apologetically. “Life is easier without lofty ambitions. One day, you’ll understand that fulfillment isn’t found between the pages of a book. It’s between a nice pair of thighs.”

    “Not all of us have the courage to risk getting pox on our genitals for a quick rump with the tanner's daughter. Oh yes, don’t look so surprised that I know. But I’ll just have to take your word for it,” I surrendered, only almost causing his arrogance to fail.

    I knew him too well to truly believe that he pursued sex above everything else, while he was smart enough to understand that my insults came from a youthful jealousy rather than genuine criticism. Three years was too little to set us far apart in our understandings of the world, but far enough to make the disparity between our staggered, physical maturity seem like the deepest chasm, one that he’d always been on the favorable side of.

    “I suppose you will, little worm.”

    “I’m not a worm.”

    “Squishy, tender, slimy little—”

    “Fine!” I leapt out of the cart, not even bothering to toss Sazen a rebellious look.

My father had only made it halfway to the house at the far end of the farmland. If I was quick enough, I could manage to reach the hilltop and sprint back before he had time to detect anything.

    “Wait.” Sazen caught me by the collar and hauled me back. “I realize now that you’re too old for this sort of thing,” he said. “It was silly of me to push you. Of course, you’re not a worm. Do you forgive me? You know I didn’t mean it.”

    I sighed out of relief and secret awe at the words he just said, but disguised it in annoyance. “Spare me. Now you’re the one getting soft. But you are forgiven.” Then his fingers went from my collar to my neck, pinching the jugular tightly. “That’s why you’re not going to touch the tree. You’re going to climb it.”

    I growled his name and squirmed out of his grip. Having received more of my father’s human features, Sazen hadn’t been damned by the punitive height characteristic of Qalmorian elves. Despite their graceful propensities for magick and athletics, most of us are damned to walk a head or two under most others. I, unfortunately, was no exception.

    “All the same. I’ll be back and you’ll see just how ridiculous this is. I’m far too old for this.”

    “That is, of course, if nothing creeps from the brush to drag you into the ground before you get there.”

    “As if,” I said confidently, though the imagery terrified me.

    Running defiantly yet ironically under his control, I realized I hadn’t even managed to barter for any kind of reward, which was typically the first and foremost tool that I used to trade for Sazen’s inane compulsions. I ignored the shadows oozing over the hilltop and and sprinted through the hairy entanglement of pumpkin vines, their leaves almost comically large with drooping edges folded over themselves.

    I attempted to cross the dilapidated fencing surrounding the plot with a single, graceful leap, only to land in a bed of briars that pricked blood as soon as I realized just how it feels to be gouged by dozens upon dozens of thorns simultaneously.

    Frustration, both for my stupidity and Sazen’s relentless insistence to push me towards anything that proved it, boiled quick enough to send me snarling from the bush, only to stand a stride away from it as if I had just defeated a monstrous beast. In that moment, I didn’t care anymore what my father heard or saw, nor for any childish impulses to prove myself to my brother.

    I turned and stared at my destination, with the pain somehow bolstering my confidence. The hilltop’s dreadful mystery was now enticing in its dark intrigue.

    I was just a step away from the shadow that the moonlight cast from the hill’s towering height, much steeper than I’d imagined from afar. Here, the line between the moonlight and the shadow was as discernible as the line of a horizon amidst a sunset. I tested the darkness with my hand, and finding no monster to pull me in, continued forward, lured by nothing other than my own curiosity.

    The hill required not just feet but hands in order to ascend. I dug my fingers into the soft soil and climbed, the stinging compliments of the briars now cooled to a pleasant chill from the wind. From this distance, Sazen was nothing more than a leaning scarecrow against the cart.

    I ascended the last of the hill and brushed off the earth smeared on my trousers, before observing the land spread out around me, immediately lulled by the quiet air supplemented with midnight howling. Here, silence was a song, heard only for the starlight illuminating its previously hidden melody. Here, the world continued while I and the hilltop ceased to go with it, encapsulated by a touch of eternity that embraced us together.

    I savored the fact that I had to wade through waist-high grass to touch the only symbol on that hill that previously aroused any fear. The looming brushfire elm had hardly any leaves to offer for the coming autumn, its branches having been infested by the moss. I felt its skin, and was overcome by an unexpected melancholy, to see its bark crumble at the barest suggestion. But it was not just moss that had rotted the elm. Large, bulbous blisters had sprouted along the trunk like the pustules of a disease, and spread to its thickest boughs.

    Without another thought, I planted my foot upon the protruding bulges and climbed, reaching the first branches within moments. There, the first and weakest branches snapped beneath my weight, but below, I could feel Sazen watching my silhouette as its contours were sharpened by the blood moon’s gaze.

    Ignoring the gnawing discomfort in my feet and the sweat on my palms, I continued to crawl higher up the tree, towards its farthest branches which hung over the hilltop’s opposite side.

    Crouched on one of the thickest branches at this height, my body trembled for balance, for nerves, for the creaking noises that I pretended were harmless, and I stared out at the prodigious moon now meeting me at eye level, as if to convey an esoteric secret shared with precious few. So I sat there, and I listened. I closed my eyes, and I breathed in.

    A rancid stench.

    Then sharp, staccato pellets of sound like the tapping of nails on wood, so quiet I was certain they had been there all along, I simply had not heard them before.

    My eyes followed my ears, to the branch a few limbs beneath mine, where a frayed rope struggled to hold the bobbing weight of a limp, maggot-writhing body, and on its decaying shoulders, a pair of birds continuing their task of further polishing its skull.

My heart raced, but I continued to watch, transfixed by the subtle oscillations of the hanging corpse, and the chance of seeing into its sockets as it rotated slowly back to face me. As the body turned, I retreated along the branch, hoping to steal a closer look of my first, most intimate encounter with death.

    I was alone, I had no remarks and no disgust to express so as to appear normal. In truth, I was not repulsed but fascinated. I tightened my hold on the branch and hung over its edge, craning closer for the sight.

    The diseased branch snapped. I fell, but caught onto another, only for the force to snap that one just as easily. While I scrambled, my skin catching on twigs, I weighed the consequence of falling on a rotted corpse or breaking a leg on the ground.

    Previously enraptured by their feast, the two crows berated me with caws, only to abandon their meal to add their claws and beaks to the pain of my fall from one dead branch to another. Though suicidal, the hung man had not been dimwitted. He’d picked a particularly thick branch with which to end himself. And this one, of all the others, was the one that managed to stop my fall.

    I dangled from it, its edges cutting into my hands.

    Beneath me, this edge of the hill was twice as steep as its opposite, with little else than rocks to soften my landing. And just a breath from my lips was the skull I had been so curious to see, its hollowed sockets inexplicably capable of staring back into my eyes, its dozens of squirming maggots shaken by the sudden impact.

    For having not died but for having fallen, for having provoked the defense of a pair of carrion crows, I laughed, loud enough for the sound to leap off and back from the cliffs bordering the small farm.

    But the celebration for my survival had to wait, as it seemed, to the crows whose dinner I’d just interrupted. Their piercing eyes were afire from the evanescing light of the moon as they woven through the tree with open beaks and poised talons. Their presence, their vicious assault and disregard for their own safety, as if protecting the corpse was of a higher importance than survival, all seemed to me the omens of an immediate consequence, a haunting for having interrupted the introspection of the ghost belonging to that corpse.

    I swung my legs until I could propel myself to the base of the bough, and from there, to lower branches. Once I was close enough to the ground, I used the falling limbs as a rhythm to my strides, cracking them fatally with each hop before landing upon the ground.

    Still, the crows descended, their relentless caws now ringing in my ears.

    I bent down and searched the grass, grabbing one of fallen branches to brandish at them. After they still attempted to make passes at me, I caught one of them with a swing and sent it over the edge of the cliff, before it regained itself and returned to a higher seat to watch me with an unnerving determination.

    Only then did the other follow suit.

    I stared back at the crows, hoping to find that eternal silence once more in the peculiarity of our violent meeting. But it had fled, as surely as any moment flees, despite any and all of our attempts to elongate the most perfect ones. And in my attempts to drag this one out, I was dully interrupted. This time, by chirping.

    At my feet lay seven tiny, frail bodies in the remnants of a nest that had fallen in consequence to my heedless climbing.

    But only one of them had survived the fall, one of its legs hideously broken.

    There was no denying my culpability. I crouched over the tiny corpses and cradled the only one still breathing, just as easily compelled to tears as I had been to laughter just moments before. I found myself apologizing and holding the fledgeling against my chest as I stared back at its parents.

    It was no wonder they’d been so vicious. I hadn’t been haunted at all. In this case, I had been the demon.

    With a long hesitation, one won over by remorse, I strode away from the hilltop with the small, barely beating life in my hands, determined to foster it with more attention than the wild would’ve ever offered. Under my care, I promised it quietly as I walked away, I would give the crow a life worthy of six, as a small retribution to the lives I’d already stolen.

    “You’re as foolish as you are unpredictable,” Sazen breathed before hugging me tight after I’d ambled back to the road. “If I hadn’t known better I would have thought the tree had a mind of its own, with all its arms thrashing about and the racket it made. Are you all right?”

    “Look at you, cooing over me like our own mother.” I pushed him away before he could squash the poor creature in my hands. “I just climbed a tree, is all. I thought you’d be pleased.”

    “Well … I am. I just didn’t think you’d be so daft to actually do it. Look at your face! There’s cuts all … what is that?”

    I spread out my hands and stretched my arms out to show him. “It’s a crow,” I whispered as if it was a secret. “I found it, when I was climbing.”

    He scratched his head. “Casimir, I’m not certain this is the best idea. How will you feed it? Not that he looks so well to begin with. Maybe you should—”

    “It doesn’t matter. I have to. I will. Why hasn’t father returned?”

    “He’s not back yet,” he replied impatiently. “What do you mean you ‘have to’? Are you well? I heard strange laughter coming from the hill.”

    “Laughter?” I asked with my most innocent expression.

    “You mean you didn’t hear it?” And it earned the most genuine look of terror I’d ever seen, delightfully portrayed in his face.

    “Not at all. What was it like?”

   “There was a loud snap, and then a long silence, and then the laughter,” he continued. “I thought for a moment that it had been yours, but it just seemed so … different.” Sazen combed his hand through his long jet-black hair, trying to decipher it all. “Perhaps we should see a priestess when we reach Portsworth, just to be safe.”

    “A priestess?” I guffawed. “I would have noticed if a spirit possessed me, Sazen.”

    He didn’t look convinced. “Did you see anything strange when you were there? Somebody else?”

    “No, brother. Nothing, really. Just a man who’d strung himself up.”

    “You mean a dead man?”

    “A dead man.”

    “Truly?”

    “Yes. One of six.”

    Sazen opened his mouth wide enough to match the width of his eyes, but was cut short by a shrill cry from the house down the road, its windows now illuminated by candles, its insides now stuffed with angered voices pushing one another back and forth, my father’s being one in the tangle.

    “Stay here,” Sazen ordered before he started sprinting.

    And I realized it then, after I placed the frail crow on a pile of blankets in the cart and joined my brother in pursuit, just how little there was to fear of death, of her timeless presence and impromptu greetings, of her graceless step and hackneyed style, but more importantly, of one of her countless crowning talents: to make life beautiful for the dauntless.

    Perhaps it was because I’d seen just how easily six lives could be lost by a single misstep. But I thought, as we ran and panted the night air, that I might needn’t fear it, not then, not now, and not ever longer.

                                                                   ~ ~

    “I killed you,” Sarkana told me with blazing eyes, “so that you might live as nobody else has.”

    And so it seemed, then, no different than that night. No different at all, and how appropriate, that that moment should be just as my first encounter with death. A blessing or a curse; and not merely one but perhaps not both either, of course, if only for our choosing.

    As the remnants of six different souls coursed into my blood, I screamed. I screamed for the cruelty entangled with beauty, for the silence of midnight and the roar of dawn, for societies and cultures borne on the backs of effort and corpses, of thoughts and memories passed through the phantasmic haunting of words, in every mannerism of expression and possibility of interpretation; for lifetimes’ entireties wasted and passion squeezed into a moment’s lapsing. It was enigmatic, it was gruesome, merciless, unending, bewitching, astonishing, vivifying and relentless. It was life. It was theirs.

And now, at least some of it, was mine.

    I sat up from the slate.

    Steam plumed from my body into the frosted air of the catacombs. I fought the dizziness, the unpalatably surreal, and held back my vomit.

    “You understand now, don't you?” she asked me once more.

    “Yes,” I replied, “I think I do.”

8
2
6
Juice
76 reads
Donate coins to Harlequin.
Juice
Cancel
Chapter 16 of The Culling of Casimir
Written by Harlequin
Chapter 16: Before & After
    Death always seems so distant.
    As time’s accomplice, her pervasive presence is no more ignorable than breathing, and yet we all seem to be experts at pretending she isn’t there.
    Like an adolescent whom fantasizes endlessly about the night of finally stomping out their virginity, I was surprised to find my death to be rather underwhelming, a surprising and unexpected end which, like any story, served only to provide the foundation for another beginning. I have found that the best stories are the unwritten ones, arriving in moments too willful to be captured adequately; their recreations never quite as compelling as their original song.
    Yet, here I am, attempting to do just that.
    A blood moon sunk into the soft folds of a hillside draped in shadow, the glow scintillating through the brushfire elm leaves twisted in rigor mortis, reaching toward the encroaching tides of darkness. The profuse, hanging moss that suffocated most of the tree’s limbs wavered in the wind, before that same gust sifted across the tangled vines, brushing against my face and bringing with it the scent of tilled earth.
    “Better we stop to feed old Christophe,” my father announced as he reigned the cart to a stop before hopping off the top seat. “This road seems safe enough.” And indeed it was, bordered on each side by flat farmland, lush for the final harvest before winter.
    Sazen, whom was mystifyingly immune to tiredness whenever we traveled at night, didn’t waste a moment and jumped off to stretch his legs. And no sooner was I made a victim of his restlessness, as he grabbed my head and smushed my cheek against his so as to guide my eyes to where his finger was pointing.
    “See the strange tree on top of that hill?”
    “You mean the only tree in that direction?”
    “Yes, most High Arrogance, I do mean that one.”
    “Yes, peasant. I see it."
     “It looks haunted,” he observed, though my brother was now looking directly at me as he said this, his lips already curled into a smile that was not at all mutual.
    My father sighed. “Sazen, you know how he gets when you tell him things like that. Don't go putting anymore notions in his head. Remember what happened when you told him there was a demon under your mother’s bed?”
    “It’s harmless!” Sazen protested. “He’s old enough to know better than that. And there aren’t any floorboards for him to dismantle here.”
    “And I am old enough to understand the basics of language. Quite well, I might add,” I pointed out to both of them. “Such that you might as well speak to me directly.”
    “That’s enough,” he disagreed. “Why can’t you two just get some rest like your mother?”
    Seeing this abrupt end to the conversation as a blessing to keep tormenting me, Sazen swiftly turned his attention back to me. “I dare you to go touch that tree,” he whispered to me as I sat peacefully on the same seat that had been splintering my ass since we’d left for the Stelmnest Festival.
    I didn’t have to look long at the hilltop to realize that its sight offered a better opportunity than most to practice hiding an expression of deep trepidation. “I’d rather not,” I replied, managing to fake a yawn.
   “Quilmore dek,” my father cursed.
   “Woah woah!” Sazen hollered.
    “Easy there with that language!"
    He only grunted at our remarks. “There’s no more feed for Christophe. I’ll go down the road and see if that farmer can spare some. No sense trying to wait out the night to have a tired horse in the morning.”
    “Father,” Sazen called, tossing a heavy bundle into the air.
    He turned, after having already taken the first few strides away from us. Before he could respond, the scabbard of my father’s sword smacked into its owner’s chest. He caught it in an awkward hug. “Quick thinking,” he admitted.
    Sazen clicked his tongue.
    “Just in case they need to be threatened. You don’t want to be leaving empty-handed. Gods know there are poor folk in these parts.”
    “Casimir …” was all my father could muster for a lecture at that hour. He and I had the same eyes, a detail that had bothered me since I was old enough to recognize his callousness and unenthused manner of engaging with the world. While Sazen, who wore his hair in a foxtail, had the muddied blood hue of my mother’s, both of ours aglow from her elven heritage.
    I thought that joining him in teasing our father was enough to earn the mercy of his imagination.
    “Now, about that tree,” Sazen hummed after he was out of earshot. He bent close enough until his nose was bending mine.
    Evidently, it hadn’t been enough.
    “You know what I would truly enjoy?”
    “What?” he asked, folding his arms.
    “You sparing me from your wild, useless whims for one day of my life, and for once to be allowed to sleep whenever we venture out into these gods-forsaken parts. ”
    He threw back his head and laughed, the sharp edges of his features (which had been my envy at the time) only made to look more sinister by the moonlight. “I’m your older brother, it is essentially my sworn oath to torment you. What kind of person would I be, to just leave you be? You’d grow up with the exoskeleton of a worm.”
    “Worms don’t have exoskeletons, they’re …”
    “Ahah! See? I thought it through.” He tapped his head.
    “Oh, you thought something through for once? I better go get father and wake mother, to share the good news.”
    He shrugged. “If you grow up with the mind and I get the women I’ll be satisfied.”
    “As if I would follow your lead in settling for just one. But I suppose you would do so, because it takes a mind the size of a rabbit’s to glorify sex above intellect.”
    He patted me on the shoulder apologetically. “Life is easier without lofty ambitions. One day, you’ll understand that fulfillment isn’t found between the pages of a book. It’s between a nice pair of thighs.”
    “Not all of us have the courage to risk getting pox on our genitals for a quick rump with the tanner's daughter. Oh yes, don’t look so surprised that I know. But I’ll just have to take your word for it,” I surrendered, only almost causing his arrogance to fail.
    I knew him too well to truly believe that he pursued sex above everything else, while he was smart enough to understand that my insults came from a youthful jealousy rather than genuine criticism. Three years was too little to set us far apart in our understandings of the world, but far enough to make the disparity between our staggered, physical maturity seem like the deepest chasm, one that he’d always been on the favorable side of.
    “I suppose you will, little worm.”
    “I’m not a worm.”
    “Squishy, tender, slimy little—”
    “Fine!” I leapt out of the cart, not even bothering to toss Sazen a rebellious look.
My father had only made it halfway to the house at the far end of the farmland. If I was quick enough, I could manage to reach the hilltop and sprint back before he had time to detect anything.
    “Wait.” Sazen caught me by the collar and hauled me back. “I realize now that you’re too old for this sort of thing,” he said. “It was silly of me to push you. Of course, you’re not a worm. Do you forgive me? You know I didn’t mean it.”
    I sighed out of relief and secret awe at the words he just said, but disguised it in annoyance. “Spare me. Now you’re the one getting soft. But you are forgiven.” Then his fingers went from my collar to my neck, pinching the jugular tightly. “That’s why you’re not going to touch the tree. You’re going to climb it.”
    I growled his name and squirmed out of his grip. Having received more of my father’s human features, Sazen hadn’t been damned by the punitive height characteristic of Qalmorian elves. Despite their graceful propensities for magick and athletics, most of us are damned to walk a head or two under most others. I, unfortunately, was no exception.
    “All the same. I’ll be back and you’ll see just how ridiculous this is. I’m far too old for this.”
    “That is, of course, if nothing creeps from the brush to drag you into the ground before you get there.”
    “As if,” I said confidently, though the imagery terrified me.
    Running defiantly yet ironically under his control, I realized I hadn’t even managed to barter for any kind of reward, which was typically the first and foremost tool that I used to trade for Sazen’s inane compulsions. I ignored the shadows oozing over the hilltop and and sprinted through the hairy entanglement of pumpkin vines, their leaves almost comically large with drooping edges folded over themselves.
    I attempted to cross the dilapidated fencing surrounding the plot with a single, graceful leap, only to land in a bed of briars that pricked blood as soon as I realized just how it feels to be gouged by dozens upon dozens of thorns simultaneously.
    Frustration, both for my stupidity and Sazen’s relentless insistence to push me towards anything that proved it, boiled quick enough to send me snarling from the bush, only to stand a stride away from it as if I had just defeated a monstrous beast. In that moment, I didn’t care anymore what my father heard or saw, nor for any childish impulses to prove myself to my brother.
    I turned and stared at my destination, with the pain somehow bolstering my confidence. The hilltop’s dreadful mystery was now enticing in its dark intrigue.
    I was just a step away from the shadow that the moonlight cast from the hill’s towering height, much steeper than I’d imagined from afar. Here, the line between the moonlight and the shadow was as discernible as the line of a horizon amidst a sunset. I tested the darkness with my hand, and finding no monster to pull me in, continued forward, lured by nothing other than my own curiosity.
    The hill required not just feet but hands in order to ascend. I dug my fingers into the soft soil and climbed, the stinging compliments of the briars now cooled to a pleasant chill from the wind. From this distance, Sazen was nothing more than a leaning scarecrow against the cart.
    I ascended the last of the hill and brushed off the earth smeared on my trousers, before observing the land spread out around me, immediately lulled by the quiet air supplemented with midnight howling. Here, silence was a song, heard only for the starlight illuminating its previously hidden melody. Here, the world continued while I and the hilltop ceased to go with it, encapsulated by a touch of eternity that embraced us together.
    I savored the fact that I had to wade through waist-high grass to touch the only symbol on that hill that previously aroused any fear. The looming brushfire elm had hardly any leaves to offer for the coming autumn, its branches having been infested by the moss. I felt its skin, and was overcome by an unexpected melancholy, to see its bark crumble at the barest suggestion. But it was not just moss that had rotted the elm. Large, bulbous blisters had sprouted along the trunk like the pustules of a disease, and spread to its thickest boughs.
    Without another thought, I planted my foot upon the protruding bulges and climbed, reaching the first branches within moments. There, the first and weakest branches snapped beneath my weight, but below, I could feel Sazen watching my silhouette as its contours were sharpened by the blood moon’s gaze.
    Ignoring the gnawing discomfort in my feet and the sweat on my palms, I continued to crawl higher up the tree, towards its farthest branches which hung over the hilltop’s opposite side.
    Crouched on one of the thickest branches at this height, my body trembled for balance, for nerves, for the creaking noises that I pretended were harmless, and I stared out at the prodigious moon now meeting me at eye level, as if to convey an esoteric secret shared with precious few. So I sat there, and I listened. I closed my eyes, and I breathed in.
    A rancid stench.
    Then sharp, staccato pellets of sound like the tapping of nails on wood, so quiet I was certain they had been there all along, I simply had not heard them before.
    My eyes followed my ears, to the branch a few limbs beneath mine, where a frayed rope struggled to hold the bobbing weight of a limp, maggot-writhing body, and on its decaying shoulders, a pair of birds continuing their task of further polishing its skull.
My heart raced, but I continued to watch, transfixed by the subtle oscillations of the hanging corpse, and the chance of seeing into its sockets as it rotated slowly back to face me. As the body turned, I retreated along the branch, hoping to steal a closer look of my first, most intimate encounter with death.
    I was alone, I had no remarks and no disgust to express so as to appear normal. In truth, I was not repulsed but fascinated. I tightened my hold on the branch and hung over its edge, craning closer for the sight.
    The diseased branch snapped. I fell, but caught onto another, only for the force to snap that one just as easily. While I scrambled, my skin catching on twigs, I weighed the consequence of falling on a rotted corpse or breaking a leg on the ground.
    Previously enraptured by their feast, the two crows berated me with caws, only to abandon their meal to add their claws and beaks to the pain of my fall from one dead branch to another. Though suicidal, the hung man had not been dimwitted. He’d picked a particularly thick branch with which to end himself. And this one, of all the others, was the one that managed to stop my fall.
    I dangled from it, its edges cutting into my hands.
    Beneath me, this edge of the hill was twice as steep as its opposite, with little else than rocks to soften my landing. And just a breath from my lips was the skull I had been so curious to see, its hollowed sockets inexplicably capable of staring back into my eyes, its dozens of squirming maggots shaken by the sudden impact.
    For having not died but for having fallen, for having provoked the defense of a pair of carrion crows, I laughed, loud enough for the sound to leap off and back from the cliffs bordering the small farm.
    But the celebration for my survival had to wait, as it seemed, to the crows whose dinner I’d just interrupted. Their piercing eyes were afire from the evanescing light of the moon as they woven through the tree with open beaks and poised talons. Their presence, their vicious assault and disregard for their own safety, as if protecting the corpse was of a higher importance than survival, all seemed to me the omens of an immediate consequence, a haunting for having interrupted the introspection of the ghost belonging to that corpse.
    I swung my legs until I could propel myself to the base of the bough, and from there, to lower branches. Once I was close enough to the ground, I used the falling limbs as a rhythm to my strides, cracking them fatally with each hop before landing upon the ground.
    Still, the crows descended, their relentless caws now ringing in my ears.
    I bent down and searched the grass, grabbing one of fallen branches to brandish at them. After they still attempted to make passes at me, I caught one of them with a swing and sent it over the edge of the cliff, before it regained itself and returned to a higher seat to watch me with an unnerving determination.
    Only then did the other follow suit.
    I stared back at the crows, hoping to find that eternal silence once more in the peculiarity of our violent meeting. But it had fled, as surely as any moment flees, despite any and all of our attempts to elongate the most perfect ones. And in my attempts to drag this one out, I was dully interrupted. This time, by chirping.
    At my feet lay seven tiny, frail bodies in the remnants of a nest that had fallen in consequence to my heedless climbing.
    But only one of them had survived the fall, one of its legs hideously broken.
    There was no denying my culpability. I crouched over the tiny corpses and cradled the only one still breathing, just as easily compelled to tears as I had been to laughter just moments before. I found myself apologizing and holding the fledgeling against my chest as I stared back at its parents.
    It was no wonder they’d been so vicious. I hadn’t been haunted at all. In this case, I had been the demon.
    With a long hesitation, one won over by remorse, I strode away from the hilltop with the small, barely beating life in my hands, determined to foster it with more attention than the wild would’ve ever offered. Under my care, I promised it quietly as I walked away, I would give the crow a life worthy of six, as a small retribution to the lives I’d already stolen.

    “You’re as foolish as you are unpredictable,” Sazen breathed before hugging me tight after I’d ambled back to the road. “If I hadn’t known better I would have thought the tree had a mind of its own, with all its arms thrashing about and the racket it made. Are you all right?”
    “Look at you, cooing over me like our own mother.” I pushed him away before he could squash the poor creature in my hands. “I just climbed a tree, is all. I thought you’d be pleased.”
    “Well … I am. I just didn’t think you’d be so daft to actually do it. Look at your face! There’s cuts all … what is that?”
    I spread out my hands and stretched my arms out to show him. “It’s a crow,” I whispered as if it was a secret. “I found it, when I was climbing.”
    He scratched his head. “Casimir, I’m not certain this is the best idea. How will you feed it? Not that he looks so well to begin with. Maybe you should—”
    “It doesn’t matter. I have to. I will. Why hasn’t father returned?”
    “He’s not back yet,” he replied impatiently. “What do you mean you ‘have to’? Are you well? I heard strange laughter coming from the hill.”
    “Laughter?” I asked with my most innocent expression.
    “You mean you didn’t hear it?” And it earned the most genuine look of terror I’d ever seen, delightfully portrayed in his face.
    “Not at all. What was it like?”
   “There was a loud snap, and then a long silence, and then the laughter,” he continued. “I thought for a moment that it had been yours, but it just seemed so … different.” Sazen combed his hand through his long jet-black hair, trying to decipher it all. “Perhaps we should see a priestess when we reach Portsworth, just to be safe.”
    “A priestess?” I guffawed. “I would have noticed if a spirit possessed me, Sazen.”
    He didn’t look convinced. “Did you see anything strange when you were there? Somebody else?”
    “No, brother. Nothing, really. Just a man who’d strung himself up.”
    “You mean a dead man?”
    “A dead man.”
    “Truly?”
    “Yes. One of six.”
    Sazen opened his mouth wide enough to match the width of his eyes, but was cut short by a shrill cry from the house down the road, its windows now illuminated by candles, its insides now stuffed with angered voices pushing one another back and forth, my father’s being one in the tangle.
    “Stay here,” Sazen ordered before he started sprinting.
    And I realized it then, after I placed the frail crow on a pile of blankets in the cart and joined my brother in pursuit, just how little there was to fear of death, of her timeless presence and impromptu greetings, of her graceless step and hackneyed style, but more importantly, of one of her countless crowning talents: to make life beautiful for the dauntless.
    Perhaps it was because I’d seen just how easily six lives could be lost by a single misstep. But I thought, as we ran and panted the night air, that I might needn’t fear it, not then, not now, and not ever longer.
                                                                   ~ ~
    “I killed you,” Sarkana told me with blazing eyes, “so that you might live as nobody else has.”
    And so it seemed, then, no different than that night. No different at all, and how appropriate, that that moment should be just as my first encounter with death. A blessing or a curse; and not merely one but perhaps not both either, of course, if only for our choosing.
    As the remnants of six different souls coursed into my blood, I screamed. I screamed for the cruelty entangled with beauty, for the silence of midnight and the roar of dawn, for societies and cultures borne on the backs of effort and corpses, of thoughts and memories passed through the phantasmic haunting of words, in every mannerism of expression and possibility of interpretation; for lifetimes’ entireties wasted and passion squeezed into a moment’s lapsing. It was enigmatic, it was gruesome, merciless, unending, bewitching, astonishing, vivifying and relentless. It was life. It was theirs.
And now, at least some of it, was mine.
    I sat up from the slate.
    Steam plumed from my body into the frosted air of the catacombs. I fought the dizziness, the unpalatably surreal, and held back my vomit.
    “You understand now, don't you?” she asked me once more.
    “Yes,” I replied, “I think I do.”
8
2
6
Juice
76 reads
Load 6 Comments
Login to post comments.
Donate coins to Harlequin.
Juice
Cancel
Chapter 15 of The Culling of Casimir
Written by Harlequin in portal Horror & Thriller

Chapter 15: The Art of Sarkana Bloodbane

I had to leave her bed to escape the intensity and still-burning emotions which I knew would leave indelible marks upon my memory forever. Trying not to make too much noise, I slipped into my undergarments and trousers.

Outside on her terrace, the enchanted air had dropped to the chilly temperatures you might expect on a late spring’s midnight. I looked behind me to be certain that Sarkana was still asleep. Past the thick, woolen curtains undulating lowly in the breeze, I could see her curled in the bed, the indent of my body around hers left behind.

I couldn’t discern what precisely led to the few hours that we spent wrapped in each other, I couldn’t recall the precise moment when I decided to give in. I would be lying to say it wasn’t mutual. There was pity, admiration, loneliness, curiosity, and of course, the bluntness of any animal’s bodily desire. Those elements, once mixed with the recent brushes of death, concocted a desperate desire and an irresistibly satisfying indulgence; akin to feasting after a long fast, to gulping air after keeping one’s head beneath water until the lungs burned and the muscles spasmed.

I felt satiated, and empowered, and yet, uncomfortably bound to her.

“Foolish,” I murmured to myself.

The fresh air didn’t shake the feeling that I had just helped Sarkana sink her fingers deeper into my fate. I told myself I was imagining it, just as I told myself it was a kindness, to both her and myself, to assuage the loneliness of someone who damned herself to solitude, and someone who damned himself to running. I remembered how she locked my gaze into hers after we’d sunk into each other, a look that held me and infinite in a tight, controlling embrace, a plea and a command for us to stay as long as possible.

Once more, the fireflies had come out to flutter in the gardens, blinking emerald and gold while my thoughts shriveled the sky into a bundle of blackness. Beyond the shores of the Ruined Sea, the moon’s sharp edge dipped its reflection into the onyx waters.

Reflection.

I left the terrace, to satisfy another curiosity festered beyond patience.

As I tiptoed back to my chamber, I summoned a meager faerie light in the palm of my hand to guide me through the halls. It was one of the only spells that I ever mastered, which is saying quite a lot, considering that faerie light is as difficult a spell as the prestigious talent of whistling.

I could feel it, itching, searching.

Just beneath the bandage, Fahim’s eye was burning to see the world again, and I was enthralled by the thought of seeing through the sight of a dead man. My heart thudded with expectation, with remorse, with nostalgia and a guilty pleasure to think that luck had once more laughed in my favor.

My hands trembled. The light quivered. My silhouette spluttered across the walls.

I bent towards the desk besides the bed, where a mirror was held between ivory fashioned in the shape of hands, its contours encrusted with grime and neglect. I examined the half-elf staring back at me. My skin was unusually pale and tight. My lips were snagged at the left corner by an old scar, courtesy of William. A small chunk of flesh had gone missing from one of my ears, giving me the odd look of a mistreated dog. And despite all of the rest induced by Sarkana’s tincture, deep circles of sleeplessness had pooled beneath my sockets.

I looked as if I belonged in a grave.

Ignoring it, I undid the bandage and watched it fall to my feet. When it hit the floor, my left eye still closed, I realized that I needed more than just curiosity. My heart was beating heavily, with deep, resounding echoes vacant of courage. What if nothing looked the same? What if I had underestimated Sarkana’s warning?

I looked at the mirror and examined my closed eye, which I found to be kept shut by various secretions binding the eyelids together. My heartbeat continued its steady climb. My left eye was crisscrossed by the faded scars of jagged suture marks. Dozens of tiny, intersecting tracks rimmed my eyelids where Sarkana had stitched the flesh back together in ragged pieces, as the delicate, thin skin had been shredded by either the arrow’s entrance or removal. The puckered tissue boasted enflamed hues of royal purple and red.

It was hideous.

I wiped the tear from my right eye and began to pick away at the dried flakes that kept the left shut. Memories seeped through as if Fahim himself was behind me, reminiscing in whispers.

                                                                   ~ ~

“Why do you think the King took me in?” I asked the alchemist. As usual, his face was turned away while he divided his attention between me and an experiment.

“William is one of those people who changes every fortnight. It’s been almost six years since he employed me, but he’s never stopped surprising me,” he reflected, holding up a particularly stinky concoction up to a ray of sunlight, “but I do know that he considers his intuition much more than most. He may consult the advise of countless experts to make a single, political action, but when it comes to his friends and company, I do believe he makes those decisions almost instantaneously. He certainly made the correct one when he chose to haul you into this family.”

I couldn’t help but smile, especially after he made a wink that was not half as smooth as he thought it was, as it had a closer resemblance to its close cousin, the blink. “And what did you tell him, when he asked you what you thought of me?”

“Do you want the honest answer or the charming one?”


“You can’t charm me with the truth? Don’t think I haven’t seen the poems you write in your journal. You can’t hide your secret affection for words for much longer, my friend.”

“Unappreciated snooping aside … the truth is I told William you might be as useful as a seat cushion. But I suppose the charming piece is that you didn’t take long to prove me wrong.”

“Oh, you sweetheart.”

“Still, it is peculiar, isn’t it?”

“What?”

“How he plucked you off the street.”

“I’ve considered abandoning the quest of discovering his reason. You might do the same.”

Fahim shrugged as he ground a few seeds of something that crunched between his mortar and pestle. “If you wish to lead an interesting life, a simple exercise is marking each day by some action that seems peculiar or unpredictable, whether its tying your laces differently or picking up a commoner and making him your Fool. For the most part, folks see life as a miserable cycle of disappointments, failed endeavors, and the occasional, uplifting moment. Breaking that rhythm might just be the answer to any happiness, any happiness at all.” He pinched the powdered seeds into a vial on a steel holder over a flame and turned to me, smiling. “It could be that William uses his unfounded intuitions to provide some surcease from the monotony of royal drudgery, even if he may not realize it consciously.”

“Ah yes, the tedium of having every luxury provided for you. And do you think the same, of life being a miserable cycle?”

He laughed. “Of course not! How sad would that be?” he said with a long pause as he seemed to get lost imagining it. “Happiness isn’t just a matter of variety, though that may help. Each day has its own limitations, that’s true, but there is no such thing as a day without endless possibility. Somewhere within this mortal coil, there’s a trick of transcendence masquerading around in a different mask upon every dawn. I do believe,” he said with a knowing smirk, “it only needs to be revealed, day by day, moment by moment. And I think—wait a moment—do you smell something burning?”

“I don’t mean to be rude, but allow me to point out that it always smells burnt in here.”

“No, no, but a particular kind of—”

And, as usual, something in his study decided it was time to punctuate his tangent with an explosion.

Sarkana spoke of Fahim’s family with poison, seemingly incapable of disassociating Professor Mecidias’ offenses from his children. I continued to scratch away at the sticky substance between my eyelids. Though I empathized with her betrayal, all I had were good memories of Fahim. Oftentimes, he was the one who held my hand when I had to learn the ridiculous complexities behind the mannerisms of Addorian royalty.

                                                             ~ ~

After a particularly awful display at a dinner party, which seemed only to demonstrate that I was nothing more than a bathed peasant brought into the castle by William’s adolescent whims, Fahim was the one who sat with me outside, away from the air suffocated by aristocratic pretension.

“It’s just one night,” he reminded me softly. “No one will remember a thing. Though I hope they do,” he added, “it was quite funny. I’ll never forget the look on Duchess Margaret’s face when you forgot to kiss her ring. You’d have thought you just dropped your pants and gave her a taste of Qalmorian moonlight.”

Despite my stubbornness to take the night’s blunders with grave seriousness, the corners of my lips quivered while I suppressed laughter. “But I acted like a fool.”
 

“I suppose, then, you did your job quite well. You should be full of joy,” he said between three claps.

“Hilarious. You know what I meant.”

“Of course. That joke was in poor taste. Luckily, it doesn’t matter at all.”

“Maybe not to me, but William has a reputation. He deserves better than some uneducated urchin tainting it.”

Fahim chuckled, shook his head, and leaned back to admire the stars. The light and noise from within the castle was failing to reach us after being filtered through the stained-glass windows. “Do you think, in the history books, the scribes will painstakingly copy this sentence: On the night of June 23rd of the year 1356, in celebration of Midsummer, the Northern King William III greeted his guests with a cordial speech and impeccable manners, but following the dinner, much unpleasant conversation was had amongst the attendants with his Fool, Casimir Foxfeather, whom fumbled awkwardly with his traditional bows and greetings,” Fahim droned in his best enactment of an old man looking over nonexistent glasses to read from an book made entirely of air in his palms. “Futhermore, Duchess Margaret appeared so disgruntled by this, that—”

“Fine, fine! It is ridiculous!”

“And who gives a damn who remembers what! Now think, even if that did make it into the books, would it matter at all?”
 I stared off into space.

“Well?”

“I suppose—”

“That nothing would change! The sun would still rise, the moon would still fall, and the tavern wenches would still make a killing off drunks who fell asleep before they could even take their trousers off. Oh,” he sighed with a dramatic flare, “you are a jester, but you apparently have a thing or two to learn about laughter. It’s a pity that an alchemist has to teach you.” He tussled my hat until the bells jingled and the brim of it fell over my eyes.

“Regretfully,” I agreed, not bothering to right the hat. “That’s it then. I really am a fool, in every sense of it.”

“One way or another, we all are. The truth is, all our lives are painfully short, the good and bad memories alike snatched away before we can appreciate most of them. We might as well take advantage of their brevity, knowing that the blunders of today will be treated as the victories of tomorrow. All is washed away; but that’s what gives misfortune its mercy. In good time, it’ll pass as every other moment. Embrace your foolishness, because there may be a day when you’re too old and too wise to enjoy what it’s like to fall.”

“So why worry?” I finished for him.

He patted me on the shoulder. “Precisely.”

                                                                   ~ ~

The tears hitting the desk were the only sounds that broke the deep silence of the early morning.

It was beyond the time to ask if I deserved this, at all. It was another befuddling wonder of chance, of misfortune’s irony, that I should look through the eye of a man who helped me see the greatest tragedies as only passing moments to be collected and considered with the rest.

I rubbed off the last of the substance. I saw.

Flashes bursted in spots that swirled and took turns diminishing and growing, bright as the sun’s edge as they melded together and separated like blotches of fiery ink. Pain lanced through the eye and pierced through my skull. Before I could realize what had happened, I was doubled over and gasping. The only thing that kept me from smothering the eye or simply tearing it out vein by vein, was my stubbornness.

I focused on breathing. Eventually the spots diminished and the pain followed suit, to an endurable and faint hum. Tentatively, I continued to observe.

In the mirror, the pupil flooded Fahim’s iris, leaving only a thin white ring. Only now, with Qalmorian blood pulsing through its veins, a faint glow breathed from it. As if I needed the help, the mismatched colors lended an eerie appearance. And the longer I stared, the more it seemed that Fahim’s eye was larger than mine, slightly bulging the stitched skin to fit inside.

My face was that of a poorly mended doll’s.

“Casimir?”

I turned. Sarkana jumped at the sight, which I took with a pinch of pride, considering her profession. The light we’d both summoned had winked out simultaneously. I let her summon a much stronger flame and watched her examine me through the flickering. “I thought we’d agreed you’d do this when I was with you.”

“I couldn’t help myself,” I said apologetically. “I was restless.”

“I understand. It appears I wasn’t too late, at least. How does it feel?”

“Fine, now.”

“And before?”

“Like someone dipped it in oil and set it afire.”

She winced, then drew closer to caress my arm and chest, which I had forgotten to cover with a shirt. “And what do you see?”

“I see you,” I said. “Everything is as it was before, believe it or not.”

Although she nodded, she didn’t seem satisfied with the simplicity of the answer. “Why don’t you … step outside this chamber? Roam the halls, look around. I’ll be right here.” The way that she spoke unnerved me. It was the way you might speak to a child when you’re about to show them a less obvious, hidden and shocking truth of the world they must grow in.

“You weren’t speaking lightly before, were you, when you said things won’t be as before?” I asked, ashamed to feel afraid to walk into the unlit corridors of her home. It made me remember what it felt like to look beyond the windowpanes of my childhood home, envisioning all of the horrors lurking in the darkness that oozed between the trees. The memory was so distant, yet here I was, feeling something indescribably similar.

She shook her head. “Unfortunately not. But if there’s anything you don’t wish to see,” she said with an encouraging squeeze of my arm, “just close the eye, and it’ll go away.”

“Will I see Fahim’s memories?” I asked childishly.

“No, Casimir,” she said with a chuckle, as if that would’ve been better. “Just look.”

At first, the darkness just outside the chamber was normal. Here and there, the edges of furniture were illuminated by what little moonlight could be afforded through the windows. And where it lacked, shadows too dark to see through left all else blackened.

I stepped into the corridor, and flinched at the wisps that could only be described as trails of smoke snuffed out from a candle, only much thicker, and nearly black, snaking through the air at various speeds. Briefly, a form would appear out of the smokey tendrils, taking the shape of something vaguely humanoid, if only to appear as a shocked, contemplative, or horrified expression, before dissipating and moving on. Emotions. Dozens of them, captured in phantasmic essences, surrounded me. Sweat sprouted from my back at the manifestation of my nightmare, now close enough to touch in reality’s stark nakedness. “There are … they’re—” I resisted the urge to curl into a ball and scream.

“They can’t harm you,” she said, but it didn’t soothe me.

Faces drew closer, looking at me curiously before moving onward to drift down the halls. I couldn’t tell what unnerved me more, the ones that floated off with a sense of purpose, or the ones who wandered without direction.

“What are they?” I whispered, afraid to attract more of their attention. A thick, dark film covered the floor in what I assumed was a quagmire of forgotten souls. Fingers emerged from it and snaked past my ankles to curl around my legs like hundreds of tiny, black tentacles. Tentacles that had always been there, I realized, only I’d never noticed.

“Memories, fragments,” Sarkana said with appreciation, “ghosts. Whichever you prefer to call them.”

One of the wisps materialized in the shape of a girl, her height rising just past my knees, her expression capturing all the lonesome anxiety of a misunderstood and forgotten child. But upon meeting my eyes, her broken smile mended itself and stretched. She reached her arms out and danced on her tiptoes, asking me wordlessly to pick her up.

“They can sense when somebody sees them,” Sarkana answered before I could ask, as she watched me shake my head sadly at the child. “The more attention you give them, the more you will perceive. Eventually, you might hear what they are saying.”

I forced myself to look away as soon as I heard her say that. “Do you see them as well?”

“No. Not without the proper lens. Was that Agnes you just saw?”

“The small girl?”

“Yes.”

“It was,” I swallowed, trying to imagine how I would live with this, not just in this moment, but for the rest of my life. Horrifying as it was to watch wraiths assume the silhouettes of their previous lives, I knew that this would never have changed my decision. Better to live and see ghosts than take more chances of becoming one.

A boy sprinted through the moonlight coming in through the main window in the living room, followed immediately by two dogs. Then, tumbling through one of the house’s walls, a man in tattered clothing stumbled onto the floor, followed by two arrows that shot into his chest.

“They’re fighting each other?”

“Not truly. They cannot help but relive their most vivid memories. Oftentimes, it’s the memory of how they died.”

More essences leaked from the ceiling. It poured from the walls and flooded the floors, masses of them sprouting up, frenzied by the attention I had fed to only a few. Phantom fingers slithered from beneath my feet and curled around my thighs, stretching to wrap round my body while licking upwards, higher and higher. The more I focused on them, the more it seemed I could feel them, the chill of their fingers and their long exhales. Ravaged bodies of the old and statuesque depictions of the young stared at me, starved of remembrance and searching for recognition. Their mouths moved without sound, their eyes followed without blinking.

I put a hand over my left eye. And like the closing of a shutter, the sight of them winked out. Once more, the home appeared as empty as ever. But the sweat and the shaking as a result of reality’s delicate familiarity snapping, oh, that lingered. It was worse than when hundreds of guests looked to me after William keeled over his throne. Only this time, I was not invigorated. I was paralyzed.

And I realized, then, what Sarkana meant when she said that she never had to imagine phantom footsteps, that she lived alone only ‘in the common sense’. “I could always reverse it,” she said suddenly, “if it’s too much.”

“No, no. That won’t be necessary. You just have quite the surplus of guests,” I tried to say with a laugh, but it came out as a hoarse whisper.

I told myself I would grow used to it … I hoped.

                                                                    ~ ~

Sarkana was determined to keep my company after I admitted that sleep seemed like a less-than-possible activity after seeing just how lively her living room was. We passed the small hours sipping caffek and staring at the fire. Even with the eye covered, there was no ignoring the sense that they were still crawling all over me.

Maybe it was a problem of perspective. Maybe all I needed to tell myself was that the tortured phantoms damned to cycle through memories of their death were just in sore need of body contact and cuddling.

Suddenly, she snapped her book shut and jumped from her armchair, startling Zuma and I at the same time.

“You’d think a god just shocked you with a divine vision,” I said, not at all in the mood for surprises.

“I have just the thing for you!” she replied and sprinted from the room, all but giggling hysterically. I heard her throw open the trapdoor in the other room and the crash of her body as she tripped down the last few steps. Glass breaking and a curse later, she arrived with a steel-rimmed lens that looked like a pair of goggles’ missing half. A leather strap hung from it, complete with a tiny, silver buckle.

“No runes, no hidden tricks, nothing complicated,” she promised as she handed it to me. “Not even any magick.”

“This looks like it’s from the seer’s eye,” I remarked as I belted the surprisingly heavy lens to my head.

“Just one of its many previous, failed attempts. Open your eye!” she pushed excitedly.

I did, and was immediately greeted by the sight of a pair of twins fighting over a stuffed doll, whose poor body was torn in two, sending both of the ghosts sprawling backwards.

“Gods damnit!” I cursed and tripped over the chair as I bolted from it, upon seeing that both of the twins’ eyes had been gouged out. “That’s not funny,” I whimpered with a hand over one half of my face.

“Oh shush! And now,” Sarkana said, “this!” She flipped the dial protruding from the lens, covering its vision with a black shield.

“Now that is a proper piece of craftsmanship,” I sighed in relief. I played with the dial, switching the horrors of the forsaken world on and off as easily as one might snap their fingers. “This is precisely what I need.”

“Though,” Sarkana began thoughtfully, “I would not recommend limiting your vision to only half, lest your mind get used to it. If you wish to live like you always have, keep both eyes open, as long as you can stand it. And don’t worry, not every home will be so … beloved as mine is, by the damned. As long as you ignore them, they won’t bother with you. Just don’t meet their gaze and they’ll leave you alone … usually.”

So the price, I found, was not so unsettling after all. I even began to wonder if, somewhere in the distant future, I would see it as a gift. But as soon as I imagined sharing every moment of life with the dead, even the most beautiful ones, I felt disheartened.

“Casimir,” she said, “I apologize, it couldn’t be any other way.”

“No, no. I am still grateful,” I replied with a forced smile.

“It’s just the nature of it,” she explained, “just before we pass into the Nether, our vision transcends the mortal plane. Briefly, we can see all sorts of creatures. The Vyurk, for one. Taking Fahim’s eye means sharing that vision.”

The dream I had flashed in my mind. I thought I had surely seen one. Yet I hadn’t died, had I?

“And unfortunately,” she continued, “that also means the fragments that the Vyurk miss. Memories, thoughts, dreams and nightmares that were not collected with the soul they belonged to. What you’re seeing is not the ghost of someone, just pieces of them vivid enough to linger. But they are not immortal. Everything fades, even the memories of the dead.”

“And how did you come to know this, that the ‘transplant’ would contain this ability?”

“From my studies, at the Stoneheart Academy.”

I nodded, unable to ignore the hesitation in her voice.

A few rays of dawn snuck through the windows, adding to the warmth of the many candles Sarkana had lit. “So is it true, that the daylight makes the ghosts hide away?” I asked.

“No,” she replied, “it just makes them easier to look at.”

                                                                        ~ ~

The previous night had left a peculiar touch to the air between us, to say in the least. But with little company besides a crow and an imp, and only winter beyond the boundaries of her sanctuary, there was nowhere to run from the confusion of discerning how to act around each other after being so close, so unexpectedly. We settled, it seemed, to pretend as if nothing had changed at all.

After breakfast we moved to her gardens. I was determined to reacquaint myself with my daggers after briefly arguing with Sarkana, who insisted that I rest.

“I feel spectacular,” I persisted, though it wasn’t entirely the truth. There was throb in my chest and a low aching throughout all my limbs. I attributed it to whatever magick Sarkana had used to mend my wound, perhaps as the price for what I imagined was only the work of miracles and legends.

“Oh?” She folded her arms, looking me up and down. “Truly?”

“Certainly. Why wouldn’t I?”

She hummed thoughtfully. “I simply … didn’t expect you to be on your feet so soon.”

“Seeing the dead for the first time has a way of shocking you back to life,” I replied, stretching out my limbs.

“You don’t have to tell me. How about I help you to a book from my library, something to stimulate your mind after all that sleep? I’ll even prepare some tea,” she proposed.

“Why don’t you help me train, instead?” I retorted. “I believe you’re still holding that favor over my head, and I have the feeling it won’t have anything to do with a calm afternoon and a book.”

She huffed through her nose, then let her hands fall to her side in surrender. “Fine.”

She didn’t fight me, herself, to help me exercise the movements and techniques that Zakora had taught me. No, instead, Sarkana did the only thing that someone like her would do. That is, of course, to animate a scarecrow and flop his straw body around like a puppet. Positioned several steps behind him, her hands and arms twisted as she manipulated the straw man with the charming hat, swinging him around and waltzing him about the gardens to grant me the courtesy of a moving target. I hacked at the arms, stabbed at the body, and when he became too damaged, she’d refashion sacks of dried straw onto him. Although he’d never been named, we thought he deserved one after the punishment we’d dealt him. We crowned him Twig, Northern Ruler of the Grasses.

The afternoon passed swiftly, chased away by running after Twig who hopped with surprising agility on only one wooden peg. He was an incredible opponent. I even had the presence of mind to drill Felix, commanding him to go through his repertoire of tricks, one of which being ‘gouge’ and ‘claw’.

“All right,” I panted as the sun began its descent and I’d managed to drench my clothes in sweat. “That’s enough for one day.” The aching in my body had intensified to an almost embarrassing degree. The sweat that was sprouting from my chest stung with sharp and surprising pains, as if they were slipping into the grooves of fresh cuts. Once I’d turned around, Twig gave me a playful slap on my backside. I turned swiftly and amputated his arm, but then fell to my knees, slammed by dizziness and nausea. Sarkana’s giggles were cut short.

I felt her grip my back. “Casimir? What’s happened? You’ve gone pale,” she noted uneasily.

I looked at my hands. The fingers were as translucent as the ghosts I’d seen that morning. I touched my lips and cheeks and felt their chill. The careless passing of the afternoon came to a sudden and almost horrifying halt; the heat of the sweat on my body turned to ice, my muscles aching pleasantly from the exercise began to tremble, and my mind had thoughts only of vomiting, water, and sleep. In that order, preferably.

“Something’s wrong.” I coughed and covered my mouth. When I drew the arm back, there was blood on the sleeve. I cursed. “I need to go inside. The heat—” but I was cut short, to violently expel the morning’s meal.

Sarkana murmured something and waved one of her hands at the walkway. The steps jutted from the ground in a single, rushed sequence. We ascended them and crossed the tiny bridge that led inside her home. There, the cool air contained in the walls embraced me.

“I told you to rest,” she said with a sigh after sitting me down. She wiped my forehead and mouth with a towel and unbuckled my belt to let the heavy weight of the scabbards fall to the floor.

“Is it the eye?”

“I’ll get some water for you. Stay here.”

I grabbed her arm and pulled her back. Her eyes were wider than usual. “Sarkana. What aren’t you telling me?” The previous night, the intricate symbols that stretched from her hands to her chest in complexities beyond my understanding struck me as mystifyingly beautiful. Suddenly, they appeared again as they were the first time I’d met her: intimidating, and harrowing.

Her long, Qalmorian ears drooped as a look of fear shrouded her eyes. Her mouth hung open, and the bottom lip began to tremble.

“Sarkana …”

“It was meant as a surprise,” she barely whispered, “I am sorry you had to find out this way. I would never wish this pain upon you.”

“A surprise? Pain?” The shock my body had felt in the gardens had become inconsequential. But the fire in my chest hadn’t subsided from its crescendo. It throbbed and slammed with every beat of blood, in sync with my heartbeat as it was overcome with trepidation to see Sarkana stand there wordlessly. The fire had spread from my chest to my abdomen, in swirls, circles, and rings of varying agony. “What are you saying?”

“Water, first. You need water.”

Before I could protest, she left and returned with a cup. I drank until the taste of bile was washed from my throat, then all but slammed the cup down. “I don’t like riddles,” I admitted. “Spill.”

“Please, don’t be angry. The pain is temporary. I had only the best intentions in mind.”

“This isn’t because of the eye, is it?”

She shook her head. “No. It’s something else. Something you could’ve never imagined, something far greater. I promise you.”

“What did you do, Sarkana?” I stood up, almost growling after I’d grabbed her hands and held them tight.

“Please, Casimir. I know you aren’t versed in magick; but you have to understand that there are people who would kill for this kind of power. And with your blood, with your talent, what I’ve given you won’t go squandered, I promise you that much.” The more she talked, the more her nervousness transmuted into a burning vivacity, an excitement I saw only when she manipulated the dead and spoke of her experiments. “This pain is but a meager price for what I’ve bestowed upon you.”

I fought the urge to shake the explanation out of her. I pulled up my shirt to feel if my skin had any telling wounds, blisters, or bruises, but Sarkana pulled my hand away before I could.

“You’re frightening me. You understand that, don’t you?”

Her teeth flashed with a sly smile meant for jokes shared within the confines of two similar minds. “You don’t need to be frightened, not after what I’ve done for you.” Suddenly, she’d become exuberant and sparking, gripping my hands with an equal tightness. I recognized the shift, the almost maniacal expression of an inspired mind undergoing a chaos of emotions, and upon discovering an inability to linger over one, instead embracing all of them. I recognized it, only because I’d seen myself in it before. I had felt it in the heat of bloodshed. I’d felt it in the stillness of reverie in the late hours, the intoxication of emotion’s unparalleled possibility.

That’s why I was petrified.

Within that wanton indulgence of one’s self-interests, there are few boundaries, and when there are boundaries, within that state of mind, the only conclusion is to cross them swiftly. “Tell me, Sarkana.”

I had never felt this before, a curiosity met with an unmatched horror, vying for dominance.

“I can show you, instead,” she said.

She led me to the room beside the kitchen, where the only thing that saved the space from nakedness was the trapdoor set in the floor. With a practiced hand, she unhinged the padlock with a long key, flung the door open, and stepped inside.

A hint of the scent which exuded from the crypts leading from the side of her home was the first sensation that embraced me, veiled with dust, mildew, and a chill not unlike winter’s bite. Steps protruded from the tunnel like teeth, the bottom punctuated by the low glow of torches flickering in the chamber. Halfway down, a feeling of familiarity caused me to hesitate. I stood there, between truth and mystery, not entirely certain where I wished to be.

I arrived at the bottom step. I watched my breath leave in a wraithlike exhale.

Past Sarkana’s expression of hopeful expectancy, the familiarity matured into remembrance.

The stone slab centered in the chamber.

The bodies lining the walls, their faces covered by masks to hide their decay.

The only thing that was missing was the bottomless darkness beneath my feet, where I’d sunk into the void of another nightmare

This time, there was nothing to fall into. I wished there was.

The heel of my boots echoed as I paced around the chamber, examining each of the corpses being utilized behind coffin-shaped panes of glass, bordered by steel and hundreds of tiny, interconnecting runes which joined together upon the floor and stretched like a madman’s calligraphy to the stone slab. Like a sleeping beast, they pulsed with a low, violet light. Behind the clear coffins, their skin was shriveled and stretched around their bones, without clothes and bearing the same wounds that brought them there. I swallowed the hypocrisy of my revulsion, reminding myself that I was the one who I had helped deliver them to this place.

“Water for the soil,” I whispered.

“Exactly.”

“Sunlight for the plants.”

“And air for their leaves.”

The room was smaller than expected, but set in every wall besides the one bearing the trapdoor’s steps, double-doors of worn wood, carved with the likenesses of anatomical illustrations, beckoned with more room for the dead, more fodder for the sanctuary’s undying power.

I was horrifically mesmerized, the boundaries of reality falling away at the seams of emerald and sapphire veins beneath pallid flesh; I was transfixed by life’s brevity and death’s finality, as I realized that the two were never separate at all, rather the quick resuscitations of a heartbeat, briefly caught in silence before another inevitable throb.

Sarkana watched my face the way a child might observe their parents as they show them a day’s worth of drawings. Her fingers intertwined in nervousness.

“This is my study,” she told me with a secret’s whisper, “my art.”

“I have been here before,” I realized aloud, mostly to myself, now aware of her manipulation while I had been subdued by her tincture.

“You … remember?”

“Glimpses.” It wasn’t just the doors that were engraved. In my nightmare, I had neglected to recollect the awe-inspiring depictions of skeletal references engraved upon the walls, as if she could not help but scatter her findings across every inch of every surface. Even if there were only two of these chambers, though I suspected there were many more interconnecting like tunnels, I realized the stonework alone would have taken years. I turned to face her, the delusion of her youthfulness shattering to reveal the unnatural appearance of someone cheating life.

“Then you understand, don’t you?”

I shook my head and found myself chuckling, beyond anger and frustration, but dumbstruck in a whirlpool of perplexed fascination and paralyzing fear. “Not nearly enough.”

“No. You do. I watched you through the eyes of a sparrow the night you escaped the Foxfeather Castle, I saw your lips stretch into a grin when you slew the guards. I saw how you took a moment, even as hundreds of feet chased you into those thin corridors, to breathe deeply in the middle of it all. You were savoring those moments, as I have done alone, here, the same way a painter might savor the stroke of a brush on canvas.”

I could no longer feel the chill of the room. I couldn’t tell if I was having difficulty breathing or if I had stopped entirely. I couldn’t tell if her words were a seductive poison or a clarifying truth. All the same, I drank them in silently.

“There are many ways to find kindred souls,” she told me, “but the quickest, the truest way, is to see how death’s touch feels against their skin, how they respond to her when, inevitably, she steps into their lives. Many people look away. A few, a precious few, get closer, asking questions. We are similar, you and I.” Suddenly, her hands were wrapped around my arms and my back, somehow icier than the air inside, pulling me backward. “I knew you would be perfect.”

I let her set me onto the slab. I let her push me down onto its frosted surface.

I stared at myself in the mirror set in the ceiling. After all that had transpired since I drank her elixir, I think a part of me had pieced it together. Behind the seemingly innocent mornings passed in quips and quiet reflection, through the shared recounts of an embittered past, and with the desperation of a lonesome artist desiring another masterpiece, I had known, or at least, I had told myself it was not possible, which might as well have been admitting it.

She unbuttoned my shirt until the sides fell away, revealing my bare chest.

Once again, the fatally ephemeral nature of chance revealed itself to me. Past elapsed into the present, this moment stained by the same blood that fell from William’s lips, by any decision, by any opportunity, by any and all moments graced by the multiplicity of chaos. And here I was, realizing once more, the foolishness of trying to control any of it, the irony of me laying in its freezing hands, having ever been deluded into thinking they could be warm for me.

“I am not afraid of dying,” I admitted to her, “I am afraid of dying without having lived. If I’ve ever smiled in her presence, it is only because I felt the satisfaction of slipping from her hands.”

“Do you truly believe that?” she laughed, until all I could hear was that sound reverberating back to me. “You don’t need to lie to yourself any longer. There is something intoxicating about manipulating. Don't you think it's mad, that our bodies should contain the potential to live for hundreds of years, and yet be damned to falter after falling so far from its potential?”

“What have you done to me?”

Sarkana murmured, “Unveil,” and ran her hand from my neck to my waist, the same way she had to reveal the door hiding in the side of her home. Then, as a tapestry of bright, intricate, seeping, crimson scars was revealed in a cascade of imbued runes carved upon my chest, Sarkana bent to my ear and whispered with a smile. “You needn’t fear death any longer, Casimir. You’ve already died."

"I'm dead?"

I heard her swallow, her low breathing next to my ear, as she contemplated what to say next, while I lay there, incapable of organizing my thoughts. 

"You see," she replied, "it's much easier to shape ice after it's first been melted."

"Is that what I am to you? Something to manipulate?"

She placed her hands at the corners of the slab, and began a light incantation like a lullaby in a language I’d never heard. The symbols in the room began to burn bright, heat shimmered in translucent waves over us, as she culled the substance from the corpses surrounding us.

"No, no. You're much more than that," she said through a gasp, "you are a piece of art."

Then I felt it. A surging heat, an embrace of life coiling around my heart and beating it stronger, a reprehensibly intoxicating exhalation of vitality breathing through my limbs and setting the insignias in my chest ablaze. The euphoria of it made the searing embers on my chest seem little else than pinches. It was a feeling I cursed myself for enjoying so much, a feeling, I realized, that I would be damned to chase for the rest of my days. 

A soulstone.

10
5
1
Juice
195 reads
Donate coins to Harlequin.
Juice
Cancel
Chapter 15 of The Culling of Casimir
Written by Harlequin in portal Horror & Thriller
Chapter 15: The Art of Sarkana Bloodbane
I had to leave her bed to escape the intensity and still-burning emotions which I knew would leave indelible marks upon my memory forever. Trying not to make too much noise, I slipped into my undergarments and trousers.

Outside on her terrace, the enchanted air had dropped to the chilly temperatures you might expect on a late spring’s midnight. I looked behind me to be certain that Sarkana was still asleep. Past the thick, woolen curtains undulating lowly in the breeze, I could see her curled in the bed, the indent of my body around hers left behind.

I couldn’t discern what precisely led to the few hours that we spent wrapped in each other, I couldn’t recall the precise moment when I decided to give in. I would be lying to say it wasn’t mutual. There was pity, admiration, loneliness, curiosity, and of course, the bluntness of any animal’s bodily desire. Those elements, once mixed with the recent brushes of death, concocted a desperate desire and an irresistibly satisfying indulgence; akin to feasting after a long fast, to gulping air after keeping one’s head beneath water until the lungs burned and the muscles spasmed.

I felt satiated, and empowered, and yet, uncomfortably bound to her.

“Foolish,” I murmured to myself.

The fresh air didn’t shake the feeling that I had just helped Sarkana sink her fingers deeper into my fate. I told myself I was imagining it, just as I told myself it was a kindness, to both her and myself, to assuage the loneliness of someone who damned herself to solitude, and someone who damned himself to running. I remembered how she locked my gaze into hers after we’d sunk into each other, a look that held me and infinite in a tight, controlling embrace, a plea and a command for us to stay as long as possible.

Once more, the fireflies had come out to flutter in the gardens, blinking emerald and gold while my thoughts shriveled the sky into a bundle of blackness. Beyond the shores of the Ruined Sea, the moon’s sharp edge dipped its reflection into the onyx waters.

Reflection.

I left the terrace, to satisfy another curiosity festered beyond patience.

As I tiptoed back to my chamber, I summoned a meager faerie light in the palm of my hand to guide me through the halls. It was one of the only spells that I ever mastered, which is saying quite a lot, considering that faerie light is as difficult a spell as the prestigious talent of whistling.

I could feel it, itching, searching.

Just beneath the bandage, Fahim’s eye was burning to see the world again, and I was enthralled by the thought of seeing through the sight of a dead man. My heart thudded with expectation, with remorse, with nostalgia and a guilty pleasure to think that luck had once more laughed in my favor.

My hands trembled. The light quivered. My silhouette spluttered across the walls.
I bent towards the desk besides the bed, where a mirror was held between ivory fashioned in the shape of hands, its contours encrusted with grime and neglect. I examined the half-elf staring back at me. My skin was unusually pale and tight. My lips were snagged at the left corner by an old scar, courtesy of William. A small chunk of flesh had gone missing from one of my ears, giving me the odd look of a mistreated dog. And despite all of the rest induced by Sarkana’s tincture, deep circles of sleeplessness had pooled beneath my sockets.

I looked as if I belonged in a grave.

Ignoring it, I undid the bandage and watched it fall to my feet. When it hit the floor, my left eye still closed, I realized that I needed more than just curiosity. My heart was beating heavily, with deep, resounding echoes vacant of courage. What if nothing looked the same? What if I had underestimated Sarkana’s warning?

I looked at the mirror and examined my closed eye, which I found to be kept shut by various secretions binding the eyelids together. My heartbeat continued its steady climb. My left eye was crisscrossed by the faded scars of jagged suture marks. Dozens of tiny, intersecting tracks rimmed my eyelids where Sarkana had stitched the flesh back together in ragged pieces, as the delicate, thin skin had been shredded by either the arrow’s entrance or removal. The puckered tissue boasted enflamed hues of royal purple and red.

It was hideous.

I wiped the tear from my right eye and began to pick away at the dried flakes that kept the left shut. Memories seeped through as if Fahim himself was behind me, reminiscing in whispers.
                                                                   ~ ~
“Why do you think the King took me in?” I asked the alchemist. As usual, his face was turned away while he divided his attention between me and an experiment.

“William is one of those people who changes every fortnight. It’s been almost six years since he employed me, but he’s never stopped surprising me,” he reflected, holding up a particularly stinky concoction up to a ray of sunlight, “but I do know that he considers his intuition much more than most. He may consult the advise of countless experts to make a single, political action, but when it comes to his friends and company, I do believe he makes those decisions almost instantaneously. He certainly made the correct one when he chose to haul you into this family.”

I couldn’t help but smile, especially after he made a wink that was not half as smooth as he thought it was, as it had a closer resemblance to its close cousin, the blink. “And what did you tell him, when he asked you what you thought of me?”

“Do you want the honest answer or the charming one?”


“You can’t charm me with the truth? Don’t think I haven’t seen the poems you write in your journal. You can’t hide your secret affection for words for much longer, my friend.”

“Unappreciated snooping aside … the truth is I told William you might be as useful as a seat cushion. But I suppose the charming piece is that you didn’t take long to prove me wrong.”

“Oh, you sweetheart.”

“Still, it is peculiar, isn’t it?”

“What?”

“How he plucked you off the street.”

“I’ve considered abandoning the quest of discovering his reason. You might do the same.”

Fahim shrugged as he ground a few seeds of something that crunched between his mortar and pestle. “If you wish to lead an interesting life, a simple exercise is marking each day by some action that seems peculiar or unpredictable, whether its tying your laces differently or picking up a commoner and making him your Fool. For the most part, folks see life as a miserable cycle of disappointments, failed endeavors, and the occasional, uplifting moment. Breaking that rhythm might just be the answer to any happiness, any happiness at all.” He pinched the powdered seeds into a vial on a steel holder over a flame and turned to me, smiling. “It could be that William uses his unfounded intuitions to provide some surcease from the monotony of royal drudgery, even if he may not realize it consciously.”

“Ah yes, the tedium of having every luxury provided for you. And do you think the same, of life being a miserable cycle?”

He laughed. “Of course not! How sad would that be?” he said with a long pause as he seemed to get lost imagining it. “Happiness isn’t just a matter of variety, though that may help. Each day has its own limitations, that’s true, but there is no such thing as a day without endless possibility. Somewhere within this mortal coil, there’s a trick of transcendence masquerading around in a different mask upon every dawn. I do believe,” he said with a knowing smirk, “it only needs to be revealed, day by day, moment by moment. And I think—wait a moment—do you smell something burning?”

“I don’t mean to be rude, but allow me to point out that it always smells burnt in here.”

“No, no, but a particular kind of—”

And, as usual, something in his study decided it was time to punctuate his tangent with an explosion.

Sarkana spoke of Fahim’s family with poison, seemingly incapable of disassociating Professor Mecidias’ offenses from his children. I continued to scratch away at the sticky substance between my eyelids. Though I empathized with her betrayal, all I had were good memories of Fahim. Oftentimes, he was the one who held my hand when I had to learn the ridiculous complexities behind the mannerisms of Addorian royalty.
                                                             ~ ~
After a particularly awful display at a dinner party, which seemed only to demonstrate that I was nothing more than a bathed peasant brought into the castle by William’s adolescent whims, Fahim was the one who sat with me outside, away from the air suffocated by aristocratic pretension.

“It’s just one night,” he reminded me softly. “No one will remember a thing. Though I hope they do,” he added, “it was quite funny. I’ll never forget the look on Duchess Margaret’s face when you forgot to kiss her ring. You’d have thought you just dropped your pants and gave her a taste of Qalmorian moonlight.”

Despite my stubbornness to take the night’s blunders with grave seriousness, the corners of my lips quivered while I suppressed laughter. “But I acted like a fool.”
 

“I suppose, then, you did your job quite well. You should be full of joy,” he said between three claps.

“Hilarious. You know what I meant.”

“Of course. That joke was in poor taste. Luckily, it doesn’t matter at all.”

“Maybe not to me, but William has a reputation. He deserves better than some uneducated urchin tainting it.”

Fahim chuckled, shook his head, and leaned back to admire the stars. The light and noise from within the castle was failing to reach us after being filtered through the stained-glass windows. “Do you think, in the history books, the scribes will painstakingly copy this sentence: On the night of June 23rd of the year 1356, in celebration of Midsummer, the Northern King William III greeted his guests with a cordial speech and impeccable manners, but following the dinner, much unpleasant conversation was had amongst the attendants with his Fool, Casimir Foxfeather, whom fumbled awkwardly with his traditional bows and greetings,” Fahim droned in his best enactment of an old man looking over nonexistent glasses to read from an book made entirely of air in his palms. “Futhermore, Duchess Margaret appeared so disgruntled by this, that—”

“Fine, fine! It is ridiculous!”

“And who gives a damn who remembers what! Now think, even if that did make it into the books, would it matter at all?”
 I stared off into space.

“Well?”

“I suppose—”

“That nothing would change! The sun would still rise, the moon would still fall, and the tavern wenches would still make a killing off drunks who fell asleep before they could even take their trousers off. Oh,” he sighed with a dramatic flare, “you are a jester, but you apparently have a thing or two to learn about laughter. It’s a pity that an alchemist has to teach you.” He tussled my hat until the bells jingled and the brim of it fell over my eyes.

“Regretfully,” I agreed, not bothering to right the hat. “That’s it then. I really am a fool, in every sense of it.”

“One way or another, we all are. The truth is, all our lives are painfully short, the good and bad memories alike snatched away before we can appreciate most of them. We might as well take advantage of their brevity, knowing that the blunders of today will be treated as the victories of tomorrow. All is washed away; but that’s what gives misfortune its mercy. In good time, it’ll pass as every other moment. Embrace your foolishness, because there may be a day when you’re too old and too wise to enjoy what it’s like to fall.”

“So why worry?” I finished for him.

He patted me on the shoulder. “Precisely.”
                                                                   ~ ~
The tears hitting the desk were the only sounds that broke the deep silence of the early morning.

It was beyond the time to ask if I deserved this, at all. It was another befuddling wonder of chance, of misfortune’s irony, that I should look through the eye of a man who helped me see the greatest tragedies as only passing moments to be collected and considered with the rest.

I rubbed off the last of the substance. I saw.

Flashes bursted in spots that swirled and took turns diminishing and growing, bright as the sun’s edge as they melded together and separated like blotches of fiery ink. Pain lanced through the eye and pierced through my skull. Before I could realize what had happened, I was doubled over and gasping. The only thing that kept me from smothering the eye or simply tearing it out vein by vein, was my stubbornness.

I focused on breathing. Eventually the spots diminished and the pain followed suit, to an endurable and faint hum. Tentatively, I continued to observe.

In the mirror, the pupil flooded Fahim’s iris, leaving only a thin white ring. Only now, with Qalmorian blood pulsing through its veins, a faint glow breathed from it. As if I needed the help, the mismatched colors lended an eerie appearance. And the longer I stared, the more it seemed that Fahim’s eye was larger than mine, slightly bulging the stitched skin to fit inside.

My face was that of a poorly mended doll’s.

“Casimir?”

I turned. Sarkana jumped at the sight, which I took with a pinch of pride, considering her profession. The light we’d both summoned had winked out simultaneously. I let her summon a much stronger flame and watched her examine me through the flickering. “I thought we’d agreed you’d do this when I was with you.”

“I couldn’t help myself,” I said apologetically. “I was restless.”

“I understand. It appears I wasn’t too late, at least. How does it feel?”

“Fine, now.”

“And before?”

“Like someone dipped it in oil and set it afire.”

She winced, then drew closer to caress my arm and chest, which I had forgotten to cover with a shirt. “And what do you see?”

“I see you,” I said. “Everything is as it was before, believe it or not.”

Although she nodded, she didn’t seem satisfied with the simplicity of the answer. “Why don’t you … step outside this chamber? Roam the halls, look around. I’ll be right here.” The way that she spoke unnerved me. It was the way you might speak to a child when you’re about to show them a less obvious, hidden and shocking truth of the world they must grow in.

“You weren’t speaking lightly before, were you, when you said things won’t be as before?” I asked, ashamed to feel afraid to walk into the unlit corridors of her home. It made me remember what it felt like to look beyond the windowpanes of my childhood home, envisioning all of the horrors lurking in the darkness that oozed between the trees. The memory was so distant, yet here I was, feeling something indescribably similar.

She shook her head. “Unfortunately not. But if there’s anything you don’t wish to see,” she said with an encouraging squeeze of my arm, “just close the eye, and it’ll go away.”

“Will I see Fahim’s memories?” I asked childishly.

“No, Casimir,” she said with a chuckle, as if that would’ve been better. “Just look.”

At first, the darkness just outside the chamber was normal. Here and there, the edges of furniture were illuminated by what little moonlight could be afforded through the windows. And where it lacked, shadows too dark to see through left all else blackened.

I stepped into the corridor, and flinched at the wisps that could only be described as trails of smoke snuffed out from a candle, only much thicker, and nearly black, snaking through the air at various speeds. Briefly, a form would appear out of the smokey tendrils, taking the shape of something vaguely humanoid, if only to appear as a shocked, contemplative, or horrified expression, before dissipating and moving on. Emotions. Dozens of them, captured in phantasmic essences, surrounded me. Sweat sprouted from my back at the manifestation of my nightmare, now close enough to touch in reality’s stark nakedness. “There are … they’re—” I resisted the urge to curl into a ball and scream.

“They can’t harm you,” she said, but it didn’t soothe me.

Faces drew closer, looking at me curiously before moving onward to drift down the halls. I couldn’t tell what unnerved me more, the ones that floated off with a sense of purpose, or the ones who wandered without direction.

“What are they?” I whispered, afraid to attract more of their attention. A thick, dark film covered the floor in what I assumed was a quagmire of forgotten souls. Fingers emerged from it and snaked past my ankles to curl around my legs like hundreds of tiny, black tentacles. Tentacles that had always been there, I realized, only I’d never noticed.

“Memories, fragments,” Sarkana said with appreciation, “ghosts. Whichever you prefer to call them.”

One of the wisps materialized in the shape of a girl, her height rising just past my knees, her expression capturing all the lonesome anxiety of a misunderstood and forgotten child. But upon meeting my eyes, her broken smile mended itself and stretched. She reached her arms out and danced on her tiptoes, asking me wordlessly to pick her up.

“They can sense when somebody sees them,” Sarkana answered before I could ask, as she watched me shake my head sadly at the child. “The more attention you give them, the more you will perceive. Eventually, you might hear what they are saying.”

I forced myself to look away as soon as I heard her say that. “Do you see them as well?”

“No. Not without the proper lens. Was that Agnes you just saw?”

“The small girl?”

“Yes.”

“It was,” I swallowed, trying to imagine how I would live with this, not just in this moment, but for the rest of my life. Horrifying as it was to watch wraiths assume the silhouettes of their previous lives, I knew that this would never have changed my decision. Better to live and see ghosts than take more chances of becoming one.

A boy sprinted through the moonlight coming in through the main window in the living room, followed immediately by two dogs. Then, tumbling through one of the house’s walls, a man in tattered clothing stumbled onto the floor, followed by two arrows that shot into his chest.

“They’re fighting each other?”

“Not truly. They cannot help but relive their most vivid memories. Oftentimes, it’s the memory of how they died.”

More essences leaked from the ceiling. It poured from the walls and flooded the floors, masses of them sprouting up, frenzied by the attention I had fed to only a few. Phantom fingers slithered from beneath my feet and curled around my thighs, stretching to wrap round my body while licking upwards, higher and higher. The more I focused on them, the more it seemed I could feel them, the chill of their fingers and their long exhales. Ravaged bodies of the old and statuesque depictions of the young stared at me, starved of remembrance and searching for recognition. Their mouths moved without sound, their eyes followed without blinking.

I put a hand over my left eye. And like the closing of a shutter, the sight of them winked out. Once more, the home appeared as empty as ever. But the sweat and the shaking as a result of reality’s delicate familiarity snapping, oh, that lingered. It was worse than when hundreds of guests looked to me after William keeled over his throne. Only this time, I was not invigorated. I was paralyzed.

And I realized, then, what Sarkana meant when she said that she never had to imagine phantom footsteps, that she lived alone only ‘in the common sense’. “I could always reverse it,” she said suddenly, “if it’s too much.”

“No, no. That won’t be necessary. You just have quite the surplus of guests,” I tried to say with a laugh, but it came out as a hoarse whisper.

I told myself I would grow used to it … I hoped.
                                                                    ~ ~
Sarkana was determined to keep my company after I admitted that sleep seemed like a less-than-possible activity after seeing just how lively her living room was. We passed the small hours sipping caffek and staring at the fire. Even with the eye covered, there was no ignoring the sense that they were still crawling all over me.

Maybe it was a problem of perspective. Maybe all I needed to tell myself was that the tortured phantoms damned to cycle through memories of their death were just in sore need of body contact and cuddling.

Suddenly, she snapped her book shut and jumped from her armchair, startling Zuma and I at the same time.

“You’d think a god just shocked you with a divine vision,” I said, not at all in the mood for surprises.

“I have just the thing for you!” she replied and sprinted from the room, all but giggling hysterically. I heard her throw open the trapdoor in the other room and the crash of her body as she tripped down the last few steps. Glass breaking and a curse later, she arrived with a steel-rimmed lens that looked like a pair of goggles’ missing half. A leather strap hung from it, complete with a tiny, silver buckle.

“No runes, no hidden tricks, nothing complicated,” she promised as she handed it to me. “Not even any magick.”

“This looks like it’s from the seer’s eye,” I remarked as I belted the surprisingly heavy lens to my head.

“Just one of its many previous, failed attempts. Open your eye!” she pushed excitedly.

I did, and was immediately greeted by the sight of a pair of twins fighting over a stuffed doll, whose poor body was torn in two, sending both of the ghosts sprawling backwards.
“Gods damnit!” I cursed and tripped over the chair as I bolted from it, upon seeing that both of the twins’ eyes had been gouged out. “That’s not funny,” I whimpered with a hand over one half of my face.

“Oh shush! And now,” Sarkana said, “this!” She flipped the dial protruding from the lens, covering its vision with a black shield.

“Now that is a proper piece of craftsmanship,” I sighed in relief. I played with the dial, switching the horrors of the forsaken world on and off as easily as one might snap their fingers. “This is precisely what I need.”

“Though,” Sarkana began thoughtfully, “I would not recommend limiting your vision to only half, lest your mind get used to it. If you wish to live like you always have, keep both eyes open, as long as you can stand it. And don’t worry, not every home will be so … beloved as mine is, by the damned. As long as you ignore them, they won’t bother with you. Just don’t meet their gaze and they’ll leave you alone … usually.”

So the price, I found, was not so unsettling after all. I even began to wonder if, somewhere in the distant future, I would see it as a gift. But as soon as I imagined sharing every moment of life with the dead, even the most beautiful ones, I felt disheartened.

“Casimir,” she said, “I apologize, it couldn’t be any other way.”

“No, no. I am still grateful,” I replied with a forced smile.

“It’s just the nature of it,” she explained, “just before we pass into the Nether, our vision transcends the mortal plane. Briefly, we can see all sorts of creatures. The Vyurk, for one. Taking Fahim’s eye means sharing that vision.”

The dream I had flashed in my mind. I thought I had surely seen one. Yet I hadn’t died, had I?

“And unfortunately,” she continued, “that also means the fragments that the Vyurk miss. Memories, thoughts, dreams and nightmares that were not collected with the soul they belonged to. What you’re seeing is not the ghost of someone, just pieces of them vivid enough to linger. But they are not immortal. Everything fades, even the memories of the dead.”

“And how did you come to know this, that the ‘transplant’ would contain this ability?”

“From my studies, at the Stoneheart Academy.”

I nodded, unable to ignore the hesitation in her voice.

A few rays of dawn snuck through the windows, adding to the warmth of the many candles Sarkana had lit. “So is it true, that the daylight makes the ghosts hide away?” I asked.

“No,” she replied, “it just makes them easier to look at.”
                                                                        ~ ~
The previous night had left a peculiar touch to the air between us, to say in the least. But with little company besides a crow and an imp, and only winter beyond the boundaries of her sanctuary, there was nowhere to run from the confusion of discerning how to act around each other after being so close, so unexpectedly. We settled, it seemed, to pretend as if nothing had changed at all.

After breakfast we moved to her gardens. I was determined to reacquaint myself with my daggers after briefly arguing with Sarkana, who insisted that I rest.

“I feel spectacular,” I persisted, though it wasn’t entirely the truth. There was throb in my chest and a low aching throughout all my limbs. I attributed it to whatever magick Sarkana had used to mend my wound, perhaps as the price for what I imagined was only the work of miracles and legends.

“Oh?” She folded her arms, looking me up and down. “Truly?”

“Certainly. Why wouldn’t I?”

She hummed thoughtfully. “I simply … didn’t expect you to be on your feet so soon.”
“Seeing the dead for the first time has a way of shocking you back to life,” I replied, stretching out my limbs.

“You don’t have to tell me. How about I help you to a book from my library, something to stimulate your mind after all that sleep? I’ll even prepare some tea,” she proposed.

“Why don’t you help me train, instead?” I retorted. “I believe you’re still holding that favor over my head, and I have the feeling it won’t have anything to do with a calm afternoon and a book.”

She huffed through her nose, then let her hands fall to her side in surrender. “Fine.”

She didn’t fight me, herself, to help me exercise the movements and techniques that Zakora had taught me. No, instead, Sarkana did the only thing that someone like her would do. That is, of course, to animate a scarecrow and flop his straw body around like a puppet. Positioned several steps behind him, her hands and arms twisted as she manipulated the straw man with the charming hat, swinging him around and waltzing him about the gardens to grant me the courtesy of a moving target. I hacked at the arms, stabbed at the body, and when he became too damaged, she’d refashion sacks of dried straw onto him. Although he’d never been named, we thought he deserved one after the punishment we’d dealt him. We crowned him Twig, Northern Ruler of the Grasses.

The afternoon passed swiftly, chased away by running after Twig who hopped with surprising agility on only one wooden peg. He was an incredible opponent. I even had the presence of mind to drill Felix, commanding him to go through his repertoire of tricks, one of which being ‘gouge’ and ‘claw’.

“All right,” I panted as the sun began its descent and I’d managed to drench my clothes in sweat. “That’s enough for one day.” The aching in my body had intensified to an almost embarrassing degree. The sweat that was sprouting from my chest stung with sharp and surprising pains, as if they were slipping into the grooves of fresh cuts. Once I’d turned around, Twig gave me a playful slap on my backside. I turned swiftly and amputated his arm, but then fell to my knees, slammed by dizziness and nausea. Sarkana’s giggles were cut short.

I felt her grip my back. “Casimir? What’s happened? You’ve gone pale,” she noted uneasily.

I looked at my hands. The fingers were as translucent as the ghosts I’d seen that morning. I touched my lips and cheeks and felt their chill. The careless passing of the afternoon came to a sudden and almost horrifying halt; the heat of the sweat on my body turned to ice, my muscles aching pleasantly from the exercise began to tremble, and my mind had thoughts only of vomiting, water, and sleep. In that order, preferably.

“Something’s wrong.” I coughed and covered my mouth. When I drew the arm back, there was blood on the sleeve. I cursed. “I need to go inside. The heat—” but I was cut short, to violently expel the morning’s meal.

Sarkana murmured something and waved one of her hands at the walkway. The steps jutted from the ground in a single, rushed sequence. We ascended them and crossed the tiny bridge that led inside her home. There, the cool air contained in the walls embraced me.

“I told you to rest,” she said with a sigh after sitting me down. She wiped my forehead and mouth with a towel and unbuckled my belt to let the heavy weight of the scabbards fall to the floor.

“Is it the eye?”

“I’ll get some water for you. Stay here.”

I grabbed her arm and pulled her back. Her eyes were wider than usual. “Sarkana. What aren’t you telling me?” The previous night, the intricate symbols that stretched from her hands to her chest in complexities beyond my understanding struck me as mystifyingly beautiful. Suddenly, they appeared again as they were the first time I’d met her: intimidating, and harrowing.

Her long, Qalmorian ears drooped as a look of fear shrouded her eyes. Her mouth hung open, and the bottom lip began to tremble.

“Sarkana …”

“It was meant as a surprise,” she barely whispered, “I am sorry you had to find out this way. I would never wish this pain upon you.”

“A surprise? Pain?” The shock my body had felt in the gardens had become inconsequential. But the fire in my chest hadn’t subsided from its crescendo. It throbbed and slammed with every beat of blood, in sync with my heartbeat as it was overcome with trepidation to see Sarkana stand there wordlessly. The fire had spread from my chest to my abdomen, in swirls, circles, and rings of varying agony. “What are you saying?”

“Water, first. You need water.”

Before I could protest, she left and returned with a cup. I drank until the taste of bile was washed from my throat, then all but slammed the cup down. “I don’t like riddles,” I admitted. “Spill.”

“Please, don’t be angry. The pain is temporary. I had only the best intentions in mind.”

“This isn’t because of the eye, is it?”

She shook her head. “No. It’s something else. Something you could’ve never imagined, something far greater. I promise you.”

“What did you do, Sarkana?” I stood up, almost growling after I’d grabbed her hands and held them tight.

“Please, Casimir. I know you aren’t versed in magick; but you have to understand that there are people who would kill for this kind of power. And with your blood, with your talent, what I’ve given you won’t go squandered, I promise you that much.” The more she talked, the more her nervousness transmuted into a burning vivacity, an excitement I saw only when she manipulated the dead and spoke of her experiments. “This pain is but a meager price for what I’ve bestowed upon you.”

I fought the urge to shake the explanation out of her. I pulled up my shirt to feel if my skin had any telling wounds, blisters, or bruises, but Sarkana pulled my hand away before I could.

“You’re frightening me. You understand that, don’t you?”

Her teeth flashed with a sly smile meant for jokes shared within the confines of two similar minds. “You don’t need to be frightened, not after what I’ve done for you.” Suddenly, she’d become exuberant and sparking, gripping my hands with an equal tightness. I recognized the shift, the almost maniacal expression of an inspired mind undergoing a chaos of emotions, and upon discovering an inability to linger over one, instead embracing all of them. I recognized it, only because I’d seen myself in it before. I had felt it in the heat of bloodshed. I’d felt it in the stillness of reverie in the late hours, the intoxication of emotion’s unparalleled possibility.

That’s why I was petrified.

Within that wanton indulgence of one’s self-interests, there are few boundaries, and when there are boundaries, within that state of mind, the only conclusion is to cross them swiftly. “Tell me, Sarkana.”

I had never felt this before, a curiosity met with an unmatched horror, vying for dominance.

“I can show you, instead,” she said.

She led me to the room beside the kitchen, where the only thing that saved the space from nakedness was the trapdoor set in the floor. With a practiced hand, she unhinged the padlock with a long key, flung the door open, and stepped inside.

A hint of the scent which exuded from the crypts leading from the side of her home was the first sensation that embraced me, veiled with dust, mildew, and a chill not unlike winter’s bite. Steps protruded from the tunnel like teeth, the bottom punctuated by the low glow of torches flickering in the chamber. Halfway down, a feeling of familiarity caused me to hesitate. I stood there, between truth and mystery, not entirely certain where I wished to be.

I arrived at the bottom step. I watched my breath leave in a wraithlike exhale.
Past Sarkana’s expression of hopeful expectancy, the familiarity matured into remembrance.

The stone slab centered in the chamber.

The bodies lining the walls, their faces covered by masks to hide their decay.

The only thing that was missing was the bottomless darkness beneath my feet, where I’d sunk into the void of another nightmare

This time, there was nothing to fall into. I wished there was.

The heel of my boots echoed as I paced around the chamber, examining each of the corpses being utilized behind coffin-shaped panes of glass, bordered by steel and hundreds of tiny, interconnecting runes which joined together upon the floor and stretched like a madman’s calligraphy to the stone slab. Like a sleeping beast, they pulsed with a low, violet light. Behind the clear coffins, their skin was shriveled and stretched around their bones, without clothes and bearing the same wounds that brought them there. I swallowed the hypocrisy of my revulsion, reminding myself that I was the one who I had helped deliver them to this place.

“Water for the soil,” I whispered.

“Exactly.”

“Sunlight for the plants.”

“And air for their leaves.”

The room was smaller than expected, but set in every wall besides the one bearing the trapdoor’s steps, double-doors of worn wood, carved with the likenesses of anatomical illustrations, beckoned with more room for the dead, more fodder for the sanctuary’s undying power.

I was horrifically mesmerized, the boundaries of reality falling away at the seams of emerald and sapphire veins beneath pallid flesh; I was transfixed by life’s brevity and death’s finality, as I realized that the two were never separate at all, rather the quick resuscitations of a heartbeat, briefly caught in silence before another inevitable throb.
Sarkana watched my face the way a child might observe their parents as they show them a day’s worth of drawings. Her fingers intertwined in nervousness.

“This is my study,” she told me with a secret’s whisper, “my art.”

“I have been here before,” I realized aloud, mostly to myself, now aware of her manipulation while I had been subdued by her tincture.

“You … remember?”

“Glimpses.” It wasn’t just the doors that were engraved. In my nightmare, I had neglected to recollect the awe-inspiring depictions of skeletal references engraved upon the walls, as if she could not help but scatter her findings across every inch of every surface. Even if there were only two of these chambers, though I suspected there were many more interconnecting like tunnels, I realized the stonework alone would have taken years. I turned to face her, the delusion of her youthfulness shattering to reveal the unnatural appearance of someone cheating life.

“Then you understand, don’t you?”

I shook my head and found myself chuckling, beyond anger and frustration, but dumbstruck in a whirlpool of perplexed fascination and paralyzing fear. “Not nearly enough.”

“No. You do. I watched you through the eyes of a sparrow the night you escaped the Foxfeather Castle, I saw your lips stretch into a grin when you slew the guards. I saw how you took a moment, even as hundreds of feet chased you into those thin corridors, to breathe deeply in the middle of it all. You were savoring those moments, as I have done alone, here, the same way a painter might savor the stroke of a brush on canvas.”

I could no longer feel the chill of the room. I couldn’t tell if I was having difficulty breathing or if I had stopped entirely. I couldn’t tell if her words were a seductive poison or a clarifying truth. All the same, I drank them in silently.

“There are many ways to find kindred souls,” she told me, “but the quickest, the truest way, is to see how death’s touch feels against their skin, how they respond to her when, inevitably, she steps into their lives. Many people look away. A few, a precious few, get closer, asking questions. We are similar, you and I.” Suddenly, her hands were wrapped around my arms and my back, somehow icier than the air inside, pulling me backward. “I knew you would be perfect.”

I let her set me onto the slab. I let her push me down onto its frosted surface.

I stared at myself in the mirror set in the ceiling. After all that had transpired since I drank her elixir, I think a part of me had pieced it together. Behind the seemingly innocent mornings passed in quips and quiet reflection, through the shared recounts of an embittered past, and with the desperation of a lonesome artist desiring another masterpiece, I had known, or at least, I had told myself it was not possible, which might as well have been admitting it.

She unbuttoned my shirt until the sides fell away, revealing my bare chest.

Once again, the fatally ephemeral nature of chance revealed itself to me. Past elapsed into the present, this moment stained by the same blood that fell from William’s lips, by any decision, by any opportunity, by any and all moments graced by the multiplicity of chaos. And here I was, realizing once more, the foolishness of trying to control any of it, the irony of me laying in its freezing hands, having ever been deluded into thinking they could be warm for me.

“I am not afraid of dying,” I admitted to her, “I am afraid of dying without having lived. If I’ve ever smiled in her presence, it is only because I felt the satisfaction of slipping from her hands.”

“Do you truly believe that?” she laughed, until all I could hear was that sound reverberating back to me. “You don’t need to lie to yourself any longer. There is something intoxicating about manipulating. Don't you think it's mad, that our bodies should contain the potential to live for hundreds of years, and yet be damned to falter after falling so far from its potential?”

“What have you done to me?”

Sarkana murmured, “Unveil,” and ran her hand from my neck to my waist, the same way she had to reveal the door hiding in the side of her home. Then, as a tapestry of bright, intricate, seeping, crimson scars was revealed in a cascade of imbued runes carved upon my chest, Sarkana bent to my ear and whispered with a smile. “You needn’t fear death any longer, Casimir. You’ve already died."

"I'm dead?"

I heard her swallow, her low breathing next to my ear, as she contemplated what to say next, while I lay there, incapable of organizing my thoughts. 

"You see," she replied, "it's much easier to shape ice after it's first been melted."

"Is that what I am to you? Something to manipulate?"

She placed her hands at the corners of the slab, and began a light incantation like a lullaby in a language I’d never heard. The symbols in the room began to burn bright, heat shimmered in translucent waves over us, as she culled the substance from the corpses surrounding us.

"No, no. You're much more than that," she said through a gasp, "you are a piece of art."

Then I felt it. A surging heat, an embrace of life coiling around my heart and beating it stronger, a reprehensibly intoxicating exhalation of vitality breathing through my limbs and setting the insignias in my chest ablaze. The euphoria of it made the searing embers on my chest seem little else than pinches. It was a feeling I cursed myself for enjoying so much, a feeling, I realized, that I would be damned to chase for the rest of my days. 

A soulstone.
10
5
1
Juice
195 reads
Load 1 Comment
Login to post comments.
Advertisement  (turn off)