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Chapter 14 of The Culling of Casimir
Written by Harlequin in portal Fantasy

Chapter 14: Ivory & Bronze

    Time was caught like a dried leaf in a hailstorm, swept every which way with no discernible trajectory, consistent speed, or hope for reprieve from its chaotic tumbling. I caught glimpses through a drugged, slitted vision, of Sarkana’s hands over me, the shining edge of a scalpel, the bundles of her sleeves bunched just beneath her elbows, with stains of blood rounding her wrists like splattered, shining circlets. The intermittent glances between unconsciousness came with pinches of discomfort, stabs of pain that poked through the numbness, sometimes punctuated by shades of indigo coloring my eyelids. But in my stupor, I couldn’t alert her that the drug was wearing off, or even to consider her distorted expression of enrapture as I lapsed in and out of these visions like light being granted space between clouds in a storm’s frenzy.

    In one instance, I stirred to find that night had fallen. Sarkana was looking over a cracked tome with gnarled parchment and deep gauges of ink that stained symbols and words throughout the pages. When she turned round, the tips of her fingers discolored with faded blood, she was shocked to see me looking at her.

    I raised a sluggish hand to my eye, cognizant that the arrow’s weight was now missing from my head, and that gauze had replaced it. “Not yet,” she whispered and took my hand in hers, murmuring other words that quickly slipped away with the rest of the room.

    Memories intermingled with the nightmare that I’ve shown you before. Only, this reoccurrence was slightly altered. I sat up in frigid air, my right hand and left eye bandaged, on a stone slab whose edges were chipping, falling away to depths which breathed a foul, impenetrable blackness. With no windows, the chamber seemed little else than a prison. When I had turned my gaze in a full circle, I found that each of its four walls hosted three or four corpses, all of them strapped down by leather belts and bolts, into stone slots that loosely fit the contours of their bodies.

    Upon closer examination of their clothing, I recognized the thirteen corpses as the fallen bodies at the Crossroads, only their faces were covered by the same masks which appeared in my nightmare, each emotion distinct than the next. Despite the fear that I usually felt from seeing those masks, the same expressions I had run from since I was old enough to dream them up, I wanted to free the corpses, to let them plummet into the depths below. But when I outstretched my arm towards one of them, its eyes sprung open and revealed that shallow, milky stare of the dead. It sent me crawling backwards, until I was leaning over the edge of the slab. Soon, it crumbled from my weight, and sent me falling into the blackness beneath.

    Halted. I looked up to see a dark silhouette, of what appeared to be a boy just a few years younger than myself, but with eyes that penetrated with ageless wisdom. Large, leather wings spread from one end of the room to the next, sprouted from his back. His arm strained to haul me back onto the slab, and I wanted him to, as I sensed that he had other plans than for me to continue in this cycle of nightmares. There was a loud noise, a bang, like a steel pot slamming against the ground, that caught his attention. Once he looked away from me, I felt my fingers slip from his grasp, until I was plummeting through the vacancy beneath the chamber, with his eyes following me all the while.

    Through the darkness, the dial of my visions was turned again, diffusing recollections through ticking that slammed like the heavy beating of a heart in an epiphany. Once again, I was kneeling within arm’s reach from Lisence as the marauders repeated their atrocities, my arms held down by leaden weights. Although I couldn’t stand seeing her this way again, looking away was somehow more horrifying, so I watched, and grunted, and screamed while I strained. Eventually, I managed to pull myself free. I threw myself towards the marauders, pushing them aside. The wind carried their silhouettes away in clouds of soot. And when I bent to hold Lisence as she shook with her knees pressed against her naked chest, her skin reacted the same to my touch, that is, to swirl away in a sigh of dust.

    I woke up to the familiar smell of damp earth and the certainty that the dreams were over. I inhaled deeply, savoring the clarity of wakefulness, even if it came to me in the diluted form of a single, bleary eye, and the first, shaky breaths that came after the unconscious crying that had evidently left my face wet.

    “You’re all right,” Sarkana murmured, repeating it a few times. “You’re safe.”

    I opened my eyes. My nails were dug into her back, my face in her hair. The damp earth, I realized, was her smell. I unwrapped myself from her body, our skin stuck together like bandages from the cold sweat that covered me.

    “Forgive me,” I began, “it was just a nightmare.” My voice had been collecting dust. I cleared it away and wiped my face.

    “There’s no need to apologize. If anything, I should. The tincture didn’t appear to pull you into a deep enough sleep. Did you feel any pain?”

    The three Addoran suns rotated high above the sanctuary, the softer light from the smaller two—which were truly moons—mingled with the heaviest rays piercing through the billowing, mountainous clouds which nearly kissed the surface of the Ruined Sea. As I watched the water, I had to remind myself that I wasn’t dreaming anymore. My head felt like a dense glass bowl, but otherwise containing nothing. “Hardly. I won’t take any apologies,” I replied. “Maybe the elixir worked all too well; perhaps in the farthest depths of sleep I had discovered a place of endless dreams. I saw some things that will be difficult to forget.”

    Her lips were pressed together with a look of apologetic pity on her face. She pushed a cup of water into my hand and motioned for me to drink. “Dreams are our burden only so long as we are sleeping. It’s best to leave them there, if you can.”

I nodded and drank, unable to shake the image of that boy’s stare into my eyes as his hand kept me from falling. “The tincture lasted an entire day?”

    “Two days,” she corrected.

    “Two?” Despite the heaviness that seemed to pull my entire body into the bed, I longed to stand in the wind, to feel the sun’s kiss or even winter’s bite. But even just moving my legs seemed like an arduous task. “Why did it take so long?”

    “Using necromancy for healing is not the simplest of tasks. But I do hope the results are … satisfactory.” Sarkana lifted my right hand, the one that had been pierced through by the same arrow that killed Fahim. After she unraveled the bandages, I fixed my gaze on the new scar, which looked like the remnants of a burn wound, where flames had scalded the flesh in the shape of a star, but had long since healed into a pale-grey hue. I laughed, because the last time I had tried to move my fingers, they had only twitched. I curled them around Sarkana’s wrist. Her expression lit up as if I had just enjoyed a meal that she had meticulously cooked. “How does it feel?”

    “The way it always felt, as if nothing had ever happened.” I held the hand up to the light, expecting to see some mechanism working beneath the flesh. I massaged the scar, anticipating the pain, but felt none. “This is unbelievable,” I muttered, shaking my head.

    “Well, I am not certain that it’s possible to give you anymore proof,” she laughed.

    “My eye …” I began to unfurl the bandages around me head.

    “Oh no. No, no, no,” she stopped me and replaced the gauze. “I’m afraid that will take another day or two, at the very least.”

    Beneath the bandage, I could move whatever eye had replaced mine. Before I had drunken the tincture, the possibility seemed distant, perhaps because I didn't believe something like that was possible. But now that I felt it, the eye moving in place of mine, I could not help but feel nauseated. Still, Sarkana was eating up the satisfaction in my expression, even if she looked as if she could fall asleep that very moment. I didn’t want to disappoint her.

    “I am sure it is just as astonishing. I can feel it moving already.”

    She nodded quickly, her fingers wrung together. “Everything is in place, I would just prefer it if your body had more time to adjust.”

    “I’ll take the healer’s expert advice. But do you have my, ahh, my old part? I am curious.”

    “Oh … well. I thought it best if you didn’t see it. It was not so, how should I put this … familiar looking as you might think? Lacking any appropriate use for it, I had it mixed in with Zuma’s breakfast today.”

    My mouth hung open as I attempted to find the correct response, or rather, any response that would adequately articulate my feelings towards that decision. I had never expected that one of my eyes would be eaten by an imp, but if it had to happen, I suppose this was the least painful, and traumatizing. “Always thinking pragmatically, I see.”

    “As one should,” Sarkana replied. “Are you still tired? There is no shame in resting more. Your body has been through more than you can imagine.”

    “I am,” I admitted.

    “Hungry?”

    “That too,” I laughed.

    “I thought as much.” Sarkana left the room, returning with a plate of steaming biscuits and thickly sliced cheese. “Something I had prepared for myself, but was hoping you’d be willing to share with me. There’s no possibility of me eating it all.”

    After focusing all of my being on eating several of the biscuits and fistfuls of cheese, I finished another cup of water and looked at her with a touch of pity, as well as guilt. “Please don’t take this poorly, but you look exhausted. Don’t tell me you’ve been watching over me this entire time.”

    “You mean I am not my usual bewitching self?” she recoiled, gasping and pretending to be offended.

    “Relax. The deep, black rings under your eyes are charming. Have you not slept since the crossroads?”

    “Sleep is for the wounded and the unmotivated. I sleep only when there is no other choice,” she said, peeling a layer of the biscuit before slapping cheese on and putting it into her mouth. Despite her confidence, she sighed deeply and rubbed her eyes. The way she chewed, eating seemed to be a chore for her, rather than a pleasure. I could only imagine that was how she regarded sleep, as well, as just another errand for the body’s feeble mechanisms.

    One of the the most alluring demeanors is an indifference to one’s own health in place of another’s well being. It placates an irrefutable longing that everyone either nurtures or ignores, the desire to be loved and cared for. I couldn’t help but feel myself wanting to grow closer to her. I reached out for the hand she wasn’t using to feed herself and pulled it into both of mine.

    Upon feeling my fingers wrap around hers, her eyes went quickly from our hands to me. A stunned disbelief, a loneliness fulfilled with relief, wrapped in fatigue, settled into her face. It seemed to me, then, that any false pretense I was under of Sarkana’s dangerous side needed to be considered no more than one’s fear of darkness. Maybe she had sharpened fangs only because the world is talented at transforming the potential of the intelligent into the ruthlessness of a savage. Maybe I was a fool to treat her coldly after she’d shown me tenderness, after she’d boldly embraced me as a friend when death was her only trusted preservation.

    “Both of us should sleep. You’ve done more than enough for me.”

    “Only what I felt compelled to do,” she said modestly.

    “No. Nobody feels compelled to stay awake this long for the sake of a stranger, to pour their life and energy into them so that they might live comfortably again.”

    “I’d be wounded if you saw me as a stranger. I don’t think of you that way, Casimir.”

    “You know what I meant.”

    “Yes,” she said, not meeting my eyes.

    “Compassion is precious, to be cherished more than its less admirable sibling, love, whom one way or another, seems to always become convoluted. Because just like gods and stars, I am not certain that humans were ever meant to hold it, rather admire and revere the notion as any other unobtainable perfection. But compassion has no double faces or smoke or mirrors, compassion knows only itself.”

    “If you really believe it’s so pure, what makes you think I’d be capable of such a thing? Is it not much more easier to believe that I am only acting out of the latter?”

    “Are you trying to say that you love me, Sarkana?”

    She laughed but held my hand tighter. “No. I am saying that you are one of the only friends I’ve had in many years, and the only one I found worth keeping. So maybe I really am selfish. I couldn’t stand the thought of you dying, and worse yet, of you dying because of a wound that could have been mended far better than most would think.”

    “Well now that I’ve seen how useful you can be, I think I can entertain the idea of being your friend. So maybe both of us stand to gain something from this, after all.”

Perched on one of the branches of the tree extending from the kitchen, Felix was feeding on a shrew, the blood on his beak shining from the sunlight sprinkling itself through the other canopies circling the gardens.

    The gardens exuded an admirable dedication, just as rampant as the ivy that spread over every structure, almost elegantly forlorn in its display of isolated mastery, of countless hours sacrificed to the sanctuary’s beauty. Every time I looked at her creations, I seemed to have another conversation with her, as if she had whispered secrets to the plants who in turn divulged fragments with every glance. When she looked at her gardens, I wondered what she saw.

    “Maybe,” she replied with a tired smirk. “Maybe.”

    “You’ll finally catch some sleep, then?”

    “Oh shush. I’ve been caring for you for two days. Don’t spoil my self-righteousness by becoming my caretaker at the very end. Put your head back down. Don’t pretend as if you’re not already nodding off again.”

    And I didn’t. The biscuits had settled to a dull heat in my stomach, and the suspicions I’d felt had all but dissipated entirely, so much so that nothing seemed more satisfying, more self-indulgent, than to let myself pass once again into a deep, guarded sleep.

 

                                                                 ~ ~        

    After I had rested long enough that I couldn’t endure smelling my own sweat on the blankets, I thrust the covers off and jumped into my garments, which had been folded and left on a stool beside the bed. Only when I left the chamber did I realize that the air inside had gone stale, stifled by ointments, dried blood, and all of the odors that had been issuing from my unwashed body. A little disgusted with myself, I unlatched one of the windows and let the temperate air breathe through, unknowingly inviting the regent demon Felix back into the home, who decided that biting my ear for several minutes was my payment for worrying him.

    The air in the home was filled with the rich scent of solitude and routines perfected by repetition, of incense, freshly harvested herbs, and the cleaning solutions. At the bottom of the staircase, I found her asleep on one of the armchairs in the living room, her arm wrapped around the seer’s eye, and a strand of drool connecting from her mouth to the device.

    When I tried to pull the blanket higher up over her waist, she woke up and looked around as if she was horribly late for something.

    “What day is it?” She wiped the drool away, not bothering to pretend that I hadn’t seen it.

    “I reckon the one right after last. The world won’t stop turning because you finally got some rest,” I laughed.

    Once she saw the early morning light coming through the window, she seemed to relax. “I must’ve fallen asleep,” she said. “Gods.”

    “That is typically what most people do, every now and then. You should try it more often, you might actually be able to keep your eyes open throughout the day.”

    “Oh joy, your sarcasm has returned. That must mean you are healing well.” She stood up and lifted the bandage up just enough so she could prod and examine the skin around it. “Good. There’s no infection.”

    “And I am dying to see with it. Can’t I take it off?”

    “No,” she said firmly, “this may shock you, but replacing someone’s eyeball is a delicate process. Give it at least one more day. But no more words before caffek and nitskel, immediately. That nap felt as refreshing as pounding my skull with a sledgehammer.”

    “You said more words,” I pointed out.

    “And not another from you.”

    On the terrace beside her kitchen, we didn’t share cigarettes of nitskel, but each had our own, trading inhalations of smoke for sips of caffek, both of their invigorating, earthy flavors reviving us from the inside. Felix was perched on the guardrail next to us, so enthused to see me outside that he decided to present me with as many innards as he could find of all the smaller critters scampering around in Sarkana’s gardens.

    “The eye …” I began, “whose is it?”

    As soon as the cigarette risked burning her fingers, she dropped the nub into an empty flower pot and rolled another, decidedly abandoning any attempts to curb her addiction since I’d been wounded. “I realized after you’d fallen asleep that I should have asked you, as it is rather a personal decision. So I thought about it for as long as I worked on your hand, and by the end, I had decided to use Magister Fahim’s. I thought you’d like the idea of him living on, through you, in a more innocent way, in a way that necromancy or any other kind of magick can never imitate. He will, quite literally, see the world through you.”

    A white, pale iris, with a pupil that was more often unsettlingly small than it was large, like a perfect spot of ink on a bleached piece of parchment. That was how Fahim’s eyes looked. I struggled to imagine how it would appear sitting next to the bronze of my own. “You made the right decision. Thank you,” I replied. “Do you think it’s as simple as that, that by spreading someone’s ashes to the sea, or by burying them beneath a tree, that they live on through the materials they are cast into?”

    “No,” Sarkana laughed and shook her head, “burial rituals are for the living, Casimir. Metaphors are just the same, unfortunately. Spirits are like rabbits once they’ve left their bodies, damnably hard to catch once they’re scared, and once a spirit leaves its body, you can bet your week’s wages that it’s going to be scared. The tricky part of necromancy isn’t mending dead flesh, it’s capturing the essence of something. That’s why the Vyurken exist.”

    “The Vyurken, you mean, the demons whom Death uses to help carry off spirits into the Nether?”
 Sarkana nodded, knowing fully that this creature was, to many, just another children’s tale. She hid her knowing smile behind her mug.

    “I wouldn’t suppose there’s any use telling you that I am not someone who has any reason to believe in such things.”

    “No, I wouldn’t suppose so,” she said, “but that doesn’t mean you’re right.”

    “So you don’t think …”

    “What?”

    “You don’t think there is some essence of Fahim lingering in me?”

    But that only amused her further. “Unless it slipped by me unnoticed, I doubt it. The Vyurk that helped Fahim was rather quick, and rather thorough.”

    Briefly, I considered asking her what one of the Vyurken looked like, how they spoke, if they did at all. I remembered the boy in my nightmares, but felt childish proposing the idea that, somehow, I had shared a vision of the one that took Fahim’s spirit. “I see. And what about Fahim?”

    “What about him?” she replied, her tone hinting that she knew what was coming.

    “You knew him, didn’t you?”

    “So he did, didn’t he?” she murmured with a chuckle. Her eyebrows were raised while her fingers traced the handle on her mug, a look of distant surprise taking hold while she was swept into her thoughts.

    “Did what?”

    “You had no correspondence with Fahim after you left Foxfeather Castle? Nothing besides the ring you sent?”

    “That’s correct.”

    “Of course. So how else did he come to tip you off that he knew me? He must’ve said something, either right before then, or right as he died.” She shook her head in disbelief. “The bastard. What a waste.”

    “Waste?”

    “To spend your last moments speaking of another …”

    “Am I a fool for not heeding his final words? He seemed … wary of you.”

    “So they really were his final words?” she tilted her head back and laughed. “I’d say you already made your gamble, fool or not, you’ll just have to live with it.”

    “But why did you never mention that you knew him? You let me go on guessing.”

    “And I am quite sorry for that. There was a history there that, to be blunt, made me feel as inclined to save his life as I would feel inclined to nurture a wasp. Yet, I didn’t feel justified in denying your good intentions. I was willing to help, or willing to do nothing at all, depending on your decision.”

    Watching Sarkana lift her leg up to lean back in her chair, to sip her caffek, to smoke her nitskel and ponder all this over the morning light, only made the entire situation seem more ridiculous. I wondered if I had wasted a perfectly innocent fortnight of rest entertaining useless considerations of paranoia. In spite of the bond growing between us, I entertained the curiosity left behind from my reservations, and continued down the trail of Fahim’s warning.

    “How did you know him?”

    “Oh, I hardly knew him at all,” she said, waving away the notion with her hand. “Before the crossroads, I hadn’t the slightest clue how he’d aged. Fahim is, or I suppose was the son of an instructor at the Ardor Academy, the one I attended in my youth. Are you familiar with the name Fell Mecidias?”

    At the mention of her ‘youth,’ I remembered that I still didn’t know her age. And the more I looked at her, the more perplexed I became. Her attentive eyes, the dark colors of exertion beneath them, the faded rose tint to her lips and the pallid hues of her skin, always had me caught between admiration, affection, and confusion. “Only the second name.”

    She finished the last of her caffek, pinched the end of the cigarette out, and ran her tongue across another rolling sheet before stuffing it shut with more of the dried plant. With a murmur, she ignited the end of it with a small flame that spawned from her palm. She waved her hand rapidly until the flame spluttered. It made me feel ordinary, especially when I leaned over to light mine on a candle in the middle of the table. “Fell Mecidias was a brilliant mage, I’ll admit that much, even if I have enough reason to despise him. He was an instructor of destruction magick, particularly its use in combat. He fostered more than a few golden names that appeared in the recent Runeland wars.”

    “That explains how Fahim secured his position with the Foxfeathers.”

    “All Fell would’ve needed was to write a word of recommendation and have it sent to the right hands. But, knowing him, he would have popped the letter through the dining hall with a summoning portal.”

    “I think you enjoy this person more than you’re willing to admit, judging by that grin on your face.”

    “I have a tender spot for people who can cast magick the same way they steep their tea in the morning,” she admitted. “All the same …”

    “What does Fahim’s father have to do with all this?”

    “Right,” she sighed. “Well, you asked how Fahim knew me. The Mecidias family house was in my hometown. After my parent’s death, I was fostered partially by Fell’s wife, and even Fahim’s siblings, since his father all but lived in the Academy. But I never spoke much to Fahim. I couldn’t, even if I wanted to. He was only a child by the time I was preparing myself for admittance into that institution. In fact, the person who wrote my recommendation letter was Fell’s wife, a woman called Lelayna.”

    “What was she like?”

    “Caring, honest, surprisingly loud and only a little too proud of her baking. She was like her husband—incredibly devoted to the arts of casting—but after four children,” Sarkana spread out her hands and shrugged her shoulders, “there simply wasn’t enough time in the day.”

    We laughed at that thought, but behind my quickly fading grin, I felt the guilt for Fahim’s death return. The realization struck me like the arrow that had punctured my hand, that there was nobody to notify his family of his demise. Nobody, of course, except for me. Already I felt the obligation tugging me towards another destination, another road, another responsibility asking for a journey with a conclusion to bind its beginning shut forever, sewing any unanswered questions within. Already I could see myself and my shadow cast upon the steps of their home, greeting Fahim’s mother the same way in which I had said farewell to her son, with my hand over her heart, sharing a moment too burdensome to speak of while we stared into each other’s eyes. Only, when she looked at me, she would see one of his staring back.

    Over the sanctuary, clouds thickened by storm unfurled heavy, black curtains of rain, which trailed and made rivulets down the translucent barrier that protected her home from the harshness of the Addorian winters.

    “But what gave you reason to despise his father?” I pursued.

    “Maybe ‘despise’ is a harsh word, especially after so much time has passed. After awhile, disdain can become a habit, but now that I truly think on it, I suppose it is more apt to phrase it as, ‘what would make Fahim despise me,’ or at least enough for him to warn you. It was his father. He was too much of a traditionalist, in my opinion. But despite our differences in the changing culture of magick and how it could be explored, I felt we needn’t discuss or even acknowledge the disparity in our opinions. I was, after all, only one of the many pupils in his classes. And I must admit, there was a strong connection between us, especially after all the letters his wife had written to him about me. I didn’t think our separate methods would tarnish the relationship.” 

    I did only what anyone should do when someone else is exploring the narrow, cavernous corridors of their past to drag out old memories. I folded my fingers together, met her eyes when she sought mine, and kept my lips shut while the recollections spilled from hers.

    “At the Ardor Academy, graduating scholars are expected to conduct an experiment which replicates the newest findings in their respective schools, if not something beyond what’s been discovered in the past five years or so. For the most part, students of alchemy present elixirs with stunning capabilities but absurdly expensive or unique ingredients. Destructive mages will typically combine spellwork with military designs to create weapons with impressive potential to slaughter by the hundreds. Healers will find loopholes through runes to store energy with the ability to heal freshly broken bones for soldiers. Onward and onward. You can see where the rest goes, can’t you?”

    Pretending to be capable of imagining what she was saying, I nodded quickly. But once more, I contemplated the difference between the life of a well-off practitioner and that of a commoner. While I had been familiarizing myself with the best way to outrun city guardsmen, as well as learning how to hold a blade from some less than undesirable individuals, Sarkana and her peers had been testing the limits of magickal theories and the principles which governed our world, prodding limitations to meddle with the intricacies of spells and runes and flesh and intellect. I almost felt bitter. Then again, someone had to lose an eye so someone else could learn to fix it, as the old saying goes.

    “And yet,” I realized aloud, “this still leaves a few questions unanswered.” From what I had seen of Sarkana’s practices, I felt I could guess the rest of the story. But of course, I settled deeper into my chair, rolled another cigarette, and continued to listen while looking out at the sky as it leeched color from the ground, turning everything into darkened shades of moss, bark, and stone, and the sea into a black mirror.

    “As all good stories should, before they are finished.”

    I raised my mug up in accord.

    “When it came time for me to present my final year’s experiment to the graduation panel, I first showed it to Professor Fell, as I had come to him for nearly all of my questions. I never found a question that he didn’t have an answer to, or at least a recommendation for which book to read in order to find it. Yet, when I showed him my experiment, which was the transmutation of life-force from a colony of beetles to a squirrel using a soulstone, he was unexpectedly disapproving, and enraged. I was surprised, even hurt. Anger was not an emotion that I thought he was capable of; it only told me how much he disdained necromancers. He told me it was too close to the same magick which created the Mancer’s Stone, the same style that would result in practices that had the potential to cause wars and promote pursuits of immortality. Shifting the life-force from two creatures of the same species was one thing, he said, but between two drastically different types … he wasn’t altogether thrilled at the immense possibilities.”

The mention of the stone twisted my stomach, bringing back images of Shamus grimacing through a thick sheen of blood spreading from his nose, as he described to me the dangers that the artifact were in. “Could it, though?”

    “Could it what?”

    “Cause wars.”

    “Psh. Ask the royals you once belonged to. Consult their military commanders. Discovery and intellect are a practitioner’s priorities; if their findings bring conflict to the world, it says nothing of their studies. It speaks only to the depressing nature of the world’s inability to handle progress. Would you stop the first man from discovering fire if you knew it would create a world with warfare, cutthroats and rapists?”

    “You’re talking to a knife juggler. I’d tell him to hurry. But I thought necromancy wasn’t frowned upon in the academies?”

    “That’s what most folks say,” she muttered with a shake of her head, “I am not sure who started that little lie, but in the academies, the only reason that necromancy isn’t frowned upon is because it’s not taught readily enough to encourage any students towards a career with it. You’d be looking for a bat in a mouse trap, unfortunately. There are few, if any, professors who teach higher necromatic castings, not just in Addoran, but all of Netherway. The truth is, most academies won’t touch the subject with a staff. They say they don’t mind it because, largely, they’re afraid of it.”

    “So Fahim …”

    “… had no true reason to be afraid of me, besides what his father might’ve shared with him. You see, although the experiment was controversial, it was something that hadn’t been attempted in many years, at least not by a student. Despite the school of magick I’d chosen to pursue, they were impressed. I was seeking a position at the Ardor as an instructor, and I wasn’t going to shy away from showing them my best work. As soon as I’d graduated, I pursued a career as a soulmancer, a practitioner of higher necromancy. Reluctantly, the academy agreed, but under the pretense that I teach nothing remotely related to soulstones, not even any runic symbols that could be contrived to aid in their creation. Soon after,” she said with a touch of pride, “I had become one of the youngest instructors at the Ardor Academy, with my own classes and students.”

    The cigarette between Sarkana’s fingers had long since gone out, the end as cold as the expression that quickly overtook her wistful gaze. I needn’t ask her to go on. I could already see that she had had too many years in which these stories had been locked in the most dangerous place for any hatred to linger: the heart. It’s in silence that our worst thoughts fester, as if they feed on the stifled air of unspoken bitterness.

    “I had been told to teach nothing beyond the basics of necromancy, nothing beyond simple reanimation and the manipulation of death’s energy, to produce little else than pithy lights and displays for a circus’ sideshow.” She scoffed. “But they never advised me against my own, private pursuits. Soon after my first two years with the academy, Professor Fell alerted the institution’s council of the experiments I conducted alone, of what he called their ‘danger and potency.’

    “I expected to be exalted, to be encouraged by one of the highest ranking institutions for any practitioner. In fact, when he threatened me to alter my attention to studies other than soulstones, I only laughed; I thought the council would be excited to review my findings.”

    “But instead?”

    “Tossed out. Thrust aside. Shunned. After they completed a thorough investigation of my study, they concluded that I was ‘unfit for the instruction of the young and pure-minded’. That I was a poor influence on the students, that my pursuits would bring only darkness to the world. They collected my journals, my texts, two years of data and recorded experiments, of illustrations and devices … and burnt them.” She’d since set down her cigarette and mug, her hands digging into the skin of her thighs. An angry tear slipped down her cheek. “The council sent letters to every academy in the realm, warning them against admitting me into their staff, and instructing them to destroy any of my published findings.” She spoke in a rushed voice, as if she was arguing her fate against the gods, trying to convince them of its unfairness. “In the higher circles, unfounded rumors and accusations spread until my name became all but outlawed. For a few years, I couldn’t so much as set foot in a chapel in any major city without being accosted by questions.

    “So I came here,” she said with a shrug, and flicked the tear away, "to pursue the life I wanted without the people I wished to share it with."

    “And sadly, to my great luck,” I added, reaching for her hand to squeeze it. To which she pulled on it, almost roughly, so that I was close enough to feel the shallow exhalations between her lips. When she looked at me, there was a frustrated expectation in her eyes, as if she deserved nothing less than what she was about to do after so much disappointment, which was pull my head closer, close enough that our lips were pressed against each other, parted just enough to taste the resentment lingering in the words that had just left her mouth. 

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Chapter 14 of The Culling of Casimir
Written by Harlequin in portal Fantasy
Chapter 14: Ivory & Bronze
    Time was caught like a dried leaf in a hailstorm, swept every which way with no discernible trajectory, consistent speed, or hope for reprieve from its chaotic tumbling. I caught glimpses through a drugged, slitted vision, of Sarkana’s hands over me, the shining edge of a scalpel, the bundles of her sleeves bunched just beneath her elbows, with stains of blood rounding her wrists like splattered, shining circlets. The intermittent glances between unconsciousness came with pinches of discomfort, stabs of pain that poked through the numbness, sometimes punctuated by shades of indigo coloring my eyelids. But in my stupor, I couldn’t alert her that the drug was wearing off, or even to consider her distorted expression of enrapture as I lapsed in and out of these visions like light being granted space between clouds in a storm’s frenzy.
    In one instance, I stirred to find that night had fallen. Sarkana was looking over a cracked tome with gnarled parchment and deep gauges of ink that stained symbols and words throughout the pages. When she turned round, the tips of her fingers discolored with faded blood, she was shocked to see me looking at her.
    I raised a sluggish hand to my eye, cognizant that the arrow’s weight was now missing from my head, and that gauze had replaced it. “Not yet,” she whispered and took my hand in hers, murmuring other words that quickly slipped away with the rest of the room.
    Memories intermingled with the nightmare that I’ve shown you before. Only, this reoccurrence was slightly altered. I sat up in frigid air, my right hand and left eye bandaged, on a stone slab whose edges were chipping, falling away to depths which breathed a foul, impenetrable blackness. With no windows, the chamber seemed little else than a prison. When I had turned my gaze in a full circle, I found that each of its four walls hosted three or four corpses, all of them strapped down by leather belts and bolts, into stone slots that loosely fit the contours of their bodies.
    Upon closer examination of their clothing, I recognized the thirteen corpses as the fallen bodies at the Crossroads, only their faces were covered by the same masks which appeared in my nightmare, each emotion distinct than the next. Despite the fear that I usually felt from seeing those masks, the same expressions I had run from since I was old enough to dream them up, I wanted to free the corpses, to let them plummet into the depths below. But when I outstretched my arm towards one of them, its eyes sprung open and revealed that shallow, milky stare of the dead. It sent me crawling backwards, until I was leaning over the edge of the slab. Soon, it crumbled from my weight, and sent me falling into the blackness beneath.
    Halted. I looked up to see a dark silhouette, of what appeared to be a boy just a few years younger than myself, but with eyes that penetrated with ageless wisdom. Large, leather wings spread from one end of the room to the next, sprouted from his back. His arm strained to haul me back onto the slab, and I wanted him to, as I sensed that he had other plans than for me to continue in this cycle of nightmares. There was a loud noise, a bang, like a steel pot slamming against the ground, that caught his attention. Once he looked away from me, I felt my fingers slip from his grasp, until I was plummeting through the vacancy beneath the chamber, with his eyes following me all the while.
    Through the darkness, the dial of my visions was turned again, diffusing recollections through ticking that slammed like the heavy beating of a heart in an epiphany. Once again, I was kneeling within arm’s reach from Lisence as the marauders repeated their atrocities, my arms held down by leaden weights. Although I couldn’t stand seeing her this way again, looking away was somehow more horrifying, so I watched, and grunted, and screamed while I strained. Eventually, I managed to pull myself free. I threw myself towards the marauders, pushing them aside. The wind carried their silhouettes away in clouds of soot. And when I bent to hold Lisence as she shook with her knees pressed against her naked chest, her skin reacted the same to my touch, that is, to swirl away in a sigh of dust.
    I woke up to the familiar smell of damp earth and the certainty that the dreams were over. I inhaled deeply, savoring the clarity of wakefulness, even if it came to me in the diluted form of a single, bleary eye, and the first, shaky breaths that came after the unconscious crying that had evidently left my face wet.
    “You’re all right,” Sarkana murmured, repeating it a few times. “You’re safe.”
    I opened my eyes. My nails were dug into her back, my face in her hair. The damp earth, I realized, was her smell. I unwrapped myself from her body, our skin stuck together like bandages from the cold sweat that covered me.
    “Forgive me,” I began, “it was just a nightmare.” My voice had been collecting dust. I cleared it away and wiped my face.
    “There’s no need to apologize. If anything, I should. The tincture didn’t appear to pull you into a deep enough sleep. Did you feel any pain?”
    The three Addoran suns rotated high above the sanctuary, the softer light from the smaller two—which were truly moons—mingled with the heaviest rays piercing through the billowing, mountainous clouds which nearly kissed the surface of the Ruined Sea. As I watched the water, I had to remind myself that I wasn’t dreaming anymore. My head felt like a dense glass bowl, but otherwise containing nothing. “Hardly. I won’t take any apologies,” I replied. “Maybe the elixir worked all too well; perhaps in the farthest depths of sleep I had discovered a place of endless dreams. I saw some things that will be difficult to forget.”
    Her lips were pressed together with a look of apologetic pity on her face. She pushed a cup of water into my hand and motioned for me to drink. “Dreams are our burden only so long as we are sleeping. It’s best to leave them there, if you can.”
I nodded and drank, unable to shake the image of that boy’s stare into my eyes as his hand kept me from falling. “The tincture lasted an entire day?”
    “Two days,” she corrected.
    “Two?” Despite the heaviness that seemed to pull my entire body into the bed, I longed to stand in the wind, to feel the sun’s kiss or even winter’s bite. But even just moving my legs seemed like an arduous task. “Why did it take so long?”
    “Using necromancy for healing is not the simplest of tasks. But I do hope the results are … satisfactory.” Sarkana lifted my right hand, the one that had been pierced through by the same arrow that killed Fahim. After she unraveled the bandages, I fixed my gaze on the new scar, which looked like the remnants of a burn wound, where flames had scalded the flesh in the shape of a star, but had long since healed into a pale-grey hue. I laughed, because the last time I had tried to move my fingers, they had only twitched. I curled them around Sarkana’s wrist. Her expression lit up as if I had just enjoyed a meal that she had meticulously cooked. “How does it feel?”
    “The way it always felt, as if nothing had ever happened.” I held the hand up to the light, expecting to see some mechanism working beneath the flesh. I massaged the scar, anticipating the pain, but felt none. “This is unbelievable,” I muttered, shaking my head.
    “Well, I am not certain that it’s possible to give you anymore proof,” she laughed.
    “My eye …” I began to unfurl the bandages around me head.
    “Oh no. No, no, no,” she stopped me and replaced the gauze. “I’m afraid that will take another day or two, at the very least.”
    Beneath the bandage, I could move whatever eye had replaced mine. Before I had drunken the tincture, the possibility seemed distant, perhaps because I didn't believe something like that was possible. But now that I felt it, the eye moving in place of mine, I could not help but feel nauseated. Still, Sarkana was eating up the satisfaction in my expression, even if she looked as if she could fall asleep that very moment. I didn’t want to disappoint her.
    “I am sure it is just as astonishing. I can feel it moving already.”
    She nodded quickly, her fingers wrung together. “Everything is in place, I would just prefer it if your body had more time to adjust.”
    “I’ll take the healer’s expert advice. But do you have my, ahh, my old part? I am curious.”
    “Oh … well. I thought it best if you didn’t see it. It was not so, how should I put this … familiar looking as you might think? Lacking any appropriate use for it, I had it mixed in with Zuma’s breakfast today.”
    My mouth hung open as I attempted to find the correct response, or rather, any response that would adequately articulate my feelings towards that decision. I had never expected that one of my eyes would be eaten by an imp, but if it had to happen, I suppose this was the least painful, and traumatizing. “Always thinking pragmatically, I see.”
    “As one should,” Sarkana replied. “Are you still tired? There is no shame in resting more. Your body has been through more than you can imagine.”
    “I am,” I admitted.
    “Hungry?”
    “That too,” I laughed.
    “I thought as much.” Sarkana left the room, returning with a plate of steaming biscuits and thickly sliced cheese. “Something I had prepared for myself, but was hoping you’d be willing to share with me. There’s no possibility of me eating it all.”
    After focusing all of my being on eating several of the biscuits and fistfuls of cheese, I finished another cup of water and looked at her with a touch of pity, as well as guilt. “Please don’t take this poorly, but you look exhausted. Don’t tell me you’ve been watching over me this entire time.”
    “You mean I am not my usual bewitching self?” she recoiled, gasping and pretending to be offended.
    “Relax. The deep, black rings under your eyes are charming. Have you not slept since the crossroads?”
    “Sleep is for the wounded and the unmotivated. I sleep only when there is no other choice,” she said, peeling a layer of the biscuit before slapping cheese on and putting it into her mouth. Despite her confidence, she sighed deeply and rubbed her eyes. The way she chewed, eating seemed to be a chore for her, rather than a pleasure. I could only imagine that was how she regarded sleep, as well, as just another errand for the body’s feeble mechanisms.
    One of the the most alluring demeanors is an indifference to one’s own health in place of another’s well being. It placates an irrefutable longing that everyone either nurtures or ignores, the desire to be loved and cared for. I couldn’t help but feel myself wanting to grow closer to her. I reached out for the hand she wasn’t using to feed herself and pulled it into both of mine.
    Upon feeling my fingers wrap around hers, her eyes went quickly from our hands to me. A stunned disbelief, a loneliness fulfilled with relief, wrapped in fatigue, settled into her face. It seemed to me, then, that any false pretense I was under of Sarkana’s dangerous side needed to be considered no more than one’s fear of darkness. Maybe she had sharpened fangs only because the world is talented at transforming the potential of the intelligent into the ruthlessness of a savage. Maybe I was a fool to treat her coldly after she’d shown me tenderness, after she’d boldly embraced me as a friend when death was her only trusted preservation.
    “Both of us should sleep. You’ve done more than enough for me.”
    “Only what I felt compelled to do,” she said modestly.
    “No. Nobody feels compelled to stay awake this long for the sake of a stranger, to pour their life and energy into them so that they might live comfortably again.”
    “I’d be wounded if you saw me as a stranger. I don’t think of you that way, Casimir.”
    “You know what I meant.”
    “Yes,” she said, not meeting my eyes.
    “Compassion is precious, to be cherished more than its less admirable sibling, love, whom one way or another, seems to always become convoluted. Because just like gods and stars, I am not certain that humans were ever meant to hold it, rather admire and revere the notion as any other unobtainable perfection. But compassion has no double faces or smoke or mirrors, compassion knows only itself.”
    “If you really believe it’s so pure, what makes you think I’d be capable of such a thing? Is it not much more easier to believe that I am only acting out of the latter?”
    “Are you trying to say that you love me, Sarkana?”
    She laughed but held my hand tighter. “No. I am saying that you are one of the only friends I’ve had in many years, and the only one I found worth keeping. So maybe I really am selfish. I couldn’t stand the thought of you dying, and worse yet, of you dying because of a wound that could have been mended far better than most would think.”
    “Well now that I’ve seen how useful you can be, I think I can entertain the idea of being your friend. So maybe both of us stand to gain something from this, after all.”
Perched on one of the branches of the tree extending from the kitchen, Felix was feeding on a shrew, the blood on his beak shining from the sunlight sprinkling itself through the other canopies circling the gardens.
    The gardens exuded an admirable dedication, just as rampant as the ivy that spread over every structure, almost elegantly forlorn in its display of isolated mastery, of countless hours sacrificed to the sanctuary’s beauty. Every time I looked at her creations, I seemed to have another conversation with her, as if she had whispered secrets to the plants who in turn divulged fragments with every glance. When she looked at her gardens, I wondered what she saw.
    “Maybe,” she replied with a tired smirk. “Maybe.”
    “You’ll finally catch some sleep, then?”
    “Oh shush. I’ve been caring for you for two days. Don’t spoil my self-righteousness by becoming my caretaker at the very end. Put your head back down. Don’t pretend as if you’re not already nodding off again.”
    And I didn’t. The biscuits had settled to a dull heat in my stomach, and the suspicions I’d felt had all but dissipated entirely, so much so that nothing seemed more satisfying, more self-indulgent, than to let myself pass once again into a deep, guarded sleep.
 
                                                                 ~ ~        

    After I had rested long enough that I couldn’t endure smelling my own sweat on the blankets, I thrust the covers off and jumped into my garments, which had been folded and left on a stool beside the bed. Only when I left the chamber did I realize that the air inside had gone stale, stifled by ointments, dried blood, and all of the odors that had been issuing from my unwashed body. A little disgusted with myself, I unlatched one of the windows and let the temperate air breathe through, unknowingly inviting the regent demon Felix back into the home, who decided that biting my ear for several minutes was my payment for worrying him.
    The air in the home was filled with the rich scent of solitude and routines perfected by repetition, of incense, freshly harvested herbs, and the cleaning solutions. At the bottom of the staircase, I found her asleep on one of the armchairs in the living room, her arm wrapped around the seer’s eye, and a strand of drool connecting from her mouth to the device.
    When I tried to pull the blanket higher up over her waist, she woke up and looked around as if she was horribly late for something.
    “What day is it?” She wiped the drool away, not bothering to pretend that I hadn’t seen it.
    “I reckon the one right after last. The world won’t stop turning because you finally got some rest,” I laughed.
    Once she saw the early morning light coming through the window, she seemed to relax. “I must’ve fallen asleep,” she said. “Gods.”
    “That is typically what most people do, every now and then. You should try it more often, you might actually be able to keep your eyes open throughout the day.”
    “Oh joy, your sarcasm has returned. That must mean you are healing well.” She stood up and lifted the bandage up just enough so she could prod and examine the skin around it. “Good. There’s no infection.”
    “And I am dying to see with it. Can’t I take it off?”
    “No,” she said firmly, “this may shock you, but replacing someone’s eyeball is a delicate process. Give it at least one more day. But no more words before caffek and nitskel, immediately. That nap felt as refreshing as pounding my skull with a sledgehammer.”
    “You said more words,” I pointed out.
    “And not another from you.”
    On the terrace beside her kitchen, we didn’t share cigarettes of nitskel, but each had our own, trading inhalations of smoke for sips of caffek, both of their invigorating, earthy flavors reviving us from the inside. Felix was perched on the guardrail next to us, so enthused to see me outside that he decided to present me with as many innards as he could find of all the smaller critters scampering around in Sarkana’s gardens.
    “The eye …” I began, “whose is it?”
    As soon as the cigarette risked burning her fingers, she dropped the nub into an empty flower pot and rolled another, decidedly abandoning any attempts to curb her addiction since I’d been wounded. “I realized after you’d fallen asleep that I should have asked you, as it is rather a personal decision. So I thought about it for as long as I worked on your hand, and by the end, I had decided to use Magister Fahim’s. I thought you’d like the idea of him living on, through you, in a more innocent way, in a way that necromancy or any other kind of magick can never imitate. He will, quite literally, see the world through you.”
    A white, pale iris, with a pupil that was more often unsettlingly small than it was large, like a perfect spot of ink on a bleached piece of parchment. That was how Fahim’s eyes looked. I struggled to imagine how it would appear sitting next to the bronze of my own. “You made the right decision. Thank you,” I replied. “Do you think it’s as simple as that, that by spreading someone’s ashes to the sea, or by burying them beneath a tree, that they live on through the materials they are cast into?”
    “No,” Sarkana laughed and shook her head, “burial rituals are for the living, Casimir. Metaphors are just the same, unfortunately. Spirits are like rabbits once they’ve left their bodies, damnably hard to catch once they’re scared, and once a spirit leaves its body, you can bet your week’s wages that it’s going to be scared. The tricky part of necromancy isn’t mending dead flesh, it’s capturing the essence of something. That’s why the Vyurken exist.”
    “The Vyurken, you mean, the demons whom Death uses to help carry off spirits into the Nether?”
 Sarkana nodded, knowing fully that this creature was, to many, just another children’s tale. She hid her knowing smile behind her mug.
    “I wouldn’t suppose there’s any use telling you that I am not someone who has any reason to believe in such things.”
    “No, I wouldn’t suppose so,” she said, “but that doesn’t mean you’re right.”
    “So you don’t think …”
    “What?”
    “You don’t think there is some essence of Fahim lingering in me?”
    But that only amused her further. “Unless it slipped by me unnoticed, I doubt it. The Vyurk that helped Fahim was rather quick, and rather thorough.”
    Briefly, I considered asking her what one of the Vyurken looked like, how they spoke, if they did at all. I remembered the boy in my nightmares, but felt childish proposing the idea that, somehow, I had shared a vision of the one that took Fahim’s spirit. “I see. And what about Fahim?”
    “What about him?” she replied, her tone hinting that she knew what was coming.
    “You knew him, didn’t you?”
    “So he did, didn’t he?” she murmured with a chuckle. Her eyebrows were raised while her fingers traced the handle on her mug, a look of distant surprise taking hold while she was swept into her thoughts.
    “Did what?”
    “You had no correspondence with Fahim after you left Foxfeather Castle? Nothing besides the ring you sent?”
    “That’s correct.”
    “Of course. So how else did he come to tip you off that he knew me? He must’ve said something, either right before then, or right as he died.” She shook her head in disbelief. “The bastard. What a waste.”
    “Waste?”
    “To spend your last moments speaking of another …”
    “Am I a fool for not heeding his final words? He seemed … wary of you.”
    “So they really were his final words?” she tilted her head back and laughed. “I’d say you already made your gamble, fool or not, you’ll just have to live with it.”
    “But why did you never mention that you knew him? You let me go on guessing.”
    “And I am quite sorry for that. There was a history there that, to be blunt, made me feel as inclined to save his life as I would feel inclined to nurture a wasp. Yet, I didn’t feel justified in denying your good intentions. I was willing to help, or willing to do nothing at all, depending on your decision.”
    Watching Sarkana lift her leg up to lean back in her chair, to sip her caffek, to smoke her nitskel and ponder all this over the morning light, only made the entire situation seem more ridiculous. I wondered if I had wasted a perfectly innocent fortnight of rest entertaining useless considerations of paranoia. In spite of the bond growing between us, I entertained the curiosity left behind from my reservations, and continued down the trail of Fahim’s warning.
    “How did you know him?”
    “Oh, I hardly knew him at all,” she said, waving away the notion with her hand. “Before the crossroads, I hadn’t the slightest clue how he’d aged. Fahim is, or I suppose was the son of an instructor at the Ardor Academy, the one I attended in my youth. Are you familiar with the name Fell Mecidias?”
    At the mention of her ‘youth,’ I remembered that I still didn’t know her age. And the more I looked at her, the more perplexed I became. Her attentive eyes, the dark colors of exertion beneath them, the faded rose tint to her lips and the pallid hues of her skin, always had me caught between admiration, affection, and confusion. “Only the second name.”
    She finished the last of her caffek, pinched the end of the cigarette out, and ran her tongue across another rolling sheet before stuffing it shut with more of the dried plant. With a murmur, she ignited the end of it with a small flame that spawned from her palm. She waved her hand rapidly until the flame spluttered. It made me feel ordinary, especially when I leaned over to light mine on a candle in the middle of the table. “Fell Mecidias was a brilliant mage, I’ll admit that much, even if I have enough reason to despise him. He was an instructor of destruction magick, particularly its use in combat. He fostered more than a few golden names that appeared in the recent Runeland wars.”
    “That explains how Fahim secured his position with the Foxfeathers.”
    “All Fell would’ve needed was to write a word of recommendation and have it sent to the right hands. But, knowing him, he would have popped the letter through the dining hall with a summoning portal.”
    “I think you enjoy this person more than you’re willing to admit, judging by that grin on your face.”
    “I have a tender spot for people who can cast magick the same way they steep their tea in the morning,” she admitted. “All the same …”
    “What does Fahim’s father have to do with all this?”
    “Right,” she sighed. “Well, you asked how Fahim knew me. The Mecidias family house was in my hometown. After my parent’s death, I was fostered partially by Fell’s wife, and even Fahim’s siblings, since his father all but lived in the Academy. But I never spoke much to Fahim. I couldn’t, even if I wanted to. He was only a child by the time I was preparing myself for admittance into that institution. In fact, the person who wrote my recommendation letter was Fell’s wife, a woman called Lelayna.”
    “What was she like?”
    “Caring, honest, surprisingly loud and only a little too proud of her baking. She was like her husband—incredibly devoted to the arts of casting—but after four children,” Sarkana spread out her hands and shrugged her shoulders, “there simply wasn’t enough time in the day.”
    We laughed at that thought, but behind my quickly fading grin, I felt the guilt for Fahim’s death return. The realization struck me like the arrow that had punctured my hand, that there was nobody to notify his family of his demise. Nobody, of course, except for me. Already I felt the obligation tugging me towards another destination, another road, another responsibility asking for a journey with a conclusion to bind its beginning shut forever, sewing any unanswered questions within. Already I could see myself and my shadow cast upon the steps of their home, greeting Fahim’s mother the same way in which I had said farewell to her son, with my hand over her heart, sharing a moment too burdensome to speak of while we stared into each other’s eyes. Only, when she looked at me, she would see one of his staring back.
    Over the sanctuary, clouds thickened by storm unfurled heavy, black curtains of rain, which trailed and made rivulets down the translucent barrier that protected her home from the harshness of the Addorian winters.
    “But what gave you reason to despise his father?” I pursued.
    “Maybe ‘despise’ is a harsh word, especially after so much time has passed. After awhile, disdain can become a habit, but now that I truly think on it, I suppose it is more apt to phrase it as, ‘what would make Fahim despise me,’ or at least enough for him to warn you. It was his father. He was too much of a traditionalist, in my opinion. But despite our differences in the changing culture of magick and how it could be explored, I felt we needn’t discuss or even acknowledge the disparity in our opinions. I was, after all, only one of the many pupils in his classes. And I must admit, there was a strong connection between us, especially after all the letters his wife had written to him about me. I didn’t think our separate methods would tarnish the relationship.” 
    I did only what anyone should do when someone else is exploring the narrow, cavernous corridors of their past to drag out old memories. I folded my fingers together, met her eyes when she sought mine, and kept my lips shut while the recollections spilled from hers.
    “At the Ardor Academy, graduating scholars are expected to conduct an experiment which replicates the newest findings in their respective schools, if not something beyond what’s been discovered in the past five years or so. For the most part, students of alchemy present elixirs with stunning capabilities but absurdly expensive or unique ingredients. Destructive mages will typically combine spellwork with military designs to create weapons with impressive potential to slaughter by the hundreds. Healers will find loopholes through runes to store energy with the ability to heal freshly broken bones for soldiers. Onward and onward. You can see where the rest goes, can’t you?”
    Pretending to be capable of imagining what she was saying, I nodded quickly. But once more, I contemplated the difference between the life of a well-off practitioner and that of a commoner. While I had been familiarizing myself with the best way to outrun city guardsmen, as well as learning how to hold a blade from some less than undesirable individuals, Sarkana and her peers had been testing the limits of magickal theories and the principles which governed our world, prodding limitations to meddle with the intricacies of spells and runes and flesh and intellect. I almost felt bitter. Then again, someone had to lose an eye so someone else could learn to fix it, as the old saying goes.
    “And yet,” I realized aloud, “this still leaves a few questions unanswered.” From what I had seen of Sarkana’s practices, I felt I could guess the rest of the story. But of course, I settled deeper into my chair, rolled another cigarette, and continued to listen while looking out at the sky as it leeched color from the ground, turning everything into darkened shades of moss, bark, and stone, and the sea into a black mirror.
    “As all good stories should, before they are finished.”
    I raised my mug up in accord.
    “When it came time for me to present my final year’s experiment to the graduation panel, I first showed it to Professor Fell, as I had come to him for nearly all of my questions. I never found a question that he didn’t have an answer to, or at least a recommendation for which book to read in order to find it. Yet, when I showed him my experiment, which was the transmutation of life-force from a colony of beetles to a squirrel using a soulstone, he was unexpectedly disapproving, and enraged. I was surprised, even hurt. Anger was not an emotion that I thought he was capable of; it only told me how much he disdained necromancers. He told me it was too close to the same magick which created the Mancer’s Stone, the same style that would result in practices that had the potential to cause wars and promote pursuits of immortality. Shifting the life-force from two creatures of the same species was one thing, he said, but between two drastically different types … he wasn’t altogether thrilled at the immense possibilities.”
The mention of the stone twisted my stomach, bringing back images of Shamus grimacing through a thick sheen of blood spreading from his nose, as he described to me the dangers that the artifact were in. “Could it, though?”
    “Could it what?”
    “Cause wars.”
    “Psh. Ask the royals you once belonged to. Consult their military commanders. Discovery and intellect are a practitioner’s priorities; if their findings bring conflict to the world, it says nothing of their studies. It speaks only to the depressing nature of the world’s inability to handle progress. Would you stop the first man from discovering fire if you knew it would create a world with warfare, cutthroats and rapists?”
    “You’re talking to a knife juggler. I’d tell him to hurry. But I thought necromancy wasn’t frowned upon in the academies?”
    “That’s what most folks say,” she muttered with a shake of her head, “I am not sure who started that little lie, but in the academies, the only reason that necromancy isn’t frowned upon is because it’s not taught readily enough to encourage any students towards a career with it. You’d be looking for a bat in a mouse trap, unfortunately. There are few, if any, professors who teach higher necromatic castings, not just in Addoran, but all of Netherway. The truth is, most academies won’t touch the subject with a staff. They say they don’t mind it because, largely, they’re afraid of it.”
    “So Fahim …”
    “… had no true reason to be afraid of me, besides what his father might’ve shared with him. You see, although the experiment was controversial, it was something that hadn’t been attempted in many years, at least not by a student. Despite the school of magick I’d chosen to pursue, they were impressed. I was seeking a position at the Ardor as an instructor, and I wasn’t going to shy away from showing them my best work. As soon as I’d graduated, I pursued a career as a soulmancer, a practitioner of higher necromancy. Reluctantly, the academy agreed, but under the pretense that I teach nothing remotely related to soulstones, not even any runic symbols that could be contrived to aid in their creation. Soon after,” she said with a touch of pride, “I had become one of the youngest instructors at the Ardor Academy, with my own classes and students.”
    The cigarette between Sarkana’s fingers had long since gone out, the end as cold as the expression that quickly overtook her wistful gaze. I needn’t ask her to go on. I could already see that she had had too many years in which these stories had been locked in the most dangerous place for any hatred to linger: the heart. It’s in silence that our worst thoughts fester, as if they feed on the stifled air of unspoken bitterness.
    “I had been told to teach nothing beyond the basics of necromancy, nothing beyond simple reanimation and the manipulation of death’s energy, to produce little else than pithy lights and displays for a circus’ sideshow.” She scoffed. “But they never advised me against my own, private pursuits. Soon after my first two years with the academy, Professor Fell alerted the institution’s council of the experiments I conducted alone, of what he called their ‘danger and potency.’
    “I expected to be exalted, to be encouraged by one of the highest ranking institutions for any practitioner. In fact, when he threatened me to alter my attention to studies other than soulstones, I only laughed; I thought the council would be excited to review my findings.”
    “But instead?”
    “Tossed out. Thrust aside. Shunned. After they completed a thorough investigation of my study, they concluded that I was ‘unfit for the instruction of the young and pure-minded’. That I was a poor influence on the students, that my pursuits would bring only darkness to the world. They collected my journals, my texts, two years of data and recorded experiments, of illustrations and devices … and burnt them.” She’d since set down her cigarette and mug, her hands digging into the skin of her thighs. An angry tear slipped down her cheek. “The council sent letters to every academy in the realm, warning them against admitting me into their staff, and instructing them to destroy any of my published findings.” She spoke in a rushed voice, as if she was arguing her fate against the gods, trying to convince them of its unfairness. “In the higher circles, unfounded rumors and accusations spread until my name became all but outlawed. For a few years, I couldn’t so much as set foot in a chapel in any major city without being accosted by questions.
    “So I came here,” she said with a shrug, and flicked the tear away, "to pursue the life I wanted without the people I wished to share it with."
    “And sadly, to my great luck,” I added, reaching for her hand to squeeze it. To which she pulled on it, almost roughly, so that I was close enough to feel the shallow exhalations between her lips. When she looked at me, there was a frustrated expectation in her eyes, as if she deserved nothing less than what she was about to do after so much disappointment, which was pull my head closer, close enough that our lips were pressed against each other, parted just enough to taste the resentment lingering in the words that had just left her mouth. 
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Written by Harlequin in portal Poetry & Free Verse

Twofold Diffusion

This poem can be read in three ways; with either side capable of acting independently or working together as a single, unified piece.

                                           This feeling is    Intangible and ethereal

                                          A place I seek;    A centered state

                                       That I find to be    Simple in its desire

                                    Irresistible when it    Ignores complexity in ego

                                    Bolsters my ability   To pursue what hides

                                 To trap imagination    Within moments brief

                        Within the heat of embers    Like the burning of comets

                      Which leaves streaks of grey    Fading in their trails

Culling of Casimir Update

I left for vacation in Sweden a week ago, however I am still steadily chipping away at the novel while I spend some quality time with Crow. The next time that I suspect a chapter will be polished and ready is by next weekend. Until then! 

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Written by Harlequin in portal Poetry & Free Verse
Twofold Diffusion
This poem can be read in three ways; with either side capable of acting independently or working together as a single, unified piece.

                                           This feeling is    Intangible and ethereal
                                          A place I seek;    A centered state
                                       That I find to be    Simple in its desire
                                    Irresistible when it    Ignores complexity in ego
                                    Bolsters my ability   To pursue what hides
                                 To trap imagination    Within moments brief
                        Within the heat of embers    Like the burning of comets
                      Which leaves streaks of grey    Fading in their trails

Culling of Casimir Update
I left for vacation in Sweden a week ago, however I am still steadily chipping away at the novel while I spend some quality time with Crow. The next time that I suspect a chapter will be polished and ready is by next weekend. Until then! 
#poetry 
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Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by Harlequin in portal Simon & Schuster

The Burden of Choice

Few professions can boast of promising grandiosity, naivety, transcendence and mental torture, all woven within an unparalleled commitment which, all too often, considers itself too seriously. "There are three types of artists," my father once told me, "the exceptional, the mediocre, and the monsters."

I paced through the gutted nave of St. Dominik's Chapel, considering his words while my late father's work watched me through the myriad eyes of demons, angels, gods and goddesses alike. Nearly a decade of labor was painted upon the pillars, the arches and ribbed vaulting, on every stone from floor to ceiling. The immortalized masterpiece loomed over the countless pieces on display for Prospero's Virtuoso Festival, one of them being my own. Portraits, paintings, sculptures of stone, glass and wood surrounded me, all of them standing stolid within the safety of their respective genres.

Now that the chapel’s candles had smoldered, darkness deteriorated the details while shadows wreathed my creation in merciful ambiguity. Moonlight was cutting through the numerous stained glass windows to reach the seventy-eight, rectangular silhouettes hanging from the gilded chandelier. Intermittently, the turning tarot deck bloomed in pale turquoise, its pigments and painstaking details discernible before fading again. You could almost hear the strands of thread twisting with each rotation. I massaged the shredded tips of my fingers while I stared at the piece, resenting the stereotypes that my peers had sheltered themselves in, allowing them to suffer far less than I had. I had endeavored to create something compelling. They had sacrificed soulful expression for a hollow representation of mastery in hackneyed mediums. Yet here I was, competing amongst them, damned only to the glory of the black sheep's bottomless anguish.

I felt Clarissa's hands press my shoulders. "It's late," she whispered, "you should rest for tomorrow."

"You can go," I said. It was difficult not to spit my bitterness. This would be the fifth year in which I displayed a piece in the festival. In my experience, each attempt was only another unpalatable failure to fold back upon the others.

“Your works are experimental, Sage. It’s typical for artists to be unappreciated in their time. Not that you aren’t appreciated. There are more than a few Prosperians looking forward to when the doors open tomorrow, specifically to see what you’ve been working on all year.”

“Tell that to my father,” I muttered, needing only to look around to find the rebuke he would have given if he was still alive. Every stone of the chapel glorified his talent while shedding light on my inadequacy. I was competing for menial success within a structure that represented the quintessence of his. “He was appreciated in his time, wasn’t he?” I exclaimed and slammed my foot into a pedestal that displayed a bust of St. Dominik. Ashamed at my outburst, I turned around immediately, aiming to walk out of the chapel and sleep away the night’s frustration. Instead, Clarissa rushed past me with outstretched arms. She grunted as the marble bust toppled over and drove her knees to the ground.

“Help me, for mercy’s sake,” she wheezed. Both St. Dominik and Clarissa glared at me while I stared at the disaster I nearly caused. When I bent to help her, I was amazed she had stopped it from falling at all. After we uprighted the bust, she tucked a lock of pale hair behind her ear, shook her head, and left the chapel with an emphasis on the back of her heels.

“Clarissa, I didn’t mean to—” I began before the oak slabs clanged behind her. But what was the difference? Indulging in her pity, forcing her to understand. She hadn't tangled with inspiration's spiteful hands, hadn't felt the sting of passion's double-edged blade. She could stand alongside me for a lifetime and still not comprehend the bittersweet of art's reluctant offerings.

At the very least, all the preparations had been completed, the last of the deck's cards tied to the chandelier's arms. Amidst the other contesting pieces, I felt I could stand in that chapel until dawn, awaiting the judges' scrutiny, kept awake only from anxiety and expectation.

                                                                    ~

Sleep did little to dissipate the tension, the faltering of Clarissa's patience, made evident in her unwillingness to meet my eyes the following morning. I watched her examine herself in the mirror of our bedroom, fiddling with the folds of her vest, the ruffles of her skirt, the knot of the laces that tightened her collar. The burgundy of our front garments and underlaying black layers matched, down to the silver embellishments on our cuffs. They were the same outfits we had worn last year, and the four years before then. As was tradition, my belt hung with a rapier, the same polished heirloom my father wore to events such as this.

The streets and marketplaces were no longer avenues for the city, instead, they became rivers for tourists and citizens. From the carved stone of mansions to the ramshackle homes, tapestries and banners hung beneath every window, fluttering in the temperate winds over the throngs. Performers lined the streets with their hats set upon the ground, quarreling for the pithy tips of passersby while Clarissa and I found ourselves holding hands for the first time in weeks, just to stay linked while we shoved through the sweaty bodies and ale-muddled laughter towards St. Dominik's Chapel.

Another year, another show of enthusiasm and feigned delight at small talk with bland contemporaries reflecting little besides the cycling motifs already depicted to death. I pretended to be interested as I let a few peers describe to me the delicate process behind their work. Their skin was often flush with health, their voices plodding and eyes calm. Where was the struggle? Where was their dedication? Their anguish? Where were the rings beneath their eyes? Every year, it seemed, I had less in common with them.

"Attempt to look excited, Sage," Clarissa muttered to me after we'd pretended not to watch the panel of judges scrutinize every piece. Now, the four of them were discussing their findings around the altar. "This isn't a funeral you're attending."

I nodded, unable to laugh with her while my cheeks strained to keep up the smile. The air in the chapel was suffocated by fragrances and tidy conversations of artists attempting to appear more thoughtful and articulate than they were. Worse yet, Allan Demoire was approaching us with a smile that already gleamed with the amusement of tactless insults he'd deal under the guise of polite teasing.

"Just breathe," she whispered to me just before he came into earshot.

"Attempting ..."

"Sage Lemange!" he greeted. "You look rather nervous, I must admit," he remarked while Clarissa allowed him the tapping of his lips against either of her cheeks. He, one of my father's closer peers, savored my dying succession, a son's inability to uphold the deteriorating pillars of fame. I folded my hands behind my back and clenched until the knuckles paled. "You're smashing in black. It suits you ... again."

I ignored the last observation. "Is it strange for an artist to be nervous during an exhibition?" I quelled the urge to throttle him by his azure ascot.

Allan checked his pocket watch, nothing less than a pathetic attempt to display his nonexistent importance. “What with your proficiency in divination, I wouldn’t think you’d be trepidatious of the future. That is, unless you knew things didn’t fair well in the end.”

“Now, now, Allan,” Clarissa hummed.

“Oh come on now, it’s all in good humor!” Allan snatched a glass of wine from a passing servant, whom lingered so he could grab two more for us. He didn’t. “Or perhaps you yourself don’t practice the craft, perhaps your, ahum, clients are the ones with a seer’s vision.”

"I have no personal claims with regards to my clients' proposed abilities, as I have stated before. Tarot decks are only my means to an end, Mr. Demoire."

"And what end might that be? Are you catching another glimmer of future prospects, perhaps?"

Just to spite him, I laughed as gaudily as I could before I risked looking as if I actually enjoyed him. “How very perceptive of you. Perhaps my nervousness is for a horror I’ve divined to befall this afternoon. I am glad you enjoyed the piece.” I inclined my head and showed me teeth.

Stunned by my lack of irritation, he stumbled for a reply, and instead settled for silence and a slight bow before taking his leave, massaging his peppered goatee all the while. He'd been too busy crawling under my skin to drag me into a discourse about his own work. I was grateful for that much, at least.

                                                                     ~

The wood for each card had been chopped from a tree by my childhood home, then dried for several years, while I had practiced woodcarving on the side of my daily job of crafting decks for Prospero's divinatory community. Children and traveling gypsies, mostly, were my customers. At the beginning of this year, I set to work on the wood, engraving the details with a knife before applying brush and paint. Carving, sanding, dusting, carving, sanding, dusting ... It was the process as much as the creation itself, conveying the unpredictable machinations of fate even with a determined hand to mark the path's footholds. Each color was applied only after hours of labor, much like the garnering of inspiration before expression.

How fitting, then, to sit beneath the failed piece that had consumed another year of my life, that had brought only squinting eyes and the tentative scratching of heads from judges and observers accustomed to the trite mediums of canvas and oil.

Clarissa had long since left with the others. This time when I had said, "You can go," she trusted that her words would provide little solace.

Five artists had walked away from this year's festival, one of them being Allan, their passions now cradled within the comfort of commissions enlisted from nobility, much like the commission my father had once received for the chapel. A promising, stable future. Respect, the right to declare proficiency and illegitimacy. Names to be made noteworthy in history's ledgers. Above all else, the state of being 'exceptional'.

Night cloaked the chapel once again, and once again, the candle stubs had diffused the acridity of burnt wicks and lost time. I played with the thick spool of twine in my pocket, the one I had retrieved from my home shortly after the victors had been announced.

Footfalls slipped in to break the chapel's silence.

I looked up at Allan Demoire as he sauntered through the nave, his arrogance elated to an almost malicious delight. Again, he examined his pocket watch. "You said you had something for me? Is there any possibility of ending this meeting shortly? There's quite the celebration, and I must be returning soon."

"Of course, I understand. You are revered, after all." The smug twitch of his mustache was revolting. "I have something my father instructed me to give you, if you were ever to be one of the festival's finalists." Allan's expression took on reverence, a disgusting transformation from complete disregard to captivation. He closed the distance between us, outstretching his hand with a childlike expectation.

I unsheathed my father's heirloom, letting the moonlight lick the rapier's blade. Allan reached out for its hilt. With a chuckle, I turned the blade towards him and ran it through before pulling back to thread it again. I cupped my hand over the screams shaking to escape his mouth, and ushered him to the ground.

Because there are three types of artists in this world: the exceptional, the mediocre, and the monsters. And mediocrity, I have found, is a fate worse than death. After Allan finished squirming, I gazed back at my art. I had twine, fresh inspiration, and a whole evening to revise my creation. Perhaps tomorrow, after I'd strung his pieces up with mine, someone would find it noteworthy.

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Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by Harlequin in portal Simon & Schuster
The Burden of Choice
Few professions can boast of promising grandiosity, naivety, transcendence and mental torture, all woven within an unparalleled commitment which, all too often, considers itself too seriously. "There are three types of artists," my father once told me, "the exceptional, the mediocre, and the monsters."

I paced through the gutted nave of St. Dominik's Chapel, considering his words while my late father's work watched me through the myriad eyes of demons, angels, gods and goddesses alike. Nearly a decade of labor was painted upon the pillars, the arches and ribbed vaulting, on every stone from floor to ceiling. The immortalized masterpiece loomed over the countless pieces on display for Prospero's Virtuoso Festival, one of them being my own. Portraits, paintings, sculptures of stone, glass and wood surrounded me, all of them standing stolid within the safety of their respective genres.

Now that the chapel’s candles had smoldered, darkness deteriorated the details while shadows wreathed my creation in merciful ambiguity. Moonlight was cutting through the numerous stained glass windows to reach the seventy-eight, rectangular silhouettes hanging from the gilded chandelier. Intermittently, the turning tarot deck bloomed in pale turquoise, its pigments and painstaking details discernible before fading again. You could almost hear the strands of thread twisting with each rotation. I massaged the shredded tips of my fingers while I stared at the piece, resenting the stereotypes that my peers had sheltered themselves in, allowing them to suffer far less than I had. I had endeavored to create something compelling. They had sacrificed soulful expression for a hollow representation of mastery in hackneyed mediums. Yet here I was, competing amongst them, damned only to the glory of the black sheep's bottomless anguish.

I felt Clarissa's hands press my shoulders. "It's late," she whispered, "you should rest for tomorrow."

"You can go," I said. It was difficult not to spit my bitterness. This would be the fifth year in which I displayed a piece in the festival. In my experience, each attempt was only another unpalatable failure to fold back upon the others.

“Your works are experimental, Sage. It’s typical for artists to be unappreciated in their time. Not that you aren’t appreciated. There are more than a few Prosperians looking forward to when the doors open tomorrow, specifically to see what you’ve been working on all year.”

“Tell that to my father,” I muttered, needing only to look around to find the rebuke he would have given if he was still alive. Every stone of the chapel glorified his talent while shedding light on my inadequacy. I was competing for menial success within a structure that represented the quintessence of his. “He was appreciated in his time, wasn’t he?” I exclaimed and slammed my foot into a pedestal that displayed a bust of St. Dominik. Ashamed at my outburst, I turned around immediately, aiming to walk out of the chapel and sleep away the night’s frustration. Instead, Clarissa rushed past me with outstretched arms. She grunted as the marble bust toppled over and drove her knees to the ground.

“Help me, for mercy’s sake,” she wheezed. Both St. Dominik and Clarissa glared at me while I stared at the disaster I nearly caused. When I bent to help her, I was amazed she had stopped it from falling at all. After we uprighted the bust, she tucked a lock of pale hair behind her ear, shook her head, and left the chapel with an emphasis on the back of her heels.

“Clarissa, I didn’t mean to—” I began before the oak slabs clanged behind her. But what was the difference? Indulging in her pity, forcing her to understand. She hadn't tangled with inspiration's spiteful hands, hadn't felt the sting of passion's double-edged blade. She could stand alongside me for a lifetime and still not comprehend the bittersweet of art's reluctant offerings.

At the very least, all the preparations had been completed, the last of the deck's cards tied to the chandelier's arms. Amidst the other contesting pieces, I felt I could stand in that chapel until dawn, awaiting the judges' scrutiny, kept awake only from anxiety and expectation.

                                                                    ~

Sleep did little to dissipate the tension, the faltering of Clarissa's patience, made evident in her unwillingness to meet my eyes the following morning. I watched her examine herself in the mirror of our bedroom, fiddling with the folds of her vest, the ruffles of her skirt, the knot of the laces that tightened her collar. The burgundy of our front garments and underlaying black layers matched, down to the silver embellishments on our cuffs. They were the same outfits we had worn last year, and the four years before then. As was tradition, my belt hung with a rapier, the same polished heirloom my father wore to events such as this.

The streets and marketplaces were no longer avenues for the city, instead, they became rivers for tourists and citizens. From the carved stone of mansions to the ramshackle homes, tapestries and banners hung beneath every window, fluttering in the temperate winds over the throngs. Performers lined the streets with their hats set upon the ground, quarreling for the pithy tips of passersby while Clarissa and I found ourselves holding hands for the first time in weeks, just to stay linked while we shoved through the sweaty bodies and ale-muddled laughter towards St. Dominik's Chapel.

Another year, another show of enthusiasm and feigned delight at small talk with bland contemporaries reflecting little besides the cycling motifs already depicted to death. I pretended to be interested as I let a few peers describe to me the delicate process behind their work. Their skin was often flush with health, their voices plodding and eyes calm. Where was the struggle? Where was their dedication? Their anguish? Where were the rings beneath their eyes? Every year, it seemed, I had less in common with them.

"Attempt to look excited, Sage," Clarissa muttered to me after we'd pretended not to watch the panel of judges scrutinize every piece. Now, the four of them were discussing their findings around the altar. "This isn't a funeral you're attending."

I nodded, unable to laugh with her while my cheeks strained to keep up the smile. The air in the chapel was suffocated by fragrances and tidy conversations of artists attempting to appear more thoughtful and articulate than they were. Worse yet, Allan Demoire was approaching us with a smile that already gleamed with the amusement of tactless insults he'd deal under the guise of polite teasing.

"Just breathe," she whispered to me just before he came into earshot.

"Attempting ..."

"Sage Lemange!" he greeted. "You look rather nervous, I must admit," he remarked while Clarissa allowed him the tapping of his lips against either of her cheeks. He, one of my father's closer peers, savored my dying succession, a son's inability to uphold the deteriorating pillars of fame. I folded my hands behind my back and clenched until the knuckles paled. "You're smashing in black. It suits you ... again."

I ignored the last observation. "Is it strange for an artist to be nervous during an exhibition?" I quelled the urge to throttle him by his azure ascot.

Allan checked his pocket watch, nothing less than a pathetic attempt to display his nonexistent importance. “What with your proficiency in divination, I wouldn’t think you’d be trepidatious of the future. That is, unless you knew things didn’t fair well in the end.”

“Now, now, Allan,” Clarissa hummed.

“Oh come on now, it’s all in good humor!” Allan snatched a glass of wine from a passing servant, whom lingered so he could grab two more for us. He didn’t. “Or perhaps you yourself don’t practice the craft, perhaps your, ahum, clients are the ones with a seer’s vision.”

"I have no personal claims with regards to my clients' proposed abilities, as I have stated before. Tarot decks are only my means to an end, Mr. Demoire."

"And what end might that be? Are you catching another glimmer of future prospects, perhaps?"

Just to spite him, I laughed as gaudily as I could before I risked looking as if I actually enjoyed him. “How very perceptive of you. Perhaps my nervousness is for a horror I’ve divined to befall this afternoon. I am glad you enjoyed the piece.” I inclined my head and showed me teeth.

Stunned by my lack of irritation, he stumbled for a reply, and instead settled for silence and a slight bow before taking his leave, massaging his peppered goatee all the while. He'd been too busy crawling under my skin to drag me into a discourse about his own work. I was grateful for that much, at least.

                                                                     ~

The wood for each card had been chopped from a tree by my childhood home, then dried for several years, while I had practiced woodcarving on the side of my daily job of crafting decks for Prospero's divinatory community. Children and traveling gypsies, mostly, were my customers. At the beginning of this year, I set to work on the wood, engraving the details with a knife before applying brush and paint. Carving, sanding, dusting, carving, sanding, dusting ... It was the process as much as the creation itself, conveying the unpredictable machinations of fate even with a determined hand to mark the path's footholds. Each color was applied only after hours of labor, much like the garnering of inspiration before expression.

How fitting, then, to sit beneath the failed piece that had consumed another year of my life, that had brought only squinting eyes and the tentative scratching of heads from judges and observers accustomed to the trite mediums of canvas and oil.

Clarissa had long since left with the others. This time when I had said, "You can go," she trusted that her words would provide little solace.

Five artists had walked away from this year's festival, one of them being Allan, their passions now cradled within the comfort of commissions enlisted from nobility, much like the commission my father had once received for the chapel. A promising, stable future. Respect, the right to declare proficiency and illegitimacy. Names to be made noteworthy in history's ledgers. Above all else, the state of being 'exceptional'.

Night cloaked the chapel once again, and once again, the candle stubs had diffused the acridity of burnt wicks and lost time. I played with the thick spool of twine in my pocket, the one I had retrieved from my home shortly after the victors had been announced.

Footfalls slipped in to break the chapel's silence.

I looked up at Allan Demoire as he sauntered through the nave, his arrogance elated to an almost malicious delight. Again, he examined his pocket watch. "You said you had something for me? Is there any possibility of ending this meeting shortly? There's quite the celebration, and I must be returning soon."

"Of course, I understand. You are revered, after all." The smug twitch of his mustache was revolting. "I have something my father instructed me to give you, if you were ever to be one of the festival's finalists." Allan's expression took on reverence, a disgusting transformation from complete disregard to captivation. He closed the distance between us, outstretching his hand with a childlike expectation.

I unsheathed my father's heirloom, letting the moonlight lick the rapier's blade. Allan reached out for its hilt. With a chuckle, I turned the blade towards him and ran it through before pulling back to thread it again. I cupped my hand over the screams shaking to escape his mouth, and ushered him to the ground.

Because there are three types of artists in this world: the exceptional, the mediocre, and the monsters. And mediocrity, I have found, is a fate worse than death. After Allan finished squirming, I gazed back at my art. I had twine, fresh inspiration, and a whole evening to revise my creation. Perhaps tomorrow, after I'd strung his pieces up with mine, someone would find it noteworthy.
#fiction 
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Written by Harlequin in portal Philosophy

Intermission: Pain & Wings

Another intermission, this one more planned than the other, as I take some time to focus on the less-artsy side of writing, as well as work on a composition for the S&S contest. I wish to thank everyone once more for how you have supported me in this process that is sometimes easy, other times arduous, but always revealing. I'm thrilled with how The Culling of Casimir is turning out, and already I look forward to the editing process, endeavoring to turn the foundation into something to be truly proud of. 

Just beyond fear's edge lay that steep, daunting decline of a precipice, whose fall promises nothing more and nothing less than an open plummet. Exhilarating, your wings are destined to tire eventually, the trepidation is bound to inspire trembles, but the experience persists only to instruct, captivate, invigorate and inspire. Sadly enough, your nerves are built to send you running from the edge, to hide away from that experience as if death itself would take you, should you dare step beyond the comforting outlook you have lingered on. 

    It always feels blood-chilling, that moment before you reach out to grasp the unknown. Yet, you've done it before, haven't you? You know it's better to step forward than to linger. You did it countless times, when you renewed promises about writing and art, about how you would pursue it diligently despite life's stress. You did it when you finished the story you didn't think you had the imagination to write; you've done it before when you shared creations that you were careful even to draw out from your mind, let alone reveal to strangers in their vulnerability. You did it, unknowingly, as a child when you first picked up colors and ink to draw misshapen representations of innocence. By then, the world had not impressed its seemingly crippling monsters. By then, you had no concept of fear, so you did precisely whatever the hell you wished to do. 

    That's the illusion, isn't it? There are countless cliffs to leap from, but each one comes with its own excuses, its own mirage of nonexistent consequences that keep us drawing back. 

    Truthfully, the flight beyond fear is never wingless, not for awhile at least ... the flight is not without thrill, without supreme satisfaction and fulfillment, like gasping for air after being beneath water too long. It's vitalizing, it's transformative and unparalleled. It's moments bound with epiphany and reverie, the blood-sparking electricity of the realization: I am alive, I am mortal, but I am creating. 

    Somewhere along our journeys, we come to understand and expect pain as a persistent follower, a shadow that seems to worship us so reverently that it cannot help but trace every footfall. And just when we think we've caught a reprieve from its presence, we're made fools again to see it dancing into view. 

    Pain is a trickster.

    Pain is crafty. 

    She thinks she can convince us that we do not like her, that we do not need her, and therefore, that we'll run from her. This is pain's game. She scrambles, she schemes, she slips into your mind and opens the door to invite other mischievous demons to manifest while you're asleep. Her role is simple: to get you to run from her, because so long as she is the one chasing you, you are the one sprinting away from the edge of that cliff, from the bountiful experiences which lay beyond the fear of a wingless flight. Certainly, you'll fall eventually ... but at the basin, there's only ever another cliff to climb, and only ever another precipice to propel from. Each time, our wings get a bit stronger. Each trek up the hillsides, we find that much more to savor in the journey than in the ephemeral euphoria of the summit. 

    We are complicated. We fear countless, trivial things, things we laugh at in our strongest moments. But pain, she's a simple entity. She harbors only one fear: that you should recognize her beneath her myriad masks. Pain hates it when you find and accept her, but she relishes when you deny, delude, and compel yourself to reject her true form. At this point, pain evolves into the goddess she wishes she'd always been: suffering. The more crippling, the more convoluted, the better. She adores cradling you like this. 

    Being around pain is inevitable, but being wrapped in her suffering ... that remains our choice. 

    Thusly, the sole purpose of pain's game is (unfortunately for her) quite obvious.

She desires to keep you from sprinting off your next precipice. She knows that once you've stepped beyond, you'll unfold your arms in recognition of the unexpected, the unknown, in a dauntless display of your willingness to let all of life's mysteries and certainties inspire you to flight. In this state of heightened awareness, pain and fear become merely what we describe them as: silhouettes to be recognized at the edge of our memories.

    They chase us, and in doing so, indicate where we should go.

    They cling to us, and in doing so, harden our skin. 

    They need us to exist, and simultaneously, we need them too, to fully master the bliss of living after embracing their invaluable insights.

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Written by Harlequin in portal Philosophy
Intermission: Pain & Wings
Another intermission, this one more planned than the other, as I take some time to focus on the less-artsy side of writing, as well as work on a composition for the S&S contest. I wish to thank everyone once more for how you have supported me in this process that is sometimes easy, other times arduous, but always revealing. I'm thrilled with how The Culling of Casimir is turning out, and already I look forward to the editing process, endeavoring to turn the foundation into something to be truly proud of. 

Just beyond fear's edge lay that steep, daunting decline of a precipice, whose fall promises nothing more and nothing less than an open plummet. Exhilarating, your wings are destined to tire eventually, the trepidation is bound to inspire trembles, but the experience persists only to instruct, captivate, invigorate and inspire. Sadly enough, your nerves are built to send you running from the edge, to hide away from that experience as if death itself would take you, should you dare step beyond the comforting outlook you have lingered on. 
    It always feels blood-chilling, that moment before you reach out to grasp the unknown. Yet, you've done it before, haven't you? You know it's better to step forward than to linger. You did it countless times, when you renewed promises about writing and art, about how you would pursue it diligently despite life's stress. You did it when you finished the story you didn't think you had the imagination to write; you've done it before when you shared creations that you were careful even to draw out from your mind, let alone reveal to strangers in their vulnerability. You did it, unknowingly, as a child when you first picked up colors and ink to draw misshapen representations of innocence. By then, the world had not impressed its seemingly crippling monsters. By then, you had no concept of fear, so you did precisely whatever the hell you wished to do. 
    That's the illusion, isn't it? There are countless cliffs to leap from, but each one comes with its own excuses, its own mirage of nonexistent consequences that keep us drawing back. 
    Truthfully, the flight beyond fear is never wingless, not for awhile at least ... the flight is not without thrill, without supreme satisfaction and fulfillment, like gasping for air after being beneath water too long. It's vitalizing, it's transformative and unparalleled. It's moments bound with epiphany and reverie, the blood-sparking electricity of the realization: I am alive, I am mortal, but I am creating. 
    Somewhere along our journeys, we come to understand and expect pain as a persistent follower, a shadow that seems to worship us so reverently that it cannot help but trace every footfall. And just when we think we've caught a reprieve from its presence, we're made fools again to see it dancing into view. 
    Pain is a trickster.
    Pain is crafty. 
    She thinks she can convince us that we do not like her, that we do not need her, and therefore, that we'll run from her. This is pain's game. She scrambles, she schemes, she slips into your mind and opens the door to invite other mischievous demons to manifest while you're asleep. Her role is simple: to get you to run from her, because so long as she is the one chasing you, you are the one sprinting away from the edge of that cliff, from the bountiful experiences which lay beyond the fear of a wingless flight. Certainly, you'll fall eventually ... but at the basin, there's only ever another cliff to climb, and only ever another precipice to propel from. Each time, our wings get a bit stronger. Each trek up the hillsides, we find that much more to savor in the journey than in the ephemeral euphoria of the summit. 
    We are complicated. We fear countless, trivial things, things we laugh at in our strongest moments. But pain, she's a simple entity. She harbors only one fear: that you should recognize her beneath her myriad masks. Pain hates it when you find and accept her, but she relishes when you deny, delude, and compel yourself to reject her true form. At this point, pain evolves into the goddess she wishes she'd always been: suffering. The more crippling, the more convoluted, the better. She adores cradling you like this. 
    Being around pain is inevitable, but being wrapped in her suffering ... that remains our choice. 
    Thusly, the sole purpose of pain's game is (unfortunately for her) quite obvious.
She desires to keep you from sprinting off your next precipice. She knows that once you've stepped beyond, you'll unfold your arms in recognition of the unexpected, the unknown, in a dauntless display of your willingness to let all of life's mysteries and certainties inspire you to flight. In this state of heightened awareness, pain and fear become merely what we describe them as: silhouettes to be recognized at the edge of our memories.
    They chase us, and in doing so, indicate where we should go.
    They cling to us, and in doing so, harden our skin. 
    They need us to exist, and simultaneously, we need them too, to fully master the bliss of living after embracing their invaluable insights.

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Written by Harlequin in portal Poetry & Free Verse

Voiceless

The stage's set for two

In transcient timeless thread

But beneath spotlight burning

Shadows convolute the troupe

Lend patience, I beg my blood

Beating senseless to my questions

Whose answers are only qualms

Whom only brood and breed and spawn

To screeching strings taught

Dies the quiet tranquility

To melodrama's rapidity  

Rises senseless ruminating

I realize a regretful reluctance

A gluttony of thoughts inspires

And flood an invigoration

Of the shadows' consumption 

Before curtain's fall wherein

What's lost is for nothing, may yet

Clarity beam serenity

And incinerate the temerity

Of shadows' pervasive display

Leaving, at last, not a troupe,

But the duo that'd brought

My feet's first stepping beyond

A mind I call a cage

To a place reborn and called

'The Stage'

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Written by Harlequin in portal Poetry & Free Verse
Voiceless
The stage's set for two
In transcient timeless thread
But beneath spotlight burning
Shadows convolute the troupe

Lend patience, I beg my blood
Beating senseless to my questions
Whose answers are only qualms
Whom only brood and breed and spawn

To screeching strings taught
Dies the quiet tranquility
To melodrama's rapidity  
Rises senseless ruminating

I realize a regretful reluctance
A gluttony of thoughts inspires
And flood an invigoration
Of the shadows' consumption 

Before curtain's fall wherein
What's lost is for nothing, may yet
Clarity beam serenity
And incinerate the temerity
Of shadows' pervasive display
Leaving, at last, not a troupe,
But the duo that'd brought
My feet's first stepping beyond
A mind I call a cage
To a place reborn and called
'The Stage'

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Written by Harlequin in portal Poetry & Free Verse

Humbled

Only temporary, my senses' 

Noxious propensity, yet

Infinite exudes familiarity

As downward folds crease my lips

Pursed, tight, a timorous grimace

Then shudder, then shake

'Til the fated break and rapture

That starts the anxious fracture

Humility rears its face

Dark eyes in the cracks

Bows his glare and boasts

Power behind the folds

My "Imp of the Perverse"

Then my head's wreathed

A bloodied, dripping sheathe

A seat for the fanged crown

Its teeth burrowing ivory

Sutures itself to me

Affixed heir to idiocy

Rational fallacies and shame

Temperamental, fickle

The narcissist's boon;

The benevolent's bane

A contradiction's etiquette

Embodied in frailty

A master whom only claims

The senseless and inane 

Though I mark the fool

I do not know his name

Though I preach his words

I know not his way

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Written by Harlequin in portal Poetry & Free Verse
Humbled
Only temporary, my senses' 
Noxious propensity, yet
Infinite exudes familiarity
As downward folds crease my lips

Pursed, tight, a timorous grimace
Then shudder, then shake
'Til the fated break and rapture
That starts the anxious fracture

Humility rears its face
Dark eyes in the cracks
Bows his glare and boasts
Power behind the folds
My "Imp of the Perverse"

Then my head's wreathed
A bloodied, dripping sheathe
A seat for the fanged crown
Its teeth burrowing ivory
Sutures itself to me

Affixed heir to idiocy
Rational fallacies and shame
Temperamental, fickle
The narcissist's boon;
The benevolent's bane
A contradiction's etiquette
Embodied in frailty
A master whom only claims
The senseless and inane 

Though I mark the fool
I do not know his name
Though I preach his words
I know not his way




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Chapter 13 of The Culling of Casimir
Written by Harlequin in portal Fantasy

Chapter 13: Thief's Blood

Dear lords and ladies of the court,

   I sincerely apologize for a late installment. Last week, as I drafted Chapter 12 and the beginnings of this segment now before you, I was in the midst of a 7 day workweek. Am I singed? Am I burnt out? Am I sleepless? Am I a toasted toast? I am all these things. And I am worlds grateful to have you all here, to join me after I've fostered the time and willpower to develop this tale. Enough of excuses, though! 

                                                                  ~ ~

    The stage was warm, sticky and slick from the performance's initial blunder. And yet, now it had all ended. The tense anxieties, the boiling adrenaline, the trepidation, all had melted in a pool that flooded over the knives, the strips of cloth, the punctured sand bags, the painted foot markings, until finally spreading over me. I lay there with my eyes closed, indulging the slow, calm inhalations that boasted no worries for the coming moments. I embodied a depiction of death succumbed to his own nature. I heard the applause as stampeding hooves through the floor. I know what I had expressed, but I could not help but wonder what the audience had seen, instead.

    After the curtains had shut, I rose and unstuck the knife from my back. There were still more acts to come, and already the stage was being swept to prepare for the oncoming troupe. Striding through the darting crew members, I was greeted by compliments, pats, and a few alarmed expressions from anyone who shook my bleeding hands.

    “It’s nothing serious,” I had to repeat a dozen times.

    When Saron embraced me, she’d whispered into my ear, “You’re almost worth all your trouble, you know that?” Promptly, she left my company to advise the next performers.

After I’d given the dancers my compliments and had my hands bandaged, I left the theatre behind, regretful to feel the low, flickering lights and boisterous audience as a backdrop to my gait towards the narrowing streets beyond the Gallows’ Stadium. The stage promised an unparalleled distraction, a sense of family. There, perfection was an attainment within arm’s reach, but beyond it, my silhouette was nothing more than another shadow melding with night’s sable waters. In the late evening, I was embraced by ponderous reflections, and that silence one feels when they’ve just left something remarkable behind with little in comparison to look forward to. Finding Shamus in the middle of Portsworth’s second busiest festival seemed a meaningless venture, still, my curiosity could not be bridled. I was determined to search the streets well past midnight, even if all it would afford was disillusionment.

    Various events, popular taverns, and notorious attractions left certain streets utterly empty and their corridors perilously dark, as the moss hanging from their stones dripped from the soft, intermittent rains. Other pockets like the Trade District and the Weavers’ Den were packed, exuding light and music loud enough that you could feel it from afar. The screeching of strings, the slam of drums, the inharmonious voices singing their odes to the Nether, the realm beyond the living. In Portsworth, you could hardly bet on the City Watch being anything more than a comforting illusion of safety, but on All Hallow’s Eve, even that delusion had to be left in the gutters, as nearly all of the guards took their leave that evening to join the celebrations. I could see the residual illuminance of higher, banned spells being cast as their radiance swirled with the fog and drifted against rooftops far in my view. I could hear screams that sounded all in good, innocent fun, and others that were more of a cry for help than anything else. I could hear glasses being shattered in stumbling accidents, and the breaking of windows, whose shops were left empty for the evening.

    Burning nitskel, cheap ale, groped asses, drunken laughter and fizzled incantations. I chimed my way through the streets and avoided as many scruples as I could. Down one of the less populated avenues, where the majority of the inhabitants were ravens shaking the dew from their wings, I passed by a dingy inn being ransacked by a group of little more than four or five pillagers. At the doorstep, cracked glass and a torn shoe marked the beginning of a smeared blood trail leading into the alleyway adjacent to the shop. I lingered just long enough to catch the attention of the men inside.

    “After him?” I heard one of them say after I’d already kept on moving.

    The muscles in my back tensed. I continued forward, afraid that if I turned my head, I would provoke them to follow me. But even without that, I could heard their footsteps slip out of the doorstep, followed by the quick stamping of chasing heels. I started into a sprint, aiming for the nearest corner to turn into.

    “Quick fellow ain’t he?” one of them laughed.

   “Just means he’s got something,” the other one huffed.

Members of Nocturos’ Order often travel in large flocks throughout the city on a nightly basis, their vows of silence making them appear like wolves without prey in their grey vests, black hoods, and trailing charms of silver hands and dice. Never have I seen a chapel of Nocturos, a statue of him, a group of his followers, without feeling an echo of guilt. Having been born under the Cloaked Star, Nocturos is my patron deity, but I’ve never so much as donated a coin nor an hour’s worth of prayer toward him. Had I, in my most miserable and desperate moments, begged to him for some quick mercy? Of course! Who hasn’t pleaded to a god they hardly believed in when they felt scared witless? All the same, dogma frightens me. Moreover, I never bought into the concept of devoting myself to a deity called ‘The God of Misfortune’. It seemed, or so I thought, that he would consecrate most of my time for his sake whether I liked it or not.

    When I turned the corner, I slipped on a piece of parchment, crunching my shoulder against the cobblestone. But when I looked up, my heart stuttered in horror, then in relief, as I saw a black cloud soon to engulf me. It was a flock of the Order. I stood up and let the group flow around me in a river of cloth and clinking charms. When I turned my head, the pillagers stopped and cursed at the sight of them. One of the thugs attempted to shoulder his way through the worshippers with his eyes on me, but the other two pulled him back. I can only imagine how my mask gleamed from the blood moon, a gold coin surrounded by coal.

    “Not Nocturos,” one of them advised. “Shouldn’t.”

    “Fuck the gods,” the other one spat.

    “Not tonight.”

    “Look at the bastard, glittering with silver he is.”

    “No. Leave it be.”

    Shaken by the sight, the two others managed to pry the third one away. I wanted to thank the worshipers, embrace them, anything to show my thanks as the thugs retreated far from view. It was enchanting, to feel the protection of a solemn vow, a nightly ritual, a calm collective, as dozens of their bodies sifted over mine. Each of them had different lengths of hair, facial features, piercings and markings upon their skin. It was remarkable to see them acting in such unison.

    “You have my deepest thanks,” I said to them. “Truly, thank you.”

    But there was no response. They continued shuffling forward, guided mostly by the touch of those around them. For those that had their eyes opened, they were fixed ahead, thoughtful but otherwise empty in their stare.

    By the time the last of the flock had passed over me, I could feel my hopes for finding Shamus dwindling, replaced by the worry that something worse than negligence had kept him from attending the show. Again, the foreboding sounds of Portsworth’s unrivaled revelry howled up at the clouds. Suddenly, the half cloak I had worn fell to the ground. It was missing its clasp. I felt stripped as the wind blew across me without the comfort of the worshipers’ bodies pressed against mine. Confused, I stared at the cloak, wondering how it had fallen.

    When I looked down at my costume, much of its ornaments were stripped. The silver embellishments, the gold touches, even one of my rings. All that was left was my mask and my daggers, whose sheathes would be a chore to cut, and whose weight would be immediately recognized were they to go missing.

    “Those cursed little …”

    “Urchins,” someone finished for me. “Perhaps you could use some company? I find that typically soothes the bitterness of losing something valuable.” A woman leaning against a light post with a flash of her thigh showing, even in the chill of the autumn wind, smirked at me. Evidently, she had seen everything unfold.

    “Please, I’m not particularly in the mood for your kind of business,” I rebuked the stranger and began searching myself, passing over the empty space where my coin pouch used to rest against my thigh. I supposed this was the Order’s hilarious way of participating in All Hallow’s Eve, pickpocketing strangers under the guise of reverent pretenses.

    The woman stamped closer to me, her hips swaying as the waves of her deep, red hair drifted against her shoulders. I didn’t particularly mind prostitutes; they are more friendly than most. It was no surprise that she was probing me for any possibility of business.

Just as I looked up from my empty pockets, she slapped me. “Typical,” was all she said.

    “Is that him?” I heard Shamus cough from inside a niche in the street’s wall.

    I groaned, touching the flaring, red realization on my cheek, almost too relieved to feel the pain of it, yet too embarrassed to feel the relief.

    “Certainly not. He’s nothing like the gentleman you described. Must be just another drunk. Nothing notable, truly. Hmph … what a damned shame. We really thought we’d find him here, didn’t we?”

    “Forgive me,” I muttered, not entirely filled with courage to meet the eyes of Shamus’ colleague just then. “I hadn’t the faintest … those followers … and you seemed so …” She stood half a head taller than me, her hands on her hips and her head shaking slowly while I stumbled through no excuse in particular for my assumptions. I bent and retrieved my cloak, wrapping it around my shoulders and hoping it would somehow shroud my entire body.

    “Seemed like what?” the woman huffed.
 “Well, I was rather frustrated, you see—”

    “Oh it is him!” Shamus wheezed out. “I’d recognize that fool’s voice anywhere. Bring him over, won’t you?”

    She snatched my arm and led me to the cut in the wall. From the dim faerie light in the street lamp, I could just make out the nearest edges of Shamus’ grinning face. For every bit of his light, ashen skin that shone through, spots of blood were there to contrast it. Even his front teeth were stained red.

    He raised his hand to clasp mine, the markings on his palms thick, emblazoned and dripping from recent casting. I grabbed his arm, instead, and threw myself against his chest in an embrace, nearly knocking him off the crate he was sitting on.

    “Easy now!” the woman laughed. “He’s not standing for a reason, you know.”

    “What’s happened to you? Are you well?” I asked him, as soon as I realized I’d just stepped in a puddle of his vomit.

    “As well as I was after the first time we’d met,” he laughed. He hawked out a wad of blood and wiped his face with the back of his palm, which only smeared more of it across his cheeks. “Well, a little worse,” he admitted. “Casimir, you’ll have to excuse the methods by which we found you. Hopefully the payment was not too much. I figured with your ties to the Foxfeathers …” he shrugged the rest, so I nodded, all but confusedly.

    “Payment? I didn’t …”

    “The flock, you halfwit,” the woman clarified nicely.

    “You mean to say you … had them …?”

    Shamus sucked in some air. “Traveling around Portsworth in this condition, at this time of night, you understand I couldn’t exactly search for you alone, even with Clarisse. I found some fellows in the Order and had them guide us. And I told them, well, truth is I hadn’t much coin on me at the time and they’re a greedier bunch than they look. I told them they could take what they could from passersby, even if you were one of them. Oh gods … all those poor souls they must’ve taken from,” Shamus realized aloud.

    “But if they could pickpocket like that as a group, why would the Order need to listen to your suggestions at all?”

    “Sanctions, rules, territories …” Clarisse added with a bored, droning tone. “They’re kind of like cattle. You lead them, show them what to do, or else they’ll just stand there.”

I shook my head. “This doesn’t make any sense. What you have to do with the Order?”

“Consider them an extension of our ‘family’ so to speak.” Shamus tested the shaking in his legs to see if he could stand, only to sit back down with a tight grimace. “Casimir, you have no idea how terribly sorry I am to have missed your performance. Something of greater importance requested my attention. Speaking of which, the lovely, not-truly-a-whore you just met is Clarisse. She’s one of my own, a colleague, a friend. She was helping me tonight.”

    “ ‘Saving’ might be the better word. Someone of your daft bravery is beyond help.”

    “Made it out alive though, didn’t we? At least you admitted I am brave.”

    “You did, barely. I would have been fine. Warriors work well with bravery, Shamus, but not with folks like us.”

    “Lecture me after I’ve discussed something with him, won’t you? Next time, I'll let you be the one who phase shifts us to safety.”

    Clarisse flicked her head to gaze at the moon, muttering under her breath while Shamus rolled his eyes.

    I knelt down so that my eyes met his. Behind the pain, the excitement for having found each other, he harbored something. A deep, brooding imp that seemed as much mine as it was his, the moment I was cognizant of it. Shamus, like I, believed little in the turning of fates beyond our control, we worried little for minor scruples, we laughed at the daily troubles that so harried others. We urged ourselves to be free, in every sense of the word, and that meant above all else, to forget fear where others could not.

So when I saw that look in his eyes, I felt there was no possibility of escaping what haunted him, as if I was bound to feel the same chill, doomed by our mutual limitations of our carefree propensities.

    “How was the show?” he asked me suddenly, dodging what was on his mind.

    “It was … spectacular.” Already, it lingered in my memory as a dream, something that did not belong in reality. Those were the best memories, the ones that persisted long after others had fled. “When I realized you weren’t there to watch, at first, I was hurt. But then, something strange happened, and I felt freed by it.”

    Shamus lifted a hand to put on my shoulder, his wounds warm through my clothes. “I truly am regretful. The Syndicate—”

    “Have you lost too much blood, dimwit?” Clarisse immediately snapped, stomping towards us from her watchful position at the opening of the alleyway. But her stringent, carnelian eyes swept passed me and dug into Shamus. “Why are you mouthing off our own like that?”

    “Oh, what’s the point? Casimir knows as much already, it was only a matter of speaking the name. If he was a threat, something would’ve already happened. And yet, we were the ones who stole into the Foxfeather’s tonight.”

    “Oh! So that’s where—”

    “Quiet, highborn.”

    It was enough to make me shudder. I got to my feet. Clarisse flinched at the movement with a disgusted expression, but ignored me beyond that.

    “I was hesitant, but I was willing to understand. Making bonds with an outsider is nearly too far by itself. But this … this is something else entirely. This is unthinkable. Think of who he knows, think of how well he knows you, for Siflos’ sake! Think of what he could do with a memory of your face! He could have the Northern King plaster it on every street lamp by the month’s end if he wished!” Clarisse, herself, had not lowered her hood or cloth covering the lower half of her face.

    Shamus opened his mouth to speak, but I thought, especially as I watched the stains of his wounds bleed through his dark clothes, that he’d dealt with enough for one evening. I lifted up my hand to quiet him and approached Clarisse. “Hear my words and listen well. I was born a commoner. My associations with the Foxfeathers is purely coincidental. A misstep of the gods, a cosmic accident, a fool’s luck. You’d be damned to find a drop of my blood mingled with theirs, or any highborns’ from the lowest Reaches to the highest Isles,” I growled, uncertain if I was more frustrated for her attacking Shamus or assuming so much of myself. “Take what you can from them, from me if you wish. I don’t need half as much of the wealth I have. Curse me, call me names, distrust me, do all or whichever you prefer in particular, I couldn’t be bothered to care. Call me halfwit, fool,” Clarisse’s brows tensed, her stare hardened, and I edged closer, “but betrayer, backstabber … those words do not belong to me.”

    When Clarisse’s stubbornness compelled only silence as a response, I continued, admiring how the blood moon’s deepening shades matched her hair as the giant rose higher in the sky, illuminating every stone and crack with faded crimson. “Shamus may be daft, but his heart is smarter than his head. He made no mistake trusting me, someone who speaks the truth so rarely.” I looked at him and slowly, a grin cracked to show his teeth, despite the fear toying with him behind the expression that failed to conceal it. Clarisse’s suspicions only flared his anxiety, a demeanor that he did not wear well. “You were at the castle searching for something during the performance, weren’t you? You, or somebody in the Syndicate must’ve realized it was an ideal time for an assignment, as much of the city’s attention would be scattered from between the Gallows’ Stadium to the Trade District. So, you took the assignment instead, seizing the opportunity. That’s why you two were missing, wasn’t it? Any other action made little sense, when considering your responsibilities.”

    Clarisse sighed and squatted down. “He knows too much, Shamus. If anybody found out about him, they’d have all our heads. Why risk it?”

The threat was only as heavy as the speculation behind it. All the same, I kept my hand comfortably close to my hilt.

    “Look at me for a long while and tell me the bonds of a kindred soul are idle playthings to be forgotten. Casimir is more clever than he looks, you know,” Shamus replied calmly. “I think he’s smart enough to understand we’re not folks to be tampered with, even if he didn’t happen to like us much, which, I will tentatively assume he does, even after you made an ass of yourself.”

    “It’s true,” I shrugged, catching Clarisse’s eyes long enough to show her that I was grinning. “I admire folks like you. I don’t empathize with the cultish behavior, but being the thieves of legends, that can’t be unglamorous work. Had I three lives, I might’ve tried it for a spell.”

    “As if it’s so easy as that,” she scoffed. “The only option besides killing you is trusting you, isn’t it? There is nothing between.” Clarisse was using her rings to dance the moonlight across her fingers.

    “Shamus made that evident a few months into our correspondence. What can I say?” I shrugged again. “I like my friends to stand beyond the crowd.”

    “I understand what this is asking, Clarisse, but I haven’t told anyone in our sanctuary, not a soul beyond us. As long as it’s kept here, all will remain well,” Shamus added. “If nobody else finds out, our heads won’t roll … just yet.”

    “So, now I must protect another idiot and call him ‘family’ like I do with you?” Clarisse chuckled. “Gorgeous …”

    “Most folks just call me ‘charming’,” I corrected and twirled a lock of hair around my finger.

    “Aha. I suppose next you’ll be asking what I charge for my usual hour?” she quipped.

    “If you’re the one offering, sure. Three dugarts, then?”

    Shamus laughed hard enough that he began coughing violently, which only served him by making him teeter off the crate and onto the ground. And somehow, as his ass landed on the stone, we all felt the tension lift.

    This time, Clarisse rolled her eyes while I helped up the dauntless rogue.

    “So then, why were the two of you prowling around my dear, dear royal family’s castle, and on such short notice that you missed one of the finest spectacles you could’ve ever witnessed?”

    Clarisse and Shamus shared a wordless interaction, neither of them looking very amused at my attempts at humor. At the end of it, she was the one spoke. This time, she drew back her hood and pulled her mask down, revealing thin yet inviting, curved lips and a small nose with an upwards point. “There’s something underneath that castle, Casimir.”

    “The silver pools?” I offered.

    “Were it that simple, Shamus and I would’ve shrugged off the assignment to come watch your performance.”

    “Well then … ?”

    “It was something that even shadowsteps wouldn’t steal, and that is certainly saying something. Even if we could have gotten passed those doors …” Shamus lost himself in musings, and didn’t quite return, but kept that same hollow stare into the ground. “Tell me: does King William trust you?”

    “With his life.”

    “And yet he’s told you nothing of this?”

    I looked up at Clarisse. “To be quite honest, I haven’t the faintest idea what you saw.”

    “The Mancer’s Stone.”

    “Or the Dead Mage’s Stone, whichever childhood tale you were told,” Shamus added.

    I began laughing, but neither of them looked amused. “I … but it’s a legend, a …” my voice trailed to a whisper, because I was talking to two people whose existences, just years before, I would have condemned to the frivolities of fiction. “William would have told me, he would’ve. You must be mistaken. You saw something else.”

    Shamus shook his head and grabbed something from the pockets on the inside of his cloak. “We didn’t leave empty handed.” A journal flopped onto the ground between us, a journal that I typically saw on the nightstand beside William’s bed. “He’d written of his concern of it, in there, should Addoran enter in another era of war, or should Portsworth ever be ransacked. Beyond all else, he fretted for the stone’s recovery into living hands, for the loss of the Foxfeather’s hidden fortune. I apologize if this taints your image of him, but whatever his true intentions, William had more reasons than the goodness of his heart to keep Addoran and Portsworth in terms of peace. He admitted it, at least.”

    Reluctantly, I picked up the journal, almost asking Shamus to quote the exact page so that I could read the words myself. I quelled the urge. Blood is more reliant than promises. And in that moment, Shamus was dripping, the agony of his efforts plain across his body.

    “Highborns …” Clarisse snorted and spat. “They’re the only reason that anything useful remains hidden long enough to become a legend. In the hands of honest folk, the Mancer’s Stone could construct entire citadels in an afternoon, chapels for the impoverished, colleges for the unlearned. An unparalleled tool.”

    “So why not take it? Why not do precisely that with it?” I jumped to my feet, but Shamus was too beaten to be enthused. He waved the notion away with his hand tiredly.

    “Some things should remain in the possession of their owners, or remain sealed in crypts, or locked in chests,” he replied. “But beyond that, there are … creatures guarding that stone, things that I would rather not remember. Things I’ve never seen before, and hope not to again.”

    I looked from between the two of them, felt midnight’s fingers sift through the tight alley, as the hairs on my neck pricked up at the dimming din of revelry in the distance. Ecstasy had faded to a cheerless reality once more, a daunting shadow that seemed adept at swallowing the excitement of innocent moments. “But how does all this concern me?”

    “The same reason why we missed your performance tonight,” Clarisse answered.

    “Of which I am still, extremely regretful,” Shamus mumbled.

    “At this time, there’s more people than just the Shadow Syndicate keeping their eyes trained on the Mancer’s Stone. A few … unsavory organizations are beginning to become privy to whomever deduced the stone’s location.”

    “But I … knew nothing of it until tonight.”

    Shamus laughed darkly. “Maybe your King really is your friend, then, for keeping the secret from you.”

    “But of course he is.”

    “Think on it, Casimir,” Clarisse said with low melancholy, as she joined me in crouching close to the ground, “if anybody wished to discover more about the stone’s location, what’s guarding it, on what floor, and they didn’t want to capture the King for that information …”

    “Fek.

    He shrugged. “ 'Fek' indeed. That’s just how the dice fall. I thought I’d be the one who explained the damned game to you, before anyone took their chances against yours. Just know you had one friend willing to warn you, at least.” He winked, but somehow, it wasn’t as comforting as you might think.

    “You’re his closest advisor,” Clarisse continued. “Whoever else is after the stone will suspect you know something about it. I’d advise keeping a close eye on your back, Casimir. It’s cost-effective to kidnap a court fool rather than his king.”

    We sat in the silence, where I was surprised to find the bulk of the evening’s disappointments falling on my shoulders. “Well this turned to be one gods’ damned frightening evening,” I muttered.

    “And what would All Hallow’s Eve be without it?!” Shamus tried to stand, but failed again. “In that instance … drinks?” he offered.

    But I was numb, uncertain whether I should weep or laugh from it all. 

    “Promptly. Now that you’re something like our family, Casimir, you get to be treated like one.”

    “Aha, splendid! What does that mean?”

    “You’re paying!” Shamus and Clarisse said in unison and broke into cackles. Together, we hauled Shamus up between us and helped him stumble onto his limping legs.

    “Unfortunately, the jest’s in my favor, seeing as how you two rats simply told Nocturos’ flock to swipe my coin purse.”

    “Oh, damnit all …”

    “Ah, that’s right …” they realized, also in unison. 

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Chapter 13 of The Culling of Casimir
Written by Harlequin in portal Fantasy
Chapter 13: Thief's Blood
Dear lords and ladies of the court,
   I sincerely apologize for a late installment. Last week, as I drafted Chapter 12 and the beginnings of this segment now before you, I was in the midst of a 7 day workweek. Am I singed? Am I burnt out? Am I sleepless? Am I a toasted toast? I am all these things. And I am worlds grateful to have you all here, to join me after I've fostered the time and willpower to develop this tale. Enough of excuses, though! 
                                                                  ~ ~
    The stage was warm, sticky and slick from the performance's initial blunder. And yet, now it had all ended. The tense anxieties, the boiling adrenaline, the trepidation, all had melted in a pool that flooded over the knives, the strips of cloth, the punctured sand bags, the painted foot markings, until finally spreading over me. I lay there with my eyes closed, indulging the slow, calm inhalations that boasted no worries for the coming moments. I embodied a depiction of death succumbed to his own nature. I heard the applause as stampeding hooves through the floor. I know what I had expressed, but I could not help but wonder what the audience had seen, instead.
    After the curtains had shut, I rose and unstuck the knife from my back. There were still more acts to come, and already the stage was being swept to prepare for the oncoming troupe. Striding through the darting crew members, I was greeted by compliments, pats, and a few alarmed expressions from anyone who shook my bleeding hands.
    “It’s nothing serious,” I had to repeat a dozen times.
    When Saron embraced me, she’d whispered into my ear, “You’re almost worth all your trouble, you know that?” Promptly, she left my company to advise the next performers.
After I’d given the dancers my compliments and had my hands bandaged, I left the theatre behind, regretful to feel the low, flickering lights and boisterous audience as a backdrop to my gait towards the narrowing streets beyond the Gallows’ Stadium. The stage promised an unparalleled distraction, a sense of family. There, perfection was an attainment within arm’s reach, but beyond it, my silhouette was nothing more than another shadow melding with night’s sable waters. In the late evening, I was embraced by ponderous reflections, and that silence one feels when they’ve just left something remarkable behind with little in comparison to look forward to. Finding Shamus in the middle of Portsworth’s second busiest festival seemed a meaningless venture, still, my curiosity could not be bridled. I was determined to search the streets well past midnight, even if all it would afford was disillusionment.
    Various events, popular taverns, and notorious attractions left certain streets utterly empty and their corridors perilously dark, as the moss hanging from their stones dripped from the soft, intermittent rains. Other pockets like the Trade District and the Weavers’ Den were packed, exuding light and music loud enough that you could feel it from afar. The screeching of strings, the slam of drums, the inharmonious voices singing their odes to the Nether, the realm beyond the living. In Portsworth, you could hardly bet on the City Watch being anything more than a comforting illusion of safety, but on All Hallow’s Eve, even that delusion had to be left in the gutters, as nearly all of the guards took their leave that evening to join the celebrations. I could see the residual illuminance of higher, banned spells being cast as their radiance swirled with the fog and drifted against rooftops far in my view. I could hear screams that sounded all in good, innocent fun, and others that were more of a cry for help than anything else. I could hear glasses being shattered in stumbling accidents, and the breaking of windows, whose shops were left empty for the evening.
    Burning nitskel, cheap ale, groped asses, drunken laughter and fizzled incantations. I chimed my way through the streets and avoided as many scruples as I could. Down one of the less populated avenues, where the majority of the inhabitants were ravens shaking the dew from their wings, I passed by a dingy inn being ransacked by a group of little more than four or five pillagers. At the doorstep, cracked glass and a torn shoe marked the beginning of a smeared blood trail leading into the alleyway adjacent to the shop. I lingered just long enough to catch the attention of the men inside.
    “After him?” I heard one of them say after I’d already kept on moving.
    The muscles in my back tensed. I continued forward, afraid that if I turned my head, I would provoke them to follow me. But even without that, I could heard their footsteps slip out of the doorstep, followed by the quick stamping of chasing heels. I started into a sprint, aiming for the nearest corner to turn into.
    “Quick fellow ain’t he?” one of them laughed.
   “Just means he’s got something,” the other one huffed.
Members of Nocturos’ Order often travel in large flocks throughout the city on a nightly basis, their vows of silence making them appear like wolves without prey in their grey vests, black hoods, and trailing charms of silver hands and dice. Never have I seen a chapel of Nocturos, a statue of him, a group of his followers, without feeling an echo of guilt. Having been born under the Cloaked Star, Nocturos is my patron deity, but I’ve never so much as donated a coin nor an hour’s worth of prayer toward him. Had I, in my most miserable and desperate moments, begged to him for some quick mercy? Of course! Who hasn’t pleaded to a god they hardly believed in when they felt scared witless? All the same, dogma frightens me. Moreover, I never bought into the concept of devoting myself to a deity called ‘The God of Misfortune’. It seemed, or so I thought, that he would consecrate most of my time for his sake whether I liked it or not.
    When I turned the corner, I slipped on a piece of parchment, crunching my shoulder against the cobblestone. But when I looked up, my heart stuttered in horror, then in relief, as I saw a black cloud soon to engulf me. It was a flock of the Order. I stood up and let the group flow around me in a river of cloth and clinking charms. When I turned my head, the pillagers stopped and cursed at the sight of them. One of the thugs attempted to shoulder his way through the worshippers with his eyes on me, but the other two pulled him back. I can only imagine how my mask gleamed from the blood moon, a gold coin surrounded by coal.
    “Not Nocturos,” one of them advised. “Shouldn’t.”
    “Fuck the gods,” the other one spat.
    “Not tonight.”
    “Look at the bastard, glittering with silver he is.”
    “No. Leave it be.”
    Shaken by the sight, the two others managed to pry the third one away. I wanted to thank the worshipers, embrace them, anything to show my thanks as the thugs retreated far from view. It was enchanting, to feel the protection of a solemn vow, a nightly ritual, a calm collective, as dozens of their bodies sifted over mine. Each of them had different lengths of hair, facial features, piercings and markings upon their skin. It was remarkable to see them acting in such unison.
    “You have my deepest thanks,” I said to them. “Truly, thank you.”
    But there was no response. They continued shuffling forward, guided mostly by the touch of those around them. For those that had their eyes opened, they were fixed ahead, thoughtful but otherwise empty in their stare.
    By the time the last of the flock had passed over me, I could feel my hopes for finding Shamus dwindling, replaced by the worry that something worse than negligence had kept him from attending the show. Again, the foreboding sounds of Portsworth’s unrivaled revelry howled up at the clouds. Suddenly, the half cloak I had worn fell to the ground. It was missing its clasp. I felt stripped as the wind blew across me without the comfort of the worshipers’ bodies pressed against mine. Confused, I stared at the cloak, wondering how it had fallen.
    When I looked down at my costume, much of its ornaments were stripped. The silver embellishments, the gold touches, even one of my rings. All that was left was my mask and my daggers, whose sheathes would be a chore to cut, and whose weight would be immediately recognized were they to go missing.
    “Those cursed little …”
    “Urchins,” someone finished for me. “Perhaps you could use some company? I find that typically soothes the bitterness of losing something valuable.” A woman leaning against a light post with a flash of her thigh showing, even in the chill of the autumn wind, smirked at me. Evidently, she had seen everything unfold.
    “Please, I’m not particularly in the mood for your kind of business,” I rebuked the stranger and began searching myself, passing over the empty space where my coin pouch used to rest against my thigh. I supposed this was the Order’s hilarious way of participating in All Hallow’s Eve, pickpocketing strangers under the guise of reverent pretenses.
    The woman stamped closer to me, her hips swaying as the waves of her deep, red hair drifted against her shoulders. I didn’t particularly mind prostitutes; they are more friendly than most. It was no surprise that she was probing me for any possibility of business.
Just as I looked up from my empty pockets, she slapped me. “Typical,” was all she said.
    “Is that him?” I heard Shamus cough from inside a niche in the street’s wall.
    I groaned, touching the flaring, red realization on my cheek, almost too relieved to feel the pain of it, yet too embarrassed to feel the relief.
    “Certainly not. He’s nothing like the gentleman you described. Must be just another drunk. Nothing notable, truly. Hmph … what a damned shame. We really thought we’d find him here, didn’t we?”
    “Forgive me,” I muttered, not entirely filled with courage to meet the eyes of Shamus’ colleague just then. “I hadn’t the faintest … those followers … and you seemed so …” She stood half a head taller than me, her hands on her hips and her head shaking slowly while I stumbled through no excuse in particular for my assumptions. I bent and retrieved my cloak, wrapping it around my shoulders and hoping it would somehow shroud my entire body.
    “Seemed like what?” the woman huffed.
 “Well, I was rather frustrated, you see—”
    “Oh it is him!” Shamus wheezed out. “I’d recognize that fool’s voice anywhere. Bring him over, won’t you?”
    She snatched my arm and led me to the cut in the wall. From the dim faerie light in the street lamp, I could just make out the nearest edges of Shamus’ grinning face. For every bit of his light, ashen skin that shone through, spots of blood were there to contrast it. Even his front teeth were stained red.
    He raised his hand to clasp mine, the markings on his palms thick, emblazoned and dripping from recent casting. I grabbed his arm, instead, and threw myself against his chest in an embrace, nearly knocking him off the crate he was sitting on.
    “Easy now!” the woman laughed. “He’s not standing for a reason, you know.”
    “What’s happened to you? Are you well?” I asked him, as soon as I realized I’d just stepped in a puddle of his vomit.
    “As well as I was after the first time we’d met,” he laughed. He hawked out a wad of blood and wiped his face with the back of his palm, which only smeared more of it across his cheeks. “Well, a little worse,” he admitted. “Casimir, you’ll have to excuse the methods by which we found you. Hopefully the payment was not too much. I figured with your ties to the Foxfeathers …” he shrugged the rest, so I nodded, all but confusedly.
    “Payment? I didn’t …”
    “The flock, you halfwit,” the woman clarified nicely.
    “You mean to say you … had them …?”
    Shamus sucked in some air. “Traveling around Portsworth in this condition, at this time of night, you understand I couldn’t exactly search for you alone, even with Clarisse. I found some fellows in the Order and had them guide us. And I told them, well, truth is I hadn’t much coin on me at the time and they’re a greedier bunch than they look. I told them they could take what they could from passersby, even if you were one of them. Oh gods … all those poor souls they must’ve taken from,” Shamus realized aloud.
    “But if they could pickpocket like that as a group, why would the Order need to listen to your suggestions at all?”
    “Sanctions, rules, territories …” Clarisse added with a bored, droning tone. “They’re kind of like cattle. You lead them, show them what to do, or else they’ll just stand there.”
I shook my head. “This doesn’t make any sense. What you have to do with the Order?”
“Consider them an extension of our ‘family’ so to speak.” Shamus tested the shaking in his legs to see if he could stand, only to sit back down with a tight grimace. “Casimir, you have no idea how terribly sorry I am to have missed your performance. Something of greater importance requested my attention. Speaking of which, the lovely, not-truly-a-whore you just met is Clarisse. She’s one of my own, a colleague, a friend. She was helping me tonight.”
    “ ‘Saving’ might be the better word. Someone of your daft bravery is beyond help.”
    “Made it out alive though, didn’t we? At least you admitted I am brave.”
    “You did, barely. I would have been fine. Warriors work well with bravery, Shamus, but not with folks like us.”
    “Lecture me after I’ve discussed something with him, won’t you? Next time, I'll let you be the one who phase shifts us to safety.”
    Clarisse flicked her head to gaze at the moon, muttering under her breath while Shamus rolled his eyes.
    I knelt down so that my eyes met his. Behind the pain, the excitement for having found each other, he harbored something. A deep, brooding imp that seemed as much mine as it was his, the moment I was cognizant of it. Shamus, like I, believed little in the turning of fates beyond our control, we worried little for minor scruples, we laughed at the daily troubles that so harried others. We urged ourselves to be free, in every sense of the word, and that meant above all else, to forget fear where others could not.
So when I saw that look in his eyes, I felt there was no possibility of escaping what haunted him, as if I was bound to feel the same chill, doomed by our mutual limitations of our carefree propensities.
    “How was the show?” he asked me suddenly, dodging what was on his mind.
    “It was … spectacular.” Already, it lingered in my memory as a dream, something that did not belong in reality. Those were the best memories, the ones that persisted long after others had fled. “When I realized you weren’t there to watch, at first, I was hurt. But then, something strange happened, and I felt freed by it.”
    Shamus lifted a hand to put on my shoulder, his wounds warm through my clothes. “I truly am regretful. The Syndicate—”
    “Have you lost too much blood, dimwit?” Clarisse immediately snapped, stomping towards us from her watchful position at the opening of the alleyway. But her stringent, carnelian eyes swept passed me and dug into Shamus. “Why are you mouthing off our own like that?”
    “Oh, what’s the point? Casimir knows as much already, it was only a matter of speaking the name. If he was a threat, something would’ve already happened. And yet, we were the ones who stole into the Foxfeather’s tonight.”
    “Oh! So that’s where—”
    “Quiet, highborn.”
    It was enough to make me shudder. I got to my feet. Clarisse flinched at the movement with a disgusted expression, but ignored me beyond that.
    “I was hesitant, but I was willing to understand. Making bonds with an outsider is nearly too far by itself. But this … this is something else entirely. This is unthinkable. Think of who he knows, think of how well he knows you, for Siflos’ sake! Think of what he could do with a memory of your face! He could have the Northern King plaster it on every street lamp by the month’s end if he wished!” Clarisse, herself, had not lowered her hood or cloth covering the lower half of her face.
    Shamus opened his mouth to speak, but I thought, especially as I watched the stains of his wounds bleed through his dark clothes, that he’d dealt with enough for one evening. I lifted up my hand to quiet him and approached Clarisse. “Hear my words and listen well. I was born a commoner. My associations with the Foxfeathers is purely coincidental. A misstep of the gods, a cosmic accident, a fool’s luck. You’d be damned to find a drop of my blood mingled with theirs, or any highborns’ from the lowest Reaches to the highest Isles,” I growled, uncertain if I was more frustrated for her attacking Shamus or assuming so much of myself. “Take what you can from them, from me if you wish. I don’t need half as much of the wealth I have. Curse me, call me names, distrust me, do all or whichever you prefer in particular, I couldn’t be bothered to care. Call me halfwit, fool,” Clarisse’s brows tensed, her stare hardened, and I edged closer, “but betrayer, backstabber … those words do not belong to me.”
    When Clarisse’s stubbornness compelled only silence as a response, I continued, admiring how the blood moon’s deepening shades matched her hair as the giant rose higher in the sky, illuminating every stone and crack with faded crimson. “Shamus may be daft, but his heart is smarter than his head. He made no mistake trusting me, someone who speaks the truth so rarely.” I looked at him and slowly, a grin cracked to show his teeth, despite the fear toying with him behind the expression that failed to conceal it. Clarisse’s suspicions only flared his anxiety, a demeanor that he did not wear well. “You were at the castle searching for something during the performance, weren’t you? You, or somebody in the Syndicate must’ve realized it was an ideal time for an assignment, as much of the city’s attention would be scattered from between the Gallows’ Stadium to the Trade District. So, you took the assignment instead, seizing the opportunity. That’s why you two were missing, wasn’t it? Any other action made little sense, when considering your responsibilities.”
    Clarisse sighed and squatted down. “He knows too much, Shamus. If anybody found out about him, they’d have all our heads. Why risk it?”
The threat was only as heavy as the speculation behind it. All the same, I kept my hand comfortably close to my hilt.
    “Look at me for a long while and tell me the bonds of a kindred soul are idle playthings to be forgotten. Casimir is more clever than he looks, you know,” Shamus replied calmly. “I think he’s smart enough to understand we’re not folks to be tampered with, even if he didn’t happen to like us much, which, I will tentatively assume he does, even after you made an ass of yourself.”
    “It’s true,” I shrugged, catching Clarisse’s eyes long enough to show her that I was grinning. “I admire folks like you. I don’t empathize with the cultish behavior, but being the thieves of legends, that can’t be unglamorous work. Had I three lives, I might’ve tried it for a spell.”
    “As if it’s so easy as that,” she scoffed. “The only option besides killing you is trusting you, isn’t it? There is nothing between.” Clarisse was using her rings to dance the moonlight across her fingers.
    “Shamus made that evident a few months into our correspondence. What can I say?” I shrugged again. “I like my friends to stand beyond the crowd.”
    “I understand what this is asking, Clarisse, but I haven’t told anyone in our sanctuary, not a soul beyond us. As long as it’s kept here, all will remain well,” Shamus added. “If nobody else finds out, our heads won’t roll … just yet.”
    “So, now I must protect another idiot and call him ‘family’ like I do with you?” Clarisse chuckled. “Gorgeous …”
    “Most folks just call me ‘charming’,” I corrected and twirled a lock of hair around my finger.
    “Aha. I suppose next you’ll be asking what I charge for my usual hour?” she quipped.
    “If you’re the one offering, sure. Three dugarts, then?”
    Shamus laughed hard enough that he began coughing violently, which only served him by making him teeter off the crate and onto the ground. And somehow, as his ass landed on the stone, we all felt the tension lift.
    This time, Clarisse rolled her eyes while I helped up the dauntless rogue.
    “So then, why were the two of you prowling around my dear, dear royal family’s castle, and on such short notice that you missed one of the finest spectacles you could’ve ever witnessed?”
    Clarisse and Shamus shared a wordless interaction, neither of them looking very amused at my attempts at humor. At the end of it, she was the one spoke. This time, she drew back her hood and pulled her mask down, revealing thin yet inviting, curved lips and a small nose with an upwards point. “There’s something underneath that castle, Casimir.”
    “The silver pools?” I offered.
    “Were it that simple, Shamus and I would’ve shrugged off the assignment to come watch your performance.”
    “Well then … ?”
    “It was something that even shadowsteps wouldn’t steal, and that is certainly saying something. Even if we could have gotten passed those doors …” Shamus lost himself in musings, and didn’t quite return, but kept that same hollow stare into the ground. “Tell me: does King William trust you?”
    “With his life.”
    “And yet he’s told you nothing of this?”
    I looked up at Clarisse. “To be quite honest, I haven’t the faintest idea what you saw.”
    “The Mancer’s Stone.”
    “Or the Dead Mage’s Stone, whichever childhood tale you were told,” Shamus added.
    I began laughing, but neither of them looked amused. “I … but it’s a legend, a …” my voice trailed to a whisper, because I was talking to two people whose existences, just years before, I would have condemned to the frivolities of fiction. “William would have told me, he would’ve. You must be mistaken. You saw something else.”
    Shamus shook his head and grabbed something from the pockets on the inside of his cloak. “We didn’t leave empty handed.” A journal flopped onto the ground between us, a journal that I typically saw on the nightstand beside William’s bed. “He’d written of his concern of it, in there, should Addoran enter in another era of war, or should Portsworth ever be ransacked. Beyond all else, he fretted for the stone’s recovery into living hands, for the loss of the Foxfeather’s hidden fortune. I apologize if this taints your image of him, but whatever his true intentions, William had more reasons than the goodness of his heart to keep Addoran and Portsworth in terms of peace. He admitted it, at least.”
    Reluctantly, I picked up the journal, almost asking Shamus to quote the exact page so that I could read the words myself. I quelled the urge. Blood is more reliant than promises. And in that moment, Shamus was dripping, the agony of his efforts plain across his body.
    “Highborns …” Clarisse snorted and spat. “They’re the only reason that anything useful remains hidden long enough to become a legend. In the hands of honest folk, the Mancer’s Stone could construct entire citadels in an afternoon, chapels for the impoverished, colleges for the unlearned. An unparalleled tool.”
    “So why not take it? Why not do precisely that with it?” I jumped to my feet, but Shamus was too beaten to be enthused. He waved the notion away with his hand tiredly.
    “Some things should remain in the possession of their owners, or remain sealed in crypts, or locked in chests,” he replied. “But beyond that, there are … creatures guarding that stone, things that I would rather not remember. Things I’ve never seen before, and hope not to again.”
    I looked from between the two of them, felt midnight’s fingers sift through the tight alley, as the hairs on my neck pricked up at the dimming din of revelry in the distance. Ecstasy had faded to a cheerless reality once more, a daunting shadow that seemed adept at swallowing the excitement of innocent moments. “But how does all this concern me?”
    “The same reason why we missed your performance tonight,” Clarisse answered.
    “Of which I am still, extremely regretful,” Shamus mumbled.
    “At this time, there’s more people than just the Shadow Syndicate keeping their eyes trained on the Mancer’s Stone. A few … unsavory organizations are beginning to become privy to whomever deduced the stone’s location.”
    “But I … knew nothing of it until tonight.”
    Shamus laughed darkly. “Maybe your King really is your friend, then, for keeping the secret from you.”
    “But of course he is.”
    “Think on it, Casimir,” Clarisse said with low melancholy, as she joined me in crouching close to the ground, “if anybody wished to discover more about the stone’s location, what’s guarding it, on what floor, and they didn’t want to capture the King for that information …”
    “Fek.
    He shrugged. “ 'Fek' indeed. That’s just how the dice fall. I thought I’d be the one who explained the damned game to you, before anyone took their chances against yours. Just know you had one friend willing to warn you, at least.” He winked, but somehow, it wasn’t as comforting as you might think.
    “You’re his closest advisor,” Clarisse continued. “Whoever else is after the stone will suspect you know something about it. I’d advise keeping a close eye on your back, Casimir. It’s cost-effective to kidnap a court fool rather than his king.”
    We sat in the silence, where I was surprised to find the bulk of the evening’s disappointments falling on my shoulders. “Well this turned to be one gods’ damned frightening evening,” I muttered.
    “And what would All Hallow’s Eve be without it?!” Shamus tried to stand, but failed again. “In that instance … drinks?” he offered.
    But I was numb, uncertain whether I should weep or laugh from it all. 
    “Promptly. Now that you’re something like our family, Casimir, you get to be treated like one.”
    “Aha, splendid! What does that mean?”
    “You’re paying!” Shamus and Clarisse said in unison and broke into cackles. Together, we hauled Shamus up between us and helped him stumble onto his limping legs.
    “Unfortunately, the jest’s in my favor, seeing as how you two rats simply told Nocturos’ flock to swipe my coin purse.”
    “Oh, damnit all …”
    “Ah, that’s right …” they realized, also in unison. 
#fantasy  #fiction  #2amdead 
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Written by Harlequin

Walk

Undergrowth underfoot

Above are branching emeralds

Nets of copper and gold

Sublime in intricacy

Beyond worries still sits

My crown upon the dawn

Should I have the courage

I may return to visit it

But for this I rest

Another time I'll bide

Until then, hackneyed,

That is my stride

"Usurper, usurper," mutters

My harried mind, but truth

She knows there's blame

In each step I possess

The sun's righteous sheen

Goads without shame

I do wonder, however,

For that thief residing within

Her subtle pilfer and switch

Of strength into weakness

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Written by Harlequin
Walk
Undergrowth underfoot
Above are branching emeralds
Nets of copper and gold
Sublime in intricacy

Beyond worries still sits
My crown upon the dawn
Should I have the courage
I may return to visit it
But for this I rest
Another time I'll bide
Until then, hackneyed,
That is my stride

"Usurper, usurper," mutters
My harried mind, but truth
She knows there's blame
In each step I possess
The sun's righteous sheen
Goads without shame

I do wonder, however,
For that thief residing within
Her subtle pilfer and switch
Of strength into weakness
14
7
4
Juice
57 reads
Load 4 Comments
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Donate coins to Harlequin.
Juice
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Chapter 12 of The Culling of Casimir
Written by Harlequin in portal Fantasy

Chapter 12: Illusions

    I don’t believe in fate, I believe in fate existing within us. Now I understand that you just scoffed at my semantics, but give me a moment to explain.

    Fate is often held in the same untouchable faith that only gods are granted. An unseen and indomitable force which governs everything, only rarely stepping into our lives with a dramatic flare. Consequently, fate is only recognized in the remarkable, the moments of happenstance brilliance, where an unexpected meeting or opportunity arrives, leaving us touched but otherwise bewildered.

    But that begs the question, does it not? Why is it that we only recognize fate’s visage in our most intense memories? The answer is the heart of my claim. Fate does not govern us, no more than we govern it. We are conduits for its expression, and without us, fate would have no hands with which to tell its story. We simply don’t choose to see it that way. When chances meet ambition, when inspiration converges with skill, when passion dances with will, fate does a curious thing. It relents. It steps down from that intangible throne we’ve conjured for it, and briefly, we wield it as a tool to manifest the ringing in our souls. It may not be as controllable as twitching our thumb, but it may not be as ungraspable as the skies above.

    When we look at the stars, we often wonder where fate will lead us.

    But we could look at our hands and ask instead: where would fate be without me?

    Some give it the names of gods. Others claim it doesn’t exist at all. But whether it exists through all of these things or is merely a figment, I have come to give it a different name.

    Inspiration.

    The following October after I met Shamus Dodge, I funneled more effort into my performance for the Hallow’s Eve festival than I had the previous years, entreating the help of Portsworth’s most illustrious practitioners, engineers, and artists, and all but straining the limits of the Foxfeather’s coffers in the process. A solo act wouldn’t be sufficient, I’d realized, not if I was to exceed the previous year's display. In one of our correspondences, Shamus had mentioned that he would be in attendance at the Gallows' Stadium, even that he'd bring one of his colleagues. It was the first time that I had been aware of someone in the audience. Although I tried to convince myself it was an exciting notion, more than anything, it terrified me. 

    Although the Hallow’s Eve Performances in Portsworth had been attracting tourists long before I was born, somehow, I had managed to charm audiences enough with my first displays of knife juggling to earn a solo act the following year. After which, Saron, the coordinator for the events, recruited me into the crew which planned each performance. It can’t hurt funding, after all, to have a member of the royal court listening in on your endeavors.

    And so I found myself, once more, staring down the pit of something I was not altogether prepared to do. No amount of practice ever felt like enough, not with last year’s performance, and in not in my third attempt to bewitch a crowd of thousands.

    In the darkness of the backstage, the tiredness of Saron’s eyes were extenuated only by the rich, mauve rings beneath them. But ignoring that, the rest of her demeanor was sparking as if sleep was something she’d never heard of before, or she was simply too busy to consider practicing. She seemed to embody every aspect of the theater: the harried movements of the stagehands, the nervousness of dilettante actors, the arrogance of the barely adept, and the pensive reflection of the true thespian. 

    While all this rushed around us, she had her hands raised to her mouth, gripped tightly while she watched a troupe of acrobats stream through a triangle of blades being tossed between three jugglers.

    I had watched the troupe practice this routine in frozen dawns and heavy winds, in afternoons marred by the sweat-inducing summer sun, in the evenings when silence was in abundance. Now, with their shadows cast by the torches lining the edge of the stage, their incessant practice reaped only what it should sew: perfection.

    Saron’s hair matched the night sky with her mid-length locks rimming her tense expression. To my delight, her height was a head beneath my own. But for every lacking inch she made up for in resolute beauty, something I certainly did not have. Her strut never lacked purpose, her eyes were rarely seen without destination, while her rounded, full lips spoke of meticulously picked words even before they were pronounced clearly.

    “You always look so nervous,” I told her, my voice muddled by the iron and steel mask that matched the others’. Unlike last year, my ensemble didn’t weigh half as much as I did, which was something of a relief, even if the feats I was going to attempt seemed to compensate for that burden. “I’m surprised that eleven years of this has still left you biting your nails while you watch it unfold.”

    “Eleven years, perhaps, but each year is a new challenge, just as demanding, just as risky and unpredictable as the first. Each year, I am beginner all over again, and there's no such thing as perfection; there's always a chance for a mishap. I’d be a fool to think the chances grew slimmer the longer I lived.”

    I hummed my approval for that answer, then checked the harness on my body for the ninth time that evening to be sure that all the straps were in place, that I could still access my throwing blades, and that I had still managed not to piss in my trousers. “Well … what’s the worst mishap you ever seen?” I asked, just to pass the time.

    Saron turned as if to slap me, but must’ve thought better after remembering that my cheeks were encased by the mask. “What demon’s crawled in you, child? Asking such a thing at a time like this?! You want to damn this whole place with misfortune? Save it for the celebration after, won’t you? Keep doing your stretches.” In the end, she settled for pinching my arm as hard as she could.

    “Gods! A’right, I didn’t mean anything by it. Forgive me.”

    “Absolutely not! Not now,” she replied, the smirk on her face no more hidden than mine. “Wait, wait, wait! Where are you off to now?” She groaned and yanked me back from my less than stealthy retreat.

    “I just need to see something, I’ll return before you’ve even thought about it.”

    “Certainly you mean to! But I know you better than to expect as much.”

    “Just a few minutes is all I’m taking,” I insisted and pulled my arm out of her grip.

    “You barely have ten before you’re up!”

    “Yes, yes, I’ll be quick about it.”

    Saron groaned again, tethered to her irrepressible desire to watch every movement of the performance. “You always do this. You act as if you don’t care in the slightest!” she hissed at me, though I was already starting down the staircase.

    I quipped back, “But you know me better than to expect as much!” 

    Thinking better, I took my mask off before I began searching the crowds for Shamus. Beneath amber clouds and a blood moon, the throngs in the Gallows’ Stadium were a mixture of the boisterous and reverent, casting up steam through silent breaths and gaudy laughter. Getting close to the audience, I could feel their vicarious viewing soothe my nerves. There was nothing less intimidating than watching a drunk fall over himself after laughing too hard at something that, in all likelihood, was not very humorous.

    Guards were posted around the roped circle of the dugart pit, where the cheapest seats, (or simply just small spaces to stand), could be secured by a single dugart. It was a common joke that if you couldn’t afford a seat in the stadium, you could always find a dugart somewhere on the ground while you walked there, and settle for a place in the pit.

    But I wasn’t interested in the pit, no more than I was interested in catching a vomit stain on my impeccable costume. Suspended above the pit were hundreds of gilded, cascading seats which simultaneously provided roofing, as well as a better view for the attendants willing to pay a steeper price. Up there, the crowds were a hush of well-bred manners and stifled enthusiasm from those who saved their way to a breath of fresh air above the commoners. When I had sent a letter back to Shamus with two tickets to the upper scaffolds, he had replied with a long rant about entitlement, the imbalance of wealth, and the poor souls who were damned to watch a performance from the squalor of the dugart pit … as well as a sidetone of thanks.

    Despite his inky tirade, I didn’t expect him to squander the opportunity. Yet, as I stood at the edge of the pits and searched the scaffolds, Shamus was nowhere to be found. Before long, I found myself convincing one of the posted guards to grant me entry to the scaffolds. Past the curtains, I shuffled and apologized my way to the highest tier of seats. But even there, as a few guests hissed their “Shh!”s at me, I saw no hints of the thief. I found, instead, two empty seats. That, and the cracking applause that sent me sprinting, cursing, and tripping my way back to the stage.

    “You have some kind of wild hair of idiocy in you, you know that?” Saron chastised as she grasped me by my collar and hauled me up the stairs to the backstage.

    As soon as I’d landed on my feet, I was immediately swarmed by stagehands who latched my harness to a system of ropes and pulleys that led to the crew on the catwalk. The dozens of latches clicked one after another, each followed by a harsh pull to test their strength. If her glare was any indication, Saron wished to murder me. Unfortunate for her, we only had a few moments before the next performance.

    She, herself, strutted through the curtains to introduce my act, surprising the crowd with the zeal that boomed from her. Slim, gold blades hung from her black skirt and blouse, catching enough light to set the silver of her mask gleaming. She gesticulated with her hands and skipped from one end of her speech to the next, bending low to catch a particular person’s attention before jumping to another.

    With my recent excursion to the scaffold, my nerves had no time to throttle me, and instead, I was overwhelmed by an intense exuberance. To my surprise, Shamus’ absence did not dishearten me, it relieved me of the pressure I’d felt. Shivering to appear before the masses, I felt the crew tug one last time on the fastenings, then back away to allow three illusionists to intone their enchantments upon the ropes tied to the latches, casting until the twine was translucent. Despite their precise spells, their magick seeped through the ropes, catching on my sleeve, my fingers, making parts of my body seem invisible before materializing again.

    Saron walked back through the curtains, yanked the mask I had forgotten was still in my hands, and shoved it back onto my stupidly broad grin.

    “You scared me to death, Casimir. I nearly called in another set,” she said as she tied the mask taut.

    “It’s Hallow’s Eve, isn’t it? What would it be without a little scare?”

    Before she could reply, the thick, sable curtains swung open, sweeping her and the stagehands out of sight. Naked in front of the audience, six dancers fell into their rehearsed steps on either side of me, twisting in pairs, disconnecting at fingertips, and twirling to rejoin at the waist. I walked between them, slowly approaching the audience with a tilted head as if they were the curiosity.

    Like Saron’s outfit, my tunic and trousers were decorated with small blades, each of them slotted in a loop of leather. In my haste to retrieve four of them, droplets slipped from my thumb and pattered onto the floor.

    Ignoring the pain, I sprinted from center stage and flung myself towards the pit. Shouts rose as I flew into the air. People shoved and fought to flee from my landing.

    The crew working the charmed ropes yanked me back as soon as I’d reached the height of my jump, pulling me in a sudden swing back towards the stage. The aghast shouts restored themselves to roars of approval and applause while I inexplicably ascended above the throngs.

    Now, the true dance had begun.

    One by one the dancers tossed up palm-sized, leather balls stitched to bright streams of crimson and gold fabric, each to be skewered by a throwing dagger while I flung them from perpetual oscillation. In a turn of breath, in the arc of a swing, in the stillness of the apex, I sent the throwing knives flitting to their targets. A spray of sand, a thud, punctuated each successful hit. The longer I was suspended, the more targets were tossed; the quicker the dancers spun, the more came hurtling to meet me in my flight.

    The crew pulled, pulled and released, pulled and released, granting me the rhythmic harmony of a swaying necklace held aloft. After every two rotations, the tension from one rope would lessen and another would tighten, slanting me at unpredictable angles before returning equilibrium. I dipped close to the floor, I rose uncomfortably high. Below me, the dancers’ whirling outfits were flower petals of black and gold, hastened to blossom and retract in quick cessations. Above them, a cruel god rebuked the flight of their winged seeds, impaling their innocent expression with little else than the flick of his body in the passing of an airborne twirl.

    My heartbeat slowed, my breathing bordered on laughter, and my fingers, though slick with the blood from my thumb, found fluidity in the motions. Somewhere beneath the sensations, the crowd was reacting, somewhere beyond the precision, I had reason to care for things that mattered little; somewhere beyond the stage, I wondered what had kept Shamus from seeing a performance I had tailored specifically for him. But it is surprising, how little import misfortune, sadness, or discontent has when we are in the heat of a moment we have managed to capture. And yet, when we find ourselves dancing sublimely in chaos, it is not ignorance that allows us to cradle burdens of past, nor the infinite possibilities that lay head. Rather, it is the acceptance of their power, a recognition of our own, and a peace found between the two. Somehow, by humbly embracing disarray, it seems to impart some of its potency into our being.

    The dancers threaded their feet between dozens of knives and balls now decorating the stage, a detail that could never quiet be practiced to perfection. All the same, the pairs stepped over the occasionally protruding handle, they nudged a stray ball without making the movement appear improvised. In my hand was the final throwing knife. When I glanced at it, I realized I had not been imagining the strange sensation. My hands were soaked from the blood of dozens of tiny, careless cuts. The dancers were even dotted with it.

    “How should we end it, though, if this is to be accomplished at all?” I had asked Saron.

    “If you were watching it, what would you want to see?”

    “I don’t think the audience will interpret it the way we intend,” I laughed. “Why not just put on something spectacular and forget the rest?”

    “It doesn’t matter if they don’t see it the way we do. It’s only about the story. There’s always a story to tell, but it’s not our concern to question how it will be heard. Only how it is told, what is said. Thankfully, the rest is out of our hands. All you have to worry about, then, is what you wish to say. What memories, what thoughts you may reap from showing them things they’d never seen before, that isn’t our business.”

    Just as they entered one by one, so one by one the dancers fell to the floor after they’d exhausted all of their streaming targets. Stagehands dressed entirely in black rushed to gutter half of the torches lighting the stage. By the time they’d returned behind the curtains, I’d been gently lowered to my feet at the center. And there with the remaining knife, I twirled it between wet fingers and threw it high. I bowed to a silent crowd. I anticipated the impact.

    A few gasps. A breathable tension. The knife landed in my back, puncturing through the harness’ padding for the first time, just enough that I could feel its edge. And with a ponderous, exaggerated weight, I stumbled to my knee, my hands, and finally, onto my chest.

    Not a beat after the thud, the dancers arose and rejoined hands to leap back into their swirling motions, if only but for a brief burst, now that the pernicious presence had vanished, that it had ceased its seemingly indomitable control over their movement. That it, itself, had breathed a temporary cessation.

    The throngs cracked with applause.

    The curtains slid together violently.

    The stagehands came to sweep the floor.

    The performance was over, but the night was not finished.

    And where is Shamus?

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Chapter 12 of The Culling of Casimir
Written by Harlequin in portal Fantasy
Chapter 12: Illusions
    I don’t believe in fate, I believe in fate existing within us. Now I understand that you just scoffed at my semantics, but give me a moment to explain.
    Fate is often held in the same untouchable faith that only gods are granted. An unseen and indomitable force which governs everything, only rarely stepping into our lives with a dramatic flare. Consequently, fate is only recognized in the remarkable, the moments of happenstance brilliance, where an unexpected meeting or opportunity arrives, leaving us touched but otherwise bewildered.
    But that begs the question, does it not? Why is it that we only recognize fate’s visage in our most intense memories? The answer is the heart of my claim. Fate does not govern us, no more than we govern it. We are conduits for its expression, and without us, fate would have no hands with which to tell its story. We simply don’t choose to see it that way. When chances meet ambition, when inspiration converges with skill, when passion dances with will, fate does a curious thing. It relents. It steps down from that intangible throne we’ve conjured for it, and briefly, we wield it as a tool to manifest the ringing in our souls. It may not be as controllable as twitching our thumb, but it may not be as ungraspable as the skies above.
    When we look at the stars, we often wonder where fate will lead us.
    But we could look at our hands and ask instead: where would fate be without me?
    Some give it the names of gods. Others claim it doesn’t exist at all. But whether it exists through all of these things or is merely a figment, I have come to give it a different name.
    Inspiration.
    The following October after I met Shamus Dodge, I funneled more effort into my performance for the Hallow’s Eve festival than I had the previous years, entreating the help of Portsworth’s most illustrious practitioners, engineers, and artists, and all but straining the limits of the Foxfeather’s coffers in the process. A solo act wouldn’t be sufficient, I’d realized, not if I was to exceed the previous year's display. In one of our correspondences, Shamus had mentioned that he would be in attendance at the Gallows' Stadium, even that he'd bring one of his colleagues. It was the first time that I had been aware of someone in the audience. Although I tried to convince myself it was an exciting notion, more than anything, it terrified me. 
    Although the Hallow’s Eve Performances in Portsworth had been attracting tourists long before I was born, somehow, I had managed to charm audiences enough with my first displays of knife juggling to earn a solo act the following year. After which, Saron, the coordinator for the events, recruited me into the crew which planned each performance. It can’t hurt funding, after all, to have a member of the royal court listening in on your endeavors.
    And so I found myself, once more, staring down the pit of something I was not altogether prepared to do. No amount of practice ever felt like enough, not with last year’s performance, and in not in my third attempt to bewitch a crowd of thousands.
    In the darkness of the backstage, the tiredness of Saron’s eyes were extenuated only by the rich, mauve rings beneath them. But ignoring that, the rest of her demeanor was sparking as if sleep was something she’d never heard of before, or she was simply too busy to consider practicing. She seemed to embody every aspect of the theater: the harried movements of the stagehands, the nervousness of dilettante actors, the arrogance of the barely adept, and the pensive reflection of the true thespian. 
    While all this rushed around us, she had her hands raised to her mouth, gripped tightly while she watched a troupe of acrobats stream through a triangle of blades being tossed between three jugglers.
    I had watched the troupe practice this routine in frozen dawns and heavy winds, in afternoons marred by the sweat-inducing summer sun, in the evenings when silence was in abundance. Now, with their shadows cast by the torches lining the edge of the stage, their incessant practice reaped only what it should sew: perfection.
    Saron’s hair matched the night sky with her mid-length locks rimming her tense expression. To my delight, her height was a head beneath my own. But for every lacking inch she made up for in resolute beauty, something I certainly did not have. Her strut never lacked purpose, her eyes were rarely seen without destination, while her rounded, full lips spoke of meticulously picked words even before they were pronounced clearly.
    “You always look so nervous,” I told her, my voice muddled by the iron and steel mask that matched the others’. Unlike last year, my ensemble didn’t weigh half as much as I did, which was something of a relief, even if the feats I was going to attempt seemed to compensate for that burden. “I’m surprised that eleven years of this has still left you biting your nails while you watch it unfold.”
    “Eleven years, perhaps, but each year is a new challenge, just as demanding, just as risky and unpredictable as the first. Each year, I am beginner all over again, and there's no such thing as perfection; there's always a chance for a mishap. I’d be a fool to think the chances grew slimmer the longer I lived.”
    I hummed my approval for that answer, then checked the harness on my body for the ninth time that evening to be sure that all the straps were in place, that I could still access my throwing blades, and that I had still managed not to piss in my trousers. “Well … what’s the worst mishap you ever seen?” I asked, just to pass the time.
    Saron turned as if to slap me, but must’ve thought better after remembering that my cheeks were encased by the mask. “What demon’s crawled in you, child? Asking such a thing at a time like this?! You want to damn this whole place with misfortune? Save it for the celebration after, won’t you? Keep doing your stretches.” In the end, she settled for pinching my arm as hard as she could.
    “Gods! A’right, I didn’t mean anything by it. Forgive me.”
    “Absolutely not! Not now,” she replied, the smirk on her face no more hidden than mine. “Wait, wait, wait! Where are you off to now?” She groaned and yanked me back from my less than stealthy retreat.
    “I just need to see something, I’ll return before you’ve even thought about it.”
    “Certainly you mean to! But I know you better than to expect as much.”
    “Just a few minutes is all I’m taking,” I insisted and pulled my arm out of her grip.
    “You barely have ten before you’re up!”
    “Yes, yes, I’ll be quick about it.”
    Saron groaned again, tethered to her irrepressible desire to watch every movement of the performance. “You always do this. You act as if you don’t care in the slightest!” she hissed at me, though I was already starting down the staircase.
    I quipped back, “But you know me better than to expect as much!” 
    Thinking better, I took my mask off before I began searching the crowds for Shamus. Beneath amber clouds and a blood moon, the throngs in the Gallows’ Stadium were a mixture of the boisterous and reverent, casting up steam through silent breaths and gaudy laughter. Getting close to the audience, I could feel their vicarious viewing soothe my nerves. There was nothing less intimidating than watching a drunk fall over himself after laughing too hard at something that, in all likelihood, was not very humorous.
    Guards were posted around the roped circle of the dugart pit, where the cheapest seats, (or simply just small spaces to stand), could be secured by a single dugart. It was a common joke that if you couldn’t afford a seat in the stadium, you could always find a dugart somewhere on the ground while you walked there, and settle for a place in the pit.
    But I wasn’t interested in the pit, no more than I was interested in catching a vomit stain on my impeccable costume. Suspended above the pit were hundreds of gilded, cascading seats which simultaneously provided roofing, as well as a better view for the attendants willing to pay a steeper price. Up there, the crowds were a hush of well-bred manners and stifled enthusiasm from those who saved their way to a breath of fresh air above the commoners. When I had sent a letter back to Shamus with two tickets to the upper scaffolds, he had replied with a long rant about entitlement, the imbalance of wealth, and the poor souls who were damned to watch a performance from the squalor of the dugart pit … as well as a sidetone of thanks.
    Despite his inky tirade, I didn’t expect him to squander the opportunity. Yet, as I stood at the edge of the pits and searched the scaffolds, Shamus was nowhere to be found. Before long, I found myself convincing one of the posted guards to grant me entry to the scaffolds. Past the curtains, I shuffled and apologized my way to the highest tier of seats. But even there, as a few guests hissed their “Shh!”s at me, I saw no hints of the thief. I found, instead, two empty seats. That, and the cracking applause that sent me sprinting, cursing, and tripping my way back to the stage.
    “You have some kind of wild hair of idiocy in you, you know that?” Saron chastised as she grasped me by my collar and hauled me up the stairs to the backstage.
    As soon as I’d landed on my feet, I was immediately swarmed by stagehands who latched my harness to a system of ropes and pulleys that led to the crew on the catwalk. The dozens of latches clicked one after another, each followed by a harsh pull to test their strength. If her glare was any indication, Saron wished to murder me. Unfortunate for her, we only had a few moments before the next performance.
    She, herself, strutted through the curtains to introduce my act, surprising the crowd with the zeal that boomed from her. Slim, gold blades hung from her black skirt and blouse, catching enough light to set the silver of her mask gleaming. She gesticulated with her hands and skipped from one end of her speech to the next, bending low to catch a particular person’s attention before jumping to another.
    With my recent excursion to the scaffold, my nerves had no time to throttle me, and instead, I was overwhelmed by an intense exuberance. To my surprise, Shamus’ absence did not dishearten me, it relieved me of the pressure I’d felt. Shivering to appear before the masses, I felt the crew tug one last time on the fastenings, then back away to allow three illusionists to intone their enchantments upon the ropes tied to the latches, casting until the twine was translucent. Despite their precise spells, their magick seeped through the ropes, catching on my sleeve, my fingers, making parts of my body seem invisible before materializing again.
    Saron walked back through the curtains, yanked the mask I had forgotten was still in my hands, and shoved it back onto my stupidly broad grin.
    “You scared me to death, Casimir. I nearly called in another set,” she said as she tied the mask taut.
    “It’s Hallow’s Eve, isn’t it? What would it be without a little scare?”
    Before she could reply, the thick, sable curtains swung open, sweeping her and the stagehands out of sight. Naked in front of the audience, six dancers fell into their rehearsed steps on either side of me, twisting in pairs, disconnecting at fingertips, and twirling to rejoin at the waist. I walked between them, slowly approaching the audience with a tilted head as if they were the curiosity.
    Like Saron’s outfit, my tunic and trousers were decorated with small blades, each of them slotted in a loop of leather. In my haste to retrieve four of them, droplets slipped from my thumb and pattered onto the floor.
    Ignoring the pain, I sprinted from center stage and flung myself towards the pit. Shouts rose as I flew into the air. People shoved and fought to flee from my landing.
    The crew working the charmed ropes yanked me back as soon as I’d reached the height of my jump, pulling me in a sudden swing back towards the stage. The aghast shouts restored themselves to roars of approval and applause while I inexplicably ascended above the throngs.
    Now, the true dance had begun.
    One by one the dancers tossed up palm-sized, leather balls stitched to bright streams of crimson and gold fabric, each to be skewered by a throwing dagger while I flung them from perpetual oscillation. In a turn of breath, in the arc of a swing, in the stillness of the apex, I sent the throwing knives flitting to their targets. A spray of sand, a thud, punctuated each successful hit. The longer I was suspended, the more targets were tossed; the quicker the dancers spun, the more came hurtling to meet me in my flight.
    The crew pulled, pulled and released, pulled and released, granting me the rhythmic harmony of a swaying necklace held aloft. After every two rotations, the tension from one rope would lessen and another would tighten, slanting me at unpredictable angles before returning equilibrium. I dipped close to the floor, I rose uncomfortably high. Below me, the dancers’ whirling outfits were flower petals of black and gold, hastened to blossom and retract in quick cessations. Above them, a cruel god rebuked the flight of their winged seeds, impaling their innocent expression with little else than the flick of his body in the passing of an airborne twirl.
    My heartbeat slowed, my breathing bordered on laughter, and my fingers, though slick with the blood from my thumb, found fluidity in the motions. Somewhere beneath the sensations, the crowd was reacting, somewhere beyond the precision, I had reason to care for things that mattered little; somewhere beyond the stage, I wondered what had kept Shamus from seeing a performance I had tailored specifically for him. But it is surprising, how little import misfortune, sadness, or discontent has when we are in the heat of a moment we have managed to capture. And yet, when we find ourselves dancing sublimely in chaos, it is not ignorance that allows us to cradle burdens of past, nor the infinite possibilities that lay head. Rather, it is the acceptance of their power, a recognition of our own, and a peace found between the two. Somehow, by humbly embracing disarray, it seems to impart some of its potency into our being.
    The dancers threaded their feet between dozens of knives and balls now decorating the stage, a detail that could never quiet be practiced to perfection. All the same, the pairs stepped over the occasionally protruding handle, they nudged a stray ball without making the movement appear improvised. In my hand was the final throwing knife. When I glanced at it, I realized I had not been imagining the strange sensation. My hands were soaked from the blood of dozens of tiny, careless cuts. The dancers were even dotted with it.
    “How should we end it, though, if this is to be accomplished at all?” I had asked Saron.
    “If you were watching it, what would you want to see?”
    “I don’t think the audience will interpret it the way we intend,” I laughed. “Why not just put on something spectacular and forget the rest?”
    “It doesn’t matter if they don’t see it the way we do. It’s only about the story. There’s always a story to tell, but it’s not our concern to question how it will be heard. Only how it is told, what is said. Thankfully, the rest is out of our hands. All you have to worry about, then, is what you wish to say. What memories, what thoughts you may reap from showing them things they’d never seen before, that isn’t our business.”
    Just as they entered one by one, so one by one the dancers fell to the floor after they’d exhausted all of their streaming targets. Stagehands dressed entirely in black rushed to gutter half of the torches lighting the stage. By the time they’d returned behind the curtains, I’d been gently lowered to my feet at the center. And there with the remaining knife, I twirled it between wet fingers and threw it high. I bowed to a silent crowd. I anticipated the impact.
    A few gasps. A breathable tension. The knife landed in my back, puncturing through the harness’ padding for the first time, just enough that I could feel its edge. And with a ponderous, exaggerated weight, I stumbled to my knee, my hands, and finally, onto my chest.
    Not a beat after the thud, the dancers arose and rejoined hands to leap back into their swirling motions, if only but for a brief burst, now that the pernicious presence had vanished, that it had ceased its seemingly indomitable control over their movement. That it, itself, had breathed a temporary cessation.
    The throngs cracked with applause.
    The curtains slid together violently.
    The stagehands came to sweep the floor.
    The performance was over, but the night was not finished.
    And where is Shamus?
#fantasy  #fiction  #horror  #adventure 
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Written by Harlequin in portal Fantasy

Final Examination

This is a more lighthearted short story that I dug from this year's practice sessions which is set in an academy for practitioners. Nothing dramatic or serious, but I thought I'd share anyways. It offers a detailed view into Netherway's spell and educational system.

“Students! It saddens me as much as it does delight me to see all of us gathered once more in this room.” Professor Fall’s long eyebrows flickered as he blinked, his words slow to leave his lips while the spring light came in bright beams through the massive windows of the classroom. The towering stone ceiling hung with chandeliers and hovering tapestries whose deep azure and gold colors were done justice by the unclouded day. 

    The students strummed their desk, hands, and writing utensils as he considered his words. He had a habit of beginning his monologues at an unbearable crawl until he reached a point of excitement in which his mouth could not match the pace of his mind. His demeanor would shift from reserved and ruminating to a crescendo as he divulged both personal insight and practical knowledge within minutes.    

    Professor Fell’s scarlet and black garments were a charming mixture of tight-fitting trousers and tunic, complemented by flowing strips of gold cloth, fluttering in a draft coming from the open window nearest his desk. Several locks of black hair fell over his face while the rest was kept up in a loose ponytail in the back.  

    Like many of the classrooms in the academy, the instructor’s position was raised several steps above the student’s, whose desks arched around in a half-circle.    

    “This is the last time many of us will be gathered together, unless you are to take the advanced course of Destructive Magick for the Adept next year, in which case, you will be seeing a whole lot more of me. But for those of you continuing at the normal pace, this is something of a farewell.” He sniffled and wiped an imaginary tear from his eye, earning scraps of laughter. 

    The students were just as nervous for their final day as they were nostalgic to remember their first again. It was just a year before that they stepped into the classroom with barely any previous knowledge of offensive magick. 

    “But of course!” he continued, stepping off his platform to striding through the rows of desks. “This farewell is premature. After all, your final examination has just commenced. Enfell!” he exclaimed, and black drapes unrolled over the windows, casting the classroom into darkness. “You came into this room like empty journals, waiting to be filled with knowledge …”

    Nervous gasps from the timid students, and chuckles from the more confident, went throughout the room.

    “ … and I’ve watched you all fill up eagerly. You've done things you never thought you could do, conjured incantations you previously thought to be perilous and unmanageable. But I’ll let you in on a secret: I often swell in pride when I gossip with the other instructors, as you are all, clearly, more enthusiastic to conjure a fireball than mix some herbs to create a rather boring tincture. Bleh!”

    Professor Fell, himself, laughed, his elven eyes aglow in the darkness. “In any case, I trust you all prepared long for this examination. It will be the most difficult, and judged the harshest, of all the others you had this year. Kindly, stand from your seats, lest you be swept into the Nether with the rest of your desks.”

    The students stood and took with them their supplies, loathe to lose more than just a spare quill or two as they had on previous occasions. 

    “Cletter,” he murmured. A deafening crack, and the room was suddenly cleared of nearly all the furniture touching the stone floor.

    “Professor Fell?” a voice asked through the darkness.

    “Hmm. I have over two hundred students, but I’d know that voice anywhere. Miss Aiyana! What is your question?”

    “Could we have some light?”

    “It would be rather helpful, wouldn’t it? Tell me, what was the very first thing you heard when you entered this academy two years ago? I expect that Headmistress Cull recited this institution’s ideals with the same stringency that even I heard on my first day.”

    After a brief silence, the pupil spoke out again. “She told us: ‘Only what is earned can be taken, but the greatest things are earned by a powerful, joint force.' ”

    “Precisely! Doubtless, you said it as best as she ever did. Now, if you all are to leave this room alive, you will need a little light to do so. But even light, in some instances, must be earned. Heed these words ... if you wish to pass your examination, and this goes for this entire classroom: each and every one of you must be prepared to survive this trial. The students who dropped out during the year would not survive this examination, which is why they were forced to leave, since death would not be a pleasant thing ... yes? However, that is to not say this examination will be easy by any stretch of the imagination. Regardless! Do not doubt yourselves! I have faith in all of you. You wouldn't make a fool of me, would you? I'll lose my position, after all, if one of you dies.”

    Although it was meant as a joke, the room was utterly silent at this remark. That is, until another student  pushed through the monologue. “Professor, what exactly is the examination?"

    “Quite simply: if you escape this lecture alive, you have not only passed, but excelled. Simple enough? Yes? Yes?” He tapped a few students’ heads lightly as he walked around. "Unfortunately, that does not simply mean enduring my incessant rambling. You've all done that more than a few times."

    “Alive?”

    “Yes, alive, and nothing less. In this next minute, all rules placed by the academy on spellweaving and casting, including illusion, destruction, transfiguration, necromancy, healing, are hereby voided in this classroom. Cast freely, and cast well. Cast like you never have before! Just … try not to hit any of your peers. I’d hate to cart one of you off to the healing chambers with a missing limb.”

    A wave of spells for light joined by laughter immediately rose from the three dozen students in the darkness, casting up faerie light to illuminate the darkness with silvery orbs. 

    It was what it illuminated that killed their laughter.

    “Now I know she tends to frighten you all a bit, but Professor Sarkana was kind enough to lend me some of her—erh—expertise, for this year’s examination,” Professor Fell clarified.

    On either side of the massive room were six portals that the students had never seen before. Shaped like an average chamber door, but what was behind it was blackness, tinged by a violet glow exuding between the cracks.

    “A lesser Nether Portal,” Leaf, one of the students breathe  in equal trepidation and excitement, as he reached his hand out toward it, before thinking better and stepping back. 

    “An apt deduction, Leaf! Not just one,” Professor Fell added, “but a whole dozen. Now, you’ve all done a splendid job of lighting the chamber. But can you defend yourselves in it?”

    At first, the students wailed half-hearted protests at the prospect of an examination judged by combat prowess, until the room became silent once more, and all of the attention went to the professor’s ‘Are-you-serious?’ expression. He cleared his throat and pretended he heard none of it. 

    “Leaf, you identified the summoning portal. It’s only fitting you’re the first to face one. Step up, if you will.”

    Leaf stepped through several of his classmates and tightened the metal links of a casting charm wrapped around his right hand, as he faced the farthest portal on the right. 

    Professor Fell put his hand on the knob.

    Leaf parted his fiery, orange hair, set his dark eyes in a cold stare, and nodded.

    Professor Fell wrenched the door opened and slammed it after a blazing creature of fire and charcoal came roaring out, much to the his delight. Leaf panicked and casted the first spell that came to his head. “Infernus Blades!” he yelled, conjuring several daggers of flame that flitted into the creature, only causing its roars to become more violent.

    “A fire demon! I’m afraid that spell will only make it stronger!” the professor yelled over the roars as Leaf dodged a massive, volcanic fist. It slammed the ground, cracking the stone tablets and shaking the chandeliers.

    “Worry not! It’s not the first time a monster destroyed my flawless floors. Continue!”

    The students rushed to clear away from the duel as the behemoth began rampaging toward Leaf, throwing its two sets of fists wildly, undecided between tearing his head off or cramming it through his body. Several spell shields went up as other students protected themselves from the magma and lava spewing from the creature.

    “Professor, is this really allowed?” Aiyana asked after rushing next to him.

    “Well—Yrrap!” A cluster of fire and stone hurtled toward them, deflected by his deft spellcasting. Then, an almost sarcastic, “But of course!”

    Leaf conjured a mirror entity of himself and sent it waltzing to the other end of the room, confusing the beast. It followed the false copy as it danced away, giving him time to focus on a more effective spell.

    Almost half a minute of demonic screams had passed after it figured it out could not devour Leaf's illusion. By then, everyone’s breath was being cast in the air, as the temperature in the room had dropped to that of a deep winter, and Leaf’s veins became the color of arctic ice. “Northern Storm!” Clenching his charm in his hand, whirlwinds of frost and ice circled seeped from his back and circled around his arm. He tensed his muscles and began unleashing it through his right hand.

    The volcanic demon turned just in time to watch the spell engulf it. It charged towards Leaf again, but was stopped short, as the ice crawled through all of its cracks. The behemoth stuttered, attempted to take a step, then was frozen in place. A massive plume of steam clouded the air, and set Professor Fell into a fit of laughter-ridden coughs.

    “Minor tempest,”  Leaf exhaled in satisfaction, casting a gust of wind to topple the creature over, before bowing deeply. 

    It fell and shattered into black, frozen splinters.

    “Brilliant!” Professor Fell clapped, and the classroom erupted into cheers. “I do believe you earned yourself and your classmates some light, having defeated a higher class of a fire demon, after all. Flickers!” All the torches in the room blazed in their sconces, and the students sighed, relieved of putting energy into their faerie lights. “Just remember, Leaf, the spells within the frost category prefer to be expelled through the palm, first charged in the infraspinatus muscle on your back before being funneled to the triceps. If I'm not incorrect, you used your pectorals, risking a minor injury. Otherwise, impeccable form. Now, who is next?”

    Aiyana tried to hide behind the tall, auburn-haired Raymond, but it was no use.

    “Aiyana! You were eager for some light. But how about a fight?” he took her hand and guided her toward the door, whispering with a smirk, “A bold move, to question a professor’s authority.”

    Leaf slapped some hands as he went back into the ranks of the students, then nearly fell on his face, panting and shaking from depleting himself.

    “Now this next one, I must say, may be a little unfair,” the professor admitted as he all but skipped to the next door. “But I have faith in you.”

    Aiyana readied her staff, (half the length of her body and designed for striking), and ran her fingers over the runes etched into it, stopping to murmur into each one.

    “Look closely, now. You don’t all have to be heroes, casting the right spell at the last second to save your skin. No offense, Leaf. Aiyana here is taking what we learned in the second semester and putting it to use, charging her staff with spells so she won’t have to cast them later. Aiyana, you make me a proud instructor. A gold coin to anyone who can tell me the name for this technique.”

    “Premonitory casting!” Raymond shouted greedily. 

    “Aha, well done! I’m a man of my word.” Professor Fell tossed him a glittering coin that turned to air as it touched the student’s hand. “Though I never said it had to be a real gold coin. Hah! Never trust a mage. Ready now, Aiyana?”

    She nodded.

    The door opened, and out charged five skeletal warriors in full armor, gnashing their teeth and already swinging their rusted, ancient weapons at her.

    “Reanimated from the famous Battle of Brethren three centuries ago, these old bones are—oh, careful now!—endowed with countless decades of training. Keep up the pace, Aiyana! These knights already died, so they don’t have much to lose.” Professor Fell advised as she parried several of the blades with her staff, twirled around, and knocked the skull off one of the skeletons.

    Raymond caught the skull in his hands and wailed like a child, throwing it before it could bite his fingers off.

    Aiyana summoned a spectral shield in her left hand, and used the charged force in the staff’s runes to deal devastating blows to the warriors, battering them with light that erupted from her attacks. She wielded a staff of light with a shield of stars, each of their ends bursting each time it came into contact with her opponents.

    The fighters were easy enough to defend against, and easy enough to attack, but the trick was the spell binding them together. Each time she knocked an arm, a skull, or a set of ribs from one of them, they’d come flying back to reassemble just moments later.

    “Hmm,” Professor hummed as he stepped calmly around the fighting, “a bit trickier than you thought, yes?”

    Aiyana’s clothing was already damp from perspiration. It had been from the moment she began charging her staff. She was buying herself time by smacking the hand off one fighter so that she could parry the attack of another behind her.

    “They won’t die!” she complained.

    A sword came down and sliced her calf. Not skipping a beat, she funneled her scream into a healing spell and joined the flesh together before retaliating. 

    “Fight smarter, not harder,” the professor sang.

    “Disenchantment!” someone called out from the back.

    “I heard that, Raymond, you little bastard!” Professor Fell chastised. “No helping!”

    But it was too late. Aiyana rolled out of the closing ring of the skeletal warriors. “Major Tempest!” she wailed, sending them back with wind, before she summoned up a disenchantment spell and sent it hurtling through the end of her staff, hitting the flying cluster of bones and diffusing the necromancy from them before they had a chance to hit the ground.

    Aiyana went down just as they did, gulping in air, her legs unwilling to support her. After the spell sparked, the room turned into an uprooted graveyard with six sets of bones, weapons and armor. 

    “Well done, well done!” Professor clapped, picking up one of the skulls to kick it like a ball. “Fought a little longer than you needed to, but what a fight it was! Now I think we can all agree, watching these skirmishes is damned entertaining. But my, it would take hours to have you all evaluated. This year, let’s try something different. How about a group examination?”

    And before they could prepare themselves, Professor Fell summoned twelve ghostly chains, attached them to the handle of the doors, and sent a whole set of demonic entities hurtling into the room, all the while cackling and readying his own spells, should his students be in more peril than he anticipated.

    “And remember,” he called as he nudged a scampering void imp to send it toward the scrambling students, “the greatest things are accomplished by joint effort! Who will be the distractor casting illusionary spells? Who will heal fresh wounds? Who will be at the vanguard? Assume these positions! Survive together, or perish as one!”

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Written by Harlequin in portal Fantasy
Final Examination
This is a more lighthearted short story that I dug from this year's practice sessions which is set in an academy for practitioners. Nothing dramatic or serious, but I thought I'd share anyways. It offers a detailed view into Netherway's spell and educational system.

“Students! It saddens me as much as it does delight me to see all of us gathered once more in this room.” Professor Fall’s long eyebrows flickered as he blinked, his words slow to leave his lips while the spring light came in bright beams through the massive windows of the classroom. The towering stone ceiling hung with chandeliers and hovering tapestries whose deep azure and gold colors were done justice by the unclouded day. 

    The students strummed their desk, hands, and writing utensils as he considered his words. He had a habit of beginning his monologues at an unbearable crawl until he reached a point of excitement in which his mouth could not match the pace of his mind. His demeanor would shift from reserved and ruminating to a crescendo as he divulged both personal insight and practical knowledge within minutes.    

    Professor Fell’s scarlet and black garments were a charming mixture of tight-fitting trousers and tunic, complemented by flowing strips of gold cloth, fluttering in a draft coming from the open window nearest his desk. Several locks of black hair fell over his face while the rest was kept up in a loose ponytail in the back.  

    Like many of the classrooms in the academy, the instructor’s position was raised several steps above the student’s, whose desks arched around in a half-circle.    

    “This is the last time many of us will be gathered together, unless you are to take the advanced course of Destructive Magick for the Adept next year, in which case, you will be seeing a whole lot more of me. But for those of you continuing at the normal pace, this is something of a farewell.” He sniffled and wiped an imaginary tear from his eye, earning scraps of laughter. 

    The students were just as nervous for their final day as they were nostalgic to remember their first again. It was just a year before that they stepped into the classroom with barely any previous knowledge of offensive magick. 

    “But of course!” he continued, stepping off his platform to striding through the rows of desks. “This farewell is premature. After all, your final examination has just commenced. Enfell!” he exclaimed, and black drapes unrolled over the windows, casting the classroom into darkness. “You came into this room like empty journals, waiting to be filled with knowledge …”

    Nervous gasps from the timid students, and chuckles from the more confident, went throughout the room.

    “ … and I’ve watched you all fill up eagerly. You've done things you never thought you could do, conjured incantations you previously thought to be perilous and unmanageable. But I’ll let you in on a secret: I often swell in pride when I gossip with the other instructors, as you are all, clearly, more enthusiastic to conjure a fireball than mix some herbs to create a rather boring tincture. Bleh!”

    Professor Fell, himself, laughed, his elven eyes aglow in the darkness. “In any case, I trust you all prepared long for this examination. It will be the most difficult, and judged the harshest, of all the others you had this year. Kindly, stand from your seats, lest you be swept into the Nether with the rest of your desks.”

    The students stood and took with them their supplies, loathe to lose more than just a spare quill or two as they had on previous occasions. 

    “Cletter,” he murmured. A deafening crack, and the room was suddenly cleared of nearly all the furniture touching the stone floor.

    “Professor Fell?” a voice asked through the darkness.

    “Hmm. I have over two hundred students, but I’d know that voice anywhere. Miss Aiyana! What is your question?”

    “Could we have some light?”

    “It would be rather helpful, wouldn’t it? Tell me, what was the very first thing you heard when you entered this academy two years ago? I expect that Headmistress Cull recited this institution’s ideals with the same stringency that even I heard on my first day.”

    After a brief silence, the pupil spoke out again. “She told us: ‘Only what is earned can be taken, but the greatest things are earned by a powerful, joint force.' ”

    “Precisely! Doubtless, you said it as best as she ever did. Now, if you all are to leave this room alive, you will need a little light to do so. But even light, in some instances, must be earned. Heed these words ... if you wish to pass your examination, and this goes for this entire classroom: each and every one of you must be prepared to survive this trial. The students who dropped out during the year would not survive this examination, which is why they were forced to leave, since death would not be a pleasant thing ... yes? However, that is to not say this examination will be easy by any stretch of the imagination. Regardless! Do not doubt yourselves! I have faith in all of you. You wouldn't make a fool of me, would you? I'll lose my position, after all, if one of you dies.”

    Although it was meant as a joke, the room was utterly silent at this remark. That is, until another student  pushed through the monologue. “Professor, what exactly is the examination?"

    “Quite simply: if you escape this lecture alive, you have not only passed, but excelled. Simple enough? Yes? Yes?” He tapped a few students’ heads lightly as he walked around. "Unfortunately, that does not simply mean enduring my incessant rambling. You've all done that more than a few times."

    “Alive?”

    “Yes, alive, and nothing less. In this next minute, all rules placed by the academy on spellweaving and casting, including illusion, destruction, transfiguration, necromancy, healing, are hereby voided in this classroom. Cast freely, and cast well. Cast like you never have before! Just … try not to hit any of your peers. I’d hate to cart one of you off to the healing chambers with a missing limb.”

    A wave of spells for light joined by laughter immediately rose from the three dozen students in the darkness, casting up faerie light to illuminate the darkness with silvery orbs. 

    It was what it illuminated that killed their laughter.

    “Now I know she tends to frighten you all a bit, but Professor Sarkana was kind enough to lend me some of her—erh—expertise, for this year’s examination,” Professor Fell clarified.

    On either side of the massive room were six portals that the students had never seen before. Shaped like an average chamber door, but what was behind it was blackness, tinged by a violet glow exuding between the cracks.

    “A lesser Nether Portal,” Leaf, one of the students breathe  in equal trepidation and excitement, as he reached his hand out toward it, before thinking better and stepping back. 

    “An apt deduction, Leaf! Not just one,” Professor Fell added, “but a whole dozen. Now, you’ve all done a splendid job of lighting the chamber. But can you defend yourselves in it?”

    At first, the students wailed half-hearted protests at the prospect of an examination judged by combat prowess, until the room became silent once more, and all of the attention went to the professor’s ‘Are-you-serious?’ expression. He cleared his throat and pretended he heard none of it. 

    “Leaf, you identified the summoning portal. It’s only fitting you’re the first to face one. Step up, if you will.”

    Leaf stepped through several of his classmates and tightened the metal links of a casting charm wrapped around his right hand, as he faced the farthest portal on the right. 

    Professor Fell put his hand on the knob.

    Leaf parted his fiery, orange hair, set his dark eyes in a cold stare, and nodded.

    Professor Fell wrenched the door opened and slammed it after a blazing creature of fire and charcoal came roaring out, much to the his delight. Leaf panicked and casted the first spell that came to his head. “Infernus Blades!” he yelled, conjuring several daggers of flame that flitted into the creature, only causing its roars to become more violent.

    “A fire demon! I’m afraid that spell will only make it stronger!” the professor yelled over the roars as Leaf dodged a massive, volcanic fist. It slammed the ground, cracking the stone tablets and shaking the chandeliers.

    “Worry not! It’s not the first time a monster destroyed my flawless floors. Continue!”

    The students rushed to clear away from the duel as the behemoth began rampaging toward Leaf, throwing its two sets of fists wildly, undecided between tearing his head off or cramming it through his body. Several spell shields went up as other students protected themselves from the magma and lava spewing from the creature.

    “Professor, is this really allowed?” Aiyana asked after rushing next to him.

    “Well—Yrrap!” A cluster of fire and stone hurtled toward them, deflected by his deft spellcasting. Then, an almost sarcastic, “But of course!”

    Leaf conjured a mirror entity of himself and sent it waltzing to the other end of the room, confusing the beast. It followed the false copy as it danced away, giving him time to focus on a more effective spell.

    Almost half a minute of demonic screams had passed after it figured it out could not devour Leaf's illusion. By then, everyone’s breath was being cast in the air, as the temperature in the room had dropped to that of a deep winter, and Leaf’s veins became the color of arctic ice. “Northern Storm!” Clenching his charm in his hand, whirlwinds of frost and ice circled seeped from his back and circled around his arm. He tensed his muscles and began unleashing it through his right hand.

    The volcanic demon turned just in time to watch the spell engulf it. It charged towards Leaf again, but was stopped short, as the ice crawled through all of its cracks. The behemoth stuttered, attempted to take a step, then was frozen in place. A massive plume of steam clouded the air, and set Professor Fell into a fit of laughter-ridden coughs.

    “Minor tempest,”  Leaf exhaled in satisfaction, casting a gust of wind to topple the creature over, before bowing deeply. 

    It fell and shattered into black, frozen splinters.

    “Brilliant!” Professor Fell clapped, and the classroom erupted into cheers. “I do believe you earned yourself and your classmates some light, having defeated a higher class of a fire demon, after all. Flickers!” All the torches in the room blazed in their sconces, and the students sighed, relieved of putting energy into their faerie lights. “Just remember, Leaf, the spells within the frost category prefer to be expelled through the palm, first charged in the infraspinatus muscle on your back before being funneled to the triceps. If I'm not incorrect, you used your pectorals, risking a minor injury. Otherwise, impeccable form. Now, who is next?”

    Aiyana tried to hide behind the tall, auburn-haired Raymond, but it was no use.

    “Aiyana! You were eager for some light. But how about a fight?” he took her hand and guided her toward the door, whispering with a smirk, “A bold move, to question a professor’s authority.”

    Leaf slapped some hands as he went back into the ranks of the students, then nearly fell on his face, panting and shaking from depleting himself.

    “Now this next one, I must say, may be a little unfair,” the professor admitted as he all but skipped to the next door. “But I have faith in you.”

    Aiyana readied her staff, (half the length of her body and designed for striking), and ran her fingers over the runes etched into it, stopping to murmur into each one.

    “Look closely, now. You don’t all have to be heroes, casting the right spell at the last second to save your skin. No offense, Leaf. Aiyana here is taking what we learned in the second semester and putting it to use, charging her staff with spells so she won’t have to cast them later. Aiyana, you make me a proud instructor. A gold coin to anyone who can tell me the name for this technique.”

    “Premonitory casting!” Raymond shouted greedily. 

    “Aha, well done! I’m a man of my word.” Professor Fell tossed him a glittering coin that turned to air as it touched the student’s hand. “Though I never said it had to be a real gold coin. Hah! Never trust a mage. Ready now, Aiyana?”

    She nodded.

    The door opened, and out charged five skeletal warriors in full armor, gnashing their teeth and already swinging their rusted, ancient weapons at her.

    “Reanimated from the famous Battle of Brethren three centuries ago, these old bones are—oh, careful now!—endowed with countless decades of training. Keep up the pace, Aiyana! These knights already died, so they don’t have much to lose.” Professor Fell advised as she parried several of the blades with her staff, twirled around, and knocked the skull off one of the skeletons.

    Raymond caught the skull in his hands and wailed like a child, throwing it before it could bite his fingers off.

    Aiyana summoned a spectral shield in her left hand, and used the charged force in the staff’s runes to deal devastating blows to the warriors, battering them with light that erupted from her attacks. She wielded a staff of light with a shield of stars, each of their ends bursting each time it came into contact with her opponents.

    The fighters were easy enough to defend against, and easy enough to attack, but the trick was the spell binding them together. Each time she knocked an arm, a skull, or a set of ribs from one of them, they’d come flying back to reassemble just moments later.

    “Hmm,” Professor hummed as he stepped calmly around the fighting, “a bit trickier than you thought, yes?”

    Aiyana’s clothing was already damp from perspiration. It had been from the moment she began charging her staff. She was buying herself time by smacking the hand off one fighter so that she could parry the attack of another behind her.

    “They won’t die!” she complained.

    A sword came down and sliced her calf. Not skipping a beat, she funneled her scream into a healing spell and joined the flesh together before retaliating. 

    “Fight smarter, not harder,” the professor sang.

    “Disenchantment!” someone called out from the back.

    “I heard that, Raymond, you little bastard!” Professor Fell chastised. “No helping!”

    But it was too late. Aiyana rolled out of the closing ring of the skeletal warriors. “Major Tempest!” she wailed, sending them back with wind, before she summoned up a disenchantment spell and sent it hurtling through the end of her staff, hitting the flying cluster of bones and diffusing the necromancy from them before they had a chance to hit the ground.

    Aiyana went down just as they did, gulping in air, her legs unwilling to support her. After the spell sparked, the room turned into an uprooted graveyard with six sets of bones, weapons and armor. 

    “Well done, well done!” Professor clapped, picking up one of the skulls to kick it like a ball. “Fought a little longer than you needed to, but what a fight it was! Now I think we can all agree, watching these skirmishes is damned entertaining. But my, it would take hours to have you all evaluated. This year, let’s try something different. How about a group examination?”

    And before they could prepare themselves, Professor Fell summoned twelve ghostly chains, attached them to the handle of the doors, and sent a whole set of demonic entities hurtling into the room, all the while cackling and readying his own spells, should his students be in more peril than he anticipated.

    “And remember,” he called as he nudged a scampering void imp to send it toward the scrambling students, “the greatest things are accomplished by joint effort! Who will be the distractor casting illusionary spells? Who will heal fresh wounds? Who will be at the vanguard? Assume these positions! Survive together, or perish as one!”
#fantasy  #adventure 
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