Chapter 6: The Signet
Night’s sable ebbing beyond the panes turned all windows into mirrors, their smudged and fogged edges reflections of the charming squalor within the The Craven Phantom. The meager few who were left in the gambling house were snoring in a drunken torpor, and those that had left, either satisfied or dejected from the night’s gambling, strode briskly through empty streets to their homes, wary of what shadows lingered closer to dawn than they. Doubtlessly, some curdled vows of vengeance or of never returning to their voracious vice of avarice ever again, lying to themselves all the same.
Biding for his moment, Shamus and I lingered at our table, picking at a plate of sliced candied apple, fried tarantula limbs and roasted quail, a common triple pairing in the north for commoners, also known as the Imp’s Platter. Though our subjects stretched too wide a variety to seem regular between two recently paired strangers, our conversation never dwindled, only hushed in volume, as less and less noise from below covered our words.
The bond of chance had imbued in both of us an odd feeling of pity that we had not met before, and a paralleled excitement, that our meeting could no longer be constrained by time alone.
Shamus dug between his teeth and picked out a strip of flesh. “Do you intend to be William’s fool for long?” he asked, a sudden departure from our discussion of the various academies now cropping up in the capitals. Basic education in the manipulation of lesser spells was becoming more and more available to the public, revolutionizing an art and talent reserved for the wealthy to an almost commonly-practiced hobby for the middle classes. At least, in some cities.
My thoughts switched to William’s intermittent outbursts which, at the time, were just beginning to become as frequent as once every month. I nearly explained the recent trepidation I felt in his presence, but stopped myself, all too aware of Shamus’ grudge against royalty—one that was justified. “My time in Portsworth has favored me well,” I explained instead, “but I prefer my life chapters to be like shots of liquor: short, invigorating, and leading to the next. There is little reason for me to linger in one place for too long. Life should be explored, not suffocated.”
“How very elegant to compare your choices of fate to something that causes intoxication,” he chuckled. “But I must agree. So your plans, then?”
“At least it’s not misleading when you think about,” I clarified quickly. But it was humorous, truly, to imagine someone like me with plans. His reminder that it was common practice to entertain plans around life made me slightly startled. Thankfully, the feeling passed as quickly as it came. I am content in my abnormalities. Shouldn’t we all be? “In the broad sense of life, I believe that chance is the only certainty. Individual actions are another matter. I don’t make plans, I stumble from one opportunity to the next. Which brings us,” I said as I wiggled a spider leg at Shamus’ face, “to you.”
“Me?” He seemed taken aback, as if he wasn’t used to people wondering about him.
“No, the other person at this table.” The leg’s carapace broke in satisfying crunches in my mouth, before I chased it down with another sip of spirits. “Yes, you.”
“Yes, me,” he repeated with a sigh. Faltering candles cast his face in wavering light, spawning shadows which seemed to cling to him comfortably. “Would it be rude to say that the … let’s say ‘guild’ I belong to does not allow me to share any details of my profession?”
“A vow you took, I suppose?” I asked, feeling just that much more free, realizing I had managed to come this far without any.
“Yes,” he replied as he observed the room again. “And I may not look it, but I hold those vows with solemnity … sometimes.” Besides a drooling drunk at a nearby table, the three individuals we had been eyeing were the only remaining bodies in the upper floor. They were just as boisterous as they had been when we arrived, despite the fact that many of the candles had long since dwindled to the bottoms of their wicks, the fatty wax now solidified beige against their cracked, bone candelabrums.
His expression changed from thoughtful consideration to excitement. “But it appears, once more, that you are in luck. There is no longer a need for explanation. I do suspect it’s time to pay that debt I owe you of an unforgettable performance. Maybe you can glean something from it that words cannot tell you.” Shamus stretched his neck from side to side until his bones popped.
“Oh? It’s happening now, then?” I asked, now a little doubtful that this was going to end anyway different than how my confrontation with the thugs did. “Be a good friend … don’t kill them, please.”
“Kill? Who said anything about killing? That would be against my vows, Casimir.”
“… ‘sometimes’,” I quoted.
“Regardless. The hour has struck its ripest moment. Tell me, have you ever heard of the poet Vadeville?” Carefully, Shamus began taking off his gloves. Now bare, I saw that the flesh of his palms, fingers, and wrists were covered in scarified runes, to the point where there was little untouched flesh throughout his hands. The largest were set in his palms, the smallest in the knuckles of his fingers, intertwining like a mage’s brutal calligraphy, wrapping his wrist in circlets and trailing into his sleeve.
“Oh, I—Hmm.” I strummed my fingers on the table, attempting to appear nonchalant at the suggestion that he was about to cast higher spellwork. If it was in the class of destruction magick, it was a crime befitting a jail sentence, or a hangman’s noose, rather, if the spells happened to strike anyone. More importantly, it was damnably hard to make higher magick anything but subtle, and I was a little less than enthusiastic about running more tonight. “I believe I have. What was he in, the 1100’s romance era? I might’ve read—oh who gives a damn? Shamus please don’t tell me you are using that here.” I jabbed a finger at his hands. “We’re in the city limits, remember?”
“You just killed two people, remember?”
“Presumably rapists,” I added quickly.
“Don’t change the subject. But, no. You were close, though. Vadeville was just a century before our own: 1200’s,” he said haughtily, taking pleasure in my agitation. “There was something he wrote that has stayed with me since the moment I read it. Something I always think of before I begin something like this.” He stood up from the table, grinning, then made a motion for me to stay seated as his gaze transfixed itself upon the owner of The Craven Phantom, who went by the name: Filch. “May I recite it for you? It always sends shivers down my spine.”
“Please do,” I surrendered, getting comfortable in my seat for whatever carnage he was about to summon.
He closed his eyes and ran his fingers over the symbols etched into his flesh, dark smoke writhing up like worms from their pale surfaces as he did.
What whispers intoned words
Inspires craven and courage alike
Auspicious is this clarity
Breathed only in subtlety
“Beautiful, isn’t it? It is rather strange,” he said, his tone stripped bare and replaced with a detached reflection, as if he was watching everything he planned unfold before him, “how everything and anything can be interpreted countless times until infinite meanings spill from precisely the same thing?”
It is here that I break my rhythm, in feeble hopes of sparing you the confusion I felt as these moments tumbled after one another. They transpired so quickly, so fluidly, it seemed any attempt to mirror that was all but disastrous. Even as I recollect it now, I find fragments that my memory forgot to impart to me previously.
Following his poetic recitation, time seemed to forfeit its hold on Shamus, becoming not an outside constraint but his own liberty and tool—dispersed in brief, minute whispers when he so desired. It was a simultaneous act of expertise and vengeance, in retribution to time’s nature, that terrible god who seems relentless in her reign. Shamus held its essence and wielded it as it so wields us—painfully constrictive.
Of that evening, the one detail that remains positively fixed is this: within three seconds Shamus spoke three words, and within those three seconds, he made me doubt any notions I previously had of the impossible, the unimaginable, the grandeur behind reality’s seemingly conspicuous, mundane surface.
Shadows gushed in gouts from the burning candles, dousing the room of all its light, before more leapt from the symbol carved in his left palm. They swarmed the room as if they had been held in for far too long, hungering to devour the air as foxes of shadow.
Filch began muttering about candles, before realizing it was more than just the end of their wicks that changed the atmosphere, rather an aggressive darkness swallowing every patch and corner. His mutters became panicked, reckless shouting about magick and demons.
As he placed his right hand over my eyes, and ice poured into their sockets, too quickly for me to do more than grunt in pain. When his hand left, my eyes sparked with a transcendent vision, the room now appearing as if bathed in a filmy light, every dilapidated detail of the fading interior was illuminated to brilliance. The shadows became rivulets of luminous silver swirling in that same thickness.
The counters of his body dropped as if smoke rushing to escape through a window, fleeing to unify with the enveloping shadows that now glowed in our shared perception. What remained of his silhouette was little more than wisps fighting to resemble the body that was once corporeal.
He raised a finger to his lips, then he plumed, wraithlike, into the space between us and Filch, losing all silhouette entirely as he traveled, before appearing again several strides closer. A phantom in careful consideration, he dissipated once more, his form conjoining with the darkness in unmatched freedom between intermittent bursts of materialization.
I waited for his figure to appear again amidst the shadow-wreathed air. Filch had a weapon drawn and was brandishing it so drunkenly that the two others had to avoid his reckless swipes. Momentarily, I suspected Shamus had lost himself entirely to that immaterial realm, that his ambitious spell casting had damned him to intangibility.
But, sure as his confidence, Shamus’ figured gushed into the air behind Filch. He kicked the table onto its side, knocking the two individuals over who had been sitting across from him. As they cried wordlessly, Shamus wrenched the signet from Filche’s unarmed hand. The burly gambler whirled around at the sensation and slashed at the space where Shamus was, the one he disappeared from before the attack could do any harm.
Instead, he appeared, well, right in front of me … grinning.
“Time to go,” he whispered through a gasp, while Filch continued to hack away at the ghost that had just been behind him.
“Take a deep breath.”
Before I lost sensation entirely, I felt Shamus’ firm grasp on my arm. Then I was weightless. My perception blurred as I felt myself being hauled through the air in a swift arc down the tavern’s stairs and through the main room. The bone chandelier, the cracked, wooden walls and scattered furniture, spilled tankards, a sleeping barkeep and a doorway, damp cobblestone, dim streets, a crumbling roof, a shattered window, an alleyway soaked in blood, the head of a black statue glowing in violet, all swam by as if the images were a rushing current and I was caught in its undertow … before I slammed into the ground, groaning, shaking, stuttering with laughter and enthusiastically alive after I thought I had surely died.
“Au fek ex killna,” I cursed, grateful to feel the wet stone beneath me, and my body corporeal once again.
The familiar, comforting and gently pulsing violet light of Nocturos’ statue breathed down on the courtyard where Shamus and I had first spoke, a meeting that had been only hours before, but now seemed a distant memory in our friendship.
I reached out towards my hat, which had fallen from my head after we had tumbled like fleshy boulders into the courtyard, and placed it back on my head.
I looked up to see Shamus laying on his back, panting, trembling. I rushed, or rather stumbled, over to him.
“Gods, are you—”
Shamus held up a finger, heaved, retched, then vomited until all of his dinner was utterly squandered.
“Well, that is one answer I suppose,” I muttered, surprised to find that, besides the violent shaking in my body, I wasn’t feeling the effects he was. He may have forced me into an ethereal state, but I had exerted none of the spells’ required energy myself.
“Actions speak lou—” he tried to say, before more spider bits came up with his brandy.
After his body finished expressing its strong distaste for higher magick, I helped him to his feet and carried his rather inert body to the statue. With fluttering eyes, he looked up at Nocturos and sighed, a grin like a man who just bathed for the first time in weeks spread across his face as he drank in the color. On his cheek, a line of blood flowed down his chin from where a shallow cut had appeared.
He held one of his hands out to me, bearing William’s signet. It was then that I noticed that the carved symbols across his skin were glistening with blood as if they had been reopened.
“You … this …” I stammered, taking the ring from his hand. “Thank you.”
He coughed for awhile, clutching his stomach. “I wanted to show you something different. Could have come to the courtyard sooner, but I took a more leisurely journey so it lasted longer. Perhaps not the smartest idea,” he admitted, pointing to the gash on his cheek. “The debt is payed, I trust.”
“Twice over,” I murmured. “Was that, was it … shadow magick?”
He nodded proudly, placing his gloves over his hands. “Wait, before you begin. This is when you tell me those stories are only legends, yes?”
“No, this is when I tell you that you are a legend.”
He nodded again. “Thank you. I cannot explain how frustrating that vow is, sometimes.”
I was beyond confusion, only stunned by the realization. As I do when I am utterly confused, I laughed. “But you—you almost killed yourself to cast those spells!”
“Just like any other higher magick,” he explained, “practicing it can be rather suicidal in less careful hands. I am not the least careful, but not the most, either. I’d say my gamble payed off.”
“Why did you do that for me? Someone you hardly know?”
“It’s true, we could have devised a plan, perhaps used the sum that you were given to pay him off. But it had nothing to do with the ring, for me, at least.”
All the same, I placed it into my satchel and thanked him again. Above us, thick, grey and opaque clouds dispersed in patches to reveal the splintered stars glinting in shards of shattered brilliance. Winter’s hold clutched dawn’s light far from the horizon, but all the same, the crisp silence of the city mingling with the fresh air spoke of a new day breathing its first sighs.
Just a handful of minutes before then, I would have laughed like most others at the rumors of the Shadow Syndicate: thieves who used a magick lost to a niche tradition that had died out centuries before, or perhaps never existed at all. Legends that brought hope to the impoverished, legends who stole only from the wealthiest and most corrupt, using their talents to tip the imbalanced scales of prosperity in favor of the destitute. If you had told me I was going to meet a member of that Syndicate, I would only have laughed harder.
Yet here I was, again, the fool, not only stunned by reality, but inspired by its unpredictability.
“Did you really mean what you said?” Shamus asked me.
“Shouldn’t I be the one asking you some things?” I laughed.
“You showed me something different the night of your performance, and I have done the same. We can leave our interpretations to silence, I think,” he said with a shrug.
“Then what did I say, before, that you were wondering about?”
“You said, ‘All is fortune in the eyes of chaos’.”
“Yes, I meant it.”
“Suffering, poverty, misfortune, bad luck, murder, and all the curses of living, you see that as fortune?”
“I don’t. Chaos does. Sometimes, in our best moments, we can embody that which inspires us, and briefly, we may even become it. Chaos inspires me; it’s the infinite hands that turn our world, which shape our lives. It’s the seemingly insignificant details and moments that cascade into the ones we remember. They are just as important, and yet because they are so elusive, constantly lurking behind fate, we cannot possibly predict or think to manipulate them. Pain, somewhere along those infinite, branching paths, always comes along, and there’s no telling how the most brutal tragedies or shallowest of wounds can, at a later time, blossom into the most blissful happiness. There’s no telling what happiness may curse us later, either. Yes, Shamus Dodge, I meant it.”
He wiped at the blood trailing down his cheek, with closed eyes as he breathed deeply through the nausea caused by his sudden exertion. “Is a man foolish to chase happiness, then?”
“That is a harsh word. I would call him nearsighted. Is a man foolish for nearly killing himself to show me an elaborate performance?” I arched an eyebrow and chuckled at him. “No, that still is a harsh word. I would call him mad, my kind of mad. I would call him my friend, too.”
The thief chuckled, before coughing. “I would, too,” he agreed. “That is how I felt that night after I watched your performance: utterly mad. It was as if all of my ambitions seemed rudimentary in the faces of your expression. It seemed that you took my ideas of what was possible, crushed them, stomped them, and laughed while you explained to me, so effortlessly, what opportunities beckon when we attempt the unimaginable. Could I live with myself if I had squandered the opportunity to show you the same? No. Wonder is a rare commodity in a world with so much drudgery, and I couldn’t bear the idea that you could live without knowing how you changed me, even if you were, that night, just a masked stranger.”
My body’s twitching lessened from the spell’s evaporating effect. I watched as the moon caught its moment between clouds, shining upon us before being tucked away again behind the dense overcast. Perhaps it was the tiredness, the aching in my body, or the pounding in my head that reminded me this wasn’t a dream, but I felt strangely close to tears.
“It seems there are two realms in this world,” I said. “The first, where all is simply living, tasks, duties, ambitions, wealth, and so on. And the second, where living seems to exist beyond mere touch, beyond actions. A transcendence of thought into motion, a play of will against chance, a game, you might say, and nothing more than what we make of it. One that has only one end, but countless possibilities before it. I prefer to live in the second realm, Shamus.”
“A place that even ghosts and many others don’t see.”
“But a place that for those that do, is one they will never forget.”
Shamus’ face erupted with a smile, and we began laughing like two children with a joke only they understood, chilled by the air, but enchanted by its sacred silence that held our words so attentively, lending no distraction from their delicate utterances, as if we were merely two spirits passing another moment of our infinite, with discussion of things well beyond our understanding, but just within reach of making any sense, any sense at all.