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Written by Harlequin in portal Nonfiction

Taking Oneself Too Seriously

    Dark, mysterious, full of depth, insight, brooding over the pain of their lives so as to create something beautiful from troublesome pasts, from the challenges of the persisting present. Does this character sound familiar to you yet? Maybe I need to add the illustration that they are glued to their journal, never skipping a beat or wasting a drop of inspiration to become who their potential calls them to be. As an artist, it's true that depth is important; it is, after all, what we use to craft something that resonates with someone else's emotions. The pain we endure can become the insight that helps someone else rise above theirs, especially when we masterfully articulate the lessons we have learned. But the appearance is less important than the creation ... 

    There is a poison to the Artist's Persona. That is, the same poison that often sours anyone's mind: taking oneself too seriously.

    This doesn't mean that depth, pain, challenges, lessons, and the articulation of beauty through overcoming obstacles isn't a real phenomena that often lends itself to help shape thoughtful, soft-spoken and introspective souls. This personality is genuine, and is frequent amongst artists for a reason, but the coupling arrogance of being consumed by this persona of creating avant-garde, resonating art is all too easy a trap to fall into. It is, unfortunately, what stops the good artists from becoming great. Caught up in their own (initially excellent) progress, they forget that they should be constantly learning; they forget humility, and in their high expectations of themselves, and their conflicting desire to fulfill the (nonexistence) expectations of others, they begin to craft pieces disingenuous to their true, heartfelt, sometimes plodding, other times sprinting, growth through life.

    Growth is not consistent. Learning, seeking, and inspiring is a bumpy road that swerves down to dark pits as much as it reaches pinnacles of clarity. And it's for good reason, too! We have to be in the muck every now and then to learn how to escape it, and just perhaps, so we can help others escape their own nightmares. 

    Becoming a good writer, artist, communicator, or human, isn't about how 'good' we are at our crafts, or how wise, intelligent, or soulful we appear through our daily lives. It is, first and foremost, about the humility we embrace so as to let in the lessons life offers us on a daily basis. If we are too focused on appearing practiced in our ability to take in all of life's suffering and challenges, we will become blind to the very real possibilities underlying the obstacles that each day represents. Essentially, by attempting to dawn the guise of the master, we forsake the cunning, undervalued open-mindedness of the apprentice.

    How do I know this? Well, I'm damnably guilty of it.

    When I decided on the pen name Harlequin Grim, it was immediately after a brush with death. I decided, then, that if I was to bring my art, my insights, my soul to the world, I would do so through a name that portrayed my willingness to slough off socially acceptable tactics, a demonstration of tossing caution to the wind with a keen eye on the ephemeral nature of being mortal. I didn't need to be the name I was given at birth, but I didn't need to be anything different, either. I could be exactly what I wished to be, typical or not. So, quite giddy with self-acceptance, I picked a name that was as fantastical as it was resounding to the writer I am today.

    Immediately after this, I felt a surge of renewed energy and inspiration as I crafted the first novel, poems, and short stories under this name. With a redesigned website and a transformed mission statement behind my art, I became a flurry of productivity. I wrote at least 2,000 words each day for a month, I sent out stories to contests, I riddled my journal with ink at the end of each night to reflect on what the day had taught me. I slept little but created often, I was a well of inspiration, and I was hoping to share it all. 

    But after October ended, the birth month of Harlequin Grim, I plummeted down again, readopting old habits of self-doubt and loathing that revolved around the person I had tried to grow out of. Quite predictably, quite desperately, my mind became a chaotic swirl of misinterpreting the daily challenges of life, forcing myself down into a spiral of deconstruction. 

    At the bottom of the pit beneath the cliff, the Fool lamented and asked, "Why?" but instead of truly answering the question, he instead forced, pressured, and bullied himself to be the great person he so aspired to be, or so briefly was. In came the masks, the guises, the false performances, the pitiful displays and attempts at being that 'soulful' and 'deep' character instead of the truly humble, honest, and crafty person we all have the potential to be. 

    Ugh ... gods. What a nightmare.

    In hopes of relieving other writers on Prose of the same demon I suffer from, I came to this blank page to cast a blazing spotlight on my story, not to glorify myself, but to shed light on the innate problems that arise whenever we strive for ambitious or lofty achievements. After a series of successes, whether big or small, inflating the ego seems easy if not an entirely subconscious instinct. But in the storms of failure, we are graced with a blessing, a gift, an opportunity to remember all the reasons why we had come to our art, our lives, our humility in the first place: only, and truly, to be our most authentic selves, not to parade our best attributes.

    It creates something of a paradox. When we are the best version of ourselves, our greatest attributes shine through broadly and transcendent. When we focus too hard on being the best version, we often become too self-absorbed to even let the light bleed through. Our darkness isn't transmuted into something beautiful, rather swallowed and regurgitated again for all to see. 

    Nothing more and nothing else should we ever demand of ourselves, than to learn from life's chaos and to present our findings, in all their awkwardness, their humor, their sorrows, their pride, their nakedness. We know we cannot be perfect ... so why should we ever, ever, ever expect our art or our lives to be?

    If we strive to emulate perfection, to lead perfect lives, to be a perfect individual, we risk forsaking the authenticity of our development, the rough grinding that first inspired us to become better people in the first place. We risk, in essence, the entire purpose of what it means to express ourselves.

    Each and every one of you has nuggets of gold, this very instance, growing within you. Don't let the desire to show them muddle their essence. They will blossom when they will, when you least suspect the too, when you do the simplest of things: creating and living without expectation.

    I appreciate all of you from the pits of my confused psyche. If I promise to embrace myself, will you do the same? If I promise to accept inspiration, whether it come from good or ill, will you do the same? If I promise to forget myself so as to let truth seep through the mask, will you do the same? 

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Written by Harlequin in portal Nonfiction
Taking Oneself Too Seriously
    Dark, mysterious, full of depth, insight, brooding over the pain of their lives so as to create something beautiful from troublesome pasts, from the challenges of the persisting present. Does this character sound familiar to you yet? Maybe I need to add the illustration that they are glued to their journal, never skipping a beat or wasting a drop of inspiration to become who their potential calls them to be. As an artist, it's true that depth is important; it is, after all, what we use to craft something that resonates with someone else's emotions. The pain we endure can become the insight that helps someone else rise above theirs, especially when we masterfully articulate the lessons we have learned. But the appearance is less important than the creation ... 
    There is a poison to the Artist's Persona. That is, the same poison that often sours anyone's mind: taking oneself too seriously.
    This doesn't mean that depth, pain, challenges, lessons, and the articulation of beauty through overcoming obstacles isn't a real phenomena that often lends itself to help shape thoughtful, soft-spoken and introspective souls. This personality is genuine, and is frequent amongst artists for a reason, but the coupling arrogance of being consumed by this persona of creating avant-garde, resonating art is all too easy a trap to fall into. It is, unfortunately, what stops the good artists from becoming great. Caught up in their own (initially excellent) progress, they forget that they should be constantly learning; they forget humility, and in their high expectations of themselves, and their conflicting desire to fulfill the (nonexistence) expectations of others, they begin to craft pieces disingenuous to their true, heartfelt, sometimes plodding, other times sprinting, growth through life.
    Growth is not consistent. Learning, seeking, and inspiring is a bumpy road that swerves down to dark pits as much as it reaches pinnacles of clarity. And it's for good reason, too! We have to be in the muck every now and then to learn how to escape it, and just perhaps, so we can help others escape their own nightmares. 
    Becoming a good writer, artist, communicator, or human, isn't about how 'good' we are at our crafts, or how wise, intelligent, or soulful we appear through our daily lives. It is, first and foremost, about the humility we embrace so as to let in the lessons life offers us on a daily basis. If we are too focused on appearing practiced in our ability to take in all of life's suffering and challenges, we will become blind to the very real possibilities underlying the obstacles that each day represents. Essentially, by attempting to dawn the guise of the master, we forsake the cunning, undervalued open-mindedness of the apprentice.
    How do I know this? Well, I'm damnably guilty of it.
    When I decided on the pen name Harlequin Grim, it was immediately after a brush with death. I decided, then, that if I was to bring my art, my insights, my soul to the world, I would do so through a name that portrayed my willingness to slough off socially acceptable tactics, a demonstration of tossing caution to the wind with a keen eye on the ephemeral nature of being mortal. I didn't need to be the name I was given at birth, but I didn't need to be anything different, either. I could be exactly what I wished to be, typical or not. So, quite giddy with self-acceptance, I picked a name that was as fantastical as it was resounding to the writer I am today.
    Immediately after this, I felt a surge of renewed energy and inspiration as I crafted the first novel, poems, and short stories under this name. With a redesigned website and a transformed mission statement behind my art, I became a flurry of productivity. I wrote at least 2,000 words each day for a month, I sent out stories to contests, I riddled my journal with ink at the end of each night to reflect on what the day had taught me. I slept little but created often, I was a well of inspiration, and I was hoping to share it all. 
    But after October ended, the birth month of Harlequin Grim, I plummeted down again, readopting old habits of self-doubt and loathing that revolved around the person I had tried to grow out of. Quite predictably, quite desperately, my mind became a chaotic swirl of misinterpreting the daily challenges of life, forcing myself down into a spiral of deconstruction. 
    At the bottom of the pit beneath the cliff, the Fool lamented and asked, "Why?" but instead of truly answering the question, he instead forced, pressured, and bullied himself to be the great person he so aspired to be, or so briefly was. In came the masks, the guises, the false performances, the pitiful displays and attempts at being that 'soulful' and 'deep' character instead of the truly humble, honest, and crafty person we all have the potential to be. 
    Ugh ... gods. What a nightmare.
    In hopes of relieving other writers on Prose of the same demon I suffer from, I came to this blank page to cast a blazing spotlight on my story, not to glorify myself, but to shed light on the innate problems that arise whenever we strive for ambitious or lofty achievements. After a series of successes, whether big or small, inflating the ego seems easy if not an entirely subconscious instinct. But in the storms of failure, we are graced with a blessing, a gift, an opportunity to remember all the reasons why we had come to our art, our lives, our humility in the first place: only, and truly, to be our most authentic selves, not to parade our best attributes.
    It creates something of a paradox. When we are the best version of ourselves, our greatest attributes shine through broadly and transcendent. When we focus too hard on being the best version, we often become too self-absorbed to even let the light bleed through. Our darkness isn't transmuted into something beautiful, rather swallowed and regurgitated again for all to see. 
    Nothing more and nothing else should we ever demand of ourselves, than to learn from life's chaos and to present our findings, in all their awkwardness, their humor, their sorrows, their pride, their nakedness. We know we cannot be perfect ... so why should we ever, ever, ever expect our art or our lives to be?
    If we strive to emulate perfection, to lead perfect lives, to be a perfect individual, we risk forsaking the authenticity of our development, the rough grinding that first inspired us to become better people in the first place. We risk, in essence, the entire purpose of what it means to express ourselves.
    Each and every one of you has nuggets of gold, this very instance, growing within you. Don't let the desire to show them muddle their essence. They will blossom when they will, when you least suspect the too, when you do the simplest of things: creating and living without expectation.
    I appreciate all of you from the pits of my confused psyche. If I promise to embrace myself, will you do the same? If I promise to accept inspiration, whether it come from good or ill, will you do the same? If I promise to forget myself so as to let truth seep through the mask, will you do the same? 
#philosophy  #opinion 
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Chapter 10 of The Culling of Casimir
Written by Harlequin in portal Fantasy

Chapter 10: Three

    “What are the summers in Portsworth like?” a child once asked me while I was abroad in the city Nohr, a metropolis half the size of Portsworth. The air was temperate, but the throngs were screaming, laughing, creating their usual garbled cacophony of indiscernible sounds. Curiously enough, the child and I had found ourselves paired after she had lost her mother in a crowd that was anticipating the hanging of a bandit. I don’t normally care for such things, but for a criminal as notorious as Red Scar, I couldn’t help myself. I also wanted to know if his last words would be an attempt spit on the hangman or a genuine attempt to reach the crowd through words.

    “They are unbelievable. You'd think the world didn’t have so many people, least of ways all at the same place. There’s performers and travelers putting on shows in every street, and celebrations that happen for less than any reason besides the fact that the air is warm and the ale is cheap. And for every three of those people there is one ship docked in the harbor, brimming with goods from other places. The crowds are roaring with tradesmen screaming about this and that being the best this or that, with all of them promising things that aren’t really true, mind you. But people buy into it, all the same. Frog leg?” I offered from the small basket I’d picked up on the way to the hanging.

    The girl snatched the leg from me and bit into it, smearing the oils on her dirtied cheeks as she did so vigorously. “Thank you! But why would they do that?”

    At her height, I was the one looking up at her. She was sitting on a stack of crates beside a tailor’s shop after I had hoisted her up there to get a view of the crowd in case she could see her mother. But now, she seemed to have forgotten she was lost at all, more curious about the hanging, about the stranger who’d helped her. We nibbled on the fried limbs while I thought it over.

    “I guess lies are cheap. They drive a good bargain.”

    “Why’re all them folks there?” She tucked a few locks of jet-black hair behind her large ears and looked down at me.

    I shrugged and said, “You know … prosperity, riches,” as I rubbed my fingers together with a disgusted expression. She tilted her head in confusion at my word choice. “Money. Coin.”

    She nodded with an “Oh,” while the hangman prepared the noose and a priestess escorted the prisoner to the scaffold. Someone with a book who was standing near to us yawned, checked to make sure the page they had stopped reading on was properly earmarked.

    “Everyone wonders about the summers in Portsworth,” I thought aloud. “Ever wanted to visit?”

    She nodded, her eyes leaving the scaffold to look at me.

    “Maybe go for the summer festivities, but don’t leave immediately,” I advised, “not before autumn or winter. All the tourists leave by autumn, so it’s quiet, peaceful, and you can see so much more that isn't there in the summer.”

    “Like what?”

    “Well, all the leaves in nearby forest turn red, for one. So when the leaves fall, the rivers catch them. For a few months, all the rivers around that forest are flooded with those leaves, carrying away thousands of them to the sea. And if the snows come as well, all you see is red and white, white and red.” Encouraged by her undivided attention, even as a display of death offered itself just a glance away, I continued. “But if you’re lucky enough, if you wait long enough, you can catch the snow sprites as they leave their homes to play in it.”

    “Snow sprites?”

    “Never seen one of them, huh?”

    “Just in stories.”

    “Oh, they breed like flies in Addoran. They’re a strange cross between squirrels and mice, with odd, furry wings, and undeniably cute. But when the snow is thickest, that’s when they come out.”

    “I want one!” the child blurted.

    “Well you should get one!” I replied, unsure of what else to say. I was so lost in my own thoughts, I had hardly noticed the Red Scar spitting on the crowd as the noose tightened around his neck. He was guided to the trapdoor by the priestess while the hangman readied his hand on the lever. Concerning last words, he could have done better.

    “That’s the problem with beautiful things,” I told the child, “they’re always hidden in the unexpected, the cold, the dark … the places you’d never go to look for them.”

The hangman slammed a lever down, the trapdoor sprung and a pair of feet jolted into the empty space, just far enough so that they began to shake violently, then shudder, then sway in stillness as the crowd’s shouts rose to a crescendo.

    “The winter does sound beautiful,” the child replied after the noise had died down.

    “It really is.”

    Standing just before the barrier surrounding Sarkana’s sanctuary, I watched the snowfall as it spread out, dusting the curved and towering branches in the Sea of Blood, shedding their foliage upon the now peppered ground. Just behind me, an eternal spring breathed dormant from Sarkana’s enchantments. But, just within my finger’s reach, my favorite season, although harsher, more brutal and honest, beckoned in its rawness.

    “Are you really doing this?” Sarkana asked me, but the question seemed rhetorical if not entirely to express her lingering disbelief. She had armored herself in boiled leather over her usual garments. Her vambraces, cuirass, and spaulders had been crafted and woven with protective sigils, though she admitted she was unsure if they retained their power after being unused for so long.

    “Are we doing this, rather,” I corrected. “And yes, we are. You said we were going to be the wolves, after all.”

    “So I did,” she echoed back. Sarkana was wearing the seer’s eye while she held Frederick beside us on a leash that would do quite little if the creature decided to abandon his loyalty. “I am not taking those words back, mind you. Just … hesitant.”

    “Hesitant … hmm. I would imagine that’s not something you feel very often.”

    Her massive eyeglass-encrusted helmet swiveled in my direction. “No, not usually,” she admitted.

    “How many are there now?” I asked.

    “Let’s have a look.” Sarkana reached up and turned one of the lenses over her eyes. For a few moments, she stood silent while Felix investigated Frederick’s saddle to see if it was an adequate seat for his tiny, black frame. “Thirteen riders far behind Fahim, who’s sitting in a horse-drawn cart. They’ve made it look like he is leaving the city with his belongings.”

    “How elaborate. What about archers, assassins, anyone sneaking along the sides of the road?”

    “Not that I can see.”

    “Are you certain?”

    “If they were careful enough to remain hidden from a finch, I would say we were damned anyways.” As she willed the bird to flutter through the trees, Sarkana became more tense, her fingers hardened to twigs, and her breaths quickened.

    “Are you all right?”

    “This isn’t exactly the definition of easy, you know. Control is one thing, but governing a being from this distance with this device … it’s …”

    “I’m sorry—just one last thing. What about Fahim’s expression?”

    “Tense. Nervous. Looks like he’s ready to wet his seat.”

    “I can’t really blame him for that.”

    Sarkana turned every lens on the seers eye until they were all black, then took the contraption off before placing it in a satchel attached the Frederick’s saddle. Looking over her body, I realized she seemed rather lightly equipped. “You’re not bringing any weapons to fight with?” I asked.

    She nudged Felix off the saddle until he cawed and returned to my shoulder. “I already have thirteen of them,” she shot back. “Are you ready?”

    “I—erh. Thirteen? You mean to say …?”

    “You’ll see, one way or another.”

    Sarkana nudged Frederick to push through the barrier, pulling her cloak and hood over her face while the snow began to brush against her skin. I glanced behind me at the branch-woven gates guarding her home, never realizing just how tightly clenched the sanctuary seemed, like a fortress meant to keep the world out.

    Beneath the dense cover of the forest canopies, the snow hardly touched us. Faerie lights encased in iron lanterns decorated the sides of the path, each of them attracting moths, their wings brightened to white, cavorting rings.

    “The rooks in your story,” I began slowly, softer than my feet were treading on the ground. “They were your parents, weren’t they?”

    “Just as Lisence wasn’t a fox, was she?”

    “No, not at all.”

    “How much easier it would have been, if they really were household pets,” Sarkana remarked with a dark laugh. “Who was the fox, then?”

    Realizing my hands were a little nervous at the thought of fighting, I took out one of my daggers and began turning it over in my palm, flipping it this way and that, watching the curve of the steel as it slid through the air. “A little more than a friend, you could say. One of those rare people you could always speak your mind to, regardless of the things you’d normally keep from anybody else.”

    “She might as well have been your sister, I reckon,” Sarkana said with a thoughtful look. 

    “Perhaps more than that.”

    “Ah, I see. You grew up without siblings, I take it?”

    “A brother, actually. Just one.”

    “Ahuh … and where is he?”

    “I wish I could tell you. Did you ever have any partners?”

    “Oh, nobody worth remembering. Let’s move a bit quicker, shall we? Dusk is just behind our heels, and there is still much to be done after this.” Sarkana leaned forward on Frederick, pushing the gargoyle bat to jog awkwardly on its stubby legs. Its sharp tongue lolled out while its eyes flicked over the passing scenery. Heavy steam blew out in wet snorts while it struggled to cover distance without using its wings. Slightly annoyed by her unwillingness to pursue the conversation, I kept up beside them at a jog. It was nothing short of expected, to find my mind wandering to the past while morbidity inched closer to us. I suppose I couldn’t blame her for wanting to stay focused.

    Beyond the rich density of moss and bark blackened by the lack of light, spots of sky presented themselves between the tangles of branches and thick leaves. From outside, the sky seemed a foreboding grey, thick and overspilling with frost, but within this darkened space, even that color was comforting.

    Felix took off from my shoulder to play at a pile of leaves built up on the side of the large path, using his beak to push them aside. As Sarkana and I continued, the crow found the half-frozen carcass of a shrew. Pleasantly, he took it in his beak before returning to me, all but forcing me to feed it to him by hand.

    “Good crow,” I cooed as it gobbled an intestine.

    “That’s far enough,” Sarkana said suddenly as she dismounted. “You’ll have to go the rest of the way alone while I find a place out of sight. Any closer and we risk them seeing me.” She took out the seer’s eye from the satchel and tucked it beneath her arm.

    I looked down the path as it bent sharply to the right. The trunks still covered the horizon like a curtain, but I knew that just beyond the bend, the path would become a straight arrow towards the crossroads. My feet tingled as I imagined Fahim waiting there. Just like Sarkana, the riders would be hiding behind the nearest cover, waiting to ambush.

    As I considered the odds of the encounter, I wondered just how much I was needed for that ‘task’, and if she was really prepared to risk herself to secure my hand in helping her. I grew nervous at the thought, not with the possibility of dying, but what I might be facing should I survive. She followed me this far, hadn’t she?

    “Casimir?” She touched my arm encouragingly and pulled me away from my thoughts. It was another surprising tone of warmth escaping the callousness of her demeanor. “It’s going to be all right.”

    “And if not?”

    She shrugged. “Dying isn’t so bad. At least, not if you have me around.” Her canines flashed at me as she smiled. I was curious about death, but reanimation, on the other hand, made me feel dubious at best. I wasn’t altogether excited about learning what it’s like to be resurrected from the Nether from firsthand experience.

    A groan escaped me as I pressed my palms against my eyes. “I should never have sent him my ring.”

    “No, you shouldn’t have,” she sighed. “It was a little foolish, I’ll admit. But all of us do things we come to regret later. The regret isn’t the important part, it’s what you do with it that makes any difference at all. Why lament over the cards you were dealt when you could spend that time figuring a way to use them? Let’s focus on getting Fahim to safety, not the fact that you got him here.”

    “You’re right …” I shook my head. “Thank you for reminding me.”

    “Don’t fret about it. Here, have this.” Sarkana unbelted one of her vambraces and traded it with one of my own. The fitting was much tighter, but the belts managed to wrap around my right arm using their last holes. “You’ll need it more than I will.”

    “But I rarely cast magick. How do I use it?”

    “A Qalmorian who doesn’t use magick? What a damned shame.” She gave me a look of disapproval that wasn’t anything short of sincere. “Ah well. Can you think of something that makes you feel safe? A person, a time, a feeling? A place where nothing can harm you, a place where you belong. A specific memory, perhaps.”

    A little hesitantly, I nodded. “I think so.”

    “You can find the thought as you reach the crossroads. When you think you have it, pair it with the word ‘buklar’.” She scrunched up her face as she said it, blocking out her own memory so as to not trigger the enchantment. The sigil on the vambrace fizzled white essence that fell and dissipated before it touched the floor. “Once you’ve activated it, use it like you would a shield. It won’t do much for inflicting damage, but works wonders against arrows.”

    I nodded again. “Thank you.”

    “Now get going, I didn’t come out here to freeze. I’ll be right behind you.”

    “In a way,” I muttered after I’d turned my back on her, the words eaten up by the snow-thickened air.

    Around the corner’s bend, I found myself looking at Fahim’s silhouette, small from this distance as he was hunched over himself, his cloak held above his head to shield against the snow. I raised my hand to wave at him and received the same gesture. From what I could see, his followers had hidden themselves well. I continued forward, expecting an arrow, a crossbow bolt, a dagger to strike me each time I took a step. But even though I was dazed by the fact that I was still alive, I eventually stood just in front of Fahim, who looked down at me with the most conflicted expression I had ever seen.

    The horse attached to his cart snorted in the silence. His belongings, or what was made to look like his belongings, were covered by a heavy tarp that flapped against the wind. A strong gust caught the underside of the tarp and lifted it up, just enough so that I could see the bundles of hay piled on top of one another.

    “You idiot …” Fahim cursed as he got down from his seat and approached me. “You never should have—”

    “I know, I know. I won’t ask you to forgive me. But everything is well, I promise. There’s no need to worry, well, not too much,” I corrected with a shaky chuckle.

    From behind him, I saw the riders, now unhorsed, sifting through the trees on either side of the path, far enough for me to talk to Fahim without feeling the urge to reach for my daggers. The sounds of snapping twigs, displaced branches, and heavy footsteps were masked by the sound of heavy wind.

    The calm, thoughtful color of Fahim’s ivory eyes were now a bloodshot storm of white, searching frantically through mine. “No, you’re not an idiot for that,” he muttered, “you’re an idiot for coming. This was all my fault, not yours. I should never have pushed you, knowing full well you’d actually do it. I should have taken it into my own hands. I was a coward. A damned, fucking coward.” He ran a hand through his hair, shaking more than the leaves yet to be shed around us.

    “But it was my mistake. The ingredients …”

    “The repercussions fall upon my shoulders all the same,” he said with an almost fatherly acceptance as his lips formed a sad smile. “Whatever happens, don’t blame yourself. Leave me behind, if you have to.”

    “That’s not true .... nothing is black and white. We share this burden, that’s why I came, why I couldn’t leave you behind,” I insisted. “And why are you speaking like you’re already in your grave? We don’t need to speak of blame, not here. There will be time later. For now, we need to be alert, we only need to wait for our moment.”

    “It’s no use. The dice have been rolled, Casimir.”

    “But there are still some in our favor. I have somebody with me. Somebody who will help.” I craned to look behind him, only to realize I’d lost track of the stalkers in the trees. Their movements had ceased, or blurred, by the quickening of the snow now frenzied to a flurry. “This is not a final stand,” I told him, and yet my fingers already began to feather around the hilts at my side in a desperate search for control.

    “Wait … who is helping you?” his eyes grew large, alarmed. “Is it someone from these parts? A practitioner? Somebody I’d know?”

    “There’s no time for that, not now.”

    “Tell me!” Fahim nearly shouted. “Quickly Casimir, before—”

    “There won’t be a ‘before’. You’re not dying here! We only need to wait.” But the words weren’t as confident as I had imagined them, not as the dread crawled up in my stomach. I searched the skies for Frederick, our diversion, but found only the suffocating swirl of grey and white lashing the air around us. I searched the trees for steel armor, drawn weapons, but found everything camouflaged by snow.

    As if he felt no choice but to cease quarreling with fate, Fahim closed his eyes and took a deep breath. My thoughts erupted and swirled in the storm’s din as I searched for the silhouettes of the pursuers in the blizzard. The truth came as a chill in my veins: I had far less control than I had imagined, that all of it was placed mostly, if not solely, on Sarkana’s intervention. As far as I knew in that moment, Fahim’s followers were not only creeping closer, they could had already surrounded us.

    “The cold will numb the pain, at least,” Fahim remarked. “Now tell me who’s with you.”

    “Gods damnit, this isn’t the time for last words. We can discuss this later.”

    “You may be determined to escape death at every corner, but some of us know when our hours have struck their last. I won’t be surprised when it comes.”

    “Go ahead, speak your eulogy. You’ll be embarrassed when we’re safe and far away from this mess.” I continued scouring the brush for the pursuers, still without success.

    The alchemist chuckled and pushed a handful of vials into the pouch attached to my belt. “But before I forget, since you seemed content enough to take them without asking, I thought I’d give you some myself. There’s a healing elixir or two in there as well.”

    He buckled up the pouch and patted it while I grimaced at his surrender. “I’ll have to make up for that sometime.”

    “Don’t bother. What’s a performance without a bit of flare?" Too distracted by the impending attack, when I didn't respond, he continued another thought. "You know, I had always wished I was born some kind of an elf. I admired the way you greeted other Qalmorians. It seemed so … warm.”

    “I’ll teach it to you afterwards, then. Please ready yourself. We need to—”

    “Will you show me how your kind says farewell?”

    For the first time since I’d seen him, I fixated all my focus on Fahim. The warmth in his expression despite the circumstances, the way he was impervious to the snow as it blanketed us, how he seemed desperate to solace himself with my presence, despite it being what brought him here in the first place. And I remembered, then, my first moments of entering the Foxfeather Castle. He was the one that William had called for to tend to my malnourishment, the wounds on my body, even the night terrors I suffered from. He was the one who listened when all I had were stories I had told myself. And though I might not have made sense at all to him, he made sense to me with his thoughtful replies, his smirk when he struck a mutual chord of dark humor. Like anybody else, Fahim had little trust for the world, but just like anybody else, he had a few things he trusted beyond measure. He trusted the things he cared for, what he spent hours crafting, the people he nurtured with his elixirs.

    He trusted me.

    “If you would be so kind?” he implored again. “If it’s not too much to ask. You said all we had to do was wait, didn’t you?”

    “Yes, and … of course not,” I replied, surprised to find my voice huskier than it usually was. I cleared my throat. “It’s the same way that we greet each other.” I reached out and put my hand over his heart. “Mala’desh manorei, Fahim Mecidias.” Out of the corner of my eyes, I saw the gigantic wings of Frederick cut through the thick bed of clouds above us. Hope melted the chill in my veins.

    Fahim grinned and placed his hand over my own heart. “Mala’desh manorei, Casimi—” thwipt. Caught open, his mouth uttered a grunt. He staggered, briefly, then regained himself, the expression on his face remained unchanged besides the terror he tried to hide from me. Helplessly, I just stared back, the warmth of his blood already cooling on my face. His hand suddenly gripped me much tighter, latched on as his legs buckled from the pain that ignited in his chest.

    Instinctively, I recoiled my hand back, only to find it was stuck to him, precisely where the arrowhead had found his heart and pierced through to the back of my palm. He was right; the cold had numbed the pain. The shock was what made it spread down my body in a furious surge.

    When Fahim glanced down at the mortal wound that held us together, he just laughed. Another arrow fell and caught on his calf. This time, he wasn’t so quiet about his response.

    I cursed and dragged him to the cover of the cart as the rest of the hail came down upon us, each of them flitting to the ground. With my free hand, I held his head up as I knelt beside him. Panic and acceptance quarreled for control over his last moments, but guilt and self-loathing fought for mine. “Breathe, just breathe,” I whispered.

    He tried to, but began choking instead.

    A silent sentinel, Frederick plummeted from the skies, his eyes milky white from Sarkana’s control. His claws found one one of the archers and dragged him up through the air until he was high enough to toss down again. A long, trailing scream echoed until branches and bones were heard cracking on his landing. Orders were shouted to divide attention between us and the beast.

    Fahim’s body shook violently beneath my hand. He uttered my name while incoherent mumbles came from my own lips. Another man screamed after he was flung into the air, high enough that I could see his body flailing like a tossed doll. In haste at the opportunity, death joined the storm’ cavorting waltz, her presence filling the trembling body beneath my hands while droplets from my eyes dotted his chest.

    Another volley, two archers short of last time, descended around us.

    When I turned back to Fahim, I saw his consciousness flutter behind his eyes while his hand continued to dig for a grip on my chest. “Sarkana! Sarkana! He’s dying!” I screamed towards the forest besides us, uncertain if she would hear it at all, if she could do anything at all. If even Fahim would want her to …

    “S-sarkana?” Fahim muttered, an unexpected recognition sparked him back to coherence. “D-d-on’t t-trust—” His eyes rolled to white, the weight of his head became limp in my hand, and his last utterance was cut short by a stuttered inhalation, a final intake of the sharp, snow-ridden winds tearing apart the air, a last lunge of breath that fizzled to silence.

    I couldn't curse nor hardly breathe, just stare dumbfounded at my mistake. With my other hand, I snapped the arrow shaft beneath my palm and tore its splintered end out. A cold fury rushed through the wound and up my arm. I tried to grip the hilt of my dagger with my right hand, but the arrow had rent the tendons, rendering my fingers useless, shaking and bloody nubs.

    Fahim’s final words shook me, bringing more questions than clarity, but at least for the time being, I still had to rely on Sarkana. I thanked the ambidextrous benefits from Zakora’s training and drew my longer dagger with my left hand, abandoning the much shorter trink.

    Still covered from the cart, I watched as Frederick took up another man, hurled him to the clouds, and then retreated back in a descent towards the road I had arrived from.

A branch snapped to my right. I whipped my head around to see the sharpened point of a readied arrow glinting a steel smirk between scarlet leaves.

    Autumn rain patters against the smudged windows of my childhood home. From my bed, I sit with my hands wrapped in Lisence’s as we watch the droplets conjoin and trail down grey streaks before the lightning erupts their contours with silver. She tells me how the thunder is delayed from the spark of light because the two are chasing each other in the storms, playing a game of tag, one that the lightning always wins.

    “Buklar!” I shouted and held my arm aloft. Silver lightning and a thunderous roar exploded from the sigil, shaking my arm as the arrow got caught in the conjuration, turning to ash as it met the barrier. Without a second thought, I leapt to my feet and sprinted through the brush. Thorn and branch alike pricked my face as I tore through. I grasped the first thing my bloodied hand could get its numbed fingers wrapped around. Finding a hold of some steel armor, I saw that familiar, vulnerable sliver of neck and sent the blade to its destination.

    Red spattered my vision, a spray of panicked killing upon frosted cheeks before I could even look at the face of the man who’d only stumbled backwards when he witnessed the sigil’s conjuration.

    “Perfect,” I heard someone utter.

    I looked up to see Sarkana over me and the body with a delighted smile, an expression I’d only seen the first time she looked me up and down. Her hood drawn, she slid back her sleeves and one, two, three times, with intermittent strokes she traded touches against the scars on her arms. Just as Shamus had done with a practiced flare, the expertly conjoined spells were cast almost simultaneously.

    “Murth,” she intoned, and a black snake slithered from the wound in the archer’s neck while the convoluted ‘M’ marking leaked a matching hue. It slunk out of her skin, greeted the death coil, and sucked it back into the symbol.

    Somehow, I managed to turn my head from the sight, to see another slew of arrows seeking us. “Buklar!” I returned, disintegrating the murderous flock of fletching and steel.

    “Dek,” she intoned. The stored, blackened energy slipped out of the marking and slithered into all the others, until it seemed every scar upon her body was exuding it. Like a seamstress, she wove death through the stitches of her skin, until the color transmuted to that bright violet that surrounded her home, the hue of past lives bent to animation once more.

    “Rezen,” she intoned, the Qalmorian word for ‘resurrect’, as the energy rushed out of her hands and bit into the archer’s body. Just as the corpse rose to its feet and dropped its bow, her eyes shifted color to the luminous violet that now breathed from her and the undead’s skin. As if she had heard a joke, Sarkana chuckled to herself and she sent the undead sprinting towards the archers firing at us. The armored body caught the arrows, staggering from the impact but running all the same, now wielding the sword that had been sheathed at his hip.

    “You better follow them,” Sarkana hummed to me with a raised eyebrow. “We will need reinforcements.”

    “This is … we can run. We should run, Sarkana. Fahim is already dead!” The realization struck me, the fault of my decision, the tumbling of chance now falling unfavorably black. Fahim’s body was gathering frost, dead for perhaps nothing, nothing besides the consolation of safety in the midst of chaos. I cursed myself, in disbelief at the carnage unfolding from my hands.

    “What does that change? Nobody can know about this. Can you imagine what the Foxfeathers will send if they get word of what happened here? You’ve already taunted your doom by coming here, Casimir, you might as well divert it.”

    Not far from us, somebody screamed an unholy string of curses, accompanied by, “Necromancy!” and “Run!” The arrows had ceased. The terror of meeting the same fate was enough to send their group into a retreat.

    “There is no other way,” Sarkana nearly growled. “Chase them before they get away.” There was an alternative, there were many of them. But as I imagined them, all I saw was Sarkana’a sanctuary overrun with soldiers, all I saw was my neck slung in a noose.

    “Kuilmore dek,” I cursed and forced myself to my feet to a sprint toward the nine remaining riders, weaving my feet between fallen trunks and high snow. Their backs were turned as they tossed glances back at a corpse, a jester, and a necromancer.

    Snow kicked up from their boots as they ran, blood punctuated the places where they stumbled or fell, and thereafter, silent bodies rose to join the pursuit, their previous cries for mercy swallowed by the wailing winds, their limbs then willed by another.

    Slaughter is a hollow depiction without the inspiration of the hands behind its creation. War is illustrated with ardent ferocity, valiant efforts and undying loyalties, raised banners, heroic shouts, vows and blood shed in the name of nationalities … the only variety that seems worthy of exemption when it comes to massacre. But the dusk of January 6th at the Reaver’s Crossroads was a different kind of illustration. It was of pallid hues, twitching skin, falling scarlet leaves, violet conjurations, the scream of silver and steel catching and Felix’s black wings fluttering. Caws, spluttered gasps and stifled regrets, haggard breaths and blood curdled curses; it was numb fingers fumbling for grips, a lucky, stray arrow and inescapable ends written by unwilling hands.

    As I stood before the final rider, I felt little. There was only a subtle, detached appreciation for the mayhem being quieted by the snow, the cessation of all sounds being corralled into the storm’s ebb. Behind me, Fahim’s corpse still asked for the ending I had imagined: a quick, cunning trade where Sarkana distracted them while we fled. I had not expected the archers to fire on him without being provoked. I hadn’t expected him to die with foreboding words stuttering through blue lips. I hadn’t expected to feel the same transcendence of my escape, the unsought thrill of surviving opposition … even if it made me the slaughterer. Guilt was a growing shadow stalking behind me, but one I could not address, not when my life was the only offering for its dissipation. Was I lost?

    I stared down at the last, breathing soldier as he whimpered incoherently, staring at the arrow shaft sticking out from my left eye, a wound I had earned while chasing his allies down. The force of it had been halted just enough from the foliage to not pierce deeper than the socket. All the same, it rendered me a much more menacing sight than I anticipated as I knelt down, regarding his fear with half of my vision obscured.

    His face was the only one I could see long enough to remember; pale green eyes, a smooth, youthful face beneath blonde hair. Beneath me, the thirteenth rider lay anticipating his end.

    But behind me, nine more stood awaiting Sarkana's commands with undead expressions, their eyes steadily draining of color. I felt for the feather ring and twisted its cold surface around my thumb. The blizzard was taking a deep inhalation, a frozen stillness that cast a gentle sway of benign flakes over us. A peace we did not deserve.

    “Twelve …” I murmured to no one in particular. “No, thirteen.” I stood up and walked away from the remaining rider, the wounds of the undead gaping at me as I pushed through the reanimated crowd standing around us. My dagger felt heavier than usual. It dotted the stained, smeared path that led to the final body in the Reaver’s Crossroads score. It was a melody I had not wished to write but had undeniably created. Still, I could not bring myself to play the final note.

    Sarkana looked at me with a curious expression, beyond alarm at the arrow I had survived. Her body trembled from the energy she’d spent. But for all her warmth in her sanctuary, there was no sorrow in her eyes as the dead surrounded us, only a playful grin on her face. 

    “You decide,” I told her before I continued walking away.

    I meant what I said, about beauty found in the unexpected. The winters in Addoran truly are unforgettable. Who knew that blood spilt on snow turned the same color as the fallen leaves? I hadn’t known, not until I observed it spread out beneath me. I was a tiny silhouette in the center of the crossroads, surrounded by colossal trunks stretching their arms like crystalized castles, a limp shadow in disbelief with silence roaring in his ears.

    Tears and blood slipped and fell alike as tears. I wondered why the arrow had not just pushed that much deeper.

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Chapter 10 of The Culling of Casimir
Written by Harlequin in portal Fantasy
Chapter 10: Three
    “What are the summers in Portsworth like?” a child once asked me while I was abroad in the city Nohr, a metropolis half the size of Portsworth. The air was temperate, but the throngs were screaming, laughing, creating their usual garbled cacophony of indiscernible sounds. Curiously enough, the child and I had found ourselves paired after she had lost her mother in a crowd that was anticipating the hanging of a bandit. I don’t normally care for such things, but for a criminal as notorious as Red Scar, I couldn’t help myself. I also wanted to know if his last words would be an attempt spit on the hangman or a genuine attempt to reach the crowd through words.
    “They are unbelievable. You'd think the world didn’t have so many people, least of ways all at the same place. There’s performers and travelers putting on shows in every street, and celebrations that happen for less than any reason besides the fact that the air is warm and the ale is cheap. And for every three of those people there is one ship docked in the harbor, brimming with goods from other places. The crowds are roaring with tradesmen screaming about this and that being the best this or that, with all of them promising things that aren’t really true, mind you. But people buy into it, all the same. Frog leg?” I offered from the small basket I’d picked up on the way to the hanging.
    The girl snatched the leg from me and bit into it, smearing the oils on her dirtied cheeks as she did so vigorously. “Thank you! But why would they do that?”
    At her height, I was the one looking up at her. She was sitting on a stack of crates beside a tailor’s shop after I had hoisted her up there to get a view of the crowd in case she could see her mother. But now, she seemed to have forgotten she was lost at all, more curious about the hanging, about the stranger who’d helped her. We nibbled on the fried limbs while I thought it over.
    “I guess lies are cheap. They drive a good bargain.”
    “Why’re all them folks there?” She tucked a few locks of jet-black hair behind her large ears and looked down at me.
    I shrugged and said, “You know … prosperity, riches,” as I rubbed my fingers together with a disgusted expression. She tilted her head in confusion at my word choice. “Money. Coin.”
    She nodded with an “Oh,” while the hangman prepared the noose and a priestess escorted the prisoner to the scaffold. Someone with a book who was standing near to us yawned, checked to make sure the page they had stopped reading on was properly earmarked.
    “Everyone wonders about the summers in Portsworth,” I thought aloud. “Ever wanted to visit?”
    She nodded, her eyes leaving the scaffold to look at me.
    “Maybe go for the summer festivities, but don’t leave immediately,” I advised, “not before autumn or winter. All the tourists leave by autumn, so it’s quiet, peaceful, and you can see so much more that isn't there in the summer.”
    “Like what?”
    “Well, all the leaves in nearby forest turn red, for one. So when the leaves fall, the rivers catch them. For a few months, all the rivers around that forest are flooded with those leaves, carrying away thousands of them to the sea. And if the snows come as well, all you see is red and white, white and red.” Encouraged by her undivided attention, even as a display of death offered itself just a glance away, I continued. “But if you’re lucky enough, if you wait long enough, you can catch the snow sprites as they leave their homes to play in it.”
    “Snow sprites?”
    “Never seen one of them, huh?”
    “Just in stories.”
    “Oh, they breed like flies in Addoran. They’re a strange cross between squirrels and mice, with odd, furry wings, and undeniably cute. But when the snow is thickest, that’s when they come out.”
    “I want one!” the child blurted.
    “Well you should get one!” I replied, unsure of what else to say. I was so lost in my own thoughts, I had hardly noticed the Red Scar spitting on the crowd as the noose tightened around his neck. He was guided to the trapdoor by the priestess while the hangman readied his hand on the lever. Concerning last words, he could have done better.
    “That’s the problem with beautiful things,” I told the child, “they’re always hidden in the unexpected, the cold, the dark … the places you’d never go to look for them.”
The hangman slammed a lever down, the trapdoor sprung and a pair of feet jolted into the empty space, just far enough so that they began to shake violently, then shudder, then sway in stillness as the crowd’s shouts rose to a crescendo.
    “The winter does sound beautiful,” the child replied after the noise had died down.
    “It really is.”

    Standing just before the barrier surrounding Sarkana’s sanctuary, I watched the snowfall as it spread out, dusting the curved and towering branches in the Sea of Blood, shedding their foliage upon the now peppered ground. Just behind me, an eternal spring breathed dormant from Sarkana’s enchantments. But, just within my finger’s reach, my favorite season, although harsher, more brutal and honest, beckoned in its rawness.
    “Are you really doing this?” Sarkana asked me, but the question seemed rhetorical if not entirely to express her lingering disbelief. She had armored herself in boiled leather over her usual garments. Her vambraces, cuirass, and spaulders had been crafted and woven with protective sigils, though she admitted she was unsure if they retained their power after being unused for so long.
    “Are we doing this, rather,” I corrected. “And yes, we are. You said we were going to be the wolves, after all.”
    “So I did,” she echoed back. Sarkana was wearing the seer’s eye while she held Frederick beside us on a leash that would do quite little if the creature decided to abandon his loyalty. “I am not taking those words back, mind you. Just … hesitant.”
    “Hesitant … hmm. I would imagine that’s not something you feel very often.”
    Her massive eyeglass-encrusted helmet swiveled in my direction. “No, not usually,” she admitted.
    “How many are there now?” I asked.
    “Let’s have a look.” Sarkana reached up and turned one of the lenses over her eyes. For a few moments, she stood silent while Felix investigated Frederick’s saddle to see if it was an adequate seat for his tiny, black frame. “Thirteen riders far behind Fahim, who’s sitting in a horse-drawn cart. They’ve made it look like he is leaving the city with his belongings.”
    “How elaborate. What about archers, assassins, anyone sneaking along the sides of the road?”
    “Not that I can see.”
    “Are you certain?”
    “If they were careful enough to remain hidden from a finch, I would say we were damned anyways.” As she willed the bird to flutter through the trees, Sarkana became more tense, her fingers hardened to twigs, and her breaths quickened.
    “Are you all right?”
    “This isn’t exactly the definition of easy, you know. Control is one thing, but governing a being from this distance with this device … it’s …”
    “I’m sorry—just one last thing. What about Fahim’s expression?”
    “Tense. Nervous. Looks like he’s ready to wet his seat.”
    “I can’t really blame him for that.”
    Sarkana turned every lens on the seers eye until they were all black, then took the contraption off before placing it in a satchel attached the Frederick’s saddle. Looking over her body, I realized she seemed rather lightly equipped. “You’re not bringing any weapons to fight with?” I asked.
    She nudged Felix off the saddle until he cawed and returned to my shoulder. “I already have thirteen of them,” she shot back. “Are you ready?”
    “I—erh. Thirteen? You mean to say …?”
    “You’ll see, one way or another.”
    Sarkana nudged Frederick to push through the barrier, pulling her cloak and hood over her face while the snow began to brush against her skin. I glanced behind me at the branch-woven gates guarding her home, never realizing just how tightly clenched the sanctuary seemed, like a fortress meant to keep the world out.
    Beneath the dense cover of the forest canopies, the snow hardly touched us. Faerie lights encased in iron lanterns decorated the sides of the path, each of them attracting moths, their wings brightened to white, cavorting rings.
    “The rooks in your story,” I began slowly, softer than my feet were treading on the ground. “They were your parents, weren’t they?”
    “Just as Lisence wasn’t a fox, was she?”
    “No, not at all.”
    “How much easier it would have been, if they really were household pets,” Sarkana remarked with a dark laugh. “Who was the fox, then?”
    Realizing my hands were a little nervous at the thought of fighting, I took out one of my daggers and began turning it over in my palm, flipping it this way and that, watching the curve of the steel as it slid through the air. “A little more than a friend, you could say. One of those rare people you could always speak your mind to, regardless of the things you’d normally keep from anybody else.”
    “She might as well have been your sister, I reckon,” Sarkana said with a thoughtful look. 
    “Perhaps more than that.”
    “Ah, I see. You grew up without siblings, I take it?”
    “A brother, actually. Just one.”
    “Ahuh … and where is he?”
    “I wish I could tell you. Did you ever have any partners?”
    “Oh, nobody worth remembering. Let’s move a bit quicker, shall we? Dusk is just behind our heels, and there is still much to be done after this.” Sarkana leaned forward on Frederick, pushing the gargoyle bat to jog awkwardly on its stubby legs. Its sharp tongue lolled out while its eyes flicked over the passing scenery. Heavy steam blew out in wet snorts while it struggled to cover distance without using its wings. Slightly annoyed by her unwillingness to pursue the conversation, I kept up beside them at a jog. It was nothing short of expected, to find my mind wandering to the past while morbidity inched closer to us. I suppose I couldn’t blame her for wanting to stay focused.
    Beyond the rich density of moss and bark blackened by the lack of light, spots of sky presented themselves between the tangles of branches and thick leaves. From outside, the sky seemed a foreboding grey, thick and overspilling with frost, but within this darkened space, even that color was comforting.
    Felix took off from my shoulder to play at a pile of leaves built up on the side of the large path, using his beak to push them aside. As Sarkana and I continued, the crow found the half-frozen carcass of a shrew. Pleasantly, he took it in his beak before returning to me, all but forcing me to feed it to him by hand.
    “Good crow,” I cooed as it gobbled an intestine.

    “That’s far enough,” Sarkana said suddenly as she dismounted. “You’ll have to go the rest of the way alone while I find a place out of sight. Any closer and we risk them seeing me.” She took out the seer’s eye from the satchel and tucked it beneath her arm.
    I looked down the path as it bent sharply to the right. The trunks still covered the horizon like a curtain, but I knew that just beyond the bend, the path would become a straight arrow towards the crossroads. My feet tingled as I imagined Fahim waiting there. Just like Sarkana, the riders would be hiding behind the nearest cover, waiting to ambush.
    As I considered the odds of the encounter, I wondered just how much I was needed for that ‘task’, and if she was really prepared to risk herself to secure my hand in helping her. I grew nervous at the thought, not with the possibility of dying, but what I might be facing should I survive. She followed me this far, hadn’t she?
    “Casimir?” She touched my arm encouragingly and pulled me away from my thoughts. It was another surprising tone of warmth escaping the callousness of her demeanor. “It’s going to be all right.”
    “And if not?”
    She shrugged. “Dying isn’t so bad. At least, not if you have me around.” Her canines flashed at me as she smiled. I was curious about death, but reanimation, on the other hand, made me feel dubious at best. I wasn’t altogether excited about learning what it’s like to be resurrected from the Nether from firsthand experience.
    A groan escaped me as I pressed my palms against my eyes. “I should never have sent him my ring.”
    “No, you shouldn’t have,” she sighed. “It was a little foolish, I’ll admit. But all of us do things we come to regret later. The regret isn’t the important part, it’s what you do with it that makes any difference at all. Why lament over the cards you were dealt when you could spend that time figuring a way to use them? Let’s focus on getting Fahim to safety, not the fact that you got him here.”
    “You’re right …” I shook my head. “Thank you for reminding me.”
    “Don’t fret about it. Here, have this.” Sarkana unbelted one of her vambraces and traded it with one of my own. The fitting was much tighter, but the belts managed to wrap around my right arm using their last holes. “You’ll need it more than I will.”
    “But I rarely cast magick. How do I use it?”
    “A Qalmorian who doesn’t use magick? What a damned shame.” She gave me a look of disapproval that wasn’t anything short of sincere. “Ah well. Can you think of something that makes you feel safe? A person, a time, a feeling? A place where nothing can harm you, a place where you belong. A specific memory, perhaps.”
    A little hesitantly, I nodded. “I think so.”
    “You can find the thought as you reach the crossroads. When you think you have it, pair it with the word ‘buklar’.” She scrunched up her face as she said it, blocking out her own memory so as to not trigger the enchantment. The sigil on the vambrace fizzled white essence that fell and dissipated before it touched the floor. “Once you’ve activated it, use it like you would a shield. It won’t do much for inflicting damage, but works wonders against arrows.”
    I nodded again. “Thank you.”
    “Now get going, I didn’t come out here to freeze. I’ll be right behind you.”
    “In a way,” I muttered after I’d turned my back on her, the words eaten up by the snow-thickened air.
    Around the corner’s bend, I found myself looking at Fahim’s silhouette, small from this distance as he was hunched over himself, his cloak held above his head to shield against the snow. I raised my hand to wave at him and received the same gesture. From what I could see, his followers had hidden themselves well. I continued forward, expecting an arrow, a crossbow bolt, a dagger to strike me each time I took a step. But even though I was dazed by the fact that I was still alive, I eventually stood just in front of Fahim, who looked down at me with the most conflicted expression I had ever seen.
    The horse attached to his cart snorted in the silence. His belongings, or what was made to look like his belongings, were covered by a heavy tarp that flapped against the wind. A strong gust caught the underside of the tarp and lifted it up, just enough so that I could see the bundles of hay piled on top of one another.
    “You idiot …” Fahim cursed as he got down from his seat and approached me. “You never should have—”
    “I know, I know. I won’t ask you to forgive me. But everything is well, I promise. There’s no need to worry, well, not too much,” I corrected with a shaky chuckle.
    From behind him, I saw the riders, now unhorsed, sifting through the trees on either side of the path, far enough for me to talk to Fahim without feeling the urge to reach for my daggers. The sounds of snapping twigs, displaced branches, and heavy footsteps were masked by the sound of heavy wind.
    The calm, thoughtful color of Fahim’s ivory eyes were now a bloodshot storm of white, searching frantically through mine. “No, you’re not an idiot for that,” he muttered, “you’re an idiot for coming. This was all my fault, not yours. I should never have pushed you, knowing full well you’d actually do it. I should have taken it into my own hands. I was a coward. A damned, fucking coward.” He ran a hand through his hair, shaking more than the leaves yet to be shed around us.
    “But it was my mistake. The ingredients …”
    “The repercussions fall upon my shoulders all the same,” he said with an almost fatherly acceptance as his lips formed a sad smile. “Whatever happens, don’t blame yourself. Leave me behind, if you have to.”
    “That’s not true .... nothing is black and white. We share this burden, that’s why I came, why I couldn’t leave you behind,” I insisted. “And why are you speaking like you’re already in your grave? We don’t need to speak of blame, not here. There will be time later. For now, we need to be alert, we only need to wait for our moment.”
    “It’s no use. The dice have been rolled, Casimir.”
    “But there are still some in our favor. I have somebody with me. Somebody who will help.” I craned to look behind him, only to realize I’d lost track of the stalkers in the trees. Their movements had ceased, or blurred, by the quickening of the snow now frenzied to a flurry. “This is not a final stand,” I told him, and yet my fingers already began to feather around the hilts at my side in a desperate search for control.
    “Wait … who is helping you?” his eyes grew large, alarmed. “Is it someone from these parts? A practitioner? Somebody I’d know?”
    “There’s no time for that, not now.”
    “Tell me!” Fahim nearly shouted. “Quickly Casimir, before—”
    “There won’t be a ‘before’. You’re not dying here! We only need to wait.” But the words weren’t as confident as I had imagined them, not as the dread crawled up in my stomach. I searched the skies for Frederick, our diversion, but found only the suffocating swirl of grey and white lashing the air around us. I searched the trees for steel armor, drawn weapons, but found everything camouflaged by snow.
    As if he felt no choice but to cease quarreling with fate, Fahim closed his eyes and took a deep breath. My thoughts erupted and swirled in the storm’s din as I searched for the silhouettes of the pursuers in the blizzard. The truth came as a chill in my veins: I had far less control than I had imagined, that all of it was placed mostly, if not solely, on Sarkana’s intervention. As far as I knew in that moment, Fahim’s followers were not only creeping closer, they could had already surrounded us.
    “The cold will numb the pain, at least,” Fahim remarked. “Now tell me who’s with you.”
    “Gods damnit, this isn’t the time for last words. We can discuss this later.”
    “You may be determined to escape death at every corner, but some of us know when our hours have struck their last. I won’t be surprised when it comes.”
    “Go ahead, speak your eulogy. You’ll be embarrassed when we’re safe and far away from this mess.” I continued scouring the brush for the pursuers, still without success.
    The alchemist chuckled and pushed a handful of vials into the pouch attached to my belt. “But before I forget, since you seemed content enough to take them without asking, I thought I’d give you some myself. There’s a healing elixir or two in there as well.”
    He buckled up the pouch and patted it while I grimaced at his surrender. “I’ll have to make up for that sometime.”
    “Don’t bother. What’s a performance without a bit of flare?" Too distracted by the impending attack, when I didn't respond, he continued another thought. "You know, I had always wished I was born some kind of an elf. I admired the way you greeted other Qalmorians. It seemed so … warm.”
    “I’ll teach it to you afterwards, then. Please ready yourself. We need to—”
    “Will you show me how your kind says farewell?”
    For the first time since I’d seen him, I fixated all my focus on Fahim. The warmth in his expression despite the circumstances, the way he was impervious to the snow as it blanketed us, how he seemed desperate to solace himself with my presence, despite it being what brought him here in the first place. And I remembered, then, my first moments of entering the Foxfeather Castle. He was the one that William had called for to tend to my malnourishment, the wounds on my body, even the night terrors I suffered from. He was the one who listened when all I had were stories I had told myself. And though I might not have made sense at all to him, he made sense to me with his thoughtful replies, his smirk when he struck a mutual chord of dark humor. Like anybody else, Fahim had little trust for the world, but just like anybody else, he had a few things he trusted beyond measure. He trusted the things he cared for, what he spent hours crafting, the people he nurtured with his elixirs.
    He trusted me.
    “If you would be so kind?” he implored again. “If it’s not too much to ask. You said all we had to do was wait, didn’t you?”
    “Yes, and … of course not,” I replied, surprised to find my voice huskier than it usually was. I cleared my throat. “It’s the same way that we greet each other.” I reached out and put my hand over his heart. “Mala’desh manorei, Fahim Mecidias.” Out of the corner of my eyes, I saw the gigantic wings of Frederick cut through the thick bed of clouds above us. Hope melted the chill in my veins.
    Fahim grinned and placed his hand over my own heart. “Mala’desh manorei, Casimi—” thwipt. Caught open, his mouth uttered a grunt. He staggered, briefly, then regained himself, the expression on his face remained unchanged besides the terror he tried to hide from me. Helplessly, I just stared back, the warmth of his blood already cooling on my face. His hand suddenly gripped me much tighter, latched on as his legs buckled from the pain that ignited in his chest.
    Instinctively, I recoiled my hand back, only to find it was stuck to him, precisely where the arrowhead had found his heart and pierced through to the back of my palm. He was right; the cold had numbed the pain. The shock was what made it spread down my body in a furious surge.
    When Fahim glanced down at the mortal wound that held us together, he just laughed. Another arrow fell and caught on his calf. This time, he wasn’t so quiet about his response.
    I cursed and dragged him to the cover of the cart as the rest of the hail came down upon us, each of them flitting to the ground. With my free hand, I held his head up as I knelt beside him. Panic and acceptance quarreled for control over his last moments, but guilt and self-loathing fought for mine. “Breathe, just breathe,” I whispered.
    He tried to, but began choking instead.
    A silent sentinel, Frederick plummeted from the skies, his eyes milky white from Sarkana’s control. His claws found one one of the archers and dragged him up through the air until he was high enough to toss down again. A long, trailing scream echoed until branches and bones were heard cracking on his landing. Orders were shouted to divide attention between us and the beast.
    Fahim’s body shook violently beneath my hand. He uttered my name while incoherent mumbles came from my own lips. Another man screamed after he was flung into the air, high enough that I could see his body flailing like a tossed doll. In haste at the opportunity, death joined the storm’ cavorting waltz, her presence filling the trembling body beneath my hands while droplets from my eyes dotted his chest.
    Another volley, two archers short of last time, descended around us.
    When I turned back to Fahim, I saw his consciousness flutter behind his eyes while his hand continued to dig for a grip on my chest. “Sarkana! Sarkana! He’s dying!” I screamed towards the forest besides us, uncertain if she would hear it at all, if she could do anything at all. If even Fahim would want her to …
    “S-sarkana?” Fahim muttered, an unexpected recognition sparked him back to coherence. “D-d-on’t t-trust—” His eyes rolled to white, the weight of his head became limp in my hand, and his last utterance was cut short by a stuttered inhalation, a final intake of the sharp, snow-ridden winds tearing apart the air, a last lunge of breath that fizzled to silence.
    I couldn't curse nor hardly breathe, just stare dumbfounded at my mistake. With my other hand, I snapped the arrow shaft beneath my palm and tore its splintered end out. A cold fury rushed through the wound and up my arm. I tried to grip the hilt of my dagger with my right hand, but the arrow had rent the tendons, rendering my fingers useless, shaking and bloody nubs.
    Fahim’s final words shook me, bringing more questions than clarity, but at least for the time being, I still had to rely on Sarkana. I thanked the ambidextrous benefits from Zakora’s training and drew my longer dagger with my left hand, abandoning the much shorter trink.
    Still covered from the cart, I watched as Frederick took up another man, hurled him to the clouds, and then retreated back in a descent towards the road I had arrived from.
A branch snapped to my right. I whipped my head around to see the sharpened point of a readied arrow glinting a steel smirk between scarlet leaves.
    Autumn rain patters against the smudged windows of my childhood home. From my bed, I sit with my hands wrapped in Lisence’s as we watch the droplets conjoin and trail down grey streaks before the lightning erupts their contours with silver. She tells me how the thunder is delayed from the spark of light because the two are chasing each other in the storms, playing a game of tag, one that the lightning always wins.
    “Buklar!” I shouted and held my arm aloft. Silver lightning and a thunderous roar exploded from the sigil, shaking my arm as the arrow got caught in the conjuration, turning to ash as it met the barrier. Without a second thought, I leapt to my feet and sprinted through the brush. Thorn and branch alike pricked my face as I tore through. I grasped the first thing my bloodied hand could get its numbed fingers wrapped around. Finding a hold of some steel armor, I saw that familiar, vulnerable sliver of neck and sent the blade to its destination.
    Red spattered my vision, a spray of panicked killing upon frosted cheeks before I could even look at the face of the man who’d only stumbled backwards when he witnessed the sigil’s conjuration.
    “Perfect,” I heard someone utter.
    I looked up to see Sarkana over me and the body with a delighted smile, an expression I’d only seen the first time she looked me up and down. Her hood drawn, she slid back her sleeves and one, two, three times, with intermittent strokes she traded touches against the scars on her arms. Just as Shamus had done with a practiced flare, the expertly conjoined spells were cast almost simultaneously.
    “Murth,” she intoned, and a black snake slithered from the wound in the archer’s neck while the convoluted ‘M’ marking leaked a matching hue. It slunk out of her skin, greeted the death coil, and sucked it back into the symbol.
    Somehow, I managed to turn my head from the sight, to see another slew of arrows seeking us. “Buklar!” I returned, disintegrating the murderous flock of fletching and steel.
    “Dek,” she intoned. The stored, blackened energy slipped out of the marking and slithered into all the others, until it seemed every scar upon her body was exuding it. Like a seamstress, she wove death through the stitches of her skin, until the color transmuted to that bright violet that surrounded her home, the hue of past lives bent to animation once more.
    “Rezen,” she intoned, the Qalmorian word for ‘resurrect’, as the energy rushed out of her hands and bit into the archer’s body. Just as the corpse rose to its feet and dropped its bow, her eyes shifted color to the luminous violet that now breathed from her and the undead’s skin. As if she had heard a joke, Sarkana chuckled to herself and she sent the undead sprinting towards the archers firing at us. The armored body caught the arrows, staggering from the impact but running all the same, now wielding the sword that had been sheathed at his hip.
    “You better follow them,” Sarkana hummed to me with a raised eyebrow. “We will need reinforcements.”
    “This is … we can run. We should run, Sarkana. Fahim is already dead!” The realization struck me, the fault of my decision, the tumbling of chance now falling unfavorably black. Fahim’s body was gathering frost, dead for perhaps nothing, nothing besides the consolation of safety in the midst of chaos. I cursed myself, in disbelief at the carnage unfolding from my hands.
    “What does that change? Nobody can know about this. Can you imagine what the Foxfeathers will send if they get word of what happened here? You’ve already taunted your doom by coming here, Casimir, you might as well divert it.”
    Not far from us, somebody screamed an unholy string of curses, accompanied by, “Necromancy!” and “Run!” The arrows had ceased. The terror of meeting the same fate was enough to send their group into a retreat.
    “There is no other way,” Sarkana nearly growled. “Chase them before they get away.” There was an alternative, there were many of them. But as I imagined them, all I saw was Sarkana’a sanctuary overrun with soldiers, all I saw was my neck slung in a noose.
    “Kuilmore dek,” I cursed and forced myself to my feet to a sprint toward the nine remaining riders, weaving my feet between fallen trunks and high snow. Their backs were turned as they tossed glances back at a corpse, a jester, and a necromancer.
    Snow kicked up from their boots as they ran, blood punctuated the places where they stumbled or fell, and thereafter, silent bodies rose to join the pursuit, their previous cries for mercy swallowed by the wailing winds, their limbs then willed by another.
    Slaughter is a hollow depiction without the inspiration of the hands behind its creation. War is illustrated with ardent ferocity, valiant efforts and undying loyalties, raised banners, heroic shouts, vows and blood shed in the name of nationalities … the only variety that seems worthy of exemption when it comes to massacre. But the dusk of January 6th at the Reaver’s Crossroads was a different kind of illustration. It was of pallid hues, twitching skin, falling scarlet leaves, violet conjurations, the scream of silver and steel catching and Felix’s black wings fluttering. Caws, spluttered gasps and stifled regrets, haggard breaths and blood curdled curses; it was numb fingers fumbling for grips, a lucky, stray arrow and inescapable ends written by unwilling hands.
    As I stood before the final rider, I felt little. There was only a subtle, detached appreciation for the mayhem being quieted by the snow, the cessation of all sounds being corralled into the storm’s ebb. Behind me, Fahim’s corpse still asked for the ending I had imagined: a quick, cunning trade where Sarkana distracted them while we fled. I had not expected the archers to fire on him without being provoked. I hadn’t expected him to die with foreboding words stuttering through blue lips. I hadn’t expected to feel the same transcendence of my escape, the unsought thrill of surviving opposition … even if it made me the slaughterer. Guilt was a growing shadow stalking behind me, but one I could not address, not when my life was the only offering for its dissipation. Was I lost?
    I stared down at the last, breathing soldier as he whimpered incoherently, staring at the arrow shaft sticking out from my left eye, a wound I had earned while chasing his allies down. The force of it had been halted just enough from the foliage to not pierce deeper than the socket. All the same, it rendered me a much more menacing sight than I anticipated as I knelt down, regarding his fear with half of my vision obscured.
    His face was the only one I could see long enough to remember; pale green eyes, a smooth, youthful face beneath blonde hair. Beneath me, the thirteenth rider lay anticipating his end.
    But behind me, nine more stood awaiting Sarkana's commands with undead expressions, their eyes steadily draining of color. I felt for the feather ring and twisted its cold surface around my thumb. The blizzard was taking a deep inhalation, a frozen stillness that cast a gentle sway of benign flakes over us. A peace we did not deserve.
    “Twelve …” I murmured to no one in particular. “No, thirteen.” I stood up and walked away from the remaining rider, the wounds of the undead gaping at me as I pushed through the reanimated crowd standing around us. My dagger felt heavier than usual. It dotted the stained, smeared path that led to the final body in the Reaver’s Crossroads score. It was a melody I had not wished to write but had undeniably created. Still, I could not bring myself to play the final note.
    Sarkana looked at me with a curious expression, beyond alarm at the arrow I had survived. Her body trembled from the energy she’d spent. But for all her warmth in her sanctuary, there was no sorrow in her eyes as the dead surrounded us, only a playful grin on her face. 
    “You decide,” I told her before I continued walking away.
    I meant what I said, about beauty found in the unexpected. The winters in Addoran truly are unforgettable. Who knew that blood spilt on snow turned the same color as the fallen leaves? I hadn’t known, not until I observed it spread out beneath me. I was a tiny silhouette in the center of the crossroads, surrounded by colossal trunks stretching their arms like crystalized castles, a limp shadow in disbelief with silence roaring in his ears.
    Tears and blood slipped and fell alike as tears. I wondered why the arrow had not just pushed that much deeper.
#horror  #adventure  #CoC 
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Chapter 9 of The Culling of Casimir
Written by Harlequin in portal Fantasy

Chapter 9: Two

    Every ending entails a beginning. Before, I used to think that some beginnings come without a conclusion. But between those two, an almost paradoxical cycle emerges, wherein nothing dies without life, and thusly no beginning comes without end. And so, with a keen eye upon these two forces, we find that the two are not only inseparable … they are precisely the same.

    From our first breaths, each of us is given a gift, a reminder of that waltz of beginnings and ends, a contraption that perfectly captures mortality’s essence, simply by counting away the seconds.

    “Something troubling your heart?” Sarkana asked as we sat cross-legged in front of the fire, a cigarette of nitskel tucked between my third and ring finger. Between the small space between us, Fahim’s letter lay on the floor, almost ominous in the flickering light.

Felix shook his head and sneezed after I exhaled a cloud of smoke, but Sarkana just inhaled the aroma deeply, not disapproving of the habit, but longing for it after having to break her own addiction years before.

    Beyond the windows, the sanctuary had invited dusk into its imposing structures, where the architecture seemed to grow on an atmosphere of smoldering daylight. The jutting stonework and turrets developed shadows that began slipping off, one by one, to join the twilight. And I wondered, too, just when I might slip from the sanctuary and back into the world. Within the next morning, or by the week’s end?

    “Yes. But nothing concerning the letter,” I admitted to her. “My mind wandered elsewhere.”

    Perhaps it was the way her eyes met mine, or how warmly she spoke to me, or even how she seemed perfectly comfortable when silences grew between us, but I felt she desired more from our brief meeting than a temporary stay. I, too, would have been tempted to linger, were it not the for the nature of her studies, her secrecy, and the way that she watched how my eyes observed the details of her home. It was as if she expected more.

    “Thinking of the King?” she offered.

    “No, actually not.”

    “What is it, then?”

    “I was wondering, well, I was wondering why you haven’t spoken of my leaving your sanctuary. Why have you allowed me to linger without question?”

    Having been bent close to me and the letter, she recoiled as if I had hurt her, her eyebrows strained closer together, and her lips formed a tight frown. I had the sense that my departure would remind her of a particular shadow of pain, one I might’ve temporarily banished by interrupting the stillness of her solitude. Scars of loneliness reopen at even the most innocent encounters, reminding the soul of what relief may come with company. After all, what more did she have to gain from hiding a wanted murderer?

    Her eyes narrowed at the suspicion in my voice. “Truthfully, the thought had hardly crossed my mind, Casimir,” she replied, her voice now lowered to the pitch of a disappointed whisper. “I was convinced our similarities dissolved the constraints between strangers. I suppose I was foolish to assume as much. Foolish …” she murmured, shaking her head.

    “Sarka—”

    “You needn’t apologize. I should have known I am not half as charming as I thought,” she chuckled darkly to herself, but I could hear the sadness behind her surprise. “I didn’t raise the subject of your departure because I thought you … enjoyed it, here. That you felt safe, even.”

    “You are under no illusion of that, Sarkana. I do,” I said, now uncertain of the truth. “I was only wondering.”

    She paused. Her fingers curled around her wrist as she outlined some of the scars there. “I suppose I should tell you, so long as we are clearing the air.”

    “Tell me what?”

    “I haven’t been entirely transparent with you, Casimir.” I waited, nervousness curling in my stomach as ice encrusted her words after my suspicions had turned her affability to indifference. “I have had a large task asking for my attention for some time now, one that simply can’t be done alone. Given your skills, I thought you’d be of use to me. There would be no shortage of payment, either, if you so desired it.”

    “But you … you saved my life!” I scoffed. “I would gladly help you with anything you desired, no payment necessary.” As much as I felt uncomfortable accepting the request of a necromancer, any other response seemed unthinkable.

    “You will?” But she didn’t jump to her feet in thrilled surprise. The question uttered from her lips as if she was thinking aloud, considering whether I meant it or not. Her thumb moved back and forth over her lower lip while her eyes, once more, didn’t quite gaze into mine, but far past them. “But let’s not think on that now. We can speak of it at a later time. The letter is more important.” She cleared her throat. “How were you—”

    Her hand was reaching towards Fahim’s correspondence, but I stopped it with my own. “Wait. Please don’t think ill of me. You understand, don’t you? Living alone for so long, would you say that you have any reason to trust anyone? Is that not one reason that drove you to immerse yourself in your work? The world is full of chaos and unpredictability, but the one thing you can always rely on is that it is cruel.”

    The back of her hand lingered beneath my palm. For a moment, it began to turn as if she meant to wrap her fingers around mine. A gesture not of romance, but of an instinctual, perhaps innocent yearning. Instead, she shook her head and pulled away. “No, of course, of course. It is. You are right. I won’t hold your caution against you. It was a moment of weakness, that’s all,” she said, looking more ashamed than the admittance felt. “As I said when I met you, it has been a long while since I’ve spoken to someone else.”

    “That’s all right. I’ll pretend it never happened, as long as you promise the same.”

    “Of course,” she answered, the warmth somewhat revived in her voice. The rings beneath her eyes were richly colored, tinged by a distress that seemed to replace what should have been exhaustion. The longer she worked in her study, the more withdrawn her demeanor became, as if the fatigue of her body alarmed her.

    After our conversation in the gardens, she had secluded herself in her underground study, kindly asking that I not disturb her unless she emerged. I had managed to keep my curiosity at bay, passing the day by washing myself, my garments, and practicing performance routines with Felix in the gardens.

    “Now, what do you make of this?” she asked, nodding at the letter.

    “It is written in his own handwriting, that much I can tell. To my eyes, there are no riddles, no games, nothing hidden beneath the words.”

    “But that might as well be the riddle you are looking for,” Sarkana observed quickly. “There’s nothing amiss in a letter corresponding to a fugitive? Doesn’t that seem …”

    “Amiss?” I laughed.

    “Exactly.”

    I tapped some ashes into the fireplace and inhaled another burning gust into my lungs. In spite of the obvious possibilities of setting my own trap by sending anything at all to Fahim, I had already decided how I would reply to his request. “It certainly does.”

    “So don’t go, then,” Sarkana pushed. “Why risk dying for the sake of curiosity?”

    “Dying for curiosity would still be better than most deaths. However,” I said, holding up a finger, “this isn’t about curiosity, and I have no plans of dying. Fahim’s handwriting is unmistakable, which means he is alive, or at least he was when he wrote this. The scratches of a raving bird,” I sighed. “It’s hardly legible.” I tossed the letter into the fire and rubbed my eyes. “It was my fault at all for sending something. I thought I was in danger. But now, I might’ve put him at risk.”

    “Could, might’ve, perhaps … these are needless thoughts. It was not any fault of yours to feel endangered. But now there is little to do. Your friend knows you are alive and well, and you know he is at least one of those. Is that not enough?”

    “To a cold heart, perhaps. All the same, Fahim might have written this with a blade pointed toward his throat. The poison was concocted using plants from his stores. If any of William’s family investigated the castle, it would not take long for them to assume something devious of the magister. If they’re using him to get to me, they may kill him if this letter doesn’t earn them an appearance.”

    “He’s an alchemist,” Sarkana replied, “not some dull-witted apothecary. If there was a way of assuring his innocence, he would have found it by now. What could you possibly do to help him? Rest assured, your assassination of the King has earned you the burden of all his previous crimes. And with your bonafide title as a performer in Addoran, your name is large enough to carry those crimes quite far … even the skinning of his wife.”

The persistence behind her eyes gleamed grey in the firelight, and just like her hospitality, seemed unquestioning. I could not help but think her undying concern for my safety had less to do with me and more to do with the task she mentioned. All I had to do was look up above the fireplace, where that skeleton lay affixed to the ceiling, to remind myself just how little I knew about the person sitting in arm’s reach of me.

    “I never quite thought of it that way,” I realized aloud. “I’ll never be able to travel without turning my head to watch behind me, will I?”

    “Sellswords, bounty hunters, assassins. You earned yourself quite the audience, Casimir, the most avid kind, too. They’ll be pining for you, alive or dead.”

    The nitskel smoldered cold between my fingers as my thoughts ran, ashes scattered across my legs, and the fire in the hearth crumbled. This was nothing short of what I prepared myself for, but after all the cards had laid themselves bare, reality felt more shocking than my worst expectations. “It’s quite flattering, really,” I joked.

    “In the truest sense!” Sarkana continued. “It’s rare that somebody takes a liking to you whether your head is on or off.”

    “True, true. Though I think most folks prefer me with mine removed.”

    “I know I do.”

    “What now?”

    Sarkana laughed gleefully. “But humor won’t decide this, will it?” she asked with a sad smile.

    “Decide it? I’ve already steeled myself to go! I thought we were just passing the time.”

    Her calm expression shattered. “Then you’re determined to run to another meeting with death?! For a murderer, you seem utterly entranced by the idea of getting yourself killed.”

    “I’ll take that as a compliment.”

    She sighed in exasperation, blowing away a few strands of white hair that had fallen in front of her face after she’d hung her head down in defeat. “The truth is that you have no idea what is waiting for you at those crossroads. If this is a ruse, they will not take this chance lightly. They’ll bring more men than you can count, more arrows than they need, more swords than is necessary. There will be blood, and in all likelihood, you will contribute the most of it.”

    “But what would a proper crossroads be without a little uncertainty?” I returned, but the tight line of her lips spoke nothing of amusement. I could imagine Fahim sitting in his chamber, not guarded for his protection, but to keep him hostage. I could imagine him toiling over a potion he cared just enough for to distract his mind from the fact that he was luring his friend to his demise, how he was torn between wishing for my safety or his own to be ensured. “It’s settled then. Tomorrow, a date with death at dusk, and not a minute late.”

    “You shouldn’t do this. You don’t have to!”

    “No. Nobody has to do anything, but that is what is so infuriating. Our inactions define us as much as our decisions. Who would I be to let Fahim die on my behalf? Without him, I might’ve never brought myself to do what should have been done much sooner. I’d go, whether there is danger or not. I owe him that much at least.”

    “You’ll die for your gratitude, then? Your compassion?”

    “Not if you help me.”

    “And why might I do that? My undying love for you?”

    “Certainly, but more importantly, the task that you need my assistance for. I just happened to be the only person you let into your life, around the precise time you needed someone other than yourself? Just how blind do you think I am?”

    Sarkana snickered. “Not half as much as I thought a few moments ago.”

    “There you have it, then.”

    She heaved a defeated sigh. “You know, you look less conniving than you are. Did that help you when you were younger?”

    “Immensely. Apparently, it still hasn’t lost its touch.”

    “Apparently,” she echoed back. “Apparently.”

    That night, Sarkana broke her rhythm of sleeplessness, insisting that she needed to be as rested as possible if she were to cast spells in a pinch. Instead I found myself restless, turning over the evening’s conversation, the tiptoeing she did around her intentions, and yet, her insistence to protect me.

    That nightmare visited me again, the masks that swirled around my head until I suffocated. When I awoke, I wandered the darkened halls of Sarkana’s home until I found Zuma chewing on one of the hide rugs. Caught in the act, she scampered away. With little else to do, I followed. The imp pushed open a door in the hallway across from my own chamber.

    Inside the bedroom, Sarkana’s silhouette was silver from her almost translucent nightgown, illuminated by the moonlight that flooded through the windows into the much larger room. She had fallen asleep sitting upright against the headboard, one of her hands still resting upon the seer’s eye beside her.

    I began to pull the door shut behind me, before I heard her murmur. I froze, and listened while her dreams tumbled down darker tunnels, where those murmurs became whimpers, quick exhalations and quiet protests stifled by the paralysis of sleep.

    Hesitation fled. I pushed the door back open and stepped inside as the twitching of her body in response to the nightmare became more violent. The bed covers twisted around her as she writhed. The blood imp made no movement to suggest that this was abnormal, in fact, she jumped onto the edge of the bed and curled into a ball to return to sleep. That was when pity compelled me.

    I whispered Sarkana’s name as I knelt beside her. She curled up, and the whimpers turned to light sobs. Tears began to slip down her face as she shook back and forth. I whispered her name again with a hand on her shoulder.

    The nightmare fluttered. Sarkana’s bolted up and stared in confusion at me through the blur of her tears that stuck her eyelashes together.

    She murmured my name as a question, shocked to see me sitting beside her, the haze of the nightmare thick in her voice and squinting eyes.

    “I heard you muttering in your sleep from the hallway. You were crying.”

    “So I was,” she whispered as she wiped her face with her hand and watched as her glistening fingers caught the moonlight. “I hope I didn’t wake you.”

    “No, I was sleepless.”

    “Well, thank you.”

    “Of course. I will … let you rest now. Hopefully it won’t return.”

    Gently, she pulled me back by my hand. “Casimir?”

    “What is it?”

    “Do you have any stories like the one I told you?”

    “The one with the rooks?” Hesitantly, I sat at the edge of the bed and wrapped my arms around myself. “I … believe I do, yes.” I looked around the room, observing what I assume was the majority of her skeletal collections as they were scattered about the walls. On either side of the doorframe, two fully-armored human skeletons were posed to be holding drawn swords parallel to their chest, their ancient battle regalia polished to a sheen. I turned my head back to her.

    “Would it be asking too much?”

    “For a nighttime story?” It was as heartwarming as it was humorous, to hear someone like her request such a thing. 

    “Yes.”

    “No, not at all.” I tookfistfuls of the blankets and pulled them over Sarkana’s chest, not surprised to find how comforted she seemed by this. She eased herself down while I set the seer’s eye beside the bed. “My hometown was named after the mountain it sat beneath, Storm Breaker. It was called Breaker’s Edge, a prosperous place that grew from the wealth of Westrun’s fur trade. My mother and father were both leatherworkers, but like you, I had grown up with companions. Or, in my case, just one. A — ah — a fox. Her name was Lisence, and from my earliest years of childhood, a friendship sparked and grew. We hardly left each other’s side.”

    Sarkana’s eyes were closed as she listened. I waited for a question, a response, but she remained silent. I took a deep breath and looked out at the Ruined Sea, collecting those recollections once again. “But the gods have a way of tainting our earliest memories. Maybe it is the only way we could ever learn to survive in a world where corruption is one of the strongest hands of progress. But … I, well, my turn came, I suppose, to be introduced to misery. Some cliffside hyenas had been ravenous from the winter, and in the middle of the night, they wandered into Breaker’s Edge. It was a whole pack of them.”

    “Weren’t there any guards to stop them?”

    “A few, but they were tired, frozen from the night’s watch, and not nearly enough. The hyenas were cunning, they picked through the weakest, took what scraps they could, remaining as quiet as possible until it was inevitable that they were discovered. By the time they were, more guards from Westrun were sent for, but most of the damage had already been done.”

    “What happened to Lisence?”

    “They took her from me.”

    The story was resurrected in the shadows on the wall, the moonbeams that split from between the clouds, playing tricks on my eyes of memories I could not forget, but would rather not remember. Through the thick silence, the rustling of a sea of forestry that sounded so similar to waves splitting against the ground, I heard Lisence scream for me.“Did they kill her, the way the wolf killed my rooks?”

    “I always imagined that they did, but I was never certain. They dragged her away while she cried. I tried to stop them, I did. I ran as fast as I could, and I fought them as hard as I could, but I was young, weak, untrained … useless. You know how hyenas laugh, don’t you? You can imagine how they did as they took her away, while I begged them not to. Shortly after, the guards from Westrun came to assist us, but the pack had already fled. For weeks I waited, hoping for a sign that they had been hunted. Nothing came, though. After that night, I never saw Lisence.”

    For awhile, I thought Sarkana had fallen asleep. Then, and just as I was about to stand from the bed, she said, “Tomorrow, Casimir.”

    “What about it?”

    “Tomorrow we will be the wolves. We will be the hyenas.”

    My mouth hung open, but I found no way to reply, not fast enough at least. Her lips were parted as she breathed lowly with tranquility in her expression. I felt Sarkana’s exhaustion spread until my eyelids were heavy, and my body felt frozen there, staring out at the sparse clouds overhead the sanctuary. I tried to fathom the cascade of events that had brought me here. Here, sitting beside someone who spoke of similarities I could not see, not until now, as the epiphany dawned, alive in a still quiet that nightmares could not penetrate. What death could construct from bitter hands, a life fostered from vengeance, and the pursuits born from the hollows of its inadequate findings.

    There lay Sarkana Bloodbane, a necromancer, a wielder of death and life, yet just as I tormented as I, just as driven as I, by the memories death gifted us in our innocence. Pulled along like puppets on strings, our actions driven by a yearning for resolution, wondering all the while why it could not be found in the place where it was first made, in those complex contraptions we call hearts.

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Chapter 9 of The Culling of Casimir
Written by Harlequin in portal Fantasy
Chapter 9: Two
    Every ending entails a beginning. Before, I used to think that some beginnings come without a conclusion. But between those two, an almost paradoxical cycle emerges, wherein nothing dies without life, and thusly no beginning comes without end. And so, with a keen eye upon these two forces, we find that the two are not only inseparable … they are precisely the same.
    From our first breaths, each of us is given a gift, a reminder of that waltz of beginnings and ends, a contraption that perfectly captures mortality’s essence, simply by counting away the seconds.
    “Something troubling your heart?” Sarkana asked as we sat cross-legged in front of the fire, a cigarette of nitskel tucked between my third and ring finger. Between the small space between us, Fahim’s letter lay on the floor, almost ominous in the flickering light.
Felix shook his head and sneezed after I exhaled a cloud of smoke, but Sarkana just inhaled the aroma deeply, not disapproving of the habit, but longing for it after having to break her own addiction years before.
    Beyond the windows, the sanctuary had invited dusk into its imposing structures, where the architecture seemed to grow on an atmosphere of smoldering daylight. The jutting stonework and turrets developed shadows that began slipping off, one by one, to join the twilight. And I wondered, too, just when I might slip from the sanctuary and back into the world. Within the next morning, or by the week’s end?
    “Yes. But nothing concerning the letter,” I admitted to her. “My mind wandered elsewhere.”
    Perhaps it was the way her eyes met mine, or how warmly she spoke to me, or even how she seemed perfectly comfortable when silences grew between us, but I felt she desired more from our brief meeting than a temporary stay. I, too, would have been tempted to linger, were it not the for the nature of her studies, her secrecy, and the way that she watched how my eyes observed the details of her home. It was as if she expected more.
    “Thinking of the King?” she offered.
    “No, actually not.”
    “What is it, then?”
    “I was wondering, well, I was wondering why you haven’t spoken of my leaving your sanctuary. Why have you allowed me to linger without question?”
    Having been bent close to me and the letter, she recoiled as if I had hurt her, her eyebrows strained closer together, and her lips formed a tight frown. I had the sense that my departure would remind her of a particular shadow of pain, one I might’ve temporarily banished by interrupting the stillness of her solitude. Scars of loneliness reopen at even the most innocent encounters, reminding the soul of what relief may come with company. After all, what more did she have to gain from hiding a wanted murderer?
    Her eyes narrowed at the suspicion in my voice. “Truthfully, the thought had hardly crossed my mind, Casimir,” she replied, her voice now lowered to the pitch of a disappointed whisper. “I was convinced our similarities dissolved the constraints between strangers. I suppose I was foolish to assume as much. Foolish …” she murmured, shaking her head.
    “Sarka—”
    “You needn’t apologize. I should have known I am not half as charming as I thought,” she chuckled darkly to herself, but I could hear the sadness behind her surprise. “I didn’t raise the subject of your departure because I thought you … enjoyed it, here. That you felt safe, even.”
    “You are under no illusion of that, Sarkana. I do,” I said, now uncertain of the truth. “I was only wondering.”
    She paused. Her fingers curled around her wrist as she outlined some of the scars there. “I suppose I should tell you, so long as we are clearing the air.”
    “Tell me what?”
    “I haven’t been entirely transparent with you, Casimir.” I waited, nervousness curling in my stomach as ice encrusted her words after my suspicions had turned her affability to indifference. “I have had a large task asking for my attention for some time now, one that simply can’t be done alone. Given your skills, I thought you’d be of use to me. There would be no shortage of payment, either, if you so desired it.”
    “But you … you saved my life!” I scoffed. “I would gladly help you with anything you desired, no payment necessary.” As much as I felt uncomfortable accepting the request of a necromancer, any other response seemed unthinkable.
    “You will?” But she didn’t jump to her feet in thrilled surprise. The question uttered from her lips as if she was thinking aloud, considering whether I meant it or not. Her thumb moved back and forth over her lower lip while her eyes, once more, didn’t quite gaze into mine, but far past them. “But let’s not think on that now. We can speak of it at a later time. The letter is more important.” She cleared her throat. “How were you—”
    Her hand was reaching towards Fahim’s correspondence, but I stopped it with my own. “Wait. Please don’t think ill of me. You understand, don’t you? Living alone for so long, would you say that you have any reason to trust anyone? Is that not one reason that drove you to immerse yourself in your work? The world is full of chaos and unpredictability, but the one thing you can always rely on is that it is cruel.”
    The back of her hand lingered beneath my palm. For a moment, it began to turn as if she meant to wrap her fingers around mine. A gesture not of romance, but of an instinctual, perhaps innocent yearning. Instead, she shook her head and pulled away. “No, of course, of course. It is. You are right. I won’t hold your caution against you. It was a moment of weakness, that’s all,” she said, looking more ashamed than the admittance felt. “As I said when I met you, it has been a long while since I’ve spoken to someone else.”
    “That’s all right. I’ll pretend it never happened, as long as you promise the same.”
    “Of course,” she answered, the warmth somewhat revived in her voice. The rings beneath her eyes were richly colored, tinged by a distress that seemed to replace what should have been exhaustion. The longer she worked in her study, the more withdrawn her demeanor became, as if the fatigue of her body alarmed her.
    After our conversation in the gardens, she had secluded herself in her underground study, kindly asking that I not disturb her unless she emerged. I had managed to keep my curiosity at bay, passing the day by washing myself, my garments, and practicing performance routines with Felix in the gardens.
    “Now, what do you make of this?” she asked, nodding at the letter.
    “It is written in his own handwriting, that much I can tell. To my eyes, there are no riddles, no games, nothing hidden beneath the words.”
    “But that might as well be the riddle you are looking for,” Sarkana observed quickly. “There’s nothing amiss in a letter corresponding to a fugitive? Doesn’t that seem …”
    “Amiss?” I laughed.
    “Exactly.”
    I tapped some ashes into the fireplace and inhaled another burning gust into my lungs. In spite of the obvious possibilities of setting my own trap by sending anything at all to Fahim, I had already decided how I would reply to his request. “It certainly does.”
    “So don’t go, then,” Sarkana pushed. “Why risk dying for the sake of curiosity?”
    “Dying for curiosity would still be better than most deaths. However,” I said, holding up a finger, “this isn’t about curiosity, and I have no plans of dying. Fahim’s handwriting is unmistakable, which means he is alive, or at least he was when he wrote this. The scratches of a raving bird,” I sighed. “It’s hardly legible.” I tossed the letter into the fire and rubbed my eyes. “It was my fault at all for sending something. I thought I was in danger. But now, I might’ve put him at risk.”
    “Could, might’ve, perhaps … these are needless thoughts. It was not any fault of yours to feel endangered. But now there is little to do. Your friend knows you are alive and well, and you know he is at least one of those. Is that not enough?”
    “To a cold heart, perhaps. All the same, Fahim might have written this with a blade pointed toward his throat. The poison was concocted using plants from his stores. If any of William’s family investigated the castle, it would not take long for them to assume something devious of the magister. If they’re using him to get to me, they may kill him if this letter doesn’t earn them an appearance.”
    “He’s an alchemist,” Sarkana replied, “not some dull-witted apothecary. If there was a way of assuring his innocence, he would have found it by now. What could you possibly do to help him? Rest assured, your assassination of the King has earned you the burden of all his previous crimes. And with your bonafide title as a performer in Addoran, your name is large enough to carry those crimes quite far … even the skinning of his wife.”
The persistence behind her eyes gleamed grey in the firelight, and just like her hospitality, seemed unquestioning. I could not help but think her undying concern for my safety had less to do with me and more to do with the task she mentioned. All I had to do was look up above the fireplace, where that skeleton lay affixed to the ceiling, to remind myself just how little I knew about the person sitting in arm’s reach of me.
    “I never quite thought of it that way,” I realized aloud. “I’ll never be able to travel without turning my head to watch behind me, will I?”
    “Sellswords, bounty hunters, assassins. You earned yourself quite the audience, Casimir, the most avid kind, too. They’ll be pining for you, alive or dead.”
    The nitskel smoldered cold between my fingers as my thoughts ran, ashes scattered across my legs, and the fire in the hearth crumbled. This was nothing short of what I prepared myself for, but after all the cards had laid themselves bare, reality felt more shocking than my worst expectations. “It’s quite flattering, really,” I joked.
    “In the truest sense!” Sarkana continued. “It’s rare that somebody takes a liking to you whether your head is on or off.”
    “True, true. Though I think most folks prefer me with mine removed.”
    “I know I do.”
    “What now?”
    Sarkana laughed gleefully. “But humor won’t decide this, will it?” she asked with a sad smile.
    “Decide it? I’ve already steeled myself to go! I thought we were just passing the time.”
    Her calm expression shattered. “Then you’re determined to run to another meeting with death?! For a murderer, you seem utterly entranced by the idea of getting yourself killed.”
    “I’ll take that as a compliment.”
    She sighed in exasperation, blowing away a few strands of white hair that had fallen in front of her face after she’d hung her head down in defeat. “The truth is that you have no idea what is waiting for you at those crossroads. If this is a ruse, they will not take this chance lightly. They’ll bring more men than you can count, more arrows than they need, more swords than is necessary. There will be blood, and in all likelihood, you will contribute the most of it.”
    “But what would a proper crossroads be without a little uncertainty?” I returned, but the tight line of her lips spoke nothing of amusement. I could imagine Fahim sitting in his chamber, not guarded for his protection, but to keep him hostage. I could imagine him toiling over a potion he cared just enough for to distract his mind from the fact that he was luring his friend to his demise, how he was torn between wishing for my safety or his own to be ensured. “It’s settled then. Tomorrow, a date with death at dusk, and not a minute late.”
    “You shouldn’t do this. You don’t have to!”
    “No. Nobody has to do anything, but that is what is so infuriating. Our inactions define us as much as our decisions. Who would I be to let Fahim die on my behalf? Without him, I might’ve never brought myself to do what should have been done much sooner. I’d go, whether there is danger or not. I owe him that much at least.”
    “You’ll die for your gratitude, then? Your compassion?”
    “Not if you help me.”
    “And why might I do that? My undying love for you?”
    “Certainly, but more importantly, the task that you need my assistance for. I just happened to be the only person you let into your life, around the precise time you needed someone other than yourself? Just how blind do you think I am?”
    Sarkana snickered. “Not half as much as I thought a few moments ago.”
    “There you have it, then.”
    She heaved a defeated sigh. “You know, you look less conniving than you are. Did that help you when you were younger?”
    “Immensely. Apparently, it still hasn’t lost its touch.”
    “Apparently,” she echoed back. “Apparently.”

    That night, Sarkana broke her rhythm of sleeplessness, insisting that she needed to be as rested as possible if she were to cast spells in a pinch. Instead I found myself restless, turning over the evening’s conversation, the tiptoeing she did around her intentions, and yet, her insistence to protect me.
    That nightmare visited me again, the masks that swirled around my head until I suffocated. When I awoke, I wandered the darkened halls of Sarkana’s home until I found Zuma chewing on one of the hide rugs. Caught in the act, she scampered away. With little else to do, I followed. The imp pushed open a door in the hallway across from my own chamber.
    Inside the bedroom, Sarkana’s silhouette was silver from her almost translucent nightgown, illuminated by the moonlight that flooded through the windows into the much larger room. She had fallen asleep sitting upright against the headboard, one of her hands still resting upon the seer’s eye beside her.
    I began to pull the door shut behind me, before I heard her murmur. I froze, and listened while her dreams tumbled down darker tunnels, where those murmurs became whimpers, quick exhalations and quiet protests stifled by the paralysis of sleep.
    Hesitation fled. I pushed the door back open and stepped inside as the twitching of her body in response to the nightmare became more violent. The bed covers twisted around her as she writhed. The blood imp made no movement to suggest that this was abnormal, in fact, she jumped onto the edge of the bed and curled into a ball to return to sleep. That was when pity compelled me.
    I whispered Sarkana’s name as I knelt beside her. She curled up, and the whimpers turned to light sobs. Tears began to slip down her face as she shook back and forth. I whispered her name again with a hand on her shoulder.
    The nightmare fluttered. Sarkana’s bolted up and stared in confusion at me through the blur of her tears that stuck her eyelashes together.
    She murmured my name as a question, shocked to see me sitting beside her, the haze of the nightmare thick in her voice and squinting eyes.
    “I heard you muttering in your sleep from the hallway. You were crying.”
    “So I was,” she whispered as she wiped her face with her hand and watched as her glistening fingers caught the moonlight. “I hope I didn’t wake you.”
    “No, I was sleepless.”
    “Well, thank you.”
    “Of course. I will … let you rest now. Hopefully it won’t return.”
    Gently, she pulled me back by my hand. “Casimir?”
    “What is it?”
    “Do you have any stories like the one I told you?”
    “The one with the rooks?” Hesitantly, I sat at the edge of the bed and wrapped my arms around myself. “I … believe I do, yes.” I looked around the room, observing what I assume was the majority of her skeletal collections as they were scattered about the walls. On either side of the doorframe, two fully-armored human skeletons were posed to be holding drawn swords parallel to their chest, their ancient battle regalia polished to a sheen. I turned my head back to her.
    “Would it be asking too much?”
    “For a nighttime story?” It was as heartwarming as it was humorous, to hear someone like her request such a thing. 
    “Yes.”
    “No, not at all.” I tookfistfuls of the blankets and pulled them over Sarkana’s chest, not surprised to find how comforted she seemed by this. She eased herself down while I set the seer’s eye beside the bed. “My hometown was named after the mountain it sat beneath, Storm Breaker. It was called Breaker’s Edge, a prosperous place that grew from the wealth of Westrun’s fur trade. My mother and father were both leatherworkers, but like you, I had grown up with companions. Or, in my case, just one. A — ah — a fox. Her name was Lisence, and from my earliest years of childhood, a friendship sparked and grew. We hardly left each other’s side.”
    Sarkana’s eyes were closed as she listened. I waited for a question, a response, but she remained silent. I took a deep breath and looked out at the Ruined Sea, collecting those recollections once again. “But the gods have a way of tainting our earliest memories. Maybe it is the only way we could ever learn to survive in a world where corruption is one of the strongest hands of progress. But … I, well, my turn came, I suppose, to be introduced to misery. Some cliffside hyenas had been ravenous from the winter, and in the middle of the night, they wandered into Breaker’s Edge. It was a whole pack of them.”
    “Weren’t there any guards to stop them?”
    “A few, but they were tired, frozen from the night’s watch, and not nearly enough. The hyenas were cunning, they picked through the weakest, took what scraps they could, remaining as quiet as possible until it was inevitable that they were discovered. By the time they were, more guards from Westrun were sent for, but most of the damage had already been done.”
    “What happened to Lisence?”
    “They took her from me.”
    The story was resurrected in the shadows on the wall, the moonbeams that split from between the clouds, playing tricks on my eyes of memories I could not forget, but would rather not remember. Through the thick silence, the rustling of a sea of forestry that sounded so similar to waves splitting against the ground, I heard Lisence scream for me.“Did they kill her, the way the wolf killed my rooks?”
    “I always imagined that they did, but I was never certain. They dragged her away while she cried. I tried to stop them, I did. I ran as fast as I could, and I fought them as hard as I could, but I was young, weak, untrained … useless. You know how hyenas laugh, don’t you? You can imagine how they did as they took her away, while I begged them not to. Shortly after, the guards from Westrun came to assist us, but the pack had already fled. For weeks I waited, hoping for a sign that they had been hunted. Nothing came, though. After that night, I never saw Lisence.”
    For awhile, I thought Sarkana had fallen asleep. Then, and just as I was about to stand from the bed, she said, “Tomorrow, Casimir.”
    “What about it?”
    “Tomorrow we will be the wolves. We will be the hyenas.”
    My mouth hung open, but I found no way to reply, not fast enough at least. Her lips were parted as she breathed lowly with tranquility in her expression. I felt Sarkana’s exhaustion spread until my eyelids were heavy, and my body felt frozen there, staring out at the sparse clouds overhead the sanctuary. I tried to fathom the cascade of events that had brought me here. Here, sitting beside someone who spoke of similarities I could not see, not until now, as the epiphany dawned, alive in a still quiet that nightmares could not penetrate. What death could construct from bitter hands, a life fostered from vengeance, and the pursuits born from the hollows of its inadequate findings.
    There lay Sarkana Bloodbane, a necromancer, a wielder of death and life, yet just as I tormented as I, just as driven as I, by the memories death gifted us in our innocence. Pulled along like puppets on strings, our actions driven by a yearning for resolution, wondering all the while why it could not be found in the place where it was first made, in those complex contraptions we call hearts.
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Chapter 8 of The Culling of Casimir
Written by Harlequin in portal Fantasy

Chapter 8: One

Welcome back to Netherway, and more specifically, a winter in Addoran! I hope you enjoyed the intermission. I must thank everyone again who is still following the tale as it unravels. If you have any thoughts, questions, suggestions or critiques, feel free to drop them in the comments; an artist is nothing without criticism. It will be a long while until mastery is reached, but every word is another stone in the path. I am delighted to share the journey with you all, and hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Without further (nervous) delay, here is Chapter 8: One. 

                                                       ~ ~

I had no dreams, only the darkness of a sleep deepened by heavy exhaustion. I awoke to that brief amnesia where nothing seems important beyond the opening of the eyes, the stretching of the arms, the confused observation of what is around us.

    Three winter suns exalted colossal, white clouds with golden light that beamed down on the glittering waters of the Ruined Sea, now aquamarine and inviting in the light of a late dawn. Half a dozen pointed tails broke the surface of the water in the distance, a school of blackfin hydras circling before dipping back under. I stared at the scene through a nearby window, sat up in a bed that I had no recollection of getting into, tucked under two layers of thick wool and a heavy blanket of mismatched, stitched hide, as if it took three animals to make it. Two of Sarkana’s towers obscured the cliffside view of the sea, still exuding their violet light with rhythmic pulses, as if even the sanctuary breathed.

    Cool sweat lined my forehead and caused my clothes to cling to my skin.

    Perhaps more puzzling than the fact that none of last night was a dream, as the lingering pain from the gargoyle bat’s claw marks made apparent, was that Sarkana had managed to haul me up the stairs while I was still sleeping. I had little doubt she was stronger than she looked, but even still …

    The chamber I was in was modest in its size, yet elegant with its sparse decoration. An empty desk and dresser sat beside each other on the wall opposite the window, where the bed lay directly beneath. The wall across from me displayed the full skeleton of a bird attached to a mantle, its wings fixed in a permanent position of being splayed, each bone threaded to dozens of tiny nails to keep it upright. A hanging circlet of iron swayed almost imperceptibly from the ceiling, the six candles in their holders untouched and collecting dust, never lit for visitors. 

    Seared mutton spiced with herbs, roots simmering in oil, caffek being steeped in water. My mouth watered as the flavors wafted through the cracked doorway of the chamber and my stomach growled, reminding me that I had not eaten anything since noon the previous day. I had been too nervous to eat during William’s starday feast.

    I tossed off the blankets and jumped a little too quickly from the bed, igniting the stiff aching of my muscles which laughed at my attempt at exuberance. I spotted my hat resting on one of the bedposts, where beneath it hung my scabbard, belt and satchel. I reached my hand out for the hat, but stopped. I was distracted by the bloodstains on my hands—dried puddles that splashed down my arm and dotted the clothes I had worn the previous day, reminders of lives that could never be restored, of the brief euphoria I felt not only dodging death, but turning its hand in my favor. The guilt burdened me, but the excitement lingered. I left the hat where it was.

    The thought of talking to the isolated practitioner that had aided in my escape didn’t seem like a particularly appealing venture, especially not with a clouded mind. Welcoming though she was, Sarkana’s sanctuary did little to make me feel at ease. Still, the promise of food outweighed my trepidations, so I found myself slowly, curiously, observing the home after I left the room.

    Along the walls, hanging from the rafters, was no shortage of similar displays of organized and catalogued bones as the bird in the bedroom. In meticulous script on neatly cut parchment, each creature was labeled down to the smallest of structures. For the more grandiose or rare skeletons, such as a phoenix—whose bones still held a faint glimmer of fire—in the hall just outside my chamber, their remains were enchanted to hover quietly above pedestals or small tables. I resisted the urge to touch the skull of the phoenix, afraid to disenchant the spell that held it perfectly aloft.

    I managed to pry myself away from exploring further and made my way down the staircase in front of the entryway. My shoes were being warmed by the embers splitting over the iron grating in the fireplace, their leather cleaned and polished. After I slipped them on, I found the largest piece in Sarkana’s skeletal collection: a human’s. It was laying supine and firmly affixed to the dome ceiling above the armchairs in the living room. Only, this skeleton had no labels, and even the bones were grimy, unpolished, dirtied by decay but naked all the same, held within a circle with crisscrossing lines and symbols, pulsing with that same light that flowed throughout all of the sanctuary.

    ‘Necromancers,’ Magister Fahim once laughed at me after I’d asked about them. ‘All the angst-ridden adolescent practitioners dream of becoming them. An empty dream, sadly. Very few have a firm grasp of how to perfect that kind of magick, and I doubt they’ll be sharing their secrets anytime soon. Scholars would have more luck pursuing the kind of alchemy that turns dirt to gold. Foolish, foolish ambitions. What’s wrong with destruction magick, I always ask them. Isn’t that exciting enough? Why do young students always wish to drag dead things into the mix? It’s some sick perversion, if you ask me.’

    ‘Besides resurrecting the dead, what could one of them do, exactly?’ I prodded him.

    Fahim had been immersed in the crafting of a new tincture, and was becoming visibly annoyed with my pestering. ‘You mean a masterful necromancer, not just an apprentice?’

    ‘I … suppose so?’

    ‘Let’s put it simply: necromancy is the manipulation of the dead. In a way, all living things are in a perpetual state of decay. Theoretically, a master necromancer would have domain over, well, everything. But with all that power and only one body, what’s the purpose? You’d still find yourself exhausted after a few incantations, just like most practitioners. At most you would, what, make a puppet out of a body, maybe two? And how long could someone control something so burdensome? I doubt very long.’ Trying to imagine it, he shook his head.

    ‘Sounds quite exciting to me,’ I had laughed.

    ‘Don’t take this poorly, but you’re not exactly a seasoned practitioner. You don’t know how painful it can be to cast higher magick. It wouldn’t be enjoyable in the slightest. You’d have to have some very deep motives to pursue such an arduous study. Either that, or you’d have to be mad.’

    Fahim’s words echoed in my head as I stared at the skeleton. He really had been a good friend, now that I thought about it. It was difficult to realize I may never speak with him again.

    “Casimir? So you really are awake, those footsteps weren’t just my imagination.” Sarkana was standing in front of the kitchen’s doorway, holding a long, wooden spoon and wearing the same garments she’d had on the night before. Her grey eyes were alight with that same curiosity, too, looking all over my body as if she’d miss something important if she didn’t examine every detail.

    I grinned at her, uncertain as to why she seemed undisturbed by the fact that I had been perusing the various cadavers throughout her home. “Do you often imagine phantom footsteps throughout your home, Sarkana?”

    “Oh, I don't need to imagine them,” she returned without hesitating, as if it wasn't an unsettling remark.

    I opened my mouth to reply, but my stomach interrupted me, at an embarrassing volume.

    She raised her eyebrows before laughing. “Care to satisfy the beast? I thought some food from our home country would be comforting after everything that’s happened.” Without waiting for a response, she went back into the kitchen.

    Tentatively, I followed her through the open, arched doorway. Inside, Sarkana was prodding at stuffed potatoes on a rack in the concave stove, whose stone roof merged with the kitchen’s ceiling, exhaling its spiced aromas through the chimney shaft. Pots, ladles, and other cooking ware hung from the ceiling, while spices and herbs were put away in wooden containers of various sizes, all organized impeccably. At the heart of the room, a tree’s trunk yawned from beneath the floorboards and stretched through the roof. Small cracks had been developing around the rim of the roof’s circular opening, splintering as slowly and deliberately as the trunk's steady widening stretched the structure. From cut branches of the tree, Sarkana had fashioned table tops and, within the trunk itself, more shelves for storage.

    “Your home is breathtaking,” I admitted. “It doesn’t seem like a single room lacks a touch of you. Did you do all of it yourself?”

    “Oh, you’re too kind. I had some help,” she shrugged, then nudged the four stuffed potatoes onto two plates, before spooning out sautéd greens beside them. Herbed mutton steamed up from inside the potatoes’ buttered skins and flesh, doing its best to get me to drool in front of my host.

    With a poker, she dispersed the logs of the cooking fire in the stove, until all that was left was glowing embers and cinders turning to ash as they stretched out towards the colder edges of the stone surface. She set the plates down on one of the tables extending from the tree and sat down at a chair. A little awkwardly, I stood without a seat, staring at her as she readied a metal fork and knife.

    “I …”

    “Oh!” She jumped from her chair, then snatched another from the kitchen that seemed to have held the lonely and solitary use of a stepping stool, with no visitors' rears to oblige for for years. She wiped off the dust marks of her footprints from its surface before letting me tuck myself into it.

    “Thank you." Then, and only after we had made it through half of the meal in silence, I asked, “Have you lived alone very long?” The food had satiated my hunger, though my questions for Sarkana were ever voracious.

    “Alone,” she repeated with a chuckle. “I suppose that word means different things to different people. But, in the common sense, I have been alone for many years. And to be quite honest Casimir, it is much longer than I care to count at the moment. I am not sure that finding the number would do any good for me. I haven’t bothered since I lost track. As the saying in our kin goes, Pal’thases reqimet est pal’thases coleltia.”

    I nodded, a little discouraged to have already prodded a tender spot. “So do you regret it, then, leading this kind of life?”

    Zuma crawled as close to the stove as she could without getting burned, and nipped a few stray pieces of fried potato to nibble on.

    “Absolutely not,” Sarkana said, sounding almost offended. “Some people pursue commendable ranks or titles, some people chase after lofty ambitions or passions, searching for fulfillment or gratification. But regardless of what they’re after, the only ones who seem to get very far are those that sacrifice the most. Time, wealth, companionships, obligations …” Sarkana’s gaze held mine, but I could tell she was looking far past my eyes into memories that did not belong there, “just about everything they can let go of. As it seems in this world, the more things you let go of that most folks hold onto, the more things you can grasp that are untouched.”

    Repetitive, stark, and unrhythmic caws from an unkindness of ravens accented our conversation from the gardens outside. A few of their wings flashed darkly in front of the window as they swooped to find their perches on the same tree that we were eating from. The branches above could be heard shifting under their weight, even through the roof.

    “Zuma! Caffek,” Sarkana commanded suddenly.

    The blood imp jumped at her name. But at the second word, she darted to the kettle beside the roasting rack in the open stove and performed the trained maneuver of pouring caffek into a cup from one of the shelves. Sarkana handed her another to fill. The tiny demon stretched her arm across the empty space towards me, and I took the cup with an astonished nod of thanks from her claw.

    “So then, are you after something?” I asked.

    Sarkana blew gently on the steam rising from the cup. Then, before drinking, she replied, “Aren’t we all?”

    I looked down at the caffek, my burning eyes now smoldered by the dark reflection of the thickly steeped substance. “Not everyone, not always.”

    “I used to think the same, actually. But, one day, I realized something that changed my mind.”

    “One particular day?”

    “One particular day, yes.”

    “What did you realize?”

    Zuma hopped from her station at the stove, then circled the ground and attempted to make the stone floor more comfortable for sleep by slapping it with her tail. 

    “It doesn’t matter if you haven’t realized it yet. Everyone has their purpose, their calling, even if some people delude themselves into thinking they have none. For the unambitious, their lives are easily dictated by others; for the apathetic, their lives are spent for the sake of another’s. I have little faith in fate or the gods, Casimir, but I think some people are born cradling purpose, while others spend their entire lives searching for it. It comes, it exists, one way or another, from one hand or another. It’s an object of possession, no doubt about that, but you only have it so long as you convince yourself it’s in your hands.”

    I drank the caffek deeply, savoring the trail of heat down my throat and the rich, bittersweet burn hinting at chocolate.

    “What is your purpose, Casimir?”

    I choked, surprised by her sudden shift of attention and spluttered all over the table. I used my sleeve to wipe off the droplets as I muttered an apology. But this only amused her further. “If I tell you, will you tell me about that day when you stumbled upon that realization?”

    Sarkana’s eyes flitted from mine to her hands, where she pondered over the trade in the lines of her small palms. The laughter faded with her smile. Her tall, arching ears fluttered a little while a silence longer than I anticipated held on her lips. “I will,” she agreed, “in my gardens. There's no sense wasting a perfectly fine day inside.”

    As she led me away from the kitchen, both our plates now bereft of their Qalmorian culture, I spotted the room that I had heard Sarkana leave into the night before. At the center of which was a trapdoor, its handle wrapped in a chain and lock affixed to bolts in the floor. Before she could catch me staring, she tugged me toward another door inset with silverglass panes that blurred the outside forestry and blooming color of her gardens, despite winter’s current hold on Addoran.

    She pushed the door open and stepped on the only stone that stood between us and the steep fall to the ground beneath her home. At her touch, stones rose, flipped, and collided before us in a sudden stroke of cascading construction, to form a small bridge that arched down to the floor.

    Unsurprisingly, a smile touched my lips. “You just aren’t satisfied with doing things normally, are you?”

    “To be fair, you don’t seem much different,” she retorted.

    “Fair enough. Now, am I going mad, or does it suddenly feel like summer out here?” I reached my hand out toward the air as we descended the bridge, surprised to find that my teeth didn’t start chattering. In fact, I was uncomfortable in all of my layers. It seemed just as temperate outside as it was within the home, and if anything, a bit warmer.

    “I cannot answer the first question for you, but I assure you it isn’t summer.” Upon the final step of the bridge, the stones dissembled themselves to rest inconspicuously upon the damp earth, where daisies, pale roses and dragon teeth blossoms bloomed in rows along ivy-wrapped arbors marking the walkways. “In my gardens,” Sarkana said with a tone of defiance, “it is always spring. Life is punitive and death is selfish, but in my home,” she said as she bent to the head of a dying rose, “I am death’s keeper.” She brought the rose to her lips, muttering while her hands cradled it, and as if she was merely breathing embers to flames once more, when the rose fell from her hands, its wilted petals had turned plump with revived color, its sagging stem stiff and searching again for the sun.

    “Remarkable,” I breathed.

    Sarkana stood up again, not recognizing my reaction. “You’re still holding onto that answer.” And as she asked once more, I discovered something surprising within the tension of truth before its release, that even the most ethereal concepts, even if they cannot be held, can surely be tainted if not stolen. And I wondered, just like that rose, what words might wilt and bloom within her fists, should I allow her to clutch them, even briefly.

    “My purpose?” I looked up at the rain clouds forming above her sanctuary, the brief burst of moisture as the droplets failed to penetrate the aura that kept the season inside fixed, the countless ravens that enjoyed the air without chill as many of them attended to nests that should never have been made at this time of year. “My purpose is to inspire others to find theirs.” 

    In my mind, the strength of those words echoed as cannons booming in a castle; in the past, they ruptured the most dreadful silences and revived hope from lost meaning and graveyards of regret; it scorched shadows of the past and sent phantom thoughts fleeing in terror. But now, as they left my lips, Sarkana’s scrutiny cast their resonance in translucence, and I felt just how hallow they were without action. “Am I a fool to not strive for something within myself?” My fingers went for the ring that normally wrapped my left thumb, to twist it in nervousness, but found its bare skin. Unsettling. I remembered that I had sent it off to Fahim.

    Absentmindedly, Sarkana tugged on her lower lip with her thumb and forefinger. “Your purpose may be fixated on something beyond you, yet it still comes from you. I think you’d be a fool to think it was anything besides beautiful. It may not be anything I would do, or anyone else for that matter, but whatever meaning you hold is yours … does anything else matter?”

    Truth conjoined with likemindedness and sparked a connection, time’s brevity collapsed, and Sarkana seemed, in the filtered light of winter kept at bay, a goddess without age in her own, tiny realm. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes.

    “Will you tell me about that day?” I asked quietly. 

    “If you promise to keep it only to yourself.”

    “Hei’ta prosium, Sarkana.”

    “Takka, Casimir. I will, then.” She led me to a bench in front of a trellis overrun with ivy, motioning for me to join her in sitting. Overhead, the tree was still a bustle of wings and cawing. “I was quite young, blessed to grow up in a household where magick was nothing short of routine, in a seaside town called Yarimen in Qalmora. At the time, I had little ambition but to become a scholar and attend The Light Academy not a week’s journey from our home.”

    “Did you ever attend the academy?”

    “Yes, but ... that story may be for another time. As I child, I was given two rooks. The birds grew up with me, became my companions. In my eyes, they were inseparable. They hunted, feasted, played, and even watched over me, together. I couldn’t walk beyond our home without their shadows following me. It seemed no matter where I went, I was safe, protected.”

    “They were that loyal?”

    “Of course. I had them since I was born, after all. But … that morning, something happened. I left the home, alone, for the first time. I needed to retrieve some things from the nearby fish market, nothing extraordinary, just some ingredients for dinner. The rooks had been kept in their cages back at home.”

    “Why were they kept there?”

    “I suppose I felt they should be there. Every child looks forward to their first day of being unwatched by a protective eye. The rooks watched over me, but I wanted to see how I faired alone in the bustling market. I was just past my tenth year, and I felt I could handle myself well enough. Everything went well, after all, that wasn’t the problem. Of course, I could purchase some fish and return home. The horror was what awaited me when I got there.”

    “What did you see?”

    “I pushed open the door, my basket heavy with supplies, but then suddenly, dropped to the floor. Bread, fish, spices, they all spilled out at my feet. I was surprised to find that my fingers had gone numb, that my fist had relinquished its hold on what should have been a happy day of, for the first time, being independent. But when I looked inside my home, I saw bloody paw prints  scattered across the floor. And besides them, countless, black feathers parted from the rooks.”

    “Did you call for help?”

    “It wouldn't have mattered in the end, but at the time, I couldn't think to do so. Without thinking, it seemed, my feet wandered past the doorway and shuffled into the living room. Somehow, the cage had been unlocked, and beneath it, one of the rooks was laying there, her talons already curled up by the rigor mortis, her beak snapped in two and her body shattered by the teeth of a wolf that had found its way inside.

    “I followed the paw prints and found tufts of fur ripped from the wolf, along with the silence that had settled into our home. The prints led me upstairs, to one of the studies, where I found the body of the wolf, its neck riddled with puncture marks from a beak, its eyes pecked to shreds. But besides it, there was the second rook, too, his feathers heavy and still like blackened stone, unmoving as they soaked up the blood.”

    My face clenched up as I realized what the story was missing, or rather, what was hidden. I felt my suspicions of Sarkana soften. “What did you do?”

    “I did what any child would do, I cried. But after that, and after the silence of that afternoon pursued me as I grew older, I thought often about what had happened, why it happened.”

    “But does tragedy need to have a reason behind it? Does death desire a meaning?”

    Out of the corner of my eyes, I saw Sarkana’s head turn from the clouds to mine, so I did the same, watching the memories play out across her eyes, the metaphor unraveling in grisly clarity. “Precisely. Tragedy does not, it seldom does. But it’s our duty to give it one. Death asks nothing of us, it only takes. It’s our task to shape something from it.”

    “Is that your purpose, Sarkana?”

    “I have many,” she replied, touching her hand to mine, “but they all stem from that one.”

    Confused, I looked down at the sudden display of affection. But she was only getting my attention. The warmth of her fingers left to point towards the sky. “It appears your friend is smarter than you thought,” she said with a smile. “Some news from the castle, then?”

    Beyond the direction of her finger, I spotted a very confused and very tiny Felix discovering just how warm it was inside the sanctuary, flapping around in circles before swooping down in exhilaration at spotting me. Forgetting his task, the crow dropped the letter that he'd been holding in his beak, crashing into my chest with many caws, flapping feathers, and attempts to stroke his beak against my chin. After soothing and introducing him to Sarkana, I dug into the pouch at his talon, to find my ring awaiting me. I slipped it back onto my thumb, glad to feel another comfort returned. 

    But it was with a racing heart that I stood up, walked toward the unmarked envelope, and unfolded the letter that Fahim had wrote in reply to my signal.

    I skimmed the writing with greedy eyes, past the rushed greeting and hopes of my survival, down to the final lines scrawled in the same haste as all the others, the ones that read:


Meet me at the Reaver’s Crossroads, dusk of the 6th of January. 

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Chapter 8 of The Culling of Casimir
Written by Harlequin in portal Fantasy
Chapter 8: One
Welcome back to Netherway, and more specifically, a winter in Addoran! I hope you enjoyed the intermission. I must thank everyone again who is still following the tale as it unravels. If you have any thoughts, questions, suggestions or critiques, feel free to drop them in the comments; an artist is nothing without criticism. It will be a long while until mastery is reached, but every word is another stone in the path. I am delighted to share the journey with you all, and hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
Without further (nervous) delay, here is Chapter 8: One. 
                                                       ~ ~
I had no dreams, only the darkness of a sleep deepened by heavy exhaustion. I awoke to that brief amnesia where nothing seems important beyond the opening of the eyes, the stretching of the arms, the confused observation of what is around us.
    Three winter suns exalted colossal, white clouds with golden light that beamed down on the glittering waters of the Ruined Sea, now aquamarine and inviting in the light of a late dawn. Half a dozen pointed tails broke the surface of the water in the distance, a school of blackfin hydras circling before dipping back under. I stared at the scene through a nearby window, sat up in a bed that I had no recollection of getting into, tucked under two layers of thick wool and a heavy blanket of mismatched, stitched hide, as if it took three animals to make it. Two of Sarkana’s towers obscured the cliffside view of the sea, still exuding their violet light with rhythmic pulses, as if even the sanctuary breathed.
    Cool sweat lined my forehead and caused my clothes to cling to my skin.
    Perhaps more puzzling than the fact that none of last night was a dream, as the lingering pain from the gargoyle bat’s claw marks made apparent, was that Sarkana had managed to haul me up the stairs while I was still sleeping. I had little doubt she was stronger than she looked, but even still …
    The chamber I was in was modest in its size, yet elegant with its sparse decoration. An empty desk and dresser sat beside each other on the wall opposite the window, where the bed lay directly beneath. The wall across from me displayed the full skeleton of a bird attached to a mantle, its wings fixed in a permanent position of being splayed, each bone threaded to dozens of tiny nails to keep it upright. A hanging circlet of iron swayed almost imperceptibly from the ceiling, the six candles in their holders untouched and collecting dust, never lit for visitors. 
    Seared mutton spiced with herbs, roots simmering in oil, caffek being steeped in water. My mouth watered as the flavors wafted through the cracked doorway of the chamber and my stomach growled, reminding me that I had not eaten anything since noon the previous day. I had been too nervous to eat during William’s starday feast.
    I tossed off the blankets and jumped a little too quickly from the bed, igniting the stiff aching of my muscles which laughed at my attempt at exuberance. I spotted my hat resting on one of the bedposts, where beneath it hung my scabbard, belt and satchel. I reached my hand out for the hat, but stopped. I was distracted by the bloodstains on my hands—dried puddles that splashed down my arm and dotted the clothes I had worn the previous day, reminders of lives that could never be restored, of the brief euphoria I felt not only dodging death, but turning its hand in my favor. The guilt burdened me, but the excitement lingered. I left the hat where it was.
    The thought of talking to the isolated practitioner that had aided in my escape didn’t seem like a particularly appealing venture, especially not with a clouded mind. Welcoming though she was, Sarkana’s sanctuary did little to make me feel at ease. Still, the promise of food outweighed my trepidations, so I found myself slowly, curiously, observing the home after I left the room.
    Along the walls, hanging from the rafters, was no shortage of similar displays of organized and catalogued bones as the bird in the bedroom. In meticulous script on neatly cut parchment, each creature was labeled down to the smallest of structures. For the more grandiose or rare skeletons, such as a phoenix—whose bones still held a faint glimmer of fire—in the hall just outside my chamber, their remains were enchanted to hover quietly above pedestals or small tables. I resisted the urge to touch the skull of the phoenix, afraid to disenchant the spell that held it perfectly aloft.
    I managed to pry myself away from exploring further and made my way down the staircase in front of the entryway. My shoes were being warmed by the embers splitting over the iron grating in the fireplace, their leather cleaned and polished. After I slipped them on, I found the largest piece in Sarkana’s skeletal collection: a human’s. It was laying supine and firmly affixed to the dome ceiling above the armchairs in the living room. Only, this skeleton had no labels, and even the bones were grimy, unpolished, dirtied by decay but naked all the same, held within a circle with crisscrossing lines and symbols, pulsing with that same light that flowed throughout all of the sanctuary.
    ‘Necromancers,’ Magister Fahim once laughed at me after I’d asked about them. ‘All the angst-ridden adolescent practitioners dream of becoming them. An empty dream, sadly. Very few have a firm grasp of how to perfect that kind of magick, and I doubt they’ll be sharing their secrets anytime soon. Scholars would have more luck pursuing the kind of alchemy that turns dirt to gold. Foolish, foolish ambitions. What’s wrong with destruction magick, I always ask them. Isn’t that exciting enough? Why do young students always wish to drag dead things into the mix? It’s some sick perversion, if you ask me.’
    ‘Besides resurrecting the dead, what could one of them do, exactly?’ I prodded him.
    Fahim had been immersed in the crafting of a new tincture, and was becoming visibly annoyed with my pestering. ‘You mean a masterful necromancer, not just an apprentice?’
    ‘I … suppose so?’
    ‘Let’s put it simply: necromancy is the manipulation of the dead. In a way, all living things are in a perpetual state of decay. Theoretically, a master necromancer would have domain over, well, everything. But with all that power and only one body, what’s the purpose? You’d still find yourself exhausted after a few incantations, just like most practitioners. At most you would, what, make a puppet out of a body, maybe two? And how long could someone control something so burdensome? I doubt very long.’ Trying to imagine it, he shook his head.
    ‘Sounds quite exciting to me,’ I had laughed.
    ‘Don’t take this poorly, but you’re not exactly a seasoned practitioner. You don’t know how painful it can be to cast higher magick. It wouldn’t be enjoyable in the slightest. You’d have to have some very deep motives to pursue such an arduous study. Either that, or you’d have to be mad.’
    Fahim’s words echoed in my head as I stared at the skeleton. He really had been a good friend, now that I thought about it. It was difficult to realize I may never speak with him again.
    “Casimir? So you really are awake, those footsteps weren’t just my imagination.” Sarkana was standing in front of the kitchen’s doorway, holding a long, wooden spoon and wearing the same garments she’d had on the night before. Her grey eyes were alight with that same curiosity, too, looking all over my body as if she’d miss something important if she didn’t examine every detail.
    I grinned at her, uncertain as to why she seemed undisturbed by the fact that I had been perusing the various cadavers throughout her home. “Do you often imagine phantom footsteps throughout your home, Sarkana?”
    “Oh, I don't need to imagine them,” she returned without hesitating, as if it wasn't an unsettling remark.
    I opened my mouth to reply, but my stomach interrupted me, at an embarrassing volume.
    She raised her eyebrows before laughing. “Care to satisfy the beast? I thought some food from our home country would be comforting after everything that’s happened.” Without waiting for a response, she went back into the kitchen.
    Tentatively, I followed her through the open, arched doorway. Inside, Sarkana was prodding at stuffed potatoes on a rack in the concave stove, whose stone roof merged with the kitchen’s ceiling, exhaling its spiced aromas through the chimney shaft. Pots, ladles, and other cooking ware hung from the ceiling, while spices and herbs were put away in wooden containers of various sizes, all organized impeccably. At the heart of the room, a tree’s trunk yawned from beneath the floorboards and stretched through the roof. Small cracks had been developing around the rim of the roof’s circular opening, splintering as slowly and deliberately as the trunk's steady widening stretched the structure. From cut branches of the tree, Sarkana had fashioned table tops and, within the trunk itself, more shelves for storage.
    “Your home is breathtaking,” I admitted. “It doesn’t seem like a single room lacks a touch of you. Did you do all of it yourself?”
    “Oh, you’re too kind. I had some help,” she shrugged, then nudged the four stuffed potatoes onto two plates, before spooning out sautéd greens beside them. Herbed mutton steamed up from inside the potatoes’ buttered skins and flesh, doing its best to get me to drool in front of my host.
    With a poker, she dispersed the logs of the cooking fire in the stove, until all that was left was glowing embers and cinders turning to ash as they stretched out towards the colder edges of the stone surface. She set the plates down on one of the tables extending from the tree and sat down at a chair. A little awkwardly, I stood without a seat, staring at her as she readied a metal fork and knife.
    “I …”
    “Oh!” She jumped from her chair, then snatched another from the kitchen that seemed to have held the lonely and solitary use of a stepping stool, with no visitors' rears to oblige for for years. She wiped off the dust marks of her footprints from its surface before letting me tuck myself into it.
    “Thank you." Then, and only after we had made it through half of the meal in silence, I asked, “Have you lived alone very long?” The food had satiated my hunger, though my questions for Sarkana were ever voracious.
    “Alone,” she repeated with a chuckle. “I suppose that word means different things to different people. But, in the common sense, I have been alone for many years. And to be quite honest Casimir, it is much longer than I care to count at the moment. I am not sure that finding the number would do any good for me. I haven’t bothered since I lost track. As the saying in our kin goes, Pal’thases reqimet est pal’thases coleltia.”
    I nodded, a little discouraged to have already prodded a tender spot. “So do you regret it, then, leading this kind of life?”
    Zuma crawled as close to the stove as she could without getting burned, and nipped a few stray pieces of fried potato to nibble on.
    “Absolutely not,” Sarkana said, sounding almost offended. “Some people pursue commendable ranks or titles, some people chase after lofty ambitions or passions, searching for fulfillment or gratification. But regardless of what they’re after, the only ones who seem to get very far are those that sacrifice the most. Time, wealth, companionships, obligations …” Sarkana’s gaze held mine, but I could tell she was looking far past my eyes into memories that did not belong there, “just about everything they can let go of. As it seems in this world, the more things you let go of that most folks hold onto, the more things you can grasp that are untouched.”
    Repetitive, stark, and unrhythmic caws from an unkindness of ravens accented our conversation from the gardens outside. A few of their wings flashed darkly in front of the window as they swooped to find their perches on the same tree that we were eating from. The branches above could be heard shifting under their weight, even through the roof.
    “Zuma! Caffek,” Sarkana commanded suddenly.
    The blood imp jumped at her name. But at the second word, she darted to the kettle beside the roasting rack in the open stove and performed the trained maneuver of pouring caffek into a cup from one of the shelves. Sarkana handed her another to fill. The tiny demon stretched her arm across the empty space towards me, and I took the cup with an astonished nod of thanks from her claw.
    “So then, are you after something?” I asked.
    Sarkana blew gently on the steam rising from the cup. Then, before drinking, she replied, “Aren’t we all?”
    I looked down at the caffek, my burning eyes now smoldered by the dark reflection of the thickly steeped substance. “Not everyone, not always.”
    “I used to think the same, actually. But, one day, I realized something that changed my mind.”
    “One particular day?”
    “One particular day, yes.”
    “What did you realize?”
    Zuma hopped from her station at the stove, then circled the ground and attempted to make the stone floor more comfortable for sleep by slapping it with her tail. 
    “It doesn’t matter if you haven’t realized it yet. Everyone has their purpose, their calling, even if some people delude themselves into thinking they have none. For the unambitious, their lives are easily dictated by others; for the apathetic, their lives are spent for the sake of another’s. I have little faith in fate or the gods, Casimir, but I think some people are born cradling purpose, while others spend their entire lives searching for it. It comes, it exists, one way or another, from one hand or another. It’s an object of possession, no doubt about that, but you only have it so long as you convince yourself it’s in your hands.”
    I drank the caffek deeply, savoring the trail of heat down my throat and the rich, bittersweet burn hinting at chocolate.
    “What is your purpose, Casimir?”
    I choked, surprised by her sudden shift of attention and spluttered all over the table. I used my sleeve to wipe off the droplets as I muttered an apology. But this only amused her further. “If I tell you, will you tell me about that day when you stumbled upon that realization?”
    Sarkana’s eyes flitted from mine to her hands, where she pondered over the trade in the lines of her small palms. The laughter faded with her smile. Her tall, arching ears fluttered a little while a silence longer than I anticipated held on her lips. “I will,” she agreed, “in my gardens. There's no sense wasting a perfectly fine day inside.”
    As she led me away from the kitchen, both our plates now bereft of their Qalmorian culture, I spotted the room that I had heard Sarkana leave into the night before. At the center of which was a trapdoor, its handle wrapped in a chain and lock affixed to bolts in the floor. Before she could catch me staring, she tugged me toward another door inset with silverglass panes that blurred the outside forestry and blooming color of her gardens, despite winter’s current hold on Addoran.
    She pushed the door open and stepped on the only stone that stood between us and the steep fall to the ground beneath her home. At her touch, stones rose, flipped, and collided before us in a sudden stroke of cascading construction, to form a small bridge that arched down to the floor.
    Unsurprisingly, a smile touched my lips. “You just aren’t satisfied with doing things normally, are you?”
    “To be fair, you don’t seem much different,” she retorted.
    “Fair enough. Now, am I going mad, or does it suddenly feel like summer out here?” I reached my hand out toward the air as we descended the bridge, surprised to find that my teeth didn’t start chattering. In fact, I was uncomfortable in all of my layers. It seemed just as temperate outside as it was within the home, and if anything, a bit warmer.
    “I cannot answer the first question for you, but I assure you it isn’t summer.” Upon the final step of the bridge, the stones dissembled themselves to rest inconspicuously upon the damp earth, where daisies, pale roses and dragon teeth blossoms bloomed in rows along ivy-wrapped arbors marking the walkways. “In my gardens,” Sarkana said with a tone of defiance, “it is always spring. Life is punitive and death is selfish, but in my home,” she said as she bent to the head of a dying rose, “I am death’s keeper.” She brought the rose to her lips, muttering while her hands cradled it, and as if she was merely breathing embers to flames once more, when the rose fell from her hands, its wilted petals had turned plump with revived color, its sagging stem stiff and searching again for the sun.
    “Remarkable,” I breathed.
    Sarkana stood up again, not recognizing my reaction. “You’re still holding onto that answer.” And as she asked once more, I discovered something surprising within the tension of truth before its release, that even the most ethereal concepts, even if they cannot be held, can surely be tainted if not stolen. And I wondered, just like that rose, what words might wilt and bloom within her fists, should I allow her to clutch them, even briefly.
    “My purpose?” I looked up at the rain clouds forming above her sanctuary, the brief burst of moisture as the droplets failed to penetrate the aura that kept the season inside fixed, the countless ravens that enjoyed the air without chill as many of them attended to nests that should never have been made at this time of year. “My purpose is to inspire others to find theirs.” 
    In my mind, the strength of those words echoed as cannons booming in a castle; in the past, they ruptured the most dreadful silences and revived hope from lost meaning and graveyards of regret; it scorched shadows of the past and sent phantom thoughts fleeing in terror. But now, as they left my lips, Sarkana’s scrutiny cast their resonance in translucence, and I felt just how hallow they were without action. “Am I a fool to not strive for something within myself?” My fingers went for the ring that normally wrapped my left thumb, to twist it in nervousness, but found its bare skin. Unsettling. I remembered that I had sent it off to Fahim.
    Absentmindedly, Sarkana tugged on her lower lip with her thumb and forefinger. “Your purpose may be fixated on something beyond you, yet it still comes from you. I think you’d be a fool to think it was anything besides beautiful. It may not be anything I would do, or anyone else for that matter, but whatever meaning you hold is yours … does anything else matter?”
    Truth conjoined with likemindedness and sparked a connection, time’s brevity collapsed, and Sarkana seemed, in the filtered light of winter kept at bay, a goddess without age in her own, tiny realm. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes.
    “Will you tell me about that day?” I asked quietly. 
    “If you promise to keep it only to yourself.”
    “Hei’ta prosium, Sarkana.”
    “Takka, Casimir. I will, then.” She led me to a bench in front of a trellis overrun with ivy, motioning for me to join her in sitting. Overhead, the tree was still a bustle of wings and cawing. “I was quite young, blessed to grow up in a household where magick was nothing short of routine, in a seaside town called Yarimen in Qalmora. At the time, I had little ambition but to become a scholar and attend The Light Academy not a week’s journey from our home.”
    “Did you ever attend the academy?”
    “Yes, but ... that story may be for another time. As I child, I was given two rooks. The birds grew up with me, became my companions. In my eyes, they were inseparable. They hunted, feasted, played, and even watched over me, together. I couldn’t walk beyond our home without their shadows following me. It seemed no matter where I went, I was safe, protected.”
    “They were that loyal?”
    “Of course. I had them since I was born, after all. But … that morning, something happened. I left the home, alone, for the first time. I needed to retrieve some things from the nearby fish market, nothing extraordinary, just some ingredients for dinner. The rooks had been kept in their cages back at home.”
    “Why were they kept there?”
    “I suppose I felt they should be there. Every child looks forward to their first day of being unwatched by a protective eye. The rooks watched over me, but I wanted to see how I faired alone in the bustling market. I was just past my tenth year, and I felt I could handle myself well enough. Everything went well, after all, that wasn’t the problem. Of course, I could purchase some fish and return home. The horror was what awaited me when I got there.”
    “What did you see?”
    “I pushed open the door, my basket heavy with supplies, but then suddenly, dropped to the floor. Bread, fish, spices, they all spilled out at my feet. I was surprised to find that my fingers had gone numb, that my fist had relinquished its hold on what should have been a happy day of, for the first time, being independent. But when I looked inside my home, I saw bloody paw prints  scattered across the floor. And besides them, countless, black feathers parted from the rooks.”
    “Did you call for help?”
    “It wouldn't have mattered in the end, but at the time, I couldn't think to do so. Without thinking, it seemed, my feet wandered past the doorway and shuffled into the living room. Somehow, the cage had been unlocked, and beneath it, one of the rooks was laying there, her talons already curled up by the rigor mortis, her beak snapped in two and her body shattered by the teeth of a wolf that had found its way inside.
    “I followed the paw prints and found tufts of fur ripped from the wolf, along with the silence that had settled into our home. The prints led me upstairs, to one of the studies, where I found the body of the wolf, its neck riddled with puncture marks from a beak, its eyes pecked to shreds. But besides it, there was the second rook, too, his feathers heavy and still like blackened stone, unmoving as they soaked up the blood.”
    My face clenched up as I realized what the story was missing, or rather, what was hidden. I felt my suspicions of Sarkana soften. “What did you do?”
    “I did what any child would do, I cried. But after that, and after the silence of that afternoon pursued me as I grew older, I thought often about what had happened, why it happened.”
    “But does tragedy need to have a reason behind it? Does death desire a meaning?”
    Out of the corner of my eyes, I saw Sarkana’s head turn from the clouds to mine, so I did the same, watching the memories play out across her eyes, the metaphor unraveling in grisly clarity. “Precisely. Tragedy does not, it seldom does. But it’s our duty to give it one. Death asks nothing of us, it only takes. It’s our task to shape something from it.”
    “Is that your purpose, Sarkana?”
    “I have many,” she replied, touching her hand to mine, “but they all stem from that one.”
    Confused, I looked down at the sudden display of affection. But she was only getting my attention. The warmth of her fingers left to point towards the sky. “It appears your friend is smarter than you thought,” she said with a smile. “Some news from the castle, then?”
    Beyond the direction of her finger, I spotted a very confused and very tiny Felix discovering just how warm it was inside the sanctuary, flapping around in circles before swooping down in exhilaration at spotting me. Forgetting his task, the crow dropped the letter that he'd been holding in his beak, crashing into my chest with many caws, flapping feathers, and attempts to stroke his beak against my chin. After soothing and introducing him to Sarkana, I dug into the pouch at his talon, to find my ring awaiting me. I slipped it back onto my thumb, glad to feel another comfort returned. 
    But it was with a racing heart that I stood up, walked toward the unmarked envelope, and unfolded the letter that Fahim had wrote in reply to my signal.
    I skimmed the writing with greedy eyes, past the rushed greeting and hopes of my survival, down to the final lines scrawled in the same haste as all the others, the ones that read:


Meet me at the Reaver’s Crossroads, dusk of the 6th of January. 
#TCOC  #amideadyetitis2am 
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Written by Harlequin in portal Poetry & Free Verse

Contraption

Quietly deteriorating

Still it remains, repeating

Still it repeats, entreating

Inaction to reaction

The stuttering ticking

Of a dying contraption

Stanzas for minutes

Dawns seconds to verses

From spring to gear and cogs

Spins coherence in symbolism

Mechanism of maladies

Yet remedies, its purpose

Ceases tracking moments

Instead tallies my torturous

Thoughts turned ruinous

And tactless are my hands

Within this malfunctioning

Apparatus now hazardous

Beyond these repetitions

Respite surely requires

Toil of reparation, but

Now unfound, the vitiation

Presently beyond mending

This contraption's creation

Designed for dilapidation

Turns time to steady

Turnings of deterioration

Still it remains, repeating

Still it repeats, entreating

A vexation of my senses

My slipping adolescence

Corroding to stillness

Still it remains, repeating,

Still it repeats, entreating

Inaction to reaction

The stuttering ticking

Of a reviving contraption

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Written by Harlequin in portal Poetry & Free Verse
Contraption
Quietly deteriorating
Still it remains, repeating
Still it repeats, entreating
Inaction to reaction
The stuttering ticking
Of a dying contraption

Stanzas for minutes
Dawns seconds to verses
From spring to gear and cogs
Spins coherence in symbolism

Mechanism of maladies
Yet remedies, its purpose
Ceases tracking moments
Instead tallies my torturous
Thoughts turned ruinous
And tactless are my hands
Within this malfunctioning
Apparatus now hazardous

Beyond these repetitions
Respite surely requires
Toil of reparation, but
Now unfound, the vitiation
Presently beyond mending

This contraption's creation
Designed for dilapidation
Turns time to steady
Turnings of deterioration

Still it remains, repeating
Still it repeats, entreating
A vexation of my senses
My slipping adolescence
Corroding to stillness

Still it remains, repeating,
Still it repeats, entreating
Inaction to reaction
The stuttering ticking
Of a reviving contraption
#poetry 
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8
14
Juice
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Written by Harlequin

Intermission

Seven chapters in and 30,000 words diffused, it's time to pull the curtains shut and give Casimir a moment to breathe. 

I won't go into details, but this week was essentially the yawning of multiple hells with each portal spawning a multitude of demons, all of each well equipped with the necessary means and abilities to devour me, regurgitate me, and then eat me again. They are quite good at salting their dishes. 

When I began this project, I told myself that I would allow for three intermissions in credence to life's tragedies and misfortune. Both misfortune and tragedy struck this week, so here we are, coincidentally marking the first third of the novel. We are given scars when we fall, but we truly earn them when we get back up.

So for this week, instead, we'll have a conversation about art and the conception of The Culling of Casimir. I suppose every performance needs a break from the suspense. So, if you'd still like to join me, you can brew some coffee, tea, or pour the liquor, and we'll talk philosophy and writing for a spell. 

Excerpt from Prologue

An ethereal film of the surreal passed over my eyes. I needed that feeling—that nothing truly mattered, not if I was alone, not if the world was staring at me.

Art comes from odd places: a desire to express, to be heard, understood, and even sometimes, to push our understanding or insights onto others. When I write, I try not to think of who will read it. I try, above all else, to entertain and fulfill myself. I feel that imagining the audience muddles the process and encourages crafting prose we otherwise would never have made. Furthermore, although we sometimes say the most horrific things to ourselves (about ourselves, sadly), our most profound thoughts are usually kept within, too. This is a pity. I feel that, if I am writing from a mental place of solitude, insights might feel more comfortable crawling from their hiding places. If I imagine dozens of people watching, I risk adopting the stitch-lipped persona many of us use when we go out into the world.

Perhaps most important, we are the most silly and care-free when we're alone. Especially with writing, it's easy to come across as taking oneself too seriously. If I can offer a soulful story sprinkled with nonsensical dialogue and humor, I'd much prefer that over the pretentious rambling of someone who thinks they're smarter than they really are. 

When I began writing this story, the novel had a completely different protagonist, set of characters, setting, and tone. I wrote the book as a way to escape the 'seriousness' of literature, not desiring to accomplish much of anything beyond practice. I wanted only to entertain while I waited for another concept to spawn for a big piece following The Lupine Curse, my first published book. 

Surprisingly, I found that I was far more passionate about the philosophical, historical, and spiritual concepts of the Trickster, the Jester, and The Fool, to belittle the project as an action/adventure piece with spell-slinging badasses. So I trashed all of that work, realizing I needed more time to develop myself before I could give this piece everything I felt it needed. Three years later, I find myself with a jester hat tattooed on my arm, a different pen name, and a deep attachment to the motifs that, for a long while, seemed only like footnotes to entertain briefly before beginning other works. Whoops ...

Excerpts from Chapter 3: The Cascading Tower

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

Casimir is, like all of us, confused. 

So much of living is maneuvering around stress, pressure, and the deep insecurities that have developed in us since our childhoods. With some luck and determination, we may find a calling, art, craft, or profession that allows us to diffuse imperfection, frustration, and personal development into gratifying achievement. We may even be ... erhm, what's the word? Content.

As Casimir copes with the trauma of having to kill one of the few people who ever understood him, he realizes that bloodshed is the quintessence of life's happenstance misfortune. He feels oddly wonderful wielding chaos, which often comes in the form of his daggers. He finds, both to his delight and horror, that murdering those who stand in his opposition, gives him both an illusion of control and a sense of purpose as another major cog in the wheels of mayhem. After committing his regicide, he persists in a near permanent state of kill-or-be-killed. Almost conveniently, he now feels that many actions are justifiable as long as they are crucial for his survival, actions that were previously unthinkable, but now are simply another means for his self-actualization.

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

Mortality must certainly be the epitome of the expression 'a double-edged sword'. It is an inescapable end, and simultaneously, one of the best reasons to craft ourselves into masterpieces. As Casimir and all of us cope with the unpredictability of life, and as we attempt to carve out our paths through the storms, we have the freedom to see death as one of our greatest inspirations, instead of our biggest fears.

Excerpt from Chapter 6: The Signet

“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 for those that do, as one they will never forget.”

If we are not happy with ourselves and our lives, what's the point of continuing through each day in the same manner? Beyond productivity, achievement, living is an art in it of itself. We can choose to take everything seriously and suffer at the hands of disappointment or distress, or we can, with a wry smile, make what we will of it and take reality with a grain of salt. 

Casimir and Shamus both deal in professions of illusion. Casimir, with his more physical mechanisms and Shamus with shadow spells, both seek to perplex whoever is at the hands of their trickery. While playing puppeteers of perception, they themselves begin to about the ephemeral nature of reality; what truth lay hidden beneath the everyday bustle of living, surviving, and aging. Behind it all, there are some reverberating refrains, words that ripple throughout each of our individual, brief, human experiences. We can focus on the sleight of life's hands, the surface reality, the stress, the obligations, the fears and doubts. Or ... we can be more cunning than that. We can grace ourselves with observing what more is woven subtly behind reality: the myriad meanings, symbols, and greater importances found while embracing the mortal infinite.

Advice for Deciphering the Timeline

The Culling of Casimir isn't written linearly on purpose. I won't plot it all out, as it is meant to become clear as a finished piece, but in case any readers are confused with the staggered settings between the chapters, there are four main focus points to discern where each chapter is taking place.

1. Wait what ... just happened?

    Some chapters simply continue from the previous scene, such as Chapters 5 and 6.

2. Casimir's Nightmare

    Casimir had a haunting nightmare of masks that occurred in Chapter 2, the central motif of his suffering. In the prologue, he is seen with a physical mask that he created for a performance, using that nightmare as inspiration. Casimir's capabilities as a performer mark both his dexterity with weaponry and acrobatics as well as the high points of his life with the Foxfeathers. 

3. The Death of the Northern King William III

    Does everybody seem more or less OK with a murderer waltzing around? Is Lady Elise alive or is King William spotted in the scene? Chances are it's in the early years of Casimir's life in the Foxfeather Castle.

4. Scars

    Both emotional and physical, Casimir refers to things that have happened previously that affect his current decisions, mannerisms, and behavior. Especially in later chapters that haven't been posted yet, this will become vital in observing his journey.

I owe everyone a gigantic Thank You! for supporting me along this journey and following the story. I do apologize for not giving any warnings in advance for intermissions like this, but I do hope you understand. I would rather work longer to perfect a chapter than offer you all something that I cannot admit is finished or even worthy of reading. I'll see you all next week, after my own scars have healed.

Hexes and charms,

Harlequin

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Written by Harlequin
Intermission
Seven chapters in and 30,000 words diffused, it's time to pull the curtains shut and give Casimir a moment to breathe. 

I won't go into details, but this week was essentially the yawning of multiple hells with each portal spawning a multitude of demons, all of each well equipped with the necessary means and abilities to devour me, regurgitate me, and then eat me again. They are quite good at salting their dishes. 

When I began this project, I told myself that I would allow for three intermissions in credence to life's tragedies and misfortune. Both misfortune and tragedy struck this week, so here we are, coincidentally marking the first third of the novel. We are given scars when we fall, but we truly earn them when we get back up.

So for this week, instead, we'll have a conversation about art and the conception of The Culling of Casimir. I suppose every performance needs a break from the suspense. So, if you'd still like to join me, you can brew some coffee, tea, or pour the liquor, and we'll talk philosophy and writing for a spell. 

Excerpt from Prologue
An ethereal film of the surreal passed over my eyes. I needed that feeling—that nothing truly mattered, not if I was alone, not if the world was staring at me.

Art comes from odd places: a desire to express, to be heard, understood, and even sometimes, to push our understanding or insights onto others. When I write, I try not to think of who will read it. I try, above all else, to entertain and fulfill myself. I feel that imagining the audience muddles the process and encourages crafting prose we otherwise would never have made. Furthermore, although we sometimes say the most horrific things to ourselves (about ourselves, sadly), our most profound thoughts are usually kept within, too. This is a pity. I feel that, if I am writing from a mental place of solitude, insights might feel more comfortable crawling from their hiding places. If I imagine dozens of people watching, I risk adopting the stitch-lipped persona many of us use when we go out into the world.

Perhaps most important, we are the most silly and care-free when we're alone. Especially with writing, it's easy to come across as taking oneself too seriously. If I can offer a soulful story sprinkled with nonsensical dialogue and humor, I'd much prefer that over the pretentious rambling of someone who thinks they're smarter than they really are. 

When I began writing this story, the novel had a completely different protagonist, set of characters, setting, and tone. I wrote the book as a way to escape the 'seriousness' of literature, not desiring to accomplish much of anything beyond practice. I wanted only to entertain while I waited for another concept to spawn for a big piece following The Lupine Curse, my first published book. 

Surprisingly, I found that I was far more passionate about the philosophical, historical, and spiritual concepts of the Trickster, the Jester, and The Fool, to belittle the project as an action/adventure piece with spell-slinging badasses. So I trashed all of that work, realizing I needed more time to develop myself before I could give this piece everything I felt it needed. Three years later, I find myself with a jester hat tattooed on my arm, a different pen name, and a deep attachment to the motifs that, for a long while, seemed only like footnotes to entertain briefly before beginning other works. Whoops ...

Excerpts from Chapter 3: The Cascading Tower
As an entertainer, I search for that sacred place where intuition and imagination meet, where the body ceases struggling and becomes a conduit for an unperturbed mind. So few times have I reached that state, where nothing matters besides the task at hand, and art becomes a seamless, continuous rhythm, of stillness interrupted by bursts of expression. And here, in ecstatic mayhem, amidst the screams and struggling, I had found it. The castle had become my stage, the men seeking vengeance for the King, the scores to my daggers’ melodies, and I, their instrument. They struck their notes with scarlet, swelled the air in rapturous music, biding for another gruesome crescendo.

Casimir is, like all of us, confused. 

So much of living is maneuvering around stress, pressure, and the deep insecurities that have developed in us since our childhoods. With some luck and determination, we may find a calling, art, craft, or profession that allows us to diffuse imperfection, frustration, and personal development into gratifying achievement. We may even be ... erhm, what's the word? Content.

As Casimir copes with the trauma of having to kill one of the few people who ever understood him, he realizes that bloodshed is the quintessence of life's happenstance misfortune. He feels oddly wonderful wielding chaos, which often comes in the form of his daggers. He finds, both to his delight and horror, that murdering those who stand in his opposition, gives him both an illusion of control and a sense of purpose as another major cog in the wheels of mayhem. After committing his regicide, he persists in a near permanent state of kill-or-be-killed. Almost conveniently, he now feels that many actions are justifiable as long as they are crucial for his survival, actions that were previously unthinkable, but now are simply another means for his self-actualization.

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

Mortality must certainly be the epitome of the expression 'a double-edged sword'. It is an inescapable end, and simultaneously, one of the best reasons to craft ourselves into masterpieces. As Casimir and all of us cope with the unpredictability of life, and as we attempt to carve out our paths through the storms, we have the freedom to see death as one of our greatest inspirations, instead of our biggest fears.

Excerpt from Chapter 6: The Signet
“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 for those that do, as one they will never forget.”

If we are not happy with ourselves and our lives, what's the point of continuing through each day in the same manner? Beyond productivity, achievement, living is an art in it of itself. We can choose to take everything seriously and suffer at the hands of disappointment or distress, or we can, with a wry smile, make what we will of it and take reality with a grain of salt. 

Casimir and Shamus both deal in professions of illusion. Casimir, with his more physical mechanisms and Shamus with shadow spells, both seek to perplex whoever is at the hands of their trickery. While playing puppeteers of perception, they themselves begin to about the ephemeral nature of reality; what truth lay hidden beneath the everyday bustle of living, surviving, and aging. Behind it all, there are some reverberating refrains, words that ripple throughout each of our individual, brief, human experiences. We can focus on the sleight of life's hands, the surface reality, the stress, the obligations, the fears and doubts. Or ... we can be more cunning than that. We can grace ourselves with observing what more is woven subtly behind reality: the myriad meanings, symbols, and greater importances found while embracing the mortal infinite.

Advice for Deciphering the Timeline

The Culling of Casimir isn't written linearly on purpose. I won't plot it all out, as it is meant to become clear as a finished piece, but in case any readers are confused with the staggered settings between the chapters, there are four main focus points to discern where each chapter is taking place.

1. Wait what ... just happened?
    Some chapters simply continue from the previous scene, such as Chapters 5 and 6.

2. Casimir's Nightmare
    Casimir had a haunting nightmare of masks that occurred in Chapter 2, the central motif of his suffering. In the prologue, he is seen with a physical mask that he created for a performance, using that nightmare as inspiration. Casimir's capabilities as a performer mark both his dexterity with weaponry and acrobatics as well as the high points of his life with the Foxfeathers. 

3. The Death of the Northern King William III
    Does everybody seem more or less OK with a murderer waltzing around? Is Lady Elise alive or is King William spotted in the scene? Chances are it's in the early years of Casimir's life in the Foxfeather Castle.

4. Scars
    Both emotional and physical, Casimir refers to things that have happened previously that affect his current decisions, mannerisms, and behavior. Especially in later chapters that haven't been posted yet, this will become vital in observing his journey.

I owe everyone a gigantic Thank You! for supporting me along this journey and following the story. I do apologize for not giving any warnings in advance for intermissions like this, but I do hope you understand. I would rather work longer to perfect a chapter than offer you all something that I cannot admit is finished or even worthy of reading. I'll see you all next week, after my own scars have healed.

Hexes and charms,
Harlequin
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Chapter 7 of The Culling of Casimir
Written by Harlequin in portal Fantasy

Chapter 7: Sarkana's Sanctuary

    It's Saturday already?

   Welcome to another segment of this ridiculously scattered dream. If you have joined me so far, I am beyond thrilled to have you here again. Casimir's tale is not the easiest to read, as it is, in essence, an exploration of chaos, so I am grateful to the audience it has culminated so far. Unfortunately, considering the immense pressure and stress I feel by writing this 'live', I won't be able to continue this story anymore, at least, not in front of everyone. It seems to be tainting the artistic purity of the piece ... I am regretful to announce that this will be the last chapter I post before the book is finished.

    Regardless, can you think of a better way to celebrate this April Fool's Day than with Casimir, a bonafide jester? I do hope you all a magnificent Fool's Day, and whether it bring pain or happiness, that it, (at the very least), offers some laughter, too.

   Happy April Fool's Day Prosers! Hopefully you caught the terrible joke. (You can't be rid of me that easily.) Enough is enough. Let us begin! 

                                                     ~  ~

    It is when fate is kind that we can entertain illusions of control, as specters might temporarily feel alive when moonlight and darkness coincide to grant their silver silhouettes the impression of fair skin, once again.

    That is not to say we cannot dictate how we tread our paths. There is power in softly spoken words, in biding for a crucial second between moments passing idly by, in love spawned from passing glances and hatred stretched over seasons, in haggard breaths facing opposition. We possess capabilities and potential just within our reach of fathoming. But all is constricted, all is tested, ground, pressured and prodded by that constant presence that has begun all this and will end it all the same: chaos.

    We are merely artists. Chaos is the creator. We are her ink and brush. But so long as we persist within this realm of happenstance, we may as well be her masterpieces.

In all its strangeness, my uncomfortable flight with the gargoyle bat continued for quite some time. I might’ve said, ‘longer than I expected’ but it’s not the most rational thing, to expect much of anything from something as ludicrous and unpredictable as being swooped from the air by a bat. As the darkened landscapes swirled beneath my tingling feet, the sky breathed silences of midnight beneath scorching scars, their light frozen by the wintry air. Time, once more, was dismantled from its linear nature, now dwindled into surreal obscurity.

    I reflected on all that had happened that evening, on what events might cascade from my regicide, on who I had become by killing William. My expression stiffened while the frigid winds froze my lips, realizing that killing ends the life of another, but may do little to the murderer. Flesh remains flesh and blood courses the same in unaltered veins; thoughts alone are the movements by which the soul shifts. And within that shift, guilt and justification quarreled for my attention as I imagined the possibility—even if it seemed unthinkable—that perhaps, one day, William would have conquered his insanity. If only I had waited. If only I had endured. If only I hadn’t already imbibed the poison of our companionship souring after that madness had consumed him, replacing what blessings we had in each other with bonds of hatred.

    In killing him, I didn’t rid Netherway of a madman, I merely replaced his body with my own. Now that he had been assassinated, his martyrdom would permit all of his greatest attributes immortality, while his insidiousness, and the actions the court refused to share to the public, would be passed to my name. A bloodied heirloom.

    Briefly, a colony of much smaller, chittering bats joined our flight, their wings like wildly fluttering, tattered dark pages that enveloped us. I stretched my arms out to feel their leathery skin and furry bodies as they investigated the unusually straight path of the gargoyle, who didn’t react to them in the slightest. Disenchanted, the colony then dipped downwards, returning to a cavern in the face of an adjacent cliff.

    But the distraction didn’t afford a long relief from my reflection. The guards’ corpses I’d left for the sake of my escape didn’t haunt me, they lingered as unanswered questions. That is: why I felt so little remorse, no burden of morality? I was distracted, drawn, confounded by the flashes of clarity I felt when those moments rose to an apex of tension. It seemed, at their sanguine summit, with blood rushing both within and outwards, my actions were little else than the unfolding of cards from a loaded deck, a wink of mischief at all of life’s miseries, taunting them to do better while I played the fool but murdered the chances. With death dancing as the consequence to failure, the stakes were too steep to play fairly. And within this game of justified horror, it made more sense to celebrate and laugh for my victories, to craft purpose out of action, than to weep for the atrocities demanded.

    The gargoyle bat made such a dramatic shift in direction as it dove from the sky, I thought I would surely be whisked out of its claws and into the air, to plummet into the canopies of the Sea of Blood.

    We ducked through a haze of thick clouds, our descent quickening while the lands beneath us neared. At the edge of the forest, a dark house with sharp, pointed roofs overlooked a cliff that was beating back the glittering, atrous waters of the Ruined Sea. Six conical towers surrounded the house like points of a star, each of their tops circled by a single ring of mauve light. And when I looked hard enough, I could see a thin, wispy chord of the same color connecting them all.

    The sanctuary’s gates were not iron, but wood, and not cut wood, mind you, but branches extending from two live trees that stood on either side, seemingly conjoined to the stone walls that connected each tower, and thriving with the same colored leaves as the forest beneath us.

    The bat ceased gliding and flapped its wings high above the entrance, as if confused. We sat in the air, flapping.

    I looked down at the candlelit windows of the dwelling beneath me, not entirely comfortable with the idea that I had been delivered here against my will, even if it was much, much farther from Portsworth than I ever could have hoped to be in such a short amount of time.

    Without warning, the bat relinquished its piercing grip, having difficult tearing one of its nails from my clothes.

    “Damned!” I started to scream a string of insults, but thought of a better use of my energy, and instead grasped onto one of the bat’s claws, now panicked with how my body dangled perilously over the pleasant view.

    The bat’s eyes shifted in color. They turned glossy black, wide, frightened and frantic. Now the creature emitted every noise it seemed possible of screeching, as if to make up for the hour of silence we shared in the sky. It snapped and bit at my head, and even used the thumbnail of its wing to claw at my neck.

    “Ow! Shh! Calm down!” I hissed uselessly at it.

    The beast steered frantically left and right in the air as it attempted to shake me off. Until finally, it squeezed its claws together and wrenched itself away.

    My hands slid from their grip and I dropped toward the ground, screaming loud enough to shake leaves from branches. I didn’t close my eyes, I opened them wide, hoping to take in every last detail of my meaningless death before my body smashed against the earth. For all that had happened that evening, to die a death of falling from a crazed bat was less than appealing.

    Halfway through my descent, the ground stopped rushing to meet me and my plummeting slowed. I was hovering weightlessly, falling slower than a feather, cradled in a glove of heavy air the same color as the turret’s circles. First nervous, then exuberant laughter came from my chest. I somersaulted and flipped in defiance of gravity, whooping hysterically that I had not died as an idiot. Enjoying the divine intervention, I was already sorry to see that my feet were close to contacting the ground. 

    After my toe touched the damp earth, my weight returned.

    Unharmed, astonished, and alive, I dusted myself off and adjusted my belt, staring at the knotted branches that comprised the sanctuary’s gate. Behind me, a small path led into the Sea of Blood, its trees now staggeringly tall with me beneath them. I walked closer to the branches that wove the gate together and reached a hand out towards them.

    My finger brushed against one of the leaves. The branches shivered and recoiled from my touch, curling into their trunks and folding against one another as if I had harmed them. They left an opening, one that led to a path of small stones, each one carved with symbols I’d never seen before, luminescent pale, gleaming starkly against in the night. 

    The mansion sat several bodies high above the ground. The dark, duskenwood structure rested on a massive block of stone. Surrounding the home were groves of plants and trees, their bark overrun with emerald green algae.

    Although my stomach squirmed at the thought of going further, it didn’t seem likely that whoever led me here would give up if I simply turned around and tried my chances in the forest. Against my better judgement, I took the first tentative step on the brightly lit path.

    My foot fell upon one of the runed stones. Damson light sparked out of the engraving. The ground crunched and another step jutted out of the earth in front of my foot. I took my next step on it, and another, higher step ascended. I continued, enthralled by the architectural enchantment, and enjoyed watching as each footfall summoned a pillar of stone that rose taller than the one before it.

    As my foot left the last stone step and met the wooden walkway of the porch, the staircase behind lurched, then dropped back into the ground with grinding clunks. 

    “Welcome, Casimir, to my humble sanctuary,” a woman’s calm voice greeted me. I jumped, nearly tripping over myself as I stumbled backwards. My hand went to one of my daggers, before I remembered that I’d just been saved from falling to my death, perhaps twice, by presumably the shadow now speaking to me.

    She was sitting on the guardrail between the pillars that supported the porch’s slanted roof. As if we had been good friends all along, she sipped from a steaming mug before gesturing at another one waiting for me on the railing. For now, I ignored the burning question as to how she knew my name.

    My eyes widened. In the dark, it appeared that she had the most bulbous, hideous head I had ever seen. I walked closer, saying nothing, observing the circular headpiece of silver and glass that encased her head, leaving only her nose, lips and cheeks uncovered. Like honeycomb, the headpiece was covered in dozens of lenses of various sizes, each one with a small lever. She reached up and flicked one, activating a click and a small movement in the contraption, before one of the lenses turned black. Only one of her eyes stared through a clear lens, the iris bright silver and simmering against the thin glass.

    “I … you,” I stammered. “This is what you call ‘humble’?” I laughed, not nearly mad enough to believe any of this was a dream, but just stupid enough to think that in the first place, after all that had happened. 

     The woman was dressed in garments that you’d commonly see in higher orders of practitioners: well-fitted arms, leggings, and a high-collared tunic with a belt that overlaid the ensemble, all in black. Stripped layers of ashen grey cloth hung from the shoulders and the waist, sifting in a sea-scented breeze frozen by the late hour. To my surprise, she matched my height, with skin as light as a pureblooded Moon-elf, and a body that appeared tiny, nearly frail.

    “Well, you of all people should know that humility is cheap. Oh, is this unsettling?” She switched the dial on the lens that covered her other eye, revealing her full, flitting gaze that quickly ran up and down my body. She tilted her head. “You’re taller than I expected you to be in person.”

    “I—thank you. This is all rather impressive, though unexpected,” I added with a less than pleased tone, feeling the lingering pain of the bat's claws. I turned my head around to observe the towers, the perplexing design of the house’s twisted and arching wood, the vines and plants that hugged the pillars and encased the walls, and the woodworking of the hideous faces staring down from the eaves at the entrance. Fireflies decorated the air with their meandering bodies of gold light, pulsing intermittently as they floated about the garden. “I will admit I am somewhat …”

    “Speechless?”

    “No.”

    “Confused, then.”

    “Incredibly.” I took up the steaming cup, smelling mugwort tea, and sipped it.

    “Yes, it is all quite confusing. Please, forgive me for that. Oh, where have my manners fled to? This must be jarring, and it’s been some time since I’ve spoken to anyone, let alone someone from my own kin,” she admitted with a shaky laugh before hopping down from her seat. “My name is Sarkana Bloodbane. Mala’desh manorei.” She smiled and bowed her head, the lenses on her head catching the moonlight as she did.

    “Cas—Mala’desh manorei,” I returned the Qalmorian greeting with a stutter. Simultaneously, we placed our right hand on each other’s left breast, long enough to feel the heartbeat underneath. It was common practice between elves of the same breed to exchange gestures respective to their kin, even if it was a meeting between strangers. Dusk-elves have the fortunate and other times unfortunate tradition of kissing fully upon meeting. Her heart, I felt, was racing. I noticed then, just like Shamus, that she had countless symbols etched into her hands, much different but just as complex as his.

    “Shall we go inside? I’m sure you have as many questions as there are stars in the sky, and you must be freezing from that flight. Please, follow me,” she said, opening the door to her home. “How’d you enjoy the fall?” she laughed.

    “Is it possible for something to be too dreamlike?”

    “Only if you can’t imagine it for yourself.”

    The wood creaked, not for the hinges but its ponderous weight, before she closed it behind us. Although crisp with years of solitude, the air inside was welcoming, and warm enough to make the edges of my fingers sting after being numbed to the cold.

    She walked to the staircase directly facing the door, where two pillars on either side held out silver bowls with stone hands. At the base of one pillar, she touched her finger to a symbol, and out of the embers in the bowls, fire burst upwards before they settled to a low burn. A chain of lights from torches, metal fixtures, stone sconces and two hearths then cascaded to life, illuminating the room with exhalations of flame and steady flickers.

    “Wonderful,” I muttered aloud, both bewildered and enchanted. “Ouch! Fek!” I whirled to face an exuberantly mischievous expression of a blood imp, sloshing my tea as I did. Its large, red eyes affixed to its tiny, furry head were positively dancing from having successfully bitten into my ankle. Its absurdly enormous, pointed ears flopped around as it spun on its hands in a dance of achievement.

    “Zuma! Stop that!” Sarkana chastised. “Casimir, I am terribly sorry. This little demon isn’t used to anyone else besides me. She must be excited.”

    “Evidently. Where did you get one of those, anyways?”

    “Oh, you know …” she said, not answering my question as she bent to pick up the four-legged creature, whose height didn’t extend far past my shin. Its eyes followed me even as she stroked its belly before placing it on the floor again, after which it scampered to the corner of a hallway, before peeking its head out specifically to watch me. Sarkana sighed, shaking her head. “By the fire, then?”

    Even for someone who wore a three-pronged hat nearly every day, this meeting was teetering a little too far beyond my boundaries of irregular. Reluctantly, I nodded, wondering if it was still feasible to run.

    Sarkana then removed the large contraption on her head, sighing as she pried off the tight-fitting, leather interior. A mess of damp, white hair fell in tangles before she hastily put it up with a loose strip of cloth that she had produced from inside her sleeve. Even without the mask, her age was difficult to gauge, as the lines on her face seemed to be caused more by stress than anything else. And yet, despite her stumbling greeting, she seemed far beyond youth, almost as if an excited energy shrouded her, one that time could not diminish. She had thin lips, a sharp nose, and angular jaws that brought out a peculiar beauty with a keen demeanor that seemed bent on scrutinizing, and exercising control meticulously.

    “What is that, exactly?” I asked.

    “Nothing that you’ll ever see beyond my hands, gods willing. I created it, after all. It’s a, well, I call it a seer’s eyes, not that it can glimpse into the future. It’s what I used to control that gargoyle bat. Or, if you prefer, Frederick.”

    My eyebrows flashed at the name she had chosen for a humungous beast. “Speaking of which--”

    “Let me assure you that you’ve not been captured, but saved. You would have died, Casimir, jumping from such a height. If I hadn’t known you better, I would have assumed you were trying to kill yourself. Even silver pools pack a density from a fall of that height. Your bones would have cracked when you met it.”

    I frowned, both skeptical and ashamed. “Well then, I owe you more than my thanks. On the other hand, I’ve only just met you, Sarkana. How could you know me?”

    She pursed her lips together and brought her fingers to them. “Perhaps we've only just met. But the Foxfeather Castle has been of interest to me, and I hope you don’t mind, but I have been rather diligent with my means of exploring it from a safe distance … for quite some time.”

    “You mean to say you’ve been watching me through the eyes of, aah, Frederick?”

    “Not you specifically, but recently, yes. And Frederick is not the only one, no. I have hexed more than a few creatures. Their individual spells are activated by these levers, here.” She pointed to the metallic points that switched the lenses. “After I’d spotted you plucking a familiar flower from that alchemist’s gardens, I must admit, I felt rather bewitched myself. When I realized what you were intending to do, I couldn’t keep my gaze from you. I watched you stare at that vial of poison in your chamber for nearly an hour, wasn’t it? Your hesitation …” She trailed off, as if all of it was just as mesmerizing now as it was then. I remained silent, anticipating that she had far more to say, and in all likelihood, far more that she wished to share but sensed she could not. Not now, at least.

    “But what truly captured my attention was when you embraced the aftermath of your actions. It was then that I realized, if there was any way that I could assist you, I would. So, after that mage nearly burnt down your chamber, I watched you fall, and well, that brings us to here.” Sarkana smirked. “You weren’t alone when you killed that monster, Casimir, even if all the members of your court sat still as ignorant stones, unwilling to stand up for your actions. They knew it was right. They did. I did, too. Let’s settle this odd tale this way: I had my own way of expressing my approval, and, fortunate for you, it was by saving your life.”

    Somehow, her clarification didn’t make me feel any less unsettled. I felt my voice hiding in the back of my throat, timid to respond from my scattered thoughts. Life gives as much as it takes, offering curses masquerading as blessings, misery disguised as happiness, and luck shadowed by misfortune; it seems nothing persists without its opposite. I had just murdered the very manifestation of that duality—a stranger that had become as close as a brother of my own blood, then a man I could not resist killing for all he had done.

    From behind Sarkana’s imploring eyes asking for my gratitude, I perceived a desperation less than innocent. So I flinched at my immediate instinct to trust, perhaps embittered by the true nature of fate’s meager graces, perhaps intimidated by the proficiency of higher magick that Sarkana, herself, possessed. They say that higher magick will kill a man if he does not practice it properly, but if he does, and if he does it regularly, it will consume him, his life, his ambitions.

    I could not help but wonder how long she had been living in solitude, and just what occupied her boundless time in a guarded sanctuary. Even then, I was trying to imagine just how fast I could sprint from her home.

    “Yes, thank you,” I replied carefully. “Though I doubt those words will do enough to express my gratitude to you. Forgive me, and I think you will understand,” I said with a chuckle, “that this evening has been a long one.”

    The dried branches soaked in the flames of the fire, crumbling, sizzling, and popping with the smell of roasted duskenwood. Exhaustion came in a sudden, vengeful rush, impatient after being fought back by the night’s adrenaline. Was it really just hours before that I tipped an uncorked tincture into a golden goblet filled with wine? I recalled the moment when I wondered if William would see the inconspicuous swirls of clear fluid before they dissipated into the vintage, and how his eyes met mine just as I turned around to present his death to him.

    “Of course not. No thanks or forgiveness necessary. Tonight, you did Addoran a favor. Though precious few will recognize it,” she said with a sigh. “The least I could do is offer you a place to rest.”

    Zuma’s clawed feet came tapping behind us on the wooden floor. The creature circled around the table in front of the hearth, her long, thin tail flicking back and forth as she sniffed my now cold tea.

    “Well then, aren’t you curious?” Sarkana asked, as if disappointed in me.

    “Curious?”

    “Don’t you want to see how the castle has been fairing with the death of their king? How they are all scrambling to find you? I have a finch in the castle’s gardens that might satiate your inquiries.” Sarkana made a motion to grab the seer’s eye while her lips did a poor job of hiding a toothy smile.

    I hesitated as she waited my response, then shook my head. “No,” I sighed, “I can’t imagine that there will be many nights where I don’t relive this one. At least for this hour, I might let my mind wander elsewhere, if you don’t mind.”

    Zuma leapt into my lap, nipping my hand as she did, which I took as an invitation to scratch her stomach. Her wet, pointed snout prodded at my fingers.

    “Yes,” Sarkana laughed. “You shouldn’t fret for keeping an old croon company, either. There is a spare chamber upstairs that you can rest in. I can only imagine how exhausted you are. There’s more to discuss, but I suppose it can wait until morning.”

    “I have little doubt you don’t have to imagine it,” I said with a nod toward the seer’s eye. “And, thank you, once more. I am not sure how many more times I can say it before it sounds empty.”

    “An expression of speech,” she smiled with a shrug, and then stood up and began walking away, carrying the seer’s eye with her. "As I said, there's no thanks necessary."

    “Oh? Where are you going?”

    “As much as it would be a pleasure to tuck you in, Casimir, I have some other tasks demanding my attention. I trust you can survive falling asleep without me. You’ll be happy to hear there are no guards waiting to kill you upstairs, nor angry mages to spit destruction incantations at you. Only a bed. Sleep well.” She turned into a doorway that led into an unlit kitchen overlooking the groves outside the home. Once she was inside, I heard another door open and close, and then another, followed by her descending footfalls down what I imagined was a staircase.

    In my lap, Zuma was curled into a ball of charcoal fur, her feet twitching every now and then while she chased after something in her dreams.

    I considered the ramifications of waking an imp from its slumber, and simultaneously, I felt the heavy, nearly paralytic waves of tiredness that claimed not only my limbs but my fingers. 

    My eyes fluttered on the flames of the fire, watching William’s body topple over his throne, seeing how his hand reached for his crown as the last of the poison’s convulsions staggered his heart to stillness. And I heard, once more, that reverent silence of death flourish throughout the massive dining hall, and how it shook even me in that moment, asking us all to consider the brevity and frailty of that gift we so often taint and squander.

    My head lulled backwards, the sky yawned a breath of dawn, an ember popped from the hearth, the imp snored, and I joined her.

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Chapter 7 of The Culling of Casimir
Written by Harlequin in portal Fantasy
Chapter 7: Sarkana's Sanctuary
    It's Saturday already?
   Welcome to another segment of this ridiculously scattered dream. If you have joined me so far, I am beyond thrilled to have you here again. Casimir's tale is not the easiest to read, as it is, in essence, an exploration of chaos, so I am grateful to the audience it has culminated so far. Unfortunately, considering the immense pressure and stress I feel by writing this 'live', I won't be able to continue this story anymore, at least, not in front of everyone. It seems to be tainting the artistic purity of the piece ... I am regretful to announce that this will be the last chapter I post before the book is finished.
    Regardless, can you think of a better way to celebrate this April Fool's Day than with Casimir, a bonafide jester? I do hope you all a magnificent Fool's Day, and whether it bring pain or happiness, that it, (at the very least), offers some laughter, too.
   Happy April Fool's Day Prosers! Hopefully you caught the terrible joke. (You can't be rid of me that easily.) Enough is enough. Let us begin! 
                                                     ~  ~
    It is when fate is kind that we can entertain illusions of control, as specters might temporarily feel alive when moonlight and darkness coincide to grant their silver silhouettes the impression of fair skin, once again.
    That is not to say we cannot dictate how we tread our paths. There is power in softly spoken words, in biding for a crucial second between moments passing idly by, in love spawned from passing glances and hatred stretched over seasons, in haggard breaths facing opposition. We possess capabilities and potential just within our reach of fathoming. But all is constricted, all is tested, ground, pressured and prodded by that constant presence that has begun all this and will end it all the same: chaos.
    We are merely artists. Chaos is the creator. We are her ink and brush. But so long as we persist within this realm of happenstance, we may as well be her masterpieces.
In all its strangeness, my uncomfortable flight with the gargoyle bat continued for quite some time. I might’ve said, ‘longer than I expected’ but it’s not the most rational thing, to expect much of anything from something as ludicrous and unpredictable as being swooped from the air by a bat. As the darkened landscapes swirled beneath my tingling feet, the sky breathed silences of midnight beneath scorching scars, their light frozen by the wintry air. Time, once more, was dismantled from its linear nature, now dwindled into surreal obscurity.
    I reflected on all that had happened that evening, on what events might cascade from my regicide, on who I had become by killing William. My expression stiffened while the frigid winds froze my lips, realizing that killing ends the life of another, but may do little to the murderer. Flesh remains flesh and blood courses the same in unaltered veins; thoughts alone are the movements by which the soul shifts. And within that shift, guilt and justification quarreled for my attention as I imagined the possibility—even if it seemed unthinkable—that perhaps, one day, William would have conquered his insanity. If only I had waited. If only I had endured. If only I hadn’t already imbibed the poison of our companionship souring after that madness had consumed him, replacing what blessings we had in each other with bonds of hatred.
    In killing him, I didn’t rid Netherway of a madman, I merely replaced his body with my own. Now that he had been assassinated, his martyrdom would permit all of his greatest attributes immortality, while his insidiousness, and the actions the court refused to share to the public, would be passed to my name. A bloodied heirloom.
    Briefly, a colony of much smaller, chittering bats joined our flight, their wings like wildly fluttering, tattered dark pages that enveloped us. I stretched my arms out to feel their leathery skin and furry bodies as they investigated the unusually straight path of the gargoyle, who didn’t react to them in the slightest. Disenchanted, the colony then dipped downwards, returning to a cavern in the face of an adjacent cliff.
    But the distraction didn’t afford a long relief from my reflection. The guards’ corpses I’d left for the sake of my escape didn’t haunt me, they lingered as unanswered questions. That is: why I felt so little remorse, no burden of morality? I was distracted, drawn, confounded by the flashes of clarity I felt when those moments rose to an apex of tension. It seemed, at their sanguine summit, with blood rushing both within and outwards, my actions were little else than the unfolding of cards from a loaded deck, a wink of mischief at all of life’s miseries, taunting them to do better while I played the fool but murdered the chances. With death dancing as the consequence to failure, the stakes were too steep to play fairly. And within this game of justified horror, it made more sense to celebrate and laugh for my victories, to craft purpose out of action, than to weep for the atrocities demanded.
    The gargoyle bat made such a dramatic shift in direction as it dove from the sky, I thought I would surely be whisked out of its claws and into the air, to plummet into the canopies of the Sea of Blood.
    We ducked through a haze of thick clouds, our descent quickening while the lands beneath us neared. At the edge of the forest, a dark house with sharp, pointed roofs overlooked a cliff that was beating back the glittering, atrous waters of the Ruined Sea. Six conical towers surrounded the house like points of a star, each of their tops circled by a single ring of mauve light. And when I looked hard enough, I could see a thin, wispy chord of the same color connecting them all.
    The sanctuary’s gates were not iron, but wood, and not cut wood, mind you, but branches extending from two live trees that stood on either side, seemingly conjoined to the stone walls that connected each tower, and thriving with the same colored leaves as the forest beneath us.
    The bat ceased gliding and flapped its wings high above the entrance, as if confused. We sat in the air, flapping.
    I looked down at the candlelit windows of the dwelling beneath me, not entirely comfortable with the idea that I had been delivered here against my will, even if it was much, much farther from Portsworth than I ever could have hoped to be in such a short amount of time.
    Without warning, the bat relinquished its piercing grip, having difficult tearing one of its nails from my clothes.
    “Damned!” I started to scream a string of insults, but thought of a better use of my energy, and instead grasped onto one of the bat’s claws, now panicked with how my body dangled perilously over the pleasant view.
    The bat’s eyes shifted in color. They turned glossy black, wide, frightened and frantic. Now the creature emitted every noise it seemed possible of screeching, as if to make up for the hour of silence we shared in the sky. It snapped and bit at my head, and even used the thumbnail of its wing to claw at my neck.
    “Ow! Shh! Calm down!” I hissed uselessly at it.
    The beast steered frantically left and right in the air as it attempted to shake me off. Until finally, it squeezed its claws together and wrenched itself away.
    My hands slid from their grip and I dropped toward the ground, screaming loud enough to shake leaves from branches. I didn’t close my eyes, I opened them wide, hoping to take in every last detail of my meaningless death before my body smashed against the earth. For all that had happened that evening, to die a death of falling from a crazed bat was less than appealing.
    Halfway through my descent, the ground stopped rushing to meet me and my plummeting slowed. I was hovering weightlessly, falling slower than a feather, cradled in a glove of heavy air the same color as the turret’s circles. First nervous, then exuberant laughter came from my chest. I somersaulted and flipped in defiance of gravity, whooping hysterically that I had not died as an idiot. Enjoying the divine intervention, I was already sorry to see that my feet were close to contacting the ground. 
    After my toe touched the damp earth, my weight returned.
    Unharmed, astonished, and alive, I dusted myself off and adjusted my belt, staring at the knotted branches that comprised the sanctuary’s gate. Behind me, a small path led into the Sea of Blood, its trees now staggeringly tall with me beneath them. I walked closer to the branches that wove the gate together and reached a hand out towards them.
    My finger brushed against one of the leaves. The branches shivered and recoiled from my touch, curling into their trunks and folding against one another as if I had harmed them. They left an opening, one that led to a path of small stones, each one carved with symbols I’d never seen before, luminescent pale, gleaming starkly against in the night. 
    The mansion sat several bodies high above the ground. The dark, duskenwood structure rested on a massive block of stone. Surrounding the home were groves of plants and trees, their bark overrun with emerald green algae.
    Although my stomach squirmed at the thought of going further, it didn’t seem likely that whoever led me here would give up if I simply turned around and tried my chances in the forest. Against my better judgement, I took the first tentative step on the brightly lit path.
    My foot fell upon one of the runed stones. Damson light sparked out of the engraving. The ground crunched and another step jutted out of the earth in front of my foot. I took my next step on it, and another, higher step ascended. I continued, enthralled by the architectural enchantment, and enjoyed watching as each footfall summoned a pillar of stone that rose taller than the one before it.
    As my foot left the last stone step and met the wooden walkway of the porch, the staircase behind lurched, then dropped back into the ground with grinding clunks. 
    “Welcome, Casimir, to my humble sanctuary,” a woman’s calm voice greeted me. I jumped, nearly tripping over myself as I stumbled backwards. My hand went to one of my daggers, before I remembered that I’d just been saved from falling to my death, perhaps twice, by presumably the shadow now speaking to me.
    She was sitting on the guardrail between the pillars that supported the porch’s slanted roof. As if we had been good friends all along, she sipped from a steaming mug before gesturing at another one waiting for me on the railing. For now, I ignored the burning question as to how she knew my name.
    My eyes widened. In the dark, it appeared that she had the most bulbous, hideous head I had ever seen. I walked closer, saying nothing, observing the circular headpiece of silver and glass that encased her head, leaving only her nose, lips and cheeks uncovered. Like honeycomb, the headpiece was covered in dozens of lenses of various sizes, each one with a small lever. She reached up and flicked one, activating a click and a small movement in the contraption, before one of the lenses turned black. Only one of her eyes stared through a clear lens, the iris bright silver and simmering against the thin glass.
    “I … you,” I stammered. “This is what you call ‘humble’?” I laughed, not nearly mad enough to believe any of this was a dream, but just stupid enough to think that in the first place, after all that had happened. 
     The woman was dressed in garments that you’d commonly see in higher orders of practitioners: well-fitted arms, leggings, and a high-collared tunic with a belt that overlaid the ensemble, all in black. Stripped layers of ashen grey cloth hung from the shoulders and the waist, sifting in a sea-scented breeze frozen by the late hour. To my surprise, she matched my height, with skin as light as a pureblooded Moon-elf, and a body that appeared tiny, nearly frail.
    “Well, you of all people should know that humility is cheap. Oh, is this unsettling?” She switched the dial on the lens that covered her other eye, revealing her full, flitting gaze that quickly ran up and down my body. She tilted her head. “You’re taller than I expected you to be in person.”
    “I—thank you. This is all rather impressive, though unexpected,” I added with a less than pleased tone, feeling the lingering pain of the bat's claws. I turned my head around to observe the towers, the perplexing design of the house’s twisted and arching wood, the vines and plants that hugged the pillars and encased the walls, and the woodworking of the hideous faces staring down from the eaves at the entrance. Fireflies decorated the air with their meandering bodies of gold light, pulsing intermittently as they floated about the garden. “I will admit I am somewhat …”
    “Speechless?”
    “No.”
    “Confused, then.”
    “Incredibly.” I took up the steaming cup, smelling mugwort tea, and sipped it.
    “Yes, it is all quite confusing. Please, forgive me for that. Oh, where have my manners fled to? This must be jarring, and it’s been some time since I’ve spoken to anyone, let alone someone from my own kin,” she admitted with a shaky laugh before hopping down from her seat. “My name is Sarkana Bloodbane. Mala’desh manorei.” She smiled and bowed her head, the lenses on her head catching the moonlight as she did.
    “Cas—Mala’desh manorei,” I returned the Qalmorian greeting with a stutter. Simultaneously, we placed our right hand on each other’s left breast, long enough to feel the heartbeat underneath. It was common practice between elves of the same breed to exchange gestures respective to their kin, even if it was a meeting between strangers. Dusk-elves have the fortunate and other times unfortunate tradition of kissing fully upon meeting. Her heart, I felt, was racing. I noticed then, just like Shamus, that she had countless symbols etched into her hands, much different but just as complex as his.
    “Shall we go inside? I’m sure you have as many questions as there are stars in the sky, and you must be freezing from that flight. Please, follow me,” she said, opening the door to her home. “How’d you enjoy the fall?” she laughed.
    “Is it possible for something to be too dreamlike?”
    “Only if you can’t imagine it for yourself.”
    The wood creaked, not for the hinges but its ponderous weight, before she closed it behind us. Although crisp with years of solitude, the air inside was welcoming, and warm enough to make the edges of my fingers sting after being numbed to the cold.
    She walked to the staircase directly facing the door, where two pillars on either side held out silver bowls with stone hands. At the base of one pillar, she touched her finger to a symbol, and out of the embers in the bowls, fire burst upwards before they settled to a low burn. A chain of lights from torches, metal fixtures, stone sconces and two hearths then cascaded to life, illuminating the room with exhalations of flame and steady flickers.
    “Wonderful,” I muttered aloud, both bewildered and enchanted. “Ouch! Fek!” I whirled to face an exuberantly mischievous expression of a blood imp, sloshing my tea as I did. Its large, red eyes affixed to its tiny, furry head were positively dancing from having successfully bitten into my ankle. Its absurdly enormous, pointed ears flopped around as it spun on its hands in a dance of achievement.
    “Zuma! Stop that!” Sarkana chastised. “Casimir, I am terribly sorry. This little demon isn’t used to anyone else besides me. She must be excited.”
    “Evidently. Where did you get one of those, anyways?”
    “Oh, you know …” she said, not answering my question as she bent to pick up the four-legged creature, whose height didn’t extend far past my shin. Its eyes followed me even as she stroked its belly before placing it on the floor again, after which it scampered to the corner of a hallway, before peeking its head out specifically to watch me. Sarkana sighed, shaking her head. “By the fire, then?”
    Even for someone who wore a three-pronged hat nearly every day, this meeting was teetering a little too far beyond my boundaries of irregular. Reluctantly, I nodded, wondering if it was still feasible to run.
    Sarkana then removed the large contraption on her head, sighing as she pried off the tight-fitting, leather interior. A mess of damp, white hair fell in tangles before she hastily put it up with a loose strip of cloth that she had produced from inside her sleeve. Even without the mask, her age was difficult to gauge, as the lines on her face seemed to be caused more by stress than anything else. And yet, despite her stumbling greeting, she seemed far beyond youth, almost as if an excited energy shrouded her, one that time could not diminish. She had thin lips, a sharp nose, and angular jaws that brought out a peculiar beauty with a keen demeanor that seemed bent on scrutinizing, and exercising control meticulously.
    “What is that, exactly?” I asked.
    “Nothing that you’ll ever see beyond my hands, gods willing. I created it, after all. It’s a, well, I call it a seer’s eyes, not that it can glimpse into the future. It’s what I used to control that gargoyle bat. Or, if you prefer, Frederick.”
    My eyebrows flashed at the name she had chosen for a humungous beast. “Speaking of which--”
    “Let me assure you that you’ve not been captured, but saved. You would have died, Casimir, jumping from such a height. If I hadn’t known you better, I would have assumed you were trying to kill yourself. Even silver pools pack a density from a fall of that height. Your bones would have cracked when you met it.”
    I frowned, both skeptical and ashamed. “Well then, I owe you more than my thanks. On the other hand, I’ve only just met you, Sarkana. How could you know me?”
    She pursed her lips together and brought her fingers to them. “Perhaps we've only just met. But the Foxfeather Castle has been of interest to me, and I hope you don’t mind, but I have been rather diligent with my means of exploring it from a safe distance … for quite some time.”
    “You mean to say you’ve been watching me through the eyes of, aah, Frederick?”
    “Not you specifically, but recently, yes. And Frederick is not the only one, no. I have hexed more than a few creatures. Their individual spells are activated by these levers, here.” She pointed to the metallic points that switched the lenses. “After I’d spotted you plucking a familiar flower from that alchemist’s gardens, I must admit, I felt rather bewitched myself. When I realized what you were intending to do, I couldn’t keep my gaze from you. I watched you stare at that vial of poison in your chamber for nearly an hour, wasn’t it? Your hesitation …” She trailed off, as if all of it was just as mesmerizing now as it was then. I remained silent, anticipating that she had far more to say, and in all likelihood, far more that she wished to share but sensed she could not. Not now, at least.
    “But what truly captured my attention was when you embraced the aftermath of your actions. It was then that I realized, if there was any way that I could assist you, I would. So, after that mage nearly burnt down your chamber, I watched you fall, and well, that brings us to here.” Sarkana smirked. “You weren’t alone when you killed that monster, Casimir, even if all the members of your court sat still as ignorant stones, unwilling to stand up for your actions. They knew it was right. They did. I did, too. Let’s settle this odd tale this way: I had my own way of expressing my approval, and, fortunate for you, it was by saving your life.”
    Somehow, her clarification didn’t make me feel any less unsettled. I felt my voice hiding in the back of my throat, timid to respond from my scattered thoughts. Life gives as much as it takes, offering curses masquerading as blessings, misery disguised as happiness, and luck shadowed by misfortune; it seems nothing persists without its opposite. I had just murdered the very manifestation of that duality—a stranger that had become as close as a brother of my own blood, then a man I could not resist killing for all he had done.
    From behind Sarkana’s imploring eyes asking for my gratitude, I perceived a desperation less than innocent. So I flinched at my immediate instinct to trust, perhaps embittered by the true nature of fate’s meager graces, perhaps intimidated by the proficiency of higher magick that Sarkana, herself, possessed. They say that higher magick will kill a man if he does not practice it properly, but if he does, and if he does it regularly, it will consume him, his life, his ambitions.
    I could not help but wonder how long she had been living in solitude, and just what occupied her boundless time in a guarded sanctuary. Even then, I was trying to imagine just how fast I could sprint from her home.
    “Yes, thank you,” I replied carefully. “Though I doubt those words will do enough to express my gratitude to you. Forgive me, and I think you will understand,” I said with a chuckle, “that this evening has been a long one.”
    The dried branches soaked in the flames of the fire, crumbling, sizzling, and popping with the smell of roasted duskenwood. Exhaustion came in a sudden, vengeful rush, impatient after being fought back by the night’s adrenaline. Was it really just hours before that I tipped an uncorked tincture into a golden goblet filled with wine? I recalled the moment when I wondered if William would see the inconspicuous swirls of clear fluid before they dissipated into the vintage, and how his eyes met mine just as I turned around to present his death to him.
    “Of course not. No thanks or forgiveness necessary. Tonight, you did Addoran a favor. Though precious few will recognize it,” she said with a sigh. “The least I could do is offer you a place to rest.”
    Zuma’s clawed feet came tapping behind us on the wooden floor. The creature circled around the table in front of the hearth, her long, thin tail flicking back and forth as she sniffed my now cold tea.
    “Well then, aren’t you curious?” Sarkana asked, as if disappointed in me.
    “Curious?”
    “Don’t you want to see how the castle has been fairing with the death of their king? How they are all scrambling to find you? I have a finch in the castle’s gardens that might satiate your inquiries.” Sarkana made a motion to grab the seer’s eye while her lips did a poor job of hiding a toothy smile.
    I hesitated as she waited my response, then shook my head. “No,” I sighed, “I can’t imagine that there will be many nights where I don’t relive this one. At least for this hour, I might let my mind wander elsewhere, if you don’t mind.”
    Zuma leapt into my lap, nipping my hand as she did, which I took as an invitation to scratch her stomach. Her wet, pointed snout prodded at my fingers.
    “Yes,” Sarkana laughed. “You shouldn’t fret for keeping an old croon company, either. There is a spare chamber upstairs that you can rest in. I can only imagine how exhausted you are. There’s more to discuss, but I suppose it can wait until morning.”
    “I have little doubt you don’t have to imagine it,” I said with a nod toward the seer’s eye. “And, thank you, once more. I am not sure how many more times I can say it before it sounds empty.”
    “An expression of speech,” she smiled with a shrug, and then stood up and began walking away, carrying the seer’s eye with her. "As I said, there's no thanks necessary."
    “Oh? Where are you going?”
    “As much as it would be a pleasure to tuck you in, Casimir, I have some other tasks demanding my attention. I trust you can survive falling asleep without me. You’ll be happy to hear there are no guards waiting to kill you upstairs, nor angry mages to spit destruction incantations at you. Only a bed. Sleep well.” She turned into a doorway that led into an unlit kitchen overlooking the groves outside the home. Once she was inside, I heard another door open and close, and then another, followed by her descending footfalls down what I imagined was a staircase.
    In my lap, Zuma was curled into a ball of charcoal fur, her feet twitching every now and then while she chased after something in her dreams.
    I considered the ramifications of waking an imp from its slumber, and simultaneously, I felt the heavy, nearly paralytic waves of tiredness that claimed not only my limbs but my fingers. 
    My eyes fluttered on the flames of the fire, watching William’s body topple over his throne, seeing how his hand reached for his crown as the last of the poison’s convulsions staggered his heart to stillness. And I heard, once more, that reverent silence of death flourish throughout the massive dining hall, and how it shook even me in that moment, asking us all to consider the brevity and frailty of that gift we so often taint and squander.
    My head lulled backwards, the sky yawned a breath of dawn, an ember popped from the hearth, the imp snored, and I joined her.


#fantasy  #adventure  #TCOC 
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Chapter 6 of The Culling of Casimir
Written by Harlequin in portal Fantasy

Chapter 6: The Signet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “… ‘sometimes’,” I quoted.

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

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

    “You just killed two people, remember?”

    “Presumably rapists,” I added quickly.

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

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

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

What whispers intoned words

Inspires craven and courage alike

Auspicious is this clarity

Breathed only in subtlety

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

    “Shamus—”

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

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

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

    Shamus whispered:

    “Wreathe.”

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

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

    Shamus whispered:

    “Shift.”

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

    Shamus whispered:

    “Fade.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “You ...”

    “Take a deep breath.”

    I did.

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

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

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

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

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

    “Gods, are you—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Yes, I meant it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Readings for Soulhearts & Concerto: Bishop

Soulhearts' Poems

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

Concerto: Bishop

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

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

Disenchanted

Happy endings

and forever, we left it all

in pages of books.

Where tales told

Of starry skies,

and moonlit nights.

Reading words

Of what we wanted to

and not of what was

right in front of us.

Disillusioned interpretations

where the moon

was really hidden

behind heavy clouds

and the stars were

actually fireflies

dying to the

colder air.

Strangers

strangers are we

in faces and names

not in the words we bleed

for all the world to see

a little of you and I

in the pages we read

we are kindred you know

not strangers are we

Concerto: Bishop

Crystalline air simmers

Between blades cutting

Dawn in broad whispers

Stained glass, their vectors

Hymns a choir their resonance

In rising echoes enraptured

Now fading hums to capture

A silence without dissonance

Myrrh's enveloping tendrils

Accent the chapel's song

For tithes kept only for him

Bishop entreats the throng

A hypocrite's homily

Intones from his lips, his mitre

Inspires a proud crowning

His head, this bullet's finale

Beneath tolling bell I lay

Timorous their ringing

Ubiquitous in expectation

Setting death's messenger

In cradle of the chamber

The sun assents a flare

Glinting in my lenses' glare

Our last, final inhalation

Before the performance begins

The trigger begs reprieve

A tug, a shudder, a squeeze

Before booming in ecstasy

Cracking air and glass asunder

Her deadly flourish descends

And death's messenger sings

Before blooming in revelry

For Bishop's final homily

Scarlet graces the altar

A sacrifice, indeed, ignites

The congregations' screams

Their cries, their applause

Beseech an encore from me

But a perfect performance calls

The crimson curtains drawn

Now reverently I leave

His masterpiece for the dawn

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

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

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

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

Strangers
strangers are we
in faces and names

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

a little of you and I
in the pages we read

we are kindred you know
not strangers are we

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concerto: Bishop

Audio:

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

_____________________________________________________________________

Crystalline air simmers

Between blades cutting

Dawn in broad whispers

Stained glass, their vectors

Hymns a choir their resonance

In rising echoes enraptured

Now fading hums to capture

A silence without dissonance

Myrrh's enveloping tendrils

Accent the chapel's song

For tithes kept only for him

Bishop entreats the throng

A hypocrite's homily

Intones from his lips, his mitre

Inspires a proud crowning

His head, this bullet's finale

Beneath tolling bell I lay

Timorous their ringing

Ubiquitous in expectation

Setting death's messenger

In cradle of the chamber

The sun assents a flare

Glinting in my lenses' glare

Our last, final inhalation

Before the performance begins

The trigger begs reprieve

A tug, a shudder, a squeeze

Before booming in ecstasy

Cracking air and glass asunder

Her deadly flourish descends

And death's messenger sings

Before blooming in revelry

For Bishop's final homily

Scarlet graces the altar

A sacrifice, indeed, ignites

The congregations' screams

Their cries, their applause

Beseech an encore from me

But a perfect performance calls

The crimson curtains drawn

Now reverently I leave

His masterpiece for the dawn

19
11
6
Juice
151 reads
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Juice
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Written by Harlequin in portal Poetry & Free Verse
Concerto: Bishop
Audio:
https://drive.google.com/open?id=0BwtqyZ6L7FpjcFgzOE5hU0t5QmM
_____________________________________________________________________
Crystalline air simmers
Between blades cutting
Dawn in broad whispers
Stained glass, their vectors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But a perfect performance calls
The crimson curtains drawn
Now reverently I leave
His masterpiece for the dawn
#poetry  #beautyinhorror 
19
11
6
Juice
151 reads
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