I had to leave her bed to escape the intensity and still-burning emotions which I knew would leave indelible marks upon my memory forever. Trying not to make too much noise, I slipped into my undergarments and trousers.
Outside on her terrace, the enchanted air had dropped to the chilly temperatures you might expect on a late spring’s midnight. I looked behind me to be certain that Sarkana was still asleep. Past the thick, woolen curtains undulating lowly in the breeze, I could see her curled in the bed, the indent of my body around hers left behind.
I couldn’t discern what precisely led to the few hours that we spent wrapped in each other, I couldn’t recall the precise moment when I decided to give in. I would be lying to say it wasn’t mutual. There was pity, admiration, loneliness, curiosity, and of course, the bluntness of any animal’s bodily desire. Those elements, once mixed with the recent brushes of death, concocted a desperate desire and an irresistibly satisfying indulgence; akin to feasting after a long fast, to gulping air after keeping one’s head beneath water until the lungs burned and the muscles spasmed.
I felt satiated, and empowered, and yet, uncomfortably bound to her.
“Foolish,” I murmured to myself.
The fresh air didn’t shake the feeling that I had just helped Sarkana sink her fingers deeper into my fate. I told myself I was imagining it, just as I told myself it was a kindness, to both her and myself, to assuage the loneliness of someone who damned herself to solitude, and someone who damned himself to running. I remembered how she locked my gaze into hers after we’d sunk into each other, a look that held me and infinite in a tight, controlling embrace, a plea and a command for us to stay as long as possible.
Once more, the fireflies had come out to flutter in the gardens, blinking emerald and gold while my thoughts shriveled the sky into a bundle of blackness. Beyond the shores of the Ruined Sea, the moon’s sharp edge dipped its reflection into the onyx waters.
I left the terrace, to satisfy another curiosity festered beyond patience.
As I tiptoed back to my chamber, I summoned a meager faerie light in the palm of my hand to guide me through the halls. It was one of the only spells that I ever mastered, which is saying quite a lot, considering that faerie light is as difficult a spell as the prestigious talent of whistling.
I could feel it, itching, searching.
Just beneath the bandage, Fahim’s eye was burning to see the world again, and I was enthralled by the thought of seeing through the sight of a dead man. My heart thudded with expectation, with remorse, with nostalgia and a guilty pleasure to think that luck had once more laughed in my favor.
My hands trembled. The light quivered. My silhouette spluttered across the walls.
I bent towards the desk besides the bed, where a mirror was held between ivory fashioned in the shape of hands, its contours encrusted with grime and neglect. I examined the half-elf staring back at me. My skin was unusually pale and tight. My lips were snagged at the left corner by an old scar, courtesy of William. A small chunk of flesh had gone missing from one of my ears, giving me the odd look of a mistreated dog. And despite all of the rest induced by Sarkana’s tincture, deep circles of sleeplessness had pooled beneath my sockets.
I looked as if I belonged in a grave.
Ignoring it, I undid the bandage and watched it fall to my feet. When it hit the floor, my left eye still closed, I realized that I needed more than just curiosity. My heart was beating heavily, with deep, resounding echoes vacant of courage. What if nothing looked the same? What if I had underestimated Sarkana’s warning?
I looked at the mirror and examined my closed eye, which I found to be kept shut by various secretions binding the eyelids together. My heartbeat continued its steady climb. My left eye was crisscrossed by the faded scars of jagged suture marks. Dozens of tiny, intersecting tracks rimmed my eyelids where Sarkana had stitched the flesh back together in ragged pieces, as the delicate, thin skin had been shredded by either the arrow’s entrance or removal. The puckered tissue boasted enflamed hues of royal purple and red.
It was hideous.
I wiped the tear from my right eye and began to pick away at the dried flakes that kept the left shut. Memories seeped through as if Fahim himself was behind me, reminiscing in whispers.
“Why do you think the King took me in?” I asked the alchemist. As usual, his face was turned away while he divided his attention between me and an experiment.
“William is one of those people who changes every fortnight. It’s been almost six years since he employed me, but he’s never stopped surprising me,” he reflected, holding up a particularly stinky concoction up to a ray of sunlight, “but I do know that he considers his intuition much more than most. He may consult the advise of countless experts to make a single, political action, but when it comes to his friends and company, I do believe he makes those decisions almost instantaneously. He certainly made the correct one when he chose to haul you into this family.”
I couldn’t help but smile, especially after he made a wink that was not half as smooth as he thought it was, as it had a closer resemblance to its close cousin, the blink. “And what did you tell him, when he asked you what you thought of me?”
“Do you want the honest answer or the charming one?”
“You can’t charm me with the truth? Don’t think I haven’t seen the poems you write in your journal. You can’t hide your secret affection for words for much longer, my friend.”
“Unappreciated snooping aside … the truth is I told William you might be as useful as a seat cushion. But I suppose the charming piece is that you didn’t take long to prove me wrong.”
“Oh, you sweetheart.”
“Still, it is peculiar, isn’t it?”
“How he plucked you off the street.”
“I’ve considered abandoning the quest of discovering his reason. You might do the same.”
Fahim shrugged as he ground a few seeds of something that crunched between his mortar and pestle. “If you wish to lead an interesting life, a simple exercise is marking each day by some action that seems peculiar or unpredictable, whether its tying your laces differently or picking up a commoner and making him your Fool. For the most part, folks see life as a miserable cycle of disappointments, failed endeavors, and the occasional, uplifting moment. Breaking that rhythm might just be the answer to any happiness, any happiness at all.” He pinched the powdered seeds into a vial on a steel holder over a flame and turned to me, smiling. “It could be that William uses his unfounded intuitions to provide some surcease from the monotony of royal drudgery, even if he may not realize it consciously.”
“Ah yes, the tedium of having every luxury provided for you. And do you think the same, of life being a miserable cycle?”
He laughed. “Of course not! How sad would that be?” he said with a long pause as he seemed to get lost imagining it. “Happiness isn’t just a matter of variety, though that may help. Each day has its own limitations, that’s true, but there is no such thing as a day without endless possibility. Somewhere within this mortal coil, there’s a trick of transcendence masquerading around in a different mask upon every dawn. I do believe,” he said with a knowing smirk, “it only needs to be revealed, day by day, moment by moment. And I think—wait a moment—do you smell something burning?”
“I don’t mean to be rude, but allow me to point out that it always smells burnt in here.”
“No, no, but a particular kind of—”
And, as usual, something in his study decided it was time to punctuate his tangent with an explosion.
Sarkana spoke of Fahim’s family with poison, seemingly incapable of disassociating Professor Mecidias’ offenses from his children. I continued to scratch away at the sticky substance between my eyelids. Though I empathized with her betrayal, all I had were good memories of Fahim. Oftentimes, he was the one who held my hand when I had to learn the ridiculous complexities behind the mannerisms of Addorian royalty.
After a particularly awful display at a dinner party, which seemed only to demonstrate that I was nothing more than a bathed peasant brought into the castle by William’s adolescent whims, Fahim was the one who sat with me outside, away from the air suffocated by aristocratic pretension.
“It’s just one night,” he reminded me softly. “No one will remember a thing. Though I hope they do,” he added, “it was quite funny. I’ll never forget the look on Duchess Margaret’s face when you forgot to kiss her ring. You’d have thought you just dropped your pants and gave her a taste of Qalmorian moonlight.”
Despite my stubbornness to take the night’s blunders with grave seriousness, the corners of my lips quivered while I suppressed laughter. “But I acted like a fool.”
“I suppose, then, you did your job quite well. You should be full of joy,” he said between three claps.
“Hilarious. You know what I meant.”
“Of course. That joke was in poor taste. Luckily, it doesn’t matter at all.”
“Maybe not to me, but William has a reputation. He deserves better than some uneducated urchin tainting it.”
Fahim chuckled, shook his head, and leaned back to admire the stars. The light and noise from within the castle was failing to reach us after being filtered through the stained-glass windows. “Do you think, in the history books, the scribes will painstakingly copy this sentence: On the night of June 23rd of the year 1356, in celebration of Midsummer, the Northern King William III greeted his guests with a cordial speech and impeccable manners, but following the dinner, much unpleasant conversation was had amongst the attendants with his Fool, Casimir Foxfeather, whom fumbled awkwardly with his traditional bows and greetings,” Fahim droned in his best enactment of an old man looking over nonexistent glasses to read from an book made entirely of air in his palms. “Futhermore, Duchess Margaret appeared so disgruntled by this, that—”
“Fine, fine! It is ridiculous!”
“And who gives a damn who remembers what! Now think, even if that did make it into the books, would it matter at all?”
I stared off into space.
“That nothing would change! The sun would still rise, the moon would still fall, and the tavern wenches would still make a killing off drunks who fell asleep before they could even take their trousers off. Oh,” he sighed with a dramatic flare, “you are a jester, but you apparently have a thing or two to learn about laughter. It’s a pity that an alchemist has to teach you.” He tussled my hat until the bells jingled and the brim of it fell over my eyes.
“Regretfully,” I agreed, not bothering to right the hat. “That’s it then. I really am a fool, in every sense of it.”
“One way or another, we all are. The truth is, all our lives are painfully short, the good and bad memories alike snatched away before we can appreciate most of them. We might as well take advantage of their brevity, knowing that the blunders of today will be treated as the victories of tomorrow. All is washed away; but that’s what gives misfortune its mercy. In good time, it’ll pass as every other moment. Embrace your foolishness, because there may be a day when you’re too old and too wise to enjoy what it’s like to fall.”
“So why worry?” I finished for him.
He patted me on the shoulder. “Precisely.”
The tears hitting the desk were the only sounds that broke the deep silence of the early morning.
It was beyond the time to ask if I deserved this, at all. It was another befuddling wonder of chance, of misfortune’s irony, that I should look through the eye of a man who helped me see the greatest tragedies as only passing moments to be collected and considered with the rest.
I rubbed off the last of the substance. I saw.
Flashes bursted in spots that swirled and took turns diminishing and growing, bright as the sun’s edge as they melded together and separated like blotches of fiery ink. Pain lanced through the eye and pierced through my skull. Before I could realize what had happened, I was doubled over and gasping. The only thing that kept me from smothering the eye or simply tearing it out vein by vein, was my stubbornness.
I focused on breathing. Eventually the spots diminished and the pain followed suit, to an endurable and faint hum. Tentatively, I continued to observe.
In the mirror, the pupil flooded Fahim’s iris, leaving only a thin white ring. Only now, with Qalmorian blood pulsing through its veins, a faint glow breathed from it. As if I needed the help, the mismatched colors lended an eerie appearance. And the longer I stared, the more it seemed that Fahim’s eye was larger than mine, slightly bulging the stitched skin to fit inside.
My face was that of a poorly mended doll’s.
I turned. Sarkana jumped at the sight, which I took with a pinch of pride, considering her profession. The light we’d both summoned had winked out simultaneously. I let her summon a much stronger flame and watched her examine me through the flickering. “I thought we’d agreed you’d do this when I was with you.”
“I couldn’t help myself,” I said apologetically. “I was restless.”
“I understand. It appears I wasn’t too late, at least. How does it feel?”
“Like someone dipped it in oil and set it afire.”
She winced, then drew closer to caress my arm and chest, which I had forgotten to cover with a shirt. “And what do you see?”
“I see you,” I said. “Everything is as it was before, believe it or not.”
Although she nodded, she didn’t seem satisfied with the simplicity of the answer. “Why don’t you … step outside this chamber? Roam the halls, look around. I’ll be right here.” The way that she spoke unnerved me. It was the way you might speak to a child when you’re about to show them a less obvious, hidden and shocking truth of the world they must grow in.
“You weren’t speaking lightly before, were you, when you said things won’t be as before?” I asked, ashamed to feel afraid to walk into the unlit corridors of her home. It made me remember what it felt like to look beyond the windowpanes of my childhood home, envisioning all of the horrors lurking in the darkness that oozed between the trees. The memory was so distant, yet here I was, feeling something indescribably similar.
She shook her head. “Unfortunately not. But if there’s anything you don’t wish to see,” she said with an encouraging squeeze of my arm, “just close the eye, and it’ll go away.”
“Will I see Fahim’s memories?” I asked childishly.
“No, Casimir,” she said with a chuckle, as if that would’ve been better. “Just look.”
At first, the darkness just outside the chamber was normal. Here and there, the edges of furniture were illuminated by what little moonlight could be afforded through the windows. And where it lacked, shadows too dark to see through left all else blackened.
I stepped into the corridor, and flinched at the wisps that could only be described as trails of smoke snuffed out from a candle, only much thicker, and nearly black, snaking through the air at various speeds. Briefly, a form would appear out of the smokey tendrils, taking the shape of something vaguely humanoid, if only to appear as a shocked, contemplative, or horrified expression, before dissipating and moving on. Emotions. Dozens of them, captured in phantasmic essences, surrounded me. Sweat sprouted from my back at the manifestation of my nightmare, now close enough to touch in reality’s stark nakedness. “There are … they’re—” I resisted the urge to curl into a ball and scream.
“They can’t harm you,” she said, but it didn’t soothe me.
Faces drew closer, looking at me curiously before moving onward to drift down the halls. I couldn’t tell what unnerved me more, the ones that floated off with a sense of purpose, or the ones who wandered without direction.
“What are they?” I whispered, afraid to attract more of their attention. A thick, dark film covered the floor in what I assumed was a quagmire of forgotten souls. Fingers emerged from it and snaked past my ankles to curl around my legs like hundreds of tiny, black tentacles. Tentacles that had always been there, I realized, only I’d never noticed.
“Memories, fragments,” Sarkana said with appreciation, “ghosts. Whichever you prefer to call them.”
One of the wisps materialized in the shape of a girl, her height rising just past my knees, her expression capturing all the lonesome anxiety of a misunderstood and forgotten child. But upon meeting my eyes, her broken smile mended itself and stretched. She reached her arms out and danced on her tiptoes, asking me wordlessly to pick her up.
“They can sense when somebody sees them,” Sarkana answered before I could ask, as she watched me shake my head sadly at the child. “The more attention you give them, the more you will perceive. Eventually, you might hear what they are saying.”
I forced myself to look away as soon as I heard her say that. “Do you see them as well?”
“No. Not without the proper lens. Was that Agnes you just saw?”
“The small girl?”
“It was,” I swallowed, trying to imagine how I would live with this, not just in this moment, but for the rest of my life. Horrifying as it was to watch wraiths assume the silhouettes of their previous lives, I knew that this would never have changed my decision. Better to live and see ghosts than take more chances of becoming one.
A boy sprinted through the moonlight coming in through the main window in the living room, followed immediately by two dogs. Then, tumbling through one of the house’s walls, a man in tattered clothing stumbled onto the floor, followed by two arrows that shot into his chest.
“They’re fighting each other?”
“Not truly. They cannot help but relive their most vivid memories. Oftentimes, it’s the memory of how they died.”
More essences leaked from the ceiling. It poured from the walls and flooded the floors, masses of them sprouting up, frenzied by the attention I had fed to only a few. Phantom fingers slithered from beneath my feet and curled around my thighs, stretching to wrap round my body while licking upwards, higher and higher. The more I focused on them, the more it seemed I could feel them, the chill of their fingers and their long exhales. Ravaged bodies of the old and statuesque depictions of the young stared at me, starved of remembrance and searching for recognition. Their mouths moved without sound, their eyes followed without blinking.
I put a hand over my left eye. And like the closing of a shutter, the sight of them winked out. Once more, the home appeared as empty as ever. But the sweat and the shaking as a result of reality’s delicate familiarity snapping, oh, that lingered. It was worse than when hundreds of guests looked to me after William keeled over his throne. Only this time, I was not invigorated. I was paralyzed.
And I realized, then, what Sarkana meant when she said that she never had to imagine phantom footsteps, that she lived alone only ‘in the common sense’. “I could always reverse it,” she said suddenly, “if it’s too much.”
“No, no. That won’t be necessary. You just have quite the surplus of guests,” I tried to say with a laugh, but it came out as a hoarse whisper.
I told myself I would grow used to it … I hoped.
Sarkana was determined to keep my company after I admitted that sleep seemed like a less-than-possible activity after seeing just how lively her living room was. We passed the small hours sipping caffek and staring at the fire. Even with the eye covered, there was no ignoring the sense that they were still crawling all over me.
Maybe it was a problem of perspective. Maybe all I needed to tell myself was that the tortured phantoms damned to cycle through memories of their death were just in sore need of body contact and cuddling.
Suddenly, she snapped her book shut and jumped from her armchair, startling Zuma and I at the same time.
“You’d think a god just shocked you with a divine vision,” I said, not at all in the mood for surprises.
“I have just the thing for you!” she replied and sprinted from the room, all but giggling hysterically. I heard her throw open the trapdoor in the other room and the crash of her body as she tripped down the last few steps. Glass breaking and a curse later, she arrived with a steel-rimmed lens that looked like a pair of goggles’ missing half. A leather strap hung from it, complete with a tiny, silver buckle.
“No runes, no hidden tricks, nothing complicated,” she promised as she handed it to me. “Not even any magick.”
“This looks like it’s from the seer’s eye,” I remarked as I belted the surprisingly heavy lens to my head.
“Just one of its many previous, failed attempts. Open your eye!” she pushed excitedly.
I did, and was immediately greeted by the sight of a pair of twins fighting over a stuffed doll, whose poor body was torn in two, sending both of the ghosts sprawling backwards.
“Gods damnit!” I cursed and tripped over the chair as I bolted from it, upon seeing that both of the twins’ eyes had been gouged out. “That’s not funny,” I whimpered with a hand over one half of my face.
“Oh shush! And now,” Sarkana said, “this!” She flipped the dial protruding from the lens, covering its vision with a black shield.
“Now that is a proper piece of craftsmanship,” I sighed in relief. I played with the dial, switching the horrors of the forsaken world on and off as easily as one might snap their fingers. “This is precisely what I need.”
“Though,” Sarkana began thoughtfully, “I would not recommend limiting your vision to only half, lest your mind get used to it. If you wish to live like you always have, keep both eyes open, as long as you can stand it. And don’t worry, not every home will be so … beloved as mine is, by the damned. As long as you ignore them, they won’t bother with you. Just don’t meet their gaze and they’ll leave you alone … usually.”
So the price, I found, was not so unsettling after all. I even began to wonder if, somewhere in the distant future, I would see it as a gift. But as soon as I imagined sharing every moment of life with the dead, even the most beautiful ones, I felt disheartened.
“Casimir,” she said, “I apologize, it couldn’t be any other way.”
“No, no. I am still grateful,” I replied with a forced smile.
“It’s just the nature of it,” she explained, “just before we pass into the Nether, our vision transcends the mortal plane. Briefly, we can see all sorts of creatures. The Vyurk, for one. Taking Fahim’s eye means sharing that vision.”
The dream I had flashed in my mind. I thought I had surely seen one. Yet I hadn’t died, had I?
“And unfortunately,” she continued, “that also means the fragments that the Vyurk miss. Memories, thoughts, dreams and nightmares that were not collected with the soul they belonged to. What you’re seeing is not the ghost of someone, just pieces of them vivid enough to linger. But they are not immortal. Everything fades, even the memories of the dead.”
“And how did you come to know this, that the ‘transplant’ would contain this ability?”
“From my studies, at the Stoneheart Academy.”
I nodded, unable to ignore the hesitation in her voice.
A few rays of dawn snuck through the windows, adding to the warmth of the many candles Sarkana had lit. “So is it true, that the daylight makes the ghosts hide away?” I asked.
“No,” she replied, “it just makes them easier to look at.”
The previous night had left a peculiar touch to the air between us, to say in the least. But with little company besides a crow and an imp, and only winter beyond the boundaries of her sanctuary, there was nowhere to run from the confusion of discerning how to act around each other after being so close, so unexpectedly. We settled, it seemed, to pretend as if nothing had changed at all.
After breakfast we moved to her gardens. I was determined to reacquaint myself with my daggers after briefly arguing with Sarkana, who insisted that I rest.
“I feel spectacular,” I persisted, though it wasn’t entirely the truth. There was throb in my chest and a low aching throughout all my limbs. I attributed it to whatever magick Sarkana had used to mend my wound, perhaps as the price for what I imagined was only the work of miracles and legends.
“Oh?” She folded her arms, looking me up and down. “Truly?”
“Certainly. Why wouldn’t I?”
She hummed thoughtfully. “I simply … didn’t expect you to be on your feet so soon.”
“Seeing the dead for the first time has a way of shocking you back to life,” I replied, stretching out my limbs.
“You don’t have to tell me. How about I help you to a book from my library, something to stimulate your mind after all that sleep? I’ll even prepare some tea,” she proposed.
“Why don’t you help me train, instead?” I retorted. “I believe you’re still holding that favor over my head, and I have the feeling it won’t have anything to do with a calm afternoon and a book.”
She huffed through her nose, then let her hands fall to her side in surrender. “Fine.”
She didn’t fight me, herself, to help me exercise the movements and techniques that Zakora had taught me. No, instead, Sarkana did the only thing that someone like her would do. That is, of course, to animate a scarecrow and flop his straw body around like a puppet. Positioned several steps behind him, her hands and arms twisted as she manipulated the straw man with the charming hat, swinging him around and waltzing him about the gardens to grant me the courtesy of a moving target. I hacked at the arms, stabbed at the body, and when he became too damaged, she’d refashion sacks of dried straw onto him. Although he’d never been named, we thought he deserved one after the punishment we’d dealt him. We crowned him Twig, Northern Ruler of the Grasses.
The afternoon passed swiftly, chased away by running after Twig who hopped with surprising agility on only one wooden peg. He was an incredible opponent. I even had the presence of mind to drill Felix, commanding him to go through his repertoire of tricks, one of which being ‘gouge’ and ‘claw’.
“All right,” I panted as the sun began its descent and I’d managed to drench my clothes in sweat. “That’s enough for one day.” The aching in my body had intensified to an almost embarrassing degree. The sweat that was sprouting from my chest stung with sharp and surprising pains, as if they were slipping into the grooves of fresh cuts. Once I’d turned around, Twig gave me a playful slap on my backside. I turned swiftly and amputated his arm, but then fell to my knees, slammed by dizziness and nausea. Sarkana’s giggles were cut short.
I felt her grip my back. “Casimir? What’s happened? You’ve gone pale,” she noted uneasily.
I looked at my hands. The fingers were as translucent as the ghosts I’d seen that morning. I touched my lips and cheeks and felt their chill. The careless passing of the afternoon came to a sudden and almost horrifying halt; the heat of the sweat on my body turned to ice, my muscles aching pleasantly from the exercise began to tremble, and my mind had thoughts only of vomiting, water, and sleep. In that order, preferably.
“Something’s wrong.” I coughed and covered my mouth. When I drew the arm back, there was blood on the sleeve. I cursed. “I need to go inside. The heat—” but I was cut short, to violently expel the morning’s meal.
Sarkana murmured something and waved one of her hands at the walkway. The steps jutted from the ground in a single, rushed sequence. We ascended them and crossed the tiny bridge that led inside her home. There, the cool air contained in the walls embraced me.
“I told you to rest,” she said with a sigh after sitting me down. She wiped my forehead and mouth with a towel and unbuckled my belt to let the heavy weight of the scabbards fall to the floor.
“Is it the eye?”
“I’ll get some water for you. Stay here.”
I grabbed her arm and pulled her back. Her eyes were wider than usual. “Sarkana. What aren’t you telling me?” The previous night, the intricate symbols that stretched from her hands to her chest in complexities beyond my understanding struck me as mystifyingly beautiful. Suddenly, they appeared again as they were the first time I’d met her: intimidating, and harrowing.
Her long, Qalmorian ears drooped as a look of fear shrouded her eyes. Her mouth hung open, and the bottom lip began to tremble.
“It was meant as a surprise,” she barely whispered, “I am sorry you had to find out this way. I would never wish this pain upon you.”
“A surprise? Pain?” The shock my body had felt in the gardens had become inconsequential. But the fire in my chest hadn’t subsided from its crescendo. It throbbed and slammed with every beat of blood, in sync with my heartbeat as it was overcome with trepidation to see Sarkana stand there wordlessly. The fire had spread from my chest to my abdomen, in swirls, circles, and rings of varying agony. “What are you saying?”
“Water, first. You need water.”
Before I could protest, she left and returned with a cup. I drank until the taste of bile was washed from my throat, then all but slammed the cup down. “I don’t like riddles,” I admitted. “Spill.”
“Please, don’t be angry. The pain is temporary. I had only the best intentions in mind.”
“This isn’t because of the eye, is it?”
She shook her head. “No. It’s something else. Something you could’ve never imagined, something far greater. I promise you.”
“What did you do, Sarkana?” I stood up, almost growling after I’d grabbed her hands and held them tight.
“Please, Casimir. I know you aren’t versed in magick; but you have to understand that there are people who would kill for this kind of power. And with your blood, with your talent, what I’ve given you won’t go squandered, I promise you that much.” The more she talked, the more her nervousness transmuted into a burning vivacity, an excitement I saw only when she manipulated the dead and spoke of her experiments. “This pain is but a meager price for what I’ve bestowed upon you.”
I fought the urge to shake the explanation out of her. I pulled up my shirt to feel if my skin had any telling wounds, blisters, or bruises, but Sarkana pulled my hand away before I could.
“You’re frightening me. You understand that, don’t you?”
Her teeth flashed with a sly smile meant for jokes shared within the confines of two similar minds. “You don’t need to be frightened, not after what I’ve done for you.” Suddenly, she’d become exuberant and sparking, gripping my hands with an equal tightness. I recognized the shift, the almost maniacal expression of an inspired mind undergoing a chaos of emotions, and upon discovering an inability to linger over one, instead embracing all of them. I recognized it, only because I’d seen myself in it before. I had felt it in the heat of bloodshed. I’d felt it in the stillness of reverie in the late hours, the intoxication of emotion’s unparalleled possibility.
That’s why I was petrified.
Within that wanton indulgence of one’s self-interests, there are few boundaries, and when there are boundaries, within that state of mind, the only conclusion is to cross them swiftly. “Tell me, Sarkana.”
I had never felt this before, a curiosity met with an unmatched horror, vying for dominance.
“I can show you, instead,” she said.
She led me to the room beside the kitchen, where the only thing that saved the space from nakedness was the trapdoor set in the floor. With a practiced hand, she unhinged the padlock with a long key, flung the door open, and stepped inside.
A hint of the scent which exuded from the crypts leading from the side of her home was the first sensation that embraced me, veiled with dust, mildew, and a chill not unlike winter’s bite. Steps protruded from the tunnel like teeth, the bottom punctuated by the low glow of torches flickering in the chamber. Halfway down, a feeling of familiarity caused me to hesitate. I stood there, between truth and mystery, not entirely certain where I wished to be.
I arrived at the bottom step. I watched my breath leave in a wraithlike exhale.
Past Sarkana’s expression of hopeful expectancy, the familiarity matured into remembrance.
The stone slab centered in the chamber.
The bodies lining the walls, their faces covered by masks to hide their decay.
The only thing that was missing was the bottomless darkness beneath my feet, where I’d sunk into the void of another nightmare
This time, there was nothing to fall into. I wished there was.
The heel of my boots echoed as I paced around the chamber, examining each of the corpses being utilized behind coffin-shaped panes of glass, bordered by steel and hundreds of tiny, interconnecting runes which joined together upon the floor and stretched like a madman’s calligraphy to the stone slab. Like a sleeping beast, they pulsed with a low, violet light. Behind the clear coffins, their skin was shriveled and stretched around their bones, without clothes and bearing the same wounds that brought them there. I swallowed the hypocrisy of my revulsion, reminding myself that I was the one who I had helped deliver them to this place.
“Water for the soil,” I whispered.
“Sunlight for the plants.”
“And air for their leaves.”
The room was smaller than expected, but set in every wall besides the one bearing the trapdoor’s steps, double-doors of worn wood, carved with the likenesses of anatomical illustrations, beckoned with more room for the dead, more fodder for the sanctuary’s undying power.
I was horrifically mesmerized, the boundaries of reality falling away at the seams of emerald and sapphire veins beneath pallid flesh; I was transfixed by life’s brevity and death’s finality, as I realized that the two were never separate at all, rather the quick resuscitations of a heartbeat, briefly caught in silence before another inevitable throb.
Sarkana watched my face the way a child might observe their parents as they show them a day’s worth of drawings. Her fingers intertwined in nervousness.
“This is my study,” she told me with a secret’s whisper, “my art.”
“I have been here before,” I realized aloud, mostly to myself, now aware of her manipulation while I had been subdued by her tincture.
“You … remember?”
“Glimpses.” It wasn’t just the doors that were engraved. In my nightmare, I had neglected to recollect the awe-inspiring depictions of skeletal references engraved upon the walls, as if she could not help but scatter her findings across every inch of every surface. Even if there were only two of these chambers, though I suspected there were many more interconnecting like tunnels, I realized the stonework alone would have taken years. I turned to face her, the delusion of her youthfulness shattering to reveal the unnatural appearance of someone cheating life.
“Then you understand, don’t you?”
I shook my head and found myself chuckling, beyond anger and frustration, but dumbstruck in a whirlpool of perplexed fascination and paralyzing fear. “Not nearly enough.”
“No. You do. I watched you through the eyes of a sparrow the night you escaped the Foxfeather Castle, I saw your lips stretch into a grin when you slew the guards. I saw how you took a moment, even as hundreds of feet chased you into those thin corridors, to breathe deeply in the middle of it all. You were savoring those moments, as I have done alone, here, the same way a painter might savor the stroke of a brush on canvas.”
I could no longer feel the chill of the room. I couldn’t tell if I was having difficulty breathing or if I had stopped entirely. I couldn’t tell if her words were a seductive poison or a clarifying truth. All the same, I drank them in silently.
“There are many ways to find kindred souls,” she told me, “but the quickest, the truest way, is to see how death’s touch feels against their skin, how they respond to her when, inevitably, she steps into their lives. Many people look away. A few, a precious few, get closer, asking questions. We are similar, you and I.” Suddenly, her hands were wrapped around my arms and my back, somehow icier than the air inside, pulling me backward. “I knew you would be perfect.”
I let her set me onto the slab. I let her push me down onto its frosted surface.
I stared at myself in the mirror set in the ceiling. After all that had transpired since I drank her elixir, I think a part of me had pieced it together. Behind the seemingly innocent mornings passed in quips and quiet reflection, through the shared recounts of an embittered past, and with the desperation of a lonesome artist desiring another masterpiece, I had known, or at least, I had told myself it was not possible, which might as well have been admitting it.
She unbuttoned my shirt until the sides fell away, revealing my bare chest.
Once again, the fatally ephemeral nature of chance revealed itself to me. Past elapsed into the present, this moment stained by the same blood that fell from William’s lips, by any decision, by any opportunity, by any and all moments graced by the multiplicity of chaos. And here I was, realizing once more, the foolishness of trying to control any of it, the irony of me laying in its freezing hands, having ever been deluded into thinking they could be warm for me.
“I am not afraid of dying,” I admitted to her, “I am afraid of dying without having lived. If I’ve ever smiled in her presence, it is only because I felt the satisfaction of slipping from her hands.”
“Do you truly believe that?” she laughed, until all I could hear was that sound reverberating back to me. “You don’t need to lie to yourself any longer. There is something intoxicating about manipulating. Don't you think it's mad, that our bodies should contain the potential to live for hundreds of years, and yet be damned to falter after falling so far from its potential?”
“What have you done to me?”
Sarkana murmured, “Unveil,” and ran her hand from my neck to my waist, the same way she had to reveal the door hiding in the side of her home. Then, as a tapestry of bright, intricate, seeping, crimson scars was revealed in a cascade of imbued runes carved upon my chest, Sarkana bent to my ear and whispered with a smile. “You needn’t fear death any longer, Casimir. You’ve already died."
I heard her swallow, her low breathing next to my ear, as she contemplated what to say next, while I lay there, incapable of organizing my thoughts.
"You see," she replied, "it's much easier to shape ice after it's first been melted."
"Is that what I am to you? Something to manipulate?"
She placed her hands at the corners of the slab, and began a light incantation like a lullaby in a language I’d never heard. The symbols in the room began to burn bright, heat shimmered in translucent waves over us, as she culled the substance from the corpses surrounding us.
"No, no. You're much more than that," she said through a gasp, "you are a piece of art."
Then I felt it. A surging heat, an embrace of life coiling around my heart and beating it stronger, a reprehensibly intoxicating exhalation of vitality breathing through my limbs and setting the insignias in my chest ablaze. The euphoria of it made the searing embers on my chest seem little else than pinches. It was a feeling I cursed myself for enjoying so much, a feeling, I realized, that I would be damned to chase for the rest of my days.