Chapter 1: The Remedy
"Things will never be as they were, my friend," Magister Fahim said as he poured wine, the burgundy liquid illuminated by the gold of his goblet, now daring to spill over the edge. He began to pour into a second cup, but I held my hand up just as he met my eyes to ask.
"Not when my mind broods over such things," I explained, to which he made a mock frown and shook his head. "And, no, they haven't been as they were for a long while," I added, rubbing the silver feather ring wrapped around my thumb, as I do when my thoughts are trailing away from me.
The countless glass spheres and vials of Magister Fahim's study glinted from the fire in the hearth while we stood in the center of the massive chamber, its walls flowing with the rich colors of potions simmering over the barest of flames, alighting faded portraits of famous alchemists.
"How curious," Fahim replied, "you see, I drink specifically when my mind 'broods' over things. So what is it that occupies yours, dear jester?"
All I had to do was look at him. The wound on my cheek was enough, if not for the hatred and confusion in my eyes. Today was the first day without the bandage hiding its freshly stitched surface.
"His condition is getting steadily worse," he agreed with a sigh before deflating into the sofa. I wrapped my cloak around my chest and sat down on the armchair opposite him, watching how his ivory eyes searched mine.
I relived the embarrassment of just two weeks before, when the Northern King William III pushed me against one of the walls in the dining halls, forcing me to remove and cut my clothes into tatters, unless, he 'should do the same to my throat'. All the while, he'd had a sword trained on me. When I didn't do it fast enough, he dealt me a gash that extended from the bottom of my chin to my cheek. I still am not certain if it was meant for my throat or not.
"Certainly it is," I agreed. "And now beyond repair. I don’t suppose there is any end to his madness, only a spiraling path, and one we must all follow, if we continue pledging fealty to him.”
An elixir erupted. Showers of scalding glass and corrosive liquid sprayed over us. I stamped out a breath of flame that caught on my tunic and wheezed though air fouled by a stench strangely similar to browned butter. Magister waved the smoke away with his hand as if it would help, before returning to his senses and opening one of the windows. His reaction told me that this happened at least once a day.
"Gods, can't you keep a keener eye on those?" I asked.
"Time is precious, what with chaos brewing in the city ... excuse the pun," he said, caught between a laugh and a cough. "The experiments that are demanded of me give me little time to ensure their safety. Innovation demands a high price, you know.”
I wiped off bright orange droplets from my trousers. “I suppose so. And what was that experiment for?"
Magister Fahim checked the number engraved on the station's stonework, before referencing it to one of his notebooks.
"An elixir meant to conduce convulsions upon its eruption, hence the impressive amount of smoke. Oh my. I ... I apologize."
“Marvelous. Just marvelous.”
Shivering from the cold and twitching involuntarily from the elixir, we'd moved our discussion into his personal garden. Our breath cast steam that dispersed towards the star-splattered sky. The neat rows of herbs were brightened by the faint glow of a waning moon sinking beneath passing storm clouds over the indigo horizon.
Steadily, the dance of my fingers subsided as I stared at them.
"Casimir," Magister Fahim said after a long silence, "you must do something about King William."
"Oh, are you speaking to me? You must be speaking to some ghost I don't see, since the only other person here has the formal title of 'the fool' ... or did that connection not inspire any doubts? Forgive me, but what will my words do to soothe him? The time is not for talk, but a remedy of some sort. You're the alchemist, fix him something."
Fahim chuckled and sat on one of the benches. "Touchy tonight, are we? You know as well as I do that title meant little to William. It was merely an excuse to bring you into his court, and a damned good one, at that. His aunt and uncles may have chastised him for bringing in a stranger into the Foxfeather Castle, but fool’s aren’t typically expected to be within the bloodline.”
I remained silent with a leg propped against one of the ivy-ridden pillars that lined the gardens, knowing all too well the gratitude I once owed William.
Fahim’s face was darkened from the lack of light, lending me only the silver of his straight hair outlining his face, the soft lines of his jaw and nose. The rest was a shadow of robes and glittering adornments. He had a decade and a half of age over mine—a mere eighteen years—but he’d used those years as if they were an entire lifetime, devoting them almost exclusively to the study of high alchemy. "I have scoured every last line of my tomes, tried everything from archaic healing spells to the bleeding edge of my craft,” he said with a wave of his hand, as if it spanned the entire history of medical knowledge. “There is nothing at my disposal that can aid him. If anything, the overwhelming amount of substances I've fed him over the last two years have only hastened his condition."
"Comforting. And you suppose a quiet talk with me will do him more good?"
"No, I am not suggesting that. Just keep in mind how ... close you are to him.”
"Close? Care to gander at my mauled face? Nobody is 'close' to our king anymore, not even himself.”
The magister sighed in exasperation, though I had little notion as to why. William was far from reasoning with. The last person to confront him directly about his ailment was one of his advisors, Gendric. Shortly after, his head was served during one of the council dinners. William spoke little about it, just stuck his fork into an eyeball and added it as a garnish to the cream topping of his sponge cake. It was nothing short of divine intervention that he hadn't forced us to join him in relishing it.
"Are you forgetting how he dragged you from the gutters and fostered you like his own? Somewhere behind all the viciousness is that boy who still trusts you as if you were his brother. Since he was a child, it was all he could talk about, wanting a sibling. You might as well be that brother, Casimir. Such is why he funnels his cruelty into you more than any of us. It's as if, even in madness, he still is more endeared to you." There was a glint of revelation in his eyes as he pondered this aloud; the pale tint of his irises gleaming as they caught mine.
I simply shook my head, the bells of my hat chiming in. "That William has long since left us, magister. And I am not his brother any longer,” I spat, making no attempt to comment on William's obsession with beating me.
"Like the doubled face of a masquerade mask," Fahim continued, "he switches by the hour, by day, and it seems the more we look, the more we see that hideous tyrant rearing his head, and less of the young man we remember. Whatever madness has gripped him isn't letting go anytime soon. The hour for careful consideration has long since passed, seasons ago. It's time for more substantial action."
"Such is why my position renders me—"
"Casimir. Please do not force me to speak anymore directly than I already am. William is on the verge of beginning a war, and if not, a revolt in Portsworth that could cost the city its vitality. His condition has gone beyond mistreating those in his court, it is affecting everything from what laws are written to who is hung at the week's end. Soon, it will be more than just our heads on dinner plates. It would be a mercy if his cruelty stopped there."
"What are you ..."
Fahim stood up from the bench and placed a hand on my shoulder before his voice brushed beneath a whisper. "In a handful of days, we'll celebrate his birthday. Surely, there will be adequate chaos during that night for some ... mishaps to occur. Why don't you take a midnight stroll in my gardens? All the herbs are labeled," he continued as he opened the door that led into the castle. He slipped a note into my hand. "I advise," he added, just before the door creaked shut, "admiring the violet petals of the plants in the far left plot."
Then, the door thudded with a clang. Fahim's footsteps dissipated into the hallways, leaving me alone in the frosted air with a list of ingredients and instructions. The moon illuminated one of the words: nightshade.
"Splendid," I murmured.
"Nonsense, nonsense," I spoke to myself as I ground the plant into a mortar in Fahim's chamber. "Three 'pinches'? What exactly constitutes a damned pinch anyways?" The recipe glared back at me. "I am not a damned apothecary! Why am I doing this?" The late morning light filtered through the towering windows of the study, casting my shadow's movements onto the alchemical stations and cracked tomes scattered about their surfaces.
Perched on a branch of a potted plant was Felix, cleaning his beak against his feathers, or cleaning the feathers with his beak … I could never figure out which was which. He stopped and looked up at me.
“Am I going mad, old friend?” I asked the crow.
He just tilted his head at me, not even adding a caw to comfort my delusion of speaking to him. I scratched his scruff with green-tinged fingertips, finding a wry grin on my face as I did. My mind wandered to the days in which, I, too, thought I had found a brother in the most unlikely person. William once heeded my advice as much as I did his. Certainly, I entertained his audiences with juggling, throwing daggers at unlikely targets, fencing seasoned fighters, a conjuration here and there, and of course, the occasional jest. But above all else, I was another one of his advisors, another pair of ears and eyes to lend their insights.
"CASIMIR!" a infuriated voice roared, loud enough for every last rat in the castle to hear.
Felix splayed his wings out and cawed frantically.
My whole body jumped, which tipped over the mortar and spilled ground herb all over the table. I dragged a book nearby in an attempt to cover the mess, only to spill more of it onto the ground.
"H-here, Wi—my king," I called back, grabbing more parchment to conceal the herbs.
"Here?! Where, here? Is that infernal creature with you again?”
“Ah, yes, in Magister Fahim's chamber!"
No sooner had I shouted that than did King William III burst inside in an obnoxious display of glittering jewelry and fury, his fist plastered to the hilt of his sheathed sword as he strutted into the study. His crown of ruby-studded gold feathers was tilted over impeccably combed auburn hair, his bronze eyes ablaze with scrutiny and frustration. It was the antithesis of the William I'd glimpsed when I looked at him through the haze of a hangover five years ago, quite literally, in the gutters of a city I had no recollection of stumbling into. His hair was tangled, his eyes were keen yet relaxed, and everything about him spoke only gentleness. In those days, he never had a taste for gold nor bloodshed, nor any action that necessitated one for the other.
"What're you mumbling about in here, halfwit?" he said, drawing close enough for me to smell what spices his breakfast might've contained.
"I was studying, my king," I replied, watching the corners of his sharp lips curl upwards in some twisted avidity. My hands desired to further hide the mess behind me, but I stuffed my fist into the other and held it there. Felix swooped over to my shoulder, his beak gaping in a sign of defense as he stared down William.
He scoffed, ignoring the bird. "How could a feeble mind like yours grasp any use of studying? Come, I wish to show you a masterpiece I completed. You will admire it."
Repressing any tell of the relief that filled me, I grinned. “Of course, happily,” I managed.
With a nod, he turned and started out the door. “Stay in here,” I whispered to Felix, “wouldn’t want you at the black end of his mood.” I beckoned him to hop back onto my palm before placing him on the potted plant.
With a twisted stomach, I followed William through the contorting halls of the castle.
"I don't believe you wished me a blessed birthday, fool," he said with his back to me.
"Wi—my king," I stammered. It had become habit to address him personally, as to his previous requests. "When I joined you at breakfast this morning, I brought you a book and countless wishes of good health.” But lately, if he so much as heard me murmur his name without an acknowledgement fealty, a swift punch to the stomach was in order.
"Does a king not deserve twice the wishes as a normal man?"
He stopped, then eyed me and flashed a broad smile. My hopes rose. He'd mentioned a masterpiece. In my first years at Foxfeather Castle, it was not rare for William to share some of his attempts in various arts. His paintings and poetry were nothing to swoon for, but they were heartfelt. There was a tenderness, a longing for a simpler life. And this mockery of deserving twice as much as a normal man was precisely the humor that he once used to maintain a healthy perspective.
The studded ring on his knuckle slammed into the healing flesh of my scar, doubling me over in pain, but mostly bitterness.
"Next year, I would advise remembering your courtesies better."
Before I could get to my feet, I felt his hand grip my hair through my jester hat, dragging me by the roots until I slipped from his grasp and fell back to the floor. "Quickly, now!" he urged.
I fixed my hair and hat and continued following him. "At once, my king." His boots echoed into the corridors, and I scrambled to keep up.
The Foxfeather Castle being one of the largest in Addoran, it took several minutes of strafing through wide corridors and tight staircases before we arrived at his chamber.
At the foot his door, a slightly dried, reddish liquid was seeping beneath the crack. I assumed it was spilled wine, but my nose concluded something less savory.
"Mind the hide I've added to the floor," he advised before pushing open the door. "I believe it adds an air of warmth, don't you agree?"
Rot swarmed my mouth and nose upon the door's opening. My stomach heaved. My feet immediately planted at the doorway, but he'd already stepped over the skinned corpse of his wife. He beckoned me to the easel in front of the open window as if nothing was amiss. His eyes betrayed nothing of normality, only expectation for my approval.
I swallowed, trying not to stare at the corpse. She was face down, the bare flesh of her back exuding decay within arm's reach of the bed, where the curtains had been ripped out during a struggle. Slashes of blood covered one of the portraits of William in his kinder years, the years in which he would drone on about how he did not deserve someone as beautiful as Lady Elise, much to my rolling eyes.
One of her fingers, now severed from the hand, had evidently been used to stir his morning tea.
"Fool, are you lost? You are still far from the painting," he observed.
"No, my king," I cleared my throat, "only admiring the decoration of your chamber. Might I close the door?"
"A fine idea! Yes, this sight is not for common eyes, I admit. I think it is my finest work yet, after all. It is a blessing just to behold it." He stepped back as if it took multiple angles to fully appreciate his painting, pinching his clean-shaved chin as he admired it.
"A blessing, indeed," I agreed as I stepped over Lady Elise and went closer to the painting. "Ah yes, the finest." My eyes watered at the stench, my mind, numbed at the sight.
On a stool next to the easel, paintbrushes rested in a glass of blood and innards.
I leaned closer to observe the 'masterpiece': himself, standing atop a mountain with a sword drawn towards crimson skies. The mountain's height came from corpses beneath him, their depth illustrated by the various sinews and strings of flesh he'd extricated from Lady Elise. Burgundy lightning flashed from storm clouds the color of liver, casting a rain of blood over his heroic stance.
Who knew blood had so many shades?
"It is truly ... stunning, my king. You honor me by allowing humble eyes to see it!” I exclaimed with a sigh of appreciation. While he was fixated on his own creation, I stole a glance at Lady Elise, observing the subtle squirming of a few maggots writhing through the topmost layers of her muscles.
Doubtless, this had not happened this morning, but the previous night. Meaning his chambermaids had witnessed this, and all the same, uttered not a word of it to anyone. When I looked at his face, I realized he had not slept a moment the night before, yet his demeanor was sparking and as frightening as ever.
"I thought it revolutionary," he explained, his eyes no longer on the painting, but digging into mine. "The methods, I mean, by which I created this. From life to art, yes? Is that not the process by which all artists harvest inspiration? A certain surrender and death of the senses for the resurrection of pure expression."
I could not help but step away from him, remembering the comfort of the twin daggers hanging from my belt. "The metaphor is indeed ingenious. The scribes will be fascinated and eager to record your methods, without a shade of doubt.”
"Hmph. Yes. Well, you are quite a busy fool I suppose. Return to your duties, if you wish."
I bowed as quickly as I could and left the chamber.
Bloodied footprints trailed my boots. Every last fiber of his carpets had been drenched.
Skinned corpses. Scarred faces. Bruised bodies. Shattered trust and flourishing terror. This was not to my liking, not to my living. Highborns have a way of standing around and waiting for things to fix themselves, or worse, to erupt into chaos beyond mending. The Northern King that I once knew had inspired a hope in me, for rulers without wreckage. Now I felt that familiar boiling of my younger years simmering beneath my skin, a desire for retribution untarnished by pity. His corruption was inevitable, wasn’t it?
"Six leaves of deadly nightshade," I muttered Fahim's instructions aloud. "Minced, then ground, activated in diluting oil. Simmer for two turns, then add crushed abrin to aforementioned mixture." The acrid stench rising from the vial made my nose crinkle, but there was a satisfied grin rising to my lips all the same. Perhaps Fahim didn’t suspect I had any advantage at spiking William’s goblet, rather, he simply knew I was the only one in the castle with the gall to do it. As I slid a palmful of crushed prayer pea to the concoction, I realized he was correct.
The time passed with some idle reading from one of Fahim's less academic books, after a servant had come to bring his afternoon tea. I accepted it, stopping her only to ask if she had seen Fahim at all that day, to which she replied she had not. This was unsettling, but I waved it away.
I left the elixir to cool, my decision settling into a calm silence in my head. I returned to my own chamber to dress in a grey, black, and scarlet tunic with a high collar. A leather spaulder embroidered by gold rested on my shoulder, nestled over a matching half-cloak. My daggers hung at my belt beside a pouch filled with mechanisms befitting trickery. Topped and tailed with black boots and a four-pointed hat, I returned to Fahim's study for the final preparations, satisfied with my raiment and eager for the night's entertainment.
And afterwards, in the light of a sinking sun setting the chamber afire with its bleeding hues, I contemplated what final jests I would grace the king's ears with.
My foster brother, after all, had long since died.
Felix croaked sleepily as he dozed in the fading light.
“You may need to stay in my chamber tonight,” I advised him, “tonight’s festivities will be a bit too lively for you.”
As I lightly corked the vial I'd transferred the substance to, I contemplated how madness seems to cascade from seemingly nothing, and how retaliation begs not vengeance, but a cessation to that desire. But is it truly cessation?
“No. No. N-no,” I stuttered.
A whole dining hall of angry eyes stared up at me, some in surprise, but most with only loathing. For every one of the advisors in King William III's court, there were two dozen strangers given invitations to the celebration. Folks who understood nothing of the lunacy that had consumed him in the past two years. Folks who knew him only from the stories of the benevolent king who pursued peace. And Fahim, although I spotted him, was as silent as the rest, his jaw as dropped as theirs, staring at me as if I was a god of chaos summoned before him. In other words ...
Weapons were unsheathed.
A goblet clattered to the floor.
The torches' steady blazing was the loudest noise in the ensuing silence, and their eyes boring into me, the sharpest blades I'd ever felt.
"Three pinches," I whispered to myself, "not six. Just my luck ..." The toxins had spread far quicker than the recipe intended, I realized in the most brutal way possible.
I loosened the last notch on the collar of my tunic, praying that one of the courtmen's voices would ring out in the silence to justify the murder they'd just witnessed. They wished for this too, didn't they? I was only the ... I shook my head, there was no time for hopeful thinking.
Dazed, I stepped down one of the stone steps with shaking hands, physically clean, but in their eyes they saw his blood on them. If they were being dramatic and imaginative all at once, it’s likely that they perceived the blood dripping from every inch of my body. They should have.
“He poisoned the king!” one of the guests shouted.
The guard nearest me drew closer and unsheathed his weapon. His longsword gave me an even more intimidating glower than the one behind his visor, and I stared back, back at the other hundreds of weapons brandished at me, and struggled to compose myself. People don’t scare me so much, they are not always the most intelligent. Their weapons do. Everyone in the room had a good idea of what they wanted to do, just a whole mess of different ideas about how to do it. Maybe that’s what kept them from killing me so quickly.
“Please, honored guests of the court,” I stammered, eyeing a sorceress who was making strange motions with her hands, “you must understand this is for theatre's sake! Just a jest, a daring performance, if you will! Wi—the king simply stunned you with his acting! Uh?” I had done many performances in my day, with nefarious acts sprinkled between. I’ve lied, stolen, even killed before this, and yes, with poison, but gods … I never botched it this terribly.
The emptied vial of toxin fell from the pocket in my sleeve and shattered against the floor. A crash that sent my mind tumbling, hoping for any hint that this was an odd dream I was to stir from. When no hint came, some sense of reality snapped; everything became just as I said: nothing more than a performance. My heart fluttered with an unexpected sense of relief. The stage had been set, but would I, the performer, rise to meet it?
My explanation provoked some hesitation from them, from the barest few, perhaps those least graced with wit. I almost pitied them.
“That ain’t no jest,” the guard growled behind me. “King makin’ noises like that, foamin’, beggin’ for help. He's gone."
“Well, he’s not exactly a king anymore,” I mumbled, only loud enough for me to hear.
I glanced back at the corpse. It was hanging over the side of his throne, a stream of bloodied drool heading towards the puddle of vomit beneath, and a hand getting steadily colder, stretched out toward an empty goblet beside a fallen crown.
I regretted nothing of it, only the means. I stole one last look at him before darting my eyes to every last one of them. I meant it. Portsworth needed it, and I'd done it. If this was a dream, and dying meant waking up, I steeled myself to make it last as long as it could.
“This is not as it seems ...” my words echoed back to me from the grandiose stone walls, showing me just how absurd they sounded.
The guards were the only ones I had to worry for, with the dining tables being many strides from the throne. An irrepressible smile, coaxed a little from sheer thrill, a little by the possibility of escape, a little from madness, crept onto my face. I spread my hands out in surrender and settled for other words. "Gods, I may murder, but lying is simply too sinister a crime to commit. And so, lords and ladies of the court, I must confess: I poisoned your king!" I shouted, drew my daggers and dug into the pouch at my belt.
A gloved hand gripped my shoulder in a vice, while my neck was greeted with a cold tongue of steel.
I smashed the glass containers that my fingers had snatched from the pouch. Some filched gifts from Fahim's study that I reckoned would be more useful to me than him.
Clouds of green and orange smoke plumed from the shattered vials, encasing the guard and I before spreading throughout the hall. I squirmed out of his grip, held my breath and darted away, my cloak barely managing to trail behind while my bells jingled a parting farewell. Someone swung a sword at my head. I ducked, threw a handful of vials behind me, and sprinted into an empty corridor.
Was I laughing?
After a collective fit of wheezing, coughing, and some retching, the packed room of guests, entertainers, knights, guards, mages, magisters, and relatives all shouted a cacophony of death threats and insults as they started toward the archway I had just disappeared into. A mob to avenge their newly departed king. All on his birthday.
It was one of my finest jests.
Chapter 2: Ecstazia
One moment chases another and bleeds into the next, in which the mud from my feet splashes against the sky beside me, indigo melting to night, senses wrought with tension. Something is chasing me, something without form. A shadow as pervasive as the darkness that encapsulates mountains after the sun sets. The inevitability of it grips me. Even if I had wings, I would be a prey to this entity. Still, I find myself sprinting.
After reaching the top of a hillock overlooking the bog I emerged from, a dilapidated mansion shrouded by thick trees, whose roots have latched onto it like veins around a heart, beckons me with its refuge. I run harder, feeling that presence nearing. It frosts the ground, freezes my breath, transmutes all that is behind me into stillness. Should I turn and face it, it will undoubtedly be my end.
A gate with hundreds of horizontal, blackened teeth that once closed it intricately is now a pair of rusted jaws with protruding fangs. I burst through, suffering gashes where the rotted metal cut my forearms as I used them to shield my head.
The gate clangs backwards from the force, ringing, before it is forced open again by my pursuer, causing another reverberation of knells that follow me inside the mansion’s gaping doors.
With closed eyes, I turn and slam the entrance shut. To my surprise, no banging or attempts to enter follows. Whatever was chasing me made no attempt to throw its weight against the door. Still, my hands scramble for several latches and pull them shut.
Only, as I turn towards a graveyard of furniture, shattered glass and scattered silverware, the looming windows of the home are swallowed by a blackness without shades. Dust fills my lungs as I pant, sweat dots the floorboards overgrown with fungus. What hues of a setting sun that should have bled through the cracked glass are snuffed swiftly by that same shadow consuming all. In my limited senses of molded wood and silence, I stumble up a spiral staircase, following a light leaking like melted silver down its steps.
I follow the trail, towards another door, its frame illuminated stark against the pitch, and enter.
A small chamber with walls made entirely of mirrors reflects an orb of light in its center. Despite it being the only source of light in the blackness, my eyes are unperturbed by its soft glow. I shut the door behind me and walk closer to the silvery orb, cradling the warmth before clutching it close, embracing it like you would a child you’d lost.
It slips through my hands, and upon meeting the ground, shatters.
A silver hue lingers in the air and colors my vision, but the dread returns.
Spawning from each mirror are shadows whose smokey outlines wave as they drift towards me, each one bearing a mask depicting an emotion. They stare, closing in soundlessly, the details more lifelike the longer I look. Seemingly harmless, yet terrifying all the same, I cannot suppress the tremors that start in my body. The phantoms surround me in rage, grief, trepidation, contentment, ecstasy, boredom, envy, terror, anxiety, patience, lust, and some that blend between others, their illustrations a masterful depiction of expression, yet, the epitome of torment.
One mask pushes itself through the others. Humor: laughing inaudibly through cracked, faded paint and chipped stone. It turns itself to its hallow end and latches onto my face. Before I can attempt to pry it off, the rest follow suit, fading into one another as they crowd my head.
As the terror peaks to spasms in my chest, I look through the eyes of the mask, into the mirror directly facing me.
While some of the guises had faded, seven or six remain, forming a rotating circle around my head. When I attempt to pull one of them off, a bolt of pain sparks through my body. I cease moving, succumbing to their possession. The carousel of masks spin, swifter each blink, until the emotions blur, wherein I am imprisoned within a chaos reflected in every possible peripheral of my vision: a mirrored maelstrom of me.
I gasped. There was a puddle of drool beneath my mouth where my face had been pressed directly against the pillow, nearly suffocating me. I squinted partly in confusion, partly in annoyance, recalling glimpses of the nightmare as I wiped my chin and lips before sitting up.
In the mirror across my bedchamber, I found my bright, dirtied gold eyes staring back at me, some of the view obscured by waves of burnt, umber hair. Even in the late morning, or perhaps midday light, I could still see glimpses of the phantoms circling my head, remnants of the nightmare lingering in reality.
In the journal by my bed, I confined the memories.
After opening the terrace doors in the center of the room, a warm gust of summer air breathed into the room, brightening my senses as I puzzled over the dream’s meaning. Immediately, the nightmare’s grip relinquished itself. It had been a long while since Portsworth felt a forgiving breath of air. All to often does snow fall here in the late spring.
I walked onto the terrace and let my arms rest against the marble guardrails. Far, far beneath me, Portsworth was a seemingly incongruous city thriving in its harried business. The northern docks were packed with sailors, merchants and workers carrying goods and bartering services, while others streamed onto barges for travel. The ports seemed as packed with variously sized vessels as it was with people. Across from the river where ships departed and unfurled their sails in response to wry commands, Addorian hills rolled upwards, intermittently cut by sea rivulets, arching towards mountains dotted by hamlets and villages, and farmlands flourishing beneath the three suns of summer. To the far east, where fewer and fewer villages sprouted up, the Sea of Gold shivered in the midday light. Though it wasn’t a sea at all, rather a forest, with leaves that took on the color of that metal men kill one another for. In the autumn it transforms into the Sea of Blood with bright, scarlet tones. And as winter descends, the leaves dry to a muddied burgundy, true to the metaphor.
Where the paths that led to the ports wound back into the city, the streets twisted and tangled, packed in too closely between wooden structures that seem to slant towards the cobblestone in the poorer districts, and rise too high in more blessed areas.
The Northern Square breathed less crowded air, with a statue of Nocturos in the center, each of his arms draped with cloaks in the shape of massive doorways. Above him, his runic symbol blazed silver. After the sun would set, it would paint the surrounding stones in tranquil hues of pulsing violet. Much of the south, west and eastern parts of Portsworth weren’t in view from my chamber in the Foxfeather Castle, but I knew many of their streets as well as I did my own clothes and hair.
“Lord Casimir,” a servant called through the doorway after a few knocks.
I sighed. How many times must I ask them not to call me 'Lord'? “Yes?” I replied, but the realization had already struck me. I rushed towards my wardrobe, cursing myself.
“Lady Zakora sent me, said you had training this afternoon. Said you were late … ‘again’.”
“Yes, yes. Thank you! You can send her an apology and tell her I’ll join her shortly,” I said as I tripped on my britches, smashing my head against one of the legs of my desk. “Fek!”
“What was that, my lord?”
The small bump on my head still forming, I licked the blood on my bottom lip, trying to ignore the pelting heat on my neck, the sting of sweat in my eyes, the sharp-scented herbs surrounding the grassy courtyard we had been sparring in for the last two hours.
“Were you drinking last night?” she asked me in that thickened, Zorrian accent I could barely understand half of the time, swinging around a wooden broadsword while she waited for me to recover.
“A poor swordsman, perhaps, but a drunkard? You hurt me, Zakora. No, I wasn’t.” It was the truth. “I had a nightmare that didn’t seem to let go.”
“You are lying to me. I have other pupils, you know. I cannot waste time with the likes of you. Always, always late.” She snapped her head to the side, refusing to look at me. Her straight, auburn hair bordered her face and stopped just below her chin. Above her sharp nose and tight cheekbones, her grey eyes scrutinized me. When I didn't say anything, she advanced on me swiftly, retribution sparking in her movements. “Disarm me!” she commanded, pairing that with a heavy-handed attack.
I threw up my longsword to parry, only for the force of her swing to obliterate my defenses, sending both me and my sword somersaulting backwards. She clouted me on the head with a gloved fist as she walked passed almost lazily. It was precisely where the desk had hit, too. I swallowed a scream.
“Surely I did not wait all morning for this!” she huffed. “You’ve improved little since our last session. If anything, you are worse. What am I to tell your sire, hmm? He will think he is wasting his coin on me.”
“Kuilmore dek,” I cursed in my native tongue, massaging the fresh welt on my thumb where her blade had slid past the guard. “You don’t need to tell William anything, Zakora. I asked for these lessons myself.”
“Fine. But you are too small for longsword,” she noted aloud. “We will need something else.” Her accent replaced the ‘th’s with ’z’s.
“Not necessary,” I said as I stood back up. My arms protested the weight of the longsword, but I raised it back to a fighting stance all the same. “Once more."
She continued digging out some dirt from her nails as her brows furrowed in contemplation.
"Oh, come on, then. Again!" I said, just as frustrated as she was to see little improvement.
She wagged her finger at me. “We have been doing this for weeks, for nothing. You are far too little for longsword. We’re done with it, forget it. Time to change tactics.”
“End of story, Casimir,” she sang, smiling with an undeniable air of mockery and enjoyment. It didn’t help my pride that her rich, oak-colored skin glanced off the sun without a single bead of sweat, while I had tasted a nearly permanent line of salt on my upper lip since the last half hour. “You are a halfbreed, yes? Elf and man?”
As I have explained countless times. She, as well as many others, seemed to find endless intrigue in this topic. “My mother was a Qalmorian elf, but my father was from here, Addoran.”
“From my observation,” she said, tapping her finger against her chin, “you have gained all clumsiness of Addoran man and all tiny of Qalmorian elf.”
Her lacking vocabulary in the common tongue made it only more frustrating to be insulted by her. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, trying to swallow my pride. ‘Short’ might have been technically correct but ‘tiny’ was another word entirely.
“How observant of you,” I said dryly.
Zakora seemed thin at first glance, but every scrap of her spoke for itself. Hidden beneath the stringency of her impeccable stature and the tightness of her gait, was more technique in swordplay than most men could ever hope to possess, that made strength seem like a pitiable attribute to foster. Her height was, however, only a half a head above mine, which is better than the one or two I am used to looking up at.
I sprang to my feet, determined not to look so ‘tiny’ and ‘clumsy’ in front of a woman who seemed to walk into flawless confidence every morning, as easily as she slipped on her cloak. She was, down to the fibers of her boiled leather raiment, comfortable in her own example of perfection. “Then again, why put a sword in the hands of a marksman? I am a fine bowman. Do you not have fighting techniques that involve a bow in close combat? I will not disappoint you there.”
She was evidently lost in her own thought process, but stopped to shake her finger at me again. Her words quickened, as if making up for lost time. “Bows have no place in swordplay. You are nothing if you are not a fighter. Archers are good for war and archery tournaments, but close combat is … another thing entirely. You need to be fluent in blade language.”
Her arrogance wasn’t unmerited. I’d seen Zakora outmatch some of the best fighters and swordsmen in the castle upon her arrival in the country, after William had hired her following my request. If I could glean a fiber of her skill, it could mean the difference between breathing and being dumped in one of Portsworth’s more popular, impromptu graveyards: the sea. “Fair enough. I will become fluent in the ’blade language'.”
“Indeed!” she exclaimed, waving away her poor grammar, all too aware that she was not conveying herself perfectly, but far too enthused to care. “The problem is not the man, but the sword, in this case. How rare. You will not hear me say that often. Count yourself lucky, jester. Ever heard of ecstazia?” Zakora walked to a large satchel with training blades spilling out of its stretched seams. She brought out two other weapons. One was smaller than the other, the size of a dagger, the other, a shortsword.
I managed to keep them from falling to the ground after she tossed them to me. “Can’t say that I have,” I admitted, quirking an eyebrow at the pair of sparring weapons. "Who or what is it?"
Several servants carrying platters of food passed by the outer ring of the training grounds. They slowed and eyed us before continuing into one of the many floors of the castle, whispering to themselves between snickers. The training grounds were not far beneath my own chamber, and from the edge of it, you could see the eastern sea ports. Even from here, the tolling of bells and commands echoed up the salt-sprayed cliffside.
“It is a fighting technique from my own country, taught by few,” she explained with a glint in her eye. “If it is mastered, it is perhaps one of the best. Not my … what you say? Cup of caffek? But it works for a few, and I think,” she said, prodding my chest, “you belong to that ‘few’. Some say the Shadow Syndicate trains their thieves in this fighting style.”
“You’re not being serious, are you? Duel wielding daggers …” I shook my head. “What happens if some brute with a broadsword swings sideways at me while I hold these? I'll be lamb's meat! No, I'll be worse. I'll be me meat! There is no way to defend myself with these, either, they are too short."
“Oh?” Zakora folded her arms, let her weight fall on one side of her hips, and tilted her head with a feigned look of interest. "So you fail with longsword and now you know other fighting styles? It appears my training has taught you well."
I ignored her comment and continued my argument. “It may seem rather menacing, I suppose, but it simply isn’t practical. Give me a rapier, instead, something light. Something I can duel with properly. This is folly.”
Zakora threw up her head and started laughing until a few birds enjoying nectar nearby fluttered off. “You mock ecstazia and ask for a ‘rapier’. What will you do then, fight the enemy with your prick? The rapier is a sword of status, used for competitions, not true fighting. It has no place in combat. Here,” she motioned for the daggers, and I handed them back. “Take a lighter sword, something you can lift. Then throw yourself at me. We’ll see if this is folly or if you are the fool.”
I dug through her weapons bag until I found a sword that suited my height and strength, then began to walk back.
“Ah-ah!” she snapped before repeating “Shield, shield, shield,” and pointed to a bulwark leaning against one of the benches in the courtyard. “I want you to have every advantage.”
Begrudgingly, I took it up and faced her.
Without warning, as they often did, the bout started. Zakora coaxed for my attacks with a cunning patience, and I gave them to her, pressing my advantage in defense as much as I could. Her stance was different from anything that I’d seen before, relying on the balls of her feet more than anything, the spring of her legs to switch from attack to defense within half steps. It lacked structure, predictability, or cadence. And for every attack I gave, she used the dagger in her left hand to parry, the sword in her right to attack simultaneously. She manipulated my blade with both of hers when I gave her enough length or time to, using them like hands to shove it from harm’s way to open up attacks, flowing from defense to offense in seamless movements.
Before long, I was the one retreating, my heels catching on the grass. What seemed like the uselessness of two small, mismatched blades, had turned into the overwhelming possibility of being vulnerable every time she deflected one of my strikes.
Zakora knocked my sword back after one of my unsuccessful swings, jabbing my gut with her fist before wrenching the shield from my hand. I backpedalled in gasps, gaining some distance as she readied herself to spring on me.
She lunged. I braced the sword to parry one of her daggers, managing to catch it and deflect its arc. With the other blade, she went for my stomach, but I dodged its point. She leapt from the ground as soon as the strikes proved unsuccessful, pivoting off a nearby pillar woven with ivy before landing on my sword arm and kicking me to the ground. The bruise on my head was hit for the second time that day as it slammed into the grass.
Through dizzied vision I found Zakora above me, her warm thighs straddling my chest, smiling with a wooden blade pushed against my throat.
I coughed, only brief indulging my mind’s instinct to imagine something other than swordplay with her. “Fine, fine. I didn’t know what I was saying. I am the fool. What demon taught you that, anyways?”
She just shook her head and laughed. “Yes, you are, but not for long—I’ll be sure of that. Ecstazia is more than dual wielding,” she explained as she helped me to my feet. “You use the dagger for parrying, the sword for striking, and switch, if needed, to overcome your opponent.” She demonstrated a few maneuvers slowly, swiping aside imaginary attacks and striking at the air in response.
“That is why one blade is smaller than the other?” I asked, more intrigued.
“Exactly! We call it the ’trink'. Think of it has a shield, but you don’t take their hits, you turn them. Some ecstazia fighters use a something called eh … ‘blade breakers’ instead of a trink. Daggers with cuts in edge to trap and break enemy weapons. Of course, I would have one made for you if you wished.”
“And you have seen men use this technique successfully?” I asked, rather stupidly.
“Success does not describe a master in the art of ecstazia. Men in armor are slow, men with longswords, predictable. But men with ecstazia, ruthless.” She smiled at me, my excitement now rivaling hers.
After nearly a month of feeble, bruised, and embarrassing practice, I stared at the pair of weapons in my hands. They were a gateway to proving myself in those situations where steel becomes a more honest style of conversation.
“I think we found your style, jester,” she smirked at me. “I should have known you were a dirty fighter.”
Our laughter echoed around the courtyard. “How else is someone as short as me supposed to best their opponent?”
“As my father told me, honor and pride is no use to dead men. I will drill you later on ecstazia footwork, technique, thinking. For now, get used to the feeling of wielding two weapons. Enjoy yourself,” she winked, “this will take some time.”
I tested the weight of their swing against the air, already feeling more comfortable. Longswords have history, tradition. When I picked one up, I felt centuries of technique and expectation breathing down my back. This felt like territory waiting for me to discover it, capable of showing me things just as I was willing to explore it.
“Lost in thought again? Come on, then, Casimir!” she coaxed.
“Come on, then, traitor!” a guardsman jeered at me as he bashed the hilt of his sword against his steel chest plate.
I’d barred the door behind me, the result of that being the countless fists pounding on it at this moment. In front of me, however, it appeared guards from other parts of the castle had heard the commotion in the dining hall and pieced together what’d happened. They stood, blocking me from my route to the uppermost floors. From what little I could see of them beneath their visors, I thought I recognized their faces. So why would they avenge the corpse of a madman? Hadn’t they heard the stories?
“How can loyalty blind you like this?” I asked them as droplets of blood pattered the floor from my blades. “You saw what he was like, how he killed without thinking! Someone had to do it!” I shouted, not caring who heard me. “Step aside! I have little time, and I’ll not have some armored idiots squandering it.”
Spittle sprayed out of one of the visors at me. I sidestepped it.
“You choose death, then?” I asked. “Is your life so meaningless that I must give it value by killing you?” I flourished my blades and readied myself.
“I’ll not be killed by a fool,” the one in the middle taunted back, his voice muddled from his helm.
“Loyalty has not blinded me, Casimir,” the guard on the right said, “you’ve just lost mine. The godsdamned murderer you are ... the King trusted you.”
The impending skirmish tightened the air. To each of us, the banging of the door, the incessant shouts for vengeance, the stampeding of boots throughout the castle, were drowned by the adrenaline in our ears. Torchlight flickered against our bodies, cast our shadow in dark spasms all around the room.
To them, the outcome was obvious. I stood alone, defended only by two daggers and some leather that would give to their sharpened blades. But to me, it was a challenge, another game of wit, of not rolling unfavorable odds, but finding that opportunity in which there are none at all: only certainty. And should it be my end, what of it? I deserve only what I earn, but never shy from what luck may offer.
“Always strike first when it is not suicide,” Zakora once told me. “Death enjoys a little arrogance, now and then.”
I went for the one on the right, catching the flinch of fear in his eyes as I did, whetting my boldness as my daggers found their rhythm, flashing against his panicked defenses. When I broke through, I was not surprised to find my blades, now for the fourth time since I killed the king, tasting blood again, and all too willing to consume more.
Chapter 3: The Cascading Tower
Too many things had happened in the past few hours for me to believe they were anything more than the unfolding events of a nightmare. Fallen kings, slaughtered noblemen, tattered raiment, furniture thrown hastily behind me, the constant shouts for my head, the servants whom previously admired me, now shrieking away as I darted through the narrow corridors of the castle. I struggled to fathom just how quickly a collected life could turn into the blossom of a blooming, flourishing chaos. Not that I had to think hard about it. The blood splashes yearning to seep into the fabric of my clothes was telling enough.
“I hear him, this way!” someone’s shouts bounced around me in the stone walls.
I crushed another vial’s contents beneath my boot, holding my breath as the chemicals interacted with the air, and gas filled the hallway. I fled as my pursuers began retching again. “Back, back! Find another route!” someone said while others ignored the warning, held their breaths and chased me through the gas.
I waited for one of their silhouettes to rush through the smoke, greeting their body with my dagger’s point. Briefly, I watched the stranger’s surprised expression before I pushed him stumbling backwards, to be swallowed by horrified cries and smoke once more. But you cannot scream without breathing. Those who reacted to the body inhaled the smoke, and their convulsions began.
“M-m-madman!” someone choked.
I ignored the shrill voices and rushed towards door ahead of me. To my left and right, a corridor swarmed with pursuers who all seemed to find me simultaneously. I opened the door and threw down the wooden bar as soon as I was on the other side, only to find three armored guards who had anticipated my movement, waiting inside with their blades drawn.
My parrying dagger slid eagerly from its sheath, happy to be reunited beside its already drawn companion. The smooth, ivory handle that matched the other’s was comfortably cold in my palm. I breathed deeply, preparing myself.
Before tonight, I never considered the act of killing beyond a thought of intrigue. But here, dancing around the odds of my own death, morality became an increasingly distant consideration as murder became not only inevitable, but demanded, an ignorable opportunity for impassioned expression in a rare, quintessential art.
I flourished my daggers until my grips were relaxed yet firm, melding flesh to steel.
“Come on then, traitor!”
Zakora, the woman who I owed my expertise in fighting to, was never one for tender instruction. Punching, slapping, and ridiculing was her preferred method for drilling technique into me. But, when it came to describing the more abstract details of fighting, she had a propensity for becoming intensely romantic. This always seemed to inspire in me a brief and overwhelming affection for her.
After one of our sparring sessions, as Zakora helped me unstring some of the stitchings on the back of my leather armor, she asked me, “What makes a good swordsman, Casimir?”
“This is one of those instances where you pretend to want my answer, but if we’re both being honest, you just want to—Agh!”
“I’ll let go of your arm once you stop being so childish. Now, answer the question,” she’d insisted as she pulled my wrist up to my shoulders.
“Childish, now which one of us is truly being childish?” I grumbled, only to earn another tug that pulled my shoulder that much closer to popping from its socket. “Fine, fine! I suppose a good swordsman is someone who is agile, cunning, practiced, and ah, swift as the wind and so forth, yes? You’ll let go of me now, won’t you?”
“You are right, but not quite,” she said as she relinquished my arm and turned me around, now placing her hands on my shoulders. Her lips were a finger’s distance from mine, but I didn’t shy away. “When you are fighting, you must not be a swordsman, Casimir. Swordsmen die. We are born masters at dying, but living—ah, quite the opposite—that is the art of forgetting how to. When you are fighting, you must not even be Casimir. Forget yourself, your name, your body. Instead, be the steel of your daggers, the force that pushes them in, the strength of their metal. Be their instrument so that, through you, their song may be given a voice.” Her accent forced out stunted sentences between frequent pauses, between which, it seemed my ears perked to catch every syllable, to fill in her imagination where her words could not. And I realized, in that moment, that her passion, if taught through enough pupils, could destroy armies.
“What songs do my daggers sing, Zakora?” I asked, seeking answers that words would not afford in the darkness rimmed by her ashen eyes.
“That is for the instrument to discover on his own, for every blade is different, and every opponent is a unique score, their flesh a blank page.” As she said that, a chilled breeze breathed through my body, and I wondered just how much farther I would have to lean to kiss her. As I’d done before, I weighed the reward against the cost of her fist slamming into my cheek. The conclusion always seemed to be the same, but I had dreams of one day being foolish enough to think it was worth it.
“You know, Casimir,” she said with almost a detectable touch of sadness, “My time left in Addoran is nearing its end. It has been nearly five years since our first sparring session.” She laughed and shook her head, doubtless, recollecting how I acted then. “After I return to Zorran, will your daggers sing melodies that folks talk about all over the realm? Performances that reach beyond the seas?”
Could it be as I suspected? Was our mutual fascination with weaponry and fighting styles compelled by a darker fixation, an artist’s compulsion to force life out of its shell? Was death not the focal inspiration for so much of life’s meaning, with gods or not, with love or not? Was it not the most gratifying release, to force it to envelope opponents who offered the challenge?
I watched her closely as she anticipated my answer. Her eyelids fluttered like a moth’s resting wings, just once, as they went from her sword and back to my gaze, seeking that same affirmation she had just offered me in the subtlety of her questions. A hopeless yearning of recognition for an unacceptable passion.
“Perhaps, Zakora, if they are presented with scores worthy of playing, if I can be masterful enough to give them a voice to their music.”
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.
Three guards took turns grunting and screaming as I darted between their attacks, discovering the vulnerabilities in their armor in the most painful ways possible. A small opening on the wrist, an unsheltered calf, a sliver of the neck. For all the armor keeping them heavy on their feet, I wondered if they felt caged beneath it as I found the open spaces between them.
The number of fists banging on the barred door lessened after some of the pursuers got to thinking about other corridors in the castle, and just which ones would lead to me. The Foxfeather Castle mapped within my mind, I reckoned my time with the guardsmen had to near its end, and quickly, before mine would be met.
Beneath my feet, a macabre river flowed out of the first guard I’d slew, his hand twitching towards the sword I’d disarmed from him before his throat revealed itself to me.
At one end of the chamber, I stared down the two remaining guards at the other end, their bodies already contributing crimson paths that led to the large puddle between us, paths I had opened when they attempted to defend the one who now lay in silence. The one on the right meant to shift his weight, but stumbled to his knee instead. His leg gave from the pain of a gash opened from the bottom of his calf to the back of his knee.
“W-wait!” the kneeling guard begged. He tossed his sword aside and raised his hands up. “I never wanted this, Casimir. You know how the others are,” he whimpered. “I’d look like a coward if—”
“Is that you, Hamor, behind that ridiculous helm?” I shot back, surprised to find myself speaking at all. “You never treated me well, anyways. You showed me no mercy when your numbers favored you.”
The one of his left, however, was poised and ready to match my steel. Meanwhile, footsteps thundered through the castle, louder than the heartbeat that thudded in my ears.
“Time is not my ally, Hamor, and so long as you’re taking mine, neither are you,” I growled as I kicked Hamor onto his back before tearing into the other, whose silence entreated my attention.
The remaining guard’s movements were deft despite his armor, parrying my attacks quick enough, responding with broad, sweeping strikes that made me duck and retreat. Still struggling to get back up, Hamor continued to whine like a limping dog.
In a sudden rush of excitement having seen the opportunity, I caught the guard’s longsword between the blade of my parrying dagger and hilt, applying torque to keep his weapon trapped there. With his sword pointed far to the right of me, I closed the gap between us, close enough for my second dagger to find his side while his free fist slammed into my head. The blow burst sparks of darkness as he hit me again, and again, before I twisted, then wrenched my blade out of his side and leapt backwards.
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.
Gouts of blood sprayed out of the man’s side, decorating the walls and floor around him.
“I believe that trade,” I chuckled, “was not in your favor.”
Enraged by his fatal mistake, he charged at me, raising the longsword above his head and roaring. Light continued to flash through the throbbing vision of my eye. I managed, using the majority of my weight, to send the arc of his blade to the ground with a parry from one dagger, before seeking his neck with the other, sinking in just as he attempted to grab mine, meekly, before the shock overwhelmed him.
I freed my blade, spattering the wall in red torrents. With lurching legs he staggered back and forth, gurgling as he did, before collapsing to the floor.
“As for you,” I said, turning to address Hamor. But he had stopped moving after the wound in his leg had, finally, relinquished enough. At the thought of brief interactions we’d had in the past, a twinge of pity rose in me, before I remembered how, just moments before, he’d tried to spit on me.
The air now saturated in iron, I left the chamber, listening to my daggers’ dimming melodies as they settled into the breathless corpses.
Striding through a narrow hall, I reached an intersection of corridors. Down one of them, I could see shadows nearing the connecting point of the hallway. I reached for another one of the vials in my pouch and threw it to the far end of the corridor, where plumes of emerald smoke gushed from its now activated components.
I left the shouts and scampering feet behind me and listened to them trail off towards the direction of the smoke. The corridor led me to a small set of stairs before a massive, duskwood door, one that led to the Cascading Tower. Once inside, I sighed in relief and wiped the blood on my blades against my trousers before sheathing them. The tower was empty.
The architects of Foxfeather Castle had a taste for the dramatic. A stretching spire with thickened, glass walls at the apex, the Cascading Tower was built in the center of the keep, like a stone heart surrounded by a body. At this time of night, the moonlight leaked through the glass and shimmered against the walls in resplendent waves of water-like reflection.
Inside, twelve staircases crisscrossed to opposite sides of the tower. Beneath them, a gaping pit yawned with darkness. Dozens of hovering, silverglass orbs encasing faerie light, illuminated the tower with pulsating shades of silver as they ascended from the bottom to the top in enchanted, repeating trajectories.
Each staircase arches between two opposite faces of the tower. Behind their doors, they lead to other parts of the east or western keep, where ascending stairs could be found within to get to higher tiers at a much faster rate. The tower’s individual staircases, themselves, didn’t do more than ascend one tier each. And for some damned reason, the architects hadn’t fashioned guardrails to the staircases.
Since my first months in the castle, I had grown accustom to running on the staircases, despite the fact that a misstep would lead to certain death.
I sprinted up a set of arching steps, listening to the echoing of feet somewhere off in the keep, before meeting the opposite door facing me. Entering into another chamber was folly, I realized, as my hand stopped at the handle. Inside, although I would find stairs that would ascend all the way to my chamber at the highest floor, I would find countless more bodies determined to stop me. A gamble I wasn’t willing to take, considering I’d already survived too many unfavorable odds tonight, I had an inkling that the gods of fortune were a little more than irritated that I had dodged death thus far.
I turned around and stared at the door I’d just come from. More folly.
Even still, it was unlikely anyone assumed I had come here in my escape. I had a moment to breathe. Bespattered with blood, down to the creases in my hands, I returned to the center of the staircase and sat down. Beneath me, the seemingly infinite, black throat of the pit stared back. My lack of options seemed to shackle me there.
The silverglass orbs slowly ascended and descended around me, cycling through their paths up the spire. I admired how their silver tinge shifted like wisps of smoke continually going in and out of volume. I reached out and touched one as it passed by me, surprised to find how heavy it was, and imagining how I might die that night, considering it was the most likely possibility now.
Then, I stood up laughing, feet tingling, as I readied myself for the next orb ascending from the depths of the pit.
I clasped my hands together, rubbed them, and jumped for one of the hovering spheres of faerie light, dumbfounded that I had never done this, before, in my spare time. The warm, smooth surface of the silverglass briefly bobbed beneath my weight, as if considering to grant me passage through the air, before returning to its usual, ascending motion. Nearly slipping off, I wrapped my entire body around it and hugged it. Merciful gods, I hugged it.
As we slowly crept through the air, I craned my head to see the final set of stairs awaiting me, the door that led to the hallways on the eleventh story nearly in my view. The orb and I drifted passed the ninth staircase. Just as we did, one of its connecting doors slammed open, spewing out more of my pursuers.
Their heads whipped to catch the rather ludicrous sight of me floating gently upwards.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen!” I called, rather wishing that I was standing atop the sphere rather than hugging it like an infant to its mother.
“Wretched usurper!” The insult echoed into the spire.
“An usurper implies that I would be taking the throne from our dearly departed,” I called back. “I assure you that I have no intention of doing so.”
“He’s going up! Someone get an archer!” another man shouted, ignoring my clarification.
“Nonsense,” one replied. “There’s no time.” He was dressed in dark red, formal attire, and wearing a total of eight glittering rings. He unscrewed the pommel of his sword and threw it at me. Uselessly, it fell short and dropped into the pit below, which gave me something of a chuckle, at least. That is, before his expression flared with anger and he threw the entire sword, itself. I braced myself.
“William was one of the finest kings Addoran ever had!” he shouted.
The point of the weapon glanced off the side of the sphere, narrowly missed my legs, and sent the ball into spinning rotations that fed on its own momentum and continued to become faster and faster. As the orb neared the staircase, my senses abandoned their attempt to grasp their surroundings, surrendering to the dizziness.
“He’s still rising! Quickly now, to the stairwell!” someone in the back shouted, causing the crowd to retreat back into the keep. Simultaneously, doors all throughout the Cascading Tower began opening, with more voices to accompany them.
In my blurred vision, I could see the uppermost staircase nearing as the spinning hastened. As soon as it was within arm’s reach, I let go of the sphere and grasped wildly for stone, catching the stairs’ edge after my body was nearly thrust off.
My hands wet with sweat, I hauled myself onto my knees, but I could barely stand. Just as I began to experiment with balancing on my feet, the door at the bottom of the steps opened with the same people who had just greeted me. I half-stumbled, half-crawled to a higher position on the steps, a safe distance from them.
The man who’d thrown his sword had evidently borrowed another. His older, gaunt face with a trimmed goatee and dark eyes bristled with that fierce, reckless pride of those who stand beside authority almost unquestioningly.
“You are at your end, traitor,” he informed me.
“Oh? I am?” I inquired, happily looking down upon him. “Personally, it doesn’t appear that way to me.”
He scoffed. “What will you do, hole yourself up there until we force our way in, or throw yourself from a window once inside? Surrender yourself peaceably and you’ll be granted a death more honorable than the one you gave the Northern King William III,” he continued while more guards appeared behind him, even an elf that I did not recognize, dressed in scholar’s layers. One of his gloved hands glowed with the beginnings of a spell. Together they advanced slowly towards me.
I dug through my pouch, only to find that I had already used up all of Famir’s elixirs. To my knowledge, there was nothing to bar the door behind me. There was, at least, a large likelihood that there was nobody waiting for me on the uppermost floor, as it was one of the only floors without stairwells. It was accessible only through the final staircase in the Cascading Tower.
“Running dry of your pathetic tinctures? Fool. Answer me!” the ambassador demanded, halting their ascent.
“Well, that is no matter to me,” I said, unsheathing my weapons again and brandishing them. “That all depends on who am I answering.”
“The High Ambassador of Gilimnor.”
“Well, ambassador, you at least gave me a moment of thought, so I will offer the same to you. Fair is fair, after all. Consider the idea that the Northern King was not the man you once knew in his earlier years of reign.” At this, a few of the guardsmen from our castle exchanged glances. “Consider that his end was not only justified, but necessary, for the well-being of Addoran.”
“He was the most benevolent ruler Addoran, possibly all of Netherway, ever saw,” the ambassador pushed. “A prodigy who promised little else than prosperity and peace. It is unthinkable that his actions deserved such a cowardly end, least of all from the likes of you.”
“Are you so certain?” I asked, confident to hear my voice ringing clear through the tower, and the voices beneath us, at last silent in their pursuit. “Time has a way of changing men, and William was of no exception.”
“You may plead your dismal case at your trial, but I have no doubt that a fool, not only guilty of regicide, but the murder of dozens during his act of fleeing, will be treated with a very forgiving eye.”
“Oh, I thought not,” I sighed. “All the same.”
“So surrender yourself!”
“High Ambassador of, oh, what was it? Dying was not something I planned for this evening, so I must respectfully decline.”
“You swine! Seize him!”
I took the last three steps in a single stride, pulling open the door and leaning my weight backwards as I grasped the handle. In the unlit corridors of the eleventh floor, I heard nothing besides my own heartbeat, my labored breath, the slamming of feet against stone steps. Excitement begged me to leave the door, sprint for my chamber, and execute the final act of my escape. A smile tugged on the corners of my lips to feel everything falling into place, but I quelled the impulse. I pulled harder on the handle as resistance arrived. There was no sense in leaving any loose ends that I had the power to cut in this moment. I was going to leave hundreds in one evening.
The ambassador and the other men continued to tug on the door. I dug my heels into the carpet on the floor and leaned further back.
“This is futile. Surrender!” the Ambassador shouted through the door.
I could not help, as my muscles strained to resist three men, but to chuckle a little. Just as I felt their strength nearing its peak, I let go of the handle. Their strength did the rest.
The door gave in to all their force in one violent surrender, sending them toppling backwards over one another, to the mercy of balance, height and the pit of the Cascading Tower.
The guards tumbled off screaming, but the ambassador was fortunate enough to cling to one of the stairs’ edges as his body dangled. Steel armor clanged against stone as the guards’ bodies toppled below, with shrill cries of death to accompany the racket. The elf, smarter than the rest, was standing at a safe distance, glaring at me from the center of the stairs. As I eyed him, another swarm of people squeezed through the opposite doorway.
I didn’t bother shutting the door, just ran through the darkened hallways. A splash of fire erupted close to my head where one of the mage’s spells guttered against a wall.
In my chamber, I threw down the iron latches that locked the door and swept over my belongings, the ones I hadn’t packed, as if looking at all of them would reveal to me some importance I hadn’t considered before. Excitement turned my fingers into useless, twitching nubs while memories flooded my head. Despite the horrors of the past year or so, I felt nostalgic to be leaving everything so hurriedly. I never intended to leave Portsworth this way. It was the first place I ever belonged to, even if it was only as someone’s Fool.
Beside the satchel I had packed was the iron cage I never closed. Atop it, a strange and loyal little creature cawed in relief to see me, immediately joining me on my shoulder. His black beak shone in the moonlight granted by the terrace that jutted out of my chamber.
“Felix, you would not believe me if I told you what kind of evening I have had,” I said as I belted the leather strips of the satchel across my chest, replacing my half-cloak over my shoulder afterwards. “It appears we’re rather pressed for time, however.”
The pounding on the door started again. For the second time that day, I listened to the beat of countless strangers who desired nothing more than to kill me.
“Unfortunately, there is little time for discussion.”
Felix responded with a somewhat confused croak.
“You will have to find something to eat sometime later. Perhaps … perhaps without me,” I said, realizing it aloud. “Do you remember when I showed you the Silver Pool? You thought I’d died after I jumped for it. Elves aren’t bred with wings, after all.”
The noises stopped. I hushed Felix and tilted my head towards the door. There were murmurs and whispers that strung together with little to no pause, only for the intake of breath. The hairs on my body prickled at the sound of a long incantation. I strode quickly through the chamber and out the doors of the terrace, before balancing myself upon its guardrails, staring down at yet another dizzying height that made my hands perspire.
Only this time, the height was not just a pit, but the steep descent of cliffs overlooking a small pool of water at its feet. It was a plummet that would turn an entire ship into driftwood.
At this height, amongst the wind, Felix took to his wings and joined the clouded sky while I savored a final view of Portsworth’s decadence. The countless flames alight in the mismatching streets flickered. Carriages rolled over the uneven cobblestone, while fog swirled low over the steaming chimneys of taverns, homes, shops and chapels.
Behind me, the drapes flapped in the same wind that coaxed me to go over the edge.
“How things change,” I whispered to the wind. The flashing events of the evening played over again in my head.
My chamber door erupted in an explosion that shook the floor. Flairs of heat licked my arms, sizzling pieces of wood spewed out, and embers of the mage’s spell burnt the ends of my hair. I closed my eyes and sighed.
“He’s a madman!”
I let my body fall forward, arms spread as wings, embracing the plummet.
Chapter 4: The Duality of Misfortune
The Northern King William III showed me the Silver Pool just a year after I became his Fool, long before he’d descended into his mania. As we ambled away from our weekly advisory meeting with the rest of the magisters and court, he’d said, “Gods, I think we finally found an afternoon where both you and I are free of our responsibilities.”
Up to our necks in proper garb for the day, complete with layered tunics, ties, half-cloaks and embellished cuffs, the heat was stifling us from the inside out. A welcome change from the prolonged winters of the Northern Moonlands. “With all respect, William, it’s only you who ever has conflicting responsibilities,” I’d responded. “Sure, I have some appointments here and there, but I’m not as loyal when it comes to keeping them should something more … exciting turn up.”
“True. Then again, you don’t have a quarter of the realm expecting your attendance with most of those occasions,” he replied, leading me to one of the reading rooms in the lower parts of the castle. "I can't wipe my ass without someone asking about it." He ran a hand through his hair and shook his head, as if the situation mystified him.
I shrugged. “Can’t blame yourself for that, really. You are a good king, William,” I said, shaking off the carelessness of my tone, if just for that statement. “Probably one of the best. Your parents would have been proud to see you handling all this so well, especially at this age, and with Portsworth, of all capitals.”
“Oh.” He stopped walking. “I—well. Thank you.” He cleared his throat. “I’m sure they would have appreciated you, considering you've kept me sane throughout so much of it.”
“A little laughter and companionship lessens any burden. It's the least I can do,” I assured him. “Then again, if they were here, it’s likely you never would have bothered with someone like me. The weight of Addoran wouldn’t be yours to carry, either.”
At the time, the question of his reasoning for recruiting me from my chaotic past and into his court remained nearly untouched, something I respectively kept my distance from until he felt compelled to tell me, if he ever would. Not that I minded.
“Strange how luck and misfortune seem to arise from each other,” he sighed, then opened the door to the library and ushered us inside. "I rather like how the events following their deaths tumbled. Could be worse," he shrugged.
Extending outside the library was a terrace that matched my own, both in size and design, only it was eight floors beneath mine. “But I,” he said with an arch of his eyebrow as he checked to make sure no one had followed us, “have some plans for today that don’t involve the scrutiny of our court, nor any misfortune, for that matter.”
“A library …” I hummed, eyeing the chandelier that hovered at the top of the ceiling, its enchanted globes and glass orbs slowly orbiting around one another, while a ring of upright swords circled the entire contraption. “Are we going to be reading for your day of reprieve?” I’d asked. “A perilous adventure into,” I slipped a leather-bound tome from one of the numerous shelves, “The Sovereign’s Crown: A Philosophical Approach to Governing? Gendric would be proud to see you crack open this monster. You know how riveting these tomes are.”
He laughed with a glint of mischief in his eyes, one that I was all too familiar having stuck in my own. “Oh no … I think if I pour over another piece of parchment my stomach will churn and I will vomit a novel of some horrendous nature. You have no godsdamned idea how many writs, requests, and pleas I look at.”
“Only I do,” I jutted in, “being the person that helps you judge their worth half the time.”
He sighed, pretending to be annoyed by my remark. "It is a part of my daily routine to read things I can hardly organize or solve. So no, dear Casimir, we’ll not be doing any reading today.”
“Well,” I said with a frown, “you don’t have to crush my dreams so damned hard. What about Lady Elise, where is she? Can’t she join us? I understand that your uncle more or less foisted the marriage upon you, but I actually enjoy her.”
“Oh, the scholarly gentleman you are,” he praised with a slap on my back before opening the terrace doors and motioning for me to join him outside on the veranda. He stretched his arms and yawned, something that was rather rare. “Lady Elise is preoccupied today, discussing some diplomatic matters with a woman from the West Wrights Shipping Company.” He shook his head like any such thoughts were poison to him in that moment. “But please, let’s not talk about that. Gods! The sky is just glorious today. You see that pool down there, the one in the middle of the basin?”
“You mean the one that nobody is allowed to swim in, something about Calan’s sacred nature and it being one of the six known Silver Pools in Addoran?”
“Precisely that one! Oh, you are so perceptive!” he marveled while his fingers unbuttoned his tunic.
“Naturally, you wish to—”
“Swim in it. I am the Northern King after all. If anybody tries to stop me, I’ll just have their head!” he joked. At the time, it truly was humorous to imagine him doing such a thing.
“The Priests of Calan are going to protest your reign if they catch us.” I imagined a whole horde of tan-robed acolytes marching up to the Foxfeather Castle, causing me to laugh more than a little. He scoffed. “And here I thought you were the daring type. Now, I, the stern and relentless ruler, have to instruct my jester to swim in it? This is ridiculous. Don’t make me order you to enjoy yourself, now. It spoils the fun.”
“You may just have to. It’s a steep height, my lord. Isn’t it dangerous? Is a little dip in the water worth a dive that could split your skull in half?” I looked over the edge of the veranda, passed the razor rocks that made up the basin’s borders, imaging just how much skin they would peel off my chest if I didn’t jump far enough passed them.
“What happened to you? Did a prude crawl up inside the Casimir I know and replace his sense of frivolity with motherly concern? Don’t you know anything about Silver Pools? Gods, what do you do all day?”
“Oh, well I feed my crow, walk around the markets, practice juggling, fencing tactics, I read and … all right, what is this? I’m not on trial here. But, aren’t these pools … eh … powerful? Some hogwash about purifying water used for healing spells? I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a touch concerned about the gods smiting someone like me for stepping into something so holy. There’s a reason why I keep my daily activities private.”
William waved that away, rushed to the library’s doors and locked them before stripping down to this undergarments. “Undoubtedly, there is some magickal properties to them. But we’re not here for that. They are,” he explained as he pried off his socks, “not entirely what you would call ‘water’, or at least that is what Magister Katrin tells me. She says they gain their silver aura because of geysers that constantly release a substance into them, and simultaneously pump the water with so much air that it becomes less dense.”
I clapped my hands behind my back and said nothing, waiting for him to explain why this made any sense.
“Meaning,” he continued impatiently, “you can jump from the heavens into them, and your body won’t slap like a fish against the surface. More importantly, it’s pleasantly warm as a result. Just dodge the rocks!”
Despite what he said, my stomach tensed at the thought of jumping from such a height. I despise heights. Yet, I found myself undressing, cursing myself as I did. “If I die today, from god or rock or drowning or otherwise, I hope you carve on my tombstone, ‘murdered by his king’s dimwitted idea of fun’. Also, why do I get the feeling that Magister Katrine came upon these findings through the study of books and not personal testing?” I asked him dryly, placing my jester hat on one of the finials of the handrails.
“Oh, probably because you are exactly right. Consider your tombstone arranged. I will admire it from my view of the gardens. Alas! I am a free man for this afternoon, and my reign shall not be questioned!” he mock bellowed. “Right then. Up and over!” And before I could pull the damned madman back, he sprinted from the back of the library, pivoted off the handrails and launched himself off, screaming with the most pure and godly joy I’d ever seen.
He dove through the bubbling water like a spear, disappearing beneath its surface for quite some time before reappearing, screaming all the same, just without as much breath.
“You are more mad than I am!” I shouted at him. “How is it? Did you feel a goddess smite you, yet?”
“And much braver, more handsome, and talented too! Calan doesn’t give two shits! You’re not going to make me get prosecuted for this alone, will you?”
“You know I would never miss an opportunity to be at the center of attention!” I hollered back.
“Less talk and more action, Casimir! Are you a performer or not? I hear elves can’t swim for their lives. You’re not going to let the rumor stand, will you?”
The last question is what did it. I walked to the back of the library, sprinted, and just as he did, pivoted my weight off the guardrails, shouting partly from thrill, but mostly from terror, as I plunged into the air and tucked my legs into my arms. He dove into the water almost flawlessly, but I aimed to make a splash of cataclysmic proportions.
There are moments in ours lives when destiny is a star glimmering far above the horizon, a drudging journey towards a nearly imperceivable, and perhaps pointless, destination. Then there are those rare, blissful instances, when we’re grasping it like a gift dropped from the gods in our lap. Whether it came from hard toil or sheer luck, or a bit of both, our path is clear, our next step sure. Other times, you chase after it like a demon who just clawed out of the earth, mad and invigorated, unperturbed, indomitable. Should something get in your way, gods have mercy upon it.
My body fell through the air towards that glimmer of silver water at the basin of the cliffs, all the death threats and shouts drowned out by the rush of cold air now drumming over my ears. Balls of fire from an angry mage chased me in my descent, whipped passed my head before fizzling out, only adding to my spasms of laughter.
A cry of exultation and thrill streamed from my body as I somersaulted in my flight, memory and present merging while the night’s sharp winds whirled about my body. And as I flew through the air, I prayed to all the gods that the fall would be just as harmless from my chamber as it was from that library, eight floors down, five years ago.
As William and I discovered that summer day, within the Silver Pool, there is a cove that leads into an intricate system of carved tunnels and paths, one beneath Portsworth that opens up at a cave far beyond the city limits. Filled with stone imps and the occasional rat, the tunnels are all but unknown. A good escape route as any, I reckoned.
At this height, anyone who saw me would be forced to assume I drowned, or simply died, upon hitting the surface. Luckily for me, the Silver Pool had an incredible depth, and one that William and I surmised was all but bottomless; it was more than enough distance for my body to dive through. The substance in the pool was indeed far lighter than water, and made swimming in it extremely easy, more like floating in air. Surely, it wouldn't harm me now.
Or, at least, I assured myself of those facts frantically as I neared it in my descent. Halfway down, my trajectory seemed to point me towards the center of the pool. I braced myself for the impact into the shimmering water.
Then, my thrilled hollering was replaced by screams of pain.
Something halted my descent just as I was about to break the surface of the water. It felt as if my spine nearly snapped as claws dug into my back. The unknown creature struggled against the inertia of my fall before lifting me back up and carrying me away.
“Kuilmore fek!” I roared at my airborne captor. “Let go! Damnit! What in the gods’ …”
Massive, scarred and weather-beaten wings flapped above me me. Large, milky-white eyes briefly glanced at me as it carried me away from the Silver Pool. It was a gargoyle bat, characterized by its grey hid, four legs, and terrifying size. I pounded its furry torso with my fist, bewildered. The creature didn’t seem to care in the slightest. Its head was twice the size of mine, while its body seemed just larger than my torso. Each of its wings was the length of your average desk, if not longer.
I drew one of my daggers and nearly stabbed it, before looking down and thinking better. The city streets glowed in with torchlight and swirling fog far beneath me, with only weathered rooftops and cobblestone to break my fall. A few citizens enjoying the night looked up and rushed to get the attention of others to see the spectacle, hooting and shouting up at me.
Briefly, I considered dying just to spite the creature for ruining my nearly-perfect escape. Then again, I couldn’t immediately decide what was more notable, disappearing into a pool of water or being carried away by a monstrous bat. It was the sheer unexpectedness of it that annoyed me senseless.
Glancing back at my shrinking terrace, I saw my pursuers pointing and shouting at me. At least it would make for quite the story, I thought bitterly, before realizing that the situation made no godsdamned sense. Gargoyle bats don’t eat people, so hunting and swooping them up while they are enjoying themselves was simply unthinkable, especially this close to the city. And yet, here I was in one's claws, admiring the bony anatomy of its wings as it carried me away from Portsworth.
Its pointed, furry ears flapped as the wind rushed through them, the creature making no signs of considering this out of the ordinary.
“Of all the things that could have happened …”
As the city fell away beneath our arc through the clouds, I watched our moonlit shadows swim over the Sea of Blood’s scarlet leaves. Behind us, the angry caws of Felix chased us in our flight, though his protest did precious little to amend the situation.
“Felix, Felix! I’m fine!” I assured him. The bat shifted its claws to get a better grip on my waist, piercing my skin with another set of marks. I winced. “I need you to send something for me!” I shouted over the whistling air, thinking quickly.
“Get close to me, Felix!” I called to him as he struggled to keep up with the bat.
When Felix was in reach, I fumbled with the feather ring on my thumb, trying to drop it into his messenger pouch as he flew beside us. At the same time, the bird couldn’t simply stop flying, let alone slow down, to give me time to do so. At last, I snatched him from the air and placed the ring in the tiny pouch attached to its leg. “Forgive me for being so rough. I know, I know, this is strange. Get this to Magister Fahim’s chamber,” I instructed, three times over.
The terrified crow was cawing, now seeing the face of the gargoyle bat, whose eyes seemed fixated and trancelike, unlike a normal animal’s, as it continued towards its destination.
I let Felix go, who, after regaining his balance in the air, watched us briefly before flapping back to the Foxfeather Castle.
“Wait, Felix!” I shouted, but it was too late. “Don’t forget to find me! Somehow!”
I cursed at my mistake. I should have let him follow me, first. A touch of loneliness creeped up into my chest, watching his tiny silhouette fade into the clouds.
By then, the Sea of Blood was far behind us, with Portsworth’s expanse turning into a wood and stone oval spread across the mountainous terrain cut by the sea. Four points of light: the east, west, north and south squares, illuminated surrounding structures with the symbols of the four gods of fortune. The bat veered eastwards, alongside the mountains that loomed over the forest, where early snows had already settled at the basins. My hands had gone numb, my mind was reeling, and my stomach, twisting, at the thought of whatever would meet me after this bat stopped flying.
I had that terrible feeling that it was nothing with the best intentions.
I squirmed until I could get the whetstone from my satchel. To pass the time for the uncomfortable journey, I sharpened my daggers. What else was there to do?
“Small chance you are one of those infernal beasts that can talk?” I asked the bat.
Again, its eyes only glanced at me before returning to stare at the terrain as it slid beneath us.
“No, I thought not,” I sighed. "You don't talk to your prey, do you? That wouldn't be good table manners."
Chapter 5: Rogues
“Where are you off to?” Lady Elise asked me, barely looking up from her book at the empty dining table in the main hall. Her voice attempted to reach the height of the ceilings in search of an echo, but fell instead softly between us.
“You would make a good thief, Lady Elise, do you know that?” I asked her, inspiring a mischievous look.
“Perhaps I already am one. But why in the stars would you say such a thing? Coming from you, I expect it was meant as a compliment.”
“Because I hardly noticed you were there. Otherwise, I would have surely given you a farewell before I left. I hope I didn’t appear rude to you. And, indeed, it was intended as such. A good thief has to be talented in many things, but silence is imperative, and that is quite the precious quality.”
“Consider yourself forgiven by the high court, jester, saved by your flattery. Our verdict is thus: your head shall remain affixed to your shoulders.”
“Thank you, Lady Elise.” I bowed deeply. “Now that you have relieved my soul of its heavy burdens, I must be going,” I insisted.
“Now, now, Casimir. You still haven’t answered my question. Where exactly it is you are going.” She closed her book.
I watched her onyx eyes, our silhouettes cast across the floor by broad sheathes of light cutting through the towering windows of the entrance hall, where the throne, and all other chairs besides hers, sat empty. “Your curiosity is the kind that makes one feel cared for, did you know that? But, if you must know, our dearest William sent me on an errand, and one I intend to put off as long as possible, likely for the intent of exploring some of the inner city’s taverns or museums, depending on how the evening goes.”
“To be drunk or to be well informed, now that is a battle we all face every day,” she laughed. “What did he send you to fetch like some cleavage-toting barmaid?”
“Ah, you honor me. He requested a particular type of quill from one of the city’s copy houses, a kind that the scribes use there. Something about it being durable and unlike any other, apparently crafted with a metal interior that stores ink.” It unsettles me, as much as it comforts me, how deception rolls of my tongue easier than honesty.
“Ah yes, he is quite particular when it comes to his writing instruments.”
“Indeed. You don’t need to tell me. Well then!” I said, turning away.
“Yes? What’s wrong with it?” I fiddled with one of its bells, causing it to chime blithely.
“You’re still wearing it. You don’t leave the castle with it, do you?”
“Of course I do. Everyday, in fact. Why shouldn’t I? It keeps my head warm.”
Her face pinched together in thought, as if I was an enigma beyond her fathoming. I arched an eyebrow at her. “Won’t people think you are …”
“Strange?” I finished for her.
“Let me ask you this: is it strange for a woman to put makeup on her face every morning?”
“Is it strange for men to wear lengths of cloth that serve little purpose in the summer?” I asked, grasping my half-cloak as I did.
“No, not at all. You look rather dashing with one.”
“I’m forced to agree. And still, is it strange for armies to stand opposite one another, and in orderly fashion, charge and hack into one another into they’re a sopping mound of flesh and blood?”
She flinched a little at the depicted scene. “Well, when you—”
“Is it strange for folks to imagine that they are speaking to gods in their own heads? To eat with forks in their left hand when it could very well be their right? To roll up a dried plant into a leaf and inhale the smoke from burning it? To cut, beat, dry, and stretch wood until it forms an object capable of emitting sound when horsehair is dragged across attached strings?”
At last, the confusion in her face lessened. Something I always enjoyed about Lady Elise, and William for that matter, is that they had an indomitable sense of reason when logic was presented clearly. “No. No, it’s not.”
“And why?” I asked, stepping even closer.
“Well, because …” she paused, the confusion at last resolved, “I suppose because everyone does those things.”
“And that is precisely the only reason why anything isn’t strange. My hat is nothing more than cloth fashioned in a manner so that three cuts of it hang beside my head. The silver on my vambraces do not enforce the leather, merely embellish it. The hilts of my daggers, painstakingly carved from the bones of some poor creature, do not add any strength to the weapons, only to their allure. Strangeness, my lady, is subjective, perpetuated only by the delusions of what a culture has deemed normal. There is nothing strange about my hat, only the people that think so.”
“Fine! I surrender!” she laughed, then sighed as if I was missing something. “Still, Casimir, everyone will think you are a fool.”
“In many senses, I am one. And I sincerely hope others think so.”
“I am always Casimir, often a fool, but not always. Often, folks take one look at the hat and assume I’m mad. You’d be surprised just how much that puts me at an advantage to cutthroats,” I said with a tirelessly practiced flourish of my daggers that ended with them being sheathed almost as quickly as they were brought out. “The underestimated opponent is a deadly one, and this city, if you hadn’t noticed, is rife with men of ill intent. Many blessings, Lady Elise.” I grasped the end of my cloak and flared it as I whirled towards the colossal doors of the Foxfeather Castle, rather pleased with myself.
Two guards stood at either end of it. The one on the left nodded at me after I did the same. “Casimir,” Hamor, the one on the right, said with a nod. “Looking ridiculous as ever,” he muttered beneath his breath. I noted the insult but said nothing, humming as I strolled out into the wintry air. Perhaps one day I will return the favor.
Soft winds breathed snow onto the two gates beneath Nocturos’ gaping, stone arms, the white flakes on his cowl fighting to layer themselves while the violet flame of his insignia melted them, suspended above his head, rotating slowly.
“Spare a coin?” a child asked me as I strode through the Northern Square. He was no taller than my waist. His practiced expression of sorrow, the limp in his leg, and the crutch he used to support his weight, was all too conspicuous.
I took scarcely a moment to turn and look at him, offering not a coin but a grin. “Maybe next time, if you work harder on your theatrics.”
I knew far better than to play into his scheme, likely resulting with some men waiting for the child’s haul at the day’s end. In all likelihood, more than half of Portsworth’s beggars worked as a network that brought in more coin in one day than an honest business did in several.
The child scampered away towards a street dwindling with late evening strollers, his broken leg miraculously healed.
In quivering winds, phantom fingers of snow and frost swirled around my feet, sweeping across the even cobblestone of the nearly empty square that bathed in the flame's violet hue. “In the City of Thieves, nothing is as it seems,” I mumbled to the air. I wondered what I would do if the man William sent me to trade with had no interest in more wealth. Would I have to fight him, kill him for what William needed?
“You’re right, it never is,” a voice said behind me.
I whipped my head around, hand already on the handle of my dagger. “What—”
“And that child was no poor actor. In fact, he’s quite talented," he said with a laugh. "It’s difficult to pretend to be someone pretending to be someone. Rest assured, my friend. He got exactly what he wanted.”
The young man who had appeared from behind Nocturos’ statue was dressed entirely in black. The high collar of his tunic rested neatly beneath a heavy cowl that obscured his face. He had a single, leather spaulder on his right arm and a cloak that draped the other, falling to his ankles in a slanted cut that rose short on his back. Both of his knee-high boots had a spare dirk strapped to the ankle, though I doubt he used them, because his belt had more than just a few, and another slew of them were strapped to the rugged cuirass over his tunic. Judging by the size of them, they were meant for throwing.
I wanted to ask him who he was, but his observation panicked me. “What do you mean?”
“You saw the boy, but did you spot the young girl before she snuck down the side street to your right? She was hiding behind that bench, right there, before the other one got your attention.”
“What did she take?”
He just laughed, the lower half of his face obscured by a black mask. Only his eyes, charcoal with flecks of white, showed beneath his hood, while a few locks of black hair strayed from within. “Am I assuming too much in saying you don’t have time to ask me?”
I cursed and ran away off towards the street he indicated, startling a couple who were were teetering and laughing outside of a raucous tavern at the corner. Scrutinizing the curve of the walkways ahead, I found little else besides quiet shops closing for the evening, and faerie lamps that illuminated the fog swirling low in the street. Winds picked up and howled at me. When I looked behind me, the stranger was leaning back against Nocturos’ statue. He jerked his head to the left as he twirled a blade around his finger.
Turning into the alleyway besides the tavern, I spotted a girl crouched over my coin pouch, counting its contents. With what little light the moon leaked into the darkened passage, her blonde hair gleamed and glittered with snow.
With a surreptitious tread, careful enough not to jostle the bells of my hat, I closed the distance between us, her attention all too transfixed by the small fortune in her hands to notice me. It was the sum that William had given me to retrieve something of importance that evening. Getting closer, I could see the now severed ends of the chords that previously attached the pouch to my belt, ones she had cut so deftly, I hadn’t noticed the movement.
“I believe you have something of mine,” I said, now that I was close enough to grab her if she tried to run. And she did, only her mind ran faster than her feet, and she tripped onto her back. The coins scattered, danced about and trickled into the cracks of the cobblestone. By then, she was too surprised to move, perhaps because no pursuer of hers ever thought to approach gently, rather shout for the city watch or aid as they chased frantically.
I outstretched my hand towards her. “No, this isn’t a trick, even if you played one on me. It was a good one, I must admit. But I’m not angry,” I replied to the suspicion in her eyes.
Warily, her small hand grasped mine. She rose to her feet, oddly unashamed and all too willing to meet my gaze with eyes that shone a bold turquoise, fearless and cold in a body that should know only frivolity in all its frailness.
“You are quite the bandit,” I informed her as I bent to collect the pieces. “In truth, you did your job well enough. I wouldn’t have noticed you if luck hadn’t been in my favor. For that, I suppose, you deserve some compensation.” I picked up one of the silver pieces, a bulfur, the equivalent of ten evenings at a dingy inn or triple as many meals.
Much like Lady Elise when I riddled her with questions, the child’s face contorted with confusion as the silver piece beckoned her hand. Her silence said little, but the bruises on her face spoke more than I needed to hear.
“I won’t hurt you. Take it.”
When the child gave a meek grin, at first, I felt pangs of pity swell in me. She didn’t necessarily choose this life, no more than any child chose their parents. Portsworth had a way of breeding thieves from its orphans, teaching them wit and guile instead of manners, quiet footsteps in lieu of curtsies, pickpocketing and lock picking where, in a more fortunate start, reading or the basics of lesser casting might’ve taken their place.
Her grin turned to the sharp edges of a smirk, her eyes flickered to something behind me. And all at once, she snatched the coin from my hand, I turned my head, reached for my dagger, but far too late, as someone’s knuckles slammed into my cheek.
The child ran off as more blows descended, before I could even look to see who the accomplices were, or how many were kicking me into the wall of the alleyway.
“Fuckin’ fool, he is,” a hoarse voice remarked with a snarling cackle. I could hardly disagree with him.
“Highborn, by the looks of it. But that Stella’s a charmer, ain’t she?” the other replied. “Always picks the right ones.”
“Aye, she does. Give it a few years, she’ll be a good fuck.”
Briefly, they argued over who would be the first to take advantage of her. I made an attempt to get to my feet, but was kicked harder against the wall, the point and heels of their leather soles became sharp, staccato beats of pain before they finally subsided.
Squinting through an eye already swirling with blood, I spotted two pairs of feet standing over me, before one boot connected with my jaw and sent the blood from my nose spattering across the silver pieces on the ground. My eyes fluttered as my consciousness dared to do the same, but I latched onto the pain and remained there, inert yet seething.
I played dead, breathing through the iron in my throat, the throbbing in my skull where one of their rings broke the flesh, where needles of bright pain sprang each time a snowflake touched the wound, where the rage boiled vivid images of me leaving their corpses for the city watch to find the next morning.
“Think he’s dead?” the other asked, his voice a higher pitch and trembling with the shaky laughter of a hyena.
“Nah, just out. Search ’im, quick like. I’ll grab the purse.”
The scrawnier one’s fingers groped all over my clothes. He went through the pockets of my trousers, filched a coin, a quill. He slipped the ring off my thumb, unhooked the Foxfeather signet that clasped my cloak, before digging into the satchel strapped to my left leg.
“The fuck’s all this?” he asked, finding the dual-glass vials I used for performances. If the glass separating the two chemicals inside broke, it activated thick clouds of smoke. He got up from his crouched position to show the other one. “You think it’s for drinkin’?”
“Who cares? Grab them daggers and let’s get out of here. I got his purse a’ready.”
I heard the pop of the vial’s tiny cork, the inhalation of his nostrils. “Smells good enough.”
“Well don’t just drink it!” The gruff one shouted as he slapped the concoction out of his hands before his lips touched it. “It could be—”
Glass shattered. The components sizzled, simmered then snapped with a loud burst of fumes. I shot up from the ground, grabbed the smaller one’s head and rammed it into the wall, kneeing his jaw before he hit the ground. His skull cracked louder than the vial’s eruption as he fell down groaning.
Fury compelled my hand, an instinct beyond quelling, a movement irrepressible as chance became consequence. I looked up from my shaking fist, now gripping a dagger hilt-deep in the man’s back, trembling from the last, feeble throbs of his impaled heart. I stood up and flicked the excess substance off the blade before drawing its pair. “It’s one thing to beat someone senseless before robbing them,” I told the remaining thug as I brandished my blades and stretched my arms. “Quite another, to raise a child to be your whore.” Blood continued pouring from my nose. I breathed raggedly through my mouth, swallowing gulps of it periodically.
“Easy now,” the bigger one said, now holding a studded cudgel. “Meant nothin’ by it. Just the way the world is, you see.”
Having now been taught the painful way that there were not just two, but three layers to this scheme, I looked behind me, but found the end of the alleyway empty. I returned my gaze to the silhouette of the bandit, growing ever more distorted as the smoke thickened around us.
“Give back what you took and I won’t kill you,” I threatened and spat my blood at his feet. “Even if you deserve far worse.”
His body shook with another set of cough-ridden cackles. He was far larger than me and built better, his muscles roped with thick veins from arduous labor. “How about you hand over what I haven’t already got, and you walk away? Luck can only get fools like you so far.”
Now that it was missing its clasp, my cloak slid to the ground. I belted my satchel shut before anymore of its contents could spill out, preparing myself as I did. The stinging in my head became harsher as blood beat faster through me.
“What’ll it be, then?”
“Luck certainly played her role back there,” I admitted, nodding towards the body, where crimson was spreading greedily through the snow, steam rising up in tendrils to join the fog. “But I wouldn’t bet she had any favors in store for either of us, now. And oh,” I laughed, “I would like to see what that’s like. Care to humor me?”
“Gladly,” the thug replied. He advanced, thrashing his cudgel so wildly that it collided against the walls of the passage. Stone particles and dust sprang out of the impacts that left heavy indents behind. Each time, images of the cudgel bashing my skull flashed in my mind. I shook them out and retreated while he advanced, the spiked edges of the cudgel nearing me as his slow push turned into a charge.
His movements seemed sporadic, but contained a rhythm: left, right, down, left, right, the beat of an idiot.
As I neared the end of the passage, as snowdrift fell over our heads, as his crude attacks reached a frenzy of arrogance, I picked his next swing in the rhythm and made a motion as if to parry a strike to the left while he raised the cudgel for a downswing. Triumph flashed in his expression as he caught the feigned mistake. Enthused, he continued the cudgel’s arc for my head.
I twisted my body, and with a sudden thrust, impaled his wrist with the dagger in my right hand, snarling as the blade sprang out the other end, just as delighted as I was to breathe the air after his blood was drawn.
His hand spasmed as my steel played with their ligaments. The cudgel dropped to the floor in a defeated clatter. Before he could retaliate with his free hand, I twisted his arm down, a puppeteer of his flesh and screams. “Meant nothin’ by it,” I told him as my other blade thrusted between his ribs and found his heart, twisting. “Just the way the world is, you see.”
Surprise, a gnarled anguish in his eyes, received only malice from mine as he staggered to the wall, his blood now mingled with mine on the ground; there, a quiet communion of murderer and victim, of the ardent and the pathetic, mixing in sworn shades of the same hue.
“Yora kemmin dek,” I muttered to the corpse as it slid to the ground. I collected my purse and placed it in my satchel.
“Is that how you say ‘Good riddance’ where you come from?” a now familiar voice asked behind me as his shadow drew closer. I hadn’t even heard his feet approach, his tread snowfall on the ground. Despite having just killed two people, I chuckled, figuring that if he was apart of the triple ploy, he would have already done the same to me by now.
“How the Qalmorian Moon-elves do, at least. Though it is a little harsher, I would say.” I got to my feet and took in his appearance, surprised to find he’d drawn back his hood and mask, and beyond that, that I was comforted by his presence. He outstretched my cloak to me, the clasp on it already refastened.
His face contained the rushed maturity of a difficult upbringing, not perturbed by the past, but illuminated by the challenges overcome. His dark eyes were considerably brighter now, as he smiled at me. He looked just a year or two older than myself at the time: seventeen, with a soft, rounded nose and lips set in a tight line when they weren’t smirking.
I thanked him and drew the black-and-red motley cloak back over my shoulder. “Harsher?” he asked.
“Loosely translated, it means ‘You met your intended end’ or rather, the only one that was fitting for someone like you. It’s not exactly something you say for your wife’s eulogy.”
The stranger snickered and knelt to search one of the bodies before he tossed up a smaller, patched coin purse and tucked it in his sleeve. “Fitting, indeed. Can’t say that I pity them.”
“Nobody should. You’ve a name?” I wiped the blood spattered on my face, both mine and the bandit’s, on my cloak, before doing the same for my blades. The frozen air helped to stop the steady trickle coming from my nose.
“Oh, many, though I am assuming you want the true one. I must admit, I watched all of this unfold. I just couldn’t help myself. I was curious. So I suppose I owe you that much, at least.”
“And a drink,” I added quickly. “At least two, one for each of them. I’ll even do you a favor and pretend like you didn’t help in the slightest with that tip you gave me back there.”
The stranger laughed, already privy to my humor and all too willing to play along. “Nobody owes anybody anything, thus possession,” he replied as he produced the rest of my belongings in his other hand, “is simply an illusion. Danger, on the other hand, is quite real, and in this instance, is taking form in the guards now heading towards the screams that our friend here made. Shall we continue this elsewhere?”
The frozen air had embraced my silver ring, but it felt soothing to have it returned to my thumb, all the same. “I know just the place.” It was the only place, in fact, that I had intended to be that night.
I snatched the quill and coin from his hand, and together we abandoned the scene, heading east of the Northern Square, where the rest of my evening’s business lay waiting. Portsworth might have lacked virtue, but narrow crevices and tunnels, it did not. There was a reason why thievery was rampant here. The sheer size and twisting passages of the city made losing pursuers easy.
Both of us pretending we were less winded than we were when we stopped running, now standing outside The Craven Phantom, a gambling house that only became louder as the night deepened and the snow thickened around us. The fogged windows glowed from the candlelight inside, the myriad silhouettes within emitted laughter, shouts and insults muffled through the wall. A heavy thud shook the establishment after someone went down to a pair of flying fists.
“Now, about that name."
“Drinks first. It’s not every night that I'm free to roam like this, and I intend to make the most of it. I just watched someone fight for their life, so it can only get worse from here.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure of that,” I said, still smiling despite the steady hammer beating my head from where I’d been pummeled. “But I’m not one to argue. After you.”
Before the winds could freeze us to our leathers, we let ourselves into the tavern, immediately overwhelmed by the stench of sweat, mead, nitskel and unfavorable chances over dice boards, cards, and backhanded insults. Bones made up the sconces and candlesticks inside, the most impressive piece being a gently swinging chandelier that hung beneath the rafters, where eight skulls adorned each point, fashioned to look down upon the patrons with hanging jaws. Some human, some not. We made our way through the most boisterous and drunk, the patrons too entrenched in their current dealings to pay us more than a glance. I scanned the crowd, spotting a woman with an eyepatch and a glare in her working eye as she observed the expressions of the men sitting around the same table, all of them holding cards before a stack of coins.
“What are you looking for?” the stranger asked me, his gaze just as watchful.
“Nothing that’s in this room,” I muttered. “Follow me.”
We ascended cracked and groaning stairs to the second floor. Upstairs, the noise from below still bellowed after us, but more tables were empty, and for the ones that weren’t, hushed conversations rolled over closely-clutched drinks and wary eyes. At the far corner of the room, a man with cropped hair was leaning back in a chair in front of two others and a woman, laughing as he swigged from a carafe. One of his fingers glinted from a silver Foxfeather signet—William's signet, the only one, for that matter. The collars of his beaten, leather coat rose obnoxiously high, a wide breadth of his head, which was covered in all manner of scars.
“It appears I haven’t used all of my evening’s luck up, yet,” I said as we sat down at an empty table.
“Something tells me you’re not the type of person that runs out of it.”
“All is fortune in the eyes of chaos.”
When one of the servers took their queue and followed us upstairs, the stranger payed for gin and brandy before I could insist. Not that it was all too burdensome, considering he used the coin from one of the corpses. I kept my eye on the man in the corner as the first beginnings of our companionship arose. The unexpected friendship that sparked between us was nothing short of odd, but I had a taste for the unexpected and the happenstance, especially when it came to the bonds of kindred souls.
“I do feel guilty for not stepping in,” he admitted after a short silence. “But you should understand that someone like me can’t afford to make allies of fickle people. Watching you deal with those rats proved more than just a few things to me. Despite your inability to see that the boy was only a ruse, I thought you could handle yourself with the others. Luckily, you did. And now, what was an innocent evening of people watching turned into this,” he gestured between us, “and I don’t take my friends lightly.”
“Neither do I. If it weren’t for you, I would have lost that purse, so let’s call it fair. But what if I hadn’t handled myself?” I took off my hat, not surprised to find more than a little blood on the inside of it. I prodded the wounds on my head to judge their seriousness.
He scoffed. “Don’t be a fool. I would have dashed in there like a golden legend, of course.”
Our words stopped as the server returned with two small, ivory cups. He took the brandy.
“This golden legend could have saved my head from three welts, and that’s not even mentioning the bruises on my body.”
“Ah well, I had to know you were worth your mettle. Ladies love black eyes, in any case. And that one’s going to be a monster,” he said, pointing towards my left socket.
We clinked the cups and drank. With a trailing finger, I admired the cup’s surface, heavily engraved in filigree.
“Shamus Dodge,” he told me after we swallowed back the liquor. After the initial bite, the smooth texture left minty notes in the back of my throat, to an almost bittersweet finish before leaving a pleasant burn that chilled and trailed down my stomach.
He finished his second sip in sputtering coughs, hearing my second name. “Gods, I thought you had stolen that clasp and ring.” His expression flashed, seemingly without control, to confused frustration. “So you’re a highborn then? And here I thought the hat, the motley cloak, it was all some elaborate mockery of royalty! Gods!”
It had been a long while since I laughed as hard, the irony much sweeter than the ale. “No and yes. I wasn’t born into the Foxfeathers. I was raised in a small town north of Westrun, long, long before I was brought into their court. I took the second name because, well, pasts are meant to be left with the dead. Names have a way of erasing things.”
“Fair enough. So then, you have no royal blood in you?”
“If I did, it would come as a surprise to me, and not a welcome one.”
At that, the urge Shamus had turn the table over and run seemed to leave, but he quickly lost himself to thought as if the question of my trust lay there in the stained wood. “Yet you live with them, eat and drink with them.”
“I am one of the King’s advisors, and entertainers, but gods know I prefer the latter. Why should a fool have to lend his opinion on warfare or trade treaties? The intricacies of royal politics befuddle me.”
“Wait!” Shamus exclaimed and grasped my arm. The white flecks in his eyes seemed to ignite, burning up any judgements he might’ve had of me. “You are that Casimir? You were that acrobat in this year’s Hallow’s Eve Reverie performance? The second act, was it?”
“At your service,” I said, then wiped a less charming, lingering trail of blood coming from one of my nostrils.
“Gods, you were magnificent! How did you summon all those illusions? You made it appear as if there were dozens of you, all at once. And then …” he trailed off, shaking his head as his words faltered to describe the vivid conjurations of that night’s performance. “That was three bulfurs well spent, my friend. How did you do it?”
“You think I’ll unveil my secrets to you only after one drink? Tsk, tsk. You’ll have to be more cunning than that.”
“Cunning?” Looking about the room, a roguish smile came to his lips. “You’re here for something from that man in the corner, yes?”
“Well, I didn’t stroll out into Portsworth’s late evening to be robbed and nearly murdered, even if it was rather exciting.” I took another sip, wondering if the pains in my abdomen were from cracked or bruised ribs.
Shamus didn't seem interested in his drink anymore. He leaned over the edge of the table. “Tell me what you’re after. I’ll retrieve it for you."
“Just like that?” I asked, all too eager to accept his help now that the adrenaline had begun to fade, and in its absence, an even angrier ache swelled in my head, a tiredness like lead forming beneath my eyes. Simultaneously, I could leave the evening where it stood and return another time. Surely, William would understand if I had told him the story, but I had a self-destructive tendency to do things that weren’t entirely rational, especially if they came wrapped in a challenge.
“Just like that. But,” he continued, “if I get the object, you’ll tell me the mechanics behind your illusions in that performance. In my profession, deception is gold, and you might as well be a mine.”
The man in the corner laughed uproariously, spluttering his drink all over the table. The longer I thought about it, the more intrigued I was to see what Shamus had in mind.
“I must confess,” I told him, “I was given a rather large sum to trade for that object. Hence the small fortune I nearly lost to a child.”
“To the worms with it. Keep the sum, the reward is in the execution. Where’s the fun if we do this the polite way?”
“I couldn’t agree more.”
“Now, what is it?”
“You see the ring on his forefinger? That’s the Northern King’s signet. If that man had half a mind to do so, he could send off commands to ambassadors, tradesmen, even executioners, and stamp the wax with that seal. Luckily, he doesn’t appear to be the type that enjoys penmanship, much less speaking well. I doubt he understands that he is, at this moment, far more powerful than he ever dreamed he'd be. William has a, erhm, slight concern that one day he might just figure it out.”
“How did he lose something so godsdamned valuable to a drunk like that?”
“Shamus, that ‘drunk’ owns this tavern and half the brothels in Portsworth,” I whispered, careful not to look at him anymore than I already was.
Dumbfounded, he shook his head and pushed his drink away. “That still doesn’t explain what a highborn was doing in a place like this.”
“William isn’t all that different from us,” I confessed. “Every now and then he puts on disguises, changes his wardrobe, and goes to lowly places like this to gamble, to drink, to laugh, to pretend like he never was a king to begin with.”
“That’s oddly … admirable,” Shamus admitted.
“And probably one of his worst habits,” I grumbled. “He lost that ring while he was gambling.”
“Regardless ... are you still up to the task?”
“Stealing a king’s signet, making a fool out of some wealthy, drunk bastard, what’s not to love? Forget your secrets, I’ll do this for pleasure. You gave me a performance I could never forget, how about I return the favor?”
"You know, I think I may at least come to forgive you for letting me get beaten bloody in that alley."
"Oh, gods no! After tonight, you're going to thank me for it. After all, if I hadn't felt guilty, I wouldn't have bought you the drink."
Chapter 6: The Signet
Night’s sable ebbing beyond the panes turned all windows into mirrors, their smudged and fogged edges reflections of the charming squalor within the The Craven Phantom. The meager few who were left in the gambling house were snoring in a drunken torpor, and those that had left, either satisfied or dejected from the night’s gambling, strode briskly through empty streets to their homes, wary of what shadows lingered closer to dawn than they. Doubtlessly, some curdled vows of vengeance or of never returning to their voracious vice of avarice ever again, lying to themselves all the same.
Biding for his moment, Shamus and I lingered at our table, picking at a plate of sliced candied apple, fried tarantula limbs and roasted quail, a common triple pairing in the north for commoners, also known as the Imp’s Platter. Though our subjects stretched too wide a variety to seem regular between two recently paired strangers, our conversation never dwindled, only hushed in volume, as less and less noise from below covered our words.
The bond of chance had imbued in both of us an odd feeling of pity that we had not met before, and a paralleled excitement, that our meeting could no longer be constrained by time alone.
Shamus dug between his teeth and picked out a strip of flesh. “Do you intend to be William’s fool for long?” he asked, a sudden departure from our discussion of the various academies now cropping up in the capitals. Basic education in the manipulation of lesser spells was becoming more and more available to the public, revolutionizing an art and talent reserved for the wealthy to an almost commonly-practiced hobby for the middle classes. At least, in some cities.
My thoughts switched to William’s intermittent outbursts which, at the time, were just beginning to become as frequent as once every month. I nearly explained the recent trepidation I felt in his presence, but stopped myself, all too aware of Shamus’ grudge against royalty—one that was justified. “My time in Portsworth has favored me well,” I explained instead, “but I prefer my life chapters to be like shots of liquor: short, invigorating, and leading to the next. There is little reason for me to linger in one place for too long. Life should be explored, not suffocated.”
“How very elegant to compare your choices of fate to something that causes intoxication,” he chuckled. “But I must agree. So your plans, then?”
“At least it’s not misleading when you think about,” I clarified quickly. But it was humorous, truly, to imagine someone like me with plans. His reminder that it was common practice to entertain plans around life made me slightly startled. Thankfully, the feeling passed as quickly as it came. I am content in my abnormalities. Shouldn’t we all be? “In the broad sense of life, I believe that chance is the only certainty. Individual actions are another matter. I don’t make plans, I stumble from one opportunity to the next. Which brings us,” I said as I wiggled a spider leg at Shamus’ face, “to you.”
“Me?” He seemed taken aback, as if he wasn’t used to people wondering about him.
“No, the other person at this table.” The leg’s carapace broke in satisfying crunches in my mouth, before I chased it down with another sip of spirits. “Yes, you.”
“Yes, me,” he repeated with a sigh. Faltering candles cast his face in wavering light, spawning shadows which seemed to cling to him comfortably. “Would it be rude to say that the … let’s say ‘guild’ I belong to does not allow me to share any details of my profession?”
“A vow you took, I suppose?” I asked, feeling just that much more free, realizing I had managed to come this far without any.
“Yes,” he replied as he observed the room again. “And I may not look it, but I hold those vows with solemnity … sometimes.” Besides a drooling drunk at a nearby table, the three individuals we had been eyeing were the only remaining bodies in the upper floor. They were just as boisterous as they had been when we arrived, despite the fact that many of the candles had long since dwindled to the bottoms of their wicks, the fatty wax now solidified beige against their cracked, bone candelabrums.
His expression changed from thoughtful consideration to excitement. “But it appears, once more, that you are in luck. There is no longer a need for explanation. I do suspect it’s time to pay that debt I owe you of an unforgettable performance. Maybe you can glean something from it that words cannot tell you.” Shamus stretched his neck from side to side until his bones popped.
“Oh? It’s happening now, then?” I asked, now a little doubtful that this was going to end anyway different than how my confrontation with the thugs did. “Be a good friend … don’t kill them, please.”
“Kill? Who said anything about killing? That would be against my vows, Casimir.”
“… ‘sometimes’,” I quoted.
“Regardless. The hour has struck its ripest moment. Tell me, have you ever heard of the poet Vadeville?” Carefully, Shamus began taking off his gloves. Now bare, I saw that the flesh of his palms, fingers, and wrists were covered in scarified runes, to the point where there was little untouched flesh throughout his hands. The largest were set in his palms, the smallest in the knuckles of his fingers, intertwining like a mage’s brutal calligraphy, wrapping his wrist in circlets and trailing into his sleeve.
“Oh, I—Hmm.” I strummed my fingers on the table, attempting to appear nonchalant at the suggestion that he was about to cast higher spellwork. If it was in the class of destruction magick, it was a crime befitting a jail sentence, or a hangman’s noose, rather, if the spells happened to strike anyone. More importantly, it was damnably hard to make higher magick anything but subtle, and I was a little less than enthusiastic about running more tonight. “I believe I have. What was he in, the 1100’s romance era? I might’ve read—oh who gives a damn? Shamus please don’t tell me you are using that here.” I jabbed a finger at his hands. “We’re in the city limits, remember?”
“You just killed two people, remember?”
“Presumably rapists,” I added quickly.
“Don’t change the subject. But, no. You were close, though. Vadeville was just a century before our own: 1200’s,” he said haughtily, taking pleasure in my agitation. “There was something he wrote that has stayed with me since the moment I read it. Something I always think of before I begin something like this.” He stood up from the table, grinning, then made a motion for me to stay seated as his gaze transfixed itself upon the owner of The Craven Phantom, who went by the name: Filch. “May I recite it for you? It always sends shivers down my spine.”
“Please do,” I surrendered, getting comfortable in my seat for whatever carnage he was about to summon.
He closed his eyes and ran his fingers over the symbols etched into his flesh, dark smoke writhing up like worms from their pale surfaces as he did.
What whispers intoned words
Inspires craven and courage alike
Auspicious is this clarity
Breathed only in subtlety
“Beautiful, isn’t it? It is rather strange,” he said, his tone stripped bare and replaced with a detached reflection, as if he was watching everything he planned unfold before him, “how everything and anything can be interpreted countless times until infinite meanings spill from precisely the same thing?”
It is here that I break my rhythm, in feeble hopes of sparing you the confusion I felt as these moments tumbled after one another. They transpired so quickly, so fluidly, it seemed any attempt to mirror that was all but disastrous. Even as I recollect it now, I find fragments that my memory forgot to impart to me previously.
Following his poetic recitation, time seemed to forfeit its hold on Shamus, becoming not an outside constraint but his own liberty and tool—dispersed in brief, minute whispers when he so desired. It was a simultaneous act of expertise and vengeance, in retribution to time’s nature, that terrible god who seems relentless in her reign. Shamus held its essence and wielded it as it so wields us—painfully constrictive.
Of that evening, the one detail that remains positively fixed is this: within three seconds Shamus spoke three words, and within those three seconds, he made me doubt any notions I previously had of the impossible, the unimaginable, the grandeur behind reality’s seemingly conspicuous, mundane surface.
Shadows gushed in gouts from the burning candles, dousing the room of all its light, before more leapt from the symbol carved in his left palm. They swarmed the room as if they had been held in for far too long, hungering to devour the air as foxes of shadow.
Filch began muttering about candles, before realizing it was more than just the end of their wicks that changed the atmosphere, rather an aggressive darkness swallowing every patch and corner. His mutters became panicked, reckless shouting about magick and demons.
As he placed his right hand over my eyes, and ice poured into their sockets, too quickly for me to do more than grunt in pain. When his hand left, my eyes sparked with a transcendent vision, the room now appearing as if bathed in a filmy light, every dilapidated detail of the fading interior was illuminated to brilliance. The shadows became rivulets of luminous silver swirling in that same thickness.
The counters of his body dropped as if smoke rushing to escape through a window, fleeing to unify with the enveloping shadows that now glowed in our shared perception. What remained of his silhouette was little more than wisps fighting to resemble the body that was once corporeal.
He raised a finger to his lips, then he plumed, wraithlike, into the space between us and Filch, losing all silhouette entirely as he traveled, before appearing again several strides closer. A phantom in careful consideration, he dissipated once more, his form conjoining with the darkness in unmatched freedom between intermittent bursts of materialization.
I waited for his figure to appear again amidst the shadow-wreathed air. Filch had a weapon drawn and was brandishing it so drunkenly that the two others had to avoid his reckless swipes. Momentarily, I suspected Shamus had lost himself entirely to that immaterial realm, that his ambitious spell casting had damned him to intangibility.
But, sure as his confidence, Shamus’ figured gushed into the air behind Filch. He kicked the table onto its side, knocking the two individuals over who had been sitting across from him. As they cried wordlessly, Shamus wrenched the signet from Filche’s unarmed hand. The burly gambler whirled around at the sensation and slashed at the space where Shamus was, the one he disappeared from before the attack could do any harm.
Instead, he appeared, well, right in front of me … grinning.
“Time to go,” he whispered through a gasp, while Filch continued to hack away at the ghost that had just been behind him.
“Take a deep breath.”
Before I lost sensation entirely, I felt Shamus’ firm grasp on my arm. Then I was weightless. My perception blurred as I felt myself being hauled through the air in a swift arc down the tavern’s stairs and through the main room. The bone chandelier, the cracked, wooden walls and scattered furniture, spilled tankards, a sleeping barkeep and a doorway, damp cobblestone, dim streets, a crumbling roof, a shattered window, an alleyway soaked in blood, the head of a black statue glowing in violet, all swam by as if the images were a rushing current and I was caught in its undertow … before I slammed into the ground, groaning, shaking, stuttering with laughter and enthusiastically alive after I thought I had surely died.
“Au fek ex killna,” I cursed, grateful to feel the wet stone beneath me, and my body corporeal once again.
The familiar, comforting and gently pulsing violet light of Nocturos’ statue breathed down on the courtyard where Shamus and I had first spoke, a meeting that had been only hours before, but now seemed a distant memory in our friendship.
I reached out towards my hat, which had fallen from my head after we had tumbled like fleshy boulders into the courtyard, and placed it back on my head.
I looked up to see Shamus laying on his back, panting, trembling. I rushed, or rather stumbled, over to him.
“Gods, are you—”
Shamus held up a finger, heaved, retched, then vomited until all of his dinner was utterly squandered.
“Well, that is one answer I suppose,” I muttered, surprised to find that, besides the violent shaking in my body, I wasn’t feeling the effects he was. He may have forced me into an ethereal state, but I had exerted none of the spells’ required energy myself.
“Actions speak lou—” he tried to say, before more spider bits came up with his brandy.
After his body finished expressing its strong distaste for higher magick, I helped him to his feet and carried his rather inert body to the statue. With fluttering eyes, he looked up at Nocturos and sighed, a grin like a man who just bathed for the first time in weeks spread across his face as he drank in the color. On his cheek, a line of blood flowed down his chin from where a shallow cut had appeared.
He held one of his hands out to me, bearing William’s signet. It was then that I noticed that the carved symbols across his skin were glistening with blood as if they had been reopened.
“You … this …” I stammered, taking the ring from his hand. “Thank you.”
He coughed for awhile, clutching his stomach. “I wanted to show you something different. Could have come to the courtyard sooner, but I took a more leisurely journey so it lasted longer. Perhaps not the smartest idea,” he admitted, pointing to the gash on his cheek. “The debt is payed, I trust.”
“Twice over,” I murmured. “Was that, was it … shadow magick?”
He nodded proudly, placing his gloves over his hands. “Wait, before you begin. This is when you tell me those stories are only legends, yes?”
“No, this is when I tell you that you are a legend.”
He nodded again. “Thank you. I cannot explain how frustrating that vow is, sometimes.”
I was beyond confusion, only stunned by the realization. As I do when I am utterly confused, I laughed. “But you—you almost killed yourself to cast those spells!”
“Just like any other higher magick,” he explained, “practicing it can be rather suicidal in less careful hands. I am not the least careful, but not the most, either. I’d say my gamble payed off.”
“Why did you do that for me? Someone you hardly know?”
“It’s true, we could have devised a plan, perhaps used the sum that you were given to pay him off. But it had nothing to do with the ring, for me, at least.”
All the same, I placed it into my satchel and thanked him again. Above us, thick, grey and opaque clouds dispersed in patches to reveal the splintered stars glinting in shards of shattered brilliance. Winter’s hold clutched dawn’s light far from the horizon, but all the same, the crisp silence of the city mingling with the fresh air spoke of a new day breathing its first sighs.
Just a handful of minutes before then, I would have laughed like most others at the rumors of the Shadow Syndicate: thieves who used a magick lost to a niche tradition that had died out centuries before, or perhaps never existed at all. Legends that brought hope to the impoverished, legends who stole only from the wealthiest and most corrupt, using their talents to tip the imbalanced scales of prosperity in favor of the destitute. If you had told me I was going to meet a member of that Syndicate, I would only have laughed harder.
Yet here I was, again, the fool, not only stunned by reality, but inspired by its unpredictability.
“Did you really mean what you said?” Shamus asked me.
“Shouldn’t I be the one asking you some things?” I laughed.
“You showed me something different the night of your performance, and I have done the same. We can leave our interpretations to silence, I think,” he said with a shrug.
“Then what did I say, before, that you were wondering about?”
“You said, ‘All is fortune in the eyes of chaos’.”
“Yes, I meant it.”
“Suffering, poverty, misfortune, bad luck, murder, and all the curses of living, you see that as fortune?”
“I don’t. Chaos does. Sometimes, in our best moments, we can embody that which inspires us, and briefly, we may even become it. Chaos inspires me; it’s the infinite hands that turn our world, which shape our lives. It’s the seemingly insignificant details and moments that cascade into the ones we remember. They are just as important, and yet because they are so elusive, constantly lurking behind fate, we cannot possibly predict or think to manipulate them. Pain, somewhere along those infinite, branching paths, always comes along, and there’s no telling how the most brutal tragedies or shallowest of wounds can, at a later time, blossom into the most blissful happiness. There’s no telling what happiness may curse us later, either. Yes, Shamus Dodge, I meant it.”
He wiped at the blood trailing down his cheek, with closed eyes as he breathed deeply through the nausea caused by his sudden exertion. “Is a man foolish to chase happiness, then?”
“That is a harsh word. I would call him nearsighted. Is a man foolish for nearly killing himself to show me an elaborate performance?” I arched an eyebrow and chuckled at him. “No, that still is a harsh word. I would call him mad, my kind of mad. I would call him my friend, too.”
The thief chuckled, before coughing. “I would, too,” he agreed. “That is how I felt that night after I watched your performance: utterly mad. It was as if all of my ambitions seemed rudimentary in the faces of your expression. It seemed that you took my ideas of what was possible, crushed them, stomped them, and laughed while you explained to me, so effortlessly, what opportunities beckon when we attempt the unimaginable. Could I live with myself if I had squandered the opportunity to show you the same? No. Wonder is a rare commodity in a world with so much drudgery, and I couldn’t bear the idea that you could live without knowing how you changed me, even if you were, that night, just a masked stranger.”
My body’s twitching lessened from the spell’s evaporating effect. I watched as the moon caught its moment between clouds, shining upon us before being tucked away again behind the dense overcast. Perhaps it was the tiredness, the aching in my body, or the pounding in my head that reminded me this wasn’t a dream, but I felt strangely close to tears.
“It seems there are two realms in this world,” I said. “The first, where all is simply living, tasks, duties, ambitions, wealth, and so on. And the second, where living seems to exist beyond mere touch, beyond actions. A transcendence of thought into motion, a play of will against chance, a game, you might say, and nothing more than what we make of it. One that has only one end, but countless possibilities before it. I prefer to live in the second realm, Shamus.”
“A place that even ghosts and many others don’t see.”
“But a place that for those that do, is one they will never forget.”
Shamus’ face erupted with a smile, and we began laughing like two children with a joke only they understood, chilled by the air, but enchanted by its sacred silence that held our words so attentively, lending no distraction from their delicate utterances, as if we were merely two spirits passing another moment of our infinite, with discussion of things well beyond our understanding, but just within reach of making any sense, any sense at all.
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 …”
“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.
“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.
Chapter 8: Three
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
“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.
Chapter 10: One
“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.”
“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.”
“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.