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

Chapter 13: Thief's Blood

Dear lords and ladies of the court,

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

                                                                  ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Fuck the gods,” the other one spat.

    “Not tonight.”

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

    “No. Leave it be.”

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

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

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

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

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

    “Those cursed little …”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Payment? I didn’t …”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Oh! So that’s where—”

    “Quiet, highborn.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “The silver pools?” I offered.

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

    “Well then … ?”

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

    “With his life.”

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

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

    “The Mancer’s Stone.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “But of course he is.”

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

    “Fek.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Aha, splendid! What does that mean?”

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

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

    “Oh, damnit all …”

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

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

Exposed!

“Everybody freeze!” The whispered voice was barely audible, but nonetheless intense. “I heard that if you don’t move, they can’t see you!”

The light from the old woman’s candle-lamp shone through the dark, exposing the group of little gnomes. They were huddled together, and trying their best to look like mushrooms. Sadly, their clothing, tools, and especially their beards, didn’t look very mushroom-like.

The giant witch (at least she looked like a witch) proceeded to make her way across the yard toward the frightened and visibly shaken band, and the light danced across their terrified faces. Each footstep sounded like thunder in their small ears, and three of them actually wetted themselves in fear.

“Well, well, well. What have we here?” The human’s voice was almost painfully loud.

“Just us mushrooms!” said a shaky voice.

“Yeah,” squeaked another. “Mushrooms, that’s all.”

“Yeah. Nothing to see here but us mushrooms!” The tallest of the gnomes seemed to be building up his courage, or at least he was trying to convince himself he was brave.

“Hmm,” said the old woman. “Looks like maybe mushroom soup for supper then!”

At this, the tiny group completely lost their nerve, and scattered in every direction. The old woman just smiled to herself. At least now she knew what had happened to her tomatoes.

She decided it was time to get a guard dog.

(c) 2017 - dustygrein

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Written by dustygrein in portal Fantasy
Exposed!
“Everybody freeze!” The whispered voice was barely audible, but nonetheless intense. “I heard that if you don’t move, they can’t see you!”

The light from the old woman’s candle-lamp shone through the dark, exposing the group of little gnomes. They were huddled together, and trying their best to look like mushrooms. Sadly, their clothing, tools, and especially their beards, didn’t look very mushroom-like.

The giant witch (at least she looked like a witch) proceeded to make her way across the yard toward the frightened and visibly shaken band, and the light danced across their terrified faces. Each footstep sounded like thunder in their small ears, and three of them actually wetted themselves in fear.

“Well, well, well. What have we here?” The human’s voice was almost painfully loud.

“Just us mushrooms!” said a shaky voice.

“Yeah,” squeaked another. “Mushrooms, that’s all.”

“Yeah. Nothing to see here but us mushrooms!” The tallest of the gnomes seemed to be building up his courage, or at least he was trying to convince himself he was brave.

“Hmm,” said the old woman. “Looks like maybe mushroom soup for supper then!”

At this, the tiny group completely lost their nerve, and scattered in every direction. The old woman just smiled to herself. At least now she knew what had happened to her tomatoes.

She decided it was time to get a guard dog.

(c) 2017 - dustygrein
#fantasy  #fiction  #childrens  #flashfiction 
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Written by Harlequin in portal Fantasy

Final Examination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Could we have some light?”

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

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

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

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

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

    “Alive?”

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

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

    It was what it illuminated that killed their laughter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Professor Fell put his hand on the knob.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    It fell and shattered into black, frozen splinters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Premonitory casting!” Raymond shouted greedily. 

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

    She nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “They won’t die!” she complained.

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

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

    “Disenchantment!” someone called out from the back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Could we have some light?”

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

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

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

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

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

    “Alive?”

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

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

    It was what it illuminated that killed their laughter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Professor Fell put his hand on the knob.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    It fell and shattered into black, frozen splinters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Premonitory casting!” Raymond shouted greedily. 

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

    She nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “They won’t die!” she complained.

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

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

    “Disenchantment!” someone called out from the back.

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

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

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

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

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

    “And remember,” he called as he nudged a scampering void imp to send it toward the scrambling students, “the greatest things are accomplished by joint effort! Who will be the distractor casting illusionary spells? Who will heal fresh wounds? Who will be at the vanguard? Assume these positions! Survive together, or perish as one!”
#fantasy  #adventure 
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Chapter 12 of The Culling of Casimir
Written by Harlequin in portal Fantasy

Chapter 12: Illusions

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Inspiration.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Now, the true dance had begun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The throngs cracked with applause.

    The curtains slid together violently.

    The stagehands came to sweep the floor.

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

    And where is Shamus?

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

Nostalgia

I left my heart

Outside in the rain,

It soaked up all of

The memories that

Evaporated last week

I've come to find that

I don't realize how much

I'm enjoying a time

Until weeks later,

When I recall it

I guess I should start

Paying more attention

When the sun is out

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Written by dicknillon in portal Fantasy
Nostalgia
I left my heart
Outside in the rain,

It soaked up all of
The memories that
Evaporated last week

I've come to find that
I don't realize how much
I'm enjoying a time
Until weeks later,
When I recall it

I guess I should start
Paying more attention
When the sun is out
#adventure  #poetry  #philosophy  #spirituality  #nature  #thoughts  #deep 
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Chapter 11 of The Culling of Casimir
Written by Harlequin in portal Fantasy

Chapter 11: What Death Brings

   Of all my deeds and actions, I profess little of truth, of its origins, or even if it exists at all. All that seems apparent is its nature. We don’t come into this world whole; we arrive hollow, collecting fragments, losing some, chasing others, and rediscovering pieces we thought we had lost, but had only forgotten about. Truth is only a handful of those fragments, shards that surface unexpectedly. In the stillness of reverie, in the intensity of unfolding bedlam, what is discovered and what was known has the tendency to converge, sparking that illusory phenomena that governs so many of our decisions: truth. It seems the more you claim to have, the less you find.

    We rolled along the snow-laden road, the cart’s contents abandoned and replaced with the fourteen bodies that had fallen at the crossroads. One of the corpses toppled off after we hit a bump, crunching face-first into the ground. Sarkana, who was leading the horse that pulled the cart, stopped.

    I started to push myself up from the position I was laying in, before Sarkana’s hand nudged me onto my back again. “You shouldn’t move so much, not until we can get that thing out of you,” she advised.

    “It’s not as bad as it seems, really.”

    “I have seen a good many things. A living, breathing man with an arrow stuck through his eye, now that is a new one.” Without much delay, she hauled the corpse back onto the cart, and continued to lead us down the road back to her sanctuary. Timidly, I touched the shaft still protruding from my eye. I could feel where the edges of the arrowhead had made a notch in the bone of my socket, where the muscles hurt every time I blinked. I’d never felt more quiet than in that moment, regarding the closeness of death’s kiss, the mark it had left with the intent to linger for the rest of my life. I felt like a child, reduced to a guilty quiet as if I had just been chastised by a parent.

    Fahim lay beside me, his fingers curled frozen from the cruelty of the wounds that took him.

    Somewhere beneath the churning clouds, the passing branches encrusted in white, the slow rolling of the cart, the steady clopping of hooves, and the soothing lullaby that Sarkana hummed, I found myself passing not to memory nor dream, but a place between.

    Lisence’s mouth is in a tight line while I take another fist to an already fractured jaw. My vision watering, I see my fingers dig into the ground softened by the spring rains, my blood splattered across the back of my hand, a trail of it drooling from my mouth.

I can hardly see through the swelling in my eyes. But in the uppermost corners of my vision, scraps of clothing lead me to see where the other marauders are crowded around her. Over the ringing in my ears, the continual kicks to my stomach, I can hardly hear their taunts. But the pain isn’t as shocking as her silence is while they continue to have their way with her. It’s a silence that promises murder, or perhaps, promises nothing at all, and is only a vacancy of the mind, an attempt to escape from the agony.

    Above me, I could see Felix gliding from tree to tree as he kept up with the cart, looking down at me after each landing. There were other crows in the forest, but he was as detached from them as they were curious of him. Found half-dead beneath an empty nest with one of his legs broken, I had taken him in and fostered him. Since then, it seemed he thought humans were his murder.

When the guards come running on horseback with readied crossbows, the marauders have already left. One of them bends to turn my body over, where I am comfortable with my face buried in the dirt, my thoughts all but stopped entirely while the warmth flows down my throat. They sit me up, just in time to let me see the barest hint of the marauders on the horizon, where I convince myself that I can discern Lisence’s figure bent over the back of a horse. And I wonder, truly, if it would have been better if they had simply killed her.

    Suddenly, Sarkana’s face appeared over my blurred vision, the ends of her hair trailing over my cheeks. She called out my name. Before I could respond, I felt her hands around my back and arms as she helped me up. Now past the gates of her sanctuary, I breathed in a reviving breath of temperate air, our countenances once again illuminated by the pale lavender hue streaming above us.

   “We’ll get this taken care of,” she said, looking at the eye and prodding the skin around it. “Yes, yes, you’ll be well enough, just needs a bit of … fixing.”

    I was unconvinced, but after witnessing her capabilities, I learned not to trust my expectations. “Where will you dispose of the bodies?” I asked.

    Sarkana was already getting to work, finding a latch on one of the cart’s sides. She pulled it, and the wooden panel toppled over. Like a pool of water, the bodies spilled out and tumbled onto the lush grass.

    “Dispose? Why would I give something so precious to the worms? No, they won’t be disposed, they’ll be utilized. Everything serves a greater purpose, Casimir, even after death.” One by one, Sarkana reanimated the bodies using the same markings on her arms. The corpses staggered to their feet, then stumbled into a line and began shuffling towards the massive, stone slab beneath her home. Every step or so, one of them would stagger and nearly fall, aggravating Sarkana’s impatience as she fought with the exhaustion of manipulating them.

    “Can’t you let their souls rest? They didn’t ask for this.”

    “Your compassion extends too far, Casimir. Is it too easy to forget that they were trying to murder you, and that they succeeded, at least, in killing your friend? Look at your face for gods' sakes.” She panted, the sweat already shining on her forehead.

    I stammered, surprised to find myself defending them. The shock of the wound was more debilitating than its pain. “But there was only one of me and there were a dozen of them, likely obliging to orders, nothing more.”

    “All the same,” she wheezed, then let the bodies drop again.

    I hopped from the cart and followed her as she walked to the wall of stone. She murmured something under her breath, and a plain, wooden doorway shimmered in front of us, unveiled from the illusion cast over it. She reached to open the handle but instead stopped herself. “Tell me, Casimir, if suddenly a single nation decided to wage war solely against you, would you surrender yourself?”

    “That’s …”

    “Answer me.”

    “Of course not! What else?!”

    “And would you trade your life for a hundred men? That is, if they wanted you dead?”

    “I …”

    “You know what you would say even if you may not like it. Does it make sense to help the hand that pushes the blade into your heart? Or does it seem more fitting, that they should all meet their own end, as long as it was yours that sent them towards it?”

    “Why should I care to answer this?” I almost exploded, enraged to find her prodding at the same questions I had been struggling to face as more blood covered my hands since William’s demise. “It’s not the same!”

    “Because, Casimir, if you’d so willingly shed a hundred lives for your own, why should thirteen mean anything to you? Doubtless, Fahim’s death will likely be a burden you’ll never awaken without. As for the rest?” She shrugged. “Forget them. Life is haunting enough, is tiresome enough, without needless regrets. Don’t mourn the lives of men who wished to see your head put on a spike. They’re worth nothing, now, unless they are taken by the right hands.”

    “You’re too cold,” I told her, remembering Fahim’s last words. "You don't need to mourn someone to consider their lives."

    But my reply was only met with a smirk. “Reason has many names. Cold may be one of them. You know as well as I that there was nothing else to do.” She turned the handle of the doorway and opened it towards us. A fungal stench breathed from the cavernous stairs that yawned into the earth, doubling me over from the nausea that immediately flipped my stomach over. Sarkana, however, hardly flinched. She simply turned towards the bodies, and began once again the arduous process of getting them standing. The longer she controlled them, the more blood seeped from the markings on her skin, the more black wisps wafted from the etchings and diffused into the air.

    As the corpses stumbled into the stairway, I was dumbfounded by my lack of foresight. The countless enchantments, the eternal spring, the almost invigorating power that exuded from every detail of her home, even to the steps that allowed one to rise above the crypts containing the souls which fueled everything. Their drooping heads bobbed down the steps, one by one disappearing from view into the blackness that exhaled decay. It was only after she joined them, briefly, that I realized she had left Fahim’s corpse undisturbed, still laying on the back of the cart. A token of empathy.

    When Sarkana returned, the bags beneath her eyes heavily deepened, her gaze thoughtful in its exhausted contemplation, she approached me in the tense silence between us, and embraced me, or rather, leaned her weight into me. Behind her, the door dissipated from view. I stood there, stunned by her strange, sudden and unexpected affection. 

    “Forgive me,” she said. “I don’t expect you to understand the life I’ve led, as much as it would relieve me.”

    “I … I do. But just how many corpses have you collected?” She pulled away from me with a familiar, wounded expression. I had only returned the press of her body against mine from instinct, to feel the warmth and closeness. “I do forgive you,” I repeated, “I am only curious.”

    “I've only taken what others would have wasted. I am no murderer. I would show you, if you desired. But not now, not with that."

    But was it truly better than ending a life? Manipulating it long after it should have left to a peace beyond living? Tentatively, I nodded.

    “Come, it's time to .”

    Warm water trickled from her hands into a steaming bowl. She wiped them off with a cloth, then bent over me while I stared at the ceiling in the chamber I’d first slept in. The wooden shaft still in my peripheral view, I started to dread the sensation it would bring when she pulled it loose. More than that, what I might see stuck on the end of it.

    “Do you wish to see from that eye again?” she asked.

    “Is that even possible?” Surprised enough at the possibility, I nearly sat up again. She placed a hand on my chest and calmed the excitement, pushing me back down again.

    “Necromancy is more than manipulating dead flesh; it's reviving what's perished. There are a few wonders I can work from the things others would have left for the earth. Yes, it is possible. But I should warn you, it won’t be as before. You might see things a bit … differently." Tenderly, she applied the warm cloth to my face, wiping off the bloodstains. 

    I remembered what it felt like, the first moments after the impact of the arrow, the dizziness, the inability to discern depth from my hand, my blade, as I pursued the last of Fahim’s escorts. “I can’t fight like this,” I admitted. “How can I parry a sword if I can hardly tell its distance from mine?”

    “I thought you might say something like that.” Sarkana took up a curved vial from the nightstand, uncorked it, and sniffed the clouded, brown liquid.

    “What is that?”

    “The solution I’d prepared while you waited, as I suspected you’d want more than just a few stitches. Something to put you into a deep sleep, so I can restore what you lost.”

    “How will you do it?”

    “I have the feeling, as well, that you’d rather not know.”

    “You’re certainly incorrect this time.”

    “Well,” she sighed and dabbed closer to the wound. Her breath traced over my lips and eyelashes, a sensation that comforted me more than I wished it to. “What is cataloged in modern anatomists’ textbooks is heavily incomplete, and what healers think is beyond capability isn’t always so. Many things that are missing can be replaced, as long as a fresh part can be found. A donor, you might call it. A fresh corpse. Lucky for you, we have more than a few options.”

    “That seems ...”

    “Impossible? I had thought so, for many years.” Sarkana bent closer to examine how deep the arrow was buried. “Do you still want your vision back?”

    I nodded, pushing away the thought of what she would have to do to grant that wish.

“And do you trust me?”

    With her this close, with her breath just a whisper’s width from my lips, I felt trapped to the only answer she sought. Despite everything I’d seen, even her frenzy at the crossroads, I remembered how she cried like a child when that nightmare tormented her, how her hands clung to me after she woke. That, above all else, was what I chose to see when I looked at her. A brooding nefariousness thrived behind her calculating gaze, beneath the very floorboards of that chamber. And yet, beyond it all, I empathized with the tremulous soul that had sought a story to listen to before sleep. How difficult it must’ve been, I thought, to know only death as a friend, as her only truth.

    Even with an arrow sticking from my head, I pitied her.

    “I do,” I lied.

    “Then,” she said, grabbing the vial and placing it in my hand, “you’ll drink this. And when you awaken …” she snapped her fingers, “it’ll be as if it never happened.” She turned the thought over briefly. “Well … not quite. But close enough.”

    Her smile was too enthusiastic to feel comforted by it. Still, I tilted my head back and swallowing the brew; the acidic, unpalatably bitter concoction that trailed fire down my throat before settling into a soporific warmth in my stomach. And as we awaited the effects, she hummed the same song for the second time that day. But by the fourth repetition, I saw through a dimming vision, her nervousness as she parted her lips to sing the words hiding behind the melody, the words that brought a melancholy now ushering me to sleep.

Afire sung our laughter

And embers were our song

Before ashes took the hum

Became whispers before long

Ring, ring, children wrung

Hands in chords now circle

Feet skipping a rhythm

Before the song is gone

Afire sparked our laughter

And embers were our song

Before ashes stole the hum

Became whispers before long

Chant, chant, children sung

Giggles into wails

Feet skipping the rhythm

Before the song is hung

Ashes whispered laughter

Then ashes were our song

As the flames smoldered grey

Of a youth there was no more

Sing, sing, souls will sing

Regardless of the pale

Here at burning's hour

As the embers start again

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Chapter 11 of The Culling of Casimir
Written by Harlequin in portal Fantasy
Chapter 11: What Death Brings
   Of all my deeds and actions, I profess little of truth, of its origins, or even if it exists at all. All that seems apparent is its nature. We don’t come into this world whole; we arrive hollow, collecting fragments, losing some, chasing others, and rediscovering pieces we thought we had lost, but had only forgotten about. Truth is only a handful of those fragments, shards that surface unexpectedly. In the stillness of reverie, in the intensity of unfolding bedlam, what is discovered and what was known has the tendency to converge, sparking that illusory phenomena that governs so many of our decisions: truth. It seems the more you claim to have, the less you find.
    We rolled along the snow-laden road, the cart’s contents abandoned and replaced with the fourteen bodies that had fallen at the crossroads. One of the corpses toppled off after we hit a bump, crunching face-first into the ground. Sarkana, who was leading the horse that pulled the cart, stopped.
    I started to push myself up from the position I was laying in, before Sarkana’s hand nudged me onto my back again. “You shouldn’t move so much, not until we can get that thing out of you,” she advised.
    “It’s not as bad as it seems, really.”
    “I have seen a good many things. A living, breathing man with an arrow stuck through his eye, now that is a new one.” Without much delay, she hauled the corpse back onto the cart, and continued to lead us down the road back to her sanctuary. Timidly, I touched the shaft still protruding from my eye. I could feel where the edges of the arrowhead had made a notch in the bone of my socket, where the muscles hurt every time I blinked. I’d never felt more quiet than in that moment, regarding the closeness of death’s kiss, the mark it had left with the intent to linger for the rest of my life. I felt like a child, reduced to a guilty quiet as if I had just been chastised by a parent.
    Fahim lay beside me, his fingers curled frozen from the cruelty of the wounds that took him.
    Somewhere beneath the churning clouds, the passing branches encrusted in white, the slow rolling of the cart, the steady clopping of hooves, and the soothing lullaby that Sarkana hummed, I found myself passing not to memory nor dream, but a place between.

    Lisence’s mouth is in a tight line while I take another fist to an already fractured jaw. My vision watering, I see my fingers dig into the ground softened by the spring rains, my blood splattered across the back of my hand, a trail of it drooling from my mouth.
I can hardly see through the swelling in my eyes. But in the uppermost corners of my vision, scraps of clothing lead me to see where the other marauders are crowded around her. Over the ringing in my ears, the continual kicks to my stomach, I can hardly hear their taunts. But the pain isn’t as shocking as her silence is while they continue to have their way with her. It’s a silence that promises murder, or perhaps, promises nothing at all, and is only a vacancy of the mind, an attempt to escape from the agony.

    Above me, I could see Felix gliding from tree to tree as he kept up with the cart, looking down at me after each landing. There were other crows in the forest, but he was as detached from them as they were curious of him. Found half-dead beneath an empty nest with one of his legs broken, I had taken him in and fostered him. Since then, it seemed he thought humans were his murder.

When the guards come running on horseback with readied crossbows, the marauders have already left. One of them bends to turn my body over, where I am comfortable with my face buried in the dirt, my thoughts all but stopped entirely while the warmth flows down my throat. They sit me up, just in time to let me see the barest hint of the marauders on the horizon, where I convince myself that I can discern Lisence’s figure bent over the back of a horse. And I wonder, truly, if it would have been better if they had simply killed her.

    Suddenly, Sarkana’s face appeared over my blurred vision, the ends of her hair trailing over my cheeks. She called out my name. Before I could respond, I felt her hands around my back and arms as she helped me up. Now past the gates of her sanctuary, I breathed in a reviving breath of temperate air, our countenances once again illuminated by the pale lavender hue streaming above us.
   “We’ll get this taken care of,” she said, looking at the eye and prodding the skin around it. “Yes, yes, you’ll be well enough, just needs a bit of … fixing.”
    I was unconvinced, but after witnessing her capabilities, I learned not to trust my expectations. “Where will you dispose of the bodies?” I asked.
    Sarkana was already getting to work, finding a latch on one of the cart’s sides. She pulled it, and the wooden panel toppled over. Like a pool of water, the bodies spilled out and tumbled onto the lush grass.
    “Dispose? Why would I give something so precious to the worms? No, they won’t be disposed, they’ll be utilized. Everything serves a greater purpose, Casimir, even after death.” One by one, Sarkana reanimated the bodies using the same markings on her arms. The corpses staggered to their feet, then stumbled into a line and began shuffling towards the massive, stone slab beneath her home. Every step or so, one of them would stagger and nearly fall, aggravating Sarkana’s impatience as she fought with the exhaustion of manipulating them.
    “Can’t you let their souls rest? They didn’t ask for this.”
    “Your compassion extends too far, Casimir. Is it too easy to forget that they were trying to murder you, and that they succeeded, at least, in killing your friend? Look at your face for gods' sakes.” She panted, the sweat already shining on her forehead.
    I stammered, surprised to find myself defending them. The shock of the wound was more debilitating than its pain. “But there was only one of me and there were a dozen of them, likely obliging to orders, nothing more.”
    “All the same,” she wheezed, then let the bodies drop again.
    I hopped from the cart and followed her as she walked to the wall of stone. She murmured something under her breath, and a plain, wooden doorway shimmered in front of us, unveiled from the illusion cast over it. She reached to open the handle but instead stopped herself. “Tell me, Casimir, if suddenly a single nation decided to wage war solely against you, would you surrender yourself?”
    “That’s …”
    “Answer me.”
    “Of course not! What else?!”
    “And would you trade your life for a hundred men? That is, if they wanted you dead?”
    “I …”
    “You know what you would say even if you may not like it. Does it make sense to help the hand that pushes the blade into your heart? Or does it seem more fitting, that they should all meet their own end, as long as it was yours that sent them towards it?”
    “Why should I care to answer this?” I almost exploded, enraged to find her prodding at the same questions I had been struggling to face as more blood covered my hands since William’s demise. “It’s not the same!”
    “Because, Casimir, if you’d so willingly shed a hundred lives for your own, why should thirteen mean anything to you? Doubtless, Fahim’s death will likely be a burden you’ll never awaken without. As for the rest?” She shrugged. “Forget them. Life is haunting enough, is tiresome enough, without needless regrets. Don’t mourn the lives of men who wished to see your head put on a spike. They’re worth nothing, now, unless they are taken by the right hands.”
    “You’re too cold,” I told her, remembering Fahim’s last words. "You don't need to mourn someone to consider their lives."
    But my reply was only met with a smirk. “Reason has many names. Cold may be one of them. You know as well as I that there was nothing else to do.” She turned the handle of the doorway and opened it towards us. A fungal stench breathed from the cavernous stairs that yawned into the earth, doubling me over from the nausea that immediately flipped my stomach over. Sarkana, however, hardly flinched. She simply turned towards the bodies, and began once again the arduous process of getting them standing. The longer she controlled them, the more blood seeped from the markings on her skin, the more black wisps wafted from the etchings and diffused into the air.
    As the corpses stumbled into the stairway, I was dumbfounded by my lack of foresight. The countless enchantments, the eternal spring, the almost invigorating power that exuded from every detail of her home, even to the steps that allowed one to rise above the crypts containing the souls which fueled everything. Their drooping heads bobbed down the steps, one by one disappearing from view into the blackness that exhaled decay. It was only after she joined them, briefly, that I realized she had left Fahim’s corpse undisturbed, still laying on the back of the cart. A token of empathy.
    When Sarkana returned, the bags beneath her eyes heavily deepened, her gaze thoughtful in its exhausted contemplation, she approached me in the tense silence between us, and embraced me, or rather, leaned her weight into me. Behind her, the door dissipated from view. I stood there, stunned by her strange, sudden and unexpected affection. 
    “Forgive me,” she said. “I don’t expect you to understand the life I’ve led, as much as it would relieve me.”
    “I … I do. But just how many corpses have you collected?” She pulled away from me with a familiar, wounded expression. I had only returned the press of her body against mine from instinct, to feel the warmth and closeness. “I do forgive you,” I repeated, “I am only curious.”
    “I've only taken what others would have wasted. I am no murderer. I would show you, if you desired. But not now, not with that."
    But was it truly better than ending a life? Manipulating it long after it should have left to a peace beyond living? Tentatively, I nodded.
    “Come, it's time to .”

    Warm water trickled from her hands into a steaming bowl. She wiped them off with a cloth, then bent over me while I stared at the ceiling in the chamber I’d first slept in. The wooden shaft still in my peripheral view, I started to dread the sensation it would bring when she pulled it loose. More than that, what I might see stuck on the end of it.
    “Do you wish to see from that eye again?” she asked.
    “Is that even possible?” Surprised enough at the possibility, I nearly sat up again. She placed a hand on my chest and calmed the excitement, pushing me back down again.
    “Necromancy is more than manipulating dead flesh; it's reviving what's perished. There are a few wonders I can work from the things others would have left for the earth. Yes, it is possible. But I should warn you, it won’t be as before. You might see things a bit … differently." Tenderly, she applied the warm cloth to my face, wiping off the bloodstains. 
    I remembered what it felt like, the first moments after the impact of the arrow, the dizziness, the inability to discern depth from my hand, my blade, as I pursued the last of Fahim’s escorts. “I can’t fight like this,” I admitted. “How can I parry a sword if I can hardly tell its distance from mine?”
    “I thought you might say something like that.” Sarkana took up a curved vial from the nightstand, uncorked it, and sniffed the clouded, brown liquid.
    “What is that?”
    “The solution I’d prepared while you waited, as I suspected you’d want more than just a few stitches. Something to put you into a deep sleep, so I can restore what you lost.”
    “How will you do it?”
    “I have the feeling, as well, that you’d rather not know.”
    “You’re certainly incorrect this time.”
    “Well,” she sighed and dabbed closer to the wound. Her breath traced over my lips and eyelashes, a sensation that comforted me more than I wished it to. “What is cataloged in modern anatomists’ textbooks is heavily incomplete, and what healers think is beyond capability isn’t always so. Many things that are missing can be replaced, as long as a fresh part can be found. A donor, you might call it. A fresh corpse. Lucky for you, we have more than a few options.”
    “That seems ...”
    “Impossible? I had thought so, for many years.” Sarkana bent closer to examine how deep the arrow was buried. “Do you still want your vision back?”
    I nodded, pushing away the thought of what she would have to do to grant that wish.
“And do you trust me?”
    With her this close, with her breath just a whisper’s width from my lips, I felt trapped to the only answer she sought. Despite everything I’d seen, even her frenzy at the crossroads, I remembered how she cried like a child when that nightmare tormented her, how her hands clung to me after she woke. That, above all else, was what I chose to see when I looked at her. A brooding nefariousness thrived behind her calculating gaze, beneath the very floorboards of that chamber. And yet, beyond it all, I empathized with the tremulous soul that had sought a story to listen to before sleep. How difficult it must’ve been, I thought, to know only death as a friend, as her only truth.
    Even with an arrow sticking from my head, I pitied her.
    “I do,” I lied.
    “Then,” she said, grabbing the vial and placing it in my hand, “you’ll drink this. And when you awaken …” she snapped her fingers, “it’ll be as if it never happened.” She turned the thought over briefly. “Well … not quite. But close enough.”
    Her smile was too enthusiastic to feel comforted by it. Still, I tilted my head back and swallowing the brew; the acidic, unpalatably bitter concoction that trailed fire down my throat before settling into a soporific warmth in my stomach. And as we awaited the effects, she hummed the same song for the second time that day. But by the fourth repetition, I saw through a dimming vision, her nervousness as she parted her lips to sing the words hiding behind the melody, the words that brought a melancholy now ushering me to sleep.

Afire sung our laughter
And embers were our song
Before ashes took the hum
Became whispers before long

Ring, ring, children wrung
Hands in chords now circle
Feet skipping a rhythm
Before the song is gone

Afire sparked our laughter
And embers were our song
Before ashes stole the hum
Became whispers before long

Chant, chant, children sung
Giggles into wails
Feet skipping the rhythm
Before the song is hung

Ashes whispered laughter
Then ashes were our song
As the flames smoldered grey
Of a youth there was no more

Sing, sing, souls will sing
Regardless of the pale
Here at burning's hour
As the embers start again
#horror  #adventure  #TCOC  #youarewonderful 
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Jester Tales. Tell me a story about a jester. Is he in love with a princess? Is he really a murderous villain? Who does he hate? Fantasy genre, add a link to your favorite renaissance music (optional), plot twists, and be creative. Create an ominous ending, where the jester is referring to the reader.
Written by justaperson in portal Fantasy

The Jester and Trickster

"Hello dearie," the spiky blue haired man cackled in the dark room. "I see you've found one of my precious weapons." The timid girl with the black pigtails held a large golden rip-tire. Its wicked sharp spikes shone in the light of the moon through the window. Her large violet eyes stared in fear into the Jester's cold brown ones. 

"You see dearie, I need that, or I can't do the family business. Otherwise daddy dear will kill us both, so just hand it to me please Tricky, just give to ol' Jessie now," the blue haired man cooed at the child, walking towards her, limping on his peg leg. Trickster took a step back from him, still holding the explosive tire. 

A single word can make a difference. 

"No!" cut clear through the room in a cunning manner, even though it is in a high pitch. "It's mine! Daddy gave it to me for my birthday last week." Trickster sat the golden weapon on the ground and reached for the pull string. At the same time, she pulled out a gleaming weapon out of her pocket. In a split second, Trickster pulled the string and aimed the gun at Jester. 

In a deep mature voice the eight year old said, "You've seen too much, sorry not sorry." She pulled the trigger as the rip-tire exploded. Jester's body was mutilated. 

She then turned to you and smiled wickedly, remembering you were watching the event play out, "About you too sis, sorry. I'll miss you, but you saw too much." Trickster pulled the trigger again, aimed at your head, and the world went black.

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Jester Tales. Tell me a story about a jester. Is he in love with a princess? Is he really a murderous villain? Who does he hate? Fantasy genre, add a link to your favorite renaissance music (optional), plot twists, and be creative. Create an ominous ending, where the jester is referring to the reader.
Written by justaperson in portal Fantasy
The Jester and Trickster
"Hello dearie," the spiky blue haired man cackled in the dark room. "I see you've found one of my precious weapons." The timid girl with the black pigtails held a large golden rip-tire. Its wicked sharp spikes shone in the light of the moon through the window. Her large violet eyes stared in fear into the Jester's cold brown ones. 

"You see dearie, I need that, or I can't do the family business. Otherwise daddy dear will kill us both, so just hand it to me please Tricky, just give to ol' Jessie now," the blue haired man cooed at the child, walking towards her, limping on his peg leg. Trickster took a step back from him, still holding the explosive tire. 

A single word can make a difference. 

"No!" cut clear through the room in a cunning manner, even though it is in a high pitch. "It's mine! Daddy gave it to me for my birthday last week." Trickster sat the golden weapon on the ground and reached for the pull string. At the same time, she pulled out a gleaming weapon out of her pocket. In a split second, Trickster pulled the string and aimed the gun at Jester. 

In a deep mature voice the eight year old said, "You've seen too much, sorry not sorry." She pulled the trigger as the rip-tire exploded. Jester's body was mutilated. 

She then turned to you and smiled wickedly, remembering you were watching the event play out, "About you too sis, sorry. I'll miss you, but you saw too much." Trickster pulled the trigger again, aimed at your head, and the world went black.

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I challenge you all to write the best Fantasy short you can with a hero named Ben. (DON'T FORGET TO TAG ME @AWriter
Written by EstherFlowers1 in portal Fantasy

Big Ben

Ben was the first fairy ever born without wings. The other fairies gossiped about Ben's mother, Treanani, saying she'd lain with a human to create him, but the accusations were always denied by those who knew the kindhearted old maid. Treanani had never married and was resigned to grow old alone when one day a kindly old wizard had taken pity on her and blessed her with a magic powder. Soon after he left, her belly swelled with life and Ben was born after only 3 weeks. Ben's chubby cheeks grinned happily as he grew, and no child had ever been loved more.

When all the other boys of Fae went up into the trees for flying lessons Ben had to stay and watch from the ground. It was the first time he ever felt sad. He never asked why he was different, but his mother noticed him looking forlorn more and more often as the other children teased him mercilessly, swooping around him in circles. One particularly rotten little fairy enlisted the help of his pet dove (who was very well trained) and ordered it to poop right as they flew over poor Ben's head.

Though he couldn't fly, Ben was growing big and strong. Soon he towered over all the other fairies, providing they were on the ground. When he grew too big for the schoolhouse it was decided he should take on an early job, and was sent to the Lumberforest to harvest wood. He was now so strong that he could fell an old thick tree with one axe-swing, where usually it took a team of three fairies all day working with root-weakening bleadust. Treanani packed Ben lunches of hearty bread and honeymuffins to ensure he had enough to sustain his large growth-spurts.

One day a terrible storm hit Fae. Ben was home eating dinner with his mother when the gusts started. A storm such as this could never have come from natural sources, as Fae was mounted atop a cave of magic lightclouds, and as such was cut-off from the rest of the world and its weather patterns.

The storm raged into a blizzard, and the blizzard crept onward into a roaring ice-hurricane. all the fairy homes were swept from their rooted dwellingrocks and disappeared into the cloudy abyss.

After it had finally passed, the only thing left that was too heavy to be swept away was big Ben, cradling his mother carefully.

An old man limped towards them through the rubble. "That's the old wizard who gave you to me!" Treanani proclaimed, pointing a shaky finger. She stood warily, staring around at her ruined village with tears in her eyes.

"How did this happen?" She asked the wizard, as he came within speaking distance.

"I'm so sorry" The old wizard shook his head in remorse. "It's all my fault.. there was a mix up with the powders.."

"What happened??" Treanani repeated desperately.

"It was Ben. His weight was too much for the lightclouds to handle. As he grew larger and larger the clouds sank in the atmosphere, until finally they broke through the weather barrier."

Treanani let out a frightened sob. "But.. what'll we do now? What will become of us?"

"I think it'd be a good idea if I transport us all down to earth." Replied the wizard.

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I challenge you all to write the best Fantasy short you can with a hero named Ben. (DON'T FORGET TO TAG ME @AWriter
Written by EstherFlowers1 in portal Fantasy
Big Ben
Ben was the first fairy ever born without wings. The other fairies gossiped about Ben's mother, Treanani, saying she'd lain with a human to create him, but the accusations were always denied by those who knew the kindhearted old maid. Treanani had never married and was resigned to grow old alone when one day a kindly old wizard had taken pity on her and blessed her with a magic powder. Soon after he left, her belly swelled with life and Ben was born after only 3 weeks. Ben's chubby cheeks grinned happily as he grew, and no child had ever been loved more.
When all the other boys of Fae went up into the trees for flying lessons Ben had to stay and watch from the ground. It was the first time he ever felt sad. He never asked why he was different, but his mother noticed him looking forlorn more and more often as the other children teased him mercilessly, swooping around him in circles. One particularly rotten little fairy enlisted the help of his pet dove (who was very well trained) and ordered it to poop right as they flew over poor Ben's head.
Though he couldn't fly, Ben was growing big and strong. Soon he towered over all the other fairies, providing they were on the ground. When he grew too big for the schoolhouse it was decided he should take on an early job, and was sent to the Lumberforest to harvest wood. He was now so strong that he could fell an old thick tree with one axe-swing, where usually it took a team of three fairies all day working with root-weakening bleadust. Treanani packed Ben lunches of hearty bread and honeymuffins to ensure he had enough to sustain his large growth-spurts.
One day a terrible storm hit Fae. Ben was home eating dinner with his mother when the gusts started. A storm such as this could never have come from natural sources, as Fae was mounted atop a cave of magic lightclouds, and as such was cut-off from the rest of the world and its weather patterns.
The storm raged into a blizzard, and the blizzard crept onward into a roaring ice-hurricane. all the fairy homes were swept from their rooted dwellingrocks and disappeared into the cloudy abyss.
After it had finally passed, the only thing left that was too heavy to be swept away was big Ben, cradling his mother carefully.
An old man limped towards them through the rubble. "That's the old wizard who gave you to me!" Treanani proclaimed, pointing a shaky finger. She stood warily, staring around at her ruined village with tears in her eyes.
"How did this happen?" She asked the wizard, as he came within speaking distance.
"I'm so sorry" The old wizard shook his head in remorse. "It's all my fault.. there was a mix up with the powders.."
"What happened??" Treanani repeated desperately.
"It was Ben. His weight was too much for the lightclouds to handle. As he grew larger and larger the clouds sank in the atmosphere, until finally they broke through the weather barrier."
Treanani let out a frightened sob. "But.. what'll we do now? What will become of us?"
"I think it'd be a good idea if I transport us all down to earth." Replied the wizard.

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Written by Randombunny in portal Fantasy

A poet, a picker, and a playwright.

Once upon a time there lived a girl with starlight hair and swamp green eyes, in a house made of sugar that dissolved when it rained. She was not a special girl, except that she could laugh, and turn rags into dresses.

She sat on the stoop of her candy house, and watched the world, legs crossed, and laughing. The world, to her, was a funny place, and she was very content, just as she was.

One day she met a poet, with a face of granite, and a voice like an ancient forgotten language. He told her stories of pain and hurt, and his words were beautiful and enchanting, though he promised her nothing. He wanted her to leave her candy house and follow his stories, but the girl refused, because her heart did not sing for him.

On a cloudy day, while the girl watched the skies wrestle with the idea of rain, a picker came and sat a while on her stoop. He had hair like a wild man, and a beard with too much wax, and he played her songs of her homeland, full of twang and wise words. But his playing did nothing for her heart, and though he tried, she would not leave her candy house.

As the years passed, and the world grew, the girl sat, and made dresses, and laughed lines into her face. She came to her front porch one morning to find a playwright. He knew her well, though they'd never met, and she wondered if he'd ask her to leave her candy house. But he was a very busy player, with many places to travel, and he left to go play, and she wished him well.

Happy, with cheeks that had grown round from years of candy and laughter, the girl ventured off her stoop, in a pink dress she'd made from spun sugar and old dreams. She crossed the street, to the big red house with large doors, and asked for the knight that rode out to save the world, day after day.

As he took her hand, her heart sang, and she left her candy house for good, to laugh beside her knight, and they lived happily ever after.

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Written by Randombunny in portal Fantasy
A poet, a picker, and a playwright.
Once upon a time there lived a girl with starlight hair and swamp green eyes, in a house made of sugar that dissolved when it rained. She was not a special girl, except that she could laugh, and turn rags into dresses.
She sat on the stoop of her candy house, and watched the world, legs crossed, and laughing. The world, to her, was a funny place, and she was very content, just as she was.
One day she met a poet, with a face of granite, and a voice like an ancient forgotten language. He told her stories of pain and hurt, and his words were beautiful and enchanting, though he promised her nothing. He wanted her to leave her candy house and follow his stories, but the girl refused, because her heart did not sing for him.
On a cloudy day, while the girl watched the skies wrestle with the idea of rain, a picker came and sat a while on her stoop. He had hair like a wild man, and a beard with too much wax, and he played her songs of her homeland, full of twang and wise words. But his playing did nothing for her heart, and though he tried, she would not leave her candy house.
As the years passed, and the world grew, the girl sat, and made dresses, and laughed lines into her face. She came to her front porch one morning to find a playwright. He knew her well, though they'd never met, and she wondered if he'd ask her to leave her candy house. But he was a very busy player, with many places to travel, and he left to go play, and she wished him well.
Happy, with cheeks that had grown round from years of candy and laughter, the girl ventured off her stoop, in a pink dress she'd made from spun sugar and old dreams. She crossed the street, to the big red house with large doors, and asked for the knight that rode out to save the world, day after day.
As he took her hand, her heart sang, and she left her candy house for good, to laugh beside her knight, and they lived happily ever after.
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Written by dustygrein in portal Fantasy

An Horrific Doom

The Wizard General of the Ancient Order of Necromancers and Alchemists sat with his head in his hands.

“Lord Targill!” said Martlin, his second-in-command. “What has you so distraught, Master?”

“It is terrible, my friend.” Here he looked up, gazing at the junior wizard with blood-shot watery eyes. “You are aware that our reality lies along the Great Path, and that we pass from this world to the next upon our death. This is basic Necromancy, and as the foundation of our Art is something we all learn at a young age.”

“Indeed Lord, this is readily proven, as we bring those who have moved on, back to this world in spirit.”

“Ah, but my friend, you see – I have been given a rare gift. I have been shown the next world in detail, and it is horrifying!”

“What could be so horrifying as to trouble a great Wizard such as yourself?”

“Have you ever heard of a job titled “Night Clerk at the Super Store of WalMart?”

(c) 2016 - dustygrein

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Written by dustygrein in portal Fantasy
An Horrific Doom
The Wizard General of the Ancient Order of Necromancers and Alchemists sat with his head in his hands.

“Lord Targill!” said Martlin, his second-in-command. “What has you so distraught, Master?”

“It is terrible, my friend.” Here he looked up, gazing at the junior wizard with blood-shot watery eyes. “You are aware that our reality lies along the Great Path, and that we pass from this world to the next upon our death. This is basic Necromancy, and as the foundation of our Art is something we all learn at a young age.”

“Indeed Lord, this is readily proven, as we bring those who have moved on, back to this world in spirit.”

“Ah, but my friend, you see – I have been given a rare gift. I have been shown the next world in detail, and it is horrifying!”

“What could be so horrifying as to trouble a great Wizard such as yourself?”

“Have you ever heard of a job titled “Night Clerk at the Super Store of WalMart?”

(c) 2016 - dustygrein
#fantasy  #fiction  #adventure  #mystery 
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