Welcome back to Netherway, and more specifically, a winter in Addoran! I hope you enjoyed the intermission. I must thank everyone again who is still following the tale as it unravels. If you have any thoughts, questions, suggestions or critiques, feel free to drop them in the comments; an artist is nothing without criticism. It will be a long while until mastery is reached, but every word is another stone in the path. I am delighted to share the journey with you all, and hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
Without further (nervous) delay, here is Chapter 8: One.
I had no dreams, only the darkness of a sleep deepened by heavy exhaustion. I awoke to that brief amnesia where nothing seems important beyond the opening of the eyes, the stretching of the arms, the confused observation of what is around us.
Three winter suns exalted colossal, white clouds with golden light that beamed down on the glittering waters of the Ruined Sea, now aquamarine and inviting in the light of a late dawn. Half a dozen pointed tails broke the surface of the water in the distance, a school of blackfin hydras circling before dipping back under. I stared at the scene through a nearby window, sat up in a bed that I had no recollection of getting into, tucked under two layers of thick wool and a heavy blanket of mismatched, stitched hide, as if it took three animals to make it. Two of Sarkana’s towers obscured the cliffside view of the sea, still exuding their violet light with rhythmic pulses, as if even the sanctuary breathed.
Cool sweat lined my forehead and caused my clothes to cling to my skin.
Perhaps more puzzling than the fact that none of last night was a dream, as the lingering pain from the gargoyle bat’s claw marks made apparent, was that Sarkana had managed to haul me up the stairs while I was still sleeping. I had little doubt she was stronger than she looked, but even still …
The chamber I was in was modest in its size, yet elegant with its sparse decoration. An empty desk and dresser sat beside each other on the wall opposite the window, where the bed lay directly beneath. The wall across from me displayed the full skeleton of a bird attached to a mantle, its wings fixed in a permanent position of being splayed, each bone threaded to dozens of tiny nails to keep it upright. A hanging circlet of iron swayed almost imperceptibly from the ceiling, the six candles in their holders untouched and collecting dust, never lit for visitors.
Seared mutton spiced with herbs, roots simmering in oil, caffek being steeped in water. My mouth watered as the flavors wafted through the cracked doorway of the chamber and my stomach growled, reminding me that I had not eaten anything since noon the previous day. I had been too nervous to eat during William’s starday feast.
I tossed off the blankets and jumped a little too quickly from the bed, igniting the stiff aching of my muscles which laughed at my attempt at exuberance. I spotted my hat resting on one of the bedposts, where beneath it hung my scabbard, belt and satchel. I reached my hand out for the hat, but stopped. I was distracted by the bloodstains on my hands—dried puddles that splashed down my arm and dotted the clothes I had worn the previous day, reminders of lives that could never be restored, of the brief euphoria I felt not only dodging death, but turning its hand in my favor. The guilt burdened me, but the excitement lingered. I left the hat where it was.
The thought of talking to the isolated practitioner that had aided in my escape didn’t seem like a particularly appealing venture, especially not with a clouded mind. Welcoming though she was, Sarkana’s sanctuary did little to make me feel at ease. Still, the promise of food outweighed my trepidations, so I found myself slowly, curiously, observing the home after I left the room.
Along the walls, hanging from the rafters, was no shortage of similar displays of organized and catalogued bones as the bird in the bedroom. In meticulous script on neatly cut parchment, each creature was labeled down to the smallest of structures. For the more grandiose or rare skeletons, such as a phoenix—whose bones still held a faint glimmer of fire—in the hall just outside my chamber, their remains were enchanted to hover quietly above pedestals or small tables. I resisted the urge to touch the skull of the phoenix, afraid to disenchant the spell that held it perfectly aloft.
I managed to pry myself away from exploring further and made my way down the staircase in front of the entryway. My shoes were being warmed by the embers splitting over the iron grating in the fireplace, their leather cleaned and polished. After I slipped them on, I found the largest piece in Sarkana’s skeletal collection: a human’s. It was laying supine and firmly affixed to the dome ceiling above the armchairs in the living room. Only, this skeleton had no labels, and even the bones were grimy, unpolished, dirtied by decay but naked all the same, held within a circle with crisscrossing lines and symbols, pulsing with that same light that flowed throughout all of the sanctuary.
‘Necromancers,’ Magister Fahim once laughed at me after I’d asked about them. ‘All the angst-ridden adolescent practitioners dream of becoming them. An empty dream, sadly. Very few have a firm grasp of how to perfect that kind of magick, and I doubt they’ll be sharing their secrets anytime soon. Scholars would have more luck pursuing the kind of alchemy that turns dirt to gold. Foolish, foolish ambitions. What’s wrong with destruction magick, I always ask them. Isn’t that exciting enough? Why do young students always wish to drag dead things into the mix? It’s some sick perversion, if you ask me.’
‘Besides resurrecting the dead, what could one of them do, exactly?’ I prodded him.
Fahim had been immersed in the crafting of a new tincture, and was becoming visibly annoyed with my pestering. ‘You mean a masterful necromancer, not just an apprentice?’
‘I … suppose so?’
‘Let’s put it simply: necromancy is the manipulation of the dead. In a way, all living things are in a perpetual state of decay. Theoretically, a master necromancer would have domain over, well, everything. But with all that power and only one body, what’s the purpose? You’d still find yourself exhausted after a few incantations, just like most practitioners. At most you would, what, make a puppet out of a body, maybe two? And how long could someone control something so burdensome? I doubt very long.’ Trying to imagine it, he shook his head.
‘Sounds quite exciting to me,’ I had laughed.
‘Don’t take this poorly, but you’re not exactly a seasoned practitioner. You don’t know how painful it can be to cast higher magick. It wouldn’t be enjoyable in the slightest. You’d have to have some very deep motives to pursue such an arduous study. Either that, or you’d have to be mad.’
Fahim’s words echoed in my head as I stared at the skeleton. He really had been a good friend, now that I thought about it. It was difficult to realize I may never speak with him again.
“Casimir? So you really are awake, those footsteps weren’t just my imagination.” Sarkana was standing in front of the kitchen’s doorway, holding a long, wooden spoon and wearing the same garments she’d had on the night before. Her grey eyes were alight with that same curiosity, too, looking all over my body as if she’d miss something important if she didn’t examine every detail.
I grinned at her, uncertain as to why she seemed undisturbed by the fact that I had been perusing the various cadavers throughout her home. “Do you often imagine phantom footsteps throughout your home, Sarkana?”
“Oh, I don't need to imagine them,” she returned without hesitating, as if it wasn't an unsettling remark.
I opened my mouth to reply, but my stomach interrupted me, at an embarrassing volume.
She raised her eyebrows before laughing. “Care to satisfy the beast? I thought some food from our home country would be comforting after everything that’s happened.” Without waiting for a response, she went back into the kitchen.
Tentatively, I followed her through the open, arched doorway. Inside, Sarkana was prodding at stuffed potatoes on a rack in the concave stove, whose stone roof merged with the kitchen’s ceiling, exhaling its spiced aromas through the chimney shaft. Pots, ladles, and other cooking ware hung from the ceiling, while spices and herbs were put away in wooden containers of various sizes, all organized impeccably. At the heart of the room, a tree’s trunk yawned from beneath the floorboards and stretched through the roof. Small cracks had been developing around the rim of the roof’s circular opening, splintering as slowly and deliberately as the trunk's steady widening stretched the structure. From cut branches of the tree, Sarkana had fashioned table tops and, within the trunk itself, more shelves for storage.
“Your home is breathtaking,” I admitted. “It doesn’t seem like a single room lacks a touch of you. Did you do all of it yourself?”
“Oh, you’re too kind. I had some help,” she shrugged, then nudged the four stuffed potatoes onto two plates, before spooning out sautéd greens beside them. Herbed mutton steamed up from inside the potatoes’ buttered skins and flesh, doing its best to get me to drool in front of my host.
With a poker, she dispersed the logs of the cooking fire in the stove, until all that was left was glowing embers and cinders turning to ash as they stretched out towards the colder edges of the stone surface. She set the plates down on one of the tables extending from the tree and sat down at a chair. A little awkwardly, I stood without a seat, staring at her as she readied a metal fork and knife.
“Oh!” She jumped from her chair, then snatched another from the kitchen that seemed to have held the lonely and solitary use of a stepping stool, with no visitors' rears to oblige for for years. She wiped off the dust marks of her footprints from its surface before letting me tuck myself into it.
“Thank you." Then, and only after we had made it through half of the meal in silence, I asked, “Have you lived alone very long?” The food had satiated my hunger, though my questions for Sarkana were ever voracious.
“Alone,” she repeated with a chuckle. “I suppose that word means different things to different people. But, in the common sense, I have been alone for many years. And to be quite honest Casimir, it is much longer than I care to count at the moment. I am not sure that finding the number would do any good for me. I haven’t bothered since I lost track. As the saying in our kin goes, Pal’thases reqimet est pal’thases coleltia.”
I nodded, a little discouraged to have already prodded a tender spot. “So do you regret it, then, leading this kind of life?”
Zuma crawled as close to the stove as she could without getting burned, and nipped a few stray pieces of fried potato to nibble on.
“Absolutely not,” Sarkana said, sounding almost offended. “Some people pursue commendable ranks or titles, some people chase after lofty ambitions or passions, searching for fulfillment or gratification. But regardless of what they’re after, the only ones who seem to get very far are those that sacrifice the most. Time, wealth, companionships, obligations …” Sarkana’s gaze held mine, but I could tell she was looking far past my eyes into memories that did not belong there, “just about everything they can let go of. As it seems in this world, the more things you let go of that most folks hold onto, the more things you can grasp that are untouched.”
Repetitive, stark, and unrhythmic caws from an unkindness of ravens accented our conversation from the gardens outside. A few of their wings flashed darkly in front of the window as they swooped to find their perches on the same tree that we were eating from. The branches above could be heard shifting under their weight, even through the roof.
“Zuma! Caffek,” Sarkana commanded suddenly.
The blood imp jumped at her name. But at the second word, she darted to the kettle beside the roasting rack in the open stove and performed the trained maneuver of pouring caffek into a cup from one of the shelves. Sarkana handed her another to fill. The tiny demon stretched her arm across the empty space towards me, and I took the cup with an astonished nod of thanks from her claw.
“So then, are you after something?” I asked.
Sarkana blew gently on the steam rising from the cup. Then, before drinking, she replied, “Aren’t we all?”
I looked down at the caffek, my burning eyes now smoldered by the dark reflection of the thickly steeped substance. “Not everyone, not always.”
“I used to think the same, actually. But, one day, I realized something that changed my mind.”
“One particular day?”
“One particular day, yes.”
“What did you realize?”
Zuma hopped from her station at the stove, then circled the ground and attempted to make the stone floor more comfortable for sleep by slapping it with her tail.
“It doesn’t matter if you haven’t realized it yet. Everyone has their purpose, their calling, even if some people delude themselves into thinking they have none. For the unambitious, their lives are easily dictated by others; for the apathetic, their lives are spent for the sake of another’s. I have little faith in fate or the gods, Casimir, but I think some people are born cradling purpose, while others spend their entire lives searching for it. It comes, it exists, one way or another, from one hand or another. It’s an object of possession, no doubt about that, but you only have it so long as you convince yourself it’s in your hands.”
I drank the caffek deeply, savoring the trail of heat down my throat and the rich, bittersweet burn hinting at chocolate.
“What is your purpose, Casimir?”
I choked, surprised by her sudden shift of attention and spluttered all over the table. I used my sleeve to wipe off the droplets as I muttered an apology. But this only amused her further. “If I tell you, will you tell me about that day when you stumbled upon that realization?”
Sarkana’s eyes flitted from mine to her hands, where she pondered over the trade in the lines of her small palms. The laughter faded with her smile. Her tall, arching ears fluttered a little while a silence longer than I anticipated held on her lips. “I will,” she agreed, “in my gardens. There's no sense wasting a perfectly fine day inside.”
As she led me away from the kitchen, both our plates now bereft of their Qalmorian culture, I spotted the room that I had heard Sarkana leave into the night before. At the center of which was a trapdoor, its handle wrapped in a chain and lock affixed to bolts in the floor. Before she could catch me staring, she tugged me toward another door inset with silverglass panes that blurred the outside forestry and blooming color of her gardens, despite winter’s current hold on Addoran.
She pushed the door open and stepped on the only stone that stood between us and the steep fall to the ground beneath her home. At her touch, stones rose, flipped, and collided before us in a sudden stroke of cascading construction, to form a small bridge that arched down to the floor.
Unsurprisingly, a smile touched my lips. “You just aren’t satisfied with doing things normally, are you?”
“To be fair, you don’t seem much different,” she retorted.
“Fair enough. Now, am I going mad, or does it suddenly feel like summer out here?” I reached my hand out toward the air as we descended the bridge, surprised to find that my teeth didn’t start chattering. In fact, I was uncomfortable in all of my layers. It seemed just as temperate outside as it was within the home, and if anything, a bit warmer.
“I cannot answer the first question for you, but I assure you it isn’t summer.” Upon the final step of the bridge, the stones dissembled themselves to rest inconspicuously upon the damp earth, where daisies, pale roses and dragon teeth blossoms bloomed in rows along ivy-wrapped arbors marking the walkways. “In my gardens,” Sarkana said with a tone of defiance, “it is always spring. Life is punitive and death is selfish, but in my home,” she said as she bent to the head of a dying rose, “I am death’s keeper.” She brought the rose to her lips, muttering while her hands cradled it, and as if she was merely breathing embers to flames once more, when the rose fell from her hands, its wilted petals had turned plump with revived color, its sagging stem stiff and searching again for the sun.
“Remarkable,” I breathed.
Sarkana stood up again, not recognizing my reaction. “You’re still holding onto that answer.” And as she asked once more, I discovered something surprising within the tension of truth before its release, that even the most ethereal concepts, even if they cannot be held, can surely be tainted if not stolen. And I wondered, just like that rose, what words might wilt and bloom within her fists, should I allow her to clutch them, even briefly.
“My purpose?” I looked up at the rain clouds forming above her sanctuary, the brief burst of moisture as the droplets failed to penetrate the aura that kept the season inside fixed, the countless ravens that enjoyed the air without chill as many of them attended to nests that should never have been made at this time of year. “My purpose is to inspire others to find theirs.”
In my mind, the strength of those words echoed as cannons booming in a castle; in the past, they ruptured the most dreadful silences and revived hope from lost meaning and graveyards of regret; it scorched shadows of the past and sent phantom thoughts fleeing in terror. But now, as they left my lips, Sarkana’s scrutiny cast their resonance in translucence, and I felt just how hallow they were without action. “Am I a fool to not strive for something within myself?” My fingers went for the ring that normally wrapped my left thumb, to twist it in nervousness, but found its bare skin. Unsettling. I remembered that I had sent it off to Fahim.
Absentmindedly, Sarkana tugged on her lower lip with her thumb and forefinger. “Your purpose may be fixated on something beyond you, yet it still comes from you. I think you’d be a fool to think it was anything besides beautiful. It may not be anything I would do, or anyone else for that matter, but whatever meaning you hold is yours … does anything else matter?”
Truth conjoined with likemindedness and sparked a connection, time’s brevity collapsed, and Sarkana seemed, in the filtered light of winter kept at bay, a goddess without age in her own, tiny realm. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes.
“Will you tell me about that day?” I asked quietly.
“If you promise to keep it only to yourself.”
“Hei’ta prosium, Sarkana.”
“Takka, Casimir. I will, then.” She led me to a bench in front of a trellis overrun with ivy, motioning for me to join her in sitting. Overhead, the tree was still a bustle of wings and cawing. “I was quite young, blessed to grow up in a household where magick was nothing short of routine, in a seaside town called Yarimen in Qalmora. At the time, I had little ambition but to become a scholar and attend The Light Academy not a week’s journey from our home.”
“Did you ever attend the academy?”
“Yes, but ... that story may be for another time. As I child, I was given two rooks. The birds grew up with me, became my companions. In my eyes, they were inseparable. They hunted, feasted, played, and even watched over me, together. I couldn’t walk beyond our home without their shadows following me. It seemed no matter where I went, I was safe, protected.”
“They were that loyal?”
“Of course. I had them since I was born, after all. But … that morning, something happened. I left the home, alone, for the first time. I needed to retrieve some things from the nearby fish market, nothing extraordinary, just some ingredients for dinner. The rooks had been kept in their cages back at home.”
“Why were they kept there?”
“I suppose I felt they should be there. Every child looks forward to their first day of being unwatched by a protective eye. The rooks watched over me, but I wanted to see how I faired alone in the bustling market. I was just past my tenth year, and I felt I could handle myself well enough. Everything went well, after all, that wasn’t the problem. Of course, I could purchase some fish and return home. The horror was what awaited me when I got there.”
“What did you see?”
“I pushed open the door, my basket heavy with supplies, but then suddenly, dropped to the floor. Bread, fish, spices, they all spilled out at my feet. I was surprised to find that my fingers had gone numb, that my fist had relinquished its hold on what should have been a happy day of, for the first time, being independent. But when I looked inside my home, I saw bloody paw prints scattered across the floor. And besides them, countless, black feathers parted from the rooks.”
“Did you call for help?”
“It wouldn't have mattered in the end, but at the time, I couldn't think to do so. Without thinking, it seemed, my feet wandered past the doorway and shuffled into the living room. Somehow, the cage had been unlocked, and beneath it, one of the rooks was laying there, her talons already curled up by the rigor mortis, her beak snapped in two and her body shattered by the teeth of a wolf that had found its way inside.
“I followed the paw prints and found tufts of fur ripped from the wolf, along with the silence that had settled into our home. The prints led me upstairs, to one of the studies, where I found the body of the wolf, its neck riddled with puncture marks from a beak, its eyes pecked to shreds. But besides it, there was the second rook, too, his feathers heavy and still like blackened stone, unmoving as they soaked up the blood.”
My face clenched up as I realized what the story was missing, or rather, what was hidden. I felt my suspicions of Sarkana soften. “What did you do?”
“I did what any child would do, I cried. But after that, and after the silence of that afternoon pursued me as I grew older, I thought often about what had happened, why it happened.”
“But does tragedy need to have a reason behind it? Does death desire a meaning?”
Out of the corner of my eyes, I saw Sarkana’s head turn from the clouds to mine, so I did the same, watching the memories play out across her eyes, the metaphor unraveling in grisly clarity. “Precisely. Tragedy does not, it seldom does. But it’s our duty to give it one. Death asks nothing of us, it only takes. It’s our task to shape something from it.”
“Is that your purpose, Sarkana?”
“I have many,” she replied, touching her hand to mine, “but they all stem from that one.”
Confused, I looked down at the sudden display of affection. But she was only getting my attention. The warmth of her fingers left to point towards the sky. “It appears your friend is smarter than you thought,” she said with a smile. “Some news from the castle, then?”
Beyond the direction of her finger, I spotted a very confused and very tiny Felix discovering just how warm it was inside the sanctuary, flapping around in circles before swooping down in exhilaration at spotting me. Forgetting his task, the crow dropped the letter that he'd been holding in his beak, crashing into my chest with many caws, flapping feathers, and attempts to stroke his beak against my chin. After soothing and introducing him to Sarkana, I dug into the pouch at his talon, to find my ring awaiting me. I slipped it back onto my thumb, glad to feel another comfort returned.
But it was with a racing heart that I stood up, walked toward the unmarked envelope, and unfolded the letter that Fahim had wrote in reply to my signal.
I skimmed the writing with greedy eyes, past the rushed greeting and hopes of my survival, down to the final lines scrawled in the same haste as all the others, the ones that read:
Meet me at the Reaver’s Crossroads, dusk of the 6th of January.