October Diaries: The Ebb

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October 8,
   There is an old saying in our circle: “Nothing goes right for thieves besides thieving.” A bond that might’ve seemed strong becomes unpredictably shattered; an innocent walk for fresh air ends in being ambushed by highwaymen; passing off a merchant’s calls with a casual decline ends in him going for your throat. Of course, this saying isn’t infallible, but these are just some personal examples.
   Once you devote yourself to stealing from the corrupt, everything else seems to doomed to end tragically. It’s as if all the luck we accumulate throughout our lives goes towards one specific action. But even luck can only patch up wounds that haven’t been dealt. It can divert someone’s glance away from the corner you’re hiding in, not because it was any doing of your own, just the chance of their thoughts wandering with their eyes. It can help you sidestep death, when it’s the difference between one half of a moment and another.
   This is how thieves of the Shadow Syndicate exist, moving with strength, skill, finesse, deliberation, and in moments when those things are not enough, knowing when to rely on the tumble-turn of dice. We catch the rhythm of chance in the silences that dictate whose blood is split, and who gets to slink away from the scene.
   The shadows know we are already dead, and so long as we admit that to ourselves, they let us use them. The moment we fool ourselves into thinking we’re any different from anyone else, we embrace our demise.
   I stood with my back against the wet brick of an alleyway, and tightened the laces on the back of my mask until the leather was pushing against my lips. The four vertical slits for breathing were enough for me to taste the autumn air sweeping through the streets, touched by the scent of moss, rotted wood, and fresh rain.
   Moonlight tore through a gap in the clouds, bright in its full radiance. 
   Shadowsteps travel in pairs or triplets, but seldom alone. So why was I here, trying to predict my fate as the night's clouds rolled across my eyes?
   A disease was spreading throughout the Northern Sanctum of the Shadow Syndicate, effectively putting all of my companions in feverish, cough-ridden, sick-spewing states, each of them taking turns in the washroom to rid themselves of the pestilence swarming their insides.
   “Shade,” the headmistress had called me that night through the door of her chamber, “don’t go alone like Aren did. I’m ordering you as the head of this sanctum, and telling you as your friend.”
   “There are no orders,” I said to the door, “not when all of the seasoned members are clinging to the sheets of their bed. The initiates who just came two weeks past are shivering with both fear and fevers, afraid that they signed up for a death sentence. Do you want a fresh set of promising souls lost to this?”
   I listened to her fit of coughing, already walking away. She knows I am right, doesn't she? I thought.
   “Shade, wait!”
   “The Blackmore house is known for its prestigious grasp of healing tinctures. If there’s a cure, they’ll have it. You can’t dissuade me.”
   “I know I can’t. That’s why I’m telling you: if you die, no one’s hands are stained besides yours.”
   “As if I care. It’s better that way, anyways. No guilt, no fault, no shame, no strength but my own. Have we ever blamed one another for dying? But whose hands are stained when I let all of you die a beggar’s death? Ramus is already dead. And Aren, who left on his orders, hasn’t returned in weeks. The morning he left, he had a bloody cough. A deadman following another deadman’s orders to find a plant for a potion that will never be created. So who’s left to help?”
   There was at least silence before she blurted out the rest of her pleas. “… Don’t think that way. We’ll find something. We’ll get well enough, eventually, to figure something else out. Just stay here. Help care for us. Change the sheets, fetch fresh clothes, cook for us.”
   “You expect me to be a house servant while you all die? Nithe and Nocturos are gods for mischief, headmistress, much as we’d like to think so, they won’t heed prayers for this. They don’t dabble with remedies and healing. I don’t need to explain to you where their reach stops extending. They aren’t helping us with this one.”
   “Shade …”
   “I’m leaving. If I don’t …” I shook my head, and bit back what was itching in my throat. “Farewell, Yamora.”
   I thought I heard her say my name again as I was walking down the halls. I even stopped and tilted my head, when I thought muffled crying followed.
                                                                         ~
   I stared at the glittering mansion in the distance as I let myself hear her whispers through the door one last time before shutting the memory out. I stuck some nitskel into rolling paper and lit up the end of the cigarette.
   From the small loops in my satchel I took out the caw pipe and blew harshly into it, sending off the harsh grating of a raven’s calls in a specific beat that Wisp would recognize. With gratitude at the calm before the storm, I savored the quiet, the heat of smoke in my lungs, until I heard his talons tapping on the roof above.
   I took a final drag before stamping out the sizzling end. 
I raised my hand up and motioned for him.
   When Wisp landed on my shoulder, I fed him a piece of dead rat I had found on my walk there. A bit of intestine or heart, I guess. He seemed to enjoy it.
   “Take this back to the Sanctuary,” I said as I slipped a small scroll into the pouch attached to his leg, “just to let them know I’m here. They’ll be grateful to hear from me at all.”
   Wisp nuzzled my neck before pecking out some grime from my earlobe. I could never get used to that. I scratched his neck in return. “Come back to these rooftops afterward. Don’t stray far, I may need you.”
   Staring at me with strangely cognizant, black beads of eyes with a tinge of mud in the center, he cocked his head, pecked me again, then flapped off before shitting dangerously close to my boot.
   “There’s a good raven,” I muttered before clenching warmth back into my fingers.
The lettering Blackmore on the iron entrance gates shone with dew from the evening’s rain. I waited for the guard that patrolled the street in front of the home to pass out of peripheral view, and strolled out onto the street.
   “Fine evening, gentlemen,” I greeted two more guards on either side of the gate, as my finger caressed the trigger of a rune-powered crossbow behind my back.
   “Have an invitation, stranger?” the one on the right asked me.
   “For the celebration?” I asked as I spotted the boiling life of a party bubbling behind the windows.
   “That’s right.”
   “Sure, sure, I certainly do. I think I have it somewhere in here …” I flipped the crossbow out and fired two darts tipped with a soporific tincture, each one landing in their necks.
   I rushed to their bodies and glanced at the patrol nearing the end of the street. I snatched a set of keys from the warm body and slipped it into the lock, opening the gate proficient at rusted screams before dragging the bodies behind the stone wall under the iron grating.
   Just before the guard turned, I cracked a knuckle over the lock of the gate and said, “Caveas,” triggering a burst of green light and the melting of the tumblers inside, fusing them together to create a seal.
   Past the stretching of the front yard, I crouched through a long path bordered by lush gardens with the moonlight on my shoulder. A drunken couple with masks dangling from their necks were swaying arm in arm. I ducked behind a rose bush while they passed in laughter and sloppy kisses, taking a little too long for comfort.
   One of their masks slithered off their neck, the silk lacings too smooth to stay pinched from a single knot. I picked it up, dawning the visage of scarlet and black demon. My mask still concealed the bottom half of my face while I tied the lacings tight. I should’ve known that royals are the type of people to make light of demons, especially the ones that enter homes uninvited.
   Upright, in the open amongst scattered revelers in the garden, I passed through the steam cast by strangers’ breath and went into the first chamber, where a pianist clad in black had a room enthralled with the pounding of his hands on the keys. Nobody batted an eye as I strode into the other corridors, nodding at anyone who bothered to make eye contact.
   My costume was by far the most elaborate, and perhaps inappropriate for even this occasion. It was authentic, after all. A shadowstep's raiment complete with the tools of the trade.
   The chandeliers, the lights, the uproar of applause as a piece finished and another began, the tinkling of glasses, the stench of vomit mingling with steaming trays of delicacies fresh from the kitchen. Thieves are good at managing themselves in chaos, but playing the role of someone apart of it all was more dizzying than I anticipated.
   As I got a feeling for the expanse of the mansion, I began to notice that some of the revelers wore similar costumes. Matching grey cloth and leather, each of their masks the frozen expression of a scowling gargoyle. Guardsmen.
   I touched one of the gargoyles lightly on the arm. “Can you direct me to Apothecary Blackmore?”
   His eyes flinched before meeting mine, a little bloodshot from sneaking drinks, as if his breath wasn't enough indication. “Who’s asking?”
   “Count Pissbane,” I said, blurting the first thing that came to mind.
   “Oh, Count, my apologies for not recognizing you,” he inclined his head. “You mean the Apothecary Blackmore?”
   “Naturally. The family’s legacy precedes him. I wish to speak with him, it’s urgent.”
   “Well, Count Blackmore is preoccupied, as he’s the one playing the keys in the main hall.”
   I twitched. “You mean to say that Count Blackmore is the same man who crafted his famous tinctures? Not another man working under his name?”
   “ ‘Course, who else would it be?”
   It was the first time hearing of royalty as anything more than a vessel for inherited wealth and prosperity. I was in the home of a man who had built his wealth up from the innovation of cures meant to heal others. I almost felt guilty for sneaking in. But that was besides the point, and it was far too late for guilt. This wasn’t a normal assignment. In fact, it wasn't an assignment at all. The Shadow Syndicate didn't order it; it was of my own volition.
   “In any case, when will the … performance be over?”
   “Just started playing few hands ‘for you greeted me, sir. Could be some time.”
   “Very well. My thanks.”
   “What did you say your name was? I’ll tell one of the servants you requested him.”
   “How dare you disgrace my family name by forgetting it," I spat. "Forget it.”
   “Apologies …” he slurred. “Is that on the registration?”
   His hand was pointing to the hilt of my crossbow hanging from my belt. “Yes, it’s … registered.”
   I walked away before he could get another word out, looking for the nearest staircase. Royals always have their study on the highest floor. With a view overlooking a city like Westrun, why wouldn’t you?
   Someone made a gesture of pointing and laughing at me, I turned to catch a look, and bumped into someone by mistake. A glass shattered, and the bottom of my boot crunched shards to splinters.
   The woman I bumped into was nearly in tears of frustration, a red mouth hanging open only to issue blank utterances of rage.
   “My apologies, miss. Can’t imagine it’s terribly difficult to find one precisely like it in short time.” I tipped my mask and slipped up a nearby set of carpeted stairs, leaving some of the confusion behind me. I stopped at the top, getting my bearings in order.
   Interacting with other people is far more difficult than sneaking, stealing, or killing them. All these years of stealing from others and never speaking to them, I had almost forgot the subtle nuances of picking which words to speak and which to swallow.
   I shook off my nervousness and continued up the stairs, passing by a couple whose jaws seemed positively locked together. I couldn't resist arcing an eyebrow as I awkwardly squeezed by.
   In a hallway brightly lit by torches on either side, I checked both of the corridors before murmuring, “Fade.” The spell snapped at my feet, and I slipped into the air. Or, at least I thought I did. When I looked down at my hands, I saw their outlines wreathed in shadow; every contour of my body shifting with the subtle sifting of darkness over darkness, like layers of silk being passed over itself. Painfully obvious, and useless in the bright light of the torches.
   “So that’s what happens when you cast that spell in well-lit rooms,” I sighed. “Embody,” I murmured, returning to my usual form and continuing down the hall. I considered snuffing the torches somehow, but it would only look more suspicious to anyone who knew they were supposed to be lit.
   Not being able to rely on the most basic spell for slipping through rooms without drawing attention was enough to pull my hand over the hilt of my dagger protectively. I shook the notion of killing over talking out of my head, for now, and searched for the next flight, trying not to goggle at the unique architecture arching all around me. Instead of curved or straight hallways, the walls came up to sharp, wooden points that met up with the beams of the ceiling, surrounding you with the impression of impossible intricacy through symmetry. 
                                                                   ~
   "This disease …” Aren had told me between coughing and dabbing blood away from the edges of his mouth, “it’s not incurable. The plant that combats it is found in high, mountainous regions, or so Ramus told me.” He wrapped himself tighter in his cloak while the winds hit us outside one of the sanctuary’s doors.
   “To the worms with the plant, we asked every last tradesmen in Westrun, and they didn’t have a leaf of it. We need magick, or an elixir already concocted.”
   “There are no healers in the city who can cure this by will alone, and none of our connections could end in procuring an elixir. That’s why I’m leaving. Ramus said even one vial of the concentrate could heal half of us, if not all of us, such is the potency of the plant.”
   My hand had been gripping his arm so tight, the prints of my fingers on his leather remained after I let go. “Then go, if you think it’s best. Don’t say I didn’t tell you you’re mad when you’re crawling on your belly up there in the snow.”
   “I’ve always been a little mad,” Aren smirked. “But it’s not madness. I’d do anything for the people that gave me a family.”
   What he said was enough for my eyes to drop from his, almost ashamed to see the hopeful glint in them, the one that I didn’t have. “Before you go,” I had said, “tell me what Ramus told you. The name of the disease, the plant, what it would take to craft the elixir.”
   Aren outlined it, expressing frustration at how simple it really was, and similarly, at how quickly the disease seized its victims. “Ghoul’s bane is the plant’s name,” he’d said. “And the disease, Ramus called it ‘the ebb’.”
   “Ghoul’s bane, the ebb,” I repeated.
   “Shade?”
   “Yes?”
   Aren discarded a handkerchief that had once been white and was now a single, overlapping stain of muddied red. He took out another and coughed into it. “What do you plan to do with this information?”
   I laughed. “The same thing that we always do.”
                                                                    ~
   The next hallway was guarded by a patrol. I was crouched on the last of the three steps, peering out from the wall. I considered simply walking up to the guard and talking my way to the next floor. But if there were men standing outside Blackmore’s chamber, it’d end in blood anyways.
   I tugged the crossbow from its holster, took aim when his back was turned, and fired.
The tip lodged in his back. A vein in my heart pinched itself. He stopped and reached for it.
   I waited for the drug to sweep through his blood, for him to fall and crash to the ground in unconsciousness.
   Instead, he turned around and spotted me.
   By the time he’d pulled the bolt from his armor, I was sprinting down the hall towards him.
   “Help!” he screamed while he unsheathed a sword.
   I drew my dagger and parried his blade. An armored fist slammed into my face in response, staggering me into a lapse of darkness and sparks. He swung his sword after punching a second time, tearing through the tapestry hanging on the wall while the sound of more men from the upper floors came. Shouts rang out like alarm bells being sounded throughout a city, each one triggering another. His sword stuck in the thick wool of the tapestry, I saw my opportunity, and slashed at his neck.
   Red colored the vision of my left eye, while his blood splattered my right. I pushed myself against the wall while he bled out on the floor.
   Footsteps came tumbling down the stairway.
   The first glimmer of armor I saw, I grabbed at it, hauling the man to floor and burying my dagger into the one that followed after, slamming him into the wall and repeating the motion where his padding wasn’t thick enough to stop my blade.
   They screamed and wailed in a way that would impress a rowdy group of children. I turned to the man scrambling to his feet, snapping the trigger on my hand-crossbow until half a dozen needles found their way through his mask, two of them sticking out from one of the eyeholes of his mask. 
   It's not unnecessary if it helps calm your nerves.
   This time, I couldn’t tell if the footsteps were coming from the staircase above or below. I took that as a good indication that it was both. My mind raced, and the spells in my head flipped like pages in the wind.
   I tore the demon’s mask off my face and sprinted up the stairs, encumbered by the weight of a particularly large mechanism dangling from my belt, each of its components attached to a different ring to distribute the weight evenly.
   A guard came running down. I grabbed his ankle through the banister, causing him to roll the rest of the way down, crashing into a glass stand encasing a family heirloom. The glass showered him, and my dagger followed in similar fashion.
   More gargoyles came rushing from behind. I fired blindly with my crossbow at the large mass of them bottlenecking at the bottom steps. The mechanism spat and whirred with charged runes, smoke puffing out as heat spread to the handle and scalded my hand until I smelt burnt leather.
   A few of them took the hint and found cover behind the wall. One of them stupid enough to leap over the bodies at his feet charged at me with a sword and a scream.
   I slammed the trigger back.
   A burst of shadow and smoke, but no bolt. The canister was empty. I squeezed it again in disbelief. He slashed at my hand, disarming my crossbow and slicing my fingers in the process. Still crouched over the body beneath me, I kicked at his legs. His head slammed into the steps. Either the wood or his skull cracked. I prayed for the latter and scrambled up the flight of stairs.
   Blood trailed me as I took three steps at a time. My thoughts seemed to have left me somewhere during the first struggle. Instinct alone was guiding me through the initial storm that it caused. Optimism shrank.
   Every sconce had a burning torch; no corner was left darkened. I cursed, pulling torches out at random and tossing them behind me as I ran. I needed my element. I needed opportunity to slip in and out of their reality. But the gargoyles started coming again, eager to stomp out the flames before they could take hold of the walls.
   I finished the final flight of stairs and pulled out a spell scroll, tearing off the wax binding and speaking the trigger word, “Moerium,” as I directed it at the empty space at the top of the staircase.
   A summoned doorway stretched from the ground, growing from a slit of gushing shadow. It stretched and filled up the empty space, creating the illusion of a locked door. The spell would only hold until someone assumed it didn’t exist.
   Throughout the skirmish, the screams hadn’t stopped. It was while I stared at the door that this realization sunk in. It used to be just the guardsmen calling for one another, but now I could hear the revelers alerting the rest of the sleeping city. For all I knew, I had drawn all of the Westrun to Blackmore’s gates.
   I ran my hands through the sweaty locks of auburn hair dangling in front of my eyes, walking just slow enough to look at each door on the final floor.
   One of them had the same family lettering as the gates. I didn’t bother trying to slam through a solid slab of iron and drew out my lockpicks.
   Fists began pounding against the illusionary door. That was something, at least. The more they convinced themselves it was impossible to get through, the longer the spell would last.
   The tumblers caught into their familiar places after a few seconds of picking. I turned the keyhole to the left and felt the latch give, easing myself into, at last, a darkened chamber. I didn’t have time to pick the lock to latch it again, since the tumblers reset when you try to turn it a full rotation with picks.
   Hiding in the chamber wouldn’t buy me time, either, as my blood trailed directly to me. If that wasn’t enough, the outlines of bloody fingers were smeared across the handle.
   But that didn't matter so much anymore.
   I stood in the middle of a gigantic laboratory. Herbs that I had never seen before hung by the dozens from the tall ceilings. A ladder of staggering height was pushed up against a wall, with ropes attached to the ceiling to allow for a climber to attach freshly picked plants to hundreds of hooks scattered about.
   A genius surrounding himself with his craft. There were even sheets of music spread across the floor, gusted from a table from the open balcony at the far end of the chamber, where sage curtains billowed in the breeze.
   There were numerous desks where various stages of an elixir’s development could be observed. A staton for cutting, chopping, grinding, mixing, another for boiling, reducing, combining, and another with elaborate symbols etched into strong, dark wood. Enchantment runes.
   Blackmore wasn’t just an apothecary. He was an alchemist.
   I spotted a case of elixirs. The labels of which were, unlike everything else in the room, clean and readable. Only the finished products were treated with an eye of cleanliness. I went to the glass case and started scanning.
   “I see you’ve let yourself in,” someone said.
   I whipped around to see the pianist, still dressed in his concert garb. He drew out from one of the pillars in front of the balcony. He, too, was wearing a mask. The upper half of a skull covered his eyes, forehead and cheeks, while black and white makeup depicted the rest of the skull on the lower portion of his face.
   “I will admit I am flattered,” he continued. The tails of his coat blew in the breeze, while the steady tapping of his feet echoed, louder in my ears than the incessant pounding of the guardsmen on the illusionary door. He slipped his mask off and retied his thick, black ponytail. “I must ask, however, why you went through all this trouble, killing a good portion of my guard in the process. We could have scheduled a meeting. Enjoyed some quality nitskel and discussed your prospects with my products. Instead … this. Digging a rather deep and, what I imagine is now an inescapable grave,” he added with an almost sorrowful chuckle.
   “H-h—”
   “You don’t seriously think someone of my caliber doesn’t have passageways in his own home, the same way a spider might dig an impressive hole for catching his prey? Not that I ever constructed it to … ‘catch prey,’ ” he sighed, and set the mask on a desk, “rather to simply escape the monotony of the same drawl I must endure. Councilmen rambling, appointments that drag on too long. You understand.”
   I could only stare as I thought my options through.
   “But you needn’t worry. I don't have any men follow me. I assure you we’re alone. I was rather thrilled, actually, to have this night interrupted by something so exciting. This kind of life becomes awfully repetitive.” His cheeks were gaunt as his lips were thin, speaking smoothly as he paced around the chamber.
   “What’s wrong?” he asked. “Thieves are only taught to steal, not to speak, hm? I can imagine as much. I was quite the same, working my way up in small shops when I was just an apprentice. It seemed the bubbling of tinctures was the only smalltalk I could master.”
   “I don’t want to kill you, Blackmore. I just need your help. You have to understand this was none of my intention.” Every inch of me was crawling. I was practically begging. I never beg. I take what I want. I leave, and no one suspects a thing. Now I was just buying time to find a way to escape this mess I created.
   Blackmore laughed until the skeleton grin stretched across his face. “Intention! Now that’s a queer word for you. Ah, and why should I help you? Have a fair share of coin on you, a bargain to offer? You’re from the Syndicate, I assume. Or else you wouldn’t be able to pull off that rubbish of keeping twenty men slamming against something that wasn’t constructed by my orders. I don't recall having a doorway built at the top of my stairs.”
   “Assume what you will,” I said as I started unhooking the contraption on my belt, snapping the wooden pieces together and latching the hinges shut. He wasn’t the type to flinch at movement. “This is not an act of malice, I assure you.” I kept working my hands until the grappling hook was primed, the gears were set, and the trigger was ready.
   “A fascinating contraption,” he commented, getting a little closer.
   I drew my blade and pointed at him. “Stay there, Blackmore. As I said, I’m not going to hurt you. Keep your distance and this nightmare will be over.”
   He put up his hands and chuckled, taking a few steps back. “Jittery?”
   I set the spring-loaded crossbow down and started searching the glass case.
   “Ahh …” he hummed. “You found some of my finished products. Beautiful, aren’t they?”
   “Indeed. You’ve a staggering collection. I don’t take a liking to wealthy folk, the ones who were born with gold for teeth,” I said as I nudged a few vials aside. I came to a line of thin and long bottles. “But I respect you for this. I would never steal from someone like you.”
   “And yet here you are.”
   I laughed. “I considered myself a man of morales until I entered your house tonight. Devotion and love will twist someone of virtue into doing things he’d never imagine himself doing. I may as well be the scoundrel you think I am.”
   “You speak of virtue, yet you're a thief by trade. I fail to see ... any virtue. So why do it? Why take the labor of someone as … honest as you might see yourself?”
   "I won't attempt to explain the intricacies of the Syndicate's purpose." I spotted a slender vial with parchment glued to it. The inky scrawl read: Ghoul’s Bane. I wrapped my fingers around it.
   When I turned with it in my hand, Blackmore had a dagger in my side, and a smile on his face. When he flexed his grip to twist it, I managed to wrap the entirety of his neck in my hand.
   The surprise of his face was something I’d normally relish, especially as the pain in my side got my jaw gnawing on itself. But he didn’t deserve this. It wasn't fair. But my family didn’t deserve to die from a disease, either. A family that took a peasant with a knack for pickpocketing, and turned him into a man who learned to balance out the wealth from those who used their power for dictating the actions of the impoverished.
   “What, first time you stabbed someone?” I asked as I shoved him to the ground and ripped the dirk out of my side, the blade barely the length of my finger. “You can’t just stick someone in their ribs and expect things to go well. There’s things to … consider,” I winced. “Leather, padding, flesh, organs, arteries. You might’ve missed the important ones. I already told you I wouldn’t kill you, on principle. Take my wound as the price I paid for this,” I said, waving the tincture. “On second thought …” I went and grabbed a few more with the same label.
   “The morales of a thief are as straight as—” he started to growl. 
   “Shh!” I listened. The banging had stopped. So did my heart. I slipped the vials into my satchel and snatched up the crossbow with the grappling hook, sprinting for the balcony.
   I jumped over Blackmore, who made an attempt to grab my leg. I stumbled, and got the damn drapes out of my way
   As I did, the door of his chamber opened.
   “Get down, Count!” someone screamed.
   I breathed in the brisk air of midnight from the balcony and aimed the hook at the roof above.
   Bolts were fired. Mine … and theirs.
   The arrows thudded into me as the hook found grooves in the concrete. I didn’t bother counting how many had stuck into my chest, just jammed the lever down beside the trigger and let the spring loose, setting off the gears that pulled me up.
   Blood flowed, dripped, and whipped into the open air beneath me. The roof came rushing to me me, and pushed the arrows deeper when I slammed into it. I gritted my teeth and hauled myself over in a pain strong enough to cast the world into a glimpse of sheer darkness.
   Four. There were four of them in my chest.
   When I breathed in, I heard a whistling. When I breathed out, spurts of flame spread inside. I found it ironic that when I coughed, blood spurted from my lips the same way it came from Aren.
   “Rima-ri-rima-morra,” I gasped. Wisps of light seeped from my fingertip and were gusted away by the wind. More blood gushed from my chest as I tried to direct the healing spell I could not finish speaking. “R-r-ima,” I wheezed. I didn’t have anything left. No breath to cast, no energy to draw from. I was a serpent trying to devour its own tail already in ashes.
   I fumbled for the caw pipe and concentrated into blowing into it. I could hear blood spurting from my lips inside of it. I managed a caw before I began coughing and retching, each convulsion a new set of blades digging into me.
   Nothing goes right for thieves besides thieving. The same principle applies to saving the lives of those that mean the most to him, even when he's using the same tricks he'd used to join them. 
   When I looked up from the pain, my soaked hands were already clutching the three elixirs, the glass clinking together as the shaking took over my movements. I could feel my death rattle trying to wheeze out from me, eager to be the last. I shoved it back down and coughed more.
   I could see through the crimson sheen that had taken over every detail of the world, the silhouette of my raven waiting patiently at the roof's edge.
   “W-wisp,” I managed. I pried open the pouch on his legs and stuffed the elixirs inside. One of them dropped and crashed at the ground below. “S-sanctum.”
   Wisp didn’t start off right away. He was waiting for a snack, a scratch. For me to whisper something to him before I told him to leave, as I always did.
   I managed to lean against the wall of the roof. Wisp hopped onto one of the arrows on my chest, and bent his head next to mine while the breaths came slower and slower, deeper and deeper. He rubbed his beak against my cheek, and nibbled at my ear. I wanted to sigh in relief, but there simply wasn't any air to take in. A faint warmth from his breathing against my face caused me to look up at him.
   I stared at one of his black and brown eyes as he looked back into mine. I raised a trembling hand to clumsily stroke his feathers, smearing blood over the perfect fletching of his wings. 
   “Go.”
   The moon, swarmed in greying tendrils, beamed down at me. I closed my eyes as I listened to the flapping of his wings, until I could hear them no more. I imagined how Wisp would beat the same rhythm upon the next week’s dawn, with the sanctuary bustling in activity, discussing assignments, and the tasks to be completed for the next day. The next tomorrow.
    A tomorrow that would arrive for them, without me.