Open window, let him in
Conniving tongue and sulphur wings
Open ribs, let him speak
Old words through young lips
Culling wisdom from the weak
Of mendacities, I have countless many
One for each whom know me
All sheared and sculpted
With varying complexity
So as the demon tells me
Speak, masked brother I know
Sleep knows me only for shame
Whisper, wingéd crux and bane
What strength of passion sustains
Of deciets, I've rehearsed many
One for each whom know me
Each receiver, in turn delivered
Like cards from a dealer
So as the demon tells me
Split tongue collecting ire
Slips hourglass sands through
Scorched fingers, slipping streams
Over my empty hands
Collect what I can, beggar am I
Reflecting his eternal face
Of wasted dreams, I've lost
One for each whom know me,
And countless each day, brought
Before the harsh light of blame
Disintegrating to dismay
Against the demon's claim
Be the bearer of my name
Of all its burdensom contritions
Wear boldly, misfortune's masks
If not tomorrow, then today
If this should not be your face
Were it fated any other way?
Of truths, I dare speak few
For each of whom know me
What precious wisdom squandered
To strangers and loves alike
These visions shudder fragile
As ashes before the night's demise
So as the demon tells me
Before donning his guise
Darkness retreats, revealing a hidden melancholy, a soft simper of sighs receeding with the night.
Is it a trick? A deceptive silhouette haunting my eyes? I awaken to the familiar stench of nightmares on my tongue, and when I sweep aside the sweat-drenched sheets, I stare at that same budding light, a horizon simmering gold and silver, casting the world in two juxtaposing shades.
Throughout the day, I watch peoples' layers disintegrate to reveal what lay beneath. Sleep deprivation replaces social finesse with an acute awareness, a numb observation of the clockwork mechanisms working the odd beings capable of both existential reflection and dogmatic delusion; wherein each and either or none and neither can manifest ideas deseriving of monuments and receive not one figment; wherein each and either or none and neither craft philosophies deserving of shallow graves and instead receive the collective reverence of millions.
In this world, all seems a mystery, so long as all lay within reach, yet all out of grasp, intermittently.
Reflecting on purpose, I find myself forgetting and forgotten. But so long as I am between the polarity, I am free, liberated to be anything or nothing of my choosing, with no real consequence besides my own conscience.
Yet purpose remains an almost needless mystery, something to be divined at a moment's notice and pursued over lifetimes we may not even have. We are never hollow; we are never empty; the world has no purpose, yet it persists as an inexhaustible source of experiences, and subsequently, so do we. But the world does not ask us what inspiration we wish to receive or how. Instead, we should ask ourselves how we might receive what it brings so as to manipulate the 'what'. When the devil does inevitably come, bearing a twofold offering: opportunity and suffering, it never offers one without the other.
So do not grumble, when we forget the nature of our ambition's onus; we only ever asked for such responsiblity, such burden and suffering, such fodder for our fire's burning.
From one card to the next, from one dice roll to the betting hand, all of chaos' elements will inevitably filter through us, all our flesh and bones and thoughts and blood made to be a synchronistic, quintessential symbol of chance playing against itself. Words or paint or steel or gears, the artistic (or other) means by which we choose to manifest ourselves are of little consequence; what remains important is the self-actualization. Words are, at their heart, merely a miraculous means by which to make sense of chaos. Just as bloody hands write history, scarred minds write the past and thus one cut leaks into the next. If we are not careful, we damn ourselves to regrets; if we are cunning, we discipline our inner voice with tenacity.
Without memory, humans have no way of grasping time, and thusly, no way to grasp ourselves.
Without stories, we are phantoms phasing briefly through an ephemeral existence, damned to the amnesic wanderings of observations made meaningless for lack of importance behind our emotions, blinking haphazrdly like fireflies, soon to flicker out just like starlight, before the glow of a larger dawn, encapsulating us all in its ineffable brightness.
If you wanted to tuck a dagger neatly into your back, you'd settle for the conclusion that life is, at its core, a pursuit of happiness. I argue that this illusion is in sore need of being dispelled. Every journey, if we factor in every detail in its entirety, teaches us precisely the opposite about the meaning of happiness. If we are keen enough, we find that the achievement is negligible with regards to the struggle we endured on its behalf.
So why might we ever be so naive to think of happiness as … a pursuit?
Every day, we are surrounded by telltale signs of happiness’ transience, how briefly it flutters, and how our expectations of finding it in a certain career point or objects are almost always much grander than what we feel in the end, the resulting bliss far more fleeting than anticipated. Almost always, we are left sighing, wondering when that next burst of joy will come along. Like children that have just devoured an unexpected treat granted to them by their parents, once the sugar rush dies, we’re left with a desire for the next cookie.
So just what do we expect to find once we ‘get’ to happiness? Once we’ve ‘got’ it after pursuing it for so long? And just who the hell pursued happiness and caught the damned bastard? After thousands of years of human history, still nobody is bearing the legend of being eternally happy. We have, at best, characters that have mastered the art of contentment, but even that settles for an admittedly less exciting feeling than 'happiness'. It seems a wistful dream.
As a concept of an idyllic continuum, it is. Happiness is one small fraction of the human experience, a fraction that society has romanticized and sensationalized ad nauseam. It is unhealthy and twisted, to tantalize children and adults alike with the notion that happiness is something we find and achieve rather than discipline ourselves into realizing throughout life.
Life isn’t so much a pursuit of happiness than it is a journey of disillusioning ourselves of the countless misconceptions that we are surrounded by, the misconceptions which stagnate our ability to navigate stress and challenges with a mindset for transmuting adversity into fortitude.
From an early age we are taught, or perhaps it is an instinct, to seek comfortability, satisfaction, and joy. The underlying, subconscious thoughts that are hardwired into our minds when we wake up aren’t, “I will make this a good day,” rather, “Will this be a bad one?” We approach the world too timidly, we fool ourselves, as if we aren’t already aware that the nature of our existence is a painful and difficult one. We can’t seem to remember that, not long enough to consider our actions and thoughts carefully enough, at least.
Yet this fact has been evident since we were children. We can’t always have treats, we can’t always play, we can’t indulge in laziness too long, and it seems the older we get, the less reprieve we have from the chaos of it all. Life is unfair; the world is, on average, cruel; nature has, seemingly, no greater purpose behind its cold mechanisms.
It’s easy to think nihilistically about existence because it seems, with these details in mind, to be the most rational response to the world.
But I think that this philosophy is dangerous in its nearsightedness. It misses the point, or rather, it fails to imagine more than one. We’re not too stupid to realize the nature of the world, so we shouldn’t expect our intelligence to stop when it comes to regarding ourselves and our potential for individual fulfillment within its context. It’s simply a tough reality to swallow—something we must continually remind ourselves of—but that doesn't mean it gives us an excuse to not thrive.
Instead of grasping onto our ever-dwindling levels of comfort that have only ever been shrinking since childhood, we should seek to swiftly disillusion ourselves of the ‘pursuit’ of happiness, and instead embrace what I like to call the realization of it. Or rather, the pursuit of its counterpart: opposition.
Suffering and happiness create a paradox, the snake eating its own tail. And with human nature woven in to truly muddle the picture into oblivion, (or to create it in the first place) we’re left with an impressive puzzle to play with, but one that is far simpler than it seems.
Mastering a sense of contentment or fulfillment has little to do with the pursuit of happiness, though it may seem counterintuitive to think so. In essence, ever day is a presentation of obstacles; there is no escaping the eternal presence of difficulty. But instead of begrudging life for having this abusive nature, we should be grateful for how consistent it is. If life was a chess player, it’d play the same poison pawn every gods-damned chance it got. It’s about time we stopped fooling ourselves into thinking that it’s going to change its play style after six million years of evolution. We’re evolved to survive in this environment, for heaven’s sake, so let’s start acting like it. This is supposed to be difficult. You are supposed to cry, and you are supposed to learn how to square your shoulders afterwards.
With such a predictable element of chaos, life gives us exactly the right hints by which to win at its game. Instead of trying to rely on the transience of happiness, we should rely, instead, on the much more predictable presence of opposition. Therefore, pursue conflict, embrace the unfairness of the game, challenge yourself to master this playing field; learn to thrive in your own style, rather than complain when life's predictable dance makes slights against you.
The pressence of opposition and challenge is a certainty. Happiness, in external forms, is not. So if happiness is not a certainty, is it folly to seek a similar consistence? Yes, if we are hoping for it to come from somewhere beyond us. But not so much, if we decide to forge it within ourselves. Chaos is never reliable, even if it is predictable, but we, as individuals, can aspire to be.
What can potentially be the underlying certainty is our resolve to shape ourselves within that chaos. And that, with the right amount of dedication, is worth betting on.
Life is an opportunity to make our strength, our passion, our inspiration, and our desire to contribute, an equally consistent force as the chaos that we face. We can never be perfect, but in striving for high ideals of individual growth, we can learn to embrace everyday challenges as readily as we might jump at momentary joys. Of course, we’ll never do so with such childlike indulgence, but we can endeavor to actualize a wholesome, mature attempt at honing ourselves.
Accept happiness as a grace, not a reward. Your strength, your willpower, your stamina to weather the storm, make those your rewards. They are not transient, they are muscles, and exercising them only makes them stronger, unlike relying on happiness, which merely weakens our resolve to further conquer opposition.
The more that we seek out situations that make us uncomfortable, the more that we pursue our ambitions, the more seasoned we will be when it comes to meeting those unexpected pitfalls. If we go about our numbered days relying on comfort as markers of movement, we’ll doom ourselves to be disheartened by the same trials time and time again, thereby inviting misery into our lives more often than it needs to be. But if we rise to meet our darkest fears and doubts and make it a habit of doing so, soon enough, the unexpected and the difficult will become far easier to face. And in this sense, we are seeking not happiness from the world, but substance. We are seeking depth, wisdom, and wholesome attributes whose longevity is priceless. And with this mindset of embracing opposition so that we may grow, happiness and joy will fall into place, as the normal casualties of day-to-day misfortunes become less and less harrowing.
Our environment is chaos. Fighting it with a chaotic heart and mind is only adding fuel to the fire. So instead, we should strive so that in every instance of opposition, we greet chaos with a desire to manifest order—first within ourselves, and then the world—such that it becomes a habit, an instinct, not to shy away from life’s difficulties, but to see them for the opportunities they are; for they are, in essence, what has trained the human heart to have depth, the mind to possess cunning intellect, and the body to foster stamina.
Without challenge and tension, we are little less than fragile skeletons, wandering from one hollow indulgence to the next, never quite seeing the greater picture, but more importantly, never quite getting to enjoy and savor it for all that it is. And thusly, never being able to savor happiness, not as a separate entity to pursue above all else, but as a necessary fragment, just like all the others crucial to that brilliant story—of humanity’s chaos.
Empty words for subterfuge
Count the twofold coin’s faces
Each expression glinting silver
Bargained for loveless splendor
Destruction speaks every language
And silence writes its final phrases
Before new beginnings preface
The same for its aged stages
But ‘Damned’ is no hopeless word
A testimonial of ancestors
Their spirits whisper a telling tune
Of what blood ravaged the world
And redeemed itself in turn
As we face numbered dawns
So a sacrifice is left or made
Crafting blessings not hollow
For actions invigorate intent
And manifest any remnants
Of what hope may be yet
Strange though it is to craft
Order upon crumbling ruins
In the shadow of itself, no less
But what else might it mean?
To make ourselves a figment
One of many fracturing
Infinities layering upon
And endless nightmare—or dream?
We are mortals, or so it seems
And merely this, repeating
Playing gods or dust between
For what discipline affords
Its cost we all abhor
As time stretches long
We ourselves grow short
Fading is mortality’s efficacy
When distraction becomes reprieve
Here, amongst a story unending
Do we damn ourselves
Calling inspiration “fleeting”
For what opposites offer
Their spectrums boundless
Between two questions blossoms
Endless gardens of meaning
Here yet without
Is ever the mortal’s song
A dismal dwindling hum
Of thoughts unguarded
And actions unraveled
Unconsidered before done
For what we take
Our souls reply in kind
Deluded, are we
Without seeing wisdom
Bare in blithe frivolity
Timorous, are we
In potential’s arms
Our own fingers still
Our grasps clenched shut
Too numb to respond
Here and without
What words they could be
A quartet, a dance, a revelry,
A circus’ theatricality
Avowing purpose with passion
Without haste to rescind
Emotion behind our presence
Welding action with intent
Without guise or reluctance
Here and without
What hope they may bring
For what might we be
For fearful weakness,
Doubt-stitched lips muttering
Malevolence and mongering
Bile-ridden insults and boiled
Thoughts brewing curt words
Like sharpened steel or
What might we be without all these?
Our time casts a curious light
Vibrant in its quandaries
And endless is the sight
Of unfathomable mysteries
Between tedium there awakens
Tall shadows like demons
Their forms longer than
Shades cast by summer
Haunted, or so it seems
Are you, whisperer of dreams
Blissful, it’s been said
Of the ignorant and leaden
Do not tremble at the sight
Of passion's smoldering ruins
For those blackened or burnt
Or deterred by their hurts
Their flame is not yours to learn
Between boundaries, we each divine
A rare voice, a melodious pitch
One can never forget, a hymn
From its first utterance
To its final radiance
All moments she’s died in,
Though only through listeners
Does she persist therein
And by means of this
Shall we each listen or shy away
For those songs or silence,
What will might we glean
From the rapturous hymn
Or death, haunting our steps
Unto our graves
Passion persists as fire
Arduous to spark from dust
But from kindling collected
And from embers cradled
Our lives remain cupped
Hands and breath, our own means
By which we then feed
That blaze which in turn
Breathes in us, ever burning
To chaos are we born
Each of differing dualities
And perplexities to propagate
Truth in varying shades
While actions mark the order
Or fracture of our choice
There comes the essence
Of fortune’s double guise
Giving rise to our voice
A subtle whisper, we divine
As autumn winds bring frailty
So lay our wisdom, a passing
Season of varying waste
A telling fable, we’re told
Of contrasting sides
Born on ideas immortal
Consign ourselves, though we try
The story is never so simple
As the age-old lie
Soothing as it may seem
We were never merely
Not of one, nor two things
In a word’s sea I sink
Of choices and thoughts reeling
Drowning, it seems
Until I embrace the waves
And simply drink
Amidst the storms I weep
For pain of its tearing gales
The shrapnel of memory
Until I step beyond the eye
I cannot breathe its air,
Uplifting with fury
Beyond safety wail its winds
Temporal and temperamental,
It could be none but I
Who summoned it
So must I, too, learn to wield it
Of all she brings,
Of all names she’s deemed
Life, Death, whatever we seem
Always does she give us this offering
To be our pain’s Master or Bearer
For if there is one or two things
So simple of our choosing
While we do step and fade
Slipping to that final crossing
Master or Bearer, we are to be
But only one, one only
For each fateless moment
Of our willful choosing
All of life is a translation
A transmutation fixated
Upon speaking freely
For every medium’s
Offering immutable possibility
Manifestations, are we
Shadowy, crass, fickle beings
Of capabilities beyond musing
Will, a permanent means
To crafting idyllic dreams
And terrors of our liking
Of our kindred spirits
Of our ilk and our foes
Of our abhorred thoughts
And most cherished verse
Dwell little on their final beats;
For all their passing, all their
Irrevocable shifting, so mirrored
Are you within this light:
A seer destined for sleeping
Still there remains one worry
Always worthy of kindling
With souls spoken of fire
How do we wish to burn?
An ember’s low dwindles
Or a pyre’s blazing spire?
How might our best
Sew worth of our worst?
Of all this ...
Fear little for death's quandary
As effort is without necessity
On the day of our ashes' scattering
Cold spreading across the earth
Yes, effortlessly we go marching
To our hapless final passing
But of this moment
There remains an urgency
For the pertinence of our glow
Held to our chest, what
Will shall we conjure, then,
To invigorate our bones?
I urge you to wonder
To question yourself to tears
If within yourself is a hollowness
Far more frightening
Than any mortal fear
Your heart is not empty
And you are not weak
It means there is a flame inside
Withered, dying, and wanting
Of something impassioned to eat
As one is weak so
Two may find strength
As cycles require an end
So must they first begin
Lost, it seems, is rationality
In a world of primitive natures
Mania rules, chained in complacency
As monotony aids its reign
Without exception to weakness
On a checkered board, I boast
No crown for my pawn’s head
I advance one single step and pray
For some fortune in this game
A soul’s lone friend was its shadow
A reflection which seethes
Insults before forgiveness
I discover myself deluded
Catering to the indulgences
Silent as streets past midnight, yet
More pernicious than any poison
Thoughts I would sooner burn
Than ever inscribe before light
A soul’s close friend is then made
Out of chance or fate, this question
Is immaterial and without faith
But “irrevocable” possesses a strength
A word worthy of falling for
This pairing appears to me
Transcendent for its infrequency
Casts yearning in a placid mirror
Its reflections convey subtle
Rips and tears and discrepancies
How easy they seem for their
Intricate stitchings and seams,
To tear loose and reconveneHere, you help find the beauty
Its costly prices bartered
On behalf of repugnancy
Who sighs alone with the sky
Not wishing to share the vision?
Who cherishes happiness alone
Never desiring to parcel its pieces?
Who ventures beyond the mundane
And finds another there, a stranger?
A soul who speaks his common language,
Not of syllables nor pronunciation
But of stories and fables
And whimsies half crazed
As a child’s conjured allies
Guarding their keep of loyalties
Where more of the same remain
A family of misfits
Intertwined by a singular, lonesome ache
Here, I do begin to wonder
What trick the gods might’ve played
As I am only a pawn
But on this checkered board,
I find myself stretching
Two, three squares beyond
Reaching for this missing piece
To placate a long lost sanity
A missing piece called Maitri
Lacking cessation in fervency
Does mirth become her own
Not a word, but a visage,
A countenance, a soul
For the form, or a form
For a word's hollow soul
So I might, too, call her Mirth
Simply, a spelling alteration
A weatherer of storms
A stone only grows smoother
For the wind and waters it endures
So, too, in this respect
Is patience a color of her eyes
Such that I call her Forbearance
And still it is no deception
Unlike long nights
She is not still, but like
Long nights, she brings a quiet
Sense of purpose to her gait
Within subtle motions there lay
Loud passion in her creations
And so I call her Zealous
Still, without fabrications
Each dawn, I am confounded
To find such graces given
As I am only a pawn
Yet on this checkered board,
I find myself stretching
Two, three squares beyond
Reaching for this missing piece
To placate my lost sensibilities
A missing piece called Maitri
The Lady of Shadows bears a stiletto on her mantle for every shadowstep that has fallen during her incumbency. Some have been luckier than others; they have overseen many decades, only having to don two or three of the simple, silver blades forged fresh for every death. In the blacksmith’s quarters, there is always a particular ringing that sounds from the Qalmorian steel as it bites back at the hammer. When that ringing is heard, the rest of the sanctuary goes silent. Laughter dies, meals and conversations go unfinished. A few moments of silence are observed without prior planning.
The sounds means that another blade will adorn the Lady of Shadow’s mantle.
It is unsettling to hear a similar sound, this time refined to a crisp, soft tinkling, as the Lady of Silence walks into the inner solarium of the Shadow Syndicate’s northern sanctuary. The entire room has been cast under an enchantment for this specific occasion, turning every shade of darkness into its respective opposite of light, such that the moon beams falling through the glass ceiling caress the Lady of Shadow’s fitted, layered robes with sable beams.
Her walk seems as stiff as her gaze, the hardened stare of someone who sacrificed the luxurious but undeniably enjoyable trivialities of normal life. Her hours have become a schedule, her days an ongoing test of will and discipline, her thoughts, made stringent by the urgency of her duties. When she speaks, you get the feeling that she had contemplated five or six other ways to express herself before choosing one precise version.
Upon taking the mantle, she swore to be an idyllic shadowstep, a representation of all their virtues, an unadulterated manifestation of the Syndicate’s philosophies and practices, and most of all, a studious keeper of its vast knowledge and history.
Despite all this, the Lady of Shadows still knows how to smile. And she does, as she looks down at the kneeling initiate dressed in his raiment of light, black leather and thin cloth. A few locks of his hair fall at the same angle of his half cloak as it trails the floor, its silver embellishments for now, untarnished as the pommels of his daggers; unscarred like the smooth, oiled leather of the belts and harnesses that crisscross his cuirass.
As the Lady of Shadows bends down to touch her finger to the chin of the initiate, the dozens of tiny stilettos dangling from her mantle chime a daunting tune, one that promises a productive career for any shadowstep in this time of chaos.
Shamus Dodge observes her as the nervous tremors continue to have their way with this spine. Fear and excitement do little to describe the confused shaking that he hopes remains hidden beneath his layers. He has long since chastised this moment as a meaningless fantasy amongst his daydreams.
Still, as she scrutinizes the strange, white flecks splattered in his black irises, he cannot help but fear that his acceptance will be abruptly rescinded.
“What you are about to see will not be written nor spoken of beyond these walls, just as those come to see you rise have not whispered of their own meetings, not to any besides those in this very sanctum.”
“I understand,” Shamus says, doing his best to cast his youthful voice in a deeper, throaty intonation of solemnity.
“Then rise, and walk with me.”
Shamus does not ask any questions, though it seems that there is nowhere to walk, as the entire inner solarium is circled with the faces of Syndicate members watching patiently. Some faces express excitement, others impatience; some with youthful countenances just as fresh as his own, and others with aged lines still softened by nostalgic grins recognizing the truly rare sight.
The Lady of Shadows takes him gently by the arm and pulls him close to her chest. His back to her, he can feel the deep, unperturbed rhythm of her heart, the slow, methodical rise of her chest as she breathes in deeply.
The stone circle which mirrors the size of the solarium's glass ceiling is dissected into mismatching shapes. Circles, half circles, crescents and even smaller cuts spiral into one another, each bearing a spell’s symbol, its importance indicated by the size of its stone. For a special few thieves in that room, their very skin reflected those symbols. Higher markings representing a greater status and skill within the Syndicate. Even as Shamus walks towards the center of the solarium, he is jealous to see their skin marked while his remains bare.
When the Lady of Shadows ushers Shamus into Nithe’s Realm, slipping through the thick fabric of one reality into another, nobody in the solarium gasps. They hold themselves patient and still after the pair disappears from the chamber.
Only a few moments later for them, but hours for him, Shamus stumbles out of the thin portal with wide eyes, all at once terrified, relieved, and enlivened. Around his body, shadows rise from him like steam from a hot kettle in winter, only much slower, thicker, patient and eager to join the rest of the solarium’s substance.
He looks around at them all, dubious that nobody had attempted to describe this experience to him before. The timelessness of it, the overwhelming awe, the evaporation of smaller perspectives in lieu of a greater, conscious awareness, the shudderingly intoxicating voice of Nithe as it seemed to slide from his ears and into his blood, the way that her words coaxed out tears from his eyes as readily as sadness does from children. Through her, the Syndicate’s history spilled into his mind, the devotion and undying vows, broken promises and severed trusts, and the endurance of it all over the centuries.
He wonders what he did to deserve it.
As the other thieves around him allow a minute for him to settle back into the corporeal world, this notion of a mutual secret enchants him, as he realizes that it is the first of many. Where before he saw only strangers amongst prospective friends, now he sees them all as family; brothers and sisters whose pasts he is eager to learn about, kindred souls whose bonds had already been made, they merely needed to be strengthened.
A part of him desires to leap out from the center of the solarium to embrace them all, but he holds himself back. Slowly, he feels his body materializing once more from the shaded silhouette it had become in Nithe’s Realm, and he feels the odd hollowness somewhere in him, from the soul offering he had given to her, one which bound them irrevocably.
“Shamus,” the Lady of Shadows spoke, “the world is full of deception, illusions and tricks. Tempting, it is, to face these with a clouded conscience run by instinct alone. Common, it is, to ignore them entirely. Easy, it is, to watch what depravity this world makes of the weak and malicious, and to continue living without fighting back those who stand against virtue, those who would sooner let the ground tremble and consume all, if only to preserve themselves. Stand here, before the rest of your new family, your spine straight and proud. If only for this moment, find no scruples with yourself, you heart, your purpose. You are flawed, but in our eyes, if only for these moments, you lack all imperfection, for you are who you should be, breath for breath. “Look around you. You are amongst those whom find no satisfaction in watching corruption spread idly. You are amongst those who believe it is not only necessary for us to meddle in the affairs of the malevolent, it is just. The world is imbalanced. For what can be said of us, we are its balancers.
“Go on. Meet their eyes. Here are people who wear masks in cities, for their faces speak a truth too loud for most to bear. Here are people whose lives are made worthwhile for their purpose, their actions and words weighed against their values, their decisions bolstered by a confidence in their resolve to shape our world, and one another, for the better. You will find no closer allies, you will know no closer love, and you will experience no greater heartbreak, than that of those waiting for you within this space.
“How do you find yourself?”
“I could ask for nothing more."
“Then here, Shamus, you are permitted to reconsider yourself once more before stitching your life to ours, for there are no half measures. Without pain of death, without penalty save for your memory, you are free, if only for this very moment, to walk away from all that you have felt, learned, and experienced during these past three months.”
“I would never consider it.”
“You have sworn yourself before Nithe herself. There is no longer a need for words. Only actions, my friends,” the Lady of Shadows said as the enchantment was lifted from the room, casting everything aglow in its normal light, “as we have much celebrating to do. For today, the Shadow Syndicate is one shade stronger. For you, Shamus Dodge, are a shadowstep. Nithe guide your hand, just as she guides all of ours.”
And for what great racket the vast solarium boasted to contain with its high ceilings, it struggled mightily against the roars and applause and cheers from the thieves within.
The Lady of Shadows grins as the crowd holds Shamus aloft and escorts him to the dining tables already beset with ponderous dishes beyond his fathoming, before she paces to her own quiet hall far from the noise, where she returns to her studies, inspired by the night’s events.
What was that voice whispering to me after five minutes of sprinting? "Take a break," it said. How strange. I shake it away, but it returns again stronger, this time speaking through the pain in my lungs, the ache in my calves as the terrain becomes a hill. "You've earned a rest," it tells me. It becomes harder to quell as my doubt nearly lessens. Nearly after heeding its warning with a brief step meant to stagger my pace into a walking stroll, I realize that I am not really exhausted, so I continue running.
Another five minutes pass, but this time its tone has changed. Something is ... different, and for whatever reason, though I have not slowed my pace, I feel more invigorated than I did moments before.
Suddenly the demon isn't so much advising, it is begging, and thus I realize I am no longer its listener--I am its master. It is panicked, and I am the one that is calm.
The skies are swathed in grey, drowned in it, its clouds have become a sea, and its waves are crashing against the horizon's shoreline, spraying the earth with a freezing downpour that drenches through my clothes and seems to drench further, seeping through rusted bones, my ashen ribs and clotted veins in need of cleansing. I cannot feel my hands; I can scarcely think; and all my being is sighing with relief to endure it, to at last experience silence in a mind so adept at producing a cacophony of bullshit.
But how familiar those words had rung ... suspiciously familiar. I begin to question, my head now intoxicatingly clear.
Is that the same imp which tells me, "Forget your ambitions, for their ponderous, unwieldy weight is too much to bear amongst life's struggles. You work hard enough. Let us forget them ... just for a spell"?
Is it that same creature that wakes me up in the morning before my alarm, if only to tell me "You feel so weak today. So, so weak. Why do you try so hard? It is clear that this path is meant to be trod by the great, not the ineffectual"?
Is it that same tedious parasite which crawls through my thoughts while I am writing, leeching from my imagination if only to spit out the hollow admonition: "You are not good enough. This is trash and you are a similar material"?
I do, certainly, think it is; in fact there is no doubt in my mind. Its insults ring far too familiar, so I begin to realize that this creature, this voice, this fragment of me, is not separate from one pursuit to the next. Its words are not singular to my ambitions, my dreams. It lay in the background of all actions, all interactions, and its voice is ever present, so long as I so much as entertain it for a moment.
Fuck you, demon.
Freezing rain, stormy skies, controlled yet harried breathing, the low bass of Puscifer's melodic Momma Sed (Tandemonium Mix) in my ears. [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uJ-nxZ0lmDA] In those moments, there was exactly nothing wrong, for there was nothing else to think about, other than pushing through the resistance, the voice, the creature which thrives on victimhood and insecurities. An illusion, nothing more.
And I smiled, I laughed, to feel it tremble and disintegrate into a pile of ashes beneath a greater flame, kindling now throughout me. For every fire needs fodder, and our weaknesses fair just fine in that regard.
Beyond the veil of doubt and recovering from the numbing chill, the blaze in my lungs, I look back on those whisperings, aware just how quiet they were, but just how loud they seemed beforehand in a chaotic mind, unthinking towards what is beautiful, what is surreal, what is here--right in front of us.
And now, I am here. And that thing, gods curse it, is gone for now.
The air smelled to Shamus like those early dawns he awoke to with his older brother, rising before daybreak to help his father’s morning routine of brewing caffek, tidying the home, and setting off on errands into the inner trade districts of Westrun, when all the ivory merchants were slow to think, and thus, far easier to haggle with. It was damp earth, silence and frosty air, the breath of shedding trees with a hint of last night’s lingering dreams and nightmares.
A decade or more beyond those recollections, his enchanted raiment from the Shadow Syndicate played on the darkness as he made his way into the winding alleys that had long since been emptied for the set curfew, three hours past. The loose cobblestone, too, felt familiar as he kept an eye on the battlements to be certain that no watchmen would spot him. With a guiding hand on the stone walls in the blackened alley, the other grasped the edge of his cloak, lest a gust of wind breathe through the heavy fabric and cause it to ripple with a telling noise to anyone keen enough to hear it.
Dark intentions set his eyes in an attentive but emotionless gaze, scanning the streets, the closing taverns, the stray guardsmen or nobles given privilege to wander after dark—to their own detriment.
The spires of Castle Obstinian drew nearer above the rooftops with every winding passage he came to the end of. At the northernmost turret of the outermost walls surrounding the keep, the baileys were lowest to the ground. As Shamus turned another corner, he observed the castle, now in full view at the edges of the trade district.
Despite his solitude, he felt as if he was not alone. He turned back around.
Through the alley, he could just make out the blessing well at the center of the courtyard. There, he could almost see himself and his brother learning their manners and guile by way of the cunning language of the tradesmen; how they learned to outrun guardsmen who spotted them in their less successful, first attempts at pickpocketing. If he looked long enough, he could imagine their silhouettes running about with the ease of childhood, phantoms of memories which almost captured his attention too long.
“Never stray far, and follow my instructions to the letter,” his father often told them before they went off on his errands. But they seldom did. To his older brother’s credit, it was always Shamus who coaxed out his older’s less pragmatic side.
That vision was soon blurred, embittered by the tears that started in his eyes.
He wiped them away before he ascended the unguarded watchtower above the alley. Although a torch resting in a sconce made it appear occupied, much like candlelight in a vacant home warding off crooks, Shamus watched it long enough to know that any body that was ‘keeping watch’ was likely sleeping, or simply shirking their post for a break.
Though the air nipped at his fingers through the thin, tight leather of his gloves, he found the thick spaces between the stones ample enough room to dig into. The notches in his soles, or what his fellow colleagues at the Syndicate called “thief’s chomps” bit easily into the stone and made scaling the tower almost as swift as climbing a ladder. This, of course, was bolstered by years of vigorous training.
As subtle and swift as a gust, he immediately crossed to the opposite edge of the tower and began scaling down, down into the darkness of the rocky cliffs upon which the city walls were erected upon. At the bottom, he walked along its edge, passing beneath a few watchtowers with less neglectful guards.
Though a thief of the Shadow Syndicate, Shamus had no official objective for the night, or at least, nothing passed down by his masters. In fact, back at his sanctum, the rest of his organization was just as oblivious to his absence as the watchmen above were to his presence, skulking low to the ground, cold but wary, energetic but methodical as his steps seemed to unfold beneath him with little direction besides instinct.
At what he judged was the exact center between two watchtowers, he began climbing once more, this time with perilous discretion, allowing his muscles to burn and recover as many times as they needed to, lest one of his hands or feet slip and let loose a noise that alerted the oblivious watchmen on either side of him.
And as he reached the top, kicking himself onto the battlements with a nudge from his heel in an arrow slit, he cursed himself for not practicing his spellwork harder. It would have saved him some breath and anxious sweat to have mastered a muffling spell or two.
But now, at least, the hard part was over.
There was one particular spire of the Obstinian Castle, or perhaps more accurately, one particular window that he immediately recognized after he eased himself down onto the dewy grass of the vast, castle grounds. After all, he had been observing it for many months, on the days when one of the Syndicate’s contracts warranted a quick stop in Westrun. At the end of long, perilous assignments that tested the height of his capabilities as a shadowstep, he would look forward to sipping caffek from the balcony of a lounge somewhere in the city, just to observe the silhouette within that window through his spyglass.
In his journal, he had reflected about how the silhouette looked behind the windowpane, the five-pointed, stout cap of Justice Bradburn, and how it appeared so similarly on that evening as the skies broke out with lightning, just a decade or more ago, casting his head and shoulders in utter blackness as the clouds blossomed with white fire.
Shamus had never heard his older brother scream this way before. Play fighting, scraps with other boys his age, even in arguments with their parents, never did it ring so high, shrill and cracking as if he was once more a newly adolescent.
On that particular night, Shamus was an adolescent, and his brother, just about the same age of Shamus as he looked out upon the Obstinian Castle from his cloaked view in the battlements he scaled.
Mikel screamed for the noose that was adjusted tightly around his neck, his voice quarreling with the thunder in the skies, the roar of the crowds that swarmed the scaffolds from all sides like a flood, bringing with them the air of sweat, piss, mulled wine, and indignant, blind hatred.
“It makes no sense! Momma!” he screamed. “Momma!”
The executioner pulled on the rope, effectively yanking Mikel down such that his jaw slammed into the boards of the scaffold and replaced his cries with silence.
Smug and sometimes too arrogant for his own good, but just humble enough to know when to flaunt this particular crux of his personality, Shamus had never heard Mikel beg, let alone for their mother. He had been, since he was old enough to recognize the leader in him, infatuated with his sibling’s confident but perceptive demeanor. He could take a beating in an alleyway the same way that he accepted a much-needed scolding, and he could hide the pride in his minor successes as a self-trained pickpocket well enough that his parents never caught wind of his kleptomania, nor the same propensity, which by blood or influence alone, had passed down to Shamus as directly as their eyes.
Black irises with flecks of ivory. From Shamus’ view, he could see the white spots in Mikel’s eyes, not because he was close, but because his brother’s eyes had been expanded by terror, their panicked flitting doing little to help him grasp the situation.
Somewhere in the middle of the crowd, Shamus began to sob loudly, because when Mikel cried “Mother!” once more, she only whimpered back. She, too, as well as his father, was gathered on the scaffold. They were bound, kneeling, and exchanging fretful stares, their emotions hastened for the cognizance of their final moments.
The noose around their necks was not meant to hang them—not entirely, at least—rather hold them still as their arms were outstretched by a similar means of binding their wrists with rope. With both hands and their neck tied to posts on corresponding beams of the scaffold, the accused would be splayed like a target.
And at the opposite end of the scaffold, clad in black, an archer ran his hand over the dark fletchings of the arrows in his side quiver almost playfully, as he observed his squirming target being hauled by an executioner to the raised platform.
“Mother!” Mikel’s voice cracked again as his knees were dragged bloody against the floorboards. His voice changed as if the fear of death that reduced his senses to a child’s fright had somehow impacted his vocal chords.
Shamus fought between grinding his fists into his sockets and wiping away the tears so as to see everything clearly.
It was a Cardimian Execution, as is typically given to those who commit only the most abhorrent crimes.
A man dressed in the dark, crimson and grey robes of Siflos’ Order addressed the hollering crowd with a voice that captured them, not for its authoritative boom, but for its declaration of guilt—one that was long awaited.
“For the slander of our faithful and just rulers, the noble Foxfeathers, for the breach of various trade agreements amongst Westrun’s ivory circles, for the assassination of Duke and Duchesse Carlisle, for their failure to recognize the culpability of their crimes, and for their participation in the string of murders known as the Crow Killings, I, on behalf of Lord Varian of Westrun, do sentence the Dodgiryan family to death!”
“You’re wrong!” Mikel protested. “Father, tell them they are wrong!”
But his father was shaking his head as it hung low between his shoulders, the rain dripping from his long, black strands while he surrendered in silence. His mother wept, unable to keep her eyes from Mikel as he protested, and unable to say anything to him, as the surreal horror fractured her senses.
The crowd, just as frightened as the rest of Cardim from the inexplicable wave of cult murders crowned as the ‘Crow Killings’, found no difficulty in expressing a roaring enthusiasm for this decree.
While Shamus screamed for the merciless gods above, his curdling, trembling curse was drowned out by the cacophony made by the enthused onlookers.
The storm crescendoed against the backdrop of the mountain range bordering Westrun, the Sable Arc. Lightning shocked the terrain into popping detail with a flurry of crackling arcs that stretched above with bright, veinous fingers.
“Tell them father! There’s no sense in this! Father! Mother! We are innoce—” Mikel screamed as the archer drew back his first arrow and loosed it. It struck into his solar plexus, the force of it sending a shiver up the post that held his neck aloft, before interrupting his pleas. Whether by pain or acceptance, Mikel fell quiet, his head swiveling weakly to look at the crowd for some sign of empathy.
And his brother meant to give it to him.
Shamus was shoving his way through the crowd without being able to contemplate what he was doing, without remembering what his father advised him before the guardsmen bore their family away, without regard for the people cursing him for spilling their ales and baskets of shack foods, without cognizance of the armored hands which gripped his shoulders as he threw himself upon the edge of the scaffold, shouting, “Mikel! Brother! Mikel!”
“S-shamus …” Mikel managed.
Before the second arrow, a merciful shot, found its home in Mikel’s head, inviting only the fateful, final third that pierced him similarly, the shot that seemed to shatter Shamus.
All at once, he had been a scrawny, unstoppable eruption of arms, legs and protests as he struggled through the thick crowd, and all at once, his body crumpled, mirroring his brothers. His knees fell into the mud, his stare became transfixed, his mouth hung open, no longer capable of uttering words, rather a long, distended croak.
Through his blurred vision, Shamus memorized every face on that scaffold. And as the lightning flashed once more, the image of a five-pointed, stout hat was forever branded onto his memory like a cursed sigil guiding his thoughts.
“There he is!” the priest said from the scaffold as he pointed a finger at him. “The second son! Arrest that boy! Arrest him and let the gods decide his fate!”
“You’ve come a long way from priesthood, Justice Bradburn,” Shamus said as he massaged the butt of his hand crossbow, his legs crossed on a stool by the side of the bed. Despite his higher status, the Justice had evidently kept his robes from his days in Siflos’ Order, as they hung from a hanger on his chamber door, perhaps now used as nothing more besides bathing garments.
“Y-y-ou, who are you?!” the Justice sat up in his bed and attempted to crawl into the farthest corner of it, all three of his chins shaking as he recognized the fear as more than just a nightmare’s imposition. “Guards, guards! GUARDS!” he screamed.
Shamus enjoyed the sound of his panicked cries, but rose to quickly close the window that he had crawled in from, before returning to his comfortable seat on the stool, training his crossbow on the Justice all the while. He enjoyed his panic just as he much as he anticipated, perhaps even more.
“Scream as loud and as much as you want, Justice. Beg the gods, beseech your stars, plead for blessings. I am not much in the way of spells, but scrolls, well,” Shamus chuckled, the white flecks of his eyes glowing demonically in the darkness, “any layman can activate them, so long as they have the coin to afford them. In this case, a greater enchantment of thickening, for muffling that cumbersome door of yours.”
The Justice had aged well, much to Shamus’ chagrin, or perhaps enjoyment, he thought, as he realized that he was uncertain if it was best that the man still acted youthful rather than aged—all the more to take from him.
“I can pay you. W-w-whatever coin the Crows are paying you, I’ll double—triple—it.”
Shamus cocked his head to the side like a dog misunderstanding its master. “The Crows?”
“You are one of their assassins, aren’t you?”
Shamus laughed, he laughed until it was a loud, rising hyena’s cackle as it paws at wounded prey. “Perhaps this would be even more fitting if I was one of the Crows. But unfortunate for true justice, Justice Bradburn, I am not. I am a man who is going to break all of his vows in a single night, and you, you will be the soul who cannot whisper anything of it, not to Nithe herself.”
Justice Bradburn flinched. “Nithe? T-the Shadow Goddess? You’re from the Syndicate, then? Take as much as you want. Take anything. I have no need for my riches, gods preserve me, please,” he pleaded as if Shamus might be willing to reason with him, using all of his courage to let go of the sheets which he had previously been gripping tight under his chin. Shamus was impressed that the Justice knew about his goddess, one whose existence countless were oblivious to. Despite this, his attempts at entreating his sense of purpose infuriated him.
“Dolt. Simpering devil. You filthy, nauseating mound of repulsive waste,” Shamus growled, before clearing his voice and remembering himself. “I told you I am breaking my vows. I have no intention of stealing anything which you can hold between your two hands, if those sausages you call fingers are capable of clutching things, that is.”
The ease had returned to Shamus after his outburst. A calm grin returned to his lips beneath the shadow of his cowl, the only thing that the Justice could see for the moonlight afforded through his windows. It was several hours past midnight, and several hours before dawn.
Ample time, Shamus thought. There is no need to rush this.
“Who are you?” the Justice asked, perhaps then beginning to grasp the futility of his compromises.
“I am? I am not. I am nothing more than a shade, a silhouette, a figure which passes silently over the world like a dark river, a shadow without a body, a thief without greed, a hand which grasps only to let go,” Shamus recited of his oath. “And like all shadows cast by dawn, once my sun has set, I will pass into the night without whisper, without resistance, save for what breath I have already left in my wake.
“And my name,” the thief said as he pulled back his hood, “is Shamus Dodgiryan, the youngest son of Allister and Morgan Dodgiryan, and brother of Mikel Dodgiryan, shadowstep of the Northern Sanctum of the Shadow Syndicate, and sworn balancer of injustice throughout the realm.”
At the sound of his name, the Justice’s realization was manifested by a strange, stifled cry that was akin to that of a dog yipping its last before being drowned in water. Like Mikel’s eyes had done, they widened, attempting to take in every inconceivable detail, horrified to find those same, black and ivory eyes haunting his stare once more. Whatever protests the Justice might’ve had, or excuses for that matter, came garbled out in a string of incoherent noises which Shamus ignored with a scowl and a tear slipping from his eye. “I swore an oath to take what is necessary from corrupt highborns to foster peace in Netherway, to better this smoking pile of ruin we live in, to steal whatever the Syndicate deems necessary of stealing, all except one, single, exception. Lives.
“And I, Shamus Dodge, at an hour that even the gods do not dwell in, am breaking that oath.”
“No, no, no! W-wait! You can—”
But Shamus raised his voice until it drowned out the Justice’s, he raised it until the man was too frightened to attempt to combat it with his own screams, he raised it until he suspected that the enchantment he had placed on the door would not be effective enough.
“In the name of my father, Allister,” Shamus said as he loosed one bolt at his chest, and the mechanism of his runed crossbow whirred to reload another, “in the name of my mother, Morgan,” he roared as the second bolt pierced the Justice’s side, “and in the name of my brother, Mikel Dodgiryan, I do, Shamus Dodge, sentence you to die by my hand!”
The third bolt slammed the Justice’s skull against the headboard of his bed, causing a series of brief shudders which died as fast as he did.
With the words he had been obsessing over for a decade or more now hanging in the air like smoke, Shamus lowered his crossbow.
The heavy mechanism clinked against his thigh.
A distant, unfeeling sound that seemed to him an echo reverberating in the walls of his solitude, all the way down to that distant memory of him kneeling in the mud before the scaffold, as he then knelt there in the Justice’s chamber, and wept.
Time turns its cruel circle
To ends we'll never see
Only fabricate by mortal means
Dawns arise for the sparrow
Blissful multitudes timeless, solely
But for us, the conscious
Our dusks remain transient
Knotted up, tied tight
Balance is a temperament
Borne away on wings
Flitting beyond my cage
Through the bars, I glean
Light in strips, I reach
For warmth's burning grips
Shivering down my fingertips
Their shudders spark recollection
A rebirth of reverie, moments
Invigorated by a heatless flame
Casting up my spirit like a lantern
Aloft to the sky in liberation
There, masks are a plaything
No crux or shameful bane
There, in moments remarkable
I fashioned myself immortal
Higher than lesser likenesses
But from daydreams I return
Still reaching, not grasping
At the white, purifying fire
I once knew, but now yearn for
No difference, it seems
Between possessing and searching
In time, time will see
What wings my ire makes for me
In time, I will tell
The falling and rising's tale
In a nostalgic swell, a quiet
Reflection on reluctance
On the passing in and out
Of the sparrow's callous calls
Of the fires which I possess
Illusory, and predictable,
This fluctuation of control
Meige understood how lucky she was. She was just too curious, too bold, and too young not to question the boundaries of her fortune. Her mother had taken charge of her understanding in basic spell theory around the same time that her father had instilled in her a healthy respect and knowledge of words. As soon as her and her younger brother Lock were old enough to walk, her parents took them on frequent sojourns to cities both neighboring and far away, impressing in each of them the necessary perspective to grasp the weight of their benign placement amongst the world’s often callous sense of humor.
Of course, this sort of education was not always effective, especially with their father’s more disciplined manner casting an unappealing shadow on moderation. In tandem with their mother’s frequent reminders to indulge in life’s ‘little graces’ which, to most other, were rather large graces, this created clashing philosophies that made Meige and Lock, inevitably, grow into their own individuals far more varied than their parents’ expectations—for better or worse.
At home in the Lunar District of Qalmoria’s capital, Symillia, Meige tended to her mother’s gardens while she rested for the afternoon, every fistful of soil making her question why she had not accepted her father’s proposition to join him for a day at Faber’s, the scribe’s emporium which he helped manage. It took only a few moments for her to recall the numerous days she had spent drumming her hands on the ink-stained desks that she mostly pretended to work at, daydreaming, instead, about the simplicity of the gardens behind their apothecary shop.
“Are the plants treating the earthworm well?” somebody asked after the hinges of the glasshouse door declared a new entrant.
His voice could have been altered by a costly spell, but Meige still wouldn’t need to so much as glance behind her to know who was standing there. There were simply no boys her age that had the courage to tease her. None, of course, except Lock … or her father, whose age hadn’t had an increasing effect on his growing maturity—quite the opposite.
“Careful what you say to the earthworm,” Meige grunted as she dug out a bulb of twisting ire to place into a fresh pot, the writhing tendrils of the toxic plant nearly grasping hold of her face as she did. She pretended that her heart had not leapt from her chest and placed it into the pot, grateful that her brother could not see her expression, for it was rather a perilously stupid thing, to grasp hold of a twisting ire’s roots without a pair of gloves. Its leaves are highly poisonous. The stifled gasp of her name that came from the same body behind her was evidence for as much.
“Don’t worry. Mother has been teaching me natural manipulation recently, and I appear to have a somewhat … natural propensity for it. I would be careful, if I were you.”
“I will pretend that I understand what ‘propensity’ means and take that as a suggestion that you will command one of these vines to twist my neck off. Right?”
“As always, dear brother. Why aren’t you at your training grounds playing with wooden swords like the tough soldier you promised to be?” In truth, she wasn’t always so combative with him. But when it came to his unforeseen aspiration for the Crimson Corps, one that the rest of his family believed to be a poor decision, she had a tendency to replace all her common remarks with daggers.
Lock did his best to deflate into a flat stool that hurt his backside as he crumpled onto it with a sigh, too exhausted to retaliate, as he had come to expect as much about inquiries into his training. “The arm’s master is ill again, had us running basic drills through his apprentice instead. I left at the second hour. I just can’t take him seriously, what with that high, cracking voice of his. Shit of my heels, he’s fresh as spring. I can’t see why the arm’s master appointed him to drill us, in any case; nobody can take him seriously with his ears bobbing around like that.”
“Well. You can’t blame a purebred elf for those ears, Lock. For gods’ sakes. And he’s his apprentice because Tammen is a prodigy. Your arm’s master knows that. You, my brother, are just a footman. Not even! A recruit, green as grass. Shit of my heels, brother, you’re just like him!”
“I never said I was anything different,” Lock replied, his voice not revealing an iota of the hurt he felt, which only challenged his sister more. “But it’s not all true, what you said. Tammen is a prodigy, I’ll give you that … a prodigy at browning his nose. He can scarcely lift a broadsword! How are we supposed to respect somebody who couldn’t duel the majority of his trainees? I’ve bested him in combat, three times now.”
“Because knowledge isn’t about who can lift the heaviest sword. Tammen studies his pages more than any of you train, which is saying something.”
“Granted. But experience isn’t about who has read the most books, either. Being able to recite a thousand pages of blade theory is nothing in the face of a growling, blood-frenzied opponent. Fear, adrenaline, nerves, stamina. There’s no writer alive who writes academy books on stifling the instinct to piss your pants and run when your enemy is two heads taller, wielding a battle axe and a kite shield. You learn that lesson by dying, or wising up and fleeing like the coward that war makes of everyone.”
“Yes?” he asked with an audible hiss, his temper evidently flared.
“How’s about we take a walk in the market?”
Meige turned to look at him. His hardened expression immediately softened, and he managed a grin despite his flared temper.
“I’ll grab your coat,” he offered. “I apologize. You don’t deserve to hear any of that.”
As he moved for the rack with her coat, a tendril of ivy from the plant that wrapped around the doorframe of the glasshouse reached out and beat him to it. Its thin vine wrapped around the bulk of the fabric until it provided support enough to lift the coat off the rack, and nearly startle Lock into a tipping over a few pots of mistress’ envy.
“Gods grant me strength,” he cursed, though he was grinning. “You’ve really got something for that, don’t you?”
Meige slipped into her coat and wiped away the sweat that had beaded on her forehead, all the while suppressing her urge to gulp in air madly. “I don’t know what you are talking about. These sort of spells don’t phase me anymore.”
After securing a walking basket of candied ginger, Meige’s nose crinkled at the smell of manure, letting the scent lead her to the sight of two younger girls, likely sisters, splashing each other with water from the fountain at the heart of the courtyard they walked in. Bordered by tradesmen with their stands and shopkeepers leaning out their windows, more than a few people watched them with mixed expressions of ambivalence, disapproval, and nostalgia, as it was one of the more lively events in the Luminous Square that morning, despite the harvest season.
For a spell, Lock and Meige were captivated by them, too, as they begin the part-game, part-song of Grekkel the Undying, accompanied by the short, choreographed dance that only children have the patience to memorize and practice. Together, the two farm girls began reciting the aged verses.
One, two, three, four
Grekkel, Grekkel, Grekkel snores
Then five passes and night arrives
Grekkel, Grekkel, Grekkel sighs
‘For the Undying comes alive
“That song still gives me nightmares,” Lock admitted, in spite of his uniform which, although he was merely a recruit, lent him the look of a confident, valiant, diligent young man with a clear head and a pure heart. Of which, he possessed none of those things. He shook his head and continued nibbling the long strips of candied ginger. The shade from the balcony that they sat under shielded them from the surprisingly harsh sun that had blossomed that day, leaving them in the graces of the sweetened air breathing through the parted windows of the confectioner’s shop. “It’s one of those stories that you realize is horrifying … only after you’re old enough to know what the cursed words mean.”
“Words have a way of slipping in like that, unnoticed, then suddenly powerful once you found out why they sunk their teeth in so deep.” Watching the two farm girls reminded Meige that the boredom she often had in the gardens, or indeed in her father’s emporium, was a luxury. Smelling of earth and long, laborious hours, Meige didn’t have to sniff or stare long to feel guilty for the morning she had squandered with wistful thoughts of being swept away to a more exciting life. In fact, the guilt quickly turned to shame, as it often did.
Lock, at least, had saved himself from that moral quandary. With his newfound devotion to the Crimson Corps as a swordsman, his stubbornness thrived behind a misguided sense of duty that served him little except in believing in an identity that he wasn’t all too certain was real. Perhaps it was because his parents had been so free-spirited with his upbringing after Meige’s more stern childhood, but lately, Lock had a tendency to defer to any authority whatsoever, as long as it did not first stem from his parents. For a few weeks even, he had become intensely passionate about the priests in Siflos’ Order, speaking highly of their rigorous periods of intermittent fasting, their willingness to forsake all wealth and titles, and their long vows of silence which lasted years.
He tried their vow of silence for a day. Meige broke it by calling him a ‘halfwit’ when he struggled to find his training sword, the one she hid specifically from him that very afternoon.
Meige didn’t have to heed the quiet pleas her parents often gave her to talk some reason into him, since this whim of joining the Qalmorian Army had utterly replaced all of his other interests. She never thought it suited him well, either. He’d always had a fondness for bladework, certainly, but it was almost spitting directly at his blood’s graces, how he refused to embrace his screaming talent for destruction spells, his proclivity for conjuration tricks, his clearly gifted grasp of the runic alphabet that most scholars spend years tearing their hair out for.
Then by then there comes the end
Grekkel, Grekkel, Grekkel wins again
Before dawn arrives he casts his bones
Grekkel, Grekkel, Grekkel, gambles no more
For he always wins, the game is rigged
Lock suddenly found it important to tend to straightening the collar on his maroon uniform. “This walk in the market was not a bad decision,” he stated with an amiable but otherwise empty tone, as he often did, when he was avoiding ignorable topics.
“Are you having doubts yet?”
“I think we could have done better than candied ginger, what with those caramel apricot tarts, but you were the one with the coin, so …”
“Not the treats, numskull. This whole whim of you marching out to catch a few arrows on behalf of a country that you owe nothing to. We aren’t natives, remember? Our family earned our passage by our trades.”
“As if I didn’t already know that. But what have I done? What use am I? We are all born owing the world something. The moment you discover what you can offer is the same moment that you have an obligation to share it.”
“And that is a beautiful, admirable, if a little bit naive and foolishly romantic idea, Lock.”
“But what good are your talents when you charge out into a noble’s war, defending a man you’ll never meet, dying for a territory that is being fought over because its soil is a profitable prospect for Addorian winemakers and farmers? They say it’s for honor, for glory, even for power, but even if these things were truly what you were fighting for, would it be worth your life’s efforts?”
Lock didn’t like to hear her weighted questions, no more than Meige liked the idea that she had found no direction in the years that she had spent juggling a vague commitments between her father and mother’s separate lines of work. She had a considerable amount of knowledge, now, in both crafts, but was left without a dependable passion for either. It wasn’t that her efforts lacked a home. Her heart had a home, it was simply missing a path to follow beyond it.
“I want to be useful,” Lock mumbled, no longer interested in the candied ginger. He pursed his lips as the girls finished their song, only to continue again. The breeze caught the longer locks of his hair, the sunlight igniting the highlights of his dark, oak hair with bright streaks of dirtied gold.
“You don’t do well with authority, brother, you just got sick of listening to mother and father’s advice. I am, too. We’re both itching for something new. But just take today, a fine example. Imagine years of that. Years of having to obey orders from those you don’t respect, or worse, finding yourself committed to orders you hate because of the respect you can’t ignore. After you initiation, after your vows, there won’t be an easy opportunity to turn your heels on those training grounds. You’ll be stuck, and we’ll all be waiting like sad dogs for your courier crows to send us word from Addoran, the letters frosted over from the unbearable winters there—which you’ll hate, you’re shivering in your mantle right now and it’s scarcely autumn.”
He nodded, though he didn’t like swallowing all these facts, particularly because they had coaxed him to fantasize about surrendering his uniform to his arm’s master by the week’s end. It made him dread how that man would glare at him from beneath that gigantic ridge that he called a forehead. As much as Lock enjoyed his sense of purpose in the Crimson Corps, Meige’s depictions of dying for a wealthy merchant conveyed such liberating irony that he had an urge to splash in the fountain with those two girls, so guiltless was he beginning to feel as he imagined fleeing any potential vows he might’ve sworn just days before.
“You do look handsome in that uniform, though. It would be a shame to be rid of it. Any of those mages from the Sapphire Academy taking a liking, yet?”
“Ugh. Mages. You know how they are. Wouldn’t approach a man if he saved their life.” Lock wagged his face as if the notion was making him ill, only to stick out his tongue and fake gagging. “They are all so prissy and privileged. Haven’t you noticed? That’s why you didn’t join, remember?”
“Well, we’re not much better, you know. Which is why this business with the Crimson Corps makes as much sense as a fine destruction mage forsaking his talent to instead don the uniform of a footman. Gods, Lock. It’d make more sense if you became a priest! The only reason most folks join is because their stomachs would go empty if they didn’t. Let the poor fight; they need it to live. You don’t.”
“Gods, what have I signed my name for?” He rubbed his eyes and then closed them as he groaned. “I am a fool.”
“Yes, Lock, and I have steered you from your foolishness since I changed the shit from your breeches for you. Don’t lose faith in me, now.”
“Let’s not get sentimental here, what with this shit talking.”
“Truly, though!” Meige laughed, delighted to see him won over, if at all a bit guilty to pull his newfound masculinity from under his feet. “If you’ve a passion for the sword, father and mother will supply a duelist to train you. An inclination towards blacksmithing? They’ll nudge you towards a craftsman. You want to be a servant in a caffek lounge? We’ll help you get a tailor for the uniform. But to die for the sake of an army’s callous intentions? None of us will help you with that. There’s no sense in it. There hasn’t been a war for reasonable causes in centuries.”
“So what, I go bury my head in some books while the rest of the world scrapes by the skin of their teeth?
“You think our parents never struggled? Haven’t you listened to a word of their story? Our blood is dirt, Lock.”
“Yes … I know,” he mumbled. “But where is our struggle? What right do I have?”
The tune of the two girls stopped, replaced instead by an alarming outburst, a series of panicked cries for help. A merchant who had seen one of the girls fall into the fountain had knocked over a bucket of apples, stomping one of them into the cobblestone in the process of rushing over to lift her up out of the water. While the other girl began to cry, he cradled her limp body, her thin and small body make to look even more frail by the way her neck and limbs fell back from his arms with a rag doll’s strength.
“Somebody call for Calan’s aid!” the tradesmen commanded to the befuddled lot of onlookers. He was waist-deep in the fountain, the dark stains left by the water inched up his vest, turning the light beige color into that of mud. “A healer, quickly! She is ill with something … something foul,” he continued, a look of regret starting on his eyes as his volume faltered, as he watched the water around his waist darken like his clothes, turning from a clear, crystalline color, to a hue not unlike Lock’s uniform. Only, the young girl was not a wounded.
There wasn’t a single cut on her.
Yet the water was thick as blood. And there was no mistaking the air, now tainted by its scent.
Lock was the first to run, not getting far without feeling Meige’s hand latch onto his arm as she kept up. Yet, he wasn’t running towards the nearest Chapel of Calan from a sense of virtue; there was something deeply wrong.
And he always hated Grekkel’s song.
Complacence welcomes devastation
A mistress of hesitation
Seduces lackluster liberties
From disillusioned revelers
Their skin has sloughed
But their clothes remain
Their words ring, mouth agape
But still no sound sustains
Their masks display a visage
Colors run, expressions cracking
Dry, are their parched remarks
Stagnant, an old clock's ticking
Dance, though they may
Lean closer, then you hear
Their bones still austere
Polish them, they might
For all that's left to wear
Beauty breathes in all shades
No prejudices does she claim
Still, does our skin shiver to see
Her paradox in us, her means
So gleefully do we gleam our teeth
Shining at those ghosts beneath
So haughtily do we observe
The maggot squirm with ardor
But so similarly will we scream
To watch our guise fade in turn
Between slivers rests the silver
Chance our revered deceiver
Casts movements with significance
Their importance synonymous
With the momentous cadence
Of trivialties tumbling to peaks
Before cascading to dissonance
The rhythms beat so deviously
For this dance is forgetfulness
And here we often see
Mere apparitions, are we
Lest we embrace the cadence
It's immortal elegance given
To mortals without grievance
I call him 'imp'
but I've never met him
just always breathed
as his skin and body
just always bled
as his voyeur's vessel
just alway seen him
hiding in my irises gleaming
It does no good, speaking
it does so little, talking
and I can't afford a release
not knowing who is feeding
from who, it seems we're both
leeches famished and sucking
I've been dead not empty
echo heart of corpses
though even they have perfection
this feels like degradation
worse than that, likely
something worth killing
I tried ...
starvation and asphyxiation
to sever his head but three
grow back more hungry
It does no good, sprinting
It does so little, shouting
I've run 'till my lungs screamed
and screamed a coloseum's fitting
just for a sigh of relief
When the imp's grabbed hold
there is no 'out'
there is me and there is him
and nothing else of importance
there is bared teeth, knuckles
bloodied and dripping
with me screaming
Let me out
I call him 'Grim'
but I've never met him
just always shadowed
his skin and body
just always sought
his triumphs and whatnot
just always stalked him
in joyous fixations
I awaken kneeling
half-lidded and dizzy
for what was wrought
devastation and havoc
the mind's upturned status
flickering and analyzing
Ashes drift as snowfall
a pure shroud of grey
a charcoal mantle and crown
to emblazon my nape
silence ushers a clarity
a stern resolve remains
what past cautions fought
what doubts quarreled long
all diffused in fiery deluge
an eternal dance and song
one we've always won
His old presence left
treasure hidden in refuse
symbols burnt throughout
charred along my bones
he didn't know the fire's worth
before he felt its spurn
No haunting nor running
no more, it feels defeating
a quiet acceptance turned
invigorating, a blue flame
slowly searing old flesh
reveals the skin sighing
relief in relinquishing
What's left, a white slate
scarred layers hardened
and new hands capable
from the smoke there breathing
life from suffering, to meaning
and now, another imp rising
from the fire still burning
From higher voices, I shy
Recalcitrant to their pitch
Optimism feigning idyllic
Back to whispers, I lie
Lazily in their utterance
Pessimism playing sincerity
Thus our nightmares
became our strengths;
our dreams, simple cravings
for boundless reprieve.
Kindess provides a kind of sin
Though unbidden are her whims
It's the love we lack which we seek
The past's addiction, romanced reminiscence
Missing all greater things
Here ... right before me
So beholden are our luxuries
We become monsters for their sake
Seeking sustenance through negligence
Feeding only that which craves
Reaps torment for torment's sake
For our weaknesses we risk disaster
Their prideful poison alluring
But mastery is a possibility,
Our faults and faculties the means
A path to higher voices, I embrace
For in lesser whispers, indicators lay
Pointing towards the right place
Simply by pushing us away
I was in the center of a narrow alleyway, my hands bundles of numb flesh and frost, shaking beneath a dark sky that crashed with waves of snowdrift onto the streets. All the windows were illuminated, but every street was empty, save for the shivering guardsmen here or there, bundled up beside braziers, gossiping or groping for jokes to keep their minds averted from the chill.
The days were a blur of tundra rushing outside carriage windows, striding through streets I didn’t have time to familiarize myself with, and the dark expressions of people drudging through the short, wintry days, rushing to get the daily tasks done with the light waning ever faster.
Cautious conversations in the home of strangers, studded with subtle threats or eased by friendliness. Meetings that lasted for an hour or more, and others that were done so quickly, it hardly seemed worth all the travel.
And blood. Splatters of it, before I closed my eyes and succumbed to it. The rare, horrific, but irresistible few times I could.
It was beginning to feel much like a dream, one that occasionally dipped into a nightmare before stepping back into the shock of reality. Amidst the three phases, I didn’t feel so corporeal.
“Evening, stranger,” someone called out to me. My hand flashed to my rapier and I stepped backwards, almost not even lending the man a glance. It wouldn’t be the first time I was forced into an awkward duel in a narrow alley.
His silhouette was shaped in darkness by the torch at the end of the alley, its light fleshing out his features in flickers. A unscarred face, a patched eye, a sharp jawline with bright, unkempt but flowing hair, with a few locks dangling over the covered eye.
“No need for that,” he persisted, “just trying to be friendly, is all.”
I stopped, not because I was convinced. I had a few more hours of waiting to do before I could get to my business, and I didn’t mind, much like the guards, having something to distract myself from the cold.
“What do you want?” I replied sharply.
“As I said: just trying to be friendly.” He raised his arms slightly, displacing the short, white cloak on his back, revealing a fine waistcoat and a few patches of leather armor over his fitted clothes. An unholstered pistol hung between his belt and his waist, while a rapier as long as mine, but much finer quality, hung at his side. A gust of wind caught in the alleyway and blew through, bringing with it the scent of an almost overwhelming cologne, but beneath it: the unmistakable aroma of a healthy, clean, and ripe body. I clenched my jaw and inhaled again.
“If you were friendly, you would have no qualms telling me your business,” I said, taking some of the edge off my tone.
“Only to bring you in from the cold. Snow’s coming down harder.”
“Not so hard here between the roofs. Have a fire to warm myself, thank you.”
“Someone as young as you doesn’t need to rely on a few measly coals burning out in a brazier to keep you warm. Leave desperation to the elderly. Come along, I’ll show you my favorite tavern, treat you to a drink?”
“What makes you think I’ll follow a stranger to a place I’ve never been to before?”
“For the same reason I had more than half a mind to call out to you and drag your frostbitten arse out of here. Intuition?”
I looked down at the dying coals in the brazier, my reddened fingertips, and felt my numb toes and the grating of ash in my throat. In a few minutes, without the calling of a stranger, I would have left to find warmth elsewhere, anyways. The only reason I stayed here for so long was because the alley was close to the appointment I needed to make in an hour’s time.
“I can tell just by your silence that you’ve been swayed. Come along now, I know a victory when it’s mine.”
I took the hand off my rapier and switched it to the hilt of the dagger sheathed across my back and strode over to him. He motioned to put his arm around me as if we’d grown up playing in the same courtyard as children, after which, I made a quick motion to dodge.
“Skittish, are we?”
“More than a little, you’d do well to mind yourself,” I warned, catching another whiff of him. Despite his persistence, I couldn’t sense anything abundantly dangerous about him. Still, I walked as far from him as the alley would allow, not for my safety—for his. It’d been a good week or so since last I ate, and I didn’t have any scraps on me to bide my appetite.
There was enough light coming from the torch for me to get a good look at his face. The closer features I couldn’t discern before, like the wrinkles from smiling too much, the smoothness of his cheeks, didn’t help at all at discerning his age. Only that he possessed the mixed air of comfort and careless confidence that only the wealthy know so intimately. I doubted that he ever had to suffer the growling of a stomach.
“Some warmth, a few drinks, some laughter, we’ll get that timidity shaken out of you,” he promised me before flashing a smile.
“Timidity and wariness are two different things …”
“… Soul. Nice name. Valen.”
“A pleasure.” We shook hands, his hand softer than a tailor’s. “Shall we?”
“Lead the way.”
Snowdrift continued to wash over the streets as we strode together at a brisk pace. He was half a head shorter than me, yet he walked with twice as much vigor, as if all the streets were paved just for him. I had the sense that maybe he wasn’t as wary as he should have been, even if I was the one being led somewhere. With every one of his steps I could hear buckles clinking, the heel of his boots stamping the ground, but more importantly, the cheery chiming of too many coins, perhaps jewelry, scattered about his pockets. Two rings on his fore and middle finger clinked beneath his gloves as he rubbed his hands together.
“So, what’s your story?” he asked as he led me into the more derelict parts of Ramor, past a Reigner graveyard and a few shops dilapidated in the snow.
“A long one,” I settled for. “With perhaps a few details I’m willing to spare once we’re out of this wind.”
“Fair enough.” Even he was grimacing. I pulled my scarf over my mouth. I noticed that his clothing was a stark contrast to the ramshackle state of some of these buildings; he didn’t fit into the scenery at all.
Less and less windows were lit now, leaving only the dark breath of chimneys still casting their steam and smoke, the strange illuminance of fog over snowy cobblestone. Down narrower streets with a the buildings squeezing us closer, we turned down an unlit alleyway. It as dark as pitch, save for a single candle burning in a niche between the brick and mortar. Next to it, a doorway fit for a dwarf with an iron sign hanging over it: Duke & Duchess. Without hesitation, he turned down it.
“Here we are,” he said. “Ever seen it before?”
“But you’re not from Ramor, are you?”
“Excellent deduction, investigator.”
“Well you don’t need to be so snappy about it. Even to the locals, it’s not a familiar haunt.” He pulled on the iron handle and displayed the warm, musty air inside with his hand. A gust of tobacco smoke, flatulence and sweat greeted me. I coughed, my appetite a little dissuaded. “After you? Ah, but that would be too trusting of you. I’ll go in first.”
“Please do,” I said, my hand still wary of my hilts. He had a pistol, but even if he tried anything, this close, it would be a short end for him.
He crouched low and all but crawled down the tavern’s steps.
Murmurs, glasses clinking, footsteps, and some laughter reassured me as he continued.
As he reached the bottom I kept the door open, watching the musty air rushing out. It was evident that there were no windows inside, and no grating for ventilation. It smelled and felt as if the air that was inside had been strapped in their since the building’s conception.
I nodded and let the door swing close. Standing above his silhouette in the stairwell, I wondered which one of us was more naive for trusting the other.
At the bottom of the steps, the room opened up
more, with the ceiling just tall enough for me to stand on my toes without hitting my head. Chambers opened up out of archways and small tunnels that led to rooms cluttered with chairs and tables, a little too ambitious for what the tavern’s staff could handle. Grime encrusted dishes, sloshed tankards and utensils were spilled on empty tables, which the majority of the patrons avoided.
“This place is …”
“—enchanting, isn’t it?” Soul finished for me.
“revolting,” I finished with a grimace. The patrons didn’t look all that much different.
“Nonsense!” Soul finished. “This is the heart of Ramor right here. It may not look it this time of night, but try just as the evening is getting started, and it’s always howling.”
“Evidently,” I said as I continued to observe the neglected space, trying to deduce how a forkful of shepherd’s pie had found its home on the low ceiling, and more importantly, how it had escaped being wiped away.
Soul led me to two stools at the bar, before attempting to flip a coin to the barkeep, only for it to slip from his hands, resulting in the childish embarrassment of having to pick it back up and hand it politely over.
“Charcoal whiskey for me. And my friend?”
I raised my eyebrows at his choice. “Gin will do.”
“Something to eat maybe?” but the barkeep had already turned her back on us to fetch the drinks.
“No thank you, I’m saving my appetite,” I admitted.
“No, wouldn’t want to spoil it in a place like this,” another voice added.
I inhaled that acrid scent of stone, mortar, wet soil and ash, not needing to turn my head to know just what type of person I was going to be looking at.
“And why’s that?” Soul asked the stranger.
He was smirking, despite looking as if he’d just let a carriage roll over him. With nails black as soot, he scratched his scruff and ignored Soul’s question. “However did you convince such a fine dish to come waltzing down to a kitchen like this?”
“Dish?” Soul asked innocently.
“Ignore that, he’s an old friend,” I lied.
“Ah yes. Close jokes, you know how it goes,” he slurred a bit.
Two glasses were set in front of us. The fluid in mine disappeared, but Soul just swirled his around, sniffing it without much to say.
“What?” the stranger pried. “Brought him down here to curb yourself?”
I laughed a little nervously, contemplating how my luck could be so sour. Then again, I was the idiot who followed Soul. “No, my friend brought me here,” I settled.
Soul grinned, but confusion clouded his eyes.
“ ‘Friend’ is a good word for an appetizer,” the stranger pushed.
I stared hard at his face. The unshaven scruff, his wet lips and bloodshot eyes, a hallow despair seeping from the shimmering darkness of his pupils, cast by the low lighting of the tavern. I knew that expression well, the settling of a low kind of madness after throwing away all inhibition.
“Why am I being called by dining terms?” Soul stood up, deciding to act affronted.
“He’s simply had too much,” I said as the other ghoul got to his feet. “Letting the joke run a bit too far, don’t you think?” I asked, not sure which one I was directing the question to.
“No I haven’t. I’ve had just what I needed, and I’ll have him too,” he said, pointing at Soul, whom I had now positioned behind my back.
I got to my feet. The ghoul pushed me backwards, weakly. “It’s a wonder you found something so delectable in a shit heap like Ramor. Selfish, are we? Having him all to yourself.”
Difficult as it is to get a ghoul drunk, I was convinced this one was, and I wasn’t in the mood for being carted off to the gallows because someone couldn’t hold their liquor, let alone their tongue afterwards.
So I lunged, grabbing him by his collar and smashing whatever part of his skull my knuckles first came into contact with. He tried to throw an arm back, but the leg of a chair caught on his ankle and he went sprawling to the ground.
There not being an interruption in at least a few hours, the entire tavern hushed and watched as I stared down at him.
The ghoul started to say something. The possibility alone made me fearful, and you know how animals are when they feel threatened. I dove for him, slamming another fist into his mouth before dragging him to his feet. It had been too long since I’d eaten, and Soul nearly had me salivating when we were walking in the crisp air of the streets, the heat of his body drifting off with every flavor I craved.
Violence wasn’t something I ever considered having a propensity for, but when I am quarreling with hunger pains, nothing feels more natural.
Looking behind the swimming face of the ghoul, I saw a table with one of its legs already snapped, the rest of it slouching toward the floor. I decided to finish the damage and threw him onto it. His body slammed into the cracked wood, scattering splinters in every direction, and a wave of shouts through the tavern.
A hand grabbed my shoulder, another on my arm, and the blows began, predictable as a storm from dense clouds.
Soul shouted something that was drowned out by the sound of someone’s fist pounding into my skull, with another pair pummeling my abdomen. Despite the pain, I was relieved; at least I had managed to silence the stranger.
I staggered away from the hits and swung around one of the supporting beams in the tavern. Two men were lumbering after me, with Soul’s eyes wide and blank in the background as he processed what’d happened. I flashed him a look before grabbing one of the drunks and throwing them behind me, inciting two more to join the fight.
The ghoul was unable to get to his feet, surrounded by the remnants of the table he’d smashed, while I threw a punch at the nearest patron looking to do the same to me. The one that I’d thrown behind me must have gotten ahold of himself, as I felt two hands wrap around my ankles and pull me back. My face rushed to meet the floor, my nose crunching like porcelain against it. The walls and ceiling swam into an abstract painting of blood and wood while I was lifted off my stomach and thrown into the air.
There was a brief moment, before I slammed into one of the walls of the tavern, in which it felt as if I had a long while to contemplate the curious nature of how a peaceful evening of waiting can turn into a disordered tangle of threads that all demanded my immediate cutting. The ghoul, Soul, the strangers in the tavern. I needed to, within the next few minutes, do everything within the realms of possibility to have them forget about me entirely, or at least to the point where they ask no questions. Do I let them beat me, or do I flee? Maybe I was getting ahead of myself—perhaps I had no power to decide between the two.
I groaned, expecting more hands to make me their puppet. Yet, beside the drumming of blood and the steady ringing in my ears, there was silence surrounding me. The air had tightened. Why had the fists stopped?
I squinted through half-swollen vision up at Soul, who stood with a straight back and a terse expression, the muzzle of his pistol aimed at the group of patrons looking to tear me into tatters. In his other hand, he’d unsheathed his rapier, and although both of his hands were shaking, the combination of both his stark sobriety and his dress made him look more than prepared to deal with the lot of them. Equally analytical as they were wide with nerves, his eyes flitted to each one of them, as if calculating just how he’d kill them if they moved.
His mouth was moving, but the ringing in my ears deafened it completely. Eyeing the drunks, I got to my feet and stumbled a little towards Soul, who made room for me beside him as he continued gesturing at them, his feet now stepping toward the door. After putting his pistol back in his belt with his sword point still trained on them, he reached into a pouch at his trousers and put a few coins on the bar with something of an apologetic expression toward the barkeep.
He parted the crowd with his sword, pulling me behind him. Before taking to the stairs, I looked at the ghoul on the ground. His dark eyes glinted with loathing. Still, his face was managing a blood-stained grin as wide as the corners of his mouth would allow.
I pulled my coat on tighter and nodded at the group before I bounded up the stairs towards Soul, who was already holding the door aloft with a mixture of regret and pride on his face, and a twinge of something else that made me hesitant to keep his company any longer than was necessary.
The snowfall had turned into a blizzard. The door shut with a deep thud, sounding the end of the brief skirmish, the beginning of our own kind of verbal grapple. We both stood still outside of the tavern, looking at each other as white and grey swirled around us, whipping up our garments in the darkness. The candle outside had melted down to its stub, its long, waxen tendrils frozen down the brick.
Bright crimson spattered the snow, dripping
from my chin. The portion of the scarf against my neck was already soaked, briefly hot before freezing. My hands were trembling: adrenaline, hunger, fear and frustration. I couldn’t tell which reigned more. They combined into a concoction that beat out the bitter cold, leaving one of my fists wrapped around the hilt at my side, the other ready to hold Soul’s arm down should he reach for his pistol.
He sheathed his sword. “Well, so much for being one of my favorite haunts. They’ll never let me in there again. I hope you had your fun, at least.”
I was not interested in dancing around the topic. His eyes were alive with fascination, inquisition, curiosity. There wasn’t a single inch of me that doubted that he knew. “You’ll have me hung, won’t you?” I asked. If I could have stepped closer to him, I would have. Two fates stared at each other through our eyes; a short rope for me to dangle from, and a few hours of bleeding out in the snow for him. I would get a crowd of cheering citizens; he, the silence and wind, the trickle of blood onto the icy ground, until winter seeped into his wound and froze him from the inside out.
“Should I?” he asked, almost playfully.
“Our corpses fetch good rewards, I hear. But you’re wealthy with gold spilling out your ears.You’re not interested in that, are you? A sense of justice, perhaps?”
“Oh? A sense of justice saved you from those bastards downstairs? Maybe I’ll open the door again and you can ask the wolves yourself which one of us is your enemy.”
“You’ll try to have me killed.” I wanted to ask a question, but force of habit coerced the statement.
“No. You saved me from that fiend down there, didn’t you?” he asked, just as genuine, but with an unguarded voice. I stepped back and looked him over. All of his body was relaxed, his arm calmly resting on the hilt of his rapier, not grasping it as I was. I was the only one who was afraid, which only unnerved me more.
His breath steamed slowly into the air.
“You’re mad,” I decided aloud, surprised to find a chuckle in my words.
“I treat my friends well, that’s all.” His grin turned into a pensive frown. “It’s almost a pity, Valen. I showed you an uncommon trust and faith, but all you allowed me was suspicion. Still, you protected me, even if it was also for the sake of protecting yourself.”
“And you dare blame me for that?” I flared. “Could that I strut the streets only having to worry about pickpockets and thieves like common folk, I would. The notion that I followed you at all still bewilders me, I’ve not acted so foolish since my childhood.”
Snow continued to fall, flakes melting in our hair and spotting our lashes. “So why did you? If trusting me is such a danger, why risk it at all? Why not tell me to piss off when I called for you in the alleyway?” he asked.
“Boredom, idiocy. Who knows?”
“Oh, those words wound me,” he joked. “But I understand, I do.”
And I was certain, as he finished that sentence, that neither of us were still completely certain he did; the notion of his accepting my nature tasted odd on both our tongues, it spoiled my appetite, forced uncommon thoughts to swirl around my head, but worse than that, it tempted me to trust him.
“I have somewhere to be, Soul.” And I began to walk away.
He yanked me back by the shoulder. “Let’s get you cleaned up beforehand. I don’t wish to know where exactly in all of the damnable places you need to be two howls past midnight … but I’d be truly shocked if it was acceptable to arrive looking like that.”
I felt my face. A spattering of congealed, crusted, and wet blood covered it. Hardened, I might be, cleaning myself off in a frozen river at midnight did not strike me as a pleasurable experience. Sure enough, he was right. If I needed to flee in case things went awry during the appointment, I’d be sorry to do so looking like this.
“I can tell by your silence that you’ve been swayed,” he smiled, “come along now, I have a place.”
Twilight sinking, rest easy
The day's smolder dwindling
Leaves falling, dream deeply
The monsters beneath sleeping
In every word, in every way
Our cessation quickens
Asking us what to chase
What to steal from our days
Beyond blame, bonds are broken
Space left for other songs
Our voices join their melody
If we are true, if we are lucky
A singular resuscitation, a breath
Brevity and patience's difference
Small chances form refrains
Rolling gambles for satisfaction
Loathe to "nobody changes"
Patterns forged of alterations
Our bliss born in deviation
What distinction we sing
Manifests an individual hope
Perhaps for all to share
Perhaps for none to know
In this way, or so I see
We break our bones into stones
To make these paths our own;
We borrow sorrow from one cadence
To play it differently, and so shape it;
We neglect one muse's trance
To indulge another's temptation
Our eccentricity casts beauty
Heedless, in endless multiplicity
Our horrors born twofold
Of the same origin, they hold
Our contrasts even before mixing,
Angels and demons breathe the same
Their laughter first heard, then spurned
This is our pride;
This is our shame
Our prejudices named:
What we love, what we blame
There wasn’t a single cobblestone that hadn’t been swept within the hour on the streets that Soul was leading me down. His expression betrayed him, as if he felt a kind of embarrassment showing me where the endearing cuts of his garments came from, the origins of all that silver and gold dancing in his pocket. A stark contrast to his supposedly favorite tavern.
“I can’t tell if you were ashamed to scurry me along one of the better taverns of Ramor, or you were ashamed to show me just how easily you could.”
“The latter,” he said as he let himself into a set of apartments that fit snug into the other buildings arching down the street, their balconies, eaves, and roofings embroidered and glided. The snow was a beatific blessing upon them, unlike in the slums of Ramor, where the dirt seemed to bleed through the snow in muddied hues. In Ramor’s slums, even something as pure as snow was instantaneously tainted, somehow made an eyesore.
I followed him up steps illuminated by miniature gargoyles, the talons of their wings fixed into the brick walls while their gaping mouths held small oil lamps, scarcely larger than a fist.
“I was inspired by the gothic architecture of the Reigners when I had the structure renovated, before I moved in. Rest assured you won’t see anything like it in this street. Wealthy I may be, I’m not deprived of heart,” he told me. He lifted his hand to one of the gargoyle’s jaws and slid it out the precise slot of the statue, thus holding aloft a now mobile flame. “Mind your … blood,” he said, casting light on a few drops that fell on the stairs. “The servants will think me odd, coming home late with a wound I never told them about.”
“Do you live here alone?” I managed to ask while holding my nose. Warmth slid passed my lips and onto my neck while I swallowed iron.
“There are a few other tenants.”
“You didn’t grow up here, did you?”
“You are not altogether too old, though.”
“How long have you been alone?”
“Not altogether too long, fortunately,” he added after a pause.
“So what do you do with your time, with the world at your fingertips and everything you could possibly need at your disposal?”
“I do not have everything I need,” he replied, dodging the question.
It seemed the staircase continued upwards without end. We passed long, thin doorways with numbers on them every two flights, barely wide enough to allow someone of more significant weight through. The stairs didn’t curve comfortably, but cut sharply every five or six steps, which only made the space feel as if it was squeezing us tighter and tighter as we rose.
“What is it you need that you do not have, if you live so well you can hire stonemasons as easily as you can lift your finger, and have them work on a public building, of all places.”
Soul laughed before stopping abruptly and going to his keyring, sliding in a large key with countless teeth, and then another one with only a few, into a lock near our feet. “It wasn’t so easy as lifting a finger. I could have lived alone, renovated my own house, but I chose a lesser way of living. I had to get various signatures and ask all the tenants for permission just to get the plans into motion.”
“Admirable enough, I suppose,” I murmured, “yet you still haven’t told me what you don’t have.”
Soul shrugged with blank eyes lost in the flame, and said, “Happiness, love, freely offered affection, purpose … direction,” before offering a forced grin. He blew out the flame on the gargoyle’s jaw and, with a hand of habit, found a notch in the middle of the doorway. The splinter of wood he flipped open revealed a small opening, an opening precisely the same size as the one left by the gargoyle’s mouth. With a satisfying click, the stone jaw slid into its crevice, followed by the hum of a wan, red light in the silhouette of the stone piece.
I gulped another mouthful of blood, only a little surprised that he had magic at his disposal. “Enchanted doors?” I scoffed. “Those are luxuries, my friend, not necessities.” I had never seen anything like it, but it was well known that the wealthy had access to those who still practiced such arts with vigor. “Perhaps that is what separates the wealthy from the—”
“Shhh!” In the fluctuating scarlet light cast upon his expression, I watched his brows deepen with worry, his lips form a tight line.
“What?” I whispered.
“Three hues to discern the state of the chamber,” he explained. “White, if it has been left as it was. Emerald, if it has been tampered with in my absence. And scarlet, should it still contain someone unwelcome.” His worry turned to alarm. “I need to get the guards.”
He started down the staircase, but this time it was me who pulled him back. “Not a chance. They’ll ask about this,” I said, pointing to my face.
“So lie, omit details!” he hissed, but I only pulled on him tighter.
“Not. A. Chance. I’ve taken too many in one night. If it’s a lone intruder, we already outman him two to one. We benefit from surprise. You have a pistol, both of us have swords. This is nonsense; it’ll be over before he can scream.”
“Fool. Did you not see the locks on my door? They’re some of the most …”
At the locks’ mention, we both realized whoever was inside was aware that we were standing just outside the door, having heard the heavy-handed turning of the locks just seconds before.
With my right hand, I unsheathed my rapier, careful not to let the metal hiss against its scabbard. In the other, I nudged the dagger out of its place on my back. At which, Soul raised his eyebrows, realizing what I was gripping every time I had the manners to remember to walk with a hand behind my back.
He took his pistol up in his left and, sword in the right, and wrapped two of his fingers around the doorknob.
“Wait,” I whispered. “Let me go in first.”
“Are you mad? I’ve the pistol. First thing it touches that is living, it blows into pretty scraps of cartilage and bone. You want to chance another outcome?”
I found, as my gaze shifted from the door to Soul’s white knuckles wrapped around his pistol, to his distressed expression, to his awaiting eye, that, for once, I cared for someone that I hadn’t known all my life. A care that was beyond common courtesy. This was no resistance to feeding, nor a quelling of emotion for the sake of avoiding interaction. More than that, it was guilt—for I suspected, somehow within the span of the few hours I knew Soul, that I had already brought disarray into his life.
The ghoul in me wanted to eat Soul; the human wanted to protect him; the stranger wished to walk away. My life has been an agonizing indulgence of the first, as rare as I can manage, and the last, as often as possible. The middle? Perhaps the most neglected.
“Give me your pistol, Soul.”
I sheathed my dagger and held my hand out. “You said all I gave you was suspicion while you lent me your trust. This is me trusting you, trusting you to understand I have only the best intentions. That some things are better left unexplained. That my life has forever been forfeit at the hands of indiscretion; should tonight’s actions result in your end, I may never let myself speak to another like you.”
He listened, he handed me the pistol. Then, he nodded toward the door.
I turned the nob and pushed the door open.
Shivering wind from an open window rushed towards us before attempting to close the door once more. I forced the door wider, its hinges creaking at the last inches of its yawning.
The remnants of a fire in the living room were spat upon the hearth in ashes and soot, with snow to mingle in its grave. Beside a single window of two left open with its crimson curtains billowing, there was nothing amiss. An iron sculpture of a siren atop a rock gazed out at the sky from a nightstand, next to a cracked book, nestled between unwashed mugs of half-finished coffee.
A doublet and a shirt were left on a sofa, their sleeves waving in the wind.
Snow came in bursts interrupted by the curtain’s sway, some of the flakes coming to rest and melt at our feet. Soul wasn’t lying when he said that he chose a life of ‘lesser living’ even if this was, relatively speaking, quite comfortable compared to the rest of Ramor. For someone of his stature, or what I assumed was an incredibly high stature, he had diminished himself to an apartment of merely three rooms.
“Nothing out of place?” I whispered.
“Not in the slightest. But the window … I never leave it open.”
“Your enchantment’s failed you, then,” I said, a little relieved, “whoever it was, he’s clearly already left.”
I took the first step forward and felt the unmistakable burst of white fire piercing my skin, where a dagger’s edge had found its home along my knuckles. My grip tightened against my will as the pain flared; the trigger snapped back in my hand’s response.
An explosion of smoke. We breathed the exhalation of gunpowder ignition and a fit of coughs hacked at our throats. I crumpled to my knees, Soul pushed me to the side. A blade met blade above me, a gloved fist slammed into someone’s face, and the two silhouettes above me swiftly left me there, as the intruder burst from the room, shoving Soul against the wall before heading for the stairs.
I dropped the pistol just as some shouting rang out in the apartments. I grabbed almost blindly for grey and black cloth in the corners of my vision, the overcoat of the stranger fleeing down the steps.
It was just a handful of cloth, but it was enough. The pain in my left hand compelled me, and, growling, I pulled the man back, not suffering a moment’s hesitation as I heard his head crack against the corner of a staircase—shattering the silence of the night almost as boldly as the pistol’s shot.
He scrambled, to little effect. I grappled for a grip on his collar, pulled him back up to our height. As soon
as I could see enough of his back, I drove my rapier into the backside of his heart, and just for pity’s sake, drove it deeper before pulling it out to tear into the soft flesh of his neck with my teeth.
A tangle of arteries and veins, a fissure of flesh rupturing open, scarcely a chew or bite before voracious swallowing, then again, and once more, until a kind of itch in the back of my throat sought another. Then I was done—not satisfied—but the body stilled, and Soul, wide-eyed as he was at the tavern, stared while I wiped my mouth with a hand missing a ring finger.
“Gods … who was that? Why was he here?” Soul asked.
“Oh, I have a few ideas. But for now, for all intents and purposes, we will call him my dinner.”
A strange mechanism we're given
Its intricacies a continuous riddle
Unfolding perplexity, the design
Unfathomable, yet consistent
In its always shifting rhythms
It works like clockwork
Runs long, runs well
While one mishap shudders
Another crack hardly stumbles
Inexhaustible, it sometimes seems
Eager to produce desires
Behaviors unpredictable yet natural
A harrowing ticking, it taunts
Complacent, vigorous, disquieted
Every cadence suggested
In antiquity and modernity
It creaks, it sputters and elicits
An endearing echo of dreams
Mechanical, though, it sometimes seems
Full of silent hope, some call it dumb luck
I roll a fistful of bones, scatter scitter thud
Across the table, dancing knives glitter
Their reflections smile off fading candles
Chaos guide my hands, for the gods cannot
Without a place to run, I leapt instead
I plummet at an arrow's rate on slim chances
This death is better than complacence
My crow knows the way, he eats it every day
I hear their cries again, I cannot forget
What stories their screams made, I shake
Now beneath their spells again
It's a long ways from home, this blood
Runs faster every dawn, I think
I've met my end long before it began
Now dead before I am young, I am
There and then, gone the next
A laugh, a mask, a stoic reluctance
Love's language dons disgust's accent
Should time unfold long between the two
Our words will decay if neglected
Here and there, we say farewell
A token of faith, good measure in tears
Pain has always been a strong promise
A proof, an unadulterated assurance
Of bonds in sincerity forged brilliance
Once and again, autumn settles in
Summer leeches death, her final breaths
She leaves frosted mornings in balance
Resplendent color, sifting leaves a melody
Foreboding in their transient beauty
I turn her mirror now to you
What do you see?
There and then, here again
I wonder what's happened since
The change came and left, my chest
An old cage for birds of variance
Crowning briefly my bones—their home
Their songs, every and each deviant
Some have become an aria's silhouette
Others have echoed a clinging hymn
Still once more, I quiet, I listen
To the fledgeling now growing
Softly perfecting her new pitch
How strange it feels, once again
Feeling this fluttering in my ribs
While you hold the mirror back to me
What do I see?
The end of us, an abrupt parting
Though it may leave bitter marks
What's left is not merely scars
But songs of every call
In the end, it was a supreme irony to find that the confident, spittle-propelling remark of ‘let the gods decide’ turned out to be a fair bout of chances which inevitably fell in Shamus’ favor, even if he would never see it that way, not even after his vengeance had been exacted. Long after he had finished claiming the names belonging to the faces on that scaffold, he still felt the presence of an irredeemable past haunting him, the feeling as pernicious as it was devastating in its first harrowing entrance.
In truth, there was never anything to be done for it. As he grew older, he became cognizant that tragedy seemed to visit every life, one way or another, and no matter how devastating or unjust it was, there were no means of righting the scales; you cannot satiate a vengeance against chance, you cannot balance two weights which only had the illusion of existing.
When the guards hauled him to the side of the crowds, they beat him, making him incapable of watching the execution of his parents, a fact that always confused him. Was he to be grateful or bitter for not watching their final moments?
It was a question that returned to him, from time to time.
After the ninth arrow had been loosed, Justice Bradburn consulted those on the scaffold with Shamus kneeling before the crowd, a crowd which had already gotten their fill of violence. Many of them, to the executioners’ dismay, had begun shuffling off at the sight of a long litany of insults, questions, and blows being rained down on the boy, a spectacle that was far less scathing, and thusly, less gratifying to watch.
“A crow, a fledgeling, an egg, what does it matter?” the still youthful Bradburn laughed as the crowds dispersed back to the rain-sodden streets. “They’re all the same. Take him to the Ivory Tower.”
Since he could not walk, Shamus was dragged away, dragged past the body of his father, whose eyes briefly caught his by luck alone in their fixed stare. And Shamus wanted to ask him, truly, why the world had called him ‘crow’.
It has been said that the Ivory Tower is so tall that any scream issued from its base will not reach the middle or upper sections of the spire with its echo. In an effort to consolidate the city’s prisoners as well as intimidate potential ones, Westrun’s third lord, Lord Malanus, ordered the tower’s construction, a project that went on for generations down his lineage, and was continued by Duchess Toran from Blight, whom took the pleasure of overseeing the final touches of the piece after overrunning the city with her southern countrymen. Incidentally, this also resulted in her releasing all of the tower’s would-be inhabitants after her successful ransacking of the city.
Charitably enough, the grand unveiling of a tower meant to imprison those guilty of treacherous and unspeakable crimes was left utterly empty for many years.
But it had been a long while since Duchess Toran’s first mandate over Westrun, as Shamus was made aware by the sounds, both distinct and indistinct, much like the smells, which settled at the bottom of the tower as he was shuffled along past the entrance gates. A choir of souls reaching beyond the thousands, some dying quietly, others despairing loudly; their unmanageable racket made difficult to pity by the immensity of their sound.
It hurt his neck to crane up and see the top of the twofold portcullis as the gates opened inward to let him through.
The Ivory Tower’s conception was a cruel joke, as it was designed to be made of ghoulstone from the very beginning, a dark, heavy material that can be harvested only from mines that dig deep enough into the ground. Its crowning characteristic? It swallows sunlight and retains little to no heat, making winters a swift end for most, and summers an empty promise.
Though Shamus was discovering that the saying of echoing screams seemed to be an imaginative assumption at best, he was finding that the common reflection that most prisoners take their own lives before their dates, seemed to be only self-evident. To say that the air was heavy with death would be an understatement. This was an abode too solemn and plagued with finality for torture to blossom.
Shamus didn’t even laugh bitterly as most newcomers often did, finding that the only ivory colored structure in all of the tower was, in fact, the gates.
But because his execution date was scheduled to be only in a week’s time from his capture, Shamus was placed only so high as the third tier of cells, something of a mercy. The higher the cells go, the more cramped they become, the less they are visited by jailers, the less the inhabitants are fed, the more they are overlooked, so on and so forth. There are, in total, one hundred and eleven tiers, not counting the first floor.
One thing did bring life to the Ivory Tower, and that was its complex system of elevators, ropes, pulleys, and runed stations manned by practitioners. The contraption spanned the length of the tower, existing at its hollow center, bordered by the spiraling stairs which led to the blocks which jutted out the sides of the tower like teeth. It appeared as tangled, horrific, yet somehow congruous and functional as veins. Constantly moving, churning, transporting at least one person from one tier to another at all times, it was the core of the tower, the turning, mechanical heart which kept all its depraved purposes moving smoothly.
Shamus enjoyed the short lift to his cell block.
And in the first while of a long stint of misfortune, Shamus found himself at the end of fate’s mercy, many hours beyond his arrival. For he was restless and unable to sleep on the stone floor of the bare chamber. From the meager light afforded by the slit in the hall just beyond his cell’s iron door, moonlight glinted off the keyring of the jailer sitting outside his cell, a keyring that hadn’t been set around a loop in his britches, and was instead hanging freely, nearly slipping from his trouser pocket.
Keeping watch from a stool, the jailer’s arms were folded, his body slumped against the wall.
Shamus watched for nearly two hours, biding the jailer’s breaths as they deepened and spanned longer intervals. Then, finally, he rolled his chances.
It was the first time that he slipped his hand into a pocket that did not belong to him.
But even with the keys in his hands and the jailer rapidly climbing the lists of most oblivious guardsmen, Shamus was doubtful; he recalled how the hinges had shrieked when he was thrown into his cell not twelve hours before.
It seemed a cruel jest, another in the long line that had been played on him in the recent weeks by the gods. Crouching, hunched over the keys and staring at them in the darkness, judging their weight, he imagined the fracturing sound they would make as he unlocked the latch to the cell. The near sweetness of freedom, of retribution, tainted by its obvious, glaring pitfalls made him feel less than hopeless.
More alone than he ever had been, the situation struck him, for the first time, as a reality and not merely a nightmare. Tears began to slip from his eyes without his consent, falling on the single, heavy and rusted key on the thick ring.
Somewhere, far off in the tower, somebody let loose a shriek that was as commonplace to many prisoner’s ears as birdsongs.
The sound stopped his tears.
With a quick swipe at his eyes and a bold step to the cell door, he pushed his arm through the bar, undid the lock, and stood out in the hallway before staring down at the jailer.
As the man began to come to, Shamus bent and heaved with all of the scrawny strength of his twelve years, and with the help of the man’s stumbling weight, shoved the jailer into the cell before locking the latch once more.
The jailer taunted him, at first, confident that this brief stint was little else than a game that would end with another bruise for the new prisoner. Then, as Shamus stared at him wordlessly, allowing a subtle smirk to play on his dirtied, swollen and blackened lips, he jingled the keys and said …
As the jailer became more agitated, his cries grew louder, his pleas more desperate, more manic, more stressed and hoarse and endless … more indistinct from the cacophony of screams that always echoed, from one prisoner or another, for every hour, throughout the Ivory Tower.
No sound of stomping or rushing feet up the spiraling steps, no harried or panicked responses issued from below nor above. It didn’t matter that he said, “Escaped prisoner!” or “One of them’s gotten out!” for they had all been used before by prisoners desperate for some entertainment in the long years of their solitude.
Still, Shamus was hesitant to test his good fortune. Even at that age, he understood that happenstance luck is not to be relied on. It is to be played upon, complemented, acknowledged. When luck steps into your life, you give your obeisance, you bow deeply and you remember your manners.
Fortune favors polite listeners and makes bitter men of those who fail to recognize it.
At the end of the hall, a narrow window rested just above his arm’s reach. By the looks of it, it would be just enough for someone his size to squeeze through. But before he could do that, there were other matters to attend to.
The prisoners along this block seemed to recognize the particular voice that had begun crying for help, and had woken from their perpetual nightmares, for once, to an almost pleasant reminder that, even in the darkest corners, every now and then light breaks through.
They awoke to the sounds of their jailer screaming. But the questions it raised were answered by a small, meek boy who took little time opening up each and every cell in the hall.
Some had more than one prisoner. Some contained souls too weak to stand. By the time Shamus had reached the end of the block, those who could had congregated in the middle of the hall, timidly at first, and then in a mad and heedless race to leave, like animals in disbelief of being let out of their cage. There were just over two dozen of them. Few of them uttered comprehensible words of thanks to him, but many of them made loud, approving sounds indicative of a deep and incurable madness. But all of them, unfailingly, had few questions for their liberator.
They all just wanted to run. They did, immediately, not heeding the fact that he stood still in the center of the block as they did.
Shamus looked to a prisoner who seemed far more lucid than the others as they pushed by him to escape. Her fair, pale skin with a tint of teal was covered in dirt, but still the moonlight shone off it almost unnaturally. Her cracked lips were made quiet and tight like his own, her eyes hardened with distrust. Were it not for the darkness that the Ivory Tower had etched into the lines on her face, her thirties would have been graceful and comfortable on her skin. By the long, curving ears that bobbed behind her as she walked towards him, Shamus recognized her as a Moon-elf, likely of Qalmorian descent.
Though she met his eyes, the moment seemed lost of its whimsy to her, as she, unlike the other prisoners, realized that a quick scramble for the entrance would only end in bloodshed or longer imprisonment.
Barely covered by what outfit had long since turned to tatters, the woman had no shame as parts of her were bare as she stood at the same height of him, her height stunted by her heritage.
“It was not charity. It was strategy,” she observed as the last of them left the block.
“Can it be both?”
“Do you think it will be enough?”
“I am afraid we do not have long to consider it.”
As the chaos from the escaped prisoners cascaded into a tumbling havoc of scrambling guards, watchmen, practitioners, jailers, and attendants rushing to bandage the wound that had let forth the flow, Shamus and the elf slipped through the slit in the far side of the block.
It was the first time Shamus felt his heart thud against the stone face of a wall. He regretted looking down; the ensuing dizziness almost made him lose his grip.
Already with sweat on the edges of his fingers, he became acquainted with the small, jutting opportunities in the ghoulstone that provided just enough for him to dig his nails and toes into.
“Are we clear?” she asked from beneath him. “Or should I just let go now?”
Allowing himself a single glance backwards, he found the battlements bordering the western side of the Ivory Tower to be empty, as they were manned by the guards who had been called for once the situation garnered enough reputation to be an official shit-show.
“It would be a waste to do so.”“Well, I don’t know if I believe in the gods anymore, but I owe you more than a few prayers of thanks.”
“Let’s save that for after we’ve touched the ground. What is your name?” They quickened their pace as they became more comfortable with the awkward, downwards climb.
“Tyrielle,” she grunted. Yours?”
“Shamus. You have beautiful, black hair Tyrielle.”
“I could say the same.”
“I am glad you are with me. The thought of doing this alone terrified me.”
“This one, here, use it next,” she said, pointing with her hand to an ideal stone right beneath Shamus’ feet. “I am glad I could be of service. Do heights terrify you?”
“Spiders, heights, I was never so sure. It seems a fair competition between the two.”
“Darkness, for me. I will sleep with a lit candle for the rest of my life, if I can.”
“What kind of candle?”
“Does the talking help ease your nerves, Shamus?”
“Yes. Yes, it does.”
“Then let’s start a story. Let’s tell the story of what we do after we finish climbing down this gods-forsaken tower.”
“A long, long story.”
“As most stories do, it begins with a lie. You, Shamus, are my firstborn son, my only son, that is, born of a foul man who visited the pleasure establishment I worked from.”
“I am not certain I like this story.”
“But, but, but, we haven’t gotten to the good part, yet,” Tyrielle continued with a glance behind her. Satisfied, she began again in a hushed voice made ragged by laborious breaths. “After finding my ways to be lacking virtue and honor, I began to fret for your livelihood, not wishing for you the same life that I endured. In the end, I decided to forfeit all of our belongings and past for a new life in Nocturos’ Order as apprentice hands. And you, my son, were obliged to join me in this sacred pursuit, as it was the only means for us to survive as the small family that we are.”
“This explains the hair, my human ears, and both of our current states.”
“Good, you are catching on. And now,” Tyrielle said with a final hop into the grass, “we hold onto that lie. We hug it like it is life itself and we retell it with all of the despair it has, for the truth is often so bitter and difficult to repeat.”
Shaking and sweating through my clothes, Shamus joined her on the ground and nodded. “Yes. The truth is cruel.”
“Very, very cruel. Are you ready?”
Shamus let the keys fall from his pocket. “Yes.”
That was the first time Shamus lied to a stranger.
“In the name of Commander Raymor, let me through!” Lock shouted and shoved at the back of the crowd constipating the narrow bridge that ran over the Parmollis River, the only connecting point which dissected Symillia’s north and south districts. Lush duskwood trees still boasting their peak blooms were just then letting their first leaves shed, lining the Parmollis with bronze made to glimmer from the sunset’s light through the droplets coating their backs.
The causation of the impenetrable wall of citizens was a troupe of acrobats taking turns swinging from one side of the bridge to the next, their daring flights above the foaming waters assisted by the spidersilk ropes harnessed to their back and sides. As it took more than a bare leg or stomach to get northerners to smile and spare a coin for any performance, these Addorian street performers were, incidentally, nearly naked in the autumn sun which burned on their skin like summer.
Drawn by the impeachment on their more deprived culture, enthralled, aghast, the Qalmorian crowd of mostly elves were watching this spectacle with an almost shocking disregard for all other matters.
“Oh for mercy’s sake. IN THE NAME OF COMMANDER RAYMOR, LET US THROUGH!” Lock bellowed.
With the crowd sufficiently silenced and drawn to the attention of his bright uniform, Lock huffed petulantly, admittedly at a loss for what to do next.
“What’s the squabble, then?” one of the performers panted after landing gracefully atop the bridge. A layer of sweat covered every perceivable surface of her. Next to the braziers were their collecting cauldrons, currently having a difficult time keeping in all of the coin that had been garnered. Lock understood why. He was having difficulty not devouring her body with his eyes.
“I have been commanded to retrieve a healer of Calan. As this bridge is the only passage to their chapel, there was no other foreseeable way to cross other than interrupting your performance. I apologize, but it is urgent business.”
“In the name of Commander Raymor, sure, but who’s it coming from? Some sorry whelp! Can’t be much important, then. Another round for the boys using our taxes!” A stranger punctuated this with long, slow claps.
People often misinterpret Qalmoria’s reputation for breeding well-mannered folk as an absolutist depiction, as Lock was reminded by the sight of this heavily overweight elf approaching him in a vest stained by a number of unidentifiable fluids. The misconception wafted over to him in the form of unbearable breath.
“Lieutenant Tammen of Her Majesty’s Oathswords,” Lock lied with only a flickering tell that was lost to even the more skeptical listeners. The crowd forgot some of its temptation to defy the impeccable cuts of his uniform, now embellished with imaginary importance and reputation. At the sound of the word ‘lieutenant’, the performers lined themselves up neatly on either sides of the bridge’s guardrails with nervous expressions on their faces.
It was unlikely that their acts had been sanctioned by the city to begin with.
“Why do you need a priest?” somebody asked.
“There is a problem in the southern streets of the city.”
“What, has your commander forgotten to send a runner for his afternoon tea?” the same bloated elf cackled, though he’d seem to have lost the support of the crowd at this point.
Lock flashed the belly of his rapier from its sheath and was about to complement the gesture, before somebody who couldn’t see his movement interrupted him.
“What is the problem exactly?”
“It is some kind of illness. A … a pestilence, if you would.”
At this word, both the crowd and the acrobats assaulted him with questions.
“Are the Marrows safe?”
“What about the Silver Cast?”
“Did your commander receive word from Crowcrest?”
“I … I do not have all of the answers!” Lock stammered and raised his voice. “That is why I was sent for.”
“What are we to do?”
The realization stunted Lock’s overbearing demeanor, making him feel once more as the boy grinding his teeth beneath the world’s expectations, the questions he never had answers for. Of course, the desperation in their eyes was begging him for more than just answers; they wanted reassurance. It was well past the challenge of rendering a commanding presence. He’d now earned the responsibility behind its weight, and they expected him to do something with it.
“Why, this … this matter will be sorted out shortly, there is no need to panic or do anything. So long as we can secure a priestess of Calan, there is no need to fret. You may, ah, return to your performance as soon as we’ve crossed. I apologize for the interruption.”
“Why’s that girl with you? Does she have the sick?”
“Yes!” Lock decided. “You’d all do well to keep a wide berth.”
With the citizens squeezing themselves tight across the bridges sides, Meige and her brother did their best to make her appear ill, executing this by slinging one of her arms over his shoulder and feigning a limp. When the going became too slow, he crouched down and hefted her weight up before rushing past the crowd and into the open air of the bridge’s northern end.
“If you had any reservations about abandoning your oaths, forget them. The Crimson Corps will relieve you of your duties forcefully once they heard of this,” Meige said after they were out of earshot. But by then, it didn’t matter if they had been whispering or shouting. Screams were coming forth from the bridge, now, joining together with accusative shouts and the sound of stomping heels as some began to flee.
Meige turned just in time to see somebody fallen at the heart of the crowd, while a group of strangers made quick work of the chaos to grab a fistful of silver from one of the collecting cauldrons.
“By the five highest,” she muttered.
They hastened their pace into Symillia’s northern districts while guards whom had heard the screams rushed passed them.
Lock prepared himself to answer any questions they had concerning their involvement, but found that they were both ignored entirely.
“That hardly matters anymore, does it? The girl at the well, did you see how fast she succumbed? Happy one moment, dancing the next. Gods save us. ”
“We don’t know if she died, we didn’t stay long enough to see,” Meige said, though there was no confidence in her words.
“Do you think it’s him, then?”
“Oh, Lock,” Meige groaned. “I know that story’s always terrified you, but that couldn’t have been anything but coincidence.”
“You think so?”
They quieted as they approached the long, short steps cascading down from Calan’s Chapel, its innermost rings interrupted by gardens still in blossom. Lock approached the heavy duskwood doors and banged on the iron knocker fashioned in the likeness of a balled fist, (which he found rather redundant). The three towers which the chapel rose into each hung bells of differing size and metal, and when rung in complex sequences taught to the clergy within, they could issue out various melodies for whichever festival or event was being celebrated.
On Hallow’s Eve, they commonly performed Grekkel’s Song, much to the mixed horror and delight of the children still young enough to believe in such things, or to young men like Lock, whose fearful imagination never seemed to outgrow childhood nightmares.
A woman’s voice issued through the door, just barely discernible, quivering with old age. “Many blessings of good health on you, strangers, but our order’s services are closed for the evening.”
“But it is scarcely the evening yet!” Lock protested
“Lieutenant, why don’t you let me talk to them?” Meige muttered. “Good priestess, this is not personal business. Somebody has fallen ill in the inner city, gravely ill. We require your assistance, and would be willing to pay for any services rendered. Handsomely payed.”
“Calan bless you and the ill, child, but our goddess simply cannot help you at this hour.”
The abruptness disturbed both Meige and Lock, who’d grown up around priests and priestesses of Calan all their lives. Of all the Five Highest, Calan’s followers were ever the embodiments of generosity, gentleness, and compassion. Their forthrightness came out only in the face of scolding habits or lifestyles which caused poor health in the first place. In the face of payment, as they often worked for charity alone, rejection in this situation was unheard of. It would be a captivating detail you told at a gambling house to spark up a conversation with quiet dice rollers.
“Please, priestess! This is important!”
“Why were the symptoms of the ailment?” the old woman asked.
“She … she bore none. Then, suddenly, she fell over,” Meige replied.
“Perhaps she fainted, nothing more.”
“No, priestess. She bled. She bled … though there were no wounds. Before long, her skin ran white.”
“So it’s reached you too, then?”
Lock stepped away from the door, now keenly aware that the square they were in was deserted, far too deserted for the time of day. “Meige,” he said, “we have to go home, now, to find mother and father and leave the city as quickly as possible.”
“It’s no use, child,” the priestess said, having heard his whisper, for she had cracked open a cut in the chapel entrance.
The small, individual-sized wicket door that was apart of the grand doorway opened wider. Like breath from a yawning mouth, the air inside the chapel twisted the siblings’ insides, partly from revulsion, but mostly from fear. The woman stepped aside to allow them to peer into the wide halls of the chapel. With hands over their mouths, they looked in.
Every spare bed typically used to house the ill or impoverished was taken up. Dirtied linens, buckets, discarded clothes, dried spots of blood covered all. Somewhere in the back, they discerned an ambiguous shape like a small hill of linen. Peering long enough, Meige recognized smaller details making up the mound. Bodies. And not just dozens of bodies. But multiple mounds. Coughs and low groans could be heard, choirs of the dead in differentiating stages of departure.
And the priestess, she was not old at all. In fact, she was scarcely a few years older than them. Only, whatever pestilence had gripped the city had taken hold of her as well, turning her skin a grey pallor tinged with a dark hue like algae that gripped her throat and the corners of her lips, turning some parts black at their darkest points.
Having seen enough, Lock cursed and tripped over his own feet in an attempt to stride backwards.
“We tried …” the woman began, one hand clinging to herself and another reaching out, as if she was torn between begging for help and dying alone, “we tried,” she said again. Now sobbing, she shut the door partially, leaving just a crack to speak out of. “It started not five days ago. The pestilence, the disease, this curse, whatever the gods have given us … it has different forms. Some it kills without warnings. Others, like myself, more time than we are certain of. But soon, soon enough … all of us.”
“Not all, priestess. There is hope, yet,” Meige said. “You mustn’t think this way!”
“No tincture, spell, blessing, or enchantment has worked. We have been trying, testing, tirelessly. Siflos, Morros, Afimer and Bafimer, all of their orders have barred their doors as soon as word spread.”
“Why did nobody say anything? Why was the city silent? Has Duchess Esmerelda not gotten wind of it?”
“Duchess Esmerelda,” the priestess laughed, a despairing sound which ended in a fit of wet coughs. The hand she rose to cover her mouth did not block all of the blood that consequently splattered the floor at her feet. “Duchess Esmerelda is dead. Brought this back … from her travels. A gift from the royals, you could say. That is why we were ordered not to speak of it, after our healers were unsuccessful in tending to her. They were … afraid.”
“Afraid of what?” Lock shouted before he realized the anger had risen his voice.
“Vulnerable to attack. Without a ruler, Symillia is weak. They did not wish for word to spread.”
“You mean to say Symillia is halfway in its grave at the hands of their damned discretion?! The lot of this city won't have the mercy of knowing why or how before it’s taken them!”
“It isn’t her fault, Lock!” Meige clenched his arm.
“But it is. He is right to be angry. If we had known what this was, we would have never followed their orders. I am sorry. Blessings of Calan upon you. Blessings of the Five, of all the gods, lesser and greater. We need them all, now, more than ever.”
The wicket door closed.
Lock, who was still on the ground after having fallen, stared at the space where the priestess had been, his eyes falling still on the blood she left in the few moments she spoke with them.
His sister turned to look behind him at the northern districts of the city.
How quiet and empty their streets were.
Strings are tying together
Some frayed, others tangled
Dried blood marks their seams
Still they tighten, loose ends bereaved
Centermost, their creator
Neither conscious nor oblivious
Neither master nor apprentice
Fingers caught between seams
Closed eyes, all touch, no terror
Sitting still, weaves spinning
As strings knot his heart with ease
A seeming fragile web, growing
Lifts his weight so subtly
Now suspends a mesh of dreams
Ribs and skin shed, he breathes
And so all crimson strings beat
A veinous mechanism of volatility
Shakes and twitches from its centerpiece
Risen and unburdened
Tangled yet contented
Closed eyes, working hands
A steady frenzy for fruition
Entwining efforts twisting
Deeper and deeper--
Black petals wilt to ribbons
Our skies a beatific reflection
Of our devils tempted by honesty
The lies spoken in truth's disguise
To taste what killing feels like
Nothing haunts better than regret
For fear of what end's been worsened
We flee moments bred to live
Left in the mud, cast in the gutters
This is what we become, murderers
So frightening, their sharpened teeth
Our demons gnawing upon dreams
Yet seldom they act without our consent
Embracing this asymmetry grotesque
So we make of ourselves, faultless
Like for like, thought for thought
It all seems misshapen and contorted
Unjust, wildly misplaced, our fragility
Squandered and traded for waste
We wail with why's, then don a face
For answers are best left softened
Their bitterness traded for repentance
As our monsters still flourish
Hiding as they've always been
There under our beds, asleep
In the nightmares of us, we bred
To be not angels, but demons instead
October 30 - 31,
Thus it would never be a good thing
These ideologies of purity
So we would burn like sulphur
To clean our skin with delicacies
So we would drown and suffocate equally
Without indulgence in our eccentricities
Mirrors never birthed self-fixation
Our flesh, however hallowed, always craved sensation
Vampires, old crones, shape-shifters and sprites
The old-tome forsaken whose tales are forgotten
These are our brethren, however neglected
A family lineage, characters of our flesh
Shrouded in terror, lest they perish
We cannot enchant merely with truth
Some innateness which adores fiction
An immortal appreciation born to envision
Hope in bleakness, love in stoicism
Desires darkness for its conception
Not twofold but in multiplicity
Do our spirits shift and seek
Thoughts like bodies, possessing
Craving every life's offering
Which word whispered sparked a shiver?
What touch caressed beyond senses?
Which brush of lips invigorated
And so tortured without end?
In much this way we create
Possibility from fantasy's extremes
As deception instills visions
Tangible apparitions briefly breathing
Through present and memory alike
Gently manifesting our reality
Our angels and demons made thusly
Two sides of one coin's tossing
Ever shimmering in continuity
Thus it would never be a good thing
To keep the lights on fully