There were days when the world was silent, the shadows still in their dance and he could just be. However, he was not himself. There was a time and a place and a name that belong to a dead man. Those were the things that made up an existence that was no longer his. His name was a title.
No, today, he was someone else – he was Ruadh – as he would be tomorrow, and the day after that. Ithel Barnabas was the seventh in a long line of haunting and Ruadh welcome him as he did all his other patrons. He was Ithel Ruadh’s ancestor and the current Ruadh knew that he would always be in his shadow – that man was the first and he himself the last of a kind.
Ruadh Barnabas the XII, himself sat by the fire-place, in his room in Lady Aveolem’s Castle, and threw nut shells in the flames just to see them crack against the blackened wood in an uncontrollable spark.
There was a girl sitting across from him in a high arm-chair, her laugh merry and shrill over the cracking of the fire. He didn't know why she was laughing, but then again he couldn't really ask her either.
A nutshell went into the flame, then another. Crack. Crack.
She was gone.
She'd stayed for a total of twenty-tree seconds, this time, even though she was never even there to begin with. Ruadh didn't really know what she was – he knew who she was, he knew her likes and dislikes and her ghostly touches like he knew the touches of all of his other visitors.
That girl was gone now, cracking in and out of existence like the spark of a burning nutshell, and the next time she came she would stay with him for a total of twenty-three seconds.
Ruadh had counted. He'd counted for all of them.
Another nutshell burned out, but the girl didn’t come back.
They came and went and came back and always left him behind – but they were not real. They hadn't been in centuries.
He didn’t know what to call them. They were people once, now they were dead – surely. Perhaps they were Ghosts or Wraiths or even Echoes. But no, Ruadh was quite positive they weren’t aware of his presence. They existed in a way unknown and came to visit at random times and in random order.
The girl was the kindest of the lot, in any case.
He called her Wayward, because anything else would be too hurtful for either of them.
There was another girl as well, though this one was a silent blur of shadow in his vision. She fluttered about, ghosting slim fingers and silken hair over his cheek and bare arms. Sometimes, she stood behind him and played with his hair or hugged him by the shoulders.
Her appearances were so sudden more often than not he registered them as attacks – but then she was gone, too quick and too fleeting to be more than a breath to his ear, one devoid of words. She was there for merely seven seconds. Ruadh wasn’t sure whether he wished she’d stay longer or just disappear.
A pair of siblings sulked at either of his sides – one of short black hair that was as neat as a rat’s nest and an air about her that screamed I’m cold and lost and I know you’re not going to help me. The other had a pair of irises that watched everything with such wary caution, such bitter fright you would wonder when he’d finally lose it and spill all the misery that had accumulated in his small heart.
There were men as well. Three of them.
There was a man dressed in flamboyant cloths, who’d recite children’s songs to a grown man’s ear. Ruadh would listed though, for there was no one else who could hear.
Another man would appear soon after, sometimes even mere mili-seconds apart – as if chasing the other. Calculating eyes would sweep over Ruadh’s figure, his surroundings, his home before they disappeared with the rest of the apparition. They never seemed to find what they were looking for.
Ruadh knew he shouldn’t have been as disappointed as he felt.
A willowy man came last. His hair was gray and long, his skin flaked with blemishes of age, his eyes bleeding pools of colour and his smile mocking to a world he was no longer a part of. Ruadh found his company the most detestable, mainly because this man clung to reality the longest.
He talked and talked and talked, but his voice was distorted and uneven and wrong. His voice recited ideas and suggestions of things that had already happened and things that should have happened and things that would never be and Ruadh wished he’d shut up already.
He never did. It didn’t matter, the willowy man faded with the rest of them.
Finally, Ruadh was left alone. The fire had long gone out and the room had grown dim and cold. He was lonely. He begun to imagine shadows in the shadows and the flutter of a dress lost within the swaying curtains by the open window or the endless string of words and everything else that didn’t exist outside his head.
The Seven Haunts would have laughed.
They were as precise as they were random, but Ruadh was somehow reassured by the fact that they would come back. They’d never even left him, really. He carried them in his heart, in his mind, in his very soul and it hurt. It hurt to remember, even though forgetting was so much worse.
He shook his head as if to dislodge the unpleasant thoughts from his mind and whispered a quick spell to light the flames again. Ulyssa, his Second Apprentice, had left him some nutshells in a basket by the fire and he grasped them with shaking hands, threw them into the fire.
There was a letter in his hand also – folded, memorized. On the floor lay colorfully faded wrapping paper and a box it had been sealed into. The letter turned from golden age to ashen pitch in the time it took for a nut to crackle in the fire.
Oh, that Shifter was rather clever. He’d given both Ruadh and the little girl an advantage over one another, though Ruadh could not link him to any of it.
He leaned back in his chair, hand ghosting over the basket his Apprentices had left him. A small smile tugged at his lips, contorted his face in a play of shadow and fire-light. He wasn’t sure what had brought it on, but he was beyond caring now.
In the end, however, he was just a sentimental fool – as he’d always been, as he always would be.
I know that you’ll forget me soon enough, if you haven’t already. Perhaps I shouldn’t be writing this letter then, because surely you would have forgotten me by now. The Grass of Oblivion is something that takes a great deal of time to take effect, to conceal your memories from you. Yes, conceal, I feel a good story can never be erased – merely forgotten.
Oh, sweet sister… you’re probably wondering what I’m going on about? What is the Grass of Oblivion? I can imagine you asking. It is a potion, Drina, one that holds fast to its power and terrible glory in these times where Magic is waning and dying out. Oh, and Drina? Magic is real, though I guessed you had that figured out long before I did. What can I say, I was kind of slow on the uptake!
But no… you probably aren’t wondering about some silly Grass now. Are you wondering, who I am? I’m not quite sure myself, anymore…
You wouldn’t believe the things I’ve seen – the people I’ve met! I’m now the friend of several Fairies, two Shifters, an Elf, a Mermaid-Lamia hybrid and a Dragon! Oh, and an entire league of Ghosts! You would have loved it, Drina, I’m sure but… you couldn’t have come with me.
Dear sister, I am sorry to inform you that I am a failure. I’ve spent six years studying to be a doctor, Drina, a good one. However… however when I found out about this “other world” in our own I just… couldn’t settle for something so plain. It was like the entire world had seemed so much starker in colour, like everything held so much more life in it.
Mother wants me to become a surgeon, I know, perhaps I do too – but now I have no will to continue on that predetermined path. I want to explore this “other world”, but more than that I want to find myself useful. I am not entirely confident in my abilities, nor in my chances of actually becoming a surgeon and these thoughts, these beliefs suck the meaning out of my life.
These new friends of mine, who played with my sanity like the teasing fiends this are – have become my best friends. I know I’ve never been the most social type and perhaps I couldn’t have been, what with my studies eating away at my time. A doctor… a doctor has to know what he’s doing. A surgeon has to be precise, to know how to save a life before even touching the one who they are meant to heal.
I’m not sure if I can do that. I’m not sure if I can save anyone, or if I even want to. The world… the world will forget me when I am gone. It will forget the people I saved and those I did not. Knowing, now, that there are immortal beings out there… knowing now that there are beings whose lifespan we count as merely a few seasons…
I am lonesome, Drina. No one knows of my secrets and I fear if I told anyone they would lock me up in an institution. My friends, who I shall not name for you will not know them, are real, I know, but the rest of the world will continue to deny their existence no matter what I do.
I don’t want the world to know of Magic. Magic is power, a tool, and I fear what that tool will be used for in the hands of someone who doesn’t know how to wield it. To tell you the truth, I feel as though I am going slowly mad.
I cannot stay any longer now that I know what I know. I can't stay in this place I’ve called home. I feel like I don't know it anymore, nor that I know myself any better. I am no Magician or Prophet, neither am I a Shaman or do I plan on becoming a Vampire. I am, simply, me – though I am still quite undefined.
I’m sorry, this previous rant was not the point of this letter. I am leaving now, Drina, and you shall forget I ever existed. As I said before, you should probably forget me and throw this letter away – but… I had to write it. No matter if you, or anyone for that matter, reads this… I want you to know that I’m not perfect. Never was. Never will be. But… I tried… for you, for mother, for father and everyone else I cared for – but I can no longer live like this.
No, I’m rambling. This is not important, yet I still want you to remember me Drina. Despite what I’m doing, what I’m leaving, I want you to remember if it so happened that I forget.
I will go now, to the Caverns of Avala, and I’ll work for them along side my new comrades – under the Toutes Agir. It’s not about success anymore, nor about finding a significant other nor about belonging somewhere… this is… about being Human, being selfish and going where I feel I will be needed, if not liked or accepted.
I’m sorry, Drina, but… I can no longer live for the sake of others.
“You called, Master Barnabas?”
The fire cracked merrily in the hearth. Ruadh no longer sat by it. His mind was in turmoil, his motives a mess. He turned to address the newcomer with an eternally neutral face and felt the cold settle over his soul and rest, heavily, on his aging bones.
“Spiridon.” he greeted “Yes, I fear I am in need of your service.” He nodded to himself, as if confirming some sort of thought, and said without preamble “Yes, tell me, what would the price be for a memory of another?”
“A memory, Master Barnabas?” Spiridon asked, befuddled. He was a young thing, by the way Spirits measure time. He was a made thing, painted once by an artist who put his own soul in his work. Humans were strange being, selfishly giving in their desperation to be loved.
Spiridon was quiet for a while. Then, he said “Well, that would depend on how important that memory is. To who it is important is also paramount.”
“To whom?” Ruadh repeated with a slight frown.
“Yes, different things hold a different weight – when judged by the scales of many.” explained Spiridon. His voice was as strong as ever, tone confident and knowing – but there was something nervous in his stature. He was a Scout, for sure, one of the best, and that was why Ruadh had accepted him as one of his own. Magic was dying in Humanity and if Humanity abandoned it completely – what would happen, to all these creatures purposefully forgotten?
Ruadh nodded “I see.”
“Master Barnabas, I apologize for the rudeness but…” Yes, rudeness. Spiridon had always been a rude, rebellious kind – so atypical for something that was supposed to be naturally indifferent. “I must implore you not to do anything silly.”
“Oh?” Ruadh intoned, amused “And what would fall under the category of silly for you, silly little Spiridon?”
Spiridon looked at his feat with a scowl. Moments passed and just as Ruadh was about to move on with the conversation, thinking this little trifle over and done with, the Spirit beseeched him “I just wouldn’t want to you to end up like your namesake.”
“Hm, at least he died for a purpose.” Ruadh countered, lightly.
Spiridon’s head snapped up, startled by his words. “Yes, but
he did not achieve it.” he said to his Master, valiantly trying to control the
quiver in his voice. "He burned along with all he'd accomplished. I'm sure he'd thought his life pointless in his final moments."
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you?” Ruadh chuckled, shaking his head.
“Master Barnabas?” Spiridon’s tone was unsure, young – so much younger than Ruadh had ever been.
“The world doesn’t remember what we did in the course of our lives,” he told the Immortal “it remembers us by the ruins we leave behind.”
Spiridon frowned, looking conflicted and confused “Sir?”
Ruadh smiled at him, as if in reassurance. “Forgive me,” he said “I am old – and with age there comes a certain vanity. I’ve been meaning to ask, how’s that friend of yours? Noel Bovary, was it? A rather peculiar case.”
“Yeah…” Spiridon’s voice was hesitant, as if it didn’t know how to navigate the new topic of conversation “he’s a good kid, a bit too quiet and a bit too cynical, maybe, but I’ve never seen anyone who loves life so much. I mean…”
Ruadh nodded along, then asked “And what of the Shaman I asked you to see?”
“As your Lordship already knows, though I have observed some interaction with Drina Serdar, he knows nothing of this oncoming danger she has warned you about.”
“I imagine as much…” Ruadh sighed, looking out the window again. It really was a beautiful view, when the glass was clear and unobscured. “Tell me, Spiridon, have you ever thought about death?”
There was silence for a while, then “I am a Spirit, my Lord. What’s more I am the Spirit borne from a painting, as you already know. Death is something foreign to me, but… the thought of not existing anymore is rather frightening.”
“Yes,” Ruadh agreed with a mirthless laugh “I do believe it is.”
“If I were to die… no, I will surely die – whether tomorrow or decades from now… I would like to be remembered.” Ruadh admitted, not looking back at his companion.
“You will be remembered, Sir.” he heard Spiridon tell him.
Ruadh merely shook his head. “Afterwards I’ll be forgotten all the same, as is the nature of all things. No, no when I die I want it to be for something – so I at least have the condolence that the act served some sort of purpose – and I would like to leave something unfinished, to prove I am still very much part of this world.”
“Sir, I’m not sure…”
“Be at ease, Spiridon, it is only my vanity talking. Go, gather the others. I know what must be done.”
He sat outside the glass, an indifferent observer to the things happening on the other side. It was a glass dome, circularly spacious and more or less a panopticon to the audience seated at its edges, outside the sphere. One could hardly notice its presence, if one wasn’t thinking about it. It was supposed to be invisible, after all. You could see everything inside, yet you could not hear or smell or sense.
That was the purpose of the glass – to create a distance.
Agapito stared at his reflection, almost tempted to touch the barrier. In it, Edita Povalej and Orazio Pissari ran across hundreds platforms, all unstable and flipping to reveal a new challenge. Ermete would have loved it. Orfeo would have fretted, in his not so obvious way, but Agapito wanted to believe he would have liked it as well. Be sure to send me a post card, he’d told him before he left.
Agapito shook himself, trying to focus on his task.
This was the practical part of the test, the reason why people called this event the Olympic Agones Magiae. The point was to see just how much someone with no previous training could deal with a Magical conundrum. Since most Magicians across Europe, America and the Far East were born into families, clans and communities in general that were used to harnessing its nature for centuries – unrefined, wild talent was hard to find. It was a treat really, a kind of theatre you could win prizes in.
Agapito hated theatre, he really did,
especially when he himself was pulling the strings. But no, if he did this
Laven would fulfill all his promises. Agapito couldn’t back down now. Agapito had to save Ermete, after all, he had to.
Agapito had, in his loyalty to Laven, already convinced that Demon-girl to join –
the African boy as well. He hoped in earnest that they would survived the night. Others would not be so fortunate. This task was supposed to be that of a Shifter, but Laven had changed his plans at the last moment. Agapito dared not question it.
There would be a multitude of names written in his report, all black and white symbols on a flimsy thing in flimsy cover. If he lived to write it, anyway. Edita Povalej would be the first on that list. Leon, undoubtedly, the second. Then the Ministers, then the rich folk who’d come to buy Magic where Magic was not supposed to be sold – to give a job and a promise of success in life only to rob it of everything else.
Agapito tried not to feel pleased at his plan. The Demon would be blamed, as the world was wont to blame Demons. There would be no in-depth investigation into the scandal, just political promises of retribution and turmoil in the upper-classes, perhaps even in the middle-ones. The poor Demon would not even be there to defend himself. Agapito tried not to feel heartbroken at the thought. Ermete would have been. He probably would have cried too. How could he be so naive, so good?
Why couldn't everyone be that good, really and truly and without pretense?
Yes, Agapito mused, the fall of mankind was not pride – it was the thought that they were fully, whole-heartedly good. It was a nice lie to believe, all in all, because wouldn’t it have been nice if every person in the world had a heart of gold? No, wouldn’t it have been nicer to never be able to make a mistake, to never falter or doubt oneself and one’s rightness?
Yes, it would have been nice if every Human was such a god-like thing. Agapito felt as though he’d ceased being Human long ago, even if he could be nothing else. The world was slow around him, time so sluggish it slipped through his hands before he noticed its passage. He could hear cheers coming from the crowd, both Human and Naga and Kitsune and Spirit and even–
Vampires were curious, forgetful things if given enough food and chance. They were vicious, brainless beasts when left to starve and given nothing. These Vampires, which now sat around him in blissful pass-time, to pay witness to a test they’d seen conducted a thousand times before – they weren’t animals. Agapito could see the awareness in their eyes, the intelligence in their stare. They conversed with one another, with foreigners on foreign languages and discussed topics that were decidedly Human and quite active in the modern age still.
They didn’t want this. They didn’t want to be beasts or monsters or man-eaters. They survived because the Humans survived and Humans survived because the animals they ate survived and because their life-style still guaranteed it, to some point.
No one wanted to be a monster, but all, in essence, were.
Glass broke, like a cage blowing up from the inside out. It sent them all flying. Agapito soared through the air, blind and deaf to the world around him. There would be screaming and there would be death. At the end of it, whether he survived or not, there would be hatred.
At least, he amended, he’d die for something righteous.
There was once a girl who risked her life to save a cat.
It wasn’t even her cat, or her mother’s, or her sister’s, or even her best friend’s. It was, simply put, just a random cat that decided to cross the street at the wrong moment. Edita had seen road kill before, from limb furry things strewn on the road to little red pieces on the asphalt. Her feet had moved on instinct more than anything else. Alright, maybe not instinct – because instincts were there to tell you, point blank, that you shouldn’t play the suicidal hero – but a desire to stop something gruesome from happening.
She was the fastest runner in her class and, fortunately, her mother held her younger sister’s hand more often than she did hers – because her sister was smaller and a little off-kilter on her bruised knee.
Edita hadn’t really been thinking. She hadn’t thought about her mother or sister or not-there father – just the cat. She snatched it like the princess from that old tale about the Golden Apple and ran the whole length of the busy street. It had only had three lines – the drivers in the first hadn’t even noticed her, the second slowed with a curse and the third screeched to a stop.
Her mother had screamed her head off. Her sister had called her a super-hero.
People that had seen her saving the cat whispered that she was stupid, "What if you got killed? Why throw your life away trying to save a mangy cat?", they didn't seem to understand. Edita didn't either – why was the life of a cat lesser than hers? It had a family too, didn't it? And she hadn't died, so what was the big deal?
Why was one life lesser than the other?
That was what she was thinking of now, staring into a deformed face of her opponent.
Road kill. Pure and simple, only this time there was no evading the car.
Glass rained outside the arena, a thundering storm around them. The platforms, like dozens of Mayan pyramids, shuddered in their unstable construction. Edita jumped, never staying in one spot for more than half a second. A crevice would appear when her small feet had once stood, gaping like hungry mouths.
People were screaming up there. Why were they screaming? The glass had stopped raining a good half a minute ago! She looked up just as she jumped over to the next Mayan-esque platform. A woman was draped over the edge of the arena, remnants of the barrier stuck in her abdomen and with her hair covering her face. Another woman was on her, holding her in place with her head buried in the others auburn hair.
The screaming grew dim in Edita’s ears, as did everything else. Her mind tunneled so the sight burned into her memory, every trashing jerk and rivulet of crimson that came from it – dripping into the arena in quantities a Human body shouldn’t have possessed.
Edita's foot caught on the edge of the platform. She toppled, the platform wobbling beneath her. No riddle came forth, no task. She choked. She could feel the blood pulsating in her veins, out in the open air with every cut she’d received.
The Vampire would surely feel it too.
With a jolt of terror, she looked up. One of the women was still there, hanging on the ledge like a cut marionette. The other, however, was gone. The screaming hadn’t stopped. Nothing had stopped. Her eyes wide, Edita searched the arena – looking for a retreat.
She found the form of her opponent, who was pressed against the wall. Roadkill, both of them. Their eyes met and Edita shivered. Those eyes were cold. There was something feral about them, wild, untamed, alive. Edita would have called it greedy, except she knew what greed felt like. This was the kind of greed that made you keep on living and being selfish and loving the life you had. It was greed and it was survival.
She reached out to him. Help me, she wanted to scream, but no, the platform was already collapsing under her and her foot was trapped. “Go.” she mouth, tearfully, and he did. And Edita?
Edita did the only thing she could – she fell on her own.
Vilma was bored.
Her sister was nowhere to be found, probably still busy with the tournament downstairs. That was no surprise, Edita was always busy.
Leon, the lazy-assed hippy, was talking to some random Vampire prince/noble/whatever she couldn't care less about and Chandra, the stuttering wimp, was in one of the lounge areas, gossiping with the other girls and talking about a future Vilma could not bring herself to think about. She was out of the competition before it ever really started. She’d separated from Edita that first night, determined to prove herself and failed.
No bright future was well-earned, at least not for her. If Edita passed every level, if she caught the eye of some generous benefactor – the two of them would be like monkeys in a zoo, strange exhibits in an even stranger world. That was not the kind of life Vilma wanted. Sure, she wanted to be famous and successful, to travel and be carefree and to never want for anything but she wanted it all for herself – no gawking eyes or prying no-lives.
Daydreams, her mother called them. Goals, her sister claimed them to be.
Wandering aimlessly, Vilma was attracted by the smell of food. Making her way towards the tables lining one wall of the ballroom, Vilma took in the people around her with no real interest. What was so interesting about them? They were a bunch of stuck up snobs all dressed up like dolls. Bloody weaklings. They acted like they were on top of the world yet they were biased, spoiler little babies. They would never grow, never develop into anything more. They weren’t even trying.
It made Vilma's insides simmer with anger.
She'd always had „anger issues" as her estranged runaway of a father had dubbed it. He'd been one of the rare people she'd let talk back to her, when she was younger and before he left them all for some blond German bimbo. He’d left when she was nine, but Vilma’s anger never did – nor did the emptiness that accompanied it.
Vilma wished for that whimsical, free life – without money problems or dress codes or pretending to be a snob in front of actual snobs who all thought they were better than you. Yet she wished for those things and she was going to make sure no one would deny her of it. The dark-haired sister passed the last cluster of chattering nobles and came in sight of her prize.
If there was one thing that was good about being here at the Blagojevich Mansion, it was the fact that they hired some of the best chefs in the country. The mere sight of all the delicacies, both local and foreign, made Vilma's mouth water. Lost in thought and the smells of spiced meats and deserts – and the many lectures about proper utensil-use her Mother had beat into her system – Vilma felt a shiver run down her spine. She turned, expecting to find someone watching her.
The lights went out.
Pandemonium erupted half a heartbeat later as the first scream resounded in the night.