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She was still asleep when Jack awoke the next morning. As the dreary sunlight forced its way into the loft, Jack changed his clothes and washed his face while Malivion dozed alone in his small bed. He glanced outside again, but the cloud covered-sky prevented him from determining the exact time of day. Whatever the hour, he hoped that Malivion would rise and sneak back home soon, before either his or her parents discovered her sudden relocation. Jack gave her a light kiss on an exposed cheek, causing her to stir like a napping cat under the thin patchwork quilt.
The lack of sleep from the night before sent Jack’s idle brain into a stupor as he felt around his bed for a pair of boots. Suddenly he remembered, his voice guffawing at the realization, that the last pair he owned was discarded over a month ago for fear of poor circulation to his legs. Jack’s body took a drastic growth spurt over the winter, leaving clothes that were form fitting at his last birthday to have a rather unattractive shortness and uncomfortable tightness to his new and older form. The boots were thrown out begrudgingly, however, since it was uncertain when the village would receive a replacement stock of leather, or when the Perkins family would even be able to afford such a necessity. Jack recalled Kalana’s lament that he
wasn’t born a girl – at least one would have the decency to have grown so
quickly when the family could pay for it.
Just as Jack berated himself over such a waste of time, his fingers met something cold and solid beneath his pillow as he shoved his hand underneath it for leverage. At first he judged it to be a part of Malivion, and recoiled quickly in fear of waking her. But as she continued to sleep, her back towards him, Jack realized that what he felt was too small to have belonged to Malivion’s person.
He withdrew a heavy, dusk-colored medallion from his pillow, its dull appearance unable to even taunt the slim rays of sunlight that managed to break through the cloudy sky behind Jack. Once Jack stood up, however,
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there was enough light for him to make out a deep indentation around the circumference of the medallion, followed by the outlines of two more circles and a solid dot in the center. Jack felt even more confused.
“Ah,” he sighed, and shoved the medallion into his back pocket. If it
did belong to Malivion, it would be a shame if she forgot it in her haste to leave Jack’s room later.
Malivion rolled over in Jack’s bed and continued her doze even as he descended down the ladder from his loft. His bare feet touched onto warm wood. Even though it was overcast outside, it seemed that it would be another humid spring day. Jack didn’t need boots after all.
The door to his parents’ room was left open to allow hall light to seep into the arid abode. Jack stole a glance in on his way by and saw his mother wrapped up in a sheet as if she were a corpse waiting to be carried away. The spot next to her in the bed was empty, much to Jack’s relief: he had something he wanted to discuss with his father privately.
“Pa?” he called, once he reached the bottom of the staircase. “Are you here?”
“Over here,” and Jack turned to see Datero standing over the kitchen table, a quill in his hand and a piece of parchment lying before him.
Jack approached the table before his father could look up and meet his anxious face. The kitchen was as stoic of a place as an abandoned prison. “What are you doing?”
“Paying the bills.”
There was a silence that made the hairs on Jack’s tanned arms stand up. “Do we have enough money to do that?” he whispered.
Datero’s hand stopped moving over the parchment as his dark eyes stared at Jack from their thin corners. “Of course we do.” He embellished his hand across the bottom of the parchment, the remnants of his signature just four very tall lines with an unnecessary dot between them. “We always do.”
“Of course.” Jack attempted to remember a time when they never paid their dues, and he could not recall ever seeing letters written on corn-dyed parchment or the same creditors at their door that meant the demise of Jack’s
grandfather years ago.
“Well,” Datero rolled up his parchment and exchanged it for another flat one, “it has to be done. We need a roof over our head, you know. Some father I would be if I left my only child without so much as an inheritance for his family.”
As his father released a soft sigh, Jack pulled out a chair and sat down – something in his back pocket caused him to quickly stand again, fish around
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inside his pants, and then withdraw what he assumed to be Malivion’s
Jack fingered the outside of the medallion, listening to the rustles of his father’s quill and feeling a draft from the window behind him creep across his skin like another family member trying to embrace him. “Do you know what
Datero gave a short glance at the heavy metal that sat primly in Jack’s palm, taking up the whole of his skin and extending to his fingertips. The expression on his father’s face told Jack that he believed paying bills was more important than Jack’s trinket.
“Never seen anything like it before,” but Datero glanced at the insignia again, as if he were searching for something in his memory.
Jack used the following silence to debate what he should have for breakfast, since his stomach was currently on the verge of releasing a groan liable to disturb Datero. But just as Jack was trying to decide if leftovers or oatmeal sounded more appetizing, his father suddenly slammed his hand onto the table and caused Jack to jump a good inch off his seat.
“Okay, I lied, I’ve seen that sort of thing before,” Datero muttered, and laid a reddened hand on top of his parchment. “Priests carry them around, you know! I think the priest that comes through town once a month has a golden one with Shiloh’s crest on it.”
Jack glanced back down at his medallion. “But this isn’t Shiloh’s crest. It’s not even the right color to be associated with him.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. Sorry I wasn’t much help.”
“No, you did help.” Jack pulled the medallion next to his abdomen and
smiled at his father. “I didn’t know these sorts of things belonged to…priests.”
“I think I heard that priest say that they’re a direct gift from the gods. But I still don’t know what kind of crest that is. Based on the color I’d guess Nixey, but that symbol is a crescent, isn’t it?”
Jack’s callous finger continued to etch its way along the circumference of the circles. “Pa,” a lump formed inside Jack’s throat, “do you know anything about Fate?”
Datero paused for a bit before finishing his monetary chore. “There
isn’t much to know, is there? She’s responsible for what happens in our lives.”
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“Yeah, but,” Jack covered the medallion with his palm, “she doesn’t have any official temples, does she? Let alone any priests…”
“Do you think that could be her crest? I didn’t think the demi-gods had
“I dunno.” Jack tossed the medallion onto the table, forceful enough that Datero noticed, but softly enough so it made no disreputable sound. “But I had a really strange dream last night…”
Jack drew in a large breath, his mind reconstructing the night’s events in a way that may make enough sense to his father. After a short moment of deliberation he began to disclose a list of far-fetched holy incidents that would have probably made his mother shake her head in disbelief and immediately call for a healer to examine her delirious son. But Datero continued to sit slumped in his chair, arms crossed, and an attentive brow perpetually raised as Jack continued his tale. When he was finished his voice trailed off into an incoherent mumble.
“Well, Jack,” Datero leaned forward and propped his elbows onto the table, his fingers pointing against his pursed lips, “that certainly does sound like quite the night. You should feel blessed to even have such holy dreams.”
In any other circumstance Jack would’ve said something salty, but the brevity of his father’s response was enough to make him sit in silence. “I…I don’t think it was a dream.”
Jack withdrew the medallion back off the table and held it in his hand. Both he and his father stared at it until Jack covered it with his fingers again.
“Jack,” Datero began, “do you understand what you’re suggesting?”
“Yes. I must go to Shiloh’s temple. At least then I’ll know for sure if I was hallucinating or not.”
“But Jack, Shiloh’s temple is a good two days away. An overnight trip if you rarely stop.” Datero placed both his hands on the table. “I don’t know if you should…”
From his chair Jack could only stare at his father through dull blue eyes. “Please, Pa. I need to find out.”
Datero drew his body away from the table, his vision never once breaking contact from his son’s figure. The sun managed to suddenly spray through the window and outline both the chair and Jack’s body in a dim array of gold. It reminded Datero of all of the legends he knew about his homeland, about his deity, and about the fabled bird whose image adorned every altar, book, and family candelabra in Lianrawl. Maybe his son was crazy…maybe he was even subconsciously rebelling against the poor and unsatisfactory
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lifestyle that Datero offered him.
Or maybe it would have been a sin to tell his son “no”.
;The corridors in Serafin‟s northern castle were empty as its most veteran prisoner wandered from the bathing chambers to her room. Roku glanced over her shoulder to look into dark nothingness before unlocking the wooden door to her chambers and stepping inside. The door clicked shut with the force of a tree falling from its hollow base behind her.
The young sorceress sighed and sat before her dresser, wiping the sleeve of her cloak across the mirror and watching as dust disappeared to reveal her round and smooth face. She leaned forward and scratched a groomed nail across a small bump on her chin. When she blinked at the brief pain, she caught a glimpse of her large, black pupils surrounded by a thin layer of violet in the mirror.
Roku withdrew her brush from underneath a stack of parchments and continued her morning – or what she always assumed to be morning – ritual
of bathing and grooming. But as the prickly teeth of her brush pushed through her long hair, Roku bit her lip and wondered if Serafin‟s new visitor would still be locked up in his cell. She put her brush down and darted her eyes around to find the proper parchments that contained the spells to rid the body of herbal poisons.
“Good day, Roku,” and she jumped at the sudden sound of Serafin‟s voice behind her – he had a knack for disregarding her privacy in his home.
“Oh,” Roku caught her breath and continued her rummaging, the hairs
on the back of her neck coming to the same attention as a squadron of soldiers upon inspection, “it‟s you. What do you want?”
Serafin took a step forward, his reflection appearing beside Roku‟s in her dirty dresser mirror. “Just checking in on my favorite girl. It‟s been a while since my last visit. I apologize; I‟ve been busy.”
“You really shouldn‟t have taken the time out of your schedule to see me.” Roku had to forcefully unclench her teeth inside her mouth as she fumbled to remember what she was looking for. While the last few years proved that Serafin had no physical interest in her, Roku still had a tendency to abhor from her long-term captor, as pleasant as he acted towards her.
“Ah, but I wanted to make sure that you are still doing well.” Serafin leaned both of his arms against the dresser and cocked his face towards Roku. His stringy black hair fell like spider webs towards the dusty mirror. “I
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wouldn‟t want you to get sick, body or mind.” He extended a hand and briefly touched her pale cheek.
Roku‟s frame leaned towards the right and away from him. “I‟m fine.” She gave up on the spells and grabbed a container filled with blush instead. Perhaps Serafin would not be interested in feminine practices.
“Good, good. I am relieved.” Serafin stood again and crossed his arms
behind his back. “I was afraid that perhaps Bastern hassled you too much in my absence. His forwardness towards you concerns me.”
“Don‟t worry about him,” Roku muttered, referring to the demon‟s only gnoman assistant, “I am stronger than him, and he did not bother me.”
Serafin sighed and watched as Roku brushed her cosmetic against her fair skin. In the dreadfully dim light of her room – there were no windows –
he could only see the glow of her ivory hair and the brief movements of her hands. “I am glad to hear it.”
When he still did not leave, Roku lowered her brush and placed her fingers atop the pile of spells. “I know that you brought in a new prisoner last night, Serafin,” she whispered. “Who is he?”
A minute passed and he did not respond. The silence that burrowed deep into Roku‟s mind haunted her more than any of the brief touches that Serafin liked to leave on her virgin skin. “You are brazen to be meddling into my affairs, Roku.” His voice was stern and cut the silence like a bloody knife.
“While I will not ask you how you even know about my new addition to our family, I will, instead, inquire as to how you know of his gender.”
Roku stiffened. “Lucky guess.”
The air sounded as if it were being sliced into halves as Serafin‟s arm
cut through it and hoisted itself around Roku‟s neck. Her hands flew up and pulled at his arm as the rest of his body pressed against her, his strength astonishing her due to his thin frame and frail-looking appendages. But she could barely breathe, let alone fight back. “Roku, if I didn‟t know any better, I would say that you‟ve helped yourself to that young man, for you certainly were not around when I brought him in last night.” Her knee banged into her dresser, but she was more concerned with struggling in Serafin‟s one-arm
embrace than worrying about a bruise on her shin. “Now I want you to stay away from him, do you understand? If I see you even on the same floor as him, I will personally see to his death myself. And I think that‟s what you
want to avoid, isn‟t it?”
He released her. Roku fell forward and grasped at her neck as loud breaths racked her chest and lips. One of her ribs was already sore.
“Besides,” Serafin place a hand on her slumped shoulder, “you
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shouldn‟t be so jealous of somebody like him. You will always be my
favorite, Roku.” His fingers sprawled out as his touch traveled eerily down her arm. “Your life is more valuable than anyone else I have here with me. Why, you‟ve been with me longer than anyone else. I‟ve been your governor
for you.” His hand was tucking itself underneath her robe – she couldn‟t even
shiver, for her breath was still awkward. “I‟ve watched you grow from being that skinny, sick little girl you were five years ago. And now look at you. You‟re a lovely young lady.” His fingers brushed against the skin at the base of her breast. “My, have you grown.”
The strength that threw him off her must have been divine, for afterwards Roku could barely support her torso let alone cast off his imposing limb like that again. “Do not compromise me!” she shouted, her voice projecting itself to the top of her dresser. “Don‟t…don‟t touch me!”
Serafin laughed through his nostrils. “No, no of course not. We both are better off if you stay untainted. I apologize for my indecency.”
Roku shivered and forced herself to sit up. “Please get out.”
“Of course.” Serafin backed away from her person and strolled towards the bedroom door. “I‟ll send some breakfast up for you. I hope cherries will suffice enough as an apology to you. I know how much you love cherries.”
Roku cast her head towards him, but met the brunt end of her door as it snapped back into place. She half expected to hear the monotonous clicking of locks – she was relieved to realize that Serafin was not going to disturb her any longer.
“Cherries,” she muttered to herself. “What a sick bastard. I hate cherries.”
After a short time Roku managed to conjure back her strength and straighten out her hair and robe. This wasn’t the first time Serafin made
known his prowess over her, nor did she doubt that it was the last. For five years she lived as a prized prisoner in Serafin’s castle, the last remaining member of her village’s Tapping population. Although Serafin bragged time and again about her capture from her isolated village in Nixey, he never once explained to her what her purpose in his grand plan was, nor did he even express why he wanted her in the first place. All Roku knew was what her captor was capable of – and the young man up in his cell could very well end up being at the brunt of that power.
Roku massaged her neck and shifted through her stack of parchments until she came upon the recipe she was searching for. At that moment a knock
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sounded from her door, and after she shoved the parchment once again underneath its stack she allowed her visitor admittance to her room.
A stout, female gnome entered, a platter of assorted food balanced upon her fat arm as she waddled into the room. The servant said nothing as she left the platter on top of a small table beside Roku’s desk, bowed in her
direction, and retreated from the room, closing the door once more behind her.
Sighing, the sorceress stood from her seat and strolled over to the platter, automatically ignoring the string of cherries and plucking an apple into her hand. She wandered back to her dresser, grabbed the parchment, took a bite from the apple – it was sour – and began collecting the tools and
ingredients needed to concoct her potion. Roku figured that the best time to visit her fellow prisoner would be right after Serafin expressed his desire for her not to.
The unsatisfactory apple diminished into nothing but a thin core by the time Roku finished her potion. She sat down in front of her dresser again as the potion wafted beside her in a small cup, its earthy scent reminding her of its presence as she finished brushing her hair and tying it back into a single tail. The sorceress discarded the apple core and took the cup and string of cherries with her out of her room.
She saw only one other gnome servant out in the corridors, but she was near the privy and therefore unalarmed at the short servant spotting her. However, Roku withdrew her limbs closer to her body to minimize the possibility of sight as she ascended the staircases that led up to the tower cells. It would be a shame to have spent all that time trying to heal a man just for Serafin to kill him due to her sloppiness.
There was no key for the lock on the cell that she stumbled upon – just
a wooden barrier that even she could lift up and quietly discard without much hassle. Roku anticipated finding either the prisoner gone or asleep – not
sitting on the edge of his cot and staring into his cupped hands.
“Don’t move,” she muttered, and shut the door behind her. “I’ve brought you something.”
Zachoran lowered his hands and lifted his head to glance at his caller. “Really. It wouldn’t happen to be food, would it?”
Roku was in the midst of debating whether or not to light a lantern when she heard his half-hearted request. “Hasn’t anybody fed you?” she
asked, placing the cup on the slab that she worked upon the night before. The cherries were still in her hand.
“Not really. Unless you count gruel in the smallest breakfast bowl ever
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conceived as a suitable meal.”
Deciding to forgo creating any more light in the tiny cell, Roku turned to face the prisoner. As he massaged the back of his neck and ran his fingers through his short black hair, the sorceress assessed his figure, trying to determine how long he would be able to survive on such meager rations. His body seemed strapping enough to last him a couple of more days before he would begin to become emaciated – a shame since he appeared to be the type
to keep track of his figure. “How do you feel?” the sorceress then asked.
“Honestly?” Zachoran sat up and searched for her face in the shadows. “Besides hungry, I feel rather fine. I think whatever you gave me last night helped a lot.”
“Then drink this.” Roku advanced towards him, cup in hand, her hair slipping over her shoulder and hanging in the air next to his face. “Please, take it.”
The prince eyed the small cup for a moment before lifting both of his hands to encase it in his grip. His companion withdrew her fingers and clasped them together before her waist, her hairs continuing to tickle his nose. The scent of lavender was stronger than before, and Zachoran guessed that it was either a perfume or shampoo from the intensity it held on just one clump of hair.
“Thank you,” he whispered, and brought the cup to his lips. As he
drank, Roku produced the cherries from her sleeve and waited until he was finished with her potion.
“And take these. Maybe it will subside your hunger for a little bit.”
But the prince did not readily accept her offering with the same reception as he did with her medicine. After some physical coaxing by nudging her hands in his direction, Zachoran finally took the string of cherries and observed them in the dim light. His brow was furrowed far enough to reach his nose.
“What’s the matter?” Roku demanded. “Don’t you want them? It shouldn’t matter if you like them or not if you’re hungry. Are you allergic?”
Inside his mind Zachoran was calculating just how much trust he could instill into this young woman – or at least he assumed she was. For all he
knew she was some witch, some enchantress, even Serafin himself, disguised as a figure sure to win his confidence. And cherries were so…random. What kind of diabolical things could Serafin have hidden inside their ruby red skin?
Roku took a step back and realized that a sullen look swept across her face. “W…why? They were mine; I don’t want them. I was going to be nice
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and give them to you, but if you – ”
“Are they poisoned?”
“How…how dare you insinuate that I would poison you!” Roku hissed.
She wanted to shout at him but feared being overheard outside the cell. “I have done nothing but given you my kindness, and for all I know you’ll end up dead tomorrow anyway! Poison you? After going through all that effort to revive you last night? Don’t insult me.”
Zachoran smirked and clamped his palm over the string of cherries. “You don’t socialize much, do you?” he guffawed. “You should learn to speak without leaving your mouth open like that.”
“Ugh!” Roku snatched a cherry from his hand and popped it into her
mouth, chewing it as quickly as she could and spitting the pit onto the stone floor. As she swallowed she tasted the same sour, vile flavor she did every time she consumed cherries. “Are you happy now?”
“As content as I can be, I suppose,” the prince mumbled, and accepted
the rest of the cherries without a fight. “I also suppose I don’t have much choice but to trust you, right?”
“If you want to live, surely.”
From his cot the prince laughed, his fingers tracing the outlines of the cherries from lack of anything better to do. “But obviously you have no desire to help me escape from this prison.”
Roku averted her gaze from him and took the two steps necessary to reach the cell door. “I’m afraid that would be impossible.” She swallowed the liquid now lodged in her throat. “I must go now. I will be back later with nourishment for you. Please make do until then.”
She retreated much in the same manner as the night before: fleeting before the prisoner could say anything else to her, anything that may jar a nerve or pluck a dusty heart string that hadn’t been touched in over five years, since she was a little girl in a lonesome village deep in the forests of Nixey. The truth was that this prisoner was the first man Roku had come into contact with aside from Serafin and his assistant; normally Serafin kidnapped young women, or at least he did until he decided to keep Roku, for whatever reason. The only other prisoners to come into the castle since her capture were those who came too close to discovering Serafin’s true essence or purpose, and
none of them lived longer than a day or two. Since this prisoner was being fed, Roku reasoned, it probably meant he was supposed to live at least a while longer.
The last young man to have even touched her…Roku imagined a pair
of protective arms wrapped around her, blood trickling down her forehead as