Short Story: Arcaine

“There’s sadness to it.” The words tumbled out, breathed more than spoken. It was a small kindness that none bore witness to this particular tragedy.  There were no eyes to watch the mottled hands fumble at the small vial, to see the haphazard line of powder dribble unto the table. The huddled figure leaned forward and deeply inhaled, trying to coax every grain of powder from the accumulated grime. Again the man spoke. “But also joy.”

A flash of light and then…nothing.

Blackness coated his mind, a pall subduing all thought. There was no yesterday, just as there could be no tomorrow. Only the present mattered, a single man adrift in a sea without memories. He cackled, rocking back and forth in his chair. “All gone, all so far away.” The creeping mold devouring the room offered no thoughts. He didn’t ask.

Some time passed. Moments. Hours. The length of the journey did not matter, only that it was coming to an end. The abyss cracked, and light appeared. Dull eyes fluttered open and sharpened as reality closed in. His first thought was of escape. A desperation to return to the darkness from whence he came.

Eager hands found their way back to the vial. Perhaps it would yield another journey. One more passage to the darkness he so coveted.

Duly located. Hastily upended.

Empty.

Sweat dappled his brow as he groped at the implications. Without the powder, the light would find him again. It would pry him from his hovel and shine upon the dusty corners of his mind. He would exist, and even worse, so would the world. It would make demands. Ask him for things he couldn’t possible give. Not now. Not ever.

Such vulnerability and no escape in sight.

The vial had betrayed him to the light. He could see that now. There could be no other explanation for its emptiness. An evil deed, and a signal of the danger he found himself in.  He scrambled beneath his desk, seeking whatever protection it may provide. Secure in his refuge, he covered his ears with ruddy hands and tightly shut his eyes, desperate to regain the dark.

“Not here, not anywhere.” He whispered, repeating the mantra to ward off the world.

But it would come, there was no avoid it. Not without the precious powder. The forgotten things would return, and bring with them the pain of understanding. Fear flitted away before the rage. “No. I refuse!” Fists slammed the greasy stone floor, rending flesh and exacting a tax in blood for the abuse. But the anger could not be sustained. It faded even as it took hold, leaving him in tears. Each pooled in the corner of his eye, too timid to venture forth to the harsh reality beyond.

The truth?

He languished among ruin — Callen of the Winding Flame was no more. Apparitions of the past whispered to him. Fire Lord. Ember Hand. There were many titles, but only one man. Some were given in moments of victory, with the pomp and circumstance attendant to such recognition. Others were epithets, hurled upon him by grieving widows amidst oaths of vengeance. He was the master of flame, and he had earned them all.

He had painted the world with his magic, creating pieces of terror and those of mercy. His bold strokes across the canvas of death incinerated the Gul Githri for their insolent attempt at the Iron Throne. Upon the Plains of Koth, they knew him as The Flame. A curious name, for he had left only ashes. But for all the death, there were acts of life too. Castles protected. Damsels recovered. They did not speak these moments. The flame is always remembered for its fury, not its glow. No matter. Each was its own masterpiece.

But all lost.

The inferno of his prime was doused, reduced to stubborn coals feeding on a fuel long since spent. There might be brilliance in forgotten corners, but it was unwilling reignite, smothered by excess. A man cannot produce works of art if his mind can no longer recognize the brush. The magic had left him, along with everything else. Everyone else.

“Warned.” He had been. “Oh how they begged.” A momentary flash of a girl, eyes wreathed in red scorched his mind. Her hair was honey and she wore a smile. “I was too much. I could not hear.” He shooed the girl away, an unwanted reminder. “Much too much.” His hand snaked out from beneath the desk and clutched the leg of his chair. He concentrated on the tactile sensation, willing his mind down alternate paths. The past departed, but it would return, it always returned when he remained in the light.

A reckoning would come, of that he could be certain.

Arcaine possessed the power to take him away, but the journey did not come without expense. The fee was crystalline cognizance, awareness of a world sharply defined by the contrast of the abyss. Arcaine gave him darkness, but it made him fear the light. Each time the abyss faded, he was forced to remember once again, to reacquaint himself with himself. To see the wretch he was, and to remember who he used to be.

Unsteady legs propelled Callen from his refuge beneath the desk and atop the rickety chair. He occupied himself with a final, and more thorough, investigation of the vial. Salvation may still lie within. Alas. straining eyes failed to reveal a hidden cache of arcaine. He grumbled and inspected the desktop before him. So many journeys began atop this battle worn surface. Each splotch of ink was a reminder of the letters not sent. There were stories among the wine stains and stab wounds, none of them pleasant.

But every cloud has its silver lining. Treasure lurked among the detritus.

There, in the middle of the desk, lay a few tiny gems of white powder from a prior escapade. He dragged his nose along the surface, attempting to mine the precious specks from the accumulated grime. No luck. But he was no man to be foiled by such petty obstacles. Drawing his dagger, he deftly dislodged the layer of filth. After a brief inspection, he rubbed the mess into puffy red gums.

Callen sighed scanning the desk for another prize. No more. That particular well had run dry. He felt the drumbeat of withdrawal commence. It was a quiet patter now, but it would crescendo into a cacophony of misery soon enough. At least the depths of the crash had been weathered, the stark return to reality successfully navigated. Mental faculties, such as they were, sputtered to life. Hunger idled in the background, a secondary concern. His gaunt form attested to that particular fact.

Callen stood and stretched before shambling over to the wash basin where he splashed brown water into his face. He regarded himself in the mirror. He was shattered. Well, the mirror was. Maybe  both. There was no need to decide at that particular moment.

At least the small daub of blood in the middle of broken mirror brought him cheer. “Victory!” He proclaimed. One should not forget the small battles. Bad luck though, breaking mirrors. Superstition to be sure, but circumstance seemed to prove out the belief. Callen leveled an indignant sniff at the shards. Perhaps the mirror should have comported itself in a more civilized manner. He grinned at the mirror. A cracked man greeted him back.

“Not the prettiest maiden at the fair, I’m afraid.” He raked gnarled hands through a morass of dark brown hair. The grey at the temples was not a new addition, but it seemed to be advancing steadily. His hands froze as he caught a whiff of jasmine and amidst a field of golden locks. “She had such fine hair.” That sad smile again, and then she was gone. Tears welled anew. At least the tears were consistent in their companionship. Resting his hands on either the side of the porcelain basin, Callen let them flow. He wondered what their names might be. Was the first tear always the same one?

He needed more arcaine.

But what was there to offer for it? Very little remained of a vast fortune. Poor money management there, squandered on frivolities and unwise ventures – nothing to be done about it now though. Callen took stock of his current assets. A threadbare mattress, more weevil than straw, rested upon a creaking frame. The traitorous mirror and the cracked man who resided within of course, but Callen doubted that would be of interest anyone. The books. A small collection, but notable for the lack of wear they displayed. Each beautiful gilded page was meticulously cared for, free from the ravaging dust and mold that consumed the remainder of the hovel.

Upon that shelf lay the complete works of his life. There was no particular organization among the books, but each belonged to the same fraternity of fire. Written with his own hand, the tomes explained how to negotiate the fickle implements of magic. Some books were simple lessons in the wielding of flame: ignite the fire, increase the heat, prolong the life of the flame. Others were more…complicated.

Callen’s mind drifted to one section in particular, a collection of pages laying out his shame in exquisite detail. The memory was faded, but he still recalled his hand trembling as it drew the lines on the parchment. He had spent months of careful deliberation and bargaining before he was able to coax the design from his mind to the page. The Oblit Incantation. Memory failed him when he tried to recall the precise moment of invention, but he could never forget the result.

One does not forget screams. Not like those. Not without arcaine.

He sighed, dispelling the echoes from his past. These works, regardless of the sometimes regrettable use, were impossibly valuable, not just for the power of the information they held, but also for the hope of renewal. They held means to burn away the present and rekindle his past. They could resurrect the Winding Flame. He need only find the strength to search out the magic from its forgotten corner.

He could do things differently. Better. A dream worth having, and one he clung to it desperately. But he would not be searching for his magic today. Tomorrow. Always tomorrow. And why should he prepare for tomorrow when he had unmet needs today? He wanted his dreams, but he needed arcaine. That meant the tomes. The logic was a vice.

“Not the books.” Unsure, his voice wavered; the once sturdy tenor dwindled to a scratch. He hated his past, but he dreaded losing it. Callen’s heart thumped with revulsion, pleading with the mind to see reason. Bile churned within. There was need, and petty matters of the heart could not intervene. A deep longing for a return to the abyss welled within him, and his mind knew the price. He would sell his past to feed his present. There would be no way back, but he found it very hard to care. There could be no resisting need.

The books then.

Callen shuffled to the bookshelf. Which ones? A hand settled on Blazerian. Very simple concept behind that particular tome: BOOM! He fondly recalled harnessing that boom to end the Scourge of the Southern Marches. “Boom indeed.” He cackled. Alas, there was too much power in that book to relinquish it. Another book would be better.

Foundation of Fire? A beginner’s tome, in fact, it was the very book he first learned from. It held great sentimental value, but it was far too simple to be of any real worth. Pawning that off on Finn would certainly result in some…undesired repercussions.

Another. Advanced Theories of Fire?

No. Another.

A finger touched a tome. No.

Another. Another. Another. Soon he reached the end of the shelf. No others. Not an ideal outcome. Additional reviews surfaced no new options. Each was precious.

Finn would be there soon, and he had nothing to barter with. The arcaine merchant would not accept a smile for payment. Only the books remained. Last week had been the tapestry that had served as his bedspread. He slept in his clothes to stay warm now. The exchange of endless cold nights for two vials hardly seemed fair in retrospect.

The wedding band had gone before that. Three vials in exchange for the last token of her. Another quick breath of jasmine, soft and sweet spiked the air. His breath caught, but the crescendo of need permitted him the ability to refocus on the task at hand.

He must choose a book. Any book. Yet no matter where in the shelf he started, no tome volunteered for the task. Over and over bloodshot eyes scanned the titles, growing more frantic with each unsuccessful attempt. Minutes passed but no answer presented itself. Sweat formed rivers.

A knock. Curt wraps in rapid succession. Finn! Even panic failed to resolve his dilemma. After a final forlorn glance at the shelf. Callen scurried to the door. Sweaty anticipation mingled with fear as the hinges squeaked to reveal a young lad with cherub cheeks and glinting eyes. Hands rested protectively on mail pouches attached to a linked metal belt. The youth sported a large lock for a belt buckle and an amiable grin.

“My fabulous friend, I return!” The boy spoke with a thick accent and bounced from foot to foot, eager to be on with the deal.

“Finn.” Callen nodded, leaning against the door frame. His exterior cool belied the tumult within. Dizzying eagerness for the next coupling with black nirvana ricocheted off the walls of his skull. And dread. Fear for what might happen if he failed to obtain more. Terror at what he would become if he did.

“Fabulous Finn’s Wonder Wares at your service! We have the cure for your calamities. The defense for your disease! The aid for your ailments!” Finn punctuated the speech with an elaborate bow. His head dipped, but Finn’s eyes never left the customer. “As always, new offerings available while some old offerings remain.”

“The same will do.” Ice in his breath, fire in his brain.

“Arcaine. The potent powder. An excellent choice.” Finn glanced about a moment before withdrawing a key ring from the interior of his vest. After a moment’s pause to separate out the appropriate key, he unlocked his buckle and drew a pouch forward. A quick jostling of the contents and a small clear vial containing a fine white powder appeared. He replaced the pouch, snapped the lock shut and replaced the key. “This is quite special, it comes from –

“No elaboration is required, I am aware of its properties.” Callen’s hand snatched at the vial, ruining the tranquil façade.

Finn hopped a step back, dancing beyond reach. “The rules sir. We must abide. Number One: Moneys had before gifts received sir. Store policy.” Sky blue eyes darted about nervously. “Coin or barter today sir? Finn fancied the tapestry last fortnight, but clinking coins are always appreciated.”

“I am afraid I am short this time. Perhaps you could see me through until next week?” Callen smiled hopefully.

Finn sucked in a breath through his teeth, birthing a small whistle. “Moneys had before gifts received sir.” The diminutive figure shrugged apologetically. “Something suitable inside perhaps?” He attempted to look into the dilapidated interior.

Callen hesitated and turned an eye to the bookshelf. A dollop of greasy sweat drooled down the side of his cheek and mingled with the underbrush of his beard. “I have some books, you can take any one you like.”

“Books?” Finn pushed past Callen and skipped to the shelf, his attire jingling along with him. “What kind? Only one? Valuable?” Delicate fingers flipped through a few pages before Finn frowned toward Callen. “Nonsense names. Squirrely script. Foreign fashioned?”

“No.” Callen replied. Finn quirked an inquisitive brow. “Magic.” Finn nodded and continued thumbing through the tomes, seemingly unperturbed by the revelation. Callen paled as he watched the youth thumb through the pages of his life.

After a few more minutes of inspection, Finn turned to regard Callen. “Outside my expertise I’m afraid. Accurate assessments problematic. Trade simply isn’t tolerable.” He paused, gauging Callen’s response.

Callen opened his mouth, but no words followed. Finn filled the silence. “Three books.” Callen’s heart sank. Impossible. Simply impossible.

“On that shelf are some of the most powerful books of magic ever assembled.” Callen drew a slow breath to gather his composure. “A single book is worth a kingdom.” He left out that these were pieces of his being, his soul. Not that it would have mattered. Callen suspected that even Finn did not deal in such dark currencies as souls. A corner of Callen’s mind idly wondered how much his soul might be worth in its current condition.

“Finn questions the value,” He paused, surveying the filthy room and arching a skeptical brow. “A suspicious residence for such wealth.”

“I do not make it out much and my accommodations are suitable for my purposes. Therefore I have not seen fit to sell the tomes.” Callen seethed and clenched his fists, driving fingernails into the palm of his hand. “One book.”

Finn held up three manicured fingers in response.

“One.”

“Finn’s Wonder Wares no longer taking trades today.”

“Two then.” A small trickle of blood dripped from his palm, but Callen did not relax his fists.

“Tolerable. Finn to select.” Finn placed one finger on Enchantments v. Inchantments and another on Expressions of Fire. The latter volume contained works of unspeakable death. He had seen the deeds done.

“Choose another, the second one is not for trade.” Even his desperation for arcaine could not stop him from an attempt to save the tome. It was too much to unleash upon the world.

Finn took Callen’s response as confirmation of the value. “Unacceptable amendment to the terms. Finn’s selections are selected.” Finn drew the books from the shelf and tucked them under his arm.

“Choose another.” Callen repeated, heat rose along the nape of his neck. Surely this merchant of misery could settle for another piece of him.

“No others.” Finn put the small vial of white powder on the table and walked toward the door and Callen. A single vial for the key to kingdoms.

As the boy approached, Callen shoved the door closed and lunged. Savage, but undisciplined. Finn sidestepped and shoved the hurtling Callen into the table. Callen made out Finn’s slow approach through a dizzy haze. “Unwise decision, friend. Treachery cannot be countenanced.” Finn slowly walked over to where Callen lay. Leaning forward, he hawked a gob of saliva between the Flame’s eyes before grinding it in with the heel of his boot. Callen merely groaned.

Finn stepped over the prostrate form and made his way to the shelf. He briefly considered liberating all of the tomes from this foul environment, but he was the honorable sort, above the petty thievery displayed by the character crumpled on the floor behind him. Of course, he was entitled to a third volume for his troubles. No one would begrudge him that. Compensation owed.

He cast a disgusted glance at his former patron before yanking the door of the hovel open. Finn hopped into the sunlight and shut the door behind him. Once outside he picked up a whistle, a curious tune called Headman’s Justice, and strolled down the street, the three tomes safely secured in the crook of his arm.

Hours later, Callen gurgled into consciousness. He coughed, expelling a bubble of blood. Thoughts organized themselves slowly as he pieced together his last moments with Finn. The books! Callen scrabbled across the wreckage of the table to the shelf. He breathed a sigh of relief. Some remained. Three absences though. It appeared that Finn had also made off with Lexicon Magicke — valuable, but not destructive. Small mercy.

Callen lowered his head in shame. The Winding Flame, the man whom once knew no peer had been bested by a boy still unable to grow a beard. The humiliation was unbearable. After a moment, he turned and walked over to the splintered mess that once was his table. Meals would be eaten at the desk henceforth.

He nudged a few pieces of the rubble, and the vial tumbled out. Somehow, it appeared unscathed by the events. Callen bent down and retrieved the arcaine. Lifting it up to eye level, he carefully inspected it. “So much for so little.” Not just the books, but everything. He still remembered the first time taking arcaine. It had been like seeing magic for the first time. Seeing it and…understanding it.

That was the lure of arcaine. How it sunk its teeth into you.

Arcaine was a potent catalyst for magic, allowing for a much more intimate connection with the source of power. It permitted the person to move beyond using magic and begin feeling it. With arcaine, far greater works were possible. Many of his masterpieces were wrought under its influence.

But at a cost.

The initial excursions provided by the arcaine transported him to a vibrant universe immersed in energy. Magic became intuitive, a primal expression of himself. There was nothing he could not accomplish. The effect was intoxicating and impossible to resist. But he began to require greater and greater amounts to establish the connection. As time moved on, the brilliant colors began to shimmer and wane. The light was fading.

And then one day, it was gone.

Arcaine no longer brought him color, it simply brought him darkness. At first it had terrified him, the yawning depths. Then he grew to welcome it, taking refuge from the wreckage of his life. Paradise was lost, but blissful oblivion welcomed him. Magic did not reside in the abyss, but such things did not bother him there. He feared the light. The light had the power to hurt him with memories of color and possibilities. Like honey hair.

His attention returned to the vial. The answer to the light.

Pensive, Callen rolled the vial between his thumb and forefinger. He glanced to the bookshelf, noting the three holes. Hope bled from the wounds. The path to the Winding Flame, was now gone. Unimaginable power, bequeathed to a child for a single vial. “For this? Is this all I am to become?”

In a seeming answer, a wave of nausea overcame him, and he spewed acid upon the floor. Callen peered into the wretch, seeking answers. The smell of filth mirrored the corruption of his being. “No.” The darkness had taken too much from him – a well without bottom. Wiping the corner of his mouth with his bedraggled robe, Callen knelt and set the stopper on the ground to mingle with the bile. He would change.

Withdrawal, ever a skilled tactician, beat its war drums to steal his courage. Callen stood and walked to the shelf. Selecting the Foundation of Fire, he returned to the vial. Clutching the tome to his breast, Callen raised his boot and slammed his heel down. The vial shattered, and the arcaine dissolved into the bile. A moment later, and it was gone.

He stood for a moment, dumfounded. “What have you done?” asked a part of him, demanding the abyss. He ignored it, empowered by his disgust. He had found the depths of his being and could only look up.

Shaky legs carried him to bed. Lying back, he prepared for what was to come. Already the sweat built upon his brow. The crescendo of need began its slow march to its apex. His hands trembled even as white knuckles clung to the Foundation of Fire.

He thought of honey hair. The  sad smile. He smiled back.

This was the beginning.

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