Asesil had no trouble urging Nick downstairs; he was in a fog.
"You can borrow another one of Fred's shirts, but he doesn't have very many so bloody another one and you're washing it."
He nodded, following her mutely down the stairs and into her room. Once there she pushed him into a chair and went to a trunk at the end of her bed. Nick stared off at the wall, still feeling Roger's lips on his. His fingers went to his own lips, shocked at himself to doing such a thing… again. Shocked by how it felt too, because it was as if he hadn't seen him in forever and couldn't help himself. This was all very disturbing. He had just seen him last night, and that had been a disaster. And he didn't even like Roger. He didn't think so, anyway. He shouldn't. Roger was a dangerous … creature. Last night he nearly jumped out of his skin when he had felt Roger's lips over his pulse. Terrifying and thrilling, and that last part made Lent's warning repeat inside his head. It was best to stay away. Roger wasn't to be trusted.
"Are you listening?" Nick blinked over at Asesil and at the shirt she was holding out to him. "Are you all right?"
"No, I'm insane." He took the shirt from her and put it on. "They didn't tell you?"
She laughed. "Well I had wondered. You have to be a little crazy to like him."
"What? I don't—I don't like Roger." She folded her arms across her chest and stared at him. Nick quickly shifted his gaze away from her, focusing instead on trying to button the shirt with his shaking fingers. "I don't even know him." But that wasn't what it felt like; strangely enough kissing him was like coming home. "He's…"
"Frustrating? Thieving? A vampire?"
"Yes, all of those things."
Asesil studied him, making him shift uncomfortably in the chair. He didn't want to discuss this, especially when he didn't understand it himself. "He's more than you think."
"I'm sure," Nick groaned. "Why don't you kiss him?"
"I don't think he wants to kiss me. Why are you so cross all the time?"
"Because I don't know who I am! Not that I was happy with what I was but it was predictable and I could live with it. Here everything is different. I'm different, and as much as I want to know what's going on it—it…" It scared him and by the looks of Asesil it was scaring her too. She had no idea what he was talking about, he was sure, and he didn't know how much Roger and Lent had explained to her, if anything. She looked just as in the dark about all this as he was. "I'm… sorry."
"Is this what the appointment's about?"
"I don't think they'll be able to help. I don't want to go."
"I think you should."
"Asesil I've seen so many doctors and they've tried it all. I'm tired of this." He hung his head, flinching when she put a hand on his shoulder.
"Don't give up. They've gone to a lot of trouble for you. So have I. And if you don't care about that then just go anyway. What's the harm?"
Nick snorted disdainfully. "Magic will just make everything better, right?"
"That's not what I said," Asesil clasped his hand. It was a comforting gesture. "Honestly, I don't trust it, but magic does have its uses."
"Come with me?" She smiled sympathetically at him then and put her arms around him. Nick endured this for a moment and then pulled away from her.
"I won't go near the university. Besides, I'm still waiting on Fred to come home."
"My husband. Probably still sleeping off the festival somewhere. Shame I had to miss it." Nick cringed. All he had really seen of the festival was drunken crowds, the orgy outside the window and the aftermath of vomit-covered confetti and stamped-in paper heads everywhere. He had no interest in the festival and was glad it was over. "You're all right," she said finally, giving him a curious smile.
"Yeah. No one's got it easy, friend, but at least you're not alone."
He glanced at her and then left the room, not looking forward to the rest of the day but ready now just to get it over with.
-[PAGE BREAK] The wind whipped around them. Roger especially looked as if he was freezing, rubbing the tops of his arms through his clothes, bitching under his breath in between his chattering teeth, but Lent wouldn't let him hang on to him and resolutely placed himself between him and Nick.
Nick didn't see where placement mattered as there were people everywhere, pushing past them, treading on Nick's feet occasionally, sometimes spinning him in the wrong direction, which had him feeling like he was in a pinball machine.
The closer they got to the university, the more nervous he became. He himself didn't feel the cold acutely; he had tried to focus on it and failed. The appointment, though he had been to so many before, loomed over him like the shadow of university itself. When the place came into full view his feet stopped working, but his hand jerked out and snatched a hold of Lent's coat.
It was like the festival all over again.
The crowd of young people pushed their way around them and into the large open wooden doors of the place. Lent jerked around, looking as if he was about to catch a pick pocket, but as his black eyes settled on Nick's he grabbed onto his wrist and gently pulled it away from his coat tail.
"We've got to get inside before we freeze to the spot."
"I already have, go on without me."
"Nick…" Lent warned, gesturing impatiently.
All the people were just fueling his anxiety; he couldn't go in there. It'd be warm, but there'd be more people, and they would all find out he was crazy. He kept thinking that at any moment, though it hadn't happened since he'd arrived, the hallucinations would return. They were especially persistent in crowds; almost as if his brain gathered psychotic power from them. What a crazy thought! He was going insane right now just standing there, the steps before them, Lent looking down at him like he was a lost child. He wanted to punch the pity off his face and take off, fight the crowd flailing his arms and shouting all the way back to Asesil's and lock himself in a dark room there.
"He's losing his nerve," Roger said, almost stuttering through his chattering teeth, "Better lift him up."
"He's a grown man, Roger, he'll go." Lent narrowed his eyes at him and Nick did for moment feel like a lost child. The elf's stare was intimidating. "It's all right."
"Good try, elf." One of Roger's cold hands found his and latched on. Nick almost jumped out of his skin; it was like being gripped with ice. "We could all tell you gave it your all. Come on, gorgeous, there's got to be a fire somewhere." When Nick hesitated he leaned over and said, "I've got you," which was stupid, really, but Nick started walking before someone could push him again.
Nick was sure they could both feel Lent's frown at their back as they pushed in with the crowd into the doors. It was in the way Roger clasped his hand. When he glanced back he could see the elf watching them carefully. He wouldn't let them get lost. He wouldn't let Roger try anything funny either.
When they were in, everyone went upstairs thankfully and only a handful gathered around the front desk, whispering a little loudly about the giant dark one, whoever that was… oh, they were probably talking about Lent weren't they?
He turned to look at the elf again and the doors closed behind them with a definite sound of finality that made him jump in his shoes and squeeze Roger's hand simultaneously, so he twisted it out of his grip and took a step away, feeling like he'd been caught playing the lost child again. Lent's giant hand settled onto his shoulder, and steered him toward the semi-circular front desk.
Several people were openly staring, but not at him. Their eye line ended at the elf behind him, and Nick was grateful. He didn't trust himself to speak to these people.
"Who has the book?" Lent asked, giving them all a friendly smile, which had them all hesitantly smiling in return. "I'm Mister…" he thought for a moment. "…Woods, I think."
A girl who looked no older than fifteen popped up from behind the counter, eyes as wide and round as dinner plates. She flipped the book without looking at it, unable to keep her eyes off Lent. A glance down at the day's schedule and her mouth dropped open curiously.
"Uh…" she said.
"Ichbane," the elf said to her. "Where is he?"
She jerked a thumb over her shoulder, presumably to indicate the direction. She mumbled something but it seemed her mouth wasn't working properly. Again, panic struck Nick, someone else had to know this was odd, right? This was all wrong. It was weird! He shouldn't be here, but just as he turned and made for the doors Roger linked an arm in his and all of sudden the three of them were following this tiny frightened girl past the front desk and down a hall.
"Your hands are shaking," Roger whispered beside him.
"I can't seem to stop them."
"You're not alone. The minute this mage starts talking nonsense I'll get you out of here."
"But you wanted me to come here, didn't you?"
Roger's lips quirked. "Isn't it wonderful that all these students are focused on Lent and not me?" Nick stared at him. "I've met loads of Tangarians. I'm supposedly the last of my kind and no one takes notice."
They stopped at an archway, but the girl had disappeared. The candlelit hallway hadn't prepared him for the sunlit garden in front of them. When Roger tugged on his arm he took a few more steps, blinking up at the glass dome that formed the ceiling, protecting the plants from the harsh cold outside. It was a beautiful place, filled with a bright green that Nick normally associated with spring. The warmth seeped right into him as he gazed in wonder about the place, noticing butterflies-what were they doing here?
Oh, Nick thought, seeing the enormous flowers standing in the center, so tall they threatened to burst through the glass above. Something shining and blue, several of them actually, fluttered around the stems that all twisted together, creating one thick pillar of bright green. One of the little blue things flitted near his face and then darted away. He watched it, his eyebrows scrunching together. Those weren't butterflies; he could have sworn he saw little faces. Panic began to rise again in his chest. He took a step back, right into Lent's chest.
"They're fae," the elf explained as if Nick knew what that was. "Don't touch them."
Nick hastily shoved his hands in his pockets.
"This place is wonderful!" Roger was already sitting in the grass, unbuttoning his shirt. Nick found himself staring at him; in fact he was unable to look anywhere else. He was bathed in golden light, his eyes brighter now, surrounded by their like in color. "Sod this Ichbane. Let's stay here."
Looking at him, Nick was inclined to agree but in the corner of his vision was an old man with his back toward them, hunched over a plant on the other side of the small courtyard. The way his luck was going in general he'd guess that was Ichbane.
"Don't be Ichbane," he whispered.
"Herold!" Lent called to the man and Nick's heart sank, following the elf as he walked toward the hunched figure.
Roger's hand reached out and grabbed his arm, pulling him down into the grass with him. "Give them a moment," he said, "And maybe they'll give us one."
He blushed to his toes at those words and fought to stand before all the blood rushed out of his head. "I think we'd better—"
"Just lay down. Look at this with me." Nick dropped back on the grass, staring at his profile. Roger's eyes were on the ceiling, gazing at the glass dome above them. "Mages are good for something I suppose. See all those symbols on the glass?"
"Uh huh." A sudden blue light washed over his face and Nick couldn't look anywhere else but at the man in the grass beside him. Roger was captivating. If there was ever a time to use that word it was now. It made his chest ache to look at him. Nick inched closer, turning on the grass to get a better look at him. He found himself reaching over, just shy of touching Roger's cheek.
"The rays of the sun, when they hit those symbols it keeps this whole room warm. Like the tail end of spring." Roger went on talking, each word just his voice, the meaning lost as Nick found it difficult to concentrate on anything other than how best to confess his undying love.
Roger turned his head, quirking an eyebrow at his expression. "You're not even looking at it!" His large bright eyes fixed on something just above his head. Would it be weird to lean over and kiss them? "Shit, Nick! Pay attention!" His arm reached past him and swatted at something. Suddenly the intense feeling was gone. He jerked his hand away from Roger. "Didn't you notice the thing was right above your face?"
"No," he said, sitting up, watching the little blue thing, whatever Lent had called it, disappear into the stems of the tall flowers, followed by others of its kind. He looked over at Roger, feeling incredibly stupid. Undying love? Did that actually just cross his mind? No, no… that did not just happen. "I think it was playing with me," he said in a faraway voice. He'd never been so embarrassed.
"You were just staring at me the whole time?" Roger sat up, holding himself up on his elbows. "Why are you looking at me like that?"
It was because he had just realized something. The man in the odd beard with the copper shit all over him with his lanterns painted blue with faery bits… What had been the last horrifying thing he had said? The lamps, something about the light and how it affected lovers, uh.. people. "He doesn't have to kill them!" he shouted and he hadn't meant to say that part aloud.
"They're faeries, right? He said the lamps, something about the light doing…" and that was when he trailed off because Roger was staring and grinning at him as if he had caught his train of thought and concluded it was a good time to have sex on it. Nick coughed. "He doesn't have to kill them," he said in a small voice, wanting to look away but unable to.
"If they were kept alive they'd fuck off, wouldn't they? Willful creatures, faeries. They do what pleases them."
"Then I envy them."
"So do I."
"I need to get out of here…"
"Perfect! Leave the elf here. We could be at Asesil's in ten minutes." He reached over and laid a warm, heavy hand on his abdomen.
"No, I want to get away from these things!" Nick got to his feet and began angrily brushing grass from his clothes. "It was frightening!"
"Everything frightens you. You're hardly unbiased."
"Everything does not frighten me!"
"It's all right, Nick." He got to his feet and meticulously adjusted his clothes. "The world has plenty space for cowards."
"If you think calling me chicken is going to accomplish anything—"
"I called you a coward, gorgeous." Roger said it again, louder this time in case it didn't drive it home hard enough, and he did it with a cheeky grin stretching his mouth. "Coward!"
"My name is Nick!" He launched a surprisingly successful punch to Roger's jaw which had the vampire staggering back a few steps. For a split second Nick was very proud of himself. No, not a slap, was it Roger? He knew he felt that as keenly as he felt the intense cold outside. But then remorse replaced those proud feelings and he rushed forward almost immediately, pushing Roger's hands away which had moved to protect his face all too late. "I'm sorry! Are you all right?"
"You hit my face!" Roger shrieked.
"No, no. I didn't mean it," Nick insisted, although he really had in the moment. Really, really had. His fingers gently pressed at his jaw, the redness where he had struck him, but it was healing before his eyes. Roger scowled deeply, jerking away from him.
At this point Lent took upon himself to reenter their world, and he did so by congratulating Nick with a pat on the back. "Well done," he whispered, leaning in briefly. When he pulled away his long muscular arm gestured to the old kindly man at his side whose facial expression made Nick assume he wasn't the only one off his rocker so to speak. "This is Herold Ichbane. He's agreed to hear us out as an old favor to me."
"Fantastic," Nick muttered under his breath.
Roger spit on the grass between them. "Isn't it just?"
"Which one of you is Nick?" the man asked, glancing from Roger to Nick and surprisingly to Lent. Ichbane smiled when Nick stuck out his hand. The old man gave him a firm handshake in greeting. "Admiring our oldest resident, I see," he gestured to the giant flowers behind them.
Nick glanced behind himself at it, but found it difficult to take his eyes off it. He turned fully to get a proper look. "It's breathtaking."
Ichbane beamed out in the corner of his eye. The old man had joined him at his side as they all stared up at the flowers. "Tangarians called them Flowers of the Sun but they're more well known as Children of Tserrus. This one is a remarkable specimen. I've had the honor of taking care of it from the moment I arrived at the university. Below there are basements and dungeons but the roots have pushed through those and burrowed deep into the earth."
Nick gestured to the vines on the ground, twisted and coiled around the surrounding plants. "I thought those were the roots."
"Ah, not roots. Its ancestor used those barbed vines to coil around the ankles of unsuspecting prey, pull them within its twisted stems there to suck the life-blood right from them." Nick took several steps back and the old man chuckled. "Never fear! This one's dangerous properties have always lain dormant. It may be the strange environment, or how it had been transplanted, I cannot say. Hundreds of years ago Tangarians used its liqueur—er, poison on their arrows and spears—it's quite deadly. It is beautiful, however; a bright green unlike any one would see in nature. The Sliverwood made it into a ritualistic beverage. I always thought that was interesting."
Nick cocked his head at the old man. "They'd drink poison?"
"Sliverwood are—were strange people," Roger supplied. Nick watched him for a moment; how reverent he looked gazing up at it. "How old is this one?"
"Well over five hundred years, if you can believe that!" Ichbane beamed with pride. "I call her Clara."
"Why not?" Ichbane shrugged and led them to his office. "Come, we have much to discuss."
-[PAGE BREAK]- "The absolute truth of the matter is I'm not sure where to begin!" The old man said, a curious grin forming on his wrinkled face.
"So you can't help me."
"I'm not sure I said that, lad," he gestured for him to sit as he took his pouch over to a table laden with various glass containers in which he placed the trimmings he had taken from the plant in the garden. They had been taken down to what Ichbane had called his office, but it didn't look like one. Papers and books were everywhere. Every available working surface was covered with books and bottles which were labeled and filled with curious items Nick had no interest getting close to, lest they too try to mess with him. Lamps and candles hung around the room, giving the place a warm, lived-in, fire hazard sort of feel.
Ichbane himself was fairly normal looking, even if he did look a little ridiculous with the ends of his pants and sleeves rolled up. The garden had been warm, however, and if the slight hunch in the older man's back was any indication, he spent a lot of time bent over plants. He wore a meticulously trimmed mustache which curled at the ends, as if made to by some sort of pomade. Nick idly wondered if it was fake. He wore a weird sort of pointy brown hat with a tassle on the end that swung about his shoulder as he worked. His back was to them as he seemed to randomly shift around the glass bottles on the table before him.
Without turning around he said, "Lent told me you closed one of those portals not too far from here. Strange things. They've shown up before, long ago. Way before my time but there are records of them."
"Can you show us?" Lent stood by the desk piled with books, slapping Roger's hand when he tried picking up one of bottles filled with a strange buzzing thing that bat itself angrily on the glass when it was disturbed. "Don't touch anything," Nick heard him whisper.
"No, I don't have them, but I do want to hear more about what happened if you would care to tell me."
"I don't think it was a portal."
The old man turned around, his eyes alight with interest. "What makes you say that?"
"Nothing came out of it…" Roger chuckled behind him but he pressed on. "It didn't feel like a portal. It felt like a wound," Nick said, reddening in embarrassment. He sounded like a fool but that's what it felt like! It was all he had to go on; what had they expected him to say? "I've seen them before but I never knew what they were until then." He still didn't understand it though. Nick had felt compelled to close it. "I heard it… followed it."
"Healed it?" Lent offered. Nick glanced at him and shrugged.
"I suppose if it is a wound," Ichbane said, taking a seat behind his cluttered desk, peering around a medium size pile of books and sticky papers at him. "Healing it would be what you did." He produced a pipe from thin air and began smoking. Nick got up and took a step back, feeling as if they were moments from being burned alive. Ichbane sputtered a few coughs of smoke in the air. "It's gone then?"
"Not completely. There's a jagged line in the air, like a scar. It's closed but … I think those things are dangerous."
"Oh, Nick," Roger laughed. "Really?"
Nick clenched his teeth and didn't say anything else. His fingers dug into his palms, but then he jumped when he felt Roger's fingers slide across his lower back. His face burned hearing him laugh again.
"I'd like to see this for myself, but I don't know where we'd find such a thing. Where did you find this one?"
"There's a little village not far from here," Lent offered hesitantly.
"Let's go see this jagged scar!" Ichbane said with obvious excitement. "I should like to make some notes. Nothing this interesting has happened in some time. Will you indulge me?"
Nick was apprehensive about all this, and by the look of the man he didn't seem too confident about what was to be done. Nevertheless he thought about Asesil's words; he had to try. "You will help me?"
"Lent has called in a favor. You have my services, such as they are, but first I'd like to see what you left in the forest." Ichbane was already unrolling his sleeves and pants.
"It's going to be a long walk," Nick said. How far could he walk? As the old man struggled to put on his coat Nick wondered how long this was going to take.
"I'll take my walking stick," he said with a friendly smile and grabbed it from a corner. "Let's be off."
"I don't know if this is such a good idea." Nick caught Roger's eyes, recalling why they had to run out of that little village. "Aren't they going to recognize us? Recognize you?"
"Whatever for?" Ichbane cried, looking from one to the other.
"It'll be all right. We can avoid the village well enough," Lent assured him, but Nick wasn't comforted by his words. He'd feel better when all this was over. "Our friend the inn keeper—"
"Is not our friend," Roger interrupted which made Lent gave him a sharp look.
"Well, whatever this is aside," Ichbane interjected, hobbling with his walking stick to the door. "Let us go! I'm anxious to see this jagged scar as you put it." He was surprisingly spry for an old man, and was already halfway across the garden. Nick glanced at Roger warily and then followed them. "Don't get close to those faeries. Do strange things to a man's mind."
"No shit," Nick muttered. "Why do you have them?"
"Not very many around these days, and it's legal to exterminate them. They may always nick my spectacles but they'll always have a home here."
Roger scoffed, suddenly at Nick's side as they walked through the garden. "You tend to them?"
"I give them sanctuary should they want it. They are free to do as they wish, as if I could stop them. They're good for my plants and fascinating creatures, but I told you, don't get close to them. Especially with so many of you about," the old man insisted. "Just try to ignore them."
Nick eyed the giant flower's twisted stems, which had many shadows for the little blue flying things to hide in. He side-stepped away without watching where he was going, and knocked into Roger.
"Watch it," Roger said dangerously. His eyes narrowed to slits when he cut them over at him. A shiver went up Nick's spine. "Just try and hit me again."
"Leave me alone and I'll think about it."
The vampire grinned but it wasn't friendly; it was like the acceptance of a challenge. Roger fell back, taking up the rear of their group. Nick felt his eyes on him the entire journey. It wasn't a good feeling, but at least he wasn't all over him. By the time they got there he wasn't sure what bothered him the most, the touching or the staring.
-[PAGE BREAK]- "Come with me," said Mister Black, and Maria had no choice but to follow. The Northman was flanked with tall armed guards, and it wouldn't be wise to test him yet. They exited the room in which she had been kept and went down the hallway.
"How did you find this place?" she asked, looking around at the hallway they were in. It was of simple stonework, and uncomfortably narrow. The whole place seemed ready to fall down around them at any moment. How old was this fort?
"The Northmen have history here. This used to be a guild, a sort of training house for Pergne's spies. It's long been abandoned as you can guess. The Pergnes have been dead for centuries."
Maria had heard the tale; it was a bloody part of history. The Pergnes had challenged the throne in King's Town many times over the years, and had legitimate claim by blood. It was no secret that the men in the North had backed Pergne efforts, but that was what prevented true support of the Tannikan people. The Northmen weren't trusted, they were warmongers, and when Pergne openly threw his lot in with them he was doomed despite his repeated attempts to secure his rightful place.
"This was a well-respected house, and still is among my people." He said reverently. She was led to an alcove and then a spiraling set of stone stairs.
"Where are you taking me?"
"There's a room that's been magically sealed for many years. None of us have been able to open it. A fortnight ago the door creaked open and within," they stopped at the door, the very door of which he spoke. Mister Black opened it and out poured a swirling blue light. It washed over them and Maria closed her eyes, wincing in its wake. When she looked next, she could see a large circle of blue swirling in the next room. Mister Black beckoned her. "You'll need a closer look."
Maria glanced at him uncertainly but after a moment followed him into the room, the armed guards remained at the door. She felt cold suddenly in the face of this thing. It left her weakened, almost numb. "This is what you were talking about?"
"Yes. I think it pulled the magic out of this room, you feel it don't you?"
"Of course I do. I don't like it." She looked over at Black, who seemed just as affected. How odd that a Northman would sense something like this! "I feel like the magic's bleeding out of me."
"I feel it too. Strange isn't it? It pulls it out but where does it go?"
"You think Andreschi has something to do with this? How could anyone do this? And why did it show up here?"
"There may not be a reason it's here. They're opening up all over as I told you, even in my home city. We heard it like a thunder clap, and I watched it from my window as it tore open, the force of it destroying the outer wall."
Maria paced slowly around the front of it, still feeling it draining her and clouding her head. "Why isn't it bothering them?" She asked, glancing back at the guards.
"They have no magic to drain." He turned to her. "It may seem strange that a Northman would possess magic, but magic chooses the bearer. Being a witch, you would know this."
"I've never heard of a Northern mage."
"Most don't survive," he said cryptically, turning his attention back to the circle of light. "What do you suppose it is?"
"You said it was a portal, but it seems to be sucking in magic."
The Northman nodded. "It's concentrated on this area for the moment, but they're opening up all over. What happens then?"
Maria sighed. She couldn't believe she was about to say it… She cut her eyes at him. "We'd better find out."
"I'm glad you agree."
"I still don't think that Andreschi has anything to do with this."
"We shall see." He gestured to the door and she happily went through it. Black followed, closing the door behind them.
He took her back to her room and they sat together at a small table across from the bed. "There is an old legend passed down from the Sliverwood to my people. About a Northern mage with incredible power, such power he couldn't control it." Black paused and pulled an amulet from his pocket. It was small, its pendant made of carved bone. He handed it to her so she could examine it. "I thought it was just a story but when that thing opened outside my city it began to make sense."
Maria rubbed her thumb over the pendant. It was a sun that must have long ago been painted gold. Some golden flakes were still upon it; the bone showed through. It was a symbol she had seen before but couldn't place. "Tell me the story."
"Before the Sliverwood disappeared they were allies of the North. An entire clan had come to join us in our homeland after being driven out of southern Tannika. Around the same time magic came to a certain Northman, but his name is lost to us now. It changes depending on who's telling the tale. He left his village, being persecuted there for his cursed magic and traveled through Tannika, embarking on a journey to find someone to help him control his magic…"