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Vansin

Abstruse Arcana

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In a tower made of an alien stone, in a chamber high above the shuffling canaille in the streets of Blairville was Nisnav Ghoulface. He was a mage of some celebrity in Blairville's arcane circles, once for the horrible deformity of his body and once again for his generous and noble conduct. It was clear to any observer that Nisnav had suffered a horrible burn to the torso and face on the right side of his body. The skin was burned away, and the muscle and bone exposed themselves across his jaw. Beneath his wet cheekskin, teeth glinted from open windows in the ruined flesh. His right arm did not exist anymore, burned down to the shoulder joint leaving not so much as a stump.

Long ago, he had wrapped his body in shawls and rags and cast his magic from the shadows. No longer. Now, he was a man of influence and reputation in Blairville; he was a philanthropist, a teacher, a government volunteer, an inventor, and a businessman of no mean prosperity. All that esteem required a level of dignity he had grown accustomed to displaying. Now, he wore the cloak and belt of a respectable mage, and a wide-brimmed hat when he went outside to protect his raw skin from the sun. The children hid whenever he walked the streets, but the citizens of Blairville were kind to him, and he to them. Here, at least, he was admired. 

Now he was in a long rectangular chamber, awaiting a call from an elven visitor. Often Nisnav would cooperate in the pursuit of new spellcraft and, having recently hit a thaumaturgical quandary, he had sought out the famous bookseller Ioreth to counsel him on the particulars of certain natural crafts he was hoping to intervolve with his own enchantments to create new and possibly revolutionary magic. As far as he knew, she would be arriving any minute now. 

Whether she did or didn't, Nisnav's day continued uninterrupted. He raised his lone arm and aimed his finger toward the far wall. Across the length of the room many piles of melted and exploded clay lay strewn about the floor. More were to come. 

"Pull." he said serenely, and nearby a wretched little homunculus struggled to pull a lever on a strange and magical box. The homunculus's puke-green half-melted skin jiggled in effort but finally his wavering arms won their battle with the lever and the box activated. Lights shone from beneath its closed top, and it shook with a clatter before springing open like an oversized jack-in-the-box and blenching out smoke and a streak of gold into the air. Nisnav's eyes widened and he gave a gruesome, lopsided smile. 

"Oh, yes!" he said with a thrill in his voice. A golden bird! It was a rare product of the box, which existed for the sole purpose of dispensing animated clay birds for target practice. Yet there was no clay this time, no clacking adobe wings to give away its movements, no, this bird sailed quickly and quietly and even as Nisnav cast forth darts of acid from his fingers he knew he would not so easily catch his mark. Indeed, the bird spun and dipped past the attacks, acid splattering against the wall behind it and hissing without effect. 

With a gesture, Nisnav remotely slammed the door to the room shut, for immediately the golden bird made to escape. The elegant construct swooped gracefully away from the closed exit as though it had always meant to and then bore down directly at Nisnav. Such a bird had never struck him before, but the deformed wizard only widened his eyes and stood his ground. This, he knew, was why the bird-spitting device existed in the first place: to challenge him. If he shirked from a fake bird, what chance did he have in the cutthroat realms beyond? 

The bird aimed a blunt but painful looking beak down toward Nisnav's chest, and he swerved aside at the very last moment, like a triceratops fighter, and threw his hand out to cast at the bird as it made a leftward swing to retry its attack. From his palm, a small blue bead fired. No larger than a pellet from a toy gun, the sphere bounced into the flank of the golden bird and swallowed it, growing to a size large enough to fit the golden construct almost instantly. The bird flailed and kicked against the humming plasmatic capture field, but to no avail. Nisnav scooped the energy field up in his only remaining hand and leveled it with his injured face. The fire which had so disfigured him had not reached his eyes, and they smiled in victory. 

"A most fortunate counter-attack, master. Surely, I anticipated it would strike you down." said the homunculus in a thin, gravelly voice. Nisnav sighed with unyielding patience. 

"Spare me your repulsive fantasies Vert," he said calmly, "put the box away and prepare a lunch." 

Lunch downstairs was a spread of sugared bread, sliced orlupple and ribbonberry fruits, and oatmeal, with a course of lemon butter codfish and mushroom and lobster bisque. Nisnav reclined as Vert meticulously served food into his mouth and peppered his lips with gentle brushes of a napkin, as though an artist at his easel. Halfway through the relaxing meal, Vert piqued alertly, closed his mismatched eyes, and announced: "Lady elf at the door, master." 

"Ah, Ioreth. Let her in." 

Vert closed his eyes again, and before Ioreth the doors to Nisnav's wizard tower swung open to accept her. The dining hall was not so far from the entrance on the ground floor. As she entered, torches sprung to life to show her the way to the master. 

 

@KittyvonCupcake

Edited by Vansin

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 There was, indeed, a lady elf at the door.

 Though the chill of autumn had not yet manifested and the noon sun’s warm rays cast a golden glow across the towers and open air markets that bustled throughout the Terric epicenter of magic, Ioreth was enveloped in a long black coat. A floppy hat with a wide brim cast a personal swath of shade around her and delineated a subtle emphasis to the dark shadows that settled beneath her violet eyes.

 The city spun on its axis, and Ioreth stood still at Nisnav’s door. What once held wonder---the apothecaries with their glittering jars of cure alls and glamours, tiny boutiques of richly woven robes for mages, darkened alleyways to places unseen and tall clusters of trees that bestowed respite for the docile animals that coexisted with Blairville’s citizens---all felt transient. She drifted through the streets, eyes staring straight ahead, focused on the path with one hand resting on the messenger bag slung over her shoulder. Scrolls in their protective cylindrical sheaths bumped rhythmically against her thigh and stray silver hairs would brush against her tattooed chin, yet she thought instead of Ashville. Of how it was gray and hollow. Of a hand reaching out from the rubble, empty and outstretched. She thought of how Constans once said that these cities were false promises, and she plucked the roots she once planted here and tucked them away, someplace hidden and out of reach.

 It admittedly felt odd, to simply rap her knuckles on the door of a mage’s tower. Others made use tinkling silver chimes with delicate chains, or doorbells that rang out with soaring concertos, or elaborately carved knockers that housed disgruntled spirits, but Nisnav Ghoulface appeared to feel the tower itself was a sufficient enough display of outward power. No bowing, sycophantic servant ushered her inside. The doorway opened, and alone she stepped through the tower’s threshold.

 All was quiet in the entryway, blessedly so after the buzzing noise of the city streets. As she sank her dusty bare feet into the thick rug and took a moment to survey the room, the doors shut softly behind her. Torches flared in response to her entrance, granting a muted glow that spread over the furnishings over the foyer. Flickering shadows grazed over the small seating area, its upholstered bergères nestled near an imposing collection of leather bound tomes in an elegant case. There were other artifacts on display---a few busts of mage-philosophers cast in bronze, a carefully taxidermied minotaur’s head, all thrumming with anti-theft enchantments---but one can learn a great deal about a man by the books he kept. These were a public presentation: celebrated works of poetry, classical literature, magical theorems both antique and scientifically modern. All a touch too recherché for the common masses, but accessible enough for an informed reader. This was his public face: a learned man, a respectable man, one that offered his guests an immediate education while they waited for his audience.

 Her curiosity satisfied, she hummed a few bars of folk tune she heard wafting through the Gypsy Market and followed the torches down the hall.

 In the dining area, Nisnav and Vert may have heard the simple melody fade out before she appeared around the corner. She slipped the hat from her head, ran a hand through her tumbling loose curls, and offered a small smile. “Hello, Nisnav. I brought a few scrolls you may find engaging.” Her weight shifted to her left hip, and the scrolls hooked to her canvas bag swayed in response. “Did you like Chrysthenes’s thesis on universal energy? His student, Diomachus, expanded upon that to include the flow of energy between other worlds. Would you like to see?”

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"Finish my face, cretin." Nisnav said with a refined and gentle tone. The homunculus Vert sprang to attention and wiped most of the vinaigrette from its master's disordered face. Yet their guest arrived, and the creature spun away just in time to face her as she walked into the room, presenting the elf Ioreth with the perfect picture of wizard and servant waiting to receive her. Almost. Nisnav touched his cheek and observed a speck of black oil on his fingertip. He narrowed his eyes at Vert's pebbly back while the homunculus innocently announced their new guest,

"Presenting Ioreth, mistress of Book|Ends. Obedient Vert has left you a plate, Lady. The food here, Vert made it himself, so you shouldn't think it poisoned."

Nisnav let out his chair and stood. He wore a robe of handmade white silk velvet with its right sleeve removed and a tan damask sash around his waist. Over his empty shoulder draped a smooth ermine half-cape tied by golden rope and atop his head he wore a thin circlet decorated only by a single fire opal, a piece indicative of both dignity and restraint from excess. Were it not for the horror of his face, he would have made a kingly figure. Yet he was horrible to look upon, a king more fit for the underworld than Blairville's vibrant streets. 

"Another welcome visit, Lady Ioreth." he said with a macabre smile. He offered her a seat at his table with a magnanimous gesture. Upon her seating, and with the help of servile Vert, food arranged itself before her. 

"I have very much enjoyed Chrysthenes. More, I was delighted to discover similar lines of inquiry between he and one of my own favorites, Ildefonse, who conducted similar measurements of ambient energies around various portals with coterminal destinations. I will take Diomachus and hope he, like I, has considered the next logical step of his master's investigation, which must needs concern bifurcated passages into other worlds and the measurement of energies released thereby. Only by creating singular portals with two equally sized extraworldly destinations can we begin to distinguish the energy output of our own-- oh, and yes, Vert. The Lady's scroll?" 

The homunculus held out its enfeebled hands and in a small puff of smoke, the universal energy thesis appeared clutched in its fingers. Vert handed it to Nisnav who handed it to Ioreth along with payment.

"Planar travel is a hobby of mine, as I have told you. This information remains pertinent and applicable, and I encourage you to keep it coming, as they say." 

Nisnav noticed that, perhaps to safeguard his image, Vert was no longer hand-feeding him. He willed his fingers loose from his leather gloves and reached out for a slice of cheese. Yet he found it slimy to his touch and dropped it right away. Soon, his hand was sanitized and re-gloved and hidden atop his lap. 

"Chrysthenes and Ildefonse sadden me somewhat. Prodigious minds, yet forever removed from our reach by cruel death. What you do is nothing short of necromancy, Lady Ioreth, bringing their thoughts back for those of us who wish to grasp at threads of their intellect. Yet even you, plumbing the depths of ancient ruins and poring over forgotten tomes, even you can only bring back what they have chosen to leave. How many awesome secrets have these men taken from us? How many unwritten thoughts? Or worse, how many prodigious ideas destroyed by natural calamity, floods and avalanches burying knowledge we will never find?" 

His lament had a point, and he got to it. 

"Among the practitioners of this sleepy city an informal competition has begun, a challenge to pioneer new brands of spellcraft. I know you have heard of it,-- you are an educated and connected woman-- and I have been awaiting your arrival this month to propose an alliance in this matter, a cooperation whereupon we will gift each other our counsel in certain mystic fundamentals for the betterment of each of our submissions. Mine may interest you particularly as a new recourse for procuring information from departed sources-- one which need not rely on books. do I have your interest?"    

 

@KittyvonCupcake

Edited by Vansin

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 Ioreth had little appetite.

 This lack of hunger was an unusual phenomenon, as her stomach often proved itself to be a stronger guide than her moral compass. Her world would begin to spin on its axis after she ate, not before, and nothing but ravenous demonic legions from the seven hells could stop her from sniffing out a meal. Today, however, the luncheon spread across Nisnav’s regal table attracted less than a flicker of a sidelong glance.

 “Thank you, Vert.” The scrolls rustled and clattered against their neighbors as she claimed a seat at Nisnav’s left. Her rucksack and hat settled into the chair next to her own. A smile’s ghost was offered to the homunculus, a wan kindness. “You made a lovely meal.”

 And though the compliment was genuine, she had no desire to eat. By no means was this the fault of her present company. It may have taken a concentrated effort to balance a polite amount of eye contact while avoiding the ruined expanse of Nisnav’s face, but the blame of any internal discomfort lie solely at her feet. Close contact with Vert caused an unpleasant sensation to creep down her spine, yet this was not the reason that she picked idly at her ribbonfruit.

 She sat quietly, reflective as the sorcerer spoke, wrapped in the dark fabric of her coat. She nodded, she smiled, she tilted her head at points of interest and exchanged scrolls with Vert---on the surface, an image of a fellow scholar absorbing the musings of an erudite mind. She examined the sugar sprinkled across soft bread and dipped a dainty spoon into her bowl of bisque, ripples disrupting the creamy broth. Something within stirred at the mention of necromancy. She was a scavenger, a thief, a vulture plucking knowledge from carrion, but what if she were more? If she could dive deeper, what could she find?

 “Do I have your interest?” he asked.

 Did the sun rise and then set? Did the moon pull the tides? Did birds fly and wolves howl?

 And there it was, a fleeting glimmer---a spark. She bowed her head and said, “You do. Have you practiced communion with spirits? Those that come to you of their own accord are guided by their own agenda, and as to whom you may be speaking with…” Ioreth shrugged. “Other creatures can creep through, other spirits can lie. What you are proposing would need a fail-safe. A binding.”

 She settled back into her chair and ran a hand through her hair. “There are a few Duendaic spells that could be altered and used as a basis. Blood is the strongest conduit, although it isn’t much help when the original source nothing more than dust, like Chrysthenes is now.”

 A thoughtful silence threatened to fall. It was brushed aside with a question. “How do you travel through planes?”

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"How do I travel through the planes?" he gestured to himself innocently with a gloved hand. 

"Portal magic, for the most part. I have an arch built upstairs, keyed to a few regular locations. There are, of course, other ways-- Vert. Clean the table." 

The homunculus obeyed with its customary servile alacrity, popping the foodstuff into nothingness with its spindly fingertips and tucking the plates and utensils under its feeble arms, leaving nothing before the would-be diners save for the soft indents of cutlery on the pristine tablecloth. As Nisnav watched the small wretch hop out of view, he dragged his finger across that very tablecloth, leaving a linear indent between himself and the elf. 

"There is also the method of recursive paths. Using a few elementary magics, one can retread pathways created by other mages. Usually this involves a bit of causal trickery to confuse the reliable laws of identity, chronology, and location-- in short, to use a recursive path you must look like the mage whose path you are following, you must chronologically appear to be traveling at the same time as she did, and you must be located at the same point from which she left to arrive at the same destination. If each of these relatively easy tricks are performed, the safeguards of causality are tricked into thinking themselves in error, and repeat the travel in an attempt to right a perceived causal wrong."

This feat, inconceivable to the common man, was waved away by Nisnav's hand as only so much nonsense. 

"A banal and derivative way to travel, not to mention a usually nearsighted misuse of a very important cosmic mechanism. If you want to see transdimensional magic worth learning about, I would be happy to take you through my portal. I hope you will say yes. I have an experiment on the other side I think you can assist me with, a method to unlocking vast knowledge."  

He stood up and extended a courteous gloved hand. 

"Certainly, this won't be your first time crossing such a threshold?"

Edited by Vansin

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  She drank in his words. Each instruction, each detail, the indentation he drew on along the table were devoured with a ravenous voracity. What had before been a spark was now a flame. A cunning eye would have noted how travel-weary elf now leaned forward in her seat, the way her brow wrinkled with a question and her lips curled in satisfaction of the answer that soon followed, how her eyes finally made lasting contact with his. She was like a child rattling an unopened box, eager to guess what hidden contents waited inside.

  Ioreth had fallen into his grasp before he even extended his hand. 

  In one fluid motion, she dropped her hand into his and rose from her seat. “It would be my first time,” she admitted. No coyness demurred her confession. Rather than looking up at him from fluttering eyelashes, her attention was even and unflinching until it was mitigated by her hand fluttering back to her hair to tuck a section of tumbling waves behind a pierced ear. “To physically walk through realms is a rare skill. There are those that seem to have fallen out of other dimensions by pure accident, but a controllable portal?” She smiled. “It’s impressive.”

  She would have followed him, and she would have ignored the way the sigil tattooed on the back of her neck flickered with the sensation of pins and needles crawling beneath her vertebrae. 

  “Could you perhaps tell me more of your experiment? It would be a pleasure to help.”

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"Oh, Ioreth." Nisnav intoned despairingly, "You have such capacity, such delicious curiosity. I have no doubt that, one day, your own impressive mind will serve more realms and greater needs than this modest dimension."

Nisnav swept out of the dining hall with an impassive glance back at the elf. Seeing only one side of his face, it was possible to recall that the man had once been a comely young sorcerer. His eyes belied a placid intelligence, his calm and assuring demeanor built upon a vastness of knowledge and sympathy; if the world had treated him cruelly there was no hint that he held toward it any grudge, or that he made any room for malevolence in his heart. He was the product of transcendent wisdom, the beneficiary of a depth of understanding which surpassed trite morality and embraced the fullness of universal experience. This, along with a thin line here and there along the beautiful side of his face, spoke to a soul which had weathered the experience of lifetimes. 

Yet this was only one hallmark of his archwizardry, the rest contained in the multitude of marvels they passed on their upwards route through the grand tower: animated laboratories whose flames lit on and off, beakers pouring and gyrating by programmed accord; menageries of preserved beasts in tall glass cylinders, their shaved bodies tickled for eternity by effervescent alchemical waters; libraries full of books with no titles, halls of weapons brimming with ancient rune magics, and one room with nothing in it save for a massive red crystal sphere whose sinister radiance pulled needfully at Ioreth's blood as she passed. 

"To your question," he began as they broke into a regular stride, "My experiment regards the preservation of knowledge through biogenic processes. For too long has posterity relied on material inscription to translate information through time and space. Yet for all the history of the written word, no book can match the power of our own natural network of thoughts and ideas, our own capacity to communicate. The mind, Ioreth. I know you can appreciate this, your bookstores utilize a simpler and artificial mechanism in mimicry of sentient intelligence to organize your inventory. Yet while your impressive cataloger can identify, it cannot know. Knowledge is a power reserved only for beings which possess true life. It is this resource which I propose to tap."

At the higher levels, the passageways seemed to stretch on in long straight lines whose dimensions couldn't possibly be contained in the towers circumference. It was difficult to tell whether Nisnav was conjuring the comfortable torchlights that sprung up wherever they went or whether he was following them, but after passing through a chamber filled with twenty humanoid figures carved from alabaster stone into various cringing and horrified postures, the mage opened a heavy mahogany door with an opaque window decorated by an iron grill and stood aside, revealing to Ioreth the prize of his collection. 

The portal room was full of long shelves rising from floor to ceiling and crossing every wall. Upon them were thousands of implements arranged haphazardly along their lengths. Here Ioreth saw ancient aquatic suits with complex breathing apparatuses, there wand collections, elsewhere inscribed saddles, an entire shelf of circlets all identical save for the color of their gemstone centerpieces; boots, gloves, capes, masks, scepters, rings, scrolls and potions. There were hundreds of small animal figurines peeking out from between items, and a severed and withered hand whose fingers occasionally flexed in a feeble way. 

Yet in the center of the room was a marvel that outshone them all: a towering archway of smooth obsidian into whose every inch was scratched a formula the significance of which defied the coherence of universal law. Contained within this arcane aperture was a flickering pane of white infinity crushed into the rough shape of a door. It exuded a thin veil of mist as it crackled and hissed against its imposed boundaries, yet between its tantrums visions of shifting destinations appeared and vanished in quick succession, ethereal promises of countless exotic destinations. Through this interdimensional window Ioreth could spy mountaintop villas, sprawling forests of fat orange flowers the height of pine trees infested by ape-like cephalopods, deep mines and the two headed insect-men who worked them, towns of slim blue folk prostrating themselves around one-armed statues, skies filled with flocks of huge bird-like creatures with long straight beaks and leathery wings, a volcano endlessly belching black smog over a dark countryside, rich red children running gaily through the alleyways of a city made from brass, beaked worms as long as forearms being harvested by corpulent canids... 

From this shifting display, a shape began to take form more coherent than any of the destinations. It was a small figure, and at once familiar to either of the two lunch-guests. 

Pitiable Vert exited the portal with a sucking pop, and hopped onto the smooth marble floor of the chamber, his pot belly jiggling.

Nisnav waited for Ioreth to enter his marvelous room before following, and when he did he looked past her to behold the little creature made in mockery of life with an expression of surpassing ambivalence. Vert prostrated himself before his master.

"The preparations are complete." Vert said. Nisnav gave no response, but turned instead to Ioreth. 

"Our coming is expected, my lady, though we are in no rush. Feel free to peruse at your leisure and tell me when you are ready to traverse into the next dimension." 

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It was beautiful.

Not only the jewels, rich with a luster akin to captive galaxies, nor the clothing and its extrinsic weave, nor the scrolls or the figurines or the artifacts with names that could only be guessed at; it was the canorous call of prestidigitation, the sheer and vast feeling of it all. Magic and power interwoven together and then wreathed with an exotic mystery.

Whatever she had to say, she held the words within. Nisnav’s offer to peruse at her leisure was accepted with a gracious nod and softly spoken thanks. Eyes glittering within the shadows beneath the brim of her dark hat, the scavenger-thief slipped away from Nisnav’s unburnt side and stepped into the thrumming folds of his collection. Illuminated by the white light of the portal, Ioreth was a wraithlike presence in black, blurred and spectral; a nebulous vulture circling the objects Nisnav hoarded at the top of his tower.

She was careful to touch nothing. On occasion, her left hand would rise and her long fingers would hover above the article in question, but her fingertips would never quite meet the surface and mar it with a trace of herself. She thought of what he said: the preservation of knowledge through biogenic processes. The natural network. True life. What you do is nothing short of necromancy.

Necromancy.

The grotesquely carved face of one his animalistic figurines was locked in a perpetual scream. She tilted her head, blinked at it, and moved on to obsidian frame of the portal. It crackled with energy more alive than electricity, both more feral and more tame. Controlled, perhaps, by the formulas carved along the surface of the archway. How long would it take to unravel the symbols and sigils etched here? The gaps of her own collection, that of information and wisdom, were felt, and significantly so.

Had her father not always cursed her impatience, her rushed concentration?

“When you speak of preservation through biogenic processes,” she asked, glancing at Nisnav over her shoulder, “did you intend to create a simulation of natural thought for storing the knowledge you wish to keep? Or is it something less artificial than that? Either way, I am intrigued to see what your experiment entails.”

At his leave, she would have once more taken his hand and walked forward into the unknown.

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"I mean to harness nothing short of the mind itself, but my method is yet untested. I am an explorer in search of truth, lady, humbly prostrating myself before the results without pretense. I will find the method which works, and whatever it is I will use it. I believe your thoughts, your input, will be vital in discovering the missing piece to my research."  

Having answered her question, Nisnav turned to his pitiable homunculus and nodded. The creature fetched a step ladder from a corner of the room and feebly pushed it beside its master. Nisnav extended his one arm, and with great care the servant undressed him. Nisnav looked over his shoulder at Ioreth, the ravaged ruin of his jaw reflecting pale light from the portal, 

"Forgive me, lady, if you find this display disturbing. It is a ramification of my sad condition."

The half cape, the shirt, the undershirt; they all came off, revealing a naked torso which told fully the awful magnitude of his deformity. Whatever had removed his arm had taken a broad swathe of his chest and abdomen with it. The skin was raw pink and stretched tight over the bones of his ribcage to the point of being a translucent window into the privacy of his body.

When the undressing was complete Nisnav stood clothed only in belt, pantaloons, boots, and his circlet. He turned to Vert, sparing only a quick glance at Ioreth to see whether or not she was watching, and plucked the homunculus up by cupping it under its pebbly rump. 

And then he splattered the creature against his arm-less shoulder. Vert popped like a bubble full of wax and his body smeared and splashed over his master's skin. For a moment, it appeared that the homunculus was simply dead, smushed against its master's body like some overgrown bug might be smushed underfoot. Yet it was odd that not a drop of his viscous remains had dripped to the floor. Instead the smear clung greedily to Nisnav's body, and soon the mottled grey and green stain which had been Vert began to creep across the wizard's skin. It wound its way down, covering the translucent pink scarring, it wound its way out, its flesh and bones and mouth and nose and eyeballs slithering out from Nisnav's deformed joint like some liquid snake. That snake formed into an arm, an arm decorated haphazardly with Vert's facial features; an eye perched on the shoulder, another blinking from the forearm, a mouth smiling from the palm of a five-fingered hand. 

Yet never did this new and incredible Vert-limb homogenize with the rest of Nisnav's normal flesh. It retained Vert's unhealthy coloration, and looked every bit like the gruesome graft it was. Still, where once Nisnav had been a one-armed cripple he was now, in whatever fashion, whole. Vert's ichorous body even crept up to hide the raw sinew of the wizard's jaw. 

Nisnav curled his arms up, holding his hands before his face, inspecting one against the other. The Vert palm's mouth licked its lips. The wizard chuckled. In his eyes, Ioreth would see something new that she had never seen in him before: emotion. He looked joyous, triumphant. 

"Well now," he said, his voice alive with mirth. He looked toward Ioreth and smiled. Despite Vert's false skin, the handsome mage Nisnav shone clearer than ever in the wrinkles of his glee. 

"My darling, I believe it's time we go on our adventure.

He extended his healthy arm, his eyes glancing up and down Ioreth's body as she took it. Once she was with him, they stepped through the portal together, onward toward destiny. 

>>>

Stepping through Nisnav's portal was an uncommonly comfortable experience. The masterful mathematics of his magic eased the path from his tower to the alien land where they arrived, the travel feeling no more disturbing than walking out from one room and into a slightly cooler one. 

Yet they did not walk into another room. Instead, they were deposited atop the pinnacle of a massive ziggurat, between the legs of a titanic one-armed statue of a godlike figure reaching with outstretched fingers toward the sky. In height, Nisnav and Ioreth reached almost to the top of one of the statue's toes. 

Her arm tucked into his, Nisnav tightened his hold to brace her for the surprise which awaited them. A sudden chorus of cheers erupted around them, a blubbery and wet cascade of sounds which came from the gaping mouths of thousands of small creatures that were crowded around them. There were more, many more, huddled in every available space down the segmented slope of the ziggurat. These creatures were uniformly blue, and their bodies were made seemingly from a wobbly gelatin shaped into the humanoid form. Through their pellucid bodies, their nervous fibers, bones, and brains were easily visible. Their eyes, which bulged overlarge from their round hairless heads, swirled in delight at the sight of Nisnav and Ioreth, and they waved and gesticulated madly as the wizard urged the elf to follow him. Making sure Ioreth was not too awestuck, Nisnav descended with her down the stairway carved into the side of the mountainous ziggurat, flanked on every side by adoring aliens, the sky overhead crashing with harmless explosions and pyrotechnic displays of celebration. 

"Akemanah! Akemanah!" they little blue people cried. The tallest of them perhaps reached up to Ioreth's chin. 

"Welcome home!" others cried. Nisnav waved graciously, his chest puffed, his posture immaculate. 

"What do you think!?" Nisnav shouted over the din, gesturing his Vert arm out not only to the little blue folks, not only to the massive structure the two of them were descending, but to the entire civilization rolled out before them from the foot of the ziggurat all the way to the horizon. Wherever she looked, Ioreth would see magnificent structures, hundreds of streets, urban bridges crossing over green rivers which spidered between the statues and parks which themselves nestled among rows of mighty stone buildings whose variously colored surfaces reflected the light of the two purple suns overhead. 

"Forgive me, we may have to make an appearance at the festival!" he said, again shouting to be heard over the riotous cheers, "Hopefully not for too long! The people love a celebration here as much as anywhere, as you can see!"

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“What do you think?!”

Suspended in disbelief, the turbulent tangle of her thoughts were placed aside to make room for the booming cheers and alien light of two violet suns. The unfamiliar need to be fully absorbed before deeper meanings were teased out from its depths and her opinion casted, for her initial impression was not wonder, but an animal’s fear. It churned beneath the steady examination of the adoring blue creature’s mucilaginous forms, it writhed with suspicion at the wizard’s satisfied smile.

My darling...Akemanah...welcome home!

With her arm in his, Ioreth glanced at Nisnav’s shoulder and met Vert’s eye. It blinked.

“Fascinating,” she managed.

The inner self flinched at Nisnav’s unwelcome grip upon her arm, the outer excused it as a mere demonstration of politeness—a manner in which to guide her down the steps of the ziggurat and through the swarms of beings that pressed in closely around them.

Their previous interactions had been purely centered around the exchange of knowledge, each conversation a demonstration of the wealth of Nisnav’s mind and the transcendence he assumed over the expansive world of magical theory. He had always been eloquent and unfailingly courteous, ever the dispassionate intellectual. And, importantly to Ioreth, he gained both her respect and her trust.

Yet this wizard, with his face made whole by his homunculi and who spoke with a laughing pride at a festival she assumed was in his honor, was someone else entirely.

A false smile met his shout. “A festival? Had I known, I would have worn something finer.”

It was as if she had been flung into a faerie’s tale; the wise and cold fae lord with a hidden face learned her name, entwined himself around her heart’s desires, and led her through a mirror to his secret world.

And what strange beauty his world contained.

At the foot of the ziggurat, she paused to take in the land that stretched beyond them. There was an order, an artistry, that she had not seen in the cities of Terrenus. She came from a world of black forests and cold metal, broken apart only by fields of rolling green and the seething sea. Artificial colors were often too bright for her to comfortably behold, suited as she was to twilit darkness. Yet this place, illustrated by an alien’s palette, seemed to welcome her, bathed as it was by light the same color as her eyes. Twisted monuments of shimmering metal reflected rays of amethyst sunlight, leaving shimmering impressions of heliotrope upon the buildings made of stone. The constructions were seamless, as though they had risen from the earth. Numerous dwellings were domed with gleaming basilicas and decorated with spiraling mosaics. Fireworks still continued overhead, arching colors exploding against the sky. Their ghosts refracted in the channels of green water that snaked through the streets.

She yearned to see the park filled with copper hued trees that grew in slender corkscrews more closely, yet a subtle rise in pressure from Nisnav’s grip upon her arm broke the spell. Her lagging footsteps picked up in pace to match his stride. How often, she wondered, did terror lurk beneath beauty in folklore and faerie stories?

When Nisnav glanced down at the top of her head, there was an edacious longing in his eyes that he hid with an attentive smile.

He was her only way home.

“What is this place?” she asked, raising her voice above the continued supplications of the rapturous blue people. “How did you find it?”

Other figures with metallic skin stood apart from them, often in the doorways and at the balconies of buildings painted cyan. They were taller, with concave torsos and stilt like legs that bent backwards at the knees. While the gelatinous blue people burbled with simplicity, there was a cleverness in their tapered golden eyes, present even as they bowed their long necks to Nisnav and his new companion. Multicolored feathers flowed from their narrow heads like hair.

There was another question burning on her tongue, after listening to his answers and following him down to the heart of this civilization; one that formed when she happened to look back and see what was at the top of the ziggurat now that distance provided enough space for a clearer perspective. She slipped her arm from his and returned it to her side. Even beneath the cloth of her sleeve, her skin crawled and itched and burned. Her other hand rested where his once lay upon her arm. “That statue up there...Is that you? ‘Akemanah?’”

Any answer he decided to indulge her with would have to be accepted, for it was not this spot on the street framed by carefully cultivated gardens of fleshy red succulents that grew before two twirling parallel towers as violet as the suns that Nisnav wished to show her. She followed him further and further into the city until they stopped before a soaring aurelian gate. One could peer through the intricate geometric formations crafted in the gate    to capture a glimpse of the splendor that lay beyond the gate and its formidable wall, yet it was not merely a glimpse that Nisnav’s would offer Ioreth of the estate.

She winced when he looped his arm through hers once more, and cursed herself for allowing a demonstration of her disquietude to slip through the cracks of her composure. Had he sensed her reluctance to step beyond these walls, her consideration of how far she could run back to the ziggurat before either he or his legion of blue beings seized hold of her?

Defiance tilted her chin upwards, pride carried her through the gates as they swung open for the wizard, yet even defiance and pride were not immune to the charms of exquisite beauty.

Ivory trees were lined perfectly around emerald pools. Amphibious creatures with snub heads and serpentine bodies glided through the glassy water and rested upon floating stones on the surface. More people with metallic skin loitered along the lawn. A few bore wing-like appendages that stretched from their wrists to their shoulder blades. These were covered in feathers the same hue as the crested displays on their heads. While all the lissome feathered creatures wore draped vestments dyed in rich pigments,     the winged ones were decorated with ornamental gold. The others showed deference to them, though all were quick to bow to Nisnav.

One approached, an elder being with sanguine plumage and a thin circlet of bronze upon his high forehead. Robes of crimson enfolded his frame beneath layers of iridescent fabrics. He had a small downturned mouth and the slightest indication of a nose above his flared nostrils, and he kept his tawny eyes upon the ground as he addressed Nisnav with another sweeping bow.

“Akemanah, welcome back home. How may we attend to you and your—-“ he glanced up swiftly to look over Ioreth “—-guest?”               

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