Quinen wasn’t quite sure what to expect anymore when he came into the Collegium. Would they welcome him back? Would everyone be hostile? Or would everyone that knew him already graduated, and had moved on to actual Savant jobs like Magitechts and Physickers?
Oberen had told him that the mangled body of her sister was in the East Park of the Collegium. He didn’t respond, grimacing instead when he walked through two bronze and brass statues of lions. Their eyes glimmered with a radiant arcane power, and their mane flowed like stardust streams, floating about like tendrils in water.
Oberen raised something in his hand — something that looked like a glinting circular piece of gold — and the Celestial Lions stayed silent.
Oberen turned to Quinen, and then to Chrysanthemum. She gazed up at the Celestial Lions, standing on her tip-toes to get a closer look.
“Right inside, please,” Oberen said. Chrys peered a few seconds more into the flaring wicks of flame burning within the eye-sockets of the Celestial Lions, before turning back and walking close to Quinen.
Quinen sighed, gripped Chrysanthemum’s hand, and–
“Ow,” she said, and she pulled away from Quinen’s grasp.
“What?” Quinen asked, pulling his hand close to him, afraid he had done something wrong. Chrysanthemum looked up at him. A breath escaped Quinen as he stared into her iridescent eyes, reflective of her homeland of beautiful madness. He shook his head. “N-nevermind that. Come on.”
She nodded. Quinen turned to the Portal — a large arch with swirling nebulous magic within, resembling the night sky on a clear night, complete with astral stars and sidereal clouds. Quinen clenched his fists and turned one last time to Chrysanthemum. She looked away from him, rubbing her hand.
Could it be that— No. The Warlock shook his head. No time for that. He turned and strode into the Portal. The murky, yawning arc ate him up like a stone sinking into a river, its blackness enveloping him.
Chrysanthemum sat on the bed, looking up at Quinen. “Step… sister?”
Quinen rubbed his eyes with his hands. Oberen looked at him, raising an eyebrow. He opened his mouth, but then Quinen waved dismissively. “Lyn was the daughter of some other man my mum married.”
Chrysanthemum nodded slowly though her eyebrows were still furrowed. “Ah, yes. Marriage. Tradition? A commitment…?”
Quinen breathed in, and said, “To one another, yes.”
“What does this tradition eat?”
Quinen bit his lip; Oberen furrowed his eyebrows, and then turned to Quinen, his face demanding an explanation. “She’s just being jokey,” he said, hoping that that would’ve been enough. He turned to Chrysanthemum, whispering: “We don’t ask those questions, right now, okay?”
She paused, then turned to Oberen. Black was beginning to seep in from the corners of her eyes, like ink shrouding the whites of her eyes. Quinen noticed this and bit back a curse. He turned to Oberen and said, “Hey, Oberen, we’re going to need some privacy. She needs to get ready for the trip to the Collegium.”
Oberen raised an eyebrow at that. Quinen sighed and shook his head. “That just means she needs to take a bath.”
Oberen turned to Chrysanthemum, who was now looking at her fingertips. Blotches of ink exploded from the tips. He shrugged. “I’ll be downstairs.”
The Collegium Magicker shut the door behind him as he walked out. Quinen waited for the sound of his boots to fade away, and then he locked the door with a wave of a hand; a ring of glyphs burst out around the doorknob, revolving around it in a hypnotic rhythm.
Quinen walked toward Chrysanthemum and pulled his shirt off of her. Thank Adon she was wearing some undergarments.
The ink he had implanted upon the back of her neck had begun to snake back into its origin, like a flower receding into its bulb, reverse-blossoming. The snaking, vine-like tattoos that twined about Chrysanthemum moved with a vigor usually reserved to human beings.
“God’s balls,” he said, frowning. He stood and walked over to his wooden workbench, situated by the foot of the bed. He pulled a drawer open and grabbed a small, black stick with a tip of crystal.
“Dras,” Quinen whispered beneath his breath. The snarling word brought action, and the tip of the crystal burst into a stellar yellow blue.
He walked over to Chrysanthemum, who watched the tattoos of her body squirm, receding like snakes returning into a hole. “Quin,” she said. Her voice was strange and melancholic. It sounded like it echoed from the caverns of her heart. “What’s happening?”
“It’s the tattoos again,” he said. “Remember? They allow you to keep this Mortal form until you’ve earned the right to get one.”
“I’m…” she faltered as she looked about her body once more, from her shoulders and her chest, down to her feet, and eventually finding herself gazing at the window. She stopped at the sight of her reflection. Her eyes reflected not the beaten down brick apartment that stood across the street from their own flat, but of a place of cold fire and burning water — of perfectly constrained passions and unbridled calm. “I’m dreaming of a place somewhere else…”
“Don’t focus on that,” Quinen said. He did his best to keep the small panic rising in his voice. Every time the tattoos receded, he concluded, the threat of her slipping into the Avalon gets larger and larger. “Don’t focus on that.”
She reached a hand out to the window. Vine-like ink scrawled and slithered up her arm.
A scrawling glyph appeared on top of the glowing yellow crystal. Then, he placed the tip of the inkwand on the end of one of the slithering tattoos. The crawling tattoo stopped, as if held back by the inkwand, suspended by the commanding tip. Wincing from effort, Quinen pulled the tattoos back into place.
The vine-like tattoos moved, as if being charmed by a snake-charmer. It scrawled up Chrysanthemum’s arm again until it returned to its previous place, burning with an arcane light, an iridescence that matched her shifting eyes perfectly. Quinen continued to do the same with the rest of the receding tattoos until he had brought back the tattoos to their rightful places, all in the noble cause of keeping Chrysanthemum anchored to the Mund.
With that finished, Quinen leaned back, huffing out a breath. He stood and walked over to his workbench, returning the inkwand back into its drawer.
Chrysanthemum blinked. The black had gone from the whites of her eyes, as if she had been purified of something. “Quinen…?”
Quin turned and walked over to her. She held out a hand, as if she were blind, and Quinen caressed it. He gripped her hand with both of his own. “I’m here.”
“What am I?” she said. Her voice quivered, her eyes still focused on the window. She was still seeing a place far away, distant.
“You’re a flower,” Quinen said, with a voice much lower and much more caring than he ever thought possible. “A beautiful flower that needs to be taken care of.”
She didn’t answer. She looked out of the window, almost wistful. Her eyes reflected a place of beautiful madness.
* * *
Chrys was vomited into the stone floor by the starry-sky portal. She stepped lightly on her feet, managing to find her balance before completely toppling over. It was already Nymph Season — it was bound to get cold and the snow wasn’t even setting in yet. This made her grateful of the surprising warmth within the Collegium.
She found herself in a square room; Celestial Lions still guarded this side of the Portal. The room looked like it belonged to the Late Second Age — stone walls, torches planted on each of the four walls and wooden tables.
Oberen waited for them on top of the stairs, right across the room. Chrysanthemum flittered over to the foot of the stairs and walked up him. She would take two steps at a time, and then she would get tired and only take one.
When she came over to Oberen, she felt obliged to ask, “Why is it that one would need a Portal to enter the Collegium?”
Oberen snorted. He didn’t look at the fey girl. “Did that need to be a question? Have you seen where we are?”
Even before they entered into the Portal — hell, while they were taking the service car over to the Karoley Ward to the East of the City — Chrysanthemum could already see the floating archipelago of the Collegium, interconnected by a criss-crossing complex of arcane beams. There were little black dots that walked atop these streams of pure energy. The little black dots were people, Chrysanthemum deduced to herself, nodding.
Yes. They were people. I’m smart.
“I suppose I have. Disregard my question.”
Soon enough, Quinen was beside Chrysanthemum. He walked over to Oberen. “East Park, right?” He asked. Oberen nodded. At that nod, he walked out of the room they were in and out into a large, round courtyard that seemed to be the middle of the Collegium.
Students, Savants, and teachers alike walked across the massive courtyard, rushing to and fro to their various responsibilities. In the middle of the circular space was a statue. A strange one at that, Chrysanthemum noted to herself — it was a bunch of broken stones that were held floating together loosely by some ethereal force. It made the statue look like it had been shattered into pieces, and then glued back together loosely and imperfectly.
The statue itself depicted a singular symbol — one that resembled a cross with an “X” across it, giving it eight points. A glowing, silver line of humming power traced the tips of these and formed an octagon about it.
Chrysanthemum tugged at Quinen’s sleeve. “What is that?” She asked, pointing at the strange symbol.
Quinen turned, and then said, “Ah, that’s the Vedina, a symbol of Magick and the symbol of the University,” he said. “And that’s the longest I can take the job of being a tour guide. Let’s head over to the East Park.”
Chrysanthemum followed Oberen and Quinen through the courtyard, weaving through various throngs of students. A few were facing each other, performing intricate hand gestures and shouting out words that only grated against her ear. They were incomprehensibly understandable.
Somewhere, in the mass chaotic blob of students, a flower fell from a tree. The next instant, a cut sliced it perfectly. Chrysanthemum stopped and turned around, trying to look for the source of the sound, before she saw a long-haired woman with a sword sheath her blade, and a pink flower falling from its branch, cut in half.
Chrysanthemum turned to Quinen, but they were already a few feet away. She had to dash to catch up to them.
They walked as they talked. Chrysanthemum did her best not to get distracted by everything happening around her, but there was just so many things. Another grating, magical word, and frosty winds wrapped around her.
Turning, Chrys saw another girl jump in front of a flying fireball. The girl performed a series of lightning fast hand movements and the fireball struck her hands. The fireball burst in a grand display of green and blue, embers of color dancing about her like loose butterflies, and then it dissipated back into Diwa.
Chrysanthemum followed the two Magickers as they descended down wide stairs of stone, capable of accommodating everyone walking up and down. Chrys observed strange trees that didn’t much grow in the concrete jungle of Throne. A forest of twisting trunks and gnarled branches that seemed to support the heavens itself, colored white, black, brown, and red.
Soon enough, they reached the bottom of the stairs, away from the Courtyard and its tall, square buildings and hallways. The East Park still had other access points and exits to other parts of the Collegium, but the middle of it was sealed off by a few strange, pole-like contraptions emitting a red light from an orb on top of the pole. It resembled a picket fence, if the horizontal slats had been replaced with twining beams of crimson.
Oberen walked over to the fence and waved his hand; the small, golden badge he brought with him glowed gold, and one side of the fence petered out. There was a pop that Chrys felt more than she heard, and the space between the two, colorless poles was crossed by Oberen.
Quinen and Chrysanthemum followed soon after.
The lights of the fence exploded back into existence behind them.
In front of them, in the midst of a circle of neatly arranged trees, was a body lying against the stone concrete of the East Park. It was a lady she hadn’t seen before. The fact that her face had been mangled beyond identification could be a probable reason for that.
Quinen walked up to the body, and crossed his arms in front of his chest. His eyes scanned the body, with an intense glare.
There was a tap on Chrys’ shoulder. She turned, and saw a man with hair gold like the sun. His eyes were feral, painted crimson, reminding her of a lion. He didn’t smile down at her or anything. He just turned to Chrys and said, “I don’t think you’re allowed in here.”
Chrysanthemum stared up at him. She was staring at something beautiful; her stomach fluttered, her hands got jittery, and she, without thinking it, took a half-step back. She thought herself mad.
No Magick could’ve done this. Quinen completed his forensic gaze, and theories began popping about in his mind palace. He shook his head and said, “She’s been twisted by something.”
“Twisted? By what?” Oberen asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Made different. Maybe by something from the Mael. Or maybe something deeper than the Near Shores.”
“What, like Avalon?”
Quinen didn’t answer, and his gaze turned back to the mangled body of Lyn. Her nose had been turned into an ivory tusk, her hands turned into eagle wings, her right leg turned into the roots of a sprawling oak tree. Her hair had turned into blades of grass and a trunk of a tree grew from her back, as if her body had been earth.