Orvelle stepped lightly past the rows of beds. The lights had been dimmed, but there was nothing remotely eerie about the room. It was neat, but not clinically sterile, and the light streaming in through the open door was yellow and warm, casting mellow shadows. It seemed wrong to Orvelle, like the aggressive normalcy of the room downplayed the tragedy that had taken place there.
The body of the client was in the far right bed. It was covered only by a sheet, but this had been placed so carefully on the body and smoothed so perfectly, it seemed more like a veil. Vaguely, she could recall her mother covering Nana's body with a funeral veil and how she obsessively rearranged the material while her hands shook fiercely. She could not imagine Mr. Defferin in quite so hysterical a posture, but she could picture his resolute face looking down on the cooling body.
She could hear footsteps behind her, firm and heavy. Atticus had followed her into the room.
"It's morbid, you know," he remarked blandly.
"I know, I just wanted to see... You know," Orvelle shrugged.
"I suppose." Atticus went passed Orvelle and approached the bed without hesitation. He went around it and stopped at the other side, facing Orvelle. "Wanted to see if it was true?"
Orvelle nodded, distractedly. Atticus raised a hand to unveil the cold figure.
"What are you doing?" Orvelle flinched. Atticus shrugged and dropped his hand.
"It's strange, but that was my first impulse, too," he said wistfully. "How does that work, really? Someone tells you they inadvertedly killed someone and you feel the need to go and check?"
"Something so horrible, you'd assume nobody would even lie about," Orvelle nodded. "I guess it's one of those perverse needs for grotesque."
"Strange that death should be considered grotesque," Atticus smiled lopsidedly. "It's actually quite a common and ordinary thing. As inevitable as rain."
"There are places in the world where it doesn't rain," Orvelle said, not sure what spurred the comment.
"Well, then, my analogy is flawed."
"I don't think it even counted as one. Metaphore, barely. Or simile." After a pause, Orvelle posed the question that had been bothering her. "What will Mister Defferin do now?"
Atticus would have shrugged or simply said he didn't know, but he realised he had been asking himself the same thing.
"I think... this will end badly for him, either way. He'll... probably be charged with murder and..." Here he hesitated, before finishing, "...the Prohibitive Statute will probably apply."
Orvelle nodded slowly. Undoubtably, the fact that magic was involved had just made things worse for the old man.
She often wondered herself what Atticus really thought of hers and her friends' liberal attitude towards magic. When asked directly, he just rationalised it as "typical testing of limits", to be expected from an artist. But Priscilla was not an artist and neither was Bob. She once seriously asked herself if her flair for the arcane was something Atticus was merely willing to overlook for her sake or if it was just another way for him to rebel against his parents. Maybe he was indifferent, but she did not suspect he was capable of indifference where she was concerned.
"We should go," she said eventually. "We need to help the others prepare."
"Miss Soleigh, mind if we have a word?" Mr. Defferin asked from the doorway, a strangely serene expression on his face.
"Uh... sure." Bob had been busy writing spells on the floor, along with Roger and Priscilla. Mr. Defferin had given them each pieces of paper with what had to be written and the specialised formulae were fairly concise, but for some reason he insisted they write it in cooking oil. Bob hadn't known transparent substances could be used to inscribe spells, but Mr. Defferin had assured her this was just as effective as etching them in granite, but much easier to clean.
Priscilla and Roger continued writing in silence for a while after Bob left.
"This could be dangerous," Priscilla opined.
"Most likely, yes," Roger replied gruffly.
"It's silly, really, but it's just struck me that we might not even make it through this," she let out a short rasp of nervous laughter.
"Don't worry yourself about that," Roger said, turning halfway towards Priscilla. "We have a plan. At least, Mister Defferin has a plan."
"Still... I don't even know your last name," she continued, her voice nearly breaking.
Roger opened his mouth to say something, then closed it. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, a slight frown came over his face. "You're just doing this to find out which of my parents is the bastard, aren't you?"
Priscilla grinned sheepishly. "Was I that obvious?"
Roger shook his head and returned to the job. A few minutes of silence passed before he added, "You moved a bit fast. Three more lines and you would've had me."
Priscilla smiled to herself.
Bob walked into the office feeling like she was a schoolchild being reprimanded by the headmaster. That, in itself, was not far from how she felt when interacting with anyone more than five years older than her, yet this time there was a gravity to the situation that justified it.
"Miss Soleigh, I'm told you have something of a skill with the arcane, apparently surpassing that of your comrades," Mr. Defferin started as he seated himself at his desk. Bob plopped herself on a chair and looked around the room nervously.
"I... I kind of... When I was at the library, with T-Tellarin-- I thought he was Tellarin, I didn't--"
"That's quite alright," Mr. Defferin raised a hand to stop her stuttering. "I can imagine how you came across this knowledge. It's unimportant. However, I do require your help."
Bob's eyebrows shot up and her slight trembling subsided.
"Don't worry, for you the risk is minimal," the old man added on an appeasing tone.
"But for someone else's it's bigger?" she asked softly.
Mr. Defferin frowned.
It was a bright day in River-Crossing. It was a fresh, sunny spring day and the birds were singing. Mid-day was approaching, so most people had retreated home or in various eateries for lunch-- for, though a fancy and modern city, it was still one of strict habits-- leaving the warming streets mostly empty. On these days, one could appreciate the architecture of River-Crossing as being "cheery". The material used in preponderance was eclistone, which came mostly in warm yellow-brown hues, hence the overall effect of optimism and delight reported by some tourists.
That being said, eclistone was occasionally hard on the eyes, especially on such bright and sunny days. Rogiri Orphican soon found himself shielding his eyes from the sun as he drudged down the street, attempting to recall the location of The Safari Company. Yretha's unnerving behavior earlier that day and the damnable sun were doing nothing to improve his already frayed temper.
His spirits improved slightly when he found what he was looking for, but as he would find out later that day, they would not stay buoyed for long.
Orvelle had been sitting at the window, as per Mr. Defferin's instructions. The task was a dull one, because at this time of day, the streets were deserted, but she took to it with vigilence, even if the chances of Orphican finding them were slim.
"He can't possibly know who busted Orvelle out," Priscilla had muttered, unconvinced.
"He is a great Mage," Bob insisted. "He might know."
The fact of the matter was, he did know, though Bob in turn did not know that his knowledge had little to do with magic. Yretha had overheard Bob and Atticus talking and had in turn told him. Nonetheless, Bob was somewhat justified when Orvelle yelped and ran away from the window to mutter "I told you so."
"What-- he's here?" Priscilla asked, somewhat hysterical. "But we don't even have a plan yet!"
"Yes we do," Mr. Defferin said, appearing in the doorway. He seemed taller than ever and his expression was grim. "Go to the back room."
"What are we--"
"Go now," he cut off, as serious as death.
Priscilla rarely did what others told her two, even if she was on said other's payroll, and she wanted to stay. But something about his tone and his demeanour made it hard to protest and before she knew it, Roger had gently nudged her through the door and closed it.
Orphican hadn't intended a confrontation. At most, he wanted to find Orvelle, discover how much she knew and blast her mind into oblivion if it was too much.
Walking into the reception area, he found only the old man waiting there, standing in the middle of the room, looking gravely at him over the rim of his spectacles.
Before Orphican could say anything, however, Mr. Defferin had already taken two long strides, grabbed his arm and stabbed him with a letter opener in the stomach.
Useful things, letter openers. Generally blunt, but still thin and metallic enough to count as blades. Not a terrific stabbing implement, granted, but in magic, the success of some actions sometimes depended on other things than on the tools used. One thing in particular.
The spells flared up with a few fractions of a second delay. For a truly proficient Mage, a fraction of a second delay could be fatal, or at least dangerous. Truly complex spellnets relied on timing as its glue. If one spell was not set off at the precisely necessary moment, the whole array fell apart or at the very least, the overall effect was lost.
In this case, however, accuracy had to be sacrificed for the sake of sheer force, and while "force" was a rather crass measurement of magic, it was exactly what Mr. Defferin needed. A powerful Mage could not be fooled with frilly, lacy spells, but could be rammed with so much arcane energy that they would be unable to disentangle from its web.
From the outside, it looked as if both Mr. Defferin and Orphican had collapsed instantly in the middle of the room. From the inside... well...
There were layers to one's soul. There was the wispy, fluffy exterior, tiny tendrils extending hesitantly into the world, brushing against anything close, but retreating skittishly. There was a deeper layer, a layer that remembered small acts of kindness, small victories, small regrets; that recoiled when it was scared, fluttered when it was nervous and jingled when it was happy. There was another, yet deeper, that remembered it liked pie and summer days and long walks on the beach. There was another that remembered friends. And another. And another. And another. In a soul, there was room for so many things, for so much pain and so much joy, for so much fantasy and so much reality, for so many new combinations, that there was not one empty spot anywhere... but there was always room for more. And from each layer, a tether could extend. The core was important, of course, but its layers gave it purpose, much like magic was potent, but without a spell, useless.
The soul was a gestalt, and that was, ultimately, something Yretha had understood and Orphican had not. Removing one layer from it made it less than a soul. It made it merely a psyche, a personality, an abstraction. A cluster.
Orphican had always been under the impression that the core was all that mattered. It was the seat of one's innermost emotions, most brilliant ideas. It was the fountain from which everything else sprang. In a way, this was true. But ever a river had continuity. The water that flowed from one end to the other was the same, even if water from other sources had gathered and mixed with it on the way. But for Orphican, there were places where the water dried out and the length of another river was spliced in the riverbank to give the impression of unity. It was disharmonious in a way the universe had never intended it to be.
However, even so, Orphican was complete; stitched together like a crude puppet, but complete. The souls he'd robbed of their shells, though, had no such advantage. The outter layers were useful. The outter layers were necessary. The skin was the first protection against infection. Without it, the exposed flesh bled and gangrened and rotted. In an unfortunate kind of symmetry, a soul was much the same way.
It was always unclear how much of one's soul reached Clarior. Not the entire thing, of course, and not all at once, but enough to show only the more intimate parts of one's mind-- or self-perception-- or feelings. Inhibitions were somewhat lessened and embarrassment waned. The Bridge was intermediary enough that what got there was more or less a full persona.
Orphican found himself there, but not with any knowledge of how or why. He was pretty sure this situation was not in any way under his control.
The Bridge, or rather, its representation, was slightly arched and wooden, floating surrounded by black nothingness. Orphican was well acquainted with it, of course. He's crossed it many times. On the other end of it, though, was another person acquainted with it very well.
The figure of Jame Defferin stood opposite Orphican, grinning slightly, hands behind his back. This was not Mr. Defferin, the kindly owner of The Safari Company. This was Jame Defferin, a tall, proud young man, his hair a rich brown colour and spectacles absent from his eyes. There was something slightly impish about him as well, adding to the youthful image.
Jame Defferin had a very clear feeling of identity. Orphican did not. His image was unstable, wavering between his original appearance and those of the appearances he stole. Sometimes certain characteristics became more pronounced: a deft chin, inquiring eyebrows, high cheeksbones, but it changed fluidly, becoming something that it seemed to have been all the long, yet distinctly different from the moment before. He only retained his arrogant little smile through these metamorphoses.
"Then you are responsible for this," Orphican stated calmly in a low, silky voice; the sound of his own thoughts, when they were spoken in his head. "I don't assume you'd tell me how you did this?"
"I caught you mid-stride," Jame Defferin replied. He moved his hands from behind his back and raised one to show a dull metallic object to Orphican. The letter opener.
"Ah. The original condition," Orphican nodded, almost approvingly.
"Indeed," Jame Defferin grinned.
It had been easy enough for him, after reading Adelle Doddoran's letter and the account of Orphican's death, to figure out how the Mage had managed the transfer the first time. The intent to kill, followed by action triggered the process. It was a condensed version of the ritual, much more traumatic and much riskier, but Orphican had been desperate enough at the time to try it. It was simple, actually: the two souls were removed and one of them was destroyed. The one that wasn't picked a body to inhabit. The only reason Orphican hadn't used this method instead of the ritual was because there was a chance that the soul destroyed would be his. Mages did not fight, an old wise man had once said. They cheated. And this Mage had cheated the entire universe because he feared death.
"It's not quite as clever as you think it is, of course," Orphican harrumphed. "This is quite an... unsophisticated solution, if I may say."
"It works," Jame replied bluntly.
"Well, not that it wasn't nice, but I think I'll be--" The Mage stopped suddenly and went unnaturally still, as if he'd been struck by a sudden realisation. "I can't go, can I?"
"No. I took precautions against that."
"I did not see any spells inscribed in that room."
"Ah. Now that is clever." He paused and tilted his head slightly. His eyes were a piercing green this time. "What do you hope to achieve?"
"I am only here to detain you," Jame replied. "I want to see that this ends as intended."
"'Ends as intended'?" Orphican repeated mockingly. "You can keep me here, but not forever. In fact, you can't even really do anything to me, can you, little boy?"
"I... am not the one who will do anything to you," Jame shook his head slightly, his grin turning petulant.
Orphican laughed at this, albeit it came out a bit forced.
"So, you can't even do the job yourself. The Mageling whelp is waiting for the Chief Caster to arrive?"
"In a sense," Jame bobbed his head in something between a nod and a thoughtful gaze at the floor. "The deceived are angry," he said, on the same tone of voice most people would say 'It's raining' or 'I see they finally paved this street.'
Orphican froze in shock at these words.
"What did you say?" he hissed angrily.
"The deceived are angry," Jame repeated slowly and deliberately, staring Orphican straight in the eye. "The Bridge is being abused."
It was then Orphican noticed the sound that had been growing throughout the conversation. A fluttering of blades, a shrieking of wings, a sound between a flock of scaled flying lizards migrating north and the tapping of a thousand fingernails on the edge of a resonant blade.
"You-- you--" Orphican mouthed, throwing accusatory looks. "If you do this, you will be no better than me. Body stealer," he added the two words for emphasis.
"No, not at all," Jame replied calmly. "That is the difference between the two of us, Orphican. I will not do this ever again. I did not purposely seek to do this in the first place. But if, in the process, I will have relieved the world of the likes of you and will have released myself from suffering the consequences of your actions... I accept that it is a most fortuitous course of action. Goodbye, Rogiri."
The image of Jame Defferin faded from view just as, in the darkness, strange grey shapes moved. There was a hint of limbs, of voices, of disjointedness of anatomy as the deceived came into view.
It would not bring them much peace, not even if they were aware this person they were shredding into was the one who'd deceived them, but they tore into him nonetheless, hungry for purpose and the little bit of relief that would send them on their way, finally.
Priscilla pushed her hand through the air. There. That was the limit at which her muscles froze up and she was unable to forward any longer. It was not like pressure, exactly, or like anything pushing back against her. She didn't feel as if she came in contact with anything, but as if somewhere between her hand and her brain, someone redirected traffic to make sure the message never got through.
It was not like what a magical barrier was described as in books. It did not shimmer or burn or sparkle or distort the air. In fact, magical barriers were done rarely enough that even some Mages never knew what they looked like, so she was fairly sure those fiction writers had been making it all up. True, it was easier to simply make the air too hot or too poisonous for anybody to consider it worth passing through, but still... there was something about the idea of pure magical barriers that was... cool.
This situation was not one of them, though. The prone forms of Tellarin Gadabian (because only the inside parts were Orphican, the physical body was the unfortunately defunct young man known as Tellarin) and Jame Defferin were unreachable. This irritated Priscilla a great deal, made Orvelle bury her face in Atticus' chest and shake uncontrollably and made Roger wring his hands convulsively. Bob merely paced in an unnervingly calm fashion, more like someone waiting for a coach in a station than for a life-and-death situation to come to a conclusion.
"How can you stay so calm?" Priscilla had asked, peevishly.
"I trust Mister Defferin. I think he can do this," she'd replied.
"Do WHAT?" Priscilla practically yelled.
And Bob had told her. Oh, how she'd told her. In detail, with commentary and side notes, like a textbook lecture.
"He's insane," Priscilla had said first. "He's a genius!" she'd added later, with a wide grin.
But as time wore on, her enthusiasm had melted into worry and her worry into anger and once that was gone, she wasn't sure she had the energy to revert to any other emotional state. Luckily, before Priscilla ripped her hair out from sheer frustration, Tellarin's form stirred.
Everybody seemed to tense up at that moment.
"It must be him," Bob whispered.
"Unless something went wrong," Priscilla hissed.
Bob shook her head, but didn't say anything. She was clutching a large tome to her chest. It was Mr. Defferin's binder. He'd said that only he could open it and had given Bob to understand that it was the ultimate test to assure everyone of his identity. Bob understood. Opening the tome came down to more than a magic word or a secret signal. This was a special kind of protection spell, responding only to the personality-- the mind-- of the owner.
The magical barrier had dissipated. Bob rushed towards the two bodies, dropped the tome next to them and sped back to hide behind Priscilla. If something had gone wrong, then they'd have a powerful, angry Mage on their hands.
As Tellarin's form raised itself up, everybody noticed right away that the front of his shirt was bloodied and the owner of the body winced in pain. The wound from the letter opener wasn't deep, but it was left to bleed unchecked. Bob whimpered slightly and Priscilla winced in sympathy pain. Orvelle was wide eyed, Atticus was frozen in place and Roger was cradling his stomach, taken over by the same sentiment as Priscilla.
They almost did not notice as a hand reached out, touched the cover of the tome and opened it efortlessly, but when it happened, they rushed to the side of Mr. Defferin in his new body. They all started talking at the same time, chattering happily, but bordering on hysteria.
"Yes, yes," Mr. Defferin swatted them off. "Now help me get up, you verbose rodents."
Priscilla laughed at this while she and Bob helped Mr. Defferin up to his feet.
It was strange. His voice was different now, but it still felt like the old man was behind it. But he was young now. He was younger than he'd been for a long time, yet he fell into it without a hitch. One would have stopped and pondered about the immortality of the soul by this point, but as it were... Priscilla was only disappointed she didn't get to do any magic herself.
Everybody had had enough of thinking about souls and bodies for a good while.
Author's Note: so I was going to split this into two chapters, but I thought, "aw, screw it" and decided to shove get it over with. So this chapter is basically double in length. Which is, you know, good, I suppose, considering how godawfully late this update it (thousand apologies for that). So yes, last chapter and all that. I won't promise an epilogue, though if the mood strikes me, you never know. But yeah, "Talents" is done, woohoo! and all that. I am now moving on to other things, which does not preclude a series of short stories taking place in the same universe. Who knows, I might even get around to redrafting "Talents" one day, to iron out the kinks.
Thank you all for your reviews and support. You've all been great. (And by "you", I refer to the approximately five readers I have. Quality over quantity, I say.) It's been a fun little ride with all of you along.