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Farimon woke up with a sour taste in the back of his throat and a stomach that refused to settle. He groaned, clutched himself, and forced his body over a pile of pillows. The pressure against his gut helped with the gurgling and he let out a sigh of relief.
His arm slipped off the pile and smacked against Margaret, his companion of the last few months. The back of his arm slid along her sweat-soaked breast and he pulled away before she woke up.
With the inclines of the mattress and her body heat to orient himself, he found the closest edge of the bed and rolled away from her. When one leg dangled over the edge, he blindly grabbed the end table and forced himself up. The sharp edge dug into his palm as he managed to lever himself into a sitting position.
It was fall, right at the edge when the winter storms loomed along the horizon. The windows along the north side rattled from a blustery wind.
Rivulets of sweat ran down his chest and back, prickling in the coolness. He grunted and forced one eye open, peering through the haze until his eyes focused on a wall of pictures. Sketches and watercolors of him with the nouveau riche of Boxna Xas, a town that five years ago was nothing but a backwater destination for the dredges of Kormar high society. Now that the town had a reputation of being the place to be for the sharp edge of magical research, the quality of society had increased. At least the money flowing through the town did.
His attention slipped away from the wall of pictures and to the railing over the rest of his studio workshop. With another groan, he forced himself out of bed and over a pile of vomit-covered clothes. He spotted his own black button-down suit, a Martin Grover original, and Margaret's slinky white Talstoy. Both were ruined, but that was typical of their nightly parties.
At the railing, he took a deep breath and drank in the familiar smells of old wood, grease, and metal. Except for a small kitchen area and the bedroom, the rest of the two-floor studio had been converted into a laboratory of sorts. Over the last few years, he had bolted shelves to the stone walls and then promptly stacked them with thousands of cast off, abandoned, and failed experiments.
He focused on the crux of his experiments, a single piece of paper on the floor in the center of his studio. He had imbued it with a simple light rune. The blue light shone weakly in the light from the windows, but at night it would fill the room with a blue glow.
Farimon had painted ten concentric circles on the floor around it, though the two innermost circles only a memory with the floor scorched and pitted from frequent explosions. The outer circle was the freshest, painted seven months ago, soon after he met Margaret.
The circles mapped out the resonance of the rune, the invisible force that surrounded every mage and artifact. For two mages with incompatible auras, the disharmony created sharp pains and discomfort. For Farimon, Margaret's presence caused his joints to itch, his throat to dry, and his stomach to turn sour. And she sweated profusely no matter how cold it was.
Unlike living beings, artifacts responded to resonance differently. Instead of experiencing pain or discomfort, the damage from resonance affects the physical form of the magical device, weakening it and eventually cracking it. When too much damage was inflicted, the artifact was destroyed as all the energy is expended in an instant. In the rune's case, it caused a two-yard radius explosion that scorched the floor. For larger devices, the damage could destroy a build or set a city on fire.
He glanced down at his scarred side. The burn had faded over the years, but he still remembered when his brother's rapier had exploded when Farimon picked it up only a few weeks after Farimon's powers manifested. The month of recovery set him on his path to prevent resonance from ever hurting anyone else.
"Well, it won't solve itself." He cleared his throat and started down the stairs to the ground floor. One bare foot slapped against the worn wood, the other still had his sock on it. The contrast of fabric and icy wood was startling. It also helped clear the fog from his mind.
He headed for his workbench and the latest experiment, a wooden cage carved from exotic woods from the southern jungles. The stack of almost white planks cost him a pretty crown, but it wasn't exactly his money.
Ignoring the pressure in his bladder, he sat down on his stool and picked up his carving tools. He could have built a simple box in a matter of hours, but there was more to crafting than just making something simple. It had to be something that the rich would want to buy. Something beautiful and functional; a light rune was pointless if no one could see it.
He sighed and settled down, working on carving out the last side of the cage. It was going to be a long afternoon, but if he could finally solve the riddle of resonance, then nothing else would matter.
When Farimon looked up again, it was dark. He didn't remember the day passing but losing the light didn't surprise him either. He glanced out the window and tried to guess if it was early or late evening.
When nothing revealed itself, he turned back to his lab. The only light came from the rune in the center of his studio. The steady blue light cast long shadows across the room, turning the shelves and walls into a speckled pattern.
With a groan, he looked down at his work. The wooden cage was completed. He had carved vines along each of the bars and polished the wood with a rasp. The latch was a simple hook but he had a spot for a more formal lock if it worked. Overall, it was an elegant piece of work.
No one answered.
He stood up. Hours of sitting in one position suddenly came back to him with aching joints, a rock-hard bladder, and a rumbling in his stomach. A wave of dizziness washed over him and he gripped the table until it passed.
As soon as he could balance again, he decided to handle the pressing concerns in order of importance; he headed for shared bathroom outside of the studio.
A half hour later, he came wandering back into the studio with a block of cheese in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other. Both were poor vintages, but there would be finer food when he managed to rouse Margaret for the night's celebration.
When she didn't answer, he headed back to the bed on the second floor. He found her sprawled out on the blankets. She wore her robe, which meant that she had woken up at least once, but the only sign that she had done anything was the fresh pipe in her hand. The ashes were still glowing and a wisp of sweet-smelling smoke curled up from the bowl.
Farimon knelt down by her head. "Mar? Mar?"
For a moment, he wondered if she would wake up. There were enough drugs clawing through their veins to kill them.
He sighed and pulled the pipe from her hand. His close presence to her caused a throbbing in the joints in his fingers and his stomach began to bubble again. He fought it down. Her presence was worth the discomfort.
"No," she murmured and tightened her grip. "Mine."
He let out his breath. "Hey. Can you get up?"
Margaret lifted her head and peered at him with blood-shot eyes. He watched as her pupils contracted and she focused on him. With a groan, she blinked slowly, one eye and then the other. Her cracked lips moved for a moment before the whisper escaped her throat. "Did you get it?"
Farimon smiled. "Yeah, Mar, I just finished."
She pushed up, her robe splitting open. "Really?" The sharpness had come back into her voice, brimming with instant excitement. Her smile stretched across her face until dimples appeared on both sides of her pale lips.
He couldn't help but enjoy her expression. "Yes," he said, "and it's beautiful."
Margaret scrambled to her feet even as she spoke. "Let me see!" Her robe caught him in the face, plastering against his nose until she rushed past him.
Farimon stood up and held out his hand. "It isn't in place, hold on!"
There was a wild race to the bottom of the stairs. She beat him, but stopped just outside the outermost circle, her bare feet inches away from the bright yellow paint. It was her circle, measured after hours of experimentation and more than a few nights of drinking. Unlike many people, her aura was steady as long as there was a certain amount of drugs in her system. It made her the perfect measuring stick for his experiments, and his lifestyle.
Panting, he gave her a quick kiss on her sweat-slicked cheek before padding across the circles. The rune didn't respond to him because it was his magic that imbued the page. But, if she stepped any closer, the rune would short and then probably explode into flames.
He got the wooden cage and brought it back. As he did, his breathing grew deeper and nervous flutters ran through his stomach. He didn't know if it would work. Even an inch would be something, a foot would make him better than a thousand years of mages and experts.
His throat dry, he stopped at the rune and picked up the glowing piece of paper. Blue light shone through his fingers as he set it down in the cage and latched it shut.
"It will work," breathed Margaret. She shook at the edge of the circle, one hand clutching her pipe until her knuckles were white. Her robe continued to flutter around her, revealing flashes of her naked body with every shift of movement.
Farimon fought the doubt and forced a smile on his face. "It will work."
He set the cage down in the center and held still.
"It will work," he said more emphatically.
"What if it blows up?"
"I...." He fought a sudden fear that rose up in his throat. "What if I ruin it? If I stay here, it will work."
He looked back at her, pleading.
Margaret held out her free hand. "Please, I don't want you hurt. If it works with you close, then it will work with you over here."
It took all of his willpower to walk backwards to her. He didn't take his eyes off the wooden cage, his chance of a lifetime. It had to work, he knew it. There were a thousand other experiments surrounding him, all failures, but he had to believe this one would work.
She caught him in a hug, her body pressed against his back. He shivered at her touch, the familiar ache growing in his joints and the sweat of their bodies. Her breasts caressed his naked back just as her pipe rested against his chest.
The curls of smoke rose around him and he breathed in deep, enjoying the flush of euphoria that followed it. He took another breath and held it in, feeling it seeping through his veins.
"Ready?" she whispered behind him. The bowl of her pipe brushed against his skin, sending a bolt of discomfort from the heat.
He nodded, not trusting his words.
When she moved, he moved with her. They took a step. Only enough to pass over the yellow line.
Farimon's eyes never left the cage, watching for any signs of shorting or resonance.
Nothing happened. His heart beat faster as he held his breath. "It work---"
A mote of magenta rose off the rune. The startling contrast of bright purple interrupted the blue as it drifted toward her.
The tension left his knees and he sank against her body before hitting the ground. "No," he whispered, "No."
The smell of ozone filled the air, a sharp bitterness that rose up from the paper and the woman behind him. Small embers of energy, mostly bright purple, drifted from her body as others lifted from the paper. They sailed toward each other, speeding up with every passing heartbeat. The only flicker came as the motes passed through the bars of the cage.
"Damn their eyes," snapped Farimon. He couldn't tear his eyes away from the rune as it flickered rapidly. More magenta embers rose up, tracing the lines of the rune as it pulsed. The flashes grew faster and brighter, the contrast of light and dark blinding in the studio.
He lifted his hand, hating how the flashes were so fast that it looked like his body was teleporting instead of moving. He looked past at the paper despite the brilliant light hurting his eyes.
With a sharp pop, the paper and cage exploded. A wave punched into his stomach, shoving him back a few inches. It continued on to knock over a shelf before thudding loudly against the brick walls and the windows, but the wire-filled glass panes held.
His ears popped from the explosion. He gasped and let out a long shuddering, gasp. "Damn their eyes," he said into the darkness.
Margaret sank down behind him and pulled him into a tight hug. "Next time."
"It's always next time. A hundred different ways and I haven't figured it out. I know I can."
She kissed the back of his head.
"Damn it, why haven't I figured this out!?" Farimon's voice echoed through the darkness.
In the distance, a bell began to ring. Even as he fought the tears in his eyes, he counted out the ringing. Nine bells, it was a few hours to midnight.
"Come on, Far, we're late for the party."
"No," he said. "No, I can figure this out."
She tugged on him. "Come on, we have to go."
"Because it's Robert's party."
Robert de Monsar, Farimon's patron and source of his money. The older man was well past fifty and burning away the last years of his life with drugs, sex, and throwing money at a fool who thought he could change a thousand years of dogma.
"Come on," encouraged Margaret. "You have to get pretty for him. Both of us do." Her voice was soft and cheerful, as if she wasn't haunted by the failed experiment.
He jerked free of her grip. "He can wait."
"No, he can't. You already know he's getting anxious for..." Her voice trailed off as he glared at her. She sighed and crouched down. Her promixity felt like nails scraping against his skin. "Look, love, there is a time for this and a time for Robert. And we need to make Robert happy if you want him to keep paying for your experiments."
Sullenly, he let her pull him to his feet. He didn't mind visiting Robert, the sex and drugs pushed back the pain of Margaret's resonance. But, it was hard to pull away from one of his failures. He wanted to fix it, to obsess about the problem until the world burned away or he answered the impossible question.
With a sigh, he headed toward the burning rune.
"Far, don't do that. We don't have time."
"Just let me create a new one. And then I'll get ready."
She said nothing. He listened to her bare feet on the stairs as she went to find a clean dress. In the back of his mind, he promised he would ask Robert for more clothes for both of them.
Numbly, he swept the remains of the paper and the wooden cage into a corner before finding a fresh piece of paper. With his finger, he gathered power and traced out another rune. His fingernail glowed with the same blue light as he felt the energy coursing through his veins and into the paper. The glowing line left behind flickered with his presence.
When he pulled back, there was once again a steady blue light shining from a piece of paper. He carried it to the center of the circles and set it down on the still heated stone.
He backed away and stared at it. A few wisps of smoke rose up from the stone around it, framing his obsession. He gripped the shelf, wracking his mind for another way of fighting the resonance. It was possible, he knew it was.
Nothing new came up. Just his old failed experiments flashing across his mind in rapid succession. He couldn't escape them any more than he could find the answer. His fountain of imagination had dried up and he was helpless to do anything other than try pointless experiments endlessly.
"Damn their eyes," he whispered. His grip on the shelf tightened. "Damn their eyes!" With a snarl, he yanked the shelf over. It teetered for a heartbeat until he pulled harder. Screws, hunks of metal, and broken shards of pottery tumbled around him as he tossed it over.
"Damn all of the god's eyes!" He shoved his way through the scattered and scorched hunks of metal on the floor and grabbed the next shelf. With a grunt, he pulled it over. The sound of heavy metal and hunks of wood crashing to the ground gave him a brief moment of satification. But, when the echoes faded, the frustration and despair rose up again. He stormed to the next and pulled it over. Without waiting for the crashing to silence, he hurried over to the next one, and then another.
He managed to get across the room before his anger fled. He panted for breath as he surveyed the mess.
The paper still shone in the middle, but now the room was cast in countless shadows that stretched up the walls. It looked like a battlefield, or at least the images of war he had seen in pictures and paintings.
Trembling, he looked up at the second floor.
Margaret stood at the railing, tracks of tears running down her cheeks.
Farimon felt sorrow gripping his heart. He wanted to sink down and cry, or find something to smoke and retreat from everything. He forced his breath out and then bowed his head. "I made a mess."
"We'll clean up," she whispered. "Once we get back."
He sighed and stepped over a pile of knives. He would try again, but after he had a few days of sex and drugs and parties to clear his mind.
It was late afternoon when he woke again. The din of traffic outside of his window pounded against his ears, adding to the burn in his stomach. Too many hours of drinking and smoking had left him unable to wake without feeling his stomach in his throat.
With a groan, he flipped on his stomach to ease the pressure and reached out for Margaret. His hand found nothing but empty mattress and cold blankets.
He cracked open one eye and peered across the room. The wall of pictures had two new ones resting on the floor. One was the three of them, Farimon, Margaret, and Robert, dancing together on the floor. The second was one of Robert's own sketches of Farimon and Margaret wrapped in each other's embrace. It was set at the Golden Rose Brewery, judging from the casks of wine they were using as an impromptu bed.
Farimon frowned. He only had a vague recollection of dancing with Robert and none of the casks. But, that wasn't much different than the rest of his life lately. He crawled out of bed and slipped to the floor, sinking against the icy wood to clear his thoughts.
He noticed he managed to avoid throwing up on his clothes. His new jacket had been torn along the back and the knees of his trousers were stained in mud and wine.
He shook his head and staggered to his feet. "Mar?"
His bare feet scuffed on the ground as he slumped toward the railing. The strength left him and he sank to his knees again, clutching the bars for support. The metal felt good against his skin as it pushed away the fog of drugs and drinking.
Margaret was on the ground floor, sprawled out across the painted lines. A puddle of vomit spread out from her face, but he could see she was still breathing. Her dress rode up her thighs, catching on the sharp edges of one of Farimon's experiments.
He looked away from her and at the floor around her. The mess was hopeless. The debris covered almost every inch in a wide variety of wood, metal, and exotic materials. Hundreds of thousands crowns worth of failure.
He looked at the center of the circle. The glowing piece of paper mocked him. It was the simplest thing in the world, protect a strip of paper from the presence of another mage. For the last two years, he couldn't even do that.
Gripping the railing, he pulled himself to his feet and started toward the stairs. Two nights of parties had not given him any new ideas, but maybe cleaning up the mess would. He couldn't give up, not when he was so close.
Farimon was halfway down the stairs before he realized that Margaret was sprawled across the lines and the paper was untouched. He froze in mid-step, his eyes growing wider.
Shaking, he looked at her. She was crossing two circles with her arm outstretched between elegantly forged bars of a silver cage and a heavy metal arm used to brace a stone pillar. She was almost six feet closer than she ever had before.
He knuckled the sleep from his eyes as he focused on the glowing piece of paper. It wasn't his imagination, it was still there.
"M-Mar?" he gasped.
She didn't answer.
He slid down the rest of the stairs and plowed through the mess. Something cut his shin, but he barely noticed. "Mar! Mar!"
His knees splashed in the puddle of drying vomit as he grabbed for her. "It isn't shorting! Mar, look at it!"
Farimon glanced over to prove that he wasn't imagining things.
There was a mote of bright purple rising from the paper.
"No, no, no!" he yelled. He dropped Margaret and sobbed. "No, don't burn up. Not now, I just---"
The spark of light faded and the rune stopped flickering.
"---figured... it out?" Farimon frowned as he looked at the paper and then back at Margaret.
She was face down in the mess, her head half buried by a metal mirror that he used to concentrate sunlight. Her face was twisted in a scowl as she struggled to wake up. "F-Far?"
Farimon watched both of them as she pushed herself up. Her dress stuck to the ground and she had to jerk to peel herself off. As soon as her head lifted above the debris of experiments, sparks rose from both her and the paper.
He gasped and pushed her down. He felt her jolt with the impact with the floor but his eyes were locked on the paper.
The sparks faded away. Panting, he beamed as he looked over her. Her slender body was flailing at the ground, shoving hunks of metal as she tried to find purchase. But, there were no sparks rising up toward his rune.
"Mar!" He scooped her up and pulled her close, not caring about the sharpness of vomit or her ruined dress. "That's it! I found it! Thank you! Thank you!"
Her arms were limp for a long moment but then she wrapped them around him.
Eight yards away, the rune exploded. The impact struck both of them, searing their skins and blackening their ruined clothes.
It didn't matter that he wasn't sure why it didn't respond. He saw it was possible and it had something to do with the carcasses of his failed experiments. He had a start, now he had to track it down.
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