Updated: May 27, 2022
The war seemed very far away.
The chapel of Mnemosyne, warmed by a crackling fire in the black stone hearth, glowed with the flickering lights of candles. Students heads bent studiously to their tiny flames, peaceful eyes resting on each of their own hidden worlds.
Nikifor let out a long, slow breath. Normally the peace of the chapel, the kindly blank eyes of the statue of Mnemosyne, calmed him after a long day. It had done so the entire thirty years of his education here, and all the following year too, as he sidestepped into the role of assistant librarian, more than content to hide in the shadows for as many years as the muse nation would allow it. And they would, for as long as his father could hold a sword. A child of barely forty, the Champion’s Heir held little consequence in the eyes of those in power.
But he couldn’t find peace tonight. The war seemed very far away, although something had been off for days. He wished, somewhat irritably, the students would feel it. He shouldn’t have been the only one losing sleep.
A cold gust of wind flickered through the chapel and blew out his candle and the two closest to him. A perceptible shift went through the bodies, and students opened their eyes, stretched, sighed.
Nikifor had purposely seated himself in the shadows nearest the door. Now he retreated silently from the room before the Priest of Mnemosyne could ask the students about what they’d experienced during their meditations. He hadn’t been in the mood for participating in that for about two years now, and since nobody particularly liked him, they chose not to notice his absences. Clinging to the deep, cold shadows, he hurried down the long stone hall.
Nikifor tensed, but stopped and turned back. “Nikolai.” He tried to sound reproving, because not being a student almost made him a teacher, and his brother still had a good ten years of college left yet. “Go back to Chapel.”
Nikolai caught up to him, put a hand on his shoulder and kept walking, with one backward glance and a snicker. “You go back to chapel. Or, come with us.” He leaned closer and dropped his voice to a whisper. “Rainbow found it.”
“Rainbow found what?”
“Weren’t you even listening last week? You weren’t seriously buried in some dusty old book ignoring us?”
“That dusty old book, brother, was a vivid account of the life and philosophy of Magnus of the Wild Blackthorns at the Mouth of the Screaming Cave, and I most definitely ignored your inane prattle.”
“Not Magnus again. Did that book mention the time he chased a goat down the main street of Shadow City naked?” Nikolai bumped them both down a dusty passage, in the opposite direction Nikifor wished to go.
“That never happened!” Nikifor tried to stop and go back, but the younger muse just kept steering him. He didn’t feel like starting a fight, so he went with it and resolved to try logic instead. “Magnus wrote that to walk in the world of Dream and inspire our human artists is like skipping rocks across a calm ocean.”
“So I want to go and find a calm ocean, I don’t want to look at some stupid haunted hole in the wall!”
“So you were listening after all.” Nikolai chuckled. “Look, there’s Rainbow.”
Rainbow waited halfway up the broken, dusty staircase that led to the abandoned wings on the fourth floor, where students were forbidden to go. She had a face that looked as though it were carved by a fine sculptor, soft blonde hair lying over her shoulders, and a straight, slightly pointed nose famous throughout the student body for how very deeply she considered it her best feature.
Rainbow ran lightly down the stairs, and stopped a little too close to him. She toyed with his shirt collar. “Hi Nikifor.”
Nikifor could almost hear Nikolai’s eyes roll. He took a half step back. Rainbow frankly terrified him. “Hello Rainbow.”
Her mouth twisted into a pout, and she sighed. “I’m surprised you came. I told Nikolai you didn’t have the stomach for it.” She climbed the stairs, hips swaying.
“And I told Nikolai I’d rather read a good book.” Nikifor followed.
“Not that awful Life and Philosophy of Magnus?” Rainbow tsk’d loudly over the clatter of her footsteps. “Didn’t he live in a barrel for a year and piss through a hole he kicked in the side?”
“No, he did not!” Nikifor turned around, ready to storm back to the library he should have gone to in the first place.
Nikolai barred the way behind him, smirking over his stupid little dusty blonde goatee. “They put the barrel on display at the Council Hall. With a plaque.”
Nikifor grunted and continued up the stairs.
“In here.” Rainbow stopped on the landing and shifted a board leaning up against the wall.
Nikifor halted at the sight of the gaping hole behind it. “We are not going in there. That’s definitely against the rules.”
Rainbow struck a match with a hiss that cut through the darkness of the staircase and the space inside the wall. “Going to tell the Principal?” She lit up a torch, lifted it from the sconce on the wall, and ducked delicately into the hole.
He’d be in more trouble if he let a student get hurt in there than for going in there himself. Nikifor swore softly under his breath and followed, Nikolai close behind.
A staircase climbed the inside of the wall. Black with age, broken, possibly burned, but a staircase inside the wall. Nikifor stared, dumbfounded. “Do not go up that staircase. It’s not safe.”
Rainbow glanced over her shoulder. “Did you read that in Magnus too?”
“Rainbow I mean it. It’s at least a thousand years old, look at it.”
She went up two steps. “You know what I heard?”
“I heard that Magnus died after he swallowed some bees, right here in Muse College. They said he marched right up to the hive, ate a handful of bees, ran screaming up these very stairs and disappeared. Nobody ever saw him again.” She went up two more steps and shot him a grin.
Nikifor went up a step, reaching out to try and drag her back, while also trying to ignore Nikolai convulsing with laughter behind him.
“...But exactly one year later, a teacher was passing by the place he vanished, and they heard the sound of scratching inside the wall. Scratching and buzzing. And ten years after that-”
What happened ten years after that was lost in a crack and a shriek as the step gave way under her feet, and Rainbow disappeared from sight. Nikolai swore loudly.
Nikifor froze, but only for a second. Then he tentatively climbed those steps, leaned over the hole and looked down. “Rainbow?”
The light she’d been carrying flickered. He could see her pale face looking up past the flames. She sounded shaken. “I hurt my ankle a bit. You two need to come down here.”
Nikifor pushed on the edge of the hole. It cracked a little, but held. He dropped down through it, dangled for a moment, then let go and dropped to the floor. Nikolai followed on his heels, with considerably less snickering than a few moments ago.
“You should probably watch out for-”
Nikifor promptly tripped over something on the floor and fell on his face.
Rainbow snorted. “-the body. As I was saying.”
Nikifor shuddered in revulsion. It was less a body than some very well-preserved bones, grey skin still stretched across a face frozen in a moment of horror.
“Are there bees?” Nikolai whispered.
“Are there bees? Is it Magnus?”
“Don’t be stupid.” Rainbow limped closer and bent over the body, casting firelight across it.
“Magnus died centuries ago, the bees are long gone.”
“Do bees rot? Or just turn to dust?’
Nikifor wished the two of them would shut up. His hand bled where he’d landed on it. The worst part of it was, for all the stupid stories about Magnus they liked to taunt him with, the philosopher had died here, and this could be him. He rose to a crouch and pressed his head into his hands. “We have to tell someone.”
“Shut your mouth,” Rainbow hissed. “Leave Old Magnus in peace. Nobody needs to know we were here.”
“I mean, if you want us all expelled, sure,” Nikolai added. “Not that I’d personally be sad to leave early, but did you want to be sent back to the Bitter Tower and explain all this to Father?”
Nikifor grimaced. He didn’t. He never wanted to go back to that place in his life. He stared into the flickering, jumping shadows, thinking. “Fine. We’ll have to lift Rainbow out and lie about it. How bad is your ankle?”
“Don’t tell me what to do.” Rainbow tossed her golden hair over one should and limped a few feet away from the corpse to poke amongst the clutter in the shadows. “What is all this stuff? It’s like someone used to live down here.”
Nikifor’s eyes strayed back to the corpse. Live? Not quite. At least, not by choice. The unmistakeable remnants of a shackle still clung to Magnus’s foot. He looked up and around, but could see no other exit in the leaping shadows. His skin crawled. Who would think to do such a thing? Wall a man up in the Muse College? The king would never allow it. He would know. Nobody could possibly get away with such a horrendous crime.
Rainbow’s light flicked across Magnus’s skeletal hand, laying flat on the ground in front of Nikifor, protecting something.
Tentatively, Nikifor reached out and slid the leather out from under the dusty finger bones.
“Watcha got?” Nikolai crouched by him. “Don’t tell me you’ve found the last philosophy of Magnus. Mnemosyne’s eyebrows, you’re hopeless.”
“It’s not a book.” Nikifor very, very, gently unrolled the leather and ran his hands over the letters carved into the inner surface.
“Rainbow bring that light here.” Nikolai beckoned her back.
Rainbow bent over them, and the light made the letters jump and shine, inscribed in a precise, swirling hand, each groove filled with solid silver. “Wow it’s pretty,” she said. “What’s that about a curse?”
Nikifor couldn’t control the tremor in his hands. He clutched the leather harder and read aloud.
This is the last word of Magnus of the Wild Blackthorns at the Mouth of the Screaming Cave. I am not prey to the madness they speak of me. I am in my right mind, and I speak this truth.
Pierus, King of all Muses, has imprisoned me here in these walls, to starve and die. My only crime is to know a secret. He has reigned a bloody curse on all the Muse Nation. He has unleashed slaughter in the walls of the Muse College. I am soaked in their blood every moment of my long death, just as he soaked his hands in the blood of Augustus so long ago, of his wife, of every muse slaughtered on that bloody night for a sacrifice to what manner of horror I know not.
I am not prey to the madness they speak of me. I speak this truth: Augustus lives. I have seen him with my own eyes. I have seen the ruin of his face, and the half life in which he exists. I listened to his story, before he ran like autumn leaves before a gust of wind.
The king is evil.
One by one, he will kill us all.
The last word died into the darkness.
Rainbow gave a nervous laugh. “That’s not real.”
The silence smothered them. The corpse lay silent. Nikifor carefully rolled the leather again, but did not put it back.
“I think we should go.” Nikolai stood, put an arm around Rainbow’s shoulder, and helped her back across to the
hole in the roof.
Nikifor followed. The corpse’s accusing gaze burned into his back the whole way.
Part 2 coming soon