18. Acrimony
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  Varin sat in the middle of the courtyard, legs crossed over one another and his eyes set on the sun. The rays stung his retina, but he felt a draw to the flames that bounced around the ball of light a million and one miles away.

  The past few days had felt like a blur to Varin, each moment that passed only resembling a pebble to water, rippling along and suddenly vanishing before his very eyes. He was conscious enough to understand what people said to him, but not to respond with intent. Each muttering that slipped beyond his lips was quick and to the point, allowing little to be left to converse about.

  There were moments where he felt alive and fully functional. Those moments were fleeting, the last sensible situation he could remember was when Aiora and he watched over Cateline and Mistress Leolina. It was in his most defensive mindsets where he felt in control, but when neutrality took over, he was numb.

  He turned his head at the sound of a twig snapping, long legs stepping into his peripheral vision, the skin that peeked beneath the skirt of her dress sickly pale but smooth. His eyes crawled up the cherry fabric of her dress, the velvet material accented with navy satin at the corset. An omniscient creature stood before him, the long gray strands falling alongside her face and falling at the peak of her breasts. Her wise eyes narrowed towards the boy, waving a finger for him to stand. The second her finger curled, he felt himself rise and follow the elf without control.

  “Leolina,” he said under his breath with a hoarse throat. His vision blurred between steps, her movements resembling a ghost as opposed to a living thing. The melodic voice chimed in the back of his mind again, the same from the tavern that put him in this trance.

  Follow your destiny, from the light of day, and into the wake of night.

  Varin scratched the back of his head, the echoing of the voice was like a parasite sucking at his brain, snaking around each segment, and consuming his focus. He felt mad.

  Leolina led Varin up the stairs into the attic of the west wing, where he and his troublesome friends had rummaged through Leolina’s closet-ridden skeletons. She pushed the warped lock to the side with her foot, opening the door and cleared her throat.

  “Varin, I understand you have been feeling a little under the weather.”

  Varin blinked at the Mistress, his brow furrowing but his lips unable to move. She waved her hand, causing him to stop in his tracks before she turned to face him head-on. He felt like a puppet, Leolina acting as the puppeteer.

  “I see you have some new friends, as well,” she said with an exasperated sigh. Turning on her heel, she stepped towards a tabletop that held vials of liquid scattered about. “She is dangerous, Varin. I hope you know.”

  He scowled, his teeth gritting against each other as he struggled to find his words. Every time he opened his mouth, metaphorical dust blew into the air as his vocal cords failed him. Varin felt hopeless.

  “Arabelle is not to be messed with, Varin. She is a warrior, much like you, and will stop at nothing to achieve success. She has tormented Lighthelm for years, and I fear she has found her reason to stop.”

  Varin’s eyes trailed Leolina as she moved across the room, stopping at the plant that once held it’s stem tall with the portal image of doppelgangers in the next realm. Now, it rested limp and barely glowed at the tips of the leaves. It was a decaying host that yearned for rejuvenation.

  “I need to protect the scholars, along with Traburg itself. You don’t understand the doom Arabelle’s cult can ensue.”

  Leolina finally approached Varin, her eyes heavy and glistened with something sad. She looked defeated.

  “You don’t understand much of anything Varin, I know you came here to strengthen yourself as a soldier. Your Kingdom would do so much with you at their grasp, but I cannot let you go. You still have a purpose to Traburg and Lighthelm. Do you understand?”

  Slowly, Varin shook his head and watched as Leolina twiddled a vial between her fingertips. The liquid within was a radiant green, resembling a glowing emerald in the wake of night, only illuminated by the enchantment that flowed throughout. She opened it at the cork, twisting it upside down and coated her nails with it before scratching a symbol onto Varin’s forehead.

  Each mark released something within Varin. First, his voice returned in a curse so loud it shook his chest. A stinging sensation coated the outer layer of his forehead, seeping into his skull and twisting his brain into a migraine so surreal it could have been fatal. As he fell to his knees, Leolina’s voice rumbled as she chanted a spell he had never heard. When Varin first attended this academy, the teachings were magic that was found in the natural elements. The spells were foundational and easily translated by the language of the elders, inscribed in antiquated books that dated back centuries. This chant, though, was one that came from something otherworldly.

  Her voice echoed as if two people were surrounding him, two hands gripping him by the side of his head and stinging his temples as Leolina’s nails dug into the soft flesh. It felt like she was twisting a spear into his spine, contorting him to arch his spine in such unnatural positions it could have broken him in two. Nothing was comparable when trying to put the agony he was feeling into words.

  After what felt like decades, Leolina let him go and he fell to his hands. Blood trickled down his forehead, tickling across his cheek before dripping onto the floor. He looked at Leolina with teary eyes, and when he attempted to speak his voice was resurrected.

  “You unrighteous harlot!”

  “Careful, Varin,” she said with a frown. “I was the one who saved your voice.”

  “What else did you do?” he asked accusingly, clumsily standing to his feet and clenched his fist. “You just tore me from the inside out!”

  “I know it was painful,” she said and set the half-empty vial down. “I was removing the bind she had placed on you, it was deeply rooted from a powerful enchantment. Arabelle will know you have detached from her control, so we must act quickly.”

  “Act?”

  “I need a source to power this,” she said and approached the wilted plant. “I understand you and your friends had your merriment here weeks ago.”

  Varin stood silent, not daring to admit to anything that would criminalize him. He instead stood with a furrowed brow, fists clenched and lips pursed as he watched Leolina pick at the fuzz that coated the stem.

  “I knew the second you were in here, Varin. I know that Aiora took a sample of the plant, too. It isn’t like you tried to hide it, either, that satyr left the lock mangled and broken on the ground.”

  Varin decided to ignore her statement and instead pushed back to the topic at hand. “What would fuel this? And why are you creating doppelgangers of the scholars?”

  “Questions can get you killed,” Leolina said without remorse. “You should worry less of the reasoning, and more of the cause. I need to be prepared for anything and everything that can happen in the coming months. The sun is only risen for so long, soon the night will fall and we will be powerless.”

  Varin blinked, again. He was in a perpetual, perplexed state. From the girl, Arabelle, who bewitched him days prior, to Leolina’s outlandish confession. He felt a feeling of acrimony settle in his gut, only covered by his desire to understand what made Leolina seem so twisted. If he wanted answers, he had to pretend to be on her side. Although he felt his stomach churn, he cleared his throat and nodded.

  “What do we need to power it, then?”

  Leolina’s thin lips tugged into a sadistic, yet somehow reassuring smile. “We need a few things, but they require a bit of scavenging. I will send you off in the coming days to collect the materials, and from there we will discuss the source.”

  Varin nodded, and without another word, he hopped down the stairs. When he returned to the lobby of Lighthelm, he let out a shaky breath and closed his eyes, reveling in the feeling of being free. No anchor was dragging him down, nor was there that feeling of pulsating vibrations that rang throughout his head each time that voice echoed. He feared how long he would feel in control, but for now, he had to nod his head and run whatever errands Leolina ordered him to. As the Mistress hinted at it just moments prior, his life may depend on his submission.

  As his eyes opened, they fell on Cateline who stared at him with curious eyes. She fidgeted with the sleeve of her gown before turning and walking towards her wing. There was an expression that crossed her features, one that not only revealed the curiosity in her stare, but also the essence of fear. He took a few steps to follow her down the corridor but stopped when two hands slapped down onto his shoulders.

  “Varin! Where have you been?” Thaddius roared with a smile, the corners of his lips twitching when Varin returned his greeting with a glare. “Alright, didn’t mean to wake the dead.”

  Varin scoffed and moved from the satyr’s grip, crossing his arms over his chest before looking towards the wing the bratty princess had scurried down. “Unfortunately, there is no dead to awaken. Not yet at least.”

  “Alright, whatever that means. What has gotten into you? What happened to your forehead?”

  Varin looked at his friend and shrugged his shoulders, smiling sadly. “A lot of things, Thaddius. A lot.”

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