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PostPosted: Mon Oct 13, 2014 12:50 pm 

Joined: Sep 22, 2013
Posts: 888
Title: The Magician's Crossroads
Author: RavenoftheBlack
Status: Public :diamond:
Word Count: 4663

It was dark, and the music was just beginning to die down on the far end of the fairground. The carnival had done good business in this town for the first week or so, but they were pushing their luck, and today was the first real indication that they had begun to wear out their welcome. Business had been just a few shades off terrible, despite the cool and pleasant weather. Within a day or two, the decision would be made, the stakes would be pulled up, and the carnival would fold up and roll out, in search of a new town with a new opportunity for fun and profit.

On his little stage in a spot in their fairgrounds that could not be easily described, Nasperge continued on with his scheduled show despite the noticeable lack of an audience. Folks had been stopping by and leaving again throughout his set, but his hat still had no coins in it for his efforts. Knowing that no one would see him, Nasperge sighed deeply in the middle of his teleporting ball juggling trick. Partially, he blamed his location. His stage was not at either end of the fairground, nor was it realistically near the center. It was just sort of somewhere else. It made finding him difficult for the rubes. Patrons, he corrected himself with a cringe. He really needed to watch that.

As another of his juggler’s balls vanished into nothingness, Nasperge allowed himself another hefty sigh, indulging in it like a favorite drug. He glanced over at the hourglass sitting on the small end table just off to stage right. Four minutes left. No one watching. Nasperge sighed deeply, trying to overdose. Any day, a decision would be made for the carnival to leave town, and Nasperge would have to make a similar decision himself. He enjoyed performing, he enjoyed amusing, and he even enjoyed travelling, but he wasn’t doing what he really wanted to be doing. He wasn’t doing what he loved.

He glanced over at the hour glass. Still three minutes left, or thereabouts. Still no one watching. Nasperge had been juggling seven minutes longer than his set called for. He was down to a single ball. He suspected that, had anyone been watching, they wouldn’t have bothered calling what he was doing juggling. They likely would have been right. All he was doing was tossing a single ball in the air with one hand and catching it with the other. But it was his favorite one. It was a black ball, although only he knew that. Most people would say it was red. After all, the vast majority of it had been painted with an image of red flames. But the very top was still black, which is how Nasperge knew it was not a red ball, but a black ball painted red. Most people couldn’t be bothered to look past the flames.

The sand continued to funnel itself through the glass, dropping away the seconds until his unseen set could finally end. Two minutes now. Maybe one more sigh could make him feel better. Nasperge tried it. A deep one. It didn’t seem to do much. With an almost total disdain for his absent audience, Nasperge turned his back on them to look into the large mirror behind him. It had been placed there for the benefit of his viewers, an assurance that no tricks were being performed, but rather real magic. Not that they could have known the difference, anyway, but Nasperge always thought it was a nice touch. Now, however, as he looked himself over in its reflective surface, he doubted his judgment.

What Nasperge saw staring back at him through the mirror wasn’t him. It couldn’t be, or at least that’s what he told himself. Instead of the man he had thought of himself as his entire life, in that mirror he saw a sad, defeated, and aging showman, carrying on with a show as if it mattered to someone other than him. His face, just starting to wrinkle, was covered in a short but scruffy beard that was slowly turning white, day by day. His hair was a bit darker still, only graying at the ends. Mercifully, he was still a tall man, though not the slender, trim picture of health he had been in his youth, the way he still saw himself. His once bright, hopeful eyes were dull and dark, and seemed to sag at the edges. More than anything, Nasperge looked tired.

He glanced to his left now to see the hour glass. One more minute. Nasperge frowned. A minute was always longer than he thought it was. He looked back toward the mirror to continue his bitter self-appraisal. His shirt was a vibrant red, and made of a cheap material painstakingly designed to look vaguely reminiscent of imported silk. His trousers were made of a harder, tougher material and dyed black, though they had worn somewhat over the years and faded a bit about the knees. Around his neck was tied a dark blue cape which hung down to his calves, although he vehemently hated the thing. He only wore it because a showman has to give the people what they expect, and people expected a magician to wear a cape.

In the image in the mirror, from behind him, Nasperge saw two people round a corner and head in his direction. Instantly, he flashed a liar’s smile and produced several additional balls, turning around to finish out his set in style. He felt a momentary disappointment when he noticed one of the two people was Mireille, another worker at the carnival. She worked directly for the owner, and while her appearance was pleasing, it was rarely good news. The other was a young man, perhaps in his mid-twenties, who Nasperge did not recognize. There was something familiar about him, but it was not his face, or his body, or the way in which he moved. But something was certainly familiar.

Mireille and the stranger walked up to the stage just as Nasperge’s sand ran out. In a flourish, the Magician tossed his juggler’s balls high into the air one by one, allowing each to explode in a small burst of fireworks as they reached the apex of their flight. Mireille and the stranger were polite enough to applaud, though not much. Neither dropped any coins into Nasperge’s upturned hat at the stage’s railing. Nasperge sighed briefly, not willing to indulge too deeply in his fictional drug while his boss’s loyalist watched. Instead, he stepped forward and off the stage, approaching Mireille slowly but pleasantly. As he reached her, they leaned in to kiss one another’s cheek, both withdrawing as quickly as custom allowed.

“Slow night?” The blond woman asked, forcing herself to make conversation.

Nasperge nodded. “Yes. I think it might rain soon,” he said, dropping the carnival’s code for a worn-out town.

“Very soon,” she replied knowingly. “But before it does, maybe you can help out our friend here,” she indicated to the brown-haired man next to her with one dainty, gloved hand. “This is Bernou. He would like an Aubedore reading.”

Nasperge looked up at the younger man in surprise. He would not have thought him the type. “I would be happy to serve you in that regard, Bernou. Please, follow me. We’ll conduct the reading in my tent.” The man nodded, and Mireille turned to him.

“I trust you can find your way back?”

Again, the man nodded, but said nothing.

“Thank you, my dear,” Nasperge said as Mireille turned to leave. “Please do have a pleasant evening,” he added, expressing in code how much of his fee he was willing to give her in gratuity. She turned to him, bringing her hands up to chest level and touching the tips of her fingers together, apart from her middle fingers, which bent downward and touched between the first and second knuckle. She smiled and bowed her head, but the signal was clear. She was unhappy with the cut. Nasperge smiled. “And please tell Gauthier to have a good evening, as well.”

Subtly, Mireille shifted her hands, bending her index fingers down and extending the middle ones and bowed her head one more time. Nasperge continued to smile as he led Bernou to his nearby tent. He opened the flap for his customer and then followed the other man inside, where he immediately offered him one of only three small chairs that lined the circular table that dominated the interior of the tent. The man responded without a word. Realizing that this man was either unwilling or incapable of engaging in small talk, Nasperge instead set to his task, moving to the opposite side of the table and opened a small, decorative chest that sat there. He withdrew his deck of cards, smiled, and began to shuffle.

“So, Bernou, what sort of answer were you seeking today?”

The man watched Nasperge’s increasingly complex shuffling without answer.

“Did you have a particular question to ask the Fates?”

Still the man did not speak. Nasperge just kept shuffling, allowing the cards to attune themselves to this silent visitor as they prepared to glimpse at his future, or his past. Finally, so suddenly that Bernou jumped, Nasperge stopped shuffling, set the cards down, and snapped, shaking his finger for a moment before pointing at Bernou.

“I’m afraid I really must insist on a question,” he said, smiling politely. “You see, the type of answer you seek will decide which of the Aubedore forms I should use. Are you able to speak?”

Staring only at the cards and not at the magician’s eyes, Bernou nodded his head yes.

“You just don’t want to?”

Bernou nodded.

Realizing this was a perfect time to indulge in his vice, Nasperge took a very, very deep sigh. Then he put his smile back on. “I will do your reading, Bernou, and I will do it the right way. But for reasons that will be revealed to you in a moment, I’m afraid I will have to break with tradition and ask you for payment now, rather than after the reading. Would that be acceptable to you?”

Bernou seemed to think for a moment, then nodded earnestly. He fished into his pocket and produced several coins. Nasperge hoped it was enough. He had promised Mireille twenty percent when she had rejected his offer of ten, and with the nonexistent take from the shows that day, he needed to make something off of this reading. When Bernou laid the coins on the table, he smiled. It was at least thirty percent over his usual fee.

“I take it Mireille discussed the price with you while she walked you over to me?”

Bernou nodded, and so did Nasperge.

“She is a helpful woman,” he said as he reached over to scoop up the coins. “For her assistance, I will see to it that she gets a fair portion of this,” he assured the other man.

Bernou held up one finger, indicating for Nasperge to wait. He reached into his pocket a second time and drew another coin, which he handed to the magician directly.

“For Mireille, I presume?”

Bernou nodded enthusiastically. Nasperge smiled. That will help tremendously.

“I will see to it that she gets it. Now, some people do experience certain unexpected sensations during a proper Aubedore reading, things you did not expect when you came to me. Remember that a reading is about you. While I shuffled the cards, they were becoming familiar with you and the strings of your fate. Your fate, if I may repeat myself. It is within you, you understand. And sometimes, we have things trapped within us, things which must be released in order to make us whole. Sometimes the thing we need to release whatever it is that’s trapped can be frightening, even painful. Do you understand that, Bernou?”

Bernou looked pensive, really thinking long and deep about the magician’s words, before he looked up, met Nasperge’s gaze, and confidently nodded.

Nasperge smiled broadly before changing his expression to one of contemplation. He leaned forward, and Bernou leaned forward to match him. He raised his right hand to stroke his whitening beard, and Bernou began stroking his clean-shaven chin. He leaned forward again, staring intently at the center of the circular table, and Bernou mirrored the movement. Then, suddenly, Nasperge slapped Bernou hard across the cheek with the back of his hand.

Bernou reeled and fell out of his chair. “Ouch! What the hell was that for?” He asked.

Nasperge smiled. “Ah, good. You can speak. I warned you that unlocking the trapped things within you might prove painful.”

Bernou scowled, rubbing his cheek. “I didn’t think you meant that kind of pain!”

“Pain takes many forms, my friend,” the magician warned. “Now, shall we?”

Bernou was standing over the table now, looking suspiciously at the chair he had been sitting in. “I’m not sure I want to now.”

Nasperge shrugged. “That’s why I had you pay me upfront.”

Bernou sighed, and Nasperge felt momentarily jealous. “Fine, you win.”

“Good. Now that you have unlocked your voice, perhaps you would answer my original question. What sort of answer do you seek?”

The other man thought for a moment as he sat down again. Then he nodded to himself. “I want to know where I should go in life. What I should do.”

Nasperge smiled. “As you wish. I believe the “Crossroads” pattern would be ideal. It often is, you know.” The magician picked up the deck and shuffled the seventy-eight cards three more times before beginning to lay them out, explaining the process as he did. “You see, Bernou, the “Crossroads” pattern represents progression, movement, if you will, from one place in your life to another. There are three components, forming the shape of a stylized letter X. First, the four outer cards, called the “corners,” placed at diagonals. Then, jutting inward from these toward the center, four more cards, called the “spokes,” or, if you prefer, the “paths.” In the center, we lay two cards, the bottom vertical, the top horizontal. These are called the “nexus” or the “center,” although I prefer to think of them as the “destination.””

Bernou nodded, intrigued as he looked at the pattern of face-down cards in front of him. “Now what?” He asked, his excitement almost childlike.

Nasperge smiled what was perhaps his first genuine smile of the day. “Now we reveal them, to see what they will reveal about you. As you perhaps know, each card represents something different, and their meanings can change based on a number of factors, including the pattern, its position, or the other cards revealed. But, the “Crossroads” pattern, with a few strange exceptions, moves from outside to in, and we always begin in the top left “corner” and work sun-wise. Let us, Bernou, begin your reading.”

The magician flipped the top left “corner” card. It was ‘The Student.’

“Interesting,” Nasperge began. “While there are exceptions, the “corners” in the “Crossroads” typically form the influences that lead inward. The first “corner” often represents the person whose Fates are being read. I take it you have studied a Higher Trade, is that right?”

“Yes,” Bernou whispered, wide-eyed. “I studied to become a…”

“Stop!” Nasperge warned, holding a hand out. “Do not tell me, please. I will use the cards.” He moved his hand over the top right “corner” card and flipped it over.

“The Wolf!” Bernou exclaimed. “That means danger, doesn’t it?”

Nasperge laughed. “You have attempted to study Aubedore, haven’t you?”

“I’ve read a little,” Bernou admitted, “but very little.”

“I could tell,” the Magician said. “There is no card in Aubedore that represents only one thing, but I believe you are correct. The Wolf seems to represent danger, but notice that the Wolf is inverted, see? The card appears top-side downward. Typically, the Wolf is a danger to you. The inverted Wolf indicates that there is a danger to others. Let’s see the third “corner.” Ahh, the Teacher, also inverted! Fascinating! Whichever field you have studied, you contemplate teaching!”

“Yes.” Bernou said simply.

“Very good.” He turned the final “corner” card to reveal the Magician, his favorite. “Ah. Perhaps this represents me! Oh, I see it’s inverted! Perhaps there is more here than I had first assumed.” He eyed Bernou suspiciously for a moment before continuing. “Now we move on to the “spokes.” These cards represent the journey forward. Perhaps you are on this journey now, or perhaps you will be soon, or have been recently. They are typically connected to the “corners.” Again, top left and sun-wise.”

The Magician flipped the “spoke” card connected to the Student, revealing the Sufferer, inverted. Nasperge said nothing, but instead flipped the card connected to the Wolf, which showed the Dragon. Nasperge glanced at Bernou, who was watching the cards intently. Connected to the Teacher, the “spoke” revealed the Healer, who was also inverted. Finally, the final “spoke,” connected to the inverted Magician card, Nasperge flipped over the Arrow. He studied the four revealed cards for a long moment, then nodded.

“The portrait of Bernou begins to dry, my friend! You were studying to be a healer, clearly. But there was so much suffering, and you felt you could do so little, and the danger to those you tried to help seemed to grow until you could no longer face it. And so you resolved to teach your craft rather than practice it. Am I right?”

Bernou stared at Nasperge, his mouth hanging open in shock. “How could you know that?”

“Well, it’s all right here, my dear boy. In the cards.”

“But, what about the Arrow from the Magician? What does that mean?”

Nasperge looked down at the cards, pondering. “I believe that will be revealed when we reach your “destination.” Shall we continue?”

Bernou seemed to think over that question for a while, but finally nodded.

“Good,” Nasperge said. “Now, the “destinations” usually work like this. The bottom card, the vertical one, represents your true desire. The card above it, however, is the stronger pull of fate, or your greatest obstacle. Often, both. Paradoxically, we look at the bottom card first.”

Nasperge put one hand on the top card, to hold it there, as he pulled the bottom out and flipped it on top, leaving it vertical. It was the Path, and it was inverted. The Magician smiled.

“As I suspected,” he said. “The Path is a representation of onward motion, but when inverted, it reveals a desire to go back. You want to be a healer once again, don’t you, Bernou?”

Bernou bowed his head low, but ultimately nodded it.

“But something is stopping you. Let us flip the horizontal card. Remember, of course, that a horizontal card is inverted if its top faces left.”

Bernou held up his hand. “Are you saying you think this last card will be inverted?”

Nasperge smiled broadly. “My dear boy, I would bet my fee on it. In fact, I would bet twice what you’ve paid me that I can tell you what card this is.”

Bernou exhaled sharply. “I won’t bet,” he said, staring down at the card. “But please, show me.”

Nasperge nodded and turned over the final card, laying it on top of the inverted Path. As he had guessed, he stared at the inverted Turtle. “There was never any question.”

“What does it mean?”

“A turtle’s shell represents protection, a desire to hide from the outside world. Inverted, it shows me that you are not trying to keep the outside world from getting in, but rather you are trying to keep something within you from getting out.”

Bernou looked over the ten cards, all lying face up on the table. His expression was troubled as he tried to construct his own reading of the cards, but Nasperge’s had been so accurate, so perfect, so…incomplete. He stopped, looking again at the cards of the Magician and the Arrow. “What about those two?”

Nasperge smiled. “It means that I can help you. I can help you unlock that thing within you that is holding you back, leading down the wrong paths. Would you like me to do that?”

“Are you going to slap me again?” Bernou asked, leaning back slightly.

The Magician laughed quietly to himself. “No, Bernou, I promise I won’t slap you.”

Bernou swallowed as he thought about it, but eventually nodded assent. He wanted to find his path, and if the Magician could help, that’s what he wanted.

“Good,” Nasperge said, offering his hand, which Bernou shook. Nasperge continued to shake the other man’s hand as he explained. “You see, Bernou, I saw it the first moment I saw you. There is something locked inside you, something far more than your words. At first, I wasn’t sure what it was. It was something that seemed familiar, yet I knew I didn’t know you.”

“Uh, my hand’s starting to get warm,” Bernou said.

“Yes,” Nasperge admitted. “It is. As you may recall, I told you that sometimes we have things trapped within us that we have to release to make us whole. And what we need in order to release whatever the trapped thing is can, at times, be frightening, even painful.”

“My hand is burning!” Bernou screamed.

“Yes. It’s on fire.”

Bernou looked down to see both his hand and the Magician’s were aflame, although only he seemed to be feeling it. And he seemed to be feeling it for both of them. The pain was indescribable, and Bernou struggled as hard as he could, but he simply could not break the older man’s grip. Tears were streaming down the man’s face. Skin was flaking and bubbling, and smoke was rising up, beginning to fill the small tent with a horrifying odor. All the while, Nasperge continued to smile, warmly and sympathetically, as he shook the other man’s hand. Finally, mercifully, the flames died down and Bernou fell to the ground, clenching his hand at the wrist and writhing.

Nasperge sighed deeply, then crouched down next to the other man. He laid a hand on his shoulder and spoke, his tone disturbingly conversational. “Now, Bernou, heal your hand.”

Through the sobs, Bernou managed a weak “What?”

The Magician smiled. “Come along, Bernou. You know what I mean. You’ve felt that energy within you before. It frightened you then, I know, because it wasn’t supposed to exist. And so you buried it deeply within yourself.”

“’re…you’re insane!”

“No, my friend. Nor does your current pain amuse or please me.” He turned his head to one side, considering. “It doesn’t bother me either, you understand, but the pain is not the point. Now, are you going to heal yourself, or do you want to go through life with a handful of scar tissue?”

“I…I can’t!”

“Of course, you can,” Nasperge said calmly. “And you have always been able to. But you buried it so deep that you couldn’t even heal the way normal men do anymore. You did this to yourself, when you denied what you were. You’re a mage, Bernou, and there’s no shame in that, no matter what the aristocracy tells us.” The other man said nothing, so Nasperge took another drag of the drug he called sighing. “Bernou, look at me.”

Bernou did, and through his tears, he matched the Magician’s gaze.

“Heal your hand.”

Bernou looked down at his hand, whimpered slightly, but closed his eyes and concentrated. At first, nothing happened. Then Nasperge felt it, that flow of mana that meant magic. He smiled as he watched the dull light surround Bernou’s hand, literally reversing and repairing the damage as the Magician watched. In less time than it had taken to do that damage, Bernou’s hand was healed. The younger man opened his eyes and looked at his work, shocked. The pain was gone, as were the burns. His hand was at least as good as it had been. He looked over at Nasperge, who offered a hand to help him up. Despite his trepidation, Bernou accepted it, and Nasperge hauled him to his feet.

“I apologize for the pain, my boy, but sometimes we must light the flames before we see through the shadows.”

Bernou looked down at his hand in disbelief. Then he looked back at Nasperge, and then back at his hand. “Thank you,” he whispered.

He turned to walk away, very slowly, before Nasperge stopped him with a word. “Bernou.” The other man turned back to the Magician, who was holding one of the Aubedore cards. “Take this,” he said. “As a reminder.”

Bernou accepted the card and turned it over. It was the Healer, and Nasperge had handed it to him upside down. He nodded, turned it right side up, and left the Magician’s tent. Nasperge smiled. That, he remembered now, was what he loved. He enjoyed performing, he enjoyed amusing, and he enjoyed travelling, but what he loved was helping people unlock the cages they had constructed for themselves. That’s what he should be doing. Suddenly, Nasperge made up his mind. It was going to rain tomorrow. No matter when Gauthier decided to pull up stakes and move them out, it was going to rain on Nasperge tomorrow. Today was his last show.

The Magician looked down at the table and the Aubedore cards spread over it. All he needed to do now is decide where to go. He had options. Silently, he sat down, reaching into the small chest to retrieve a new deck, one he reserved for himself. He brushed the other cards to the floor and set about the task of shuffling his deck, allowing it to attune itself, not to Nasperge per se, but to his fate, and to whoever needed him next along the lines that fate cast. When he felt the cards were ready, he stopped shuffling and set up another “Crossroads” pattern. Once the cards were laid out, he began flipping them.

The top left “corner” was the Orphan. Nasperge shuddered. The top right “corner” revealed the Jester, sinisterly inverted. Nasperge shuddered even more. The Queen appeared in the bottom right, and the inverted Baroness in the bottom left. Nasperge almost stopped right there, but now, more than ever, he knew he had to proceed. The “spoke” attached to the Orphan revealed the Path, and the Throne led from the Jester. In the bottom right, the inverted Queen led to the Temple, and the Baroness’s “spoke” revealed the Shadows. Nasperge scanned the eight cards he had revealed so far, wishing that fate could be reshuffled as easily as the cards. With a shaking hand, he overturned the vertical “destination,” and clenched his jaw when he saw an inverted Archmage. Then he flipped the last card, the horizontal, and he froze. It was the Endless Maze.

The Magician must have sat there and stared at those cards for five minutes before he finally allowed himself to move. Throughout his long life, he had given countless readings, and none, none, had ever been this dire. Of course, no one else could have known why. While there were other exceedingly talented Aubedore readers in the world, perhaps even some to match his skill and power, none of them knew what Nasperge knew. None of them could guess what it truly meant. Nasperge took one more gigantic sigh for the road. He wouldn’t be able to wait for morning. He gathered up his special deck, and then emptied his pockets of the coins Bernou had given him to leave them on the table. He wouldn’t need them where he was going. Mireille could keep it. All Nasperge needed was his deck, and time. His deck he had. He prayed he had enough time.

Without another thought, Nasperge left the plane, stepping out of the “corner,” down the “path,” and toward his “destination.”

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