FICTION: Genius by Heather Pagano

Genius

by Heather Pagano

Genius landed face-down in a bowl of cold gruel. A Muse could drown in a bowl of liquid, and this thick mush threatened to suck her under.

Sputtering, she hauled herself over the rim. She fell onto the tray beneath the bowl, slipped, and tumbled onto the stone floor. 

Genius groaned and struggled onto hands and knees. Grits from the mush cracked in her teeth. Her wings couldn’t open because the sticky gruel was like wet glue.

The clang of the metal panel that Dissi had slammed shut behind her still echoed. The prison at the top of the western tower must be large, indeed.

As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she found herself amid a jumble of uneaten meal trays piled in front of the prison door. They gave off the smells of rancid broth and porridge. On one of the trays, a cockroach nearly as big as Genius crawled over a moldy knob of bread.

The sticky grits coating Genius’s body from forewings to toes tightened on her scales, drying to a hardened glue. She feared her wings would adhere so fast she’d never get them apart again. She wouldn’t be able to fly. Being permanently grounded was another good way for a Muse to die.

She stumbled onto a nearby meal tray, dragged herself up the side of a bowl, and plunged into cold broth. She emerged, oily and trembling. The dunk had the desired effect. With great effort, she peeled apart her wings. 

Fearing they’d get stuck again, Genius splayed her wings wide. She huddled into a miserable, dripping ball with her back against the bowl of soup. She buried her greasy face in her hands, and sobbed. 

Why had Dissi severed her with no warning, then thrown her into prison?

Genius knew she’d never inspire Dissi to the heights of potion-making. Twenty years ago, before Dissi, Genius had inspired a true potion master, so she knew Dissi’s mediocrity lay more with his potential than with her inspiration. Dissi couldn’t even be inspired to see his own limits. Still—the brutal severing? Such treatment was unforgivable unless a Kindling was about to die and didn’t want to drag the Muse with him into death. And imprisonment hardly seemed merited when Genius’s only failing was to have inspired her Kindling—ex-Kindling, she supposed she should call him, now—to a merely moderately successful potions career. 

Genius certainly couldn’t count on Dissi’s compassion to free her from the western tower. Nor did she want to discover what outrageous abuse he had in store for her next. She would have to find a way to escape, the sooner the better.

She ran her hands over her face and down the curves of her breasts and hips, slicking away as much of the oily broth and grit residue as she could. She took a deep breath, calling on the phosphorescent scales that covered her body to do their thing and glow. 

Genius was a Glasswing Muse, which meant her wings were transparent. The frame of her wings was a coppery brown, as were the scales on her face and arms. Those scales were mottled with streaks of luminescent, verdigris green that were bright enough for her to see in the dark. 

As her greenish glow grew stronger and stronger, it illuminated her shadowy prison. She’d been locked in a massive room the shape of a pentagon. The ceiling was so high it disappeared into darkness. 

The stale smell of old paper and faded pine sap ink took Genius back to the years before Dissi, when she’d inspired her very first Kindling. Twenty years past he had severed Genius just as suddenly and just as rudely as Dissi just had.

She tiptoed forward into the darkness. For her, crossing the uneven stone floor was a journey akin to trudging up and down hills, but she didn’t yet trust her wings to fly.

The greenish light she cast spidered long shadows. Craning her neck, Genius saw that the shadows were made by iron chains that suspended an enormous cauldron, simmering over a tiny remnant of smoldering wood. 

She crept around the base of the cauldron, giving it a wide birth. Whatever brew it contained was odorless compared to the rotting food and old books.

She followed her nose around the cauldron to a corner where two sides of the pentagonal tower walls joined. There she found the old book smell: an enormous pile of thick, twine-bound notebooks.

Lying on the mound of old notebooks, as though it were some kind of nest, was a man. 

A twinge went through her belly. She chafed her arms to warm herself.

The man opened his eyes and spoke her name. 

His familiar voice took her breath away. The man in the pile of books was her first Kindling, long since severed, the great potion-maker, Veneficus.

Genius’s wings went rigid.

In the twenty years since Genius had last seen him he’d cut off his beard. Now stubble showed he hadn’t been allowed to shave for many days. The lines across his forehead had deepened, his cheeks had hollowed. His eyes had sunk deeper into his skull, and his hairline had crept higher. He wore a stained, brown wool robe belted with twine. One leg lolled out of the hem of his robe, its grey breeches riddled with moth holes. 

He squinted at Genius. “It’s really you, Little One.” 

“Don’t call me that.” There was a flatness in Genius’s voice, even she could hear it. “You gave up the right when you pulled out my stinger and severed our bond.”

Veneficus scrubbed a hand over his face and cracked his jaw, a habit which told of nerves. Or once had. 

“I’m afraid our old bond has gotten you dragged into this mess with Gravidia. For that, I’m truly sorry. ” Her ex-Kindling struggled to his feet. He was an old man, now, with stiff joints and strands of frizzy white hair. Unlike Muses, Kindlings aged. It seemed unfair given how much of their lives Kindlings wasted sleeping, which Genius never had to do. 

Veneficus reached into his pocket and sprinkled a pinch of powder over a stubby beeswax candle. Fire blossomed from the powder and lit the wick. “You can turn off your glow worm talents now, Genius. I think we must both conserve our energy if we are to make it through this.”

“Make it through what?” 

“I…perhaps I should say we…have been asked to repeat the miracle of my younger years,” Veneficus said. “I am to brew the Elixir of Life by order of Consort Gravidia. It must be completed before the next full moon, or my life is forfeit. Beheading, according to Dissi.”

An uneasy presentiment tingled along the interstices of Genius’s scales. Veneficus knew how to brew the Elixir of Life, so why not just do it and save his head?

She flitted up and over Veneficus’s candle onto one of the notebooks at his feet. “Dissi severed his bond with me so I would come inspire you to brew the elixir. But you already discovered the formula. You don’t need help following your own instructions.”

Veneficus rubbed his salt-and-pepper, stubbled jaw. “I suspect Dissi sent you to me precisely because I don’t know the formula.”

Genius dropped the page she’d been turning and stared at Veneficus, stunned. 

“Twenty years ago I burned the notebook that contained all my notes about the Elixir of Life.”

His discovery of the elixir was the greatest creation she’d ever inspired. “Severing your ties to me wasn’t enough to erase me from your life, you also destroyed the work we did together?”

“Genius—“

She folded her shaking wings tightly around herself. “I won’t help you rediscover the Elixir of Life. I won’t ever bond with you again. No Muse would, knowing that you destroy what we create.” 

Veneficus didn’t respond. Genius had once liked his silences, now they grated on her nerves.

“Your chances of brewing the Elixir of Life without me are near impossible,” Genius said. “You’d better find some other way to save your head. As for me, I’m going to find a crack in this old tower and escape.”

#

Genius sat hunched in a broad-angled corner of the pentagonal western tower. The same cockroach who had been nibbling bread when she’d first landed in the tower was crawling around the perimeter of the room. He seemed to be having no more luck finding a way out than Genius.The rough-hewn stone wall was cold at her back. Her search for a chink in the stone where she might escape had been fruitless. Muscles all along her ribs ached from hour after hour of flying.  

She tried not to scratch the irritating itch where a new stinger was growing from her elbow. After severing her bond with a Kindling, a Muse’s scales coalesced into a new, needle-sharp stinger that began at the elbow and ended at the wrist. The minute Dissi had plucked her stinger from his arm, breaking their bond, the new stinger had begun to grow. Now the itch grew so distracting that it was hard to think of anything else. 

She spied on Veneficus, bent over the cauldron. A tiny, green candle sputtered beneath it. Just looking at him made her angry. She’d never forgiven him for the sudden severing of their bond. Now she knew he’d destroyed the formula for the Elixir of Life, the greatest creation she’d ever inspired.

The itching stinger was too maddening. She flitted across the room and settled on one of the big iron chains that suspended the cauldron. 

She  peered between the open link into the cauldron below. The brew emitted no smoke, no odor. There was nothing to it other than being viscous and darker than the darkest night. What was Veneficus brewing?

As Genius watched him stir, he was completely oblivious to her presence. From time to time he glanced down at one of his old notebooks, flipped a few pages, muttered to himself. He shuffled to a wooden crate and poked around until he found a mummified bird’s foot. He dropped the reagent in, then resumed stirring.

Normally while a Kindling was at work, Genius would have honored his concentration and deep thought. A Muse must believe in her Kindling with her whole heart and let her presence guide, but never interrupt the person she inspired. Veneficus was no longer her Kindling, so she saw no need to tiptoe around him.

She skipped lightly down the chain link and hovered over the lip of the cauldron to examine the dark, sticky brew.

With an absent-minded back hand, Veneficus waved her away. “Are you unable to find an escape route, Genius? The western tower is enchanted, neither one of us can get free until we are released.”

He’d thrown her into a backwards summersault. A few pumps of her wings controlled her fall into the crate of reagents. Inside she found a burlap sack with more dried birds’ feet, fine powders in white, grey, and green, and vials of cloudy fluids. 

She beat her wings and lifted out of the crate and back to her position on the chain holding the cauldron. If he was right, then Genius’s freedom depended on whatever plan Veneficus had to set them free. That plan no doubt involved the contents of the cauldron.

“What are you brewing?” 

“None of your business.”

Genius crossed her arms over her chest, a gesture completely lost on Veneficus, who didn’t even look at her.

She reached to scratch the growing stinger before she realized what she was doing, then tucked her hands under her wings to keep herself from digging at the irritated spot.

She decided to try another approach to get Veneficus to talk.

“Do you want to know why the Consort Gravidia wants the Elixir of Life?”

“So she can be young and beautiful forever, I suppose.”

Genius’s stomach clenched. Veneficus had no idea what he—what they—were up against.

 “Dissi is one of Gravidia’s closest advisors, and up to a few hours ago I was Dissi’s Muse…”

Veneficus stopped stirring. “What’s your point, Genius?”

“I think Consort Gravidia wants you to bring King Culumn back from the dead.”

Veneficus snorted. That would require King Culumn to have ingested the Elixir of Life before he died. After isn’t going to do much good.”

“I don’t think Dissi knows that,” Genius said, “and Gravidia certainly does not.”

“Then they’ll both be disappointed. They would have been, anyway. I told you, I can’t make the Elixir.”

Genius spent a minute or two examining the dirt beneath her fingernails, waiting for Veneficus to grow curious.

She didn’t have long to wait. 

“Anyway, why does Gravidia want to bring King Culumn back from the dead? Didn’t the King’s death leave her the leader of Totys?”

“You’re a master potion maker,” Genius said, “but you’re miserable with politics.”

Veneficus waved his hand as though shooing off a fly. “Politics don’t change the reality of the situation. The Elixir of Life prevents death, it does not bring the dead back to life. Not to mention the potion was never tested on a human being.”

Genius remembered testing the Elixir of Life all too well. Month after month, grasshoppers trapped in the bell jar had spasmed their hind legs and turned belly-up while she kept vigil over them at night. Only the very last test subject survived. Veneficus had shaken her from the jar and crushed her with his shoe. Nothing should have remained but a smear on the floor. Instead, she’d emerged unharmed and bounded out the door.

Perhaps even now she still chirped somewhere in the tall grass. By now she’d have seen many summers, but also frost, snow. Genius shivered, imagining starving in the cold months, unable to die.

As she imagined the fate of the grasshopper, Veneficus reached into the pocket of his brown robe. He withdrew a crumbling, grey substance and crushed it between his fingers over the cauldron. It released a pungent odor, like old potato peels, only far more unpleasant.

The strong smell clouded Genius’s head. She slipped from the chain link and fell toward the black tar in the cauldron.

Veneficus snatched her out of the air. He mashed her in his bony fist and glared at her with haggard, bloodshot eyes. “Careful!” 

She squirmed in his hand.

He flung her away. 

The fear in his eyes when she’d almost fallen in. It told her everything she needed to know. She fluttered back to settle on one of the five chains that held the cauldron.”

 She lit her scales, producing a nimbus of verdigris light that glowed brightly all around her. 

“Go away, Genius. Stop hovering over my brew.”

“Not until I give you a warning,” Genius said. “I recognize that brew. The Draft of Death. If your plan is to trick Gravidia into drinking it so she dies and you can claim her throne, you are in very big trouble.”

“If someone were to kill Gravidia then the murderer takes the throne? Is that what you think I’m doing?”

“You’re brewing the Draft of Death,” Genius said, “and you said you were going to set yourself free. How else would you do it other than getting Gravidia out of the way and taking her place?”

Verdigris light from Genius’s body cast deep shadows into the hollows of Veneficus’s eyes and cheekbones.  

“You need to come up with a different plan. The potion maker’s oath bars you from harming the innocent, and Gravidia is carrying King Culumn’s child.”

“She’s pregnant?” The strained, exhausted lines deepened in his face. 

“Very.” Genius crossed her arms over her chest. “She’ll give birth any day.”

Veneficus continued to stir his gloopy, black Draft of Death. 

“We need to find another way out of this mess, and you obviously have no clue what’s going on. Gravidia must want the Elixir of Life to bring King Culumn back from the dead.”

“Why would she want that? Didn’t his death bring her to power?”

Veneficus’s talent lay in potion-making, but he was abysmal when it came to politics.

Genius sighed. “Gravidia should have been kicked out of the castle when King Culumn died, but she was pregnant. The moment her child is born, the child becomes the ruler of Totys under appointed regent, and everyone knows the regent is just waiting to throw Gravidia out into the street.”

“Very unfortunate for her,” Veneficus said, never taking his eyes of his potion.

“But if the king were to come back to life, even for the half-minute needed to make her his legal wife, she becomes the Queen Regent of Totys. The most powerful human in the kingdom for the next fifteen years—longer if she curries the favor of her child. If it’s any comfort I believe she’s just as desperate not to be separated from the infant as she is for the throne.”

Veneficus ground his teeth.

“Her days are numbered,” Genius said. “The child will be born soon.”

“That explains the hurry,” Veneficus said. 

Anxiety prickled Genius’s belly. “Instructions for the Elixir of Life, destroyed. Your plan to kill Gravidia breaks your oath not to harm the innocent.”

Veneficus rubbed a hand across his bloodshot eyes. “The Draft of Death is not for Gravidia.” 

For Dissi? That made no sense. Gravidia would pursue her demand even if one of her advisors died.

Then Genius understood. A a nimbus of verdigris light shone all around her. “The Draft of Death is for you. You’re planning to kill yourself!”

A guttural, sucking noise came from the cauldron as Veneficus withdrew his staff from the sticky brew.

“Why?”

“By the same oath to protect the innocent that forced me to sever my bond with you.”

Genius didn’t understand.

Veneficus reached into the pocket of his robe and produced Genius’s old stinger, the one that had once bonded them. “You know, I kept this. Still have it after all these years.” 

Genius skipped down the chain and stood above him, looking down at the thin, needle-sharp stinger, long as Veneficus’s pinky finger. It was studded with broken bristles that had served to lodge the stinger firmly in Veneficus’s arm throughout the fifteen years Genius had been his muse. The bristles had broken the day he severed her and ripped the stinger from his arm.

“I had my reasons twenty years ago when I severed you. I have my reasons for drinking the contents of that cauldron now.”

“So that’s your big idea,” Genius said, “freedom by death. Where does that leave me, Veneficus? I can’t escape this prison.”

His bright grey eyes slid to the side, avoiding her. “The only reason you’re here is because Dissi told Gravidia the two of us together are capable of brewing the Elixir of Life. When I’m gone…”

“They’ll let me go?” Genius’s laugh was hollow. “You really are as dreadful at politics as you are brilliant at potions.”

There was an obvious path to freedom. It seemed Veneficus would need some inspiration to see it. 

Genius fluttered over to Veneficus and hovered near his face. She swung her hand as though she were about to slap her ex-Kindling. Then she drove the spiked tip of her newly-grown stinger into the side of his neck.

Veneficus bellowed.

Genius’s stinger sank deep into his flesh, then lodged. The bonding had begun.

Warmth pooled through Genius like heated honey. The constriction between her scales eased, and the whole lattice of her being unfurled as the bond with Veneficus warmed her. 

Veneficus felt their joining, too. He shivered and cried out. His hand flew out to smack the stinger Genius had just plunged into his neck, but his arm froze in mid-air. His face went slack, and he was silent and still.

He’d been paralyzed. 

For a minute—maybe more—Veneficus would be unable to move or speak. He was at Genius’s mercy instead of the other way around. All his thoughts were hers to see, unguarded—only for a few precious moments.

The warm tingle of the bond extended now all the way to Genius’s toe tips, but she didn’t have time to revel in the comfort. She dove into Veneficus’s mind.

#

Veneficus crouched on a low stool by his bed. His brown robe lay in an untidy pile on the floor, and he was dressed only in trousers. His muscled chest and arms were bared. They glistened with sweat. His eyes darted madly from side to side, and tears streamed down his face. 

Genius had never, ever seen Veneficus cry.

She dove into his thoughts of old and saw through his eyes.

His mind’s eye hovered above a broad, dusty plain on which nothing but scab grass and thistles grew. On the distant horizon billowed an ominous cloud of dust.

In a blur, Veneficus closed the distance, and floated dizzily above that billowing dust. It was stirred from the barren ground by hundreds of feet, marking the passage of a macabre army of gaunt, starving children.

The smallest kept to the thick, choking dust in the middle of the pack. Larger boys and girls surrounded them. Most were covered in sores and bruises. Some appeared to have a hunk of flesh torn from a scrawny arm or leg. 

As Veneficus watched, a gaunt girl with long, tangled hair shoved a handful of dirt and weeds into her mouth. She choked as she tried to swallow them down.

Hunger. Starving children who had nothing to eat, banded together to defend themselves from the Big Ones, who threatened to gnaw at their limbs. In a world where no one ever died, there was never enough to eat. 

The vision shifted, row after row of frail men and women sprawled on pallets, wrapped in threadbare blankets. Their hair hung in lank strings from their patched and balding skulls. An old man had a huge lump that protruded from his neck. A flea hopped from the nose to lip of a young woman with no hair. She didn’t even flinch.

No one in this world could die. Starvation, broken hips, cancers pushed to bursting through their skins, nothing offered passage to death. They were just as hungry as the children, but their bones were more brittle. They craved either death or a ladle of water, and received neither.

#

Genius opened her eyes in a room darker than the loneliest midnight. The glow from her scales had vanished, and she couldn’t have lit them if she’d wanted. The warmth of Veneficus’s palm soothed her as he cupped her in the palm of his hand. The sourness of his breath spilled over her face and hair, breath that came ragged after the vision they’d both just shared.

Genius realized those precious first moments of free access to Veneficus’s mind were over. She braced for Veneficus to yank the stinger from his neck, breaking their bond for the second time.

“Did you see?” His voice was a hoarse whisper. “Did you see why I had to burn the journals that led to the Elixir of Life? Why I had to sever our bond?”

Genius tried to answer him, but her throat produced nothing but a dry click. 

“We were something very special, Genius, you and me. A rarity like none other. You made me into a talent I never dreamed I could become. But our great achievement would have brought horror. My oath to protect the innocent. I had to destroy my notes concerning the Elixir. I had to break our bond. I will kill myself rather than bring the Elixir of Life into this world. When I die, they’ll believe you were bonded to me, and so you died, as well. Make your escape hidden in a crust of old bread.”

Genius felt Veneficus’s muscles tense, sensed the draft of air as his left hand swept across to the right side of his neck to pull out her stinger. For he knew, as well as she did, that if he died while they were bonded, she died, as well.

Genius couldn’t force a Kindling to stay his hand, but she could at least compel him to listen to her for just a moment. She dove deep into their bond and squeezed tight, for all she was worth. “Wait, please,” she cried into the darkness. “There is another way.”

#

The black goo in the cauldron in the center of the room continued its gentle, slow simmer. Genius licked a trace of bitter from her lips. She was perched on Veneficus’s shoulder, just like the old days. The warmth of him was welcome in the chilly, dank tower. The single beeswax candle that lit Veneficus’s work cast deep shadows into the hollows of his eyes and cheekbones. He polished the last dribbles of the translucent potion in his cup with a white handkerchief, then tucked the handkerchief deep into his pocket.

Veneficus took a deep breath, then he lifted the bell jar off the tin plate where he had captured the cockroach. 

Genius watched as Veneficus dipped a folded notebook page into the Draft of Death. He then dribbled one drop, two drops, of black, sticky tar on top of the cockroach’s antennae. Once the deed was accomplished, he slammed the bell jar on top of the tin plate so hard that Genius thought the glass might shatter.

Under the Bell jar the roach spasmed. It’s antennae sagged beneath the weight of the sticky fluid. Its legs twitched. Its wings convulsed.

It flopped over onto its back, legs scrabbled in mid-air for one dreadful moment—another— and then, with one final twitch, it stilled.

Genius couldn’t pull her eyes away from the roach’s corpse. No matter how long she stared, it didn’t stir.

“Well, the Draft of Death works,” Veneficus said, his voice hushed and hoarse.

A sudden pounding on their prison door made Genius leap into the air. She beat her wings to recover her balance. Veneficus’s trembling hand dropped the folded paper. He realized his carelessness too late, and backed away from the tar-dipped paper as though it might catch his robes on fire.

The metal panel at the bottom of their prison door slammed open. Dissi, the whites of his eyes glowing in the darkness, peered through the hole. His nose and lips were wet with sweat.

“It has started,” Dissi said. “Gravidia sweats, bites on cloths to dull her screams. She can’t hold on much longer.”

Panic rippled through the joins of Genius’s scales. It was too soon. The child should not come for at least another three days.

Dissi’s voice sounded almost pleading. “The old king must be brought back to life before the babe is born.”

Veneficus was too horror-struck to speak, so Genius spoke in his stead. “We are very close to having the Elixir ready,” she said. “Dissi, I know you have brews to hold off Gravidia’s contractions for a little longer. Do what you must. Do what you can.”

“Those potions have limited use,” Dissi said. “The child will be born.”

He slid the metal panel shut. The clomp, clomp of his footsteps echoed through the stairwell of the western tower. He was muttering to himself.

“Dissi is afraid,” Genius said.

Veneficus looked down at the dead roach. “There isn’t time to wait for the results of our experiment. I will drink the Draft now.”

Genius swallowed. 

Veneficus closed his thumb and forefinger around the stinger in his neck, the source of the renewed bond between them.  

Genius flew to grab his had before he could sever their bond. She hovered inches from Veneficus’s face, staring with pleading, copper penny eyes into his bloodshot, grey ones. “If you pull out that stinger, I am dead.”

“If I pull out this stinger,” Veneficus said, “there’s still a chance you might live.”

“It is my life,” Genius said, “I decide which risks I take.”

Her own words talked her into what she must do. 

She sped toward the big, black cauldron. 

#

For a long time Genius regarded the color grey. It was a blurry, misty grey, dark at the core, lighter and almost silvery at the perimeter of her vision. She must have stared a long while before it occurred to her that seeing required eyes, and those eyes belonged to her.

She was lying somewhere cold and hard.. The chill tightened the interstices of her scales and stirred an almost effervescent delight in her. The Antidote she had inspired Veneficus to brew had succeeded in bringing her back to life. The bitterness of the Antidote was still on her lips. 

Still groggy, Genius pushed against the hard, cold floor and struggled to sit up. She spread her wings wide, just to test that Dissi hadn’t pulled them off in a fit of pique while she’d been dead. He had not.

Water trickled somewhere below her. The foul odor of dung permeated the air. A tangy, acrid odor stung her eyes, making tears trickle down her cheeks. She and Veneficus must have been removed from the western tower, then dumped in the sewer beneath the castle.

She was far too weak to fly, but she drug herself to her feet on wobbling legs. Veneficus lay on the sewer floor, just a few paces away. It was disconcerting to see him there, because she couldn’t sense him. The thrum of the bond between them was completely still and silent. Not only that, but the chills that wracked her said the connection between them must be broken.

Genius wrapped her wings around herself, but it neither calmed nor warmed her. Her shivering became harder and harder to bear. This was how it started when a Kindling died and a bonded Muse would soon follow.

She brushed her fingertips along the side of Veneficus’s neck, which was cold as the sewer’s slate floor. His skin sprang back from her touch in a spongy way that brought to mind the unhappy thought of toadstools. Beneath the spongy skin, his muscles were rigid and clenched. She traced her fingers along the vein that dropped from behind his ear toward his heart. No blood flowed there.

Veneficus was dead.

Genius fought the shivering cold and tried to squelch the panic swelling in her chest. Veneficus was dead, but that was not a problem, it had been the plan. 

Genius hopped up Veneficus’s shoulder and into the side of his ear. She peered down over his long, hairy earlobe to examine the space just below his chin. The stinger of their bond was still there, its shimmering pinhead glinting in the dim light. He had not broken their bond before imbibing the Draft of Death, which meant that if the Antidote worked and Veneficus returned to the living, Genius would sense it. 

The light in the sewer began to brighten, but it was not the approach of day. Instead the setting sun had lowered to the level of the opening of the sewer, and streaked the grey slate and sludgy river with blood red light. 

The reddish glow also lit a mound of rags twenty paces farther down the sewer from where Veneficus lay. Another body

Still too unsteady to trust her wings, Genius crept toward the black mound on foot.  As she neared, she made out an arm emerging from the bundle. Its hand dangled over the edge of the sewer floor and into the river of filth.

Genius knew the bend of the wrist of that hand, the lace on the cuff of the sleeve. Dissi.

Genius fluttered her wings to lift herself just a little off the ground so she could see the corpse’s face. There was no denying it was Dissi. He lay face-up, eyes wide, mouth twisted. A dark stain soaked the ruffled collar of his tunic. His throat had been slit.

The bundle consisted of more than just Dissi’s corpse. A woman lay atop him, face down, her head cushioned on Dissi’s chest. Two rats had torn away her blood-stained dressing gown and were gnawing through her shoulder.

Genius’s wings failed and she tumbled with a moan to her knees. She wrapped her wings tightly around herself. Her head swam, and what little energy she’d regained drained away in an instant. She forced herself to stand, then tripped as her foot tangled in a blood-soaked tendril of the female corpse’s dark black hair.

Genius’s shivering set in again, the uncontrollable shivering that had been the death of more than one Muse. 

On shaking legs she stumbled back toward Veneficus, whose body was silhouetted by the dying light of the setting sun. As she neared him, a long, fat shape scrambled up his body. It was a hateful sewer rat, made bold by the gathering darkness. 

Genius beat her wings, making herself as big as she could, and strained to rise up so she could hover over Veneficus’s body. She willed her scales to emit the brightest verdigris glow she could manage. A strange pain came with the light, almost a ghost of the fiery agony she’d experienced when she’d tasted the Draft of Death.

But the glow did come. The rat blinked, blinded by her light, and scurried away.

Exhausted, Genius collapsed onto Veneficus’s chest. As she lay, panting, she saw that the rat had gnawed a ragged hole from his right ear lobe. The wound did not bleed.

The rats believed Veneficus was truly dead. What if they were right? If the Antidote failed to bring Veneficus back to life, and he remained dead, he would drag Genius to a second, final death.

Doubt sent rigid shivers quaking through her. Her wings spasmed open and closed, and she had no control to stop them. She crawled across Veneficus’s chest, pulled herself over his chin, kissed his grey, fleshy lips.

The taste of bitter met her mouth—the Antidote, which Veneficus had drunk before he’d taken the Draft of Death, same as Genius.

The Antidote she’d inspired Veneficus to brew was a variation on the Elixir of Life, but far less powerful than the original. The Antidote prevented only one type of death: poisoning. More specifically, being poisoned by the Draft of Death. Taking the Antidote before the Draft should have made both Veneficus and Genius appear dead for a short time before reviving them.

So why was Genius alive and Veneficus still lay there, dead?

Veneficus was a different creature than a grasshopper or a Muse: warm-blooded, very large. Perhaps the Antidote only prevented death for a tiny, cold-blooded creature.

The Antidote had saved Genius from drinking the Draft of Death, but it couldn’t save her from dying if her bonded Kindling died.

Genius felt sleepy for the first time in her life. Muses didn’t sleep. This exhaustion, it was death coming for her. It meant that the Antidote would not bring Veneficus back to life.

She fought against her failing belief. Belief was the Muse’s strongest tool, her first and last responsibility to her Kindling. She tried to ignite certainty and confidence despite the shivering, the vanishing sun, the deepening darkness. 

She crawled into the open palm of Veneficus’s hand and curled into a trembling ball. Lingering bitterness from the Antidote filled her mouth, leaching every drop of moisture from her tongue and gums. Her eyes remained open, but she didn’t really see.

Doubt settled over her, a dull, drifting emptiness, which she took for coming death. 

#

In the first grey light of dawn, Veneficus’s finger twitched.

A flicker of curiosity rose inside Genius. She wondered, in an unconcerned way, whether her Kindling’s dead body was being rocked by the approach of another invading rat. She had grown too feeble to pulse the bright, verdigris glow that had scared the last corpse-eater away.

Genius watched for another finger twitch. She watched for a fat, black shape to slither up onto Veneficus’s belly.

But nothing happened.

And then…a quivering warmth blossomed at the pit of her belly. It spread like honey gliding through her…a feeling she remembered all too well…Veneficus.

Genius grasped at the sleeve of his brown robe and hauled herself up his arm. As she struggled onto his shoulder, she saw one of his great, grey eyes blink.

Her breath caught.

Veneficus blinked again. His grey, fleshy lips stretched wide in a gentle smile. The muscles along his shoulders and arms fired in ill-timed contractions that made his hand flop on the slate floor like a dying fish.

Genius spread her wings and lifted to hover in front of her Kindling’s face. She wanted him to see her.

He was far too weak to move yet, but she could feel her own strength returning, which meant that Veneficus was going to live. Without even trying, her scales lit, casting a vibrant verdigris glow all around them. 

Veneficus’s tongue tip poked through his lips. His Adam’s apple bobbed.

“Don’t try to speak,” Genius said. Through the bond she sent encouragement and certainty that all would be well. 

What washed back was warm and sure, and a little impatient. Pure Veneficus.

He was unable to speak, but opened his mind to her, sharing a vision. A hope. A dream.

#

Veneficus sat on a crooked, wooden chair in the main room of a cramped little cottage. The house was tucked deep in a forest. Branches scraped the windows. 

His chair was placed between two toasty, warm fires: one, a cook-fire boiling a pot of fragrant apples, butter, and grits. The second heated a cauldron. The cauldron brewed a thin, green-blue fluid whose bubbles rose in merry little pops. Each bubble released a sparkle of silver mist that rose, shimmering, into the air before it vanished.

Genius was sitting on his shoulder. She peered at the green-blue bubbles, smiled, and whispered something into Veneficus’s ear.

#

Along their Kindling-Muse bond, Genius felt Veneficus’s eagerness to make his way to that hidden cottage in the woods—not alone—but with her.

“You’ll be strong enough to walk by nightfall,” Genius whispered. “We will go there. Together.” She sent love and sureness and soothing through their bond. 

Veneficus lifted one trembling finger and touched it, gently, to her cheek.


After growing up in small town Iowa, Heather Pagano studied classical trombone in Upstate New York, then went on to live in Italy and New York City. She now lives in Silicon Valley, California with her husband and two sons.

Her work has appeared in Abyss & ApexBewildering Stories, and Peach Velvet

You can find Heather online at heatherpagano.com and @HeatherPagano.



Categories: original fiction

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