A violet twilight had crept over the castle of Mercura Academy and along with it came the same nightly visitor to the first Grand Scholar’s chambers. This time, the Witch Queen was sprawled out over his bedsheets, burying her face in his pillows. Candlelight danced warmly over her entirely nude body as she stretched languidly, twisting the sheets around her. She had a way of making the upholstered metal-framed bed look far more comfortable than it truly was.
“Your majesty, to what do I owe the pleasure? Did you need me to give you another recap of the new teacher roster?” Harper shed his leather overcoat and took a seat next to the queen on the disheveled duvet. He began unwinding the coiled divining crystals from his forearms as she sat up and embraced him from behind eagerly.
“Do I really need a reason to visit my most beloved Scholar? Yes, I find it all terribly confusing and tiresome keeping track of the crop of new faces. Won’t you explain them to me again my darling seer? Tell me who is who.” She rocked her body against his, glowing with pleasure as the sleek professor settled in for the night. He methodically removed his jeweled finery, sending fractured light like constellations into the dark room.
“It’s only confusing for someone who’s only feigning interest in school legislation and really just looking for the next opportunity to pull me into an empty classroom… or broom closet.”
“You wound me Harper! I care deeply about my teachers and students. It’s hardly my fault if your body distracts me from them occasionally.”
“Multiple times a day is not occasionally, your grace.”
“For someone who has to endure the monotony of knowing everything that comes to pass, an opportunity to cherish the present should be a gift. I bring the extraordinary gift of the glorious present every day and you relish my attention. Don’t try to pretend otherwise.”
“I never said I didn’t.”
Harper pulled Nevra’s prying fingers away from the buttons of his clothes. He was surprised to feel a distinct wince as he moved to kiss them, his lips stopping just short of her flesh.
“I work my fingers to the bone so they get sore from time to time.” Nevra tried to discreetly withdraw her hand before the scholar could look closer at what had pained her.
“You expect me to believe the Sovereign Queen of Mercura is callusing her hands? Show me.”
“It’s nothing. Really.” She prattled nervously, trying to casually twist her wrist out of Harper’s grasp and keeping her fingers curled in a tight fist. “I- uh, sometimes I cut my palm open, just for the thrill of it. It’s an unbecoming habit that I can’t shake. Please don’t look, it’s ugly.” Her words darkened Harper’s rigid expression. He’d allowed the charade to go on long enough and it was time for him to end it, at least within this timeline.
“…Fyro, or is it Randy? Let me see your hand.” Harper ordered and was met with stunned silence from the Queen, who instantly stopped resisting him. The woman who was Queen Nevra transformed in a blaze of jewel-toned flame, bathing the room in light. When the flames subsided, a red-skinned demon crouched in her place, a young man with messy, cabernet wine hair and a pair of webbed bat wings. He searched the soothsayer’s face, with growing confusion as his mind grappled with the implications of what he’d said.
“How did you know it was me?”
“Nevra hates cramped spaces, she would never tolerate being pounded against a closet wall.”
“Yes but- but maybe she would make an exception for her favorite Grand Scholar.”
“I’ve also seen her struggle and almost choke on a large sirloin steak before.”
“You can train your body to resist the gag impulse. Maybe she’s just improved since!”
“She cannot unhinge her jaw like you can. I don’t think you understand the way basic human anatomy works,” the corners of Harper’s lips twitched. These conversations had played out countless times before but the incubus’s protests always changed and entertained him, warranting another look. He couldn’t recall exactly how many times he had replayed the events of this particular night. He enjoyed replacing notes and creating slight variations to see how the song played out differently. This was where Randy laughed.
“Yes, well, forgive me if I mistook her for a snake trussed up in royal regalia. I could see her needing a warm body beneath her to help digest her food.”
“Either way, it looks like her fangs have found you at last.”
Harper had taken advantage of the incubus’s surprise to inspect his palm, flattening his fingers out to get a better look as they talked. He had found what he’d suspected quickly. There was a deep gash that ran the length of the boy’s palm from the top of the wrist to his index finger. The stitches holding the wound shut were very fresh. It was the handiwork of the true Witch Queen, Nevra. It signified ancient blood magic, which took a full sun cycle to conjure and set into motion. This type of magic needed time in order to bind a person’s future, as it was meant to.
It didn’t matter what Harper did to try and prevent it. It would happen regardless of how many times he replayed the events in their past. His attempts to change Randy’s future failed every single time. The incubus kneaded Harper’s shoulder consolingly with his good hand, the same way he often had as the Queen whenever Harper seemed put off by something.
“This is nothing my lord. I’ve collected worse scrapes during foreplay with bad-tempered cambion up-starts. You don’t have to look so stern for me.”
Harper gave a beleaguered exhale, shaking his head. Randy noted that his handsome lover hadn’t been frightened out of the same familiar proximity by his true form. The fact that he was no longer an exquisitely pretty woman didn’t seem to phase him as he had feared it would. His heart wouldn’t stop pounding in his chest and it made him wonder about his own sanity as a lust demon. He was truly far gone if this was how much he physically feared rejection from a mortal. A small shudder passed through him like a draft and he felt just like four winds were pushing him in all directions, every possible emotion battering his mind.
The soothsayer squared his shoulders to the demon and pulled Randy’s hand free from his shoulder. He used his middle finger to trace the lines on the inside of his palm to illustrate something the demon would have to understand to grasp his situation.
“This is your dominant hand, you’ve used it to fight your enemies, perform spells, and satisfy your lovers. Your past is written in the lines of this hand. It represents manifested potential.” He retrieved Randy’s left hand and flipped it over gingerly to expose the dark violet laceration.
“This palm represents unrealized potential. If your right represents the past, the left is your future. Your heart line crosses the middle, the mind line sits directly under it and then, lastly, there is your life line, which has been entirely carved out.” The scholar held it and met Randy’s gaze.
“This is how my queen possesses the people who slight her, by pouring their future out, like blood from a wound. By the time the sun rises, your soul will be bound to her whims and you will be her perfect slave. There is nothing you do that she won’t be able to see and punish you for. You will exist to please her.”
The scholar tried to parse his words carefully, knowing the crushing weight they would carry for the free-spirited incubus.
“This is Queen Nevra’s price for the mischief you’ve caused her. This is the cost for getting involved with someone like me,” he muttered, knitting his brows and turning his eyes down. “I’m so sorry.”
Randy’s huge dark wings went slack against the bed, having lost any animated quality they had before, much like his expression. Harper was reminded of a time when one of his cohort, Richenda the Undying, had locked a black abyssal phoenix in a songbird cage to decorate her desk. She seemed to enjoy watching it languish there, eternally living, dying and resurrecting in the company of cadavers. He had been hideously hypocritical to judge Richenda harshly for her cruelty towards the lovely creature. His own brand of cruelty was far more sadistic since his own desk ornament of choice happened to be a boy with a crush. Any suffering that Randy would be faced to endure in the future would be entirely his own fault, because he failed to protect him and, at the end of the day, he couldn’t resist the chance to indulge in a sick joke at the Witch Queen’s expense.
Randy stirred finally, breaking the silence and patting Harper’s leg, bringing him back from his morose thoughts.
“Hey, I’m not sorry,” he smiled at the scholar with a kind light in his upturned eyes. Harper blinked at him, bewildered.
“I’m not! I have no regrets. I can choose this if it allows me to be close to you,” the demon assured him. He held up his palms again, grinning like someone soft in the head, an inmate who had found a sparkling penny on death row. Randy’s lips were made for smiling, even in the worst circumstances.
“Look, I have the past and the future, right?”
“Yes,” conceded Harper. Randy reached out and held Harper’s pained face in his palms.
“I also have the glorious present in between them. This is okay, isn’t it?”
Harper held Randy’s wrists for a moment in what he called the glorious present. In that infinitesimal heartbeat of the universe, reality split multiple times and there were many Harper’s and Randy’s in the room, all of them as solid and real as the hard metal frame of the bed, existing simultaneously.
He splayed his fingers across the strings of three different fates, keying into their songs and listening to each reality. They were not obstructed, tenuous clouds inside a crystal orb, everything that happened within these alternate worlds was real, the love, the pain, was all real. As always, Harper would remember all of the details and there would be no remedy for the memories.
One of the Harper’s caved in on everything within himself. He had lost his own outlines and only knew a desperate desire for a reprieve from his own oppressive loneliness. He wanted to live in the present so badly. This Harper kissed Randy and inhaled his cinnamon, whiskey scent. He lavished sweet promises upon him, oaths to protect him in any way he could. They decided to face whatever future there was to be had together and were indeed happy for a time, though their love affair was a difficult thing to maintain.
Randy devoted much of his time attending to every carnal need the Witch Queen imposed on him and any scraps left of his days were spent engineering random encounters with Harper, waiting for any signs from him that would indicate the future was clear and the Queen’s gaze was fixed elsewhere. It hurt Harper to watch him live this way, with the bars of his cage shrinking in on him. The incubus grew impatient over the lean months as his schedule was suffocated and he saw less and less of Harper. Randy missed him like fire. His attempts to intercept him became sloppy and people began to take notice. It was on a cold night that Harper returned to his chambers to find Randy’s once beautiful body mutilated in his bed. His ebony blood filled the room like jet ink stains and a tidily written message had been left on his bedside mirror, scrawled in black.
“This is payback for my broken heart. Never betray me again.”
This was the song Randy wanted most. He would trade his life for this outcome because it was truest to his feelings. Harper had to be better than that, cool reason would govern his decisions for both of them. Harper would remember how this Randy loved him dearly and mourn his sacrifice as he explored other options.
While this Harper cried his heart out into the incubus’s mangled chest, another Harper was still holding Randy’s wrists in the glorious present, the diverging point. He released him and kept a respectable distance away. This Harper wanted to place words between both of them like spikes, to keep Randy from crashing into him any harder than he already had. This time he would protect him from his own passion.
“It’s a sweet thought but I don’t even know you. Anything you believe we have together is only skin-deep and built on lies.”
“Well, yeah, there were lies involved but the core of it was based on a mutual truth. That’s the way of any relationship.”
Harper didn’t agree or disagree with that. It would give too much of himself away and it was dangerous for him to give the lust demon anything tangible enough to hook his feelings into. The soothsayer bade him leave, their time together had been enjoyable but the demon had no business developing a real attachment to him. Randy’s new task was to join the school’s ranks as a servant to the queen.
“Try to please her, like you did me. You are good at it, after all.”
Harper took care that he never spoke a word of affection to him again. Their affair didn’t end however, it only took on a twisted form. They continued to see each other in secret. Randy was ravenous for something that only Harper could provide, but refused to. There was only a cold wall of silence offset by the close heat of his body. The rough encounters eventually stopped comforting Randy when he discovered that he couldn’t tear an answer out of Harper’s flesh in fits of passion. The incubus had been ejected from Harper’s bedroom and heart. He was standing outside of the scholar’s door in the hallway one night when a sick realization crept into his mind like a blood dawn.
It had all been in his head, he was a meaningless toy.
Harper’s teeth gritted as this particular song became wild and frenetic. The strings screeched and launched into a Paganini style piece that would bloody the fingers of the musician.
The incubus had a breakdown. It fractured his mind and drew out the libidinous monster in him. He tracked down and gently, sweetly murdered every partner he had ever taken within the walls of the castle. He used their limbs to paint messages of love to Harper on the walls. Perhaps these offerings would finally find their way to his heart. Harper was horrified and unable to shake the incubus out of his violent delirium. Nevra had the rabid demon shackled and given to Richenda, where he would still provide a use for her necromancy, even in his crazed state.
Harper watched as Richenda removed the incubus’s agonized soul within her underground catacombs, replacing it with the healthy soul of an insect.
While this was happening there was also another Harper still holding Randy’s wrists in the glorious present. The seer had darted his fingers along the strings and each melody he had plucked out brought a grim outcome. The strings Randy would play led to short-lived happiness that ended in his own butchery and the one Harper would personally choose tormented Randy and sent him over the edge.
He played faster and searched again, there was another reality in which they ran away, the incubus taking the form of an elven wife as they chose to live in disguise in the western wilds. Nevra’s curse endured, no matter how far they traveled, however. She called for Randy’s return over and over again, and when he resisted he was overtaken by cerebral hemorrhaging.
In another reality, Randy and Harper collaborated over an assassination attempt on Nevra. Randy was all too eager to sacrifice himself if it meant freedom for the both of them from Nevra’s clutches. Harper was successful in bringing the Witch Queen down, but it cost Randy his life. The blood curse tore his soul to pieces alongside her. The Queen was dead but Randy was gone with her, still shackled to his mistress in death.
How many times did Harper have to watch Randy suffer and die? He relived their time together over and over, searching for the destiny that rescued him from pain. There had to be another option hidden that he had overlooked. It had to exist, one branching path that would allow his lover to survive and finally exit the labyrinth.
He finally found it. The only exit had been the entrance all along, back at the converging point of the glorious present, the cradle of silence inbetween the noise. Randy was holding his face between his hands.
“Tell me, are you incapable of seeing beyond your own raunchy short-term gratification?” He scowled and shoved the demon’s hands well away from him. Anger flashed across Randy’s face as pain seared the raw gash. His jerk reaction to pain was always to bite back, hard.
“Sometimes, YES. My life has been rich and brimming with experience for it too. I don’t spend my days brooding over sad omens in my tea leaves.” The incubus shot back, nursing his hand.
“No, you spend them whoring yourself out to any obliging piece of human refuse that crawls your way, don’t you.” Harper narrowed his stone grey eyes at the incubus, choosing barbed words that would infect him.
“Yes! You are perfect proof of that my human worm.” The incubus sneered up at him through his pointed teeth, seething like a heckled cat.
“Just how many people have you slept with? Hundreds, thousands?” Harper demanded as he rose to his feet, drawing himself up to his impressive height.
“Far more than that! I have spent entire months switching between different partners in endless orgies.” His grin widened as he plucked morsels from a buffet of sordid memories that would revolt Harper.
“I’ve played musical chairs on spiked dicks for hours for the entertainment of my demonic overlords. I’ve fucked my way through an entire city population. But what does it matter? I’ve only seen you since we’ve been together.”
“It matters because I find that behavior repugnant. I know that you’ve also defiled some of my students since you have been here. You trick your way into their hearts, wearing the guise of whatever you think they’d like best because you know no one would settle for the real you, not seriously.”
“There is no real me like you mean. I can be whatever I want so what does it matter if I try to use it to please the people I’m with?”
“When your magic has worn out you revert back to this shape every time. You are an abyssal demon and a man, any other guise you wear is a pretense.” Harper prodded the incubus’s chest. “This is the real you.”
Randy swatted Harper’s hand away.
“You seemed to know who I was this whole time. If you find me so disgusting, why did you stick with it for so long?” The incubus asked and then instantly wished that he hadn’t, he was too afraid of the power his answer might wield. He wanted to bury the question back down so the answer wouldn’t have to be dragged, kicking and pleading into the light. Harper tipped back his head and laughed humorlessly. This was the true, hysterical crux of the matter.
“Because I hate the Queen. You gave me the perfect opportunity to desecrate her in the worst way.” Harper had to stoop his broad shoulders to bring himself down, eye level with Randy.
“Everything I’ve done to you has been out of loathing for her. And now it’s done. You should leave.”
Randy unconsciously shrank away from him, humiliation burning in his cheeks for his own hubris. Why had he thought to crawl out of his absinthe-reeking netherworld to pursue this man? What possessed him to believe that Harper Kriswell, one of the immortal lords of destiny, would want him. These were very human feelings, shame, and rejection, unfamiliar to an incubus. He would store them away to examine curiously later, like unrecognizable strands of hair on his pillow.
Randy’s body transformed again, rippling back into the queen’s lithe form against Harper’s sheets. He purred up at the soothsayer in the body of Queen Nevra.
“Don’t make me leave. I want you to use me, desecrate me.” She preened and stroked the flair of her hip in invitation. Perhaps a woman’s plea would soften his temper. It was a vaguely sexist notion that turned out to be very incorrect. Harper’s hatred for the Queen ran deep.
“I told you to leave. If you value your life then you will never impersonate the Witch Queen again. She will see it happen and kill you. Don’t give her that opportunity.” The soothsayer was ferocious in his anger, a wrathful time god that gave commands and not suggestions.
“You almost sound worried.” Randy returned to his own body, his hair was a tousled flame as he rose from the bed finally.
“I will leave you, my lord, but I will never forget our time together. What’s more, I’ll never allow you to forget it either.” Randy picked his way over the threshold, passing him on his way to the door. Harper found himself breathing shallowly as the incubus hesitated for a moment, then tossed a grin back at him.
“I think you fell for me for a while; you cared for a dirty manslut from the abyss… how very unbecoming.” He clucked his tongue as he leaned on the doorknob, appraising Harper for the last time through diminished eyes.
“I did, I’ve made mistakes, but we have to look to the future now and move forward, things will be better this way,” Harper swore.
“As you say, my lord, but I tend to think that you just use the future to escape the present. It’s a shame… truly.”
With that, Randy closed the door on them both.
Harper was left in an echoing world that faded into silence.