Necromancer's Curse

 

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Chapter One

Necromancy, a dark art of a dark art frowned upon by all societies known. Harbouring the demonic practitioners could throw the entire town at you, putting every last thing you ever loved or held dear at risk. The worst thing about the evil men and women that profess themselves to the practice is that there is no driving them out of a community. The dead will rise, the atmosphere of the entire town will tense, the sane will drive themselves to lunacy, and the inevitable destruction of the once peaceful population will sooner or later come around. That is, unless the necromancer has an apprentice.
    In order for the practice of the mad to continue alive and well, a necromancer that has believed him or herself to have achieved mastery must select an apprentice to carry on the necromantic profession. The process of selecting an apprentice is never through voluntary application, but by the necromancer deciding which child who survived the destruction of their beloved home would be worthy of being damned to the dark arts. The child was usually around five or six years of age, and the necromancer would do anything to keep it safe. Safe would never necessarily be synonymous to good shape, but the child would be kept alive by the necromancer responsible for it as long as the child was still an apprentice. 
    For the first few years the child is kept in complete secrecy and the necromancer goes about their usual business, dedicating the nights to training it. During these years there’s little to no worry that the necromancer must face, as the child is normally too struck with fear that they wouldn’t dream of the horrors they would have to overcome if they were to leave the pseudo-safety that the necromancer’s home provided. However, this doesn’t last long. Once the child ages around five years and must soon be infused with a demonic spirit, it tends to cause much trouble for the necromancer.
    Before the child is ready to receive a demonic spirit it must do a series of initiation-esque tasks and these tasks may sometimes lead to the discovery of dark arts within a town. If townspeople were to find out that the child belonged to a necromancer it would be taken hostage and when the necromancer came to retrieve it, a member from the church would be ready to execute the once-human creature. The only way to kill a necromancer is to pray it has an apprentice stupid enough to make any mistake.

    This is why I always wished I was smart.

~

 

    The thick air of the basement in which I resided in for a majority of my nights was something I never got used to. The air felt almost as if it were tightening around my neck or solidifying with the stench of chemicals that were used to craft preposterous mixtures said to do impossible things. I myself have witnessed atrocities that have reduced a normal human being to a pile of guts and ashes, with gore painting the surrounding environment in disgustingly strong colours, but I myself have never thought it to be through the aid of potions but rather through the aid of magic itself.
    The evil art to which my guardian and mentor uses to feed off of the living and damn innocent souls to hells deeper than what one could ever imagine is an art powerful enough to get anything one would ever want done, completed in a mere instant by the use of an equally powerful catalyst. Objects of sentimental value power the division of magic known as necromancy. The more sentimental value any one object holds, regardless of what the object is, the more destructive the power it could yield.
    While I lied on my cot in the basement deep below the floor of the establishment that was on ground level, these thoughts circulated throughout my mind and occupied the time normal people would use to sleep. Sleep was a pleasure to which I had little to no time allocated for me to indulge in, and even deep within the night when Aristide could come in at any moment demanding that I prepare my things and ready myself to venture far from the area to which we currently occupied, the event that caused this was always so rare that I always thought that now of all times would be an excellent one to get rest and to allow my tired body to recompose itself.
    I’ve witnessed Aristide destroy five different villages including my own and each time, while he was discovered in the dead of night, he was able to maintain a steady residence in the town for at least a week. We’ve been in 
Ville de Déception for a few weeks now, but it didn’t seem as if my master would attempt to do anything crazy.
    As this thought ran through my mind I heard the front door several metres above me smash open as my master called my name — Maylis. I shot up from my bed and gathered the few necessities I would use in whichever town we would escape to next, which were just a few clothes, a book labeled “Débutants Grimoire”, and a small wooden box filled with various rocks and tiny crystals. Arguably, my grimoire and box of catalysts were more important than my clothes but it felt demeaning every time I was forced to wear the same exact outfit for days at a time before I managed to steal new ones.
    “You have your supplies ready?” Aristide asked me with a panicked look on his face.
    “Yes,” I replied, “Ready to diminish this rotting land of corpses to absolutely nothing whenever you are, master.” 

    That line put a small smile on his face, “Good, follow me.”

    With that demand I obediently followed him up through our home to the ground level while I waited for him to decide which direction would be the best for me to run in while he unleashed terror over the entire village. While running through our small home it was hard to believe that we were always willing to destroy everything we had built up just because someone figured out that we were practicing dark arts.
    I knew that staying in the village beyond that could spell death for us if anyone else believed in what one person said and that it’d be best for us to evacuate as soon as the smallest chance of that happening arose, but I always liked believing in the small chance that we could hold onto our place in the town for a bit longer. I disliked being so cold towards everything, especially our own creations, but it always put a smile on Aristide’s face for me to do so despite my feelings towards the habit and my life was always infinitely better when he was happy rather than upset.
    If my master was upset that meant that any little thing I did could lead to punishment, fair or not. On top of that, punishments were never far from severe and I can thank Aristide for a large number, if not all, of the scars littered about my body.
    “Over that way,” Aristide said, pointing off in the distance, “I’ll catch up with you, just keep running.”
    “Yes, master,” I replied with compliance as I started running, holding my belongings close in my arms. The further I ran from the town the darker my surroundings got and the harder it was for me to continue running in one solid direction. It was nothing I hadn’t gotten used to, but regardless of my adjustment to running aimlessly in the dark I was still relying primarily on luck to avoid the obstacles in my way; tripping over brush was extremely common in moments like this.
    I continued running in one solid direction as best as I could, dashing through countless amounts of undergrowth and thorned trailers that tore at my garments and cut at my flesh, until there was a large flash that illuminated everything around me. This was the result of true terror being unleashed. Every time we escaped using these demonstrations, I was awed, regardless of how many times Aristide told me to look away and continue running.
    The presentation of terror being rained down upon any location was something that only the twisted would find joy in. Flames and gore shot down into the targeted location and only those small enough to hide in unconventional places would survive. This, meaning only children. If my master had not already selected me, he might have taken on one of the survivors to abide by the roll I take on to this day. However, since my master has already taken me under his wing, every last surviving child was to be murdered. No living being was to be left alive for the small risk that one would remember what happened and who was responsible.
    This was something else I always found disturbing, but it was my life as much as I hated it. A life I was to deal with. I turned back away from town and began walking in the direction Aristide directed me towards. There was no need to run if  everyone had perished. I walked continuously beyond the point that my feet grew numb and my stamina could hold out. Hours had passed by as Aristide was sifting through the rubble of our old municipality to find any soul that had managed to evade the devil’s grasp. It wouldn’t be until much longer to the point that I was about to pass out that Aristide would finally catch up to me and we would resume running, searching for a new town to occupy.
    I am Maylis Bellerose. This is my life as it was to forever be when the demon who destroyed the one I once held dear selected me to house the souls of evil for a reason to which I am currently unaware of. Several years ago my life had changed forever along with my fate — today I live in a cursed state of being to become a necromancer and continue the religious practice of dark arts until I too take on a child and ruin their life the same way mine was. This has been and forever will be the cycle that necromancers practice; a cycle that I had ever so unluckily gotten myself tangled up into.

 
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Chapter Two

After that night just days ago we stumbled into the fairly large town of Dernière Maison posing as travellers who managed to survive a necromancer’s terror. We stated that we would be more than glad to occupy any home the residents would be willing to give us for the tender we had on hand. I was said to be master’s niece who managed to survive by hiding as children do and master was to look after me as he felt obligated to do since my parents were obliterated.
    The residents granted us a home in exchange for nearly all of the currency we had with us and after thoroughly questioning us we were left alone. I was not very used to lying so I faked tears and made up a backstory that I trailed off through until they decided it’d be best not to provoke my seemingly unstable mind.

    Now that we had a new establishment to reside in I was sent to the basement where I was to set up the alchemy table that was currently nowhere close to complete and make my “bed” on the ground with a few sheets the residents granted me when they thought I was going into shock. The clothes I scavenged from our previous location were placed in a pile next to my sheets and the box along with my grimoire were placed near the alchemy table.
    Once my area was fully prepared I looked at the cuts and bruises I received while escaping. Some of the cuts had healed since then but some were still open and bleeding. My clothes were still tattered to the point that many would consider indecent which I could thank the brush that stood in my way while I blindly ran far from the mess that would become of our old home. I sighed loudly before stripping down and looking around the supplies Aristide scavenged for something to put over the cuts I had obtained to speed up the healing process a bit or at least protect the cuts so that my injuries wouldn’t become troublesome.
    After all of my injuries were accounted for, I pulled out a few miscellaneous clothes from the pile on the ground to wear. I was indifferent on the matter if they matched or not considering that we more than likely wouldn’t be in this damned town for longer than a few weeks and I had grown numb towards the opinions of others. As long as I wasn’t wearing anything that made myself appear as a young (and very illegal) harlot then it was enough for me.
    Once I was situated with myself, I returned upstairs to Aristide to ask what it is I was to do next during our residence here. My master was flipping through pages of his grimoire in attempts to remember muting spells while he sat on a chair in the first room of the building. When I asked what he wanted me to do he looked at me and was stunned with thought for a moment. This was a rather rare sight when it came to Aristide. Usually the man had everything planned out several steps in advance; I had only fully completed a list of what he had wanted me to do once or twice in the past. “Remind me again how old you are, Maylis,” the necromancer requested as he turned his gaze towards me.
    “If I recall correctly, I’ll be turning twelve years in a few moons,” I stated, almost stumbling on my words. In reality I had but a faint idea of when I’d be actually turning twelve. My personal birthdate was something I could no longer recall perfectly. For these past few years I had only used when Aristide had me perform a yearly magical exam as a marker for when I had aged a year since he had claimed me as his apprentice when I was six years of age.
    “Go around town, then,” Aristide quickly dismissed after hearing my age, “If you’d like, spend the entire day out of the house.”
    I opened my mouth but stopped for a moment. “Go outside, sir?” I asked, to make sure I heard him correctly.
    “Yes,” Aristide said firmly, his glare filling with negative emotion.
    “Sir we’ve just arrived, the residents—” I started.
    “You’ve recovered from your shock then,” Aristide interrupted, “I trust that you’re not stupid or incapable. If you are you know that I won’t hesitate to punish you.”
    “Y-Yes sir,” I stuttered with fear.
    “Go on, now,” Aristide dismissed with mild anger in his voice, “I want you to grow a bit of a sentimental feeling towards this place. It’ll be important once you turn twelve years.”
    “Understood,” I said before turning towards the door and leaving our new home.


    In a normal situation, a necromancer and their trainee should never go out into a town they had just occupied the day they arrived in it. Most of the time, the two would be posing as survivors of a necromancer attack. If the two were to leave their residence, most of the time this would conflict with the story they had conjured up to dissolve all suspicion that anyone would have of them being the ones responsible for the last town’s destruction. I personally have played the going into shock card a good number of times and because of that Aristide would have me stay indoors for the rest of the day so that others would assume that I was recovering from such an affliction. Having recovered from shock this quickly seemed like it’d arouse at least some suspicion. 
    Another thing that Aristide had said that worried me was him saying to grow sentimental, I was usually commanded to do the opposite. If I had grown sentimental towards a place we were staying in then I’d have difficulty discarding it when the time came that we’d need to escape. I wasn’t sure of what my master had planned out of me gaining sentimental feelings towards the area, but this was the first ever time I was allowed to do so.
    The town was mainly bare in terms of paving with grass growing nearly everywhere. This made it more welcoming to walk around the town. A majority of the buildings were only one story tall unless they were of a bit more importance, such as an infirmary or a bank. It was difficult to tell buildings apart considering every structure was made with the same material in nearly identical patterns. I wasn’t necessarily sure of what I was supposed to gain sentimental feelings towards, but it was a tad difficult considering nearly everything in the area was identical to one another.
    Along with every building being identical, nearly every person was of the same race as well as sharing the same hair and eye colours. The fashion of the entire town’s population was also near identical, making me stand out like a bit of a sore thumb. While wandering around town every so often a new person would come up to me and ask if I was okay. I always assured them that whatever shock had struck me had passed and I was more or less fine now. After this, a few of those worried about me gave me a strange look as if they were suspicious of me.
    I was slightly worried that this would make Aristide and I stand out more, but after putting a little thought into it I doubted that they would draw an insulting conclusion from the fact that I recovered quickly and dressed like a colorblind person.

    While wandering from building to building I visited various stores and even looked inside a few bakeries and restaurants. The overall feel of the entire town was very bland. Nothing stood out in any way; this town looked like what would happen if you took any of the past places I had lived in with Aristide and stripped away everything that made them unique. Nothing was worth getting sentimental over unless we were to live here for a longer time and I was able to pick a favourite restaurant or find my favourite pastry that the local baker could make me.
    Even then it was merely a matter of being desensitised from what I would have been used to and an acceptance of heart in what I would be constantly surrounded with. At that point I suppose it would still be sentimental value, just not as something I enjoyed from day one. I began to wonder how Aristide expected me to get sentimental over a town I had never been in before as he was usually one to agree with me when I said that sentimental value was something that developed over time and wasn’t something that spontaneously appeared.

     Eventually I wandered into the town hall as all of the residence had gathered for a meeting. I personally had been wandering around the town doing nothing but eyeing everyone and everything attempting to feel some sort of feeling or connection towards anything, sitting down and listening to the townsfolk more than likely argue over how to go about hunting the necromancer that had destroyed Ville de Déception before it showed up in this delightly bleak town. This was something that commonly happened every time me and Aristide arrived in a new home. They would discuss and occasionally they would begin to suspect us, but ultimately dismissed the new survivors for some reason or another.
    As everyone who decided to attend filed into their spots, a man stood at the front of the hall behind a podium. Chairs were arranged in the room as two separate columns leaving a walkway in between for people to walk down. Each column of chairs was five chairs by eight chairs with every seat evenly spaced from front to back while being more close together from left to right. The room was also filled with noise as people conversed with one another. Naturally, friends sat next to friends, couples sat together, and considering how small the town was I supposed everyone knew everyone. Eventually, however, every seat was filled. I sat nearly alone in the back of the room aside from what I assumed to be a drunk who was already sitting on the far right end of my row when I arrived.
    While sitting alone a girl some years older than me rushed in and quickly sat next to me. I was rather stunned by this act; less by the act and more by her appearance. This girl looked considerably different from the rest of the town’s residents. Her hair was fairly longer than everyone else’s as well as being clearly cleaner. Her skin was much more fair with less blemishes than anyone else I had seen all day; possibly than I had seen all my life. While her hair colour was still the same boring brown that everyone else had, her eyes were nearly violet. Overall they were extremely captivating to look at; while staring in one place for long enough you could see the separate blue and red shades that made the magnificent eye colour.
    “I-Is everything alright?” the girl asked me with an uncomfortable tone and a faked smile, “This seat wasn’t taken, was it?”
    “It’s fine,” I quickly said, not realising how lost I was getting while just looking at her, “I’m fine.” In that moment I was a bit worried on whether or not I came across as rude as the girl began to stand up.
    “My sincerest apologies,” she quickly said, beginning to turn away from me.

    “No!” I nearly yelled as I grabbed her hand. I wasn’t sure what came over me. My heart was beating and every breath felt increasingly awkward. Regardless, I refused to release my grip.
    Her skin was rather soft and making contact with her made my heart beat faster in infatuation, or at least this is what I had concluded. I suppose the demons Aristide conjured up constantly had infected me to the point where I was beginning to fall for the same sex. Still, it wasn’t a bad feeling. It felt as if I could use this girl as an object of sentiment for Aristide’s assignment.
    “E-Excuse me,” the girl said, looking at me with a face to match her tone from earlier.
    “Can you stay with me?” I asked. My tone was clearly desperate but I figured I could blame it on the fact that my cover-up would include friends and family that perished amongst flames. Perhaps I could tell her she looked like my older sister or a neighbour I was good friends with.
    “I suppose,” she said, drawing out her words. Upon this statement she sat next to me and I released my grasp on her hand. “You’re certain you’re okay? You were in shock earlier today, weren’t you?”
    “I figured I had recovered,” I quickly retorted, my words leaving my mouth with haste.
    “Did you?” she said, still drawing out her words, with worry replacing discomfort. “Maylis, was it?”
    “Yes,” I answered slower than in all of my previous responses, “Maylis Bellerose.”
    “The man that came with you, he’s your father?” she asked with newfound curiosity.
    “Uncle,” I said, my answer slightly delayed as I was about to agree. I wasn’t sure which Aristide had told them, however considering I had told this girl my last name it wouldn’t match up with Aristide’s; that would spawn more worry and suspicion. “Mind if I ask your name?”
    “Not at all,” she replied with a smile, “I’m Lili Yount.”
    “Pleasure to meet you, Lili,” I said, trying to manage a smile.
    “Same to you, Maylis,” she returned, still smiling.

    After our short exchange, the man at the front of the hall had finished talking to the various people that had come up to him, no doubt asking about details regarding the attack, and was standing noble behind the podium once again waiting for the whispering to diminish to a minimum.
    “Hello everyone,” he said, his words bursting with confidence within those two simple words, “I have called a meeting today to discuss the problem that most all of you are aware of by now. A town some miles south of ours has recently been attacked by a necromancer.” 

    At the word ‘necromancer’ there was a drastic change in mood within the room. There was no doubt that the man was building up to this topic, however the shift was still apparent. Along with the change in mood all of the wandering whispers scattered about the room had completely silenced.
    “As much as it’d displease me to say this,” he began.
    “We’re going to die, aren’t we?” the drunk a few chairs over from me yelled, as both Lili and myself turned to look at him.
    “Now sir,” the man began to counter, “First of all there’s no proof that the necromancer has migrated to our town.”
    “What in hell are you on about?” another male voice from within the crowd yelled out, “Aren’t we the town closest to what used to be 
Ville de Déception?”
    “Well, yes, but—” the man began to counter again.
    “But nothing! The necromancer is here!” The drunk began again. “We ought to flush ‘em out and burn the bastard to death like he deserves!”
    “That is 
it!” the man at the front yelled, “I will not tolerate this kind of behavior when I’m doing nothing but attempt to calm humble citizens like myself from overthinking the situation!”
    There was no response; again the room went quiet.
    “The two that survived the attack, Maylis and Aristide, whom arrived this morning were able to give us information about what the necromancer might do to hide,” the man continued, “Despite that the young girl went into shock soon after questioning started, we were still able to to gather enough information from the two and I can assure you that if the necromancer is coming, he isn’t here yet. Maylis said that she saw him herself.”
    “Is that true?” Lili turned to ask in awe. I simply nodded in agreement.
    “Yes, you are all safe,” the man continued after a brief pause, “and not just until the necromancer arrives here.” My eyes shot over at the man.
    “Aristide, what did you tell this fucker?” I thought.
    “According to Aristide, the necromancer has an apprentice,” the man spoke.
    “I saw no apprentice,” I quickly shouted in panic as I stood up. I wasn’t too concerned on whether or not I looked nervous but inside my heart was beating as if someone had a gun to my head. “I saw the necromancer several times and none of those times did he have an apprentice by his side.”
    “Miss…” the man trailed.
    “Maylis,” I filled in, “Maylis Bellerose. I was in 
Ville de Déception and while I did see the necromancer, albeit not knowing it was him until the night he burned everything, I never once saw a young man by his side.”
    “Young?” the man questioned.
    “You must be stupid,” I boldly spoke to hide my slip up, “A necromancer’s apprentice is always young, and not once did I see a young man— Hell, any young child by his side for that matter.”
    “Your voice is shaking, Miss Bellerose.” He was growing suspicious.
    “Why don’t you try having your family and friends all murdered by a man destroying your home then having to recall those memories the next day to save a load of conspirator’s asses from getting damned below,” I bit, “If you were able to keep yourself entirely stable I’d personally be in too much awe to congratulate you for soldiering through the moment.”
    “My apologies, Miss Bellerose,” he said.
    “I’d prefer if you said Maylis in place of my last name,” I stated.
    “Miss Maylis, then?” he corrected, “You have an awfully large vocabulary for such a young girl.”
    “I’ll take that as a complement,” I said, not letting my terror shine through at any moment, “My mother taught me to read at a young age.”
    “I see,” he said, “Regardless, even if Miss Maylis is correct in saying the necromancer will be alone, it wouldn’t be wrong to assume he won’t be. Searching for his apprentice could prove highly advantageous for our integrated survival; especially if we can capture it.”
    I sat down in a bit of a rage. Lili put her hand over mine causing my heart rate to slow a good bit.
    “I trust you,” she whispered to me, “You’re awfully brave to speak out of turn like that just to try to save us. Jerome is a bit headstrong when it comes to these things. He tends to stick by what he’s initially told regardless of proof that’d suggest otherwise.”
    “Thank you,” I lightly returned. I was completely baffled on the idea that Aristide willingly gave away the fact that he was accompanied by an apprentice. While the fact that he convinced the citizens that the necromancer wasn’t in their town yet still stood, Aristide played a dangerous card and I couldn’t help but feel like it would backfire. Despite that he was the master and I was but an underling, I strongly felt that he had taken a step in the wrong direction.

    The meeting continued as several minor things were addressed such as the town economy and the upcoming winter season. I sat through all of the discussed matters and was mildly relieved that no one looked deeper into the necromancer incident. The fact that they would be looking for an apprentice still shook me, but all that meant was that I had to be careful and I wasn’t allowed to overthink anything for my own safety.
    After the meeting concluded everyone slowly made their way out of the hall as a few stayed to talk to the man holding the meeting. I remained sitting in my chair as I looked down at my feet. Towards the end of the meeting I had drastically lost interest in everything happening and I had been looking down for a few minutes at the most.
    “Maylis,” Lili said, trying to get my attention. I looked over at her, now standing. “It was nice meeting you.”
    “Likewise,” I said with a still rather depressed tone.
    “Say,” she started. Her tone of voice told me that she felt sorry for me; I was struck with a feeling of guilt. My make-believe scenario had affected her in some way or another. “You’re living with your uncle, right?”
    “Correct,” I confirmed.
    “Would he mind if I invited you as a guest to my home?” Lili asked, “I won’t keep you after dark and I could even give you food to bring back to him.”
    “I suppose that’d be fine.” I answered. Aristide did say that I was free to be out as long as I needed to be in order to grow sentimental feelings. I had no doubt that my spontaneous infatuation with Lili would grow by spending more time with her, and as long as I eventually returned I saw nothing that I would get punished for doing.
    “Excellent,” Lili said with a slight cheer in her voice. “Come on now, I wouldn’t want to waste the time I have you for by sitting in the meeting hall.” I stood in response to this and began moving my way out of the building with her.

    “Miss Maylis,” the man from before called as he walked towards us. I stopped and turned towards him. The man was fairly taller than me; I assumed he was at least ten years older. His clothes were the same as everyone else’s, however that was a little unexpected from someone designated to run town meetings. He was still nicely kept, but there wasn’t anything standing out that would distinguish him as a leader or a representative.
    “Yes?” I asked with fake curiosity in the reason he wanted to speak to me.
    “You’re feeling better from the incident earlier today?” he asked.
    “When I went into shock? Yes,” I answered blankly, “I’m feeling a bit better now.”
    “That’s good to hear,” he said, “You seemed awfully knowledgeable about the necromancer. Were you close to him?”
    “I wouldn’t say that,” I defended. “You’re suggesting a bit of a bold accusation.”
    “My apologies,” he retreated, “However, you payed enough attention to the man in order to know that he never had a young child with him?”
    “What are you getting at, Jerome?” Lili spoke up. I swallowed hard. While the man didn’t show it, he was sharp and he was able to spot the flaws in my claims. I needed to be careful when I talked around him.
    “Your answer, Miss Maylis?” Jerome insisted.

    “My response to such a comment is that you’re being a bit rude,” I bit in spite, “I only have eleven years in age. It seems a bit wrong to me for you to be suspecting me as a liar.”
    “You’re suggesting that young age brings nothing but truth?”

    “I’m suggesting that you’re taking my words a bit too seriously considering who I am. I’m just a child; not even a teen yet. If you’re interpreting my words as a possibility that I had a relation towards the necromancer then you’re out of line and anyone would agree with me on that note.”
    After this there was silence. Jerome’s face didn’t change after I spoke, however there was still the general tone that made it feel as if the self-righteous had been defeated. Then again, perhaps it was just my bias speaking.
    “So be it,” Jerome said, slightly lifting his chin, “You have my apologies for holding you and Miss Yount up from your afternoon plans.”
    “You’re forgiven,” I said, admittedly with a bit of smug in my voice.

    “It’s fine, by all means,” Lili said, “You’re only trying to protect us, Jerome.”
    “Thank you for your understanding as always, Lili,” Jerome said with a warming smile. “If you two would excuse me, I must be off now.”

    With that, Jerome left the hall soon before Lili and I did. I followed the cute older girl around as she said she wanted to take me home with her. On the way there, Lili told me she had to pick up a few things for her parents while she was out. This lead to a small detour to the surprisingly quaint market that the town had. It wasn’t the largest or most impressive I had seen in my life. It was rather small and there were only a few merchants selling the usual—fruits, vegetables, medicines, textiles, etcetera.
    A majority of the market was outdoors, but there were one or two stores that were legitimate buildings rather than booths in a deserted street. I personally found myself growing a bit of a liking to it as Lili lead me through a few of the stores to get what she needed. It was a bit odd for me to grow a liking towards something like this so quickly. I must have just passed by it while looking around the town and never given it the chance of admiration.
    Each booth was managed by a single person and the few interior stores had no more than three people working in them at a time. To add, the area was hardly populated with anyone besides the shopkeepers, Lili, and myself. The indoor buildings were the most populated, as they sold a wider variety of goods. Outside, however, there was only one other man aside from us who was looking through the booths. Overall no more than ten people were in the market. Lili and I didn’t spend much time there before we left back on track to her home, however the area was something I felt I wanted to spend more time in. I never spoke up to tell Lili this since I figured it’d make me sound a bit ridiculous; I decided I’d return if I was ever graced with time to myself.

    Every neighbourhood was nearly identical on the way to Lili’s home and when we arrived, the exterior of her home looked exactly alike to every other home on the street. Lili opened the door and gestured for me to come in. As I did the girl stepped in behind me and called out.
    “
Mamanpapa, I’m home!” she said. After this an older woman came from one of the few rooms connected to the first.
    “Lili,” she said, “Who might this be?”
    “This is Maylis,” she explained as she placed her hands on my shoulders, “She came from the town I said burned down.”
    “The one that got attacked by a magician?” the older woman asked.
    “Yes,” Lili responded, still keeping her hands in their place. “Jerome is saying it was the work of a necromancer.”
    “Necromancers are all anyone cares about anymore,” the woman said as she walked over to a chair and sat down. “The unholy scares people quite a good bit. More than when the term ‘magician’ was enough to make grown men shake in their boots.”
    “Necromancers are a bit more extreme than standard magicians,” I spoke up. “Necromancers intentionally seek out the weak.”
    “She speaks,” the woman said sarcastically. “I’m curious, isn’t that what magicians did?”
    “What magicians 
do,” I corrected. “No. Magicians practiced the dark art of magic for fun. Their crude reputation came from the fact that a good lot of the folk decided to abuse magic. Not every magician is sour.”
    “But every necromancer is?” the woman asked.
    “Yes,” I confirmed. “Necromancers practice the most despicable forms of an already forbidden art. Necromancers worship the devils they conjure. They have a bloodlust so strong backed by a demonic reward by acting on the murderous desire that they’re far more than what any serial killer that used the basics of simple magic ever was.”
    “You seem awfully knowledgeable on this topic,” Lili’s mother pointed out.
    “M-My bad,” I stuttered.
    “It’s not a bad thing,” she said, “Just something worth noting. I’m not someone to assume someone’s up to no good simply because they know something about magic.”
    “I see,” I stated as my tone began calming again, “Thank you.”
    “
Maman,” Lili started, “Is papa feeling any better?”
    “He recovered a good bit today,” her mother replied. “Please, Maylis, sit down. No need to stay standing any longer, poor girl.”
    “Thank you,” I said as I walked to another chair in the first room of the house and sat down. The interior of the building was much nicer than the exceedingly bland exterior. The room was nearly furnished with three chairs and a couch and a fireplace on the wall furthest from the front door. There were a few rugs on the otherwise tile floor, all of which were various shades of green. The tiles and walls were both brown, the tiles being a darker shade I couldn’t quite name and the walls being something a tad darker than beige.
    The room had two others leading off from it and a staircase leading to the second floor of the home. The room was a good size and all of the furnisher gave the room a rather nice full feeling.

    “Lili, do me a favour and go put the items I had you pick up in the kitchen for me,” Lili’s mother requested.
    “Of course, 
maman,” she said as she walked into the same room her mother had come from earlier.
    “Maylis would you like to stay for dinner?” her mother asked me.
    “I’d love to,” I said with a bit of excitement in my voice, “I shouldn’t be out past dark but regardless, it’d be a pleasure to stay and eat with you all.”
    “It may be a bit late before I have Lili start making the food,” she said, “My husband is sick, as you must’ve gathered, and we’ve been having dinner later than usual as we’ve been focusing a bit more on making sure he recovers soundly.”
    “That’s fine,” I said before swallowing hard, “I’d still like to stay over. I can find my way home in the dark.”
    There was silence.
    “What did your husband catch?” I asked. “Is it just a cold or something a bit worse?”
    “It’s taken him a few weeks to recover so I’m guessing it isn’t a cold,” she said a bit solemnly, “I personally think it’s a virus of some sort.”
    “Oh,” I said, feeling a little bad for asking. “I’m sorry to hear so.”

    “Thank you,” she said, “He’s been recovering more and more each day but it’s still taking quite awhile.”
    “You have my condolences and best wishes for him to recover back to full health,” I said, trying to be polite after I dug a bit too deep on the subject matter.
    “You’re quite a well spoken young lady.”
    “Thank you. I was raised to be so. Any less would be a disappointment to my,” I stopped.
    “Your?” she began before she realised and gasped, “Oh my. Maylis, I’m so sorry.”
    “It isn’t your fault,” I held back tears. “A monster took her— no, all of them away from me. It isn’t anyone’s fault but his.”
    “But you must have someone to stay with,” she said.
    “Right,” I snapped myself out of it. “Right. I have Aristide.” My tone was more than likely unbelievable. I had never before realised how powerful a compliment could be. It hadn’t recalled myself to that time since Aristide had began conditioning me. I had always just used the mother card as something to get people off my back, but this time it was almost as if I was yearning for sympathy.
    “I’m going to check on my husband,” Lili’s mother said after a short pause between the two of us. She got up and excused herself before she went upstairs.
    Shortly after her mother left, Lili herself came back from the kitchen and sat in her mother’s place. She was a bit silent; no doubt she heard our conversation. The mood turned a bit tense and awkward. I looked down, trying to hide my shame.
    “Your mother,” Lili said, “You were close to her?”
    “That’d be a bit of an understatement,” I returned, “I can’t find the proper words to explain our relationship. What it was, anyhow.”
    “I’m sorry,” the words leaving her mouth were a bit satisfying.
    “There’s no reason to be,” I said, “I accept my loss. No matter how special she was to me, I have to accept that she’s gone now.”
    “It’s hard to believe you only have eleven years,” Lili said with a brighter tone. “She raised you well.”
    “I agree,” I said with a small smile. “Lili how old are you?”
    “Fourteen,” she answered, “Just turned last month.”
    “I see,” I responded.


The remainder of my time there was a bit awkward. I felt as if Lili and her mother were avoiding several topics because of me. I personally couldn’t blame the two since they had no idea the massacre that killed my family and everyone I knew was nearly six years ago; not mere days in the past. It was something I couldn’t control, however part of me admired it. I usually wasn’t allowed to have any sort of human interaction in all of the previous towns I had lived in. I see now why.
    Growing attached to people was something that happened easily. Aristide had always told me that while I was being conditioned. Human interaction brought the possibilities of admiration, affection, attachment, infatuation, and intimacy. All of the prior fostered nothing but weakness in a great necromancer. If every time you looked at a human you saw nothing but potential then you would have an endlessly harder time ending their life.
    The goal of a necromancer’s apprentice is to completely desensitise ourselves to these kinds of weaknesses. During conditioning we do so by seclusion, the torture of our own pets, and beating along with severe punishment for the most mundane failures. The damage to our emotions done in rapid succession makes the damage permanent. We forget the emotion of sympathy, else we don’t stop conditioning. Dulling the other senses is all we require of ourselves, otherwise the process would take much longer.
    After that process a necromancer’s apprentice is still to stay completely out of human interaction due to the fact that the conditioning process naturally brings out a bloodlust in the apprentice. Killing anyone and everyone was the only thing on my mind for weeks after completing conditioning. I still don’t have any sympathy for the lives lost in my training and in Aristide’s practice, regardless of my discomfort by mindless killing. The only thing keeping that discomfort is the fact that I personally find more pleasure in savouring a victim's death and I found it a natural waste to get absolutely nothing out of someone before they die by my hand.
    Admiration, however, can bring a sort of discomfort in another way. Aristide put it as re-learning our emotions. Love and infatuation make the learning process much faster. Looking at Lili and her mother nearly made me learn what sympathy was again. I asked myself if I could genuinely kill these people. Could I actually torture the two that had only shown me kindness? Sadly, I’m required to say “yes.”

~

“Here’s your plate, Maylis,” Lili said as I stood in the kitchen with her, handing me my plate for dinner. It had got quite late and I had already placed two other plates with food on them at the table.
    “Thank you,” I kindly accepted as I sat at the table with my plate. Soon after sitting down Lili came and sat next to me with her own plate. Earlier she had said that it might be a little while until her parents came downstairs and joined us. She didn’t say whether or not to wait to start eating until they arrived, however I decided to wait regardless of whether or not it was safe to begin on our own.
    “Sorry to have kept you longer than I intended,” Lili apologised.
    “It’s completely fine,” I assured. “I’m sure Aristide will be okay with me being out this late. I figure a walk home won’t take very long; even if it does I shouldn’t get lost.”
    “If you need anything don’t hesitate to come back, alright?” she said with worry in her voice.
    “I’ll be sure and do so,” I assured. Not long after I said this, Lili’s mother and father came into the room. Her mother had her arm around the man, helping him with every step. Lili’s father was looking down as he slowly took step after step. He had to concentrate on every step just in case he slipped and fell which was a possibility even with the aid of his wife.
    Lili’s mother helped him get seated before she took a seat herself and thanked Lili for making the meal. Then, for the first time since he came into the room, Lili’s father looked up; since I was in the chair directly across from his he was immediately welcomed by my face.
    “Hello there,” he said, politely. Judging by his voice and facial expression he wasn’t necessarily surprised to see me.
    “This is Maylis,” Lili’s mother spoke up, “Lili’s new friend.”
    “Nice to meet you Maylis,” the man said.
    “Likewise,” I returned with a smile before I looked down at my plate and began eating. It was rare that I got to eat something other than what Aristide had made me; because of this I usually had trouble pacing myself when eating other’s food since Aristide’s meals weren’t far from inedible. Regardless, I still tried eating the meal in front of me like a normal person.    

    While we all sat around the table Lili and her mother came up with various topics that I couldn’t relate to. At one point her father asked what happened in the meeting he missed today and Lili told him about the claims of necromancy in the attacked town and even brought up what I had said about the necromancer having no apprentice even though Aristide reported elsewise. This made Lili’s father look at me, however he didn’t open his mouth to say anything about the matter. During the meal I was rarely addressed to by anyone to make conversation, however I didn’t mind this. With Aristide I usually didn’t make any conversation while I ate and I was commonly void of human interaction so being without conversation wasn’t something I was offended by. After the meal I kindly excused myself from their home, thanked them for the meal and allowing me to stay over, and began setting off to my residence with Aristide.
    The sunset had nearly passed and there were a few miscellaneous workers walking around lighting the unlit lanterns around the town to light up the streets. The atmosphere of the town at night was much different than it was during the day. It felt more dangerous despite it being the same town. The orange light from the lanterns gave the town a different look and as the sun disappeared beyond the horizon an eerie changing shade was added through the landscape of the town.

    When I arrived home Aristide was in the same place that he was in when I left, as if he didn’t move at all. “You were out late,” he said without directing his look towards me,
    “I apologise, master,”  I sat on my knees, bowing my head.
    “Did you at least gain some sort of sentimental feelings towards something?” he asked. “Even if you have the slightest liking towards something that’s a lead we can use to develop a stronger feeling.”
    “Does infatuation count?” I asked hesitantly. My heart started beating faster as I looked down waiting for an answer; part of me was embarrassed for confessing infatuation while the other was afraid that it wouldn’t be enough for Aristide.
    “Infatuation is even better,” he said after a long pause. “Are you ready for you next assignment?”
    “Yes, master.”

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Chapter Three

I sat at the edge of the demonic circle Aristide had drawn on the basement floor with him on the other end. The circle was drawn using goat blood and in the centre was a rat skeleton. The skeleton still had pieces of flesh stuck to it from when it got torn out of the creature’s body. The bones were a light brown with a few patches of maroon here and there. At my sides were my box of catalyst gems and my grimoire.
    “When you said I’d be conjuring a familiar I didn’t think I’d be using something that I was genuinely familiar with,” I stated, looking at the rat.
    “It will be easier this way,” Aristide said, “The more emotional ties you have to your familiar the better. Along with that, the smaller the structure of pieces you’ll be holding together with nothing but sheer magic, the easier the task will be over time.”
    “Why are you teaching me this?” I bravely questioned. Usually it was out of line for me to question any of Aristide’s teachings.
    “Excuse me?” Aristide bit with anger already in his voice.
    “You don’t use familiars, do you?” I asked.
    “You are going to be learning this art because I have assigned it,” Aristide said, almost yelling, “It does not matter if I use the art or not, you do as I say and learn what I assign. I didn’t expect one day on the town to make you begin questioning my teaches. You’re lucky I’m not punishing you this instant.”
    “My apologies, master,” I said, bowing my head. Just because I wasn’t being punished this instant usually didn’t mean that I was free from punishment entirely. All that meant is I’d get punished as soon as the punishment he had in mind wouldn’t interrupt his lesson.
    “Start by using a catalyst gem then go on to try to use nothing but your own will,” Aristide said, “Take an azure gem and move into the centre of the circle with the skeleton.”
    I opened my box and looked through the various coloured stones to find the light blue rock. Over the time that I’ve been using catalyst stones I’ve noticed that each of them were a replacement for some aspect of yourself that you would lose when simply performing the magic with your own willpower. The azure stones replaced what I believed to be sympathy.     

    Considering that Aristide never told me what each stone did, I had to guess all on my own. Folly and azure stones were the ones most used, however there were also more than a few stones of other colours. These included amber, mauve, viridian, and grey. Overall I wasn’t able to guess the purposes of the majority of the stones aside from the azure, folly, and viridian colours. From my guesses, folly replaced mental strength, azure replaced sympathy or compassion, and viridian replaced creativity. Of course these were only guesses, and it was hard to tell which stone replaced what through what the spell required of your willpower, as spells tended not to eat up too much of any one aspect at one point.
    Aristide had told me than catalyst gems provide an overwhelmingly large amount of energy required for any one spell. This lead me to assume that the gems held an extreme amount of any one of these mental aspects. Beginners were to use catalyst stones since the spell would be consuming a virtually limitless pool of resources. This way the beginner had all the time they needed in order to get the spell right without withering away their limited personal resources.

    Once I found the stone I needed, I crawled into the centre of the circle and placed the gem on top of the rat skeleton. Then sat on my legs and interlaced my fingers before whispering the activation phrase, “Aktivieren.” With that, the stone began to glow.
    Aristide sat and spectated as he waited for me to figure out how to create the familiar. The way a necromancer taught their pupils was less of a traditional sense of teaching. The necromancer would provide the apprentice with whatever supplies they would need and then teach them the absolute basics.
    I was taught how to activate catalyst gems as well as a few basic spells. From this I was supposed to figure out every other spell from there on out with little to no context. In this particular situation, I was to do so with close to no context. I personally had never seen Aristide spawn a familiar so the only thing I knew was that the skeleton was supposed to move under my control. “
Life-Bewegung wieder,” I tried. After speaking the words I imagined the skeleton moving; closing my eyes to gain a better picture of the movement.
    “No response,” Aristide said, “Don’t try mixing activation phrases.” It was nearly as if he was trying to scold me. Aristide had only taught me three activation phrases that were supposed to work for every type of spell. I could remember each of them, however it was hard to assign just one to every spell I was supposed to use. The three were used, in the most basic terms, for killing via the phrase “
Life-Bewegung zu stoppen,” for creating delusions via the phrase “Komm, Albträume,” and for bringing back bad memories via the phrase “Beschwerden kommen wieder,” however in a situation like this I wasn’t sure which to use.
    “
Je suis le maître de la marionnette,” I said, shutting my eyes tight imagining the remains of a corpse moving again. As a few moments passed a firm hand hit my cheek as I fell to the ground and my eyes shot open to see Aristide standing over me. “What the fuck was that?” he yelled in question.
    “French!” I screamed as I crossed my arms in front of my face for protection, “I was only speaking French!”
    “Why?” he demanded firmly. “When have I ever taught you to speak French to catalyze your spells?”
    “It was just easier!” I continued screaming in fear, “Using catalysts that magicians use are easier! I don’t speak German, I don’t care if it’s the language of magic, it’s bloody difficult and using a more—” He hit me again.
    “I could honestly not care less which languages you are more familiar with,” Aristide yelled, “You will catalyze your spells with German! Do you understand me?”
    “But—” I started before getting struck again. I closed my eyes, anticipating another hit before I heard Aristide yell out in pain. Before I could open my eyes to see what had hurt him I was welcomed with a much stronger blow to my torso.
    “You stupid bitch!” he yelled at me as he topped at the ground. I heard bones crack beneath his foot after he did so. He then grabbed me by my hair and pinned me against one of the basement walls. My eyes were filled with tears as I tried to maintain eye contact with him.
    “Magicians are scum!” he yelled in my face, “We are not practicing magic, we are practicing necromancy! As such you will use German to catalyze your spells so your bloody spawns do not attack whoever they believe is doing you harm!”
    “I understand!” I screamed, no longer caring about my stance on the matter as tears rolled down my cheeks.
    “Magic is a basic art and if you wish to catalyze your spells with French, you will endlessly be punished by me,” he continued yelling, “French has too many loops in it. Necromancy uses the bounds of German so that the spell cannot find loopholes and will do as you instructed it to.”
    After he said that he threw me to the ground and walked back to his place on the circle. I struggled to get up but did so as fast as I could, trying not to show too much weakness. I looked back at him and the pile of destroyed bones with fresh blood on it’s teeth.
    “How am I supposed to create a familiar out of nothing but bone powder?” I asked.
    “That seems like a problem you’ll have to figure out now, won’t you?” Aristide responded. I looked at the bones again before suddenly realising which of the phrases I was to use. After the sudden comprehension I looked back at the shattered stone in the centre of the circle. The only consequence of using French to catalyze spells that I had seen so far was that every time the phrase would shatter the catalyst gem in use. When using German the stone simply dimmed and would require a recharge in order to be used again.
    “I don’t suppose you will want me to use a catalyst gem,” I stated before I lifted myself off the ground so that I was seated.
    “You suppose correctly,” Aristide said, showing a little more compassion in his voice.
    “
Komm, Albträume,” I said clearly as the bones struggled to reassemble themselves. Since I didn’t know exactly which pieces went where on the skeleton the spell wasn’t sure where I wanted every piece to go. This spell was using my memories to figure out how to perform the task I had in mind. Aside from making me struggle to find a sound structure for the familiar to hold, I was now sure that the azure stones did not use sympathy as I had once thought.
    “
That is how you are supposed to act,” Aristide said. I looked at him while wiping the tears coming from my eyes. Aristide pointed out his finger as the pile of bones trying so desperately to put itself back together fell apart by his command. “Remember that creating necromantic constructs is dangerous. You need to put the construct to rest whenever you’re done using it or it will continue sapping willpower from you.”
    “Understood,” I said, looking into his eyes. After I said this Aristide got up and began walking towards me. With every step he took my heart started beating faster. He disliked when I showed fear and it tended to only make him more angry to see me quivering like the child I am so I tried not to show any emotion at all and simply accept the situation.
    As Aristide stood in front of me, rather than hit me as he usually did, he firmly grasped onto my head before saying a phrase with a loud yet firm angry tone of voice, “
Life-Bewegung zu stoppen.” My eyes widened and before I could shout in protest my vision was tinted red and my body was instantly filled with more pain than I had ever felt in my life. My body went limp and the only thing keeping me upright was Aristide's firm grasp on my head. It felt as if tears and spit were overflowing out of my eyes and mouth as mucus ran out of my nose, however I was already too familiar with the spell at hand to know that instead of tears, spit, or mucus, it was blood. I could feel my heart beating faster and faster inside of my chest and my brain aching as it was unable to comprehend this much pain at once. I had no will to do anything as my mind had prioritised my survival over my ability to scream for Aristide to stop. Then suddenly my body fell and my vision began returning to normal.
    I wiped the liquid from my face and looked at my shaking hand to see it covered in red. I struggled to look around the room and as I did so I was unable to find Aristide anywhere. This usually only meant that he knew I understood why he had done what he had done. My arms shook uncontrollably as I attempted to sit up and gather my strength before going after Aristide in order to begin my next task. Every time I pushed myself off of the ground my arms gave out in a matter of seconds before I fell back down, leading me to decide to stay lying down until I felt I could go on.
    After lying on the ground for long enough I feared I would be keeping Aristide waiting for too long. Rather than wait any longer, I frantically scanned my field of vision for something that could prop me up; not far from me was a chair. I pulled myself across the floor with all the strength I could still hold onto, trying to get to the chair. When I finally arrived at the chair I lifted my still weak arms and grasped into the seat. I used all of my strength just to slightly lift myself, feeling every last one of the muscles in my arm burn with pain. As my body was about half lifted from the ground all of my strength gave out and I fell against the chair.
    “I can’t,” I said with a weak voice, “I can’t do it.” It didn’t matter how hard I tried, Aristide had hit me with a spell so strong that I was left to simply waste away my time while lying here. I felt my mind calling for me to go to sleep, but I knew if I did so I wouldn’t be alive any longer. The only thing keeping my brain active was me staying awake; it wanted to give up just as bad as I did.
    “Did you learn your lesson?” Aristide asked. I couldn’t see where he was and I didn’t bother to waste energy looking around. I had always been under the assumption that even though I would get brutally punished for my mistakes, Aristide’s top priority was always to keep me alive. The blood on my face and my longing for the sweet release of death now told differently.
    “Yes, master,” I said, my voice still weak. I was too tired to say anything other than that. My one and only task was to keep myself alive.
    “If you don’t want to die then you’ll stay there and wait for your body to recover,” Aristide said. “You seemed to believe that you were safe regardless of what you did. I will never hesitate to kill you if you’re going to do nothing but slow me down and waste our time. If you don’t want to die you will do as I say and you will become a necromancer of a high enough tier that you can survive on your own. If you don’t, then someone is going to end your life.”
    I didn’t bother responding and he knew that I couldn’t. I focused only on surviving this moment. As I lied against the chair in an awkwardly uncomfortable position I heard footsteps going back upstairs. He had left me alone. His tone of voice when he spoke to me then was scary in a way different from when he had yelled at me before. It was cold and calm. I was more afraid by this than anything else Aristide had ever told me before. I could blame it on the fact that he wasn’t afraid to kill me. I could blame it on the unimaginable terror behind his calm voice. I could blame it on numerous things, however the last thing I would ever say is that I was afraid to be a necromancer; more importantly, I was afraid to be a necromancer without Aristide.

    Conditioning was supposed to remove the chance of this fear. It was supposed to take everything away from me and make me hate Aristide so much that I would learn necromancy solely to damn him into one of the deepest pits of Hell. It would make me desire to become a necromancer so much that I would never think about what would come after. I wasn’t supposed to fear being on my own, I was supposed to accept it. I was supposed to embrace my fate and damn Aristide. That’s what he wanted. Training me was supposed to send him to Hell by the hands of another necromancer; not by the hands of an unworthy ordinary.
    As I lied in pain, waiting for it to all slowly go away, the chair that was supporting half my weight eventually fell and I did so along with it. Hitting the ground hurt at first, however it was just adding a small jar of water to an overflowing dam. The pain eventually mixed with everything else that was slowly fading. The more I could feel the cold ground the more I knew the pain was going away; the closer I was to doing the next task Aristide had for me.
    I didn’t have any sort of desire in the slightest to continue with the lessons tonight, but I had no option. For the first time it felt like my life was genuinely on the line. Now that I thought about it, I was awfully silly and rather na
ïve to believe anything else. Why would my punishments be so brutal if my life had never been on the line? Aristide told everyone that the necromancer had an apprentice to test me and to put me in danger. If I couldn’t survive it was good riddance. Aristide would simply search for a new, more competent, apprentice.
    I was convinced that anyone could do a better job than me, but I still clinged onto life. Part of me believed that by holding on I was only delaying the inevitable. But along with it, there was the part of me that still hated Aristide. That part of me couldn’t care less about whether or not I survived in the long run. That part of me wanted him dead.
    As I lied on the cold ground I stopped holding on. I stopped caring about whether or not I’d die if I let go and I fell asleep. I was surely going to be punished in the morning, however sleeping now seemed like a good time to let myself rest and decide my stance on the situation. Plus, if I died, I had decided that it wouldn’t be that bad. I would be free. However, I wouldn’t be able to get my revenge if I perished now.

 
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Chapter Four

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Chapter Five

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Chapter Six

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Chapter Seven

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Chapter Eight

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Chapter Nine

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Chapter Ten

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Chapter Eleven

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Chapter Twelve

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Thanks for reading!

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