“Phantasmal Crow: No birds are known to be able to produce venom. Instead, they rely on their flight, strong talons and beak to catch and kill their prey. However, one single species is an exception to this rule - the Phantasmal Crow.
This enigmatic species can be found scattered throughout various parts of Escaria, although its exact numbers are a mystery even to the best biologists. This is due to the fact that this bird can turn nearly invisible thanks to a special substance coating its feathers. This leaves its beak and talons as the only visible parts of its body.
The Phantasmal Crow has yet another weapon at its disposal. It is able to inject a potent venom into its victims through its claws. The venom paralyses the prey, allowing the Crow to hunt animals much larger and stronger than itself.
(Two Months Ago)
The sorcerer muttered a few words and the heavy white door to his Citadel opened with a creak. They were massive and around fifteen feet high, so it was impossible to open them without the use of magic or force. Even though they were made of wood, they were as smooth as glass, with the exception of ancient runes carved around the edges. As they slowly opened, Macarius let himself in, his sand-colored robe fluttering behind him.
His hands were filled with bags of products he had just purchased from a caravan of merchants. There was food, wine, candles, magic supplies, as well as pigments for painting and several large pieces of canvas. The painting supplies were for his son, Xaviel.
The boy had a strong artistic streak and would spend hours upon hours in his chambers, painting pictures of the night sky, the stars and faraway galaxies as he had imagined them. He had great interest in astronomy and the way the universe functioned. Every star was a mystery for him to try and solve.
The western tower of the Citadel of Bone was his astronomy tower, filled with telescopes and other instruments. They were very expensive and rare, but Macarius was more than happy to obtain them for his son. He wanted to make him happy. After all, they only had each other. The boy didn’t even remember his mother, as she was killed when he was barely more than a baby.
Now, at eighteen, Xaviel was a very intelligent boy. However, his father’s superior magical abilities were not passed on to him. Even though he was able to perform some low-level spells and was willing to practice and read every book he got his hands on, his sorcery didn’t progress much beyond that. Neither the father nor the son seemed to be concerned about that. If it’s not meant to be, it’s not meant to be – that was their motto.
“Xaviel!” Macarius called out as he walked up the stairs of his Citadel. “Son, I’ve returned, and I brought you something! Your favorite dyes and pigments from Thorodan!”
He must be in his tower again, the sorcerer thought. But he can’t be observing stars in the middle of the day.
Soon, light footsteps were heard, but as he turned the corner, he saw it was only his servant girl, Cassandra.
“Welcome back, master. Have you had a good trip?” the girl spoke politely, talking the bags from his hands and putting them aside.
“As good as any other – I teleported,” he replied, thinking how he shouldn’t be explaining the obvious. Then again, what did the simple girl know about magic? If she was more educated, she certainly wouldn’t be working as a servant.
“Where’s Xaviel?” Macarius asked. “Is he in his tower?”
“He must be-” Cassandra started to reply, but at that moment, a loud wail came from outside, near the western side of the Citadel, shocking them both.
Wide-eyed, Macarius frantically ran through one of the back passages and out into the desert, with Cassandra following close behind. The scene he encountered when he came out shocked him to the bone - his young son was lying on the sand, writhing in pain, his indigo blue robes a sharp contrast to the golden sands around him.
“Xaviel! My boy!” the sorcerer cried out and ran toward him. He knelt beside his son, tears already trickling down his dark face.
“Son, talk to me, what happened?” he asked, inspecting him to see what was wrong.
“A spider… bit me,” Xaviel panted, pointing to his bare foot. “It hurts so much, dad. Make it stop, please!” The boy groaned, shaking his foot. “Make it stop!”
As Macarius looked at it, he saw a small bite mark. He needed some kind of an antidote quickly! Watching his son in so much pain was tearing him apart, he just couldn’t stand it. If he were to lose him… No, that would not happen, Macarius decided! He would save his son no matter what it takes!
“I’ll make it go away, son, don’t worry,” the sorcerer spoke softly as he picked up his son and carried him inside.
Cassandra walked behind them, observing everything with concern. Once they entered, she closed the door, making sure to lock them.
“Let’s get you here,” the old sorcerer said, carrying Xaviel into his laboratory. “We need to give you an antidote. Have you seen which spider bit you?”
“Black, with orange dots,” the boy moaned. He was barely able to open his eyes from the pain. “Please... hurry up, dad.”
Macarius turned around so that his son wouldn’t see him, as all the color drained from his face. He knew exactly what species it was - the Cult Spider. Its venom was fatal, killing its victim in a matter of minutes. The worst part of it was - there was no known antidote for it.
No, this was not happening. It’s not possible, the man thought. He could not lose his son as well!
When he turned around to look at him, the boy was lying peacefully, with his eyes closed. He was not moving.
“Xaviel!” Macarius cried out desperately as he shook his son, but there was no reply. The boy was unconscious. Finding that he still had a pulse, the sorcerer realized it was not too late. He could still save him! Or at least buy him some more time. He had to act as quickly as possible!
As he picked up his staff, Cassandra quietly spoke. She had stood by the door the entire time, but he hadn’t even noticed her.
“Master, is- is he going to be alright? Can I do anything to help?”
She looked scared and concerned, glancing at the boy.
“What?” Macarius turned to her in surprise. “No, you can’t do anything now. Leave us,” he ordered and the girl promptly left the room, closing the door behind her.
This needs to work, he thought to himself as he drew a small diamond-shaped symbol on his son’s forehead.
“I cannot lose you too,” he whispered, taking a small vial with lavender-colored liquid and pouring a drop on the boy’s lips. He then pointed his magic staff at his son. Concentrating all of his powers, Macarius started the incantation as the orb on his staff began to glow bright yellow.
“Sontara paleo teventus! Ekh-ora portun avan!” his booming voice echoed through the laboratory as he finished the Stasis spell. Bright azure light broke from his staff and enveloped the boy’s body, lifting him up from the table. He was now levitating in the middle of the room, frozen in time. All of his bodily functions had stopped. He was neither dead nor alive.
“It’s the only thing I can do for now,” Macarius whispered, sobbing. “Until I find an antidote, you shall remain this way, my son.”
The sorcerer hurried to his library, his face wet with tears. He let them fall freely, not caring even to wipe them away. He browsed the shelves for a few minutes until he finally located what he was looking for - a large book with pale yellow covers. He took it and dusted it off, letting out a deep sigh as he looked at the covers. Book of Venoms.
“It must be here somewhere. It must be...”
“Finally,” Cyr whispered as he snuck out of the terrarium where he was being kept. He had managed to escape once more! This time, he would find a way out of this damned Citadel! He had to do it before Macarius comes for him and discovers he abducted the wrong twin.
As his eyes got accustomed to the dark corridors, Cyr slowly crept forward until he reached a staircase. He put one foot on it and the creaking sound almost made him jump - he’d scared himself. He would have to be more careful. Slowly descending down the stairs, he looked around, trying to figure out where the exit could be.
The hallway looked familiar. There was a barred window, but it was too dark to see anything outside. As he turned around, he remembered where he was. This was the same hallway he explored the last time he escaped. Sure enough, there was that door again, the one that led to the mysterious boy’s room.
Curiosity got the better of him and he opened the door. Immediately, he noticed the eerie blue glow of the casket in which the boy was placed.
Holding his breath, Cyr slowly walked towards it, wanting to see it again. As he approached it, he gasped in shock before quickly covering his mouth with his hands.
“Castor!” he whispered.
This time, the person lying in the glass casket was not that strange boy from last time, but Cyr’s own brother! How could this be?, he wondered, reaching to open the casket. He had to free his brother, he just had to save him! Oh, how he missed him, his Castor! He would never say it out loud, but it was true. They were brothers, forever two parts of the same being.
However, before Cyr had a chance to remove the cover, the casket and Castor vanished, as well as the entire room around him. Suddenly, he found himself back in his home, at his parents’ farm. He was in his room, sitting on the bed. The curtains were open, allowing the moonlight to enter and shower the room in its faint glow.
There was a knock on the door. It must’ve been either Castor or their mom. Dad would always call out their names before knocking.
“Come in,” Cyr replied, covering himself up with blankets.
The door opened and his mom peeked in.
“Just checking to see if you’re in bed,” she whispered. “Don’t forget we have to rise early tomorrow. Have a good night, sweetie!”
“Night, mom,” Cyr smiled at her.
He waited until his mother left and closed the door. At once, he threw away the covers and pulled out a book he was hiding in his bed. He sat on the floor in the middle of the room and opened it, looking for a specific page. After a few moments he finally found it.
He stood up briefly, taking the candle that was burning on his desk and brought it down in front of him. Lighting two more candles, he placed them on each side of him and started reading from the book.
“Umnios, God of Wisdom and God of Shifters. I call upon you in this hour. Hear my call and hear my prayer, for your humble servant is talking to you.”
As he finished the prayer from the book, Cyr closed his eyes and spoke anew.
“Please, Umnios, grant me the power of shifting like you did to my brother. I promise to study, practice and respect it.”
This was a ritual he had been performing every New Moon for months, hoping to receive the blessing of Umnios and become a shifter. However, it wasn’t working. Every time, he would end up being disappointed.
It wasn’t fair, Cyr thought. Save for a few birthmarks, Castor and he were identical. Then why wasn’t I blessed with the power of shifting like he was?, Cyr wondered.
The twins had always been close and inseparable, but in the last few years, Cyr couldn’t help the feeling of resentment and jealousy growing inside of him. It seemed to him that Castor was always receiving special treatment because he was a shifter, with their parents always paying more attention to him.
He remembered one evening last summer, when Castor and he were returning home from the town. The sun had already set and they didn’t even notice two thugs approaching them from behind and stopping them. As soon as he heard their voices, Cyr knew they were up to no good. However, the two men were much bigger and stronger than Castor or him. The twins could do nothing.
“Come on, shift and take care of them!” Cyr urged his brother, whispering in his ear, but Castor refused, being too scared to do anything useful. He couldn’t imagine attacking anyone in his snake form, as the venom would kill them almost instantly. He was simply not a murderer.
“I-I can’t, I’m sorry,” the frightened shifter stammered, letting the thieves take all of the silver pieces they carried in their little pouches.
The twins returned home that night bruised and humiliated - and with no money. Cyr was livid - not just at the damned thugs who robbed them, but also at his own brother for not defending them.
“He did not deserve this gift!” he hissed, closing the book of prayers and blowing the candles out. Once again, his ritual did not work. Umnios was still ignoring his calls.
Feeling angry and hopeless, Cyr crawled back into his bed and closed his eyes, trying to fall asleep and forget about his problems at least for a few hours.
However, as he opened his tired garnet eyes, he realized he wasn’t in his home at all. He was in the terrarium, held prisoner by Macarius. Seeing the sorcerer’s tall figure standing above him, Cyr gasped and almost jumped up.
“Wake up, snake,” Macarius spoke in his calm, deep voice. “It is time for us to do business.”
The dark-skinned man grabbed Cyr by the arm and teleported them out of the room. The very next moment, they were in his laboratory.
The young boy looked around nervously, looking scared like a little child that was caught stealing fruit from the royal orchard. He knew the moment of truth had come. He would have to reveal his true identity, and then his fate would be in Macarius’ hands. That didn’t mean he would go down without a fight - not without using the one trick he had up his sleeve.
“Relax, snake. You friends were much braver,” the sorcerer observed, but his mocking tone did little to ease the boy’s concerns. “By now, you must know why I brought you here. The same reason I brought the other two before you. I need to collect your venom, simple as that.”
Cyr looked him in the eyes and nodded. He had already known that, but that didn’t change the fact that he was the wrong person.
The sorcerer picked up an empty vial from a shelf and presented it to the boy.
“You will now shift and deposit your venom here. Do you understand?”
“I-I can’t do that,” Cyr shook his head, staring at the glass vial in the sorcerer’s hand.
“I’m afraid you don’t have a choice here,” Macarius raised his voice. “Give me your venom unless you want to die slowly and painfully. And trust me, years of living alone in the desert give one plenty of time to devise numerous torture methods!”
“I mean, I honestly can’t do that because I’m not a shifter,” the boy admitted, waiting for the sorcerer’s reaction.
Macarius observed him silently for a moment, trying to discern if the boy was being honest or just stupid.
“WHAT?!” his voice thundered. “Do not play with me, foolish boy! I know you’re a Scarlet-tailed Serpent! It took me weeks to find one! I observed you and your family for days until I found the right moment to strike!”
“Yet you took the wrong twin,” Cyr replied. He wanted so badly to laugh at the man and tell him what a fool he was, but he knew that would get him in even more trouble. The last thing he wanted was to be punished like Dymia. “My brother Castor - he is the shifter, not me.”
“You’re lying! I am certain I took the right brother!” Macarius grumbled, grabbing his staff and pointing it at the boy. “I have no time to waste, I need that venom now! Shift!”
A thin yellow beam shot out of the staff, hitting Cyr. He fell on the ground at once, feeling as if his entire body was on fire. Squirming in pain, he moaned as tears fell down his cheeks.
“No, please… Stop! I-I’m not a shifter,” he pleaded, but the pain wouldn’t stop.
At that moment, he remembered what Dymia told him that night. Macarius was the one who was bluffing, as all he did was merely an illusion.
“This is not real,” Cyr kept repeating to himself, whispering. “It’s only an illusion.”
He opened his eyes and saw no burn marks anywhere on his body. He was perfectly fine. The spell was broken and he smiled, breathing heavily and wiping his tear-stained face.
“You little pest,” Macarius muttered. “Never mind, I shall get your brother the same way I got you. Unfortunately for you, that means you’re of no further use to me. I can finish you off right now.”
Picking himself up from the ground, Cyr fixed his clothes and looked at the sorcerer with confidence.
“If you kill me, my brother will never agree to give you his venom. Ever since we were born, our bond has been incredibly strong. He will sense that something happened to me, and then you can forget about saving your son,” Cyr spoke, watching intently as Macarius’ face changed from arrogance to surprise to utter shock. It was as if someone slapped him across the face with an iron gauntlet, challenging him to a duel in which he had no hope of winning.
“What did you say?” the old sorcerer spoke, barely audible.
“You heard me,” Cyr replied, enjoying the moment. “I know about your son,” he added, pulling out from his robe the book he found in the boy’s room. “The inscription: ‘To the greatest son ever. You make me so proud.’ I assume you wrote it to him.”
“Give it to me!” Macarius hissed, grabbing the book from Cyr’s hand. “Yes, I need the antidote to save him! I can’t let him die!” he shouted desperately, slamming the book on the table.
“Then trust me when I say that my brother would much rather use his venom to save lives than to take them. But no one else needs to suffer. You can get your antidote without hurting or killing any of us,” Cyr tried to reason with him.
Macarius turned back to him, looking lost and dejected.
“I-I need to find your brother,” he said, his voice suddenly turning soft and quiet, almost vulnerable. “I need to save my son.”
A sudden whirlwind appeared around the sorcerer and he vanished, leaving Cyr alone.
The boy sat down on the floor, wrapping his arms around his knees, staring into the distance. He started wondering what had he just done. In order to save himself, he sent Macarius after his own brother. No matter how much resentment he bore toward Castor, he never wanted him to get hurt. And now, who knows what will happen to both of them? What will happen to Dymia and Jarin? They are as innocent in all of this as he is.
Still, something told him Macarius is not as ruthless as he presents himself. He is but a desperate man trying to save his son and Cyr could not fault him for that. If I were in his place, who’s to say I wouldn’t do the same?, he wondered.