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A Devilish Exercise

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Hamlet never even said he was leaving. The first Horatio heard of it was when he went to visit his friend, and the landlord caught him at the bottom of the stair to say m'lord forgot to pay the rent before he left, and with all due respect to m'lord, if that rent didn't come soon, m'lord's belongings would be out on the street.

Horatio sighed and paid. It wasn't the first time. Hamlet had the money; he just forgot about simple things like rent, or buying food. A prince had people to take care of those things for him -- and Hamlet had Horatio.

But leaving without notice, that was new. "Did his lordship say where he was going?" Horatio asked, slipping an extra thaler in with the price of the rent.

The landlord noted the coin, pocketed it, and shrugged. "Back home, I think, sir."

Troubled, Horatio climbed the stairs to Hamlet's rented rooms. Back home? To Elsinore? He couldn't imagine why. Hamlet had always seemed glad to be free of that place, and the tension between his father and his uncle. Had he been banished from the university in disgrace? True, he'd attended very few lectures of late; none at all, Horatio thought, or else he had overlooked his friend there. Too much time spent with that new companion of his. It gave Horatio a pang to think that perhaps Johann knew more of Hamlet these days than he did. Did the German student know that Hamlet had left Wittenberg, and why?

His mind occupied with these thoughts, Horatio pushed open the door to Hamlet's rooms.

The door swung a short distance and stopped. Horatio shoved harder, and heard something slide across the rush mats of the floor. Several things, by the sound of it. He edged through the doorway, and found it was a pile of books -- likely a stack, once upon a time, but the heavy volumes had tipped over to join the general disarray of the floor.

There were books and papers everywhere: on the matting, on the table, on the bed. Horatio stared, dumbfounded. Was this why Hamlet had been so absent of late? Because he was caught up in his studies here? It seemed very unlike the man.

Anything was possible, he supposed. Horatio bent to pick up the nearest book, wondering what subject had so occupied his friend.

Lines, circles, scenes. They meant nothing to him at first; his initial thought was geometry. But the marks around the figures weren't Greek. They were no alphabet he recognized at all. Then Horatio turned to the next page, and the book fell from his nerveless hands.

Not before he could see its contents, though. A horned, devilish figure, presiding with toothy grin over atrocity below.

Necromancy.

He would have denied it, but his gaze, sweeping across the papers, saw more unmistakable signs. Diagrams that were not geometry, images that were not holy, entire sheets covered in that alien, disturbing script. And the rush mat pulled up in one place; the papers there were densely laid, but Horatio glimpsed chalk marks on the floorboards below, and the stub of a candle, glued in place by its own melted wax.

The sight made Horatio want to flee. Fear, though, kept him rooted to the spot: not fear for his own safety, but for Hamlet's. The landlord said he'd gone to Elsinore, but what if he was wrong? What if Hamlet's blasphemous studies had . . . .

The thought was not even done before Horatio began to search, with methodical grimness, through the litter of those studies. He could make little sense of most of it, and wanted to make sense of even less -- but if there was any sign here what had become of his friend, he must find it.

His answer, or at least the beginning of it, surfaced in a letter whose top edge Horatio found pinned by the corner of the inkwell, as Hamlet was wont to do when drafting his reply.

If ought is wrong in Elsinore, then of course you must go and see. Such ends as we pursue, I am assured, should in time resolve us of all ambiguities; but as we have not yet met with success, mortal methods will have to suffice for our enlightenment. But I trust your divination has given you true guidance, if incomplete. Perhaps when you come to Elsinore, more will be clear to you.

I will not wish you God-speed. You of all men know I have forsaken such blessings, even in casual habits of speech. But that you journey quickly and without trouble is my wish, and if the day comes -- as I hope it soon may -- that I can assure such things for you by my own hand, know that I will not hesitate to exert my power on your behalf.

And at the bottom, the signature: an elaborate swirl of an F, marked covertly with a symbol Horatio recognized from that alien script.

The letter trembled in his hand like an aspen leaf in wind. All doubt was now gone from his heart, replaced by sick fear. But his was a methodical mind, and so he had to be certain. Though little he wanted to, Horatio laid the letter aside, and picked up one of the terrible books from the floor, opening it to see if any name was inscribed.

Of course there was. Johann Faustus, in the same hand that had writ the message.

Horatio stared around the desecrated room, his mind's eye focused not upon it, but upon Hamlet. What had the Danish prince done? Fallen in with a student who had abjured God; allowed that student to lead him down the same dangerous path; attempted at least one kind of sacrilege -- but not, Horatio prayed, succeeded. Surely Hamlet had no devil at his command.

But it might yet be that one had taken an interest. What trouble in Elsinore? What "divination" had given Hamlet that notion? And worse yet, what might he do because of it? Horatio's heartbeat quickened as he imagined the possibilities, each more dire than the last. He should never have allowed Hamlet to drift away, into the orbit of the damned Johann Faustus.

Without having given it any conscious consideration, Horatio found himself arrived at a conclusion: he must go to Elsinore, or evermore forsake the word "friend."

What he would tell the prince when he arrived, Horatio did not know. But he would have time to craft a suitable lie, while he tided the proof of Hamlet's blasphemy away, while he made arrangements for his own absence from Wittenberg and then rode the long distance to Elsinore.

Going down the stairs, he met the landlord coming up. "I'll be taking the prince's things elsewhere," Horatio said, ready to pay whatever sum the man demanded for looking the other way. Friend of Hamlet's though he was, it still looked a great deal like theft.

But the landlord only tugged his cap in obsequious fashion. "Begging your pardon, but I thought you might like to know. Words has come, that the King of Denmark is dead."

Hamlet's father. Horatio's entire body tensed. If ought is wrong in Elsinore . . . .

Not only wrong, but rotten. He sensed it. And could not spare the time to deal with Faustus as he deserved; not now. Hamlet must be his first concern.

He threw a handful of coins from his purse at the landlord. "For the next rent -- and for keeping the prince's rooms locked and undisturbed. Don't even go in there yourself. You'll have as much again if I find them untouched when I return."

The man scraped the stairs, bowing, and almost fell over when Horatio pushed past. He must ride for Elsinore, tonight. And pray he was not already too late.