Speculative Scribblings Vol. 1
Genre: Fantasy, Adventure, Horror, Sci-fi
Released on the first day of every month, this anthology is a collection of short stories featuring multiple genres ranging from fantasy to sci-fi with a dash of adventure and darkness. Check in to your favorite reading platform to catch the latest dose of fiction.
Volume 1 (2020)
Welcome and thank you for picking my novel to read! I hope you are ready for the variety of stories in this novel. One story could be fantasy and the next sci-fi or comedy. It’s a random collection of short stories that I have written over the years and polished for your reading pleasure.
So since anthologies aren’t that common for web novels, let me explain how it will go. One new story will release each month. Each story will vary in length from 1-4 parts. Multi-part stories will release parts once per week. The first part of a story, however, will always go up on the 1st of the month so put a note on your calendar to check in at that point to see what is new!
If you’ve come to check out my anthology web novel after seeing it in a writing prompt contest, please go to the most recent story released. That will be the one corresponding to the theme.
Again, thanks for taking the time to check out my novel. I hope you enjoy the time spent reading it!
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Faded Memories Part 1 of 2
Edana struggled to draw water from the well, her young arms too feeble to lift the heavy bucket smoothly. Only the thought of having a small sip of the cold water to moisten her parched throat made her persist in her effort. She lifted the bucket out, set it on the lip of the well, and, after stealing a look about her, dipped a gourd into it. It had just touched her lips when she heard footsteps. The gourd splashed back into the bucket as she stood up straight, just in time. Her mistress, Drysi, came around the corner into sight.
“So yer still ‘ere? I told ye to ‘urry so get movin’. There’ll be guests t’night for the feast and I wan’ this place clean as can be by then. I am going to the village to pick up me new gown from the tailor. I won’ be back til dusk and I expect to see ev’rythin’ done. D’ye ‘ear me? Or else it’ll be the whip for ye.” Drysi clambered up into the wagon and was off before Edana could say a word in response.
The young girl sighed and waited till the wagon disappeared round the bend before sneaking a sip of water. Then she began her duties. She hated Drysi and what she hated even more was that she was Drysi’s slave girl. Once she had been Drysi’s mistress and Drysi had served her, but those days were long gone and were just memories now. That life was no more. Not after what had happened. Not after both her father’s and mother’s death. Those had been happy days when she was young and innocent of the dangers around her. Another unhappy sigh escaped her lips.
She worked steadily and was finishing the last of the chores when Drysi pulled up in the wagon. Two new people accompanied her and helped her down from the wagon. The two newcomers eyed her patched boy’s clothing and short, roughly cut hairstyle with distaste. Edana was used to the stares by now though.
Drysi surveyed the work Edana had done and gave a small, stiff nod of approval. “Get inside with ye now and start gettin’ the meal ready. I’ve ‘ired ‘em to ‘elp tonight, but I won’t ‘ave ye standin’ ‘round when there’s work to be done.” She swept inside leaving Edana and the others to unload the wagon.
Once everything was inside, Edana directed the others to start cooking. She could finally sit down and rest, as long as she kept her hands busy. She decided to work on peeling the vegetables. As she peeled, her mind drifted again to her childhood. When she was a child she didn’t know that her father had many enemies. The most formidable of those said enemies was the Lord Bradwr. Her father had managed after some time to dispatch of all his enemies except Lord Bradwr and the Lord had been her family’s downfall. Bradwr had contrived her father’s ruin under his very nose. After falsely declaring peace between their houses, he became close enough friend that he was able to sit at her father’s table to dine regularly. Then, he finally showed his true colors when he poisoned Edana’s father and mother. The only reason Edana was spared from death was because she had been sick at the time and the poison had had a quicker affect on her. She had left the table after only a few bites and had not eaten the full dose of poison. After that incident, the slaves and servants had either rebelled or left, taking with them the family fortune and leaving her a poor sick orphan with no one to turn to. Drysi had proved to be the most ambitious of the lot. She stayed, but only to claim the house and lands for herself. She declared herself the guardian of the poor child while actually forcing her into slavery. Eventually she dropped the pretense and took over the entire house becoming a self-proclaimed “lady”, but there were no complaints from anyone in the town. She hid Edana’s origin by chopping her hair off and saying she was a new boy slave she’d hired and the former little lady had gone away to relatives.
Edana began attacking the potato she was peeling as if it was Lord Bradwr himself.
A clatter of horse hooves announced the arrival of the guests. Servants assisted their masters and Drysi pompously waddled about directing Edana and the two new hires, looking like an overstuffed turkey in her new gown. After placing all the food on the table, Edana stood in one corner of the room watching the guests as they came in. The last one to come in caught her attention. There was something familiar about him. She gasped when she saw his face. It was the Lord Bradwr! His eyes met hers and she wondered if he recognized her after all these years. Her boy clothing was now a shield against him and she hoped it would work. He seemed not to recognize her, merely moving his gaze away from her and continuing on to the table. Her heart beat wildly in her chest as she retreated into the kitchen.
Faded Memories Part 2 of 2
The newly hired servants entered the kitchen as Edana did. They grabbed more food and drink for the guests. She couldn’t stay here or else one of the others would notice her hiding away from the guests and tattle on her to Drysi in order to gain favor. There had to be a better place to hide. The thoughts swirled madly in her head as her heart continued to pound. The wash room! No one would go in there till after the feast, when they brought the soiled table linens to wash.
Edana walked normally out of the kitchen before fleeing down the hall to a door near the end. However, she failed to notice that someone watched her flight from the open door to the dining hall. Upon pushing open the door, she found that it lay empty aside from some clean clothing waiting to be sent back to the master’s room. Curling up behind one of the wash tubs, she tried to block out the noise and smell from the feast. She was hungry but she dared not go into the kitchen to fetch some food. If she did, she would be forced to serve the guests in the dining hall. She would have to face Lord Bradwr again if that happened. That was a risk she could not take. So she remained where she was, keeping up the pretense that she wasn’t hungry. However, she could not escape the smell of the food, and her stomach growled hungrily despite herself. Drysi’s extra demands for the feast today had deprived her of any chance to eat a proper meal earlier. Edana had counted on snatching some food while serving dishes during the feast to cover her hunger, but that plan was now in pieces. She would just have to suffer.
Eventually the noises faded and the savory smells faded into lighter, sweeter scents. Without the strong smell of meat to aggravate her senses, her stomach calmed down slightly. She waited until all sounds of feast had been silenced before venturing out of the wash room. Cautiously, she looked down the hall. Seeing that no servants came out of the hall or kitchen, she slipped down the hall and into the kitchen.
The servants hadn’t cleared the dining table yet, so Edana couldn’t snatch any leftovers from the trays. However, on the table sat a rough plate with a loaf of bread and a hunk of cheese. Her mouth watered at the sight for she remembered her hunger. The plate was the type that Edana ate food off of so she assumed that it had been left for another servant. She cautiously picked up the food and smelled it. It smelled heavenly and made her stomach growl even more with hunger. She cut the cheese with a knife she fetched and stuffed it inside the bread. She bit into it, savoring the delicious taste and smell which she hadn’t tasted for several years. This was not the roughly made bread and cheese which was all Drysi allowed her, as a child slave, to have.
But suddenly the taste turned vile. It made her gag and brought back a distant memory of tasting something like this before. As the vile taste spread throughout her mouth and body the memory came into sharp focus. She had tasted this before. There had been someone then to help her, to rid her body of it. Though, she now tried to vomit the poisonous food out it was too late. The poison coursed through her body and she sank down on trembling knees. Her voice made no sound as she tried to call for help. No one answered. She was all alone. She fought against the blackness that was taking over her to no avail. Her sight narrowed until all she could see was the face of Lord Bradwr entering the room. He loomed over her smiling, watching her die.
“Did you really think that after all these years I would forget you, the brat who got away?” he jeered. “Those ugly clothes and boyish hair can’t hide you from my eyes. Now I’m rid of you as well. I have finally stomped out the last of your line. Go join your parents.”
His cold, cruel laugh echoed in the blackness which was all she could see. Her last conscious thought was that she was finally free…free from everything.
The Lily's Facade
Rivets and Gravity
Not your typical bar experience!
Now offering over 100 exotic brews from all over the galaxy.
A man in coveralls decorated with smears of green grease paused to view the neon sign blinking its message for passersby. Jeron, attracted by the word ‘exotic’, moved closer to the window glass to peer at the neon sign. In fine print, the brews were listed on the menu according to maker: Auritan, Ladea, Quantra, Trinz… Wait. Trinz? Their brews were rare and illegal in this system. His eyes found the name once again. Only one brew was printed beside it. Firelily. The strongest brew in existence. Highly dangerous and banned in most of the galaxy, one glass could send you to heaven. Jeron swallowed, his mouth watering in remembrance of his first and only glass of Firelily, snagged while he happened to be in a district where the authorities looked the other way.
Jeron stepped back from the window and considered the bar within. He was off work so even though it was the middle of the afternoon, he could risk a drink before going home. Then, decided, he pushed the door inward. The old smell of wood and alcohol surrounded and welcomed him into the bar. When he stepped inside, the door closed behind him with a loud click instead of the normal quiet hiss. This struck him as odd, but he was too distracted by the thought of the drink he would soon enjoy to pay it much attention.
A couple sat at a table in the far corner holding hands and chatting over drinks, seemingly completely absorbed in each other, but the bar was otherwise empty of customers. That didn’t bother him, however. Underground bars with illegal brews generally didn’t attract a lot of patrons during the day. The gleaming curve of the bar attracted his gaze and he found himself drawn to it as his eyes appreciated the highly polished old stone countertop and the actual wooden base. Jeron highly approved of the old world aesthetic. Synthetics and their perfection bored him. He caressed the edge of the counter surreptitiously as he took a seat on one of the leather wrapped cushioned bar stools.
“What can I get you, sir?” The bartender appeared silently from the back with professional ease.
“One glass-” Jeron’s voice broke. He swallowed and tried again. “One glass...of Firelily.”
The bartender considered him while preparing a glass. He set the glass down on the counter with a sharp clink. “That, sir, is an expensive drink. May I see your card to verify your available funds?”
Jeron handed over his card. “I don’t care how expensive it is. I want one glass.”
The bartender took his card with a slight smile of pity. “Once you’ve tasted Firefly you can never forget it,” he murmured. “The taste will haunt you for the rest of your life.”
Too caught up in anticipation, Jeron missed what he said. “Did you say something?”
“No, sir.” With a few taps on his device, he ran the card. A soft beep signaled enough funds were in the account. “Your card, sir.”
Jeron took it and tucked it back into his wallet, his eyes fixed on the empty glass waiting to be filled.
The bartender pulled out a medium sized brown glass bottle. The bottle was completely unremarkable except for the cream colored paper label stamped with “Firelily” in gilded red characters. He placed a square of ice into his mixing cup and then poured the orange red contents of the bottle over the ice. Just the scent of the drink was enough to start Jeron salivating.
After capping the cup, the bartender shook it rhythmically, captivating his customer completely with his artful dance. Once he finished shaking the mixing cup, he poured the drink and ice into the waiting glass. A three-inch layer of foam now covered the top of the drink. As the liquid settled, the darker red gathered at the bottom creating a sunset in the glass. To top it all off, the bartender placed a miniature white lily on top of the foam.
“Your drink, sir.” He set it down in front of Jeron and turned away to clean up.
Jeron grabbed for the glass with both of his hands and brought it eagerly to his lips. Taking a deep sniff, he felt the spicy smell spread through him, relaxing every fiber of his being and. He buried his face into the foam for his first sip and happiness soon followed. A beard of white froth covered his chin after he came up for air. But then he dived into his drink again. This time he couldn’t stop after only a sip. It was only when he came to the bottom of his glass that he set it down. Jeron used his finger to wipe the froth on his face and licked it off his finger, relishing the drink down to its last drop.
“That was good!” His mouth stretched into a relaxed, vague smile as he remained lost in the memory of that taste which sent explosions of happiness and comfort through his whole body. His eyes drooped close as he sank further into a blissful dreamland. With a thud his head dropped onto the bar.
The bartender set aside the last of his cleaned tools and gestured to the couple sitting at the corner table. “I’m sorry, sir. Firelily is a banned substance.”
The couple stood up and approached the counter. The woman produced restraints and snapped them around the unresisting Jeron’s wrists.
“Therefore, sir, you are under arrest. My condolences. The first taste is addictive, but the second is far worse.” The bartender bowed slightly as the couple lifted Jeron off the stool. He began polishing the counter as the two dragged Jeron out the bar’s back door and into the waiting police vehicle.
A new pair replaced the original two and sat at another table with new drinks. Once the bar was reset and restored to calm, the bartender pressed a button under the counter and the door’s lock clicked open, ready for the next customer.
Of Field Mice and Rabbits
“Where is my wand?” Esmera said, exasperated. “I just had it…” She rummaged in the piles of objects on the floor. Her floor was an extremely convenient place to dump her possessions, but it was almost impossible to find anything once it had been relegated to a pile for storage. Haphazardly stacked books waiting to be organized, worn-out clothes, bags of herbs, and utensils in varying degrees of usage comprised only a portion of the conglomeration of objects on the floor. The fairy was currently on her knees, arms buried nearly up to her shoulders in the pile of herbs in front of her. Dust and crushed dried herbs clung to her dress, turning it from a light blue into a nondescript grey. She sneezed violently, causing more dust to fly into the air, and she kept sneezing until she held up the object she had been looking for—her wand.
“Got it!” she cried. With this she quickly retreated out onto the wooden balcony, the slim, birch rod in hand, ducking under bunches of herbs hanging from the rafters. Half blinded by the force of her sneezes, she felt her way to the small table which displayed the remnants of a partially consumed afternoon tea. She downed the last of the tea in her cup, ending her fit of sneezing. Esmera went to refill the cup, but the silver teapot was empty.
“I’ll have to make some more now.” She eyed her piles on the floor ruefully. “Too bad I can’t remember where the unopened jar of nectar is. Blast it! I just finished the last jar to make this pot and there’s no time to look for the new one. That rabbit seems to have the most ill timing of any creature I’ve ever met,” she said, shaking her head. Peering over the smooth, peeled branches of the railing, she spotted a seemingly ordinary, brown rabbit hopping through the forest along the trail below. The rabbit’s movements created a peculiar sight as he would stop every few feet and reach his paw into a hole. Then there would come a loud high-pitched squeal as he pulled out a field mouse. A dull thump from the stick in his other hand would silence it. He would then toss the stunned mouse back into the hole and hop forward to the next hole to repeat the process. Esmera became more agitated, and angry, by the second. Sparks sputtered from her wand as she twisted it in her hands.
“That-that-rabbit! I’ve warned him a dozen times, but does he listen? No, he doesn’t. I’m going to have to teach him a lesson and soon. I never thought he was going to be this much trouble.” She glared at the rabbit as if she could kill him with a fierce stare. Indeed, if she was capable of doing so, the rabbit in question would have been dead a long time ago from her many incensed glares. Esmera put her hands on her hips, set her lips in a firm, straight line, and was about to march down the stairs when an idea halted her in her tracks. Her eyes closed and she stood there grinning triumphantly.
Opening her eyes, she cackled and said, “Oh am I going to teach that rabbit a lesson today!” She paused, thinking, and then flew over to one of the bookcases that was actually organized. Grabbing a worn book off the shelf, she dropped down onto the floor, her blue skirts spreading airily out around her, causing a miniature mushroom cloud of dust to billow out.
“Now let me see…how to turn a transformed rabbit back into a rabbit…how to turn a rabbit into a dog…ah here it is, how to turn a rabbit (or a hare) into a goon! Perfect.” She studied the spell for a moment longer and then snapped the book shut, coughing as it exhaled a puff of dust. “Now to go use it on that rabbit. What was his name again? It was something silly, I know. Oh yes, Foo-foo! That was his name. So I’ll say that his three chances are up and that I’m going to turn him into a goon.” She practically danced down the stairs. “I’m such a genius! Now he’ll never bother me or those field mice ever again.”
A short while later Esmera floated back up the spiral staircase and rummaged around for her new jar of nectar. For in fairy society, it’s extremely embarrassing to run out of hot, nectar tea.
The Old has Passed Away, and the New has Come to Stay
The wind raced down the dusty road, tearing at the lonely traveler’s clothes and throwing dust in his face. It seemed to be trying to knock him over in its haste to get wherever it was going. The traveler leaned into the wind so as to get his balance, and surveyed the road and the darkening sky ahead. He was so frail that it appeared as if the wind might get the better of him and really blow him away. Wrinkles lined the aged face gazing out from under a ragged hood. Bony, veined hands clutched a ragged cloak even tighter. His clothes, which had once been rich, were now dust covered and well worn with long use, dark reds and blues faded with the years. The old man leaned upon his knobby and crooked staff, dragging his feet as he slowly made his way off the road to the shelter of a nearby grove of trees. Sliding off his pack, he sat down out of the wind. He took out a lute and cradled it in his frail arms, protecting it from the savage wind-driven dirt with his body. The lute looked as old as he and was in disrepair. All but one of its strings were broken off at various lengths, and the once glossy varnish was dull, flaking off at the slightest touch. Even so, it had the feeling that it was well loved and well used.
The old traveler looked up at the sound of hoof beats echoing along the road. Out of the dust came a young man astride what must have been a white stallion, though its coat now had a slightly reddish hue because of the dust storm. They still made a magnificent pair, what with the fine leather tack on the horse and the rich clothes that the young man wore. The bright colors of his clothes could be seen even through the swirling dust. He sported a rapier at his side, carried, presumably, for defense if needed but mostly for show. The horse and rider were headed for the same grove for a similar purpose, to get out of the wind and dust. The young man dismounted with an energetic leap and started as the old man rose from his seated position. The young man looped his horse’s reins about a small tree. Turning to the old man curiously, a question formed on his lips.
The old man stopped him and wordlessly handed over a sheaf of papers. As the young man read, he realized that this was the song of the minstrel. Not just a song that a minstrel would sing, but the song that captured in its lyrics the essence of every minstrel’s being. He was puzzled that there were no notes or music on the pages, just words. As he kept reading it dawned on him that this must also be the pledge with which minstrels were sworn in. He felt the old minstrel tap him on the arm and turn the pages to the very last one. With a crooked finger, he pointed out the words of the last verse and indicated that the young man was to read them aloud. The young man looked twice at the minstrel to make sure that he understood him correctly and then began to read the words that the minstrel had indicated.
“So though I journey far and wide,
Still I will keep this song by my side,
Song of old,
Song of gold,
Song of everlasting meaning,
This I sing to pledge me to my minstrel’s singing.”
The young man paused as he realized the significance of the words he was speaking. The minstrel gestured for him to continue so he took a deep breath and began again.
“I sing this eternally in my heart, my mind,
And my soul, forever,
And I pledge to keep this song alive,
In the hearts of minstrels far and wide,
He finished the verse, his voice fading away into silence. The old minstrel looked satisfied and, stooping, lifted something from the ground. He turned back and in his hands lay the lute, but, wonders of wonders, it was now transformed. Neither old nor broken any more, now it looked like new and the strings were whole, as if they had never been broken. The young minstrel took it in his hands and he too cradled it, stroking it as gently as if it was a baby. The old minstrel finally spoke.
“I have kept my pledge to sing this song,
Now I give it to another,
For him to pass it on.
The old has passed away,
And the new has come to stay.”
His speech faded away. The young minstrel turned to thank him for the lute, but he was gone. The only thing left was the lute and the sheaf of paper. The young minstrel gazed at the lyrics again and now he understood why there was no music on the pages. He had no need of any. As he read the words, he heard and felt the music in his head and in his heart. A merry tune it was, sounding both carefree and powerful, soft and thunderous at the same time. It was the song that embodied life itself, truly a song of everlasting meaning. With this realization he fully shouldered the responsibility that had been placed on his shoulders. The wind had died down now and the dust had settled. He remounted his stallion and rode off humming the song which now filled his entire inner being.
On the Erebus Part 1 (teaser for paid story)
I lay flat on my stomach on my bed, idly flipping through a dictionary on my tablet. I was trying to find the spelling and definition of a word I’d heard one of the adult passengers use which I thought would work in my essay, but the other words were just too distracting to ignore. “Agrestic. Ew!” I flipped to the next page. “Apodeictic. Now that’s one I could use some time to prove something to mom and dad when they don’t believe me.” I laughed. “I’ll just flabbergast them with difficult words that they can’t understand.” I tapped the screen to bookmark the word before moving on.
Another few turned pages brought me to caducity and caliginosity. “Argh, this is no good. I’m not going to find it at this rate.” However, I couldn’t resist reading the definition of the next word that caught my eye. “Compossible,” I read aloud. “Possible in coexistence with something else. Well it’s the opposite of compossible for me to find the definition of a word without reading twenty others in the process.” I was getting a little mad at myself for dallying so long over looking up the definition of one word so I advanced the reader in larger sections. However, I got stopped in the ‘E’ sections at Embrangle. “To confuse or entangle. Now that’s a cool word. I’ve got to remember that one so I can embrangle someone with its meaning.”
Griseous amused me because I felt could completely apply to my uncle’s hair. Malison was another one that I jotted down a note in my memory to remember. Mansuetude I felt I could pull out to describe my mother. Niddering I filed away as well. It meant cowardly and insults were always useful to know. Olid was even more to my taste. “Foul smelling. That would make a wonderful insult for Stewart Lambert and he wouldn’t even know what I was talking about. Stewart’s so oppugnant too.” I said, using the next interesting word to catch my eye.
Periapt suitably described what I remembered of the spaceport where I transferred from the Celina to catch this ship, the Erebus. It had been filled with such trivial items that the sellers claimed worked “like a charm” but were actually a waste of money. They had been pretty though. Mom and Dad had thought that they were more like recrement than anything of value. There was one seller in particular that claimed to sell periapts that were. That booth in particular seemed quite well populated by the various species represented at that spaceport.
I stared at the dictionary. “R? How did I end up there? I was only looking for a word in the F section.” I quickly flipped back to there and just as quickly found the word I’d been looking for. Fubsy—short and stout; squat. “Obscure, odd, and archaic. Perfect. Just what I needed.” And the word went into my essay for school. Personally I didn’t much like writing essays for school, but school was a necessary evil. If I ever wanted to do anything, I’d need to “have an education” as my parents were always saying. I couldn’t see any use in most of the stuff I learned in school, however. I just wanted to trade like my parents and all that needed was hands on learning on how to trade and run a ship, not essay writing.
I sighed and flopped over onto my back to gaze up at the ceiling. It was smooth and metallic, just like everything else on this ship. I was very bored after almost four weeks of travel already. I really was being banished to the middle of nowhere. Of course, my parents were behind all this. They, for some strange reason, had decided that it would be safer to stick me in an outer colony at the edge of colonized space than a large central planet that was heavily guarded while they made the run through a recent war zone. I had done my best to persuade them otherwise, but they were adamant in their decision. The result was that they put me on this dinky transport ship headed off to Kaja colony to stay with an old spinster Aunt of mine. She may have never married, but my parents felt that I would be safe with her because she ran the children’s home at that colony. I felt like I was being sent to prison. See, I hadn’t seen this Aunt in years, not since I was four, so I really didn’t remember that much about her except that she had a lot of gray hair and she was my dad’s older sister.
There was only one transport ship a year that made a trip to Kaja Colony so I had to leave the Celina before my term at school had ended. That was why I was sitting in my tiny room writing an essay for school to be turned in when I finally went home again. Thankfully, by the time we got there my schoolwork should be done and it would be vacation time. However, that would mean that I would have no excuse to stay in my room all day and not talk to anyone.
“How am I going to even get myself out of this mess?” I muttered to the ceiling.
I didn’t know how long I lay there, but a beep at the door broke me out of my reverie.
“Dinner will be served in ten minutes,” said a voice through the com.
Ten minutes, I mused. That was barely enough time to get presentable. I knew from experience that if I was late, there wouldn’t be any food left, so I straightened my appearance up and was out the door five minutes later.
The mess hall was loud and noisy when I came through the door.
“Hello there, Lwyn!” came a cheery voice from behind me. Sylvia was standing in the door to the kitchen with a flowery apron on. She didn’t like to cook without some kind of apron on and it always had flowers on it.
“Hello, Ms. Sylvia,” I said and gave her a hug.
“Now you just come on into the kitchen and eat here. The mess hall’s too crowded for such a young girl as yourself to fit in.
“I’m slim,” I teased her.
“You know very well what I mean, dear child. Now come on in before you say another word.”
“Yes ma’am,” I said cheekily before I ducked past her into the warm kitchen. This was the warmest and coziest place on the ship, besides the engine room perhaps. I was only guessing on that point because I’d never been down there and wasn’t likely to be allowed any time soon. It was my dearest wish to somehow get in and have one of the engineers teach me how to work the engines. With that thought in mind, I finished my food quickly and headed out of the mess hall as soon as I had eaten the last crumb.
I was on a mission to find Scott. I’d become friend with him recently and he, as the chief engineer, was my sole way into the engine room with permission. I’d considered trying to sneak in there one time, but there was a high probability of getting caught and then I’d be confined to the passenger deck. I hated staying with the other passengers, most of them were boring, and I quite valued my time on the other decks. That was the only reason I kept my curiosity at bay. It could get me into more trouble than I could handle and there were still two weeks left in this voyage.
I trotted down passageway after passageway and still I couldn’t find Scott. Of course I had wasted some time looking out a window at a glorious Nebula in the distance. According to the captain, it was recently discovered and they had decided to detour by it to show us passengers the beauties of nature. However, I did not believe him. It was more likely that they were off course somehow and had unintentionally ended up in this area of space. They had already done it once, and that’s why we weren’t at Kaja already. The original schedule had said we would arrive at Kaja colony in four weeks. The voyage was one day shy of four weeks and Kaja was nowhere in sight. The only comfort was that at least one person on board knew what they were doing and where to go and the captain was finally listening to them. Fusby would describe the captain to a ‘T’. He was short, squat and had a very short temper to go along with his short stature. His proud and stubborn nature made it very hard to get along with him, especially for a whole month in close quarters.
At last I arrived at the door to engine room. The metal door was closed and I could hear no sound except the throbbing of the engines. I reached out my hand and placed it on the wall beside the door. The throbbing of the engines was even more pronounced, the vibrations rippling through the wall and into my hand. Seeing no other option, I sat down with my back to the wall and waited. Scott would most certainly come this way even if he wasn’t in the engine room at present.
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The kingship of our country hung in the balance and all I could do was think about how hungry I was. I hadn’t eaten since before dawn and my stomach had been grumbling ever since. We were all required to fast in hopes that it would spur our men to victory. So far, it hadn’t worked. Our men kept losing like fools. Always they lost to the one man, the challenger to the throne. He had come, with his long, bright sword and in fine clothes, from another land. He sought to bend our country to his will upon the death of our king who left no heirs.
Oh, the fights were exciting at first, as we cheered our brave men, but the fights lost all their charm after the same fight replayed itself over and over. The challenger always dealt the same stroke and every time his opponent fell dead, sprawled on the ground. With each man we lost a little more hope.
When the sun sank so low as to almost touch the horizon, he called out, “The day is nearly at an end. Only one more may challenge me and if that one fails, like so many others have, I will claim the throne. Are there any men who will challenge my right to the throne?”
I heard the murmur that swept through the crowd. All of us looked around trying to find another man to fight him. There were none left. All had fought. I was surprised at this, for I had only counted two score fights, but at least four score men had been present that morning.
“Cowards,” I muttered to myself.
The challenger seemed to understand that there were no men left. He called out again, “Are there any others who would dare fight me? Any at all?” He paused and regally surveyed the crowd.
I clenched my fists. The nerve of him to act as if he’s already won the crown. He opened his mouth to speak again but I cut him off.
“I’ll fight you. I’ll need a sword, though. Mine is at home.”
He raised his eyebrows and nearly laughed, but he composed himself quickly enough. Doubtless he thought I would be easy to beat.
He smirked. “Let us fight then, m’lady, and see to whom the crown will go.” He took up his position as I had seen him do all day—one foot forward, the other to the side and both hands holding the sword out in front. A sword landed in the dirt at my feet, thrown by one of his sneering men at arms. Stooping, I retrieved it and measured its balance.
“This will do.” I sprang at him.
He was so used to dealing the first stroke that he hesitated, confused. He recovered in time and countered my lunge with one of his own. We matched our strength for a time before we split apart, circling. I knew now that I was no match for his strength so I stayed away from direct attacks that would give him a chance to overpower me. Even tired as he was, my strength after a day of fasting would not support me in a direct engagement. I kept on the move, darting this way and that, making him work to keep up with me. The fight dragged on and I could feel my arms becoming like lead. With each stroke and parry my sword became harder to lift. Finally, I knew that I was at the end of my strength; I only had one chance left. He lifted his sword to deal the final killing stroke. Gathering my remaining strength, I leapt out of the way of his sword and in the same movement sliced my sword across the back of his neck with a backhanded swing. Once he fell, I overbalanced and also fell to the ground. He lay still in the dust and didn’t move.
Hands dragged me upright and patted me on the back. Voices filled my ears congratulating me on my victory. My head swam in the cool, night air as strangers guided me to the castle. There my wounds were bandaged. Right before exhaustion overtook me for a second time, I felt a cold, metal circlet pressed onto my brow.
“All hail Queen Edana of Wendheim!”
Siamu Faraz double-checked that the door locks were programmed with the correct codes and that no alarm had gone off before activating his hand-held scanner and venturing further into the building. Theoretically, no one should be able to tell that anyone had even opened the door as long as a quick scan bounced back the right codes and that should buy him enough time to examine the place and leave without anyone the wiser. Technically, even to private investigators like himself, this building was off limits. Unexplained happenings and disappearances tended to attract high level government attention and that attention had resulted in an immediate and severe lockdown on any information related this place. Luckily, Siamu’s contacts had come through for him and, due to one of them, he now had blueprints from as recent as two years ago. That was ancient information for this part of town since constant construction and remodeling changed its face almost on a daily basis, but it would have to do.
He kept the blueprints up on his holotablet as he walked through the empty corridors only lit by dim emergency lighting. Luckily, the walls were cheaply enough made that his scanner could penetrate right through them into the rooms on either side. It would take more time than he had to fully search the building and the clock was running. He was sure his hack would cover him all the way till morning when the next round of agents showed up, but Siamu never took chances like that. He had three hours and that was it. In and out as fast as possible. If he didn’t get any good data, he might try again another night, but only after he had a chance to make sure his trip tonight had gone undetected.
So far the blueprints had matched the building so his tension eased a bit and he picked up his pace, angling to reach an area he had marked red on the third subfloor. Rumors passed along by some of his contacts indicated that something had occurred in that area, but none could pinpoint exactly what that might be. Only that it was weird and weird equaled opportunity. He could smell it.
No, really. He could smell something. Right as he stepped out of the stairwell onto the third subfloor (the lifts having been turned off for the night), he nearly sneezed at the smell. Siamu scooted over to a darker corner, flipped up a mask over his mouth and nose, and switched his scanner for an analyzer. A few seconds later the analyzer returned ‘Substance unknown. No toxin detected.’ He relaxed and put it back in his bag, but he kept the mask half up on his face as a precaution. The scanner showed nothing unusual or organic in the surrounding 20 meters so he pulled up the holo blueprint again and rechecked his bearings. On the map the marked red area lay not too far down a corridor which branched off quite a few meters to his left.
Goal in sight, Siamu slowed down his pace even further and carefully scanned everything within 20 meters of his position. He could extend the scanner’s detection range further but only if he sacrificed detail and this near the marked area he didn’t want to risk it. But it detected nothing aside from furniture and other equipment. As the ratio of equipment to normal furniture increased, he wondered if this area had held a secret lab. There were no records indicating such a thing existed, but that was only in the public sector files. The actual records might be locked away already by the government and its minions. He kicked himself mentally. The government agencies weren’t all bad and they did work for the good of the planet, but he held a grudge at how hard they made it to dig out the information he needed as a P.I. Clients paid him to find information, not to try and fail.
The smell grew stronger as he approached the middle area of the red zone. It danced in his nose with sharp little jabs and he had to concentrate very carefully on not sneezing. He had the feeling that once he gave in, the sneezing would not relent until he retreated from the area. The analyzer buzzed in his bag and, once he retrieved it, the screen read ‘Organic substance detected. Non-toxic.’
What a relief, Siamu thought sarcastically. If it had been toxic, at this level of concentration he was sure he would have already been dead. He stuffed the analyzer back into his bag and pulled the mask over his nose once more. The sensation of his nose being jabbed reduced enough to allow him to concentrate once more upon his task. A quick check of the time showed that he was fast approaching the two-hour mark. There were only twenty more minutes before he needed to head back up to the surface.
Nothing interesting had turned up yet so the P.I. used his nose instead of the map to guide him. A result was a result and perhaps the source of the smell could be sampled and sold to the right person. Consumers liked the oddest smells for perfumes or air fresheners. His nose led him through a maze of corridors and several open doors. That struck him as unusual, the open doors that is. Almost every other door in the place had been closed if not locked, but these were open? A jauntiness from anticipation crept into his walk as the smell grew steadily stronger.
At last a light broke into the dimness. It outlined a door which was only partially ajar and Siamu felt it beckoning him to enter. His heart sped up and he stowed the holotablet before aiming the scanner directly at the glowing crack. There was something inside, but the scanner couldn’t identify it as organic or non-organic. The lines on the graph fluctuated even as he watched, refusing to settle down to a single result. Deeming the scanner useless, he steeled himself and slowly pushed the door open.
His first thought was that the normal lighting hadn’t been shut off in this room. The smooth polished gray walls bounced the light around so much that it took him several minutes to find the source after his eyes adjusted. And that was when the bottom dropped out his stomach. Floating in the middle of the room hung a glowing…thing. The light was too bright for him to make out any details, but the general outline of it constantly morphed into new shapes. Whatever this thing was, it had no fixed form. Occasionally it cast off tendrils of light, as a star sends out flares, and light would crackle and dance over the surface of whatever it touched in the room. It was almost like electricity but softer and more liquid.
Before Siamu realized it, he found himself inside the room, the door wide open, with a tendril of light reaching out towards him. Hurriedly, he stepped back trying to avoid contact, but his left arm also swung up in front of him in a vain gesture to ward it off. These conflicting motions resulted in his body being untouched, but the tendril of light wrapped lightly around his left hand instead.
Light flashed in his eyes and he saw the room filled with figures made from light. The vision was of the same room, and people in lab coats darted around in fast forward. Silently they yelled and tried to stop some kind of chain reaction in a test, but they failed and all were consumed in the resultant blinding flash of light. All that remained after the flash was a tiny ball of liquid light no bigger than a child’s fist which pulsed like a heart.
Then the room returned to normal and the tendril of light wrapped around his hand faded. He felt no different aside from a sudden chill due to sweat. Hastily he checked his scanner once again. It still could not produce a conclusive result. Then he backed out of the room and closed the door all the way. He made it all the way back to the turn in the corridor before he looked back.
The door was slightly ajar once more. He ran.
Later, Siamu had no idea how he’d gotten back to the room he rented for his office. He didn’t even know if he’d locked the door again with the proper codes. It didn’t matter. He was not going back there ever again. Let the government agents deal with whatever the blazes that was in there. He would have to write up some kind of report for his client later, but even he knew to keep that…thing out of it. He prided himself on not being stupid after all.
Once he calmed down enough to move his mind onto thinking about his other assignments, Siamu brought up the particulars on his holotablet. He would spend a few hours planning what to do next before getting some much needed sleep to dispel the shock from that evening’s misadventure.
Before starting, he hauled himself out of his chair and rooted around for materials to make coffee with. The light in his “refreshment cabinet”, as he liked to call it, flicked on and then off again as it was notorious for doing, so he couldn’t quite see which jar had the coffee he wanted. He rooted around in the cabinet with both hands for a while without success and suddenly his left hand hurt. Quickly, he withdrew his hand and shook it.
Ouch. Must have stubbed it on something.
Another sharp shake and he went back to hunting for the coffee jar. It wasn’t so hard to find now that the light was working again. He pulled the jar out, and then promptly dropped it on the floor.
The tip of his left index finger was glowing.
Purple clouds colored the light as the blue balloon soared through them. The man flying the balloon could only watch with wonder as they floated past. He’d heard that the upper levels of the sky contained a rainbow of clouds that changed color depending on the weather, but, until now, no one had been able to prove it. However, he would change that and stay aloft for as long as his balloon would carry him.
For days on end, he drifted along the air currents, not really paying attention to where he was going, but instead following the colors. He saw every color of the rainbow aside from one: yellow. He hadn’t been able to find any rumors or stories of what would cause yellow clouds, only that it was dangerous. But, he lived for danger. However, he was running out of time and would have to leave the glorious sky soon. For he couldn’t survive past the end of his food and water supply, and the end was too near for his liking.
He pressed on, trying to find the elusive yellow, but he never succeeded. Finally, he came to terms with the facts. His food would run out in the next few days. He must abandon his search and land. Disappointed, he began strapping down his belongings for the long ride down. He was on the point of breaking through the bottom of the clouds when the air currents changed from a quiet lazy river into a raging tempest.
They snatched his balloon straight up in the air and it was all he could do to not fall out of the basket. The clouds darkened around him to an angry midnight blue and they refused to let go of him and his balloon, even when he attempted to release air in order to descend. He gave up and strapped himself in for the ride, glad that he’d already lashed down all his belongings. He ate the last of his food as the storm tossed him even higher up.
At last he broke through to the top of the clouds, higher than he’d ever flown. The wispy clouds around him changed instantly into a light red and he managed to halt his ascent. Danger lay in going too high and he could already feel his head becoming light. Before he could command a descent, the red surrounding him morphed into a sickly yellow green which took hold of his balloon and forced him straight down through the storm in a shaft of yellow light. Barely ten seconds after breaking through the bottom of the clouds, he saw land and trees below, rushing up to greet him. But he couldn’t control his balloon now. The yellow still had ahold of it and it pushed him towards the ground with frightening speed.
A terrible crashing sound filled his ears as the trees grew into their proper sizes and he knew nothing more.
Much later on, he opened his eyes to once again see faint purple clouds above him through the tears and rips in his balloon. The clouds beckoned him to journey in them once more, but he was wiser now and wouldn’t give in to their temptation. He packed up his surviving belongings and notes, struggled out of the ruins of his balloon, and carefully climbed down the tree from which his balloon hung, a limp imitation of its former self. No more would it soar in the sky, taking him to places he’d never been. Now it would hang there as a warning to those who might venture into the untamed skies.
The Salon of Enchanted Beauty Part 1 of 5
In the kingdom of Linsal, the most prestigious profession was that of sorcerer and the most prestigious of sorcerers graduated from the famed Laronia Institute of Sorcerous Arts. One of the most recent graduates to leave those sacred halls had bright purple hair styled in an elaborate wave, yellow slit cat eyes, and was currently sticking her tongue out the left side of her mouth in concentration as she painted the sign of her new shop. Once completed, the enchanted paint would turn the sign into an active enchantment, dazzling potential shoppers, if, that is, she could finish it without making a mistake.
Philliya Wridall had never been terribly good at painting or drawing and her enchantment diagrams barely achieved passing grades in class. But she didn’t care. She could draw well enough to make the enchantment work in the way she wanted. They didn’t need the extra fancy swirls and flourishes to function so what was the point of including them in the diagram? She could perform enchantments and channel sorcery, so, therefore, that was what mattered.
She’d grown up steeped in sorcery, the youngest of seven children born to sorcerer parents, and it had been a perfectly logical choice for all seven of them to study sorcery. Philliya would have been stupid to turn down her parents’ offer to pay for her to study at Laronia. All six of her elder siblings had studied there as well, so off she went, her head and heart full of sorcery, dreaming of one day living the life of a lone sorcerer in a tower. She had thrived in the classes (aside from the low marks in Diagram classes) and had practically wallowed in all the old musty sorcery books that the library housed.
However, her second semester of study brought reality crashing down upon her. It happened when she decided that she should start building a book collection of her very own. She was quite sensible so she had gone to a secondhand bookshop that other students recommended for having cheap prices. It was on the shelves of that shop that she realized even “cheap” was completely unaffordable.
Back in her dorm room, she ran some numbers and came to a horrifying conclusion. She had zero funds for her dream of a sorcerer’s tower out in the wilderness somewhere. Sorcerers spent money almost as fast as they earned it. Her parents were no exception, and, after funding six other siblings, there was only enough money left over for Philliya, the seventh, to attend school. To put it bluntly, Philliya was broke.
Ever the sensible person, Philliya had immediately reevaluated her career options. A life in a tower was out, and so too was hiring herself out as a guard (who would hire someone as small as her?) Also out was any other career that involved large amounts of start-up funds. Eventually she settled on a small shop of some kind, but even that would need money. So she began planning and saving.
All through her remaining years at school she feasted on the books in the library, copying by hand enchantments and diagrams that might be useful later on since she couldn’t afford to buy the books. She also frantically pursued any opportunity for money that came her way. Therefore, by the time she graduated (with newly fashioned purple hair and yellow cat eyes), she had just enough funds to launch her new shop.
With one last wiggle of her tongue, she completed the sign and the enchantment glowed to life flashing the name of her new shop “The Salon of Enchanted Beauty”.
Stepping back, she examined the sign and its placement with a critical eye. “That should suffice.” She watched as the secondary routine of the enchantment drew out fantastical images of elaborate hairstyles which cycled through a rainbow of colors. It was programmed to never repeat itself and was a variation on an enchantment she’d found in an old book. Of course, the original creator had never intended for the enchantment to be used for a hair salon.
Philliya capped the bottle of paint very carefully, stretched elaborately, and only then finally entered her completed shop. The inside was just as tiny as the outside indicated with only enough room for one customer at a time, but a heavy scent of sorcery filled the air from all the ingredients she had in stock. After renting the shop and stocking it, she was back to almost broke again with just enough money for a few weeks of food.
She stored the paint away in a locked box with some of the other valuable items. “Time to find some customers!”
Gathering up her bag, a stack of flyers, and a cloak, she headed out of the shop. With a snap of her fingers the door lock enchantment activated, sealing the shop while also displaying a “Back in a few hours” sign. Another snap of her fingers activated the number queuing system so customers could take a number to wait for her return.
Her destination? The palace! Her target clientele would mostly be from the upper class or nobility so she’d picked to open her shop in Kastoburg, the capital of Linsal and the home of the king and his court. Not just anyone could enter the palace, but she had a backdoor pass. Her eldest brother, Toraf, was one of the sorcerers of the court who worked directly for the king. By visiting him, she could rub shoulders with potential customers. Of course she would never dream of pestering the noble ladies of the court. Instead, their maids and ladies-in-waiting were her targets. Happy with her plan of action, Philliya presented her pass at the servants’ entrance and the guards allowed her to enter.
Toraf greeted her absentmindedly when she turned up, too focused on his work to really register her arrival, and waved her off in the direction of the door. Philliya took that to mean that the present time was not the right time to talk and left to canvas the palace. Dinnertime would pull Toraf out of his work and she’d catch him then.
She spent a few hours wandering the halls frequented by the maids and managed to hand out a few fliers, but a guard took issue with her actions and firmly told her to mind her own business and please leave. Instead of leaving, she went back to Toraf’s rooms and found him finally not buried in his work.
“Tor!” She grinned cheerfully at him. “I came to see you now that my shop is complete.”
He poured himself a cup of tea from the teapot which hadn’t been there when she first visited. “I suppose you can’t be convinced to sell the shop and find a proper job for a sorcerer instead?”
“Now, now, we’ve had this discussion before, big brother. I’m sure my shop will be successful. That’s why I came here to Kastoburg.” Before he could interrupt, she continued, “I’m not good enough, and I don’t have a title high enough for work at the court. You’re the eldest so you have the title and you fit right in here. I wouldn’t like it. But, if you want to help your sister out, I have told you before that you could spread the word about my shop. The ladies of the court would love it. If only they knew it existed.”
Toraf closed his eyes briefly and sighed. “You always were stubborn once you set your mind on something. I will mention your shop if I have the chance, but I rarely interact with the ladies of the court. They prefer to consult with my female peers on affairs of sorcery.”
“That doesn’t mean they don’t come to visit you.” She giggled. “But anyway, here’s some flyers detailing what I can do. I would pass them out myself, but a guard kicked me out for doing so earlier.” She rolled her eyes dramatically and plopped the sheaf of paper onto the nearest table. “I should head back to see if any customers have come by while I was gone.”
Philliya bounded up, sure that she’d return to find customers waiting for her. Toraf rose to his feet more slowly.
“I’ll accompany you to your shop. I wish to see it now that it is complete and I have shopping to do. Mother and Father will want to hear news of you and your…venture.”
Toraf escorted her out of the palace through one of the smaller main gates, while Philliya chatted merrily. She explained all about her plans for the business and wrapped it all up with “Do you like my new hair and eyes?”
Toraf only grunted and nodded very slightly. “It certainly is very...unusual.”
“Exactly! I want people to ask about it. It shows off my work,” she burbled happily as they walked up the street to her shop. “Here it is! Wonderful, isn’t it?”
He stared up at the sign and examined the storefront. “It’s...small. But unique. The enchantments are well-crafted,” he added grudgingly.
“Thank you! I can always buy a bigger shop later if needed, but doesn’t it add to the mysteriousness of a sorcerer to run a small shop hidden away where you have to hunt for it?”
“That is one way to look at it. Or it says you couldn’t afford the rent on a shop in the main shopping district.”
“Psshh, details, details. I won’t let you kill my happiness. Now, let me check the queueing enchantment.” She muttered a few words and a panel in the diagram lit up. But her face fell slightly as it displayed a zero. “Oh. But, I’m sure a customer will come by later today. Thanks for escorting me, Tor! I’ll come up to the palace often to see you.” She waved cheerily at him, and, after unlocking the door enchantment, vanished into her shop leaving Toraf staring after her with an eyebrow raised.
“That sister of mine is far too optimistic.” He sighed and retrieved a piece of parchment from his pocket containing his shopping list. Without a backward glance at the small shop, he set out for the larger shops in the biggest shopping district.
The Salon of Enchanted Beauty Part 2 of 5
Philliya watched her brother leave through the single crystal window of her shop. That crystal had cost almost half of her budget, but she wanted to stand out. None of the other shops on her street had one and her shop was the street’s crowning jewel, literally glittering in the sun as it lowered itself towards the horizon.
It was her turn to sigh. She had put up a good front to fool Toraf, but inside, disappointment gnawed at her self-confidence. It looked like her first day would pass without a single customer entering her shop. However, she diligently waited until her posted closing hours before leaving to buy food. She lived above her tiny shop and there was no room for a proper kitchen.
The next ten days passed in a similar fashion. No one entered the shop at all. A few curious people looked at the sign and peered at and through the crystal window, but none of them even inquired after her services. To keep up her spirits, Philliya visited her brother every other day and attempted to advertise her services in the palace. The visits to her brother were successful, the advertising attempts were not, and the guards soon started watching her closely every time she left her brother’s side. With them stalking her as if she was a potential criminal, no palace resident would talk to her.
At the end of the eleventh day, as she was closing up her shop for the evening, the unusual sound of a carriage echoed down the street. No one who shopped or lived on this street owned carriages, so Philliya turned to watch its progress. The light carriage was small enough for one elegant bay horse to pull it and only two or three passengers could fit inside. Finely woven fabric covered the windows, obscuring any view of the passengers, and the elegant carriage gleamed with small gilded details. She guessed that it must belong to a lady of fairly high rank for some of the designs appeared to form an abstract crest. However, she wasn’t familiar enough with the nobles to know to which family the crest might belong.
To her great surprise, the carriage drew up in front of her and stopped.
“Is this shop open? My lady wishes for a consult.” The driver raised his voice and his accent was one of those who copied the mannerisms of the upper class.
“Uh…” Philliya’s mind raced and for a moment she couldn’t quite put words together to form a sentence.
“Well?” The driver added impatiently.
“Yes, the shop is most definitely open!” She finally found her words and the excitement began building. Her first customer! “Please, come in, your Ladyship.” She addressed the unseen person in the carriage and with a wave of her hand she triggered the part of the door enchantment which would open the door unassisted.
The driver climbed down and unlatched the door of the carriage. He bowed and then assisted his lady to exit. Philliya couldn’t see her face because she wore a wide brimmed hat with a veil draped over it. Her dress was unadorned and fashioned in a simple style, but Philliya could see that it was made from expensive fabric which not even her mother could afford to buy. Glints of gold sparkled from folds in the fabric due to the metal thread woven into it. This was not some mere lady. Philliya mentally slapped her brain into remembering the proper courtesies.
The lady entered the shop and gestured for her driver to remain outside. The shop would be too crowded for him once both women entered. After Philliya did so, she closed the door with another wave of her hand and helped the lady to sit on the single chair reserved for customers. Philliya thanked all her lucky stars that she’d had the foresight to spend the extra money for a well-made chair and provide it with a thick cushion. Philliya put a kettle on to boil, and sat down herself on a less comfortable, but sturdy, chair.
“How may I be of assistance, your Ladyship?”
“You specialize in transformation and appearance sorceries?” The lady’s voice filtered through her veil, slightly muffled.
“Yes, your Ladyship. I can change anything about a person’s appearance. Most of my enchantments, however, are temporary. I can do permanent transformations and enchantments, but they are much more expensive due to the necessary items. What would your Ladyship be interested in?”
“My need….is slightly different. I wish for a restoration or cure.” She fell silent, though her veil continued to sway slightly with her breathing.
“Ah. So you want an enchantment lifted. That is not exactly my area of expertise. But I can take a look at your situation and tell you whether it’s possible or not. If you will permit me to do so of course.” Philliya sat back to wait while the lady made up her mind. Breaking enchantments was more her academically minded sister’s bailiwick, but she was all the way out at Laronia and not easily consulted.
The lady didn’t respond for many long minutes, but Philliya noted that her hands showed no sign of the outer calm the lady was trying to project. They clenched tightly on the fabric of her skirt, pressing wrinkles into the originally smooth fabric. The kettle’s whistle interrupted, calling Philliya to set the tea to steep. She at once stood to do so, leaving the lady to her internal struggle.
After filling a tea infuser with some loose leaf tea, she placed both it and the hot water into a delicate teapot. With a soft clink she set the lid on top and activated its enchantment. The teapot and tea cups she placed on the small table within easy access to both chairs. Then Philliya primly resumed her seat and waited. The scent of the tea spiraled out of the teapot and filled the shop with a light, floral fragrance. The lady’s hands relaxed their tight grip and her veil swung forward as she tilted her head down to watch the teapot.
A few minutes later the teapot flashed with a soft green light, indicating the end of the steeping. Philliya removed the infuser and replaced the lid. She poured out the light green liquid into both cups.
“Would you like sugar or cream added?”
“Two sugars. No cream.”
Philliya dropped the sugars into the lady’s tea, and added three sugars to her own along with a splash of cream.
“Here you are, your Ladyship.” She set the cup and a spoon nearer to the lady.
“Thank you.” The lady stirred her cup slowly, as if not really paying attention to it. “I am willing for you to make an attempt. But you must swear not to reveal to anyone the enchantment I am under. It would cause….a scandal.”
Philliya quickly stopped herself from taking a sip. “Of course, your Ladyship! I would never reveal anything about a client unless the client gave permission. I can set up an enchanted contract if you require one?”
“No need.” She set her cup on the table, hesitated, and then removed her veil and hat.
The Salon of Enchanted Beauty Part 3 of 5
Philliya fought to keep her facial expression from changing as the veil and hat fell away. The lady’s appearance was...in a word...hideous. It was beyond ugly. None of her facial features appeared in the right location or shape and her skin color ranged from pale to a bloody dark red. The effect extended to her hair as well and great patches of mottled skin could be seen through the sparse clumps of hair. She must have an excellent lady’s maid, for there was some kind of elegant hair piece installed which allowed the lady to have some semblance of a normal hairstyle, but there was no saving her face. Not even face powders could hide the deformities.
“Can you fix this?”
“It truly must be a savage and powerful enchantment, your Ladyship,” Philliya replied solemnly. “When did it first afflict you?”
“I have been this way since my third birthday. Due to some circumstances, a jealous woman hired a powerful dark sorcerer to curse me as a punishment to my parents. I have tried every cure and the sorcerer who cast the enchantment has been found and executed along with that woman, but nothing has worked. I still remain as you see now.”
“I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but if an enchantment outlives the end of the caster’s death, it takes a supremely powerful sorcerer to break it and even that may not work. Those types of enchantments are designed to last for centuries and only break when they finally run out of power. It was quite vicious to apply one to a human child who wouldn’t possibly outlive the enchantment’s duration.”
“You can do nothing?” Despair colored her tone and she slumped in her chair.
“I can do nothing to remove or break the curse,” Philliya confirmed. “However…”
“I wonder if your Ladyship would mind experimenting? I have in my collection a very old enchantment of transformation. It’s quite powerful and is known for being impossible to remove. It just might counter the curse on you. But the catch is that you will never have any chance of recovering your original appearance.”
She breathed deeply. “Therefore I would remain however I ended up after this enchantment took effect?”
“Yes. With only the one curse upon you, you have a slight possibility of removing it. But once this second enchantment is laid upon you, neither will be reversible for the second draws its power not from the caster, but the person upon whom it is cast. Its nature is that as the person changes, the enchantment changes as well, altering the person’s appearance. It’s this very trait that I think would counter the original curse.”
“Tell me, what is this enchantment?”
“I found it years ago buried in a library while I was a student. It is titled simply “True Appearance”. I am sure you are familiar with the expression ‘inner beauty’, correct?”
The lady nodded.
“This enchantment is designed to reveal a person’s inner self whether that is beauty or monstrosity. It falls into the category of curses because the end result is typically worse than the beginning. It is not an enchantment for gaining beauty. Instead, your outer appearance will match your inner nature. The kindest person in the world would end up with the face of an angel, but a vicious person would become like a demon or a beast. And this appearance changes as the heart of the person changes. If you are kind one day and cruel the next your face will change to match. Do you dare take the risk?”
The lady sat there, quietly thinking and Philliya made no move to rush her. This enchantment, or rather curse, would be devilishly difficult to predict the result, but, in her opinion, it was the lady’s only hope for salvation in this lifetime. However, it could backfire most spectacularly if the years of bearing a hideous countenance had soured her heart. Only she would know whether the risk was one she could take.
“Prepare the enchantment. I will do it.”
“Are you sure, your Ladyship?”
“Yes. What can be worse than this face? Even if I do turn into a beast, I can always have the hope of changing for the better. But this present face of mine will never change if I don’t try.”
“If you are sure, I will draw up a contract. I don’t have all the items necessary for this enchantment so I must wait a few days before we can cast it. And the timing must be perfect. There’s a full moon three nights from hence. We will attempt it then at the height of the moon’s arc. The enchantment’s effect will be more powerful if cast under the light of a full moon as the moon is linked to one’s inner self. And as for a place…” she trailed off, thinking. “I will consult with my brother as to a good place. He’s a court sorcerer so he should know of a good location. Never fear, though, I will not disclose your condition or even the enchantment we will cast, though he may guess the latter. He’s terribly smart after all.”
She nodded and sank back into her chair from which she had half risen. Philliya noted that she seemed uneasy with the mention of a court sorcerer’s involvement and guessed that she must be connected to the court somehow.
“One moment, I’ll draw up the contract.” It took more than a moment to find the correct parchment and ink to create an enchanted contract, but finally it was done and the lady signed elegantly. The paper flashed after Philliya signed as well and doubled itself. Philliya folded one copy and handed it to the lady.
She took it and rose to leave. “I’ll send a maid here in three days. Tell her where we are to meet and what time.” She extracted a small pouch of money. “Consider this an advance payment to use for buying the needed materials.”
“Of course. I will have everything prepared by then.” Philliya took the pouch and curtsied slightly before opening the door for the lady. The lady swept out past her after replacing the hat and veil and the driver carried her away in the carriage, leaving Philliya literally in their dust. She coughed and gagged on the dust until she stumbled back inside and closed the door.
“Whew. I thought I was going to choke to death there for a minute.” She downed the rest of her tea in one gulp, washing away the dust. “I have a customer now! But this will be difficult to complete. I really must consult with Toraf. I don’t have a suitable space for casting such a complex enchantment here and it must be a place open to the moonlight as well. And I need ingredients!”
After taking inventory and marking which ingredients she lacked on a spare bit of used parchment, she once again closed up the shop and trod the familiar path up to the palace.
The Salon of Enchanted Beauty Part 4 of 5
“Toooooor~” Philliya called, as she knocked on his workshop door. “I need a minute.”
Several long minutes passed before her brother finally opened the door, an annoyed look on his face. “I’m busy right now with an experiment, Philliya. Can’t it wait?”
“No, I’m in a rush. Sorry, Tor.”
He sighed and beckoned her inside. “Be quick about it.”
“See, it’s like this. I’ve got my first customer and it’s a doozy. I’ve got three days to gather all the ingredients I need and some of them are pretty rare. I was hoping you could help me find them. Also, do you know of a place for casting enchantments under moonlight? My shop won’t work for that and this customer wants complete privacy.”
His eyebrows had climbed higher and higher throughout her rushed recitation. “What have you landed yourself with?”
“Can’t tell you. Privacy, remember?” She shrugged dramatically. “Maybe once it’s done I can tell you, but no guarantees.”
Toraf eyed her, attempting to stare her into telling, but when she didn’t explain, he held out his hand. “Give me the list. I’ll speak to my contacts about it. Do you even have the funds for this?” He unfolded the list and read it. “These will not come cheap.”
“My customer paid an advance payment which should cover it.” She grinned. “Very considerate of…that customer.” She just barely avoided saying “her”. Toraf was smart enough to figure out who the customer might be if she let that detail slip. She pulled out the pouch of money. “Use this. If it’s not enough, I’ll pay you back when you hand over the ingredients. I do have some spare coins.”
He took the pouch and checked inside. “This should be sufficient. Come back in two days. I should have it by then. And I’ll inquire about a location. There’s a perfect spot that we of the court use out beyond the city, but you’ll need permission to use it as it is in the royal forest.”
“Thank you, Tor! You’re the best!” She hugged him. “I’ll be off now. I have some brushing up to do on the enchantment.” She skipped out of the room, headed directly for her shop.
She closed the shop for the next two days while she studied and practiced the enchantment. She created more enchanted ink and prepared pre-painted nodes for building the large enchantment diagram. The time flew by and soon it was time to swing by the palace again. Toraf came through as promised and had the ingredients and a letter of permission for her along with some leftover coins. After thanking him, she dove right back into preparing for the enchantment. With the new ingredients on hand she was able to finish up her preparations by midday on the third day.
Philliya had just locked up the shop when a woman in the fine clothes of a lady’s maid rode up to her shop.
“My lady sent me.”
“Ah, welcome! I just finished up all the necessary preparations. Tell her Ladyship that we will need to leave the city and journey into the royal forest. I have a permit for entering. I would suggest leaving the city around sunset in order to leave enough time for preparing the enchantment diagram before the moon reaches its peak.”
The woman replied with a sharp nod. “I will inform my lady. She had made arrangements to drive her carriage to your shop so you may travel together.”
“Perfect! Tell her Ladyship thanks from me. That will make the journey easier.”
The woman nudged her horse and they left without another word. Philliya strode off in the opposite direction to find food. She was starving after barricading herself in the shop for studying. And she had extra gold on hand, so she planned to buy herself a good filling meal for once.
Hours later as the sun reached for the tops of the nearby hills, the lady’s carriage pulled up in front of the shop. Philliya immediately picked up the bag she had prepared, and exited her shop. This time the lady did not exit, but the driver opened the door to allow Philliya to enter. Upon entering, she found that the lady was not alone. The lady’s maid from earlier in the day was also there. As soon as the door was closed, Philliya felt the carriage shake as the driver climbed back up into the seat and set it in motion.
“Good evening, your Ladyship.”
She nodded in return. “Are you prepared?”
“Yes. Everything is in order. It won’t take more than an hour to set up the enchantment once we arrive at the casting location. It’s used by court sorcerers, but my brother has assured me that no one is using it tonight. They are all too busy preparing for the ball next week.”
“Good. It must be useful having a brother at court.”
“Quite! He keeps wanting me to join him there, but it’s too stuffy at court and I’m not good enough to be hired there. But I don’t deny he is quite useful for all his contacts.” She smiled at both of the ladies. “Perhaps you have met him? Toraf Wridall is his name. He joined the court less than ten years ago so he’s one of the younger members.”
“Ah, the Sorcerer Wridall is your brother? I have heard of him, though we have never met. He is well liked by many of the ladies.”
“Yes.” Philliya grinned. “He complains that they interrupt his experiments all the time. My parents have long despaired of him finding a wife as he is married to sorcery.”
The ladies giggled quietly, and the maid added, “He will break the hearts of the ladies at court then.”
“Yes, and then offer to mix up a potion to cure them. He’s so oblivious when it comes to females. But he has a good heart.”
They continued chatting lightly about court matters, confirming Philliya’s guess that the lady was a resident of the court or at least lived in those circles. Upon reaching the boundaries of the forest, she produced the permit for the guards and they allowed the carriage to enter. She had to guide the driver after that which allowed little time for talking.
Soon they arrived at the clearing and the light of the moon illuminated it. A half visible enchanted barrier seemed to concentrate and contain the light in the clearing. Philliya grew excited. This place would be perfect.
“We have arrived, your Ladyship. You can wait in the carriage or wherever you wish while I set up the enchantment. I do need a lock of your hair to add to the ingredients.”
The lady’s maid produced a small knife and the lady lifted the back of her veil so the maid could cut a lock of her hair.
“Thank you. I’ll inform you when it’s all prepared. I estimate we have almost another two hours before the moon will reach its peak.” Then she left the carriage and took her bag into the clearing. She could feel the sorcery surrounding her increase the minute she passed through the barrier. The sorcery thickened the air and it caressed her skin as she pushed through to the center. No one had cast an enchantment here in the past month so the dense sorcery swirled thickly around the clearing.
Once she began setting up and drawing the enchantment, the sorcery paused its motion appearing to watch and wait. The suspense made it harder for her to concentrate and she was glad that she had extra time to set up the enchantment. She had never harnessed this amount of sorcery before.
Finally, however, she set the final node into place and connected all the parts of the enchantment aside from the last bit which would activate it. Reluctantly, the sorcery allowed her to leave the clearing.
“Your Ladyship. The enchantment is ready. The moon is almost high enough so it’s time for you to enter the enchantment.”
The lady exited the carriage and stared at the clearing through her veil. After a long moment, she straightened her shoulders and removed her hat and veil. The lady’s maid took it and the lady followed Philliya into the clearing.
“Don’t worry if the sorcery feels a bit thick. Just push through it. I am very happy with how concentrated the sorcery is here. That will make the enchantment that much more powerful.”
The lady only hesitated briefly after stepping over the boundary. At this concentration, even non-sorcerers would be able to feel the sorcery in the air. She carefully stepped over the lines of the diagram, making her way to the indicated spot in the center of the enchantment. Once the lady stood in the correct place, Philliya watched the moon, ready to complete the final line.
At last it was time! Swiftly, she drew the final line with one stroke and began the recitation. The concentration of the sorcery increased instantly and made it difficult to breathe and speak, but she fought her way through it. After what seemed like hours, she finally reached the end of the recitation and the entire network of the diagram on the ground blazed to life. It was out of her hands now.
The light grew in intensity and flared brighter so that the lines and words blurred into one gigantic ball of light which enclosed the lady and hid her from view. She made no sound, not even a cry of fear. Eventually the glow began to shrink until it only covered the lady and for a minute she looked like a being made entirely of moonlight. Then the light vanished. The circle of enchantment broke and faded from view, the nodes disintegrating into dust. The sorcery in the clearing could barely be felt now and the lady became visible once more in the much dimmer moonlight.
The Salon of Enchanted Beauty Part 5 of 5
If Philliya hadn’t known that the person standing before her was the same lady as before, she would never have guessed it was so. Her face bore no deformities at all and the color was a pale ivory which practically glowed in the moonlight. Her features were now elegant and refined. She was not an angel, but she would be able to silence a room with awe.
Philliya’s elation overflowed and she bounded up to the lady. “It worked! And you look so beautiful now. Oh I wish I had thought to pack a hand mirror. I completely forgot to do so.”
The lady smiled and the loveliness of her countenance increased. “Thank you. I can never, ever truly repay you for this.”
“Ah, there’s no need for that, your Ladyship. I’m just happy to see such a result. It’s quite rare to see someone end up with this beautiful of a face.” She laughed. “I can’t wait to see the look on your driver’s and maid’s faces! They will be stunned. Come, let’s go surprise them, your Ladyship.”
The lady nodded and elegantly stepped out of the clearing. True to Philliya’s prediction, both the driver and the maid appeared to have been whacked in the face with a fire iron and, if their jaws could reach that far, they would have dropped to the ground.
“Oh, my lady!” The maid exclaimed. “You are so beautiful now! Oh, I must fetch the mirror. I did bring a small one in the hopes that this would work.” She dived back into the carriage and pulled out a small round mirror. “Here! Look, my lady!”
The lady did look and almost instantly she began to cry. Her tears flowed too freely to allow her to speak, but they all understood. Her maid guided her into the carriage and Philliya climbed up inside as well. The lady didn’t regain her ability to speak until they left the forest.
“This...is truly a miracle. Thank you again.” She took Philliya’s hand in her own and squeezed it tightly.
“I am so glad this worked out. But, I must caution you. Remember what I said before. Your appearance is not fixed. If your heart grows vain from your new beauty, your beauty will vanish. Be careful of your heart and thoughts from now on.”
“I understand. I will keep the warning in mind.”
And that was the end of the conversation that night. The carriage dropped Philliya back off at her shop and she went to bed quite satisfied with the night’s events.
Her last thought was that she hadn’t asked the lady if she could tell Toraf or not.
* * *
The next week arrived quite slowly. She’d had no other customers or visitors aside from the lady’s maid returning to give her the rest of the payment. Finally, the night of the ball arrived and Philliya specially transformed her appearance for the occasion. She even enchanted a dress to wear. It was a mark of how nice her brother was that he thought to invite her to the ball as his partner, but she knew half of the motivation behind the offer was to prevent any of the ladies of the court from cornering him.
She’d heard no great commotion about a lady at court gaining beauty so she assumed that the lady would probably not show up at the ball for whatever reason of her own. The lady must have left, or how else would no one have heard of the change in her face? Philliya could only sigh with disappointment for she had hoped that news of the change would spread the advertisement for her shop before the ball and boost sales.
Her brother greeted her in his best finery. His green robe flashed with sorcerous symbols and she was sure it contained an active enchantment or two. He looked her over and nodded his approval.
“I am not high enough ranking to be announced so we will enter with the others now.”
“Okay! That means we can watch all the arrivals as they process down the staircase.”
The ballroom itself was enormous with tall mirrors set in the wall along one side. They reflected the lights blazing from the ceiling and walls till the entire room shone almost as brightly as in daylight. The main staircase into the room dominated one end and a throne dominated the other. A young man not much older than her brother sat in the throne, solemnly watching the crowd.
“Tor,” she whispered, “is that the king?”
“Yes, that is King Jost. Now hush. We must pay our respects.”
They approached the throne and bowed and curtsied to the king in greeting before moving away to the outer edges of the room. One corner contained several other people dressed in enchanted robes and it was to this that Toraf led her.
They watched the room fill up with brightly dressed men and women over the next hour. Philliya’s hands itched to fix some of the ladies. She wished that some of them had contracted her to help them for the ball, but none of them had done so. Now all she could do was stand in the corner and keep her mouth shut as she saw all the flaws. Toraf appeared to read her mind and patted her on the shoulder gently.
“Next time, Philliya, there will be a next time.”
She smiled sheepishly up at him. “Was I that obvious?”
“Yes. Try not to look like a horse chomping at the bit. Everyone here outranks you so it wouldn’t do to offend them.”
“Yes, Tor. It’s just...frustrating. They could have looked so much better if they’d hired me.”
He laughed and returned to his conversation with his peers.
A short while later, as Philliya was considering raiding the food tables, a gasp swept the room and all conversation ceased. Confused, she looked around for the source and found herself looking right at her customer. The lady had just appeared dressed in a lovely mauve gown at the top of the staircase, hand poised on the railing to steady her descent. Whispers filled the room with a soft background noise.
“Presenting, Lady Saskia!” The door warden announced with a sharp tap of his staff. Now even the whisperings ceased as the Lady Saskia began her descent. Philliya smirked at the effect of the lady on those in the room. Every male in the room gawped at her and the women looked on with a mixture of stunned jealousy and surprise. She was amused to note that even the king was not immune. He rose to his feet as Lady Saskia crossed the floor to greet him.
“Your majesty,” she swept a grand curtsy, the likes of which Philliya had never mastered, and looked demurely down at the floor.
“Rise, Lady Saskia. Come. Join me for the evening.”
“It would be my pleasure, your majesty.” She rose and walked over to stand beside him. Now the gasps and whispers returned as all the ladies present put their heads together to discuss this unexpected event.
“Yes, big brother?”
“She wouldn’t happen to be your customer, would she?”
“However could you guess?” she grinned impishly up at him. “I think that was the perfect advertisement for my shop, don’t you agree?”
He just laughed and patted her on the head. “Good work, Philliya. I’m proud of you.”
The news of a beautiful lady surprising the ball spread through the whole of Kastoburg like a wildfire the next day and it was all everyone could talk about. The sudden appearance of such a beautiful lady and the king being instantly smitten provided material for all of the gossips for weeks on end. The gossip only increased when news of the king’s proposal began to circulate as well.
Quietly, the number of customers at Philliya’s shop increased as word of who had effected such a dramatic change spread through the court and the upper class ladies. No one risked the same enchantment after learning of its particulars, but they were quite willing to hire her for smaller transformations before parties. Her greatest surge in customers arrived just before the King’s wedding, and, when she attended that wonderful event, she noted that the majority of the best dressed ladies flaunted her enchantments.
After the wedding festivities ended, Philliya completed the purchase of a new and larger shop in a popular area of Kastoburg convenient to the palace. Upon the wall of her new shop a new placard now hung. It read:
“Favored by Queen Saskia.”
The slender child lay stretched out on the dark wooden table staring up at the grand chandelier sparkling in the small shafts of sunlight permitted passage by the ivy crowding the windows. Here and there the glitter was absent or thinner as the sunlight passed over patches where stones had fallen off or had been removed. Not even the stubs of candles remained in the candle cups. Only the drips of wax encrusting the cups and the arms beneath it told of the candles which once lit this grand hall. Cobwebs and dust added their weight to the chandelier, sifting down if a breeze blew into the room from a window missing a pane of glass.
If the child bothered to sit up, from her vantage point she would be able to see the faded green velvet upholstery on the worn chairs, the dirt and leaves staining the patchy carpet, and a grand fireplace black with soot and filled with yet more detritus. But why would she bother? She had seen it enough to long be tired of it. Instead, she continued to gaze up at the chandelier and the rainbows dancing across the ceiling. It wouldn’t last for long. The sun had to shine at precisely the right angle to penetrate through the ivy and, even as she watched, the sun moved too far and the rainbows ceased their play.
The room resumed its normal dull, dim appearance and she slowly sat up, looking around her. The room had once been magnificent, a grand hall filled with banquets and the chatter of finely dressed people. But all those were shadows that she could barely remember now. She couldn’t even remember the smell or taste of the food.
With a sigh, she slid herself to the edge of the table and hopped down. Without the sun to decorate the rooms, the mansion sat in hushed shadowed stillness as she silently wandered through the rooms. The library had once provided her with endless hours of entertainment, but now the tomes had disintegrated into dust, their contents completely beyond access. Bereft of any entertainment or task, she decided to sit in the evening parlor room which overlooked the garden and observe the flowers.
The garden had long shed its manicured appearance and morphed into a wild jungle of plants, trees, and vines, but many of the flowers remained and thrived, showing as splashes of color against the dense greenery. Their petals glowed prettily in the remaining sunlight, the flowers swaying slightly in the breeze which stirred the air outside. Mesmerized, the girl sat in the window seat with her head against the glass and stared down at the garden. She only moved when the sunlight completely disappeared, plunging the mansion into total darkness.
Tonight was the night of a new moon so there would be no moonlight to enjoy. Even the stars hid themselves behind the thickening clouds. Resigned to a boring night, the girl left the parlor and wandered aimlessly. Eventually, her feet took her to the library. Empty as it was, being in that room could bring up the memories of what she’d read, filling the night with something other than darkness.
Halfway through a retelling of her favorite love story, she paused and cocked her head. There it came again: a noise not made by the mansion. She knew all of its noises by now and this was not one of them. It brought back a shadow of a memory. She’d heard that noise before, long ago.
A footstep. That was it. A foot stepping on thick carpet which muffled the sound. That had confused her ears at first.
Curious, she rose out of the chair and slowly approached the wide open door into the hall. When she looked around the doorway, she saw a figure entering the hall from a stair which led to a lower level. In the figure’s hand glowed a light. It was only a small candle, but it lit the darkness in the hall enough for her to see the figure more clearly.
The person, for it was a human, holding the candle had brown hair cropped short and the smooth unblemished skin of the young, but his clothes were so unfamiliar that she had no idea what he was actually wearing. It all blended into a mix of blue with dashes of silver. The young man paused once in the hall and held up the candle to examine the portraits on the wall. Dust settled in all the brushstrokes, obscuring the subjects and he had to use a cloth to wipe them off before he could see their faces.
He appeared satisfied by what he saw because he nodded and examined the portraits more closely as if searching for something. This slowed his progress up the hall and the girl moved into deeper shadows. She watched him, curious as to his purpose. It was the first time in too many years that she had even seen a human face and she wasn’t quite sure what she should do or feel. For now, she would hide, wait and follow.
The young man searched all of the portraits in the hall, but didn’t seem to find what he was looking for. He continued exploring the house, looking into every room, but he only examined the portraits closely. At last, in an upper level in the wing of the house filled with the larger sleeping rooms, he finally found what he searched for.
It was a small painting, less than two feet tall, and unlike every other picture in the house it was covered with a black cloth. The girl vaguely felt that there was a reason he should not touch the portrait, but the memory slid out of her grasp. She could only remain silent and watch as he reached out a hand to remove the cloth. As it slid off in his grasp, the memory finally came to her and she opened her mouth.
A yell filled the hallway, but it wasn’t from her. The man stared in horror at the portrait revealed under the cloth. All of the other subjects had been normal humans, dressed in finery from various eras. But this? The subject was also dressed in finery, from an era far in the past, but the clothes were tattered and bloody. And the thing wearing the clothes was hardly recognizable as a human girl. The small form’s gray desiccated skin was smeared with blood from a long cut across the throat. The corpse stared out at him from the surface of the painting. Or it would have stared if any eyes had remained. The hollow sockets dripped blood and some clear liquid.
Behind him, the girl’s scream finally rang out shrilly, but it went completely unheard by him. The mansion, however, heard her and it shuddered around them both. She wanted to yell at him “Leave! Get out!” but she couldn’t form the words.
Just then the young man overcame his repulsion and snatched the painting from the wall. Hurriedly, he turned and ran right past her, unseeing in his haste to leave the mansion with his prize. Shocked at his audacity, she remained rooted to the spot until his back vanished around the corner. But then, anger overcame the shock and she forced herself to chase after him. She was faster, but he had a head start and the longer legs. She pursued him through hallways and down stair after stair until she finally caught up.
As she came within reaching distance of his back, however, he crossed the threshold of the mansion and escaped out in the open air. She halted, unable to follow him further. Her anguish at the theft stirred the air around the mansion into a gale, attempting to force the man back within her grasp, but he was too strong for the winds to control him. He pushed forward, though he threw one look back towards the open doors.
She thought he might have spotted her, but she was too angry to care. Her fury drove the winds to do her bidding. But, before she could catch the man and retrieve her property, the first rays of the morning sun gilded the top floors of the mansion. Now the anger turned into panic. She had to retrieve that painting. It was urgent. The memory said so.
Her panic inspired the winds into even higher speeds, virtually creating a tornado around the entire mansion. The man started to lose his footing, the strong winds tearing at his clothing. With one final effort, he looked for the sun, found it, and held up the portrait to catch the light creeping down the front face of the mansion. His feet left deep skid marks on the ground as he was pulled towards the front door and her. She reached out a hand to grab the painting.
But she was too late.
The sun rose high enough in the sky to fully illuminate the mansion in bright gold. With a sizzling sound, the sunlight bathed the painting and pain shot through her. The winds faltered as the pain disrupted her concentration. The young man dropped the painting as it fully combusted into fire in the sunlight. He whipped around to look behind him as he finally heard her scream. For one long moment, his eyes met hers and she knew that he truly saw her. He could see her flawless false appearance only for a fleeting second, but then she changed into the same one hidden and locked into the portrait. The moment ended as her transparent body combusted into silver flames. When the flames faded, nothing remained of the girl. Only a pile of ashes, the remains of the portrait, lay on the ground in front of him.
His heart pounded from the averted crisis. If he hadn’t managed to escape, he would have become just another dusty portrait in the mansion. But now, the curse was broken. As he watched, the mansion shuddered and groaned, the magic sustaining it draining away. It collapsed into a pile of rubble with a ground shaking roar, burying forever the dead within. He backed further away as it did, but even so the dust swirled around him.
Choking, he pushed his way through the overgrown path to the rusted gates and crumbling wall of the estate. Both the gates and walls had now collapsed as well and his horse danced at the end of the rope tying it to the tree across the road from the gates.
“Easy now, old boy. There’s nothing to be afraid of anymore. It’s all over.”
The young man patted his horse and soothed him before mounting. He nudged it into a trot and turned towards home, glad that his task was done, but with the knowledge that the memory of that girl’s two faces would be seared permanently into his mind’s eye.
Last Resort Part 1
Natalie’s sigh didn’t escape Miklin’s hearing as he collapsed into the sole unoccupied armchair. Natalie occupied the other one as she had almost every single day since her accident. That one didn’t have as many worn spots and enough cushion remained to prevent the springs from poking through. His chair had at least three springs which vied to poke him in his rear end at the moment. That was one more than last week, Miklin mused, and he wondered exactly how much longer the armchair would last.
The rest of their tiny apartment sported more of the same wear and tear, with Miklin’s own additions and fixes to keep what remained working, but even that wouldn’t last past another few months. The Chandler family had never been rich to begin with so the brother and sister were well accustomed to stretching out everything from food to clothes. And life had worked out just fine until last year.
“No luck again?”
Natalie’s quiet voice broke his spiral of negative ponderings.
“No. None at all. I even revisited that guy over at the docks who said to come back after the latest ship arrived. He did let me work for a few hours, but he’s being decidedly cagey about any future work. And he paid me under the table as well. I get the feeling that he wants to hire me, but he’s worried about pressure coming down from on high.” Miklin snorted roughly. “That bastard.”
Natalie made no sound, but Miklin knew that her face, if he looked, would bear a sad expression. He slapped himself mentally for bringing up such a dark topic.
“The amount he did pay me, however, means that we have food for the week and possibly enough for a little extra. I think he threw in a little bonus after I told him it was your birthday tomorrow.” Miklin smiled at her and leaned over to gently squeeze her hand. “How about it? Cake? A special treat? Anything you want, Nat.”
That did manage to lift the corners of her mouth and she returned the squeeze with both of hers. “I don’t need something fancy for my birthday, Mik. We should use it for something we actually need.”
Her words tore at his heart, but he forced a grin. “If that’s what you want for your birthday, Nat, then that’s what we’ll do. Your choice. Now, you’ve stayed up long enough waiting for my return. Let’s get you ready for bed.”
“Alright. I am tired.” She lifted both her arms and laced them behind his head as he bent to gather her in his arms.
She was so light now, that even he, weak as he was from lack of food, could carry her easily. He acted as her legs while she prepared for bed. The tight quarters made maneuvering tricky, but after an entire year of practice, he accomplished it without adding a single scratch or a bruise to his precious sister.
After sending her to bed, he closed off the alcove with a thin curtain and returned to the living space. His stomach chose then to grumble loudly.
“Shut it.” He punched his stomach, thankful that it had held off complaining till after Natalie went to bed. He hadn’t told her that their food had only lasted so long over the past few weeks due to him skipping meals.
If he didn’t find a steady job soon, the pair of them would probably starve to death. It had taken him quite a bit of effort today persuading the dockside manager to even get hired. If the wrong someone noticed him working, the news would work its way back up the chain to that bastard and then even the manager would feel the backlash. But the man had softened his stance after hearing that it was Natalie’s birthday. Everyone on the station might be totally opposed to hiring him or doing anything to help him, but for Natalie they still had sympathy and small gifts appeared now and then in their dropbox. The gifts bore no names, but he and Natalie could guess the giver occasionally.
He wondered how many of these anonymous helpers would remember Natalie’s birthday. It might have been disingenuous of him, but he had spread the news of her birthday to everyone he had talked to in the past week, hoping that the news would reach the ears of those who might be kind enough to help them out one last time.
Miklin sagged back into the armchair, rubbing his stomach. He would have to eat something or else he wouldn’t have the energy for his daily job hunt the next day. With a groan, he pushed himself up off of the three annoying springs and rifled through the nearly bare pantry. He grabbed a nootbar in the flavor that Natalie hated and broke it in half. It would be enough for now and breakfast.
The bar tasted like a mix of sawdust and cardboard, but it did contain the needed nutrients for survival so he forced it down with some water. The water didn’t taste right, but it had always tasted funny since they’d switched to the cheaper, but less pure, recycled water. It tasted even worse now that their water filter had reached the end of its life. Perhaps Natalie would appreciate it if he used her birthday money to replace the filter.
Miklin woke the next morning to the rattle of the dropbox lid. He stumbled sleepily out of bed to check it. The clock read 04:30, nearly four hours before first shift would begin, but most gifts arrived at odd hours when less people were about to tell tales. As he surmised, the box contained a small package. He smiled after opening it. The gift contained Natalie’s favorite cookies which could only be imported from planetside. Even before their descent into abject poverty, these were a special treat reserved only for birthdays and holidays. Natalie would be excited to see these.
He hid the package under his bed to surprise her with later, and quietly slid out of the door. She wouldn’t wake for another few hours. He would take the time now to buy the necessary items.
Hardly anyone walked the passageways and few of the shops were open at this hour aside from all hour eateries. However, Miklin knew where to look for the cheaper shops which catered to those stuck on the nightshift. In these he found more nootbars and other preserved food to partially fill their pantry. True to Natalie’s wish, he spent the bonus on a single necessary item: a water filter.
It was on his return that he heard someone calling his name in a whisper.
Last Resort Part 2
Miklin jerked around. A figure beckoned to him from the door of one of the darkened shops. He squinted, trying to see the person’s face, but the light was too bad. However, he did approach the person. He had learned over the past year that those who meant him harm would swagger up to him in broad daylight, not whisper at him from dark corners.
Up close he did recognize the person. The elderly woman ran Natalie’s favorite florist on the station and, in the past, she had often stopped in to chat with the store owner.
“Here.” The woman thrust a long thin wrapped item into his hands. “Tell her happy birthday for me.” Then she shut the door in Miklin’s face.
He bowed slightly to the closed door and returned to walking. Another gift for Natalie. And by the shape of it, some kind of flower. This alone would make Natalie happy for weeks.
The dropbox, when he returned, contained yet another package, this one filled with fresh food. He turned on the refrigeration unit before stowing that inside. They so rarely had fresh food that they kept the unit turned off normally to save money.
“Mik, is that you?”
“Good morning!” He pulled back the curtain hiding her bed. “Happy birthday, dear Natalie.”
She smiled up at him. “Have you been sneaking around this early?”
“Me? Sneaking around. I would never. No, I went shopping so we could eat well today. But I think you will be surprised.” He carried her to the kitchen and sat her down at the small table. “It looks like people remembered your birthday and three presents have already arrived.”
“Presents?” Natalie’s face lit up. “Don’t tease me, Mik.”
“Swear on my life, Nat, I am not teasing you. Would you like to see some of them? One of them you can’t see till later, though.”
“First of all,” he retrieved the package from the florist. “Your florist friend waylaid me on my way back. You should open this one first.”
He hadn’t seen her so happy as she carefully opened the paper covering. A single rose rolled out onto the table. It clearly wasn’t in the best condition, but it should last another week or two with proper care. Natalie’s eyes shone with tears as she gently picked up the rose and lifted it to her nose. Miklin blinked back tears of his own and cleared his throat noisily.
“I’ll see if I can find a proper vase for it. I think we still have mom’s somewhere.”
He used that as his excuse to turn away and stick his head into a compartment and hide his tears. It tore him apart to see the change in her. He wished that she could be this happy every day.
True to his word, he did find the crystal vase which used to belong to their mother. A quick wipe cleaned it so the glassy facets glittered in the dim light. “Here you are, Nat. I think the rose will look quite nice in that.”
She placed the rose in the vase and it dangled too far out. “Oh dear, we shall have to cut it down to fit.”
“Yes, we will, but let’s look at your other present first. For this one, you will need to turn a bit.” He stood near the refrigeration unit and waited until she looked over, then he dramatically opened the door to reveal the fresh food.
“Mik! You didn’t buy that, did you?”
“No, no, Nat. This was in one of your presents. We’ll cook it into a splendid meal for your birthday. I know how tired you are of nootbars. So start thinking of what you want me to make.”
“I’m already hungry just thinking about it.” She smiled widely, her happiness practically radiating from her body.
“Now, close your eyes for a minute. I have a small surprise of my own for today, but you woke up too soon for me to finish it.”
She stuck out her tongue at him before doing as told. He waited until he was sure she couldn’t see, before pulling out the new water filter. He removed the old nasty one as quietly as he could and dumped it into the recycling. However, he had to clean the filter slot before inserting the new one. The old one had turned it into a slimy black and green mess. At last, he installed the new filter and turned the water on.
“Mik, turn off the water! You know how much that costs to let it run like that.”
She still had her hands over her eyes when he checked, but a frown showed beneath her hands.
“I know, I know, but this is necessary.” Miklin scooped up a handful of water to taste it and found that the taste had dramatically improved. He filled up a cup and turned off the tap. “Here, drink this. And I’ll fix breakfast.”
“Drink what? I can’t see, remember?”
“Silly woman. You can take your hands off now.”
She did so and stuck out her tongue again. “If you don’t actually tell me what to do, I can’t do it. Silly indeed.”
He laughed and dug out a nootbar in the flavor she could tolerate as well as his half bar. She made a face when he set it down in front of her, but she still unwrapped the bar.
“Why do you only have a half bar? You need more food than that.”
“I ate half of it when I left earlier,” he lied and then changed the subject. “You still haven’t tried your drink yet.”
“It’s just water.”
He shrugged and smiled mysteriously.
He took a bite of his bar, nearly gagged, and rose to fill a cup for himself. After he drank it down, she finally took the glass in hand for a taste.
“You bought a new filter!” she accused.
“Bingo! Happy birthday!” He grinned at her.
“No buts. You said to spend the bonus on a necessary item and I did. That old filter was going to make us sick. So it was necessary to replace it.” Necessary five months ago, he didn’t add.
“How did I know that you’d end up doing something like this? But it’s already done and a used filter can’t be returned. Thank you, Mik, even though this was too expensive of a gift.”
He choked down the last bite of his bar and ruffled her hair. “It’s your birthday. We can afford to splurge a little. Shall we cut the rose and fill the vase with our new clean water? I’m sure the flower will last longer feeding on that.”
She nodded, chewing on her own food. After a trim, the rose didn’t sit in the vase so awkwardly. He transferred both it and Natalie to the living space after she finished eating.
“I’m going out to search. But I’ll be back at the start of second shift instead of staying out late. We’ll have your birthday dinner then.” Miklin bent down to kiss her on the forehead.
“Good luck, Mik!”
Last Resort Part 3
He closed the door behind him and locked it securely. Thieves were common in this portion of the station, but they rarely did more than check for unlocked doors. He hoped that they wouldn’t steal from the dropbox if other packages arrived before his return.
Miklin didn’t have a hope, however, for his job hunt today. His notion of continuing his prowl of the station today was more to serve as a mobile dropbox for any birthday packages that might be sent. A check of the ship status board on the docks dashed any hopes of work. The only ship in dock didn’t need any more dockhands at the moment and no other ship was in system aside from the one which had left the station last week. That one was outbound for the next system over and wouldn’t return for another few months. He sighed and shoved his hands into his pockets.
He had considered asking the trading ships as to whether they would hire him, but then he would have to leave Natalie behind and she needed someone to take care of her. He doubted that a typical crew salary would be able to cover that, even on a rundown station like this one. Going planetside was also out as they had no money to afford tickets down to the surface and the cost of living would be much higher.
Miklin wandered aimlessly through the crowds for the entire first shift, asking here and there if someone needed a laborer for the day. He lucked out at an eatery which had just received a large delivery of food from the planet and needed help transferring and unloading the stock. The pay wasn’t great, but it was something.
Later on, his nose led him to a large spill of sticky melted ice cream a few rings over and he spent the last few hours of first shift helping to clean it up. At the end, the manager handed over his money with a wrinkled nose for the smell on his clothes.
Miklin headed home, obviously shunned by those around him, but he appreciated the bubble of space it created around him. One more package waited in the dropbox when he arrived at home. He set it on the table without opening it.
“Nat, I’m home. But I stink so I’m going to clean up and change clothes.”
“Welcome back.” She held her nose. “You do stink. Just what did you do today?”
“Helped unload food, but the stinky job was cleaning up spilled ice cream.”
“Two jobs today? That’s great!” She smiled. “Go clean up before I lose my love of ice cream, though.”
He laughed and did as he was told. The worst smell had been when he’d worked in the maintenance department for two days cleaning the garbage containers. That smell hadn’t come out of his clothes for weeks.
Cooking dinner filled the apartment with delicious smells for the first time in a month. Miklin cooked and chopped while Natalie chatted and peeled the vegetables. She laid out the strips of peel to dry on a sheet for snacking on later. No scrap of food was wasted by either sibling and by the end they had enough food for several meals. Miklin cringed at the thought of how much extra their electricity bill would be from keeping the food refrigerated, but fresh food was much healthier for them both and Natalie needed the nutrients.
They ate small portions of the food so the food would last longer. Miklin was full for the first time in weeks. At the end of the meal, Miklin brought out the cookies and sang happy birthday completely off pitch.
However, Natalie smiled through the whole song and kissed him on the cheek as thanks. She even shared the cookies with him.
After cleaning up, Miklin was about to move her to the living space, when she asked, “What’s in that package?”
“You don’t want to know. It’s from him. Like usual.”
“Oh.” The happiness from dinner faded. “Take me to my armchair, Mik. I want to look at my rose.”
“As you wish.”
The pair ignored the package for the rest of the evening and played simple games for fun. When Miklin put Natalie to bed, she fell asleep instantly, exhausted from the extra activity that day.
Only then did Miklin open the package on the table. It contained a piece of plaspaper and a credit chip. The letter was signed, but he could tell that it wasn’t done by hand. The paper informed him that the credit chip contained the monthly compensation credit. Miklin crushed the plaspaper in his hand and had to fight his impulse to crush the credit chip as well. This was the money that Natalie deserved, he told himself, so he couldn’t throw it away even though the pitiful amount it contained was just as much of an insult as the impersonal letter which accompanied it. For the thousandth time, he resolved to finally find a job to end their misery.
Natalie’s birthday appeared to have used up all of his luck, however, and three days passed without him earning anything. They finished the last of the fresh food and turned the unit back off to save money, but the bill still hurt when it arrived. The money on the credit chip vanished to pay the bills as well as most of Miklin’s remaining money.
On the fourth day after her birthday, the trading ship undocked and began its slow journey out of the system. Life on the station slowed back down to the normal sluggish pace and jobs became even harder to find.
Two days later, he finally landed a small job replacing someone on the dock who called out sick. He helped unload a shipment from planetside and tried not to drool at the delicacies carefully wrapped in the webbing. These would be eaten by the rich and powerful who controlled the station, not by anyone of his level. He restrained the temptation to pry and find out which shipment was going to the home of that bastard in order to add something extra. He didn’t need the trouble that would bring down on his head.
The next day, a new inbound ship appeared on the boards. Oddly enough, it wasn’t a trading ship at all. Instead it bore the name CMC Eidolon. The name rang a faint bell and Miklin finally connected it to a mercenary company. He didn’t know much about mercs, other than them being soldiers for hire, and he wondered why one of their ships would be visiting here.
Last Resort Part 4
After Natalie went to bed, he accessed the station network and searched for Cardinal Military Corporation. Several items popped up, one of which was a listing for a shop on the station itself. Apparently the mercs ran a very small outpost on the station for some reason. He looked closer at the information and saw that the listing had only been created two days ago. No, this wasn’t a current shop. The ship must be bringing people to create the post. He flagged the listing for any updates on when they would open.
The other items on the search described the history of the corporation, a link to the corporation’s informational guide, and some reviews of past actions. All in all, this particular batch of mercs didn’t seem to be the vile vacuum of morals that mercs often were portrayed as in popular entertainment.
Miklin watched the progress of the merc ship as it crawled in system over the next few days. It moved much faster than the normal trading ships, however, and it arrived after only four days. In that time, his luck at finding jobs dried up even more to the point where they could barely afford to buy food for the next week.
Half-starved, he resolved to visit the mercs as soon as their post opened its doors. Perhaps they wouldn’t mind docking his pay to provide an advance for Natalie and surely mercs would pay a better salary than a trading ship due to the danger quotient of the job.
It took the mercs nearly two days to set up their new outpost. Miklin saw plenty of their soldiers around the station. They moved in pairs or larger groups with a high level of discipline and had the appearance of being well-fed and cared for. Those that ran the station nearly bent over backwards to accommodate them as the new outpost would bring in newcomers and fresh business for all. It was the constant stream of high level visitors which kept Miklin from visiting the outpost himself when it first opened.
He was at the point of despairing ever being able to enter, when the stream of visitors finally died off. Now only those in CMC uniforms entered and exited the post and two stood on guard with weapons outside the door.
Miklin ate the half nootbar and waited for his stomach to stop rumbling. It wouldn’t do to appear starved during his visit. Then he steeled himself and headed for the door.
“Halt.” One of the guards brought his weapon up. “What business do you have here?”
Miklin halted and straightened. “I was hoping to talk with a recruiter.”
The other guard spoke quietly into a wrist unit and nodded at the response. “You can go inside.”
“Um, thank you.” Miklin tried not to let his nerves show at this display of authority. He’d been conditioned to avoid the authorities on this station for so long that he had an automatic skittish reaction to their presence. It didn’t help that he thought he could feel a faint trace of amusement from both guards at his reaction.
He pushed open the door to find a small room containing three chairs, a desk, cabinets and a few plants. Behind the desk sat a man in the same uniform as the guards but with more braid and metals on it. The man stood up and held out a hand.
“Welcome. I’m Lieutenant Maxwell Franks. You are?”
Miklin shook the offered hand. “Miklin Chandler.”
“Then, Mr. Chandler, take a seat.” He sat in the single chair behind the desk.
Miklin chose the chair farther away from the door as it was angled so as to still see the door.
The lieutenant noticed the choice but didn’t comment on it. “What can we at Cardinal Military Corporation do for you, Mr. Chandler?”
“I’m...looking for a job.” Miklin blurted it out before he lost his nerve.
“I see. Usually people are when they come to see us. Or they wish to hire us. You don’t, pardon me, look like the latter.”
“No, uh, sir.” Miklin smiled faintly at the joke. “Are you hiring?”
“We are always hiring, provided you can pass bootcamp. It’s not an easy job and more than likely you’ll never return to this station or planet ever again, unless, of course, you quit or flunk out.”
“I’m perfectly fine with never seeing this station ever again.” Miklin couldn’t hold back the bitterness in his voice.
The other man didn’t seem surprised by it, however, but looked at him thoughtfully. “How about you be honest with me and tell me what you are running from?”
Miklin sighed. He might as well. The merc officer would find out as soon as he searched for his name in the station’s records.
“First of all, I didn’t commit a crime. I’m not running from the law.”
The man nodded. “Go on.”
“Just over a year ago, no, it’s closer to a year and a half by now, I and my sister were perfectly fine and we both worked jobs in this station. Low level jobs, but they provided what we needed. I used to do inventory for Ember & Spice, an eatery over in the nicer district, and my sister worked at the same place but in administration. She was always more of a numbers person than I and she processed the buy orders while I stocked and kept track of the inventory. However, she found a discrepancy in the accounts while doing research for one of the orders. She told me and I told her to keep her mouth shut about it. Ember & Spice was run by the son of the station manager so revealing the discrepancy would only cause trouble that we didn’t need.
“And she did keep quiet. However, then she happened to visit the warehouse to check on the items in the latest order. A piece of equipment went haywire and knocked down shelves. Many people were injured, but my sister was nearly killed. She was and still is crippled. And that bastard that owned the eatery refused to pay proper compensation for the accident. The courts never properly punished him or E&S for the accident and it was all hushed up by the station manager. So, I resolved to get even.”
Last Resort Part 5
Miklin sighed and scrubbed at his face. “I know, it was stupid, but I felt I couldn’t do nothing. Every night I returned home to see my crippled sister and it drove me crazy. So, I gathered information on the accident and the account discrepancies and I realized I had enough to seriously hurt the business if I played my cards right. This time I didn’t bother with the station police. I sent it directly to the police planetside and to the tax department in the government. They cracked down on E&S and the owner so fast that the station master couldn’t do more than save him from going to prison. The eatery was shut down and seized by the authorities. I lost my job, but the owner was forced to pay compensation to everyone who had been injured in the accident. However, the station manager rigged it so his son only had to pay a tiny amount to each person.
And it was when I tried to find a new job that I found out the worst news. Someone leaked my involvement to the station manager or his son and they retaliated by blacklisting me and threatened to do the same for anyone who hired me. I haven’t had a steady job since and my sister and I are barely surviving on what I can find for work now and then.”
“I see. And going planetside?”
“Never an option. What money we had went to keeping my sister alive and we could never afford the tickets to leave. Also, I never knew how much power and connections the station manager would have planetside to make our lives hell.”
“So, you are saying that you need to take care of your sister somehow and you aren’t free and clear to leave this station?”
Miklin hung his head. “That’s right. I would want both of us to leave and to set her up in a different location. I wouldn’t betray her by leaving her behind in this cesspool.”
“That could possibly be arranged, provided you actually pass bootcamp. I will need to contact those you previously worked for to find references on your work.” He held up a hand. “Don’t worry. Blacklists mean nothing to us. We hire misfits from all sorts of backgrounds, both innocent and even some criminal. Your situation isn’t new to us. Do you think you can survive bootcamp?”
Miklin straightened at the officer’s doubtful look. “Yes, I can do it. If I can have some square meals before then.”
“You’re that far gone?”
Miklin flushed. “There’s no money so we make food last as long as possible.”
“Meaning you skip meals so your sister is fed. Well, you definitely have willpower in abundance. I’ll contact my superiors back at our home base to arrange for your sister. I think we can arrange for passage if you give up free passage home. We provide a ticket home for those that quit or flunk out normally.”
“I can accept that. Anywhere should be better than here. Even if I do flunk out, I can find a normal job. It’s just being blacklisted here that’s been my downfall. People here try to help us on the side, but they can’t do it openly without being hammered.”
Lieutenant Franks tapped on his tablet and brought up an electronic form. “Read this and sign it. Once you do, you’ll officially be recruited.”
The form contained quite a bit of text and Miklin felt dizzy just looking through it, so he skipped most of it and signed. A job was a job, regardless of the fine print. This would be their ticket off station.
“I’ll send you a copy of the form for reading later. I hope, in the future, you’ll be more careful about reading before signing.”
Miklin flushed at his tone. “Yes, sir.”
“Welcome to Cardinal.” He stood up and held out his hand. “Our ship will most likely be leaving in less than a week. Be ready to leave on her.”
“My sister too?”
“Most likely. Send me a copy of her latest medical report so I can check to see if she can be accommodated on the ship.”
Miklin shook the officer’s hand. “Thank you. Thank you for giving me a chance.”
“Mercs like us exist to give people second chances. I hope you succeed. Also, I’ll send some food to your home. We can’t have you walking around as our employee looking like you’ll keel over and die at any moment. You’ll need to present yourself for a medical evaluation either before leaving or once on board the ship.”
“Thank you once again.”
True to his word, a large package filled the dropbox upon Miklin’s return. The mercs worked fast to deliver the food. Natalie’s jaw dropped wide open as she watched Miklin unload all of the fresh food into the unit.
“Where did that come from?”
“I’ve got a new job, Nat. They provided the food.”
“But won’t that come out of your first paycheck? And what job? Who would hire you?”
“If it does, that’s ok. They will provide food and board so I don’t have to worry about having no pay for a while.” He finished and shut the unit door. “I went to the mercs who just set up shop on the station, Nat. They hire people like us who need a second chance. I just have to survive bootcamp.”
“Mercs?! But that would take you away from here? And don’t they all have questionable morals?”
“I looked them up. Cardinal Military Corporation is rated pretty highly as being honorable. They don’t take just any contract. And yes, I will be leaving. Most likely in the next week when their ship leaves the station.” Miklin wiped away his sister’s tears. “Don’t cry, Nat. I got them to agree to take you along too. Since I never want to come back here, they’ll pay for your passage on the same ship to CMC’s home base. At the worst, you’ll leave on a different ship later on. We’ll find a place for you to live on that planet.”
“Really! I’m not going to abandon you. I’m doing this for both of us. So, start thinking about what you want to bring with us. We probably won’t be allowed much cargo space, so we may have to leave things behind.”
“As if we even have that much. Packing won’t be hard.”
The next package to arrive contained more food and a letter with a checklist to complete as well as where to report for the medical check.
Miklin completed the checklist,passed the medical check, barely, and finally it was time to present himself and his sister to board the ship. He carried her out of their apartment and placed her in the rented hoverchair. They watched the door close for the last time on a place that contained so many memories, but then they turned their backs on it. A few people dared to openly come and wish them good-bye. The florist even presented Natalie with another flower.
Natalie stiffened when Miklin guided her chair up to the boarding tube for the merc ship, CMC Eidolon. Two guards stood at the entrance examining them with professional interest. Miklin presented their papers.
“Miklin Chandler and Natalie Chandler?”
“That’s all in order. That hover chair won’t fit up the boarding tube. Medical will come and escort you on board.”
“Thank you.” That came from Natalie and the guard softened slightly.
“It’s my job, Miss.”
An hour later, Miklin found himself assigned to a bunk in a room filled with lower ranked soldiers. Natalie had a place in a female junior officer’s cabin close to the medical center. He wouldn’t be able to see her much while on board outside of meals, but he felt that she would do well even so.
And then, less than 24hrs later, the engines rumbled to life, slowly moving the ship away from the station. Miklin didn’t have an assigned station so he found a viewport to watch the station disappear.
Oddly enough, he did feel slightly sad at leaving it behind, but excitement for the future overwhelmed the sadness. Whatever lay ahead would certainly be better than what they left behind. He was sure of it.