9845 words (39 minute read)

Chapter 2


By Jamie R. Stone



It’s morning. Again. That loud burst of sunlight makes me cringe every time it creeps up above the trees. The way it shines through the bars paints these bright, thick lines across my chest and face. It’s nauseating, so I pull myself up from the ratty mattress just to get back into the shady part of my cell.

The wrinkly old sheets of parchment I was rereading to myself the night before had slid off my chest and onto the floor. I pick them up and fold them back up. I slip them into my breast pocket as if I was folding a freshly ironed tunic. I pick up some blank pieces of parchment and a pencil and get back to working on my own little piece of literature. No matter how many times I write this letter, it never comes out right. How do you sum up twenty-six years of mistakes in three pages?

I feel this familiar echo of a rumble in my stomach, signifying to me that it’s time to eat. I always wish I could sleep through these feelings, but prison protocol forbids waking up any later than the crack of dawn. Luckily for me I never have to stick around in this cell for too long. My ears perk up as a horn goes off in the halls. Shame it’s not one of those lengthy prolonged ones; those get me real excited. A craggy, demonic voice reverberates off the walls to rape our ears into submission.

“OPEN ‘EM UP!” screeches the voice, a thousand times worse than the reprimand of any school teacher you’ve ever had. The hefty, metal door to my cell automatically opens up before me in unison with a hundred others around me as the sound of chunky gears rotating fills the halls, dragging the doors sideways. I am free from my prison, and yet I feel even more trapped.


Now I’m just going to follow this guy in front of me until I get to my duty assignment in the factory. I do this of my own free will, as the man barking orders is more like background noise to me. After all, I’m all too well acquainted with following orders; it’s become like second nature to me. And let’s face it, it’s a lot easier to follow orders and do what you’re told than to rebel.

The sound of shuffling feat ricochets throughout the halls of the prison, massaging my ears as it lulls me into a sort of waking sleep. I’m trapped in a daze as I peer through my eyelids at the back of the guy in front of me. My line of prisoners turns a corner as we brush past another line going the opposite direction. That’s when it happens. A sizable mass of muscle pushes past me, then pauses to look back at me. I keep my pace in an effort to ignore him, but I can feel him breathing down my neck.

“Well, if it isn’t the soldier boy…” says the lumbering hulk of testosterone.

Normally I know how to respond to these kinds of jabs, but in this place, I know things would only escalate. And that’s not why I’m here. I continue to ignore him.

“I’ve heard about you, Deus… Heard what you did… ‘Spose you think you’re somethin’ special, huh?”

I never thought I’d be on the other side of this social class war, since I usually play the tough guy. I feel a sack of meat flop onto my shoulder when I realize it’s his hand as he turns me around. “You LOOK at me when I talk to you.” He glares into my eyes and smirks. “That’s better.”

“Look… I don’t want any trouble, Hammer…” I say to him, only half believing myself. The truth is a fight would be invigorating at this point. I just know it would not bode well for me in the long run.

“You should have thought about that before you did what you did… D’you remember a kid named Bertram?” he asks me before scoffing to himself. “Of course you don’t… You’re too special to notice the little guys… Well, you know what they say, family always comes first.” I look back at him trying to stifle any emotion. “You got a debt that needs paying… and if that means pummeling you into a deep, dark crater, then that’s what I’m gonna do.”

I feel a familiar feeling in the pit of my stomach, like there’s no staving off the inevitable. I look back at him with a clenched fist and ready myself for a massacre.


A dark castle stretched toward the sky as dark, swirling clouds painted the horizon. Once a magnificent edifice, it was now a shell of its former glory, along with a dozen others sitting atop floating barges of rock. These castles, once fortified to keep malevolent forces out, were now used exclusively to keep prisoners in.

Tall, arched windows cascaded along the sides of the castle, looking dark and bereft of life—all but one. A flickering blue aura emitted from the window as shadowy figures passed through it.

“Utterly ingenious, Jinik,” gushed a weathered, graying man with a bent over arch in his back. “Now the dead will be served well, thanks to this new filtration system… Good work, my boy.” The man walked with a hastened stride to an ambient lit pool, souls swirling into a vortex of shimmering white light. The old man’s lips crinkled to form a smirk as he placed his hand gently upon the young man’s shoulder.

“Thank you, Father. I call it The Cleanser…” chirped Jinik with a humble down-turned smile as he brushed back his curly black hair. He showed little to no enthusiasm on his soft face despite his father’s accolades, however, his blue eyes seemed to gleam with pride. A small blond-haired child stood uncomfortably close to Jinik and tugged on his tunic, causing him to avert his gaze.

“Oh, yes, and Callus helped, Father,” said Jinik, looking down at Callus, more than happy to share the credit.

“I drew the conceptual drawings, Father!” cheered Callus, sprawling the drawings out onto the elongated dinner table nearby, each drawing meticulously designed with straight edges and perfectly symmetrical circles. All of them were inscribed with neon blue crayon wax. “Please do look over them when you get the chance!”

Their father laughed at Callus’ forward gesture. “Why, these are simply brilliant… When ever did you ever get around to designing them?” Their father knelt down slowly by the dinner table and inspected each of them one by one.

“When you were bed-ridden, Father…” the child said, looking down at his tiny moccasins, one covering the other. “I wanted to surprise you.”

“It’s a wonderful surprise, Cally… Thank you.”

“Pah!” scoffed a young man wearing a disheveled green sweater vest and brown jacket made of cowhide, his scuffed up brown shoes propped up on the rim of the Cleanser. He seemed to be thumbing through a ratty old book entitled, The Dark Do Sleep. He shut it closed, releasing dust into the air as he leered at the others through half-closed eyes. He combed his chestnut-colored hair back with one hand and sprung himself off his chair, transitioning into a slow gait. “Is this meeting adjourned, Lord Hessic? I really do have more important things to attend to…”

Hessic raised himself up slowly as he used Callus’ shoulder as leverage. He leaned in close to the young man and spoke in a tense, low-pitched voice, “Adam… I asked you never to call me that. You will respect me in my home, whether that be down here in the Underworld or up above… After everything I have done for you, it is the least you can do.”

The young man turned to the decrepit man and whispered snidely, “Can I leave now… Father?”

Hessic shifted his gaze to the pool of souls nearby, wearing a look of fatigue. He looked down at the miserable souls that swirled within it. “So many broken dreams… So many who died alone… without anyone to mourn their loss,” he said, looking back up at Adam.

Adam’s expression remained cold and unmoving. His father continued looking at him expectantly, hoping in vain to elicit some kind of positive response.

“For the first few hundred years,” said Hessic, averting his gaze from his son. “I accepted your feelings and respected them… But there comes a time when we must overcome past hurt… When we must learn to evolve… and learn from our mistakes.”

“Mistakes?” said Adam, gritting his teeth. He shifted his piercing gaze to his father. “MY MISTAKE WAS LETTING THAT FOOL LIVE!” He leaned over the pool and looked vacantly at the trapped souls. How pathetic, he thought… and yet, he empathized with them. He was trapped there just like them. Meanwhile, his brothers were preoccupied, mulling over Callus’ drawings and enjoying a much lighter conversation.

“Your behavior is becoming a detriment to everyone,” whispered Hessic, his voice punctuated with every word he uttered. “I cannot and will not let it tear this family apart. I will NOT let you do to this family what you tried to do in the Overworld.” Adam’s gaze shot to his father as he lifted himself from the pool and pointed at his father.

“Don’t you lecture me,” Adam grunted. He turned to his siblings, presently dabbling in a creative discussion. “Had my BROTHERS been through what I have, perhaps they would FEEL as I do. Perhaps YOU ALL would understand what TRUE MISERY feels like...” He raised his voice, wearing a resentful scowl on his face. Both Jinik and Callus looked up from their joint project at their brother’s routinely petulant display.

“Lower your voice, Adam…” whimpered Hessic, trying not to alert the attention of his other two boys. “I will not abide your harsh tone.”

“Do not blame him, Father…” added Callus, interjecting his way into the conversation. “It is simply within his nature to complain. I am sure he will find a project to occupy himself, and once that has fizzled out, he will continue this cycle of self-mourning.”

“Do not condescend to me unless you intend to fight me in your true form,” said Skegs as he muscled toward the small child. Callus disappeared in a swirling cloud of black dust and a fully grown man took his place.

“Perhaps I wouldn’t have to condescend if you rose up from out of your pit of despair and enjoyed life a bit more.”

“You are not helping, Callus…” stressed Hessic, exasperated. Callus looked back at his father and shrank back into his childlike form again before joining Jinik back at the Cleanser.

Hessic leaned in closer to Adam, trying a different approach. “Son... I want you to understand that my time here is limited… Soon, one day, you will inherit all of this.” Adam looked over at him patiently. “You have been given every advantage to thrive down here; a magnificent home, all the books you could ever want, and do not forget… you are never alone. Only those who choose to be alone suffer.”

Adam looked down at his brothers. Jinik looked back at him in anticipation, hoping he would see the light of reason while Callus merely looked off into space. Adam could only feel that any amount of understanding on his part would make him look weak, and so he continued his tirade. “As long as I am forced to live here, I will always be suffering…”

Jinik turned to his moody brother and put his hand on his shoulder. “No one doubts you have suffered, Brother, and we all care for you greatly…” Jinik looked over at Callus with an expectant look, his eyebrows raised. “Don’t we, Callus?” Adam looked over at his brother, feeling annoyed that he would dare take pity him.

The child looked up at them with a wide-eyed expression, as if caught with his hand in a cookie jar. He panned his gaze to his father, who communicated with an encouraging nod. Callus sighed and gave in to their pleas. “Of course, dear brother…” he agreed, finally. “Though I may sound harsh, I do it only in jest… You should learn to have some fun. We only have one life; we may as well enjoy it!”

“Perhaps it is time,” continued Jinik, a concerned look on his face, “for Father’s sake, that you take more of an interest in the inner workings of our kingdom down here… I find that a creative outlet helps me greatly.”

“So, Adam… What do you think? Do you think you are ready…” Hessic paused, “…to make the best of things here?” He supported himself with his staff as his old bones started to creak. Adam looked at his father with a stifled sincerity, pitying him for his hopeful demeanor. He glanced briefly at his brothers as his gaze fell downward at the pool of miserable ethereal spirits circling the Cleanser. He squeezed his book and held it out in front of him, gesturing to his family.

“To make the best of something… that is already the worst of all things… is the very concept of fiction.” Adam turned to walk away with his head facing forward, taking his book with him as he disappeared through the large archway. Hessic and Jinik sighed with disappointment as Callus nonchalantly took out an apple from his deep, sunken pockets. He took a generous bite out of it, as if he were releasing his anger through it.


Theodore walked down the hall with a sense of purpose. He adjusted his hair with one hand while gripping the handle of a giant leather case with the other. He stuffed his linen shirt into his pants. While doing this, he dropped the leather case haphazardly to the floor, the latches unbuckling as the contents spilled out; vials, medical supplies, as well as the somewhat fragile Ventriculator device. He picked the things back up and gathered them all back into the case. He hefted the case back up with a grunt and hurried faster down the hall with worried enthusiasm.

King Kellian sat in a solemn, soppy robe in his glittering gold throne. He looked over at a large clock hanging on the opposite end of the room. He watched as the second hand clicked its way from 3 to 4 to 5. The time mocked him as his brow beaded with sweat. A droplet slipped down his cheek, smacking against his silk, purple vest as it slid down his brown slacks and faded into its cotton pores. Alexander fanned off the excess condensation on the King’s face and watched as the old man’s eyes glazed over with exhaustion—not from the heat. Alexander looked out of the window to see a harsh wind blowing against the sparsely leafed trees. He strengthened his fanning to please the King.

“Is that better, Your Majesty?” he asked in vain. The King didn’t respond.

Walking slowly up the stairs, Leeya placed a kettle of tea down on a silver platter beside the King. She poured the tea and almost topped it off when a bony, wrinkled hand gripped her wrist, making her jump back, spilling some tea onto the platter.

“Do I look like I need hot tea?!” he yelled out, scolding her as sweat glistened on his cheeks.

She looked over at the King into his tired, desperate eyes. “Of course, Your Majesty,” she said softly. “How silly of me… Let me clean this up for you…” She tenderly placed her hand over the King’s and gently lifted it off and back onto his armrest. His eyes faded away from her as she walked nervously away with the pot of tea.

The doors on the other side of the room burst open to reveal a giant leather case, then a man with a thin, navy coat following closely behind it. Upon seeing this, the King hacked strongly into a handkerchief. He looked down at it with curiosity and saw flecks of blood staining the cloth. He put the handkerchief away quickly and sat up straight in his seat. Theodore walked up to the steps before the King and plunked the heavy case down to the floor.

“Theodore… Is that you…?” asked the King through tired, half-closed eyes.

“Yes, Your Majesty. Please do forgive my tardiness. I had a breakthrough last night and I did not want to disturb you unless I had shown considerable progress.”

“My most loyal of scientists...” the King smiled with a crinkled smile. “How was your trip to the mountains then?”

“Exhilarating, Your Majesty... It was quite a perilous journey, but not without some notable finds, hence why I’m here. You see, I have brought back an unusual specimen with extraordinary properties... And it is my professional opinion that it will be able to help you.”

“Theodore…” the King said while breathing with a sigh. “Though you have tried, I think you and I both know I am beyond help at this point... I have tried all known medicines, panaceas, and cure-alls that my gold could buy… and my body has rejected every single one of them. Both shamans and scientists alike are stumped by my affliction.”

“I assure you, Your Majesty,” Theodore said with a slight smile. “Your shamans haven’t shown you anything like this...” Theodore walked back over to his leather bag and anxiously pulled out the Ventriculator device. He presented it to the King as if it were the crown jewel of the Kingdom.

“What in God’s name is that?” asked the King with intrigue.

“I call it the Ventriculator device," he said as he approached the King with it. “If my calculations are correct, after I have fitted you with this, the device will respond by regulating the blood flow to your heart, and you will start to feel a lot better.” The King held up his hand with hesitation.

“Is this your idea of a joke, Kemis?” the King said, raising his voice, causing him to cough uncontrollably. “You expect me to wear that thing?” He hacked blood up onto his hand.

“With all due respect, Your Majesty… There are no other options,” said Theodore with sincerity in his voice. The King looked at him with a slight twitch in his eye, his eyebrows raising as the corner of his mouth contracted into his cheek as he debated internally with himself.

“Fine, Theodore… You win… How long must I wear this contraption of yours?”

“Until I can devise a suitable antidote to replace it... Now, please, sit back.” Theodore glanced up at the two guards on either side of the King as they stood calm and still with their spears. The King lay limply in his seat as Theodore inched his way over to the King with the device. He opened up the King’s vest and then opened his undershirt as silver hairs curled out from underneath. Theodore placed the device flat against his chest as a shiver shot through the King.

“Ahhh!” gasped the King as his skin tightened from the cold metal. One of the guards glanced down at the King and then forward again when he realized the King had merely flinched. Theodore smiled at him as he breathed hot air onto the back of it. “Thank you,” the King said as he shrank back into his seat again. Theodore attached the device to his chest and then began to twist the crank located on the front of it. Two times. Three times. He twisted one final time as the device began to light up on both sides, the gears spinning inside of it. The tubes began transporting various liquids in and out of the device. The King appeared to be breathing easily at that point as Theodore felt a swelling of pride.

Before he had a chance to celebrate, the King jolted up from his seat, grabbing at his chest as he felt a surge of energy course through him. The King yelled out loud as he stood, heaving with rage as he grabbed Theodore by his lapels. The guards took their spears and pressed them sharply against his neck. Leeya could do nothing but observe in horror as she gripped the platter of tea, paralyzed with fear.

“Your Majesty stands!” Theodore said with amazement. “Your Majesty STANDS!” he yelled out, backing away slowly while the guards still had their spears on him. The King became aware of what he was doing and loosened his grip on Theodore’s coat.

Leeya looked at the two guards and ran over to them, pulling one spear off of Theodore. “GET OFF OF HIM, YOU FOOLS!” Leeya cried out as the guards became aware of the King’s wellbeing. They lifted their spears tepidly as Leeya stood there huffing with a big sigh as she regained her position holding the tray of tea. Theodore looked back at her with a nod as he rubbed at his neck, relieved.

The King felt a jolt of energy shoot through his veins as he felt invigorated for the first time in years. His eyes closed as he leaned his head back, feeling the full rush of his newfound energy. “His majesty stands…” Theodore said once more in a whisper.

The King looked up at the two guards on either side of him. “Get out of here. The both of you.” The guards looked at him.

“Your Majesty?” one of them said. The King gestured to them to shoo.

“Get out… NOW!” he shouted. The guards marched out of the room. Left with only Leeya and Theodore, the King extended his hand to him, though he was still shaken up from the confrontation. “Guards… They haven’t a brain in their thick skulls,” said the King with a laugh. Theodore could barely mutter a mild chuckle. “Theodore Kemis…” said the King, practically begging for his hand. “I am so incredibly grateful for all that you have done… Thank you.” His hand hung there waiting for a firm shake from Theodore.

Theodore glanced over at his ginger-haired love, gazing at him with concern. She was sure that what just happened was merely a reflex, but despite this she began to feel fear for the first time in her employ with the King. Despite her reservations, she smiled at him with a reassuring gaze.

Feeling calmer now, Theodore extended his hand to the King and proceeded to shake it. “Nonsense. It is the duty of a scientist, Your Majesty…” Theodore said with a crooked smile as the King looked back at him with admiration. There would be no conflict on that day, because the King was cured, albeit temporarily. It was everything Theodore had hoped for, and no matter what the future held, this would be the defining moment of his life.


Theodore walked with a spring in his step down the corridors of the castle as sun rays popped through the stained glass windows. He pulled out a small wooden box and looked inside it as the sun rays made the small object inside the box sparkle. The rays turned every step he made a different color against the oak floor, almost as if he was walking on a rainbow of his own making.

He reached for the giant rusted handles of the wooden doors at the end of the hallway, flinging them wide open and bracing himself for the new day. The outside faded into view as he saw a glorious green field with fountains made of stone and small wooden bridges arching over babbling brooks. He looked to his left and saw a large maple tree in the distance with a young golden-haired woman sitting beside it. He rushed his way past the bridge-covered brooks and tip-toed on the rim of the stone fountain in an effort to mask the noise caused by his footsteps. All this while his love slept silently under the giant maple tree.

He could feel his heart beating in his chest, a certain awkwardness in his once confident stride. He could see her closely now; she seemed to be asleep.

Leeya’s eyelids twitched as she dreamed with an expressionless face. Two large hands reached in front of her face and blocked her eyes as she awoke from her sleep with a gasp.

“Guess who…” said Theodore with a grin.

“William!” Leeya yelled at once.

“The… Gardener?” said Theodore, confused by her guess.

“Jenkins?!” she guessed a third time with a large smile on her face.

“Now you are simply making people up,” said Theodore, convinced that she was toying with him. By now, the smile on her face was evidence that she knew exactly who it was. She reached up for Theodore’s hands and pulled them down to her collar. She squeezed them as she looked up at him feeling pleased with herself.

“You need to practice stealth, my love… How do you ever expect to surprise someone sufficiently?” said Leeya playfully as she pecked him on the cheek.

Theodore smiled, scoffing at her as he kissed her on the forehead. “Someday, I will be there to surprise you… and trust me, it will be worth it.”

Up in a third story tower, King Kellian looked out onto the courtyard at the two lovers standing by the big tree. He felt a strange emotion come over him as Theodore took out something from his pocket. He opened it and it twinkled from all the way across the courtyard. The King’s eyebrows narrowed as Theodore got down on one knee. His mouth agape, he leaned forward as if to get a better look, but was merely blinded by the sunlight from outside the window.

“Your Majesty?” spoke one of the King’s advisers. The King looked back from his distraction in a daze at the men before him. “Your thoughts?” said the adviser.

“About?” asked the King, bewildered.

“The rebuilding of the irrigation canal in the lower district… Your Majesty was going to evaluate them for approval today.” The man bit his upper lip while squinting his eyes.

“Oh, of course… I will approve that for now, but keep me updated on the construction costs. If it gets out of hand, we will have more to worry about than where our pipes funnel out.” The room chuckled at the King’s response.

“Of course, Your Majesty,” said the man with a faint smile. “Next order of business…”

King Kellian looked out the window again to see that both Theodore and Leeya were gone.


Leeya rode confidently, whipping the horse with her crop while Theodore gripped her waist tightly from behind. His thick, dark goggles hid the fact that he was soaked with fear. Though he was an intrepid explorer at heart, when it came to unpredictable beasts of burden, he could not contain his dread. Anything beyond his control was outside the bounds of his comfort zone.

“Are… we… there… yet?” asked Theodore while gritting his teeth, his chin draped over Leeya’s shoulder. She looked back at him as her uncovered blue eyes gleamed in the sunlight.

“It’s just over that hill!” she yelled out, pointing to a tree on top of a hill. Theodore peaked behind himself and saw Kellian’s castle in the far distance. He dreamed of the sweet mundanity of being back in his lab studying rocks.

“And you are… certain that… His Majesty… allowed you… to leave for… the entire day?” Theodore said as the ride chopped up his sentence into stuttered chunks.

“Of course!” she yelled back at him in one syllable as her golden hair flipped in the breeze. Theodore’s eyes rolled as he returned to his hunched position. Her hair slapped him across the face as they made their way up the steep hill. They were finally over the hump as Leeya spotted a small cottage downhill of them. Theodore held on tighter as his eyes closed with fear. “Open your eyes! You have to look or it will just get worse!”

Theodore squished his eyes shut as the horse galloped down the hillside. He felt his stomach leap into his chest as he gritted his teeth. As they reached the bottom of the valley, the horse slowed as Leeya pulled on the reins. They stopped at a small stone cottage with smoke spouting from the chimney.

“See? That wasn’t so bad,” she said with leaping off the horse in one elegant move. Theodore looked at her with a twisted smirk. “I forgot that you don’t like to ride horses,” she said as she anchored the horse to a wooden post.

“Horses, oxen, zebras… Anything fast and furry, really,” said Theodore while robotically finding his way off the horse. Leeya smiled and came closer to him, looking into his goggle-covered eyes. She lifted the lenses up over his eyes.

“This means a lot to me, Theodore…”

“Me too,” he said with soft eyes while taking off his scarf and goggles.

“By the way, there’s something I forgot to tell you about my Aunt… She’s—”

Before Leeya could finish, the front door to the cottage slammed open. They looked on as an old, grumpy-looking woman walked out onto the cobblestone walkway. As she looked up, she smiled at the couple and opened her arms wide.

“Leeya, my girl!” the old woman shouted. “It’s been such a long time since I’ve seen you!” Leeya towered over the stout, elderly woman as they wrapped their arms around one another. Leeya looked back at Theodore who seemed to be standing awkwardly to the side.

“Aunt Hilda... I want to introduce you to Theodore Kemis.” She outstretched her hand to Theodore. He came forward with hesitation, grabbing her hand with a nervous smile. “He is the King’s Head Scientist!”

Hilda looked at Theodore up and down, as if she were sizing him up in her mind. She didn’t seem very impressed. “You’re taller than I expected...” Theodore looked at her with confusion, then turned to Leeya with a strange smirk as he was under the impression this meeting was intended to be a surprise. “Well, come on in,” she said, interrupting her own thought process. “We’re going to have a lot of fun!” The old woman laughed and patted Theodore on the back, walking him into the cottage. “Have you ever had your palm read, Theodore?” Leeya followed them in while trying to contain her own laughter.

* * *

Once inside, Theodore inspected the cottage by simply walking around it as if he was perusing a shop. All the furniture looked handmade, carvings of an abstract language covering the brunt of them. Candles littered the house in no coherent order as if they were probably left there over time; reading a book over here, looking for something underneath there, admiring a painting over her fireplace, etc. The house had a haphazard quality to it, and one that did not seem to agree with Theodore’s propensity for order, causing him to feel uncomfortable and stiff.

“Theodore, would you like to give me those to hold?” asked Hilda, motioning to his gloves. He looked down at his gloves as something held him back.

“I would rather not, thank you,” he said with a polite smile.

“Suit yourself,” said Hilda as she went to heat up some water in a kettle in her fireplace. He looked over at her bookcase and noticed that the books were facing the wrong way; the edges of their pages were pointing out instead of their spines. He looked back over at Leeya who was examining some sort of pen placed arbitrarily on one of the wall units. Hilda looked back at her as she put the kettle down on the table in front of Theodore. "Ah, now that's a special pen... Not ordinary in the slightest..."

"Well don't tease me, Aunty. What does it do?" asked Leeya, smiling and holding the pen like a drumstick of chicken.

"Be careful with that,” said Hilda in a serious tone. Leeya looked over at her intense expression as it faded into a smile. “Only jesting! Go ahead and take it. I’ve got lots of them around the house… Besides, you never know when you might need to jot something down," she said with a wink. Leeya pocketed the strange pen.

“I suppose I will,” Leeya said with a rye smile.

“So, Theodore, I understand you’ve recently come back from a vacation?” asked Hilda as she poured some tea in Theodore’s cup.

“Hah, nothing of the sort,” he said with a laugh. “More of an expedition... to the Calatonian mountain ranges...” Hilda raised an eyebrow yet did not respond to him. “They are really quite interesting… Have you been?” he asked with a spark of enthusiasm.

“Oh, no, dear boy... I would never dare to venture there...” she said as she pursed her lips, sipping her tea slowly.

“Why not?” asked Theodore. What could possibly be dangerous in Catalonia, he thought. Their main export was sheep’s wool.

“Legend tells that those mountains were once the meeting place for less than well-meaning gods long ago... It’s said to be cursed...” She sipped some of her tea and looked back at him. “Of course, that doesn’t mean I don’t take the occasional trip to the valley there,” she said with a laugh as Theodore smirked.

“Aunt Hilda goes to the Davin valley in Calatonia to collect herbs for her potions… She was something of a medicine woman in the town she lived in years ago.”

“Yes, yes… I made all manner of potions and elixirs for people. But whenever somebody came to me with something serious, I told them to see a doctor!” Hilda said with a laugh.

“Potions? I see...” said Theodore with a wilted smile. He looked down at his tea, stirring it with his spoon as it chimed against the ceramic mug. He had never met a gypsy before, but when he was a child, his father always cursed their name whenever something bad happened. He didn’t have any prejudice toward them himself, or at least that’s what he told himself.

“Well, don’t be shy, Theodore... Say what’s on your mind. I don’t believe in pussyfooting around,” said Hilda with an inviting smile, cocking her head for effect.

“No, I... I simply do not believe in such things… I did not realize that you were… uh…”

“…that I was a witch,” said Hilda, finishing Theodore’s sentence with a kind smile.

“Not that I have anything against your… kind…”

“My kind?” said Hilda with a drop in her voice. Her eyebrows furrowed with anger.

“I’m sorry... This is coming out wrong,” said Theodore, feeling redness in his cheeks.

Hilda did her best to hold her tensed expression until she couldn’t contain it any longer. She erupted in wild laughter as Leeya followed suit.

“Oh, Theodore, relax… I’m merely jesting,” said Hilda with a genuine smile. Theodore’s eyebrows raised as his expression broke into a relaxed smile. “It’s fine if you don’t believe in what I do. And you know what? I believe you and I have a lot more in common than you think.”

Theodore nodded with a smile. “This is true… I suppose we’re both medicine women.”

“Precisely!” Hilda laughed in agreement. As the laughter died down, she took a moment to peer into Theodore’s eyes, as if she were studying his soul. She moved her head around, but kept her eyes fixated on him. He looked back at her with uncertainty, not knowing what it was she was planning. “I want you to give me your hands.”

Theodore looked down at his hands, still covered with gloves. Leeya looked at him, remembering the burn on his hand. “Oh, um, Aunty is that really necessary?”

“It’s important that I get as accurate a reading as possible…” she said with deceptive apathy. “We either do this the right way or we don’t do it at all.”

“It’s alright, my dear,” he said to Leeya, placing his hand upon hers. “I’m a grown boy,” he said with a smirk. He looked down at his hands. He took off one glove to reveal his perfectly normal left hand. He hesitated for a moment and then took off the other one, revealing his scarred right hand.

Hilda looked at his hand and grabbed it hard, unafraid to treat him like nothing was wrong with him. She, too, had scars that ran deep, so she would be the last one to judge him. She looked at him through squinted eyes as an emotion came to her. “This probably doesn’t come as a surprise, but you are a very guarded man,” she sneered with squinted eyes.

“I suppose we all have our secrets…”

She smiled at him as they understood each other. “That we do.” She felt his hands, kneading them in her palms. Looking down at them, she felt something as an image appeared in her mind. “I see a lot of compassion in these hands… You are a kind man. It seems that everything you do is for the benefit of others… You toil night and day in an effort to make the world a better place. I can also sense you are a very trusting person.”

“Well, I…” Theodore paused. “I like to think I do things with the best intentions.”

“That is noble…” she said with a nod. “Then again… The road to the Underworld is paved with good intentions…” she said while looking at him like a mother would. “Can’t go trusting every naive who crosses your path, dear boy... How will you sort out those who intend to harm you?” Hilda could sense a strength within him that even he didn’t know he had. She wanted him to face it, but doing so might be too much for him to deal with.

“Aunty, Theodore is a fine man who is respected throughout the kingdom,” said Leeya while holding onto Theodore’s arm. “No one would ever want to harm him.”

“This is only what I can feel, my dear... We still have yet to read his cards…” Hilda said, tongue in cheek. “Shall I continue?” asked Hilda politely.

“Please do. I am very interested,” said Theodore. He believed that his dear Leeya was more affected by the reading than he was. He attributed this to the fact that it was considerably more difficult to be affected by something you don’t believe in.

A few moments later, Hilda placed a deck of cards out on the table, each brightly colored and holding a symbolic meaning all their own. She expertly sliced and shuffled the cards. She could sense Theodore was merely humoring her, but she saw that as a good sign. She handed the cards over to him as he held them awkwardly.

“I want you to shuffle these cards, then cut them into three piles on the table.” She said, satisfying his desire for instructions.

Theodore did as he was asked as he shuffled the cards like slices of limp cheese. Cards fell out from the deck and fluttered down to the floor. Leeya snickered at his attempt as he shot her a glare. “Think that’s funny, do you?” he said with a smirk as he picked up the cards that fell out. He finally cut them out into three piles on the table. “Alright… There we are,” he said with a satisfied grin.

“Choose a pile,” said Hilda. Theodore thought for half a second before choosing the middle pile. Hilda flipped it over to reveal a depiction of a man rowing a boat at night while a moon loomed overhead. “Now choose another pile.”

Theodore flipped the pile on the right next, this time revealing a depiction of a king sitting on a throne. Hilda nodded to him as he went for the final pile, this time revealing a devil figure walking between two worlds holding a powerful eagle-headed rod within his hand. Hilda’s eyes grew wide and weary at the sight of this.

“This one is called the Moon,” she said pointing to the one in the middle, the first pile Theodore flipped over. “It shows that you are in the ‘moon phase’ in your life.”

“Moon Phase?” asked Theodore.

“Yes. Like the phases of the moon, our lives go through different periods where we grow into who we are meant to become… As such, you are going through certain changes now… However, I am not too convinced those changes are necessarily for the better…”

“Oh, and why is that?” asked Theodore with a smirk.

She then pointed to the king on the right. “Here, you seem to have a powerful man in your life. It doesn’t take a psychic to know who this man is… He seems to have a great deal of control over you.”

Theodore grinned. The very idea that the King controlled him was absurd. His Majesty granted him a fair bit of leeway in his exploits and he funded every project he wanted to pursue. “Well, I wouldn’t say that. His Majesty offers me quite a bit of freedom… He respects what I do and values the services I provide.”

Hilda smiled and nodded. “I’m sure of it,” she said. “However, this is when things get interesting. Do you see this card?” She pointed to the deck on the left; the one of the devil. Theodore nodded to her. “This card points to a certain presence, either in your life or soon to be, that does not have your best interests at heart.”

“Do not worry my love, I will protect you,” said Leeya leaning into him. Hilda looked at her with a heavy sigh.

“May I continue?” she asked. Leeya turned her head away in agreement.

“Well, what do you mean… a presence?” asked Theodore.

“Someone… or something; an event perhaps. It’s going to change everything in your life. Something to be on the lookout for. It may not happen for a week, it may not happen for a year… Now comes the next part of the reading.” Hilda took all the cards up and shuffled them again. She fanned the cards out on the table, all of them turned over so they appeared the same. “Pick nine cards out… and don’t look at them. Then hand them to me...”

Theodore agreed and analyzed the cards. He carefully chose his cards from the deck, as if each one was more unique than the last.

Once he had picked up his ninth card and placed it down on the table, she looked at all the cards and deliberated for a moment on their meaning. Time went by as Hilda interpreted each of the cards Theodore picked out. For someone who didn’t believe any of this nonsense, Theodore was invested in all her explanations and pressed her to continue. As she went to interpret the final card, still flipped over, she paused and felt something strange come over her.

“Is everything alright, Aunt Hilda?” asked Leeya placing her hand on her Aunt’s shoulder.

“Oh, yes, sweetheart,” Hilda smiled back, “everything is fine…” she said, though she could tell something was amiss. She reached her hand out to the card as she grabbed it and turned it over. “The Temperance card…” she said. The image depicted whimsical interpretations of two dragons, one channeling water, one channeling fire, swirling around a glowing blue crystal.

“What does it mean?” asked Theodore.

“It means… Balance,” said Hilda, feeling strangely calm. “The Temperance card is a symbol of opposites, working with one another to accomplish something great… It’s interesting that you would receive this card, given your history…”

“History?” questioned Theodore curiously.

She glanced down at his burned hand. “The fire that burned you long ago has stayed with you all your life, hasn’t it? You identify so much with this fire, because it was the pain that helped shape you… And you reject anything that threatens this fire…” She continued. “Water, fire’s opposite, is fluid and adaptive to its surroundings… Water symbolizes change… And you think that change will extinguish this fire; make you someone you are not…” She paused while looking down at his hands. “What you don’t understand is that change is life… You mustn’t be afraid of it, for it is the only thing that will save you… But you have to believe it.”

“Interesting interpretation, indeed,” he said with a pause. “You gleaned all that from one card?”

“No,” Hilda laughed. “I got that when I touched you… It’s just a coincidence that the card gave me the words to express this feeling.”

“But you don’t believe in coincidence,” said Theodore with a smirk.

“No,” she said with a mischievous smile. She let go of his hands, shuffling all the cards back together except for one. “I want you to have this…” said Hilda, placing the Temperance card in his hand, folding his fingers onto it. “For luck.”

Smiling at her, he took the card and looked at it once more and admired its beauty. He didn’t want to say so, but her reading was more accurate than he felt comfortable with. He didn’t fully understand how she could know the things that she did and wasn’t ready to accept the notion of Hilda’s mystical powers. Even so, one thing was clear to him: he would not be taking his gloves off again for quite some time.

* * *

Later that evening, Leeya and Theodore walked back from the stables where they set the horse to rest from its long day. The two of them walked back to the castle as a calm dusk sky loomed in the distance. Theodore looked over the card that Hilda gave him and thought that her gift was perhaps wasted on him. After all, she would not be able to read cards accurately to anyone now.

"I hope Aunty Hilda didn’t scare you, she does not act that way around everyone.”

"Not at all. Clearly she is very passionate about her craft… If anything, this only reaffirms my beliefs in Science," said Theodore as they stopped in front of Leeya's bedroom door.

“I wouldn’t expect any less of you, Doctor,” she said with a devious smile. As she opened the door to walk in, Theodore stood idly by the door while she removed her coat. “Yes, well… I hope you do not think on that reading too much…”

"Come now, Leeya,” said Theodore with a sardonic smirk.

“I almost forgot about this…” She pulled out the pen that she got from Hilda’s cottage as an idea came to her. She pulled a piece of parchment from a drawer and dipped the pen in an ink well. The pen was dripping black ink as she went to write something on the parchment. “Time to see what makes this pen so special.” As she finished writing, she took up the parchment to show Theodore, but paused in confusion.

"What's wrong?" he asked. She turned around to show him the paper—it was blank.

"I don’t understand…” he pondered to himself, perplexed by the unmarked paper. “It was dripping ink…"

"I suppose I should have expected as much from Aunt Hilda. As she would say, the magic is not in the wand, it is in the wielder.”

"What did you write?" he asked.

"I believe if the pen wanted you to know, the ink wouldn’t have disappeared,” she said with a chuckle. "Good night, dearest,” she said as she hurried him out the door.

Theodore walked down the hall and thought about the day as he took the card out of his breast pocket. He looked at the image of the two dragons swirling around a crystal one more time and scoffed at it. “Silly…” He looked up from the card, becoming fixated on a message burned into the wood above Leeya’s door that read, Theodore believes in gypsy magic.


A lonely Solus sat at the head of his noisy court with a glazed look in his eyes as he propped his head up on one fist, stroking his white beard between outbursts. He breathed with a sigh and internally lamented the fact that he was surrounded by a council of arguing peers. He had designed the council to be an open forum so that everyone would have a say, though this did little to solve actual problems.

“I say we take him out before he destroys the balance entirely!” shouted a stout, elderly man with large glasses magnifying his wide pupils. A majority of members cheered with him in agreement. Solus tried to quiet them down by slamming his gavel, but their voices were too boisterous.

“Oh be quiet, Valden!” said a gritty elder as the other members quieted down immediately, signifying he had a lot of clout in the court. “You are speaking as though this mortal is acting with malevolent intent. His intentions are noble; he simply knows not what he is doing. Your punishment for curiosity is DEATH?” Everyone paused for a moment as they took time to think about what the elder had said.

“Can I just put forth the question…” asked a short, mustachioed man with an upper sneer in his brow. “How did the mortal get his hands on the poison to begin with? I was under the impression that it had been disposed of centuries ago.” He looked around the council at dumbfounded faces. An old man’s raspy voice cried out from across the room.

“It was the protector! The one who committed treason against the royal family some 900 years ago!” said the old man, the council nodding in agreement.

“So, he just hid the poison in a mountain?” asked the mustachioed man. “Does anyone have any idea why he would do such a thing?” A hush fell over the council. They whispered to one another, but no one knew the answer. The man sat back down, feeling unsatisfied as he whispered to his lanky friend sitting next to him. “…and that concludes the critical thinking part of this session.”

“I have a theory,” said Valden. The mustachioed man turned his attention to him. “That atrocious excuse for a protector did not work alone. We know who he was talking to and what their plan was… The protector knew he would be captured, so he hid the poison somewhere we would never find it in the hopes that his partner would come back to finish what they had started.”

“That matter has been over and done with for hundreds of years, Valden. Those responsible have been dealt with, and speaking any further about it is a waste of this council’s time.”

Valden sat back down and folded his arms like a child. The council remained silent for a bit.

“Solus, my Lord, I highly suggest we have nothing more to do with this matter,” said a petite woman with delicate features and long, dark, braided hair. “Our intervention would only upset the Balance even further.”

“That is ridiculous, Mina…” said Valden, standing immediately. “If we cannot remove the mortal from the equation, then I say we TAKE the poison from him, my Lord.”

“That might not be such a bad idea—,” began the mustachioed man with his finger raised.

“—We cannot stand by while this mortal destroys the Balance in one fell swoop!” finished Valden.

“That may be an overreaction,” said the mustachioed man.

“Fellow council members!!” called out the lanky, awkward fellow who sat beside the shorter, mustachioed man. “We cannot let fear guide our decisions. It is because of the poor decisions of our forefathers that we are in this predicament in the first place… We must find another nondestructive way about this!”

The crowd sat in silence for a moment, almost as if they agreed with what the tall man had to offer. Then inevitability set in.

“NONSENSE!” said a displaced voice. The crowd of members erupted like a flock of geese on a pond fighting over a crust of bread. No one would have the bread at this point, and little would be left but crumbs.

“SIIIIILEEEENNNCCCCEEE!!!” yelled Solus, making his beard hairs curl, his face red and his eyes green with anger. “We will have a CIVIL discussion from this moment forth! One more member speaks out of turn and you will have ME to deal with…”

A hush fell over the crowd. Even the clouds in the sky dissipated before him.

“I have carefully analyzed the situation and considered our options…” said the thoughtful ruler. “…and I have decided that this mortal is NOT a threat… Yes, he may have discovered the poison, but he is merely doing what mortals do; being curious.”

The gritty elder from before smiled at Solus and nodded his head in agreement. Valden tried to speak up, but Solus interrupted him.

“Now…” Solus began to speak, making sure he had the last word. “That does not mean that we can simply ignore the matter entirely. We will observe the situation until I deem it necessary that we act.” The other members started their familiar murmuring. “…and that is final,” said Solus as he lightly tapped his gavel to the podium. The members all stood up slowly and started to disperse. One by one, they all disappeared until only the two younger men from before were left.

The lanky man stood up as his shorter, mustachioed companion turned to him and gestured his head to him casually. “Well, Kanious, that was brutal.”

“Tell me about it… Do you think we have much to worry about from the mortal?”

“Not as of yet… but if it comes to that point, I promise you, we’re gonna be the ones to handle it.” He patted Kanious on the shoulder and smiled.

“Thanks for being there, Fil.”

Filious patted him on the cheek. “That’s what partners are for,” he said with a smile, his mustache arching upward into his cheeks. “Come, we’ve got some planning to do…” Filious faded away into a cloud of smoke as Kanious followed suit.