Once Payton stepped off the train, she had to push her way through large groups of centaurs, minotaurs, and harpies along with an entire rainbow of other creatures. Once she weaved her way out of the maze of the train station and out into the city streets, the sweltering heat of the late summer air dripped down her brow and nearly soaked through her white blouse. A million different sights, sounds, and smells bombarded her all at once, nearly short-circuiting her mind. Payton gawked at the brass and steel buildings that reached to the sky and nearly blocked out the sun in a competition to one-up each other. Hover-cars zipped by above her head and trollies zoomed past her on the street, all with the resolve of a colony of giant steam-powered ants. The roads and sidewalks were paved smoother than the cobblestone streets she was used to, yet the blotches of oil stains lining the streets wrote out the story of a thousand machines going about the metropolitan city. Payton was too enthralled with all the sophisticated hustle and bustle to even notice the pixies that buzzed around her head and tugged at her red hair. Centaurs roamed around with cutting-edge goggles, and sharply dressed dwarves stood around with their pinstriped pants and pocket-watch chains discussing business matters. Payton’s eyes desperately darted all around her in an effort to figure out where to begin looking for The Lucky Tavern. As Payton stood there awkwardly in the middle of the street with her bag looking like the pathetically lost tourist she was, a sharp meow called out to her from her left. She shifted her gaze toward the sound and found a beautiful black cat sitting atop a trash can in an alley looking at her with judgmental lime-green eyes.
“Hey, don’t get that way with me,” Payton scolded. “I’ve never been here before! Give me a break!”
Payton quickly glanced around the crowd to make sure no one saw her talking to the cat, lest she be deemed a lunatic only a few minutes into arriving in Zaphyr. The cat meowed again, almost sounding amused. Then Payton watched the feline jump off the trash can and saunter toward her with its tail swishing back and forth. It sat down in front of her and pawed at her leg, meowing once more. Then it turned its head toward a vender selling fresh fish, then looked back at her.
Payton rolled her eyes. “What? You can’t steal some fish yourself? Just what kind of alley cat are you?”
The cat lifted its chin and meowed indignantly. Payton sighed, disappointed in herself for losing an argument with a stray cat. The fact that the feline seemed to be able to comprehend what she was saying sparked the suspicion that it was actually a shape-shifting phouka.
“Only if you can show me to The Lucky Tavern. Deal?”
The cat rubbed its side against Payton’s leg and purred. She took that as a sign of agreement. She fished out some gold pieces, bought a fish from the vendor, and handed it to the cat. Once it finished eating its meal, it trotted forward to lead the way to the tavern as agreed. It took a considerable amount of effort to follow the cat and not lose it in the crowd. It snaked through dark and rancid alleyways, dove under steam cars, and leapt over trash cans and vendors. Payton lost it a few times in the ocean of humans and random creatures, but through sheer willpower, she always spotted it again and continued to follow the cat until they reached a building with a colorfully painted sign which read, THE LUCKY TAVERN.
Payton nodded a thank you to the cat and glanced up at the gigantic clock tower which chimed twice in its deep, rumbling voice to signify that it was only two in the afternoon. Being that there was more than enough time to kill, Payton watched the black cat hop into the tavern but didn’t follow suit. Instead, the towering library directly to the left of the tavern caught her attention. It looked more like a tourist attraction—a town monument rather than a home for books. Payton took one last glance at the tavern in a silent promise to return when the time was right and swung open the giant wooden double doors to the Zaphyr Library.
Everything in Zaphyr seemed to be over-the-top and oversized, and the Zaphyr Library was no exception. Payton stepped into the wide-open lobby that welcomed her with its dark oak flooring and silver chandelier. A u-shaped desk graced the middle of the lobby behind which the librarian sat looking like a guardian angel of secrets. Beside the desk was a large sign that acted as a directory and reference to how each book category was organized in the three-story library.
Payton clutched her travel bag tighter as she ventured farther into the library and soon enough found herself caught in an awe-inspiring labyrinth of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves stacked with hundreds of thousands of pages of adventures, secrets, and wonders waiting to be revealed. Ladders that ran the length of each bookshelf were conveniently installed to help each guest have easy reach to each and every book. A few minutes of wandering aimlessly around the bookshelves lead her to a spiraling staircase that took her to the next floor. Payton smiled at the charming study area that greeted her on the second floor with dark oak desks that lined each side of the room, jade desk lamps, and a long deep blue rug that ran the length of the middle of the floor. Farther down past the study area was the sciences section. After scanning the books for a while, one dark orange book in particular titled Medical Applications of Alchemy caught her eye and sent chills down her spine. Payton’s heart raced as she put her luggage down and cracked open the book to its table of contents, unable to resist the book’s eerie call.
“Medical Applications of Alchemy, huh? Good read.”
Payton jolted when she heard the male voice behind her. She spun around to see a satyr dressed in a long dark green tailcoat that was halfway buttoned up over his white undershirt, complimenting his dark brown furry goat legs.
“You shouldn’t startle people like that in a library,” Payton pouted playfully.
“My apologies, miss,” the satyr chuckled. He glanced down at the bag with mischievous orange eyes and raised an eyebrow. “And welcome to Zaphyr. Where are you coming from, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Brynn.” Payton continued to flip through the pages of her new-found treasure.
The satyr studied her silently for a moment as she directed her focus on a particular page in the book. “You know I’m more partial to the history of alchemy myself. I find it fascinating how the term has changed over the years.”
This gave Payton pause as she scrutinized the ivory-horned individual over the pages of the book. “Indeed. People went from attempting to turn cheap metals into precious metals to making horrifying potions for the sake of a good time, hence the reason it was outlawed.”
“Ahh, inter-creature breeding is outlawed as well, yet so many disregard that as well,” the satyr leered as he stroked his small, dark brown beard. “Besides, potions have so many applications from helping crops grow strong to pain management to giving us sight into other realms.” He chuckled.
Payton grimaced at the satyr’s unsettling implications. “Alchemy is dangerous and that’s all there is to it. I’d never get involved in its practice or consumption and I pity anyone who does.”
The satyr snickered as he tapped the spine of the book she had in hand. “Yet you picked out this book. Isn’t it strange how the things that disturb us also draw us in at the same time?” He took a step closer to her, and reached out to tuck a loose strand of hair behind her ear. Her breath caught in her throat as he placed his hand underneath her chin, tracing a line from her chin to her ear with his finger. “Such things call out your name and prod you to step out of your comfort zone—to stretch the boundaries of your perspective and experience different things you never have before. Different sights, sounds, smells, sensations…”
Payton shuddered and squirmed a million different ways beneath his gaze as the conversation escalated far too quickly for comfort. Before she had a chance to pry him away by his distasteful brown pony-tail, a familiar brown-haired woman came up behind him and coughed to get his attention. Payton was surprised that Tiffany’s scowl alone didn’t kill the satyr instantly. He glared at Tiffany but left without another word. Tiffany’s narrowed eyes followed him until he was completely out of sight.
“Wow, remind me not to mess with you,” Payton stated.
Tiffany flashed Payton a confident smirk. “I taught the men in this town long ago to not test me. You know how they can get, especially the satyrs. But imagine finding you here of all places. How early did your train arrive?”
“This afternoon,” Payton answered as she exchanged her book for her bag. “What are you doing here?”
“Apparently saving you from one of our perverted members in the nick of time while catching up on my astronomy research,” she teased.
Payton put a hand on her hip with a huff and tilted her head back. “I was going to take care of it, you just beat me to it.” She smirked.
“Of course. Anyway, we might as well introduce you to your new boss right now. He’s been excited to meet you.”
Tiffany led her down a few aisles of bookshelves until they reached a wall in the back of the room absolutely coated with more tomes and volumes. Payton flinched when Tiffany gently pushed in a red book and the bookshelves slid open to reveal a hidden elevator.
“Where exactly does the elevator lead to?” Payton inquired with mild trepidation.
“This is the way to where you’ll be working. Now come on in, Jackson isn’t going to wait forever.”
Payton stepped into the elevator, eager at first. Once the doors closed, a sense of unease tickled her nerves. The intense secrecy of the situation in which she found herself set her on edge and suddenly she realized that perhaps she didn’t wish to be a part of the world to which this woman and her hidden elevator led her. Unfortunately, it was far too late to resist now.