Part 1, Ch.9

The light from the dim lanterns burned Payton’s eyes when she finally woke up. Payton  felt like she swallowed hot sand that burned her throat and disagreed with her stomach. However, the floor felt cool and comforting against her burning face, so Payton kept her cheek pressed against the ground. That’s when she saw the small pools of blood around her from the tears she scratched out all over her body. It took her a while to notice the scent of vanilla swirling through the air, but when she did, she forced her sore body to roll over to find the source of the aroma. She laid her eyes on a black haired young man with lime green eyes lounging against the wall to her left taking draws from a smoking pen. Payton eyed him with curiosity since the cell door was still locked and there was no way a full grown man could have fit through the bars. 

“Took you long enough to wake up. Here I was beginning to think you didn’t want to get off your wild ride,” the man teased. Fighting against her exhaustion and pain, Payton approached the man cautiously to touch his face. The man chuckled and put his hand over hers. “Yes, I’m real. You’re not hallucinating anymore.” Payton took a step back. 

“I had to make sure.” Her voice sounded just as dry and gritty as her throat felt. “How did you get in here?” 

“I could tell you, but it would be easier to just show you.” He put his smoking pen back into his pocket and shape-shifted into the same black cat that led her to The Lucky Tavern. With his new size, he was able to slip through the bars of the prison cell and back in. Payton stared at him wide-eyed as he turned back into a man. “I also enjoy taking on the form of a wolf and a raven.” 

“So you’re a phouka,” Payton concluded. “But why does your human form look so normal?”  

“Half human,” he responded with playful delight. His glee gave Payton pause. Half breeds were becoming more accepted in Liadon, but the subject was still rather taboo. Then again, it seemed as if nothing in this place was considered queer to its members. “I’ve found it advantageous on multiple occasions,” the man continued.

“Oh have you now? Like getting free meals from lost women coming out of the train station?” Payton quipped. “I could imagine that you eavesdrop on everyone to get the best gossip in all the town. Or perhaps you’re a voyeur who gets gratification from knowing everyone’s personal business.”  The man’s eyes twinkled with amusement as his lips curled up into a smirk. 

“Well yes, there’s that. I see your wild ride hasn’t caused you to lose your spunk, Payton.”

“That’s not fair,” Payton chuckled, “You know my name but I don’t even know yours or why you’re even here.” He knelt down right in front of her, took a draw from his smoking pen and blew the vanilla smoke in her face, enveloping her in a thick fog of sweet aroma. 

“That’s because you never asked.” Payton waved the smoke away from her face, revealing the man’s gentle yet playful grin. 

“Kellen. My name’s Kellen. Jess wanted me to come in and watch over you and to notify him when you finally woke up.”

“Oh really?” Payton questioned, “is that really the only reason you’re here?” Kellen looked off to the side with a sheepish smirk.

“Well, and I like to size up new recruits myself,” Kellen admitted as he slumped down next to Payton, offering her a draw from his smoking pen to which she respectfully declined. 

“My throat is far too raw for that,” Payton explained, “I was probably screaming louder than a banshee.” Payton clenched her fist as she remembered every gruesome detail. “I suppose that’ll teach me to behave and stay in line.”

“No, it should teach you how to not get caught,” Kellen scoffed.  Payton let out a chuckle. 

“Spoken like a true master of mischief. What do you do here, anyway?” Kellen took another draw from his smoking pen and blew smoke rings around Payton’s head. They danced around her and caressed her cheeks and neck like vaporous kisses. 

“As you put it so artfully, I eavesdrop on everyone to get the best gossip in town and I’m a voyeur that gets gratification from knowing everyone’s personal business.” Payton barked out a laugh that quickly turned into a painful coughing fit. After what seemed like an eternity of heaving air out of her aching lungs, Payton put her head back against the stone walls and groaned. 

“I suppose it’s time I let Jess know you’re awake,” Kellen stated casually as he pressed the talk button on his watch. “Jess, do you copy?” Payton’s throat was in too much pain for her to beg Kellen to not get Jess or to protest that she’d rather stay in the dungeon than face him. 

“Ahh, she’s finally awake? Took long enough. Alright, I’m on my way.” Kellen looked back at Payton’s sorrowful expression and frowned. 

“A word of advice, don’t ever let him see you with that look in your eyes. Also, if you really want to talk to anyone in private, the best place to do that is actually the dining hall. There’s so much white noise in there that the bugs can’t pick up on anything. Oh, and one last thing,” he smiled as he headed toward the bars, “if you’re going to get yourself in trouble again, make it intentional and do it with finesse next time. I do love a girl with some feist.” Kellen winked at her and shifted into a cat, leaving her alone to ruminate on his words. The thought of a potential new friend made her smile weakly, although it was mostly just a hopeful thought swirling in the back of her mind. Those thoughts were shattered by the clopping of hooves echoing throughout the dungeon, growing louder with each step. Her stomach tightened at the sight of Jess wearing a disgustingly gentle look in his orange eyes. With the twist of a key, the prison door unlocked and swung open, removing any boundary between Payton and her tormentor. Jess fixed his gaze on her feet as he closed the space between the two of them, lifting her up by her arm. 

“Come now, my dear. You need to get your wounds cleaned off, some water, food, a warm shower, and some rest, all in that order. You have a lot of work to catch up on tomorrow, so you best rest up.” Payton had to fight down the bile coming up into her throat when Jess put his arm around her and drew her close to his side to support her weak body. Jess helped her into the elevator and after a moment of awkward silence, the elevator door slid open. “Francesca will attend to your wounds and the rest of your needs for the night. You’ll return to work as usual in the morning. You be a good girl, okay?” Jess kissed her forehead, making her cringe. Payton tried her best to shake off the disturbing exchange as she walked into the infirmary.

“Payton?” Francesca’s sweet voice called out. Payton was too weak to embrace her friend the way she wanted to, so she settled for squeezing her hand. “Go ahead and relax on one of the beds and remove your torn clothing. Don’t worry, I’ll lock the door so no one else will see you.” Payton began to remove her blouse. Once Payton was in her bra and underwear, Francesca ran a cloth damp with disinfectant over the wounds on Payton’s arms. There was a sad glimmer in Francesca’s eyes as she took stock of Payton’s fairly deep scratches. “Thankfully these don’t seem deep enough to require stitches, but if you don’t mind me asking, what did the potion make you see?” Francesca cleaned off the cloth and dipped it in disinfectant once more. 

“I didn’t see anything. I heard the most blood curdling screams and snakes were crawling inside me.” Francesca nodded. She gently cleaned the scratches on Payton’s stomach and bandaged the wounds on her stomach and arms. As she worked her way down to Payton’s legs, Francesca regarded the cuts on Payton’s inner thighs with a raised eyebrow. 

“I see. The snakes even crawled up into…” Payton nodded before Francesca could finish the thought. Francesca shuddered. “Oh dear. That is a wretched thing to envision indeed. I’m just glad it’s over now, for your sake.” No one in this organization could make Payton feel more relaxed than Francesca thus far. She gave off the emanation of a young, kind maid that would nurture any being from the most brute men to the meekest rabbit. Payton imagined that Francesca’s soft voice did indeed have that effect on most of the men there; turning even the most savage of wolves into docile pups. 

“Exactly how much work do I have to catch up on?” Payton asked, sitting up on the bed. Francesca ran her fingers through Payton’s hair and laid her back down.

“Don’t worry about that right now love. You just rest while I go get your food and water.” With that, Francesca left the infirmary. Payton followed Francesca’s command and got under the covers to ease the chill of the draft running across her skin. She wasn’t sure how much time passed when the infirmary door opened up once again. Francesca stepped in with a box in one hand, a cup of water in another. 

“You’ll never guess what I brought for you,” Francesca smirked. Her grin was contagious despite everything that happened as Francesca opened up the box to reveal fresh mango slices, pear slices, and pieces of roasted pheasant, all rare commodities this time of year in Liadon. 

“How did you…” Payton breathed out in awe.

“I have my ways,” Francesca winked, “ways that won’t get any of us in trouble, mind you.” Payton took out a piece of mango and bit into the sweet and juicy fruit. The feeling of swallowing something palatable for once was indescribable. As Payton continued to eat and took a drink of water, Francesca looked down at her watch and frowned as if her watch had nauseating effects. “I have to go for the night. I’ll lock the door behind me. Rest up now.” Francesca left swiftly, leaving Payton with her own thoughts. She could try to escape, but what about Lawrence? Not to mention, escaping certainly wasn’t an endeavor one should attempt without a team and Payton had no idea whom to trust besides Francesca. Payton tried to distract herself by combining a piece of roasted pheasant and mango in her mouth to see how it would taste. After a few seconds of turning it over in her mouth, she concluded that mango-marinated pheasant needed to be a commonplace recipe throughout Liadon. She finished off her food and water, thankful for the dim light of the lanterns illuminating the infirmary. It would be difficult for her to handle complete darkness for quite some time. 

Verdeni, The Elf Kingdom

Verdeni is the kingdom where the majority of the elves in Levenia call home. As Verdeni borders the human kingdom of Liadon, the two races often work closely with each other and trade ideas and goods. Of all the creatures on Levenia, the elves have been the most open minded to adopting the advanced ideas for steam powered technology that the humans came up with while still keeping true to their own enchanted roots. The elves tend to be shorter than humans (female adults average at about 4 foot 10, male adults averaging at about 5 foot 3), and are naturally agile and creative, making them stellar snipers, dancers, or craftsmen/women. However, they also have a mischievous streak and are known to cause trouble whenever possible whether it’s teasing someone mercilessly or sending someone on a wild scavenger hunt for their friend! Verdeni is one of two kingdoms where inter creature breeding is allowed, so more hybrids tend to reside in this kingdom.

Liadon, the Human Kingdom

This kingdom is by far the largest and most technologically advanced of all the kingdoms in Levenia. Steel skyscrapers, steam-powered cars, high-tech goggles and airships reign in Liadon. The humans in Liadon enjoy dressing in “steampunk” style and are always coming up with the latest and greatest in steam-powered technology. Although some of the other kingdoms have adopted some aspects of “the new way” most of them prefer to stay strong in their own tradition of getting by using the magic that is naturally around them. Despite all of that, Liadon has become a melting pot of different cultures and races, especially Liadon’s biggest city, Zaphyr.

Part 1, Ch.8

Payton made it through the next couple of weeks as best as she could, but it all just seemed like a blur to her. If anything, handling both potion making and helping Francesca in the infirmary kept her on her toes going to and fro between cleaning infected wounds and changing bandages to checking up on the simmering pot of purified unicorn blood. Of course, Francesca was ever grateful for Payton’s help and Payton was ever grateful for Francesca’s emotional support, which was the one silver lining to her ever gloomy days. It was an unusually slow day, and Payton was busy adding a dash of fluorescent mushroom powder to a potion. Payton paused for a moment when she heard something slithering across the floor and jolted when she discovered a snake with shining green scales sliding toward her.

“If you scream, I swear I’ll bite you! And I’ll have you know just one drop of my venom can kill forty men slowly and painfully,” the snake warned. The only way she could explain his ability to talk was that he must have been the result of scientific experimentation. After all, many creatures have been mutated as the result of some mad scientist. It took her a moment to regain her mental bearings and find the words to reply to the talking serpent. 

“What do you want?” Payton blurted, “I really need to get back to work you know.” The snake began to slither up the desk, getting closer to Payton.

“I have a favor to ask of you.” He proceeded to crawl up her arm. She shuddered at the feeling of his cold, smooth scales sliding across her arm. The snake’s head rested right next to her ear. “I need you to find me some sort of rodent. A mouse or a rat will do just fine for me.” His tongue tickled her ear, making Payton cringe.

“Why do you need me to get a mouse for you? Why can’t you get one yourself? Don’t you get fed regularly like the rest of us anyways? Besides, I think that’s against the rules and I’m kind of a busy woman, you know. I mean umm…no disrespect or anything, but I hope you understand…” The snake hissed irritably.

“And you don’t think I’m busy too? And no, not all of us are as spoiled as you are and get fed regularly.” Payton turned around and glared at him.

“Also, Francesca told me that there are hidden bugs that capture video and audio all around the building. We’d be sure to get caught,” she whispered, hoping the audio system wouldn’t pick up on their conversation.

“Don’t worry about the bugs, darling. It’s only an intimidation tactic. Those bugs are more defective than Jackson would admit, although not all of us know that,” he reassured her with a more gentle edge to his tone. “You are right to take caution though. Just be vigilant and you’ll be fine. Now, when should I be expecting that rodent?” 

“Fine,” Payton growled, “I’ll try to find you a mouse, but I can’t promise you anything. Now I need to get back to work and I’m sure you have other things you need to do.”

“I very much appreciate it, my dear. Jackson hardly feeds me enough, you know.”

“I’m sure.” Payton’s shoulders relaxed when the snake finally crawled off of her and back onto the floor. “I’ll be back for that rat in about five hours.” She closed the door behind the serpent after he left the room and breathed a sigh of relief once he was gone. 

The potion Payton was working on when the serpent came in was the last item on the list to be made and Francesca already told her she wasn’t going to need her for another few hours, so when that potion was bottled up and she thoroughly cleaned the lab, Payton went to her room to relax until Francesca called her back again. The promise she made to the snake in the lab came to  her mind as she laid on her bed. Of course, she only made the promise to get him to leave her alone and had no intention of keeping it. “Jackson is sure to kill him if he ever found out,” Payton mused out loud to herself.

“Payton, do you copy?” Jess’ voice rang out of her watch. Naturally, her one moment of rest would get interrupted by her manager. Payton growled and lifted the watch to her mouth, pressing down on the talk button. 

“Yes,” Payton replied. 

“Meet me in the lab. Now.” The curtness of the order made her heart skip a couple of beats. 

“On my way,” she answered. When Payton opened up the door to the lab, she was met with a scowl in place of the satyr’s usual lascivious smirk. 

“Come in,” he commanded. Payton complied and the door slid closed. Jess leaned his hip against the counter balancing a flesh colored mechanical beetle on the back of his hand that camouflaged almost perfectly with his skin tone. It dawned on Payton that the bugs that kept surveillance around the underground building hid themselves through camouflage and most likely crawled about at random so no one ever knew if or when they were being watched. Payton clenched her fists. Naturally, the snake lied to her about the bugs being ineffective. “So, there are a couple of things we need to talk about. First of all, were you deaf when you were told not to give anything to any colleague without Jackson’s or Tiffany’s permission, or are you too dense to follow simple rules?” Payton narrowed her eyes in indignation. 

“If you’re referring to that foolish snake, I only told him I’d give him a rodent just to get him off my back, literally. I never actually gave him one and I never intended to.” Jess kept his eyes on the beetle as he turned his hand over to follow the movement of the bug. 

“You better be telling the truth for your own sake. Nevertheless, you won’t be feeding any snake any time soon. The second thing is that we had a dissatisfied customer on my hands, thanks to you.” He squeezed the bug in his hands until it popped and sizzled, breaking into a thousand pieces. Payton figured there must have been plenty of spying bugs to spare if Jess would so easily demolish one of them. After Jess opened up his palm and let the broken pieces drop to his feet, he closed the space between him and Payton, grabbing her arm and dragging her out of the lab and into the elevator. “That sleeping potion you made two days ago? Well the client that bought it came back and said it made him hallucinate horrific things instead of knocking him out like it was supposed to,” he explained as the elevator door opened to a secret room full of dim lamps and ominous prison cells lining each side of the room. The chill from the cold cobblestone floors went up from her feet all the way to her heart as Jess dragged her deeper into the dungeon. “How long did you let the water flowers soak in the mixture? Because the instructions clearly stated three hours.” 

“I-I don’t know. I may have gotten to it a little late because Francesca and I were busy administering vaccines and…”

“I don’t want to hear your excuses!” Jess snapped. “We came so close to losing his loyal business! That’s why you time these things, dumb troll!” He unlocked a prison cell and forced her into it with him, backing her into a corner. “Now, you’re going to be the one to taste your own medicine, and you’re going to ride it out in here!” He pulled the half empty bottle out of his pocket and opened it up. Payton’s heart dropped to her stomach as she watched the cork drop to her feet. Jess then pinched her nose shut with his fingers, forcing her to open her mouth to breathe. Once her mouth was open, Jess wasted no time pouring the liquid into her mouth, quickly forcing her jaw shut and tipping her head back to keep Payton from spitting it out. The failed drug slipped down her throat with sick smoothness when Payton gave in to her swallowing reflex. Jess shoved Payton against the wall and stepped away from her. “You enjoy your own mistake. Hopefully you’ll never forget to be vigilant with your creations.” Payton looked to the ground as the iron bar door slammed shut and locked with an eerie clank. Once Payton could no longer hear Jess’ footsteps, the room began to grow black. The thick, inky darkness surrounded her vision like a heavy smoke. Before she knew it, everything was pitch black to where she couldn’t even see her hand in front of her face. Payton didn’t dare to move from her spot against the wall. A warm, sticky liquid drizzled down the back of her blouse. When she reached behind her to touch the liquid and put it to her nose, the strong metallic odor of blood filled her senses. Payton then peeled away from the wall with a yelp. As she attempted to gather her bearings, snakes began to hiss and slither on the ground, eventually crawling their way into every opening of her body. Everything sounded, felt, smelled, and tasted too real. Payton tried to scratch the snakes out of her body to no avail. The snakes slithering down her throat choked and gagged her as she curled up in a fetal position on the floor in silent sobs. The warm, sticky blood that was dripping down the walls began to pool around Payton, soaking her in the metallic liquid. Time itself began to dissolve and slip away from Payton as she remained paralyzed on the floor. The blood on the floor took on new life and reached out to Payton, gently wrapping its warm, wet arms around her waist. Why are you fighting it? The voices were coming from the walls. You’re one of us now. You’re one of us. Bloody fingers ran through her hair, lulling her into a dark sense of complacency. Payton’s fatigued muscles began to instinctively relax, beginning to surrender to the bloody arms caressing her as the snakes inside of her began to relax and stood still as well. Just as she was about to give in and allow herself to be fully enveloped by the blood, yet another voice broke through her mind. Payton, Lawrence whispered in her ear. The sensation of his warm breath against her ear jolted her out of her trance. “Lawrence! How did you get in here!?” Payton forced her body up to search out her brother with her arms. She finally felt his shoulders and embraced him like she never embraced anyone before. You have to go. The snake. It’s angry at you and is coming after us! You need to go! Now! His warning came too late. The sound of a giant creature slithering across the bloody floor shook her bones. She backed away, trying to use her hearing to locate the serpent. “I’m not leaving you behind. Not again,” she didn’t let go of her brother as she maneuvered throughout the space. The snake let out a nauseating hiss as it found Lawrence and wrapped itself around him, ripping him from Payton’s grip. All she could do was cry out in horror as his bones cracked under the snake’s tight grip. His screams ripped her insides to shreds until she could hear them no more.  “LAWRENCE!” She yelled. Her weeping dried out her throat and burned her lungs and eyes. Hmmmm, the snake hissed, I love it when my prey is terrified. They taste better that way. She didn’t have the opportunity to scream as the snake’s mouth closed in over her and swallowed her whole. Payton’s lungs throbbed for air as the snake’s warm, slimy muscles constricted against her body, pushing her down its throat and into its stomach. The juices inside the snake’s stomach seeped its way into her mouth and filled her starving lungs. The weight was strangely comforting to her. Perhaps it would be better to just give in, she thought. Besides, it’s warm and peacefully quiet in here. This is a more humane way to die than I could have ever imagined. 

Part 1, ch.7

That still, silent voice of warning in the back of Payton’s mind stirred her awake the morning of her first day. Forcing herself to push that voice to the side, she shuffled out of her bed and opened up the suitcase she brought with her. For some unexplainable reason, she didn’t feel quite ready to put on anything provided by The Brass Hearts just yet. Payton decided on a cream-colored button down shirt and rolled the sleeves up to her elbows, a dark green knee-high skirt, a brown cincher with crimson lacing, crimson stockings, and brown ankle boots. She then brushed out her red hair, put it up in a bun, and dragged herself to the dining hall for the morning meal while trying to keep her head from spinning in a vortex of foreboding and confusion.

After she finished her breakfast in the dining hall and made her way to her laboratory to begin her daily work, that disquieting voice continued to irk her. The elevator door slid open to the infirmary floor and she inched her way to the lab as if she expected some monstrous creature to be waiting for her, ready to attack her. Payton held her breath as she slid the key into the keyhole and unlocked the door. The room seemed much more ominous and eerie than it did the previous day. Payton cautiously walked up to the piece of paper on the countertop writing out her work for the day and picked it up. Panic and dread constricted her lungs as she read the list:  purified unicorn blood, 3 grams of energy crystals, and liquidized mermaid scales. Of course, all of them were illegal potions. Payton dropped the paper to the floor and her knees buckled under the weight of the dreaded truth that crashed down on her. Everything made horrid sense now; the vagueness, the bizarre rules, and the insistence in joining.  All her fears and suspicions were confirmed; this wasn’t a regular company, it was a criminal organization. Payton had to steady herself against the counter as she gasped for air.  Just then, the door opened. Payton screamed and turned around faster than lightening, nearly jumping out of her own skin. In all her panic, Payton had almost forgotten that Jackson said her manager would come by to check up on her and show her the ropes. She blanched at the sight of a familiar brown haired satyr leering back at her. 

“Ahh, if it isn’t the girl that swore she’d never do alchemy,” he jeered. “I see you read the work load for the day.” Payton sneered at his nonchalance. 

“W-what kind of a business do you guys run anyway?” Payton spat out. 

“A lucrative one,” Jess replied as he casually made his way toward Payton. “Now, unless you have any more questions, let’s get started. I’m to see to it that your work gets complete by the end of the day.” Payton shook her head as she strangled on a sob. 

“I was told I was going to be making elixirs and medicine, not disgusting potions!” Payton choked out. The satyr clenched his jaw as he got down bottles and jars to set on the counter. 

“And technically, that’s true. These things are elixirs and medicine to those who ask for them. Now as I said, we haven’t time to waste.” 

“No, I’m not going to do it! I’m not going to be making potions!” Payton panicked. Jess stood in the way of the only exit out of the lab and side-stepped Payton’s attempt to leave.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Jess snickered. The look in Jess’ orange eyes was somewhere between menacing and amused. “Did you so easily forget that you’re not to stall on orders? Now, you’re going to do whatever we ask of you to because your life and the life of your brother depend on it.” He moved closer to Payton until he backed her up against the counter. “Oh, and don’t get any dumb-troll ideas about running away either. That location device in your wrist will tell us where you are and if even that doesn’t work, Jackson has back up. You belong to us now in every way, and if you dare step out of line, we will make sure you don’t forget it.” It didn’t take Payton very long to weigh the situation and conclude that, as of now, there was no way out of this. She gulped as her panic was melted by surrender. 

“Okay,” she whimpered softly. “I’ll do it.” Jess smiled as he squeezed her shoulder. 

“Just take a few slow deep breaths,” he instructed as he pulled out a pair of goggles and brown gloves from the near by drawer. “And put these on. I’ll go through a few things before I leave you to your work.” Payton averted her gaze as she gingerly put on her gloves and goggles. 

“Now, what you won’t read in the books is that adding moon dust to the unicorn blood and slowly boiling it over low heat will purify unicorn blood even more than simply boiling it,” Jess rhapsodized while he opened up a large vial of red liquid, pouring it into a pot and turning the heat on the burner to low. “Now, be a dear and grab me the moon dust.” It disgusted Payton how he could talk about exploiting a creature’s blood the same way one would casually talk about their dreams and hobbies. Although purified unicorn blood was known to give people eternal youth, it also would eventually drive that person insane after they’ve outlived all their loved ones as well as their own dreams. Many people who have been seduced by the idea of its eternal youth had been driven to suicide, and yet it was still a hot commodity in the black market. The jar of moon dust sparkled and taunted her as she wrestled the lid open for Jess. 

“How much?” Payton grunted. 

“One spoonful,” He answered. “You do the honors. After all, you’ll be doing this on your own after today.” Payton gritted her teeth as she scooped out a spoonful and dropped it into the liquid and stirred it. 

“Perfect. Now we let it simmer for several hours while we get started on the energy crystals.” Now Payton was no stranger to the adverse effects of energy crystals. Every so often, a poor soul would come stumbling into the apothecary with violent tremors and dripping blood from nearly scratching their skin off. People would smoke these crystals in hopes for energy at supernatural levels, but find themselves on the floor scratching their skin off, then coming back for more. “For the energy crystals, you’ll obviously see here in the instruction book to dip thread in pixie wing paste then soak it in lighter fluid for a few hours, but you’ll want to keep a safe distance from the jar of lighter fluid because a flame will burst when the paste comes in contact with the lighter fluid. It’s just a reaction. Observe.” Jess fixed his goggles over his eyes and slipped on some safety gloves. Once he was done dipping a thick thread into the jar of pixie wing paste, he tied the dry end of the thread to a metal stick and stayed several feet back from the jar of lighter fluid sitting on a counter away from the burner. Once he slowly placed the thread into the lighter fluid, a flame leaped out of the jar and dissipated in mid air. Payton reluctantly took the initiative and successfully followed suit with the next two threads. She’d never admit it out loud, but watching the flames leap into the air like spunky pixie ballerinas was entertaining. 

“See what I mean? The job is relatively simple. Well, at least for someone like you,” Jess simpered. “It’s just like making the elixirs at your apothecary.” Payton had to fight the urge to go off on him and tell him that this was nothing like making medicine, but she knew it would do her no good. So she just settled for glaring at him. Jess slid his goggles up to rest on his head, showcasing the insolent look in his eyes. 

“Oh don’t look at me like that, you know I’m right. Now I need to take care of other business. I trust that you’ll be able to handle things on your own from here. If you need anything, you know how to reach me. It takes two hours for those energy crystals to fully crystalize, by the way.” He paused for a moment when Payton let out a sorrowful sigh as she opened up one of the instruction books. “Aww, come now, cheer up love,” he caressed her cheek in mock gentleness, “working here isn’t so bad. You’ll see. Besides, I have a feeling you’re going to fit right in.” He peeled the gloves off of his hands and gave Payton an arrogant grin before he stepped out of the lab, leaving her alone to finish off the rest of the work. 

“I’ll never fit in to this goblin pit,” Payton seethed as she located a timer to keep track of how long the unicorn blood was simmering and the energy crystals were sitting. She bit back a whimper as she opened up a book to find the instructions on how to liquidize the mermaid scales, which was the last thing on that list. That perverted satyr! Payton groaned in her mind, he just had to be my manager of all possible creatures! However, even that horrid reality paled to the fact that she had failed the only family she had left. Surely her parents were rolling in their grave right about now as she had failed them as well. The weight of that reality crushed her insides like a gold coin on a train track. “What have I done?” She choked out, “what have I done?”

Part 1, Ch. 6

The elevator door flew open to reveal a carpeted hallway with two visible doors; one to the left and another to the right. A keyhole replaced any doorknobs both doors might have had. Exquisite paintings and sculptures decorated the hallway, all of which seemed to be sizing Payton up. As she took in her surroundings, suspicion and intrigue tickled every nerve in her body at the thought of working in an underground building. “Jackson’s office is right over…” Tiffany was interrupted by the hiss of the right door sliding open. A young man stepped out, looking surprised to see the two women. His brown hair peaked out beneath a black top hat that matched his black slacks. The sleeves on his wine red button down shirt were rolled up to the elbows. An unbuttoned black dress vest topped off the shirt and a golden pocket watch chain that hung out of his front pocket and connected to his belt loop. 

“Well, speak of the trolls!” Tiffany laughed.

“Oh hey there, Tiff! Is that our new recruit? I thought you said she wasn’t going to be here until this evening.” 

“Well, she came early,” Tiffany shrugged. 

“All the better then! It’s a pleasure to meet you, Payton! I’m Jackson, the lead here.” Jackson held out his hand to Payton.

“Pleasure to meet you,” Payton shook his hand politely while trying to read the gleam in his emerald eyes. 

“Well, we might as well not waste any time in showing you around this place. Tiffany, you may go on with your other assignment, I’ll take it from here.” Tiffany gave Jackson a nod then made her way to the door to the left. Jackson and Payton both watched as Tiffany placed a key into the keyhole which caused the door to slide open. Once the door closed behind her, Jackson looked back at Payton with a warm smile. “Come on, I’ll show you to the infirmary first and the lab you’ll be working in.” He led Payton back to the elevator and pressed a button. They went up one level and the door opened up. Payton’s heart hammered with excitement once they walked into a large room with a few beds, a large sink, and a large cabinet with several drawers of supplies. The workplace of her dreams. Already Payton imagined all the different kinds of creatures she would meet and help out during her career here. Sitting at the desk in the corner was a young woman with golden blonde hair and a white lab coat filling out papers. She turned around and gasped with excitement when she laid eyes on Payton. 

“Is this who I think it is?” The young lady inquired with hope sparkling in her blue-green eyes. 

“Yes, my love,” Jackson laughed, “This is your new co worker, Payton. Payton, this is my lovely nurse, Francesca. You’ll be working closely with her and helping her out when necessary on top of your other duties.” Francesca ran up to Payton and kissed both of her cheeks out of pure excitement.

“I’ve been having to take over what you’re going to be doing for a week now! You have no idea how much I need your help to take some of this work off my hands!” Francesca beamed with a delirious excitement. Payton laughed nervously and blushed a little bit. 

“Well, pleased to meet you too. I’m more than happy to help! I don’t know if you heard, but I’m here to work my way up to where you are.” Francesca took a step back and turned a little pink herself. Jackson chuckled at the whole scene.

“Well, I’m glad to see that you two are getting along splendidly already. Come on now, let me show you were you’ll be working.” He led her to a door in the back of the infirmary that needed a key to get into. Once the copper door slid open, she followed him into into a laboratory filled with shelves of jars and bottles of different chemicals, a stove, several different counters and other equipment. It was a normal chemistry lab on steroids. 

“I think this needs no further explanation. The recipes for your projects are in these books along this bookshelf,” he gestured toward the bookshelf behind them lined with books with a rainbow of color bindings. “Your gloves, goggles, and aprons are all located in this drawer,” Jackson tapped the drawer right behind him. “Now, tomorrow morning I’m going to have my apothecary department manger, Jess, come up here to check up on you and show you the ropes. And just so you know, this underground system I have here is a highly organized but complicated network of departments and rooms dedicated to specific things. If I were to show you all of it, we’d be at this all week! So I’ll only be showing you what you need to know about.” Once he was finished showing her the apothecary, it took Jackson an hour or so to show Payton the dining hall where he briefed her on the meal schedule, the dorm room in which she dropped off her bag, their event-holding arena and the supply room in which she would be putting her finished work in. After he showed her the supply room, he led her to his office, which had all the style and sophistication of its owner. “Sit down, get comfortable,” Jackson motioned toward one of his black velvet chairs. Payton took a seat expectantly. “So first off, I’d like to go over a few rules. Our first rule is that instructions are not to be stalled upon. Act immediately when Tiffany, Jess, or I instruct you. The second rule is that everything you have is provided by Tiffany or I, with the exception of what you already brought here yourself. Do not give or take any more than what Tiffany or I have approved. The third rule is that you do not sleep with any co-workers. They are your colleagues, not your lovers. The fourth rule is notify Tiffany or I before leaving the underground area. Do you have any questions?” All of this made Payton’s stomach as tight as two jammed cogs in a dysfunctional machine. Even if she had never worked in Zaphyr before, something didn’t seem right. 

“As a matter of fact I do.” Jackson gave her an expectant look.

“Well ask away, my dear.”

“If you’re already going to supply me with everything I need, why didn’t Tiffany just say that from the start, and then why would I need pay?” Jackson frowned.

“You may not necessarily need the pay, but your brother sure does, which is why we will be sending him the money. Isn’t that why you came here to begin with? By the way, how come he didn’t make it here?” The alarms in her head only slightly quieted down. 

“He chose not to come. He wanted to stay.” Jackson flashed her a lopsided smile as he adjusted his top hat.

“Younger siblings. Always fiercely independent, right?” 

“You would know? You have a younger sibling too?” She giggled half-heartedly,

“None other than the woman who brought you here in the first place,” he announced with pride in his voice. “Now with all that being said, there’s one last thing to do.” Jackson pulled out his desk drawer and got out a strange looking device that Payton had never seen before in her life.  “Put your arm on the arm rest palm-face up.” Payton looked at the device in his hand, then back at him.

“W-what is that thing, and what do you plan on doing with it?” Jackson grabbed a chair and sat in front of Payton, flashing her a friendly smile that she didn’t trust. 

“I’m just going to put a tracking device in your wrist. I do this with all employees for their safety. Don’t worry, it only hurts for a second.” He didn’t waste a moment placing the device on her wrist and implanting the microchip with the push of a button. Payton flinched at the extremely sharp pinch she felt as the chip burrowed under her skin. He handed her some gauze to place over the small wound. “Just put some pressure on it and the bleeding should stop fairly soon. While you do that, I’m going to go get your communication watch and your keys.” As he rummaged through his other desk drawer, Payton shook out her hand in an attempt to rid herself of the heavy, prickly feeling of intrusion pulsing through her arm. 

“Why do we need microchips for our safety? What exactly do you guys do that would require microchips?” 

“Well, if you’re in trouble and can’t contact us, we’ll know your location and be able to help you.” Payton frowned. It was probably the most unsatisfactory answer to a question she had ever received in her life. Jackson got out a set of keys and a watch, regarding Payton’s frown as he went to place the watch on her right wrist while briefing her on how to use the communication device on the watch. It was a beautiful golden color with fancy silver numbering on the face of the watch. “What’s the matter? You’re not worried or anything, are you?” Trepidation certainly was surging through her mind like an electrical current, but she couldn’t seem to find the words to answer him honestly, so she just shook her head. “Good.” He then held out a set of three keys. One silver, one gold, the other a dark copper. “Your dorm key,” he said, holding up the silver one, “the supply room key,” he held up the gold one, “and the key to your work area,” he held up the copper one, then handed the set over to her. “Remember the code 103178, you’ll need to punch in that code to get to the supply room floor in the elevator. Oh, I almost forgot. Your watch is one hundred percent waterproof, so don’t worry about taking it off…well…ever. Well, I think that’s it for now, unless you have any questions.” Indeed Payton had many questions, but she had little confidence in him giving her satisfactory answers, so she just shook her head. “Alright then, you are free to go to either your dorm or the dining hall for supper. Remember, breakfast is at seven am.” Payton simply nodded her head and began to head out of his office until he put a hand on her shoulder to stop her. “Hey,” his expression was somewhere between gentleness and delight. “Welcome to the family. We’re glad to have you on board.” She returned the smile and left to go straight to bed with a thousand unanswered questions that she only thought she wanted the answer to.

Part 1, Ch 5

 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. 

Part 1, Ch.4

Dawn’s first light had not yet breached the black sky when Payton woke up on Saturday. She turned over in her bed to glance at her clock, which let her know it was a quarter to six in the morning. The first train to Zaphyr left in an hour and a half, which allotted her time to bathe and eat a decent breakfast. She dragged herself into the steamy shower and allowed the running water to work its magic on her groggy mind and body. After drying herself off, she draped on her short-sleeved white blouse, green skirt, a brown cincher with brass fastenings and black ankle boots. After tying her hair back with a gold ribbon, she went downstairs to make herself a breakfast of bread, eggs, and coffee. As Payton enjoyed her breakfast, she heard footsteps creaking down the hallway above her, and she glanced up to find her brother half awake slowly making his way down the stairs. 

“Lawrence, what are you doing up so early?” Payton asked. “I hope I didn’t wake you.”

“You did, but it’s fine. I wanted to say goodbye to you anyway.” Lawrence yawned and then sat down next to his sister. 

“Well, in that case, why don’t you have breakfast with me? I’ll pour you some coffee.” Payton got up to grab Lawrence’s favorite brass mug and poured him a steaming cup of coffee. After she handed him the cup, she whipped together some eggs and toast for him. 

“When does your train leave?” Lawrence asked as he brushed his unkempt hair out of his eye.

“Seven-fifteen.” 

“That means you’ll be arriving in Zaphyr at about one-fifteen. Didn’t you say that you were to meet this woman at the tavern at six in the evening? What are you going to do for those extra five hours?” 

“Get crocked and score some jacks at the local bar,” Payton replied with a mischievous smirk at her brother.

Lawrence nearly spout coffee through his nose. “Why don’t you tell it like it is, Payton?” he laughed. “You’re going to get those chaps drunk and lure them to a hotel room to rob them all.” Payton giggled and Lawrence sipped his coffee before he continued. “You’re just going to have a pile of comatose joes in your hotel room and they’re all going to wake up with no money and no memory of Payton striking at their wallets.” Payton choked on her bread from laughing hysterically. 

Come six-thirty, Payton had finished her breakfast, and though she would have loved to stay and swap jokes with her brother longer, she still needed to gather her belongings and catch a trolley to the train station. Lawrence offered to clean up so that she could finish getting ready. Payton did what she could to quickly pack light, figuring that she could buy whatever else she needed at Zaphyr, and then hurried back downstairs to catch the trolley. However, the moment she caught a glimpse of her brother’s glistening brown eyes, she dropped her bags on the floor and crushed him in her embrace. Tears burned behind her eyelids as she pressed her cheek against his chest. 

“I’m going to miss you terribly,” she choked against the lump in her throat. “But this isn’t goodbye forever. I’ll come back for you. Trust me. Everything’s going to turn out all right now. I promise.”

Lawrence gently pulled back to look into her wet hazel eyes. “I’m holding you up to that, you know. Now go and achieve everything you’ve ever dreamed of.”

Payton’s heart was weighed down by grief and lifted up by excitement all at once as she carried her bags out the door. 

Payton gazed in awe at the grand train station which shimmered on the outside, and glowed on the inside. She was fortunate to have arrived so early as there was a conveniently small line at the ticket booth. While she waited in the queue, she took her time admiring the gold columns, copper friezes, and brass stairwells, all of which reflected the light from the large iron chandelier hanging steadfast from the tall ceiling. The clanking of gigantic cogs and gears echoed loudly about the depot, hurting Payton’s ears. The rugged cherry wood floors contrasted with the gleam of the copper and brass which made up the station. Once she finally reached the window at the booth, she was greeted by an old man wearing his best scowl. She imagined she wouldn’t be too pleased to work in such a noisy environment either.

“Where are you going?” mumbled the ticket master. 

“Umm…Zaphyr,” Payton responded with uncertainty creeping into her voice. “WB Seventy-One leaving at seven-fifteen?” 

The old man rested his head lethargically on his hand as he crunched the numbers into the register. The machine screeched and coughed as it spat out her ticket.

“That’s going to be fifteen gold pieces, miss.” He ripped the ticket out of the machine as Payton handed him the fee. “Your train will stop at the red gate to your right,” he continued in a monotone growl. “We reserve the right to throw you out of the train at any time for disorderly conduct. Make sure you present your ticket to the ticket examiner on the train or you will not be allowed to ride. We are not responsible for lost or stolen luggage. Do you understand and agree to these terms and conditions?”

Payton gave him a blank stare. “Uhh, yeah.”

“Sign your name here on the ticket and have a safe journey.” He slammed down a fountain pen for her to use.

Payton scribbled her signature on the ticket. Then she handed back the pen and left the ticket booth as quickly as she could manage. She approached the guardrail to the stairwell and glanced up at the massive clock on the wall in the center of the depot. It was already seven-ten. There was no time to spare in heading to the red gate. 

“That old lug sure needs his morning cup of coffee, doesn’t he?”

Payton turned her head to the direction of where the voice came and spotted a very tall and muscular middle aged gentleman with short brown hair and a bushy beard. He eyed her through bright green goggles flashed her a warm smile.

Payton chuckled. “Yeah, I would say so too.”

Just then, the loud cry of a train whistle blared through the station, only growing louder and louder by the second. Payton and the scruffy man beside her turned their gazes to the long iron train as it rolled down the railway. It took the train a few minutes to come to a complete screeching halt in front of them. Once it did, the large iron doors slid open with a hiss.

“Ladies first,” said the man. He bowed slightly and used his bionic arm to tip his bowler hat with all the chivalry of a medieval knight.

Payton nodded a thank you and stepped onto the train as anticipation pounded inside her chest. She made her way along the red carpeting to the coach car with its red velvet cushioned seats and brass framing. The seating was formed so that there were two rows of two seats facing each other with a table in between them. She placed her suitcase in the compartment above her and took a seat. The man took a seat right across from her. “Mind if I sit with you, ma’am? Four hours is a mighty long time to sit on a train alone.” 

“Not at all,” Payton beamed. “Four hours you say? I’m on here for six. Where are you headed?” 

“Mirah. Going home to my wife and two daughters after a week-long business conference. I miss my beautiful ladies dearly.”

Payton raised an eyebrow and grinned mischievously. “Is that so? How would your ladies feel if they knew you were talking to another woman?”

The man chortled as he placed his own luggage in the compartments above. “Oh, my wife knows me well. She knows I would never betray her for another.” He returned the smile. “By the way, I never got your name.”

“Payton.” She offered the man her hand. “And yours?”

“Drake.” He shook her hand. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

“The pleasure is all mine.”

After their polite introductions, the iron doors shut with a loud hiss and clank. Then, the conductor’s high-pitched voice resounded through the speakers. 

“Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome aboard the West Bound Seventy-One heading toward Zaphyr. We ask that you use caution when leaving your seats while the train is in motion. Please place luggage you do not need immediate access to in the compartments above you and shut the security bar so they do not fall out. The ticket examiner shall be punching out the tickets shortly, so please have them ready. ALL ABOARD!” With that, the train whistle cried out its call to move out of the station and the wheels jolted the train in motion with a low-rumbling chug. Before long, the train was at full speed and the world outside Payton’s window became a blur. 

“So, you didn’t tell me where you’re going,” Drake continued. 

“Oh, right. I’m heading to Zaphyr. I’ve obtained a new apothecary job there.” 

“Well then, congratulations! That’s very impressive, moving up so quickly at such a young age.”

“Thank you! By the way, if I may be so bold, might I ask what happened to your arm?”

Drake looked down at his mechanical arm and smiled. “Not at all. In my younger years, I was a bounty hunter. I had an altercation with a highly wanted goblin and he tore my arm off in the row. I still managed to apprehend the dumb troll. It was worth putting an end to his reign of terror in Mirah. Needless to say, I’m retired from that kind of work now, but I still keep in close contact with other bounty hunters and offer training from time to time.”

Payton listened intently to Drake’s story, and was surprised to find that his tone was not as arrogant and prideful as most bounty hunters she had heard of.

“I appreciate your service. In a kingdom that has a broken law enforcement system and is full of conceited bounty hunters, it’s refreshing to know there are genuine strong people out there willing who put themselves in the face of danger in pursuit of justice and the safety of the community.” [Paraphrase]. Payton wished to inform him about the merchants she’s came across, but decided to respect the fact that he retired.

Drake eyed her with reverence. “That means a lot to me. Most people aren’t so humble.”

The two continued on like this for hours until Drake’s stop was announced. Before he left the train, Drake opened up his bag and pulled out a notepad and a pen. He scribbled down his name and address.

“If you ever find yourself in Mirah and need anything, here’s where you can find me. I really needed the friendly company and want to thank you.” Drake ripped the page out of the notepad and handed it to Payton. 

“Oh um…” Payton took the paper and tucked it safely in her pocket. “Thank you. I’ll be sure to keep this.”

It was the best response she could come up with at the time. Unsettled, Payton watched Drake walk away from the train to pick up his luggage. Twenty long minutes later, the train finally moved forward to complete its last two-hour trip to Zaphyr and Payton could relax again.The next couple of hours flew by as Payton continued to gaze out her window lost in thought. How long will it take for me to become a full-fledged nurse? What’s the boss like? Do my non-human co-workers speak the human tongue as well? She was very surprised to hear the conductor announce that they would be arriving in Zaphyr at the next stop so soon. Before she knew it, her train rolled into a golden train station, slowing down ever so slightly until it came to a full and complete jolting stop. Payton’s heart flittered wildly in her chest as she yanked her bag down from the compartment above her and took her very first steps in the largest city in the human kingdom of Liadon.

Part 1, Ch. 3

Payton decided to take an evening stroll through the quiet nearby forest, as she did very often when something pressing was on her mind. Colorful fluorescent mushrooms illuminated the forest floor as nature’s gargantuan lamps along with the patches of moonlight which peeked through the trees-limbs. With this soft white and pink light working together, there was no need for a lantern. Payton’s stroll was rather quiet except for the thoughts buzzing through her head until she heard the sound of something being dragged across the forest floor. 

“So many to be fixed. So many! Why they do? Why they do?” Payton heard a haggard voice lament. Her curiosity got the best of her so she cautiously made her way toward the sound of the distraught voice to see what it was that needed to be fixed. However, Payton jumped out of her skin and yelped when she immediately came across several bodies with missing limbs, and severed heads scattered all around on blood-soaked soil. One of the arms even had chunks bitten off by some ravenous animal. She also noticed a merchant’s cart that looked to be looted. Payton’s eyes darted around the forest to make sure no one heard her scream and that whatever had gotten to these wasn’t about to come after her. Among the bodies was a silver haired banshee dressed in a ghostly-white gown with a needle and thread in her hand. Her eyes glowed yellow and her skin matched the moonlight. The banshee’s head shot up at the sound of Payton’s shout.

“Who’s there?” the gaunt voice cried out, “Who shouts? Show yourself! I no hurt you.” Payton remained hidden behind the tree, but the banshee eventually caught sight of her and pointed a bony finger at her. “You there! You no dead, are you? No ghost I see?” Payton furrowed her eyebrows. 

“Umm, no. Not dead.” The banshee grinned, showing a mouth full of yellow teeth upon hearing Payton’s response. Before Payton could say or do anything else, the banshee approached her and grabbed Payton with a cold, bony hand. 

“Good. So many bodies to be fixed. Can’t bury dead with missing parts, no can do! Bury dead whole always! You help! Yes yes, you help!” Payton submissively walked with the banshee, not daring to say no to a spirit of the dead. The banshee stopped beside a body with a missing arm.

“You want me to find his arm then sew it back to his body,” Payton had to take several deep breaths to calm down her roiling stomach. If she was going to be a nurse, she knew she would need a stomach of steel.

The banshee giggled. “Smart missy, she is! Very smart missy indeed!”

Payton began her search of this missing arm without further questioning. She gingerly picked up the nearest arm about ten feet away and handed it to the ancient woman. After the banshee examined the arm for a few seconds, she frowned and slapped Payton with the arm.

“This not his arm, dumb troll! Find the right arm!”

The startled Payton nearly tripped over herself as she scrambled away to find the correct arm. This time, she examined every arm thoroughly until she was confident with the second arm she picked up. After the banshee took a moment to examine the limb, she grinned.

“Much better, missy! Much better! Now go sew arm!” She handed Payton a needle and some thread.

Payton fought to recall what she had read about sutures and put the information to work on the arm. Her hands trembled as she worked the needle through the stiff muscles. Payton had to concentrate on steadying her hands to prevent her expensive dinner from coming back up.

“Did you see who did this? Shouldn’t we inform the authorities about this? From the empty merchant cart, it seems like this was a merchant robbery, although it seems like they were looking for something specific. Maybe that’s why they didn’t take the whole cart.” Payton commented. Payton found that small talk was helping her stomach the grotesque task by offering a distraction of sorts. 

“What authorities gonna do? They useless.” Payton huffed with irritation, knowing she was sadly right. By the time one went to the authorities with a crime, by the time they got to it, more often than not, the criminal would be long gone along with any evidence. It was a broken system that the people of Liadon have been lobbying the King and Queen to change for some time now.

“Then how does one fight back against such injustice when those that are supposed to protect society can’t or won’t? I just don’t understand how someone could become so cold as to be capable of something like this.” Payton forced down a sob. The banshee paused her work to look up at Payton. 

“The right thing” she replied. “That all we can do against wrong. We do right when they do wrong.” Even when surrounded by evil, never give up on good, Payton could hear her mother’s famous saying echoing in her mind. They continued to sew the body parts back together in silence, stitching back their dignity along with their limbs. “I go find their families. They must bury their dead. Many thanks for good deed. No let evil change your heart, missy.” The banshee’s words lingered in the air as she disappeared into the fog. She got up, brushed herself off, and made her way back home for some much-needed rest and an important discussion with Lawrence.

When Payton arrived home, Lawrence ran up and gave her a tight hug. 

“What took you so long!? I was getting worried!” Lawrence grabbed Payton by the shoulders. “Don’t scare me like that again!”

Payton placed an arm on his shoulder and giggled. “I’m sorry I kept you waiting, Dad, but I’m fine,” she teased. Payton figured it was best not tell him about the encounter with the banshee. “Sit down, there’s something I want to discuss with you.”

They both sauntered to the faded red sofa and collapsed onto its semi-plush cushions. Lawrence eyed Payton with concern as he sensed some apprehension. He longed to press her to come out with it but thought it best to let his sister speak when she was ready.

“So,” Payton began. She worked to be delicate “The new job opportunity would pay at least three times more than what I’m getting paid now, and I’ll be truly getting my foot in the door with nursing as I’ll be working closely with the nurse in the company.” Payton paused. She hadn’t realized how great the opportunity sounded until she repeated it out loud.

“What’s the name of the company?” Lawrence asked.

Payton looked up to the ceiling as if the answer to his question was written up there. “She did say that the department I’ll be working for is called the Brass Hearts. I’ll be relocating to Zaphyr.”

Lawrence frowned and looked down at his hands. “That’s a long ways away. We’d have to move there and I don’t want to leave my apprenticeship.”

Payton nodded, but she quickly grew to hate the idea of turning the offer down. “I understand. In that case, I suppose I could work there and use my leave to visit you. Once your apprenticeship is over, maybe we could both move to Zaphyr and you could find a paying job at a repair shop there. Perhaps by then I’ll be promoted to one of the nurses. Until then, I’ll write to you and send you back money for rent and everything you need.”

Payton could tell that Lawrence didn’t approve, but the fact was she had already made her decision. She took Lawrence’s hands into her own and forced him to make eye-contact.

“I know life has been beyond difficult in every aspect since Mom and Dad died. But I really believe this would be our best chance for a better life for us both. I’d be able to take care of you and…”

Lawrence tore his hands away from hers and scowled. “You don’t get it, do you? I hate how you feel like you need to take care of me! You’re my sister for griffin’s sake, not Mom! Go, do what you need to do for yourself, and don’t worry about me!”

Lawrence’s sudden outburst left Payton speechless for a moment. When Lawrence started to leave she managed to find words again.

“Lawrence!” she called. “I can see why you don’t like this situation, I don’t like it either. But facts are facts. I get paid, you don’t. That’s nothing that you or I can help.”

Lawrence turned to face his sister. “I’ll start getting paid in two years, Payton. Those two years will go by in no time. How long will you be working in Zaphyr? Probably for the rest of your life, which spirits willing, will pale in comparison to two years. So stop thinking like a mother and make this decision with you in mind. Not just me.”

“All right then, I’m sorry for caring,” Payton replied.

Lawrence softened took a couple steps toward Payton. “No listen, I’m sorry I snapped at you, all right? I just want you to get out of this habit of thinking only about me. Perhaps the law doesn’t see it yet, but I’m old enough to be able to handle myself. As soon as I have my own income coming in, I want you to feel comfortable letting me go.”

“It still won’t be for two years,” Payton reminded.

“Right, so of course, I would appreciate some help for the remaining two years. But my point is that if you decide not to take this job, don’t let me be the reason.”

Payton tore her eyes from his and nodded her head. “Right, of course, Lawrence. I… I’ll be taking the job.”

Lawrence gave his sister and sorrowful smile. “Good. But man am I going to miss you.” They shared a long, heartfelt embrace.

“I’m going to miss you too,” she whispered. “I’ll be leaving for Zaphyr on Saturday on a one-way train ride to an interesting future.”

Part 1, Ch. 2

Unfortunately, Payton got to the restaurant about fifteen minutes late. She found Tiffany leaning against the wall outside the restaurant with her arms folded across her chest frowning.

“Goodness, you can’t even make it to a dinner date on time,” she teased. “Do you make all your dates wait?”

“Excuse you, this is not a date, it’s a business meeting.”

“Even worse to be late to. Anyways, come on in. Our table is waiting.”

A sharply-dressed hostess grabbed two menus and led the ladies to their table. As she trailed behind Tiffany and their hostess, Payton took the time to examine the white tablecloths which complemented the red velvet chairs and matching crimson candle centerpieces. Then she looked in awe upon the large crystal chandelier which illuminated most of the restaurant, and she couldn’t help but notice how its light glimmered on the polished black marble floor. The soft string-music danced in the air with the aroma of mouthwatering food and Payton’s heart pounded at this exciting opportunity to play magnate for a night.

“Can I start you both off with something to drink, perhaps put in some appetizers for you?” the hostess asked once the ladies were seated.

Payton’s attention snapped back to the present and she opened her menu to read it over. Of course, everything on the menu peaked her appetite.

“Yes,” Tiffany responded. “I’ll start with the shrimp cocktail and a bottle of your best house wine with two glasses.” Tiffany winked at Payton.

“And I’ll have the corn chowder,” Payton replied.

“Great choices,” the hostess replied. “I’ll put those in right away.”

“So Payton, shall we get down to brass tacks?” said Tiffany once they were alone. “Tell me, how comfortably do you and your brother live right now? Are you financially capable of handling an emergency if one were to arise?” 

Payton glanced down at the table and bit her lip. Her intuition told her that Tiffany already knew the answer to this question. “As I mentioned at the apothecary, he’ll be turning eighteen in two years and then he’ll be bringing in income.”

Tiffany studied Payton. “Hm. That doesn’t quite answer my question, now does it? Though it seems to imply that you have no way of being financially prepared for an emergency until he turns eighteen. Do you honestly think life will wait two years for you to be prepared for it?”

Payton nodded in understanding. Before she could reply, their waitress arrived with two wine glasses and a bottle of wine. This provided her with time to process Tiffany’s words while the waitress opened the bottle and filled their glasses half way with her best service smile. Payton took a sip before Tiffany was provided her glass. She found it to be a bit dry, but had hints cherry and plum in its flavor. It tasted of tantalizing promises of financial security and dreams coming true.

“Good, isn’t it?” Tiffany smirked. “If you work for us, you could afford to drink this kind of wine any time you desired.”

Payton studied Tiffany for some time and thought it best not to answer just yet.

“You know, the appetizers will be coming out soon,” said Tiffany. “We should look at the menu for what we want as our main dish. I already know what I’m getting.”

Payton took a couple moments to peruse through the menu, and she brightened up at all her options. “The steak with the wine glaze sounds great.”

It seemed like no time had passed at all when the waitress returned with the appetizers. “All right, ladies, have we decided on a main dish?”

“Yes ma’am,” Tiffany chirped. “I’ll have the roast goose, and my friend here will have the steak with the wine glaze.”

The waitress jotted down the orders and left the ladies to enjoy their appetizers with a subtle bounce in her step. Payton didn’t hesitate to get started on her corn chowder. It was impressively sweet and creamy. In fact, she couldn’t remember having chowder quite that flavorful.

“You seem to have quite an appetite for quality food,” said Tiffany. “Does your brother have the same pallet?”

Payton glanced up at Tiffany and suddenly felt ashamed of herself. She sat up and worked to take her time on her soup. “I’m sure anyone would enjoy fine food.”

Tiffany chuckled as she nibbled on her shrimp cocktail. “Of course. Fortunately for you and your brother, you’re one of the few who are provided the opportunity to enjoy it everyday for the rest of your lives.”

“What exactly are you offering?” Payton finally asked.

“The company I work for desperately needs someone with the experience and knowledge you have,” Tiffany explained as she swirled the wine in her glass. “The department you would be working for is called the Brass Hearts. We sell various services to people, including making and selling elixirs and remedies in our market. We would pay you triple what you’re currently making and you could send that money back to anyone who may need your financial aid, such as your brother. You would also be working closely with one of our nurses and assist her when needed. If you excel in your position, we’ll discuss a promotion for you to become one of our nurses.”

Payton swallowed a mouthful of chowder. “It all sounds great so far. Will I need to relocate?”

There was a moment of heavy silence between the two and before Tiffany could reply, the waitress returned with their main dishes. Payton couldn’t help but dive in. The steak melted in her mouth and gave the wine a sweeter flavor, pairing perfectly. For a while, all that could be heard between two ladies was the clanking of the silverware against their plates as Tiffany thought how to best word her answer to Payton’s question.

“Yes, you would have to relocate,” Tiffany finally said. Payton had nearly forgotten that she was at a potential business meeting. “We’re located in the city of Zaphyr, and you’ll be staying with us. However, we could arrange for you to visit him, or he could come live with you. It is quite a train ride from here, but it’s still in the human kingdom here in Liadon. Though, you’ll be working with other creatures such as elves and mermaids. But you’ll be able to take care of your brother, so it’ll be well worth it, I assure you.”

Payton glanced down at her plate. “I’m not sure I can take a position where I have to relocate. My brother comes before my career, even though getting my foot in the door for nursing is tempting.”

Tiffany regarded Payton silently over her glass of wine. “Well of course your brother comes before your career. I never questioned that. However, two years is more time than you may think, dear. Consider that though you may have to be away from your brother, you can still send him enough money to provide him with more than what you are now.”

Payton slowly chewed her steak and couldn’t bring herself to look at Tiffany as she processed the proposal. Rather, she gazed down at her glass of wine looking for advice at the bottom of the glass.

“Look, I understand you must love your brother very dearly and you would be sad to leave him,” Tiffany continued. “But sometimes you have to follow your head instead of your heart. I’m telling you, my lead will be very pleased to have you as his apothecary girl and you would be as much of an asset to us as we will be to you.” Tiffany dabbed her mouth with her napkin upon finishing her meal and then lifted her wine glass before she asked, “So what do you say?”

Payton tried to review all this new information, weighing the potential pros with the certain cons, and pondering her life scrambling beneath Marlene at Brynn’s Apothecary so that she and her brother could have so much as fresh bread on the table. She shot Tiffany a fleeting glance, surprised that she had been allotted this much time to reflect.

“Well?” Tiffany probed, her tone sounding more like a challenge than an invitation this time.

. “I think I’d like to discuss this with Lawrence before I give you a definitive answer.”

Tiffany felt she should’ve expected this. She flashed Payton a considerate smile before she flagged their waitress down for the check. “Of course. If you want to make sure your brother wants for nothing ever again, come meet me in The Lucky Tavern right on the edge of Zaphyr Saturday evening.”

Payton nodded. “That seems fair. You’ll know my answer by either my presence or absence at the tavern.”

Tiffany finished off the rest of her wine with a pleased sparkle in her eye. “I know you’ll make the right choice. For Lawrence and for yourself. Be sure to arrive by six. Don’t keep me waiting this time, love.”

Tiffany wore a confident grin as she handed the money over to the waitress and glided out of the restaurant without so much as a “good-bye.”