Chapter 1 - A Stone in Hand
“Juliette, please. Let’s talk about this.”
Juliette tightened her grip on the table. She could feel the soreness on her hands even though she’d had an entire night to recover. Yesterday’s delivery was long, and she’d foolishly left her gloves at the league’s bureau during her break. Her left hand began to throb, but her grip remained tight. She locked her gaze with her mother and shook her head.
“No. I’ve told you countless times, I want nothing to do with the Heart. You’ve seen what it can do to people.”
Her mother hesitated and shifted her shoulders ever so slightly. The wound from Oliver was still fresh in everyone’s mind, Juliette’s included. Juliette dropped her eyes to the table. It was early enough that breakfast hadn’t been prepared yet. All that separated the two was a small wooden statue of paragon, which most in this district would decorate their tables with. She stared at the statue and let her hands drop to rub her aching palms. Deliveries today were going to hurt.
“I know what it does Juliette. Believe me,” her mother said as she brushed a lock of hair from her cheek. “Your father is still struggling to make the larger deliveries.”
“So what do we do then, blame the Heart’s evil on the Seeker? How was Oliver to know? There is no way to be certain if you’ll receive a boon or turn into—”
“Enough!” Her mother slammed her fists on the table. “The Heart is not evil!”
Juliette rocked back, and her mouth snapped shut. Her mother was hunched over the table, with the tendons in her neck standing out. Juliette stared at her with wide eyes and could see her mother’s eyes turning glassy. She didn’t move as her mother smoothed her tunic, sat back, and turned her head to look away. This was the cycle. A normal conversation turned aggressive, people leaving hurt, and Juliette no closer to seeking her Passion at the Heart. She clenched her jaw and purposely avoided looking at her mother. She was starting to pick at her callouses when her mother took a deep breath. Still looking away from Juliette, she continued.
“The Heart is fair. It understands us on a level that we might not even understand. Oliver should not have entered if his heart was not in line. It’s his fault if he became corrupted.”
Juliette said nothing, but knew how hard that must have been to admit out loud. Her mother could be cold. It must run in the family.
“I understand how you feel. I remember standing in front of the Heart, ready to accept something that would change my life.”
Her mother looked away from Juliette and seemed to lose herself to thought. Most women did not desire to become a Laborer. The lucky ones received a Scholar Passion like Artist or Professor. Some even became Warriors. A Laborer was seen as an unlucky roll of the dice, with the Deliverer focus being even more so.
“It’s not something I took lightly either,” She continued. “The Administrators were there though and could sense my worry. They were gentle with understanding and assured me the Heart would provide. They hadn’t forced me to receive my Passion when I was not ready.”
She glanced back at Juliette who rolled her eyes, “Ah, yes, the Administrators. Our so-called ‘protectors’ who bar entry into the Heart from youth and somehow know our deepest, darkest secrets,” Juliette said.
Her mother’s hands tightened again. “I’m quite serious Juliette. They aren’t monsters. They are there to help prevent more people from corrupting, and to make sure the Heart is guarded.”
And they did such an exceptional job with Oliver, didn’t they? Juliette thought.
“They let you decide when is the right time,” her mother continued. “Just go, see the Heart for yourself. Speak to an Administrator and ask them questions.”
She reached out to grab Juliette’s hand across the table. She could feel her mother’s warm hands and the same rough callouses she had earned herself. Juliette opened her mouth, ready to comment on the mistake they made with Oliver, and then shut it. She couldn’t keep re-opening wounds. She closed her eyes instead.
“I’m not ready. Not yet,” she said quietly.
“Please, you are past the age when most seek the Heart. Years past. You’ll turn eighteen in two seasons. Most your age have already earned their first major-rank by then!”
“I told you. I can’t yet.”
“And what should I tell people asking about you, Juliette? You’re still not ready, and won’t be for another 10 years? They think there is something wrong with you, that you somehow upset Paragon and have lost your Para. I even heard a Warrior talking about ‘some girl from the Senov district cursed to live a Passionless life,’ during a delivery.”
Juliette’s grip tightened on the table again and her knuckles turned white.
“I don’t care what the Warriors or Laborers are saying! They’ve no idea the life I live, nor do they decide when I might seek the Heart. Exden has no law against waiting, so why does everyone care so much? Have they considered, I don’t know, asking me instead of talking behind my back?”
“Are they right though? Do you even have Para anymore?”
Juliette saw her mother stiffen slightly. So, this is why she keeps pushing me, Juliette thought. Oh, how she would love to tell her the truth. Para. The lifeblood of Passions. With it, you may accept a Passion from the Heart. All were born with Para, and all were born with the same amount. Well, not everyone. Juliette shifted in her seat and looked back to her mother.
“Yes. I still have my Para.”
It was barely noticeable when her mother’s shoulders relaxed. She knew she should tell her mother the truth. But if mother told someone else… The Laborers would surely gossip like children. The Warriors might not care, but the Administrators? She was confident there would be no keeping a secret once they found out. It wasn’t worth putting her mother in that position.
She squeezed Juliette’s hands, “then visit the Heart, speak with the Administrators,” she pleaded.
Juliette stood up and her chair rocked back to the ground. Her mother’s mouth hung open and stared back with wide eyes. Juliette’s fists were tight and her hands trembling.
“Juliette, I’m sorry. Please let’s talk abou—”
“No, No, No! I’m tired of talking. This is my life. My Para. My decision! I won’t be pressured into it.”
Juliette turned toward the closed door. Paragon forbid if a neighbor heard this. Right, mother? She thought. She should turn around and apologize for shouting. Instead she took a step forward and sped out the door.
Her mother sat at the table, feeling tired, and with her face in her palms. Tired from the life of a Laborer. Tired from these arguments with her daughter. Tired from the extra delivery workload from Alton. Her husband still hadn’t fully gotten over what happened to his nephew Oliver, both mentally and physically. Though Oliver was much younger, barely into his teenage years, Alton and Oliver had a strong relationship, almost like father and son. She would never say that to Juliette for fear of pushing her further away and resenting her father any more than she might already. Oliver even resembled Juliette. The same look of determination when focused on a task. Always furrowing brows and a biting lips. Never did he rise to the teasing from other boys or raise his voice to more than a cheer. He was a day over thirteen, the youngest one could be to receive a Passion. Before that, the Administrators would have barred his entry to the Heart for his own safety. The day he turned thirteen, he was more eager than ever, telling anyone with an ear which Passion he might receive.
“I’ll become Exden’s greatest Hunter! Feed the entire city on my first hunt! Or a Water Mage! Protect our town and feed our crops. I could be a Leader! Rule the lands and expand Exden to a continental power!”
Oliver was full of pure joy and eagerness for his blessing.
And then he was cursed.
How could he become corrupted? You could never be absolutely certain if someone ended up corrupted or not. There were cases where receiving a certain Passion drove them to abandon Exden, to seek higher challenges, increase their rank without telling anyone. Others thought that there was something wrong with a person before they met the Heart. Their mind was twisted, and heart malicious. They would seek the Heart for their corrupted motives, only to receive a curse instead. Fleeing the Heart, stripped of their Para, only madness filled them.
But Oliver? An Administrator came to her home that evening requesting council with Alton. They immediately knew something had happened to the boy. She’d excused herself, but through Alton’s fierce yelling, she knew the worst was happening. It was only days later when Alton’s leg was broken by Oliver that they had their confirmation.
“Oh Juliette. What kind of a mother am I?” she whispered to herself.
She rubbed at her face. Her wrinkles were getting deeper and skin getting tougher. So much more time in the sun making deliveries for Alton had not been pleasant on her skin. Her favored olive skin had bronzed in just a few months. At least her hair kept its color. Dark would be the day when her chestnut hair turned silver.
“And this is what I start thinking about when my daughter just ran away. My looks. Paragon save me.”
She took a breath and sat back in her chair. She felt at the rough stitching along the seam of her tunic. Juliette was wrong. Sooner or later a woman would need to grow up and receive her Passion. It can’t be avoided forever. It would not be worth waiting, only to become a detested person of the city, one not able to contribute at the same level as everyone else. Or turning into something… worse.
“Stop that,” she said aloud.
It was useless to play ‘what if’, Juliette would seek the stone soon. No one, in Exden’s history as far as she could remember, had waited that long to receive a boon. The need was just too great to rank up and receive Paragon’s gift. The only reason Juliette lasted as long as she did without building animosity, was her work ethic. She finished more work than people with ranked Passions frequently. And for a family of Laborers, that was not an easy task. She would talk to Juliette when she returned, and much more softly this time.
I’m sorry Juliette.
Juliette stormed down the road, her legs sore, ignoring the stares of her neighbors. The gawking only fueled her to keep moving. The curse of living in the Senov district was also its pride. With the largest population of Laborers in a single district, there was no time when the district slept. An early morning such as this was just as busy as the lunch hour in the food district. She could see some using their proficiencies to make light work of their labors. A few Deliverers bounded from rooftop to rooftop along the upper trail, packages strapped to their back. A carpenter had been carving ornaments into two chairs simultaneously as she had trudged by.
A missing stone in the cobblestone path caused her to stumble. She steadied herself and started again at a slower pace. The morning sun was finally rising over the clay houses and shops in this area. Senov was dense. It wasn’t an affluent district, but people living here made a decent living for themselves. If someone worked hard and ranked up quickly, they might have a chance to move to a wealthier area. But most who were born in the Senov district, stayed in the Senov district.
Her parents had married young and bought a small home on the outskirts of the district near the walls. Ever since she could remember, her father was out making deliveries. A Deliverer was one of few Passions where the more you worked, the more you could earn. There was always another letter to be delivered, or a package to be sent for. He didn’t have to rely on selling his own goods at the merchant district, but instead could accept as many deliveries as he desired from the Deliverers league. He had always opted to take on as many as his body could handle. Saying that one day he’d move us to an upper crust district like Torres. That never seemed to happen.
Her pace began to slow as she thought about her father. Though his face was hard and gritty, his soft smile always brought Juliette back down to Ducania when she was upset. He’d take her hands gently in his and tell her about the latest delivery he completed. Some Clothier too lazy to carry their own dyes. Or a Blacksmith with a craving for torture, asking her father to haul hundreds of pounds of Iron across the district.
Even since Oliver went to the Heart though, he had become a changed man. Now that smile never seemed to rise. His hard features now made him intimidating to be around. And his calloused hands never left his bundle of deliveries as he limped from one task to the next.
Juliette relaxed herself, stopped walking, and closed her eyes. She took a deep breath of the salty air from the morning swell. Though it was still early, Exden was bustling. Workers from the docks were already done loading the morning ships and now looking for a Sustainer to buy food or energy from. High ranked Deliverers had been up for several hours by this time. Their duty required deliveries to be made at all hours of the day. Some even have abilities to remain awake for all fourty. Their rank gave them superior abilities, what many called ‘Proficiencies’, compared to their lower ranked peers. Some received increased travel speeds, others the ability to deliver across great distances without breaks.
Her father was a mid-rank. The difference between a low-rank and mid-rank is noticeable, but less so than mid to high-rank. Some of the Proficiencies she had seen… No. He was a good Deliverer, but not a great one. He handled bulk deliveries as his primary Proficiency was strength. She’d seen him carry deliveries as large as their family wagon by himself. He was, still is, one of the strongest in the Senov district for certain, though the competition is fierce. Wealthier families could afford specialized delivery wagons or those with high-rank proficiencies. That just meant her family needed to take on a larger number of lower-class deliveries to make do. And with her father’s leg still not fully recovered, Juliette was helping her mother with the deliveries he wasn’t able to complete.
Juliette opened her eyes and looked around at the other Laborers. Only Laborers. There were no Warriors or Fighters in this district, especially during this early hour. They were busy off fighting nearby Goblins or settling some dispute to the south. There was always some issue between Exden and Lower Cross it seemed. Enough fighting that most who participated in the battles had gained enough Para to double their rank in just a few years. Whereas, the majority of Laborers would earn enough Para to rank only once every year at most. Once someone earned enough Para, they could offer it to the Heart, and receive a rank up as a blessing. Then, it was a race to earn more and repeat the process.
There were very few from the Scholars around as well. Only a handful getting ready for the day. She saw a Professor preparing for lectures, setting out parchment and rehearsing her lesson. Another man was carrying a painted canvas and a satchel of painting tools. The Artist must have been out on the docks painting the sunrise. It was hard for her to see more than a few paces with the number of Masons, Deliverers, Workers, and Craftsman traveling to and from the Merchants in the Jun District. She thought about what would happen if she became part of the Scholar class. Would I become a Doctor? She laughed at the thought of herself, Juliette the Doctor with scraped feet and battered hands, attempting to perform surgery on a writhing patient. She’d probably do more damage than they came in with. She would be happy to receive a Passion for Labor. Both of her parents were Laborers, Deliverers to be specific, and met while working on a shared delivery. Juliette would be a good one she knew. The specific Passion she would receive is not what scared her about seeking the Heart. No. It was what happened to those who weren’t given a Passion at all. The Corrupted. Now including her cousin.
Juliette felt a small shiver go up her spine as she thought about Oliver outside of the gates. It just didn’t fit. Oliver had no evil in him. Even while young, he was such a sweet boy.
She looked up and noticed a familiar face and felt a fraction of relief. Juliette’s scowl turned from a frown into a passable neutral expression. She idly thought that she had to stop scowling so much or she’d have wrinkles like her mother before she turned twenty.
Jane walked closer, but had to sidestep a Carpenter carrying a large wooden beam. As always, Jane Doyen looked stunning. How could you not when you were part of the Doyen family? Juliette wondered. Her wavy hair was tied up with a thin green cord in a traditional eastern style. Even during such an early hour, her eyes were bright, and the green cord made her emerald eyes stand out all the more. She was wearing a new yellow tunic that fit her form perfectly. Did she have a Laborer tailor all her clothes? Juliette thought. She had flawless olive skin, not a blemish to be seen.
Juliette glanced down to inspect her cut and calloused hands. They’d… seen better days. She did not have a Durability Proficiency that most Deliverers had, as she had no Passion. Because of this, the heavy loads took a toll on her more than others. Her tunic was brown and dusty, not at all form fitting. It was a purchase from a second-hand Merchant who was selling at a discount. She looked like a sack of yams compared to Jane. She started absentmindedly brushing the dirt from her tunic and let out a silent sigh.
“What are you doing out so early?” Juliette asked when Jane came closer.
Jane huffed, “Father asked if I could open his chamber early this morning.” She jingled the metal keys in front of her face. “He’s expecting a low-level dignitary from Dummoas. I’d ask the same of you. Where’s your package?” She raised an eyebrow.
“Ah. Your Passion business again?”
“Have you changed your mind at all? Are you going to see the Heart?” Jane asked cautiously.
Juliette was already shaking her head. She sighed again.
“I just don’t feel right about it. I’m not scared of what boon I might receive, or even becoming corrupted since that happens so rarely.” She took a breath, “I can’t be part of something that causes people to become… monsters. I’m going to keep working for my father until he recovers.” She could feel her hands tightening.
“And after that?”
“I’ll figure it out, okay? Why is this such a problem to everyone else? Why can’t someone choose to receive a Passion or not to? I’ll still be a hard worker and I’m better than half the Deliverers in this district as it is!”
Jane put her hands up in surrender and looked around. Juliette noticed a few laborers turn to look at her. Not pleasantly at that. More quietly, she continued.
“My point is, everyone says the only way to live and contribute to the great world of Ducania, is to receive a Passion and find your place in this world. What if I’ve found my place as it is, without needing a Passion?” Juliette let her arms drop to her sides and relaxed her hands.
“Because it’s unprecedented,” Jane said, “nobody, I even asked my father about it, has ever heard of a person who has chosen to live a Passionless life.”
“What about the Ashen?”
Jane let out a barking laugh.
“Oh Paragon! Listen to yourself Juliette. The Ashen, really? Are you going to start believing the Slicks invade our bodies and grow eggs too?” She looked at Juliette incredulously.
“It could be true.” Juliette square her shoulders toward Jane and furrowed her brow.
“And it could be something made up thousands of years ago to get a rise out of the Administrators.” Jane breathed out, “I know you don’t want to receive a Passion yet. But you’ll have to do it sooner or later to avoid all of the focus you’re getting from your parents.”
Juliette didn’t answer. She knew this conversation was going to end in the same way it did with her mother. She looked away from Jane and watched as a Trainer tried to wrangle several cats into a small gap in his shop.
Jane could see the other girl was done with that part of the conversation. “By the way, how is your father? How is Alton feeling?”
Juliette let her shoulders sag further. “He’s… getting by. His leg is still a problem even though it’s much better than a month ago. He’s able to make deliveries, but… Jane, I haven’t seen him smile since Oliver left.” She looked back to Jane, worry in her eyes.
Jane’s eyebrows knit together. They were not close personally, but being a good friend of Juliette, she knew how dear he was to their family. Jane’s voice softened as she leaned in to hug Juliette.
“I’m sorry Juliette. Really, I am. If there is anything me or my father can do to help, please tell me okay?”
Juliette nodded her head and wrapped her arms around Jane.
“He said he’d even be willing to talk to the Deliverers League about allowing your father to take on more mid class deliveries, even if it takes him slightly longer,” Jane said.
That was the thing about being friends with the daughter of a District Leader. They could pull strings no one else could. She knew she could ask for help. And she also knew that her father would be furious if he thought he was receiving some sort of special treatment. Alton Hasting’s family might be poor, but they would not be a lazy!
Juliette pulled away from Jane and looked at her friend. Had she always been this… diplomatic? She thought. That is another thing that scared Juliette, but she’d never say it out oud. Passions changed people. It changed the way they spoke, it changed their body, it changed their mind. It was only a few years ago that Jane could barely make it through a conversation without bumbling over her words. But recently, since receiving a Passion for Leadership, she had a silver tongue and always knew just what to say. Juliette had asked her before about her Proficiencies and Jane responded by playing coy. She was a lower rank at the time, and lower tier Proficiencies could be somewhat embarrassing. Nobody would advertise they had received Stutterless Tongue. Instead Jane downplayed it and said she’d not received any Proficiencies other than the standard ones given when you receive a Passion.
Increased Para Rate, and Link to Paragon. Not that Juliette was jealous. She’d had plenty of Para at that time, and even more now. She knew Jane was lying, but decided it wasn’t work making things awkward with her only true friend over something that didn’t really matter.
“But…” Jane said
“But no thank you. You know he would kill me if he knew I was changing things around to give him special treatment.”
“Oh, please Juliette, he loves you more than any father could.” Jane rolled her eyes and frowned. Juliette heard there was a something happening at the Doyen household recently, but wasn’t sure what.
“I know he loves me, but he’s been so much different lately. I’m scared for him. I really am.”
Jane eased the frown off her face and nodded. She grabbed Juliette lightly by the elbow and turned her so they were facing the road which lead to her father’s chamber.
“Come on, I want to show you something. I think it might cheer you up.”
Jane seemed to brighten at that and pulled Juliette along. Jane shared some details from her father’s recent visits with people of importance. He often traveled all across Lesmor, visiting fancy people in fancy places. Never outside of the continent though. He was a Leader, but not a high-rank. A high-rank wouldn’t oversee a district, they’d oversee a city. Instead, Jane’s father, Roland Doyen, made sure the Senov District was running smoothly. He’d deal with the Merchant League if they were price gouging the other Laborers, authorize large projects in the district, and was overall responsible for the health and prosperity of this district. And he was doing a great job at it.
There was talk of Roland ranking up soon. He’d been keeping the district healthy and prosperous and was being rewarded by gaining large amounts of Para. Enough that he was able to rank sometime twice before the year was out. He hadn’t gone out and advertised that fact, but it’s not exactly something you can keep secret when you visit the Heart multiple times in a year. Most believed that his next ranking would be enough for him to move into a full City Leader position. And that was a big deal to the 20,000 people of the Senov District. It is not a wealthy district by any means. So, for one of Senov’s own to become part of City Leadership… That was important.
They made it to Roland’s chamber in short order. Juliette loved how the colored glass windows of his chamber glistened in the light early in the mornings. Reds, blues, yellow, dozens of colors all shimmering in the sunlight. It was an impressive chamber overall. Two stories tall, and all stone construction. It must have taken the Masons a long time to finish, or they had a few High-Level masons on the project. Detailed ornaments sprouted out of every column which lined the facade. Each column was a tribute to the most prevalent leagues in the district. It made her swell with pride at the statue that extended from the left-most column. A man standing strong, lifting a large delivery over his head. That man was Alton Hastings. Her father, and personal friend of Roland. Even before Roland received his Leader Passion they were friends. Their father’s friendship was how Juliette and Jane had met in the first place. It was a draw of luck that the Hastings and Doyen’s remained friends after all this time. Usually the class discrepancy was too great to still hold relationships between classes. What Engineer wants to be friends with a Fisher? They can’t gain Para by talking about fishing after all.
Roland had commissioned Alton’s image to represent all the Laborers of Senov. Her father’s chest would puff with delight when someone recognized his form, and he’d always explain that his good friend Roland wanted a real Laborer to represent their league.
Jane pushed open the wide wooden doors and they entered Roland’s chambers. It was just as grand on the inside. Hand carved, wooded desks were placed strategically throughout the building. Stone statues of Paragon stood along the far wall under a sign which read, “Through unity and persistence we find Passion,” a copy of one of the more popular phrases thought to have been written by Paragon himself many millennia ago. There were even living plants inside near the colored windows. Probably to make the western dignitaries feel more at home.
“Have a seat in the antechamber. I’ll be right back with what I wanted to show you.” Jane said as she hurried away.
Antechamber? Juliette thought, She’s saying Antechamber now?
Juliette sat in the antechamber on a cushioned chair and sunk into the soft padding while her eyes closed. Being part of the Leader class came with certain privileges, and fluffy chairs were just one, fantastic, part.
“Cushioned chairs and tailored wears. Maybe life as a Leader wouldn’t be so bad,”Juliette whispered to herself with a smirk.
She heard a slam and opened one eye. A flash of green passed through a doorway as Jane went from drawer to drawer, slamming them along the way. Juliette slouched down in the chair still upset from the mornings conversation with her mother and started picking at the callouses on her hand. A woman’s hands shouldn’t be this rough. At least not rougher than her husbands. What would a suitor think when he saw that her hands were rougher than his? “You can fold the clothes husband, while I fix the wagon!”. Juliette smirked at that thought. Imagining her with any man made her chuckle as she’d never even had a young admirer. The other girls said it was because of Juliette’s scary face. It wasn’t scary, it was strong! Who wants a woman that gets pushed around by others? Not her future husband, that’s who!
As she was picturing herself swiftly punching someone in the face, Jane came back in the room.
“I found it! You mustn’t tell my father, or anyone, that I showed you this. He said it was something very important and could potentially speed up his promotion.”
Jane obviously though the promotion was inevitable. Juliette stared at the item Jane was holding and leaned forward. Jane’s eyes were bright with anticipation. To Juliette, it looked like a plain, small, cloth pouch. Not even larger than her fist. Definitely not something that Juliette thought might speed up a Leader’s promotion.
“What is it?” Juliette asked, letting the curiosity seep into her voice.
“I don’t know,” Jane said as she locked eyes with Juliette. She was cradling the pouch in her hands like she might a kitten. She looked back down to the item. “It’s something that my father is keeping very close to his chest. No one knows about this item except him, the foreigner who brought it, and the Merchant who was attempting to buy it. And now us.”
“What?” Juliette asked, confused.
“I haven’t opened it yet.”
“No, the foreigner.” She said, shaking her head, “where was he from, and why was he in Exden trying to sell this?” Her eyebrows knit together.
“I’m not sure. My father said he was some traveler, frail looking, and babbling about some faraway place. Hamire maybe? Father was passing through the Merchant district when the name caught his attention. He takes pride in knowing of every city in Lesnor, and that’s not one of them. He purchased it from the traveler and has been keeping it here ever since.” Jane’s was still staring at the pouch while she slowly turned it to get a better view.
“How long has he had it?”
“Two days, but he says he won’t be needing it much longer. He hasn’t told me what he needs it for. I’ve been dying to peek inside, but I wanted you to be here when I do. If this is going to change our lives, I want to share that moment with you.” Jane said, glancing at Juliette then returning to the object in her hands. Jane was smiling and almost shaking with anticipation.
Jane’s comment shocked Juliette and she sat back in her chair. She knew they were friends, but thought that once Jane had become part of the Leader class, she’d be busy with lavish parties to attend and princesses to befriend. It was not like Juliette brought anything to the table. She could deliver packages without a Passion. Woohoo! Watch out royalty! She could also beat up most people her age, male or female. So there was that.
She saw Jane’s hand tugging gently on the small string that held the pouch closed.
“Are you sure—”
The string fell to the floor and Jane peeled open the top. She stared into the pouch, her emerald eyes intensely focused, then she reached in and pulled out the item.
It was a rock. Juliette sat forward.
“A rock?” Juliette asked, squinting her eyes.
“A rock.” Jane responded. Disappointment washing over her face. “It’s just a rock. Why would my father buy a rock?” She dropped the hemp sack and examined the stone closer to her face.
“Is there anything written on it? A rune maybe?” Juliet asked.
“No. It’s just… a rock.” Jane began pacing back and forth looking at the rock, holding it up to the light and inspecting for something, anything, out of the ordinary.
“Here, let me take a look.” Juliette offered.
Juliette extended her hand while Jane took one more lingering look at the stone. With a loud exhale she tossed the rock to Juliette.
The rock sailed through the air, “What a stupid—” Jane’s voice cut off.
White blinding light. Searing white blinding light was all Juliette saw. She tried to shut her eyes, but the light was somehow still just as bright. There was no cushioned chair. No stone walls. No Jane. Just a white glow so bright that Juliette was sure she’d gone blind. Until she looked down and saw her calloused hands and tunic. Her stained tunic though, was now pristine, and what was loose fitting and dirty before, was form-fitting and flawless now.
She blinked and turned her head to look around, find anything in the glare.
“Hello!” She shouted. Her voice was muffled, like she was yelling into her palm or a pillow. She turned again and noticed a faint blemish within the glow, something that shone just a shade different. She tried to move toward the glow and found her steps were near impossible to take, like a great resistance was holding her back. She was not paralyzed, but instead like traipsing through waist deep mud into a strong wind. She slowly edged closer and the glow became more defined. She could hear a ringing in her ears. A constant droning ringing that felt like it was coming from her very soul. It wasn’t a painful sound though. It was pleasant, pleasurable. She wanted to curl up and sleep while the ringing soothed her aching hands and gave rest to her body.
She continued walking closer, what felt like hours had passed, and slowly, the ringing turned into whispers. Voices. No, a voice. Undulating and overlapping with itself like a choir seeking harmony. The glow turned, and she saw it was a figure. A glorious, glowing figure wrapped in gold.
Pressure hit Juliette’s body and her whole frame ached. It felt like her inside was being squeezed out of her. A deep instinctual pressure, keeping her from advancing any further. She struggled to reach out her arms, as if held down by heavy weights. The figure stared at her, its gold glow searing her mind, unmoving. She couldn’t take any more of this, she would pass out. She knew it.
And then the pressure stopped completely.
“Juliette. Come to me, find me.”