The Archfiend Artifact

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6

STARR THRIFTS & GIFTS, OBSIDIAN GROVE

MONDAY, OCTOBER 20
3:33 PM

Agilisi had just hung up the phone when I walked through the door and into her domain. She looked absolutely livid, and wasted no time grabbing my arm and pulling me to the back room. Once there, she ordered me to take off my shirt as she got her switch cane. I folded my shirt neatly, laid it aside. Agilisi’s fury broke upon me within seconds.

The arrival of customers spared me from more of her rage. By then, I had already fallen to my knees in a desperate, defensive ball. She hissed at me that this wasn’t over, and left. I slumped forward to lay on the hard concrete, biting the back of my hand to keep the sobs back. I couldn’t let the customers hear me. It would only make things worse with agilisi.

It was a long while before I forced myself to move. Excruciating pain shot through my body like lightning. My back protested with even the slightest move, and I could feel liquid oozing from the wounds. My legs were wobbly. I couldn’t stop shaking.

Grabbing my shirt from where it had been laid, I quietly slipped into the tiny employee bathroom and locked the door. The orange-ish light flickered to life automatically when I stopped at the sink. My reflection showed me puffy, reddened eyes and cheeks stained with tears. I opened the tap and threw cold water on my face. My hand stung. The skin had broken in several places along the bite marks, and blood pooled in the divots. I ran it under the cold water to numb the pain, but it wouldn’t stop shaking. Eventually, I worked up the courage to turn around for a look at my back.

I wished I hadn’t.

It looked more like a slab of raw meat than human skin. Enormous, red welts and dark purple bruises covered my back from shoulders to waist. A patch of skin the size of my fist had been torn off, leaving an angry and bloody canyon between my shoulders. At least three of the strikes had broken through the old scars and left bloody slashes running the full width of my back. They hadn’t stopped bleeding yet and part of one looked deep enough to require stitches.

I unraveled several sections of paper towel from the dispenser and expertly folded them into a thick belt. Gritting my teeth against the burning bite of moving, I wrapped the belt around my waist to catch the blood before it could soak my jeans. Even if I could reach all of the strikes, I had no way to treat them. There’s no way in hell I’d ask agilisi for any help. And I couldn’t go to a hospital.

It’s not fair! Why am I being punished for what those stupid boys started? I left the tap open and let myself cry. Even if I had to do it quietly, it was the only comfort I could give myself. There’s no medication in the world that could ease this pain. Why? Why do I keep coming back to this? I studied myself in the mirror, marveled at how pathetic I looked. Come on, Cye! You’re stronger than this!

I had to find some way out of this nightmare that didn’t end in my funeral. There had to be a way to disappear without a trace. If I could just figure out how. The neighbors weren’t likely to help me, and I wasn’t about to place my burden on anyone else.

What had my shrink said? Rely on no one but yourself.

“Golanv.”

I flinched, bit the back of my hand to keep from screaming at the agony that knifed through me. My pulse raced as panic consumed me, and I felt blood once again ooze from my wounds. Agilisi had come to fulfill her threat to continue the beating. I’m just a rat in a corner in here; she had all the keys. So I croaked out, “G-gadousdi tsaduliha?

She spoke in an emotionless voice, using Tsalagi to order me to carry in some boxes for a customer.

Howa, elisi.” I silently and slowly counted to fifty, all the while straining my ears to hear even the softest of footfalls and worried when there weren’t any. I fashioned another belt from the paper towels, and struggled into my shirt. Every time it barely whispered over my abused flesh, I had to bite back screams. I took a minute or two to compose myself, preparing myself for the worst.

Rely on no one but yourself.

Unlocking the door, I poked my head out to take a look.

She had gone.

I released the breath I had been holding, and moved as swiftly as I could to the key rack. The bells on the front door jingled, and I hoped it was agilisi leaving. Daring a peek through the storeroom door, I spotted broken-arm-girl, Aiden if I recall correctly, exchanging hushed words with agilisi. She looked upset as agilisi talked to her, most likely feeding her lie after lie. Aiden waved goodbye with a disappointed frown before she quit the store. She followed the sidewalk westward and disappeared beyond the shop windows.

What in the world is she doing here? I thought back to our last conversation. Something had been bothering her, and she had been about to tell me, but those little bastards started the fight. With the day’s hectic activity, I had completely forgotten about it. If she had convinced her parents to drive all the way out here, it must be something extremely important. I wonder if I can move fast enough to catch up to her.

Agilisi hissed like an angry cat. Only then did I realize that she had spotted me watching through the door. The look in her eyes conveyed the message: Do as I said, or you’ll end up worse than just a bloody piece of meat. Then she went to the dark-haired man browsing through the old lamps. His amethyst gaze found me in the doorway, and I forced what I hoped passed for a friendly smile before slipping away.

With a heavy sigh, I headed towards the back stairs and shoved the heavy side door open. Searing hot agony knifed through me, and I berated myself for being so stupid. Stupid for body slamming the door open. Stupid for returning to this hell to be tortured and abused. Just stupid. If it hadn’t been for that monster in the parking lot, I’d still be in the city. I’d be safe. And my back wouldn’t be a torn up, bloody mess.

So why did I come here?

It doesn’t make any difference now.

But I refuse to let it happen again. I had to escape this. I had to disappear. Now. Otherwise I doubt I’d live long enough to graduate high school—If I could graduate.

I’d be fifteen in eleven days, barely old enough to get a real job. A real life. The biggest challenge would be getting a place to live. I’d need a fake ID or else I might as well live under a bridge or in a… My gaze snapped to agilisi’s burgundy Taurus, parked in its usual spot behind the store, and a light bulb suddenly clicked on.

Agilisi had no idea that I had discovered the hiding spot of her spare master key ring—the keys that unlocked every door and safe and lock box in the building—in the trunk of the car, just under the spare tire. It’s probably the most insane idea I’ve ever conceived; crazier and stupider than my last two attempts. I never would have considered it if not for the driver’s ed class I’d started this school year. If my plan worked, I’d be long gone before agilisi ever knew I left.

Perfect!

I couldn’t risk getting the keys now, not with a client waiting for a pick-up, so I’d have to sneak in a way to get them without agilisi knowing. I set that line of thinking on the back burner for the moment and turned my focus to the job at hand.

A fancy, antique car had parked a few yards from the hydrant at the corner, and I mean really fancy. It looked like it belonged in a museum under high security. It had custom-made, wire spoke rims with white-walled tires. On the side facing me, a matching full-sized spare had been fixed to a mount that left it hovering just above the chrome running boards. The length of the hood probably matched my height, and it had been fitted with a highly polished chrome ornament I didn’t recognize. It had three windows on each side, of which the back two on both sides as well as the rear windshield were so heavily tinted that no one could see inside. Even through that level of tint, I could tell that it had an enormous back seat, like that of a limousine’s.

A tall woman in a white pant suit stood at the rear passenger door. One glimpse and I instantly hated her. I hated her cascading golden hair, her modest makeup, her creamy skin, even the aquamarine gaze she turned on me as I approached. I mean, I wanted to rip her into itty bitty pieces and dump them in a septic tank and light it all on fire. And the feeling had come on so strong and so suddenly that it left me reeling. I’d never felt this way about anything or anyone before; not even agilisi.

Whatever it was about her that caused this feeling, I had to ignore it. Agilisi gave me a job to do, and letting my personal feelings get in the way would only make things worse. So I approached the woman brazenly and introduced myself.

“Do you have a box that needs to be brought in?”

She didn’t say a word; just opened up the back door (Backwards! That’s really cool!) and gestured inside. Vast is as accurately as I can describe the size of the antique’s unusually dark back seat. In fact, you could probably park a Fiat 500 in the space and still have room for groceries. I rappelled down onto the leather-upholstered bench seat and took the monorail to the other side, making sure to keep my abused flesh away from any surfaces. I showed up eventually, and found a filing box sitting on the floor. I peeked inside.

Books. Great. Just what my back needed.

I took the elevator back up to the surface, bouncing the hefty box along with me. The sudden onslaught of sunlight blinded me for a moment and the box tipped. While I took a moment to wrangle the books back into order, I heard a phone ring. Then the woman began to talk in a hushed but hard tone.

“Yes, sir?” A pause. “That report is mostly accurate. I fear that a few important details have been… omitted.” I heaved the box from the car, grit my teeth to keep from screaming in agony as the weight stretched the muscles and skin of my back. The woman curtly nodded when I slipped past her. As I made my way to the store’s main entrance, I heard her mutter, “Worse than we thought.”

I’m not very graceful on a good day, and this certainly wasn’t one of those. So I struggled to balance the box on my thigh long enough to pull the door open and nearly succeeded in falling through the window instead.

The man I had seen among the lamps rushed over to hold the door. “My goodness. Are you all right?”

I wanted to say no, but I put on a smile and said, “Yeah, I’m fine. Just a little clumsy.” I paused for a moment to adjust the box again, and got a good look at him in the process. He had extremely pale skin, like he had never seen a beach or tanning salon his entire life. I couldn’t guess his age, but he looked somewhere between thirty and fifty. He had piercing, upturned eyes, high cheekbones and an angular chin. A low ponytail kept his long, dark hair out of his face and he was dressed in an expensive, tailor-made suit. This close to him, I detected a hint of a spicy, but not at all offensive, cologne. “Thank you for the help.”

“My pleasure,” he said with a friendly smile. The sparkling white of his teeth made his skin look like a rich suntan. And he spoke with the memory of an accent. It might have been Russian, or something more exotic from that area. “I’m Duncan Thatcher.”

“Nice to meet you, Mr Thatcher,” I said and set the box on the counter by Agilisi, who immediately started looking through the collection of books. It would take her maybe ten minutes to comb through the books and appraise them then another few minutes to pay Mr Thatcher. That gave me enough time to myself to put my escape plan into action.

Before agilisi could shoo me, I excused myself and slipped into the back room. Moving as quickly as I could, I grabbed one of the recycle bins and popped open the hidden spare key section of the door frame. Just as I had hoped, the two old Ford keys still hung on the short nail within. I snatched them, resealed the compartment. I exited through the side door a moment later, under the pretence of taking the blue bin to the recycling dumpster. Heading away from Main Avenue, there’s a short gravel driveway that cuts a path to the back of the store where agilisi keeps the Taurus parked. It’s usually an easy walk, but the awkwardness of the recycle bin played havoc on my back. I wasn’t about to let the pain stop me. Not this time. I just grit my teeth and kept walking.

At last, I could see the two dumpsters. Right between them sat the Taurus.

The old Ford hailed from the early nineties. It’s a four door burgundy heap riddled with hail dents and rust. The windshield had been chipped and cracked, and the muffler had fallen off. Its passenger-side mirror had been amputated in a small collision during a particularly bad storm last winter.

It may not be the belle of the ball, but the old girl had the spirit of a Mustang.

I felt as if eyes were upon me as I crossed the driveway. Not wanting to betray even the smallest portion of my plans to anyone, I strode past the car and up to the recycling dumpster. I set the bin on the ground to unload it and used the opportunity to look around. When I didn’t find anyone, I extended my senses to feel for someone. I thought I picked up on something for a fraction of a second, but the presence and the feeling vanished as suddenly as it had appeared. I waited a moment, senses still extended, but the feeling didn’t return.

Seizing the opportunity, I rushed to the rear of the car. The deck lid opened with a quick turn of the key, and a mess of second-hand junk greeted me. I shoved it out of the way to expose the spare tire compartment, lifted the cover. Luckily, the donut wasn’t locked down making it simple to access the cradle underneath. The ring of keys lay there, gleaming like diamonds in a forbidden treasure. I took them and let everything fall back into place. A half-eaten box of granola bars tumbled out of the mess. I snatched them, stuffed all four in my pockets along with the keys. Then I softly closed the trunk and continued dealing with the recycling as if nothing had happened.

The moment I returned to the store room, I switched out the empty recycling bin for a full one. It took me less than two minutes to set it outside, slip upstairs into my room to hide the stolen keys and granola bars, and return downstairs to take the bin out. As I did, I smiled.

My plan is progressing nicely so far. No matter what happens today, I’ll be out of here by tomorrow.

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