by M.D Schultz
Did you know it takes a nightmare to cure a curse?
|Previously "The Great Devourer" }
"You and I are going to have to have another conversation about being discreet." Detective Gill said, pointing his finger at Anna.
"It's not like it's my fault!" Anna yelled back. "I pictured the store just like you taught me." She crossed her arms, pursed her lips, and looked to the side. "It's that oaf's fault; he dumped us in the field."
Alice tagged behind them like a limping animal holding on to her stomach, which she felt on the verge of losing.
"You'll get used to it eventually." Jeromy kept repeating over and over, tugging on her ear.
No, that didn't feel possible, she thought, stopping to wretch once more in an empty alley.
"Geez, careful not to lose a lung." Anna crouched close, their foreheads practically touching.
"Give her a break, Anna; you were just as green on your wedding night." Jeromy skittered across Alices back and up Anna's sleeve.
"What!? I totally wasn't!"
"Yes, you were."
The two of them continued to shout down the Alley, their voices like nails on a chalkboard after a long night of drinking.
"Please. Shut up." Alice whispered out of earshot, climbing back to her feet after having scaled a mountain.
Together, they took the back roads far from the crowds that gathered by the sea. Banuavara was a coastal city and a major port of trade. Goods from across the ocean arrived every morning, and people flocked, drawn to the allure of foreign merchandise.
Across the sea, that's where she had once lived on the streets as a child. The place where the Raven's curse was born, the place her mother had spirited her away and abandoned her. Such thoughts left a sour taste in her mouth.
The alleys of Banuavara were like a labyrinth; to find your way out of the winding corridors, you had to follow your nose. If you caught the scent of salt and sea, you were close to the markets; however, the sour smells of tossed chamber pots and week old cow liver's lead you to the inner city. Sadly, that was their destination.
"Ahh, I miss this smell," Anna said, twirling as they skulked through the back alleys.
Their destination was another shop, far from the bustle and trade of the sea. A store probably built before the city's expansion since it was the only one still open in the area. However, while the other places appeared run down with crooked shutters, broken glass, and doors hanging off hinges, that curiosities shop was pristine.
Were those windows sparkling? Alice wondered, poking at the bright red siding; the paint was still fresh, and even the sign looked brand new.
"Alma's curiosities." Alice read aloud as detective Gill pushed the door open to the sound of a bell.
Alice stumbled on the wooden trim coming through the door, her head still a little dizzy.
The store was not as well organized on the inside as it was from the outside. There were shelves everywhere, creating a maze reminiscent of the city streets, and each was stocked to bursting with items that made her stomach lurch.
Alice found a crooked spine, a shrunken head, a jar of dried spiders eggs, a silk cocoon, and, most unnerving, the remains of a sea creature suspended from the rafters.
Towards the back, wiping down an empty counter, was a woman with specks of gray in her black hair and wrinkles under her eyes; blue eyes that held a fire in them, a blaze stoked with experiences that would make her skin crawl.
"Hi, mom!" Anna called out, rushing past Alice.
The woman wiped her hands on her apron, kneeling to embrace the girl.
"Oh, how's my little fairy queen?" She said, pinching her cheek.
"Mom! Knock it off; I'm not a child anymore."
"Oh, no?" She said, giving the detective a pointed glance. "What's this I hear about a rift opening on the beach? That wouldn't be you, would it?"
Anna yipped, and the air suddenly went cold.
Detective Gill took off his hat, running his fingers through his hair and stopping just short of lighting his pipe.
"I thought so." She flicked Anna's forehead. "Alex, I leave my daughter in your care, and she is becoming reckless; what am I to make of that?" The woman's stare was like daggers now; the detective straightened his collar.
"Like mother like daughter, is that the expression?" Came a squeaking voice, Jeromy now seated on the countertop.
The women's movements were quicksilver, snatching up the rodent in a blur like a cat, suspended from the padding in his neck.
"What did you say? I didn't quite catch that?" She growled, shaking the gerbil.
"I meant to, say." Jeromy choked. "We're very sorry it will never happen again."
"You know, I miss when you were a lizard. It suited you better." She tossed Jeromy back onto the tabletop, coming to notice poor Alice leaning against a shelf, which smelled of a moldy garden, her stomach began to lurch again.
"You poor, dear." The woman said, catching Alice's arm and guiding her to a lonely stool propped against a desk like a bar.
"Have a seat here, let me take a look at you."
It felt good sitting down even if a stranger went over every inch of her like a foreign animal. She lifted her arms, parted her toes and fingers, and said ahh more times than was comfortable.
"This is she; I take it?" The woman asked, lowering her spectacles and lifting Alice's chin.
"Yes, Alma, this is she."
Alma grabbed Alice's bandaged hand staring at the wrappings. "After all these years, this is the woman," There was a flicker in Alma's eye, the slightest hint of a tear. "She isn't ready."
"Nor were you." Alexander Gill brushed his coat to the side, sitting on a dwarven stool and crossing his legs.
"It couldn't be me, right? Because of what I did to the girls?" She asked.
"Alma, the fault lies with me." He matched her icy stare, never flinching.
Anna snuck up behind her mother, tugging at her sleeve. "Mom, she needs our help."
"Of course, I will help her." Alma put her hands on her hips. "Go lock the front door for me, sweety. We're closing for the day." She turned back to Alice taking her right hand into her own. "Forgive the unpleasant introduction, I'm Alma Knott, and I think I know just how to help you."
"I would be grateful, just so I don't hurt people anymore." Alice pleaded.
"First." Alma pulled a hand mirror from one of the shelves. "Can you tell me if there is one following you now?" She gave the mirror to her. "I can smell it in the air, so I'm sure one is close by."
Alice lifted the mirror, checking around the room, but she didn't have to look long. There, tightening on her shoulder, was a black talon with a Raven's beak, spotted and sickly yellow, sliding through her hair.
She yelled, pushing the mirror away from herself; it took everything not to drop it. "Yes, yes, it's right next to me." Her voice shook.
"Okay, okay, calm down." Alma took the mirror back and pulled a key from around her neck, similar to the one Anna had. She moved into one of the back rooms, and Alice heard the shifting of a bookshelf and a door unlocked.
Several minutes passed until she returned, holding an unusual handcrafted wooden ornament. It was shaped into a loop and had cloth netting knitted into the center with feathers adorned across the wooden outer rim.
"This is called a dreamcatcher." Alma said, tying a leather rope around the wooden loop. "You might recognize some of the feathers."
Indeed Alice did, the oily black sheen with spotted and eye-like patterns looked just like the ones from Babel tower. "How did you get these?" She asked, touching one of the feathers.
"It doesn't matter." She brushed off her question, putting the leather band over her head and resting the dreamcatcher upon her breast.
Alice picked up the wooden ring; the unusual netting seemed to wriggle like a worm, and, suddenly, it rose up with tentacles and gnashing teeth, snapping at her face. She nearly fell off her stool, scrambling to get the thing off.
"Now, now." Alma grabbed her hands, stopping her short of tossing the dreamcatcher. "Yes, there is a nightmare caught within, but, no, it cannot hurt you." She held her shoulders tight. "From this day forth, you cannot take this off until you find a more permanent solution." Alma held up her finger. "Not when you sleep, not when you bathe, never." She shook her. "Do you understand?"
Alice nodded, but her palms were sweaty. How on earth was she going to live with that thing around her neck? "What does it do?" She asked
"The feathers mask your physical appearance, while the nightmare distorts your mortal soul. Think of it as camouflage; the Raven's can't find you with it on." Alma picked up the mirror once more. "Can you still see him?"
Once more, she looked around the room and across her shoulders, but, this time, the crane necked man was gone. "I can't find him!" She exclaimed.
"That's wonderful, but we still have to be sure."
Before Alice could ask, Alma slapped her so hard she flew from the stool and onto the ground with a thud. The blood from her nose had mistified, adding a metallic taste to the air. She rolled over, holding the side of her cheek.
"Why?!" She cried out, rolling onto her back to a troupe of smiling faces.
Alma held out her hand, untouched by the curse. With eyes as wide as saucers, Alice took her hand, tears streaming down her face. "Thank you." She wept. "Thank you."