by Lyvidia A
Elthia has a strange dream and Mather delivers a device to Sakhira.
Elthia was walking through the Hyrst Forest, alone for a rare moment. Wormwood was a constant companion and she loved the company, but she found the solitude refreshing. The sun was just beginning to rise, the cloud covered sky a patchwork of gray. She hummed as she walked along, enjoying the quiet of the early morning.
Eventually, she found herself in a part of the forest that she didn't recognize. The trees seemed to be thicker, canopies tightly woven with thorny bushes surrounding their bases. The bark of the trees seemed to be heavily scarred, deep gouges running along the trunks. She ventured further, the trees becoming more twisted, some leaking an opaque yellowish sap. The thick, earthy smell of decomposition greeted her as she continued on, dead leaves mashing into the soft ground underfoot as she stepped over rotting logs and dodged low hanging branches.
A tree root caught Elthia's foot and she fell on the muddy ground, wet leaves sticking to her arms. She looked up, coming face-to-face with a badly decomposing deer. Its antlers were twisted unnaturally, its face sunken in where skin and fur remained. Worms and maggots crawled over the skull, weaving in between exposed muscle and bone. She scrambled backwards, her back hitting the trunk of a tree. Her hand came into contact with something soft, and she looked down to see the blood-soaked, disembodied wing of a bird. She screamed and sprang up, running back the way she had come.
The woods grew even thicker as she tried to get back to the forest she knew, trees pressing tightly around her as she began fighting her way through branches. They seemed to grab hold of her, snatching her arms and snagging her hair. She felt something tangle around her leg and kicked desperately. A terrible howling noise began and she felt thorns dig into her calf as she struggled. She shook her leg and felt it come loose, tearing away as--
Elthia sat up, panting, a cold sweat drenching her. She looked around, gulping down the cool night air. She was not in the Hyrst Forest. She was in her bed with a very unamused Wormwood sitting by her legs. She breathed a sigh of relief, looking down at the poor animal.
"Sorry, old friend," she murmured, reaching out to pet her poor familiar.
He hesitantly pressed his head into her palm, settling next to her and tucking his tail protectively underneath himself. "Mow?"
Elthia nodded. "Yes, it was a dream, well, more like a nightmare. An absolutely horrible, horrible nightmare." She closed her eyes, but all she could see was the face of the deer from her dream. She sighed and sat up again, rubbing her temples.
Wormwood pressed against her arm, purring softly. She smiled and scratched him between the ears, his purring intensifying. He nuzzled his head against her, slowly drifting off to sleep.
Elthia stared out at the night sky as she thought about her dream. She could still see all those maggots writhing and squirming, their fat, bloated bodies haunting her. She shut her eyes tight and reminded herself that it was all just a dream, repeating the affirmation to herself as she fell asleep once more.
• • •
The streets of Midlung were quiet in the early morning. The sky was a pale gray and the clock tower loomed silently over the city as its hands crept along its face.
In the eastern residential district, a soft whistling could be heard, along with the dull thud of heavy soled boots. A man clad in black strolled along the streets, whistling and carrying a bouquet of flowers. He meandered past rows of houses, pausing to examine their house numbers every so often. He stopped in front of a quaint blue house with a gray door, examining its curtained windows for signs of movement.
He took a quick look around the silent street. Seeing that no one was around him, the man approached the door and gently laid the bouquet down before it. He straightened it and, quite satisfied with the arrangement, began to walk away. He stopped after a few paces and turned back to the bouquet. He pulled a small slip of parchment from his coat and tucked it into the flowers, giving them a satisfactory pat before going on his way.
*Regards*, it read, *from the Guild of Nefarious Persons*.
• • •
Mather rolled over in bed, immediately regretting his decision as he landed on the ground, his desk rattling as the wooden floorboards caught his body.
"Mather? Are you awake?"
Mather groaned and rubbed his head. "Yes," he called down, slowly getting to his feet. He dusted himself off, yawning as he looked out of the window. The sky was overcast as the clock tower rang out. Mather rubbed his temples as the bells tolled thirteen times.
He scrambled over to his desk, grabbing a gadget and hastily packaging it. He threw on his clothes, nearly tripping over his fallen bed sheets as he made his way to the door. He began clambering down the stairs, stopping abruptly and racing back up them to grab the gadget he had just packaged. As he reached the bottom floor with his package tucked under his arm, he nearly ran directly into Mrs. Bluth.
"Mather!" she exclaimed, clutching her chest. "You can't just run around here like a madman!"
"I'm terribly s-sorry, Mrs. Bluth," he said, readjusting the package under his arm. "I was up working on an order last night and I promised to deliver it before noon."
Mrs. Bluth smoothed down her dress and let out a sharp exhale. She smiled at Mather and gently rested a hand on his arm. "I understand. Just take care and mind where you step, that's all." She gave him a reassuring pat and began humming, returning to the kitchen.
Mather let out a breath he didn't know he was holding and took a moment to collect himself. He put on his coat and, double-checking that he had his package, set off towards Sakhira Umar's flower shop.
The streets were back to their normal levels of traffic, nothing like the hustle and bustle brought on by the previous day's convention. It was sunny and warm, not quite hot enough to complain about it. Mather dodged a few children as they ran down the street, tossing a small ball between each other. He held onto his package securely, holding it protectively in front of him.
A few people called out to him as he walked down the street, all satisfied customers of his. He waved at them as he made his way to the shopping district. He liked helping people, liked making their lives easier with his devices.
When he had first moved to the city, he had been unsure of whether he would do well. One day while picking up supplies, he noticed that the clockmaker kept dropping gears and was having difficulty placing them into clocks. Mather developed a device to hold clock parts and align them so all the clockmaker would have to do is press a button to lower the device to place the parts. Word spreads quickly in Midlung, and within the next week he was getting new orders daily.
The flower shop was a bright spot among the rows of other shops. Its windows adorned with bright flowers growing in window boxes. Mather knocked on the door, adjusting the package under his arm. He could hear movement inside and a bell jingled overhead as the door opened.
• • •
Sakhira smiled when she saw the artificer at her door. "You're late, very late, in fact...but better than not at all," she added, stepping aside and allowing him to come in.
"My apologies," he stammered out, nearly tripping over his own feet as he stumbled into her shop. "I was tweaking a few things to make sure that the device was in working order. Where would you, um, like me to put it?"
Sakhira motioned for him to follow her as she walked to her work table. She brushed some trimmed stems and bits of ribbons off and patted a space on the table. "Here is perfect."
The artificer nodded and carefully set the package down. "I-I modified a few parts from the original design, I hope you don't--"
"Show me," Sakhira instructed, smiling gently.
The artificer blinked at her a few times before nodding and carefully unwrapping the package he had brought. He was a very nervous man, fingers moving deftly but fumbling every now and again. He opened the package and pulled out a metal device, setting it upright. He turned to Sakhira. "Would you l-like a demonstration?"
"If you have the time for it."
He nodded enthusiastically. "Do you have some flowers and ribbon I could, erm, borrow?"
Sakhira gathered up a small bundle of lilies and plucked a roll of ribbon from her supply, handing both over to the artificer. He took them gingerly and placed them in the device, securing them in two areas, the stems taut between two clasps.
"You just feed the r-ribbon through here...just like this...and then you just need to press this," he said, pointing at a brassy square button and pressing it gently. The machine hummed to life, two metalic arms gliding from the back of it, pulling the ribbon around the gathered stems and securing them with a bow. The arms disappeared back behind the machine and the bouquet was released with a soft hiss.
Sakhira clapped softly. "Impressive, Master Artificer."
"Please, call me Mather," he insisted.
Sakhira nodded, producing a small stack of coins. "Your payment." She picked up the bouquet of lilies and handed it to him. "For your landlady."
The artificer accepted the gift, bowing his head and backing out of the florist's workspace. Sakhira followed him to the door, holding it open for him. As she did, she caught the faint smell of damp and the dull thud of boots. She turned to look down the road and saw the man in black.
He always wore his hood when he placed orders with her, concealing himself and keeping to the shadows of her shop. Now, she could see him clearly in the midday sun. His face was a sickly pale, with dark patches of stubble on his chin and cheeks. Black hair hung slackly around his face, framing it. A curved, pale pink scar nearly bisected his face, beginning at the middle his forehead and ending just below his top lip.
He looked at Sakhira as he passed by, his mouth drawn into what looked like an attempt at a smile. "Thank you for the flowers," he rasped, nodding his head. The words sent a shiver through Sakhira and she retreated into her shop, the bell jangling violently as she slammed the door shut behind her.