Man, what a rough night at work it had been.
It was bad enough I had to cancel my night out on a perfectly good Saturday night to work late, but if I’d known how awful of a time it'd be, I would've skipped out, extra money be damned. It was all going to rent anyway. Not like I could afford anything else on the meager pay of a cashier, even with the extra shifts. Even groceries remained elusive half the time. What kind of world do we live in that a young woman like me has to choose between warm meals and a roof? Cheap ravioli out of the can wore itself out ages ago when my parents kicked me out.
At least the drive home was quiet, I guess. Nothing but some quiet rock and roll and the sickly hum of my not-so-trusty ol' Malibu. No one was out on the roads that late, especially on backroads through the woods. Soon enough, I thought, I'd be back home in my crappy bed, resting off yet another night of impromptu torture courtesy of my useless co-workers' tendency to not show up for work. I kept saying I'd find another job, ditch that circus, and go somewhere where everyone pulls their weight. Guess it's my own fault for staying there, in hindsight. I’d really hit rock bottom, stuck in a cashier job five years out of high school. My classmates were all married and out-of-state with real jobs and real houses that probably had cable. Man, if I at least had cable, I could distract myself from how shitty my life's become.
I turned down onto a smaller road, nestled between a long corridor of trees. From here, it was a straight shot to my apartment. Just thinking about getting home and passing out for a day made it hard to stay awake. I flicked my brights on and took a glance at myself in the rearview mirror. All I could see was that pale, gaunt, tired-eyed, limp-haired face staring back. Man, the years sure were hard on you, Kelly Jane Gale. What happened to that impressionable little girl you once were? You know, that girl who didn't have a care in the world? Man, what I would've given to not have to worry about rent. Or work. Or being able to afford to go back to school.
Admittedly, I was a bit distracted by all of that internal moping, and I may have been driving a little bit over the speed limit, being so frustrated from a shitty day at work and all. So, when I saw that young girl step out of a thicket of trees, it took a second to register for me. In a flash, every organ in my body lurched. She looked around confused for a bit, turning to face the car at the last minute, and for that brief instant, we made eye contact. A lot can happen in a short period of time when you're panicked. I recall letting out a pitiful "No!" before stomping the brake as hard as I could. I closed my eyes, and the tires screeched for what seemed like forever. I hoped I could stop in time. I needed to stop in time. I had to! Unfortunately, she was only a few feet away, and when you're going sixty miles per hour down a woodsy back road at night, you need a lot more than a few feet to stop. There was a telltale 'thunk' and my car shook for a second from the impact. I came to a stop on the shoulder, unable to come to grips with the horrible, awful thing I had done.
God, I really did it. I had my eyes closed, so I didn't see it happen, but wasn't much of a fucking consolation. This night just had to get worse, didn't it? It got a lot worse. That poor kid was probably lost, ran away from home or something. She was probably cold and tired and sad and I just smacked into her like she was a deer or something. I didn't want to believe that I did what I did. Part of me wanted to just sit there and hope I was dreaming.
I snapped out of that right quick, though. Maybe the kid was alive, even if barely. I hurried out of the car and onto the road. My headlights illuminated the scene perfectly, much to my dismay. She was a skinny barefoot girl in a white dress, probably no older than twelve. She was awfully pale and had some long black hair. She might have looked serene, if not for the twisted way she lay limp on the asphalt. Her arms were going one way, her legs another, her entire body twisted like a Twizzler.
So yeah, first impressions were bad. She looked pretty dead, but looks can be deceiving, right? Surely there was hope. I mean, I'm sure I've looked even deader trying to wake up in the morning. I rushed over and knelt beside her, grabbing her arm to check her pulse as my other hand fumbled around in my pocket for my phone. If she was alive, she'd need to see a doctor to make sure she stayed that way. She looked sad lying there motionless. It was hard to look at, to be honest; not just because she was probably dead, but I still didn't want to believe that I had just committed manslaughter. That was definitely the last thing I needed right now.
I managed to pull out my phone as I pressed my thumb against her wrist. Before I could feel for her pulse, she jerked in reaction to my touch, sending me stumbling back a foot or so. At first, I was just happy for a sign of life.
Then, I watched as she slowly righted herself, untwisted her body with a few sickening pops, and sat up, as though that mangled, pitiful position was normal. I‘d been too distracted to notice before, but she looked pretty good for someone who’d taken a fifteen-year-old junker to the face. No cuts, bruises, broken bones, or anything. It was surreal as all hell to see this child, a blank look on her face, sitting on the pavement as if nothing had happened.
"What are you planning on doing with that phone?" she said in an alien monotone.
"U-uhh, I was calling an ambulance." I had trouble finding my words. I’d been shaken enough from hitting her; the way she recovered from it left me nearly speechless. "A-are you alright? I-I sorta hit you—"
"I am aware of what you did," the girl interrupted, standing up and brushing some gravel off her dress. "It is of no consequence. No harm was done. It was merely an inconvenience."
I really should've just gone back to my car, gone home, and gone on with my life assuming I had just hallucinated all of that. I was genuinely freaked out; this was the most fucked-up thing I've ever seen. Little girls don't wake up from the dead and say it was an 'inconvenience'. Little girls don't even talk like that! Like, she had the voice of a little girl, sure, but the tone and her vocabulary all seemed way off. It sounded soulless and unsettling, like someone who had no grasp on human emotion. There was no way to rationalize any of this. "Uhh, y-you're not a robot from the future are you?"
She stared at me, maybe annoyed, but since she never changed her expression, I wasn't sure. "No, I am not," she said. "Regardless, it is best if you leave me to my business and continue your normal life."
In hindsight, that was sound advice, but I guess part of me still felt back about hitting her. "D-do you need anything? Any sort of help?"
"I would prefer if you left me alone. Requesting assistance from a stranger might result in complications."
Well, that sounded sketchy. "Why's that? What are you doing out here?"
The girl squinted at me, probably the first facial expression she'd made since I stumbled on her. "That is not your business."
Huh, even sketchier. Maybe she was a robot from the future. "Are you doing something illegal?"
"It is not illegal," she replied. "You simply would not understand. Now, if you excuse me, I must—"
She immediately stopped. Her eyes went wide, and she started to pat around her dress, like someone who suddenly realized they left their wallet at home. She glanced around, suddenly looking very troubled, before turning back to me. "Actually, there is one request I would like to make, miss."
Oh sure, now she wanted my help. "Just call me Kelly," I replied. "Whaddya need, kid?"
"When you struck me with that motor vehicle of yours, did you see an amulet drop out of my hand? It is very important that I find it."
"Uh, no, I didn't." My eyes had been closed tight when the incident happened in an act of hopeless denial. Out of sight, out of mind, or something stupid like that. "What does it look like?"
"It is a ruby the size of my fist attached to a golden chain," the child explained. "This is bad. I cannot have misplaced it. That amulet is very important."
Woah woah woah. A ruby the size of a fist? That sounded expensive. I had a nasty thought about finding the jewel for myself and selling it to buy groceries, but I'm better than that. I don't steal from children; even creepy, strangely durable ones.
I watched the child run into the ditch and start digging through the weeds in a subdued panic. I, meanwhile went back into my car and popped open the glove box, where I kept a small flashlight in case of an emergency. I pulled it out and flicked it on as I joined the girl on the side of the road. Man, was I glad it was past midnight; I didn't want anyone to think I was a weirdo for poking around in a ditch with a little kid.
I tried to think. I pictured where in the road she had been standing, and where she was lying when I found her. If I drew a line between those two points, would this stupid necklace be along it? It was worth a shot, I guess; not like I had any other ideas. I walked up ahead and flashed my flashlight into the ditch. I pointed the light up and down the its length, hoping the amulet thingy would show itself before too long. I walked up and down the road, searching and searching, at one point inspecting what ended up being a crushed pop can.
I was about to give up. My feet were sore, I was tired, and I was still unsure if helping that girl thing was the right idea. That's when I shined the light up into the trees a bit. Something gleamed among the sticks and leaves, and that caught my eye. I trotted on over to this and picked the thing up. I carried it back out onto the road, and when the girl saw it, her eyes lit up. Not in an adorable childish way, but more in the way a mobster eyes a suitcase of cash. Indeed, it was almost as exactly as she described: a rather pretty red stone wrapped in ornate golden vines that met in a loop near the top where the gold chain was attached.
"That is it. I need that," the girl said impatiently. "Give it to me, Ms. Kelly. I need it"
I didn’t like the pushy way she asked for it, but I complied, for whatever reason. I really should've asked for more information, but I knew she'd be super secretive about it, anyway; just another “not your business” or “you wouldn't understand” or something. Regardless, she took it from me, wrapped the chain up around the stone, and held it firmly in her hand. "Why don't you just put it on?" I asked confusedly. "You'll just drop it again."
"That would be unwise. The enchantment might activate if worn, and that would be hazardous to my being." she replied. "I must thank you for your assistance, Ms. Kelly."
Oh, so it was an enchanted ruby amulet. Of course. How silly of me. "It's fine, I guess. You can just call me Kelly, though. No need to call me 'miss'. What's your name, by the way?"
The girl looked up at me. Her face had gone back to the same blank expression now that she'd calmed down. "My name?" She paused for a moment, apparently pondering the question. "My name is just Annalee."
Huh, a fairly normal name. I had expected something weird for an equally weird child. "Well, Annalee, I dunno if I can just, like, leave a little kid on the street like this." Freaky robot child or no, I guess I had the slightest hint of a motherly instinct; it was only way I could possibly think this was a good idea. "I'll let you stay at my place for the night, then take you wherever you need to go in the morning. Sound good?"
Annalee stared at me for a moment, blinking. "It may be unsafe for you to remain with me for too long, in case others seeking the amulet track my location."
"Then I'll lock the door. I live on the third floor, so the windows will be safe. C'mon, I'll even fix you a snack when we get there, alright?"
Annalee hummed to herself for a few seconds, before looking back up at me and saying, "I would, as a matter of fact, appreciate some food. After tonight, however, I will ask you to take me to my home as soon as possible."
"Alright, then." I turned towards my Malibu and waved her along. "It's a deal! Hop in, kiddo."
Annalee took the passenger seat and was already buckling herself in as I started the car back up. I'll admit, it was pretty weird having this supernaturally resilient little girl in the seat next to me. She just kinda sat there, staring forward with that strange, blank expression. "Say, Annalee," I said, trying to break the silence a bit, "what are you, anyway? Normal little girls generally don't walk away from accidents like that."
"You wouldn't understand," she said flatly.
"Would you tell me, anyway?" I came up on the entrance to the apartment complex, and started to turn in. "I won't judge."
"Hmm, maybe some other time," she replied. "When you prove you can be trusted, I will tell you what I am. I am not, however, a robot from the future, as you speculated previously."
Well, that was reassuring, I guess. Maybe a robot from the past or present, then? I didn't know if there was a precedent for that or not; I hadn't seen as many movies as I would like to admit. Oh well, I didn't have much time to ponder it; a few speed bumps, a couple more turns, and I was home. It had to be one o'clock by now. A quick peek at my phone confirmed it. Annalee and I got out of the car, I locked it, and we started our way up the stairs.
On the way up, I wondered if I was right letting her into my apartment. Annalee certainly wasn't normal, but she had plenty of time before to murder me and make it look like an accident. I felt like I could trust her. What could possibly go wrong?
We stepped into my apartment and were greeted by the familiar scent of dirty clothes and stale pizza. Before I could say anything to welcome her into my humble abode, Annalee sauntered off into the kitchen and towards the fridge. She opened it and pulled out two pieces of old pizza, and started stuffing her face. Man, that was gonna be my dinner. "Ah, h-hey now. I was gonna get you something a bit more fresh. That's a few days old."
Annalee had already eaten both pieces before I finished speaking. Shit, this kid was a fucking vacuum cleaner! My dinner disappeared past her gums faster than anything I'd ever seen. Not that I like stale pizza especially, but it sure beats ramen noodles and cold ravioli, I guess. Speaking of, I watched her close the fridge, climb up onto the counter, and open my pantry, where she pulled out two of my cans of ravioli, one in each hand. Before I could protest, she already had one open and was pouring its contents into her mouth. Man, did this kid even chew her food? She had awful manners for such a strangely polite kid. "Hey, that was my lunch tomorrow! Annalee, I would've gotten ya something. Jeez, I need to eat, too?"
She looked up at me, licking the sauce from her lips. "My apologies. You offered food, and it has been days since I last ate."
Annalee finished shoveling the second can into her mouth and left it on the counter with the first. At least she didn't leave too much of a mess, I guess. Still, though, there went my lunch and dinner down the throat of some little weird kid thing! "Goddamn, I was gonna get you like a pudding cup or something! Days, though!? What were you doing out there!?"
"Private business," Annalee replied calmly. "I had no time to eat while I was hunting this amulet."
"I, uhh, see." Well, she wasn't human, but she still needed food, it looked like. I guess she wasn't a robot, then. "Maybe we should get you ready for bed. You can sleep on my couch, alright?"
She blinked, then looked over at my couch. It was, admittedly, a bit junky. Had a few holes, stains, and the like, but it was totally comfy. I promise. Still, Annalee looked back up at me and said. "I am not sure I would like to spend the night on your sofa. Is there room enough in your bed for both of us?"
"Uhhhhhhhhh." How was I supposed to respond to that? What the hell was I supposed to say? "I-I don't know if I can share my bed with a little girl..."
Annalee tilted her head. "Why is that? Do you have a phobia of small girls?"
"N-no. It's just messed up! Like, only weirdos sleep with little kids!"
"Why do only weirdos sleep with little kids? I am admittedly rather confused, Kelly."
I snorted and grit my teeth. At least she was innocent like a child, perhaps more so. I dunno, I guess I started to think it wouldn't be that bad. I mean, it's only weird if I think of it that way, right? I could just pretend I was her mommy and she had nightmares or something. That's not weird, right? It's not what it looks like, Chris Hansen; I promise. "Alright, kiddo. Get ready for bed, I guess. Do you have anything to sleep in?"
Annalee looked back up to me, as innocent as can be. "I do not, actually."
I nodded. "I'll find you a t-shirt or something. Hold on a sec."
I went into my room and turned on the light. Right on top of one of my laundry baskets, I saw a simple black shirt. Man, was that the clean or dirty basket I pulled it out from? I picked it up and sniffed it. Smelled clean enough, I guess, so I draped it over my arm and took it out to Annalee. She took it from me, and I looked away long enough for her to change.
Once I noticed that she was wearing the oversized black shirt, I let myself look at her once again. I still had trouble processing that this child standing in my apartment probably wasn't human. I dunno why I was taking that possibility so well; I guess the initial shock wore off after a while. I mean, there was still that uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach that I was getting into something I'd regret later, but I guess a little danger keeps life from getting too boring, provided it doesn't just get me killed. "Alright, you stay out here while I get ready for bed. Try not to cause any trouble."
Annalee nodded. "Very well."
I retreated back into my room and started to shed my work clothes. I usually slept in a bra and boxers, but since I was gonna have a kid in bed with me, it looked like a tank-top and flannel pants night. I didn't want any unnecessary contact of bare skin; the idea of this was weird enough already. Once I was dressed in appropriate attire, I went out to get Annalee. I found her surrounded by four empty pudding cups and a chocolate goatee on her face. I grumbled and planted my face firmly in my palm. This was the last time I was ever having kids in my apartment. End of story. I gathered her up, cleaned the pudding off her face, and made sure to lock my front door, both the tumbler and the deadbolt. If what Annalee said was true, it was probably best not to take any chances. "Alright, I get one side of the bed, and you get the other, alright, kid?" I said sternly as I showed her my admittedly small bed. "No touchie. That's when it gets weird."
Annalee pondered for a moment, as she often did. "Hmm, that may be acceptable. I thank you again for accommodating me."
"Yeah, it's no prob," I said. "Just don't tell anyone. I don't want anyone thinking I'm some kinda pedo. Oh, I nearly forgot; you oughta put that amulet somewhere safe."
Annalee nodded. "Yes, I agree." She opened her mouth eerily wide and unceremoniously stuffed the entire thing in, sucking it back and swallowing it whole with no trouble at all. I stood blinking for a second, thinking to myself how fucking freaky that looked. The amulet was, like, actually large enough for me to see a visible bulge go down her throat. "Alright," she said, patting her stomach gently. "It is as safe as it can be."
I raised an eyebrow. Two pieces of pizza, two cans of pasta, all of my pudding, and a giant fist-sized piece of jewelry. What an appetite. After that little display, I crawled into bed, as did Annalee. I hung as close to the edge as I could and turned off my lamp. Man, it was already one-thirty, if my alarm clock was anything to go by. I was so glad I had Sunday off; I could actually sleep after what ended up being the craziest night of my life. I could take this kid home and remove myself from whatever weird business she was involved in. With a calm sigh, I closed my eyes. "Night, Annalee," I said softly.
"I hope you sleep well, too, Kelly," the girl replied.
Verbose as always. Well, this had been fun and all, but I was exhausted in every sense of the term. I'm pretty sure I passed out the minute the light went out, which was good; I didn't know it yet, but I needed every second of sleep I could get that night.
I hate it when I wake up in the middle of the night. The first thing I noticed when my eyes opened was my alarm clock, which read four o'clock on the dot. The second thing I noticed was the warm mass of Annalee's body pressed against my back, and her arm draped over my side. I might have had a chance of falling back to sleep normally, but now that I was aware that this little girl was practically spooning me, I was probably going to be awake for the rest of the night. For her sake, I hope this happened after she'd fallen asleep. If she willingly rolled onto me after I explicitly asked her to keep her distance, there was going to be —
I heard a sharp knock on the door. I pushed Annalee's arm off and sat up. I groggily wondered who would be up at this hour; everyone I knew was asleep. I heard Annalee stir in her sleep, probably because she didn't have her warm and cuddly Kelly-pillow anymore.
"Huuuuh," she hummed wearily. "Kelly, why have you awoken me?"
There was another knock. "Someone's at the door, Annalee."
Annalee's eyes went wide. "Oh no. This is bad. Kelly, please hide," she whispered. "If he finds you—"
There was a third knock. "I know you're in there!" I heard a raspy voice shout. "Open up, and we can discuss this civilly!"
"Please hide yourself, Kelly," Annalee pleaded. "He is a dangerous man. He will surely injure you."
"The door is locked," I replied. "There's know way in hell he's—"
The lock audibly clicked. Both of them at once, as if he had a key in each hand. I gulped and started to search desperately for some kind of weapon. I really should've had a gun or a knife or something. Sue me for assuming I'd never have to deal with a break-in. I settled on my long floor lamp and huddled in the corner.
I could hear his shoes creaking as he wandered aimlessly around my apartment. "Come out, little Annalee," he said. "I only want to talk to you."
So, he wanted the girl. I remembered Annalee's warning about keeping her here. Someone had been out looking for her and, as per my usual luck, she was here when he found her. This had been unwise, just like she said. My stomach lurched as I heard him walking slowly down the hallway. I really wasn't looking forward to this. I knew how this was going to end. Annalee got up off the bed and stood in the middle of my room. "Please stay hidden," she whispered. "I will deal with him."
The doorknob turned and the whole thing swung open. He was a tall and tan with long, messy hair and a scruffy mess on his neck that someone with lesser standards than mine might call a beard. He had on a long black coat with a pair of holey jeans and a stained wife-beater underneath, clashing with the half-dozen necklaces around his neck, a rainbow of colored gems hanging from each, and a similar number and pattern of rings on his fingers. Body odor immediately followed him, somehow drowning out the gross but familiar smell of dirty clothes.
He immediately turned his gaze to Annalee, and he flashed a greasy smile. "So, you are in here, you little homunculus. You know what I'm here for."
"It does not belong to you, Kravnel," Annalee replied.
"It doesn't belong any more to Garcia than it does to me," the man spat back. "I've spent too long searching for that damned thing!"
This man, Kravnel (if that was even his real name), took a step towards Annalee, and she took a step back from him. "I am willing to defend myself if you resort to force, Kravnel. I am offering you a warning."
Shit, was this little girl willing to fight a man twice her size? I stood up and brandished my lamp, running towards him in a fit of bravado. I was hoping it'd scare him off, but he only turned towards me and chuckled. He lifted his hand, and suddenly, I couldn't breathe. That was scary in of itself, but then I started to feel my feet lifting off the carpet. "Hmph, so you involved a norm, eh, homunculus?" Kravnel said. "How sloppy. You know how fragile they are."
Annalee turned to me. "Kelly, I warned you to stay hidden."
Could she blame me for assuming he was just some hobo? I didn't know how deep I was in yet, thanks largely to all of this secrecy. "New plan, then," Kravnel said with a chuckle. "Surely your mistress won't approve of you letting a life get snuffed over that amulet, homunculus," the intruder continued. "Give it here, or she's dead."
"I recommend you release her immediately," Annalee said.
"Give me the amulet. It's as simple as that."
There's a feeling of fear you experience when you're sure you're going to die. It's not, like, the kind of fear you feel watching a scary movie or when you realize you're late for something. It's a very intense feeling that just pushes every other emotion to the side and demands total attention. Like, I was tired, a little hungry, and weirded out by all of this strangeness, but none of that mattered anymore, like there was some loud voice in my head. You're going to die, Kelly! You're going to die, so do something about it!
Even with my life on the line, Annalee didn't budge. "I do not have it, Kravnel," she said. "I have not found it, yet."
Kravnel chuckled, and I felt his grip on my throat tighten. Man, I was going to be Force-choked over a stupid necklace. "I'm not stupid, homunculus. I know well enough to know that you found it. You're surely not going to choose that over this young woman's life, right?"
I was really hoping she'd just give it to him. He'd just be on his merry way with that ruby and I'd still have a functioning windpipe. Speaking of, my face was going numb, and everything was starting to go all fuzzy. A breath would've been real nice. Even just one tiny one. Annalee remained still, with that dumb pokerface of hers. She glanced over at me, then back at Kravnel, like she was weighing her options, leaving me to hope that I'd made a really good impression on her after running her down in the street.
There was a white blur. I was a bit out of it, so I didn't realize at first, but in the blink of an eye, even less than that, Annalee had leapt through the air and tackled Kravnel, sending him to the floor. I dropped the floor, and took a long, sweet breath of precious, precious oxygen. I stood up and watched as Kravnel used his weird Force-like thing to shove Annalee off of himself and stand up. Annalee was apparently super stubborn, since she got up and leapt right up onto his back like a pissed-off monkey and tried to wrap her arm around his neck, probably to choke him out. They tangled for a moment, spinning around, each trying to get the upper hand. Annalee kicked him in the side, making him slouch to the side with a grunt. She then gave him a clean punch in the jaw, then another, and another! Annalee was unsettlingly strong for a girl her size. That man should not have been taking as much damage as he was from a barefisted and barefoot little girl beating up on him like that. C'mon, Annalee. Whup him, I cheered in my head. Get him out of here. Make him cry like a bitch!
Then, as if to punish me for daring to get my hopes up, he grabbed her arm, and one of the rings on his hand began to glow with an orange light. The veins on his hand bulged, and he swung Annalee like a ragdoll onto the floor in front of him. He lifted his foot over her head, stomping the floor just as she rolled out of the way. Another ring on his hand glowed, this one with dim red shine not unlike an ember. He took a deep breath before exhaling a stream of fire at Annalee. She dived away just as it washed over her, right into a pile of laundry next to my bed. Smoke began to arise from my clothes, and right after Annalee stood up to retaliate, I got up and tried to stomp out the flame, which, as it turns out, is a bad idea to do without shoes. I felt back into the corner to nurse my burnt sole and wonder why the hell I just stepped barefoot on a fire; I guess between a flaming apartment and a sore foot, the choice was pretty damn obvious.
"Give me the damned amulet, homunculus!" Kravnel taunted as Annalee stood up, the shirt I gave her smoldering in a few places. "I've been a mage longer than you've been alive! You're only delaying the inevitable!"
Despite the tense look on her face, Annalee managed to sound calm. "That is not as impressive as you think," she said, "as I have only been alive for three years."
The taunt must've hit a nerve, since that Kravnel threw his hand forward, and Annalee stumbled backwards a foot, as if a great wind was blowing on her. This was looking pretty bad, and here I was sitting on my floor, helpless, the one normal person in what I hoped was an especially vivid dream. If Annalee lost, what was I supposed to do? Would he kill me next?
As I stepped, Kravnel shot me a glance. I had a feeling that he would've murdered me, if he wasn't totally occupied stopping Annalee from pushing his shit in. She seemed to be holding her own, walking against his Force like a cartoon character walking against a windstorm. Kravnel turned back to the girl, though, and smiled. He spun his hands around so that his palms were facing his body, and then with hardly any motion at all, waved them toward himself. I watched in horror as Annalee was sucked forward. Kravnel swung her in a circle around himself and slammed her back against my wall, a crack forming across the drywall. Well, so much for that security deposit.
Kravnel stood up, one palm pointed at Annalee. Annalee fought his power, twisting and snarling like a caged animal, but the magic man raised his other hand, and she was pressed firmly against the wall, arms and legs spread out. "God, you're a strong little monster," he grunted. "What the hell does that Garcia bitch feed you?"
Annalee didn't respond. Instead, she glanced over at me with desperate urgency in her eyes. I hated it when she showed emotion; it was never anything good. "K-Kelly!" she gasped. "I highly recommend fleeing this place! Do not worry about my safety!"
Kravnel chuckled and gave me an aside glance. "Yes, run away!" he boasted. "There's nothing you can do for your little homunculus friend here!" He cackled like a cheesy movie villain, abruptly stopping in an equally hammy manner before turning back to Annalee. "Killing you would be a pain in the ass. Maybe it's better if I rip off your arms and legs until you tell me where the amulet is, eh?"
"I-I swore to return it to my mistress," Annalee spat back.
"Hmph, very well," Kravel replied, clenching his fists until his knuckles cracked. "We'll see if you keep singin' that song, you little shit."
I got up off my ass and started for the door. Annalee was still giving good advice, and I wasn't sure if I wanted to ignore it this time. As I sidestepped the two of them, I noticed Annalee's left arm start shaking as it was pulled taut by Kravnel's Force power. For a second, I saw something akin to pain on her face, the way she was wincing and grunting. Man, I really should've just fucked off. My heart would beat itself to pieces the way it was racing, and that Kravnel guy probably could've crushed me like a bug. Still, seeing that innocent little girl in pain, even if she was a homo-whatever-he-said, tugged at my heart a bit. Plus, I shuddered at the thought of what he'd do if she learned that she swallowed the thing. Would he rip it out of her gut Temple of Doom-style? That was a nasty thought, and it made be a little sick. I didn't bother weighing the options. The night had been an endless string of stupid shit I'd regret later, so why stop there?
I rushed into the kitchen. I thought about getting a knife, but did I really want to get right up close to him? I had to think; he was some sort of smelly unshaven Jedi. How was I supposed to defeat a smelly Jedi? The movies didn't have a lot of advice on that. I just needed to get him off of Annalee, who would hopefully rush to my rescue before he brutally murdered me.
I grabbed a saucepan and started to fill it with hot water. Once it filled, I dipped my finger to test it. Of course, par for the course in this shitty apartment, my 'hot' water was actually more slightly lukewarm than anything. I turned the stove on then impatiently swung the pan towards the heating element. It'd take a minute, but I didn't have many options.
There was an unearthly howl from my room, and something came flying out into the hallway, bouncing off the wall and into the living room. I made the mistake of turning to see what it was and went pale. There lay a disembodied arm, still twitching slightly. Glowing blue smoke flowed from the wound like luminous cigarette smoke. I bit my lip and tried to ignore it. Don't panic, Kelly. Don't panic. I dipped my finger in the water again. It wasn't scalding, but it was certainly uncomfortable. I had to make do. Ripping limbs off of little kids was all kinds of fucked up, and I wasn't going to sit by and let it happen in my apartment.
I raced down the hall with my slightly-hot water. I saw Annalee's other arm being stretched and strained by Kravnel's stupid Force bullshit, about to be yanked off like her last. It was now or never. If this didn't work, we were both fucked, me especially. I closed my eyes, muttered a prayer, and, just as he turned to notice me, swung the pot. A wave of steaming water flew at his face. While I didn't get the scream of pain I was shooting for, his exasperated "Aah, shit!" was still music to my ears. He started to wipe the hot water from his face and, in that moment, he released the now one-armed Annalee. She lunged forward in a blinding display of speed and tackled him across the room. I didn't bother watching them struggle; I opened the door and I ran down the hallway and towards my door. I was halfway across my living room when I tripped. No, it was more like some invisible hand grabbed my ankle midstride. I turned just in time to see Kravnel leaving my room, dragging a lifeless Annalee by her arm. The way her head dangled loosely from her shoulders was both sickening and terrifying. He dropped her and made a beeline for me as I scrambled helplessly backwards until my back was against my door. He reached out at me, and I felt my throat tighten up again.
"Alright, girlie," he snarled. "You're going to tell me where that goddamned amulet is."
I violently shook my head. "I-I didn't see no amulet thingy!" I gasped. "I have no idea what—"
He clenched his fist and squeezed my throat tighter. I was left gasping and grunting, once again certain that I was going to die. "You little shit," he spat. "I don't take kindly to powerless whelps like you fucking with me."
My throat tightened harder and harder. I closed my eyes and begged silently for it to stop. There's no way to describe feeling like your windpipe is about to be caved in; it was both profoundly painful and profoundly strange at the same time. I don't pray very often, and I've never been particularly religious, but I was praying as much as I could right there.
Right then, the door shook, and there was a stern, sharp knock. Kravnel looked up away from me and let go of my throat. God, I was so sick of getting strangled tonight. Whoever was at my door, they knocked again. Kranvel grimaced and shook his head. "Dammit. You got lucky, girly." He grabbed one of his necklaces, and a white light shined through his fingers. "You better watch your back. I won't forget what you did."
There was a white flash, and he was gone. Just like that, all was quiet (and a lot less smelly). I sat there, panting and shaking, both afraid and confused. I stood up, tried to put on my best smile, and opened the door. I frowned when I recognized the old conservative lady from the floor below me. "I fell," I said before she could start ranting at me, as she did. "I was just about to go to the hospital."
She grimaced and shook her head. "W-well, fall quieter!" she scolded. "Some of us have real jobs and have to wake up for in the morning, you know."
I squinted. Did she just sleep on sandpaper every night? I closed the door in her face and waited for the sound of her walking away. I turned around just in time to see Annalee sitting up, holding her head up like she didn't just have her neck broken. As I watched her stand up, and as the adrenaline in me began to wane, it started to hit me all at once how crazy this had all been. Some crazy Jedi hobo came in, threatened me and my guest, ripped her arm off, then vanished in thin air, swearing vengeance when things went all pear-shaped for him. I fell to my knees and tried my best not to cry. Not crying is hard when you suddenly realize that you almost died, it turns out.
"F-fuck, Annalee, what's going on!?" I screamed. "Who was that!? Why could he use the Force!? Why did he want your amulet!? A-and why the fuck aren't you bleeding!?"
Annalee glanced apologetically at the wound where her arm once was. From her ragged shoulder that same glowing blue smoke billowed out in much greater quantities than it had from her arm. Her facial expression didn't change from that blank look, but she looked down at her feet as though ashamed. "I apologize, Kelly. You've truly been kind to me..." She walked into the living room, and I resisted the urge to run away. "I understand if you are afraid. I can explain all of this to you, if it will ease the fear you are feeling."
I tried to get control of my breathing and stood up. I told myself it'd be alright. The worst of it was over. Annalee was unnatural and freaky and fucked up, but she did sorta try to save me. Annalee walked over to where her missing arm laid, then reached down to pick it up. She pressed the end of the arm to her wound and, with a wet, sickening pop and a puff of glowing smoke, she stuffed the joint back into its socket. My stomach heaved again. I don't know why I’d watched her do that, and I don't know why I still watched as the skin seemed to weave back together, fusing and healing as if nothing had happened. It was like her shoulder had turned into clay and some unseen force was kneading it back into a single shape. I think that's what finally made me double over and heave a puddle of bile onto the carpet.
I coughed and spat, then looked back up at Annalee. Thankfully, she looked normal now that her arm was reattached. "P-please, just tell me what's going on," I pleaded as if my life depended on it. I guess it kinda did.
"Very well, but after that, it is best if we leave the premises. He may return," said Annalee. "That man was named Kravnel, as I am sure you heard me mention. He is a spellcaster; one may call him a mage, or a wizard, or a sorcerer, or any number of terms."
"Yeah, I figured that, but what about you? What was that thing he called you?"
Annalee let out a deep sigh. "I am what is called a 'homunculus'. I am an artificial human, a magical construct created by a spellcaster. My creator, my mistress, she created me as an assistant, a bodyguard, and a companion."
"S-so, it's all magic," I gasped, struggling to wrap my head around any of this. "It's all magic and everyone is magical except for me. Figures."
"Mages are exceptionally rare," Annalee continued. "In fact, the only reason for two staying in this small town is the existence of that amulet."
Oh yeah, the amulet thing. I'd nearly forgotten about that. "Yeah, that thing. I'm assuming you still have it?"
She nodded. "Yes, I have it right here," she said, patting her belly. "It is still safe in my stomach. I don't believe Kravnel suspected that I had swallowed it."
That was good, I guess. Big jerk didn't get away with the necklace, and neither of us got murdered. I'd call that a victory. "W-well," I said, picking myself up and wiping my mouth with my shirt. "I don't want to stay here and let him strangle me, again. Where does this mistress of yours live?"
"If we travel using your motor vehicle, I can offer you flawless directions for reaching her in a timely manner."
"Good." I stood up, slipped some sandals on my feet, and grabbed my keys. "Kravnel can have this place. I am so fucking done."
Annalee's 'mistress' was living in a hotel room, apparently; no more than two miles away. Once we arrived at the hotel, Annalee lead me up the stairs and down the hall all the way to the end. She knocked on the last door to the left, then waited. There was a little commotion inside, and slowly, the door was opened by an older woman. Man, there's a type of person I picture when I think of an eccentric artist chick: frizzy hair, colorful clothing, thick-framed glasses and all that. She looked to be in her late thirties or something, but this woman here was fucking spot on: a short tan lady with wild red hair and a bright crimson coat that clashed heavily with her aqua skirt and yellow heels. "Oh, Annalee, my dear! You've returned!" She knelt and hugged her homunculus thingy like it was her own blood daughter. She then clasped onto her shoulders and looked her directly in the eye. "D-do you have it? The amulet, I mean..."
Annalee nodded. She grimaced as a visible bulge traveled up her throat, and from her lips emerged a glint of red. She spat it out into her hands, surprisingly free of food bits. Annalee's mistress let her jaw drop for a moment as she took the damp amulet in her own hands. "After years of searching..."
She cradled the amulet, oohing and aahing. That was fine and all, but my legs were still sore, and I was tired of standing around. I cleared my throat conspicuously, and she looked up at me. "O-oh, you brought an extra! Who is this?"
"Name's Kelly Gale," I said wearily. "This girl said you were some kinda mage or something."
"Well, she's not wrong," she said, standing up to face me. "My name is Tessa Garcia and, yes, you could say I am a practitioner of the arcane sciences. What do you know about magic, young one?"
I shrugged. "Jack shit."
Tessa chuckled. "I see. You're a norm, then." She crossed her arms and glared at Annalee. "Young lady, care to explain this? You know what being exposed to the supernatural can do to a person's fragile psyche!"
"She is in danger," Annalee said flatly. "It's Kravnel."
Tessa's face suddenly went grim, like Annalee told her her mother'd died. "O-oh dear. Please, come inside. Quickly."
She quickly hurried us in. Once we were inside, she closed the door behind us, slid the chain lock in place and turned the deadbolt. She drew a circle around the doorknob with her finger, murmuring something under her breath as she did. Once she finished, I saw a white circle of light appear around the knob for a split second. "Alright, we should be safe. Kravnel is powerful, but not smart," said Tessa. "This is probably a lot for you to process all of a sudden, Ms. Gale. I apologize if my colleague harmed you in any way."
Much to my relief, it was a fairly normal hotel room. It did smell a little of incense, though, and not the perfumey, pleasant-smelling kind. "I-I'm fine, for the most part," I said, "but please, just call me Kelly."
Tessa fell backwards into an armchair and raised an eyebrow. "You're holding yourself together fairly well. I'm impressed. Take a seat and explain what happened, if you could."
If I was holding up “well”, I'd hate to see how most people managed reality apparently being a total lie. I found a chair and parked myself at the table in the corner, Annalee sitting beside me. I explained what little I could understand, everything from the incident on the road to me throwing a pot of water on a dangerous lunatic, and Annalee explained the rest. Tessa listened to every word, looking more and more troubled as we continued. "I see. That bum has it out for you, now," she said. "You're lucky you made it out alive."
"It was Kelly's quick wit that allowed us both to walk away from that situation unharmed," Annalee noted. "I owe her my eternal gratitude, as should you, mistress."
"Ah yes, that young woman did risk her life for you." Tessa grabbed what appeared to be an ornate, bejeweled purse. "I'm very sorry you had to get tangled up in this, Kelly. I'm sorry for the mess, and I'm sorry for Annalee eating all your food. I feel like I owe you for all the trouble."
Tessa began to reach around in her purse. Man, I was glad to be alive; I didn't need any sort of reward. I didn't do anything special. My “quick wit” was little more than a moment of blind desperation. "P-please, ma'am, I don't need any sort of pay. Just not being dead is—"
She removed not one, but two crisp, new hundred dollar bills from her purse. I swear I could hear angels singing as she held them out for me to take — and honestly, after tonight, I wouldn't doubt it. I held them to the light. Where they even real? Oh fuck, they were real. Cha-ching. Man, I had forgotten how shiny and colorful they made hundreds look. So beautiful. I could totally afford, like, a month of groceries now. "Thanks, uhh… I can call you Tessa, right?"
Tessa smiled, either from gratitude or amusement for my reaction to the reward she had offered. "By all means, Kelly, call me whatever you want." Her smile then faded. "Still, we have a problem regarding this Kravnel issue. I wasn't planning on staying in this town for long, but I can't leave knowing you're in danger from that bastard." She hummed. "Annalee, it seems may need to seek some more permanent residence here."
"That is unfortunate," Annalee said. "However, I have grown fond of Kelly, and am pleased I am able to further interact with her."
Well, that’s nice, I think. Creepy child likes me; now I can die happy. "Y-yes, thanks Annalee," I started. "A bit off-topic, but uhh, about that amulet. Like, what's so great about it? Why all this trouble?" It probably wasn't my business, but can you blame me for wanting to know more about the thing I risked my life for?
Tessa glanced down at the gleaming red gem. "Ah, yes. I'm glad you asked! This is a centuries-old amulet that an exceptionally powerful sorcerer created back in the day. If what my research says is true, it is quite a fascinating piece! A true work of art, I'd say!"
Fascinating, I guess. It would be, if I knew what she was talking about. "Well, yes, but what does it do?"
"Well, I haven't confirmed anything yet, but it's likely just a standard warding talisman." Tessa held the amulet by its chain, letting it slowly spin back and forth. "That's not what makes it so special, though; it resonates with a power one rarely sees in this profession. Either the sorcerer had an extremely strong bond with this necklace, or there was something else at play. Couldn't let Kravnel have it, either way; he's enough of a pain with all of the magical tools he has already."
Even more fascinating, I think, but the mention of that name sent a shiver down my spine. "Yeah, that Kravnel guy. You can protect me from him, right?"
"Mhm, of course. I can't let a norm die at the hands of a renegade mage, and I certainly can't ever let Krav get his way." Tessa then leaned back into her chair, humming to herself and staring at me like I was some sort of art exhibit. "Actually, Kelly, I have an offer for you. It's relevant to your continued survival, I suppose, but it's more than that. Something much, much, more."
I raised an eyebrow. If it meant not dying or more money, I was up for anything. "I'm listening."
"I've always been in the market for an apprentice. Now, you're probably a bit older than I would've shot for, and it's all really sudden, but you've been thoroughly exposed to the metaphysical tonight and, seeing how well you've kept from going insane, I wish to extend you that offer."
"An apprentice?" I squinted. "Like, learn to be a mage like you?"
Tessa nodded. "Yes, of course. What you've seen is but the surface of what I have to offer you, Kelly. It'd be a lot for you to learn, and there's a lot of concepts a norm like yourself may have trouble fully grasping at first, but you could be very powerful if you put in the proper effort. Plus, it'd be nice to have an extra hand while I figure this amulet out!"
Man, what a decision that was. Abandon the idea of living a normal life and learn to do magic, or be forever scarred by all the freaky shit I’d had to deal with tonight. Also, there was the little issue of a madman after my blood. "Will it help me not get murdered by that Krav guy?"
Annalee leaned forward and glared at me. "I find your odds of surviving an encounter with Kravnel alone as a mage much higher than if you refused my mistress's offer."
"Yeah, what Annalee said," Tessa added. "Kravnel could snap you like a twig with his little finger, but proper wards would really weaken him and, further along in your studies, you may actually be able to match him if it comes down to violence."
That was a good selling point, but... "Does it pay well?"
Tessa chuckled. "Of course, of course. You do tasks for me, and I'll continue to pay you like I did just now. You won't get rich, but you'll be able to afford a home and meals, at least."
Bingo. Maybe now I could finally quit my shitty cashiering job. Magic really does solve all problems.
"But I'm warning you," the mage woman continued. "You will learn many things that are outside your view of reality. Tampering with the unseen forces will change who you are, and it will alter your worldview. You can trust no one with what you will know. Are you ready to dip your toes in this pool? You may never be able to leave."
I wondered if she had that speech planned ahead of time. This sounded like a real commitment, like marriage, or a pet, or an MMO. I looked at it from as many angles as I could; it would be new and exciting, certainly. I'd be able to defend myself a bit better, especially against angry wizards.
When it came down to it, though, it was something I'd been looking for for a long time: a way out of my stale, dead-end life. I could quit my job, study something meaningful, maybe even do some good for the world. I guess that's why something I didn't even know existed a day ago seemed so damn attractive.
Tessa gave me a look of anticipation. "Well? What do you say?"
I returned the look. I didn't need to think about it any longer. Tonight, I rammed a weird magical kid thing with my car, helped her find a stupid magical necklace, took her home, got attacked by a magical psycho, and now I was gonna be a wizard or something.
All in all, not bad for a Saturday night.