Part 9. The rest are here.

The mortar and pestle were still in her hands, the contents half-ground. She blinked. The sun was deep in the sky, red rays filtering in through the kitchen window. She smiled. Her fingers gripped the smooth stone, finishing the work she’d been doing before — what had just happened? Dani shook off the feeling. There was still a list of things that needed to be finished, and it would soon be time for supper.

Dani made quick work of the remaining tasks, and returned to the stew pot hanging in the stove. She added some last-minute herbs for flavor, stirred the contents, and was soon sitting near the window. She drank in the glitterinng night sky, contemplating a bizarre memory of some unpleasant meal served in a bizarre, shadowy chamber. Perhaps a dream she’d had — better, a nightmare.

Dani followed supper with a flurry of cleaning, putting away the utensils of the day’s work and returning her simple home to its natural state. There wasn’t much reason for it other than her own prefence, but she liked things to be tidy when she awoke in the morning. Leaving things out simply meant leaving bed before she’d like to get it done in the morning, when sleep still made her arms heavy. This was much better.

She fell into bed, and was soon asleep. In what seemed like a moment’s passage, the dawn’s light began to intrude. Rested yet groggy, Dani surrendered to the day’s beckoning and rose from her slumber. After a few bites of bread to break her fast, she gathered a collection of bottles into a wheeled cart, and headed to the shop. A day off tending to chores had been nice, but keeping the coins coming in was just as important as knowing what to use them for.

The town was still bustling; Dani guessed that some traveling group of performers was in the area, as these always drew crowds. Crowds, though, were good for business, and whether the faces coming through the door were familiar or not, their money spoke the same. Business had been steady recently, but a particularly good day always had its own special appeal. It wasn’t all about the profits, either; Dani loved to see the new customers, to guess to herself what each tincture and potable was purchased for. Some made it easy, but many of her clients pretended at discretion. She considered herself adept at seeing through it.

So the day passed by, a steady stream of bodies winding in and out of her small wooden home-away-from-home. Not everyone made a purchase, of course; an alchemist is only worth their stock at any given moment, so not every would-be buyer finds what they’re looking for. Enough, though, that by the time the sun had tilted toward the forest, she had more than sufficient funds to account for her recent relaxation.

With the parade of people came the rumors and talk of the town. She’d been close with her guess at a performing troupe; there was a well-renowned knight passing through not far from here, and his entourage was spread across the neighboring communities, spreading the wealth of the realm and securing their provisions for the journey ahead. She heard as many guesses at his destination or purpose as there were voices to speak them. She remembered a childhood fancy that she might one day travel the land as a hero to her people, but she’d had no knack for the great feats attributed to the adventurous.

With or without this spark of heroism, though, Dani was sure of many things about herself. She was more than adequate at her trade, she was an important piece in the village’s economy, and she was tired from a long day of serving the masses. The sun hung low over the green-flecked horizon of jagged treetops, and she returned home to rest again and gather her strength for tomorrow. The knight’s men would be around for another day or two, from the sounds of the village gossip, and that meant plenty more hands clutching coinpurses and dreaming of playing their role in whatever fantasy they’d indulged in.

As she lay in the dark stillness of night, the faintest of echoes called out, and Dani could scarce tell if it was a distant cry or a fading memory. It sounded as though someone was in trouble, but surely the brave visitors were of better aid than she could offer. Unsettled by the noise but unconcerned, she drifted off to sleep.

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Author’s Note: I guess I don’t hava any other author’s notes, really. Please give me some feedback if you’re enjoying this string of stories, or if you’re not! Though if you aren’t, you probably haven’t made it to part 8. The whole series is available here.

Dani’s vision was bleary. A sense of total exhaustion hung on every muscle, every bone. Eyes that took their time adjusting to the yellowish light begged for something more; the warmth of the sun, the sparkling beauty of the night sky. None of that existed here, deep under the oppressive weight of the ever-present darkness. Here, there was only the dull uniformity of artificial light.

Dani felt a strange thought, like a memory of a dream, flitting around the outskirts of her conscious mind. There was a sense of peace, a calm that accompanied the sensation. Blinking. Adjusting to the light. It felt somehow wrong; after all, when the light was so manufactured, so perfectly controlled in every inhabited area, why would you ever need a moment to adjust? For all the slivers of recollection, Dani had known no such lights as those she imagined now for as long as she’d lived.

Just the stories of youth playing havoc with a mind under pressure, Dani decided. Everyone knew the legends. That, in what was now an eon ago, men had lived under vast, open skies. They had constructed communities, building with dirt and stone and wood, building with steel and glass. They had made nations, and they had fought over where the lines were defined. In time, their wars and irreverance for nature undid their world, and the new world — the real world — was born.

Dani rubbed her eyes. Why was she sitting in her chamber, dreaming about childhood fantasies? Why was this so vivid, and the world suddenly seemed so dim around her? She looked down. Her hands, locked in their mechanical exoskeletons, lay on her lap. At this point, they were more equipment than flesh. Atrophy had set in at a young age, and while she could perform simple tasks courtesy of modern medicine, they would never look or work like the hands of the healthy.

Still, Dani had a job to do. This wasn’t a free society like the one written about in the books, and every person had to perform their role to keep things moving. It took no fine grip to haul boxes, and Dani’s arms and legs were still those of — well, it was a matter of some debate. This wasn’t the time to be focusing on old arguments. It would only lead to some petty squabble at the warehouse, and these did little to reduce the strenuous nature of the task.

“Ah, Daniel! Feeling better then, are we?” Tom’s voice echoed in the open chamber.

“Hey. Yeah,” Dani said, trying to mask uncertainty. “You know how it goes.”

“Good. Lots to do. You’re not the only one’s been missing some time, so I sugggest you get to it.”

It wasn’t worth reminding Tom what name to use. He wasn’t so bad, but had a way of seeing things that he didn’t care to deviate from. It was probably a simpler way of living. Certainly less complicated, though Dani wondered at times if the old man was as single-minded as he seemed, or if he just put on a show for the others. Either way, he was a firm but kind overseer, and had always treated Dani the same as anyone else in the crew.

Dani kept focused on her work; Tom was right. Things were backed up, and there were deliveries that had missed their intended times already. Dani loaded up a cart with cargo, piling on food for three of the public kitchens, some ores for the smelters; the same deliveries as always. Dani had always preferred deliveries to intake. There were more faces to see, less time spent among the same small crew, less confrontation. Less Kim. Kim was such a —

Deep breath. Don’t get derailed. There’s too much to get through Dani had been missing time, and didn’t know where it had gone, but right now that only meant that it was time to dig in and make up for the work left undone. Circling back through the warehouse, winding through the tunnels to each destination, the day went by quickly and uneventfully. Dani didn’t cross paths with Kim even once.

Dani made her way through the day, ending with a simple meal at the nearest kitchen. Enough had been done to allow some time to savor the food, but tonight’s fare felt bland. Barely noticing what was on her plate, Dani dreamed of a fire under a wide pot of homemade stew until supper was done. Soon after, a determined stride took her away from the hungry masses, away from the warehouse, her path winding through several districts until she reached a nearly-unknown offshoot from an old repair tunnel. She slipped inside.

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Welcome Back

Author’s Note: This is an author’s note. Pretend it’s witty or informative, whichever you prefer. If you’ve found your way here without reading the preceding bits, you can read ’em all here and I think they might even show up in the right order now sometimes! So, that’s kinda neat.

After hanging lines on which to allow her pants, blouses, and dresses to dry, Dani glanced toward the sky. The sun still hung nearer the mountains than the forest, so there was more than enough time to gather necessities from the market before the vendors and shops shuttered for the evening. She slung a handful of coins from her lockbox into her satchel and took a quick stock of the kitchen.

Building a list in her mind of meals that could be prepared using what was already onhand, she made her way up the road towards the crowd. It was busy today, the din of conversation filling the air. She was soon simply another part of it, all of them moving independently yet as one. The sound of coins exchanging hands rang out from all sides, and the cries of the sellers announcing their wares became a unified chorus amid the steady scraps of gossip, haggling, and the occasional squeal of children or livestock; it could be hard to tell those two apart, Dani felt.

Pursuing her short list of herbs, meat, tea leaves, and a few last-minute impulses, she floated through the market. A faint smile played across her face as she went from stall to stall. Ingredients for food, some more twine for drying or repairing her wardrobe, a handful of obscure oils and fungus for use in preparing alchemic solutions.

Dani had never considered herself an especially gifted potion-maker. She had a firm grasp on the basics, and her determination made up for much of the deficit. It wasn’t the stuff of legends, but it was no novice’s brew to be sure. It had begun as an inquisitive notion of youth, but as she grew in both age and skill, it easily became a reliable way to earn her keep.

And so she continued on her way until her satchel was both lighter from spending and filled to bursting. Maybe it wasn’t all necessities, but her mood had Dani spreading her meager wealth more loosely, and she’d finally allowed herself the luxury of one of Esther’s richly-scented bath soaps. She’d been working hard and felt a need to indulge, no matter how small it might really be.

She returned home, sorting the day’s purchases in the kitchen. Once things were in their place, she tied a handkerchief to keep her hair from her eyes while she gathered the ripened bounty of her garden. There wasn’t much, as usual; she was dutiful about this task, and very cautious about when to pick each plant. This was her secret. The world-renowned masters may boast a unique talent with the process of brewing, or make use of enchanted tools, but few — at least, few that Dani had heard tales of — knew their plants as keenly as she did hers. From the tiniest seed to the broadest leaf, she felt of them as her own gift to the world, and treated them with utmost care.

That done, Dani turned her attention to the meat and vegetables and herbs that were to be the night’s meal. Sometimes she’d put more care into this, but a simple stew seemed the right way to avoid spoiling the day with too much labor. Again, a tune emerged as she hummed to herself, merrily chopping and slicing her meal-to-be. She scooped a ladle of boiling water into a cup of cloth-bound tea leaves and herbs before placing the stew pot over a low fire.

Supper was set, but Dani had only just begun her work in the kitchen. Now, it was time to prepare her reagents. Pulling a worn, well-aged mortar and pestle from the cabinet, she began the process of chopping, grinding, and mixing. Herbs, flowers, mushrooms, scales; all of these required their own approach to ensure their readiness. This, too, was something she counted herself as good at, though it was still a long and tedious process.

Tucked in a small lean-to behind her home, Dani’s laboratory was nothing to be proud of. Her glass instruments were singed from age and use. The collection of odd-colored stains and singed walls betrayed her wilder experiments, but she was adept at keeping things in working order. Sometimes that meant replacing the parts that had been too well-used, but this was as much a part of an alchemist’s life as anything.

The light melody she hummed echoed through the house as Dani spent the afternoon preparing her wares. The bulk of what she made was based on established needs for specific clients, but she tried to keep a supply of more commonly-requested stock on hand. Flasks of liquid to wash away the ill effects of yesterday’s ale, creams to aid in the closing of wounds, powders that would aid in a restful sleep — needs and desires were as varied as the people who had them, but some things never seemed to change.

She was thinking about these constants when the room was cut in half by a familiar blinding light, the furious cacophany that accomanied it drowning out her scream as the black silence engulfed her.

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Author’s Note: Are you tired of these yet? Honestly, I’m kind of tired of them. I knew I said I’d keep doing them, so I probably will, even if only out of a sense of duty. There are five parts that lead up to this one, and you can check the whole set out by clicking right here (I can’t get WordPress to agree to show them in order, so you’ll want to start from the bottom, probably).

Inside her home was just as she remembered it; but, she wasn’t sure she remembered anything at all. A gnawing doubt settled into the back of her thoughts, though everything still seemed so right. The interior was plainly decorated aside from a heavy cloth rug in circles of many colors. Reds gave way to oranges and then into all shades of blue surrounding a deep purple center interwoven with threads that shone like silver.

Minding the fact that she’d recently run through water, walked a muddy bank, and fallen into the dirt, Dani stepped past the rug rather than over it. She peered an eye into her bedroom, everything just as she’d left it — whenever that had been. She stepped through the narrow hall that led to the washbasin, wanting to take the moment to clean herself before setting about the day’s work, wondering if there was work that needed done.

Freshened up by a quick rinsing off and some clean clothing from the bedroom, Dani noticed that her dirty clothes had formed a small hill. That was work settled, then. A small wooden box in hand, she set to piling the mess together to take back down towards the stream. As her fingers touched the first thread, a flash of light split her vision for a moment, and she felt a rush of indescribable feelings and thoughts. It lasted only a few moments before silence returned, but Dani felt different. Her memories were returning; not memories of dark, confined spaces, but memories of this world. Of her world.

It was small pieces at first. She remembered seeing a blue bird splashing in the water the last time she’d washed her garments. She remembered a candle, flickering in the dark after a noise had drawn her out. She did not remember finding its source, or any names to go with the faces and places that swarmed her senses. It was like living a lifetime in the blink of an eye.

She breathed deeply. The moment passed, and it was like it had never been; all confusion and mystery was simply replaced by comfort. She wondered if she’d hit her head when she fell, but the dull ache soon subsided as she made her way outside, strolling past the shops and homes of her village to complete the task at hand.

Following the familiar path down past the road and to the banks of the stream, she knelt beside the water and began carefully scrbubing each of her garments. She knew that it was a silly thing to take joy in, but something in the lightness of the spring air and the cold current tracing through the waves from distant mountains brought a sense of peace. No, of sincere happiness, of taking pride in one’s life and work, of knowing that you are where you belong, and that all is well. It was bliss. She allowed her thoughts to wander where they would, daydreaming of nothing as her hands worked to wash away the dirt of yesterday’s toil.

Dani found herself absently humming a tune, and nearly felt to burst into song. Why she would feel this in the middle of a mundane chore was a curiosity, but she paid it no mind. After all, things had been going well, a few bumps and bruises aside, but what would life be without small challenges? They were the things that kept the world interesting, the small unexpected things. Sometimes they hurt, but that only made the times that didn’t all the sweeter.

At this moment, at the edge of the water with her laundry, Dani was perfect and content.

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Author’s Note: Yup, still looking for feedback. If you’re the “reading things in order” kind of person, then before you read this you should make sure you’ve seen “A Test“, “Exploration“, “A Home” and “Awake“. Anyway, here’s part 5.

She laughed. First, she laughed because she was back on the ground; not the unforgiving metal floors, but soft, foot-worn dirt. She laughed next at the absurdity of it all, of planting herself face-first into the dust. She laughed at the sound of her own laughter, filling the air with a curiously new sound. Had it been that long since she’d laughed? Had she simply forgotten what it was like?

She sat up, brushing dirt from the legs of her pants. She noticed that they were blue, wondering if they’d always been that way. Somehow, all the way back to the fields, and to time before that, she couldn’t remember getting dressed. She strained to recall how she’d ended up here, giggling in the road over her own ineptitudes. She was so lost in trying to retrace her steps that she missed the sound of steps growing to her left.

As the shadow fell over her, she regained her senses and turned too quickly, scrambling to regain her balance as she looked upward. A young man, not more than three years her elder, stood above her. She recoiled as he lunged toward her suddenly, his fingers wrapped around — nothing? She blinked.

“Help you up, miss?” he said. There was a genuine compassion in his voice. A welcoming warmth. She reached up, using his arm to hoist herself to her feet. Letting go, she nervously brushed at the dirt that covered her.

“You alright?”

“I’m- I’m fine. I’m okay.”

He was small in stature, but hearty. She was used to standing taller than those around her, so it was nothing new. He was dressed in simple-looking brown clothing; full-length pants, a thigh-length tunic with sleeves that just covered his elbows, and a wide-brimmed hat of lighter material. Tufts of black hair jutted out around the base of his headwear, and a patchy stubble covered his chin.

“Grant,” he said, looking at her as though with a question.

“Dani,” she replied. Her voice, like her laugh earlier, caught her off guard; she smiled to hear the lilt to it. It seemed in harmony with the scent on the breeze, the warmth of the sun’s light, the comical scene she must have presented when falling over herself moments ago. For a moment, she wondered if she’d been expected to say something esle. A palpable silence came between them, and then was gone as he smiled again.

“If you’re sure you’re alright, then.” He let his words trail off, inviting her to ask him to stay. She nodded.

“I’m sure. Thanks, anyway.”

As he turned to leave, he chuckled lightly to himself. She watched him for a moment, then turned and began walking with the long strides of one traveling with purpose. Of course, she still hadn’t puzzled out where she was headed, but for now she’d settled on looking confident. There was some reason, she felt, that it was important to maintain composure even after the scene she’d made.

She followed the worn footpath as it wove between the huts and hovels making up the small village, allowing her legs to guide her where they would. Outside some of the structures, signs depicting the trade or craft of their inhabitants hung; others were adorned with small flowers of purple and blue, while some seemed starkly plain, as though there was no spark of life inside of them at all.

At last, her feet led her to a simple-looking fenced-in garden splayed out in the front of one of these. She reached absently into her satchel — wait, had she had that before? Removing the key from it seemed so natural a motion that she didn’t stop to consider it further. She stepped lightly to the door and unlocked it, stepping through the smallish frame and into her home.

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