“Look at Nicole,” Kimberlyn says. “See how her client is so relaxed? He’s dying, but he looks happy.”
I study the veteran war-wraithe and the soldier she cradles in her lap. As Kimberlyn attested, the man looks content. If you didn’t know what was going on, you might even think he was falling asleep in her lap rather than bleeding out… Wait, there’s no blood. “Why isn’t he bleeding?” I ask.
“Poisoned dart,” my trainer answers. “If Nicole wasn’t there, he’d actually be in an agonizing amount of pain. That’s part of the job. Yes, the main goal is to harvest their souls, but the soul of a man who dies peacefully is of much higher quality than that of one who dies in distress.”
My eyes move around the chaotic battlefield. None of the weapons I see could possibly harm me and the place still causes me distress with all it’s rapid movements and cantankerous noise. I’m working very hard not to show it, though. I will not freak out on my first day here; my older sisters would never let me live it down. At least I can’t smell the place.
Kimberlyn returns to her lecture. “Your mask will let you into their minds enough to convince them that you’re someone they trust and care about. Sometimes that’s a lover, as it rather looks like it is here. But other times it’s a mother or a sister or somesuch. So be careful not to do anything that can’t be interpreted platonically. Yes, they’d all be happy to think they’re giving their beloved one last kiss, but it will break the illusion if you start frenching one of them and he thinks you’re his mom.” She chuckles. “Or let’s hope it would. It would be pretty messed up if it didn’t.”
I nod and jot the gist of that down in my notebook. “And that’s why we have to wear the masks, right? Even if they’re not on our faces?”
“Oh, yours will be on your face,” Kimberlyn says. “It takes a lot of experience to be efficient enough to get away with pushing it back your head like Nicole has done. She trained with your mother, so don’t go thinking you’ll reach her level of skill any time soon.”
“Noted,” I respond, trying not to think about Mom. She was one of the highest decorated war-wraiths of her generation, until she fell in love with my father. Chastity is a condition of employment, and they decided that didn’t really work for them as a couple. She quit her job, opened an ale house, and had three daughters, of which I am the youngest. You might think with that backstory she’d have wanted her daughters to grow up and follow their own hearts, but when I tried to tell her I wanted to join the muse corps instead of going into her old business, she totally flipped out. We’re talking yelling, screaming, and even tears. It was the tears that got me. We agreed that I’d give it a year, then she’ll give my blessing for me to apply with the muses if I still want to. I had actually applied to the Muse Academy already, even been offered a scholarship, but I elected not to mention that.
Kimberlyn is still talking, so I try to focus on her. “Notice she doesn’t let her extractor glove touch him yet. That’s important. If you touch them too early, you’ll start extracting their soul before they’re actually dead, which will damage it.”
“Got it.” I scribble the information down.
“Now I want you to really pay attention to this bit.” Kimberlyn puts her hand on my shoulder and points at the pair. “That white mist around them is going to turn silver. That’s her cue.”
As promised, the iridescent white fog dancing around them on a wind that isn’t there shifts to a metallic grey hue. Nicole slides the covering off her index finger to reveal a inner glove designed to extract and hold a soul.
“You couldn’t hear it,” Kimberly says, “but there was a chime just then that indicated the absorption has started.”
“Okay. Is that something Nicole would have heard?”
“Probably. But if the background is ever too loud, you’ll also notice that your gauntlet will give off a little vibration. They’ll be another one when the whole thing is over, both a chime and a vibration. Also, the aura will completely dissipate. Note that she’s only using one finger of the glove. If she used the whole hand, the process would be nearly instant, but that’s rougher on the soul and could jeopardize its integrity.”
I write quickly then look up to see that the fog is down to a few wisps that quickly evaporate. Nicole smiles, put the tip of her gauntlet back on her finger, and stands up. The corpse of the man whose soul she just harvested collapses and his eyes stare blankly at the sky. I blink away a sudden flurry of tears. Crying is most definitely on the list of things I shouldn’t be doing right now.
The senior war-wraith saunters over. She’s taller than I had thought, but also prettier. She’s as old as my mom, but still gorgeous in a way that could easily start barroom brawls if not outright wars. Not that I’d try anything with her. For one thing, I already have a girlfriend. For another, this woman is just way too intimidating for the likes of me.
“You’re Shelly’s youngest?” she says in a husky voice.
Suddenly mute, I nod.
Her gaze chills. “If I catch you so much as pecking a man on his cheek, I’ll have you drummed out of here before know what hit you.”
Before I can think of what to say, let alone find the gumption to say it, she turns and struts to her next client.
Kimberlyn clears her throat. “She… She was close to your mother. Never quite got over Shelly choosing a husband over the wraiths.”
Numb, I manage to say, “I gathered.”
“Don’t worry, she won’t be in your chain of command.” My trainor gives me a smile and looks down at her clipboard. “Alright… So I think that’s enough of an introduction to the field for the day. Let’s get back to HQ and I’ll show you how the souls are in-processed.”
“Sounds good,” I say, in no hurry to spend more time with the dying than I absolutely have to. Hoping no one notices, I take a pair of swipes at the moisture gathered under my eyes.
We turn to walk over to the transportation vortex, but have to detour around another wounded soldier. I try not to look as we move around him, but the way all of his insides seem to have spilled out beside him is hard to ignore. It’s also hard to look at. It’s one of those things you don’t want to see but can’t look away from. The man shifts, causing the pile of guts to move.
I bend in half, vomiting all over the space in front of me. Dear Heaven, how do people stand doing this every day? Mom thinks I’ll survive a year? There’s no way.
Countless heaves later, I manage to straighten enough to stumble around the puke. With Kimberlyn holding tight to my elbow, I shuffle toward the vortex with my eyes shut tight. Or I hope I do. I put all my trust in my guide because there is no way I’m going to watch any more of this.
“It happens to everyone their first day,” Kimberlyn says, her voice almost drowning beneath the racket of the battle. A clang sounds from somewhere particularly close and I flinch. “You get used to it.”
“Honestly?” I say as the background din gets even louder. “I’m not sure if that’s better or worse than not getting used to it.”
“What?” Kimberlyn yells.
I shake my head and scream back, “Nothing.”
As the gentle wind of magic breathes across my skin, Kimberly draws us to a stop. The cacophony of war cuts off abruptly as the vortex whisks us away.
Safely back at headquarters, I stagger away from the landing in case someone else comes in. A safe distance away, I crumble to the floor, where I sit cross-legged as I try to convince the world that it can stop spinning now.
Kimberlyn comes up behind me. “Have a piece of gum, newbie.”
Grateful, I take the stick of minty comfort and plop it into my mouth.
“So, Jackie...” Kimberlyn settles down next to me. “I guess you’re probably wondering how quickly you can find some boy to kiss, huh?”
“Pretty much,” I confirm. I don’t like kissing boys, but I’d prefer it to being in the middle of a war ever again. The mint is helping to settle me down, but I can’t imagine every possessing enough willpower to go back onto a battlefield.
“It’ll get better if you give it time.”
My eyes stare down at the stone beneath us. My mind is curiously calm, oddly quiet. Without asking, Kimberlyn takes my notes from my hand.
After a few moments, I hear Kimberlyn close the notebook. “Why did you sign up? Trying to impress your mom?”
“Not exactly. Kinda.” I sigh. “I told her I wanted to be a muse and you’d have thought I’d driven a dagger through her heart.” Unbidden, the image of blood flowing from a knife wound pops into my mind and I try really hard to replace it with a picture of a forest waterfall.
“Now, see, to me there’s nothing wrong with being a muse. But there’s something massively wrong with trying to live your kid’s life.”
“It’s not like that.”
It really isn’t. I don’t think… “She just thought I’d be happier here.”
“Kid, I’ve known you for one afternoon and I can tell that you won’t be.” Kimberlyn lets out a heavy breath. “It’s noble to help people die, but you seem like the type who’d rather help them live.”
My tongue presses the gum against the back of my teeth. She’s nailed it perfectly.
She hands my notebook back. “Those notes are all haikus. You don’t belong here.”
Flipping the cover open, I read what I wrote, counting all the syllables. She was right; they’re all haikus. I wasn’t trying to write in haiku. It probably would have been harder to do if I were. “I promised Mom a year,” I whisper.
Kimberlyn sighs. “Most people vomit. Some people cry. No one who lasts does both. And those who don’t last? They’re traumatized. Some never recover.”
My inbreath is more of a sniffle and I try to hold back a whimper. “But Mom…”
“Your mom’s not here.” She gives me a level look. “If I don’t clear you, then you don’t get this position. And if you want me to clear you, you’re going to have to say something really persuasive really fast.”
Pressing my lips together, I gather my courage. “I don’t want to.”
My guide’s lips curve into a sympathetic little smile. “I didn’t think so. And it really is okay, kiddo.” She climbs to her feet and holds a hand down to help me up.
I leave the war-wraithe headquarters and find Lola at the coffee shop she’s working at until she starts the Muse Academy in the fall. She looks up quietly as I walk into the place, takes a cup down, and starts to make me my standard latte. “Caramel?” she asks. “I assume caramel because you’re here awfully early.”
“Yeah,” I confirm. I only get the caramel syrup when I need an extra pickmeup, which I certainly do right now. “It… My would-be supervisor figured out real quick that I shouldn’t be there.”
She slides the milk under the foaming arm. “Better to know that now then after you plunge into depression over doing a job you should never have been pressured to apply for.”
“I guess.” I sit down on a stool across the counter from her. “I don’t know what I’m going to tell Mom though.”
“Want me to do it?” She offers me the coffee along with an attractively malicious grin. She really would be much better suited for helping people die than I would be, but she plans on specializing in inspiring action films.
“Nah.” I take the drink and look down at the foam. She’s written our initials in the foam with a cute little ampersand between them. “I’d rather you continue to be allowed to come over.”
“And she already blames me.” Lola plops her elbows on the counter and leans into a resting posture.
“That’s true enough.”
“It’s okay,” Lola says. “I don’t mind being credited with your happiness.”
Fortified by coffee, I make my way home. Mom’s downstairs, in the pub part of the building we live in. She glances up from the bar she’s wiping down, frowns, and checks the clock. Maybe I should have waited longer to come back so that it would be less obvious something hadn’t gone well.
Mom tosses her cleaning rag to the side. “You blazed through training fast.” She looks at me in challenge, like she’s daring me to say otherwise.
I gather every last nerve I have, knowing that I’m going to need them. “Washed out fast, you mean.”
“Washed out?” Folding her arms, she gives me a dark look. “After I pulled strings to get you in? What happened? Was it Nicole? She gave Sarah a hard time, too, but one visit from me sorted it all out.”
“It wasn’t Nicole.” I draw a breath. “Kimberlyn said -”
“Kimberlyn!” Mom shakes her head. “That girl! I can’t figure out how she gained any rank at all. I’ll fix everything.”
She walks around the bar like she’s going to head over to war-wraith headquarters right this second, but I move to block her. “No, Mom. I don’t want to be a war-wraith. I don’t want to get used to watching people’s guts spill out or holding them while they die. I don’t want that to be normal.”
Mom’s eyes narrow on me. “It is normal.”
“Not for me.” I hold a hand out, imploring her to listen. “I’m a muse, Mom. I don’t just want to make art, I need to make art.”
“No one needs that.”
“No,” she cuts me off. “It’s that girl, isn’t it?”
I shake my head. “No. I’d want this without Lola. I’ve always wanted this.”
The words seem to bounce off my mother without sinking in. “Do you have any idea how little muses get paid, Jacklyn? Ten years as a war-wraith and I bought this place outright. That wouldn’t have happened if I’d been a muse.”
I whither, but before I can say anything meek, my father’s hand falls on my shoulder. “You know what else doesn’t pay as well as being a war-wraith?” he asks softly. “Running a pub.”
Her eyes on Dad, Mom’s body softens. “Bill…”
“What did your parents say when you told them you were quitting to marry me?”
Mom drops her gaze as she nods. “You’re right. They said it financially stupid. Irresponsible. And a complete waste of my talents.”
“Yet you’re telling our daughter to ignore her own talents in the interest of making more money doing something she’s not suited to.” He pauses for a moment, letting her think. “Do you think you made a mistake?”
When Mom looks up again, I see a shimmer of tears. She’s silent as the clock ticks on for seconds that threaten to become minutes. “I don’t regret leaving the wraiths. Not even the slightest bit.” She moves her focus from Dad to me. “You’re not a muse, though. That requires a license you can’t get without going to their school.”
A tiny ember of hope lights in my mind. “I already applied. They offered me a scholarship, Mom.”
She smiles, although there’s no joy in it. “Then I suppose I’ll have to get used to have a daughter who’s a muse.” She draws in a breath. “Just like I need to go make sure the pies are ready to go in the oven so there’ll be something to sell to people when they show up for dinner tonight.”
As my mother turns and rushes out of the room, I look up at my dad in awe. “Is she?” I ask. “Is she really just going to get used to it?”
With his hands holding my upper arms, he bends to place a gentle kiss on my forehead before straightening to look into my eyes. “Your mama is one of the most stubborn women I’ve ever met. When she decides something, it’s almost impossible to get it out of her head. But even before she decided you should be a war-wraith, she decided that she loves you. That woman is fiercely loyal to her family, and that is never going to change no matter how many times she fails to get her way.”
The breath I try to take turns into a gasp and before I know it, I’m sobbing in relief. I hug my father, smiling against his chest. “I love you, Daddy.”
“I love you, too, Jacksie-girl.” He squeezes tight. “And you are going to be an amazing muse.”
I can only hope he’s right.
The above image is an untitled work by photographer Yiaz Yang. It was posted on Twitter by @lumecluster, who owns the company that makes the awesome gear seen in the picture. Said store can be found at lumecluster.com.
It was offered as a prompt on my Wording Wednesday group on MeWe.