J. J. Hanna © 2020
Her feet pounded the cobblestones, her heart trying to leap out her body through her throat if not for the bone cage keeping it in place. She would stop, if she thought it was safe. But as she tightened her grip on the necklace in her hand, she knew she would never be safe again.
There’s a funny thing that happens when you realize your own mortality, and you realize exactly how screwed you are. There’s a heaviness that accompanies that realization—the deep, heavy understanding that by walking down this path you forfeit your right to a natural death.
In taking that necklace, she had signed up to be killed. No more dying of old age, or being taken by a sickness. No. Her options now were limited to whoever she’d pissed off that caught up to her first, and that would have to be okay.
Amber turned fast and hard down the nearest alley and leaned her back against the wall, chest rising and falling too quickly as she sucked reluctant air into her desperate lungs.
This had to be the stupidest thing she’d ever done. But as her grip loosened on the pendant in her hand, she knew she’d do it again. She’d do it every day for the rest of her life if it meant being able to walk the streets with authority rather than being spat upon or disregarded as street trash.
The gold casing surrounding the ruby filled her hand, and she watched the little glimmering light inside as the ruby’s magical center shifted and stirred, almost like liquid in a vial.
She’d known it was important from the second she saw it sitting on it’s padded pedestal in the back corner of the shop. She wouldn’t have seen it at all had it not seemed to call out to her, enticing her, begging her to take it.
It was probably cursed. Things this pretty usually were.
But with no risk, there was no reward, right?
She lifted the chain to string it around her neck and hesitated. Her dirty clothes and grungy hair didn’t do this pendant justice. She couldn’t let anyone see it though, so for now, she’d have to hide it under her tunic, even if her tunic didn’t fit it.
She rested the pendant’s chain across the back of her neck and pulled her tangled brown curls out from under it. Nothing seemed to change, but as she looked down at her appearance, the grimy street urchin was no more. She didn’t feel any different, but she could have sworn the skirt she wore looked cleaner and the layer of dust and grime she’d become so accustomed to was no longer obvious on her arms. She carefully tucked the pendant into her tunic and left the safety of the alley, hesitating for a moment as the people mulling about on the street seemed to take her in for the first time. She prepared to run again as passerby's eyes landed on her, but no one spoke any harsh words or shoved her out of their way. Instead, they parted around her. The pendant was warm against her stomach, and she had to focus on ignoring it. That was always the hardest part of stealing anything—not getting caught.
“Madam,” a man said as he passed, tipping his hat to her.
That was certainly new.
As she walked, she inspected her appearance in the reflective glass windows of other shops. The woman she saw was hardly recognizable as herself. There was almost nothing left of the scrawny teen she’d been. Her body was full and curved, perfectly fitted to the gown she wore—a gown she’d never bought, cinched at the waist and pinched in the front so she didn’t have to lift it to walk. The sleeves sat off her shoulders, following the slope of her body. The dress was the brown color of the tunic she’d worn, her white undershirt now flowing and clean, gently resting off her shoulders with the gown. She pulled her hair over one shoulder and braided the other side so it would stay there, piled over her left shoulder in a torrent of healthy brown curls.
She had no money, so when she arrived at the tavern she sat and waited until she had the barkeep’s attention. It didn’t take long. Not now. Not with the charm of the pendant around her neck.
A stranger in the back corner was staring, cloaked in darkness. As Amber walked in, she’d noticed the woman’s eyes on her instantly. Not that no one else was staring, but rather that no one else stared as intently as that woman stared. She stared as if she knew, and that was dangerous. Any clear-sighted person would pose an immediate danger, and yet again Amber prepared to flee.
“Can I get you anything to drink, madam?”
“She’d like an ale,” the stranger said, stepping out of the dark and into the flickering candle light. Her hair was white blonde, secured over her shoulder in a similar fashion to Amber’s. “It’s on me,” she said with a smile, her pale skin made her look almost ghostly.
“One ale coming right up,” the barkeep said before disappearing into the back.
“Some necklace you have there,” the stranger said.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t think I know what—”
“The pendant you’ve hidden under your blouse. Where did a young naive thing like yourself find something like that?”
“Let me rephrase. Do you know what happens when you wear a cursed charm for a prolonged period of time?”
“You know this isn’t you. The charm makes you into whoever it wants you to be. It seems the sorceress who cursed this one wanted eternal youth. It’s a disguise and an illusion, one any clear-sighted mage such as myself can see right through. You’re nothing but a petty thief and a street urchin.”
Amber pressed away from the bar, about to flee, when the woman’s firm grip fell on her wrist.
“Please.” The stranger laughed. “I won’t turn you in. Innate talent like yours doesn’t come by very often. And anyway, I can see it in your eyes: you love the feeling that pendant is giving you.”
The barkeeper returned and placed two ales on the counter before them. The stranger handed over a couple coins and he walked away.
“What is this pendant?” Amber asked, hesitantly settling into her seat again.
“It’s a simple charm. May I see it?”
Amber reached for the chain and hesitated. “It’s mine. I found it, I’m keeping it.”
“Don’t be such a fool. You think I want a cursed necklace? I just want to see it.”
Amber fished it out of her neckline and held the shimmering, liquid gem out for the stranger to see. The ruby coloring had faded into a murky brown, fading even more into a clear white the longer Amber looked at it.
“Very interesting indeed.”
“What?” Amber asked, wishing this woman would just tell her.
“It’s as I thought. At some point, it was a focus, a funnel, if you will. Someone with magic used it in place of ingredients. It seems to like you.”
“What tells you that?”
“The soul trapped within it is merging with your own. I can see it in the warmth in your face. Even as you sit here, that eternal youth is pulling you toward the desired age of this charm’s creator. As long as you have this, you’ll never look a day over 25. I simply wouldn’t recommend taking it off. It was once a bright red, was it not?”
“You seem to have an affinity for magic. Does it run in your family?”
Amber thought of the house she’d grown up in, filled with other children their mother had taken in. None of her “siblings” were blood relations. She’d left as soon as she was old enough. Charity was for the poor, and Amber had been determined never to be poor like that again.
“I couldn’t tell you,” she said, twirling a strand of her hair around her finger.
“You’ve never casted yourself, have you? Have you tried?”
She nodded, and Amber figured it best not to say anything else, even though she wanted to. The woman released the pendant and it fell back against Amber’s stomach.
“I can make you into something great. But first, you have a lot to learn and skills to hone. With this—” she brushed her fingers along the pendant’s chain, “—you’ll be far better at taking what you want then you were before. After all, people are more likely to give you what you ask for when you look like you deserve it. We’ll start in the morning. For now, eat up, clean up, and get some rest. We have work to do.”
This story, segments of this story, and ideas from this story are not to be duplicated or replicated in anyway. This content belongs to J. J. Hanna alone.
Please note: This is a work of fiction. Any similarity to real life events is unintended by the author.
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J. J. Hanna is a writer and reader from Colorado. She loves suspense stories above all else, and is currently working on a debut novel of her own. When she's not writing, you can find her cuddling with a cat, drinking a caffeinated beverage, and watching one of her favorite shows. Go find her on social media @authorjjhanna to keep track of her most recent reads, current adventures, and to get the most up to date news on all things publishing.