Courting Trouble

Part Three

Dark gray crickets, as large as Eva’s hand, tumbled from the sky and bounced as they landed on rooftops and the cobblestone roadway of the nearby village.  Shouts and screams began merging with their clatter as more people discovered what had just happened.

Fewer of the insects had fallen beyond the edge of town, where she and Copper stood in front of the run-down shack, but all the crickets scrambled and hopped, making the ground seem to writhe.  One leaped on Eva’s arm, and with a strangled shriek she swatted it off.

Copper waved his hands above his head as he faced the town.  “Hey, garbage guts!”

The blue coat of her suit rustled again, and for a couple of seconds a green mist swirled around both her and Copper.  Nothing appeared different when Eva looked down, but a potent, sweet smell filled her nostrils.  Had he stuffed her pockets with fruit?

She looked back up to see the crickets were getting organized.  The mottled ocean now swelled in one direction, toward the two of them, and the nearest ones sprang upon them.

Eva gasped as she tried to swipe them off, but Copper grabbed her by the wrist, apparently ignoring the multiple crickets clinging to his coat.


He led her away from the village as they broke into a sprint.  Several strides in he released her as they raced down the pebble-strewn path that meandered away from town, crickets scrambling all around them.  Several leaped upon her and fell back off.  But her cloak jerked on her neck, feeling heavier and then lighter.  Some unlucky crickets crunched beneath their feet.

The clatter loomed behind them, but she dared not look back.  When Copper veered from the stony route they were following, Eva followed close on his heels.  Her lungs started aching and she hoped he had some sort of plan to stop this pursuit before they got dogpiled by hungry crickets.

They neared a grove of sassafras trees, new buds scattered on the branches, and he flung one arm toward them.

A red and yellow mist, sometimes blurring into orange in spots, swirled about the grove.  He grabbed her wrist again as they slowed from a sprint to a jog, and turned toward his latest realignment.  The green mist reappeared around their torsos.

“Why are we stopping?”  Eva gasped as she cringed and swatted at surging crickets.

“Isn’t it obvious?”

The mist about them drifted toward the trees, and the sea of crickets surged toward the grove.  The haze evaporated as piles of apples and grapes and peaches replaced the trees.

Despite her relief as the crickets swept toward their new target, his curt response annoyed her.

“I know your range of magic is limited,” she snapped.  “But couldn’t you have changed the trees into fruit before we stopped?”

“What’s the matter?”  The familiarity of his smirk actually soothed her slightly.  “Don’t like being live bait?”

“Not if it leaves me on the hook.”

“That’s a sharp retort.”  He grinned and pointed two fingers toward the crickets.  “I’ll change them back to normal size.”

But instead, his smile vanished and brow furrowed.  And with a pop he suddenly transformed into an enormous, golden eagle.

Copper lunged into the air, and Eva ducked as the gust of his wings swept against her.  She watched his rapid ascent and gasped upon spying what – or rather who – was above them.

The person soared upright like a kite, arms thrust down at sides and silver robes billowing.  Long, blond hair streamed in the wind.  Copper twisted nearly upside down, talons stretched toward the intruder.

A pale darkness, like the gray of twilight, burst from the newcomer.  It surged against Copper, striking the eagle back to the ground.

“No!” Eva shrieked as he crashed a couple of paces before her.  Some feathers floated around him as his assailant sailed over the chomping crickets and descended.

Eva sprang to Copper’s side even as he rolled over, and a blue mist swirled around him and the loose feathers.  The plumage vanished as he changed back into a young man, his hair more tousled.

“Are you hurt badly?”  She grasped his arm to help him up.

“Scattering slimy cockroaches!” he wheezed.  It was possible changing instantly into an eagle had been as taxing for him as being smacked down.  “No, not yet.”

A voice, lower than hers but far from Copper’s bass, rang across the damp meadow.  “That was a foolish attempt, realigner.”

The person who was supposed to be their quarry stood several paces beyond the swarming crickets – outside Copper’s sphere of influence – with arms folded over his chest.  Blond hair coiled about his shoulders, and his lips were as red as freshly pricked blood.  He appeared to be a little older than Eva.

Her companion staggered to his feet and brushed off his coat.  “Got your attention, didn’t I, Dyvolik?”

The instigator’s smile was more of a sneer.  “You did that by interfering with my agents.  And trying to impress the young lady with heroics won’t prevent her from accepting my gift.”

A slight chill rippled through Eva as she stared at him.  “What gift are you talking about?”

“The one I’ve given you and your people.”  Dyvolik unfolded his arms and raised his hands toward the sky.  “Didn’t you notice the green lightning last night?”

She glanced toward Copper, who frowned and muttered, “This can’t be good.”

“Yes.”  Eva returned her attention to the intruder.  “It was frightening.”

He lowered his hands as he shrugged.  “It’s nothing to be frightened about, as you can tell the others in your community.”  He glared at Copper.  “Although I’m sure this quester regaled you with breathless tales of how dangerous I am.”

“My respiration worked fine,” her companion quipped.

“He’s misinformed you.”  Dyvolik turned to one side and raised his chin.  “Although he believes his own delusion, he’s more guilty of crime than I am.  And we shall prove it by conducting an inquiry of his claims.”

He flicked his fingers toward the munching crickets.  They began writhing again, but this time lunged toward each other.  Eva could have sworn she heard squeals and groans as they became entangled with each other.

No, wait … they were melding together.  The undulating mass broke up into twelve separate mounds.  Each mound quivered as it grew taller and thinner.  And then twelve creatures with the heads of crickets, but two legs that were almost human, and four arms twitching on their torsos, lumbered toward her and Copper.

Eva cringed as she took a step back.  The beings were like monstrosities from a nightmare.

Copper’s calmness offered little condolence.  “I don’t call that a jury of my peers.”

“Objection overruled.”  Dyvolik sneered again.

Eva stepped back again as Copper, limping slightly, placed himself between her and the approaching abominations.  At least the creatures stopped about five paces away.  He pointed two fingers at them, and a gray mist began to swirl around the throng, but then evaporated after a couple of seconds.

“Shield spell,” he grumbled.

The abominations stood, grouped together, and seemed to stare at her and Copper.

Dyvolik folded his arms.  “Now, young miss, we can set you straight about recent events.  In spite of that realigner’s claims, I’ve entered your realm in order to give you and your people an ability that will allow you to flourish.”

Eva frowned.  “By frightening us with lightning and attacking us with oversize crickets?”

“You misunderstood what you saw.  The lightning was green because I used the storm’s winds to disperse a potion over your community.  That’s what affected the color you saw.”

A tremor pulsed through her as she gaped at him.  “You poisoned us?”

“Not at all.  I improved you.  Humans, having no innate magical ability, have to resort to potions when defending yourselves from aggressive arcane beings.  But you never discovered a potion like this one.  I gave you the ability to tap into enchantments.”

Her attention shot to Copper, who glanced at her with a raised eyebrow.  Had he known that when he convinced her to drink a potion before the crickets descended?  What did he not tell her about it?

The creatures continued staring.

Dyvolik had to speak the truth for his magic to work effectively, but his explanation still didn’t make sense.  “Why would you give us an advantage?”

He wagged a finger at her.  “Assistance, not advantage.  The crickets have hearty appetites, but they’re no direct threat.  I scattered them upon the village to help you learn your new abilities.  People who imagined or wished creative ways to dispose of them would’ve seen those impulses realized.  They’d learn they could execute magic.”

She glanced at Copper again, who shrugged, and then folded his arms and addressed Dyvolik.  “At which point you’d make an appearance and tell them of the wonderful thing you did?”

Dyvolik flicked one hand up.  “After they realize I’ve made them equal to our people, they’ll be able to live in safety and strength by fighting magic with magic.”

“Useful idiots.”  Copper glanced toward her.  “He intends to pit our peoples against each other.”

“Incorrect.”  Dyvolik tilted his head.  “Humans can finally seek the justice they’ve been so long denied.”

She studied Copper, and he met her gaze.  Until today she’d never really met a hexer.  A couple of times her family had to apply potions to the house and outbuildings because the goats were discovered trashing the kitchen in the middle of the night, and the chickens laid empty eggs.

But those were inconveniences compared to stories she’d heard about travelers who wandered too far into the wilds.  Some never returned, and those that did expressed tales of narrow escape from vicious hexers that attacked with enchantments.

Relying on magic instead of potions did sound more efficient.  And … was it possible it could help heal her brother’s illness?  What other opportunities might lurk within this ability?

“For how long?”  Eva asked.  “Potions always wear off after a while.”

“It would have to be reapplied daily.  But what I gave you last night is only the beginning.  There are many other potions you’ve yet to discover.”

“Like what?”  Her heart fluttered.  “Could any of them heal sickness?”

Copper’s brow furrowed.

“Whatever your heart desires.”  But then Dyvolik sneered at her companion.  “Although this realigner would prefer you remain at the mercy of arcane beings.  Don’t believe his version of the truth just because he got to you before I did.”

The right side of Copper’s mouth curled.  “Ask him how he benefits from giving you this gift.”

“More importantly,” Dyvolik interjected, “ask him how he benefits by denying you my gift.”

Denying?  Had the potion he convinced her to drink neutralized Dyvolik’s potion?  Was that the spell he claimed it would protect her from?  When Copper explained it to her, it did seem at the time he left some information out.

“What about Jordan?” she asked Copper.  “Could magic help to heal my brother?”

“Enchantments and potions have something in common.  They–”

The creatures trembled, and their long, thin wings fluttered.  Eva felt a light breeze across her face as the enchanted crickets leaned forward and uttered one word, their voices creaking like someone stepped on a hapless frog.


It appeared the consequence of their so-called verdict was immediate.  Copper’s hands flew to his sternum and his mouth dropped open.  His chest heaved as he gasped, and wisps of blue mist appeared and disappeared around him.

Her attention shot to Dyvolik, who cast his sneering smile toward her.

“I told you he was breathless.”


Here is my submission for this round of #BlogBattle, and the word this month is Jury.  If you noticed this is Part Three and wonder how it all started, just go to Part One and Part Two.   Next month will be the (hopefully exciting) conclusion.

And be sure to catch the other contributions this month!

Of Threats and Promises

Part Two

A chill seeped through Eva as she eyed the sagging door behind him.  “You’re a morpher!”

The smile melted into a grimace, and he muttered, “Fat hairy spiders!  I sure hope that was meant to be an insult.”

His reference helped to spur Eva’s realization she had misidentified him.  Morphers could only change their own appearance.  This presumed shopkeeper had also caused the dilapidated shack they stood in to look like a spruced-up cottage until a minute ago.  His magical influence was literally broader.

“No.”  Her voice became hoarse.  “It’s worse.  You’re a realigner.”

His countenance lightened again.  “Oh, good.  You had me worried for a minute.”

“What the blazes are you talking about?”  If she couldn’t flee, maybe she could outsmart him … somehow.  “And why did you decide to look younger now?”

“It all has to do with the job I’ve given you.”  He folded his arms and tilted his head.  “Or rather, I need a human partner to help me accost the miscellenarian.  And since we’re going to work together, I chose to look closer to your age.”

Eva stared at him.  “Help you do what?  I thought a miscellenarian was someone who wrote collections on various subjects.”

“In my realm, it’s someone who casts a collection of various spells instead of specializing in the enchantment he was born with.  The green lightning last night that spooked everybody in your community proves he’s a threat to both our realms, which is why I’ll need your assistance.  And naturally you’ll understand why I couldn’t ask for help up front.”

Naturally.  Humans and hexers didn’t mix well.  Too many people either feared or coveted the magical abilities of the arcane beings.  And too many hexers were willing to use those abilities against people.

“That doesn’t give you any right to kidnap me.”  She clenched her fists.

“I didn’t kidnap you.  I hired you.”  He shrugged.  “If you’ll remember, you wanted a job, Miss … ah ….”  There was something sheepish about his smirk.  “I don’t know your name.”

“That makes us even.”

“Oh, well, introductions would be in order, I suppose.  You can call me Copper.”

Of course he said you can call me.  Hexers notoriously never gave their real names to humans – something about it compromised their magical power.  Eva took a step to her right as she eyed the door behind him.

“I’ll call you something worse if you don’t let me go.”

“You won’t be able to help your sick brother if the miscellenarian devastates your world.”

Her throat tightened as her attention shot back to him.  “How do I know you’re not in league with him?”

“Because I’m not an idiot.”  He squinted.  “In fact, I’m what’s known as a quester.  In your realm that would be like a constable.  This miscellenarian is a theurgist that took on too many enchantments to increase his powers, which always leads to delusional tyranny.”

“Always?  Why haven’t I heard of this before?”

“Because it’s rare, and they don’t usually go as loopy as this loon.”  Copper folded his arms.  “Bringing both our worlds under his complete control is the maddest scheme I’ve confronted.  If he’d stayed in my realm, I could have dealt with him myself.  But because he dragged your realm into his plan, I need your help.”

Eva stared at the realigner.  His statement about how she wouldn’t be able to help her brother, Jordan, echoed in her mind.

“How could I be of any help?  Our only defense against your folk is potions, and I don’t have any with me.”

“Ah, that.”  His mouth twisted on one side.  “I have the potion you’ll need, but it doesn’t work like the others, because you’ll use it on yourself instead of on an object against him.”

A tremor rippled through her.  Potions and poisons weren’t so different from each other.  People never allowed such substances to even touch their skin because of the injuries it could cause, so potions were always applied to things like windows or tools.

“What hex are you trying to put on me?”

“It’s not a hex.”  His smile returned, but was subtle.  “I need someone who is selfless of heart and keen of wit.  This potion will bring out those qualities in you and give you some protection.”

Eva frowned.  “Protect me how?”

“That’s hard to explain without a common frame of reference.”  He reached beneath a panel of his blue coat and withdrew a round vial no longer than her index finger.  “But if you drink this, it will make you less vulnerable to a magical attack.”

Drink it?”  The container resembled a fat, copper coin, and for all she knew it could be a moldy tin cup realigned to appear as a vial.  “And besides, I never agreed to help you.”

He studied her face as he held out the bottle, and then drew a deep breath before speaking.

“Do you still want to help your brother?”

Her stomach clenched.  If Copper was telling the truth, then she had more to worry about than earning enough money to pay for Jordan’s medical treatment.  But could she really trust the realigner?

Eva focused on his face.  “You said you needed a human’s help because this miscreant also threatens my world, but you didn’t say why.”

His nod was slow and steady.  “He’s more familiar with his own realm than yours.  And I admit I don’t know everything about your community.  You’ll be the unanticipated element thwarting his plans, and a guide to me as well.”

Was that all?  His response rang as shallow, as though he was leaving out some information.  But she couldn’t deny that a hexer who was powerful enough to change the color of lightning could pose a greater threat than usual.

Copper straightened his arm and held the vial closer to her.  “Drink this, and you can help not only your brother but everybody else as well.”

She pursed her lips as she stared at it.

“After you,” she murmured.

Copper smirked.  “Little fuzzy caterpillars!  If I wanted to snuff you out, I’d have done so already with a method faster and more efficient than trying to slip poison to you.  Besides, you need the full dose, and this is formulated strictly for a human.”

“What about Jordan?”


“My brother.”  Her heart seemed to tremble against her chest.  “If something happens to me, our parents would be crushed by losing two of their children.”

“If our culprit attacks your world, many children could be lost.”

“But couldn’t you find somebody else?  Then I could return to my family, and help them … after whatever happens.  Aren’t your chances as good with somebody else as they are with me?”

He studied her for several seconds, and then drew a deep breath before speaking.  His bass voice was smooth and soft.

“Time is of the essence.  I might not find somebody else before he strikes.”  Copper inhaled again.  “But I’ll strike a bargain with you.  Help me with this quest, and if you’re … incapacitated … I’ll look after your brother’s care … assuming I survive.”

Eva frowned again.  “Why should I believe your offer?”

“Don’t forget, how well our natural ability works is dependent upon the words we use.  Even those with nefarious goals cannot tell an outright lie without compromising their skills.  They might bend the truth, they might omit parts of it, but lies neutralize the magic.”

He snapped the vial into the palm of his hand as his other arm swung out to one side.  The same low roar that rushed into her ears when the cabin changed surrounded Eva again.  For a couple of seconds green mist swirled around them.  It cleared to the sight of trailing, leafy vines, twisted together, replacing the beams, walls, and ceiling of the derelict cottage.

And before her, instead of a young man with dark, tousled hair, there stood a majestic ram with broad, curled horns and a coppery fleece.

“I give you my word.”  His voice was the same.  “If ill should befall you, I will do what I can to assist your family in trying to cure your brother.”

Despite their many ways to deceive, hexers did have their own limitations.  His display of magical adeptness had to be the offered proof that he would keep his promise.  And it would appear he was telling the truth….

She drew a deep breath before responding.  “All right, but I’m doing this for Jordan.”

The low roar and green mist swirled around her, and then young man Copper stood before her in a ramshackle shack again.

He held the vial out to her.  “That’s good enough.”

She had to extend her own arm to pluck the container from his grasp, and only then noticed her hand was trembling.  Eva pulled off the cap and sniffed the contents.  A whiff of moss or damp wood brushed her nose.

Might as well get this over with.

She dumped the liquid into her mouth and downed it with one swallow.  It was the consistency of very thin gravy, and the light mossy aroma now lingered in her mouth.  She closed her eyes as she grasped the vial and waited for what might happen next.

A warm tremor pulsed through her abdomen for a couple of seconds.  Was that a precursor to burning pain?  Instead, the sensation faded.  Even the flavor seemed to vanish.

She opened her eyes and looked at Copper, who was still smiling.  “That’s it?”

He nodded as he held out his hand.  “Now you’re halfway to being properly outfitted.”

“How do you mean?”  She returned the vial.

He snapped it back into his palm and flicked at her with his other hand.  “You can’t run around dressed like that.”

This time the mist was blue, but there was no roar as it swirled around her torso and legs.  Her clothes rustled against her skin, and Eva gasped as she clutched her cloak.  She looked down as the mist evaporated.

Instead of a blouse and shin-length skirt, she wore a blue suit with a red vest.  Except there was no cornflower in the vest pocket like Copper had, but blue lace adorned the cuffs and lapels.  Only her cloak, donned as protection against the chill of early spring, remained unchanged.  Even her shoes had been changed to supple boots.

He grinned as he folded his arms.  “That is a right smart look.”

“Why the change in clothes?”

“Because, Miss – I still don’t know your name.”

Since she appeared to be stuck with assisting him, she might as well cooperate.  “Eva.”

“Miss Eva, we must be swift of foot and free to maneuver.  Now before we get started –”

Thunder clattered overhead.  Clattered?  It sounded more like pebbles cascading to the floor than a weighty rumble.  Her heart fluttered as she looked at the bowed ceiling, half expecting to see a cavalcade of stones burst through and upon them.

“Great bounding crickets!”  Copper frowned as he glanced toward the door.  “Our time’s grown even shorter.”  He grabbed her upper arm, and she was too startled to resist as he pulled her toward the entrance.  “I’ll explain on the way!”

Eva gasped as they burst onto the steps.  Great bounding crickets wasn’t just another one of his epithets.


Here is my contribution to #BlogBattle this month, and the word this round is Miscellanarian.  You’ll notice I tossed the real meaning of the word into the story … but hey, storytelling is a magical process, and I kinda sorta realigned the word a little … yeah, that sounds good….  Anyway, if you just found this post and noticed it’s Part Two, that’s because it’s the second part of a longer short story, and you can go to Part One to catch up.  And don’t miss out on the other submissions this month!


The Charm Net

Part One

It wasn’t the green lightning from last night’s tempest that nagged at Eva as she gazed down the lane of various shops in the village.  She’d been among those who saw it in person, and now that word had spread, several residents in the area were spooked.

Of all the arcane beings that lurked in the hidden places of the world, one that could affect a force as powerful as lightning could only be equally powerful.  And more benevolent hexers didn’t announce their proximity so blatantly.  The ones that tended to be more neutral in their attitudes toward humans were also more content to stay in their hidden places.

But the pressing matter Eva had to confront urged her to push that event to the back of her mind.

She tugged her cloak tighter to her neck against the chill of early spring.  A light breeze twirled the loose tendrils of her pinned-up, ash blonde hair.  The ragged, gray clouds overhead limped across the sky as though battered from the overnight storm, and shallow puddles lay scattered on the flagstone walkway.

“Let’s have at it, then,” she murmured, and walked into the first shop, Seams Sew Right.

But they didn’t need any additional clerks or even somebody to sweep up the place.  She stepped into the next shop, and the next, but everyone told her the same thing.  They weren’t hiring.

And it seemed like most of them were distracted and distant to her inquiry, perhaps fretting about the unnatural storm and what might happen next.

She shouldn’t blame them, she supposed, and debated whether to mention the urgency of her quest.  But their general disconcertion suggested otherwise.  And to make things worse, Potion Peddler was busy.

That shouldn’t have been a surprise.  Mere humanity had little recourse against magical beings beyond applying potions that targeted weaknesses in their spells.  At first Eva hoped that would motivate them to hire another clerk.  Instead, they didn’t have time to talk about such matters now.

With a sigh and a sinking heart, she stepped back out onto the wet flagstone and gazed up the lane she’d come down.  There were no more shops or businesses….

Wait a minute.

The ramshackle shack just outside of town, barely close enough to notice where it peeked out from behind a stand of budding trees, had been spruced up since her previous visit to the village last week.  Eva strode closer to confirm what she was seeing.

Yes, the building had been painted the soft yellow of risen cream.  The doors and windows had been repaired and the color on their trim mimicked velvety sage leaves.  And over the door perched a broad sign, blue letters emblazoning a single word:


Was this a new shop?  And if so, what types of solutions were sold there?  If this was a new establishment, maybe they needed to hire some help.  Unless they’d hired everybody they needed already….

She wouldn’t know unless she asked.

Eva drew a deep breath, shoved down her apprehension, and strode thirty paces down the lane.  She then stepped inside the building.

Goodness, somebody had accomplished much in a week’s time.  Not only was the plank floor polished, the hewn beams overhead had been rubbed to a warm glow.  Equally immaculate shelves lined the walls and formed a couple of aisles in the middle of the room.  Various books and boxes of all colors were arranged neatly atop them.  A subtle but musky aroma lingered.

Books.  This seemed promising.  She enjoyed reading books.

An elderly, bearded gentleman walked out from what might be the storeroom behind the counter.  He smiled as he paused beside the ornate cash register.

“Good morning, miss.”  His bass voice could have belonged to a younger, brawnier man.  “May I help you find something?”

“Well, yes.”  She returned the smile, slightly forced because her heart was fluttering but also downtrodden from her earlier failures.  Eva strode the few paces toward him.  “I hope so.  I mean, I’m not here to buy something.  Actually, I was hoping – you need to hire some help?”

He raised one eyebrow.  The merchant was as groomed as this cottage, with his gray hair and white beard clipped and combed.  His dark blue coat matched the slacks, and a blue cornflower peeked out from the pocket of a red vest.

“You have an affinity for puzzles?”

“Oh, is that what you sell?”  Her face grew warm, and Eva gritted her teeth.  This had to be her most inept inquiry yet.  Odds were he would turn her away as well.

But his smile broadened.  “Every kind of puzzle you can imagine, my girl.  Word puzzles, picture puzzles, mysteries and games.  And although I do love a mystery, I believe I’ll go ahead and ask:  Why are you so eager to get a job?”

Eva swallowed, afraid she might stammer in her response.  This was no time to reveal her purpose.

“I … need money like everyone else.”

The merchant tilted his head, and his gaze seemed to burrow into her.  “I’ve been around long enough to recognize when someone’s pursuing a goal.  What is it, lass?  Do you want a new dress?  Or perhaps some jewelry?”

She gawked at him.  Perhaps his forthrightness rattled her all the more because, unlike the other proprietors, he didn’t keep glancing out the windows or surveying the room.  His attention was fully on her.  And he was smiling as though she amused him.

There was nothing amusing about her purpose, however, and Eva inhaled deeply to settle her nerves before replying.

“No, it’s nothing like that.  I….”

Did she dare tell him?  Would it change anything?  He did seem like a pleasant fellow, and he hadn’t turned her away already, despite her clumsy inquiry.  Maybe she should go ahead and let him know why she needed this job.

“It’s for my brother.”  Her gaze slid to the floor.  “We just found out a couple of days ago that he’s very sick.  The local doctors can’t help him, but if we take him to Repostia they have the resources to cure him … possibly.  It’s an expensive trip for expensive medicine.”  Her gaze returned to his face.  “So you’re right.  That’s what I want the money for.”

His smile waned to subtle.  “It does seem callous to say no when the reason is that important.”

He regarded her for a few seconds.  Was he considering the possibility of hiring her?  Or was he trying to come up with the kindest way to turn her down?

Then he nodded.  “I’ll tell you what, if you can prove you’re good at puzzles, I’ll give you the job.  It is just me around here, after all, and it could get busier as more customers find this place.”

Eva’s heart skipped a beat.  “What do I need to do?”

“We’ll see if you can solve something simple.”  He stepped behind the counter and pulled out a sheet of heavy paper and a fountain pen.  “I call this one the Charm Net.  I offer it as a free trial to potential customers.”

Her brow furrowed.  “Charm Net?”

“It’s a charming way to capture candidates.”  His smile broadened as he pushed the pen and paper toward her.  “Are you familiar with anagrams?”

“I believe so.”

“This one is short and straightforward.  The letters are arranged in a way that formulates one sentence.  But if you rearrange those same letters, you reveal the true sentence.”

She glanced down at the paper.  It was blank except for one statement at the top:

Stop these chartmen who bathe an ear tip.

Eva frowned.  “What does that mean?”

That is nonsense.  To figure out the original sentence, you first find the key word, the anchor.  One of these words shares the same letters as its anagram.  But the letters of the remaining words are rearranged at random throughout the rest of the sentence.”

“I think I understand.”  She nodded.  “And considering I’ve never heard the word chartmen before, that would seem to be your anchor.”

He grinned.  “You are a quick study.”

“So let’s see….”  She scribbled those letters in different orders, and on the fourth attempt penned a word that prompted her to squint back up at him.  “Merchant?”

“Extraordinary start!”

The door to his shop opened, and Eva recognized the middle-aged woman who entered the room.  This was a small community, so everybody was familiar with everybody, but she had never chatted with this resident.  The merchant tapped on the paper.

“See what you can accomplish while I wait on her.”

Eva tackled the task with renewed vigor.  If this could get her a job, if this could help her earn the money to get her brother the treatment he needed, then she would find the solution to this puzzle.

She wrote out the remaining letters and rewrote them in different configurations, striking out the ones she used.  When the words didn’t all work out, she tried again.

Despite her concentration, she overheard the woman ask for something that would be a good distraction from the green lightning omen.  The gentleman made his recommendations with the same smooth confidence.  He was neither surprised nor concerned about the event.

Maybe Eva would find out later why it didn’t worry him.  She would have plenty of time for that if he hired her.  She focused on the letters, and words started coming together.  And then she shuffled them into a pattern that formed an actual sentence.

The woman bought a boxed puzzle, and as the customer left the shop, Eva stared at the new configuration:

The merchant is not what he appears to be.

She looked up and frowned at her potential employer.  “Is this right?”

He looked at the paper and grinned again.  And then he chuckled.  And then he laughed.

What was happening?  Had she flubbed solving the puzzle that badly?  Or … or was something else going on?  She took a step back and gaped at him.

“What – what does this mean?”  Her heart thumped against her chest.  “Is this some kind of – of spell?”

Did this have anything to do with the green lightning?

His grin remained broad as he held out his arms.  “Bright gleaming fireflies!  You’re hired!”

Her head spun.  Eva clapped her hands over her ears as a dull roar filled them and the shop seemed to evaporate into a yellow mist.  And then the fog cleared, and she stood in a ramshackle shack, sagging beams and floor covered in dust.

The bass voice behind her prompted Eva to twist around.  “Shall we get to work?”

Instead of the elderly gentleman, a young man stood before her.  His dark hair was tousled and he was clean shaven, but the blue suit and red vest were the same.  And that smile was familiar.

He also stood between her and the door hanging at an angle by one hinge.

It seemed that whatever a charm net was, she had been ensnared.


Here is this month’s contribution to #BlogBattle, and the prompt word this time is Merchant.  You might have noticed this is the beginning of what will be a longer work.  Ultimately it will still be a short story, but will be produced in approximately 2000 word bites.

Check back for future installments, and be sure to discover the other submissions this month!