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Whatever Way You Look At It
by Ken W. Castle

      Aaron sliced a knife through the leg of venison that was before him on the table in the midst of the inn’s parlor, and chewed the meat with a thoughtful look on his face. His graying hair was cut short and he bore a single ring on his right hand, a simple golden band, complimenting his green eyes and plain brown tunic and white shirt beneath.
      “So where do I begin my tale?” He looked at his host as if summing up a jumble of cables and trying to find all the ends. “I suppose it would be in the middle of my search…”

      Rain. Rain and more rain, for as far as Aaron could see, and that wasn’t much as barely a meter and a half was visible before him on the highway road leading out of what was a town called Valia (According to the sign, it also had some four thousand inhabitants. He wore a leather overcoat and kept casting his gaze about.
      “Amanda! Where are you Amanda?”
      That was when he found illumination, or rather it found him in the form of the headlight of an on-coming red motorcycle, and it’s almost-blinded rider wearing leather clothes like himself… and unaware of how to slow down.
      The next few moments were a blur of mud, a scream and rain-assisted sliding. The next thing Aaron knew, he was looking at a the scene of an accident and there was a girl lying on the road, moaning in pain as she tried to regain her footing and failed due to a combination of mud, rain, and one or both ankles being sprained. Without another word being said he scrambled over to her, and helped her up, to stand assisted, and as he turned for the outskirts of Valia, he found her suddenly trying to spin around and go back for her things.
      “There’s no time for that.”
      The girl’s face set into a hostile expression of defiance that indicated there was very possibly was time for that. Heaving a sigh, Aaron lugged the girl back over to the wheeled vehicle and also found her bag and a noticed a box that was almost thrown clear. The only reason it caught his attention was the light of the vehicle glinting off the silver on the outside. Taking little more notice of it, he righted the bike, and looped the top of her baggage through the handle bars. He then got her to lean on him as he wheeled the vehicle back towards the village as fast as he could.
      “This is as far as I take you, I’m searching for my daughter, and I haven’t got time to bring sorcerers and their beasts in out of the rain.”
      He brought the girl to the inn and hammered on the door. It was answered by a swarthy Arabic fellow in a modest suit, with thinning hair, who was promptly told the girl was his responsibility, followed by Aaron basically shoving the young woman like a sack of potatoes at the inn keeper, and turning in at a march back into the rain and disappearing into the night again.
      The night was merciless, and the rain was unending as he searched along the road, wishing that he’d brought the girl’s vehicle with him. It’d been ages since he’d seen electric lighting, though he knew that he’d never seen it before…
      Shaking his head violently, he set his face in a scowl and returned to the more important matters at hand, which saw him calling out into the night again as he trod the road before him, looking for his daughter, Amanda.
      Jana was pushed into the arms of the inn-keeper who was as surprised as she was. She heard Sylvia muttering some questions, yet she wasn’t fully aware of the meanings of the words. The next thing she knew, there was a fireplace and another person asking her questions. These ones seemed to be easier ones from the inn-keepers wife, a kindly Arabic woman, as almost as well-fed as her husband, and dressed in layers of shawls and other clothing.
      “Dear, you look chilled, and this is no night to be out in. Do you want to sit by the fire here?” She asked already guiding the girl over to the fireplace. As Jana nodded she followed with. “And I bet you need something to drink to warm you up a little?” She nodded again as she was seated on a straw pallet by the fire. “And it wouldn’t be proper not to have a little something to eat with that would it?” As she shook her head, the woman smiled warmly and patted her shoulder. “Well, then you stay there and I’ll be right back.”
      As she bustled off to the kitchen Jana could hear snippets of conversation from the kitchen around the gazes of the two or three patrons who were looking at her in various ways. The word “dumped” came up in a raised tone, followed by “pay” in a similarly raised, yet quizzical tone. This was followed by an unusual lack of sound for a few seconds then muttering involving what sounded like a reference to somebody’s mother. The last words to filter from the service area were “… and after what happened between the two of them.”
      The woman came over and asked how Jana was feeling and got a blink and a half-uttered word that sounded like “Here.” which elicited another smile and a large wooden mug of a strange brown liquid.
      “Now, I hope you like drinking chocolate, and there’s also a little something in there to help warm you up extra fast. Now drink up.”
      Jana found herself sipping the drinking chocolate and finding herself warming up faster than the large fire should have accounted for.
      “Careful not to have too much, there’s probably alcohol in that drink.” Came Sylvia’s voice from the bag that had been brought to her side with the drink.
      “Sylvia? Your O.K.? What happened? There was a man in the rain and…” The blonde savage’s face twisted as she started piecing the last half hour together in her head, her right hand intuitively stroking one braided plat of hair, beginning to clutch at one of the beads there. “I almost hit him on the bike because…” There was a sudden peal of thunder which saw her curl into a ball against the side of the fireplace, whilst letting out a frightened yelp which saw her spill what remained of her drink.
      As she looked around she was finally more aware of her surroundings. There was dim light from lanterns around the large hall and half the floor space was taken up with tables and seating radiating out from the fire. The other half of the hall was taken up with a narrow drink service area and a kitchen behind it on the right, and a spiral stairwell on the far left to the entrances to rooms to let. The floor was stone, covered in thin mats of straw, glittering where salt crystals had been scattered for clenliness and traction. The walls were smoothed white clay, and there were thick wooden beams supporting the two-storey ceiling.
      As her heart stopped racing, she saw the inn-keepers wife looking at her, her face a mask of pity. She approached with a few rags to mop up the spilled drink.
      “Now, what’s a great big girl like you afraid of a storm for? Why I would say your almost nineteen, and your bigger than a few drops of water, now aren’t you?” And once again, the easy questions made the whole situation seem bearable. Still, nothing stopped Jana from looking like a wretch as she shook her head. “Oh, there now.” Said the woman as she wrapped her arms around Jana. “You just need to get some rest., now do you want you to bring some furs down so you can stay by the fire, or do you want to use a bed?”
      A few muttered words from Jana and a sharp look from wife to husband saw the new guest ushered off to bed with a fur blanket to help keep her warm. Told she could come down and ask at the bar if she needed anything, Jana was left in bed, feeling warm and safe, drifting into a dreamless sleep, the sound of the rain becoming a soothing staccato above her as the thunder had finally retreated into the distance.
      Slyvia had heard all of what the woman had said, albeit in a strange way due to the box and the fact that she had no ears… sometimes she wondered if she’d ever get used to feeling like a Halloween decoration, though it probably went with the turf of being a magical being. Now she was stowed in a sack next to the bed and could hear Jana breathing deeply, and that brought her comfort that the woman she’d been taken in by had been good at recognizing shock when she saw it. With any luck, the endearing noble savage that kept her would be right as rain in the morning and ready to get back onto their mission. After all, two soul stones in one town? This was an opportunity that…
      Her thoughts were cut into by the feeling of a soul stone nearby, in fact it was so close she thought she could smell it. When this was followed by the sounds of the rain becoming louder and something softly climbing in the window, she knew there were two choices in the matter, and she chose to play the shock and awe card. Putting on her creepiest voice (Fully realizing that once the person saw what was addressing them it would verge on overkill.) she spoke in a whisper, using magic to cause her voice to seem to come from everywhere in the room.
      The noise of the wish-stone carrying intruder stopped dead in it’s tracks, and an eerie silence fell across the room, broken only by the sound of the rain, and a person holding their breath. She then made the words she spoke repeat softly on the edge of hearing.
      “The box… pick up the box.”
      Allright, so she’d borrowed the repeating words idea from one of the Superman movies, still it worked. As the words repeated, over and over, she heard the intruder trembling as they softly walked over and then felt shaking hands pick up the box.
      “You made a wish… and you waste it breaking into a room…why?”
      There was a tremulous voice that answered.
      “I-I just didn’t want… him to find me. I didn’t want to see my father again.”
      The voice sounded on the verge of tears, and suddenly Sylvia had a change of heart.
      “I want you to put the box down on the beside table, and I want you to open the lid when you feel ready, though I warn you, there’s only a human skull in here” She said with a perceptible sigh. “On an unrelated topic, what does your father look like?”
      “I don’t know. I’ve never seen him in my lifetime, and I know he’s the same in this one, so I never want to.” She said with stinging conviction.
      Anger isn’t constructive, so it’s time to play twenty questions. “… allright kid, how about you open the box? I wanna get a good look at you for a minute to check something.”
      To be truthful, there was every chance that she’d flee, or take one look at the skull and flee. Still, this was the only way to verify who she was dealing with. She saw the muted light from the window flood her vision as the box was opened, showing her a young girl of about sixteen years with long dark hair, and a suitably shocked expression. Best to go with a joke she thought.
      “Well, if you ever wanted to look goth, a talking skull will pretty much cap anything else people can do, including being friends with Ann Rice.” There was a half smile showing through the girl’s shocked expression, and that meant it’d worked, so now to bring in the principal tool for manipulating teenagers. “And for the record, I used to have a face and a body… and in a past life, kids of my own.” Ah guilt, more people accept it than a VISA card, she thought as the surprise melted into dejected sympathy. In the dinner she’d been sitting near the door, and someone else had gotten the table… Aaron, that was the guy. Older fellow, only doing the job because he was a retiree doing what he loved. “So tell me, your father, does he know your around here, in this village I mean?”
      She drew herself inward in her crouch on the floor, and clamped her hands onto her shoulders, her eyes seeming scared and hopeful at the same time. “I hadn’t heard anything… did you see anyone?”
      “Not till you opened the box. Though do you mind if I ask your name? I’m Sylvia by the way.”
      “Amanda Tepes. I’d shake your hand…” An awkward silence followed which Slyvia broke by a charitable act.
      “How about you close the window so the rain doesn’t get in?”
      “… sure.”
      Internally Sylvia sighed.Well, she’d successfully gotten work out of a teenager… if only she had some place to put a medal that wouldn’t rattle. The dimly lit room became quieter with the soft click from the window sill. This is more than likely the girl that man in the rain had been looking for. And his voice… Oh God… it was Aaron? But how? He wasn’t her father, in fact she’d been sitting alone and… she was too young to drive. Her wish had been to never see her father again, and his… Allrigh, if I try and ask her to give up her wish and see him again, she’ll bolt, I’ve heard of too many girls who do. I need to soften her up and get Jana to work Aaron. I hate leaving her unsupervised, it’s just that if I’m going to sweet talk her around to wanting to see her father again, I’m going to need to get some time to really talk.
      “So tell me a little about yourself? What year of high school were you in when you in the dinner?” Start with the small talk, and see if you can figure out what went wrong with her father, as guessing it and getting it wrong is way, way worse than asking questions.
      “Home-schooled, though I was about a year from getting my G.E.D. and that was about a year ahead of most kids like me…” The proud bright tone suddenly dyed like a cheap shirt. “… or so I was told once by someone.”
      Logging that for future reference, Sylvia pressed on. “Well, what happened to your mother? Where did she fit into your old life?” Keep her thrown off by using up her focus on the what-was instead of what is, and more importantly what is upsetting her.
      “She was working in England and got in a plane crash. It was better than what happened here… my f-fath-er…” She started to tear-up and her breathing became ragged.
      Stupid lack of hugable body. “Hey, come on kiddo, keep it together. Look this barbarian I’m with,” Jana is gonna hate me for this. “She wants me to be the one to show her all the spots of magic in this world. Why don’t we both get out of here and walk in the door so you can sit by the fire downstairs?” Suddenly, Amanda tensed and started to scan the room, her body beginning to tremble. “Whoa kiddo.” Sylvia had a rough idea that it was the Admiral Akbar response. “Your right.” In negotiations, it’s always good to start by agreeing with someone. “If there’s a risk of someone noticing you there, then perhaps you could stay here. Do you see that spare blanket on the end of the bed? How about you rug up while we talk a little more?” With mute acceptance, the girl wrapped the blanket around herself, the motion showing that she was wearing quick drying farm-hand gear from about the nineteen fifties, jeans, and a plaid tee shirt with pull-on boots.
      “So, how long have you been on the move for? Me? I’d say a while, because your really good at the whole inobtrusive entrance thing you have going.” Butter the kid up some more… it’s sickening what this sort of power does in the wrong hands.
      “About a year here… I didn’t think anyone would appreciate that.” She sat in the corner, the walls a reassuring presence as she rested and lightly pressed against them.
      “Oh, we have people who want to find us too. At least there is only a sole person you have to worry about. This kid and I… well let’s put it this way, a mage guild can screw up your nights, and a vengeful city-state can screw up your days. Don’t even get me started on all the roaming monsters…”
      “Roaming monsters?”
      “Didn’t I say not to get me started?” The upward inflection on her voice made the girl giggle. Good, that’s good, safe territory. If only I had a body, this would be so much easier to make happen… though one of those mage shelters would be a right treat for Jana.
      “So the monsters make you unhappy? I figured that’s why you were sighing and all.” Danmit! Did I sigh out loud? Of all the stupid mistakes… just because I can’t be there in the flesh… “I can leave if I’m upsetting you.” Amanda said, her shoulders slumping again. “I make everyone unhappy in the end.” I sighed AGAIN?!
      “That’s crazy talk, now talk to me in less crazy tones. What do you know about this town?” Good old geography, it never fails to take the edge off, and if I use enough of it, she may get some rest soon… poor kid might have been going all night.
      “Actually I was heading out of town, and I didn’t see much, but there’s a whole mess of apartment complexes and I think there’s a few suburbs around some municipal buildings too.” Oh boy… Sylvia knew that meant she was thinking of places to hide, as there was no mention of any other features, like lakes, fountains, groves of trees, jobs that sustained the people living there… just places to lock doors, or switch from room to room in.
      “Sounds like a place with a lot of people. Notice any factories, or big ports? Sometimes hunting and gathering doesn’t always supply what a barbarian needs, and I would like to leave her with a note so she can get a grip on what she needs to do to be more than one of the old noble savages in this area. Can you set up a pen and paper for me? Most inns have them somewhere around.”
      After a few moments of struggling to search in low-light, they found an old fashioned pencil and a notepad from the desk provided, and Sylvia asked to be left next to the materials as she started moving the graphite of the pencil across the page, a golden glow emanating from the pencil as it worked.
      “Right, now get some rest, I’ll wake you before sun-up so we can make a break for it, if you think you can carry an extra box around, that is. Now slide the note under the door, and then settle down.”
      The promise of freedom sat well with the young girl, and she didn’t think to read the note. Not that it would have mattered, she had encoded a spell onto the paper to be played when the next person touched it.
      For a few hours there was darkness, the sound of the rain, and the breathing of the room’s two inhabitants, filtered through the wood of the box. It was moments like this that ate at Sylvia, as she liked the darkness well-enough, but it was the fact that she didn’t sleep… and there was a lot of silence to the night… and that was all she needed to be reminded of two lives she’d lost… well one and three quarters if you looked at this as some kind of life. And here she was again, with two younger people in her care… and it was time to split them up again.
      As the night wore on and the rain died off, she was really glad she couldn’t cry anymore.
      Jana woke up and found her room sun-lit and quiet except for muted sounds from beyond her door.
      “Mph. Sylvia, can you sense where those two stones are yet? I’m still not feeling good. … Sylvia?” The confusion went to a petulant whine. “Come on, I need to know where to go!” The prolonged absence of sound caused a thrill of fear to pass through Jana. “Sylvia? Where are you?”
      The next few seconds were a hurried search through the small room, with the searcher getting steadily more frantic until she brushed her hand against a piece of paper wedged under the door. Lifting it out carefully, she almost dropped it when she heard Slyvia’s voice.
      “Good morning Jana, I need you to sit down so you can take all this in, so I’ll just pause for a bit and let you do that. Now, are we sitting? Sitting on the BED Jana.” There was a well-placed pause as Jana looked guilty and sank onto the bed.
      “Good!” The recording resumed in a bright voice. “Now that’s settled, here’s the short version. There are two people with wish stones here. Now, they know each other, so this gets complicated… I’ll try and break this up so even I understand this. There was a teenaged girl in the dinner, and her father was being mean to her, and he’d always done that. She was left alone when you made her wish come true, and she wished to never see her father again. Problem is, Aaron, the guy who was the head waiter wished that he could be her father, and he’s the guy who dragged you to the inn last night. Have you got this so far?”
      Jana looked dumbfounded and slowly shook her head. “Allright, I’ll go back over this: The girl doesn’t want to see her father, and the man wants to be her father. I’ve let myself be borrowed by the girl, and you, YOU need to find the man that helped you last night, and get him to stop wanting her to be his daughter. He doesn’t have to stop caring for her, he just have to give up being her dad, just like the people at the inn who helped you. You must understand that.”
      After a long moment Jana nodded. “Good. Now, with any luck, I’ll have talked her around by the time you do, and with any luck she will be able to see him however briefly, but I need you to listen to what I’m going to say next and get this right. If he can’t give up his wish, DO NOT kill him, and leave a sign on the front of the inn if you can’t change his mind, like a stain on the wall, scar on the doorway with your knife… something that isn’t going to be washed away or replaced. If this man won’t listen, he could be dangerous so try and stay on your guard.”
      There was a half pause before: “Miss you kiddo, keep on your guard and I’ll be back in a few days at the inn.”
      Jana sat on the bed, the sounds of the inn filtering through the door once again, and things turning over in her mind. She had to find the man who helped her… and she had to do it on her own. Though technically used to being on her own, (More than seventeen whole years of experience lay at her disposal when in a crisis.) she felt the sudden lack of her guide as a gaping hole in her usual defenses.
      Collecting her things, she opened the door and went downstairs and found that there was a cheery and warm welcome from the woman she’d been comforted by the night before and a fresh slice of bread waiting for her. She was munching through the thick slice of brown bread when she decided to ask about the man she’d seen.
      “So, that man who helped me last night, does he live around here? I think I should thank him for helping me.”
      “Oh him? Aaron? He’s from further towards the centre of town, and he was really out searching for his daughter last night, apparently…” The woman paused and shook her head. “The important thing is that he cared enough to look. He said he’d resume the search this morning, so if you hurry, you may just be able to catch him around. Are your feet well healed enough for that?”
      While Jana didn’t quite get the joke, she returned one of the warm smiles she was getting used to and nodded.
      “Good!” She exclaimed with a clap of her hands as she stood. Now your vehicle is under a few blankets around the side. I had my husband take it in last night after you arrived. There’s a good chance he’ll be on the roads, so if you can start it up, you can catch up with him, maybe even help him find his daughter. Now you take care.”
      There was another warm hug as she escorted Jana around to where her bike was waiting under an awning next to a small empty cart and some equally empty wooden crates. Jana saw the road ahead and kicked the bike into gear and headed out onto it, taking it up towards where the highway met the town’s road. The whole scene showed the countryside of distributed suburbs and farm houses this far out, and a city in the distance. Jana listened to the hum of the motor as she checked the bag strap and started up the road as if she’d bypassed the town and had just kept riding until up ahead, she saw the shape of a man walking along the left hand side of the road.
      “Um… sir? I wanted to… thank you, for last night I mean.” Jana ventured as she dismounted the bike and rolled it up to the man, the engine still puttering lightly.
      “Yeah, well you’d have…”
      “And I heard about your daughter, and I wanted to help bring you guys back together!” Jana cut him off in eagerness, earning a look of ire from the man. “I can give you a ride while we look for her.” Jana still blushed when she wasn’t telling the whole truth, and the man mistook that as embarrassment at cutting him off.
      “Allright.” He said in a gruff voice. “Shift over and let an adult drive.”
      Shifting over and missing the insinuation that he didn’t see her as an adult, Jana let Aaron take the handlebars and put her arms around his waist as he accelerated the bike forward, scanning the horizon as he did so.
      “The lady at the inn told me about you looking for your daughter, and she said I could find you here.” Jana said, speaking over the bike. “But why did she run away from home?”
      It had been a warm, quiet morning in the wooden box and Sylvia had seen the traces of sunlight drifting through the edges of the lid. Amanda had been on the move since half an hour before dawn when the first light had started to fill the sky. She chose to venture a comment as they forwarded toward what sounded like an inhabited clearing or market place. (She was, by her own admission, getting pretty good at listening to the general vibe of a place.) “So where to next? I didn’t really catch your next destination.”
      “Oh, first we stop here and pick up some supplies. I really need a drink or I’m gonna faint.”
      God bless teenaged priorities, and my ability to listen so well to ambient sound. “So, what are you getting? I don’t care where we are, your too young for booze.”
      “I’m not drinking anything like that!” Amanda snapped at the box in a hiss.
      Oh, so that that may have been part of it. Daddy dearest accused his daughter of doing all the things that mommy did? Perhaps he had problems and accused his daughter of doing the same… how to ferret it out though… “So, tell me about before, when your mother was around. How were things then?”
      “He blamed her instead of me for things. He was always blaming her, for things she didn’t do, and when she wasn’t around… it was me.”
      Ouch. “So what are you getting to drink? I used to like lemonade with lime juice at your age, it was only ‘cause my uncle grew the limes, though.” Steer the conversation to safer waters…
      “I’m usually able to find a synthetic cola made out of berries and sugar.”
      “Sounds nice, say, I want to take a look around at what’s selling. Think you could try selling me to a trader so you can crack the lid open? I think that’ll give me a good look around the place.”
      “I know just the person.” There were footsteps and muffled sounds of conversation before a chime from a door opening. Amanda spoke up again. “Mr. Graceland! I’m glad your in. I’ve got something you may want to actually buy this time.”
      A man’s voice responded in deep tones. “Better not be you trying to use magnets to make me think that something’s enchanted again.”
      “The money magnet was a joke, we didn’t know you saw actual magical items that frequently. This is different. It’s a skull that grants you the ability to perform magic.”
      “Really?” The voice sounded less than convinced.
      “Sure take a look!”
      A flood of light hit the inside of the box and this revealed an African-American man in his late thirties with a suitably shocked look on his face. As she got to look around the store Sylvia saw various odds and ends like tea sets, and hookahs’ for recreation, and some more ornate pieces that gave off a distinct energy signature that said enchanted, provided you knew what to look for. Still an introduction was in order.
      “Hello.” There was a distinct pause to the man’s motions caused by the voice emanating from the skull. “While I’m not sure I should be sold exactly, I do enjoy getting a look around the place, as, while that box is perfect for sensory deprivation, I like being in the sunlight for at least an hour a day.”
      The shop-keeper spoke up. “You can see? Mind if I ask how?”
      “Magic.” Simple enough answer for a simple enough question. “And let me tell you, there’s a good bit of it here. The items in this shop have great value, as long as you understand what your looking at. Have you had many of their insides checked for runes?”
      “So you can see magic too… all right, I’ll give you nine hundred for it.”
      “HER, thank you very much, and that price is insulting! At least one hundred thousand for my services.”
      “Since when does merchandise bid? Four thousand.” He muttered the last words together with a look of engaged interest and respect.
      “If your going to bid like that, you may just want to pay Amanda by the hour, as technically I’m with her. Shall we say twenty two for the first hour, and eighteen for each additional hour?”
      “That’s a tall order”
      “All right then, a sample, however you only get one. Let’s see. That table over there, you have that normally priced? Take a jug of water and two empty glasses, and put them on the table.”
      The shop owner went from the counter in the middle of the show floor and sauntered his tall, denim jean and shirt-clad frame to one of the back rooms and reappeared with a jug of water and two empty glasses as requested.
      “Now put them separately on the table, and then take note of the water level in the jug. Then fill the glasses and check the jug’s level again.”
      The owner took the advice and checked the water level of the jug before and after filling the glasses, and raised an eyebrow.
      “It’s hardly gone down at all.”
      “And for that first twenty two dollars, I’ll tell you why it does that so you can sell it for a fitting price.”
      “… deal.”
      While the owner of the shop was rounding up all his items for a stock take, Amanda was alone with Sylvia. This was better than she could have hoped for.
      “So there you go Amanda. Your like a bona-fide CEO! So any plans for your new found wealth?”
      “This so awesome! If we stick at this for the better part of a day, you can make me rich!”
      It was hard to describe how good it felt to see her saying that. Her face was lit up, and her shoulders were back, and as she posed like that, she looked pretty, especially in the late morning sunlight that filtered off the pavement in the showroom.
      “So what do you say? If we keep teaming up like this, who knows what we could do? Before I do anything else though, I wanted to ask you about a few things though. You seem pretty… well your solid in yourself, and I like seeing you like this.”
      As she smiled, Sylvia eased into conversation and began talking to her temporary ward. What subjects had she liked back before? Who were her friends here and now? Every now and then she tried to get her to open up a little more about what happened with her father. Little questions about normal things parents and children do, along the lines of “Did he do this or that with you?” and soon she saw a pattern of control emerging of an abusive parent who isolated and belittled his daughter once he was done with his wife… and Aaron had taken that on by simply wanting to be a caregiver she could respect.
      As the items kept flowing past, and Amanda took notes with the shop owner on the items and their hidden properties, the light of the day matured to noon, and then early afternoon. This was all while people filtered through the store, and quickly started chatting about the girl with the skull and the store with the enchanted items where you knew all the surprises that waited in store.
      The day’s riding was long and hard and Jana was having trouble asking the right questions of the man she’d been helped out by the night before.
      “I’m so glad you got me to the inn, and that woman was so nice, do you know her?”
      The bike stopped in the middle of the road, and Aaron looked over at her with a harsh cast to his eyes.
      “Perhaps we’d have better luck if you kept your thoughts on the task at hand.”
      “Oh.” Jana blushed. “So why did she run away? Did she do something bad?”
      “She’s always doing SOMETHING bad! It seems she turns my entire life into a guessing game as to what.” The venom in the man’s voice was stinging, and Jana felt herself blushing and shrinking again.
      “She can’t be that bad, I mean nobody’s that bad all the time.” Jana’s mind was slowly being distracted from her mission and she saw less and less reason to be nice to this man. “And who’s to say you’ve been good all the time? My parents always said nobody’s perfect, even them.” In fact, Jana heard that when her dad had forgotten her birthday present and made it up to her with a trip to a pony farm for a whole day.
      “You’ll recall your manners when speaking to your betters young lady!” Aaron barked at Jana, standing up and going to strike her across the face. The blow was deftly intercepted by a snarling barbarian who’d taken Jana’s place.
      “She doesn’t need a father like you, she needs someone who cares for her.” She said in tones between a snarl and a growl. “You are either going to give up being her father, or you’ll never see her again.”
      “You can’t talk back to ME!” The man screamed as he advanced again, and this time the hunter wasn’t in the mood to play. She had him pinned in two moves and then her knife was at his throat.
      “I could take your life with your wish.” Suddenly her voice lost some of it’s edge if none of it’s strength. “I was asked not to, and I wouldn’t want to. The lady at the inn was nice to me, and she wasn’t my mom, and Sylvia was nice to me without being my mom, but your already her dad. Why can’t you be nice as well? All she wanted was to have someone be nice to her instead of making her feel bad all the time.”
      “Like you know anything about being a good parent? You have to be firm with children.” Despite his moderated tone, the dagger didn’t waver from his throat.
      “My daddy never tried to hit me.” Jana slowly withdrew the dagger and sheathed it. She returned to her bike and straddled it. “Maybe you just need to walk home to think about it? That’s what my parents did when I was bad once.”
      As the last of the items was noted and checked into the inventory, Sylvia projected her voice and whispered to Amanda.
      “Collect your pay, and find a place to get some dinner I have a secret to tell you.”
      After getting the ninety four dollars owed for the five hours work, plus an offer that if she wore black upon her return and faked fortune-telling as well as having a talking skull he’d double her going rate of pay, Amanda put Sylvia back in the box and kept the lid open as she walked out to an open air cafè and ordered a drink followed by lasagna and salad. (Having skipped breakfast and lunch, she started wolfing it down at an impressive speed.)
      “So, it seems I’ve made a celebrity out of you. How’s it feel to be the town’s oracle?”
      “This is soo cool. I’m even going to pay for this meal myself and get myself a good place to stay for the night.” She said around a mouthful of pasta and white-wine sauce.
      “That’s what I was hoping to hear. Now, that secret I wanted to tell you about… you may want to be between bites when I tell you this, as your mouth hanging open doesn’t look as cute with food in it.”
      Swallowing a lot of locally-made lemon drink in one go with her mouthful, she looked on expectantly.
      “OK, I know this might sound weird, yet I knew your father before your wish was granted.” Amanda stopped wiping the inside of her mouth with her tongue and looked at the skull, her body subtly tensing. “That’s why he didn’t look like you recall him looking at the restaurant. He was the head waiter and I think he wished to be your father because he honestly thought he could do a better job, and the man I knew could do that job. Still, he’s not that man yet, that’s why I’ve shown you how to earn you the money you did today. My friend who carried me to that inn has a bit of a story…”
      In short, Sylvia related the details of how the wishes had changed the world and how Jana was one small part of trying to make things better for everyone else, by reversing it and putting more than a million people back in their right place. Some people glanced over at the conversation, strange looks on their faces, as if something was scratching at their memories.
      Amanda listened, almost in tears as she heard an old life described. “So he just wanted to help me?”
      “If your father wasn’t a chronic jerk, it wouldn’t have backfired so spectacularly, but yes. The truth is, I coded a message into that note I left and Jana will be trying to talk him around to being what he was. Now, if she can’t do that, I wanted to show you that you can make it on your own.”
      “So if I give up my wish….”
      “You have the chance to see a man who can love you again, and if he’s not ready to be that man yet, you know how to get by until he is. That’s what I wanted to show you.” Tears had started rolling down her face as she listened. “So, if your ready, you can give it up, and you’ll still be just as able to take care of yourself… and someday, he might just be able to help you work things out with your real dad. So, what do you say?”
      Shaking, and with tears coming down her face, Amanda nodded, and suddenly jolted in her seat, the patrons looking on as an oval stone, about the size and shape of a chicken’s egg suddenly floated in the air over the table. It was red jade with white marbling, and the white lines made into a rough impression of an eye in a circle with a line through it. Sylvia created a ramp of magical energy, and the stone slid down it into her box, resting against her jaw.
      “I’m sorry that hurt, but now it’s one less barrier for when we get things right.”
      Amanda sagged, almost hitting her food, her shaking form slumped on the table, her breathing irregular. That was when Mr. Graceland made another appearance.
      “You OK? Can’t have a business partner dropping dead on me now.”
      Walking over, he helped leaver her up in her seat and drew her hair back, wiping her tears quickly with a look of concern on his face as he drew up a chair.
      “I was just going to shout the check for you two…” He stopped at the absence of food on the table in front of Sylvia. “Allright, so just your check. Still, I had to do something more for you after what you’ve done for me.”
      Bleary-eyed, all Amanda could do was stare in a daze as she blinked at the person that was looking at her with concern. The most encouraging bit was when she smiled and gave him a hug, quietly saying: “Best day ever.”
      A thought struck Sylvia as she was looking at the two. “Mr. Graceland, I hate to do this, yet I want to ask a favor of you. I’m trying to work things out between Amanda and her father Aaron, and I was wondering if you could see that she has a place to wait things out until we get them sorted. She might need him to be stalled for a day or two until he get’s his head out of his ass.”
      “For her? Anything.” There was a quick smile that was returned from the young girl as she sniffed loudly, tearing up again.
      “So, what’s say you get somebody to drop me at the inn and you two can sort things out for tonight?.”
      Jana had carved a skull into the side of the door frame after returning to the inn. It was there when a talkative local woman from the cafè came through, holding her in her box.
      “Here we are at the inn!”
      “Thank you. Can you please open the lid so I can see the doorway?”
      “Uh, sure.” The thought of displaying a human skull still unnerved a few in the town, though money softened their hearts a great deal.
      A carving on the doorway? That’s a real shame, yet Jana was only so old in mind and knew only so many things to say, and Aaron had become a mons… a different man. “Thanks, if you could take me to the inn-keeper and his wife and say I’m property of the girl riding the motorcycle? Oh, and if you see a grey hair, called Aaron, tell him you saw his daughter leaving town away from the tire tracks from the inn.”
      “Really? What’s their problem?”
      “Just trust me,” Said Sylvia as she was carried inside with the lid closed. “She’s better off not having him around until he stops trying to be her dad, and starts acting like he loves her.”
      Jana saw the box from her seat by the fireplace and started up, her eyes lit with excitement. “Sylvia! Your back!” This saw her bolt over and hug both the box and it’s barer in a burst of excitement, the woman from the cafè looking flattered and terrified at the same time.
      “Hey kiddo. Missed you today. I guess things didn’t go so good?”
      Jana slowly went from excited to unhappy as she spoke. “I tried to tell him to be nice, and then he tried to hit me. He didn’t act like a grown-up at all.”
      This was the moment when a cry went up outside.
      “Open this door in the name of Vengeance! We seek a traitor!”
      Grabbing her bag of possessions, a pleading look saw Jana through a window and wheeling her bike around the inn, charging the magic in it as she went. Soon she was listening to the sounds of an army coming in behind her as she squinted into the wind and rode as fast as she could.
      “… and I suppose that is where the tail ends Lord Vengeance. As far as I can tell, she’s still around here somewhere, hiding like a common rat.”
      The other man in the parlor smiled and poured a cup of wine, and was about to speak when an aide came in through the door and knelt.
      “Report!” He barked.
      “My Lord, the girl we searched for is known to the towns people, yet no one knows where she is.” The man said from his kneeling position.
      “Those bloody liars! Is this the sort of insults you have to endure from your people?” The distortion of fury was harsh on Aaron’s features.
      “Oh, almost all of them insult me in this way at first… though none for very long.”
      Down in the town, codes, and location rosters had been drafted, and soon, with all the rooms in all the buildings at her disposal, a young woman with dark hair dropped from the sight of an entire town, no matter how many rooms, in any number of buildings were searched.
      Most people said she fled the town, away from a set of tire tracks, and hadn’t been seen since that day.

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