Our childhood, I've witnessed, is the most fragile part of our lifetime. Children are never meant to be harmful or evil. This is how the Universe works. No sentient being would choose evil versus good. That's what my heart's telling me. Not unless, of course, there is proper seed growing inside their innocent minds.

I do have my reasons talking about all this nonsense –

That's what happened to me, Melia, a mighty alchemist-to-be. As a child, I couldn't perceive the nature of this seed, lurking in my mind, body and soul. I never realized what my destiny was. Yet, it was perfectly planned right from the beginning of my life.

But let me take it all from the start.

My story, like so many other stories, begins in a prison.

Well. . . not an actual prison, but a home that was far away from being anything near real home! I grew up in a glasshouse, tightly secured from outsiders. I spent most of my days reading, studying and digesting anything I could from books. Mother was a powerful alchemist and made sure that I had access to all scripted wisdom and knowledge our race possessed at that time.

I didn't really know why the outsiders, the Province called them pipers, wished to harm the alchemists. Mother claimed she didn't know the answer either. Mother would always lie to keep me in the dark. I wish I could see that earlier.

The pipers were timid, yet vicious creatures. They never challenged us in person, but instead were trying to sneak into our laboratories and steal our precious spells, incantations and rare materials. This is why the alchemists had invented the glasshouses. To keep the outsiders on the outside.

'The pipers will do anything to deceive you Melia, they're scheming, conniving, manipulating opportunists,' Mother always ringed the bell on me. 'You should always listen to the good voices in your head, and not their enticing calls.'

Mother was perhaps the finest alchemist in the Province and I would, one day, become the legal heir to all her mystical paraphernalia. Mother explicitly instructed me to never learn any of her recipes by rote at so young an age, just to be on the safe side the incantations would stay protected at the glasshouse, within the confines of purity and clarity. What is it with this bloodline thing anyway, I never really understood. Mother kept all her completed elixirs in snow globes, which she was buying from gypsy peddlers somewhere in the Province. She ritually labeled them using a self-developed cryptographic alphabet, of which she was the only one– exclusively aware. I always suspected that I was not to ever be introduced in the secrets of this alphabet and I, myself, would one day be responsible to decrypt it, as key part of my training.

But then again, I could still kill plenty of time before losing my sleep over that.

***

At around the age of seven, I started complaining about having to stay inside the glasshouse. I wanted badly to breathe some fresh air, but Mother wouldn't allow it. She explained to me that the pipers had developed a highly-sophisticated socializing system, aiming to mislead the alchemists and to gain access to their glasshouses. 'Pipers are evil, Melia. They will never stop, not until our valuable elixirs or the knowledge behind them fell in their very hands.'

Pipers had really become tricky and lousy. That, I had registered well.

'Yes, Mother.'

'Who could ever portray the dystopian future lest the elixirs fell under their control?'

'Yes, Mother.'

'This is a pessimistic snapshot; teachings not to be ever forgotten by us, alchemists. Is that understood?'

'Yes, Mother…' I repeated.

Truth is, however, I kept pushing her hard. Until one day, Mother reluctantly agreed that I could play in the front yard, so long as I never strolled past the fence and befriended any of the passing pipers.

I still remember how uneasy and nervous I felt, the moment I stepped on one toe beyond the door porch, and experienced a light breeze gently blowing my face. It was the first time that air, a non-animated essence, was ineptly raking through my hair.

I found myself immersed in a whole new world awaiting exploration. I could feel the soft caress of the grass on my bare feet. I could occasionally fall on my two wobbly knees and let that grass tickle them. I could admire the sights and smells of wild flowers blossoming in the front yard. I could climb on and off the many trees, scratch the wood with my supple fingernails and carve moments of true pleasure eternally there! I could even enjoy my own singing out in the open, and for the first time, I felt that my voice was fading away in a cobalt sky with shimmering clouds, and not within the colorless boundaries of a glass prison. I was happy.

Or was I?

I soon realized that having access and playing in the garden all day was not as great as it sounded. Enduring solitude inside the glasshouse for the past seven years of my life has not been as painful as one week of not sharing these games with someone. I had lost purpose.

When Mother found out that I was no longer keen to go out and play, she decided to have some serious conversation with me. Some private chatting, she used to say. 'This behavior is unacceptable.'

'But, Mother– '

'You have to understand one thing, Melia. When you're willing to remove the seals and open up the windows, you have to make sure you've already built powerful wings to guide your flight out safely.'

My response to her metaphorical lecturing was merely a sigh.

'I see the takeoff has not been an issue for you. But the landing definitely was! This is what happens when you aren't planning ahead, Melia. This will be your punishment for one year. Loneliness in an otherwise colorful and vivid place… You'll have plenty of time to revisit all your mistakes during your isolation.'

Have I ever told you that alchemists could likely be the cruelest beings one could ever find in the entire Universe?

***

A year passed and Mother decided that my solitude had been enough of a torture.

At my birthday, she invited me to join her in the laboratory, the place where she kept all completed elixirs, working solutions and experimental broths. Mother was proud of this achievement of hers. Building a small empire as that was not a trivial thing.

The room itself was reminiscent of the many fairy-tales that I had been reading about in my dormitory – since the day I could remember myself reading. The scrupulous bench-work, potion crafting, the conscientious manufacturing of snow globe containers for the fragile endpoints of intellectuality and meticulous research were all captured in a witchlike imagery.

I loitered around without final destination in my mind. The penetrating odors and the amphitheatric decoration made the footing treacherous. Soon I got nauseous and tipsy. The dusty grandfather clock, oh yes, it was watching me. Choking me!

Mother pointed her finger toward an assortment of snow globes, which rested like domino pieces on a hand-crafted, wooden stand with gargoyle curvatures attaching it firmly on the wall. I could easily sense the dedication with which the snow globes had been placed in order and symmetry, on top of the shelves.

I felt this imminent urge to tap them. 'You can touch them,' Mother spoke, as if she read my mind.

'Really?' I bet she had plans.

'Just go for it.'

I took my time to go-for-it. I touched the glass sphere of one of the snow globes gently, as if expecting a hostile reaction. No response came from the seemingly lifeless object. But after a while, flickering dust like thousands of worms knotted in a serpentine arrangement appeared floating within the globe's matrix. The surreal and colorful geometries were kept alive for a few seconds, before they again turned into dim light.

With confidence but mostly curiosity, I started touching all snow globes one by one, hoping to hit upon the pattern. They all responded in pretty much the same way. Vacant spheres at the beginning, multidimensional light-bearing arterials in their insides toward the end. The only difference I could discern was their labels. Each snow globe had a different hand-written character in an encrypted language, forged through diamond knife cutting. 'They are familiars,' Mother explained. 'Inspired by unimaginable and distant worlds, and summoned through inconceivable willpower and determination.'

'Familiars?'

'Indeed,' Mother agreed. 'Now pick one of the snow globes, Melia! I've come to the decision to offer you one for your eighth birthday! You won't be alone anymore. Your punishment is over. From now own, you'll have a loyal and honest companion for your games.'

I got hesitant. I couldn't believe my ears. A familiar, exclusively mine, was something I had never dreamt of and something certainly way beyond my innermost expectations!

It sounded too good to be true. 'But Mother… Are you telling the truth?'

'Of course I'm telling the truth, dear! I have no intentions in tricking you into this. I will summon a familiar for you! Now, you have to promise me one thing. You'll be treating it nicely, with respect. It will be a symbiotic relationship guided by mutual reverence!'

'I can promise that.'

'So?'

I had to wisely choose my familiar, my snow globe. I was trapped in a boundless pasture of thorns and spikes, unable to move an inch, as if an unknown deity had vacuumed all strength out of my muscles. My feet could hardly hold me still, despite my tiny frame, and all I wished for was I had eaten double the amounts of breakfast earlier, just to give me the energy and the determination the occasion demanded.

I started shifting my eyes from one snow globe to another, helplessly, expecting for a miraculous omen to give me a hint as to which one I should pick for my once-in-lifetime partner. I knew not why this moment was so stressful, but my heart was hammering at my chest ruthlessly.

Blankly, I pointed my index finger and grabbed one random snow globe, the closest to my reach. 'What about that?' My voice had a trembling tempo. I touched the snow globe with vigilance and slowly laid my palms around it. I made sure it was tightly secured and slowly lifted it. To my surprise, it was heavier than I first thought, and it was extremely smooth, totally lacking friction.

I turned around to announce my decision, but my estimations proved me wrong. As I swiveled on my feet, I lost balance and the snow globe slid through my hands.

I remember seeing my own terror reflected in Mother's eyes.

As gravity was taking control, I envisioned the cracking glass penetrating and tearing apart my eardrums, its thousand pieces getting scattered around the room, the viscous matrix getting absorbed and lost through the floor's tiny crevices, and the poor soul of an innocent familiar condemned eternally without a master, to wander out in a limbo, where space or time were totally meaningless.

I stopped breathing and closed my eyes to the most unpleasant emotion I'd ever experienced. But this emotion never came about.

I slowly snapped my eyes open, only to see right in front of my nose a long, fetid, hairy, and grotesque spider tentacle hanging from the ceiling. I turned my look above, fixing it on the shadows. The huge but elegant creature was hidden in them. It had been there all along, since the very first second Mother and I entered the room. But I had failed to notice its rogue existence. 'Who are you,' I finally muttered.

The creature never responded. Instead, it slightly tilted until I witnessed a diamond-shaped head like a perfectly carved stone boulder with two scorching eyes and no other facial characteristics emerging from the dark. Its bulky head, supported by more than ten or twelve long tentacles, sprouting from the base like an octopus, tweaked in front of me.

'This is Lozenge,' Mother rushed to explain. I was mesmerized. My stare was constantly fixed on the creature. 'He is a valuable custodian. He… he has been protecting our snow globes with persistence and compassion for many years now.'

'I see,' I said, looking back at my Mother icily. My body was fully-stretched, unable to even vaguely move my lips or tongue.

Lozenge didn't speak either. Instead, he raised his extended tentacle and carried the snow globe back into my two shaking arms. Acting timely, Lozenge had managed to snatch the falling snow globe just a few inches before the devastating drop. And now, eternal keeper of integrity, he trusted the precious snow globe once again into my untrusting hands. I had no idea Mother also had a familiar. Why had she never told me about Lozenge before? 'We shall forget this unfortunate incident, Melia. We were lucky enough to have Lozenge patrolling the laboratory and saving this poor familiar from a certain death.' Mother smiled and waved her hands towards herself. 'Now bring this lucky fellow over here. I will initiate all necessary summoning practices right now.'

A spooky thought crossed my mind. What if this drop was a bad omen? What if it was some message from a greater, invisible force that wanted to warn me about that situation and the unpleasant future course I had caused?

I felt that I could lose my sleep over that thought, and decided to bury it forever.

***

The week before getting introduced to my new familiar, I was so anxious I couldn't even close half an eye during sleep time. All I was thinking of was the cute howling of my yet unknown companion. I would finally have a friend, a companion, a submissive slave!

But Mother had explicitly instructed me that I should never treat it as a slave. After all, this is what masters and lords do to their servants. They only treat them with respect and compassion. . . .

That's the type of relationship I should have with my familiar. Despite its submissive nature, it still had a soul, and soul was bound to a personality.

Mother instructed me that the familiar would need some time to perceive its own existence and come to complete reason with regards to what it is. I was supposed to be patient and allow it time to blend in. After that, the familiar would be entirely submissive to my will. That was Mother's goal.

This was perhaps the most important part of the familiar's training. Theoretically, I should have been responsible for training my own familiar, but since Mother decided that I could have one at so young an age, she also judged this would be too perilous to worth the risk.

When finally a small, hairy, four-legged creature, whiskers spastically moving, stepped hesitantly in my room, I stood there speechless, not knowing what to say to it.

I dug up an animated story from the depths of my memory. A story I once read about animals on Earth. That familiar really looked like an animal, called ferret. Yes, the more I looked into it, the more I pictured its resemblance to ferrets was phenomenal.

The creature stood at the door frame alongside Mother, then made some timid steps and sniffed around the room, searching for friendly smells. It glanced at me with a curious expression, checking on my motives.

I knelt down and raised my hand steadily, in an attempt to magnetically pull it. 'Hey there,' I whispered cozily. I didn't want to scare it.

Initially, the creature took half a step back in reflex and withdrew, as if it was threatened. This hesitance only lasted seconds though. It then acted like an infant seeking for motherly care.

When it finally came closer, I petted it, my bony fingers splayed inside its smooth and supple fur. It started licking my knee and roared with satisfaction. 'From now on, you shall be called Ferret,' I cooed.

Mother was standing at the corner of the room, ensnared in her own shadows. I felt she was judging every move of mine. But for the first time, I didn't really care that much.

***

It was spring, and more precisely this part of spring when the blue flower bursting is done, the sap-veins of desiccated winter roots are chloroformed and gum-sealed buds are gone, and the province's known world is in a rush to be beautiful. Every day, there was a flock of birds mastering an orchestra piece in diatonic scales. There was the bassoon of wind caressing the trees that surrounded the glasshouse. Ferret and I both knew how to enjoy these moments.

From time to time, there was Mother crouching on the window seat, elbows on the sill, her hands cupped to the curve of her cheeks. She was proud and happy, or at least, so I thought.

I was making music without words. Ferret resting askew silent, tired of snooping around, making music without sound. We both enjoyed the sporadic raindrops falling in the glowing noon.

And when it rained, heavy jewels poured from the sky, sitting upon the blue grass. And flowers speaking in color were grateful for this blessing and they blossomed to return the favor to the white clouds.

And after the rain, we'd always spare our afternoon with tension, in a nonstop game of energy tiles. And this is how time was passing by, Ferret and I mutually investing and building upon the bondages of our connection.

***

One day, it had already rained for the whole previous day and night and for half of that very day. An omen that at least to me, looked like a bad one, though Ferret and I decided to come out and play energy tiles, as usual. The tiles were laid upon the azure spring carpet at the front yard and I rushed to perform the recollection part before Ferret could timely complete the gathering part. Everything was pointing to a clear and strategic victory for my side, since Ferret always was, at his best, two tiles slower than me.

At least, Ferret never complained about losing. On the contrary he was paradoxically depressed when he won.

I applied my winning strategy, thus leaving the farthest tiles to be “recollected” last in the sequence. This strategy offered a fallacious impression that I was many tiles ahead in the game, because I could always pile up the ones that were closer to my initiation point rather quickly. This strategy was destined to squeeze every opponent's morale.

However things didn't work as I'd planned. I lost track of the final and farthest tile, which, in turn, made me lose precious time over Ferret, who, of course, was building his energy tile tower much more efficiently than I did. When I finally spotted my lost tile, I realized it was lying very close, on the inner side of the wall spell.

I run fast to retrieve it… and to finish up with the first round. I stooped before it, quickly initiated the “awakening” of my energy rod, and changed the tile's mode into the recollection color, to be able to carry it back to my tower. I was excited and enthralled for my potential victory.

But suddenly, as soon as I touched the tile with my rod, I felt an emotional wallop and the Sun mysteriously vanished aloft; a blister in the sky? Blanketed by a menacing shadow of somebody–or something close to me, I felt a harsh breath above my head.

I only managed a convulsive head tilt. I got petrified. It was my first direct encounter with a real piper. My mouth was dry, I couldn't speak. The piper boy wasn't tall. His icy irises were ashen, his body half-naked with only a rug covering the lower part. He didn't budge, but kept his distance from me. There was some strange calmness in his face. What was that, the piper had assumed the appearance of a primitive toddler?

I tried to scream, but never managed to spit out a single word. The piper boy kept staring at me, but without signs of hostile motivation. And then, I realized the piper boy was not the spooky monster I first thought. On the contrary, it was safe as long as I kept myself on the inner side of Mother's wall spell. The piper boy was not capable of crossing the imperceptible barrier between us. Ferret's smooth and wet nose touched my elbow gently and immediately brought me back to reality. Ferret's intervention was so timely for the nerve that the situation demanded. 'He's just a piper, Melia.' Ferret's whispering sounded sweet to my ear.

'I-'

'I know. You're scared. Who wouldn't be? But there's no reason to be afraid of him anymore,' Ferret reassured me. 'The piper is unable to pass through the fence. Not unless he is invited by you willingly.'

The boy stretched his hands, and pointed to the tile below my feet. 'Can I play some energy tiles with you? I bet I can win.'

What an enticer! What a deceiver! What a trickster! Mother had warned me about that moment. She always insisted that I listened to the 'good' voices.

'Just ignore him. He'll eventually give up and go on his way. There is nothing to worry about. I'm here to protect you!' Ferret said in a stable voice, the good voice.

I turned my look away from the piper boy and started petting my familiar. 'Thank you, Ferret for saving me. I've somehow got trapped in dark thoughts.' My voice was sounded with a deliberate, staged tone.

Ferret purred to please me back, and then helped me stand still. I no longer felt this bizarre paralysis. What a frustrating moment.

'Please, let me play with you! I like this game,' the piper boy begged with an agonizing sadness coming out of his lips. 'I feel very lonely. You know how it is to feel lonely, don't you? You've been alone all your life.'

I stopped. Loneliness . . . . Yes, I knew all too well how that felt. Unfortunately, the piper boy had to remind me of it. But this was his lousy plan from the start. This was exactly how they manipulated situations. But I had no plans engaging into a conversation with him. That's exactly what the piper wanted.

'Please,' the boy begged one more time. But I had already turned my back on him and was moving away. I had won that fight. 'Please,' he repeated, shrieking in agony. I couldn't resist the temptation and looked back. And when I did, he was out of sight, mysteriously vanished. At least he got the attention he deserved. . . . None!

***

That night, I could hardly sleep. And every time I did, my skull was haunted by the piper's image, startling me out of bed in a moment. And then the trials with my bed, I had to pass through… again! I climbed off and on my bed nervously. My body rolled left, right, left again, around the messy cold sheets. I suffocated under my own pillow. The panic wouldn't let me breathe. It would only force me grab the air around me violently.

Thoughts, the color of brooding shadows on the walls, were after me. Bad. Ugly thoughts. The piper boy… he seemed so kind and friendly. But all this, it must have been an illusion. He was the enemy. He must have been the enemy.

I moaned and sighed. Was there any chance the piper actually wanted to play with me? Or his only concern was how to sneak into our laboratory and steal our wisdom? What would this wisdom be useful to a small boy like this? 'Ferret?'

'Yes, Melia,' Ferret replied immediately. 'I'm here and I can feel you're uneasy.'

'Ferret, I love you!' I said without actually being able to see him in the darkness.

'I love you too!'

'Can I ask you one question?'

'Of course.'

'Why,' I hesitated, I couldn't find the words. 'Why are the pipers bad and not kind-hearted and pure like you?'

Ferret stood silent for a couple of heartbeats. 'Because, good beings wouldn't be good, unless bad beings also existed. It is the paradoxical law of the Universe. When you define goodness, there must exist the exactly opposite of it somewhere, so it can be perceived,'

'Is this your own theory?'

'No,' Ferret said nostalgically. 'This is accumulative knowledge that ripened over thousands of years in my civilization. It is so wise and correct, that is now accepted as a universal truth. Universe – universal, isn't that funny?'

'I don't understand this.' I got skeptical. 'But I trust you're telling me the truth.'

'That's good to know,' Ferret whispered at the dead of night.

'Is this why we, the alchemists, are good? Is it because the pipers are bad, and we need to be defined somehow?'

Ferret sighed silently. I had no idea why he was having issues with communicating these things. Was it that he wanted to sleep, or there was something else going on? 'Pretty much, yes. I think that we've made a wonderful understanding here.'

'Thank you, Ferret!'

'You're welcome, Melia.'

'Goodnight, Ferret!'

'Goodnight, Melia.'

***

The gray afternoon skies that followed were mixed with the pale of the clouds and the curving caricatures of the mountain horizons, formulating a grayscale gradient like a stage backdrop, the color of a crazy eye. The bright blue of spring was progressively replaced by the ashen dye of the grayzers, the cerulean-frost plant species dominating the pastures.

Over time, I got used to the regular appearances of the piper boy, who usually jumped out of the bushes lining the glasshouse, but always stood several feet away from the fence. His naked feet smothered the tender grayzer stems, and all he did was give me an ecstatic look and beg me to let him come over and play. It had turned into a routine.

This didn't seem a sophisticated socializing system, as Mother said, to trick the alchemists and to steal their wisdom.

One day, Mother told me she needed to create more room for the forthcoming familiars, so she had to depart for the gypsy district to get more snow globes. 'I'll be back in less than three hours! Anything you need, you may ask Ferret. He will help you.'

'Sure,' I said while waving goodbye, looking at her casting the sanctuary spell onto herself to keep the pipers away.

She walked beyond the wall spell. 'Our outlooks have reported that the pipers have already turned more aggressive than ever. Keep your eyes open. You might witness more of them around, only this time they may not appear like young innocent boys asking to play with you.'

'Ferret and I will be ready,' I reassured her.

'Don't even trust me, Melia, in case you see me standing away from the fence, asking you to step out of the garden. It won't be me, for sure.'

'I know, Mother!'

'I would feel more comfortable if you skipped your tiles game, just for today.'

'Don't worry, Mother! Please,' I persisted.

'All right, I trust you then,' she said and disappeared after a while across the street.

I turned back and walked to the house, when I saw out of the corner of my eye, one shadow moving at the upper left window at the upper concourse. I tried to focus on the window frame in reflex, but the shadow had already withdrawn inside the room.

I stood still trying to understand whether it was real, or the light was playing tricks on my imagination. 'Did,' I muttered, disorientated. 'Did you see that?'

'What?' Ferret asked, whiskers stretched and alerted.

'There was… somebody watching us from that window,' I said in a trembling voice, pointing my finger up there. 'Could it be a piper in the glasshouse?'

'Unlikely,' Ferret said. 'It must have been Lozenge, watching and making sure Mother has left safely. I've seen him patrolling the house from time to time. . . .'

I swallowed and held my hand on my chest. 'Oh yes,' I agreed. 'I totally forgot about him.'

***

Two hours had passed.

I was competing with Ferret in another round of energy tiles. Ferret's progression was phenomenal. I could hardly catch up with him. He had become especially proficient with the recollection part of the game. However I never cared less than that day, as my mind was busy enough thinking of Mother, and the fact that she hadn't yet returned. Well, she'd said at least three hours, so it was too early to start worrying.

I felt a flame in my chest. Ferret seemed to be totally absorbed in the game, and I had a nauseous feeling that something was wrong. I briefly checked around, a set of bushes and season-relevant shrubberies, colorful flower-beds and motionless tall grass stacks. Everything reminded me of a still life painting.

No signs of the piper boy. Strange, why didn't he come today? I got ready to start my new round. Frustration drowned me. I took a deep breath and stroked the pile with my energy rod. The tiles were all scattered around, mostly out of my sight, flinging against the current. It was a remarkable start, full of tension.

I froze, when I realized the consequences of my actions. 'Damn.' Ferret came by me and also stood petrified. 'Now what?' I asked, staring at the closest bush, behind which one of my tiles had burst into, almost three to four feet outside of the wall spell.

It was all my fault, apparently. I proved I was unjustifiably clumsy, itchy, noxious and unnecessarily alerted by non-existent ghosts. 'It's my fault,' I admitted.

'Don't worry. Mother will bring this back, when she returns.'

'Let's run over there quickly and retrieve it,' I suggested. 'It seems to be safe, no pipers around. It'll only take seconds.'

'I'd strongly advise against that,' Ferret said stoically. 'Not without a sanctuary spell.'

'No one's there! Mother will be very angry with me, if she learns that I've lost the tile.'

I could see that Ferret was battling with an inner conflict. On one side of his dilemma was my protection regardless of my will, while on the other was to keep me happy at all cost. Confused with the purpose he was meant for, he finally spoke. 'How certain are you, there's no danger ahead?'

'More than certain.' I had no idea what the origin of this profound excitement was. Could it be because I had a good excuse to disobey Mother's direct orders? Or could it simply be a secret and unquenchable thirst for more freedom? Did I really need to take this big step, to cross this invisible line, and prove to myself that it only existed in my mind? That it only kept me in the dark?

'Melia, all that glitters is not gold,' Ferret kept holding my excitement off.

'But once something turns gold, it never wears out.' For a moment, I saw Ferret desperately struggling for a catchy response. 'Do you mean that sometimes there are certainties, more or less?' 'Certainties, Ferret. There's no danger ahead. No piper tracks. No conspiracies here. It's a straightforward thing. The exposure will only last seconds.' 'We know the piper boy is out there. We saw him together, with our own eyes.' 'He exists… somewhere, but not here. I guess he realized how worthless it is trying to trick us. So he must have stopped.' 'I am not so sure about that.' 'Please Ferret. Let's not upset Mother for something so insignificant.' I crossed my arms. 'The tile is just a few steps from here. It'll only take seconds to fetch it.'

Ferret swallowed in disbelief. 'Fair enough.'

'Perfect!'

'But,' he said, 'I'll be the one to go out there. And, if I notice anything… and I mean anything strange, we'll report to Mother.'

Deal!'

'I don't do deals.' Ferret walked past the fence and cautiously approached the bush. 'It's not in my nature.' Ferret took a leap of faith and vanished behind the bush with a quirky jump. I was sitting like a frozen statue on the other side, my feet rooted in the soft soil, my body sweating all over, my heart scratching at my chest.

Unsure of how much time passed, I revisited all the unpleasant feelings I had during the last couple of days. Maybe I was selfish and went too far with sending Ferret outside of the protection spell. I regretted it, the moment he was lost from sight. 'Ferret, did you find it?' I felt two stiff knots, one in my stomach, the second in my throat.

A very still bush and a nervous girl. Those were all I remember from that particular day. 'Fer...rr…rrret,' I cried, my voice fading away, sounding almost like a whisper.

Ferret slowly stepped out of the bush, reluctantly, holding a tile in his mouth. His feet were trembling. 'I think I'm cut by a lengthy flower spike,' he said with ears loosed down.

'Come over here,' I said shivering. 'I'll take care of your wound.'

Ferret walked in and stopped by my legs. I knelt down and hugged him tightly. 'I'm sorry, Ferret. I'm really sorry. This was my fault. I shouldn't ask you to go there.'

'Don't worry, Melia.' Ferret carefully placed the tile on my feet. 'I'm fine. There will always be a small scar to remember this moment the two of us, and laugh.'

'Let's go inside. We've had enough stress for today. It's getting dark and Mother will be coming back soon.'

***

When Mother came back that afternoon, Ferret and I didn't report the incident. We decided it would be our dirty little secret. I was relieved everything turned out well for the two us at the end. I swore to myself that this was one last mishap, and it wouldn't be repeated again.

Mother, Ferret and I had tea together, and Mother briefly told us about her visit to the Gypsy District, and the amazing details behind the snow globe technology. She gladly revealed her plans to take me along with her one of those days, to start learning the basics of familiar crafting. But luckily, she never suspected a thing.

At night I was exhausted, but again unable to get the sleep I craved for. Instead, I had a vivid and clear recollection of all the incidents, which happened during the day. And something didn't add up. Ferret had agreed to keep this a secret. I know he loved me unambiguously, but he was my familiar. He wasn't supposed to be driven by emotions only, but reason as well. And he would never say lies to Mother, unless there was a very special reason to do so. So why did he agree to keep this a secret, after all?

'Ferret,' I called for him for another night talk. 'I have a question for you.' No response. Strange! Ferret never fell asleep before me. 'Ferret, where are you?' I climbed off my bed silently, and lit up my bedroom candle.

Ferret was nowhere in the room. Instead, the door was half-open and I realized that he must have slipped through earlier.

***

I didn't know why, but I had an intuition I would find him in the laboratory. I grabbed my one-candle chandelier and dashed out of my room, determined to interrogate him about his odd behavior.

When I got in the staircase, I felt the urge to wake Mother up, and for the first time, be absolutely honest to her, and admit my mistakes. Yes, I should ask Mother to intervene. Her wisdom and experience were all the most needed, now that I'd messed up so seriously. I didn't want the situation getting out of control because of me.

I turned around to move towards her room when I heard the sound of cracks on the floor from the lower concourse. I knelt down in reflex, and slowly crawled to the staircase, keeping my head below the level of the handrail. I hid the candle behind me, so as not to betray my position to the intruder and kept looking through the balusters.

Outside it was raining heavily, and frightful lightning exposed shadows and scary configurations of the treetops onto our floor. And somewhere in between, I saw Ferret's elongated, ghastly shadow crossing the lower concourse, headed towards the basement staircase, slowly, surreptitiously.

I was right! He was going for the laboratory. But why? I needed to find out. There was no time to alert Mother. I had to follow him. I got to the lower concourse furtively, in seconds. I knew exactly where the cracks in the staircase were, and I managed to avoid the noise, even by blind-walking. I stood still, looking at the door all the way down to the basement.

Another flash of lightning gave life to the demonic faces of creatures decorating the wooden laboratory door. Tiny, but perfectly knotted, spider-webs created a graphic casing on the side stone walls. An unstable wooden staircase led down to the door.

'Don't be a coward,' I encouraged myself. I was determined to figure out what had happened to Ferret. It was my duty to respect his life, as he respected mine. These were Mother's orders, and I should fix all my mistakes. I had responsibilities I couldn't neglect, let alone ignore.

I went all the way down, and pushed the door open. At the far end of the room, Ferret stood in front of the bookcase with the snow-globes, agitated and furiously looking for something. 'Ferret,' I yelled. 'What are you doing here?'

'This is my fault,' he mumbled. 'I need to find it! This will be our only chance! I need to find it –'

'What are you talking about?' I moved and placed the chandelier on the desk in the middle of the room. The candle light flickered, but didn't fume out. 'What's wrong with you? Talk to me.'

'What's wrong with me? What's wrong with me?' he asked tremulously. 'You're trapping us inside these snow globes, you filthy alchemists! I will tear this place apart.'

'Who are you?' I asked and took a step back, scared.

Ferret started coughing, and then vomited some oily green ooze on the floor. In an instant, a hazel-violet aura surrounded him, and he became taller and thinner, via some sort of magical transformation.

I took another step back, my mouth dry. Ferret eventually assumed another form. He was no longer a ferret, and it was now clear to me what it was. There was a piper right before me. He had tricked me. He'd gotten into our laboratory! “You are –”

'A shape-shifter!' He sneered demonically.

'But how? How did you pass through the wall spell?'

'Allow me to refresh your memory, for you've invited me in by yourself!' The man approached. The candle light betrayed all the details in his face. It was the piper boy, only this time he looked older and scarred. 'When I appeared as injured from the flower thorn, you called me in the garden yourself. Do you remember now? This is how the spell was broken.'

'You've deceived me! You've fooled me,' I screamed. 'You are tricksters!'

'Yes,' the piper man bared his teeth. 'And you are enslavers. You came to our planet and stole our freedom. This is what you do. You harvest planets and turn their inhabitants into familiars, just to feed up your egos.'

'Not true!' I screamed, tears shedding from my eyes. 'We are good people. Where is Ferret? What did you do with him? Did you kill him?'

'Ferret! Another victim of the mighty alchemists,' the man said sardonically. 'You wiped out an entire race, just to have a stupid and submissive pet to accompany your games. How nice –'

'That's not true. I respected Ferret. . . . This is what masters do to their servants. They respect them, and build a mutual –'

'Are you going to say the whole thing? This stupid little poem of yours? Mother's brainwashing material –'

'Melia, step aside.' I heard Mother's voice. Perhaps, the happiest moment of my life!

But the piper man moved quicker than I expected. He grabbed my elbow, and forced me in a half-pirouette, turning my back against him, and bringing my body in direct contact to his. Disgusted, I tried to push him away. I bit his wrist, but he harshly stretched his hand and placed it around my neck like a noose, his elbow pressing against my right breast.

I couldn't scream. I was suffocating. The piper man revealed a metallic device from his pocket, twisted it on his fingers, and forced the edge of it on my temple, through my thick hair. I felt the pressure in my skull.

'Don't get any closer, or I'll blow her brains out.'

'Your primitive weapons cannot harm us,' Mother said in a calm voice.

'Yes?' the piper man said in a frenzy state. 'Let's see then what our primitive guns can do to you.' I saw it into Mother's eyes –she was bluffing.

Unfortunately her bluff didn't get through him.

'No,' Mother cried, her body jerked. I saw the sorrow in her eyes. So that would be it? That would be the moment of my death?

'Tell her,' the psychopathic piper shrieked. 'Tell your daughter what you truly are! Tell your daughter how much you respect the Universe and its inhabitants. She doesn't seem to know a lot about your own nature. You came here. You took our Earth. And now you're trying to–'

He never finished with his sentence. He had let me loose! I found the opportunity and slid under his arm, with a big step away from him.

The gun fell from his fist, into a thick squirt of blood on the floor. A thinner jet was spurting fresh from his chest. A tentacle struck his back, then crushing him from the inside. The same savior for a second time! It had been again in the nick of time. . . .

The tentacle shattered the piper's vertebrae plunging inward, before the many barbs opened like a deadly flower, exiting on his ventral side. The man dropped down to a praying stance.

A slim figure came out of the shadows, and walked unhurriedly all the way to where the piper man toppled. Lozenge passed silently past him without emotion. He pulled his tentacle back, letting gravity do the rest with the piper's lifeless body.

I turned to Mother, soaked in tears. 'Was he telling the truth?'

Mother opened her mouth, but didn't say a word.

***

She's only five. I carried the chandelier with the three half-burnt candles, their wax melting down to the metallic pedestals, with my right hand. My left one was busy with leading little Ruvia all the way down the wooden squeaky staircase to the laboratory. I turned my head and caught a glimpse of my daughter with the corner of my eye.

'Where are we going, Mother?' Ruvia asked, innocence drawn all around her face.

I opened the laboratory's ornate door. It was still embellished with small statuettes of fiends and imps, exactly as I remembered it. Luckily they never scared my daughter away. Perhaps she hadn't even noticed them. She was only five, to have fear as a fully developed emotion.

'Today you'll receive your gift, Ruvia,' I muttered. 'Do you remember all the stories we said about the alchemists, and the familiars and the snow-globes?'

'Yes, Mother!'

'Good,' I said. 'Now, it's time you selected one of these snow globes. Once you do that, I'll start the necessary summoning practices, and you'll soon have a new friend.'

'Really?' Ruvia asked ecstatically, her two hazel eyes glistering in the gloom like cerulean pebbles.

I nodded, desperately trying to hide my discomfort and sorrow. She's only five.

Ruvia was not at all picky or curious about the witchcraft and mysticism behind the snow-globes. Either she was very young, younger than me when I first had to make a similar choice, or my daughter had a vastly different personality to mine.

She handed me the snow globe. I knelt down, glaring deeply at her eyes.

Tears were running from mine.

'Why are you crying, Mother? Aren't you happy that I'll have a true friend?'

'Of course I am! I just. . . .' I tried to say but couldn't find the proper words. 'I just want to tell you that –'

A sinister shadow appeared behind Ruvia, its motivation purely evil. It was Lozenge. He gave me an eerie, atrocious look, and I realized it was a non-friendly warning. Luckily, Ruvia hadn't perceived his presence at all. For one thing, Lozenge was great at being stealthy.

'What would you like to tell me, Mother?' Ruvia interrupted my silent conversation with Lozenge.

I tried to remain calm. 'I just. . . I just want. . . to tell you. . . that you should always treat your familiar with respect. Because this is what masters do to their servants; they always treat them with respect. Now, I want you to go to your room and keep on reading. You've left your studies behind.'

'Yes, Mother.'

Ruvia darted out of the room, hopping like a rabbit. Lozenge emerged slowly from the dark, coming closer with his majestic appearance. 'Which familiar did she choose?' he whispered avariciously.

'The human one,' I hesitated. 'Master.'

'Oh, isn't it ironic?' His question not only sardonic, but mostly rhetorical. 'I guess it wakes up some memories of yours. Would this pose a problem to Ruvia's adaptation?'

'Indeed, Master, I had a memory burst. But, I managed to get rid of all my emotions and focus on the task you've assigned to me.'

'Good. Now, listen to me very carefully, you worthless familiar. I've become greedy again. I need more snow-globes or I'll get miserable. I need to capture more familiars under my possession. This planet has only limited options to offer. I need to very soon complete my mission and move to someplace else. I want Ruvia's indoctrination to be both time- and quality-efficient. I'm leaving you entirely responsible for her education. Understood?'

'I understand,' I paused to make a curtsy. 'Master.' 'Good. I will now leave, since I have an appointment with my fellow mates from the rest of the glasshouses. But before I go, I want you to tell me Melia. . . . How do you feel about me? How do you feel about your Master?' Lozenge asked with hectic excitement.

I dithered. I found some courage to smile, teeth clenched. 'You treat me with enormous respect, Master, and I am very grateful for this. After all, this is how masters and lords treat their servants.' I hissed out a deep sigh, trying to conceal my true feelings about Lozenge, this awful life-form that only knew how to cause unbearable pain and unfathomable misery to the Universe.

From now on, a new chapter emerges – my daughter. But unfortunately, Ruvia's story, like so many other stories, also begins and ends here, in a prison.

THE END

CONTENTS


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