When Kendra Hannen made a deal to let a parasite feed off of her dreams she had never
expected them to become so dull. Once a rational state of mind could be reached inside a dream you started to notice the inconsistencies. While the subconscious could come up with some truly confusing ideas they all had a certain flavor. So while she was floating down a rainbow river towards bubbling columns of deep gray storm clouds it lacked the substance to really affect her.
If dull dreams were the heaviest price Kendra had to pay for her Pact with a Nightmare Parasite her luck might rival the rabbit goddess herself. It might have been this same luck that shook Kendra awake. That or the ink spirit fluttering across her face creating an incredibly uncomfortable itching sensation on her eyelids. Damn it Iri. Let me sleep.
Rays of light pleasantly filled the messy room and Kendra blinked open crust-filled eyes for just a moment before leaping out of the wonderfully soft bed. The jumbled lump of covers jolted awake as Kendra deftly maneuvered over her girlfriend, and out of the bed. Kendra scrambled to pick up her clothes from the floor. “Pact-damned shit!” She swore.
“What’s wrong?” Penelope asked finally awake. She had sat up by now and was blinking trying to keep up with Kendra as she skittered around the room.
“I’m late! I knew I should have gone home last night.” Kendra was snatching her pants up to her waist and searching for her shoes.
She could feel Iri circling her neck creating that same itching sensation to show that the spirit wanted her attention. Later. She promised in her head.
Penelope spoke up and broke Kendra’s momentary trance. “Babe, it’s a letter.” The sleepy woman rolled her eyes as she flopped back down to the bed. “I’m sure they’ll just set it aside with the other mail.”
Kendra didn’t answer. She had told Penelope that the letter was important, but she couldn’t help but feel like she was lying. Kendra didn’t want to tell anyone before she knew. She knew it was probably a fantasy, but she couldn’t help but be nervous.
“It’s not just that. I have my first solo appointment in an hour, and I have to have my shit ready. I just need to get home. I’ll see you later, promise.” Kendra rushed out the door collecting her things barely hearing Penelope’s muffled goodbye to her and Iri.
Kendra hurtled outside of the wooden home nicer than her family’s apartment. Penelope came from an average family but had scored high enough on her exams to get some truly nice Pact offers. The house was only a single floor with a few rooms, but its front was covered in such an array of colorful flowers that it stood out like a white rose in a bouquet of reds. Kendra thought she had picked an incredibly boring Pact but she couldn’t argue that Penelope made the most of her deal with the dryads.
Kendra hurried down the dead-end street passing an array of homes all molded after one another. Penelope’s home was the only one to stick out which had always saddened Kendra but she didn’t have time to dwell on that right now.
Her apartment building came into view after a few minutes of vigorous walking that made Kendra slightly more out of breath than she would have preferred but she increased her pace. Her building was a monolith of stone towering over everything near it. All fifteenfloors were occupied by some family or other. Kendra had spent her life exploring the building and finding the cracks and crevices where she could peek at its steel bones.
She stopped for a moment inside the heavy wooden doors and hurried over to the mailboxes. She slammed her worn key into the lock and opened the small latch. Empty. Maybe it hasn’t come yet. Kendra clambered up the dark hallway and barely lit stairs. Grunting a greeting to the few other residents she passed.
“Kendra! Where are you running off to so fast?” A familiar voice hollered up at her from a landing. A distorted bark-like noise followed the yell.
“I got shit going on, man! Has the mail run yet?” Kendra yelled down the stairs only barely slowing her progress.
“Well yeah! You know it always comes early.” Edgar Weely was an old man who had a Pact with a small dog-like creature named Lorne; who had a tendency to bite anyone who got too close. Kendra was the only one whom Lorne tolerated getting close to old Edgar. They’d been friends for years.
Today Kendra didn’t have time for her old friend and swore loudly as she continued to run up the stairs. She had never cursed this set of stairs more in her entire life. She finally made it to the tenth floor out of breath and sweating, but just took a moment to collect herself before hurrying to her door.
Before she could even reach for the doorknob the door was snatched open. Cassandra Hannen had the door in a white-knuckled grip and her eyes hummed with a manic energy. In her other hand, she clutched a letter.
“How could you not tell me?” Her mother shrieked with excitement yanking Kendra into the apartment.
Two old and battered wooden mannequins, that took up a frustrating amount of space in the center of the living room, were draped with different pieces of cloth. Her mother mended and made dresses and these two had been in the works for a week now with little progress. They just continued to take up space in their small living room. Kendra stepped over her mother’s supplies as she was yanked toward the old and patchy couch.
“You did it, honey! You really did it!” Her mother held onto the letter like it was a trophy. “I told you all those classes would pay off. Oh my gods I’m so proud.”
“Can I see it?” Kendra hated how hollow her voice sounded but her thoughts felt like they were trudging through mud.
“See it? Of course! Look you did so well!” Her mother rambled but Kendra wasn’t listening as she picked up the letter. The words on the page had been written in golden ink and shimmered as the lamp light reflected off them.
Hello Ms. Hannen,
Due to your hard work and exemplary scores in the Galian exam, Galilea University has elected to reward your efforts. You have been chosen to receive the Goddess’ Blessing. This Blessing will purge you of all Pacts and restore your soul to its purest state to give you the foundation you require to continue to grow and thrive. This will open many opportunities to help you on the way to your bright future. We here at Galilea are immensely proud of your accomplishments and look forward to seeing you soon.
Please get back to us at your earliest convenience so that we may schedule a date.
“Isn’t it amazing? The Goddess’ Blessing! This’ll be amazing for your future.” Cassandra Hannen continued listing all the amazing things they would be able to do after Kendra received the blessing.
Kendra was not processing anything her mother said she kept rereading the short letter again and again.
I really did it. Kendra felt sick to her stomach. She felt Iri darting across her body reacting to her exploding nerves.
“We can finally move out of this hole! Maybe even help your father once you get a powerful Pact dear.”
“Help father with what?” A deep voice rumbled from the hallway. The heavy steps of Alonzo Hannen shook Kendra out of her obsessive reading as her father carefully stomped into the living room on legs that didn’t use to require so much effort. Kendra grimaced. He’s worse today. She thought.
“Hey, sweetie.” Alonzo waved a scarred and thick-fingered hand at Kendra before easing himself slowly into his chair.
Kendra opened her mouth to respond but her mother ran over her “Kenny is gonna get us out of here!” Kendra tried not to roll her eyes at the nickname.
Her father quirked an eyebrow up “Really? Does stabbing people pay that well?” He asked with a sniff.
Kendra couldn’t help but smile at that. While her father didn’t understand her job or why she did it, he had always supported her in his own way. She couldn’t believe such a large, tough man shivered visibly when she showed her needle rods.
“Dear. Don’t be ridiculous!” Her mother laughed and the smile died on Kendra’s face. She saw her father frown, clearly confused.
“All those years I spent hounding Kenny have finally paid off.” Her mother sat with her back straight as an arrow beaming with pride. “Our daughter has been chosen to receive the Goddess’ Blessing! Her test scores were so good that her school is sponsoring all of it. She’ll be able to do anything in the world, and get us out of this dump.”
“Our home isn’t a dump mom.” Kendra snapped.
“Oh you know what I mean.” Her mother waved her off.
Her father’s eyes were wide and he blinked once slowly before he said anything. He had always been ice to her mother’s fire. “Wow,kiddo. That’s a pretty big deal. You sure you’re okay with that?”
Kendra’s father wasn’t subtle, but was there a good way to ask your daughter if she was okay with altering her soul and removing the Pacts she spent years working towards? Kendra didn’t think so.
“Yeah. It’s a really great opportunity.” Kendra avoided looking at her father. “But I have to go.” Kendra hopped to her feet with guilt and dread making each movement heavy as she tried to walk away from her mother.
“Oh! Are you going now? I’m not ready at all! I need time to get ready,and to get you ready.” Her mother was fretting her hands reaching out for her seamstress tools like she would sew a dress in the next few minutes for this.
“She’s not going to the school right now,. She has an appointment to stab some poor foolish…” He snapped his fingers and waved his hand trying to think of the word. “What do you call ’em? Those silly people that let you practice stabbing them?”
Kendra smiled at her father’s antics, cutting through the twisting feeling in her stomach.
“Canvases, Dad.” She said.
“Canvases! That’s right. You have one of those to work on today, right?” He asked, smiling at her.
“Yes, I do. Like I said, I need to get going.” She carefully maneuvered around her mother’s things ignoring her mother’s ramblings about how she needed to get things ready for the ceremony.
Kendra went to her room and shut the door taking a moment to steady herself, letting her head fall against the door. holding it closed in case her mother tried to barge in to tell her how proud she was again. You did it, Kendra. All that complaining about school and then you went and threw away everything you worked for.
But there was no time to dwell. She had her first solo appointment today, and if Zelie caught her showing up late…Kendra shivered. I’d think she was evil if she wasn’t so damn talented.
A tickle floated its way up her arm and over her shoulder before settling on her neck. She finally peeked in the mirror and saw that Iri had taken the shape of a bird with blue feathers and a red breast. The color stood out against her pale skin brighter than any of her other tattoos. The wings were beautifully extended showing off each detail of the feathers, but the breast wasn’t nearly as detailed as the wings and the head was mostly a black blob with a sharp beak. Altogether it didn’t look terrible, it was messy.
Now that she had a moment to catch her breath and take a look at herself, Kendra cringed. She looked like a Cinder addict who was willing to give away anything short of the fingers necessary to hold the pipe. Her usually pleasantly wavy coal black hair was in a snarl around her head which framed her face in a dark mane. Her icy green eyes gave her a frigid gaze that Penelope said was the first thing she had noticed when they meet. It was like you had stuff a pair of crystals in your head. I was convinced it had to be a Pact thing. It also distracted from that aggressive bitch-face you do.
Kendra’s gaze was now even more unpleasant because of her now ever-present bloodshot eyes. She hadn’t used her Pact with the Nightmare Parasite in a few days so the crimson veins were too bad but it definitely looked like she needed some eyedrops.
“Not bad Iri.” Kendra complimented her ink spirit. Her new wings fluttered happily. “But you can’t just give up on the rest because you only like making the feathers.” The bird’s wings dropped in disappointment before fluttering away down her arm.
“Oh don’t pout. I said it wasn’t bad.” Kendra rolled her eyes. Iri was like a child sometimes even if she couldn’t speak.
“Thank you for this morning.” Kendra was grateful even if she wished it had come a bit earlier.
Iri flapped her wings and batted her eyes in a “Oh it was no big deal” gesture. Kendra snorted. “Well let’s get ready for this.”
Kendra’s heart jumped and her stomach tightened further into a knot. Iri will be gone if you go through with that pact. The thought of losing Iri made the knot in the stomach feel like it was climbing into her throat, and she had to swallow hard so she didn’t throw up.
Iri began flying erratically as she felt Kendra’s nerves through their bond. Iri took up a much more substantial piece of her soul than the Nightmare Parasite and was Kendra’s closest companion. Even Penelope would play games with Iri when they were laying in bed together.
Keep moving. We’re running out of time anyway. Kendra pulled herself together and began getting ready for her appointment.
Kendra’s room was small but it had a calculated messy nature. The right side of the room was dedicated to her art supplies of different inks and canvases (the linen kind not people). This side of the room seemed to grow with each week as Kendra completed different works of art but refused to take them anywhere else. This continual growth meant the left side of the room was crammed with a tall dresser with clothes bursting out of each drawer, and the chair. The chair was where Kendra threw all the clothes she, her mother, washed. Her mother hated the chair but it allowed Kendra to know exactly where her clothes would be instead of rummaging through the drawers of her dresser in times like this.
She threw on a comfortable but tight set of clothes that wouldn’t hang and get in her way. A black shirt already spotted with ink and pants that looked much the same. She brushed and wrangled her tangle mass ofhair in a bun making sure to get every hair locked away so it wouldn’t fall in her face later. Kendra then went to grab the most important piece of her ensemble.
Kendra reached deep under her bed which was the one place she kept clean out of necessity. This was a space solely for the tools she had worked so hard for. Kendra carefully slid a long, thin wooden box out from under her bed and snapped the latches open. Inside was a series of steel rods with an increasing number of needles on the ends. She knew they would fit perfectly into her hand and be lighter than she expected. They always were.
It had taken months working any odd jobs she could find to pay for these needles and she took better care of them than herself. She inspected each of them ensuring they each glistened in the sunlight streaming from the window. No flecks of ink or blood on the tips and they would be cleaned again before her work began.
The sounds of heavy footsteps reached her door and her father’s brutish knocks rattled the hinges. Kendra collected her things and opened the door for her father. He loomed just outside her door. He didn’t mean it as a threat he was just a large man.
“Need a ride?” He asked.
“You sure, Dad?” She couldn’t stop herself from shooting a glance at his legs.
Her father’s lips pressed into a line and his voice grew tight. “Yes. I was going to give some rides out later anyway.”
“That’d be great, Dad. But we gotta head out.” Kendra said, ignoring the tension, while snatching up her box of needles and a hand towel.
“Sounds good. Just keep those things away from me.” The man pointed at her box and shivered before hobbling towards the front door.
They tried to say a quick goodbye to her mother who was now sketching a dress and muttering excitedly to herself. Her mother grabbed her arms and looked into her eyes. “I really am so proud of you. You’ve worked so hard with school and your art. I’m proud of you for sticking with that too. I could have never done that.” Her mother’s eyes were shining with tears and she hugged Kendra tight enough to crush coal.
“I love you too, Mom. Thanks for always pushing me.” Kendra whispered in her mother’s ear and felt her stomach clench.
Cassandra Hannen waved goodbye to her daughter and husband and said she had plans for later. With practiced ease, Kendra extended an arm to her father and helped him down the stairs. He didn’t moan or groan as they slowly but surely made their way down, but his breath did hiss out from his lips with each short drop..
“I’m getting old kiddo.” He grunted as they finally made it down the stairs.
Kendra muttered a reply. Her father was fiftyyears old and was healthy for his age. His problems didn’t come from age. But, Kendra bit her tongue and didn’t press him on it.
The duo made their way outside their apartment, a towering stack of aging wood and stone. The sun was hanging heavy in the sky, but the heat wasn’t bad yet. The grass rustled in the wind and flowers of all colors were sprouting along the dirt walkway to the carriage house. They reminded her of Penelope and Kendra smiled. Bet she hasn’t even rolled out of bed yet. Kendra rubbed the Daffodil tattoo on the back of her right hand. Penelope had an array of tulips on her hand. It had been a foolish decision and had hurt like hell but Kendra cherished the hazy memory of getting the tattoos together.
I can’t believe I didn’t tell her. Kendra shook off the guilty thought and followed close behind her father.He unlocked the carriage house gate that held their family’s carriage. Kendra took the gate from her father and held it open. He climbed into the driver’s seat adjusting the reins before pulling out an obsidian whistle. The whistle let out a piercing tone and then the reins snapped upwards. Two horses made of the earth itself began materializing from the ground. They stood silently, as always, as pieces of earth and dust fell from their rocky forms.
“Good morning, Granny and Shale.” Kendra greeted the golem horses with a pat to their heads. Neither of them reacted. Her father rolled his eyes. They weren’t truly alive. Simply the effect of a Pact made with an earth spirit and golem maker. Kendra didn’t think that meant they had to be rude though. She loved their horses.
Her father snapped the reins and the horses slowly walked forward bringing the carriage out behind them. Kendra shut the gate and locked the heavy iron lock into place. The carriage was an old vehicle with artwork all over its wooden frames and even the tarp that covered the sides and top of the back storage area. Kendra had always been a dedicated artist even as a child. Some of the artwork was clearly the work of a child but there was an impressive gradient of pieces. No one ever mistook their carriage for any other.
Kendra hurried to the front and took her seat beside her father. He snapped the reins with a touch more force and the horses began moving forward at a trot. “Same place as usual?” her father asked. Kendra nodded and settled into her seat.
The ride passed mostly in silence with the trees lining the right side of the street and other tenements stretching out to the left. It was a few minutes before she spoke up to her father. “If my appointment goes well today I could have become a real apprentice”
If I hadn’t gotten that letter. Kendra thought to herself. Not brave enough to say it out loud to her father.
“What? No more odd jobs and driving the cart for your old man?” Her father smiled at her.
Kendra let out a weak laugh “Hopefully you won’t have to drive this cart soon. You know if-” Kendra cursed the mistake in her mind. “When I get that blessing.”
Kendra was avoiding looking at her father, but she could hear his frown. “Kiddo, you don’t need to worry about me and your mother. She complains, but we’ve been comfortable for a long time. If all else fails, I can go back to work at the foundry”
Kendra turned to her father with disbelief on her face. She saw the warm steel in her father’s eyes and knew he was serious. “Back to the foundry? Dad, you can’t be serious.” Kendra blurted out.
“Just for a little while Kendra.” His voice was soft but firm like he was trying to be gentle with her. “You’ll be moving out soon and living on your own and it could help us get a smaller place for us in a few years.”
“Years? What the hells are you talking about? You can’t go back!” Kendra hadn’t meant to yell, but she couldn’t believe what was happening. Her heart was pounding and the sound was pulsing in her ears.
She barely heard her father’s reply before she made her second mistake. She snatched up her father’s pant leg. “Look at what it did to you?” she shouted.
Her father’s calf was covered in red and purple veins that looked painful. But the worst part was the network of metallic lines that covered her father’s leg like an infection.. The metal lines pressed into the skin of his legs, and the skin swelled around them for a heartbeat at a time.
The effects of a Pact depended on many things. Physical manifestations were a clear sign that whatever chunk of her father’s soul that the Foundry Pact occupied was in tatters. Such severe symptoms of a Pact were unheard of. The only option her father had was to get his Pact purged and those services were astronomically expensive.
If Kendra could get a good enough Pact, then maybe she could pay for the procedure. But she would have to play her cards right. Her soul shivered and even Iri went still with discomfort. The power of such a pact would take up most of her soul if not all of it. No room for anything else, but the one pact.
Kendra’s father snatched his pants back down and she felt his spine tense up perfectly straight and knew he was angry. “Kendra. Do not grab at me.” His voice was flat and monotone and she knew he was furious. It was rare to see her father truly angry, but she had seen it before.
“But, Dad.” she said but he stopped her.
“This conversation is over. I am your father and what I choose to do is none of your concern.” He turned towards the road and snapped Granny and Shale’s reins to increase their speed. It was faster than the cart preferred to go and it began rattling under them as each bump and rock in the road jostled them more and more.
They rode in silence the rest of the way to town. Thankfully, it was a short ride. Most of the city was surrounded by immense apartment structures like the one they lived in. Buildings in the city cost too much for people like Kendra and her family. Penelope only got into the suburbs closer to the city because of the money her Pact drew in. They entered the city and the buildings seemed to leap into the sky all of a sudden. Towers of stone or wood or metal or in the rare cases of the true skyscrapers all of the above. Kendra’s favorite part of the city was the banners.
Hundreds of colorful banners fluttered in the wind hanging from the buildings. Each was emblazoned with a symbol of a local deity, church, king of a faraway country, or nature spirit. You couldn’t count all the beings people could Pact with or draw power from. Kendra loved seeing all the colors playing in the wind. It was the inspiration behind the tattoo that ran down her left arm. The same series of colorful banners fluttered down from her shoulders and ended just above her elbow.
The guilt from arguing with her father soured the experience and she tore her eyes away from the banners unconsciously rubbing her upper arm. The cart slowed as they entered the city coming to a complete stop as one of the many crowds crossed the street in front of them. While waiting thee mouthwatering smell of the food merchant district reached Kendra’s nose. A long street with dozens and dozens of carts and booths selling different meats dripping with grease and juice, fresh breads, and even sweet cakes this early in the morning. She could even see the fresh glaze dripping from some of them.
“You’re going to fall out of the cart if you look any harder.” Alonzo Hannen had a smile back on his face as he watched his daughter gaze lovingly at the food.
Kendra snapped back upright pretending not to be embarrassed. “Yeah, I missed breakfast.”
“Take this.” He handed her a small wrapped sandwich. She protested but waved her off saying he had already eaten.
How long is your appointment?” He asked
“Shouldn’t be a long time. It’s a small tattoo since it’s my first solo one. Probably an hour or two with cleanup.” Kendra explained.
“How about we do a big lunch after to celebrate? We’ll bring home some food to Mom and eat.” Her dad asked.
“I’d like that.” Kendra replied.
“Alright, I’ll see you in a bit. I’ll give some rides out till you’re done.” There was a distinct pause and her father quickly started speaking again. “I love you, Kendra. No matter what. I want one of those tattoos-” He shivered as he said the word “One day. Whatever you want.” He smiled at her as they arrived at her destination.
“I love you too, Dad. I’ll find you something that requires the least amount of poking.” She told her dad with a smile, but her stomach was turning circles.
“I knew there was a reason you were my favorite kid.” He told her with a faint voice but a big smile. She rolled her eyes and hopped down from the cart.
Her father let her off the cart at the end of the narrow street the cart couldn’t fit down. Kendra hurried down the street and arrived at the black door of the tattoo parlor. It had a sign hanging above the door that read Tourmaline Sunset. Kendra grasped the obsidian handle and hurried into the shop. The entry room was small with room for about five people. Zelie preferred appointments and ran a tight ship to not keep people waiting. A hallway on the right led to a room of booths where each artist did their work. But the woman herself stood behind a small counter going over some paperwork.
Zelie was an intimidatingly tall woman with thick silver hair coiled into tight braids bound on top of her head. Her arms were lean with muscle most people wouldn’t expect from a tattoo artist. Kendra felt her own shoulder throb in anticipation for her appointment later. No one realizes how physically demanding it can be to keep a tattoo rod moving and steady for hours at a time with the perfect amount of pressure to puncture skin but not pierce through it.
The most startling thing about Zelie though was her eyes. Her irises were the shimmering iridescent color of the inside of a gemstone. They glistened in the light and would even refract light from the right angle if you happened to be standing in the right place. Kendra thought it was one of the coolest Pact deals she had ever seen, and it was only the first of her unknown amount of Pacts.
“Cutting it close there, ain’t ya?” Zelie’s stare was heavy with those gemstone eyes.
Kendra smiled at her boss “Close and ready to work, boss!” She hurried past Zelie who watched her go silently. She hurried to the door on the right and into the cleaning room. She pulled out her box of needles and carefully cleaned them one at a time before setting them on a thick rack that held them in the air away from everything else. Next, she scrubbed at her hands to get them as clean as she needed.
Grabbing her rack of needles she carefully walked down the hall and towards the booth at the farthest end of the hall. The hall was quiet today which was strange but it was early so maybe everyone hadn’t started their appointments for the day. Tattoo artists did tend to be late risers. Zelie was an exception.
As she entered the booth Zelie stood towering in the center of the booth. Kendra smiled at her and placed her rock on a counter conveniently located right beside her hair. Kendra stood back and Zelie leaned down to examine the needles one by one. It was a quiet affair that had to take almost two full minutes of silence. Finally, Zelie leaned up and sniffed.
“Looks good kid. How are your eyes?” Zelie asked.
Kendra focused and felt the almost imperceptible presence of the Nightmare Parasite behind her eyes. “Good. No problems. Dreams are boring.”
Zelie arched an eyebrow at that before shrugging and moving on. “Iriali are you ready?”
A tickle floated up Kendra’s neck and settled on her cheek. Iri fluttered what Kendra would assume were still wings. Zelie almost smiled but just nodded at Iri. Kendra saw her appraising the spirit’s work silently.
“Now are you ready? Your first solo day can be big. No more cleaning up after everyone else.” Zelie crossed her arms and waited.
“Yes. Micah will be pissed he has to clean his own shit up again.” Kendra’s joke was quiet and lacking the energy she usually came into the studio with. The events of the morning had stolen some of her excitement. Zelie clearly noticed her weak responses but she must have decided it was just first-day jitters.
“Alright, well call if you need anything and they’ll be here soon. I’ll be in to check it at the end.” Zelie gave Kendra a heavy pat on the shoulder. “You got this kid. Don’t overthink it.”
“Thanks, boss.” Kendra sat up and felt more ready.
Zelie left the small booth and Kendra waited, quickly fidgeting as her nerves crept ever deeper in her fingers and toes. Iri must have felt the tension as well because she refused to settle and shrunk herself to weave through the various tattoos on Kendra’s body. She shivered whenever she passed over somewhere ticklish.
The booth was small. A raised table with a cot for her clients to lay or sit on. A counter on the right with her needles and ink. There was a curtain over the door in case her clients needed some privacy. The walls were a neutral beige color but there were recently hanged little posters on the wall showing off some of Kendra’s artwork and some rock ornaments Zelie put up in every booth. It’s part of the shop aesthetic She told them all. Kendra rolled her head back staring up at the ornaments and tried not to think.
Finally, a timid voice said, “Are you Kendra?”
She leaped up and said, “Yes I am. You’re West, right?”
A boy who could have easily been mistaken for fifteenyears old nodded and walked in. Kendra trusted Zelie’s process and knew she would never let a child get a tattoo in her shop. He had straight brown hair that fell in front of his eyes and his skin was tanned like he worked outside a lot. He was thin and taller than Kendra but shorter than Zelie’s immense stature. Kendra let him to the table and he sat. He had no noticeable Pact marking which was strange but maybe he came from a wealthy family.
“So we’re doing the kite design we decided on earlier this week right?” Kendra said.
“Yes.” He sat on the small cot and began fidgeting.
“Great!” West’s eyes had found the needles and Kendra thought she could see his pupils dilate.
“Their bark is much worse than their bite I promise.” Kendra bit back a laugh as West shivered.
“You swear? I hear some people scream.” West hadn’t looked away from the needles.
“Only the wusses,” Kendra explained, waiting till West finally looked at her. “You a wuss?” She asked with a smile.
West shrugged “I’ll let you know after you stick me with a few of those.” a nervous smile was on his face now.
Kendra laughed and so did he. “You’ll be fine I promise. Give me just a minute to set up. You can go ahead and lie down.”
After shaving his arm with a beautifully sharp knife and cleaning the area,Kendra stood and plucked one of the medium-sized rods from the rack, and walked over to West. “Alright Iri, time to go to work.”
The ink spirit was now a snake instead of the bird it seemed so fond of. The snake had patchy scales and its tongue flickered out. Iri slithered down her arm to the very tip of her index finger and then a stream of black ink began to fill one of her containers. It was followed by a few colors she would need later. The color in Iri faded dramatically and when she slowly slithered away she looked lethargic. “Good job, girl.” Kendra smiled.
“That’s wicked,” West whispered behind her.
Kendra turned around and took her seat staring at West’s arm and then focusing on her Pact with the nightmare parasite. Dull dreams are so worth it. The parasite nestled behind her eyes began projecting the image of the kite that West was getting his tattoo of. The image held easily and didn’t shift as she moved her head around because the parasite held it steady.
The kite was green and diamond-shaped with a yellow star in the middle. It had two yellow tassels streaming out of the bottom of the diamond on either side of the string. She thought it was cute and it had gone through a few versions before West had felt it was right.
Finally, Kendra held up her rod and said, “Alright, moment of truth.”
Kendra did a few taps steady and sure. Don’t hesitate that’s how people get hurt or mad. Either way, it means you’re doing your job poorly.
“That’s it? I mean I’m not gonna take a nap, but screaming seems like a lot.” West had visibly relaxed.
“That’s what most people usually say. I will say some places are better than others. You picked an easy spot.” Kendra explained while she continued her work.
“Don’t tattoo sensitive spots. Got it.” West said and Kendra laughed.
As she worked Kendra felt her shoulders loosen for the first time all day. With practiced ease her arm pumped again and again poking into the pale skin of West’s arm. Slowly but surely the outline of the kite came into being. Kendra felt a comfortable strain in her shoulder and knew she would be sore in the morning. But it was the good kind of sore. The sore that told you you had done good work.
After a whiler, she could see West starting to tense up again. He had done well in the beginning, but Kendra had pointedly ignored that the pain tended to get worse, not better.
“So why a kite?” She asked West who was staring up at the rocks on the ceiling.
West hesitated for a moment and a shot of nerves ran up and down her spine. It almost shook her out of rhythm but she stayed focused when West began talking. “My dad makes them. He makes a bunch of stuff actually, but he made us kites when were kids.”
“Wow, all we can get my dad to make these days is a terrible grilled cheese,” Kendra said.
West barked out a laugh. “What’s up with dads and cooking? You give them anything but a slab of meat and they act like they’ve never seen a kitchen.”
“A mystery for sure.” She laughed with him.
After a moment he kept speaking. “Yeah, he got called in for duty again. So he’ll be gone for up to three years, and I’m going to school in another city so who knows when I’ll be back. So, I just wanted something to help me remember him while he’s gone.”
“I think that’s a beautiful idea,” Kendra said quietly. “Tattoos sure do help those memories stick around. I got a few of these I wish I could forget but you can’t avoid looking at your left ankle forever.” Kendra made a dramatic sound but maintained the pace of her arm.
West laughed and seemed to be more relaxed. Time seemed to flow away and Kendra fell into her work. They didn’t talk the whole time, but Kendra did her best to make her client feel comfortable and she worked with fervor on his tattoo.
After an indeterminate amount of time and a small throbbing in her shoulder, Kendra sat up and said “You’re done. You can go check it out in the mirror in the hall. More room over there.”
West rolled off the table and they both began stretching. “I take back what I said. That does get painful.” He winced. But then hurried off to go look at his tattoo.
Kendra smiled and rolled her shoulder out placing her used needle rods in a basin filled with enough water to keep the tips wet.
West rushed back in while she was still stretching with a huge grin on his face. “I love it!” He said. “It looks way better than I thought.” He rushed back out to look at it again.
Kendra began wiping down her cot and going through the closing routine she had been learning. West came in with Zelie behind him in the hall. She nodded at Kendra and gave her a thumbs up.
Iri was awake again and fluttered up to Kendra’s neck to get a look at the tattoo. She saw West’s eyes narrow. “You want to say thank you to Iri too? It’s her ink you’re wearing.”
West smiled, “Thanks, Iri! It’s awesome.”
West handed Kendra a bag of coins heavier than she expected. She looked inside and counted the coins. “Hey, you overpaid!” She told him.
“I know. They always say to tip your artist, right? You deserve it.” He told her with a smile.
While her polite sensibilities pushed her to argue, she closed her mouth and nodded and said “Thank you. Hopefully, I’ll see you again soon.”
“I don’t know I was only planning on the one.” West shrugged and winced as he moved his tattoo.
“That’s what they all say, trust me.” Kendra told him. With a few notes on aftercare, she sent him on his way.
“We did good, Iri.” She felt the ink spirit doing a victory lap around her stomach and giggled at the tickling sensation.
Kendra took a deep breath and felt good. You did it! Your first appointment. It went perfect. Zelie has to offer you the apprenticeship now.
The thought came to a painful halt. There would be no apprenticeship now. Kendra sank into her chair and put her head in her hands. The room seemed to lurch and spin around her and she pressed her thumbs into her temples.
“Hey, that was good. Nice job.” Zelie’s voice startled her and she looked up at her boss with a lump in her throat.
“Thanks” She choked out.
“What’s going on kid?” Zelie pulled the curtain and came inside. “Nerves getting to you?”
Kendra was silent for a time trying to swallow the lump before finally blurting out. “I got a deal for a Purge.”
“A full Purge? How in the hells did you manage that kid?” Zelie’s eyes were wide.
“I scored well on that final exam. They offered me a Purge, they call it a blessing or something.” Kendra explained crossing her arms and pulling them close to her stomach.
“Must have been a hell of a score for them to offer you a Purge.” It was rare to see Zelie surprised and even now it didn’t last long. “Pretty dumb though, if you ask me.”
Kendra stared up at her boss and blinked. Did she just call a full Purge dumb?
“What do you mean?” Even in shock, Kendra felt uncomfortable questioning her boss like this.
“I mean how old are you kid, nineteen? You have what, two Pacts?” Zelie asked holding up two fingers. “Two Pacts you worked hard for and chose. You don’t have any secret debt leeches I need to know about, right? Your soul corrupted or something, kid?”
Kendra shook her head shivering at the idea of a corrupted soul. Then she winced before explaining. “I did take a cut for a loan but it was minor.” A “cut” is a small procedure in which you sacrifice an amount of your soul in exchange for money. It was a brutal transaction. Kendra would forever have less to offer for future Pacts and it had even made some of her memories hazy. She had given away a portion of her soul itself. There was no getting it back but it had been worth it in her opinion.
The exchange rate was enormous and that cut could have paid for four semesters of school. She had only used it for three. She had told her parents she had scored a scholarship. Her father would have killed her if he knew.
Zelie sniffed. “That was foolish but, if it was as small as you say, even that shouldn’t be too detrimental.”
Kendra waited staring at her boss.
Zelie rolled her eyes and said, “So what are they offering you?”
Kendra took a breath and then did her best not to scream. “What are they offering me? Opportunities? A future? A way to help my parents? Money?” Kendra explained in a rush.
“You didn’t have an opportunity here?” Zelie asked her eyes narrowing. Kendra rushed to explain but Zelie just laughed. “I’m just being mean. I know what you mean.”
Kendra breathed a sigh of relief but still felt stiff. “I just feel like this is too big to pass up.”
“It’s a big achievement, kid. No doubt about that. But, are you really willing to throw away your hard work?” Zelie opened her eyes to the booth.
“I know what you did for those needles, and how long did that Parasite behind your eyes take?” She made Kendra meet her eyes to see she was serious.
“You spent a year here working your ass off kid, and refused any shortcuts those fools out there offered you?” Kendra could feel the heat in Zelie’s words.
“What about Iri? Are you willing to turn your back on her for this?” Zelie finished with her strongest point.
Kendra had been avoiding this thought like a plague demon since it had frozen her earlier. That would be the hardest part without a doubt. The work Kendra had done for her lovable ink spirit Iriali made the rest look easy. She had used all her savings and taken the money she should have used for a fourth semester to pay for the Pact with Iri. This silly little ink spirit was the hardest thing Kendra had ever worked for and she loved her. Kendra began to cry.
“My dad. His legs are wrecked from his job. My mom wants to leave the shitty apartment. If I take the Pact I can help them.” Kendra choked out the tears betraying her as they ran down her cheeks. All it would take was losing Iri and the years of her life she spent working towards being an artist.
“What Pact does he have?” Zelie asked quietly.
“I don’t know. He worked at the foundry. He did a lot of overtime and the strain was too much. He’s paying for it now even after they let him go.” Kendra explained bitterly.
“Foundry Pacts are rough.”
“I just feel like I should do something,” Kendra said. Her nerves were finally starting to eat at her. “I’m sorry I’m wasting time I need to get up and clean or something.”
“Kendra, stop.” Zelie’s voice was stern like a mother’s and made Kendra freeze. “Listen, I can’t tell you how to live your life. I won’t do that. But, a fact of life is that is not your responsibility to take care of your parents.” Kendra started to argue but Zelie held up a hand. “I’m not saying you shouldn’t care about them or help out. You don’t owe them your life though. Did you see yourself earlier? I thought that boy was going to jump out of his skin when he walked in. I heard him in here laughing and he was eyeing some of the designs in the lobby on the way out. I give him two months before he’s back. Would they want you to give that up for a purge of all your hard work and the chance for some boring Pact with a lump sum attached?”
Zelie’s rant had stumped Kendra. It’s not my responsibility. Was that true? Could she really just brush it off?
What would your Dad say? Or Penelope? Or even Mom once she got over the excitement. Kendra felt like a knot was twisting in between her shoulder blades.
“What do you want, Kendra?” Zelie asked her.
“I want to stay here. I want this.” Kendra blurted out without any thought. She knew. She loved her dad and she vowed to find another way to help. But she couldn’t run away from the truth anymore. Zelie had laid things out too clearly. Kendra would never forgive herself if she took that blessing. Losing Iri and not being able to work again would kill her.
“I guess this means I don’t have to worry about you getting an apprenticeship in another shop.” Zelie said.
Kendra stopped once the words sank in. “You’re serious? You’re offering it to me?”
“Of course Kendra.” Zelie rolled her eyes “I like you more than some of these guys I let work here.”
Zelie walked to the door and opened the curtain. “We can talk details later once you make your decision. I’ll see you tomorrow .” Zelie went to leave but stopped and turned back to Kendra again “For something as simple as a kite that was pretty damned good work kid.
Kendra sat in silence for a while. She had an answer. When there was no thought only desire this was where she wanted to be. She still felt the nerves bubbling up inside her, but behind them was a wall. A wall that had come up when she had said what she wanted. She knew her answer, but she stared for a long time at the wall before getting up and scrubbing the blood and ink off of her needles. She carefully placed them back into her box and shut it with a snap. She stared at the booth she had worked in. It felt right. Like she could come back here forever.
I wonder if Penelope has crawled out of bed yet? Knowing her girlfriend it was a coin toss, but if she was awake, she was probably on her way here. Kendra smiled and began sketching a design. Penelope would want to celebrate with a tattoo, and Kendra would be damned if she let anyone else tattoo her girlfriend.