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The Moth MAG
The airless, dusty store chanted a dark song of creaks as it settled on its foundation. On the leaning walls, dry, torn maps and charts hung like stretched carcasses. Perching on the shelves, knives of bone, boxes of dark wood, and shadowy, irregularly shaped crystals caught the light coming through the rain-pounded windows. Arranged with mind-tearing precision on the front counter were perfect cubes of gleaming metal – shining blue-silver; warm, shadowed bronze; sleek, smoking black; and blotchy ember-red with stains of ash-white. Fluttering weakly beneath a glass case on the top shelf, blue wing spots dusted with copper, was a moth.
The door flew open, causing the contents of the shelves to rattle. The moth rose into the air a few centimeters, only to drift down again. A tall, stoic man in a suit with an oily mustache and a black, unblemished briefcase entered. With angry boredom he glanced down at the counter, but aside from the cubes of metal it was deserted. There wasn't even a register.
Robert Lucas scowled. He looked at a dripping paper in his hand, then turned to the counter, where the name of the store was hand-painted in looping, elaborate letters: Emporium Supernaturalis.Yes, this was the place.
Robert ran a hand over his long mustache. On a pouring Saturday morning, here he was, a highly trained government official, stuck on business-licensing patrol. It was an outrage! He should be in his large, gray townhouse, organizing his files in preparation for the day when he would eventually run for Minister of Business. But because one of his employees called saying he couldn't come in today (something about a sick child), Robert had to pick up the slack and travel to half a dozen businesses, workshops, and stores.
He frowned, deepening the scowl lines that marked his face like scars. He had taken over business registration just a few months ago, when the previous man retired, and the workers were behaving as if Albert, the eccentric, absentminded old man, still ran things.
Robert had thought he had made things clear; he had painted over the offices with dark gray paint. It had been necessary; each had been covered in bright, ridiculous patterns – silver snowflakes, golden stars on blue skies, pink lightning and green clouds – and Robert couldn't stand it. And just yesterday someone had asked Robert if he would be announcing an upcoming birthday. “Albert always announced the birthdays. It made them feel special.”
Robert had been in a disgusted mood that day. You'd think they were children, not highly trained adults. Well, maybe not highly trained, but still! Needless to say, he did not announce the birthday, and he released the party balloons that the other workers had brought in. There wasn't time for such nonsense in his office!
Robert was about to leave the ancient building – judging from the dust and broken lock, it had been abandoned for years – when he heard a voice behind him.
“Can I help you find something?” The voice was slightly high-pitched, like a child's, but with perfect enunciation. The syllables whipped the air around Robert, and he almost shivered, but he stopped himself, kept his back straight, and put on a formal smile.
He turned, and found himself staring at a pale boy with a patient, knowing expression.
“Is your father or mother the owner of this store?” Robert asked. The boy's eyes seemed to have been cut out of burning shadows, they were so dark and intense. His light hair, short and combed back, reminded Robert of the bodies at his uncle's funeral parlor. They always looked too formal for life.
The boy laughed, a flood of actual emotion so powerful it caught Robert off guard. He took a step back and cursed himself. He corrected his stance and made a show of adjusting his black hat – only to send leftover rainwater dripping from the rim. In the glass case, the moth also responded to the noise, landing on several spots up the glass before floating down.
The boy ended the laughter with a contemplative chuckle. “My father? Yes, I suppose so, though the question is really quite ridiculous.”
He turned again to Robert, his expression returning to formal and emotionless, though not in the forced, hurried way Robert often employed. It was more like a bird of prey gliding down and alighting silently on a heavy branch, so naturally and effortlessly it seemed to occur without actual impact. The boy nodded seriously.
“Like asking if a cherry blossom on a tree belongs to the owner of the orchard. Who else could it belong to? Robert, I can assure you, this store is registered. Would you like to see the license?”
Robert frowned. He didn't like other people – especially children – calling him by his first name. Come to think of it, how did this boy know his first name?
As though in answer to his silent question, the boy pointed at Robert's brass name tag. “I'll get the papers. Please, look around. This store has been without customers for so long, it has become depressed.”
Robert frowned again, but the boy was already entering a room at the back. He tended to keep people at a distance. No one had called him Robert since grade school, except his uncle. But his uncle was normally so tired from working on corpses that he had hardly called the boy anything at all.
Robert turned and stared at one of the charts on the wall, which depicted ink-and-watercolor monsters next to a jumble of notes. He was looking at a green, dragon-like creature with ripped, ragged wings and blue eyes, labeled “The Clemitch,” when he suddenly felt a strange, energized sensation.
There was nothing extraordinary behind him – or so he thought. A few shelves piled up with dusty objects, but nothing that could be looking at him. Yet he felt sure he was being stared at.
At the top of the shelf he finally spotted the moth. He gasped; he had never seen an insect so beautiful. The wings glittered in the weak light. The feathery antennae whispered over the glass. Each movement was slow, rhythmic, and peaceful.
Robert crossed the creaking floor, reaching out a hand to touch the moth's case. He smiled despite himself when the creature fluttered and landed on the glass opposite his fingers.
“It's only natural you would be drawn to the only other living thing in this building,” the boy said as he set a pile of papers on the counter. Robert hadn't heard so much as a sigh from the floorboards. “But please, let me show you some of our other merchandise first.”
The boy lifted one of the cubes of metal. “These little treasures are compounded emotions, mined in the Caves of Animus. This cube, for instance, is solid fear. I've heard of a man who made bullets from the stuff. Quite ingenious, it would leave no mark and, if the victim survived the initial attack, they would be sent into a paralyzing state of panphobia.”
Robert shivered violently. The boy seemed to take it as a shake of the head. “You're right; you inspire enough fear naturally. Nor are you at any loss for grief …” His hand moved over a dark blue cube. “And courage …” He tapped what looked like bronze. “An amulet made out of this would be potent indeed. But you lack the means to use it; that much is obvious.”
Robert grinned to himself. The boy seemed to believe what he was saying. “I don't suppose you have a cube of love? That's what everyone at my office says I need.”
The boy shook his head gravely. “To have even a fleck of compounded love in the vicinity would mean instant death to beings like us. Far too potent. The closest thing I have is passion.” He lifted a red and black cube. “And giving artificial passion to you at this stage in your journey would be dangerous. I could get in serious trouble.”
Robert tilted his head. “What about those maps?” He wanted to get the strange boy off this topic. The boy shook his head.
“Maps of the spirit worlds. But you need to be going somewhere to need a map.”
He pointed at a yawning, circular cave on one of the largest maps, labeled in uneasy handwriting “The Caverns of Non-Existence.” Directly below the cave was a gray, barren field: “The Fields of the Indifferent.”
“I'd say you're walking down those smooth, lifeless plains right now.” The boy moved his hand over a half dozen destinations on different maps: the Towers of Contemplation, the Garden of Eden, the Battlefields of Hell, the Cave of Inner Mirrors, the Pit of Demons, the Sea of Solitude, the Peaks of Understanding. “I'd say any of these would be better than the Cavern of Non-Existence,” the boy sighed. “But who am I to give you a destination? That's your choice. And if the Cavern is what you want, you need no map.”
Robert frowned and took a hesitant step back. He had never encountered a person like this, who seemed to look inside him and read his identity. Robert tasted fear in his mouth – metallic and bitter – and he imagined some of the silvery metal materializing there. He looked up at the moth, taking comfort in its peacefulness.
“The only other living thing …” Robert breathed, quoting the boy. “Um, what did you mean? You're here. You're alive.”
The boy just shrugged. In the glass, the moth fluttered wildly. Suddenly the boy tensed. Robert looked around nervously. Was the boy about to have a seizure or something? He definitely had some sort of mental problem. But he relaxed and nodded.
“Would you like the moth?” the boy asked.
Robert turned, surprised. He hadn't really thought the moth was for sale. It just didn't seem right. A thousand emotions whirled in Robert. There was the mockery he used with his peers: why would he want an old bug? There was rationalism, anger, and fear. Yet despite these, there was longing. He nodded.
“This could have a great impact on your journey,” the boy warned. “Like an acorn sprouting through the shell creates a tree that can never be put back in. And there is never a guarantee that the acorn will like being a tree, or even if in the tree the acorn still exists. This will mean a great change for your soul.”
Robert felt strange – tense, but energized. It was like the wind was trapped in his throat; his veins were on fire, and his mind was a storm of pure energy. The words kicked themselves off his tongue, rattled his teeth, and flung themselves into the air of the store. “I-I would like to have the moth.”
The boy nodded. “It costs only this: make a change. A change in your life.”
Robert tilted his head. “What kind of a price is-” The boy held up a long-fingered, pale hand, and Robert stopped speaking. The words seemed to halt and fall back down his throat. The boy took down the container, opened a small door, and took the moth out. For a horrifying moment Robert thought it was dead, but as it was laid in his hands, it lifted its wings slowly. He felt a sharp tingle. The boy nodded. “Remember.”
Robert didn't even glance at the papers he had come to examine. He hurried toward the door. Suddenly he stopped, his hand with the moth held close to his chest, and looked at the pale boy. “What is your name?”
The boy smiled sadly. “I am but a servant, a shade, a tool for those who made me. No name. But Robert, you are different; you are a person, with identity and free will! And that is why you must make a change, find meaning, do something special! Or you will eventually lose yourself.”
Robert nodded and hurried out of the shop. The rain had stopped. For the first time in a long time, Robert smiled at everything in general. Robert felt a strong urge to do something that earlier would have made no sense. Carefully, so as not to disturb the moth, he sat on the sidewalk in the shade of a tree. Then he opened his hand and gently propelled the creature into the air.
“Good-bye,” Robert whispered. “Perhaps we will meet again someday.”
The moth lifted itself into the air with powerful wings. It flew over the streets, between tree branches, and through the rolling clouds. That night it landed on the window of the Department of Business Registration. Robert stood behind his desk, a paint brush in hand. His movements were as hesitant as the moth's wing beats, but as the velvety wings brushed the glass, Robert touched the wall and slowly painted a small, golden star, with a smiling face in the center.
“Sir, you wished to see me?” One of Robert's employees stepped in through the door.
Robert turned. “Ah, Jonathon. How is your son?”
“Better, sir. Got over his fever quick. I'm sorry about missing work.”
“No problem. I covered your shift. Now, I've been calling everyone, making arrangements. Do you think you could bring the balloons? I'd get them myself, but I – well, I don't know where they are sold. I'll compensate you.”
“Balloons, sir? What for?”
Robert smiled, glancing at the star he had painted. “I checked the health records. It's your birthday tomorrow. I thought we would do something – nothing big, but something special.”