Chapter 1 – Wandering Muse

“I cannot believe you talked me into this! I wanted inspiration, not some old crone with a few screws loose.” Liam hissed into the phone, gazing up at the Fate & Fortune’s gaudy letters. The sign assaulted his eyes, flashing intermittently in neon blue. Averting his gaze, he ducked behind the fringe of his chestnut hair. The crowded street was unusual for a weekday and the last thing he needed was someone recognizing him.

“Oh, don’t be like that. Clearly, your ideas have run dry, if you’re asking for my help. What better way to get ideas for the expo than to go outside your comfort zone? I’m sure if I hadn’t stepped in, you’d still be holed up in your studio, staring at a blank page, with just the cats to keep you company.”

“There’s nothing wrong with preferring the company of my cats, Maggie.”

“Please… just go inside, will you? She’s legit. If anyone can spark your gears, it’s her.”

Liam could almost hear his sister’s weary sigh. He doubted anything would salvage his chances for the upcoming art expo, but at least she cared enough to try. Still, he couldn’t help but needle her a little. This was definitely the most ridiculous thing she’d ever suggested.

“Just because the woman can predict your love life doesn’t mean she has mystical powers. Anyone with a brain could guess you would break up with Erik.” Derision dripped from his voice as freely as the tears Maggie shed last week. “Fine. I’m going in, so shut up. Please don’t drag me into your weird hobbies anymore, okay?”

“Seriously Liam, it won’t kill you to have a little fun. Where’s your sense of adventure?”

“My cat is batting it around the living room.” Liam drawled. He knew she just wanted to distract him from the expo, but couldn’t she find a better method? Dinner, a movie. He’d even take a repeat of his sister’s lengthy pity party—literally anything but this.

“Hilarious. Now quit stalling and get in there.”

Liam opened the door obediently, but not before shooting an annoyed glance at the sign. If only mediums and spiritualists hadn’t become the city’s newest fad. Then, he really would have stayed home. He had a painting to finish and all this was a waste of time.

The inside was less obnoxious than he expected. He hadn’t paid attention while on the sidewalk—he’d been too busy ensuring no one recognized him—but rocks and gemstones littered the entrance, embedded in the concrete floor. The walls were lined with sparkling baubles and old coins. Figurines scattered on the shelves shone in the bright light. Some were silver, others gold, but each was clearly crafted with care. He would bet his best paint set that they were real, too. It was a miracle no one robbed the place. The shop’s massive windows ensured any passerby could get a great view. Glass wasn’t hard to break, if you were daring enough. Liam shook his head. The lack of security cameras outside made him almost as a nervous as when he attended his high school prom alone. Yet another harebrained idea of Maggie’s.

Liam scanned the room. A beaded curtain hid what he assumed was the place his sister had gushed about for hours. Steeling himself, Liam stepped through the curtain, and he gasped. The room was massive, easily as large as the parking garage of his apartment. Once his amazement faded, Liam looked around the dimly lit room with dispassionate eyes. From vibrant paint to lavish decor, every inch screamed fraud. His eyes wandered, pointedly ignoring the young woman seated in the center of the room, when the bookcase in the corner caught his eye. It stood half empty, the shelves sparsely decorated with crystals and odd trinkets. But this was not what held his attention. A serpentine bird figurine draped across the top, its red eyes gleaming in the candlelight. Finally, he turned to the other occupant of the room. A shred of respect wormed its way to his lips, and he found himself speaking with genuine admiration before he could swallow the words.

“Nice figurine. I’ve dabbled in sculpting, but I’ve never seen something so realistic. The artist must be very skilled.”

His appraising eyes scanned the creature, lingering on the polished ivory claws, the orange feathers so vivid it was as if they were on fire. His hand twitched, fingers itching to examine every brushstroke, every tiny detail. The paint job was exquisite, the colors almost glimmering.

“Yes, it’s almost as if it was alive.” The young woman murmered, voice barely audible. Her lips quirked upward, staring fondly at the figurine.

“Now then. You may call me Soleil. How shall I address you?”

Liam crossed his arms and stepped closer. The woman was clad in rather revealing attire. Her sleeves draped off shoulders and most of her collarbone remained bare, thanks to a diamond shaped cutout in the body of the dress. He shivered despite the cloying heat of the room. The fabric was thin.

Very thin.

“Liam.” He shook his head, forcing himself to answer her before the silence grew uncomfortable.

Nodding to herself, Soleil unveiled a large glass ball and Liam could feel his earlier irritation return like a bucket of ice water. She was pretty, but no amount of beauty would change her profession, and so far, every move had been that of a stereotypical fortune teller.

“Would you like me to foretell your future?”

Catching his look of disgust, she slipped the dark velvet cloth back over the glass ball. Her eyes grew distant, thoughtful.

“Maybe something a bit more traditional?” Soleil pulled out a deck of cards, swiping them across the table in a smooth, practiced motion.

Liam frowned, a shred of his curiosity peaked. Were those tarot cards?

Fake mediums and so-called spiritualists littered the news. It seemed everyone was descended from a shaman, or could see ghosts, these days. He sighed. Hoaxes, all of them, but he couldn’t deny that the deck in front of him was ancient, and definitely not fake. Gold gilded the edges, worn away to reveal flecks glittering within the cards themselves, the painted illustrations faded and scuffed. The deck dated back to 3000B.C., if not older. Illustrations with gold weren’t uncommon, but it was exceptionally hard to find paper infused with real gold these days.

Soleil pointed to the chair, gesturing for him to sit. Liam shook his head and stepped back.

“We could just save ourselves some time. I don’t care about my future, and face it, we both know this is a farce.” The cards were interesting, but it wasn’t like tarot reading was anything new. Soleil probably bought them in an online auction, maybe even in the black market. Those cards were worth a fortune, and were better off in a museum.

“I must insist. Whether you believe in my abilities or not, I was paid for a service. I am not in the habit of offering nothing in return.” The woman smiled, her grin reflecting the red candlelight just as the phoenix’s.

“Listen, I’m only here because my sister forced me to come. I have no interest in your smoke and mirrors, so keep the money. Your shop is intriguing, I’ll admit, so consider your services fully rendered. If you will excuse me.” His piece said, Liam turned on his heel, only for the doors to close as he tried to leave.

Panic flooded his body as he rattled the handle. The door was locked; he was trapped. His breathing grew shallow. The room no longer felt large, Liam could feel the walls closing in, before his rational mind took over.

There was nothing to panic about. The door was probably rigged. He turned to glare at Soleil, his fury rising as a small smile graced her lips.

“Please, sit. It will only take a moment of your time, I assure you.”

Seeing the woman had no intention of letting him leave, Liam pulled out the chair, straddling it like a horse. If she tried anything funny, at least he could kick it in her face. He mourned his brush set, safely tucked away in his supplies back home. He would have felt much safer with a palette knife in hand.

Soleil gestured to the fanned out deck.

“Please select 7 cards.”

Liam rolled his eyes, pointing at random cards. With each selection, Soleil removed the card, and stacked them in her hand. When he finished, she slid the rest of the cards off to the side.

The stack of cards he chose in one hand, she held out her other hand, palm up.

“Your hand, please.” She twitched her fingers.

Fighting back another eye roll, he humored the request, flinching back when a spark of static jumped between their fingertips.

“My apologies. The shop has rather dry air, doesn’t it?” She grinned.

“Can we get this over with please?”

Liam expected the session to last forever, based on the time she spent preparing. To his surprise, the reading itself went fairly quickly. Soleil laid his chosen cards in three rows, five in the center, two to the top and bottom, then began flipping the cards.

The Fool. Seven of Cups. Ten of Swords. The High Priestess. Star, and Judgement. With each card flipped, she spouted off a line or two of nonsense. Some cards were upside down, but Liam stopped paying attention after the first card or two. None of it was real anyway—so what was the point?

Liam spit out a thank you when Soleil finished, shoved the chair back in with the one hand, and sped to the door. He grasped the handle, a tremor running through his fingers, but the door swung open with ease.

Liam stalked out of Fate & Fortune, displeasure radiating from him in waves. The visit had been an enormous waste of time. Maggie was off her rocker if she thought that swindler was a true seer. A chance encounter? A higher power will change his fate? Ha! The gods were a falsehood created by weak-willed fools desperate to believe someone else could save them from their troubles, and no one on Earth could change his mind. The woman was either a lunatic or high as a kite. Probably both.

Liam cruised around the corner, leaving the fortune teller and her crazy shop behind him. He was so intent on putting as much distance between them as possible, that he slammed into someone’s shoulder. Turning to apologize, he looked up to meet the man’s eyes, and the apology died in his throat.

The person he’d run into dressed even more elaborately than Soleil. The man’s sleeves engulfed his arms, drowning them in a swathe of fabric. Long bangs framed his face, dark against his fair skin. What was this, Halloween?

Liam ducked his head to avoid the man’s gaze, shot a mildly irritable apology over his shoulder and kept walking. Based on the stranger’s ridiculously clear complexion, he had to be a celebrity, maybe an actor—or just extremely vain. Either way, right now, Liam didn’t care. A burst of inspiration had struck the moment he met those clear blue eyes, the image burning itself on the back of his eyelids as brightly as the spark of excitement forcing his legs to run faster.

Finally, an idea!

He rummaged in his pockets for spare change as he ran, ignoring the coins Normally, he would have walked home, his house was only a few blocks away. Now, however, he raced to the train station, pleading with his inner muse to bless him. One more block. Just one more block and he could sketch, before he lost it.

Twenty minutes later, Liam found himself plastered to the train window, desperately wishing his sketchbook wasn’t sandwiched between himself and two-hundred pounds of sweaty athlete. The image, so vivid just moment ago, faded along with his sense of smell. Irritation welled inside him like the rancid bile in his throat. Why now, of all times? He strained to look at his watch. It was never this packed in the afternoon.

When he got off the train, Liam braced himself for the wailing onslaught of his—definitely not starving—cats. They would be incessant little heathens. It was 4pm, and they had yet to receive their dinner. Heavens forbid, the bottom of their food bowl could be visible.

Despite the miserable train ride and being greeted with the cats indignant yowling, the tension melted from Liam’s shoulders as soon as he walked through the door. At home, free from the city’s constant chatter and unending noise, the silence was blissful. Liam entered the laundry room through the swarm of felines. A shelf on the wall served as the cats’ own personal buffet, complete with a cat door for all the neighborhood strays he’d collected in the past five years. It didn’t take long for his two roaming toms to spread the word. They were neutered, but that didn’t stop them from checking out the locals.

Not that Liam was complaining.

He certainly didn’t mind being called the crazy cat guy. Cats were assholes sometimes—but they were fluffy, adorable assholes that actually did their job without much complaining. They got rid of vermin in the house, and were excellent pest repellent, rodent and human alike. Unlike his neighbors, he hadn’t had a rat infestation since the day he moved in. In his book, that automatically made the cats saints. He hated rats before he moved, but in Elko, he loathed them.

Having grown fat on the city’s waste, and accustomed to people forever crowding the streets, they no longer hid in the alleys. The rats had grown bold. Only the cats kept them at bay.

After feeding his furry army, Liam cleaned the litter boxes and readied his own meal. Lunari meowed, crawling into his lap. The plate teetered in his grip, and he held it high.

“You’re not getting any, so stop acting cute.” Fixing a glare at Lunari, their stare off lasted long enough that Liam resigned himself to a cold meal.

Lunari was a glutton for things he shouldn’t have, and the first of many strays that decided to stick around. He learned long ago the cat had a fondness for steak, whether it was good for him or not. After the second time he’d looked down to find his meal on the floor, Liam never left food unattended. Heating it back up now would only start the process anew.

As if hearing his thoughts, the cat huffed, flicking him with his tail before sauntering off.

Lap finally empty, Liam doodled as he ate, trying to recall the scene that had slipped away on the train. By the time he retired for the night, all thoughts of his strange encounters that day had vanished under a mountain of self loathing. He could not remember a single bit of the beautiful landscape that inspired him earlier. The cats amused themselves with his crumpled sketches, batting them around the house as he hiked upstairs in defeat.

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