A Short Story: The Price
A brief note before you read on:
The Price is an old short story I wrote for an assignment during university. I based it off the Faustian Bargain (which we had studied earlier in the year) and my teacher loved it. As I didn’t often delve into short stories back then, I was immensely proud of it; and still am. So much so that I honestly don’t believe any of the short stories I’ve written this year have matched it in worth.
Recently, however, the story has been on my mind – the characters floating about in the aether of my thoughts – and I realised that this story wasn’t finished with me yet. So, I sat down, and I wrote more.
Before I share that second part of this story, I thought I’d do some touch up’s and repost The Price here to share with you all.
I hope it gives you as much enjoyment reading it, as it has me.
The Jade Writer Girl.
The morning was dusky. The faint smell of freshly turned earth wafted in wisps on the morning mist. All was quiet. The sounds of morning muffled by the silence of the rising sun.
She appeared, as to be expected, at a crossroads. The roads were rough dirt, disappearing into the distance in all four directions. The ground was undisturbed except at the very centre of the intersection, where a small mound indicated a disturbance in the soil. Someone had been digging.
The boy completed the picture. He stood on the other side of the mound, feet bare and toes curling in the dirt as he stared at her. His grass coloured eyes shone, but burning deeper within their depths was a faint glow. A glow that only those with the power to see souls could perceive.
A power she possessed.
It was all the same. Except it was also different.
She took a moment to glance around. The fresh morning light—the glow of the sun peaking over the horizon—was foreign to her. It had been so long since she had witnessed a sunrise. Hers was the time of darkness and starless nights.
These morning hours, the soft spray of sunlight alighting on the morning dew, were the hours of angels. Just breathing sent short bursts of numbness through her, reminding her that she was a creature not meant for daylight hours.
She returned her attention to the boy.
He wilted away from her, chestnut hair falling around his face, green eyes wide and almost startled. Too innocent, yet far too knowing to have summoned her.
‘You’re eyes are red,’ he said, whispered, breathed.
His gaze was transfixed on her face. They stood for a moment. The human and the demon; each waiting for the other. Each curious. Each, just a little bit afraid.
She blinked and he shook himself, as if she had been holding him in place—though she knew she had yet to possess that power.
‘That means you’re her, ain’t you?’ he asked.
He shifted his weight, dropping his gaze back down to the ground, at the mound in the middle of the road. The one he had buried a part of himself in—likely a lock of hair or some precious keepsake.
When he looked up at her again, his eyes were a darker shade of green. Mosslike, yet still shining with the brightness of an innocent.
She suppressed a shiver. She had never dealt with a child before. Even teenagers were touched by the violence of the world. Tainted.
This one, however, was not. He was pure. It shone from him. From his eyes and his hair and his very pores. It sent a crawling feeling along her spine and the question of how he had come to summon her emblazoned on her mind.
She took another look around the crossroads, searching for another source of the summoning, searching for some other party, some protector or controller of this boy.
There was no one. Only the child, pure and innocent and still staring at her. It sent another chill through her.
She folded her arms and said, ‘What can I do for you?’
He swallowed and gave a little cough, as if clearing his throat, ‘Can you fix people?’
He nodded. ‘My sister, she’s… she’s sick. Can you fix her?’ His eyes were hopeful, bright, and he added in a rush, ‘I can pay!’
‘Really?’ she asked, raising an eyebrow.
He nodded again, ‘Yes. You need a kiss, right? I can do that.’
She couldn’t help the smirk that twitched at the corners of her mouth.
‘Something like that,’ she said.
He hesitated, regaining that wide eyed expression that was like nails on a chalkboard to her soul. She flexed her fingers, attempting to rid them of the numbness that was beginning to seep into their tips.
‘It’s not a kiss?’ he asked, worry pitching his voice higher. ‘She said all I hadta give you was a kiss. I don’t got nothing else.’
Uncrossing her arms, she crouched down in front of him, eyebrows drawn. Here was her answer.
‘My sister,’ he explained, feet kicking at the soft dirt at his feet, eyes cast away from her face at her sudden nearness, ‘she’s sick. She said you can help her get better and all I gotta do is give you a kiss.’
She rested her elbows on her knees, feet sinking into the dirt. ‘She sent you?’
The boy nodded, eyes flicking up to hers and away again.
‘She told you how to find me?’
He nodded again.
She stood up, ‘What’s your name, kid?’
‘Morgan,’ he said, ‘What’s your name?’
She hesitated, her voice catching in her throat. ‘Didn’t your sister tell you?’ she asked.
He shook his head emphatically. ‘She just said I’d know you ‘cause of your red eyes,’ he paused and tilted his head to the side.
She hesitated before answering with a wry smile, ‘My name is Morgana.’
He blinked. ‘That’s like my name!’ he said, voice hitching high.
‘You don’t say?’
At her tone, he paused to look at her, leaning a little closer than she would have liked. She shifted backwards, having trouble focusing on his eyes and the consequent shine of his soul.
She stood up and took another look around. With a little more focus than she had used before, she looked around again, searching for the path the boy had come from. To the west she saw a flicker of blue, the dim light of an adult soul. She had not seen it in the glow of innocence that shone from the boy, but now it was obvious to her. The sickly outline of the blue soul, the flickering darkness of whatever illness was slowly consuming it.
Yes, that soul was one that would have no qualms coming out to the crossroads to bargain for life.
Morgana frowned at the house in the distance. ‘How old are you?’
‘I’m nine,’ said Morgan. ‘How old are you?’
She glanced at him, smirking again. ‘I’m very old.’
The boy tilted his head to the side, frowning as he looked her over. ‘You don’t look very old.’
She laughed and turned to him fully. She tried to spot some sort of darkness in the shine. Some sign that he was already tainted. He stared back at her, swaying slightly, hands moving unconsciously with the motion of the wind.
Morgana took a deep breath in. It had been so long since she had even seen a child so pure as this boy. This child with her namesake.
He would make a great addition to the King’s ranks. The brightest souls often turned the darkest, and she would be greatly rewarded for stealing such a prize from above. Yet the thought of carrying him…
She sighed. ‘I can fix your sister,’ she said.
His face turned brilliant and the shine from him brightened so much that she had to look away, ‘Really?’ he asked.
The question gave her pause. Her past reared it’s distorted face in her mind, reminding her of all the reasons she stood there before the boy, rather than in another place. A place where the presence of a soul like his would not burn her.
Morgana tilted her head. ‘In another life, perhaps,’ she said softly. ‘What I do is more of an exchange.’
‘I can grant you this… wish—,’ she said.
‘Like a genie!’ he exclaimed, interrupting her.
She raised her eyebrows, ‘Something like that,’ she said again, ‘But my wishes aren’t free.’
Morgan flushed and looked at the ground again, ‘Oh, the kiss?’
‘No,’ she said, ‘The kiss is how I give you the wish.’
The boy frowned, ‘So… how do I pay you?’
She crouched down in front of him again. ‘You give me your soul.’
He froze, eyes wide, sunlight gleaming off his hair and silence filling the fields around them. It was still, quiet, all animals having hidden from her presence, from her darkness.
The boy stood in that silence, caught in it, as her words slowly registered with him.
The brightness of him, and her closeness to it, made it hard for her to focus on him. His purity was raw and bold. Dangerous to her own darkness. Her hands tingled from it, alternating between numbness and a slow, creeping burn. It was her punishment, for daring to be so close to a creature such as Morgan.
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘If you accept my deal, then your sister will be healed and you will have just ten years of life. And then I get your soul.’
His breath hitched. He swayed closer to her, and though his light itched through her, she stayed where she was.
‘T-Ten years?’ he said, eyes large and breath short.
Morgana nodded. It was the set price she gave all her customers. Non-negotiable.
He was silent. His feet shifted in the dirt. His hands clenched at the hem of his shirt. His head tilted, eyes drifting back the way he had come, back toward the house in the distance, and the soul that lived within it.
‘But you’ll fix her?’
‘Will…will I die? Without it?’
‘Will it hurt?’ His voice cracked on the last word, hitching in that way that precluded tears.
Morgana whispered, ‘Yes.’
He swallowed again. Hard. His gaze became unfocused as he turned back to her. Green bore into red. The child and the demon.
‘Ten years,’ he whispered. ‘I’ll be…’
She filled in the end of his sentence, ‘Nineteen.’
He looked up her, eyes glistening, and in that moment, she caught a greater glimpse of him.
His sister had known more than she had told him when she sent him on this errand. She had known the cost, and had not told him—had in fact, lied to him. He knew that now.
And yet…and yet she was all he had in the world. No parents or other living relatives to rely on. No one else to protect him.
Morgana saw this, saw it in the stark white of his soul. It scoured her, burned into her mind, and she knew his choice.
‘Okay,’ he whispered.
She didn’t ask if he was sure, didn’t check that he understood what he was asking for, what it would cost him. Nor did Morgana tell him what future awaited his sister’s soul for sending him to make her deal.
‘Have you ever been kissed before, Morgan?’
He scrunched his nose. ‘No,’ he said, ‘That’s gross stuff grown ups do.’
‘You might want to try it before you’re too grown up, or you won’t get a chance,’ she answered.
He frowned at her, but she ignored it, leaning forward to kiss his forehead.
The contact stung and she pulled away quickly, glad she had not touched his lips.
He looked up at her, eyes once again wide, impossibly so. She was so close she could see the flecks of yellow and lighter green in his eyes.
‘Did it hurt?’ he whispered, his breath ghosting over her face.
Morgana swallowed, ‘Ten years,’ she said. ‘Ten years and I’ll be back.’
He nodded but before she could even register the movement she was gone, leaving the boy standing alone at the crossroads while her own soul burned.
She was back for him, ten years to the day; despite the scars his touch had left on her own shackled soul. They still burned, from time to time, and though her King had rewarded her greatly, even offered her a higher position among his ranks, she did not feel the usual thrill upon collecting a soul.
He was waiting for her when she arrived.
Her hounds strained at her heals as she walked, salivating and snarling at each other, confused as to why they were being held back and taking it out on each other. She flashed them a look and they quelled.
As she entered the room the boy looked up at her. Though he was no longer a boy.
His eyes alighted on her, still so bright, and she felt that shiver from so long ago creep back through her. Back through the tips of her fingers and her lips, where she sometimes still felt the burn of his soul. It had left stains on her. Pure stains that streaked through the darkness.
‘You’re here,’ he said.
His voice was soft and calm. As before it was all the same. Except, as before, it was also different. He was not like the others. He did not run or plead or beg for another deal, for another ten years, another five, another one. Just one.
Instead he sat and greeted her.
She stilled her hounds with a wave and said, ‘Hello Morgan.’
He smiled at her and stood from the bed where he had been sitting cross-legged.
‘How is your sister?’ she asked, having not seen any sign of the soul she had healed.
He smiled, ‘She’s well,’ he said, ‘No more cancer, thanks to you. I said goodbye to her this morning.’
Her eyebrows shot up, ‘Goodbye?’
Morgan nodded, ‘Of course. I had to explain what was going to happen to me,’ he said. ‘But she already knew.’
It did not appear to bother him, his sister’s abuse of his soul, and she once again wondered if he truly comprehended the deal he had made.
‘You know, you never explained how it works,’ he said, ‘How you could just… take the cancer away. I’ve always wondered.’
She raised an eyebrow and smirked, ‘Like magic.’
He grinned at her, not the grin of those Morgana typically conversed with, but the good natured grin of a delighted child.
‘Perhaps you’ll find out,’ she added.
The reminder of his imminent death did little to diminish his smile and he leaned back against the bed frame to say, ‘Well. Let’s get this done then.’
He looked toward her hounds expectantly, and she knew that he had done his homework, that he knew how this was supposed to end. Instead, she closed the distance between them, so that she could once again see the flecks of gold in his eyes.
She kissed him.
His lips were hot against her own, searing at her own charred soul, tearing at the white streaks that already marred her.
He had taken her advice in regards to kisses.
She breathed in, sucking out his soul until the brightness left his eyes and instead filled her.
Her pain was her penance. His lack of pain, for the moment at least, her futile gift.
He was meant to suffer for his deal. That was the rule. That was what the hounds were for. It was their job. Her job. To let them rip through the physical of this world and tear into the fragile soul beneath.
This time though, this time the soul was too bright.
The price too high.