1 The Anonymous Box

Rain pelted down in lashing, horizontal torrents against the bay window of E. Addison Hugh: Finder, Buyer & Trader of Magical Articles, Inc., where I'd been cataloging wayward enchanted items in the storage room all morning.

A rhythm of leaky drops plinked into an old bean can on the counter top. I'd already dumped it out twice into Gus, our resident wraith flower, but the can was halfway filled again. Hopefully Gus was still thirsty.

After "working" for Addison in exchange for him providing me with a roof over my head, three square meals a day, and the parental guidance I lacked, he finally decided that now that I was newly fifteen, I was ready for greater responsibility than general housekeeping. Today, I was assisting with inventory of our latest acquisitions.

Addison is renowned as a magical artifact expert throughout our world, Ransara. He's a walking encyclopedia. Sometime people hire him to rein in a particularly troublesome or dangerous item, or to verify its authenticity. Others bring objects to him for safekeeping.

His home is a mashup of museum and storage facility (it's not open to the public though. You have to make an appointment.) He has an impressive magic-related library and a small greenhouse for magical plants. Framed licenses and certifications, awards, and letters from all over the world thanking him for his services line the walls of his office. He's been teaching, lecturing, buying, selling, and trading for over thirty years.

I squeaked my chair closer to the glass counter that showcased the newest collection of artifacts that had found their way to Addison's. I was trying to catch a mischievous, powder-blue marble to put it back in its pouch after it accidentally rolled out. The marble's power wasn't that impressive: it worked as a glorified ice cube that never melted.

Because I needed special protection to safely handle the items we had, I wore a pair of leather gloves charged with barrier magic so I wouldn't fall prey to whatever sinister powers I might be working with. They were dark green and quite sleek, though a couple sizes too large for me.

Addison always ran everything through a series of tests to find out what its properties were, even if the magic user who'd brought it to him told him what it did, because people liked to lie. Not only that, roughly a quarter of the items in here were stolen or forgeries. He usually gave me the low-risk stuff, like the marble, but he figured you couldn't ever be too careful.

While I struggled with the marble, Addison was prying open an unmarked wooden crate known as an "anonymous box" he found waiting for him at the door that morning. An anonymous box allowed you to send magical artifacts with no return address, as long as it didn't violate any international travel laws. People frequently broke this rule.

There were many reasons why someone would send Addison something in an anonymous box, but in a nutshell, it was because people were trying to avoid personal, professional, or legal trouble. Things that arrived in anonymous boxes tended to be the most dangerous out of everything that passed through our doors.

Meanwhile, every time I tried to pick up the marble, it rolled away from me down the glass counter. This happened a bunch of times in a row before I started to lose it.

I shouted in dismay.

"Coralie, calm down," Addison said.

I leaned on my elbows against the counter. "You try getting it back in the bag."

"Nope, that's your job. It's a good exercise in patience for you."

Addison saw a potential lesson in everything.

My hand hovered over the marble in a pincer-like position. Suddenly, it skittered over the counter's edge, clinked to the floor, and rolled under the radiator.

"It did that on purpose and that marble's trying to get away from me." I crouched and peered under the radiator. There it was, nestled among dust bunnies and a forgotten, unsprung mousetrap.

"What are you saying, that it's a sentient marble?" he said.

I sighed. "Considering the type of stuff you deal in, would it really be that hard to believe?"

We'd had items ranging from a murderous, self-activating battle axe to a taxidermy frog wearing a tweed suit that told fortunes if you gave him a thimbleful of whisky.

"It's not trying to get away from you. It's just trying to get back to its place of origin, like most things here would be if I didn't force them to stay put. You know that." He cracked another slat off the crate.

"What's inside it?"

"We'll find out in a second," he grunted, his face reddened with exertion. The crate's boards squeaked under the pressure. "This thing's shut real tight."

"Why don't you just magic it off?" I said.

"Coralie, get that marble." His gray streaked hair stood up in short spikes.

"Don't have a heart attack trying to get it open," I said.

Addison glared at me as another slat clattered to the floor.

I knelt in front of the radiator with the marble's pouch. "C'mon, marble, come to your little bag home."

The marble stayed where it was.

"It's ignoring me!"

"Why don't you try saying please?" he said.

"Little blue marble, won't you please get back into your stupid bag." I gave up and watched Addison.

Inside the crate was another, smaller crate. Again, he cracked off the slats to reveal yet another crate. He went through this process until he reached a fifth box, which then revealed a small cardboard box wrapped in layers of heavy duty cloth tape.

It took him ten minutes to cut it off the tape with the sharpest scissors he owned. "Wow, look at this."

Dangling from his fingers was a black, rectangular pendant on a dark chain that looked like it'd been tarnished in a fire. I went to take it from his dusty hands.

He snatched it away and held it over his head. "I can't believe you just did that."

Immediately I pulled my hands away. I couldn't help it. It was automatic, no matter how many times I'd been warned not to touch anything without Addison's go-ahead, even with the gloves, ever since the day I tried to steal a cursed dog fur scarf from him. Instantly it turned me into a dog.

I said tried to steal because the transformation happened as soon as I touched it. One moment I was a human and then POOF. Four paws and a waggy tail.

Three weeks passed before Addison got around to reversing the spell. It cost him five hundred direts since the scarf's magic was now used up. Sometimes I think he meant to keep me as a dog.

It was shortly after he decided it would be easier and safer to adopt me rather than risk having me hang around his business with my group of vagrant friends, or "degenerates" as he called them.

The unassuming rectangular pendant was the flattest, deepest black I'd ever seen. It was even darker than the ocean on a moonless night in the middle of winter. I knew because I'd traveled on a voyage to recover artifacts in the northern country of Vordmarre with Addison once. I'd woken up during the night and peered over the side of the ship and gotten dizzy staring at the sky's reflections in the inky depths below.

"Sorry," I said. "I forgot."

"I said look. You should know better by now."

"Okay, I'll be careful. Can I see it?"

He held it up even higher. "Promise me you will not try to touch the black part of it."

I rolled my eyes. As if I hadn't learned my lesson.

His eyebrows drew together as one. "Cor."

Addison wasn't playing around. That necklace wasn't just some cheap piece of costume jewelry. Harmless, fake items occasionally made their way here, but apparently, this was the real deal.

I put up my hands in mock surrender. "Okay!"

He gently cupped my chin in his hand. "You may absolutely not touch this necklace. You will not try it on. You will look with your eyes only. If you disobey me, I'll make you scrub each floor of this place with a toothbrush, and then I'll dump out a bag of rice and make you count every last grain. Plus, you'll be grounded for two weeks. Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes, Addison," I said as meekly as possible. He always followed through on his threats, no matter how bizarre they were. "I promise."

He placed the necklace on the counter next to an unfolded note, which he slid to me. "Read this first."

Dear Mr. Hugh,

Greetings. We hope this letter finds you well. Two days ago, a man was found wandering as though blind through Jenelle city square wearing this necklace. He was starving, dehydrated, and confused, with no knowledge of his name or personal history. He spoke in great detail about things and people that were not there.

This peculiar behavior continued until a nurse at the hospital removed it from him. He retains no memory of his experiences while wearing the necklace and unfortunately, still has not regained his faculties as of this writing.

The man was not found to be carrying a wallet or any personal identifying information, so the police are still working out who he is. It is possible he was the victim of a crime.

Please accept it into your safekeeping as we suspect it must be magical in origin, and feel it is too dangerous for it to fall into the wrong hands. Please forgive my anonymity. We are grateful for your help.

The note had no signature. I leaned a little closer. The pendant's blackness reflected nothing and instead seemed to pull light into it.

"Weird! What's it made of?"

He shook his head. "I'm not sure, but it's possible it isn't even of Ransaran origin. We'll see what some tests reveal."

Even though the necklace didn't look like much, I'd seen enough of these things to know that looks were deceiving. Particularly horrible artifacts often appeared harmless.

"The poor fool," Addison said. "I have a feeling he would have been lost forever if that nurse hadn't taken it off him. And I can't even question him about it because he doesn't remember anything."


Copyright ©2021 by Therese Walton

Cover by Therese Walton

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