Chapter 5 – The Power Held

White light blinded Juliette as she struggled to gasp for air. Her chest was being squeezed, like she were deep underwater. The same force that was pushing her chest was also holding her fixed in place standing upright. Her arms and legs were rigid, as if they’d been nailed to boards. The immense pressure worsened her labored breathing, not letting up or becoming any easier over time.

She was becoming more and more panic-stricken, eyes flicking in every direction, seeing nothing but the great white expanse. Finding a rhythm against the tremendous pressure was proving to be impossible. She clenched her eyes shut and focused on her chest and lungs. Everything else fell away. Minutes passed before she actually started to get used to the constant weight on her.

Ever so slowly, she began to control her breathing enough so that she didn’t feel like she would pass out. Her eyes fluttered open, careful not to forget about regulating her breathing, and looked around slowly within the blinding white room. It was much more painful to look at than she remembered, almost searingly so. Her eyes needed to remain almost fully closed just to be able to function without pain.

The place looked the same but felt different for some reason. Just slightly off, light a fraction too bright, the pressure from before more severe. It was like someone took the description of this place and tried to recreate it without all the subtle nuances that went along with it. She’d seen the same thing with Artists in Exden recreating a portrait or landscape. She could look at the painting and every detail would look perfect, completely real. But then if she looked at the person being painted directly, small differences stood out. A realness was missing from the painting.

The white floor was still endless, spanning until the floor blended into the blinding white atmosphere which made up the rest of the space. Her head spun at the disorienting world around her, no clear definition of the ground or the sky. She blinked her eyes to reset her vision and looked down at her frozen legs, then back out at the world.

Nothing was happening. There was no smudge of golden glow, or a powerful entity in this place. She knew last time she had felt an urge to move, to seek something hiding in the place, and last time she needed to walk to find it. Now though, she felt nothing. Nothing other than the crushing pressure straining her every muscle and locking her into place. She couldn’t move even if she wanted to.

Standing there was pointless. The thought of standing still, straining her body for hours in this blinding place made her jaw clench. She needed to move, standing here was too much, too disorienting. Lifting her foot proved impossible, she couldn’t even flex a single leg muscle. Her legs, turned iron, wouldn’t budge at all. Instead, she attempted to reach out with her arms, but again, they were locked in place like she was trapped in a block of stone. She could turn her head though, and once more scanned the endless horizon.


Juliette closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and focused on her body. After several heartbeats, she could begin to sense every muscle straining under the pressure. Juliette realized she now had intimacy with her body that she’d never known before. She could feel some type of inherent understanding of each muscle, each bone, each tendon. If she focused, she could completely tune into each part of her body, every connection. The tendons down her arms and legs were taut and seemed ready to snap against the weight that was pushing on her.

She took as deep a breath as she was able, and allowed herself to focus and calm her body. She set her attention on her hand, and slowly, finger by finger, starting at the very tip, she was able to work each loose and release them from being restrained. She continued the process until all of the fingers on her hand were freed and she was able to close her entire hand into a fist.

She moved her attention to her legs and tried to take a step, urging her leg muscles to contract, to move, but even this new knowledge she had didn’t seem to be enough. She relented back to her hand and slowly clamped and opened it while she took another deep breath. She thought to her hands and wrists, visualizing the physiology, and started the process of working each portion loose. Eventually, she had made enough progress to rotate her hands in circles and stretch them out. Her upper and lower arms were still locked in place, not to mention the rest of her body.

And while she did this, her breathing remained labored and forceful. She opened her eyes again, momentarily blinded by the environment that she forgot was so bright, before she snapped them back shut. Her eyes fluttered open slowly until her eyes adjusted. The pressure on her chest was not letting up, and she could feel a faintness in her mind due to the the lack of air getting to her body, only half a breath each time at most, and slower than normal. She flexed her hands and tried to move her arms, but nothing moved. She thought to her forearms. The tendons, muscles, bones that connected to her wrist, and started forcing the muscles to move, one by one, slowly until she was almost finished and able to move her arm up to her elbow.

Her head whipped to the side as she heard a sound unlike anything she had heard before. Some… gurgling sound. Like water beginning to boil, or bubbles escaping a tube, but much hoarser. The gurgling was whispering and hissing all at once, and so quietly Juliette wondered if she was making it all up, her senses being deprived in this place. It felt like it was coming from all around, or behind, but she couldn’t turn her head far enough to check properly. Whatever the sound was, it wasn’t letting up and filled Juliette with a sense of dread as she noticed it slowly began to increase in volume.

Juliette clamped her eyes shut and clenched her jaw as she tried to remain focused on relaxing her frozen body. Her heart was beating harder now, and her breath all the more difficult to control. She focused on her arm and worked the muscles loose. Only one link left and the bottom half of her arm would be free to move.

Done. She could bend her arm at the elbow. Reaching up, she felt at her shoulder. It was hard as a rock, cramped solid and unmoving. She awkwardly massaged the muscles in her shoulder, trying to loosen them into working again while she listened to the noise.

The sound was gaining. A throbbing mixed with a throaty gurgling, unsettling Juliette further. She thought she heard someone whisper, but when her eyes flashed open, the sound stopped and returned to the boiling noise from before. Her breathing was fast now and she struggled to stay calm, feeling her heart rate quicken. The only thing keeping her remotely calm was the task of working each muscle one by one up to her shoulder.

After what felt like an hour, her entire right arm was loose and could move up to the shoulder. The noise was deafening now. She clenched her jaw and covered one of her ears with her arm, but it made no difference. Her only clear path was to continue her attempt at freeing her paralyzed body, bit by bit.

The moment she shut her eyes to work again, a deep guttural growling overcame the noise, so loud her ears felt like they would bleed, and here eyes shot wide open. Juliette would have dropped to her knees in pain if her body hadn’t been frozen. Instead, everything tensed, even her loose arm, and she stood there as the growling coursed through her body. She let out a strained groan against the noise, and slowly the groan turned into a wailing yell. Juliette screamed at the whiteness all around her.

Through her half-closed eyes, she caught sight of a prick of black in the light to her side, so small she couldn’t be sure it wasn’t just her vision starting to fade into blackness, putting an end her suffering in this place. The black mark was still there though, and ever so slowly, so slow Juliette thought it was only her mind playing tricks, it started to grow. Small barely visible tendrils shot out in every direction, like roots from a tree reaching out for water. Tearing at the fabric of this place. 

The pure white atmosphere was being ripped into by blackness. Like a seam splitting down perfectly white tunic. The gurgling noise was hammering into her ears, and her eyes were tearing up at the pain. She stared at the black cut as it continued to grow, reaching out in every direction and heading toward her. She realized why it seemed to be moving so slowly at first. It was exceedingly far away, and must have been spanning great distances even as it started, but now that it was reaching closer to her she could see the speed at which the tearing was expanding.

The black scar ripped overhead and expanded into countless branches, each growing rapidly in turn. Juliette grit her teeth and tried to focus on freeing her body, but the world around her was falling apart and she couldn’t maintain focus. A flash of white within the black caught her eye, and she whipped her head to the side to see what it was. But by the time she turned her head, all she could see was a widening black gash nearby.

The whispering started again, pouring into her from every direction. Another flash of movement showed within the tear, then disappeared just as quickly. She screamed against the noise, against the pressure, begging for the ability to move. When something stepped into view within the large black gash in front of her.

Her eyes widened and her breath caught in her throat.

Monster. The creature was tall, twice that of any man, with skin like black oil, casting a reflecting sheen that flowed across it’s monstrous shell. The white glow from beyond the tear reflected off of its shell like ripples in a pool of water. Its two upper limbs were gripping the edge of the torn scar with sharp serrated claws, piercing through the fabric of the glow, as it stared at Juliette with three long black oily eyes. The eyes were the same liquid black as the rest of its body, but where light hit them, it seemed to reflect in opposite directions causing their slotted shape to stand out.

As unsettling as the eyes were, they weren’t what disturbed her most. Nor was it the pointed geometric head or its studded husk, portions of the black shell forming together into jagged points. Not even how it tilted its head at her, like it was studying her. Curious even. No. It was how the thing moved that made a chill crawl down her spine.

The jolting of half a dozen limbs with too many joints, each stabbed into the white ground below, constantly flashing reflections off the white light and skittering closer. Its upper half moved jarringly, seeming to move only between the time Juliette blinked, but always coming closer. It’s arms clung to the torn wall and it began climbing upward, higher along the seam with piercing steps, slitted eyes never leaving Juliette.

Her heart was pounding in her chest and her vision was spinning. She started to use her freed fist to beat on her other arm, doing anything to try to loosen it and help her move and get away from this thing. The entire world around her was scattered with black scars now, dark lightning bolts, each branching and growing into one another. There was now more black than there was white, and it was beginning to darken her surroundings to the point that it obscured the creature climbing ever closer above her.

She could feel a vibration thrumming through her body coming from its direction. The gurgling noise from before was mixed with its hissing whispers, though she could see no mouth. The whispers were loud, shooting pain from her ears all the way down her back. She clamped a fist to her head and watched as it crawled higher and higher until it was practically above her, many times again her height from the ground, where it paused. The whispering calmed, and the creatures ever-moving legs were frozen still. It gripped the sky, staring at her, frozen.

A loud crack shot through the space as it dropped from the sky landing in front of Juliette. Immediately, the noise returned twice again as loud and shook Juliette with pain. The massive creature’s legs punctured into the floor, only an arms-length away from Juliette. It stood up with twitching movements from its crouched position, like pieces of it’s body were locking into place. Towering over her, it reached its two arms out to either side of Juliette and slammed into the ground near her feet. She saw black oil flowing off the creature, forming a pool of blackness around where her legs were locked in place. It looked at her with its too-black slotted eyes, oil streaming across its form, and tilted its head.


Juliette threw her head back and screamed from the pain of its voice, a sound like grinding stone rubbing against her skin. The noise hammered into her skull and repeated over and over, echoing off of her bones. Its head was frozen still, staring at Juliette, motionless.


Her body shook and somehow her other arm had come free. She clamped both hands over her ears and had her teeth clenched so hard they might crack. The points of its head shifted and it moved closer to Juliette. Unblinking eyes stared her down as the parts of her body that had been freed now writhed in pain.


The creature reared back and screamed from nowhere. Everywhere. It’s limbs flexed as it prepared to end Juliette’s life right then and there.

Would I wake up if this killed me down here? Juliette thought.

She didn’t need to think long because the monster lurched down at Juliette with it’s head, ready to pummel her into the ground. She was helpless as half her body was still locked in place. Quickly, she brought her arms in front of her face to block the creature and hopefully soften the blow.

Suddenly, the creature jolted to a halt and the noise ended abruptly. Neither she nor the monster moved for several heartbeats. Juliette finally peeked past her arms and saw the creature was frozen, its shell reflecting a golden light. She risked a flick of her eyes down toward her feet and saw a familiar glow rising from the ground beneath her and between her and the creature.

In the moment she glanced down, the oily monster leapt away from Juliette and vaulted toward the nearest black tear. Crawling into the darkness and disappearing from sight. A tremendous heat wrapped her body and her eyes flashed with blinding golden light. Enveloped fully, Juliette lost sight of the creature, and her vision went dark.

Juliette blinked her eyes. Again a blinding white light surrounded her. This time though, free from black scars. She assumed a fighting stance and spun in place as her eyes darted around, ready for that terrible creature to jump out at any moment and end her with those abominable claws.

After several moments of seeing nothing but whiteness in every direction, she relaxed her frame slightly and rubbed at her sore muscles in her arms.

She straightened her posture shakily, savoring the painless deep breath she was able to take, and regained her composure. She’d never seen anything like that creature before. She shuddered at the thought of its oily eyes towering over her. Some monsters around Exden came close in appearance; slicks too had oily skin, but a much smaller and severely hunched frame. Harvesters were nearly as tall, but they were far more humanoid than monstrous. She was certain of one thing, whatever that thing was, nothing she had ever known could last a moment against that terrible creature.

A familiar pressure washed over her body. It was not painful or paralyzing, but pleasurable. Calming. She stretched her neck and opened her clenched fists. She breathed in deep, eyes closed, feeling the warm hum of this place. Her eyes opened and she recognized a golden light had appeared a good distance away from her.

She stepped closer, but unlike her first vision, she felt nothing holding her back. Her body was free to her, and her movements were as simple as walking down the street. She stepped toward the brilliant light and paused when she was close enough to make out its form within.

A man’s body was at the core. Skin a rich dark brown color, wrapped in flowing golden light. His physique was perfect, muscles clearly defined and showing through the plain burlap tunic he wore. Her eyes widened as she got close enough to comprehend his height. He was tall. Half-again as tall as any man she’d ever seen in Exden, and had close cropped hair paired with a neatly trimmed black beard.

The man smiled at Juliette. A wave of heat washed over her body and she was forced to shield her face and take a step back in recoil. He cocked his head, staring at her, then the heat vanished just as fast as it came, leveling off into a calm, warm sensation throughout her body.

“Juliette.” The man spoke

Another wave of pressure hit Juliette’s body and rocked her back. Though not nearly as severe as the first time. She steadied her footing and clenched her fists. She stared up at the man, glowing tendrils of golden smoke were flowing around his form as he looked back at Juliette.

“Who are you?” She asked.

She winced and averted her eyes, feeling suddenly ashamed for being so blunt with this being. No doubt he could end her with a snap of his fingers, suffocate her with heat and crush her into nothing.

“Child. Look at me.”

The command didn’t feel harsh, but gentle and welcoming like a mother soothing a child. She turned her head to face him once again and felt the deep pressure let up. Her hands relaxed marginally. The man’s smile was still there, and as she looked down, she noticed his bare feet weren’t standing on the ground. His whole body was floating a short distance above the surface below. He caught her studying him and they locked eyes with one another.

“Why do you think you are here?” He asked.

How do I answer that? She thought. She could tell him how she yelled at her mother, touched a rock, fainted, got groped by an Administrator, made a delivery, received some expensive gloves, and faced down a demon. It’s not like showing up in front of an all-powerful entity was that out of the ordinary for today. She chided herself; sarcasm wouldn’t be well received by this giant of a man. Instead, she swallowed then responded.

“I don’t know.” She looked down to his feet again. “There was this stone that, when I felt it, it brought me to this place before.”

His head tilted to the side, and eyebrows furrowed slightly. She gulped again, waiting for him to cut in, but he remained silent.

“Well, I thought it would bring me again. Instead it brought me to that… corrupted version. Something saved me and brought me to this place.”

She looked up at his eyes and saw him give her a faint nod of confirmation.

“This stone.” He said, smile dropping from his face. “How did you discover it?”

She paused and furrowed her eyebrows. No sense in lying to him.

“The Leader of Senov purchased it from a traveler. It was kept hidden, but shown to me by my friend, the Leader’s daughter.” She said.

“I see.”

They both paused, staring at one another. His golden eyes studied her and they both waited in silence. Juliette shifted on her feet before the man spoke again.

“Earlier. You asked who I am.”

He paused for a moment while his expression softened.

“You don’t know me, personally. I am a man. A very old man, and one that needs your help, Juliette. I am afraid that things have… changed. I need to ask for a favor of which I have no right to ask of you.”

He paused, staring at Juliette. She bit at her lip and stretched her hands before nodding her head for him to continue.

“That creature from before. It is no accident that it found you there. And it is not alone. This is my domain, but I am hidden. I cannot uncover myself while monsters, even worse than what you have seen, are being sent to hunt me. I need you to find me before they do so that I may return safely.”

The world seemed to melt around Juliette as her head spun. Monsters worse than that? She thought. Her hands began to tremble and she forced them into fists.

“Why me? And why are they after you?” She asked through gritted teeth.

The man smiled, “Circumstances have been planned for, long before this day. You, Juliette, are one of the few who might be able to do what needs to be done. And now, I need to call on you to bear that burden.”

Juliette began to shake her head, frustrated at the non-answer this man was giving her. She opened her mouth to speak, but was cut off by the man raising his palm at her.

“I understand you have questions, but now is not the time for answers. You will soon understand why. For now, I need to know. Juliette, are you willing?”

The smile was gone from his now serious face. He stared confidently at Juliette, golden eyes piercing her own. She again felt the pressure building in her body, not painful, but adding weight to the moment. This person could be another monster for all she knew, impersonating the vision she’d seen the first time. After all, the torn world she was pulled from before looked just the same as this one at first. The man seemed genuine, for all that his answers were vague and lacked any real substance, but she couldn’t be certain.

If he was an impostor, then he wouldn’t be having this conversation in the first place. He would have just killed her when she told him about the stone if that’s what he was after. The man likely wasn’t a monster, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t dangerous. She would be getting involved into something of which she had no idea the scale. For all the monsters he said were tracking him down, that scale would be great. She would need to agree to something that she had no clear understanding of, and put herself, and more likely, others into danger.

She looked to his calm and imposing face. His golden eyes were focused on hers, and they blazed gold awaiting her response. His wide shoulders were squared to Juliette though his arms hung gently by his side. He was asking something of her with nothing to return, not even answers. A floating stranger from a glowing realm, in trouble, seeking help from a 17 year old girl. Juliette wanted to punch herself to wake up from this dream of a day. None of this made any sense to her.

Her mind thought of that creature from before.

Would a man, even as powerful as this man seemed to be, last against it? She thought.

Its black shell and piercing claws, hunting him down, ripping his body apart. It was enough to make her body shudder. She would help anyone in that situation, even if it was dangerous. If that thing was coming after mother or Jane? Oliver?

She relaxed her shoulders and stared back at the nameless man. She felt  confidence for the first time in what must have been… months. She took a deep breath and replied.


The man’s face softened into a smile and the glow around him seemed to increase in brightness.

“Thank you Juliette. Truly.”

He nodded his head toward her and she nodded in return, not entirely sure what she’d just gotten herself into.

“For your trust, I offer you this.” He said.

He extended a hand, palm facing the glowing sky. He glided closer to Juliette, and in his hand sat a brightly glowing ball of golden light. The orb lifted from his hand and slowly floated toward Juliette. It looked just like the stone that Jane showed her. Twirling wisps of gold spinning on itself, the same, but without the actual stone in the center. He waited patiently while she inspected the orb now floating in front of her within arms-reach. She eyed it cautiously.

“This will offer you a portion of the power that will be required to find me.”

He floated, eyes locked on the ball of light in front of Juliette. He flicked them back to her.

“But not all. For you will need to earn the rest on your own.”

“Is this some Proficiency?” She asked confused.

The only way anyone could up and get powers was through a Passion and a visit to the Heart.

“Proficiency… Is that what people are calling it these days? I simply call it Skill. One which allows you to extend past human limitations. Attuned to your Passion, it will let you surpass anything you’ve done before.” He said in his deep voice.

Juliette clenched her jaw and released it.

“Then I am not able to accept, as I’m Passionless.”

The dark skinned man tilted his head to the side at Juliette and a sideways smile crept onto his face. She furrowed her eyebrows back at him.

“But you are not, child. You have more Passion than you might think. Do you not feel it? The pull, guiding you, focusing you mind?” He asked.

Her eyebrows knit tighter and she leaned back slightly from the orb. She thought back to the pull she felt from back on the streets of Exden, that gnawing need to find this person above all else. It could have been the simple desire to save a person in need. To do whatever it takes for find him and help. But she didn’t feel it until she felt the stone…

“But…” she started, “one needs to feel the Heart to receive a Passion. I… There’s no way. I’ve never even seen it before.” She said disbelieving while she shook her head.

“One does not need to touch the Heart to receive, only feel it. Inside.

He tapped his chest with his massive fist as he said that.

“When you discovered me in the vision, did you not, with every fiber of your being, with passion, want to do whatever it took to help me?

She shook her head harder as her heartbeat began to pick up.

“You desired a way, any way, to find me most effectively, and for that, you received one. You have felt my Heart intimately, Juliette. ”

Your heart? What are you—”

Her eyes shot wide at the realization. The man nodded slowly at Juliette. She staggered back on her feet. Her head was swimming and she shut her eyes at the overwhelming light around her. Her face went flush as she felt faint and ready to pass out at any moment.

Impossible. She thought as her eyes shot open. He was drifting closer to her, eyes locked on hers.

“I am he.”

The pressure slammed back into Juliette’s body, thrumming across her frame. She wanted to close here eyes, but she forced them to stay open. She didn’t want a Passion. She knew what it did to people. Knew what she did to Oliver. Juliette wanted freedom from that bondage. She had earned the privilege of choice, same as everyone else in Ducania, to choose when and where she sought out the Heart, not to be forced into it like some sort of powerless dog.

Her body began to lift from the ground, slowly, until she was a hands-width off the ground. Then two, three, and kept rising until their faces were on the same level. Then her body started advancing slowly toward him.

“The One Who Creates.”

The perfect whiteness all around her exploded into swirling colors. Every color imaginable, even some she couldn’t fathom, mixing and churning into a turbulence of vividness. He was so close now that she could feel the heat from his body radiating onto hers. Her body was rigid and her knuckles were white from squeezing so hard. Her jaw clenched tightly as she felt her heart pounding inside of her chest. She wanted to scream back at him, to yell in defiance of everything he was telling her. This was all a dream, she was still Juliette Annabelle Hastings, Passionless daughter of Alton and Katherine. She’d wake up and realize she’d dozed off back at the fountain in Jun. This wasn’t happening.

The man stared at her, deep into her eyes, beyond, and opened his mouth to speak.

“I am Paragon.”

The kaleidescope of colors vanished in the blink of an eye, and with it, complete and utter silence.

“And now,” Paragon whispered,“I need you, Juliette.”

The golden orb slammed into Juliette’s chest and her body arched back from the impact. She screamed, a hoarse desperate cry, as a thick cloud of golden smoke rose from the ground to envelope Juliette once more.

Then, the dream ended.

Jane Doyen stared at her friend on the floor, breathing rhythmically and looking more peaceful than she’d ever seen Juliette. Juliette’s amber eyes were locked behind closed lids, and long black hair was tied loosely near her shoulder as she slept. A shoulder which was stained with water and dirt from the events of earlier today. Jane smirked and attempted to softly brush off some of the looser dirt from the hem of the tunic, but it was packed deep. Her smile fell from her face when she thought of today’s other events. She didn’t know exactly what had happened while Juliette was out on a delivery, but she expected she wouldn’t be pleased if she found out.

“Oh Juliette,” she whispered, “what a day.”

Jane stood up and walked to the door to ensure that it was still locked. Ever so slightly she cracked open the door to peek outside, and was met with a gust of wind that stirred up dust throughout the small room. Jane coughed quietly and quickly shut the door, waving an arm to blow the dirt away. She’d had this room cleared out earlier in the day, so the only items that still remained were a table and chairs, and a small woven satchel which would hold a mysterious stone. Oh, and her friend who happened to be lying on the ground dreaming of fantastic golden beings.

Jane let out a breath and angled her head, stretching her neck from side to side. She’d wanted to understand what Juliette had seen. See this indescribable white room and receive some amazing vision like her friend. What an incredible thought. Some conspiracy happening right under her nose. It’s something Leaders dreamed about. The opportunity to solve an ancient mystery and receive copious amounts of Para as a result. And she was a part of it. A shiver went down her spine. Surely she’d rank significantly once this was settled…

She was already rank nine, no small feat in and of itself, being only a single rank away from a major-rank before one turned eighteen. Her fifth rank had awarded her the Utmost Respect proficiency, which was blissfully wonderful in that it commanded those around her to give her the respect a Leader deserved, and those that crossed her would feel a compulsion to make things right. Though somehow, when she used it on Juliette, the girl had see right through it… That was what made Juliette special though, she could stand up to the most intimidating of people and barely bat an eye. She and authority didn’t seem to mesh well together. A major-rank Proficiency though, would offer a significant advantage, and might be able to overpower Juliette’s unusually strong willpower. Usually, it was something powerful like Visionary, or Unanimous Vote. Something that could let a lower rank Leader break into the competitive higher tier Leadership.

Even without an actual Proficiency, Jane was able to read people now that she was a Leader like her father. And what she read on Juliette, was that something had changed within her friend after she felt the stone in her father’s chamber earlier today. And whatever it was, Jane wanted it too. It’s why she had tried to hold the stone while Juliette was off on her delivery. She wanted something that could distinguish her from everyone else. Something to give her purpose in addition to hitting a major rank, and turn Jane Doyen her own person, not simply the shadow of District Leader, Roland Doyen.

She took a deep breath and stretched her hands, letting herself relax from the stiff posture that the daughter of a Leader should have at all times. She glanced down to Juliette lying on the floor and stepped closer to her. She lowered herself to the floor and laid down next to her friend, closing her eyes. She timed her breath so that it matched that of Juliette’s. After some time, she opened her eyes and turned to face Juliette’s sleeping form. Her friend’s lips were slightly parted, and her breathing still steady and quiet. Juliette’s olive skin was so tanned it was bordering on brown from the amount of time she spent outdoors and in the sun.

She brushed Juliette’s hair away and scooted her body close enough to feel the warmth coming from Juliette’s. She need not worry about the dirt floor forming stains on her tunic thanks to Air of Dignity. She couldn’t be seen in public with an embarrassing mark, so her Proficiency made certain it would never happen. Juliette’s hair smelled earthy from all of the time she spent outdoors today, and lying on the dirt floor didn’t help the matter. Jane closed her eyes and quieted her breathing. She reached a hand out to toy with the seam of Juliette’s tunic, gently as not to wake her up. Moving her head closer, ever so slightly, so that her face lay close enough to Juliette’s cheek to feel her breath bounce back.

Juliette shot from the floor screaming, her body tense as she spun to take in the room, fists clenched so tightly that her knuckles were pure white. She raised her fists and slammed them down on wooden table in the center of the room. It splintered under the strike and sent the small pouch onto the ground near Jane. Jane was still on the ground, halfway into a sitting position, and stared up at Juliette. She had finally stopped screaming and stood breathing deeply with fists clenched staring down at the stone on the ground. Juliette looked over to Jane.

“We need to go.” Juliette said.

Chapter 4 – A Gift of Old

She blinked away the haze in her eyes and sprinted toward Valentin’s home, disregard for others on the street. All moved out of her path to let her pass.

Her throat stung and her head was throbbing from clenching her teeth so tightly. She ignored the eyes cast her. They were too absorbed in their work and too busy to pay her more than a second glance.

Finally, she came into view of Seller’s house and leapt over the low cut hedges which lined each side of his walkway. Juliette followed the path which lead to a set of stone steps, treaded them two at a time, then up to a wide platform with tables and chairs. Flowers were in full bloom and the home was immaculate. She passed the seating area and came to a stop in front of the Merchant’s front door, panting for breath.

Her tears had stopped, yet her breathing remained ragged, and her face was stained a mixture of dirt and wiped tears. She bend down to put her hands on her knees to rest for a moment and regain her breath.

“Why does everyone have to care so much about my life?” she mumbled to herself.

She thought about how easy it would be to make everyone stop. Juliette could turn around, sprint back and be at the Heart’s entrance in moments. Zul would be waiting, probably an arrogant smile on his face, for her to return and gladly lead her to the Heart. She could travel the winding pathway, past the blood red glow of the torches, feel the Heart, and receive a Passion. She could receive her blessing, become a Maid for all Juliette cared at this point, and be done with this non-stop badgering from people. The process was painless, and quick from what she had heard.

An administrator would lead you down the sacred trail, until you were standing in front of the Heart. Standing before the Heart, an Administrator would grip a person’s bare hands and perform a final check on their mental state. An assurance from Paragon Himself, through an Administrator, that a mind is pure. Then, releasing one hand but still gripping the Administrator’s hand with the other, would reach to feel the Heart’s surface.

In the time it takes to snap a finger, their life changes forever. A new path, clearly defined, and urgency applied, would be set in their mind. For most, it would make their life easier, stronger, more potent. Whatever they were destined to do, it would enhance them into people that were above Passionless humans. A gift received. A Passion and powers to perfect a single skill in life.

That is, it would happen to all but a select few. No, every so often a life would turn dark.

The thought of an Administrator touching Juliette’s bare skin, like one had once touched Oliver as they lead him to the Heart, made her skin crawl. Zul promised she’d not turn foul, but… the way he reacted… she doubted that very much.

She shook her head, and her long unruly hair came loose in the wind. She wiped it from her face and rubbed both eyes once more with the sleeves of her tunic, now spotted with stains from today’s events. She grabbed the stack of letters strapped to her chest, and untied the knot keeping it attached to her body. Once she let the letters free, she could see how damaged they had become. Dirt, folds, and tears stained the small stack in her hands. She picked at the corner of one letter in an effort to straighten it out, but gave up shortly. Not bothering to fix her hair into a professional style, she shut her eyes, took a long deep breath in, and slowly let the air out. Once she opened her eyes she gave a firm knock on the door and did her best at a controlled professional appearance. Making sure her badge was clearly visible.

A quick gust of wind blew Juliette’s mess of hair in front of her face right when the door opened. After a few moments of pawing the hair out of her face with one hand, she saw someone standing in the doorway.

A tall older man with a long gray beard, spotted with flecks of brown, had answered the door. His dark and unruly eyebrows consumed the upper half of his face, while the bottom half was absorbed by his dense beard that fell to his chest. With only a strip of bare skin from his nose to his and eyes, it was a striking difference to the barren wasteland of missing hair that was the top of his head.

He was wearing a densely padded blue tunic, with fabric that seemed to wrap around his torso and chest half a dozen times before it ended, each strand laced with fine golden chains and charms that rang in the breeze coming in through the door opening.

He didn’t seem pleased. For how wealthy this man was, she must have been interrupting some important meeting or sabotaging some business deal, just by knocking on his door. For a few moments he stood there to take in the sight of Juliette. Her stained tunic, disheveled hair, and dirt smeared cheeks from past earlier. Juliette shifted her stance as the man locked eyes with her.

“May I help you miss?” The man said in a gravely voice.

Juliette cleared her throat. And lifted the badge around her neck so the man could see.

“Hello, my name is Juliette Hastings, making delivery on behalf of Alton Hastings and the Deliverer’s league. May I speak with Valentin Sellers please?”

“I am he.”

Juliette lowered her badge.

“Mr Sellers, here are the letters which were to be delivered by this afternoon.”

Juliette extended the slightly damaged stack of letters toward Valentin.

“Do you accept this delivery?” She asked.

Mr. Sellers paused for a moment before accepting them from Juliette. She held her arm outward as he looked down at the set, then back up to Juliette’s face. She could hear the faintest sign from Valentin before he reached out to grasp them from Juliette.

He turned sideways and held the door open with his hand. “Come inside dear. I’ll inspect the letters to ensure none have been lost to damage, then let you be on your way.”

Dear? How bad do I look? Juliette thought.

She couldn’t blame the man for wanting to check on the letters considering the condition which she gave them to him. She’d thought he might have just turned her away at the sight of them to begin with. She stepped past Valentin’s wide frame and into his spacious home. Her feet met a finely woven rug and she felt immediate guilt at how much dirt she must have tracked in with her from the run. He moved past her, and didn’t appear to care when he saw her looking down. She noticed the dirt that should have been staining his rug, was instead floating slightly above the rug itself. The dirt seemed to be slowly flowing through air, heading toward a small opening in the ground near to the doorway itself. Enchantments, she thought. Juliette couldn’t begin to fathom the cost of enchanting an entire floor, maybe even an entire home, with a cleanliness spell. But based on the location of Valentin’s home, and the stately stature of the exterior, she shouldn’t be surprised. 

He continued into the main area of his home and looked around to take it all in. Smooth wooden floors, dotted with rugs and mats expertly woven into beautiful patterns. The stone walls left room for multiple glass windows on each wall, and through the back windows she could glimpse a lush private garden. Valentin shouted for a ‘Lara’, who Juliette assumed was his wife given his age. He gestured toward a sitting area to her side with padded chairs and divans.

“Please, take a seat. I’ll review these in my office while I check for any damages. My wife, Lara, will be down in a moment to meet you. Do you need anything before I begin?”

He stood, an imposing gaze in her direction, tapping the stack of letters into his other hand.

“No. Thank you Mr. Sellers, and I apologize for the damage.”

“Don’t apologize just yet, until I find any damage that is.”

He gave her a weak smile and headed off out of sight into another room of his home. Juliette stood in his sitting area for a moment, before looking around and selecting a chair which offered a view of the garden. She had just sat down when she heard an echo of footsteps on the wooden floor heading her way. From behind the hallway, Juliette heard a shout.

“Valentin! Where did you run off to?”

A plump woman with short, curled white hair crossed the hallway’s threshold for Juliette to see. She was wearing a simple, yet finely made, purple tunic, along with simple hooped gold earrings.

She strode through the room past her view of the garden, eyes flicking briefly toward Juliette, and went into the room with Valentin.

“You yell me over, but don’t have the decency to tell me what you need and make me traipse through this house to find you? You’re lucky you make a lot of money or—”

“Dear.” Valentin cut her off in his low voice. “The girl in the sitting area, she’s dropped off a delivery for me. Will you please see to her?”

The woman leaned back out of the room to glance at Juliette for a moment before turning back to speak muffled to Valentin.

She exited his room shortly after and made her way over to Juliette, who was picking at a thread on her tunic. The woman’s eyebrows furrowed slightly when she came closer.

“Hello dear. My name is Lara, and that hairy oaf is my husband Valentin.” Lara said. When shouting at Valentin, her voice seemed week and flimsy, but now it was smooth and soothing.

“I heard that woman!” came a shout from Valentin’s room

She waved a hand in his direction.

“He’s always so quick to get to business he forgets common courtesy sometimes. May I offer you something to drink? Perhaps a warm washcloth to wash your face from the long trip?”

Lara raised an eyebrow at Juliette and smiled gently. Juliette nearly declined out of habit, but today was not the norm and she knew she looked like a disaster. She nodded.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you Lara, my name is Juliette. And a warm cloth would be wonderful. Thank you.”

Lara nodded back at Juliette and went to retrieve the warm cloth. She ran it under her running water, and miraculously, she didn’t need to boil water first. The Sellers appeared to have running warm water through their home. Juliette was silently disappointed Lara hadn’t offered a warm bath instead of just a towel.

Juliette accepted the cloth from Lara and rubbed at her face and hands until the dirt was gone and she felt much cleaner and less self-conscious. Lara retrieved the towel from Juliette onto a small wooden plate and went back to drop it off somewhere out of sight.

Juliette took a deep breath while Lara stepped out of the room and reached up to try and tidy her rats-nest of hair. Usually, her straight hair fell all the way down to the small of her back, but now, some of it was tangled and tied into a messy braid from her run, pinned up into a loose bun. She released her hair and ran her fingers through to comb it smooth. After a few minutes, Lara returned with a glass of water and some sliced bread.

“Now tell me,” Lara said as she placed the tray down in front of Juliette, “What part of this delivery has gotten you so upset? Was it Valentin? Was he being a wet blanket about the letters? They were barely bent for Paragon’s sake.”

Lara shook her head and huffed out a breath.

“No. He was very polite.”

“I’m shocked!” Lara said with fake surprise.

Juliette smirked.

“It has been the type of day to start off poorly, and get worse by the minute.”

“Well. I’m sorry to hear that, but you won’t find poor here. Is there anything else I can get you while you wait?”

“You’ve been fantastic. Thank you Mrs. Sellers.” Juliette smiled.

“Good. That is good to hear. It seems that ever since we moved to this new home a few days ago, there’s been more and more distress finding our way! There too much emotion this close to the Heart I keep saying. I told Valentin we didn’t need to be this close, but you try convincing a Rank 20 merchant to bend on what he’s got his mind set on.”

She leaned in closely.

“I think he used his persuasion Proficiencies on me, that old dog.”

Juliette chuckled at that.

“Why did you decide to move here in the first place then?” Juliette asked.

“You know how merchants are.” She waved a hand at Juliette, “As soon as they make a little bit of money, the gold starts to burn a hole in their wallet. They scramble until it can be spent! You’d think we’d have a house full of trinkets, but not my Valentin’s home. He prefers selling the little things and buying the big ones.”

Lara opened her arms gesturing to the house. Juliette had no clue what that was like.

Lara continued, “He made some big trade a few days back with a foreigner who could barely speak a lick of the common tongue. My prestigious husband hailed it as, ‘the greatest deal in all of Exden’s history!’ Ha!”

“Will you stop about that Lara?!” Valentin shouted again from his room.

Juliette perked up in her seat at Lara’s mention of the foreigner.

“What was the man selling?” Juliette asked.

“Some worthless piece of stone Valentin says. He thought the man was crazy and trying to swindle him at first. That was until he had a… sense… that he could profit from the trade. The man did not want much, so Valentin agreed. But just as he was about to close the sale, one of Exden’s Leaders walked by and offered Valentin enough gold to buy the house we’re sitting in.”

Lara shook her head, but Juliette noticed a little sparkle in her eyes that told her she wasn’t all that disappointed with living in this luxurious home. She caught Juliette’s gaze and leaned in close once more.

“Do you know how much Para he received for such a profitable trade?”

Juliette was shocked Lara was talking about her husband’s Para in front of her. Lara paused, letting the anticipation build.

“Enough to rank twice, in the same visit! I haven’t heard of that happening to another soul on all of Ducania.”

She cackled and continued.

“Imagine that! My lovely dolt of a husband, making the trade of a century. He couldn’t even wait a full day before he spent it all on this place to be closer to the Heart. I guess he thinks he might double rank again! Ha!.”

She shook her head and stood up to fetch another glass of water, while Juliette sat stunned. Jane had told Juliette about Roland intercepting the trade, but she never mentioned Roland gave enough for Valentin to buy and entire house with the profits. There was something Roland wanted to keep under wraps. Which had Juliette confused as to why Lara was sharing this with her in the first place. Juliette looked out the front window and could barely make out the stone arch which lead to the Heart. Two small figures stood in white standing guard.

Lara stepped back in, biting into a small piece of chocolate. She offered the other to Juliette, but she refused.

“How do you stand the Administrators being in front of your home at all hours? It’s like they are always watching you.” Juliette said.

“Oh, I’ve gotten used to it already. If those prudes want to see an old lady change into her night clothes, then so be it!” she cackled again.

Juliette smiled and tried to guess who had to put up with who in this relationship. Valentin had less emotion than a statue, while Lara seemed wholly unable to contain hers. Juliette shrugged her shoulders.

“They just rub me the wrong way I guess.”

She looked away to the garden as she spoke. Lara followed her gaze.

“Come on dear, let’s get out of this stuffy room and into some fresh air.”

Lara was already standing up with a groan before Juliette could say otherwise. She led them through the back door, into the garden Juliette was looking at. Lush ferns and greenery rustled in the wind from every direction, and bright flowers bloomed everywhere she looked. The entire area was lined with a tall stone wall which gave the space a sense of intimacy Juliette didn’t expect. Lara led Juliette to the back of the garden to a small shaded canopy complete with two chairs and small wooden table. She gestured for Juliette to sit across from her as Lara plopped into the over-sized chair and let out a long sigh.

“And why is that Ms. Juliette? Have you had trouble with the men and women in white robes in the past?” Lara asked, taking a sip of her drink.

Juliette shook her head and took a deep breath of the fresh air while she sat down.

“No. Well, not before today that is.”

“Oh? What happened today?” Lara asked delicately, eyebrows furrowed.

Juliette sighed and let her head drop back onto the chair’s back.

“Does everyone need to know my life story today?” Juliette said, louder than necessary, frustration seeping into her voice. Lara narrowed her eyes at Juliette.

“Now see here young girl. If I see a woman in my sitting room, eyes red and cheeks stained from crying, I’m not just going to pretend all is fine and dandy. That might work for some timid low rank merchant, but not this old woman.”

Lara sat back in her chair and looked out toward the greenery, taking another sip of her drink.

“You can tell me a lie to get me to shut up,” she continued, “or you can tell me the truth, and maybe this old hag can get a bit of fulfillment from helping someone else for once in her life. Your choice.”

Juliette sat in her chair, eyes closed. She waited long enough where she thought Lara would cave in and say something. Instead, Juliette heard Lara lean back in her chair further and begin to hum.

“I don’t have a Passion.” Juliette said.

Lara opened her eyes to look at Juliette, eyebrows raised, but still remained silent.

“I’ve been putting it off for long enough that I’m not sure I’ll ever decide to receive one. My mother has been down my throat about it, and my best friend isn’t too far off.”

Juliette paused before continuing.

“I met someone on a delivery today, who seemed to be the only person I’ve met who didn’t care about it. He almost gave me hope that I might be able to actually make it in Exden the way I am. But when we ran into an Administrator out front of your home, he stood there like I was crazy when I didn’t want to go down the Heart’s tunnel right then and there.”

Juliette huffed and could feel her pulse quickening. She forced herself to stop clenching the arms on the chair.

“I was actually almost convinced to go along with one of white robes to the Heart too. But when the Administrator reached out and touched me… I knew I couldn’t do it. Instead I ran away and…”

Juliette gestured to herself sitting there.

Lara softly asked, concern spread on her face, “Did the Administrator do something to you dear?”

“No. Nothing like that. But, the way he recoiled when he touched me? It was like I caused him pain, or something was terribly wrong within me. Not a great confidence boost that was.” Juliette mumbled.

“Do you think there is something wrong?” Lara asked.

Juliette let her eyes close again and felt her grip begin to tighten. She breathed in the fresh smell of blooming flowers all around, helping to calm her.

“I have no idea anymore. What I do know, more certainly than ever, is that seeking the Heart is not the right decision for me.”

“Well, for what it’s worth, I can respect you for standing up for what you believe in. Not many in Exden would do the same when the pressure hits.”

They stopped when they heard the wooden back door creaking, and saw Valentin approach. He was not holding the letters anymore, but instead a pen and a small sheet of parchment. He walked close enough to be within talking distance.

“Ms. Hastings, after review, I will accept the delivery. My apologies for making you wait—”

He flicked his eyes to Lara, who gave him a small nod, then back to Juliette.

“—I’ve had poor experiences in the past with damaged shipments.“

“Thank you Mr. Sellers. Is there anything I should report to the league?” Juliette asked.

He shook his head.

“I’ve signed my approval on the delivery form. Here you are.”

He extended the parchment to Juliette, who stood up from her seat, but when she went to grab it, he pulled it back away.

“Which league are you a member of by chance?” He asked.


He hummed to himself and rubbed at his beard.

“Would you be willing to carry a letter back for me? I was going to make a trip to the local league, but something has come up this afternoon. I understand this would be asking more of you, but I’d be happy to compensate you, and leave a positive review for you, or for Alton, on the form there.”

He gestured his pen at the form he was holding.

“May I ask where it is to be delivered?” Juliette asked.

“The chambers of district Leader Roland Doyen. Either he or his assistant will be acceptable.”

Juliette’s pulse quickened. Roland’s chambers were on the way, but she was hesitant to see him so soon after everything that had happened earlier in the day. She would be meeting with Jane at noon, so could drop the letter off with Jane instead, and have her bring it to Roland at the council meeting. A bit of coin never hurt anything either…

“Sure. I can make the delivery.”

Valentin clapped his hands.


Juliette’s eyes widened. That was the most emotion she’d seen the man exhibit yet.

“I need to put a short note together and fetch the letter. Lara, can you walk Juliette to the front door? I’ll be there shortly.”

Lara nodded and set her glass down. Valentin turned and walked back into his home, his shoulders brushing on the plants extending into the path.

“The old man can never pass up the opportunity for a cheap deal can he?” Lara said, rising from her seat.

“Come on dear. Let’s get back inside, I’ll see you out.”

They walked back inside and Lara gestured for Juliette to wait by the front while she went into a side room. Juliette could hear wooden drawers opening and closing. A few moments later, Lara came out with a fine pair of gloves in her hands. She tapped them in her palm.

“One last thing. It looks like your gloves are less than whole.”

Lara nodded her head at Juliette’s worn-out gloves, holes visible from where Lara was standing.

“I’ve got no use for these anymore, and it looks like you need them more than I do. Take them.”

She tossed the gloves at Juliette and she fumbled at them in the air, finally catching them. They were striking. Rich black fabric, wrapped in fine gold threading created intricate patterns along the length of each glove. The design looked like wisps of fire or smoke, trailing towards the fingertips. A small silver charm hung off the glove. It was woven onto a cord, then looped into a slot near the wrist. The palm was made with a thin layer of smooth black leather. She couldn’t tell if it was made with an animal’s black hide, or simply dyed the richest black she’d ever seen. Either way, Juliette could feel the quality of these gloves, and knew they would not have been cheap to purchase.

“Mrs. Sellers, this is very generous, but I cannot accept them. These must have cost you a great deal.”

Juliette pushed them back toward Lara, but she dismissed Juliette with a wave.

“Oh Paragon. Do young people not know how to accept a gift with grace these days? Remember what I said earlier? Take the gloves, they don’t even fit these sausages any more.”

Lara wiggled here fingers around and smirked. Juliette looked back down to the gloves and couldn’t remember the last time someone just up and gave her something for no reason. She reached out and wrapped her arms around Lara, feeling her eyes become wet. Lara wrapped Juliette in her arms and gently patted her back.

“Do be careful with those dear.”

Juliette pulled away started slipping off her tattered gloves to make way for the new ones.

“I received those many years ago from dear old Valentin as a way to… encourage… my feelings toward him. Typical Merchant, trying to sell his way into marriage!”

Lara barked a laugh and glanced down to the gloves in Juliette’s hand.

“I was in a rut handling all sorts of dangerous items you don’t want touching your skin. Those Alchemists can be ghastly people sometimes with what they bring in to sell. These gloves were enchanted to be strong, but they can be broken or torn if not watchful. What makes them truly special, is their ability to protect against whatever they come in contact with. If you handle acid? They become acid-proof. A sharp blade? Tough as steel.“

Juliette’s eyes widened in surprise, recalculating the sum Valentin must have paid.

“Are you certain you want to just give these away?” Juliette asked, unsure, eyebrows in a knot.

“I might be old, but I still know when I’ve outgrown my need for something.”

“Thank you, truly. This is too kind.” Juliette said.

“You’re welcome dear.”

Lara smiled, then stepped in to lean closer, face turning harder than before, and lowered her voice closer to a whisper.

“And for what it’s worth, those white robes out front don’t sit right with me either. Ever since we bought this place, it seems like they’ve nothing better to do than keep a watchful eye on me and my Valentin.”

Her face softened slightly, but her voice was still quit.

“I don’t know what’s come over me. But when I first saw you, I felt something… distinct from you. A… certainty, or confidence that us merchants get sometimes. Some call it instinct. It was a feeling that you knew your path, and were ready to take others along. I don’t normally go spilling secrets or gifting my betrothal gifts to any crying girl on the street, I’ll have you know. But I do hope you’ll remember this gray haired wife-of-a-merchant when you do whatever it is you’re set out to do.”

She smiled, and returned to where she was standing. Valentin came out, holding a small letter and the delivery form. Juliette could see a lengthy paragraph he’d written near the bottom, but she couldn’t make out the words. Valentin glanced down to Juliette’s black and gold gloved hands, and then his eyes shot to Lara. She gave him a small nod, and after a moment, he returned it just as subtly.

“I see you two have had a production talk.” Glancing back at Juliette. “Here is the letter to be delivered.”

He handed the small white letter to Juliette.

“And here is payment.”

He handed her a small pouch of coins. She didn’t peek inside out of respect, but was eager to find out what the bag held.

“I won’t require a delivery confirmation. I trust that I’ll find out if Mr. Doyen doesn’t receive this.”

He narrowed his eyes at Juliette, and she caught Lara rolling her eyes. Lara poked an elbow into Valentin’s padded tunic. He didn’t seem to notice.

“Well off you go dear.” Lara prodded. “Before my husband decides to send you on another errand.”

Juliette nodded at them both. She took a half step toward Lara again, but hesitated, and instead said thank you, and headed back out into the warm air outside.

Her run back was done in silence. No needling Administrators barred her way, and no handsome boys came to her rescue.

She glanced at the timepiece found at the entrance to Senov’s district, and noticed it was just past noon. She hurried her pace, hoping that Jane hadn’t left without her already.

Sweating and panting, she neared her clay home. It was devoid of any vegetation, no wooden floors or sitting areas. It had the same look as the thirty other Laborer homes that lined the streets. Juliette slowed her pace and removed the gloves from her hands and folded them into her pocket. The letter too was tucked into her pocket, alongside the Healer’s business card from earlier. She took a few deep breaths to steady her breathing and walked through the threshold. Her eyes adjusted to the darker interior and saw two women sitting at her table, one wrapped in a finely styled emerald tunic, green eyes, and dark hair. The other in a worn tunic, eyes tired from years of manual labor.

Jane and Juliette’s mother stopped talking as she walked in. She noticed they were sharing a simple lunch of rice and cooked vegetables. Juliette stiffened slightly when her mother smiled softly and gestured to the open chair, still chewing the bite she’d just taken.

Jane caught Juliette’s eyes and gave her the barest of smiles, which Juliette returned. Juliette slid out a wooden chair, taking in the spiced aroma of the large bowl in front of her, and sat down taking an empty plate for herself. She scooped a few spoonfuls of food onto her plate and began to eat.

“How was your delivery?” Her mother asked carefully.

“It was fine. All things considered.” Juliette met her mothers gaze.


Her mother flicked her eyes to Jane who continued eating her food as if there were no tension in the room, then back to Juliette.

“—I’m sorry for how I spoke to you this morning. I’m exhausted from the extra work, and let myself slip. I shouldn’t have raised my voice at you.”

Her mother looked down and swirled the food on her plate. Juliette clenched her jaw, then loosened it. Took a deep breath, then responded.

“It’s fine. Just please, let my business go for now? I’ll deal with rumors myself if they come up.” Juliette said, taking another bite of food.

Her mother nodded and seemed to relax slightly at that. She took a bite as well. After a moment, her mother continued.

“No problems along the way to Jun? Running through Jun is irritating to say the least, dodging every stall and Merchant trying to empty your pockets.”

Juliette finished her bite. “The run was fine like I said. Apparently, I looked like a damsel in distress though, as this boy took it upon himself to escort me to my destination.”

Juliette rolled her eyes, and Jane pursed her lips. Her mother looked up from her plate.

“Is that so? Did he give you his name?” Her mother asked.

“Abel Runson, some tier 10 Deliverer with an overpowered Proficiency that let’s him run twice as fast as should be humanly possible.” Juliette said with no small amount of bitterness.

“Abel’s a nice name.” Her mother smiled, “And a Deliverer you say? That’s how your father and I met did you know? Making a delivery to the same location, ended up running along one another. He offered to carry the package I was holding in order to impress me, but not even a minute later he tripped on a loose brick on the road. Crushed his and my delivery.”

Her mother smiled to herself.

“We had both wanted to marry within our Passion, and it happened to work since neither of us was in a relationship at the time.” Her mother continued.

“Was he attractive?” Jane asked Juliette.

Juliette coughed on her food.

“What? I don’t know. He just walked up to me while I was sweaty, taking a drink, then decided to guard me through the Merchant’s quarters. I didn’t stop to ogle at him.”

Jane raised an eyebrow, and Juliette caught her mother covering a smirk with another bite of lunch.

“You didn’t answer the question.” Jane said, raising both eyebrows.

“Oh, Paragon. He was a normal looking guy, though he looked like he’d just woken up with how messy his hair was.”

She heard her mother snort at that.

“He was heading to the Heart while I was going across the street to this merchant named Valentin Sellers. Who, by the way, has the nicest house I’ve ever seen. Their entire floor was enchanted to prevent dirt.”

Jane cocked her head to the side and narrowed her eyes toward Juliette.

“His name was Valentin?” Jane asked.


Jane’s eyebrows furrowed slightly.

“Not a very common name I guess.” She shrugged. “Oh! I was just telling your mother, tonight my father is looking for extra work at the council meeting. Are you available today to help out? It’s a paid work of course.”

Jane fixed eyes with Juliette. Juliette knew they were planning to study the stone still this afternoon, and wasn’t sure if this was a cover-up, or something she should be turning down. Momentarily confused, Juliette nodded back at Jane.

“Sure. I was planning to see if the docks needed any extra hands during the evening shipments, but I don’t have any other deliveries planned.” Juliette said.

Jane clapped her hands together.

“Great! I’ll let my father know that the position is filled. Would you be able to meet before hand? There are a few specifics that you should know about before the meeting starts. I’ve got some time now if that works?”

Juliette looked to her mother, waiting for her to cut in with some responsibility Juliette was already obligated to attend to. Instead, she received a shrug of the shoulders as her mother continued to eat.

“I’m signing up for more work so that I might still be able to rank up in this decade. I’ll be out on deliveries all afternoon and into the night. Any of Alton’s extras, I’ll complete.”

Juliette nodded to her mother, then turned to Jane.

“Sure. Let me finish lunch though first. I’m starving from running all morning.”

The biting sun was finally passing its peak, taking the heat along with it. A cool afternoon breeze from the Exden Sea prickled chills along the back of Juliette’s neck. In a few hours the sea would bring in even cooler air, and most in Senov would change into their warmer padded clothing.

The streets were becoming more crowded now that the hottest part of the day was over, like ants crawling from a hive after rainfall. A loud crash of glass breaking on the ground, followed by yells of an irate shop owner, caught both of their attention as Jane and Juliette walked by his workshop.

“So this Abel boy…”

“In Paragon’s sake, Jane, enough already!”

“I’m just teasing you.” She gave Juliette a pestering smile. “Unless this dreamboy—”

Juliette shoved Jane with her shoulder and caused Jane to stumble. Jane quickly regained her composure and narrowed her eyes at Juliette. Juliette paused in the road, worry stricken across her face, her heart rate had begun to pound with regret at giving insult to Jane Doyen in public. Affronting the daughter of Roland Doyen. Juliette started to fall to one knee to ask for forgiveness, when she paused. Juliette narrowed her eyes at Jane, and began to stand.

Jane stood staring back, posture straight and chin up. The perfect statue of Leadership, staring Juliette down, past the bridge of her nose.

Jane’s eyes widened as Juliette shoved into her again.

“Don’t you start using Proficiencies on me you little thornling.” Juliette said, a smile creeping onto her lips.

She pointed a finger at Jane, who had recovered from the shock and now wore the same lithe smile as someone caught while playing a practical joke.

“Me? I would never. Jane said, hand across her heart, and a grin betraying that.

They both turned and started walking again. Juliette could see the smirk on Jane’s face from the corner of her eye.

“Are we going to talk about our plan here? Did you find a place for us to work?” Juliette asked.

Jane’s face became more serious as she turned toward Juliette.

“Yes. It’s not too far from my father’s chamber though, so we’ll need to be somewhat covert when we arrive.”

Juliette didn’t know what would happen if Roland discovered they had taken his stone, and she didn’t intend to find out.

“Speaking of your father,” Juliette said.

She paused and pulled out Valentin’s small letter from her pocket, then stretched her arm toward Jane. Jane took the letter and inspected the name written on the envelope.

“What are the chances…” Jane mumbled.

Juliette knit her eyebrows together, waiting for Jane to continue.

“This is the man that my dad… intercepted… I can’t believe that’s who you delivered to today.”

Jane looked up to Juliette.

“I couldn’t believe it either. I had to wait for him to inspect the delivery, and while I did, his wife told me all about how he came into a large sum of money from ‘some Leader in Senov’ through a very profitable trade.”

Jane’s look of concern grew with every comment.

“Jane, do you have any idea how much your father spent to get that stone?”

Jane shook her head slowly. Juliette could see her jaw clenching tight.

“I don’t. Not for certain at least, but I do know it was nothing to bat an eye at.” Jane said quietly.

Juliette swallowed, biting her lip.

“Well, you’re right about that. With what your father gave Valenin? He bought an entire house, and not a cheap one either. And on top of that, it’s right across from Jun’s Heart entrance.”

Jane looked distraught. Her eyebrows knit, and jaw clenched tightly. She stared at Juliette as if to see if she was telling the truth or not. Finally, she took a deep breath and spoke.

“Thank you for telling me that. I had no idea he paid that much. I don’t understand him anymore.”

She said, mindlessly tapping the pocket of her tunic. Presumably where the stone lay. They walked a few more steps in silence. Jane’s hand found the seam of her tunic and she began fidgeting at it.

“I felt the stone while you were gone.” Jane said.

Juliette’s body halted, adrenaline coursed through her frame and hammered in her ears. She whipped her head sideways at Jane, staring with wide eyes. How dare you? The thought flashed in her mind.

“You what?!”

Jane continued walking ahead, not even glancing toward Juliette. It forced Juliette to jog to catch up.

“I wanted to know if what happened to you was a fluke. If I could possibly see the same vision you had seen, and maybe, diagnose what you saw. But when I touched it… nothing happened. I didn’t faint, didn’t feel pain, I didn’t see anything.”

Jane looked to Juliette, biting her lip nervously. Juliette breathed a sign of relief that the stone gave her nothing and she was safe. She relaxed her hands and forced her shoulders to follow suit.

“You scared me.” Juliette nudged Jane gently. “I’m glad nothing bad happened to you. You should have just waited until we met.”

Jane let out a murmur too quiet for Juliette to hear.

“We’ll have two hours.” Jane said staring ahead. “Two hours before my father will be leaving his chamber. At which point, he’ll be making a stop with a visitor, then heading to the meeting tonight.”

She looked at Juliette.

“And I was serious about the offer for work tonight by the way. My father is looking for help, if that’s still okay.”

Juliette nodded, she’d hoped the offer was real, as she could use the coin. She also silently chastised herself for not checking how much the Merchant gave her for the delivery. She left the coin pouch and delivery receipt with her mother, who would bring the form to the league for her.

“That would be great, thank you.” She smiled at Jane.

Jane smiled back and gestured to a building up ahead. It was an ordinary building, blending into the palette of structures around it. She noticed it was remarkably close to her Roland’s workspace.

“Not too far from his chambers, you say?” Juliette said sarcastically.

Jane rolled her eyes.

“Quit complaining you.” She nudged Juliette with her elbow.

A few moments later they entered the building. Laid out simply, a wooden desk with chairs in the center. A bench along the back wall under a small glassless window. And a few shelves filled with books and parchment.

“This is my father’s assistant quarters. They are out running errands today, giving us privacy.

Jane said this while shutting the wooden door, casting the room into darkness. It took Juliette a few moments for her eyes to adjust to the small amount of light that was coming in through the window. It was then she could see the wisps of golden smoke seeping through Jane’s green tunic. She focused on the point as Jane reached down to grab the stone.

“Don’t.” Juliette said.

Jane froze.

“Do you see that? The glowing smoke?” Juliette asked.

Jane looked down confused. Then shook her head.

“I don’t see anything.”

Juliette knit her eyebrows together.

“Your pocket. I can see the stone glowing with golden smoke, pouring out of your tunic where it’s held. It’s harder to see in the sunlight, but here, in the dark, it’s much more visible.”

Jane looked back down at her pocket, squinting her eyes, as if that would help see the bright glow. Juliette moved closer and crouched down to her knee to get closer to the smoke. Jane looked down at her, and Juliette ran her fingers through the tendrils of light radiating off of the stone. Juliette was lost in the sight, when Jane touched the side of Juliette’s face and took her attention.

“Should I take it out now?” Jane asked.

Juliette cleared her throat and stood up facing Jane.

“Do you mind if I do it?” Juliette asked.

Jane furrowed her eyebrows and pursed her lips. She paused for a moment, then shook her head. Juliette opened the pocket and found the simple pouch which held the stone, smoke pouring through its every fiber. She gently grabbed the top of the pouch and set it down on the table. She and Jane reached for a chair and slowly sat down at the table across from one another.

Juliette pulled at the string and gently poured the rock out onto the table.

It was so much brighter than before. Juliette had to squint her eyes to stare directly at it. The stone itself looked no different. A nondescript gray-brown rock. It had a smooth surface on two sides, with a rough section opposite, like it had been broken off of a larger stone.

Juliette must have been staring at it longer than she realized, as Jane cleared her throat not so subtly to grab her attention.

“Last time you felt it, you… saw something. Right?”

Juliette nodded her head.

“If you feel it again, and faint, what should I do? I can look for a Healer again, but if my father found out what we were doing…”

“No. If I faint again, just let me wake naturally. Last time, the… vision ended abruptly and I woke up. If this time is the same, I’ll wake up once I’m done seeing whatever it is I’m supposed to see.”

She looked back down to the stone, golden haze tumbling off the table’s edge. She started to reach out to feel it, but Jane stopped her hand.

“Two things. First, do you really want to do this again? Are you sure?”

“Yes.” Juliette responded so quickly it almost cut Jane off from speaking.

“Second, do you think you should lay down first so you don’t risk hurting yourself from a fall?”

Juliette slowly nodded.

“That’s a good idea.”

Juliette took one of the black and gold gloves out of her pocket. Jane cast a silent, curious glance at the glove as Juliette slid one on. She grabbed the stone with her gloved hand and stood from her chair to find the cleanest part of the compacted dirt floor. She laid herself down, Jane hovered nearby, then sat next to Juliette. Even through the fabric of her glove, the stone felt like it was thrumming, a low pulse like a heartbeat, so slow it was almost imperceptible. Juliette looked to Jane, nothing but confidence on her face.

“If I do pass out again, when I awaken remind me where I am and have me tell you exactly what I saw. I don’t want my memory to fail and lose a clue to something important.”

Jane nodded and scooted her body closer so that her thigh was touching Juliette’s shoulder.

“I’ll be waiting.” Jane said with half a smile.

Juliette took a deep breath through her nose as she lay on the hard floor. All she could smell was the dingy soil of the well worn foundation. Dust from the ground had stirred to make a cloudy haze in the room when she laid down. The stone was reflecting off the air and made the whole room seem to glow.

She reached up with her hand and paused just before making contact with the stone. She gave Jane one last look, and as Jane opened her mouth to say something, Juliette completed her reach, and her mind went dark.

Chapter 3 – Let Truth Expand

Juliette made her way back toward the Deliverer’s league absentmindedly, a memory laced with gold looping in her mind. She kicked a small stone down the road until it bounced off a crate of fruit.

“Would I get a vision from you too little pebble?” She mumbled to herself.

The sense of urgency didn’t wane in the slightest. In fact, the idea of idleness sent a prickling up her spine. She should be back with Jane right now, studying the stone and trying to figure out what this all meant, not out making a delivery. But before she could convince herself to turn back, the league’s building came into view.

It was a huge space, but not an impressive looking one. The building was constructed for function, not form. It needed to be large enough to hold the massive amounts of packages, letters, and materials that went from one place to another on a daily basis. An entire industry, built around the fact that people were too lazy, or too busy to carry their own items. Juliette climbed the stone ramp leading up to the entrance and sidestepped a few other Deliverers speeding out the door. They were all carrying boxes strapped to their front or backs, and looked to be headed in the same direction, though some opted for the street route, while others took the upper route, bounding across rooftops and sliding down ramps thanks to their Proficiencies.

Juliette had tried her luck at the upper route a few times, but without a Proficiency of her own, each trial had ended with broken packages and bruised body parts. She now kept to the cobblestone street, left to battle against the flow of traffic on a daily basis.

She finished her climb up the long ramp and entered inside. It was even busier within. Rows of desks lined three walls like a massive horseshoe. Each desk had a number carved into the arch above it, and was surrounded by an extensive storage and racking system carved into the clay walls. The storage areas reached back at least ten paces for each desk. Efficient. Efficient was a good word to describe the Deliverer’s league. In fact, speed of delivery is why most used the service and relied on its members to carry their wares. Each Deliverer was assigned a particular desk, and just to the side, was a list of all open and assigned deliveries to be made for the day.

Juliette walked up to the sign corresponding to her father’s allotted desk and found ‘Hastings’ written on parchment. Next to it were five deliveries scheduled to be completed by the end of the day today. No small amount of work that would be. Even with an injury like her fathers, the league didn’t take favorably to people asking for fewer jobs. To them, it meant slower deliveries and unhappy customers. If one lowered their workload, it could take months or years to get back up to the level of work they were at before. This is why Juliette’s father had agreed to continue taking as many as possible. The downside though, her father would never be able to finish them all himself with his bad leg, leaving Juliette and her mother to offer to take some of his workload. Since Juliette wasn’t an official Deliverer with a Passion, she wasn’t on the register, but they knew Alton and Juliette well enough that they let her take on one of his deliveries per day.

The desk agent saw Juliette lingering near the schedule board and waved her over.

“Hello Juliette, here for Alton’s delivery today?” She said.

“Yes please.” Juliette said.

The agent nodded and slipped back into the storage room behind her. Juliette set her elbows on the desk and looked upon the piles of letters, crates, and goods ready to be picked up. Most were destined for various locations around Exden, but there were a few with destinations halfway across Lesnor. The packages looked to have been sitting there for some time. Those would take a tremendous amount of time to complete, unless a truly high rank Deliverer took on the job, or the customer payed up for the Mage’s league to teleport the goods. Yes, it was prohibitively expensive for most, but for perishable or time sensitive items, there were few faster ways.

The agent returned with a small stack of letters wrapped in twine. She slid them toward Juliette and began scribbling on a register with some of the finest handwriting she had ever seen. It was difficult for Juliette to read even as she leaned forward to get a closer look.

“Your destination is the Jun district,” the agent said, “making delivery to a merchant named Valentin Sellers. The deadline for delivery is,” the agent craned her neck to look at the clock above her, “four hours from now. His delivery should be made to his home located in the eastern section of the residential zone, across the street from the entrance to the district’s Heart. His home will have a sign with his last name. Will you require a map?” She finally looked up from her registry and stared at Juliette.

“No map, I’ll be able to find it. Thank you.”

She nodded and slid Juliette’s wooden identification badge across the counter. The badges were attached to a braided cord and worn around the neck by all Deliverers while on an assignment. They helped to reduce the number of stolen packages and missed deliveries. Since Juliette wasn’t a Deliverer with a Passion, she was forced to wear her father’s backup badge, rather than one that had her name and membership on it.

The agent spun the registry around and Juliette signed her name, took the badge, and grabbed the delivery from the counter. Before heading out, she stopped at the supply desk near the entrance, purchased a set of cheap leather gloves, which appeared to have holes in them already, and slid them on.

“There you go hands, no more complaining tomorrow.” She spoke to herself.

Jun was around a 2 hour walk from Senov, center to center. If she ran, she could make it in under an hour. She needed to be back at her home by noon to meet Jane, which left her 3 hours to get to Jun, find Valentin’s home, deliver the package, and get back to Senov. Instead of postponing any longer, she stretched her legs and set a course for the Jun district.

Juliette’s run was mostly uneventful. Aside from a few traffic jams at busy intersections, and a persistent seagull that decided either she or her package looked like fresh seafood, she made it to Jun’s central market in great time. She stopped at the large natural spring fountain found in most of the busy parts of Exden, sat down her delivery, and plopped down on the rim to rest. Her face was flush from the rising heat of the day, and sweat had started dripping down her face. She wiped her face with the arm of her tunic and glanced around while she caught her breath.

She was in the center of the brightly colored Jun district, which had the highest density of Merchants in all of Exden. The wealth disparity in this part of Exden was notable, in that shanties mixed with mansions. Jun was a place where someone could find anything, from some of the rarest artifacts ever discovered, to the essentials like food and pots. The rarity and demand of certain items let certain specialist Merchants make a fortune, while many still scraped to get by. Most large cities were setup in a similar way to Exden, those with similar Passions congregated together and formed districts. There had been attempts by Leaders in the past to fix the wealth gap and cultivate a more diverse population throughout Exden, but they all failed in short order for one simple reason; those with a Passion wanted to rank. There was no faster way for someone to rank, than to directly out-sell or out-make their competitors with the same Passion. No matter how much incentive the City Leadership tried to offer, people still gathered together, scrambling to get the most Para and rank up as fast as possible.

The area where Juliette sat was not setup with merchant booths, for it was more of a crossroads, where people not busy selling would go to collect water, have meetings, and commiserate before they shoved their merchandise down each other’s throats again. Each road that emanated out from her location was vividly lined with countless stalls, stands, and shanties of Merchants, all fervently pedaling their goods.

Juliette stretched her arms over her head and let out a soft sigh of relief.

“You don’t look like an Alton to me,” someone said.

Juliette twisted her head to see a leg perched on the rim of the spring. This leg was connected to a body, which was then connected to a head that was smiling back at her. He looked close to her age, but with lighter, wavy hair that was a bit longer, and more unkept, than most around this district.

“Excuse me?” Jane asked, raising her eyebrows.

He pointed at her chest. Her eyebrows furrowed.

“Your badge. It says,” he tilted his head to read it slowly, “Alton Hastings.”

“Ah.” She said.

She reached for the stack of letters she set down and stood up to leave.

“You aren’t Alton though, are you?” He continued. He took his foot off the rim and stood facing Juliette still smiling. “I’ve heard his name before while in the league building.”

Juliette tightened her empty hand into a fist. “Oh yeah?” she said turning to him, “And what did they say about him?”

He kept his smirk and said, “That he was one of the harder working Deliverers in the league. He got injured not too long ago but didn’t stop him from keeping up with his deliveries. That colored me impressed. Do you know him?” he gestured again at the badge she was wearing.

Juliette let her grip loosen and calmed her shoulders. She was ready to defend her father from rumors if need be, but she preferred they both left this conversation unhurt, not just herself.

“I see. Yes, I know Alton, he’s my father.” She said.

His eyebrows raised slightly, and Juliette looked back toward the direction she needed to go for her delivery. She started to strap the bundle to her front so she could run, while he kept staring at her.

She let out a puff, “is there something you needed?”

His grin widened. “Me? I’m just a fellow Deliverer, see?” he wiggled the wooden badge around his neck, then dropped it back down to his chest. “I’ve got a delivery to make to the Heart in Jun, and was just stopping to get a drink when I saw you were on an assignment too. It’s good to meet fellow members.” He said, nodding his head toward Juliette.

“Is it, now?” She asked.

“Absolutely! We’re all part of the same league and need to watch out for one another. Some of my best friends are people I met while on a job.” He looked surprised someone could even consider not being friends with every Deliverer on the street.

Juliette rolled her eyes. “Well, it was a pleasure to meet you…” She tilted her head to the side to read his badge. “Abel Runson.” Trying to lay it on as thick as possible, which, unfortunately, didn’t seem to be deterring him. “But I really must be going, this delivery won’t deliver itself.” She plastered a fake smile on her face and tapped on the letters now strapped to her chest. “Good luck with your visit to the Heart.”

She started off toward the busy market street that was the most direct route to the residential district, but looked back when she heard the sound of feet hitting the pavement behind her. She let out a sigh.

Abel waved his hand as he sped towards Juliette.

“Hey!” he shouted, “I’m headed this same way, we can fight off the panhandlers together.” He nodded ahead toward the congestion. “Plus. You never told me your name, daughter of Alton.” He said, glancing sideways at Juliette, that goofy smirk still stuck on his face.

“Juliette.” She responded and increased her speed.

Abel fell behind for a moment, until he adjusted to her new pace, seemingly unconcerned, while Juliette’s breath became more labored.

“Wow, you set a good pace! It’s nice to meet you Juliette.” He smiled as he reached out a hand.

Juliette considered sprinting off and getting lost in the traffic, but he’d been genuine enough, even if his pickup lines were dung. She took his hand.

“Nice to meet you,” she said.

They ran for a bit in silence, dodging tables and silks draped across the street, until Abel realized he might die if he didn’t fill the silence.

“So, do you deliver to Jun often?” He asked.

Dung. Smelly, awful, cow dung.

“I don’t do too many deliveries, just help out my father when he needs a few extra done.” She tapped on Alton’s badge.

“Ah. That makes sense why you don’t have your own badge then. You seem pretty capable for a part-timer though, I’m surprised the league hasn’t given you your own badge yet. For record keeping sake if nothing else.”

 “That’s because the league only recognizes those with a Passion for Delivery. I don’t have that.”

The sentence slipped out of her mouth before she realized what she was saying. She was so used to the conversations with Jane or her parents, whom all knew about her lack of a Passion, that she thought that would end the line of questioning. She groaned audibly at herself for making the mistake, and made a mental note to stop by an Animal Trainer on the way home to buy a muzzle.

“Ooh!” his eyes widened in curiosity. “A non-Deliverer making a delivery! I haven’t seen that before. Usually people are so wrapped up in their Passions, they don’t have time to do anything else.” He paused for a breath, “If not Deliverer, what is your Passion?” He said with eyes gleaming of interest.

Juliette Hastings did not think of herself as a stupid person. At the moment though, she wondered how intoxicated she might have been when she came to that conclusion. Surely, an intelligent person wouldn’t step into this trap of a conversation.

“I don’t have a Passion.” She said.

He looked perplexed. “What do you mean? How old are—”

“I’m seventeen.” She interrupted, clenching her jaw and accelerating her run.

“What? No one waits that long to receive a Passion.” His eyebrows furrowed in confusion.

Instead of responding, Juliette pointed her thumb at herself and raised her eyebrows, daring Abel to push this topic further. He seemed to get the hint, because his mouth turned into a frown and his eyes narrowed.

“Wait a second.” He slowed to a stop behind Juliette.

Juliette could keep running. She could complete the delivery, get back to Senov, and spend time studying the glowing stone with Jane. She should do that, but instead, she slowed her run to a halt, paused in the center of the busy marketplace, took a deep breath and closed her eyes. She knew Abel knew who she was now, and she couldn’t bring herself to run away and let the rumors spread any further. He seemed like a nice enough person, but Juliette hadn’t been the most… pleasant in return. The last thing she wanted was more gossip from the Laborers, or stress on her parents from people talking about their defective daughter.

“Yes.” She said. “I am the daughter of Alton. Juliette Hastings, the girl about to turn eighteen without a Passion. Any more questions?” She said with her back still facing Abel. Her fists were clenched and her shoulders stiff. A few nearby merchants glanced up at her, but none approached. They had enough sense, or Proficiencies, to know when a sale was hopeless.


He didn’t say anything for a few more moments.

“It must be great not being stuck with a Passion.” He said, sounding genuine.

That caught Juliette by surprise. She whipped her head around to look at Abel, eyebrows still knit together.

“What do you mean it must be great? Are you mocking me?” She asked incredulously.

Abel leaned back and put his hands up in surrender.

“Woah. Hey, I was being serious.” He dropped his hands. “Anyone I know with a Passion is so caught up in their focus they have no time for anything else. Any task is a waste of time when they could be gaining Para. Or they are this close to their next rank,” he held his thumb and pointer finger close together, “that they ignore other things to focus on ranking up. Myself included.”

For the second time since they met, the smile was missing from Abel’s face. Juliette felt a pang of regret at snapping at him. She’d been so used to people thinking she was stupid or broken in some way, that she assumed he’d be the same. She stared at Abel, not sure what to say.

“I know it’s important to focus on your Passion,” he said, “but it makes you forget about all the stuff you used to love doing before you had one. Racing through the streets for fun or playing tricks on the merchants, or just spending time with people you care about.” He shook his head slightly. “You though? You don’t have that gnawing push to rank up, you can just… choose what you want to do.”

Abel let his arms hang, but a sideways smile crept onto his face. Juliette finally said something.

“Well according to everyone else, I’m committing a capital offense by not receiving my Passion. That I won’t contribute to Exden to my fullest potential and will weigh the city down.”

She looked up at the sky and paused for a moment.

“I didn’t mean to blow up at you. It’s been a… difficult day today, and I assumed you would be like everyone else in this city and get up in arms about my business.”

She glanced back to Abel, his smile came fully back.

She continued, “and it’s not great, because, like I said, everyone thinks it’s their problem that I’m Passionless. You could imagine what would happen if everyone in town keeps asking your parents ‘what’s wrong with your daughter?’”

He nodded and stepped back to Juliette’s side.

“Yeah, I could see how that would be tough.” His arm closest to Juliette twitched like it was going to move, then settled back to his side. He looked up the street toward their destination. “Well, what do you say, want to keep going? I’ve got to get this delivered to the Admins before they start marching down the street to find me.” He smiled and shook the package he was holding.

Surprisingly, Juliette felt her shoulders weren’t as tense as when she started, and her hands were relaxed for what seemed like the first time today. Night and day different from after the morning’s conversation. Finally, someone didn’t judge her right off the bat and assume she was some lazy beggar who didn’t want to work for a Passion.

“Sure. Let’s go.” She said.

Juliette started jogging at a strong pace. Abel kept up with little to no effort.

“This pace is nothing to you is it?” She asked.

“Well, I have been making deliveries for a while and am a level ten rank.” He smiled broadly and glanced to Juliette.

Proud much? Juliette thought.

“And what does one get with a level ten rank?” she asked, expecting to get a runaround answer like everyone else gave her.

He laughed and said, “Nothing spectacular. A few durability and endurance boosts. I got a nice speed boost last year which lets me make twice as many shipments as before. “

“Surely not twice as many…” She said, not convinced.

“No, you’re right. A little bit more than twice as many.” He grinned at her.

“What!?” She asked incredulously. “There’s no way!”

“Ha! You asked!”

“How is that even fair? What, you ran at your normal speed one day, paid a visit to the Heart, and came back running literally twice as fast?”

“Pretty much” he chuckled again. “It was actually a bit faster than double because I increased my endurance at the same time, but it’s not the rarest of Proficiencies. Double Step, if you were curious.”

No one talked about their proficiencies. Juliette’s parents didn’t even talk about them. It was something most people kept a secret, partly because of the culture in Exden, but mostly because they wanted to keep their competitive edge a secret. It was similar to persons keeping their wealth or earnings a secret, it was not something that was shared.

Evidently, Abel didn’t seem to harbor the same feelings. Or maybe he just hated silence that much.

“Can you show me?” she asked?

His eyebrows raised, “Double Step?” he shrugged. “Sure.”

It was like a spark ignited. He went from jogging at what was a faster than normal pace for Juliette, to, in every respect, sprinting as fast as she’d seen a human run. He flashed past the merchants causing their fabrics to flutter in his wake until he was out of view. Juliette saw the flash of Abel’s light blue and white tunic on the busy street. In half a breath, he was back jogging beside Juliette, looking not at all winded.

Juliette punched him in the shoulder.

“Ow!” He reached to rub at the spot she punched, and narrowed his eyes at her. “What was that for?”

Juliette had seen people move that fast. It was rare, but she’d seen people sprinting past intersections like a blur. What she didn’t know, was that Double Step was only a rank ten Proficiency. She’d thought it would have been a rank 30 or 20 at the very least with how powerful it was. In only a few years, someone could quite literally double their efficiency. It shocked her.

Juliette shifted her weight from side to side. “It’s just not fair.” She took a deep breath. “I wake up early, work my body until it’s sweating blood, then do it all over again every day. But you? You just wander to the Heart one day, and now you can literally run circles around me.” She swatted her hand and let it drop back to her side.

“Hey now. It took me years of doing nothing but deliveries to get to this point.” Abel said, a tad defensively. “Yeah, I received a strong boon, but it’s not just me. Anyone can do that. You could do that if you wanted. So it is fair, but you’re choosing not to play the game.”

He locked his gaze onto hers. Juliette paused at that. She knew a Passion would make her life easier, but thought it would take decades to see any noticeable results. Abel just ripped that theory up and showed how quickly her life could improve.

After a while of jogging at Juliette’s pace, in a rare silence, they finally approached their destinations.

She spotted the entrance to the Heart first, complete with two Administrator greeters. The Administrators all wore the same pure white hooded tunic. No embroidery, no emblems, just white thick fabric that draped nearly to the ground. All of their hoods were down at the moment since the weather was pleasant. On rainy days though, they opted to wear their hoods when stationed at the entrances.

No matter which entrance you went through, they all dressed the same, and nearly all districts had their own entrance. Rather than walk for hours to an entrance in the center of the city, then walk hours down to the heart, the public could find a local entrance and have an Administrator escort them down to the Heart. Juliette didn’t know for certain it was hours of walking, but that’s what she’d heard from Jane and others that had made the trips.

The entrance they were positioned in front of was simple, given how much importance the place held. Just a single stone arch, half-again as tall as the men standing in front. Through the arch, a stone stairway lead down at an incline, then turned just out of view. Glowing red mage-light lit the corridors where it became too dark to see naturally.

Directly across the road, conveniently nearby to the entrance of the Heart, Juliette spotted the Merchants home, complete with his last name “Sellers” painted on a sign next to the door. It was a luxurious wooden and stone home, freshly painted brightly with colors popular in Jun. Much nicer than anything found in Senov. The premium Valentin would have paid for this location would be astronomical.

They both jogged closer to their destinations when the Administrators seemed to recognize Abel. One of them waved to Abel and stepped out on the street to meet him. Abel nodded his head toward the approaching Administrator, and invited Juliette to join him.

“Mr. Abel! What a pleasant surprise.” The Administrator looked at Abel with a bright smile, took Abel’s hand and brought him into a hug. They both patted each other’s back firmly and then broke apart.

“Hello Administrator Zul, I hope you’re well today?” Abel asked.

“Every day is well with Paragon smiling upon us.” He continued to smile at Abel, glanced at Juliette, then turned his head back to Abel. “What brings you to the Heart today? Would you like me to check on your Para for you?”

“No thank you, I know I’m not ready for a rank quite yet.” Abel shook his head and tapped the box he was holding. “I have a Delivery for Administrator Hux.”

“Ah, perfect timing!” The man clapped his hands together. “Administrator Hux was just inquiring about the supplies he requested. Thank you for making it here so quickly Abel child.”

Abel nodded at that and opened his mouth to speak. The Administrator turned away to look at Juliette. She swallowed. Her shoulders tensed slightly as her eyebrows knit together.

“Forgive me for not making introductions sooner!” The Administrator smiled at Juliette.

He lowered his head into a bow, then placed his open hand across his heart as he bowed fully with his body. “My name is Administrator Zul of the Jun district.” He opened his arms to the area surrounding them. “Whom do I have the pleasure of meeting?”

He held out both of his hands together, palms up to Juliette.

“Hello, I am Juliette.”

She didn’t reach out to accept his open hands. The administrator glanced down at her Deliverer badge, paused and furrowed his eyebrows. “Juliette… Hastings…” he raised one of his eyebrows. “Are you the daughter of Katherine and Alton Hastings by chance?” the Administrator asked.

Juliette paused. She swallowed again and shifted her weight from foot to foot, glancing at the Merchant’s home.

“Yes.” She said hesitantly.

“It’s an honor to meet you!” He reached for her hand and before she could pull away, felt him grasp it up to her wrist with his two hands.

Immediately, like he’d been bitten by a snake, he snatched his hands away from her. For the shortest of moments, his eyes were wide with shock and his jaw was left agape. He blinked several times in succession, then quickly recovered and continued on like nothing had happened, though now he was rubbing at his hands like he’d been struck.

His smile returned, though Juliette could sense it didn’t seem as authentic as when the conversation had started. “You might just have the strongest willpower of any of Paragon’s children, to refrain from gaining Passion for so long Juliette child,” he chuckled, rubbed at his other hand, “and I have seen many, many people come through these tunnels. Paragon’s blessings offer enhanced willpower and determination to all who receive, but you may still have them beat! I must introduce you to Administrator Niv, She will be beside herself to finally meet you!”

He waved his hand, beckoning her to follow. Juliette fidgeted with the seam of her tunic.

Did everyone in Senov talk about me? She thought.

 “Unfortunately,” she said, Zul paused, “I have a timely delivery to make, and really must be going. It was a pleasure to meet you Administrator Zul” She tried to make her smile seem authentic. It came easier when she turned to Abel. “Thank you for running with me today Abel.” She nodded to both men and then started off.

“Woah, hang on!” Abel jumped in, eyebrows knit, getting in front of Juliette so she had to slow. “You still have some time before your deadline, right?” he asked.

Juliette nodded a fraction.

“Administrator Hux is usually right inside the entrance, and she’s actually a really great person.” He said.

“That she is Abel!” The Administrator said, cutting in. Abel smiled and nodded back. “I’m sure your letters will not wither away after a few moments of chatting. Come on back.” Zul grinned at Juliette.

She felt herself stop completely and turn back to face Zul.

“That’s it, no need to run off child.” He said, glancing at Abel and patting him on the shoulder. “Administrator Hux was eager to meet you and learn more about you Juliette. It would be an opportunity for you to discover more about the Heart. Aren’t you curious at all to learn what it is like?” Zul tilted his head to the side.

She paused. Yes. She wanted to ask about her Para, why it was different than everyone else, know what the heart was like, yes, but she also knew what it did to people. Knew that an innocent boy could become a… monster. She steeled her gaze and clenched her fists.

“No Administrator. I’m happy with my life. I’m contributing to Ducania in my own way. I don’t need the Heart to tell me what to do.”

She stood tall with her back straight and stared at Zul. He furrowed his eyebrows tighter, but added a slight smile.

“The Heart doesn’t force you into anything child, it only amplifies your true Passion, what you were born to do for this world. Would you not want to be able to contribute to a higher degree, and to know what you are truly capable of?” He asked curiously.

She shook her head.

“I understand what I am capable of, I don’t need confirmation of what I already know.”

He knit his brow tighter, and eyed her.

“There is something else isn’t there? Something stopping you from seeking Paragon’s blessing.” Zul said.

Abel looked between the two of them, and Juliette felt her throat tighten. Her nails dug into her palms and she refused to open her mouth. She turned her head off toward the house that she should have been completed with already. She didn’t say anything.

Softly, the Administrator said, “You can tell me child, go ahead.” His eyes were piercing.

Juliette’s lips parted, and before she could stop it, words came out.

“Oliver didn’t deserve his fate.” She blurted out. Juliette could feel tears welling up. “He was a child. Innocent. She croaked. “I—” Juliette swallowed the knot in her throat and stopped herself from continuing. Her knuckles were white from her clamped hands.

Abel stood taken back with wide eyes, his smile no where to be seen, and his eyes darted between the Administrator and Juliette. He took a half-step toward Juliette, but her eyes shot daggers at Abel, and he retreated.

Juliette pointed her finger sharply at Zul, “You are supposed to protect things like that from happening. You are supposed to turn those away who are not ready. But instead, you let him feel the Heart, let it destroy his mind and turn him into—”

Juliette’s heart was pounding in her ears. She gnashed her teeth and glared at the Administrator.

“Why?” she said, gut-wrenching heartbreak overtaking her, to the force of months of unanswered questions.

She clamped her mouth shut, forced herself to stop from going any further. Tears racing down, staining her cheeks. She took a shaking breath and turned away.

Several moments passed in silence. Abel, still as a statue. Zul dipped his head and raised his eyes to take in Juliette.

“Juliette. Child.” The Administrator said softly. “I don’t know what you might be feeling, I truly don’t. I don’t know if anyone honestly could, save for Paragon himself.”

He locked his eyes onto hers as she flicked her gaze to him.

“What I do know, is that I’ve seen your passion. Not the Passion received from the Heart, no. But your drive for this world, it’s one unlike any I’ve seen before, and I know with certainty that you will be blessed, Juliette. It is without question.”

His face was stone serious, not a flicker of the cheerful face from before. Juliette wanted to believe him, wanted to follow him and see the Heart for herself. Surely, of all people, Juliette would not let a Passion change her, turn her into something not meant for this world.

“Come. You’ve nothing to fear child.”

“No.” she said.

Administrator Zul looked shocked at her response.

“I want nothing to do with it.” She said, barely above a whisper.

Abel reached his hand out toward Juliette, but she spun on her heel and sprinted toward the merchant’s home. Not turning back to see the look on Zul’s face, attempting to convince her to stay. Not turning back to say goodbye to Abel or to thank him for making her day a little bit brighter. Her red eyes stung in the wind. She wiped her tears on the arm of her tunic and sprinted toward the sign which read, “Sellers”, ready to be back home. Back with Jane. And far away from any Administrators.

Chapter 2 – Wrapped in Gold

She was enveloped in darkness. The searing white light vanished, so did the ringing, and the terrible pressure she felt. She felt like she was shaking, and could feel hands on her.

I’m not shaking, I’m being shaken, she realized.

Juliette’s eyes failed to open, they were heavy like she was in a deep sleep, and her legs were lethargic, cemented to the floor. Faintly, she could hear sounds coming from far away, a muffled voice. Voices. Shouting something incoherent.

Her body throbbed, and her hands felt bruised.

What just happened? She thought.

She was able to turn her head a fraction and saw a flash of shadow cover the light shining through her eyelids. Something was moving over her, blocking the dim multi-colored light. The shouting was getting louder and she could almost make out the sound. Struggling, she finally managed to get one eye open long enough to see a person hovering over her before it closed again.

“Juliette.” The muffled voice called for her again. It sounded so different from before. Juliette tried to reach her hand up, but only her fingers would obey. Her breathing intensified, and her heart rate was increasing, as she struggled to gain control over her body.

Juliette!Once more the voice called, though this time it sounded feminine, like a woman was calling to her. Nothing like other voice. The shaking kept increasing until she was finally able to keep an eye open long enough. Looking up, she saw a recognizable face.

“Juliette! Oh Paragon, thank you! Juliette you’re awake, can you hear me?” her voice hitched.

Jane was looming into her vision while the shaking finally stopped. Juliette’s body still felt like stone, but at least she could wiggle her toes. She focused on her breathing, trying to steady it. Perspiration dripped down Jane’s cheek, the top of her tunic freshly stained dark where the tears fell.

 “Wha—” An incoherent sound escaped Juliette’s lips as she tried to respond. Her mind was cloudy and it felt like her head was spinning. She tried to maintain her focus on Jane, but the room started to spin. A feeling of nausea began to rise, when a memory slammed into her mind.

“Juliette. Come to me. Find me.”

Her eyes shot open and her breath caught sharply. The paralysis she was burdened by lifted, and she was finally able to control the movements of her body. Slowly, she attempted to sit, but could feel Jane put soft pressure on her shoulders to keep her laying on the ground. Juliette reached up for Jane’s arms, but they were gently batted away. Jane reached her hand down and began to rub her hand along Juliette’s temple.

“Can you hear me? Are up OK? Please, stay still. I sent someone to get help. I don’t know if you are hurt.” A great sob escaped Jane, tears streaming from her eyes as her hands trembled on Juliette.

“Jane,” Juliette croaked.

She focused her eyes back on Jane’s. Jane was sitting beside her, tears were staining both cheeks, and her hair had lost most of its styling. She had her sleeves of her tunic rolled up and kept rubbing Juliette’s temple with one hand, while the other’s grip was tight on Juliette’s hand, causing the throbbing pain grow with a vengeance.

“I’m fine.” Juliette’s voice slurred and she tried to sit up again, but Jane resisted once more. Juliette brought her elbow back and pushed herself off the floor of the chamber with enough force that Jane relented. Finally, she helped Juliette sit up all the way and leaned back to get a full look at her.

“What happened to you?” Jane asked, worry painted across her face. She held onto Juliette’s shoulders tightly, as if she might tip over any moment.

“You were fine, and then…” she sniffed her nose.

“I have no idea,” Juliette interrupted and rubbed at her stinging eyes. “I went to catch the stone you threw and the next thing I know I was in this bright… place. It’s so difficult to describe. It was like a glowing, barren field, and I was trapped there for what felt like several hours.”

Jane watched her explain, as Juliette sat up straighter and tried to stand, but her head was swimming, so she leaned back along the nearby wall.

Jane stared at her for a moment before she wrapped Juliette firmly in her arms. The embrace was tight and made Juliette’s sore shoulders smart. She could feel Jane’s body shaking and hear how tight her voice was.

“I was so scared.” Jane said. She wiped her eyes and tried to regain her composure. “You were just laying there on the floor, not moving, just staring blankly at the ceiling. I tried to wake you, but you didn’t respond.”

She wiped her nose on her tunic and looked up at Juliette. Juliette swallowed a knot and pulled Jane back into her.

“I screamed when you hit the floor,” Jane said. “A Tailor was walking down the street and heard me, he came in to see what happened and saw you lying still on the floor. I told him you fainted, and so sent him running to find a Doctor or a Healer.” She paused, “I’m so glad you’re okay.”.

Juliette squeezed her eyes shut and clenched her fist

“I’m fine.” She said as the vision payed fresh in her mind. “But… I’ve never felt something like this before. It wasn’t a dream, it was much to real to have been a dream. I was in this blinding place, I had no idea where I was. I tried to move, but my limbs fought me the entire time until I saw this… person.”

Juliette moved the hair from her face, and Jane sat up next to her along the wall, leaning her head on Juliette’s shoulder.

“The moment the thing locked eyes with me, my body felt like it was crumbling. I was staring down a hurricane of power, and then it spoke. It spoke my name Jane. It knew who I was, and I… somehow knew it. It… asked for my help.”

Juliette’s lips knit into a thin line as she turned to Jane. She clenched her fist hard enough that her nails dug into her palm.

“Help with what?” Jane asked.

“That’s just it. I have no idea. The thing said my name and told me to come find it. I could tell it was distressed in some way, like it was in trouble. The moment after it spoke to me, the dream ended, and I woke up on the floor here.” She pointed to the place on the floor where she fell.

Jane forced her eyebrows together as she stared back at Juliette. Jane had stopped spilling tears but the trembling in her hands continued.

A loud slam on the wooded doors made both of them jump. A thin man in brightly colored clothes stood at the threshold of the chamber, sweating, “She’s awake!” He shouted and waved to someone outside.

Jane recognized the Tailor and said, “Yes, she just woke up. It seems she had only fainted. Is the Healer out—”

“Jane! Are you alright?” An imposing man pushed past the Tailor and strode straight toward Jane. The Tailor thinned against the door, then turned to step back out of the threshold toward the street.

The new man was wearing fine clothes with dozens of different colored threads finely woven into his tunic. His beard was trimmed with precision and cut tight to his chin. A bead of sweat was caught mid drip as he dabbed his hairless head with a handkerchief. He reached Jane and gently held the back of her neck, his brows furrowed together with worry.

“I’m alright father. It was Juliette, she had fainted.” Jane said. “We’re not sure why.”

She looked down at her legs and started to fidget with the wrinkles of her tunic, while he let his hand go.

He turned to Juliette, “Juliette, are you alright? What brought you here? I was heading this way to check on Jane since she hadn’t returned, when I heard shouting. A man recognized me and came running up saying something happened in my chamber, that you needed a Healer.” He looked between the two of them as if to check if either had any visible injuries.

Juliette glanced over to Jane. This might not end well.

Jane swallowed, “I saw Juliette on the way here, she wasn’t working on a delivery at the moment, so I invited her to help me prepare your chambers.” Her eyes flicked back to Juliette.

Juliette stared down at her hands and let out a silent sign of relief, thankful that at least her Passion business wouldn’t be brought up this time.

“She became lightheaded and fainted right there.” She pointed to the floor underneath Roland, “She’s not sure why, and woke up only moments ago. She seems to be feeling better now and we were about to head off to get her to a Healer when you walked in. We should still go, come on,” She motioned to Juliette, “let’s not wait any longer.” Jane pushed off the floor and stood to help Juliette up. Juliette accepted her hand and straightened her tunic.

Roland stood back with a look of mild relief and moderate skepticism.

“I apologize for the disturbance Mr. Doyen.” Juliette bowed her head toward him, “I know you have important business this morning, please excuse me.” She grabbed the side of her tunic and took a step toward the exit. Jane gripped her arm and followed along. Roland lifted his hands in surrender to stop them before they could get far.

“Juliette, please.” Roland let out a small laugh and lowered his hands. “No need to apologize to me. I’m sorry that I don’t have a Healer with me already, one is on the way though. I should have been more prepared rather than just barging in here after I heard shouting. I am pleased to hear you are feeling better, but you really should rest until you can get checked on. If you were to faint again on the way to a Healer it could compound any issues.” His eyes left Juliette and lingered on Jane as if to look for support. He offered his arm and pointed toward a side room near the Paragon statues. “Come this way you two, I have a small room set aside for visitors after traveling long distances.

When Roland glanced away, Juliette saw Jane’s eyes flash to underneath his desk where the rock had rolled, and Juliette followed her gaze. It looked nothing like the plain unassuming stone from earlier. There was a cloud of golden mist emanating from the rock and lighting up the underside of his desk. It almost seemed to be throbbing or pulsing slowly, like a heartbeat. She was surprised she didn’t notice the change in the stone until now, but waking up had been quite eventful.

Jane’s shoulders tensed, and she turned toward her father, slightly blocking him and stopping them from being escorted to his resting room.

“Really, it’s alright. Juliette told me she is feeling much better and that walking back would help to clear her head.” Roland glanced to Juliette and she gave a small nod in return. “I know you have important business to attend to, and we’ve already caused enough of a scene as it is.”

“Nonsense! I can’t let my friend’s daughter go off without at least being seen by a Healer. They are already on the way as it is. I have plenty of room and my guests haven’t even checked in with the Guards near the gate. It’s really no burden, I insist.” He offered his arm again to Juliette and she glanced back to Jane. They seemed to shared an entire conversation in that single look. 

“Thank you, Mr. Doyen, but—”

“Oh please.” He waved a hand at her. “Call me Roland for Paragon’s sake! Just a few minutes rest, I’ll clean up this mess and the Healer can see you. He’ll be here any moment. Come, see here.” He reached out for her arm. She finally gave in and let him lead her to the resting room.

“There we go. When the Healer stops in, I’ll be sure to send them back.”

She and Roland continued toward the resting room. Through the gap in the door, she could see two large padded benches that were big enough to fit two grown men each. They did look comfortable…. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Jane lingering behind and heading toward the small empty pouch on the ground.

Roland turned his head back, “Jane!” he yelled back toward his daughter.

Jane froze in place. Her hands were lifting each side of her tunic as if she was in a half-curtsy position. Quickly, she lowered her tunic so the end of the cloth covered where the pouch lay on the floor. She turned her body toward them and stood straight. Something… heavy was compelling Juliette to look away. And at the same moment, Roland whipped his head back toward the resting room they were headed to.

A moment passed. “Yes?” She said. The urge to look away was gone now, so both Roland and Juliette looked back at her.

“Bring me cool water in one of my metal jugs, please. We must make sure Juliette is not suffering from lack of water.” He turned his head back to the room and gently tugged Juliette along. She could see Jane relax visibly and when she moved from her position, the pouch was no longer on the floor. Jane headed toward the desk as Juliette crossed the entrance to the resting room. 

Three small glass windows let morning light into the room. The light hit one of the large padded benches along the wall which had a pillow propped on each end.

“Please, make yourself comfortable, sit anywhere you’d like.”

He gestured toward the furniture and went to busy himself in the corner of the room. Through the sound of clanking metal, and a few muttered curses from Roland, she made her way to the end of one of the benches and grabbed a pillow. She plopped down on the bench and sat with her back to the wall, pillow placed in her lap giving her something to fidget with. She wanted to lay down and rest her sore feet on the soft padding, but the fabric probably cost more than her family made in a month.

“You can lie down dear, don’t worry about staining the fabric. It’s been enchanted by a high-tier Tailor to prevent any marks. You would not believe what some visitors track in with them.”

He chuckled, his head still buried in the cupboard. A loud thump came from the corner and he stood rubbing the back of his head. Roland spun around with a three metal cups on a small platter, “Jane? Is the water ready?” his voice loud.

“One moment!” Jane shouted back.

Roland placed the platter on a small wooden table next to Juliette and he took a seat across the room from her on the second bench. He placed his arms on his knees and leaned forward, looking intently at Juliette.

“Is everything alright? Truly?” He asked gently.

She was caught slightly off guard. “Yes, Jane was correct before. I had fainted and then awoken just before you arrived. I’m feeling much better now with a soft seat to sit on.” She tapped the bench next to her and gave him a weak smile.

“Good, that’s good.” He smiled back at her, eyes not leaving hers. “But I’m more interested in why you’re here. I know your family has been busy with deliveries. I can’t imagine this morning being any different. Did something happen where you needed to see me for some reason? Are you here because of Alton?” He asked, eyebrows knitting together.

Juliette felt her hand tighten and forced herself to relax. Roland was a friend of Alton’s. Possibly the last real friend he had. Roland wasn’t here to gossip, he must be genuinely worried for his friend. She took a breath.

“No, this isn’t about him or anything else. He was on a delivery this morning and I needed to get out of our house. Jane saw me a few blocks away and invited me to help her open your chambers. It seemed like a nice distraction at the time, so I joined her.” She said, looking down at the pillow on her lap.

“Ah.” He said.

“Ah.” She said.

They sat in silence for a few moments. His eyes lingering on hers. He obviously knew why she had needed a distraction, it was no secret to Jane’s family that Juliette’s lack of Passion was a sensitive topic around their home. Though, Roland had always been very respectful and never gave her unwanted advice, unlike other people. It turns out she was wrong about her Passion not being brought up here.

Her saving grace was a flutter of green and silver as Jane walked in with a pitcher of cool water, condensation already forming on the container.

“Here you are, father.” She said.

She handed the pitcher to him, looked to Juliette, her frame much calmer and less tense than before, and gave her the barest of nods.

“Thank you dear.” He took the pitcher and began to fill up three cups. He finished filling them, set the pitcher down, and took two cups in his hand. He turned and handed one to Jane before he continued. “We should let Juliette rest alone, I’ll have someone knock on the door when the Healer arrives.” He looked to Juliette and she nodded in consent.

“I should stay with her in the event something happens again.” Jane said. The look she gave to Juliette showing she had much to say to her.

“She will be fine, and we’re only a few steps away. Besides, you and I have matters to discuss.” He steeled his gaze on Jane and she relented. They stepped through the door and Jane gave one last unhappy look to Juliette before the door clicked shut.

Juliette let out a long breath. She felt like she had been holding it the entire time, ever since she woke up. Her head was still lightly spinning, so she readjusted herself on the bench and laid down. The cushions were marvelous, again, and the soft pillow was the cherry on the cake. Her body relaxed, grip loosened, and her eyes closed. She took another breath and thought back to the vision she had just moments ago, how abruptly it started, and how abruptly it ended, how real it felt. She thought of the rock that had triggered the vision. It definitely wasn’t just a simple rock, it was glowing now while it clearly wasn’t glowing before, or both she and Jane would have noticed for certain. She now understood why a simple-seeming rock might be kept secret, if it wasn’t a simple rock at all. Coming from a far-off place no one has heard of, Roland being there at the exact moment the transaction was happening, then somehow, this stone being the key to his promotion into a City Leader.

Being the Leader of Exden, with close to one million people, was nothing to bat an eye at. Especially since the leadership of Exden was highly competitive. With over 20 districts, each Leader was managing an already impressive amount of territory and people, and every single one of them was pining for the exclusive title of City Leader.  It was all too much of a coincidence.

She though back to the vision; something, somewhere, needed Juliette to find it and presumably help it. What it would need with a 17-year-old girl without a Passion was anyone’s guess. She could deliver letters and her rough hands could scratch leather, but somehow, she didn’t think that was what a seemingly powerful golden entity might need. She let her arms flop down on the bench and slowed her breathing. Think Juliette. The vision was real, she knew that for certain. The entity was also real, at least in a sense that her mind hadn’t invented it out of thin air. If something could make her feel how she did during the vision… it could be powerful enough to make the vision in the first place. She’d heard of Doctors specializing in the mind, equipped with high level proficiencies allowing for out-of-body experiences, but there were none present at the time to perform such a task. What confused Juliette most, was why a stone had anything to do with it. And why had simply touching the rock triggered the vision? It didn’t seem to effect Jane when she held it. It couldn’t have been meant for anyone else but Juliette, since it quite literally said her name. Something needed her, and her alone.

She tried to listen to the conversation happening outside of her room, but only heard faint muffled sounds. This room must have been insulated well. It made sense, as most people who visited Mr. Doyen were those of prominence, and all of them greatly valued their privacy. The last thing a Leader would want is a leak of information from some foreign affair to start a conflict, or worse, a war. 

She heard a soft knock on the door to her room and opened her eyes.

“Hello?” Juliette said.

“Hello Ms. Hastings, my name is Rene and I am a local Healer. Mr Doyen asked if I could pay you a visit and provide any healing you might need. He’s offered to cover all costs for my time. May I enter?” His speech was polite and concise. Juliette approved.

“Yes, you may come in,” She said, sitting up and sliding the pillow off her lap.

A stocky gentleman delicately opened the door and peeked his round face in the crack, apparently to see if she was decent. He seemed satisfied and opened the door fully to enter. He looked like a walking tree trunk with his brown tunic, brown hair, and brown leather shoulder bag. The though made her smirk, but she stopped before it became a full smile, and watched him cross the room, looking for a good place to set his bag down. Eventually he relented and set it on the bench next to her. He paused, stood straight to look at Juliette, and she stared back at him.

“Um.. It’s best if I first understand what happened. Can you please tell me what caused you to fall ill?”

No, she thought.

He gave her a crooked smile and tilted his head like a puppy. He turned and took out a few metal tools and vials and sat them along the bench. Not ominous whatsoever, that. Juliette did not approve.

She took a deep breath, “I was feeling fine, and then next thing I know I was on the ground being shaken awake by my friend. I must have fainted, though I feel fine now. We were about to head back home when Mr. Doyer insisted I wait to be checked on by a Healer first.” None of that was technically a lie… though the emission of the full encounter could be considered deceitful.

“Smart man that Mr. Doyer!” he said, far too loudly to be only meant for the two of them. “It’s best to be certain there are not any underlying issues when something like this happens. It sounds like it could be a fluke event, but do you permit me to perform a few tests to help me verify that is the case?” His eyebrows raised while he waited for her to respond.

“What sort of tests would that take? As I said, I feel fine and I don’t want to place a cost burden on Mr. Doyer for his goodwill.”

“Simple ones really. My Noninvasive Examination Proficiency allows me to perform numerous tests without any pain and only mild discomfort. You would feel a small tingling sensation go through your body, and once finished, I’d have an understanding of any problems you might need to be aware of.” He said with no small hint of pride for his Proficiency, which was actually impressive. Somehow, Juliette didn’t think this happened to be the ‘local’ Healer, but someone Roland was familiar with instead…

“That will be fine, you may perform your tests.” She said as she gripped the pillow on her lap tighter. She did not like Doctors with their poking and prodding, and cutting off of limbs. She much preferred the age old tradition of working through any sickness by… well, physically working until it magically went away.

“Thank you.” He said and reached his hand toward Juliette. She lent her hand to him and felt his clammy grip tighten slightly. He closed his eyes, and for a moment, nothing was happening, but then she began to feel a slight vibrating sensation in her toes. It became more defined and it did begin to ‘tingle’ like Rene had said. Slowly it crawled up her legs. It felt like her legs had fallen asleep after sitting in one position too long, millions of little pins and pokes, but instead of her whole leg feeling the sensation, it was thin slice, traveling slowly up her body.

She sat there, trying to keep her breathing steady and decided to close her eyes to help her remain calm while Rene worked. The sensation moved up her legs further and it was getting… higher. She wasn’t sure if it was supposed to stop and skip a section of her body. Her heart rate quickened, the wall of prickling went higher until Juliette’s eyes shot open and she stared daggers at the Healer, who still had his closed. She opened her mouth to say something, when the sensation jumped and skipped that part of her body, then started rising again from below her belly button. She let out a breath. This continued for several minutes, and the feeling was not pleasant while it passed over her eyes. Much more than mild discomfort that, Mr. Healer.

The sensation stopped once it passed the tip of her head, followed by the Healer blinking his eyes open. His forehead was glistening with sweat, so he took a small cloth from his tunic and wiped his brow. He stood up to stretch his back with a groan and glanced down to Juliette.

“You look right as rain Ms. Hastings.” He said, making his way toward his worn leather bag. Juliette released her fists, which she hadn’t remembered closing so tightly, and started massaging the nail marks in her palms.

“Aside from a few bumps and bruises, you are one of the healthiest people I have ever seen. Not even a trace of lingering sickness or cough that most around this district have.” He said sounding impressed.

That surprised Juliette because, just this morning, she had felt like complete rubbish from the late night before.

“Good,” she said, “Did your… test happen to check for any issues with the brain?”

He started to return his items back into his bag. “It checks for any physical issues mostly but can catch a few glaring metal disorders. Nothing stood out on you though. Why? Is there something the matter?” He stood up from his bag and turned to face Juliette, hands in his pockets.

She rubbed at her eyes “Nothing in particular, but I have had very… vivid dreams before, and wasn’t sure if that was something you had noticed might be a problem.”

She didn’t want to explain the detail of the vision to Rene. He seemed innocent enough, but something in the back of her mind prickled when she thought of sharing the information with him.

“Nothing as cause for concern Ms. Hastings.” He turned back to his bag, seemingly indifferent to her comment. “Vivid dreams can be explained away by the twilight of sleep, or a busy mind. If you’ve been getting less sleep, or broken sleep, it might contribute to the lucidity of your dreaming. I suggest a consistent sleep cycle and to drink more water through the day. I happen to have an Elixir of Peace in my bag if you’re interested?” He raised his eyebrows toward Juliette. “Mr. Doyen insisted that you receive anything you might need to feel well. It’s a simple drink that will calm you nerves and will help with a more sound sleep.”

“Thank you, but I’ll pass.”

She was ready to be done with this ordeal and be on her way. She did have a delivery scheduled to pick up still this morning and hoped she hadn’t already missed her window of time to retrieve it.

“Fair enough,” he huffed a breath, retying his bag and hoisting it over his shoulder. “You were lucky I was so close. If this were a real emergency, it could have ended much worse. Here, take this.” He handed her a small white square with his name and business address on it. “Keep it on your person, if you fall ill, you can give this to someone and they can go and fetch me.”

She took the card and filed it away in her pocket next to the twig and string that were destined for the next trash bin she passed.

“Thank you.” She curtly said.

He nodded and reached for the handle of the door, twisted the knob, and opened the door into the chamber’s open space. She followed him through the threshold and stopped when she saw Jane and Roland were still exchanging hushed words at the far end of the room. She glanced at the desk, and the golden mist from before was gone, the rock had been moved or picked up by someone. Juliette hoped it was Jane that did so. Jane and Roland saw the two exiting the resting room and paused their conversation to intercede. Jane looked concerned for the news the Healer would give. Roland, curious.

“Ms. Hastings is in top form I might say. No immediate issues, and no elixirs or tonics needed.” He said, Roland nodded his head, not showing any hint of relief at the saved expense. “She’s been prescribed a good night sleep and lots of water. Thank you for thinking of me Mr. Doyen,” he reached out a hand and Roland gripped it firmly, “call on me anytime.” He nodded toward Roland, Jane, and then finally Juliette.

“Thank you for taking time out of your day Rene, it’s lucky you were so close. Tell your wife I said hello. You’ll send the invoice to my attendant?” Roland asked.

“Yes sir.” Rene nodded. “Good day to you all, thank you.” He walked out into the sunlight and for a few moments, the room was silent.

“That was very generous of you Mr. Doyen. I’ll talk to my parents about the cost and find a way to repay you.” Juliette said to Roland, already shaking his head.

“Nonsense. You’re healthy and that is all I can ask for. I’m glad it was nothing more severe and I owe your father a favor anyhow.” He waved a hand at her.

She bowed her head in thanks and turned to Jane, “I really do need to be getting back, not that I don’t appreciate the help,” she gave Roland another thankful look, which he returned with a nod, “but I did have a delivery scheduled this morning which I would hate to miss.”

“Yes, let’s go. I’ll walk you out.” Jane said, stepping toward Juliette and standing next to her. She turned to look at her father. “I will see you at the Council chambers later today?” They regarded one another for a moment.

“That you will. Goodbye Juliette, say hello to Alton and Katherine for me please.” Roland said.

“I will. Thank you again.” Juliette gave him a rare, genuine smile and stepped alongside Jane and headed toward the wooden door.

With that, the two walked onto the busy street, while Roland went to his desk to organize whichever papers were needed for his foreign visitor still today.

The morning sun washed over them both as they made their way further from the chamber doors. The air was much warner than when Juliette first stepped outside, and she noticed the traffic had only increased since they went into Roland’s chamber. They paused near a small wooden railing on the opposite side of the road.

“I’m sorry you had to go through all that, I hope the Healer wasn’t too uncomfortable. My father has had me endure that unsettling feeling too many times. Rene is a friend of his, and I think he likes having my father call on him so often. I tried to get us out of there before he showed but my father was quite insistent today.” Jane said.

“It was fine. Not pleasant, but fine.” Juliette took a deep breath, “Your father was just looking out for my best interest. Mine would have done the same to you, I’m sure.”

There was a brief pause, then Jane looked sideways at her and asked, “Did you… tell him anything?” Her shoulders stiffened, and she held her breath.

“No. ” Juliette shook her head. “I only told him that I fainted, not what caused me to in the first place.”

Jane let out her breath and her shoulders relaxed.

“Good. I’m sorry, really, I am. I had no idea that would happen. It looked like a normal rock and at first, I thought my father put it there to entice me. Force my curiosity to ask him about it, but then, you fainted and had some… dream, it must be enchanted or something.” She said this while looking back toward her father’s shut wooden door. “Are you really okay?” Turning her head back toward Juliette.

Juliette leaned against the railing and looked across the busy street. So many people going about their daily tasks. It made her think about the pressure she felt during her dream, the urgency put into her mind. People were out just walking around, herself included just a few hours ago, but now she couldn’t even consider doing that. Wasting time by making a delivery seemed like a sin.

“I’m fine. At least I feel fine. The healer didn’t find anything wrong with me and I actually feel better than I did this morning. What’s throwing me off though, is this feeling of doing. Like I’m on some sort of a time limit to do something, and I don’t know what for.” She turned to face Jane, “Something’s wrong. I don’t know what it is, but someone, or something, needs me and I can’t just ignore it. I don’t know what to do but I have to figure it out fast.” Her eyebrows knit together as she stared at Jane. Her hair was back in place and the green string was snugly tied around her braid. Jane looked at Juliette, expression that of interest and confusion. She paused.

“Well. Maybe this will help.”

She reached into her tunic’s pocket and pulled out a small hemp pouch wrapped tightly in string. Juliette’s eyes widened in surprise as she realized what Jane was holding.

“How did you get it? What if your father finds out?” Juliette asked.

“He won’t. He’s busy preparing for his meeting, which he is already late to start on. His visitors will take up much of his day until he is needed at the Council meeting this afternoon. I took it because…” she looked down at the pouch then back up to Juliette, “Because there is something important about this rock, and you seem to be a part of it.”

Juliette’s eyes were locked on the pouch. She could barely see the wisps of gold seeping through the bag, harder to see now that they were in the sunlight.

“I thought we could find a secluded area and study it more?” Jane asked, voice raising into a question.

Juliette wanted nothing more than to say yes and find somewhere private this moment, but then she groaned internally. She still had the delivery to fulfil. It was one thing to skip something for herself, but her parents were counting on her to finish this, and she knew the stress they were under right now.

“I do want to, but I need to finish my delivery first.” Her shoulders sagged, and she clenched her fist.

“Ah. I thought you were making that up to get out of there. That’s fine,” Jane smiled, “let’s plan to meet after your finished. I’ll find us a spot where we’ll have some privacy and not be rushed. Can I meet you at your home around noon? Will that be enough time?”

Juliette nodded. “That will work. But Jane,” Juliette stared at Jane pleadingly, “please don’t tell anyone else what happened to me. I don’t want people thinking this has something to do with my Passion business or my parents.”

“I promise.” She said with a smile. “See you at noon.” She tucked the pouch back into her pocket and headed off toward the center of the district, turning back to glance at Juliette.

Juliette took a deep breath and leaned back against the wooden railing. She looked up at the morning sky and closed her eyes, feeling the warming sun calm her. The last thing she wanted to do was carry some letters to a Shoemaker, but she would do what she said she would, and complete the job.

First, she would make a delivery, then she would stare at a rock. The thrilling life of Juliette Hastings.

Chapter 1 – A Stone in Hand

“Stop it!”

“Juliette, please. Let’s talk about this.”

Juliette tightened her grip on the table. She could feel the soreness on her hands even though she’d had an entire night to recover. Yesterday’s delivery was long, and she’d foolishly left her gloves at the league’s bureau during her break. Her left hand began to throb, but her grip remained tight. She locked her gaze with her mother and shook her head.

“No. I’ve told you countless times, I want nothing to do with the Heart. You’ve seen what it can do to people.”

Her mother hesitated and shifted her shoulders ever so slightly. The wound from Oliver was still fresh in everyone’s mind, Juliette’s included. Juliette dropped her eyes to the table. It was early enough that breakfast hadn’t been prepared yet. All that separated the two was a small wooden statue of paragon, which most in this district would decorate their tables with. She stared at the statue and let her hands drop to rub her aching palms. Deliveries today were going to hurt.

“I know what it does Juliette. Believe me,” her mother said as she brushed a lock of hair from her cheek. “Your father is still struggling to make the larger deliveries.”

“So what do we do then, blame the Heart’s evil on the Seeker? How was Oliver to know? There is no way to be certain if you’ll receive a boon or turn into—”

“Enough!” Her mother slammed her fists on the table. “The Heart is not evil!”

Juliette rocked back, and her mouth snapped shut. Her mother was hunched over the table, with the tendons in her neck standing out. Juliette stared at her with wide eyes and could see her mother’s eyes turning glassy. She didn’t move as her mother smoothed her tunic, sat back, and turned her head to look away. This was the cycle. A normal conversation turned aggressive, people leaving hurt, and Juliette no closer to seeking her Passion at the Heart. She clenched her jaw and purposely avoided looking at her mother. She was starting to pick at her callouses when her mother took a deep breath. Still looking away from Juliette, she continued.

“The Heart is fair. It understands us on a level that we might not even understand. Oliver should not have entered if his heart was not in line. It’s his fault if he became corrupted.”

Juliette said nothing, but knew how hard that must have been to admit out loud. Her mother could be cold. It must run in the family.

“I understand how you feel. I remember standing in front of the Heart, ready to accept something that would change my life.”

Her mother looked away from Juliette and seemed to lose herself to thought. Most women did not desire to become a Laborer. The lucky ones received a Scholar Passion like Artist or Professor. Some even became Warriors. A Laborer was seen as an unlucky roll of the dice, with the Deliverer focus being even more so.

“It’s not something I took lightly either,” She continued. “The Administrators were there though and could sense my worry. They were gentle with understanding and assured me the Heart would provide. They hadn’t forced me to receive my Passion when I was not ready.”

She glanced back at Juliette who rolled her eyes, “Ah, yes, the Administrators. Our so-called ‘protectors’ who bar entry into the Heart from youth and somehow know our deepest, darkest secrets,” Juliette said.

Her mother’s hands tightened again. “I’m quite serious Juliette. They aren’t monsters. They are there to help prevent more people from corrupting, and to make sure the Heart is guarded.”

And they did such an exceptional job with Oliver, didn’t they? Juliette thought.

“They let you decide when is the right time,” her mother continued. “Just go, see the Heart for yourself. Speak to an Administrator and ask them questions.”

She reached out to grab Juliette’s hand across the table. She could feel her mother’s warm hands and the same rough callouses she had earned herself. Juliette opened her mouth, ready to comment on the mistake they made with Oliver, and then shut it. She couldn’t keep re-opening wounds. She closed her eyes instead.

“I’m not ready. Not yet,” she said quietly.

“Please, you are past the age when most seek the Heart. Years past. You’ll turn eighteen in two seasons. Most your age have already earned their first major-rank by then!”

“I told you. I can’t yet.”

“And what should I tell people asking about you, Juliette? You’re still not ready, and won’t be for another 10 years? They think there is something wrong with you, that you somehow upset Paragon and have lost your Para. I even heard a Warrior talking about ‘some girl from the Senov district cursed to live a Passionless life,’ during a delivery.”

Juliette’s grip tightened on the table again and her knuckles turned white.

“I don’t care what the Warriors or Laborers are saying! They’ve no idea the life I live, nor do they decide when I might seek the Heart. Exden has no law against waiting, so why does everyone care so much? Have they considered, I don’t know, asking me instead of talking behind my back?”

“Are they right though? Do you even have Para anymore?”

Juliette saw her mother stiffen slightly. So, this is why she keeps pushing me, Juliette thought. Oh, how she would love to tell her the truth. Para. The lifeblood of Passions. With it, you may accept a Passion from the Heart. All were born with Para, and all were born with the same amount. Well, not everyone. Juliette shifted in her seat and looked back to her mother.

“Yes. I still have my Para.”

It was barely noticeable when her mother’s shoulders relaxed. She knew she should tell her mother the truth. But if mother told someone else… The Laborers would surely gossip like children. The Warriors might not care, but the Administrators? She was confident there would be no keeping a secret once they found out. It wasn’t worth putting her mother in that position.

She squeezed Juliette’s hands, “then visit the Heart, speak with the Administrators,” she pleaded.


“Juliette, please—”


Juliette stood up and her chair rocked back to the ground. Her mother’s mouth hung open and stared back with wide eyes. Juliette’s fists were tight and her hands trembling.

“Juliette, I’m sorry. Please let’s talk abou—”

“No, No, No! I’m tired of talking. This is my life. My Para. My decision! I won’t be pressured into it.”

Juliette turned toward the closed door. Paragon forbid if a neighbor heard this. Right, mother? She thought. She should turn around and apologize for shouting. Instead she took a step forward and sped out the door.

Her mother sat at the table, feeling tired, and with her face in her palms. Tired from the life of a Laborer. Tired from these arguments with her daughter. Tired from the extra delivery workload from Alton. Her husband still hadn’t fully gotten over what happened to his nephew Oliver, both mentally and physically. Though Oliver was much younger, barely into his teenage years, Alton and Oliver had a strong relationship, almost like father and son. She would never say that to Juliette for fear of pushing her further away and resenting her father any more than she might already. Oliver even resembled Juliette. The same look of determination when focused on a task. Always furrowing brows and a biting lips. Never did he rise to the teasing from other boys or raise his voice to more than a cheer. He was a day over thirteen, the youngest one could be to receive a Passion. Before that, the Administrators would have barred his entry to the Heart for his own safety. The day he turned thirteen, he was more eager than ever, telling anyone with an ear which Passion he might receive.

“I’ll become Exden’s greatest Hunter! Feed the entire city on my first hunt! Or a Water Mage! Protect our town and feed our crops. I could be a Leader! Rule the lands and expand Exden to a continental power!”

Oliver was full of pure joy and eagerness for his blessing.

And then he was cursed.

How could he become corrupted? You could never be absolutely certain if someone ended up corrupted or not. There were cases where receiving a certain Passion drove them to abandon Exden, to seek higher challenges, increase their rank without telling anyone. Others thought that there was something wrong with a person before they met the Heart. Their mind was twisted, and heart malicious. They would seek the Heart for their corrupted motives, only to receive a curse instead. Fleeing the Heart, stripped of their Para, only madness filled them.

But Oliver? An Administrator came to her home that evening requesting council with Alton. They immediately knew something had happened to the boy. She’d excused herself, but through Alton’s fierce yelling, she knew the worst was happening. It was only days later when Alton’s leg was broken by Oliver that they had their confirmation.

“Oh Juliette. What kind of a mother am I?” she whispered to herself.

She rubbed at her face. Her wrinkles were getting deeper and skin getting tougher. So much more time in the sun making deliveries for Alton had not been pleasant on her skin. Her favored olive skin had bronzed in just a few months. At least her hair kept its color. Dark would be the day when her chestnut hair turned silver.

“And this is what I start thinking about when my daughter just ran away. My looks. Paragon save me.”

She took a breath and sat back in her chair. She felt at the rough stitching along the seam of her tunic. Juliette was wrong. Sooner or later a woman would need to grow up and receive her Passion. It can’t be avoided forever. It would not be worth waiting, only to become a detested person of the city, one not able to contribute at the same level as everyone else. Or turning into something… worse. 

“Stop that,” she said aloud.

It was useless to play ‘what if’, Juliette would seek the stone soon. No one, in Exden’s history as far as she could remember, had waited that long to receive a boon. The need was just too great to rank up and receive Paragon’s gift. The only reason Juliette lasted as long as she did without building animosity, was her work ethic. She finished more work than people with ranked Passions frequently. And for a family of Laborers, that was not an easy task. She would talk to Juliette when she returned, and much more softly this time.

I’m sorry Juliette.

Juliette stormed down the road, her legs sore, ignoring the stares of her neighbors. The gawking only fueled her to keep moving. The curse of living in the Senov district was also its pride. With the largest population of Laborers in a single district, there was no time when the district slept. An early morning such as this was just as busy as the lunch hour in the food district. She could see some using their proficiencies to make light work of their labors. A few Deliverers bounded from rooftop to rooftop along the upper trail, packages strapped to their back. A carpenter had been carving ornaments into two chairs simultaneously as she had trudged by.

A missing stone in the cobblestone path caused her to stumble. She steadied herself and started again at a slower pace. The morning sun was finally rising over the clay houses and shops in this area. Senov was dense. It wasn’t an affluent district, but people living here made a decent living for themselves. If someone worked hard and ranked up quickly, they might have a chance to move to a wealthier area. But most who were born in the Senov district, stayed in the Senov district.

Her parents had married young and bought a small home on the outskirts of the district near the walls. Ever since she could remember, her father was out making deliveries. A Deliverer was one of few Passions where the more you worked, the more you could earn. There was always another letter to be delivered, or a package to be sent for. He didn’t have to rely on selling his own goods at the merchant district, but instead could accept as many deliveries as he desired from the Deliverers league. He had always opted to take on as many as his body could handle. Saying that one day he’d move us to an upper crust district like Torres. That never seemed to happen.

Her pace began to slow as she thought about her father. Though his face was hard and gritty, his soft smile always brought Juliette back down to Ducania when she was upset. He’d take her hands gently in his and tell her about the latest delivery he completed. Some Clothier too lazy to carry their own dyes. Or a Blacksmith with a craving for torture, asking her father to haul hundreds of pounds of Iron across the district.

Even since Oliver went to the Heart though, he had become a changed man. Now that smile never seemed to rise. His hard features now made him intimidating to be around. And his calloused hands never left his bundle of deliveries as he limped from one task to the next.

Juliette relaxed herself, stopped walking, and closed her eyes. She took a deep breath of the salty air from the morning swell. Though it was still early, Exden was bustling. Workers from the docks were already done loading the morning ships and now looking for a Sustainer to buy food or energy from. High ranked Deliverers had been up for several hours by this time. Their duty required deliveries to be made at all hours of the day. Some even have abilities to remain awake for all fourty. Their rank gave them superior abilities, what many called ‘Proficiencies’, compared to their lower ranked peers. Some received increased travel speeds, others the ability to deliver across great distances without breaks.

Her father was a mid-rank. The difference between a low-rank and mid-rank is noticeable, but less so than mid to high-rank. Some of the Proficiencies she had seen… No. He was a good Deliverer, but not a great one. He handled bulk deliveries as his primary Proficiency was strength. She’d seen him carry deliveries as large as their family wagon by himself. He was, still is, one of the strongest in the Senov district for certain, though the competition is fierce. Wealthier families could afford specialized delivery wagons or those with high-rank proficiencies. That just meant her family needed to take on a larger number of lower-class deliveries to make do. And with her father’s leg still not fully recovered, Juliette was helping her mother with the deliveries he wasn’t able to complete.

Juliette opened her eyes and looked around at the other Laborers. Only Laborers. There were no Warriors or Fighters in this district, especially during this early hour. They were busy off fighting nearby Goblins or settling some dispute to the south. There was always some issue between Exden and Lower Cross it seemed. Enough fighting that most who participated in the battles had gained enough Para to double their rank in just a few years. Whereas, the majority of Laborers would earn enough Para to rank only once every year at most. Once someone earned enough Para, they could offer it to the Heart, and receive a rank up as a blessing. Then, it was a race to earn more and repeat the process.

There were very few from the Scholars around as well. Only a handful getting ready for the day. She saw a Professor preparing for lectures, setting out parchment and rehearsing her lesson. Another man was carrying a painted canvas and a satchel of painting tools. The Artist must have been out on the docks painting the sunrise. It was hard for her to see more than a few paces with the number of Masons, Deliverers, Workers, and Craftsman traveling to and from the Merchants in the Jun District. She thought about what would happen if she became part of the Scholar class. Would I become a Doctor? She laughed at the thought of herself, Juliette the Doctor with scraped feet and battered hands, attempting to perform surgery on a writhing patient. She’d probably do more damage than they came in with. She would be happy to receive a Passion for Labor. Both of her parents were Laborers, Deliverers to be specific, and met while working on a shared delivery. Juliette would be a good one she knew. The specific Passion she would receive is not what scared her about seeking the Heart. No. It was what happened to those who weren’t given a Passion at all. The Corrupted. Now including her cousin.

Juliette felt a small shiver go up her spine as she thought about Oliver outside of the gates. It just didn’t fit. Oliver had no evil in him. Even while young, he was such a sweet boy.

She looked up and noticed a familiar face and felt a fraction of relief. Juliette’s scowl turned from a frown into a passable neutral expression. She idly thought that she had to stop scowling so much or she’d have wrinkles like her mother before she turned twenty.


“Hi Jane.”

Jane walked closer, but had to sidestep a Carpenter carrying a large wooden beam. As always, Jane Doyen looked stunning. How could you not when you were part of the Doyen family? Juliette wondered. Her wavy hair was tied up with a thin green cord in a traditional eastern style. Even during such an early hour, her eyes were bright, and the green cord made her emerald eyes stand out all the more. She was wearing a new yellow tunic that fit her form perfectly. Did she have a Laborer tailor all her clothes? Juliette thought. She had flawless olive skin, not a blemish to be seen.

Juliette glanced down to inspect her cut and calloused hands. They’d… seen better days. She did not have a Durability Proficiency that most Deliverers had, as she had no Passion. Because of this, the heavy loads took a toll on her more than others. Her tunic was brown and dusty, not at all form fitting. It was a purchase from a second-hand Merchant who was selling at a discount. She looked like a sack of yams compared to Jane. She started absentmindedly brushing the dirt from her tunic and let out a silent sigh.

“What are you doing out so early?” Juliette asked when Jane came closer.

Jane huffed, “Father asked if I could open his chamber early this morning.” She jingled the metal keys in front of her face. “He’s expecting a low-level dignitary from Dummoas. I’d ask the same of you. Where’s your package?” She raised an eyebrow.


“Ah. Your Passion business again?”


“Have you changed your mind at all? Are you going to see the Heart?” Jane asked cautiously.

Juliette was already shaking her head. She sighed again.

“I just don’t feel right about it. I’m not scared of what boon I might receive, or even becoming corrupted since that happens so rarely.” She took a breath, “I can’t be part of something that causes people to become… monsters. I’m going to keep working for my father until he recovers.” She could feel her hands tightening.

“And after that?”

“I’ll figure it out, okay? Why is this such a problem to everyone else? Why can’t someone choose to receive a Passion or not to? I’ll still be a hard worker and I’m better than half the Deliverers in this district as it is!”

Jane put her hands up in surrender and looked around. Juliette noticed a few laborers turn to look at her. Not pleasantly at that. More quietly, she continued.

“My point is, everyone says the only way to live and contribute to the great world of Ducania, is to receive a Passion and find your place in this world. What if I’ve found my place as it is, without needing a Passion?” Juliette let her arms drop to her sides and relaxed her hands.

“Because it’s unprecedented,” Jane said, “nobody, I even asked my father about it, has ever heard of a person who has chosen to live a Passionless life.”

“What about the Ashen?”

Jane let out a barking laugh.

“Oh Paragon! Listen to yourself Juliette. The Ashen, really? Are you going to start believing the Slicks invade our bodies and grow eggs too?” She looked at Juliette incredulously.

“It could be true.” Juliette square her shoulders toward Jane and furrowed her brow.

“And it could be something made up thousands of years ago to get a rise out of the Administrators.” Jane breathed out, “I know you don’t want to receive a Passion yet. But you’ll have to do it sooner or later to avoid all of the focus you’re getting from your parents.”

Juliette didn’t answer. She knew this conversation was going to end in the same way it did with her mother. She looked away from Jane and watched as a Trainer tried to wrangle several cats into a small gap in his shop.

Jane could see the other girl was done with that part of the conversation. “By the way, how is your father? How is Alton feeling?”

Juliette let her shoulders sag further. “He’s… getting by. His leg is still a problem even though it’s much better than a month ago. He’s able to make deliveries, but… Jane, I haven’t seen him smile since Oliver left.” She looked back to Jane, worry in her eyes.

Jane’s eyebrows knit together. They were not close personally, but being a good friend of Juliette, she knew how dear he was to their family. Jane’s voice softened as she leaned in to hug Juliette.

“I’m sorry Juliette. Really, I am. If there is anything me or my father can do to help, please tell me okay?”

Juliette nodded her head and wrapped her arms around Jane.

“He said he’d even be willing to talk to the Deliverers League about allowing your father to take on more mid class deliveries, even if it takes him slightly longer,” Jane said.

That was the thing about being friends with the daughter of a District Leader. They could pull strings no one else could. She knew she could ask for help. And she also knew that her father would be furious if he thought he was receiving some sort of special treatment. Alton Hasting’s family might be poor, but they would not be a lazy!

“Thank you.”

Juliette pulled away from Jane and looked at her friend. Had she always been this… diplomatic? She thought. That is another thing that scared Juliette, but she’d never say it out oud. Passions changed people. It changed the way they spoke, it changed their body, it changed their mind. It was only a few years ago that Jane could barely make it through a conversation without bumbling over her words. But recently, since receiving a Passion for Leadership, she had a silver tongue and always knew just what to say. Juliette had asked her before about her Proficiencies and Jane responded by playing coy. She was a lower rank at the time, and lower tier Proficiencies could be somewhat embarrassing. Nobody would advertise they had received Stutterless Tongue. Instead Jane downplayed it and said she’d not received any Proficiencies other than the standard ones given when you receive a Passion.

Increased Para Rate, and Link to Paragon. Not that Juliette was jealous. She’d had plenty of Para at that time, and even more now. She knew Jane was lying, but decided it wasn’t work making things awkward with her only true friend over something that didn’t really matter.

“But…” Jane said

“But no thank you. You know he would kill me if he knew I was changing things around to give him special treatment.”

“Oh, please Juliette, he loves you more than any father could.” Jane rolled her eyes and frowned. Juliette heard there was a something happening at the Doyen household recently, but wasn’t sure what.

“I know he loves me, but he’s been so much different lately. I’m scared for him. I really am.”

Jane eased the frown off her face and nodded. She grabbed Juliette lightly by the elbow and turned her so they were facing the road which lead to her father’s chamber.

“Come on, I want to show you something. I think it might cheer you up.”

Jane seemed to brighten at that and pulled Juliette along. Jane shared some details from her father’s recent visits with people of importance. He often traveled all across Lesmor, visiting fancy people in fancy places. Never outside of the continent though. He was a Leader, but not a high-rank. A high-rank wouldn’t oversee a district, they’d oversee a city. Instead, Jane’s father, Roland Doyen, made sure the Senov District was running smoothly. He’d deal with the Merchant League if they were price gouging the other Laborers, authorize large projects in the district, and was overall responsible for the health and prosperity of this district. And he was doing a great job at it.

There was talk of Roland ranking up soon. He’d been keeping the district healthy and prosperous and was being rewarded by gaining large amounts of Para. Enough that he was able to rank sometime twice before the year was out. He hadn’t gone out and advertised that fact, but it’s not exactly something you can keep secret when you visit the Heart multiple times in a year. Most believed that his next ranking would be enough for him to move into a full City Leader position. And that was a big deal to the 20,000 people of the Senov District. It is not a wealthy district by any means. So, for one of Senov’s own to become part of City Leadership… That was important.

They made it to Roland’s chamber in short order. Juliette loved how the colored glass windows of his chamber glistened in the light early in the mornings. Reds, blues, yellow, dozens of colors all shimmering in the sunlight. It was an impressive chamber overall. Two stories tall, and all stone construction. It must have taken the Masons a long time to finish, or they had a few High-Level masons on the project. Detailed ornaments sprouted out of every column which lined the facade. Each column was a tribute to the most prevalent leagues in the district. It made her swell with pride at the statue that extended from the left-most column. A man standing strong, lifting a large delivery over his head. That man was Alton Hastings. Her father, and personal friend of Roland. Even before Roland received his Leader Passion they were friends. Their father’s friendship was how Juliette and Jane had met in the first place. It was a draw of luck that the Hastings and Doyen’s remained friends after all this time. Usually the class discrepancy was too great to still hold relationships between classes. What Engineer wants to be friends with a Fisher? They can’t gain Para by talking about fishing after all.

Roland had commissioned Alton’s image to represent all the Laborers of Senov. Her father’s chest would puff with delight when someone recognized his form, and he’d always explain that his good friend Roland wanted a real Laborer to represent their league.

Jane pushed open the wide wooden doors and they entered Roland’s chambers. It was just as grand on the inside. Hand carved, wooded desks were placed strategically throughout the building. Stone statues of Paragon stood along the far wall under a sign which read, “Through unity and persistence we find Passion,” a copy of one of the more popular phrases thought to have been written by Paragon himself many millennia ago. There were even living plants inside near the colored windows. Probably to make the western dignitaries feel more at home.

“Have a seat in the antechamber. I’ll be right back with what I wanted to show you.” Jane said as she hurried away.

Antechamber? Juliette thought, She’s saying Antechamber now?

Juliette sat in the antechamber on a cushioned chair and sunk into the soft padding while her eyes closed. Being part of the Leader class came with certain privileges, and fluffy chairs were just one, fantastic, part.

“Cushioned chairs and tailored wears. Maybe life as a Leader wouldn’t be so bad,”Juliette whispered to herself with a smirk.

She heard a slam and opened one eye. A flash of green passed through a doorway as Jane went from drawer to drawer, slamming them along the way. Juliette slouched down in the chair still upset from the mornings conversation with her mother and started picking at the callouses on her hand. A woman’s hands shouldn’t be this rough. At least not rougher than her husbands. What would a suitor think when he saw that her hands were rougher than his? “You can fold the clothes husband, while I fix the wagon!”. Juliette smirked at that thought. Imagining her with any man made her chuckle as she’d never even had a young admirer. The other girls said it was because of Juliette’s scary face. It wasn’t scary, it was strong! Who wants a woman that gets pushed around by others? Not her future husband, that’s who!

As she was picturing herself swiftly punching someone in the face, Jane came back in the room.

“I found it! You mustn’t tell my father, or anyone, that I showed you this. He said it was something very important and could potentially speed up his promotion.”

Jane obviously though the promotion was inevitable. Juliette stared at the item Jane was holding and leaned forward. Jane’s eyes were bright with anticipation. To Juliette, it looked like a plain, small, cloth pouch. Not even larger than her fist. Definitely not something that Juliette thought might speed up a Leader’s promotion.

“What is it?” Juliette asked, letting the curiosity seep into her voice.

“I don’t know,” Jane said as she locked eyes with Juliette. She was cradling the pouch in her hands like she might a kitten. She looked back down to the item. “It’s something that my father is keeping very close to his chest. No one knows about this item except him, the foreigner who brought it, and the Merchant who was attempting to buy it. And now us.”

“What?” Juliette asked, confused.

“I haven’t opened it yet.”

“No, the foreigner.” She said, shaking her head, “where was he from, and why was he in Exden trying to sell this?” Her eyebrows knit together.

“I’m not sure. My father said he was some traveler, frail looking, and babbling about some faraway place. Hamire maybe? Father was passing through the Merchant district when the name caught his attention. He takes pride in knowing of every city in Lesnor, and that’s not one of them. He purchased it from the traveler and has been keeping it here ever since.” Jane’s was still staring at the pouch while she slowly turned it to get a better view.

“How long has he had it?”

“Two days, but he says he won’t be needing it much longer. He hasn’t told me what he needs it for. I’ve been dying to peek inside, but I wanted you to be here when I do. If this is going to change our lives, I want to share that moment with you.” Jane said, glancing at Juliette then returning to the object in her hands. Jane was smiling and almost shaking with anticipation.

Jane’s comment shocked Juliette and she sat back in her chair. She knew they were friends, but thought that once Jane had become part of the Leader class, she’d be busy with lavish parties to attend and princesses to befriend. It was not like Juliette brought anything to the table. She could deliver packages without a Passion. Woohoo! Watch out royalty! She could also beat up most people her age, male or female. So there was that.

She saw Jane’s hand tugging gently on the small string that held the pouch closed.

“Are you sure—”

The string fell to the floor and Jane peeled open the top. She stared into the pouch, her emerald eyes intensely focused, then she reached in and pulled out the item.

It was a rock. Juliette sat forward.

“A rock?” Juliette asked, squinting her eyes.

“A rock.” Jane responded. Disappointment washing over her face. “It’s just a rock. Why would my father buy a rock?” She dropped the hemp sack and examined the stone closer to her face.

“Is there anything written on it? A rune maybe?” Juliet asked.

“No. It’s just… a rock.” Jane began pacing back and forth looking at the rock, holding it up to the light and inspecting for something, anything, out of the ordinary.

“Here, let me take a look.” Juliette offered.

Juliette extended her hand while Jane took one more lingering look at the stone. With a loud exhale she tossed the rock to Juliette.

The rock sailed through the air, “What a stupid—” Jane’s voice cut off.

White blinding light. Searing white blinding light was all Juliette saw. She tried to shut her eyes, but the light was somehow still just as bright. There was no cushioned chair. No stone walls. No Jane. Just a white glow so bright that Juliette was sure she’d gone blind. Until she looked down and saw her calloused hands and tunic. Her stained tunic though, was now pristine, and what was loose fitting and dirty before, was form-fitting and flawless now.

She blinked and turned her head to look around, find anything in the glare.

“Hello!” She shouted. Her voice was muffled, like she was yelling into her palm or a pillow. She turned again and noticed a faint blemish within the glow, something that shone just a shade different. She tried to move toward the glow and found her steps were near impossible to take, like a great resistance was holding her back. She was not paralyzed, but instead like traipsing through waist deep mud into a strong wind. She slowly edged closer and the glow became more defined. She could hear a ringing in her ears. A constant droning ringing that felt like it was coming from her very soul. It wasn’t a painful sound though. It was pleasant, pleasurable. She wanted to curl up and sleep while the ringing soothed her aching hands and gave rest to her body.

She continued walking closer, what felt like hours had passed, and slowly, the ringing turned into whispers. Voices. No, a voice. Undulating and overlapping with itself like a choir seeking harmony. The glow turned, and she saw it was a figure. A glorious, glowing figure wrapped in gold.


Pressure hit Juliette’s body and her whole frame ached. It felt like her inside was being squeezed out of her. A deep instinctual pressure, keeping her from advancing any further. She struggled to reach out her arms, as if held down by heavy weights. The figure stared at her, its gold glow searing her mind, unmoving. She couldn’t take any more of this, she would pass out. She knew it.

And then the pressure stopped completely.

“Juliette. Come to me, find me.”