“Well if the Wood Folke won’t help me, would you mind helping me look sometime?” Callum stooped down and picked up a small stone off the path, “I can pay you handsomely.” Brona rolled her eyes and Callum belted the stone at her legs. Brona used that pain to Distort a tree branch into shaking over Callum to drop bugs down his dress.
The walk up the path was becoming increasingly tiresome. The time it took to walk from Brona’s home to Late Sun’s main square was less than an hour, but the distance from Callum’s house was well over three. Callum was completely composed while trekking up the steep angle, his movements no less graceful than they were an hour ago, but Brona was already dragging her feet and mouth-breathing. Natural sun was a scarce nicety any day, but in it being spring, the sun’s rays were stronger which didn’t help Brona’s sweaty body to move up the hill any faster.
As though the skies sympathized with Brona, a grey haze fell like a sheet over Late Sun. Light rain developed and cooled the surrounding air. Callum’s dress pressed closely to his chest, but the handkerchief pleating remained voluminous, somehow. He shielded his binder with the other two dresses and started at a faster gate. Brona used her body to defend her thinly wrapped cake as she attempted to match Callum’s speed. Luckily, Brona and Callum were already at the peak of the Western hill and it would only be a few more minutes’ walk to reach Callum’s home.
“Okay Brona, thinking time. You got any Distortions that can keep us dry?”
“Grendt showed me once that if you chew watercress and put mud on your face and draw this symbol in the air”, Brona gestured unclearly, “then you can summon the largest plant-based cloth from a ten-kilometre radius, but I haven’t been able to get the spell to work for me yet even when standing beside the laundry outside, so I think that—.”
Callum cut Brona off, “How is putting mud on your face a better alternative to getting a little bit of rain on you?” Brona paused for a moment wondering if Grendt was just bull-shitting her again. “Hey, it’s no matter anyways, we’re almost there,” said Callum, stooping to lift Brona up onto his free arm and run until they reached a familiar pair of gates crusted with rust. Callum’s land spanned hundreds of acres over the surrounding hills and backed into the same looping forest that was Brona’s backyard as well, just at the opposite end. Waiting at the gate was a basset hound, sitting roughly five feet tall.
“Donegal, could you please get Brona’s spare clothes? She’s going to be staying the night. Also, inform the rest of the staff so they don’t try to chase her off the property,” said Callum.
Donegal barked in reply and turned towards the estate.
As Callum and Brona walked behind the basset hound, other large dogs of various breeds came off the lawn to line the walkway on either side, greeting Callum home. Once Callum walked past a dog, some returned to their human forms, which Brona saw some of the maids transform and continue back to the mansion using a side door. All of Callum’s staff were brought-in from the nearby province of Selt, which was a leading nation in transformative Ouroborics. Brona was working up the courage to ask the staff one day if they would teach her how to transform into an animal herself.
The West Estate was a four-story monstrosity. The plants at ground level looked like scraggly arms reaching for the mansion’s roof but falling short of their attempts. The stones making up the outer walls laughed down at them not realizing they had already lost the war on purity being covered in moss and stained by the oxidized residue from the copper fittings. There was also a regal stoniness to everything on the property that made it seem like the house, the outer furniture and even the plant life, was all carved from the same block of limestone some hundreds of years ago.
“Brona, hand me your clothes, I’ll dry them for you,” said Donegal, appearing in his human form holding a towel and a fresh set of garments at the mouth of the main entrance. Donegal and the rest of the staff living with Callum didn’t actually work for him, they were historians studying Leaver culture. They performed menial tasks and laboured eight-hour workdays of their own volition to emulate life in a Leaver settlements. Instead of getting money for compensation like a Leaver would, Callum allowed them stay in his home and gave them access to his historical record library. Even among other historians, these Seltans were an odd bunch practicing their study topic, but it was their preferred method of research and it harmed no one. Brona also thought they were weird but they all got along really well each other and she liked their vibes. She peeled the sopping clothing from her skin and handed them to Donegal. The clothes hung off his hands like they wanted to be on the floor.
“I’m going to go get changed myself—,” said Callum, trying to take his flats off as he walked up the staircase, “—but you get comfy in the study. I’ll have Aine get you something to eat, and then we’ll get started.” Brona gave Callum a thumbs up as she wiped herself dry with the towel. A Labrador brushed past her leaving hairs on her waist and bare legs, which Brona absent-mindedly tried to wipe away with her hands, effectively getting the hair stuck to her palms. She folded her towel onto the floor and sat on it until she air-dried and the dog hair unpeeled before putting on the shirt and pants from Donegal.
Brona walked through the house hallways looking at the many paintings. She knew where to expect cracks on the tiled floors, and she could probably replicate the wallpaper from memory –but the artistry in Callum’s house always had something new to be spotted. The entire series of artworks were done by someone initialled ‘WF’ as signed at the bottom corner of every painting. Callum said he thought they were a series, though he could never confirm it as he’d never met the artist. The first few paintings, nearest to the entrance, were the cheeriest, framed in floral wood-carved frames daubed in gold. They depicted a boy holding someone smaller in his hand; sometimes a girl, sometimes boy. They were painted in bright colours with maximum saturation, as Callum would say, which elicited a delighted feeling from the viewer as bright colours could only be seen in the light, and humans associated light with good and safety. Then the mid series of paintings depicted two men, one handsome and smiling, and one who looked like a drug addict rotting in the corner. There was a juxtaposition of moods in the painting, looking from one man to the other, feeling that ‘everything will alright’ to ‘why even bother’. The brighter of the two men was also the only one clothed. The last two paintings nearing the end of the hallway showed a split in continuity in the already confusing story. In one painting, the cheery man was triumphant over the ugly one, with the ugly man’s head ripped from his bony shoulders. The opposite sister-painting depicted the ugly man with no one but himself sitting overtop a pile of tiny bodies and tending to a bleeding mouth. The detail was as though the painter used but one hair of the brush to paint the entire series and the transition of colours was imperceptible. From areas of light to areas of dark, Brona couldn’t pinpoint when the colours started to change. She was crap at most things aside from Ouroborics, but art seemed like a healthy outlet to bleed her emotions when Grendt was being an ass.
There was one other painting that was framed outside the hallway, but Brona was sure it was a standalone, not belonging to the series despite it also being created by WF: An androgenous person, with a breast on their left side and a flat masculine chest on their right, firmly toned shoulders and muscular arms holding a metallic ring of two Ouroboroi swallowing one another. The man-lady wore a thin circlet that, upon closer inspection, could be seen to be made of figures of tiny people braided into a crown-like shape that grew like thorns from the person’s head. There was an additional detail, the matter of the backdrop to the painting, that bothered Brona: there were 3 lines, two on either side of the person and one sitting behind, that showed a skyline between them. The rest of the backdrop was a wheat colour that did not match the colours of the foreground portrait. It had weird symbolism to say the least. Brona thought the painter was likely high when making this one.
Turning her heel, Brona saw Callum’s study become visible, the sun from the adjacent window pushing attention towards the door in its light. It was simpler than one would expect from the extravagance of the rest of the house. Every wall but one was lined with bookshelves containing books of various topics, but mostly science texts, and all were of the latest editions. There was one corner of the room that stood out more than the rest because it was the only area that contained brightly coloured book covers. They were all about the dresses; how to sew them, how to achieve pattern harmony and ideas for colour combinations. Callum was quite the enthusiast, often using his breaktime in his politicking to design custom dresses for himself and Brona and would take advantage of any ear willing to listen to his blathering on the latest styles.
Brona went ahead and sat behind the study desk by the window. Despite the bumbling staff, it was grossly quiet in the room. She needed to make some white noise for her sanity and started shuffling the paper on Callum’s desk into a neat stack.
His notes were written in cursive which sometimes tapered into swirly math calculations in the margins of the pages. Brona felt she could follow Callum’s flickering thought process as he went from idea to testing the feasibility of his thoughts through math. Or so she assumed. He contemplated many different theories of the Task Curse’s existence, as perhaps it was something dormant that was always a part of Late Sun that only just emerged in the last few years, or that it was perhaps a collective illness that the Sunnish were suffering from, and it was the manifestation of that sickness. Some sheets were data collected on Sunnish citizens and the frequency of Task Letters they received over the years. Those notes were familiar, Brona helped make them. She was also at the top of that list. Another paper was a line graph labelled ‘The Tenefrit Harshness Scale’, with individual data points reading threats people had received in their letters. Most data points were in the upper right of the graph indicating extreme harshness. Were these points labelled as harsh according to Callum or according to the person who received them? It seemed too relative to be able to quantify, yet Callum kept a record of these things.
Perhaps Callum just thought to start somewhere. To notice a pattern would require some raw observations first anyways, although the data still seemed somewhat erratic. It looked like Callum had about five years’ worth of data, but the first three years were less well-documented than the most recent two. He had also mapped out the range of the curse over a diagram of the province. By Callum’s estimate, the curse confined itself to the Distorter settlement on the South-East end, but a note on the side of the map read ‘animals affected?’ with a crescent-mark encapsulating the forest areas.
There was another item on Callum’s desk that was just a scribbled piece of lined paper with a list of questions. Does the Tasker follow the rules of Ouroborics? Has it mutated? What to do if the Tasks become undoable? Those questions hung in most people’s minds, though the last one stood out particularly to Brona. The question made her blood feel cold.
Expand curse to the growing world to free Late Sun?
A woman came through the study doors, who Brona assumed was Aine, holding a salver with food on it. She was singing a carefree hum as she set the salver down on the desk, not paying any attention to what Brona was doing. The woman moved to reveal a bowl of chilled wheatberries mixed with poppy seeds. She left Brona without saying a word.
Brona was hungry, but she had to return her attention to the paper in her hand. Expand the Task Curse to the whole world…Was that idea ugly? It irritated Brona that the mansion staff from Selt were allotted a larger degree of freedom than herself. They didn’t even seem sad that the Sunnish were stuck. Like the rest of the growing world, they just didn’t care. If everyone was suffering from the same curse, they would be working harder to fix it, or it would become the new normal and then it wouldn’t be considered suffering anymore. Right?
It sounded like a plausible solution, even though it meant condemning the world to the same problem. The growing world was infinite; from its conception to modern day, it was an ever-growing orb, always expanding in all directions, creating new lands, providing new resources and surely, had the potential to out-grow this dismal curse. At the very least, if the curse’s assigned tasks reached beyond their province, Brona and Callum could leave its confines and see the rest of the growing world, enter study collegiates, meet new people…
Brona asked herself again: was it bad that she liked that idea?
Aine burst the study doors once again, breaking the room’s silence with a flurry of apologies, appearing to have forgotten to hand Brona an eating utensil along with her porridge. She returned to Brona’s side and grabbed a silvery thing from her smock, pushed in her chair, and handed Brona a spoon.