If you follow me, and/or Literary Escapism, on social media, then you have probably heard about a new project I’ve been working on. I have been a little silent about it here, on the site, but today begins a new feature that will bring a little more light to it.
I’m hosting the first Rust City Book Convention here in the Metro Detroit area, and to help spotlight the authors attending, let me introduce you to a new feature series – Hidden Treasures. My longtime readers should know by now that I love the mini-fiction events; a glimpse into the world, a story by a beloved side character, or an introduction to never before seen action – I love it all and can never get enough. So it should be no surprise that I’ve put that to the #RustCity16 authors. Their task was to write a story, featuring any or all of their characters as they discover a new bit of treasure – i.e. at a flea market, up in the attic, tomb-raiding, etc.
With that in mind, let’s see what hidden treasures Laura Bickle’s characters from her Dark Alchemy series have discovered. The latest novel, Mercury Retrograde is now available.
The cowbell tied to the barred door of Stan’s Dungeon clattered against the glass. Petra Dee squinted into the cluttered dimness of Temperance’s only pawn shop. The glass eyes of a taxidermied elk peered down at her, gazing blankly over stacked ammo boxes, scratched-up guitars, and framed black and white photographs. The shop smelled of dust, gunpowder, and stale tobacco. Petra fought back a sneeze. Her coyote companion, Sig, pressed his nose to the floor and disappeared into a rack of surplus military jackets with his tail slapping the sleeves.
“Stan?” she called again into the gloom. It seemed that the Dungeon’s inventory had changed slightly since her last visit; Stan had acquired a set of frilly porcelain dolls that seemed out of place, perched on a shelf next to a decrepit-looking muzzle loader.
“Back here!” The old man trotted up to the counter. There was dust in his carefully-waxed moustache, and he seemed flushed with excitement. “I’m glad you came. I got something in that I thought might be up your alley.”
“That’s what your message said.” Petra leaned against the glass case, peering down at the jewelry with handwritten tags. As a geologist, she knew rocks, and she knew that Stan had overpriced the heck out of some of those diamonds that were barely above industrial grade. She trailed a finger along the smudged glass, squinting at the rocks. “You have a mineral specimen you wanted me to see?”
“Yes!” Stan raised his finger, as if fearful she might leave. “Let me get it!”
He scurried to the back, and Petra heard the churning of a safe dial. “I found this at an estate sale. The seller swears that it belonged to Lascaris. That he made it.”
Petra’s finger stilled. “Lascaris?” she echoed.
“Yes. You remember. Legend says he was an alchemist, that he created the gold on which this town was founded.”
“Yes,” she said. “I remember.” And she knew that it was more than legend. Lascaris had been a fearsome foe, a hundred and fifty years ago before Petra came to town. His creations were still wandering the land around Temperance. Some slithered on scales. Some wore raven wings and lived forever. One artifact in her possession drank blood. She’d even seen the Alchemical Tree of Life itself, in all its gruesome glory.
Whatever Stan had, if it was real, wasn’t good.
Sig returned to Petra’s side. His muzzle was covered in dust, and he sneezed all over her jeans.
He sat down, looking satisfied with himself, and licked his nose.
Stan emerged with a battered tea tin that had a picture of a Gibson Girl stamped on the side. He opened the lid and pulled out a wad of yellowed cotton. Inside was a filthy handkerchief, wadded up. Stan opened the handkerchief on the counter and stood back triumphantly.
Petra let loose a low whistle.
“See?” Stan said. “It’s gold. Said to be conjured by Lascaris himself.”
She bent down to peer at it. It was a mineral specimen, all right. About the size of a ping pong ball, it glittered with striations of gold, a milky white crystal, and a silvery metallic veining. She fished her hand lens out of her pocket and peered at it.
“May I?” She asked if she could turn the handkerchief around to better see it.
Stan nodded, his arms crossed over his chest. “I ain’t seen nothin’ like it.”
“Me, either,” she muttered. The gold was fragile and crystalline, fingering over much larger bits of pyrite, which made up the largest part of the specimen. The shiny semi-transparent crystal base had a silver sheen, and it seemed as if the small bit of gold had been bursting forth from the mineral and suddenly stopped. Knowing Lascaris, that might be what had happened – an alchemical process had stuck and frozen. But the results sure were pretty.
Sig’s nose slipped up the glass side of the case, and Petra nudged him away with her hip. He whined, ears flattened.
“I thought about selling it,” Stan continued, stroking his moustache. “But I feel that the historical value is more important.”
“Did you get any firm provenance on it?” Petra asked, her heart pounding as she examined the rock.
Stan’s shoulders slumped. “Well, I got a rumor. But if it ain’t like anything you’ve seen, maybe I can send it away to be analyzed…”
Petra straightened. “What you’ve got is a little bit of gold and a whole lot of pyrite on Coloradoite.”
“Yup. Offhand, I’d estimate that there’s maybe five percent real gold in the specimen, but you wouldn’t know for sure without extracting it. Which I wouldn’t advise at all.”
“Why not?” he asked.
“Coloradoite is mercury combined with tellurium, both of which are pretty toxic.” Mercury was a favorite plaything of alchemists. It seemed relatively stable in this rock, but still. “You shouldn’t be handling this without gloves. It can give off harmful vapors if it’s heated or crushed, so…”
Stan rubbed his hands on his shirt. “So…I can’t sell it?”
“Yeah. And you’re gonna have a hell of a time storing it. If you sell it to an amateur rockhound with a kid or a dog who likes to chew on shiny things, you’re pretty well hosed.”
Stan groaned and stared down at the shiny stone. “That bad?”
“That bad. How much did you pay for it?”
“If you want to sell it to me to break even, I’ll see that it’s taken care of. Your liability will be zero.”
Stan made a face. “I shouldn’t have called you.”
“No,” she agreed. “Probably not.”
“A thousand dollars.”
“Seriously. I’m trying to help you out, here. How much did you pay?”
“You’re killing me. Okay, five hundred.”
Petra knew that still wasn’t the truth. But she paid out. She carefully wrapped the rock up and put it back in its tin. Stan gave her a battered shoebox and a half a roll of bubble wrap to put around it. He walked away, muttering, and Petra heard him washing his hands in the back.
Petra tucked the box under her arm and headed for the door. Sig trotted behind her, gazing suspiciously at the box.
Anything Lascaris had made was trouble. If this was one of his artifacts, it was certainly going to be a helluva lot more trouble than it seemed.
Not that this was the easiest solution.
She drove to the back forty of the Rutherford Ranch, wincing as the shoebox jostled on the floorboards before the front seat.
Sig wanted nothing to do with the box. He had voluntarily given up his usual shotgun seat in Petra’s Ford Bronco to sit in the back. She could feel him giving her side-eye from his perch behind her.
“I’m getting rid of it,” she said. “I promise.”
The Alchemical Tree of Life stood in a field, massive and ancient. It was hard to imagine a time that it hadn’t grown there. As Petra parked the Bronco amid the churning grasses, ravens rattled and chattered in the leaves of the tree. Nothing escaped their notice. Petra could feel the weight of their dark eyes on her as she carefully removed the box and waded into the grass to the base of the tree. Sig slipped into the field after her, his tail flickering above the tassels as he chased a bird.
There was a door here, a door to the underworld. She placed the box on the ground and felt around on her hands and knees for a seam in the dirt. Her fingers closed around a ring buried in the turf, and she began to tug at it.
“What are you doing here?”
The voice behind her startled her, and she lurched forward, nearly bumping the box. A shadow passed over her.
“Gabe,” she said, blinking into the sunshine. She should have known that she couldn’t come here without his ravens knowing.
He offered her a hand up, eyes shaded under his hat.
“I brought something…” she began. “I think it belonged to Lascaris.”
His brow creased, and his gaze fell to the box. “What is it?”
“A piece of gold that he might have conjured up. I think it was stopped, mid-transformation, from one mineral to another. But it’s poisonous. Too much mercury.” She pulled a strand of hair out of her mouth. “I thought it was best to bring it here. Maybe tuck it away in one of the tunnels under the tree, where no one will find it…” She was blathering. She stopped herself.
“You’re right,” he said. He reached down to open the door in the ground. The smell of damp earth emanated upward into the warm sunshine.
Gabe jumped down into the darkness, with a preternatural lack of noise. She squinted after him, and could make out the shapes of his hands.
“Give it to me.”
Eager to be rid of it, she carefully handed the box down. The pale hands returned for her, and she lowered herself into the dark, feeling his fingers gripping her waist until he set her on the floor of the chamber beneath the Tree of Life.
There was light here, of a diffuse sort. The roots of the tree glowed with stored sunshine, pulsing like blood.
Gabe picked up the box and pointed to one of the tunnels leading away, far beneath the field. His eyes glowed with the same unearthly light. He was one of the Tree’s creatures. Funny how easy it was to forget that, topside. “We can take it down there. I can think of a few spots that even the Hanged Men don’t visit more than once a decade, and—”
He was interrupted by a rustle in the tree roots. Petra jumped, then watched, fascinated, as the roots unwound themselves and reached toward Gabe. No matter how often she’d seen them move, she was struck by how they seemed to be at the direction of a consciousness. At times, they could be playful, curious, tender…but not today.
The roots snatched for the box. Reflexively, Gabe stepped away. He glanced at Petra. “The Tree…it wants the box.”
“I think…I think we should give it up, then? I mean, the rock is poisonous, and I don’t want to hurt the tree…”
The tree was brooking no argument. It snatched the box from Gabriel’s hands with gnarled tendrils and ripped off the lid. They rooted through the crackling bubble wrap and ripped open the metal tin.
“Oh,” Petra breathed, fascinated but also afraid.
The roots cupped the mineral specimen, almost reverently. In the reflected light of the dripping artificial sunshine, the rock seemed to glow. The tree wrapped around the specimen like a hand closing around a fist and drew it deep within itself. The wood seemed to groan and rattle, then was still.
“What did…did that mean something?” Petra blurted.
Gabe shrugged. “The Tree wants what the Tree wants. Likely, it saw something it knew in the gold…something familiar. And it’s capable of feeling that, coveting something lost.”
Petra nodded. She knew that feeling all too well.
The tree had found a treasure, something valuable, and it would not let go.
“It’s kept odd things over the years,” Gabe continued, stepping close to the roots. “Look.”
Petra screwed up her courage and stood beside him, staring at the skin of the roots. She could have sworn the half-light brightened on her approach, and she could make out objects embedded in the roots: the neck of a bottle grasped so tightly that its contents were obscured, a bent spoon turned at a clawlike angle, and a handful of coins peppering a thick rhizome like spots on a lizard’s back. It was as if these props were arranged to give it the illusion of some kind of animal life, as if it longed to be something other than it was.
“It’s so alive,” Petra breathed. “Do you bring it things? Offerings?”
Gabe shrugged. “Not intentionally. But the Tree sometimes goes through our pockets or picks up something that we’ve brought down. It’s hard to tell what will interest it. The last thing it took was many years ago. A pocket watch. We never saw it again, though we sometimes heard it ticking. But I’ve never seen it this active. That rock, if it was from Lascaris, might have some magic still about it.”
The roots shuffled, and Petra shrank back. The tendrils curled above her head, cradling the Coloradoite specimen. Petra shuddered. It looked like an eye, glittering in the half-darkness. For all the tree’s slumbering sentience before, it was awake now, watching.
The tree reached out with a tendril, brushing Petra’s cheek. Petra swallowed. She couldn’t tell if the tree was expressing appreciation for the gift, or…
She felt a tickling around her wrist, and looked down in alarm. A rhizome had spiraled around her wrist. It jerked her toward the gleaming eye of the tree. Another root wrapped around her leg, and she struggled against it.
She heard Gabe shout, but he was behind a curtain of roots that had fallen between them. She could hear him ripping at the roots, trying to pull her back. His fingers grazed her elbow, but the tree shoved him away.
Petra fumbled in her pocket as a tendril combed through her hair, and she had the sensation of walking through a spider web. She shuddered violently, feeling the tree roots wrapping up her legs and crawling over her ribs. The tree felt ancient and hollow around her, looking for something to fill an empty core…
She ripped her pocket knife free, flipped open the blade, and jammed it awkwardly upwards, into the glowing eye of stone.
The tree shrieked, a sound like nails on a chalkboard. It dropped Petra to the floor of the chamber, the roots retracting in on themselves. Petra landed on a knee and a forearm. The eye of stone was fractured, crumbling into pieces from the wood socket of the tree.
Gabe was at her side, picking her off the floor. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah. But what about the tree?”
She gestured to it. The mercury and tellurium vapor had released, and the knot hole that had held the eye was turning black. A skin of fresh bark immediately formed over it, like a clot over a cut, and roots pressed against the wound. The tree shuddered and was still, the light pulsing in an even thrumming over the underground biomass. Pyrite dust from the ruined specimen glittered on the floor.
“I think it will be fine,” Gabe said. “That rock must have awakened something in it.”
Petra edged back toward the door in the ceiling. She’d felt it in the embrace of the tree, a deep yearning. It was ancient, sad, and tears prickled her eyes. She let her hair fall over her face to hide them.
Gabe pushedher hair back over her shoulder to look her full in the face. “You’re hurt,” he decided.
“No.” She took a deep breath. “It was just…the tree. It’s so empty.”
Gabe glanced over his shoulder at the quiet tree. “Time. Time does that.”
She nodded, but didn’t feel as if she quite understood.
Gabe offered her a leg up to the surface world. She put her foot in his laced hands and let him lift her up to the bright world she knew.
Sunshine was warm on her face, and the grass prickled her fingertips. Sig’s nose was pressed to her chest, and his breath smelled like he’d found something dead to gnaw on.
But something glittered behind her eyes, an afterimage of the dark, like the fool’s gold shattered on the floor of the chamber. What treasure had the tree been seeking? Some simulacrum of life? Companionship? She wasn’t sure.
But inspiration struck her.
“Gabe,” she called down. “I’ll be right back.”
She ran to the Bronco and dug through her glove box. She found what she was looking for, jammed it into her jacket pocket, and carried it back to the tree.
She lowered herself clumsily into the darkness, and Gabe caught her and set her down.
“I have something else for the tree,” she announced.
She pulled a plastic portable radio out of her pocket. She checked the batteries and fiddled with the dial. She was able to get a signal down here, and tuned the station to the clearest channel, playing classical music.
Gabe smiled. “I think the Tree would like that.”
She handed it to him. Gabe set the radio into a niche in the roots, with the tiny speaker turned out. The thin music filled the chamber with the plinking of a piano.
The tree seemed to sigh, and the roots wound gently around the radio. They held it loosely, not enough to smother the sound, but in the manner of a person holding a seashell close to an ear.
Petra grinned. “I’ll bring it some batteries next time I come. And no more gifts from Lascaris.”
“I think that would be an excellent idea.” Gabe sketched a bow from another era and offered her a hand.
“Oh, gack. I don’t dance,” she said, blinking. “Not well, I mean.”
“Nobody’s watching. Not even the Tree.”
She tipped her head, considering. Some of the tree’s loneliness still clung to her, unshakable as a film of dust on her skin.
But she took Gabe’s hand and let him draw her into the dance.
Meet Laura Bickle!
Laura Bickle grew up in rural Ohio, reading entirely too many comic books out loud to her favorite Wonder Woman doll. After graduating with an MA in Sociology – Criminology from Ohio State University and an MLIS in Library Science from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, she patrolled the stacks at the public library and worked with data systems in criminal justice. She now dreams up stories about the monsters under the stairs, also writing contemporary fantasy novels under the name Alayna Williams.
Her work has been included in the ALA’s Amelia Bloomer Project 2013 reading list and the State Library of Ohio’s Choose to Read Ohio reading list for 2015-2016.
Want to purchase Laura’s novels?
Embers (Anya Kalinczyk #1)
Dark Oracle (Delphic Oracle #1) – writing as Alayna Williams
The Hallowed Ones (Hallowed Ones #1)
A Fantasy Medley 3
Onward, Voyager: A Science Fiction and Fantasy Sampler
Don’t miss your chance to meet some amazing authors at Rust City Book Con next August! Come join us in our celebration of all things genre fiction in the Motor City! Registration is now open for #RustCity16!