Orbs of Madjourneys

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  • #6373
    ÉricÉric
    Keymaster

      An immersive AI-assisted novel with links & AI-generated images

      (no flood – quality content & limit of 4-5 pics per comment)

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    • #6550

      “I’ve got something to tell you, too.   Come on, you can meet him. He’s waiting in the car,” Zara told Yasmin as they made their way out of the arrivals hall at Alice Springs airport.

      “Who the dickens is Sergio?” Yasmin replied, and then added, “You tart!” when Zara explained.

      “That’s rich, coming from you, you old slapper,” Zara laughed, giving Yasmin an affectionate elbow poke.  “He’s leaving tomorrow, so when he phoned this morning inviting me out sightseeing, I couldn’t refuse.  Xavier and Youssef weren’t up yet when I left, lazy buggers.  They’re an odd family at the Inn, and it’s a funny old place. Some strange undercurrents though, I can’t put my finger on it. Secrets, you know? Why, what’s up?”  Yasmin had given her a funny look, but as they had just reached the hire car, Yasmin whispered “Tell you later!”

      #6551

      Xavier had woken up in the middle of the night that felt surprisingly alive bursting with a quiet symphony of sounds from nocturnal creatures and nearby nature, painted on a canvas of eerie spacious silence.

      It often took him a while to get accustomed to any new place, and it was not uncommon for him to have his mind racing in the middle of the night. Generally Brytta had a soothing presence and that often managed to nudge him back to sleep, otherwise, he would simply wake up until the train of thoughts had left the station.

      It was beginning of the afternoon in Berlin; Brytta would be in a middle of a shift, so he recorded a little message for her to find when she would get back to her phone. It was funny to think they’d met thanks to Yasmin and Zara, at the time the three girls were members of the same photography club, which was called ‘Focusgroupfocus’ or something similar…
      With that done, he’d turned around for something to do but there wasn’t much in the room to explore or to distract him sufficiently. Not even a book in the nightstand drawer. The decoration itself had a mesmerising nature, but after a while it didn’t help with the racing thoughts.

      He was tempted to check in the game — there was something satisfactory in finishing a quest that left his monkey brain satiated for a while, so he gave in and logged back in.

        :fleuron2:

      Completing the quest didn’t take him too long this time. The main difficulty initially was to find the portal from where his avatar had landed. It was a strange carousel of blue storks that span into different dimensions one could open with the proper incantation.

      As usual, stating the quirk was the key to the location, and the carousel portal propelled him right away to Midnight town, which was clearly a ghost town in more ways than one. Interestingly, he was chatting on the side with Glimmer, who’d run into new adventures of her own while continuing to ask him what was up, and as soon as he’d reached Midnight town, all communication channels suddenly went dark. He’d laughed to himself thinking how frustrated Glimmer would have been about that. But maybe the game took care of sending her AI-generated messages simulating his presence. Despite the disturbing thought of having an AI generated clone of himself, he almost hoped for it (he’d probably signed the consent for this without realising), so that he wouldn’t have to do a tedious recap about all what she’d missed.

      Once he arrived in the town, the adventure followed a predictable pattern. The clues were also rather simple to follow.

      The townspeople are all frozen in time, stuck in their daily routines and unable to move on. Your mission is to find the missing piece of continuity, a small hourglass that will set time back in motion and allow the townspeople to move forward.

      The clue to finding the hourglass lies within a discarded pocket watch that can be found in the mayor’s office. You must unscrew the back and retrieve a hidden key. The key will unlock a secret compartment in the town clock tower, where the hourglass is kept.

      Be careful as you search for the hourglass, as the town is not as abandoned as it seems. Spectral figures roam the streets, and strange whispers can be heard in the wind. You may also encounter a mysterious old man who seems to know more about the town’s secrets than he lets on.

      Evading the ghosts and spectres wasn’t too difficult once you got the hang of it. The old man however had been quite an elusive figure to find, but he was clearly the highlight of the whole adventure; he had been hiding in plain sight since the beginning of the adventure. One of the blue storks in the town that he’d thought had come with him through the portal was in actuality not a bird at all.

      While he was focused on finishing the quest, the interaction with the hermit didn’t seem very helpful. Was he really from the game construct? When it was time to complete the quest and turn the hourglass to set the town back in motion, and resume continuity, some of his words came back to Xavier.

      “The town isn’t what it seems. Recognise this precious moment where everything is still and you can realise it for the illusion that it is, a projection of your busy mind. When motion resumes, you will need to keep your mind quiet. The prize in the quest is not the completion of it, but the realisation you can stop the agitation at any moment, and return to what truly matters.”

      The hermit had turned to him with clear dark eyes and asked “do you know what you are seeking in these adventures? do you know what truly matters to you?”

        :fleuron2:

      When he came out of the game, his quest completed, Xavier felt the words resonate ominously.

      A buzz of the phone snapped him out of it.

      It was a message from Zara. Apparently she’d found her way back to modernity.

      [4:57] “Going to pick up Yasmin at the airport. You better sleep away the jetlag you lazy slugs, we have poultry damn plenty planned ahead – cackling bugger cooking lessons not looking forward to, but can be fun. Talk to you later. Z”

      He had the impulse to go with her, but the lack of sleep was hitting back at him now, and he thought he’d better catch some so he could manage to realign with the timezone.

      “The old man was right… that sounds like a lot of agitation coming our way…”

      #6552

      When Xavier woke up, the sun was already shining, its rays darting in pulsating waves throughout the land, blinding him. The room was already heating up, making the air difficult to breathe.

      He’d heard the maid rummaging in the neighbouring rooms for some time now, which had roused him from sleep. He couldn’t recall seeing any “DO NOT DISTURB” sign on the doorknob, so staying in bed was only delaying the inevitable barging in of the lady who was now vacuuming vigorously in the corridor.

      Feeling a bit dull from the restless sleep, he quickly rose from the bed and put on his clothes.

      Once out of his room, he smiled at the cleaning lady (who seemed to be the same as the cooking lady), who harumphed back as a sort of greeting. Arriving in the kitchen, he wondered whether it was probably too late for breakfast —until he noticed the figure of the owner, who was quietly watching him through half-closed eyes in her rocking chair.

      Idle should have left some bread, butter and jam to eat if you’re hungry. It’s too late for bacon and sausages. You can help yourself with tea or coffee, there’s a fresh pot on the kitchen counter.”

      “Thanks M’am.” He answered, startled by the unexpected appearance.

      “No need. Finly didn’t wake you up, did she? She doesn’t like when people mess up her schedule.”

      “Not at all, it was fine.” he lied politely, helping himself to some tea. He wasn’t sure buttered bread was enough reward to suffer a long, awkward conversation, given that the lady (Mater, she insisted he’s called him) wasn’t giving him any sign of wanting to leave.

      “It shouldn’t be long until your friends come back from the airport. Your other friend, the big lad, he went for a walk around. Idle seems to have sold him a visit to our Gems & Rocks boutique down Main avenue.” She tittered. “Sounds grand when we say it —that’s just the only main road, but it helps with tourists bookings. And Betsy will probably tire him down quickly. She tends to get too excited when she gets clients down there; most of her business she does online now.”

      Xavier was done with his tea, and looking for an exit strategy, but she finally seemed to pick up on the signals.

      “… As I probably do; look at me wearing you down. Anyway, we have some preparing to do for the Carts & whatnot festival.”

      When she was gone, Xavier’s attention was attracted by a small persistent ticking noise followed by some cracking.

      It was on the front porch.

      A young girl in her thirteens, hoodie on despite the heat, and prune coloured pants, was sitting on the bench reading.

      She told him without raising her head from her book. “It’s Aunt Idle’s new pet bird. It’s quite a character.”

      “What?”

      “The noise, it’s from the bird. It’s been cracking nuts for the past twenty minutes. Hence the noise. And yes, it’s annoying as hell.”

      She rose from the bench. “Your bear friend will be back quick I’m certain; it’s just a small boutique with some nice crystals, but mostly cheap orgonite new-agey stuff. Betsy only swears by that, protection for electromagnetic waves and stuff she says, but look around… we are probably got more at risk to be hit by Martian waves or solar coronal mass ejections that by the ones from the telecom tower nearby.”

      Xavier didn’t know what to say, so he nodded and smiled. He felt a bit out of his element. When he looked around, the girl had already disappeared.

      Now alone, he sat on the empty bench, stretched and yawned while trying to relax. It was so different from the anonymity in the city: less people here, but everything and everyone very tightly knit together, although they all seemed to irk and chafe at the thought.

      The flapping of wings startled him.

      “Hellooo.” The red parrot had landed on the backrest of the bench and dropped shells from a freshly cracked nut which rolled onto the ground.

      Xavier didn’t think to respond; like with AL, sometimes he’d found using polite filler words was only projecting human traits to something unable to respond back, and would just muddle the prompt quality.

      “So ruuuude.” The parrot nicked his earlobe gently.

      “Ouch! Sorry! No need to become aggressive!”

      “You arrrre one to talk. Rouge is on Yooour forehead.”

      Xavier looked surprised at the bird in disbelief. Did the bird talk about the mirror test? “What sort of smart creature are you now?”

      “Call meee Rose. Pretty Giiirl acceptable.”

      Xavier smiled. The bird seemed quite fascinating all of a sudden.
      It was strange, but the bird seemed left completely free to roam about; it gave him an idea.

      “Rose, Pretty Girl, do you know some nice places around you’d like to show me?”

      “Of couuurse. Foôllow Pretty Girl.”

      #6558

      “Nice BMW,” said Yasmin. She pointed towards a shiny black car parked in front of the supermarket. “My Uncle has that model.”

      “Pretty flash,” agreed Sergio. He sniffed and scratched his nose vigorously. Yasmin was amused to notice Zara frown, ever-so-slightly.  Sergio squinted towards the BMW. “Looks like it’s a rental too. Beats this bloody Toyota any day.”

      “Do either of you want to get anything while we are here?” asked Zara brightly. “I’ve got a little stash of snacks back at the Inn …”

      “No I’m good, but I do need to use the loo,” said Yasmin. Her eyes narrowed slightly as she surveyed her surroundings. There’s that garage over the road but it looks a bit dodgy. Wish I’d gone back at the airport now.”

      Zara nodded. “Okay I’ll just get the wine then! See you in a few minutes”

      “The toilet is around the back, but it’s in use,” said a friendly man behind the counter. Yasmin wondered how long before she got used to the distinctive nasally twang of the Aussie accent. She thought briefly of Fred and the mysterious brown parcel in her bag. She thanked the man and perused the shelves while she waited. As she was struggling to choose between a bar of chocolate or a bag of cashew nuts, neither of which she wanted but she felt obligated to buy something, a well-dressed woman stormed in and flung the toilet key at the counter where it bounced and skidded to a stop next to a box of chewing gum. “Disgusting,” Yasmin heard her say before she pivoted on her Gucci-emblazoned trainers and flounced out the door.

      “Looks like the toilet’s free,” said the man with a grin.

      #6559

      Why do I always pick the cart with the wonky wheel, Zara thought, but she wasn’t going to go back and get another one and keep Sergio and Yasmin waiting outside. She zigzagged up and down the aisles until she came to the wine.  What was it the old dear back at the Inn was saying about the alcohol laws in Alice?  Well, surely that didn’t apply to tourists.  There were two men chatting in the middle of the aisle and Zara deftly skirted around them without the unpredictable cart crashing.  While she was perusing the wines hoping to find a nice Rioja, she couldn’t help but overhear the clear ringing tones of one of the men saying “True love never dies!” and a few other things which she later forgot, which she thought was quite an odd topic for two men to be discussing in the Piggly supermarket in the outback of all places.  The man with the poetic voice went on his way, leaving the other man with the little girl in the child seat of the cart ready to move on, but Zara’s cart was straddled across the aisle so she quickly moved it out of the way and continued scanning the wine selection.  A clear sweet voice rang out behind her. “Thank you.”  She turned, and her eyes met those of the girl (afterwards Zara could have sworn the child was 10 or 11, and surely too big to be sitting in the baby seat, but yet felt sure the child had indeed been sitting in the cart).  They exchanged a deep meaningful smile of magical proportions that defied explaining in mere words.  Later when Zara told Yasmin about it, she said it was “one of those moments, you know?” and Yasmin understood what she meant.  The child seemed somehow familiar, and there was that shimmery timeless oddness to the encounter which made Zara feel a bemused lightness.

      child in supermarket

       

      Zara was still gazing at the rows of wine bottles when Yasmin caught up with her. “What’s taking you so long, you haven’t even got anything in your cart yet!”

      Snapping her attention back, Zara asked Yasmin to help her choose the wine, asking her, “Do you ever feel like you can’t tell the difference between the game and real life?  Like sometimes a scene in real life isn’t quite real?”

      “I dunno about the game but real life seems strange enough. That woman outside with the BMW hire car that was in the loo before me, there was something familiar about her, something creepy.  And look what I found in the cubicle,”  Yasmin looked around quickly to make sure they were alone and pulled something out of her pocket.

      crucifix

       

      “Looks like the chain broke, is it gold? Might be worth something,” Zara was missing the point.

      “It’s a crucifix.”

      “If it’s gold it can be melted down and made into something else,” said Zara missing the point again.

      “It’s the same as the ones the nuns at the orphanage wear,” Yasmins whisper turned into a nervous snort.

      “I wonder who dropped it and what they were doing here.  That tart in the BMW didn’t look like a nun to me.”  Zara almost snorted too (was it contagious?) and then wondered why tart and nun sounded vaguely familiar and why yellow cabs had popped into her mind.  “Come on, we’ve kept Sergio waiting long enough already.”

      After all the deliberation over which wine to choose, they grabbed a half dozen bottles each without further ado and went to the checkout.

      #6612

      Two young women, identical to the purple lock of hair hiding their left eye, entered the room. They moved as one person to the table, balancing their arms and bouncing on the floor like little girls. Youssef couldn’t help a shiver as he remembered The Shining.

      “We are the twins,” they said, looking at him from behind their purple lock of hair. “Don’t mind us.”

      One spoke a few milliseconds after the other, giving their combined voice an otherworldly touch that wasn’t reassuring. One took the sheets of paper from under the obsidian stone and the other the notebooks. After an hesitation they left the stone on the table and went back to the door.

      “Wait,” said Youssef as they were about to leave, “What was on that paper? It looked like a map.”

      “We leave you the stone,” they said without looking at him. “You might need it.”

      As they shut the door, Youssef jumped out of his bed and tried to catch up with them. People couldn’t just enter his room like that. But when he flung the door open, the corridor was empty. He had the impression echoes of a combined laugh remained in the air and, tired as he was, decided not to look for them. Better not break the veil between dream and reality.

      Intrigued by what the girls said, he took the black stone from the table and the last snicker bar from his backpack. He noted he would have to go to the grocery store tomorrow to buy some. Once he was back on his bed, he engulfed the snack and, while chewing, turned the stone around, trying to figure out what the girls meant by “You might need it”. The stone was cold to the touch and his reflection kept changing but nothing particular happened. Disappointed, he put the stone on his pillow and resumed the game on his phone.

      Youssef finds himself in a small ghost town in what looks like the middle of the Australian outback. He’s standing in the town square, surrounded by an old post office, a saloon, and a few other ramshackle buildings.

      He had a hard time focusing on the game. He started to feel the fatigue from the day. He yawned and started to doze off.

      :fleuron:

      Youssef is standing in the town square, surrounded by an old post office, a saloon, and a few other ramshackle buildings. Scraps of mist are floating towards him. A ghostly laugh resounds from behind. He turns swiftly only to see a flash of purple disappear in a dark alleyway. He starts to run to catch them but a man, thrown out of the saloon, stumbles in front of him and they roll together on the dust.

      “It’s not that I don’t like you,” said the man, “but you’re heavy.”

      Youssef rolls on the side, mumbling some excuses and looks at where the twins had disappeared but the alleyway was gone. 

      “I think you broke one of my rib with your stone,” says the man, feeling his chest.

      He looks as old as the town itself and quite harmless in his clothes, too big for him.

      “What stone?” asks Youssef

      The old man points at a fragment of black obsidian between them on the ground. 

      “Don’t show them,” he says, “or they’ll take it from you.”

      “What did you do?”

      “They don’t like it when you ask questions about the old mines.”

      #6613

      Despite the old man’s endless flow of words, Youssef couldn’t get him to explain what he meant about the abandoned mine and why the town’s people didn’t like people sneaking around and asking questions.

      Not wanting to waste more time, Youssef walked to the brick building where the twins had disappeared. It was crammed between the telegraph station and a grocery store. The door had been walled with red bricks. They were covered in faded graffitis and layers of torn-up posters. It seemed obvious the wall had been there for quite some time already.

      The old man was sticking to Youssef like glue, talking about that time when his now dead brother took in an old cat he called Phineas. Youssef tried to growl him away, but the man always came back, persistent as a cloud of mosquitoes over the promise of a blood feast.

      Youssef tried not to pay attention to him. What did AL said about that quest ? Go ask questions around to town’s people about odd things happening ? Well there were plenty of those things happening. Maybe the clerk at the telegraph station would know something, especially how to get rid of that old man.

      Youssef pushed the door and entered the telegraph station, leaving the old man outside. The interior was lit with a collection of old style tungsten lamps hanging in a random pattern from the ceiling. 

      The clerk was busy sorting out a pile of telegrams. Clickety-clack. Clickety-clack. He lifted his head up. The noise stopped and Youssef realised the young man had mechanical hands.

      “Welcome, welcome, welcome! What can I do for you today, my friend?” asked the clerk.

      “I just wanted to…” started Youssef.

      “Wait! Don’t tell me. I’m a bit of a psychic myself and I already know what you’re here for.”

      “Really?”

      The man foraged through his pile of telegram with his mechanical hands and picked one. He looked at it for a few seconds.

      “My friend, you’re in luck today!” he said, looking intently at Youssef. “I just received this telegram that I think might interest you. Here, take a look!”

      Youssef took the paper and started to read aloud : “Words spoken by the talkative will unlock the path. Seek those who chatter and unravel the clue. What the…?” 

      “Interesting, isn’t it? That’s a real head-scratcher, if you ask me!”

      The door bell rang and the old man entered, holding his sore ribs. 

      “Get out, Phineas. You’re not welcome here.” said the clerk with a frown.

      The old man looked at the clerk with an air of confusion before turning to Youssef. “What did he say? Who’s Phineas?” he asked.

      Ignoring the question, Youssef tried to steer the conversation back to the telegram. “What does this mean?” he asked the clerk.

      The clerk stroked his chin, looking thoughtful. “Hmm, well, it seems to me that you have a certain magnetism for talkative people. Perhaps that’s the key to unlocking this riddle.”

      Youssef’s eyes widened in surprise. “What do you mean, magnetism?”

      The old man interjected, “For sure! You’re like a magnet, my boy. I can’t seem to stop talking when I’m around you.”

      Youssef rolled his eyes. “So, what do I do? Just wander around town and wait for someone to start talking?”

      The clerk nodded. “That could be a good start. But if you’re looking for something specific, you might want to try Betsy when you wake up. She’s got a boutique of Gems and Rocks. You seem to like them rocks,” he said pointing at the black obsidian. “Found it in a mine?”

      The old man’s eyes lit up. “Ah, the old mine! I’ve been there before, you know. My brother used to work there before he died. Strange things happening there.”

      Youssef’s interest was piqued. “What kind of strange things?”

      The old man leaned in conspiratorially. “There’s a magnetar hidden in that mine, my boy.”

      “Shut up! Phineas,” interrupted the clerk. “If you want my advice, stranger, don’t go near the old mine. ‘Curiosity killed the cat’ if you know what I mean.”

      The telegraph receiver started to make clicketing sounds. The clerk read it and looked at Youssef.

      “You’ve got a message man. Time to wake up.”

      “Wake up?”

      :fleuron2:

      Youssef opened his eyes and looked at a black mass in front of his eyes. He had been sleeping with the stone just beside his head on the pillow. No wonder he had had weird dreams. He heard his phone buzz. He sat up reluctantly and looked at his phone. 8am. A notification that his game progression had been saved and several messages from Miss Tartiflate, the last one saying :

      Don’t think you can dodge work. I’m still expecting the last blog post you’ve been paid to write!!!”

      He groaned as reality was starting to catch up.

      #6615

      Like ships in the night, Zara and Yasmin still hadn’t met up with Xavier and Youssef at the inn. Yasmin was tired from traveling and retired to her room to catch up on some sleep, despite Zara’s hopes that they’d have a glass of wine or two and discuss whatever it was that was on Yasmins mind.  Zara decided to catch up on her game.

      The next quirk was “unleash your hidden rudeness” which gave Zara pause to consider how hidden her rudeness actually was.  But wait, it was the avatar Zara, not herself. Or was it?   Zara rearranged the pillows and settled herself on the bed.

      Zara found her game self in the bustling streets of a medieval market town, visually an improvement on the previous game level of the mines, which pleased her, with many colourful characters and intriguing alleyways and street market vendors.

      Madieval market

      She quickly forgot what her quest was and set off wandering around the scene.  Each alley led to a little square and each square had gaily coloured carts of wares for sale, and an abundance of grinning jesters and jugglers. Although tempted to linger and join the onlookers jeering and goading the jugglers and artistes that she encountered, Zara continued her ramble around the scene.

      She came to a gathering outside an old market hall, where two particularly raucous jesters were trying to tempt the onlookers into partaking of what appeared to be cups of tea.  Zara wondered what the joke was and why nobody in the crowd was willing to try.  She inched closer, attracting the attention of the odd grinning fellow in the orange head piece.

      Jesters with cups

       

      “Come hither, ye fine wench in thy uncomely scant garments, I know what thou seekest! Pray, sit thee down beside me and partake of my remedy.”

      “Who, me?” asked Zara, looking behind her to make sure he wasn’t talking to someone else.

      “Thoust in dire need of my elixir, come ye hither!”

      Somewhat reluctantly Zara stepped towards the odd figure who was offering to hand her a cup.  She considered the inadvisability of drinking something that everyone else was refusing, but what the hell, she took the cup and saucer off him and took a hesitant sip.

      The crowd roared with laughter and there was much mirthful thigh slapping when Zara spit the foul tasting concoction all over the jesters shoes.

      “Believe me dame,” quoth the Jester, “I perceive proffered ware is worse by ten in the hundred than that which is sought. But I pray ye, tell me thy quest.”

      “My quest is none of your business, and your tea sucks, mister,” Zara replied. “But I like the cup.”

      Pushing past the still laughing onlookers and clutching the cup, Zara spotted a tavern on the opposite side of the square and made her way towards it.   A tankard of ale was what she needed to get rid of the foul taste lingering in her mouth.

      jesters cup tavern

       

      The inside of the tavern was as much a madhouse as the streets outside it. What was everyone laughing at? Zara found a place to sit on a bench beside a long wooden table. She sat patiently waiting to be served, trying to eavesdrop to decipher the cause of such merriment, but the snatches of conversation made no sense to her. The jollity was contagious, and before long Zara was laughing along with the others.  A strange child sat down on the opposite bench (she seemed familiar somehow) and Zara couldn’t help remarking, “You lot are as mad as a box of frogs, are you all on drugs or something?” which provoked further hoots of laughter, thigh slapping and table thumping.

      tavern girl

       

      “Ye be an ungodly rude maid, and ye’ll not get a tankard of ale while thoust leavest thy cup of elixir untasted yet,” the child said with a smirk.

      “And you are an impertinent child,” Zara replied, considering the potential benefits of drinking the remainder of the concoction if it would hasten the arrival of the tankard of ale she was now craving.  She gritted her teeth and picked up the cup.

      But the design on the cup had changed, and now bore a strange resemblance to Xavier.  Not only that, the cup was calling her name in Xavier’s voice, and the table thumping got louder.

      Xavi cup

       

      Zara!” Xavier was knocking on her bedroom door. “Zara!  We’re going for a beer in the local tavern, are you coming?”

      “Xavi!”  Zara snapped back to reality, “Yes! I’m bloody parched.”

      #6616

      “Imagine that! a Big Banana…”

      After a brisk walk trying to catch up with his winged psittacine friend,  Xavier had stumbled on a large concrete sculpture painted bright yellow in the middle of a field.
      He’s read somewhere Australia was known for its fondness of “big things”, but he didn’t expect one here – it was quite fun.

      “I think you just made my day Pretty Girl” he said to the bird. “Not that I don’t like to venture more, but I get the feeling I have to come back.” He checked his phone, there were a few messages, including one from Youssef who’d found some surprisingly interesting stuff during his shopping visit.

      “We wouldn’t want to be caught off-guard by a bunyip, you know…” he said more to himself than to anyone in particular.

      “Suuuit yourself.” said the bright red parrot, “No need to fear bunyip. Just don’t follow Min min lights. And stay away from mines.” and it flew away in a different direction.

      #6617

      Youssef had brought his black obsidian with him in the kitchen at breakfast. IdleYoussef had realised that on top of being her way of life, it was also her name—was preparing a herbal brownie under the supervision of a colourful parrot perched on her shoulder.

      “If you’re interested in rocks, you should go to Betsy’s. She’s got that ‘Gems & Minerals’ shop on Main street. She opened it with her hubby a few years back. Before he died.”

      “Nutty Betsy, Pretty Girl likes her better,” said the parrot.

      Idle looked at his backpack and his clothes.

      “You seem the wandering type, lad. I was like you when I was younger, always gallivanting here, there, and everywhere with my brother. Now, I prefer wandering in my mind, if you know what I mean,” she said licking her finger full of chocolate. “Anyway, an advice. Don’t go down the mines alone. Betsy’s hubby’s still down there after one of the tunnels collapsed a few years back. She’s not been quite herself ever since.”

      Main street was —well— the only street in town. They’ve been preparing for some kind of festival, putting banners on top of the shops and in between two trees near the gas station. Youssef stopped there to buy snacks that he stacked on top of the obsidian stone in his backpack. The young boy who worked there, Devan, seemed quite excited at the perspective of the Lager and Cart Race. It happened only every ten years and last time he was too young to participate.

      The shop had not been difficult to find, at the other end of the street. A tiny sign covered in purple star sequins indicated “Betsy’s Gems & Minerals — We deliver worldwide”. He felt with his hand the black rock he had put in his backpack. If Idle had not mentioned the mines and the dead husband, Youssef might have reconsidered going in. But the coincidence with his dream and the game was too intriguing. He entered.

      The shop was a mess. Crates full of stones, cardboard boxes and bubble wrappings. In the back, a plump woman, working on a giant starfish she held  on her lap, was humming as she listened to loud rock music. Youssef recognised a song from the Last Shadow Puppets’ second album : The Element of Surprise. Apparently, the woman hadn’t heard him enter. She wore a dress and a hat sprinkled with golden stars, and her wrists were hidden under a ton of stone bracelets. The music track changed. The woman started shaking her head following the rhythm of the tune. She was gluing small red stones, she picked in a little box, on one of the starfish arms.

      “Bad Habits! Uhu. Bad Habits! Uhu.”

      Youssef moved closer. His shadow covered the starfish. The woman raised her head and screamed, scattering the red stones in her workshop. The starfish fell from her lap onto the ground with a thud.

      “Oh! My! Little devil. Look at what you made me do. I lost my marbles,” she said with a high pitched laugh. “Your mother never taught you? That’s bad habit to creep up on people like that. You scared the sheep out of me!”

      “I’m so sorry,” said Youssef, getting on his knees to help her gather the stones.

      When they were all back in their box, Youssef got back on his feet. The woman looked a him with a softened face.

      “You such a cutie with your bear shirt. You make me think of my Howard. He was as tall as you are. I’m Betsy, obviously” she said with a giggle, extending her hand to him.

      They shook hands, making the pearls of her bracelets clink together.

      “I’m Youssef.”

      :fleuron:

      Youssef didn’t need to insist too much. Betsy was a real juke box of gossips. He just had to ask one question from time to time, and she would get going again. He was starting to feel his quirk could be more than a curse after all.

      “When the tunnel collapsed,” Betsy said, “I was ready to give up the stone shop. The pain was too much to bear, everything in the shop reminded me of Howard. And in a miners’ town, who would want to buy stones anyway. We’ve been in bad terms with Idle and her family for some time, but that tragic incident coincided with her brother Fred’s disappearance. They thought at first Fred had died in the mines with Howard, because they spent so much time discussing together in Room 8 at the Inn. I overheard them once, talking about something they found in the mines. But Howard never told me, he was so secretive about that. We even had a fight, you know. But Fred, the children found some message later that suggested he had just left the family. Imagine, the children! Idle was pissed with him of course. Abandoning her with that mother of theirs and that money pit of an Inn and the rest of the family. And I needed company. So we started to get together on a regular basis. She would bring her special cakes, and we would complain about our lives. At some point she got involved with that shamanic stuff she found online, and she helped me find my totem Bear. It was quite a revelation. Bear suggested I diversify and open an online shop and start making orgonites. I love those little gummy bears so much. So, I followed Bear’s advice and it has been working like a charm ever since. That’s why I trusted you straight away, lad. Not ’cause of your cute face. You got the Bear in your heart,” she said putting her finger at the center of his chest.

      My inner Bear, of course, thought Youssef. That’s the magnet. His phone buzzed. He took it out and saw he had an alert from the game and a message from his friends.

      You found the source of your quirk, the magnetic pull that attracts talkative people to you.
      Now obtain the silver key in the shape of a tongue to fulfil your quest.

       

      Zara : Where are you!? :yahoo_bee: We’re at the bar, getting parched! They got Pale Ale!

      “I have to go,” said Youssef.

      “Wait,” said Betsy.

      She foraged through her orgonite collection and handed Youssef one little gummy bear and an ornate metal badge.

      “Bear wants me to give this to you. Howard made it. He said it was his forked tongue key.”

      She looked at him, emotion in her eyes.

      “I know you won’t listen if I tell you not to. So, be careful when you go into the mines.”

      #6621

      As the four of them walked into the tavern, having walked the mile or so from the Flying Fish Inn to the main street of the tiny town, Zara noticed the black BMW that she and Yasmin had seen parked outside the Piggly supermarket on the way back from the airport in Alice.  She elbowed Yasmin in the ribs to point it out, but there was no need as Yasmin was already snorting nervously at the sight of it.

      black bmw

       

      Sister Finli caught sight of them as she was just about to leave Betsy’s gem shop and paused until they’d disappeared into the bar before leaving the shop.   It was the first time that Finli had seen Betsy in the flesh, and what a lot of flesh there was to see.   Finli was horrifed, comparing her own elegant thin fingers with the fat sausage like digits of Betsy.  She would never have expected Betsy to look this way. Still, it had thrown her, and she lost her usual efficient composure and quickly purchased a pink speckled gummy bear necklace.  Annoyingly, this transaction reminded her that she seemed to have lost her crucifix.

      Finli was an orphan.  The nuns had named her Finean Lisa. Finean meant beautiful daughter, and Lisa meant devoted to god.  Later they shortened it to Finli.  She’d spent all her life at the orphanage in Suva, having been deposited there at birth, and although she had no particular calling to be a nun, she had not known what else to do with her life.  It was the only family she’d ever known, and so she stayed on.  It was only in the past year or two that she’d had any curiosity about who her real parents were, when she read about DNA tests and ancestry research. She’d been told in the past that no records existed as she had been found on the doorstep of the orphanage one morning 43 years ago.  The knowledge had filled her with comtempt for her parents, whoever they were,  and for the most part she pushed them from her mind, not caring to know.  But when she read about all the successes of adopted people finding their real parents, she was consumed with curiosity. At first she just wanted to know who they were. But once she had found their names, she wanted to know more. She wanted to know why.  One thing led to another.

      Her real father had disappeared, lost down some mines although the story there was far from clear.  Indeed, that particular story was a darn sight more than unclear, it was downright fishy.  Her real mother was was alive and kicking, and living near to the mines where Howard had disappeared. Finli deduced that she must have been born, or at least conceived, in this godforsaken place in the outback.  What an ignominous start to her uneventful life.

      She knew that Fred was her uncle, but she had not told him she knew that. Did Fred know who she was? He’d always been kind to her, but then, he was affable to everyone.   When it came to her knowledge that Fred had given that tiresome snorting volunteer girl a parcel to take with her, to, of all places! that very town in the outback, Finli simply had to know what was in it.  But she didn’t want to spill the beans too soon, in case it hindered her attempts to find the truth about Howard, her father.   She decided to travel to the town incognito.  But how was she going to find the money for it?  Well, she knew she was burning her bridges, but she had to do it. She stole the golden chalice from the church and sold it on Ubay.  She was suprised at how much money it fetched. Not only could she afford the trip, she could do it in style.

      It was an exciting adventure, but Finli was not accustomed to travel and adventure. In fact, she was dreading meeting her mother.   At times she wished she’d just stayed at the orphanage.  But it was too late now. She was here.

      Finli

      #6623

      “I don’t know if it’s this place, but I never had so much trouble of keeping track of time…” Xavier mused.

      As soon as he’d came back to the Inn after his errand with the bird, he’d finally caught up with Yasmin and Zara. Both of them were in their rooms, and they wasted no time to get going. Zara had called Youssef who was still at the shop, so they could all meet outside for drinks.

      As soon as Youssef arrived, it was a huge rally cry of joy throughout the four of them.

      “Funny” Xavier said pointing at Youssef’s chest. “This one isn’t letting you go, despite all the huggin’ — the glitter speck on your bear, I mean…” The others were looking at him like he’d been alien or something. “The glitter? Am I the only one to see it? Oh forget it…”

      While the others were chatting about their day, Xavier was thinking about some of the bugs he had to fix in his program, as well as a flurry of ideas to improve the system. Coincidentally, Youssef had mentioned commissioning his help to do a robo-version of him to automatically answer his pesky and peppy boss. Well, he could probably do that, his friend didn’t seem too complex to model. As for doing his job… that was a stretch.

      The gales of laughters, occasional snorting and clinks of the pints brought him back to reality.

      While Zara was explaining all about the Carts race of the festival to Youssef, Yasmin leaned on conspiratorially:

      “Over there, — don’t look, be casual — yes, behind me,… have you noticed that lady? She seems bizarre and a tad familiar, no? You haven’t met her before, like in the game or something?”

      #6635

      Xavier looked as discreetly as he could, and immediately after ducked behind Yasmin’s frail frame.

      “Oh, no…” he whined softly “it looks like Glimmer… you know the strange colourful game stalker.”

      Yasmin raised a perfectly trimmed eyebrow, looking still tired from her trip.

      “YOOHOOO!”

      “Oh no, as I feared…” Xavier said between his teeth, “I think she’s spotted us. What is she doing here, of all places?”

      He turned to Glimmer with a broad smile. “Hello dear! Fancy meeting you here! Are we still in the game?”

      Glimmer tittered, waving her perfumed feathered boa around, and slapping Yasmin in the face with it. “You’re so funny!” she turned to Yasmin “Oh hello, sweet pea, he IS funny, isn’t it!”

      She clumsily drew a high stool next to the table, knocking off a few knees in the process, and sat precariously on the edge of it.

      “Look, I found the Big Banana you know.”

      Yasmin couldn’t help but snort laugh a little. Zara drew an ear closer, while still listening distractedly to Youssef expounding on the P mode of his camera.

      “What?” it took Xavier a mere second to reconnect with his own discovery of the concrete sculpture… “You mean…?”

      “Yes, the Big Banana, there’s one here in this town you know.” She drew closer, pushing the empty pints of beer, one of which Youssef managed to catch before it fell. “… but there’s a more interesting thing happening in the game now. Haven’t you checked your messages?”

      Xavier looked at his message. It said 🔮[GROUP QUEST OPENED] click on the *Orb*

      He clicked, while all the others where perched over his shoulder, looking at his avatar on the screen.

      Suddenly all of them were transported in a new place that looked exactly like the Flying Fish Inn, while some instructions where scrolling on the screen of the game.

      #6661

      The black BMW pulled up outside the Flying Fish Inn.  Sister Finli pulled a baseball cap low over her big sunglasses before she got out of the car. Yasmin was still in the bar with her friends and Finli hoped to check in and retreat to her room before they got back to the inn.

      She rang the bell on the reception desk several times before an elderly lady in a red cardigan appeared.

      “Ah yes, Liana Parker,” Mater said, checking the register.    Liana managed to get a look at the register and noted that Yasmin was in room 2. “Room 4. Did you have a good trip down? Smart car you’ve got there,”   Mater glanced over Liana’s shoulder, “Don’t see many like that in these parts.”

      “Yes, yes,” Finli snapped impatiently (henceforth referred to to as Liana). She didn’t have time for small talk. The others might arrive back at any time. As long as she kept out of Yasmin’s way, she knew nobody would recognize her ~ after all she had been abandoned at birth. Even if Yasmin did find her out, she only knew her as a nun at the orphanage and Liana would just have to make up some excuse about why a nun was on holiday in the outback in a BMW.  She’d cross that bridge when she came to it.

      Mater looked over her glasses at the new guest. “I’ll show you to your room.”  Either she was rude or tired, but Mater gave her the benefit of the doubt.  “I expect you’re tired.”

      Liana softened and smiled at the old lady, remembering that she’d have to speak to everyone in due course in order to find anything out, and it wouldn’t do to start off on the wrong foot.

      “I’m writing a book,” Liana explained as she followed Mater down the hall. “Hoping a bit of peace and quiet here will help, and my book is set in the outback in a place a bit like this.”

      “How lovely dear, well if there’s anything we can help you with, please don’t hesitate to ask.  Old Bert’s a mine of information,”   Mater suppressed a chuckle, “Well as long as you don’t mention mines.  Here we are,” Mater opened the door to room 4 and handed the key to Liana.  “Just ask if there’s anything you need.”

      Liana put her bags down and then listened at the door to Mater’s retreating steps.  Inching the door open, she looked up and down the hallway, but there was nobody about.  Quickly she went to room 2 and tried the door, hoping it was open and she didn’t have to resort to other means. It was open.  What a stroke of luck! Liana was encouraged. Within moments Liana found the parcel, unopened.  Carefully opening the door,  she looked around to make sure nobody was around, leaving the room with the parcel under her arm and closing the  door quietly, she hastened back to room 4.   She nearly jumped out of her skin when a voice piped up behind her.

      “What’s that parcel and where are you going with it?” Prune asked.

      “None of your business you….”  Liana was just about to say nosy brat, and then remebered that she would catch more flies with honey than vinegar. It was going to be hard for her to remember that, but she must try!  She smiled at the teenager and said, “A dreamtime gift for my gran, got it in Alice. Is there a post office in town?”

      Prune narrowed her eyes. There was something fishy about this and it didn’t take her more than a second to reach the conclusion that she wanted to see what was in the parcel.  But how?

      “Yes,” she replied, quick as a flash grabbing the parcel from Liana. “I’ll post it for you!” she called over her shoulder as she raced off down the hall and disappeared.

      “FUCK!” Liana muttered under her breath, running after her, but she was nowhere to be seen. Thankfully nobody else was about in the reception area to question why she was running around like a madwoman.  Fuck! she muttered again, going back to her room and closing the door. Now what? What a disaster after such an encouraging start!

      Prune collided with Idle on the steps of the verandah, nearly knocking her off her feet. Idle grabbed Prune to steady herself.  Her grip on the girls arm tightened when she saw the suspicious look on face.   Always up to no good, that one. “What have you got there? Where did you get that? Give me that parcel!”

      Idle grabbed the parcel and Prune fled. Idle, holding onto the verandah railing, watched Prune running off between the eucalyptus trees.  She’s always trying to  make a drama out of everything, Idle thought with a sigh. Hardly any wonder I suppose, it must be boring here for a teenager with nothing much going on.

      She heard a loud snorting laugh, and turned to see the four guests returning from the bar in town, laughing and joking.  She put the parcel down on the hall table and waved hello, asking if they’d had a good time.  “I bet you’re ready for a bite to eat, I’ll go and see what Mater’s got on the menu.” and off she went to the kitchen, leaving the parcel on the table.

      The four friends agreed to meet back on the verandah for drinks before dinner after freshening up.   Yasmin kept glancing back at the BMW.  “That woman must be staying here!” she snorted.  Zara grabbed her elbow and pulled her along. “Then we’ll find out who she is later, come on.”

      Youssef followed Idle into the kitchen to ask for some snacks before dinner (much to Idle’s delight), leaving Xavier on the verandah.  He looked as if he was admiring the view, such as it was, but he was preoccupied thinking about work again. Enough! he reminded himself to relax and enjoy the holiday. He saw the parcel on the table and picked it up, absentmindedly thinking the black notebook he ordered had arrived in the post, and took it back to his room. He tossed it on the bed and went to freshen up for dinner.

      #6721

      Xavier was dramatically behind his work, but he could see the benefits to his mood of the break from his routine. While the others had been enlisted to a bush tucker cooking lesson by their hosts, he’d retreated to his room for some catching up with his programming.
      The lady with the dreadlocks in particular seemed to have taken a liking to Youssef so much so that she had offered to join their group for the cooking lesson session, which apparently was initially met with disbelief a first, then surprise and anxiety and finally made her family raise a few eyebrows profusely. Youssef didn’t seem bothered by it, and to be fair, did seem completely oblivious to the situation.

      Speaking of awkward situations, after the bar discussion, Glimmer had got off on her own, apparently going to chase for literal rainbows. She’d mentioned in a conspiratorial tone “You don’t see them rainbows nowadays, have you? See, that’s what I mean, them with the government electric waves, laser rays and stuff, they manipulate the weather… Keep people docile and hopeless. So I’m going on a chase.”
      Xavier had frowned at Yasmin before she could top it off with a “good luck with the unicorns.” He didn’t need telepathy to know that Yasmin could hardly pass on an ironic salvo in a potentially comical situation.
      Anyway, Glimmer leaving off to new adventures of her own without overstaying her welcome was met with a few sighs of relief. The four of them quite liked the comfort of their little group with their insider references and jokes.

      His programmic work was rather tedious and slow, but he’d made good progress connecting the new training model into the AL, and the muffled sounds of the cooking class with the occasional laughter did make him want to finish faster.

      He hoped he would get most of it done in time to enjoy the incoming festival. The town however ghostly it had seemed on arrival, had taken a unexpected liveliness with colorful bunting flags now spreading across all roads intersections.

      With all this newfound activity, they’d almost forgotten about the game. However, he could feel there was something more at play, and it would be a trial of Zara’s leadership capabilities —her style had often been solo. It was great for scouting mission and opening new doors in unknown parts of the game, but apparently the group quest required something different…

      #6799

      It seemed like their journey was ominously pregnant with untold possibilities. Well that’s what Xavier had said the team to break the lazy pattern that had started to bring their sense of adventure to a lull.
      “Please, no snotty baby possibilities!” had moaned Zara, stretching from her morning session of yoga with Yasmin.

      It was the morning of the third day since he’d arrived, and as they were enjoying the breakfast, the external elements seemed to have put a brake on the planned activities.

      :fleuron:

      On the previous evening, Mater, the dame of the Inn, had come in with a dramatic racing driver costume complete with burgundy red jacket and goggles to match. She’d seemed quite excited at the thought of racing at the Carts and Lager, but the younger child, Prune, had come in with weather forecast.

      “It’s on the local channel news. We have to brace for a chance of dust storm. It’s recommended to stay indoors during the next two days.”

      “WHAT?!” Zara couldn’t believe it. The thought of being cooped up in holidays! Then she lightened up a little when Yasmin mentioned the possibility of sand ghost pictures. She knew Zara well enough, that a good distraction was the remedy to most of her moods.

      Youssef had shrugged and told them of the time they were with the BLOG team at a snowy pass in Ladakh, and had to wait for the weather to clear the only pass back to the valley. He’s enjoyed learning how to make chapatis with the family on the small gas stove of the local place, and visited the local yurts. Zara’s eyes were suddenly full of wonders at the mere mention of yurts.

      Prune had then mentioned with a smirk. “If you guys want an adventure, I was planning to do some spring cleaning in the basement. There are tons of old books…. and some said maybe some secret entrance to the mines.”

      Zara’s spider sense was tingling almost orgasmically.

      Youssef said. “Well, I suppose that’s the best entertainment we’ll get for now…”

      :fleuron:

      At the morning breakfast table, they did a quick check of the news.

      “The situation isn’t getting any better. AL has confirmed it’s an unusual weather late in this season, but it’s also saying we should remain indoors.” Xavier was looking at his phone slouched on the table.

      “And they will cancel the first days of the Carts and Lager…” Zara was downcast.

      “Well, here’s a thought… the quest is still open in the game…”

      #7164

      Perhaps it was the approaching storm that was the cause of the annoying inability to fall asleep, and when Zara had had enough of the bizarre juxtapositions of the hypnagogic images flashing before her closed eyelids,  she gave up trying and switched the bedside light on.  Often she felt restless before a storm, not really a fear of danger but an alertness to the power and the agitation of it.  A bit like having one strong coffee too many and wishing you hadn’t.

      Zara padded over to the door barefoot, and opened it a crack.  Silence, and dark but for a night light in the hall and a distant light on the porch.  Quietly Zara made her way to the verandah. The night air washed over her face and made her smile and breathe deeply. She felt her self relaxing, and reminded herself that she was supposed to be relaxing, it was a holiday after all.  There was something in the air though, something she couldn’t nail down. A restlessness in the air.  It was as if something wanted to come to light, come out in the open, and yet an approaching dust storm threatened to obscure even the most obvious of things.

      “May as well sit up and have a glass of wine when it’s like this,” Aunt Idle said when Zara had finished her deep breathing relaxing mental turmoil exercises and had eventually turned to sit down at one of the tables.  “Fetch a glass over there and come and join me. Ever been in a dust storm in a lager and cart race?”

      Zara welcomed the distraction and smiled encouragingly and said that she had not.

      “Oh, I could tell you a tale or two about dust storms and cart races,”  Aunt Idle said, and then drifted off into silent reverie. Zara refilled their glasses with wine. “Do tell,” she said, “Tell me a tale about dust storms and cart races.”

      #7173

      The morning of the lager and cart race dawned bright and clear.  The camping ground was full to overflowing with tents and camper vans, with several parked up outside the Flying Fish Inn. Zara overheard Finly complaining to Mater about all the extra work with all and sundry traipsing in and out using the toilets, and Bert muttering about where was all the extra water supposed to come from and what if the well ran dry, and was it all really worth it, and Zara saw him scowl when Idle told him to lighten up and enjoy it.  “Hah! Enjoy it? Nothing good ever happens when a dust storm comes for the cart race,” he said pointedly to Idle, ” And damn near everyone asking about the old mines, I tell you, nothing good’s gonna come from a cart race in a dust storm, the mayor shoulda cancelled it.”  Bert slammed the porch door as he stomped off outside, scowling at Zara on the way past.

      Zara watched him go with a quizzical expression. What was going on here?  Idle had told her about her affair with Howard some forty years ago, and how she’d had to disappear as soon as it became obvious that she was pregnant.  Zara had sympathized and said what an ordeal it must have been, but Idle had laughed and said no not really, she’d had a lovely time in Fiji and had found a nice place to leave the baby.  Then Howard had disappeared down the mines, and what was the story about Idle’s brother leaving mysteriously? Idle had been vague about that part, preferring to change the topic to Youssef.  Was the Howard story why Bert was so reluctant for anyone to go down the mines? What on earth was going on?

      And how had Yasmin’s parcel ended up in Xavier’s room?  Xavi had soon noticed that he’d picked it up by mistake and returned it to Yasmin, but how had it ended up on the table on the verandah? It was perplexing, and made Yasmin disinclined to deliver it to Mater until she could fathom what had happened.  She had tucked in under her mattress until she was sure what to do.

      But that wasn’t the only thing that had piqued Zara’s curiosity.  When Idle had said she’d had the baby in Fiji, and found a nice place to leave it, Zara couldn’t help but think of the orphanage where Yasmin was working.  But no, surely that would be too much of a coincidence, and anyway, a 40 year old orphan wouldn’t still be there.   But what about that woman in the BMW that Yasmin felt sure she recognized?   No, surely it was all too pat. But then, what was that woman in the dark glasses doing in Betsy’s shop?  Betsy was Howards wife. Idle had mentioned her when she told her story over the second bottle of wine.

      Should she divulge Idle’s secrets to Yasmin and quiz her on the woman in dark glasses? Zara decided there would be no harm in it, after all, they would be leaving soon after the cart race, and what would it matter.  She fetched two cups of coffee from the kitchen and took them to Yasmin’s room and knocked gently on the door.

      “Are you awake?” she called softly.

      “Yeah, come in Zara, I’ve been awake for ages,” Yasmin replied.

      Zara put the coffee cups on the bedside table and sat on the side of Yasmins bed. “There’s something going on here, I have to tell you something. But first, have you worked out who that woman in the BMW is?”

      Yasmin looked startled and said “How did you know?  Yes I have. It’s Sister Finli from the orphanage, I’m sure of it.  But why has she followed me here? And in disguise! It’s just creepy!”

      “Aha!” Zara couldn’t suppress a rather triumphant smile. “I thought it was just a wacky idea, but listen to this, Idle told me something the other night when we sat up drinking wine.”  As she told Idle’s story, Yasmin’s eyes widened and she put a hand over her open mouth.

      “Could it be…?”

      “Yes but why in disguise? What is she up to? What should we do, should we warn Idle?”  Zara had warmed to Idle, and if there were any sides to be taken in the matter, she felt more for Idle than that unpleasant woman from the orphanage who was so disturbing to Yasmin.

      “Oh I don’t know, maybe we should keep out of it!” Yasmin said. “That parcel though!  What am I going to do about that parcel!”

      Zara frowned. “Well, you have three options, Yas.  Open it and read it… don’t look so horrified!  Or deliver it as promised..”

      “We’ll never know what it said though if we do that,” Yasmin was looking more relaxed now.

      “Exactly, and I’m just too curious now.”

      “And the third option?”

      Ignoring the question, Zara asked where the parcel was.  Yasmin grinned wickedly but a knock at the door interrupted her intention to retrieve the parcel from under the mattress.   It was Youssef, who asked if he could come in.

      “Shall we tell him?” Zara whispered, as Yasmin called out “Of course! Is Idle after you again? Quick, you can hide under my bed!”

      “Not yet” Yasmin whispered back. “I need to think.”

      #7213

      A loud knock made them jump. Youssef tensed.

      “Quick! Under the bed!” hissed Zara. Before he could move, the door flung open. It was Finly and she looked irritated.

      “I’ve come to service the room,” she said.

      “It’s so early!” said Yasmin. She smiled in what she hoped was a friendly manner. “It’s fine … really!”

      Finly’s nose twitched as she cast her eyes around the room. “I’ve got a ton of work today and I prefer to clean when the room is vacated … ”

      Yasmin thought of the package under her bed and wondered if she dared retrieve it. The cleaning lady scared her. She always seemed to be lurking somewhere nearby  … dusting and watching. She reminded Yasmin a little of Sister Finli, or Liani, as apparently she preferred to call herself now … maybe not so much in appearance but certainly in her surly manner. What a mad coincidence it was that there should be two of them! Apparently Finly was from New Zealand and Yasmin wondered what the enigmatic cleaning lady’s story was — a hidden talent for poetry? A tragic love affair that had left her heartbroken?  Yasmin daren’t ask.

      “Well if you could just give me a minute so I can get up …  ”

      “Sure,” said Finly, thumping her cleaning bucket on the ground and folding her arms. “I can wait.”

      “Come on, Guys!” said Zara leaping up from the bed. “Lets go wake up Xavier. Maybe we could play the game to fill in some time before the race. It’s such a shit day out there.”

      #7214

      “Bossy, isn’t she?” muttered Yasmin, not quite out of earshot of Finly. “I haven’t even had a shower yet,” she added, picking up her phone and sandals.

      Yasmin, Youssef and Zara left the maid to her cleaning and walked down towards Xaviers room.   “I’d go and get coffee from the kitchen, but…” Youssef said, turning pleading eyes towards Zara, “Idle might be in there.”

      Smiling, Zara told him not to risk it, she would go.

      “Come in,” Xavier called when Yasmin knocked on the door. “God, what a dream,” he said when they piled in to his room.  “It was awful. I was dreaming that Idle was threading an enormous long needle with baler twine saying she was going to sew us all together in a tailored story cut in a cloth of continuity.”  He rubbed his eyes and then shook his head, trying to erase the image in his mind.  “What are you two up so early for?”

      Zara’s gone to get the coffee,” Youssef told him, likewise trying to shake off the image of Idle that Xavier had conjured up. “We’re going to have a couple of hours on the game before the cart race ~ or the dust storm, whichever happens first I guess. There are some wierd looking vans and campers and oddballs milling around outside already.”

      Zara pushed the door open with her shoulder, four mugs in her hands.  “You should see the wierdos outside, going to be a great photo opportunity out there later.”

      “Come on then,” said Xavier, “The game will get that awful dream out of my head.  Let’s go!”

      “You’re supposed to be the leader, you start the game,” Yasmin said to Zara. Zara rolled her eyes good naturedly and opened the game. “Let’s ask for some clues first then. I still don’t know why I’m the so called leader when you,” she looked pointedly as Xavier and Youssef, “Know much more about games than I do. Ok here goes:”

      “The riddle “In the quietest place, the loudest secrets are kept” is a clue to help the group find the first missing page of the book “The Lost Pages of Creativity,” which is an integral part of the group quest. The riddle suggests that the missing page is hidden in a quiet place where secrets are kept, meaning that it’s likely to be somewhere in the hidden library underground the Flying Fish Inn where the group is currently situated.”

      “Is there a cellar here do you think?” Zara mused. “Imagine finding a real underground library!” The idea of a grand all encompassing library had first been suggested to Zara many years ago in a series of old books by a channeler, and many a time she had imagined visiting it. The idea of leaving paper records and books for future generations had always appealed to her. She often thought of the old sepia portrait photographs of her ancestors, still intact after a hundred years ~ and yet her own photos taken ten years ago had been lost in a computer hard drive incident. What would the current generation leave for future anthropologists? Piles of plastic unreadable gadgets, she suspected.

      Youssef can ask Idle later,” Xavier said with a cheeky grin. “Maybe she’ll take him down there.” Youssef snorted, and Yasmin said “Hey! Don’t you start snorting too! Right then, Zara, so we find the cellar in the game then and go down and find the library? Then what?”

      “The phrase “quietest place” can refer to a secluded spot or a place with minimal noise, which could be a hint at a specific location within the library. The phrase “loudest secrets” implies that there is something important to be discovered, but it’s hidden in plain sight.”

      Hidden in plain sight reminded Yasmin of the parcel under her mattress, but she thrust it from her mind and focused on the game. She made up her mind to discuss it with everyone later, including the whacky suppositions that Zara had come up with. They couldn’t possibly confront Idle with it, they had absolutely no proof. I mean, you can’t go round saying to people, hey, that’s your abandoned child over there maybe. But they could include Xavier and Youssef in the mystery.

      “The riddle is relevant to the game of quirks because it challenges the group to think creatively and work together to solve the puzzle. This requires them to communicate effectively and use their problem-solving skills to interpret the clues and find the missing page. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate their individual strengths and also learn from each other in the process.”

      “Work together, communicate effectively” Yasmin repeated, as if to underline her resolution to discuss the parcel and Sister Finli a.k.a. Liana with the boys and Zara later. “A problem shared is a problem hopelessly convoluted, probably.”

      The others looked up and said “What?” in unison, and Yasmin snorted nervously and said “Never mind, tell you later.”

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