Wordcount: 619 words
A Fair Trade
“What do you mean?” Well this wasn’t good. In fact, she was pretty sure this was all new levels of not good. Somehow Wendy didn’t think the mask was looking for a simple promise, or some random personal belonging as collateral. The bone chips that covered the floor began to take on an even more disturbing implication.
“The flute is ancient magic, hungry magic. If I let it loose upon the world again, how do I know it will be returned? So you must give me something in return. A trade.” The mask smiled, but it was a predatory grin.
“You want a hostage.” And all of a sudden she remembered one of David’s older tales, and a similar bargain made in desperation. Last time it had taken them half a day to bargain up to death; this time they didn’t have the time to waste.
“If you wish.” The mask turned to look at Gray, considering.
The man paled and glanced over at Wendy in alarm. “Now wait a–”
“I didn’t mean him.” And the mask turned back to her, frowning. “I meant me.”
“You can’t do that!” Gray stepped forward, grabbing her arm. “She won’t give the flute to me, you know that. If I go back without you I’d be stepping right into death, there has to be another way.”
“She doesn’t need me to stay here to be a hostage.” It wasn’t a question, but the mask nodded silently. “I remember you now. We met you in the Cave of a Thousand Winds, when you were guarding the Shadow Knife.” Although that might have been another mask, formed from bits of trash and gravel instead of bone, but the rules that governed them should be the same.
“You traveled with the Band of Nine?” The mask’s eyes narrowed, and it floated closer, bone grinding against bone as it moved.
“No, but I was there.” And Wendy didn’t flinch as the mask closed until it hovered over her, peering down with cold white eyes the size of dinner plates. After a moment, it moved away.
“So you were, and so you weren’t.” There was a span of several heartbeats where the mask said nothing, and Wendy began to think her offer would be refused. She wasn’t sure what else she had to offer, except for Gray, and there had to be another way.
“Accepted.” And the mask collapsed in a thunder of falling bones. From the waterfall of bone a scrimshaw flute tumbled, coming to rest at Wendy’s feet and she stooped to pick it up.
Wendy and Gray stood silent for a moment, staring at the morbid instrument, and then she began to laugh.
“What? What’s wrong?” Gray was back at her side in a flash, even Rock-rock seemed concerned over the unexpected levity.
“That was it!” Wendy giggled, “After all of that, all the worry and the suspense and it’s as easy as that!” And maybe the laughter was a tad hysterical, but she figured she’d earned it. She’d been wound so tight expecting traps and trials along the lines of the older stories, but here, here Heather’s simplistic plots still held true. “It could have demanded my eyes, or my hands, or seven years of servitude, or–,” she dissolved back into hiccupping giggles.
“You promised it your life,” Gray reminded her gently. “That’s enough for anyone, I think.”
“Only if we fail,” she gasped between giggles, waving an admonishing finger at the man, “and we can’t fail, Good always wins, always.”
“Aye, but sometimes good wins because people die.” And there was something sobering in that, but it took her another few minutes to get the giggles out of her system.