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The Ballad of Rika Strong-Arm - Episode 1

The Cold Open

By EJ BaumgardnerPublished 8 months ago 19 min read
The Ballad of Rika Strong-Arm - Episode 1
Photo by L W on Unsplash

I was born in the frigid island nation of Minas Ohta. There isn’t much to say about it. It’s mostly populated by humans, and they frown on using magic in public. It’s also covered in snow 9 months of the year, and across the Endless Ocean from the nearest major landmass. The only magic they tolerate is the kind that helps them grow crops, and even then, it’s a begrudging acceptance. The fact that they would starve without the magic does little to alleviate their prejudices.

My family was neither rich, nor poor, but we were comfortably situated in the middle class. I was the youngest of three, with two older brothers. My mother named me Darren. I really wish she hadn’t. It had never felt right.

I was always an awkward child, never quite fitting in with either the boys or the girls, and I spent my time with books instead of friends. I didn’t need to play at adventure; I could read about it. I was always reading books. It was the best way to ignore everything that made me uncomfortable.

I could tune out the cold. I could tune out the fighting. I could tune out my own feelings. So long as I had a book, the real world didn’t matter. Anything could happen to me, and it wouldn’t matter if I had my books. My books were comforting sources of inspiration and imagination. My role models lived between the pages, and I knew they would never betray me.

I had always loved the swordfights, the daring adventure, the passionate romances, and the joy of discovering that true treasures were kept locked in your heart, not a chest. Reading took up every spare moment I had. It was so much better than my daily life. I could revisit my favorite places, watch my favorite scenes, and spend time with my favorite conversationalists.

I didn’t get along with my parents all that well. They wanted so much for me, when I wasn’t allowed to want what I wanted for me. I did my best not to think about that. It was dangerous territory to venture into.

So, naturally, I started writing about it. I wrote my own stories. I wanted to share them, to explore them, and to live through them. My characters began to live fantastic and grand lives, and I found myself wishing I was them. That was when I started to make friends. Sharing my stories with the few people who could spare time for reading helped me to form the bonds I had always hoped for. But, when I realized that they were only talking to me to discover what I had for them, I realized that true friends were hard to come by.

Imagine my surprise when Cameron the wizard approached me. He wore long black clothes that draped down towards the ground. His brown hair was unkempt and looked like he hadn’t bothered to clean it in weeks. A nasty scent seemed to waft around him.

I had known about Cameron; known that he was shifty and did unnatural things. What could have caused him to approach me? What had I done to catch his attention?

It was my writing. He had seen some of my works, shared by a friend of a friend whom I had let read my work, and he had decided to approach me. He invited me to go to his house with him. I was seventeen at the time.

The walk from town to his place was a cold one, despite it being late spring. The summer thaw had started, though stubborn patches of snow clung to the shade like cat hair on clothing. We chatted about my stories as we walked, and I was eager for the connection. He really seemed to understand my characters, and he was interested in the meanings behind what I wrote.

He had a small cabin, all to himself. The merchant vessels bought his scrolls for fair prices, and he was doing quite well for himself. It wasn’t impressive. It seemed the sort of thing that one might stumble upon while lost in the woods; and possibly pass up due to having standards. Had I walked by it on my own, I would have thought it a neatly-stacked pile of logs.

He opened the door for me, and I was greeted by the stench of stale smoke. It wafted out as though trying to escape, and I covered my nose. Had I not smelled it before when some of the sailors smoked it by the docks, I would have thought that the man had been skunked in his own house. My eyes watered and I was seriously questioning the wisdom of my decisions. How could this end well for me?

“Welcome to my home; pardon the mess” Cameron said.

“Thank you, uh… for your… hospitality” I said, eyeing the portal warily. I wasn’t so sure I wanted to go in there, but it would be rude to just walk away right then. I had come all this way with him already. So, I bravely ventured in.

Once I had acclimated to the smell, it wasn’t as bad as before. It was still quite terrible, but I found I could live with it. Cameron followed me in and closed the door behind him. The smell was suddenly much stronger, now that I was thoroughly trapped in there with it. The open door had mitigated the scent, and I was hoping to open a window to get that breath of fresh air again. The windows, however, were crudely nailed shut and tinted rather dark to keep the light out. He walked over to a small table and picked up a pipe.

The light in the cabin came from a single Neverburning Torch that lay on the table; the illusory flames refusing to spread to the wood. Seeing as how it still had the bark and lichens from when it lay on the forest floor, Cameron must have enchanted it himself. No one sold Neverburns that crude. I looked around the tiny cabin and wondered how he managed to live in that mess.

Clothing was piled in bundles around the floor, utensils and dishes were scattered thoughtlessly, and several small bowls were piled high with ash. It was a shame, too. They looked like they had once been nice soup bowls.

“Right. Let’s get to business” he said, eyeing me with a grin, “I can make your dreams come true” he said as he packed some of his smelly green stuff into the pipe.

“Uh, what are you talking about?” I asked, tearing my gaze away from the bowls of ash.

“I can do it... For you. I, uh… I can make it happen” he said, rubbing the sticky green bits off his hands onto his black cloak. I did my best to ignore his sloppiness.

“Do what?” I asked, annoyed with his cryptic hinting. I was more than ready to leave at that moment, hating everything about the cabin. He snapped his fingers and sparked a tiny flame to life on a candle.

“Make you a woman” he said simply, lighting his pipe with the candle, “That is what you want, isn’t it?” he asked, puffing on his pipe. The smell was even worse now. I didn’t care anymore. He had my complete attention.

“What… what do you mean? Is that even… how?” I flustered. He held up a finger while he took another deep drag from his pipe. He held the breath deep in his lungs and then exhaled slowly before replying. I reeled back from the cloud, grimacing at the stink.

“I won the scroll in a game of cards… the idiot that put it in the pot couldn’t even read magic. He thought he had an invisibility scroll” he chuckled to himself before puffing away.

“Scroll? What… what are you talking about, Cameron?” I asked, not even daring to get my hopes up. Cameron breathed out smoke like a skunky dragon and shrugged.

“I play cards with the traders when they come in, and sometimes they don’t have the coin to pay up what they owe. I don’t even need to use magic to beat them, it’s sad” he said absently. I really didn’t care about how good at cards he was; I wanted him to explain what he was talking about.

“So, this scroll can make me… it can fix me?” I asked, searching for the right words.

“Yes, and no” he said before taking another annoyingly long drag from the pipe. I wanted to tear it out of his hands and throw it out into the mud. He offered me the pipe, but I declined it. This was not how I wanted my first time trying the stuff to go. Maybe some other time with someone else. “The magic can change your body to be exactly what you’ve always wanted it to be” he explained.

“Okay, so, where’s the ‘no’ part of that 'yes and no'?” I asked, confused. He smirked.

“I copied it from the scroll into my spell book, destroying the scroll in the process. The scroll no longer exists, and therefore cannot help you” he grinned. I rolled my eyes at him.

“You’re an ass, Cameron”

“Yeah, Darren. Get used to it. Anyway, you want to make a deal, or what?”

“Well… what will it cost me?” I asked, biting my lip. I knew very little about magic, but I knew that it was expensive to practice. Magical focuses for spells were costly, especially as they were regularly consumed in casting. Whatever the cost, there was no way I could afford it right away. Cameron shrugged and picked up a spell book from off the bed.

“You’ll need to raise the money to buy the spell components. I can request that the traders pick up anything they don’t normally carry. The more exotic items will cost extra, though” he said as he flipped through the pages. I was flabbergasted. He wasn’t going to charge me for the spell itself. With some hard work, I might be able to pull this off.

“Okay, well, what do we need?” I asked, the hope inside of me welling to new depths. He finally opened his spell book to the right page and taught me how to read the draconic script it was written in. Once I understood the characters, I could read the script as it was written in the common language, just using a different alphabet. I was relieved to discover that most of the ingredients were simple and easy to acquire.

The spell would require:

• Body fat and muscle tissue, from an animal or person.

• Hair from the person to be changed.

• A silver mirror.

• A vial of gold dust & powdered rubies, mixed according to transmutation ratios.

And that was it. My own hair would be easy enough to provide. A good steak had both first ingredients… that was promising. The mirror would be somewhat expensive, though it would not be consumed in the casting process. That meant it could be used again similarly in the future, which could save some other person on that cost, should Cameron choose to perform the spell again. The vial of gold and ruby dust, however, would prove the most troublesome.

I was still floundering about financially, hoping I could make a living by writing stories, and had very little money to throw around, if at all. Though a vial of gold dust was no more in worth than three or four gold coins, it took significantly more work to turn it to crumbles as the spell required. That, along with powdered ruby, would drive the cost up significantly.

“So, what should I be calling you?” Cameron asked suddenly, relaxing on his bed and puffing on the pipe idly. I shook my head to clear it. What had he asked me?

“What? What do you mean?” I asked. It was his turn to roll his eyes at me.

“Well… since you clearly want to commit to that spell, it doesn’t seem right to call you ‘Darren’ anymore. It’s a boy’s name” he said.

“Oh… right” I said. I paused to think about it. I had never even imagined I could change my name. What name would I have picked for myself? Then, the answer came to me. The same name as my main character; the one I had always wanted to be. “Erica” I said softly.

“Pretty” Cameron smiled, “Well, Erica, when you can get me one-hundred, forty-eight gold pieces, I can fix… this” he said, gesturing awkwardly toward my body.

“I… wow. Thank you” I said softly, biting back tears, “I don’t know what to say” I muttered. There was a large lump in my throat. For the first time, he looked worried that he had upset me.

“Don’t say anything. Just get the money, be patient, and say thanks when it’s all over” he said with a shrug. We shared a quick goodbye, and I closed his door behind me.

The walk home was a long one, strolling through the chill air as the sun began to set. I remember it to this day. It was as though I had finally woken up from a bad dream that had lasted my entire life. I was not stuck being the boy everyone thought I was. I could really, truly and completely, be myself. I just wished I could tell someone.

The next day, I bolted through my breakfast and sprinted through my chores at home; I had places to be. I didn’t get paid for my chores. As far as my parents were concerned, I was free labor.

So, I left my house, as I did every day for over a year now. However, instead of making for the library, I went to find work. It wasn’t a hard task.

Farmer Thomson was always willing to hire extra hands for a fair fee, though the pay was better closer to the harvest. I worked through the rest of the morning, took a break for lunch, and then helped for the afternoon. He sent me away at evening with two silver pieces. There are ten silvers to a gold. And I needed a lot of them.

I found work every way I could, doing anything people would pay me for. I shoveled dung; I turned compost piles; I cleaned up in restaurants; and I even organized books in the library. It was the merchant ships and boats that paid the best, however. Unloading their cargo paid an entire gold coin for a day’s work, two if I didn’t stop for lunch. Sadly, the merchants never showed up more than once a month each, with around a week in between each merchant.

I was surprised to find that I felt better about life, having a goal I could work toward. Though I hardly spent any time with them, my family noticed the changes as well. I was stronger, had greater stamina, and seemed happier. Where I had always been buried in a book before, I was now mysteriously gone all day and coming home exhausted. They thought I was getting ready to move out on my own. I suppose, in a way, I was. They had been wanting me to move out since the moment I turned sixteen.

It took me over a year and a half to raise all the money I needed. It would have been a month or two shorter, had the next year’s crop not been damaged by a cold snap. Farmer Thomson could not afford to pay extra hands while expecting to take in only half his normal yield.

Still, I worked every job I could until I was strong and lean, and had finally earned enough coin to pay Cameron for the spell. We had been talking throughout, keeping in touch with one another and even becoming friends. He seemed to be the only person who enjoyed spending time with me, without trying to get something out of me. And, when the day came that I finally had the coin to pay him, he surprised me even further.

“I won both, the mirror and the vial, from Takkun the General trader” he said, showing me them excitedly. I could scarcely believe it. The two most expensive items were, essentially, now free? It appeared that the sun herself had blessed me. We were in his little cabin, a place that nearly felt like a second home by that point. I didn’t even mind the smell of the smoke anymore.

“That’s… amazing. Really” I said, congratulating him because I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

“Yeah. His captain hates that we gamble so much; it cuts into their profits… but Captain Bolter sails the ship; he does not manage the business” he said sagely. I realized he was fishing for a compliment.

“You’re a conniving and clever man, Cameron” I said, stroking his ego.

“You're right, I am” he grinned, “now, are you ready for this?” he asked me, gesturing to the gathered components. I nodded, finding the words difficult to form. Though I had dreamt of this for so long, the reality of it was daunting.

“Are you sure? Going back will require the same amount of work and money” he cautioned me. I smiled, finding my voice again.

“I’m sure… and I am not going back” I told him confidently.

“Good," he said, gathering the ingredients, "It’s going to suck, by the way”

“It’ll be worth it. I’ll be fine” I said, reassuringly. I was trying to convince myself more than him. No matter what it was I needed to go through, it would be worth any cost.

I was not, as I had so eagerly presumed, fine. The process was extremely uncomfortable the entire way through, rather painful for a good portion of it, and lasted entirely too long. I thought I would die before it was over.

For two nights and three days, I writhed in agony on Cameron’s bed. Where it was that he slept, or spent most of his time, was entirely beyond me. I could not pay attention to anything outside of my own experience.

My bones changed their density, size, and structure, aching the whole time. My entire skeleton reassembled itself within me, while my muscles redistributed themselves. Where once my chest and arms had been strongest, my hips and legs gained that definition. My face rearranged itself, the cartilage in my nose and ears and shape of my skull forming anew. Breathing was difficult for about a quarter of a day, though not impossible, as my neck reformed. After that point, my moans and cries of pain and discomfort sounded correct to my ears for the first time in my life.

My chest was tender as breasts swelled and developed over the course of hours, as opposed to the years the process generally took. Worse than anything, were the feelings coming from my lower half. I thought my insides were melting.

Certain parts of me moved inside of me, sealed, reformed, and then waited patiently as a brand-new organ grew itself in my abdomen. It felt like I needed to vomit and empty out an obscene amount of waste. I didn’t. The discomfort was my guts making room for the uterus that had not existed before.

In the middle of the day, after the second night, I was finally done. My body had finished changing, and no parts of me tingled with discomfort or pain. Well, I was hungrier than ever before, but that was a feeling I could handle.

“Is there anything to eat?” I asked, amazed at the change in the sound. Cameron looked up suddenly from the book he had been reading, one of my favorites, and then glanced around the cabin. He grabbed a loaf of bread, some cheese, and a mug. He said, “trickle” to the mug, and it filled itself with water.

He brought them over to me and I ate slowly at first, trying to get used to the subtle differences in my body. My fingers seemed more sensitive than I remembered them being. Come to think of it, all of me seemed more sensitive now. My voice felt different in my throat, too. Sitting up was a new experience, as I had to find a new center of balance. I sipped my water cautiously, and then drained the mug quickly.

I ate the entire loaf before I realized it but found that I could think clearly with my stomach somewhat full. I stretched, feeling wonder at the new shape of me. Cameron was staring at me in a way he never had before.

“So, you don’t need to pay me… the gold, I mean” he said awkwardly.

“I feel like it would be unfair of me not to, though” I said, smiling at the sound of my own voice. It was right. It finally sounded right in my ears.

“Well… uh… We can work out a deal, you know?” he was shaking slightly.

“What do you mean? I have the gold. It’s right there” I said, gesturing to my bag. He looked down at the floor for a moment.

“Yeah… well, you’ll need that money. To buy new clothes and stuff” he said, his eyes flicking over my body again and again. Though my clothes were loose-fitting now, he was still gazing at me intently.

“I feel like I owe you, though” I said, trying to calm my nerves. Surely, I was misreading the moment. We were just friends… it wasn’t like he would betray my trust.

“Well… if you want to repay me…” he said slowly as he sat down on the bed beside me. His hand found its way to my leg, and my heart began to pound. I wanted to run away, but my legs felt weak. “Then, give me one night” he said. My head swam.

“Wha… what do you mean?” I whispered. His hand moved higher up my leg.

“Sleep with me, and we’ll be even. You can keep the gold, Erica” he was getting closer to me.

“I… I don’t know” I was desperate to think of some excuse. Some way to escape and keep everything the way it had been. I didn’t want to lose a friend, but I was terrified of giving him what he wanted. How could I have been so wrong about him?

“You said it yourself, you owe me” he insisted. I wish I had argued. I wish I had insisted on paying him the money. Instead, I let him bully me into having his way.

Afterwards, I ran. I ran home, confusing and frightening my parents, who immediately yelled at me, calling me a stranger, and kicked me out of their house. I couldn’t tell if I was happy or dismayed that they didn’t recognize me.

I was suddenly homeless. My only real friend had just violated me. I needed comfort and security. The closest I could come was booking passage on Captain Bolter’s ship to the far-off country of Tadega. He would be leaving soon, and I was more than ready to leave everything about Minas Ohta behind. I did not leave my cabin for the two days we stayed in port before heading out to sea.

By Thom Milkovic on Unsplash


About the Creator

EJ Baumgardner

A writer through and through, I just want to perfect my craft and build a community. This place would not exist without both, you and me.

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