A Challenger Appears

Now that a painting had been hung in Julianni’s office, it had felt a little more homey. She didn’t necessarily care if it felt as such, but she couldn’t help but feel as if the small bit of personal touch helped ease her day-to-day stresses.

The painting appeared as scene she had seen before in person, and one she had fallen in love with the moment she saw it. The hills, tricking across the land, complimented the autumn grass, each twist of the brushstroke having been meticulously done as God had when creating it. The waves of the ocean, curled in their white to light blue colours, crashed into the rocky cliff faces dotted in the distance. It was Heavenly. That Lord Iyhr had sent her the painting still warmed her heart; traditional gifts were that much more meaningful.

She smiled.

Her attention flickered back to her display to focus on her task at hand: monthly financials. Julianni let loose a sigh to see the Black Rise information missing. Once again, a technical malfunction was preventing the personnel member’s data from being reached. “I really need to speak with the IT manager about this,” she muttered softly to herself, raising her hand to push aside her hair and rub at her cheek.

An alert: someone was at her office door.

Julianni raised her head and glanced to it, seeing the shadowed outline of a feminine figure that, by all accounts, was rather tall. It was a form she was not familiar with. There were few women she’d met personally that matched the height as this one, save for DUSTers, of course. But it was no matter. Her finger pressed to the access button at the side of her desk and she stood, smoothing out the creases in her skirt.

Once the door opened, the recognition of just who it was happened immediately. While she’d normally have felt at least generally comfortable around the Internal Watch, lately, it seemed the opposite. Especially when she saw the woman’s expression.

It was a cool one, the pursed lips and professional posture that Sheyan Mazaki wore. Obviously, there was something bothering her, and even if Julianni had asked not to be disturbed, she had a feeling it wouldn’t have mattered.

“Mazaki-haani, it’s g-”

The Calmatar entered the room briskly without waiting for anything else to be said. Lithe, yet somewhat broad and athletic with her darkened skin, this woman was a shining example of Caldari and Minmatar stock. The most prominent of her features, however, was the quiet seething the woman was letting bubble beneath the surface.

“…Mazaki-haani?”

Again, there was no response. Julianni’s eyes lowered. What she didn’t see, doing that, was that Sheyan’s eyes flashed as her implants went active. Then, across Julianni’s screen, came a recording of Sakala’s words in what was labeled as the system of Nahyeen.

“Be a dear, when you see Jules next let her know I have a few gifts for her. Well a few bottles if you know what I mean.”

Julianni read over the words, her heart stopping. Had he really…

“Our men didn’t die just so you could go on a drug binge,” Sheyan finally said, her voice full of venom. The toxin that seeped into Julianni’s very heart. “You mean to tell me that after everything that happened, you’re still dealing with that man? No. Not a man. That gaairagi.”

Julianni froze. She didn’t know what to do or what to say. Now, things were public.

“No answer? I should have expected that.” The military officer turned on her heel, giving her back to Julianni. “I’m sure you’ll understand that I have to notify my superiors of what was said, regardless of my opinion on the matter.” The woman paused before the doorway, glancing over her shoulder. “And as far as that goes? You’re no better than Sakala.” With that, the woman left the room before Julianni even had a chance to reply.

Left speechless, Julianni simply stared at that screen. Just what was she supposed to do about this? What could she even have said? Her drug tests had all come back negative. They spoke for themselves. But still…this…was exactly what Sakala was hoping for. She knew it.

Now, she simply had to make the decision of if she was going to sit by and simply do damage control, or decide to play his game right back.

 

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Metamorphosis

It was a beautiful day, as most of the days at Julianni’s home had been. The heat had evenly applied itself to the oasis, and the wind did its job at cooling off the woman when the temperatures became too much. Now mid-afternoon, she could hardly wait any longer.

For hours, she had stayed within her garden, watching as the chrysalis of each butterfly twisted and turned. One had even cracked, but the beautiful beings had yet to grace Julianni with their full, stunningly vibrant appearance. She was as patient as she could be, sipping lightly at the mug of coffee in her hands. A small smile crept it’s way onto her lips as a thought crossed her mind.

These hours she had watched had also given way to moments of reflection. How far she had come. Once a toy to a power-driven lordling, now a director in a respected organization. At one time wondering just where it was she was supposed to call home, now sitting on her own property, with all the acreage and privacy she could ever want. As she observed the butterflies undergoing their metamorphosis, she couldn’t help but pair it to her own. Even now, with a relationship having appeared over the horizon, she was still undergoing a transformation into something that she prayed was as beautiful as the wings of the creatures before her.

Her patience paid off, that smile only further growing as one of the butterflies pushed its way out of its safe haven. For many moments that followed, one by one, the insects she so cherished appeared before her very eyes. Vivid yellows and black contrasting markings of these desert butterflies were revealed to Julianni and she let out a sigh of awe. The wings twitched. Shook. Fluttered. She knew the process, as she’d seen it before. And each time, it grew more remarkable.

Soon, it would be time to do what it was she always wanted to the moment she laid eyes on them. But for now, they needed to gain their strength, and she had some cleaning to do. For a few more minutes, she sat and watched as the butterflies slowly bat their wings to dry, then she pushed off of the bench to attend to her day’s work.

 


 

The storage room wasn’t as much of a mess as she’d believed. It was just disorganized. If there was one thing she enjoyed doing, it was putting things together. Like a puzzle, each item would have a place, and would fit best with its surrounding pieces. The paintings would be filed away together, the sculptures organized by years and set to one side, the rare fabrics would be sealed away for the most safe of storing. She was doing inventory, really. And she didn’t mind it.

The passing of the original owner of this home was unfortunate, to be sure. But such was the cycle. The art and fabrics that had been left behind by the merchant was…a bit much for the woman. Extravagant, lavish- it didn’t suit her. By placing them in the storage area, at least she was keeping the man’s memory alive instead of just being rid of them. And one day? She felt she’d even pull together an exhibit, perhaps. A charity, maybe. Her mind danced with positive ideas as she moved things one by one to their respective areas.

But it was moving that one statue, that one small carving of a desert snake that proved to shake those thoughts.

The grind of stone gave the woman pause, as did the fact the small statue wouldn’t leave the pedestal it was resting on. Her attention was caught off to the side at movement; no one was here but her, she thought. But her concern was somewhat washed away at the Eastern most wall sliding inward.

Her brow raised, and of course, curiosity got the best of her. Who wouldn’t it have? With a cautious step, she began to proceed to the dark opening of what must have been another room.

No sound came from within, save for the distant eerie whistle of wind. The woman took a deep breath, as if taking a plunge into deep waters, then stepped inside fully, her hand searching for a light switch. It took her a bit of time, but she finally found it, and flipped it to the “on” position. Her dark brown eyes adjusted to the bright, uncomfortable light quickly.

Surrounding her was an assortment of containers. Suitcases, bags, and even filing cabinets were dotted around what she assumed was a panic room of sorts. Surprisingly, each one was empty. Why had this been cleared out, but the art had not? It was strange, to be sure. Even after double checking the various containers, she couldn’t find a single thing. Her head shook side to side, confused. It was at this point she decided that a call to the realtor was wise.

Julianni turned to leave, only to be stopped by the sound of metal rolling across the floor under her feet. Her brow raised and she immediately looked to see just what it was she’d kicked. It seemed the room wasn’t so empty after all. But her raised brow soon fell, as did the rest of her face.

She could see the writing slowly appear. Each and every letter appeared one by one, from the back to the front. It was like it was happening in slow motion.

But she already knew what it said.

She knew the moment she’d seen the first two letters.

As the vial of Drop came to a stop a few inches in front of her, she found herself face to face with one of the most difficult decisions of her life. What was to become of her own metamorphosis? Would her wings be as vibrant as the butterflies she so loved? Would they become colourless and broken? What could it hurt?

Moments seemed like minutes, minutes seemed like hours. She swallowed hard, knowing full well the decision had already been made the moment she saw the label.

And then:

She picked up the vial.