Chapter 1: Word From The Grapevine
"This is literally not fair," Laura spoke to no one in particular. Her eyes glaring straight into the mirror. "
"What's not fair?" Yoshi popped up in the living room.
"Me not looking good in bangs," The brunette turned to her friend, eyebrows furrowed in what seemed to be anger. "No, because me having bangs is like the definition of a hate crime."
Yoshi Arata burst into laughter. Only for Laura Johari, who looked angrier than a basket of kiwis, to join in the fit of laughter as well.
"Damn, is it really that serious?"
Yoshi asked, magenta eyes glinted with curiosity as the two rascals eventually settled down.
"Well no, not really," The brunette spoke up as she wiped a tear from her eye, "You and Hami look good with bangs. I got curious and ended up having my feelings hurt."
The sun had set and dusk hovered above the town as streaks of orange nearly vanished from the horizon. The endless sky was murky with darkening shades of blue and it was time for civilians to return home and rest.
Nearby the forest, close to nature's heart, a large establishment could be found. The building itself resembled an old abandoned warehouse. The dark green paint it once had has long weathered out. To a stranger's eye, the premises looked grim and almost run down. The roof didn't make it look any better; its mud-brown colour seemed to bring out the worst of the building much further. The various types of fungi growing in between the shingles didn't help either.
It was crazy to imagine that this very building used to be a workplace bustling with laughter, tears, late-night coffee talks and workplace-related memories. Employees would get scolded by employers for mistakes, managers would stress over scheduling issues and delivery trucks would deliver crates filled with goods to all the grocers in town.
And then, it all stopped.
That was eight years ago.
Headquarters decided it was time to move out to a more ideal location and left the building.
What was once a place where men and women would come to carry out their tasks was now an old abandoned husk of its former glory. Dusty, run-down, cobwebs covered glory.
Until the Federation of Peculiarities Exploration & Research decided to buy the land and use it for their own purpose.
Storage unit Site 3 of FPER came into being.
When the federation had set their eyes on such a location, they knew they hit a jackpot big time. Think about it, an abandoned warehouse built near a forest was the perfect site to avoid the public's prying eyes. The experiments, containment and research output was the perfect dream for a mad scientist. Well, in this case, a mad organization.
That's why the higher-ups didn't even have to think twice when they signed the papers to buy this land.
Even if anything bad were to happen to the staff, it's not like the public would know. A place far from society means that casualties could be left unannounced. FPER could still carry on with their testing and the public wouldn't even bat an eye thanks to the shadows.
Maybe, it's better this way.
It's still the first chapter.
Laura, Yoshi and the others were recruited the moment Site 3 was made official. It was only four months ago when FPER announced that Site 3 would start operating but the other departments howled with laughter when a storage unit would pop out instead.
Well, by FPER's standards, even though they would deny it at all costs, the storage department was bound to be the punching bag. It was a cruel hierarchy and the storage department would be placed at the bottom of the pyramid. They say that's because of the high turnover rate, trashy pay and 'unprofessional' jobs recruits are given. The storage unit didn't really have the most difficult or complicated tasks. Recruits don't really need to be qualified to give this job a shot. There wasn't really any training needed. As long as a person can read and write, they have a pretty high chance of getting recruited.
That's the main reason why the other departments would laugh when the term 'storage unit' would pop out in a conversation.
So when FPER announced that such a gold mine would be given to a storage unit, the mistreatment got even worse. They'd talk about how storage unit Site 3 was a 'waste of space', 'bunch of high school flopouts' and more beautiful nicknames were given.
It was harsh.
But it was the reality.
Now back to the storage department of Site 3...
The scent of old wood lingered in the air outside while birds chirped low as they roost. The vacant land has only dirt and dead leaves to offer with the occasional patches of grass. Even then, it was untrimmed and untidy.
Even when FPER bought the building, the condition was still really bad and not much has really changed. All of the recruits were mortified that they would be living there. It took them almost two weeks to make sure the interior would be even remotely habitable.
The exterior though, let's just say that they don't even have the proper equipment to make it look less scary.
Inside the living quarters, the wonderful smell of freshly baked pizza enveloped the kitchen. The heavenly fusion of melted cheese, tomato sauce, cooked mushrooms and chicken bits topped on soft bread was mouthwatering for sure.
And it was only the smell.
"Dinner's ready!" Ilhami called out from the kitchen. The drips of tomato sauce that splashed on his face were still there when he was spreading the red condiment on the dough.
Laura Johari and Yoshi Arata rushed to the kitchen, their chatters paused abruptly as they quickly settled down on their seats at the dining table.
"Hami, your food never disappoints!" Yoshi squealed in excitement, magenta eyes staring hungrily at the baked pizza.
"Well duh, Yoshi," Laura spoke up as she tied her brown hair into a messy bun, "Hami is the best cook of the house. He can probably make old boring fried eggs into a ten-star cuisine!"
Ilhami Zaheer chuckled at that. A soft red blush formed on his cheeks as he smiled wide and proud.
Suddenly, the living room boomed with a loud thud.
The three's attention was all on the source of where the sound was coming from.
Stepping in the kitchen, a face familiar to the three smiled eagerly as she eyed the pizza.
"Oh my God, I was about to have a heart attack," Laura let out a heavy sigh, "Sarah, you scared the hell out of us."
"Yeah, did you just jump all the way from upstairs?" Hami asked.
"I thought there was a containment breach or something," Yoshi could only shake his head.
The lady in question laughed heartily. An occasional snort could be heard as her body shook with laughter, only for the trio to look displeased in the most comical way possible.
"Of course, I jumped all the way down!" She said rather proudly for some reason, "I couldn't just come here like a normie, I have to make a grand entrance, especially for Hami's cooking."
"I should feel flattered, Sarah" Hami started as he washes his hands in the sink, "But I feel concerned. And a bit scared, even."
"Yeah, no shade, Sarah but I find it hard to believe that you're Site 3's head outlet," Laura spoke, an eyebrow raised judgmentally, "And what are you even wearing? It's like seven-thirty now."
Sarah Matahari looked rather offended, or at least, attempted to. It's hard to tell when she barely takes anything seriously.
"Hey, get it, right! I'm the head outlet for the Storage Unit of Site 3," Sarah smirked with pride, "And this is a super cute sundress, thank you very much."
Sarah twirled with the elegance of a flying refrigerator as she showed off her oversized sundress. Her taste in clothes was certainly… intriguing, at least. It was a neon pink sundress with mismatched patterns of varying colours that didn't even remotely complement the attire. Her dark green hair was tied neatly into pigtail braids. Again, she wore an oversized sun hat for some reason… indoors.
"I got these from the night market a week ago!" She did another twirl, "Aren't they the cutest?"
"...Really, you're wearing a sun hat indoors?" Laura looked so done, "The sun had set long ago, girlie."
Sarah could only pout, overexaggerating her reaction just for the heck of it. Despite the small roasting session, the four are genuinely close with one another. They're like a family about to have dinner together.
"So it's just the four of us again tonight?" Ilhami asked as he settled in his seat right next to Yoshi.
"I guess so," Laura chowed down her pizza, words coming out in between chews, "Delima won't be back until next week. Arul and Iris are holed up in their rooms."
Hami could only frown at that.
Those two never wanted to do anything together outside of working hours.
It has been four months now and it felt like those two didn't want anything to do with the rest of the team.
"Cheer up, Hami," Sarah gave a warm smile to the redhead boy. Her gaze was soft and soothing, radiating motherly vibes as she spoke, "Maybe they still need time adjusting."
Now even if Sarah Matahari - a woman in her mid-thirties - can be quite a handful at times, thanks to her quirks and energetic nature, her nurturing side was not something uncommon within the storage unit premises. At first, it was quite surprising to see such a bright green ball of unpredictable energy display an act of motherliness and empathy. Yet, as time passed, it felt right at home. Her wisdom and mature side cleared out any doubts the recruits may have about her position. Despite the roasts and jokes, every single recruit knew there was no one more fitting than her as the head outlet for Site 3.
"Yeah, I guess…" Hami murmured as he finally took a bite from his pizza.
Yoshi saw how it made his dear friend feel and decided to steer away from that conversation.
"Oh yeah, the new supervisor will be joining us tomorrow, right?"
"Oh my God, yes," Laura nodded enthusiastically, "We're gonna have a new member to the party."
"That's right," Sarah answered as she leaned over the wooden table and grabbed another slice, "You kids better behave, he'll be the second-in-command starting from tomorrow. Which means, he is obviously going to be the responsible one."
Yoshi laughed out loud, "Aren't you supposed to be the one who keeps us in line?"
A chuckle came out from Laura, "In what world is Ms. Sarah Matahari going to keep us in line, Yoshi? We're trash gremlins living in the forest."
Sarah nodded as she took another bite, "She's right. You'd have to lose your apple cinnamon mind if I have to be the responsible one."
Laura and Yoshi howled with laughter at that.
Ilhami smiled at that before a thought popped in his head.
"What was his name again?"
The laughter had settled down now as Laura poured ice-cold lemonade into the glasses and passed it around the table.
Sarah scrunched up for a moment as if trying to recall a distant memory before immediately remembering what it was, "Raihan Zaberi."
Ilhami's mouth fell open, Yoshi choked on his drink and nonsensical sounds came out from Laura's mouth.
"Y-you can't possibly mean the Raihan Zaberi?!" Yoshi said as he tried to get himself together, "Isn't that dude one of the most legendary explorers out there?"
"He's right, Sarah," Laura said, "You can't be playing with us now."
"It's true," The green-haired woman nodded, putting her glass down on the wooden table, "Raihan Zaberi will be joining us tomorrow."
"Well, what is he doing in a dump like this?"
Sarah Matahari looked serious now - way more serious than before. There was something about her eyes that showed that she's not messing around now.
Ilhami saw it.
Ilhami always noticed the small things in people's behaviour.
The eyes can't hide the inner colours after all.
She began talking, voice low - not louder than a whisper, "Word from the grapevine has it that Raihan didn't really agree with HQ's ideas."
The three recruits closed in, listening intently to what the head outlet was saying.
"You guys know how FPER works, right? I think we all know how HQ works…" She took a sip from her glass before continuing, "They aren't exactly the most selfless organization. I mean, look at how those delivery guys treated us when they brought in those crates this morning."
"...Like shit," Laura commented, a fist formed as she wore a frustrated look on her face.
"That's right," Sarah continued, "Raihan didn't like the discrimination and wanted to join us, I guess. That and what happens behind closed doors within the main containment grounds."
Ilhami shivered at that thought. It sent a chill down his spine at the mere thought of what FPER could do behind the scenes.
"It's been a while since I've heard what's happening in HQ," Sarah resumed, "I bet they lost their apple cinnamon minds when Raihan said he'd be leaving, hah! Oh well, I have more than enough time to ask him what's really going on."
They talked some more about other things.
Recent news, the weather, chilling tales from Gerhana Island, legendary bottles of magic and more stuff.
All that chit-chat and it was already nine o'clock.
"It's okay, I'll do the dishes tonight, bestie," Yoshi offered.
"Are you sure?" The redhead asked.
"Of course, you already made that delicious-ass pizza!"
Ilhami could only laugh.
Ilhami Zaheer has a head full of hair - a deep rich shade of red-brown, beautiful like the falling leaves of Autumn. He was a bright soul with bright dreams of bringing forth a perfect world. It was a dream of his and it was certainly a dream that he'd love to make come true.
"Oh, Ilhami," Sarah called out for him as she wiped the wooden table clean, "Can you please check on the shelves, please? Just to make sure nothing's out of place."
Ilhami nodded, amber eyes gleaming with anticipation.
Or maybe, it gleamed because of the lights. Who knows…
. . .
"Bottle of unicorns? Check." Ilhami spoke to no one in particular, voicing his thoughts out loud.
The little unicorns were fast asleep in their bottle, blissfully unaware of what's going on in the outside world.
Ilhami could only smile to himself as he looked at the magical horses in awe.
And then he proceeded to carry on with the rest of the check-ups.
"Bottle of mashed potatoes? Check."
"Bottle of honeydew? Check."
"Bottle of popstar's complaints? Check."
"Bottle of an overly obsessed fan's threat? Check."
"Bottle of flying eyeballs? Check."
"And lastly, the bottle of Ever-growing Meadow? Check."
Ilhami was satisfied with himself as he completed the little check-up.
After all, tonight was his turn to check on the bottles.
The warehouse premises were divided into two parts. The first part was the work-related area. Most of the magical bottles were kept on the shelves - individual compartments made for one bottle each - to avoid confusion when reports were made. These shelves are bigger than what one may imagine and were specially designed for magic bottles. Magic bottles that contained living sentient creatures shall be displayed on the shelves upon delivery arrival. While bottles containing phenomenons and non-living things can be left in the crates for a much longer time.
The room was dimly lit - there were barely enough lights to see the room in its entirety.
But Ilhami didn't mind. He had finished his task for the night.
The redhead walked over to the bottle of unicorns and gazed at the sleeping creatures with content.
It was like a wild dream, really.
The existence of unicorns, dragons, gargoyles and more are the norms of this world.
He couldn't help but laugh a bit when thinking about that fact.
If this was a normal world, people would have lost their minds at the idea of such creatures.
But here, such creatures and phenomenons are to be dealt with on a day-to-day basis.
It was the reality.
He picked up the bottle of unicorns -hands slow and cautious, careful enough not to wake them up - to get a better glimpse.
Ilhami was about to put the bottle back where it belonged.
He really did.
His hands had slipped, and as he struggled to hold it properly, he accidentally elbowed another bottle.
No, they broke.
There were pieces of broken glass scattered on the floor.
Two magic bottles had been broken.
To be continued in 'Chapter 2: The Butler's Parasol'...