“We’re not looking for a fountain or waters, ladies and gentlemen,” Taryn said, clicking to the last slide in her presentation. She felt the nervous excitement caught between her stomach and her chest. She took a quick breath and took a dramatic half turn toward the image on the screen before she spoke again.
“We’re looking for a cup.”
She paused for the audience’s response. She had imagined a strong negative response, restlessness, scoffing and decrying. Huffs of outrage, mutterings under breath, and one or two souls loudly proclaiming that her ideas were “simply preposterous.”
But she had also braced herself for the possibility that not everyone would be as excited as she was. That was what she now observed. Someone coughed. A few people shifted in their chairs. Dings and chirps sounded from the odd phone that hadn’t been silenced. But they were all acting as if what she had just said was reasonable and logical and followed from what she had just shown them.
They were all acting like that because they thought she was just talking about an artifact. A mythical one. But an artifact nonetheless. During her presentation, she spoke of the familiar legends of a long-lived people who drank from and bathed in the fountains. And the explorers from far-off lands who searched their whole lives for it in the name of monarchs who would have given up all their wealth to taste of it. To taste of youth again.
But Taryn had found new accounts. Apocryphal, perhaps. She had shown them images, drawings, paintings, and the like, of people drinking from and frolicking in a fountain. Only she didn’t focus on the fountain. She focused on the vessels that people were using. And each image she found had what appeared to be the same vessel. A cup.
It dawned on her that she hadn’t made it clear. She wasn’t after a rare artifact. She was after a revolution. She was after a breakthrough that defied science. A technology both ancient and unknowable. A way to put the “no pain, no gain” anti-aging procedures and products out of business. For why buy the illusion of youth when one could have the real thing?
She believed in the stories and myths. Waters that could restore youth. Not because the waters were special, but because the vessel in which they were carried was special. It was the vessel she believed in. The Cup.
The Cup. She had more to say about the Cup. More to say about what she had learned when she did her research into history, archaeology, and legend. The Cups—for there were more than one—were forged outside of time. Made of a material that was like metal and like stone. And they were never meant for human hands to touch. For human minds to know. But they somehow came to be in the human realm.
Taryn had learned all she could about the cups. She had taken trips abroad. Visited libraries, museums, archives. She’d even wheedled her way into the most restricted libraries and archives. She had spoken to elders, storytellers, scholars, and beggars. She had gathered all the knowledge should could. She had never seen or found a Cup, never seen evidence of its work. And yet she believed. Something drew her. What was her research had become her quest.
All along she had hunted for any sign that there was a Cup about that she could find and acquire. At last, she had tangible leads, one stronger than the others. She had gathered a team, which was actually just one person, who was more interested in hunting an artifact that might be worth some prestige or money rather than finding the actual Fountain of Youth. All that remained was to gather the funds. She had exhausted her grants and even many of her own assets with all her traveling. She was one of the Academy’s best professors. That was probably why she had not yet lost her position, though she had earned no recent grants and authored no recent papers.
Finding the Cup would save her job. But for Taryn, that was the least it could do.
After her talk, Taryn waited by the table where she had arrayed some of the artifacts she had gathered on her search for the Cup of Youth. They had redeemed her somewhat in her boss’s eyes. Students approached the table and some colleagues and a few walk-ins. Her talks were popular. She had a voluntary sign-in sheet for those who might want her to get in touch. But there was no way to tell if there were any potential patrons out there in the audience.
She was to learn the answer the next day when she was visited during her office hours by a young woman who looked to be the age of a typical Academy student, but whose bearing signified a professional. She was dressed impeccably in a skirt suit with a satin blue blouse. Her hair was cut in a sharp modern bob. Even her glasses frames were a stylish maroon. She had a folio tucked under one arm. As there were currently no students in the office, she asked if she could have a moment of Taryn’s time.
The woman’s name was Jasmina. And she had come on behalf of her husband, Horace Magnavell. Taryn recognized the name. He was the founder of Magnavell Enterprises and Acquisitions, known in common parlance as Magenta. The thriving young company was known for many an innovation and invention. What they were not known for was an interest in the past. But something from the past that promised eternal youth…that would be right in Magenta’s wheelhouse.
Jasmina asked a lot of the questions that Taryn had been hoping to get in her lackluster talk from the previous night. The more they spoke, the more the young woman began to look familiar. Taryn remembered. She had blended in with the other students, sitting in back, taking notes on a tablet. But she’d been wearing the same striking glasses. And they did not blend in so well.
“Is there any connection between the Cup and fountains legends and the River of Renewal myth?” Jasmina asked.
Taryn was familiar with the myth of the river that flowed through the underworld. “Those were healing waters.”
“What is it that you said the cup or cups were made of?”
“The cup is described as being made of some kind of beautiful material like stone and metal that is delicate, yet near-unbreakable, with a subtle iridescence that reflects all colors. I couldn’t find a name for it. I’ve been calling it diachronite.”
Jasmina smiled and wrote down the word.
“How does the cup work?”
Taryn shook her head. “I don’t know. However it works, if it works, it would be like magic to us.”
“Do you believe an ancient device could be ahead of our current technology?”
“Technology is not my field. I don’t know what I’ll find when I follow my leads. I’ve found lots of cups so far. All of them fake.”
“Or maybe the Cup isn’t real. Why are you convinced that it is?”
Taryn laughed and shook her head at herself. “I can no better explain that than I can explain how the Cup works.”
Jasmina put her tablet in her folio and rose. She reached out a hand. Taryn rose as well and shook the young woman’s hand.
“My husband is interested in funding your expedition. He had a condition however. He would like to come along. As would I.”
Taryn blinked. She couldn’t believe what she’d heard. She’d thought her answers to Jasmina’s questions were dissatisfactory. “Excuse me?”
Jasmina repeated herself. “If you can accept that condition, contact me and we’ll start preparing for the trip.” She handed Taryn her business card.
Taryn took the card. “I accept.”
While Taryn was excited about finally finding a Cup of Youth, her excitement shifted a bit when she met the dynamic Man Behind Magenta. He was one of the richest people in the world. A flashy public personality. But a quiet and hands-on kind of boss (according to the magazine articles). He was a tinkerer from an early age. And an artist, drawing concepts and designs. He was Taryn’s age, perhaps a bit younger. He was certainly almost twice the age of his young wife, but despite that, Horace Magnavell didn’t look like he needed the Fountain of Youth. He had no gray yet in his dark wavy hair. No character-giving wrinkles in his face. He had an olive-skinned glow of energy that was heightened by the crisp steel blue suit he wore for the plane ride over to the Old World.
Jasmina looked like a student again with her purple hoodie, neon blue-trimmed sneakers, and backpack. The fourth member of their team was one of Taryn’s oldest friends. And one of those types of guys who knew how to fly small airplanes, speak dozens of languages and dialects, and drink people under the table.
“Chase Raine,” he said, winking to the stiff and serious bodyguards as he shook hands with the Magnavells. They politely didn’t comment on his name, but he replied to the unexpressed curiosity anyway with the usual. “My…parents.” He shook his head and shrugged.
They boarded the Magnavell’s personal jet, yet another cause for Taryn to gape in glee, and took off for Europe.
“We won’t have to go traipsing through some jungle and into a booby-trapped cave to get it,” Taryn said. “But the area is forested, so helicopters can’t land. It will be a long drive and a long walk to a remote town where no one speaks any major language.” She turned to Chase. “So we’ll need for you to speak to the translator we pick up in the city who knows to speak the town’s dialect.”
Horace—he had insisted they call him Horace—was bent over paper maps of the region they would be visiting. “What will you do with the Cup once you’re finished studying it?” he asked Taryn.
“Assuming I ever finish,” Taryn said. “Maybe someday humanity can take advantage of the Cup and its powers, responsibly. We shouldn’t just move forward full steam ahead because we have the Cup. We have to think of the consequences of using it, especially if we are able to replicate its powers. What would be the consequence of having an ever-youthful population? And if it fell into the wrong hands, we have to think about how criminals could escape capture by disguising themselves as their younger selves. How they could continue a life of full-intensity crime for who knows how long. There are also questions about the nature of Cup’s powers. Does the Cup leave us mortal? Would we continue to age and die but only look young?”
Taryn peered down at her hands, folded on her lap. “For some this would be a boon, but others, those who grow stronger as they grow older, might consider it a curse.” She looked at Horace, who was staring at her expectantly.
“Would you mind if I took a sip?” he asked. “It’s not a condition of the trip. But I’m curious.”
Jasmina’s eyes widened. “Were you not paying attention right now to Doctor Langley’s big speech about consequences?”
“I’ll just pour a bit in the cup, transfer it to a bowl, drink, and see what happens.”
Jasmina winced. “Diarrhea will happen. If you’re lucky.”
Taryn couldn’t stifle a chuckle. “It doesn’t work that way. The liquid has to be drunk directly from the cup.”
Horace shrugged his eyebrows. “May I?”
Jasmina shook her head. “No, you don’t. What if it’s poison? You don’t know where that cup has been. Or what’s been put in it.”
Taryn affected a deep voice. “Your Honor, the incident was classified as ‘accidental exposure in the field’ due to overzealousness of the researcher.”
“In other words,” Chase said. “Someone got greedy and took a drink right then and there.”
“Youth doesn’t necessarily mean good health.” Horace took a sip of ordinary water from his bottle. “But it does mean good looks.”
“Some of the fountain of youth legends mention bathing in the waters,” Jasmina said. “Did you learn anything about that in regards to the Cup? Can you only drink, or can you pour it on your skin? And if you did that, how far down would it penetrate? Would the skin be young but the bones under it be older?”
Taryn sighed. “I did find a few mentions of one of the Cup’s qualities. The quantity of liquid seems to be related to the quantity of time. You can’t just chug whatever you put in it. Just a sip of water might throw you back fifty years.”
“What if you haven’t yet lived fifty years?”
Taryn shrugged. “Maybe you would disappear.”
“What if you filled the cup with wine?” Chase asked. “Or whiskey?”
Jasmina adjusted her glasses. “Milk…what does milk do?”
Taryn laughed and held up her hand. “I don’t know! I aim to find out, but it will be a delicate undertaking. There was one account I read where the Cup’s powers were not without a price. You couldn’t get something for nothing. If someone drank from the Cup and gained youth, someone else would lose youth. And that someone else would be the previous drinker.”
“The last person who drank from it would grow old when the next person drinks from it,” Horace said, nodding in understanding.
“The cup connects the drinkers,” Taryn said. “It stands outside of time, untouched by corrosion or decay. But we do not.”
“Yikes, that’s rough. Sounds like a vampiric relay,” Chase said.
Jasmina looked thoughtful. “So if that curse is true…there is no such thing as eternal youth?”
“Youth is innocent,” Taryn said. “Eternity is not. What do you think?”
Taryn knew there would be no swash-buckling involved in acquiring the Cup. No solving of riddles. No battling an empty suit of armor. No trying to get past some immense mythical beast. Still, it was surreal how easily it came into their possession. The most difficult part of the whole thing was the driving and walking, especially in the freezing late autumn day.
With a double translation going on, Taryn couldn’t get much more than the gist of what had happened. The man who was selling the Cup to Horace had found it among the ruins of his family home, where no one had lived for half a century following a local border skirmish. He had just inherited the house and had searched it from top to bottom for any precious family tokens or any items he could sell before having the house torn down and selling the land as well. Horace had tried to explain to the man that the Cup was a precious artifact. He asked if the man was sure he wanted to sell it. The man seemed to want nothing to do with the Cup. He waved it away and eyed Horace’s black-suited bodyguards with what looked like an expression of disgust.
He only smiled when Horace shook his hand and told him how much money he would be paying for the Cup. It was, from the shocked look on the man’s face, more than the man was expecting. And so he hesitated when Horace asked one last time if he truly wanted to part with the Cup. Taryn found it all agonizing. She hoped the man wouldn’t try to extort more money out of the billionaire’s already-generous offer. She didn’t think Horace would be willing to do what she’d done and spend all his worldly fortunes for the Cup. But finally, the deal was struck and the Cup was theirs.
Then everyone else took their turn to wait while Taryn inspected the Cup. She didn’t have to consult her notes. She knew it was the one. But she checked her notes anyway and confirmed. If that Cup wasn’t one of the Cups of Youth, then Taryn didn’t know what could be. The diachronite material shown even through the layers of build-up from whatever had been dripping onto the Cup. There were rust stains and some white crusty material on the handle. But Taryn had a feeling that even if they used the most abrasive means to remove the rust and crust, the cup beneath would remain unscathed. There were what appeared to be veins of silvery metal running through the cup. And surprisingly it smelled somewhat of lavender. This detail was in no accounts of the Cups of Youth. But it was a detail that was found in the Fountain of Youth legends.
Taryn was loathe to pack the Cup away. She wanted to start studying it then and there. But she packed it away in the molded padded case they had brought for it. It was afternoon. They started back to the city where they had booked lodgings for the night. And they would fly back home the next day. The others spoke of what they would have for dinner later that night. But Taryn had no appetite. She sat in the back seat, a blanket draped over her legs, staring out of the window at the passing trees, day-dreaming about the Cup of Youth.
She was still staring and day-dreaming less than an hour later when the car suddenly jerked forward, made a terrible screeching noise, like twisting metal, and stopped.
Taryn didn’t feel panic. She was with three other people, for one thing. And they were three competent and calm people. They all piled out of the car. Horace began looking at maps. Chase opened the hood and began looking at the car. Jasmina opened the trunk and went searching for tools. It was still light out and would be for a few more hours. Taryn pulled out her phone, though she knew it was futile. She looked at it anyway and confirmed that there was no reception. She was just thinking of checking on the Cup and then fetching some of the hot tea they had bottled up in thermoses before leaving the town, when she heard a bang.
At first, she thought the car had backfired. She ran to the front of the car to make sure Chase hadn’t blow his hand off trying to fix something he didn’t know how to fix.
When everyone came into view, when she saw what had happened, Taryn gasped. She dropped her phone and put her hands to her mouth.
Horace Magnavell was lying on the ground. His coat and the jacket beneath were splayed open. Jasmina was bent over him, pressing a towel to his chest, where a stain of red was growing. Chase stood behind her, pointing a gun at the couple.
Taryn dropped her hands from her mouth. “Chase! What are you doing!”
With his left hand, he pointed to the gun-wielding right. “This is his. I’ve been watching, Taryn, trying to make sure this guy was on the up and up. You were so close to what you wanted, you would probably have trusted the devil if he came up and made you a bargain. So it was up to me to watch.” He glanced up at Taryn. “We weren’t supposed to be coming back with them. They were going to leave us here for dead. And they were going to take the Cup from you. That’s all they needed from you. The location of the Cup.”
Taryn felt a spinning in her head from the impossibility of what was happening. She closed her eyes tight and opened them, trying to steady herself. “Why did you shoot him if you had his gun?”
Chase kept his gun trained on the Magnavells. “He’s got a satellite phone. I watched them load it onto the plane. It’s got to be in the car somewhere. He probably wasn’t going to use the gun. Why do that when you can make it look like a tragic accident? The car breaks down. He calls in his goons to come pick them up while we’re sleeping in the car. They wouldn’t have to kill us if we freeze to death.” As he said it a light snow began to fall.
Taryn looked down at Horace. He’d passed out, despite Jasmina’s efforts to keep him awake. Jasmina was sobbing. Her shoulders hitched and she seemed to be struggling to calm her breathing.
“The Cup,” Jasmina said. “Taryn please…”
Taryn rushed to the trunk and took out the Cup. She grabbed a bottle of water and ran to the front of the car, dropping to her knees beside Horace. “It’ll make him young again,” she said, pouring water into the Cup. “But it won’t heal him.”
“Drink,” Jasmina said, holding the cup up to his lips, tears streaming down her cheeks. “Having a younger body will give him a better chance to survive the wound.”
“No! Not if he’s too young.” Taryn held her hand over the cup. “If he drinks too much and becomes a boy, he’ll die all the sooner. We just have to go and get him to a hospital.”
Jasmina pressed the cloth against the wound on Horace’s chest. “How? Even if the car worked, we’re too far away.”
“Pour it on the wound,” Taryn said. She began to unbutton Horace’s shirt.
Jasmina’s shoulders still shuddered, but she nodded. “Shouldn’t we see if the bullet went through?”
“If it didn’t and if this works, he can have it removed later.” Taryn didn’t know if that was true. She only knew that he was still losing blood and they had to stop it somehow.
Jasmina nodded and poured the water on the torn up flesh. They watched as blood slowly continued to pulse out.
“Oh no,” Jasmina breathed. She threw her body over Horace.
The wound didn’t miraculously knit itself back together again from the inside out. Taryn took the bloody rag from Jasmina and pressed it against the wound with both hands, trying to think of what to do next.
She heard the familiar sound of an engine starting and looked up to see Chase coming out of the driver’s side, the gun now in his left hand and pointed in her general direction.
“You see?” Chase said. “It works.” He stepped forward and pointed the gun at the prone Jasmina.
Taryn raised one of her hands toward him. “Don’t! You can get away now. You don’t have to. You can leave us here.”
“I’m not leaving you.” He raised his gun. “And I do have to. Otherwise, she’ll never stop coming after me. And neither will the rest of the world, because she’ll tell them what happened here.”
Where is his security?
The thought popped into Taryn’s mind as it struggled to catch up to what was happening.
Horace’s bodyguards? Where did they go?
They always insisted on having at least one guard in the vehicle with Horace.
Taryn frowned. She would deal with that mystery later. Now, she had to stop Chase from shooting Jasmina. “Do me a favor, and call someone to come help us when you’ve gotten to safety.”
“Come with me now, Taryn. Or I will leave you.”
“Then you’ll have to leave me.”
He took a measured breath. “I can’t leave you alive, though.”
“What? Why not?”
“I don’t want you to suffer freezing to death and you will freeze if I leave you here.”
Taryn’s heart was set to burst. Her eyes were filming with tears. She was going to die, at the hands of a dear friend. How had it happened?
Where are the bodyguards?
“We could say it was an accident,” Taryn said, and now she was sobbing. “Right, Jasmina? If she agrees to that, will you let us get into the car and drive us back to the city? We’ll take…we’ll take Horace to the hospital.”
“He’s not awake to agree to that bargain.”
“Where are his bodyguards, Chase! Did you kill them too!” Taryn rose. “Where’s the other car? Where’s the bodyguard that should be in the car with him?” She couldn’t believe it, but she reached forward and grabbed his gun hand. “This can’t be real!” She looked at him, shaking more with fury than fear. “You’re not Chase.”
Chase stared at her. He lowered the gun.
“How did you know?”
The question came from behind her. She didn’t turn, not trusting if Chase was really standing down. But the expression on his face was the usual tender and teasing one. She turned and was far too drained to be shocked when she saw Horace standing there, unscathed.
“Is this a dream?” Taryn asked. “I want to wake up.”
Taryn woke. She knew she was awake. She felt it. She opened her eyes. It was dark, but there was some light from the car headlights. She was in the back seat. There was a blanket over her legs. She looked to her left and saw Jasmina beside her, sleeping. In the driver’s seat and the front passenger seat were two of Horace’s staff. A driver and a bodyguard. They were both sleeping. And she realized that the car seemed to be tilted forward just a bit. She couldn’t see the second car. The one that was supposed to be behind them. Horace and Chase were in that car. She got out. She pushed down the panic. There were at least three other people there with her, but they weren’t really there. They were asleep. And she had been asleep.
Her group’s car had tilted forward into a little ditch by the side of the road. The other car was better off. It was stopped in the middle of the road. And the lights were off. Taryn didn’t want to approach it, but she did. She had a penlight in her purse and she swept its light through the car’s cabin. She saw the four men she expected to see in the car. All asleep.
She tried to shake the occupants of her car awake. One of them might have the keys to the other car. But they didn’t wake. Even with hard shaking, slaps, and pinches. She had a feeling in the pit of her stomach, an idea of what might have caused the sleeping and the nightmare. She’d been so eager to see it before. But now she didn’t want to look.
The Cup. Did we all drink?
She searched the trunk, found the case where she had put the Cup. She opened it and there was the Cup. It looked the same, only it was clean now. No rust, crust, or dust. She looked into the Cup, but didn’t see any signs of moisture. But they could have wiped it down before putting it away.
When did we drink? Why did we drink?
It was cold, but not as cold as it had been in her nightmare. She had time to try and wake them. She wasn’t strong enough to pull the driver out of the car and put him into the back. And even if she could manage it, and manage to drive back to the city, the second car was still behind them, with no one to drive it.
She climbed back in and closed the door. She turned to Jasmina and noticed for the first time that the young woman was smiling. Whatever she was dreaming about, it was pleasant. She checked the men in the front, but their expressions seemed fairly blank, though one of them did seem to sigh contentedly. She had an idea.
She began to whisper in Jasmina’s ear…
They all woke. When Taryn talked to their sleeping forms, and told them they were dreaming, it hadn’t worked. But when she started narrating nightmares, and only then told them it wasn’t real and they needed to wake up, they began to wake.
After shaking off grogginess and disorientation, they heeded Taryn’s urging to return to the city before trying to sort out what had happened. No one slept that night. They gathered in the grand suite that was for Horace and Jasmina and they sorted it out as best they could.
At first, Taryn was the only one who insisted the Cup of Youth was the culprit. She woke first, and was the first to remember. She remembered drinking from the Cup. Horace just thought they had been drugged. To what end, he couldn’t say.
“Do you think if we try to drive back to the town it would still be there?” Chase asked. “I mean what the hell did that old man do to us?”
Taryn shook her head. “I don’t know if he was involved, or if he knew about the Cup and just neglected to tell us. But he didn’t make us drink.”
“Then why did we drink?” Jasmina asked.
“The legends say we were never supposed to touch the Cups, never even know they existed,” Taryn said. “Maybe all of it…my growing obsession, all of us being compelled to drink, it was like we were drawn into a trap. Like this was some kind of…self-defense. By all rights, we were probably supposed to keep sleeping until someone found us, or until we died of starvation.”
“I don’t understand something,” Horace said. “The rest of us were like the lotus-eaters, having happy fantasies. Why did you have a horror show?”
“Maybe it’s because she’s tougher than the rest of us, and her mind was strong enough to figure out she wasn’t conscious,” Chase said. He winked at her.
Taryn bowed her head in reply.
“I just want to point out the elephant in the room,” Horace said. “For having drunk from the Cup of Youth, none of us looks any younger.”
“Maybe it’s not a Cup of Youth,” Taryn said. “Maybe there really is no such thing.”
Chase glanced at the locked case containing the cup. “Then what is it we found?”
“A Cup of Illusion.”
Copyright © 2015 by Nila L. Patel.