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CHAPTER 2 - Chucks Cottage

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Adventure is an enthusiastic perception of ones activities and experiences.

 

 

Folding the vomit into the pillowcase, Wendell looked for a place to…deposit the mess.

Opening the dresser drawers, he dropped the bundle of hot goo into the first empty one he found and slid it shut.

“Right. I’m alone, I can’t trust anyone,” he stared at himself in the mirror, his fingers gripping the edges of the dresser, “…and I’m going to remain vulnerable and needy as long as I’m ignorant.” The image in the mirror nodded agreement, “Which means question asking is your new priority.”

The unexpected sound of a toilet flushing in the next room jolted Wendell from his personal pep talk.

Ears twitching, he could hear a ‘flap’ ‘flap’ ‘flap’ sound rolling across the wall…and then silence. When Wendell heard a long, deep burp from the other side of the door, he pounced to fling it open.

“Woah!” he flinched.

“AHH!” Dax yelped, followed by a nasty scowl. “What the crap is wrong with you, kid? Always screamin’ and jumpin’ in people faces! Can’t you open a door like a normal person?”

Wendell gulped, “S-sorry.”

Dax was dripping wet, in a towel that could have wrapped around his entire body…twice. It was all bunched at his waist.

Clearly annoyed, he added, “Shower’s free.” Leaning in, he sniffed loudly and wrinkled his nose, “You need it.”

Dax pointedly stuffed a cigar into his mouth before turning his floppy feet down the hall and waddling away.

Amused, Wendell just watched Dax drag the towel out of view and shook his head.

Whatever.

Getting to know the little monster was going to be a challenge.

Why did the High Council have to make him my guardian?

Wendell’s concerns and line of thought were overcome, however, by something all too familiar.

He sniffed the air.

Mmmmmmmm

A mouth-watering aroma of fried bacon filled the hallway making his stomach grumble.

Food!

That was all the invitation he needed to quietly follow his nose to the carpeted stairs.

Wendell was comforted to see that this house, or wherever he was, looked ‘normal’ to him. There was no stone or torches about him. Even the wall wrapping around the stairs looked like any other house he’d find back home. It was plastered with pictures. Dozens of wood and metal frames displaying cute snapshots of people and events.

Excessive, maybe, but still normal. Earth-like.

Wendell frowned, But I’m not on Earth.

There was one in particular, of the old wizard, that caught his eye.

Chuck was holding an ugly baby, with enormous pointy ears, tugging on the long grey beard. Both were smiling. Well, Chuck seemed to be in a moderate amount of pain from the rough yanking of his facial hair, but he still looked happy.

Wendell smirked at that.

Slowing his descent, his eyes rolled from one photo to the next.

Most of them were of the wizard and someone else. He was easy to recognize because he was always in a robe and pointy hat, whether it was white or shades of grey and he couldn’t mistake that crazy long beard.

“So many people,” he admired. Hundreds of different smiling faces beamed back at him.

Wendell was able to identify the High Elder, his son, Shea…and even Dax in multiple settings. But that’s where the weird photo’s began.

There were dragons and great serpents wrapped around the wizards neck and body, great cats so big they looked more like horses than felines. Wendell leaned in closer to study a picture of Chuck standing next to a giant so big, the wizard one reach the ankle bone of the creature.

How many people does this guy know? he wondered.

There were pictures of Chuck in formal dress, smiling while accepting awards, and photos of him standing on a field of battle in a pose of glory—his sandaled foot on a vallen’s chest. Another displayed nearly a dozen other wizards, all with their pointy hats and robes in various colors, sitting around a table, laughing enjoying drinks.

The staircase finally ended…opening up into the living room and…

Wendell skidded to a halt.

No way! “How is this…even possible?” he stammered out loud.

Mounted on the center wall was a theater system, complete with the largest flat screen television Wendell had ever seen. Speakers were mounted on either side of the screen as well as in each corner of the room. Right below the TV were several video game systems and a library of games to go with it.

Wendell gasped at the setup and laughed to himself.

Sooo…Who’s place is this? Pictures say Chuck. Games say…Dax maybe?

“Oh, yeah. Uh-HUH!” came a voice and Wendell glanced behind him.

Along the opposite wall as a rather large archway, leading into a beautiful kitchen.

The old wizard was busy cooking, in a rather unusual way, with a tiny cord hanging from each ear.

“Yeah, baby…let’s DO this!” he sang aloud to himself, adding a nod and rhythmic shake of his hips. The abnormally long beard and mustache were stuffed into the pocket of a blue denim apron. Wielding a spatula in each hand, he flipped pancakes into a deep pan resting beside him and tossed hash browns about with the other.

Surprisingly, the old guy was pretty spry and Wendell bit his lips together not to laugh. Though his stomach growled fiercely, Wendell didn’t want to be rude and interrupt the wizards…moment.

At least not until he got a better look around.

The letter created an itch in the back of Wendell’s mind—one he decided not to ignore. It had only been days since he arrived. He didn’t know these people, regardless of how nice they seemed.

That meant being cautious.

Unnoticed, Wendell turned back to the living room to take a closer look.

Is this all for real?

Everything reminded him of home, especially the grand piano in the bay window. Maybe not this exact house, of course, but the carpet, the games, a TV, even the furniture—it was all stuff he saw during a typical day on Earth.

It’s so different from how the High Elder lives. Nothing like that Bedur-place we had the meeting in. Hmph.

Which reminded him—he was going to have to memorize some of these names before he looked like a fool.

He stopped to pick at some of the magazines lying across the coffee table.

Wizard’s Day?

Monster Mystery Mayhem?

Better Shacks and Gardens?

Gnome Geographic?

Fruit gardens, fire breathing creatures and models in static poses smiled from the glistening covers. Wendell scratched his head, confused.

None of this was what he had expected.

I thought there’d be cauldrons or vials of who-knows-what dead things lying around. Maybe stacks of ancient books and cobweb filled corners…not a flat screen TV with surround sound, indoor plumbing and…and…

But he paused in that thought.

Not everything looked so 21st Century Earth.

A great stone fireplace carved a timeless niche in this modern room.

Well what do we have here?

The artful masonry reached out to mold itself around the base of a bark-less tree on either side. Wendell couldn’t tell which was here first, the trees or the house—the trunks rose up through the foundation, piercing through the ceiling. In between the two posts was a robust wood mantle that the trees supported between them. Smaller branches reaching out, weaving their seemingly fragile limbs along the subtle curves and grooves of the mantle, giving the impression of embracing rather than supporting it.

Blinking, Wendell lifted his hand to the thin shadows in its twisted fibers.

There, hiding in the surface of the wood, were the smiling faces and dancing figures of tiny creatures.

They looked familiar to Wendell—something he’d read in children’s books.

Fairies and sprites.

Each figure was present, frolicking within a deep forest, brought out in the natural growth of the plant. The scene whispered to him of a happy time long past, but not forgotten.

Are these creatures real as well?

Then Wendell noticed it.

Sitting alone on the mantel was a small family portrait.

The size alone explained why he’d nearly missed it, but the color of delicate frame helped it blend into its surroundings.

Unlike the mantle and elaborate decorations surrounding the picture, its frame was simple, clean, with straight lines. No clutter or distractions to take away from the smiling faces it held.

Wendell stepped closer, squinting to make out the figures displayed and recognized the man as a much younger Chuck.

There was no crazy beard or mustache to divert your attention from the penetrating gaze and an expression of complete and total joy. His arms were wrapped protectively around a beautiful woman.

Elegant in posture and expression, something about her was warm and inviting. Her long hair, woven with pearls, rested peacefully across a bare shoulder. Enchanted with an infant in her arms, she radiated the glow of an adoring mother. The baby was smiling, tiny hands gripping its mother’s fingers.

The couple looked as if their greatest dreams had come true.

Love. Family. Happiness.

Wendell smiled.

Somehow, this felt like a very personal, intimate photo. He swallowed and quickly looked away.

His thoughts went again to his own parents. It was a feeling that he was familiar with.

Wendell worked his way around the room so that he could run his fingers over the piano. It had been a long time since Wendell last played. The memories threatened to overwhelm him after his father passed away. But there was a time when he expressed himself best at the piano.

Wendell glanced at the kitchen door again, where he could still hear Chuck humming to himself.

It was a beautiful glossy black, polished so fine Wendell could see his reflection in its luster. Quietly, he lifted the lid and let his hand rest on the cool, bumpy surface. The lid prop was up, though there wasn’t any music.

Pulling out the bench, he sat down.

Mom loved music and dad couldn’t sing, so he’d spent twenty years loving to play for her. Wendell learned to play, at first, to spend time with dad…and then to comfort mom when dad was gone.

It was a bitter sweet talent.

When Wendell looked up, he was very surprised to meet the gaze of Kyliene. On the wall next to the piano was a picture of Chuck, of course, with Moira, Caleb, and Kyliene. The photo was obviously taken a couple years ago, but her smiling eyes and dimples were still the same.

There she was, staring at Wendell with that perfect smile, captured and framed in glass.

He leaned forward and caressed the frame with his finger.

Taking a long, deep breath, he looked down at the piano. With both hands, his fingers softly stroked the ivory keys. Then, finding their place, he slowly pressed a sad chord. He sat motionless, expecting the sadness to dissipate with the fading echo.

It didn’t.

And he was glad.

In that moment Wendell didn’t know what else to do, but play.

At first, it was frustrating. His fingers felt fat and awkward, foreign to this instrument as they moved up the keyboard. But then, gently, her melody filled his mind, swelling in his chest and the music coursed through him.

He closed his eyes, filling the room with a richness and bittersweet joy. He followed the melody, pouring out his heart and his frustration. Letting the tender music swell inside him, it poured out his fingers, until with one last reprise and an evocative minor chord it stopped short.

Sighing, Wendell rested his hands in his lap while staring down at the piano.

Kyliene is gone.

He was done.

“That was beautiful, son,” said Chuck, startling Wendell. The wizard stood over him, wiping his hands on a small towel. He gave Wendell a kind smile, like a grandfather might give. “It may seem impossible, but there’s going to come a day when the pain will make sense. Hungry?”

Wendell nodded.

“Then come on, my boy. Breakfast’s waiting!”

Wendell smirked, “It’s afternoon.”

“Bah—any time is the right time for breakfast,” chimed the wizard. He squinted at Wendell, “You’re not one of those irritating…put-my-life-in-a-neat-tidy-little-box-so-I-can-look-normal-to-everyone-else types are you?” He paused, then poked Wendell in the shoulder with a boney finger, “Cause you won’t find any of that ‘normal’ stuff around here, I can tell you that!”

Wendell wasn’t sure whether to laugh or retreat—the wizard looked so serious.

“No, no!” he finally raised his hands in surrender, “Breakfast is my favorite meal!”

Chucks face exploded into a grin, “Great! Then let’s eat!”

Dax was already sitting at the table, plate piled high with pancakes, bacon, sausage, hash browns, cheese and honey.

Wendell sighed loud in relief. “It’s comforting to see you eating normal…people food. Instead of people…” he jested.

“What?” responded Dax, syrup drooling from his mouth onto his plate.

“You know…people? Like me? When you grabbed me from Earth? I thought you were going to eat me?”

A sausage link fell from Dax’s mouth. Looking over to Chuck in shock, the wizard shrugged back.

“EWW!” he grunted, pancake and scrambled egg bits popping out, “Are you serious? What kinda freak ARE you, kid? That’s just…sick!” With a flick of his wrist, Dax scooted his plate further away from Wendell.

“Never mind,” Wendell grumbled as he sat down.

Letting his hunger take over, he eagerly filled his plate with pancakes, three different types of sausages, blueberry muffins, ham, hash browns, sourdough toast and eggs…which were fixed just about any way you could imagine.

“Hope this is ok,” chimed the wizard, “I had no idea what you liked, but you were asleep…so I just made whatever we had.”

“We need to find more strays if were gonna eat this good,” grunted Dax, shoving another pancake into his maw.

Wendell smiled ignoring the sarcasm. “This is fantastic. Thank you very much” A few bites later, his stomach was content enough that he could think of something other than food.

He had questions. Lots of them. But he wasn’t sure of where to begin. Looking from Chuck to Dax, Wendell decided to load his fork instead.

I’ll just wait for an opportunity later.

“Did you read the letter, son?” Chuck asked politely.

Wendell swallowed hard, …orrr now.

Chewing his food slowly, Wendell shook his head sheepishly. “I…,” he didn’t feel comfortable putting all his cards on the table. Not just yet. “…didn’t have the nerve,” he lied. Averting his eyes, he grabbed the jam to put on his toast. “It wasn’t meant for me…so it felt too weird,” which wasn’t a total lie, “like invading someone’s privacy.”

The last part was true, anyway.

Chuck raised one of his bushy white eyebrows. He watched Wendell for a time, silently, while he sipped his coffee. 

“Alright,” he said, pointing his long, bony finger. “But it could contain valuable information.” He paused again, watching Wendell, until the young hero looked up and smiled awkwardly at him. “Set it aside for the day, if you must—but make sure you read it before we meet with the Council again.”

It wasn’t a suggestion.

“Yes, sir,” he answered, but Wendell wasn’t so sure. He made a mental note to avoid the topic for as long as possible—at least until he got to know the old man. Get some questions answered.

The meeting with the High Council had ended with quite an explosion…all revolving around Chuck. Though it was apparent he was well respected, there were serious reservations about him…even concerns. Why was that?

Why was the Council so uptight when they discovered this wizard would have a direct hand in training me?

Wendell glanced at Chuck as the old man helped himself to a waffle.

Should I be worried? he pondered, though not nervously. There was something about this man that put Wendell at ease…and with all that had happened since his arrival to this world, that was a good thing.

“So, are we in…” he let the question trail off as he took another bite. Wendell waited for either of them to fill in the blank.

Both Chuck and Dax paused, looking up at him,…but they said nothing.

Wendell didn’t want to admit that he didn’t remember exactly where he was. He even waved his hands around trying to gesture to the house all around them, but it didn’t help.

Eyebrows went up on both faces.

Ugh! Fine. “Chucks house?” he asked politely.

“This place? Oh, well,” the wizard hesitated, wobbling his head back and forth, considering, “you could say I’m…the estate manager. Not the actual owner.” He looked to Dax, who only shrugged, “Yes. That’s sounds about right.”

Ok, whatever. “And this house is in…?” Wendell waited again for them to fill in the part he didn’t know.

“In what?” Chuck leaned in, curious as to what Wendell was going to say next.

Wendell finally sighed. “Where are we? Earth?”

“Don’t be stupid, kid,” grunted Dax, not even looking up. He shoveled a huge, greasy, oozing sausage into his mouth, whole.

Taken aback, Wendell frowned.Someone got up on the wrong side of the bed this morn…afternoon.” What is this guys problem? Wendell shifted his attention back to Chuck. “Well, where then? All your stuff looks like it’s from Earth,” he said defensively.

“Tsk. Tsk. Tsk,” Chuck clicked his tongue disapprovingly. “That’s small minded thinking! We’re going to have to do something about that.”

Wendell looked at the wizard blankly, “I don’t understand.”

Chuck smiled, “Life’s too big, with no end of people, son. Unlimited planets with unlimited lifeforms. Don’t you know there’s no such thing as an original idea?” He winked at Wendell, “Did you actually think that the only people with a knowledge or development of electronics, indoor plumbing and reality TV shows was Earth?”

“Well, I…”

“People throughout the galaxy have discovered the pleasures of skiing, the polka, and the disturbing wardrobe pictures they can take on their smartphones at the local Walmart.”

Wendell choked on his coffee. Walmart? You’ve got to be kid…

Chuck waved a hand wildly, “Besides…I happen to know a few of the right gnomes.”

“Gnomes? Really?” Wendell chuckled at that. “I know some gnomes, myself. My grandma puts them in her flower gardens. What does that have to do with where we are?”

Dax chose that moment to grace Wendell with a very patronizing ‘that was so pathetic’ stare out of the corner of his eye.

Wendell shifted in his seat. What? I thought it was funny.

Chuck tied a napkin around his neck and beard and pulled a large plate of pancakes under his nose. “This estate is in the central forest of Erimūri.”

“We’re in a forest?” Wendell didn’t remember seeing a forest when he looked over the valley yesterday. He had seen a beautiful, large city and, of course, the orchards beyond that.

Of course, when he’d left the meeting last night, it had been late…and dark. the ride home was foggy at best. He could see huge trees through the kitchen window…so the pieces were starting to fit.

“Erimūri? Isn’t that the name of the whole community of this place? Of Sanctuary? It means…” he recalled the conversation with Moira, “…flower, right?” It was hard to believe that so many life altering things happened just yesterday. It seemed like such a long time ago that he was walking through the sweet smelling orchards with Kyliene and her grandmother. But the memories of yesterday were still sharp as razor blades. “No,” he corrected himself, “it means Desert Flower.”

“Well done!”  cheered the wizard “You’re already catching on.”

Wendell refrained from rolling his eyes.

Dax swallowed two eggs and burped loudly.

Soooo, what’s the plan now?” Wendell blurted out, frowning at the goblin. The Council had talked about the next course of action last night, but Wendell had missed so much. Names he didn’t understand, and there was a great deal of conversation in which he was ignored. “We’re waiting for that elder to rest a bit, before Dax takes some of the Council to…” What’s the name of that place? Too much had happened in too short a length of time for him to have retained every detail, “…the other…Prime Gate,” he amended.

“In Tämä-Un,” growled Dax, bits of meat and melted fat still dripping from his mouth. He gave Wendell an annoyed look and went back to gorging himself.

“Yeah. I’ll try and remember that,” replied Wendell. The jabs were wearing on him, especially coming from the very kidnapper that started this mess in the first place. “I am new here, you know.”

Dax shoved potatoes and half a pancake into his mouth. “Whatever,” he spat, pieces bouncing across the table.

Chuck cringed, flicking a bacon bit back at Dax with precision. the piece bounced off the Evolu’s cheek. “Don’t be disgusting.”

“How long do you think that will that take?” Wendell asked, also glaring at Dax. “Before the trip to this Tämä-Un place, I mean.”

The wizard sighed, “That’s a bit difficult to tell.”

“Why’s that?”

Chuck shrugged, “Well, the council likes to take advantage of many points of view. They’ll want to see what Elder, Tiell,” he emphasized for Wendell’s benefit, “saw before they risk traveling to the planet below. The best way to avoid interpretation, after all, is to see something for yourself. So, they’ll use their skills to draw the images from his mind for all to see. It’s a strenuous incantation—Tiell’s going to need his strength. That takes good old fashioned rest.”

Wendell quickly chewed and swallowed. “Ok, so…is there something I can be doing until then?”

“Ya mean, besides readin’ that letter from the last hero to the…new one?” Dax interjected snidely.

The wizard shot him a disapproving glance.

“Um, yeah…,” Wendell frowned, “besides that.” What a complete jerk.

“The High Council won’t wait too long, son. Vallen wandering around in Humär is no small matter.” Chuck chewed another bite of food, shaking a finger in Wendell’s direction. “Under King Robert’s rule, the kingdom of Andilain has always been peaceful.” His finger slowed as his eyebrows raised, a thought overtaking him. With a sudden slap on the table, he burst out, grinning wide.

“Field trip!”

Startled, Wendell and Dax both turned on him.

“What?!” they exclaimed in unison.

Chuck shrugged, staring straight at Wendell. “Well, you do look terrible.”

Dax stifled a laugh, pointing at Wendell’s hair. It was matted to one side of his head and looked like it exploded out the other.

“What I mean is, would you like some new clothes?” Now Wendell had to stifle a laugh because Chuck’s eye’s were as big as an expectant child…and he was nodding, too.

Embarrassed, he admitted, “If…that wouldn’t be too much trouble?” Wendell tried to comb his hair down with his fingers. Relieved, he looked down at his tunic, “This doesn’t really, well,…uh, it’s not what…I mean, I’m grateful and all for having something to wear, but…”

“What’r ya up to, ol’ man?” Dax cut in. Clearly suspicious, he glared at Chuck.

The wizard tapped his spoon on the table, “The Black Market!”

“Absolutely not!” snapped Dax. His thick, black eyebrows collided together and rolled forward on his wide forehead, looking like angry thunder clouds. “No field trips! He’s got a lot a learnin’ ta do - people, cultures, history. The Council told ya to teach him some useful history! Just put that thought right outta yer head.”

Chuck was completely undaunted by Dax’s reaction. “Why not? We have plenty of time. It’s the perfect place for a lesson or two and get some schooling in.”

“Yeah, see, I just graduated high school…,” Wendell complained, “Id’ like to avoid more, ‘schooling’ if you don’t mind…” but neither of them were paying any attention.

It was a stare-down.

“Well, anyway. I was just hoping to…” Wendell tried once more.

No luck.

“No!” snapped Dax again, his chair rocking back and forth from waving his hands in protest. “It’s too dangerous!”

“Well,…as his teacher, I say there’s no better place to give the boy a crash course in cultures or people, than going to—”

“It’s too dangerous I tell ya!” Dax bellowed. “And I may not be his teacher, but I am his guardian.”

“That’s right…papa Dax…”

“Don’t call me that!”

“Oh, I think it’s cute.”

“IT AIN’T CUTE!”

“Um, guys?” Wendell squeaked, “Go where?” Did they forget that I am sitting right here?

“Bah!” scoffed the wizard, “Going to the market is no more dangerous than any other visit. He’ll be fine. We’ll all be fine.” He looked at Wendell and winked, “I’m petty sure we’ll be fine.”

Pretty sure? Now we’re at pretty sure?

Dax stood up in his chair, which didn’t actually help his height much, and slammed his massive knuckles on the table. “Look, ol’ man, I may not like being stuck baby sittin’ this kid…but I’ll be damned if I’m gonna throw caution down the crapper! You wanna waltz him and that rock into a den o’ beasts? Yer a FOOL!”

What’s too dangerous?” asked Wendell even louder, his eyes now bouncing between the two of them. “What kind of beasts??”

Dax raised an eyebrow and tried not to move his lips…as if Wendell wouldn’t notice. “What about Thule?” he challenged through clenched teeth. “You know he’s looking, right?”

“HELLLO!! You DO know I’m right here?” bellowed Wendell, quickly feeling ticked off. “I can hear you!”

He hated being ignored.

Both looked at him and smiled…just a bit…too…big.

Wendell shook his head, disgusted. “Who’s this Thule?”

Dax stubbornly turned his head, refusing to answer.

Wendell focused his attention on the wizard, “Well?”

Chuck hesitated, strumming his fingers on the table as an uncomfortable silence crept in. It lasted so long, Wendell was beginning to think that the conversation was over. When Chuck finally spoke, his voice was guarded.

“The Black Market—which is what we’ve been talking about here—is a hidden community in, well,…actually, people don’t know where it is.”

Wendell sighed. “Ok, the Black Market. Fine. It’s an actual place? On Earth it’s more of a conceptual term. Anyway, what makes it so dangerous? And what are they selling? And if you don’t know where it is, how do you get there? And Thule? Why does that sound like something I should know about?”

“So many questions!” Chuck sounded exasperated. Before continuing, he shot a glance at Dax. “Just mind your own business and it’ll be plenty safe. I know a lot of good gypsies who live there.”

“HAH!” scoffed Dax.

This was all very confusing to Wendell and something was triggering his self-preservation mechanisms. The scary, green goblin, that was supposed to protect him was saying not to go—actually protecting him. The funny old wizard, which his gut wanted to believe, was practically begging, like it wasn’t a big deal at all.

At this point, Wendell only knew one thing for sure: if he could possibly help it, he was never again, going to let someone take him anywhere, or give him anything, without all the facts first.

Never!

That meant he needed more information.

“And……?” Wendell prodded Chuck to go on.

“Since all the races are welcome to trade, barter, and sell there,” Chuck cringed, watching Wendell carefully, “you might see a few lesssavorycreatureswanderingabout.”

It took a moment for the point to sink in, but when it did, Wendell turned purple, choking on his own spit.

“Woah, woah—do you mean to tell me that those, those, things, like the one that killed Kyliene? Those things are allowed into the Black Market?”

“You’re making too much of this, son,” Chuck said placatingly. He gave a huge grin. “He’ll be fine, Dax, as long as we keep an eye on him.”

“I’m making too much of this!?” Wendell squeaked, “They let killers wander free in this Black Market…and nobody cares?”

“Well of course they care. Don’t be daft. It’s not what you think,” the wizard argued, “You didn’t actually meet a vallen. That abomination was a demon spirit possessing a dead body. TOTALLY different. It’s completely…,” he paused, reconsidering, “unlikely to meet a possessed creature while we’re there. So it’ll be safe. Right?” He gave a singular nod, “Right.”

Reaching into one of his sleeves, Chuck fiddled around for a moment, before pulling out a small silver chain. It had a circular emblem attached to the end.

He handed it to Wendell.

“That is a port key. So long as you have one, you have a way to get in and out of the Market.”

Wendell looked closely at the small disc. It was roughly the size of a silver dollar. Inscribed on its tarnished surface was a circle encompassing twelve stars and two smaller spheres. Each of the stars were connected to the smallest circle by thin lines. Around the rim of the disc were strange markings. Unlike the rest of the disc, the marking sparkled, as if they were freshly etched into the metal.

As Wendell set the emblem down on the table between him and the wizard, he caught a glimpse of faint blue twinkling from the stars.

“I don’t see how that’s supposed to make me feel better?”

Chuck rolled his eyes. “The point, son, is that the port keys possessed by the dark races are far and few in between. Not everyone knows about the Market…and even fewer have the means to get there. They don’t give these out like candy. Keys are inherited, mostly. Some are sold, exchanged and on occasion, they get…lost.” He hesitated before muttering the last word.

Wendell frowned. “Lost?”

His questions were accumulating faster than the answers.

Dax grinned psychotically at Wendell and drew his finger across his  own throat. He added the sound effect, “Kkkkkk!”

The wizard threw his napkin at him. “It means there are dark races roaming the market, yes, but not many. The Gypsies have strict security. So any evil you’re likely to find, is of the greedy, selfish kind, which plagues every community…not the overly violent kind.”

Overly violent? What, there’s an acceptable level for violence now??

It worried Wendell that ‘evil’ was quickly becoming a common word in his conversations. However, it disturbed him even more that Chuck, Dax and even the Iskari High Council seemed to avoid one subject in particular.

“Who or what is Thule?” Wendell wasn’t going to let it go this time. “And don’t tell me it’s nothing,” he gave Dax a smirk, “I heard you mention the name to the High Elder.”

Dax choked on his coffee, spurting it over his plate and the table.

“Ahh,” Chuck breathed, his expression becoming serious. “Now that’s another matter altogether.”

“Tell me,” he insisted. “I want to know.”

The wizard stared back for a long moment, maybe to give him an opportunity to change his mind. Wendell held his gaze until Chuck nodded and pushed his plate back from the edge of the table.

“As you wish.”

Wendell waited as Chuck waved his hand and the coffee pot rose from the percolator. It floated across the kitchen and smoothly filled his mug with the hot liquid. The wizard waved it away and it returned to its original location. He grinned during the whole process.

Chuck leaned forward on his elbows, carefully wrapping his hands around the hot mug. Until now, his face looked old, but in the kind, grandfatherly sort of way. Wendell watched him as a worn expression fell across his countenance, which seemed to age the wizard a hundred years right before his eyes.

“Thule is the literal spawn of darkness, lusting for carnage and revenge.” Chuck spoke in a low, calm tone, picking his words with thoughtful deliberation. “Few have had the misfortune of meeting him and live to tell of the experience. We know him and judge him by the mischief and bloodshed that bear his mark.”

“Have you ever met him?” Wendell cut in.

The question must have shocked the wizard, because he flinched.

“I’ve met a lot of people I wish I hadn’t,” he said soberly, averting his eyes and staring into the mug. “The vallen tell a story of ‘The Cunning One’ whose blood lust began with hunting his own siblings. His father was not a loyal man, nor was he accountable for his infidelity. In Thule’s demented pursuit of singular endowment, he was not wholly successful. There is one he missed. One beyond his reach. Nevertheless, he earned his father’s favor.”

Chuck looked up from his coffee. “We’ve learned to be mindful of his movements. Some believe that Thule is responsible for the genocide of the Nocturi, a once bright and beautiful people. His flag was discovered, embedded in the altar of the Noctori’s most holy temple…along with the bodies of thousands.” His hands trembled and he paused to clench them tight. “Men, women…children.

“Since those devastating days, nearly 200 years ago, Thule has become more methodical, more organized and more dangerous.”

Wendell choked, “200 years!? You mean he’s…,” but his voice trailed off and he held up a hand, “Never mind. Don’t answer that.” Not only are the time lines different here, they live longer? And now I’m expected to deal with enemies engaged in genocide? This is like the brutal histories of Earth! He waited until the wizard stopped shaking before asking his next question, his stomach slowly clenching tight.

“Chuck, is Thule the Lord of Darkness that the High Elder told me about?”

“No,” answered Chuck. “He’s Mahan’s son.”

“Wait,” Wendell coughed, choking on a mouthful of pancake, “The Lord of Darkness is Mahan…and he has a son? There are two bad guys? A father and son team?!?” What the crap!? “This is starting to sound more impossible the further down the rabbit hole we go…”

The wizard cocked his head to the side, “Rabbit hole?”

Wendell sighed, “Never mind. It’s not important.”

Thoughtfully, Chuck answered, “The answer to your question, Wendell is yes…AND no. Mahan, who called the Lord of Darkness, has been banished to Unrest. It’s the farthest planet in this solar system. He’s been bound,” reassured Chuck. “Imprisoned for over six hundred years, by the use of three powerful, magical seals. One for his tongue, one for his body, and one to bind him to the planet.”

“Seals? What’s a seal?” Wendell played stupid, though he was quickly feeling lost. “Because you guys seem pretty scared about an enemy that’s supposed to be bound, or chained up, or whatever he is. What’s the big deal if he’s not around? I mean, what happens, say…if the seals were harmed? Can they be broken or destroyed? Where are the seals now? How can Mahan be doing terrible things here if he really is bound?”

“You ask too many questions without waiting for answers,” rebuked the wizard, irritated.

“He has a mutt,” snarled Dax. He sat frozen in his chair, one hand on the table, scratching the surface with his discolored nails. His bloodshot eyes locked on the wizard.

“He who?” asked Wendell, confused. “Who are we talking about, now?” He quickly looked between Dax and Chuck. Dang—I almost had my answers.

“Thule was too reckless to be an apprentice,” Chuck looked away, absorbed in his thoughts, he fell silent for several seconds. Almost to himself, he whispered, “It should have been impossible.”

“But it ain’t,” Dax argued. “His cunning an genius’re uncharacteristic of a vallen. He’s a mägo. The bastard found a way ta communicate with his master and you know it, old man!”

Chuck absentmindedly fidgeted with the mug, making a hollow tapping  noise on the table. “Yes, well,” his voice faded, seeming uncertain. “Unless…”

“Unless what?” Wendell felt kind of bad for asking, it was obvious that the wizard really didn’t like talking about this, but Dax was prompting something that sounded important.

Finally, the wizard nodded, still to himself, “Thule’s power has to have come from somewhere. A master and a disciple.” Then he snapped, a distant look in his eyes. “There are some who believe that in the destruction of the Nocturi, one of the three seals was found and also destroyed.”

Wendell’s stomach lurched. A seal? Destroyed?! That means I’m already down by one! He put his hands on the table and forced himself to keep his composure. This isn’t good. I’m new to all this, completely lost in what to do, with a letter telling me that to prevent war, I have to make sure these seals are protected? Oh boy.

“That would explain Thule’s…” Chuck looked to Dax nervously. “He’s trying to free his master.”

“THANK you for finally coming to your senses, old man,” grumbled Dax.

The words of the letter flashed through Wendell’s mind over and over again. Our enemy will eventually escape from the prison we are preparing, unless the seals are maintained. Protect them at all costs.

“Which is why the Black Market is a very, very bad idea,” said Dax firmly. “We’re so lucky that that…..abomination last night didn’t get a chance to nark on the screamin’ pinky here!!” stopping to point a big fat finger at Wendell’s face. “Look at ‘em. He’s defenseless! And he’s carryin’ the Ithari. Do ya really wanna take her to the Black Market? Expose her?”

Wendell’s hand went to his chest, his finger picking at the edge of the gem where she had wedged herself into his chest cavity. “It should be ok,” he volunteered, “I mean, Ithari can heal me if I get hurt.”

That sounded…moderately confident. Not bad.

Dax looked at him smugly, “She can heal ya, sure. Not resurrect ya.”

Wendell looked between them. Okaaay…hadn’t thought of that one. He wasn’t oblivious to the fact he could, and most likely would, get hurt during all this Hero business. But talking about him being dead, as if, in this particular endeavor, it was likely to happen? It was enough to give him second thoughts.

Almost.

Okay, I’m in danger. We knew that—especially when the whole adventure starts with some possessed monster wanting to hurt me. But the creature didn’t try to attack me—it attacked and killed…, he paused, …killed my friend. It wanted me to leave, not destroy me.

Hmmm. Does that mean it can’t destroy me? Was it or…is it afraid?

I can’t just sit around here hiding, can I? Besides, how dangerous could a market really be? The market in Sanctuary was friendly. How different would a secret market actually be, anyway? Bunch of violent grocers and fish-mongers? Plotting jewelers? Psychotic bakers?

“Dax is right. You’re not indestructible,” Chuck shrugged, “not even close. We don’t want Thule to know you exist…” he paused, looking directly into Wendell’s eyes. “Seriously…at all…ever…which is unlikely, but it does mean we should be extra careful.”

“Exactly!” Dax sighed in relief. “So the Black Market is completely out of the question.”

“Don’t be silly, we’re not going to find Thule in the Market,” Chuck dismissed. “The Gypsies wouldn’t let him into the market. We’re going.”

Dax opened his mouth, but Wendell cut in, “Don’t I get to vote?

“No,” Chuck said.

“Don’t be stupid, kid,” Dax said forcefully. “You don’t know enough about what you’re facing to have a valid opinion.”

“Ok. I got it,” Wendell said deflated. “I’m the new guy who doesn’t know anything. But….” he emphasized, “it is my life and I do have a say, AND a veto in that.” He grinned defiantly at both of them, “I say we go. The sooner I learn this stuff, the better.”

The wizard folded his arms and leaned back in his chair, a wide grin spreading across his face. “Ohhhh, I like him.’

“Fine. I’m out-voted,” resigned Dax, pointing his finger at Chuck. “Then ya better teach him somethin’ to hide that rock. You’re just beggin’ fer trouble if ya don’t!”

Grateful to be moving on, Wendell perked up, “As in magic?…or are we just talking about a thicker shirt?”

“Hmmm,” Chuck pondered, “that’s a wise idea, monkey.”

Scooting his chair closer to Wendell’s, the wizard tapped the gem through the tunic. “Dax is right about one thing—Ithari needs to be kept safe, just like you. Now, that’s your responsibility, son. No matter what else happens from this point forward, your first and foremost responsibility is to her. Not me, not Dax, not the Iskari High Council or even this world. Her. If we lose her, we lose everything, which means if we lose you, we lose everything.”

Wendell, staring back wide eyed, gulped.

“The moment Thule or anyone else who works for him, learn you have that gem, they’ll be looking for ways to carve it from your chest.”

Wendell gulped again, louder.

“Exactly,” Dax agreed.

Reaching across the table, Chuck snatched a spoon and set it in the center of his open palm. “Now watch carefully, Wendell.” With a simple touch of his finger, he whispered,“Silmä inakmään.” Small holes appeared along the length of the metal, as if the air were taking miniature bites out of the utensil. The holes grew and in moments, the spoon vanished.

“It’s gone!” Wendell gasped, looking closer at where the spoon once lay.

“Well,” smirked Chuck, “not really. The spoon is still in my hand.”

Wendell reached over and poked Chucks palm and instantly felt the cool metal under his index finger. “Huh. I can feel it.” He smiled wide, “Very cool, Chuck.”

Chuck’s smile widened, “Thank you. Now it’s your turn. Silmä inakmään.” He nodded to Wendell, “Try it.”

Wendell cleared his throat and eagerly snatched his unused spoon from the table. He stared at the utensil intensely in his hand and breathed, “Sylll-muh ee-NAWK-maaan!”

Nothing happened.

Chuck shook his head, “Not quite. Words have intent. Magic words use that intent. The strongest magic is formed by controlled emotions. I think our biggest problem here is your relationship to the spoon.”

Wendell was puzzled. “I don’t have a relationship with the spoon.”

“Exactly,” said Chuck. “So let’s try something else. Let’s try it on the gem. It may sound strange young man, but you must accept and even welcome your union with Ithari. You are the host, yes, but you need to think of this more as a marriage. She is your partner, your companion. Now act as her protector. Desire her safety. Know that should she be discovered, those who find her will kidnap her, abuse her, torture her and force her to do their bidding. Don’t allow them the chance.

“Once you have that desire in you, to protect her, speak the words. Silmä inakmään. It’s NOK, as in knocking on a door. You’re drawing the emphasis out too long. Try again, but this time, focus your emotions as you touch the gem.”

Wendell felt embarrassed. He had really expected to have a knack for this, because of the gem. Ithari did, after all, choose the nerd on purpose, right? He was disappointed that he’d have to work at this, like everything else in his life.

Closing his eyes, Wendell let his fingertips rest on the hard surface of the gem. He cleared his throat—but all he could feel were Dax’s judging eyes boring a hole through his forehead.

“I can’t do this with him watching me.”

“Who? Dax?” inquired Chuck, surprised.

“Who? Me?” mocked Dax. “Fine. I’m outta here. We’ll leave for the Market in a half hour.” Making more noise than Wendell would have thought possible, Dax pushed his chair away from the table, jumped down and stormed out of the kitchen.

Closing his eyes again, Wendell imagined people laughing at Ithari, pointing and mocking. Images of people trying to get their hands on her, clawing at his skin, trying to steal the gem for their own selfish reasons. A tinge of anger welled up inside Wendell. Out of all the people on this world, Ithari had chosen him…Wendell Percy Dipmier…to be the Hero.

He would do everything in his power to protect her.

“Sylll-mon in-OAK-maan!” he whispered and his eyes popped wide open.

Chuck wrinkled his nose, then grinned. “You keep practicing,” he said cheerfully and patted Wendell on the shoulder. “No one gets it the first time. If you do it right, you’ll feel a slight tingle where she’s embedded herself.”

Wendell sighed, “Sure.” He pulled at the buttons and looked down at his chest. I better get this right or we’re both going to be in danger.

Chuck got up from the table. “Any other questions?”

Resigned that he wasn’t going to become the Master of Magic in a single day, Wendell blurted out the one question he’d been dying to ask the wizard.

“So, how old are you?”

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