Life will never turn out the way you
think it will.
Get used to it.
“Come on, kid!” yelled Dax as he watched Wendell circle Chuck’s cottage for the second time. “Can we go now?”
“Oh, let him have his moment,” rebuked the wizard.
The cottage was picturesque. Its thatched roof and rough timber framing matched the rickety picket fence encompassing the yard. The stones of its foundation were poorly matched and the weathered stucco featured finger-wide cracks running up the side wall. A chatty bird, perched on the chimney, was watching them with interest. There was a cow tethered to the fence post and Wendell was chased out of the back yard by a territorial rooster and a couple of hens. Though it looked slightly off kilter, it was a quaint, fairytale home. Perfect for the peculiar old wizard.
From the inside, Wendell had thought the house could be five or six thousand square feet. It was so spacious and there were so many doors down the long hallway outside his room. He never got a chance to explore the cottage, so in reality, Wendell had no clue how big the home really was. From the outside it appeared to be only twenty feet square. A big difference.
After Wendell had circled the house the first time, he ran to the front door and thrust his head in.
“It really IS bigger on the inside!” he exclaimed, making Chuck laugh out loud. Then he had to run around the cottage again, touching the walls with his hands periodically, just to make sure his eye’s weren’t deceiving him. “This is awesome!” nodding his head in admiration. “Chuck, how…is this even possible?”
Chuck was searching for something in a leather bag that was slung across his torso. “That’s a boring question,” he answered, eye locked onto the content.
Unfazed, Wendell was content having a few minutes to take in his new surroundings.
The cottage sat in a private grove that was safeguarded by the most curious and massive trees he had ever seen. The silent giants looked like clusters that had entwined and merged together over hundreds of years, until just a single growth existed—with an amazing girth as large as Chuck’s little house. Others had numerous vines stretching from the branches to take root in the forest floor and bound the parent trees. The most fascinating ones wound together, forming latticed archways over the few paths that led away from the house.
The cottage looked so tiny in comparison. So…fragile.
“Wow,” Wendell breathed, staring at the surrounding trees. “Those have gotta be really old.”
Chuck ignored the comment and Dax just rolled his eyes.
Wendell stared at them for just a moment. The old wizard was still fumbling around in his bag.
What could possibly get lost in a bag that small?
It seemed humorous that this trip was to get him new clothes. Especially when his companions were so obviously desperate for clothes of their own. It made him wary about what might be considered acceptable attire here. He tried for a moment to picture himself in a long grey robe. The though bothered him.
Uh, no. No way.
Chuck looked as if he hadn’t changed his clothes in weeks.
His wrinkled, dingy-grey robe was littered with patches and small stains, mostly around the knees and bottom hem. The unruly beard and bushy explosion for eyebrows were anomalies of their own. So, he doesn’t change his clothes or shave. With a raised eyebrow he suppressed a laugh. He’s like an old man’s version of Rapunzel. But the two most prosaic features of this kind old man, were the pointy hat and a gnarly dragon staff that stood as tall as the wizard himself.
Chuck seemed fond of both,…particularly his staff.
The hat was always on the wizards head. During meals, while cleaning, cooking, in fact, Wendell had yet to see Chuck take the hat from off his head.
His staff, which stood next to him without aid, always seemed to be in reach. Rummaging through the bag, the wizard stopped at moments to talk…directly to the piece of carves wood—as if the thing were alive and, well, a person.
Then there was the goblin. Dax didn’t seem to question his older companions insanity. There was nothing peculiar about Chuck having conversations with a staff…or a house plant for that matter, and he stood there in nothing more than boxer shorts, himself. Bold, purple polka-dots resting on over-sized, hairy feet.
The guy runs around in underwear. Doesn’t this bother anyone else other than me? Wendell had already seen enough of his hairy back and miniature rotund belly. Why hasn’t anyone said anything to him…or get the guy a t-shirt at least??
Then it dawned on him. Maybe no one makes clothes in his size?
Would Dax insist on Wendell dressing like him? Suddenly grey robes didn’t sound so bad.There’s no way I’m going to walk around in just underwear!
Not paying attention to where his feet were going, Wendell tripped over the sagging front steps of the cottage. It brought his eyes level with a large clay pot that had been smashed in the path, a young sapling snapped in half and trampled. He looked at the mess sideways and noticed tiny boot prints in the soil and across the leaves. It almost looked as if a leprechaun had jumped all over it with a great amount of hostility.
“Chuck? There’s tiny footprints here that…”
“What?” Chuck glanced over. He squinted, then waved his hand, “Oh, just leave it. Fred’s having another tantrum, just ignore him.”
Wendell frowned. Fred? Who the heck…is Fred?
“Got it!” With a yank of his wrist, Chuck pulled the port key free with one hand and a small cloth pouch with the other.
“Here,” he tossed the pouch at Wendell, “The High Elder said this was for you, son. Comes with the gig.”
It was unusually heavy for being so small and it jingled when he caught it. Wendell loosened the draw string. Something glimmered inside. Opening his palm, he tilted the pouch…and several coins flipped out.
“T-that’s gold!” he blurted out, jaw dropping. The light danced off the beautiful coins. “Is it?! Actual gold??”
“I believe so,” Chuck said plainly, readjusting the strap of his bag over his own shoulder. “Can’t very well go shopping without some coin.”
“How much is in here!?”
“Don’t do that!” burst Dax, yanking Wendell to his side.
“Wha-” Wendell flinched, truly confused. He quickly dropped the coins back into their purse. “What did I do now?”
“Time for the ground rules, kid,” Dax grumbled.
“But I just…”
“Shut up and listen,” he snapped. “Do ya wanna keep yer skin or not?”
Wendell almost yelled back, but, what would that accomplish? Instead, he silently nodded his conditional submission.
“First rule: don’t act like a tourist. The Market eats tourists. None of this…” Dax held up his hands and made a mocking expression of surprise, mouth open. “Ya look like an idiot and every merchant there will empty yer pockets so fast yer head’ll spin.”
Wendell looked at Chuck, Is he for real? The wizard nodded in silent confirmation.
“Rule two: you stay in my direct line of sight at all times.”
Wendell folded his arms, “Excuse me? I’m not five years old.”
Dax grinned, bearing his pointed yellow teeth. “Do it, or you’re on your own,” he threatened. He was enjoying this sick power trip. “Rule three: Do what I say. No questions.” Dax stopped abruptly and leaned forward to glare at Wendell, his piercing, bloodshot eyes daring him to challenge rule number three.
Wendell bit his lip.
“Ya don’t know what yer dealin’ with, kid…and yer a paranoid little boy who squeals like a girl. There’s lots a different kinds of people at the market and they all got their own agenda’s. Ya gotta be street smart! Take the vallen. They’re like dogs—some of ‘em are constantly barking. That’s ok, it’s just talk. It’s the silent ones that should scare ya.”
Wendell grit his teeth, frustrated—but kept silent. Fine.
Dax sighed, “Look, kid, I can guarantee Thule’s got eyes and ears in the market. I still think this is a bad idea…but you two are determined. Fine. Then if I hafta watch ya, I make the rules. Got it?”
Wendell stood there, fuming. He felt like a kindergartner on a field trip. This was humiliating and Dax knew it. The wizard nudged Wendell in the arm. Wendell nodded, “Fine.”
What else could he say? Wendell knew that right now, these two oddballs were his only relationships. His only friends and his only chance of getting around or even surviving while he learned about this new world. It was going to take some time to piece together this crazy puzzle. He had to trust them…at least for now and at least in measure. He had to figure out what ‘the hero’ was supposed to do—and how to do it.
Wendell tucked the coin pouch into the single pocket stitched next to the draw string on his pants.
The wizard draped the port key chain over his neck. Dax stood next to Chuck with a fistful of the robe in his hand. He motioned to Wendell.
“The port key only works on the user and those in direct contact, so hang on, kid.”
Wendell stood behind the wizard, placing a hand on his shoulder.
To think that I had a problem with riding the bus to the mall…now look at me!
Holding the key in his open palm, a pulsing blue orb faded into view, floating above the disc. The glee was evident in Chuck’s voice as he said, “Take a breath.” And then he smirked and spoke into the orb.
“Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
Take us three and take us far—
Up above the world so high,
To the Market so we can buy!”
Wendell braced himself, clutching Chuck’s shoulder as he squeezed one eye shut.
“Easy there, son,” said the wizard, letting his shoulder drop under the pressure. “No need for the death grip.”
“Oh, sorry.” Wendell immediately released his hold.
“Fine. Let’s go register.”
It was only then that Wendell realized they were no longer in Chuck’s front yard and they were not alone.
They were standing smack dab in the middle of a cave.
Small groupings of men, women, children and even some sheep appeared around them, silently flashing into view…from nowhere. The circular patch of ground where they stood was nearly a hundred feet in diameter and cleared of the stalagmites and stalactites grouped around the perimeter. Tall lamp posts held flickering lights casting odd shadows across the ground.
What? How on Earth did we get here? That was like…
Wendell was thinking, ‘magic’ but didn’t want to give Dax any more ammunition to mock him. “No electric shock, no falling sensation…just blink and we’re here?” He was remembering traveling with Dax. It was a painful experience.
“What did you expect?” asked Chuck nudging him toward a tunnel.
“Not sure,” he admitted.
“Get moving, son. Don’t want anyone popping in on top of you, now do we?” He snorted, “Monkey here waiting too long once, lighting a cigar and a yack popped right on his….”
“That’s enough, old man!” Dax growled warningly.
“I’m just sayin’…”
They left the cave for the darkness of a tunnel, which Wendell didn’t appreciate. He looked down at his feet, trying to put one foot in front of another on the uneven ground. People pushed forward, shoving him aside and there wasn’t time to wait for his eyes to adjust. Wendell stumbled and twice bumped into a stalagmite, almost knocking over a sheep.
“Sorry…,” he apologized to the farmer, “so sorry!” Chuck and Dax, on the other hand, didn’t seem to have any difficulty navigating the path. He wished he had a flashlight…or even a match at this point.
“Don’t worry,” Wendell strained to hear Chuck’s words over the complaints of the animals that echoed off the low ceiling. “The guard fires ahead will shed some light on the path. Just around the bend now.”
Sure enough, a strong scent of wood smoke soon saturated the cool, moist air. Several small fires soon appeared in the distance, sharing their light with the travelers along the well-worn path. Wedged into nooks, men in dirty, faded yellow tunics sat around the fires, staring warily at all who passed.
“Are they…homeless?” Wendell was curious, “I mean, I guess they don’t really look homeless—what with their matching outfits and...”
“Don’t stare,” hissed Dax, pushing Wendell along. His tone had an uneasy edge.
“What?” Wendell hesitated, eyeing the long blades strapped to each of their chests.
Dax kicked Wendell in the shin.
“SHHH!” Dax hissed again, “Rule three, kid,” this time adding a threatening look.
“Geez! What’s the big secret?” Wendell asked, annoyed, though he did drop his volume to a whisper. “I’m not trying to hurt anyone. Maybe I should know about this—ever think of THAT!?” Clamping his mouth shut, he made a mental note to learn about the men around the campfires.
The further they walked, the lighter the tunnel became and Wendell found his anxiety levels rising.
The thought of exploring a new place, on a new world was one thing. He could think about that or contemplate it anywhere, alone, in safety—but he was actually here now and that meant being exposed. The talk over breakfast, specifically Dax’s concerns, were starting to take hold. Wendell suddenly paid more attention to those around him, who bumped into him, and what might be hiding in the shadows.
He absentmindedly place his hand over his chest, fingers feeling for the hard lump under the cloth.
Unusual swirly lights appeared along the cave walls and the stalactites. They moved slowly, like drips of glowing water, down the rock formations. A few of the shapes hung in the firelight, where Wendell could see them.
Woah! He gasped.
Slowly working their way over the rocky surface were giant bioluminescent snails the size of Wendell’s fist.
Looking around him to make sure no one was watching, he leaned down and poked Dax in the side of the head.
The Evolu looked up, annoyed.
With his eyes and mouth open wide in an exaggerated expression of awe, he whispered, “What are those?” and thrust a pointed finger toward the lights.
Dax sneered at him. “You ain’t funny.”
Wendell’s snort echoed.
The path gradually inclined as the tunnel widened. A large sign hung from above, which read:
Port Authorities: You Keep the Law, We Keep the Peace.
This is where the traffic slowed and eventually stopped.
“Why’d we stop?” he asked Chuck in a whisper.
The wizard pointed with his staff as they waddled forward among bodies and animals. Wendell peered ahead to a hanging sign in the distance:
Deposit Keys: It’s the Law.
Wendell tried desperately not to look like a kid on his first trip to the zoo, but it was nearly impossible. He stood on his toes to glance over shoulders to see what was happening…and he wanted to see the people. Thankfully there were no vallen—but he was disappointed to realize that those around him looked…pretty normal.
Meaning, like him.
Sure, their clothing might have been different, but take most of the faces he saw and put them in business suits or transform them into soccer moms and they’d fit right in on Earth. None of the people he saw were blue, which was a change, but nothing truly out of the ordinary…which was disappointing.
The tunnel opened into a crescent-shaped room, where the dirt path became smooth tile warmed with red rugs, though it mattered little to the animals. Actually, Wendell thought it looked a lot like a service window at a bank.
A thin-fingered hand pressed firmly against his shoulder.
“Wait,” commanded the man in a dirty yellow tunic. Dax and Chuck stood patiently as the party in front of them entered a roped line and walked up to the counter.
“Wha..?” Wendell was about to ask why, when he heard a warning growl from behind him. He glanced at Dax and rolled his eyes. The expression of the man in yellow wasn’t unkind, but his solemn stare did command obedience.
Ahhh, they’re guards!
There was a man in yellow on either side of the entryway, as well as three along the path of ropes, standing at attention. All the men were olive skinned and dark eyed. Each had raven hair and some version of a goatee. They reminded Wendell of pirates, only cleaner…and without the eye patch or hooks. He also noticed, they were all armed with long knives, which hung from a delicate looking scabbard across their chests. Trying to avoid looking too conspicuous, he turned slightly and glanced over his shoulder.
The farmer next to him had two knives sticking out of his belt. Two robust men standing behind the farmer carried swords strapped to their backs.
Does everyone have…he started to wonder, then noticed two older women talking in line, wrinkles under around their eyes and rapiers attached to their hips.
Suddenly Wendell felt very nervous.
Leaning forward, Wendell peered into the opening and counted seven more guards standing against the wall. Each of them armed with long blades of their own.
This is not good.
When a window became vacant, the guard gestured with his hand for them to move forward. Wendell followed Chuck and Dax to where a pretty girl stood behind the counter, a beautiful, broad smile on her face.
Chuck lifted the silver chain from his neck and placed the port key into a small black box between the girls hands. The young lady nodded at him and closed the lid. Under the glass window the number three appeared.
“A party of three?” the girl asked politely. “Fingers, please.”
“That is correct, my dear,” the wizard smiled back and held out his hand.
Tenderly taking a hold of his index finger, she drew a tiny knife from a wooden stand and pricked his finger. Chuck placed his finger on the glass lid and pressed, leaving a bloody fingerprint. The print slowly faded, leaving the surface spotless.
Dax hopped up onto the counter and followed suit by offering his finger and then pressing his print onto the glass.
Wendell looked at the young lady, who smiled at him sweetly, holding out her hand for his own.
“Well, I-” Wendell hesitated.
Chuck nudged him forward, “It’s called a blood-lock. It registers us as legal occupants of the Black Market and saves our key until we’re ready to leave. Security measures. Now give the girl the finger.” He paused. “Your finger, I mean. You don’t want to give ANYone around here the finger…so just,” he tried again, then huffed, “Oh, just give her your hand!”
Wendell snickered and did as he was told. With a flinch and a single drop of blood, he placed his print on the glass and watched it closely as it faded out of existence. He smirked, “Very cool.”
When they left the line, Wendell tugged on the wizards tunic.
“If they’re putting all the keys into the same boxes…how do they know which key is ours?”
Chuck stopped. He looked at Wendell, then back at the counter. Flicking back the rim of his hat, he scratched his forehead. “You know, I never thought about that.” Shrugging at Wendell he resumed walking, wagging an index finger, “But they do. I’ve always assumed that the magic tags the key with our blood…that way any one of us can come back and grab it. Gypsies are clever that way.”
Wendell nodded, though he wasn’t completely certain it made sense and followed along, corralled to the official entry hall of the Black Market.
It was a simple, square room, not much wider than the hallway—lit by dozens of candles on metal stands, stones and alcoves, forming waterfalls of wax that had built up over time and belt down from high places, now touching the floor. At the opposite end was a broad staircase of chiseled stone, leading up to double doors that were opened wide. It was dark, the doorway, with small flecks of starlight glimmering overhead. Two guards stood on either side of the stairs, barring entrance.
At the base, angled in a corner, was a third. He stood lazily at a chest high podium turning the page of a monstrous book.
His tunic bright and clean, the bold yellow standing out in the candle light. One by one, he called the names of the people in line. A flowery sign hung from the front of the podium, which read:
Please Check In: It’s the Law.
“Chuck. You’re back,” the man behind the book said dully. “How…wonderful,” he added, tight-lipped.
Chuck stepped forward, his posture relaxed. With both hands he leaned on his staff. “Lucian,” he nodded ever-so-slightly, equally tight-lipped.
Wendell wasn’t sure why, but his stomach tensed, a sudden urge to back away from this man at the podium. These two obviously don’t like each other. He scratched at his chest absentmindedly—feeling a little warm and constricted.
“Business or pleasure?” pursued the guard.
Wendell frowned, Huh. He didn’t ask that of the people before us.
The wizard grinned, “My pleasure, as always. I’m surprised to see you descend from on high to meddle with the likes of common visitors.”
“That is none of your business.” Lucian’s eyes narrowed, the corners of his mouth curled back tightly, “These are uncertain times, Morphiophelius. You never know who you can trust. Must keep my finger on the pulse of the Market, for security purposes, of course.”
Chuck nodded, “Of course.” The wizard looked back to give Dax a nod and winked at Wendell.
Lucian dismissed the wizard with a wave of his hand, turning his attention back to the book.
Though Chuck looked calm, his gaze lingered on Lucian until he’d reached the top step and entered the Market.
“Dax, son of Jahti of Asa-Illariu,” the guard sneered with palatable contempt.
At the mention of the Evolu homeland, Wendell was sure he heard a few people in line behind him snicker in disbelief.
What’s the deal? What do these people know that I don’t? Oh, yeah. Everything.
Stuffing a cigar into his mouth, Dax, sauntered forward boldly. “Moving up in the world, I see, Lucian! Good for you,…though I always thought ya did a fair job as Iyl-Maddok’s errand boy. Buffin’ boots and haulin’ pales of goat dung.”
Snickering and mild chuckles arose in the line behind them.
“Has it been 6 months already?”Lucian paused, “My, how time flies.” Leaning over the podium to stare down at Dax, in more ways than one, he considered his words. “I better not hear of any trouble with your name on it. It would be a pleasure to strap you to the block.”
Dax stared back without emotion, “I’d like to see ya try.”
“Ahh,” Lucian breathed smugly, “you forget that you only enter on my good word, my friend. If you cannot abide our laws, I will personally see that you enjoy the full measure of our penalties.”
Dax casually lit his cigar, then glared right back. “…and you forget, Lucy, that I go through this process out of courtesy. I don’t need one o’ yer damn port keys.”
Lucian’s closed lips twitched at the ridicule of his name, quickly replaced with a smile. “Then,…we have an understanding?”
Dax puffed furiously on his cigar. “Oh, I understand you perfectly.”
“You may enter.”
By this time, Wendell was beyond nervous, especially as his so-called guardian hopped up the stairs and disappeared through the doors, without looking back and leaving him completely alone in line.
Lucian’s eyes were already upon him, the smile of a jackal spreading across his face as he looked up from the book on the pedestal. However, that smile vanished as the name left his lips.
“Wendell…Percy…Dipmier?” he said, the surname in a hushed strain.
He cringed. H-how did he know my name?? Wendell hated his middle name. His mom just couldn’t resist using the name Percy for her own precious little boy, which was after a helpful young bellhop his parents had met on a vacation one year. It was the last nail in the nerd coffin. If it wouldn’t have upset her, Wendell probably would have changed his name and eliminated the P. altogether.
It’s just so embarrassing!
Lucian paused, ignoring Wendell, and stared back at the words. His fingers traces the line in the giant book.
Confusion and dismay overcame his expression.
He looked back to Wendell. “That’s…” he shook his head and immediately proceeded to fumble through the pages of the immense book.
“…is there a problem,…sir?” Wendell asked meekly, his eyes darting to the doors. What’s going on? Oh man, there’s something wrong. There’s something wrong and those jerks left me here, totally alone and without a clue of what to do if someone goes knife-happy on me! Please let me pass. Oh crap…is this what drug dealers feel like? I’m gonna get shot. No, wait, they don’t have guns. Oh CRAP—I’m gonna get KNIFED! He started gnawing on his bottom lip.
The page turning became almost frantic, until at last Lucian slammed the book closed. The Gypsy took several moments and slow, deep breaths before making eye contact. His lids narrowed and brows furrowed, lips curling back into a snarl.
“I don’t know how you did it,” he hissed in a whisper so low, Wendell could hardly hear him. “But I’m watching you.”
Wendell looked to the left, to the right, then behind him. Making eye contact once more, he pointed at himself while mouthing the word, ‘Me?’
Lucian pointed sharply at the stairs. “Enter.”
Frozen in shock, Wendell couldn’t remember how to move his feet.
What just happened? What…did I do?
The farmer with sheep gave him a nudge from behind, one of his animals bumping the back of his legs.
Suddenly, Wendell didn’t want to be there, under the scrupulous gaze of Lucian. He found his feet, took his window of opportunity and scrambled up the stairs into the Market to find his companions. He couldn’t however, shake the unmistakable feeling that he was already in trouble.
I haven’t even been here long enough to do something stupid!