He drifted through the cacophony with certain inevitability. Barkers called out their wares along the way.
“Seed of life, extracted via rectal cavity!”
“Fetal tissue from forced abortion!”
“Skullcap of a suicided dwarf!”
“Broken heart! Freshly broken!”
On and on the calls went, featuring items of the grisly and the grotesque. His attention, then, was ripped away by the Finder rapping on the bars of the cage.
“Too bad none of these Rippers has you, eh, lad?” The Finder’s chuckle was wet and croupy. A clump of phlegm shot out and slid down one of the bars. “I knows me my goods, I does, I does. Make me a small fortune from it, too.”
He watched with feverish eyes as the Finder stopped the cart and climbed up next to the cage. A pause to gather himself, and the Finder’s barked call brought all to silence in the market for a brief moment. Then as one, merchant and consumer alike surged forward to bid for this new prize.
“Last breath of a sickly boy with no hope, bottled right before your very eyes!”
[Originally posted on Ficly.]
He winds his way through the chaos, trying to avoid bumping into anyone. Such a thing is nigh impossible here. But it hardly bothers him. Here, anonymity is paramount.
Finally, he reaches a dark corner where two grey men sit. He sits across from them, aware of the open room at his back. An acceptable risk.
“You have it?” he asks the men. They exchange nervous glances.
“ID,” one says, voice tense.
“Of course,” he replies and produces an odd coin from a pocket. It is large, embossed with an image so profane the two merchants visibly flinch. It is enough. One of the grey men reaches down and produces a small, red box. He handles it gingerly, sliding it across the table.
“You know what this contains,” the merchant says.
“Of course.” At last! His eyes are captivated by the box, riveted by his prize. Without looking up, he says, “You may go.” The merchants are gone in an instant.
“I have you now,” he says and grins. He lifts the box near his face, inhaling deeply. He can almost smell the smoke inside.
The box rests on a small, round table, perfectly centered on its rough surface. The man who purchased it stands across the room, leaning with one shoulder against the wall, staring at the box without really seeing it, lost in contemplation. Before him lies the prize for which he has sought so long, but the moment to open the box, to grasp the prize within has not yet quite arrived.
And so he waits.
A scent of smoke passes before his nostrils, one with which he is familiar. It matches the scent of the smoke within the box, and yet he knows the scent is not really there. It is a memory, of a time long past, but one which his brain, his body remembers all too well. The mere memory is so strong, so palpable, that for a moment he nearly loses his resolve and dashes to the box to tear it open immediately.
But instead he closes his eyes, takes deep breaths, and clears his mind of all thoughts. It would not do to be premature, he reminds himself. You have waited this long. You can wait a little longer.
It is night now, and moonlight pours through the one open window in the room. The moon outside is full, the light it casts bright and rich. Almost the moonbeam reaches the table. Almost it reaches the box. The moment he has been waiting for has very nearly arrived.
He continues to hold station against the wall. His body is sore from remaining motionless for so many hours, but he barely notices. His focus is single-minded, his muscles taut with anticipation. The moon continues its descent, the beam of light it casts now touching the table surface and beginning to inch toward the red box positioned at its center.
Yeeeesssssss, he thinks to himself and releases a held breath.
Finally, the light slips over and around the box, and the surface of the box changes with the light. A series of geometric depressions sink into the wood, each separate from the others but seen together forming a rune-like shape.
He moves instantly. The moment he has been waiting for has arrived, and it will pass far too quickly.
He wastes no time. Already the moonlight has crept across the box, and if he misses this opportunity, it will be weeks before another presents itself.
He slips his tongue between his teeth — and bites down, hard, severing the flesh. He takes the torn tip of his tongue between his fingers, even as his mouth fills with blood. He turns his head to the side and spits, a misty spray of blood and saliva.
Then he leans forward, the moonlight washing over him, and licks the top of the box. He takes his time, caressing the box with his tongue with a movement that is almost sensual. The blood from his mouth fills the depressions in the wood, up to the brim and then some, so that each appears as a black bead of fluid in the moonlight. The box itself drinks up the remaining blood, so that when he is done and straightens again, the box appears to have been set with dark, glistening glass jewels.
It is enough. With a click a seam appears around the perimeter of the box, and wisps of vapor seep through the gap.
He licks his lips in anticipation, ignoring the searing pain of his torn tongue and the coppery taste of blood in his mouth. Carefully he reaches forward with both hands and takes hold of the box, gripping the top four corners between his thumbs and forefingers. He pauses, careful not to jostle the box and risk losing any of the precious contents inside.
Then, gently, delicately, he lifts the lid from the box, slowly flipping it over and setting it to the side, revealing the prize he has waited for so long.
Inside a grey cloud of smoke boils restlessly. The smoke is dense, heavier than the air around it. Very little of it escapes the box. Here and there white streamers rise to the surface then sink back into the depths. An occasional wisp rises into the air, and he reaches out, gently coiling the wisp around a finger.
He leans in, inhaling the wisp as it unwinds from his hand like a serpent — and he smiles a feverish, toothy grin. His eyes dilate into black holes of emptiness, and he begins to laugh.
He dips his finger into the smoke, and it clings to his flesh like tar, even as tatters billow up and swirl around his hand. He lifts his hand to his face once more, inhaling the smoke in one long stream. He leans back, head tilted upward, euphoria making every nerve ending in his body pulse with pleasure.
Memories pour through his mind, memories of a place long ago and far away, memories of a place that no longer exists and hasn’t for aeons. He sees himself in a splendid city of crystalline jewels, flooded with thousands of others like him. He watches as he traverses a forest, both living and dead, both here and not, as he seeks out a treasure he can no longer remember. He feels his boots crunch on ice and snow, feels the breath of a blizzard on his skin — and he shivers in response.
But amid these memories he senses something else, something… unexpected. He senses life. And suddenly there are voices in his head, all speaking to him at once.
You have found us!
We have missed you!
He resists the voices, even as they wrap around him. He fights but is soon overwhelmed. There are simply too many of them. He feels them clawing at his mind, dragging at his psyche, pulling him down into unknown depths — and suddenly he is very afraid.
His head tilts forward, and streamers of smoke pour from his nostrils, black as soot, back into the red box. They carry with them a single wisp of white smoke, a wisp that appears to undulate away for just a moment. But more black fingers of smoke wrap around it, pulling it in, holding it tight, and soon all the smoke is once again contained within the box.
His body falls limp, coated in frost, half draped across the table. His eyes are empty white orbs, colorless and dead.
Two figures stand at the door to the room. One goes to the table and replaces the lid to the box, which closes with a quiet click. The other fishes the obscene coin from the dead man’s pocket.
The two men exchange a glance, and the smoke merchants leave without ever saying a word.
The smoke merchants pace along the streets of the Market. The cowls of their grey cloaks are pulled up over their heads, obscuring their features. Everyone who comes to the Market maintains a level of anonymity, but the smoke merchants even more so. The product in which they deal is not well known and almost certainly not welcome. Few even know of their existence.
They approach a nondescript tent along a side avenue. It could be any tent housing any vendor, but this one is different. It is the permanent dwelling of their employer, and they enter without so much as announcing their presence.
Inside, the space is lit by candles. Books and scrolls sit on shelves that line the perimeter of the room. A tall man, robed in white, stands at the center, hands clasped behind his back.
“You have it?” he asks the merchants.
“Yes, Holiness,” says one. He reaches into his cloak and produces the box.
“The sigil?” asks the priest.
“We have that, too.”
“I will take them now,” says the priest and extends a gnarled hand.
One of the merchants produces the sigil, wrapped in cloth, from an inner pocket of his robe, and sets it in the Priest’s waiting hand. The box follows immediately. Wisps of smoky vapor puff upward from the Priest’s fingertips as they do so, but the merchants pretend not to notice.
“It would be… prudent, Holiness, to destroy the sigil,” says one merchant with a shudder, “if such a thing can be managed safely.”
The Priest’s voice is cold and sharp, icy with contempt. “Your recommendation has been noted, Xalto, but I will keep my own counsel on this matter.” He turns away from the merchants, facing the stone pedestal behind him.
“As you wish,” Xalto responds, chastened, his voice barely audible.
“You both may leave now,” the Priest commands, not looking at them. “I will call upon you again when I have need of you.” The merchants say nothing but quickly scuttle out of the tent.
The Priest sets first the box then the wrapped sigil on the pedestal before him. “Now then,” he says, “what have you brought me?”