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Iron Quill - The Apprentice - The Night Market


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The Night Market

 

“Are we lost?”

 

Malcolm frowned at his young apprentice, “We are not lost.  We do not know where we are going. There is a difference.”

 

Geoffrey’s brow furrowed in puzzlement.  He looked around at the dilapidated buildings leaning against each other like slumping drunks, vomiting detritus from their doors onto filth-crusted cobblestones.  The anemic light cast by Malifaux’s two moons cast their surroundings in sepia and shadow.  He shivered and pulled his coat tighter around himself.  It had rained earlier in the day, leaving the Quarantine Zone smelling like nothing so much as rotting dog fur. 

 

“How are they different?” he asked after a long moment.  His voice seemed to be swallowed by the oppressive silence of the street.

 

Malcolm’s tone was even, hiding his impatience.  “One is lost when one cannot find their way to their destination despite knowing where it is.  We do not know where our destination is, thus we are not lost.”

 

“Oh.”

 

A rat the size of a house cat scurried up onto an overturned baby carriage, stretching its fat body to sniff the air.  Its red eyes fixed them with a malevolent look before it flopped gracelessly down to the ground and skittered away into a crack in a wall.

 

The pair continued to walk in silence.  According to Malcolm their destination moved from night to night.  From the surety with which his master walked, Geoffrey assumed there must be some art to finding it. 

 

Geoffrey caught a flicker of motion out of the corner of his eye.

“Master,” he whispered, “the shadows are moving!”

 

“Indeed.” Malcolm stopped in the middle of the wide boulevard, “Crooligans.  They have been following us for three blocks.  It appears you will have an opportunity to practice tonight.”

 

Geoffrey swallowed hard and shook the tension out of his arms.  Three small figures slipped from the shadows and spread out around them.  The rags and bandages could not hide the ravaged features of the undead children.  They wasted no time in pressing the attack.

 

“Fire.” Malcolm barked, standing back with his arms folded.

 

Geoffrey’s eyes rolled back in his head as jets of blazing orange and red erupted from his hands and engulfed the first Crooligan. 

 

“Air.”

The flames in Geoffrey’s hands winked out like snuffed candles.  His face twisted with concentration.  He swept his arms around in a swirling motion.  His next assailant was lifted on a gust of wind and flung against a crumbled wall with a sickening thud.

 

“Ice.”

Geoffrey drew back a fist to strike the last Crooligan.  As he launched his hand forward a spear of ice formed around it, impaling the rotten creature.

 

“Well done.” Malcolm said, clapping his panting apprentice on the shoulder before resuming his walk.  Geoffrey quickly collected himself and caught up.

 

“I suspect we’re close,” Malcolm said, “Scavengers like that are drawn to it.”

 

“Where exactly are we going?”

 

“To the Night Market.”

 

They turned a corner and were met with a scene that made Geoffrey’s mind scream out in protest.  A black parody of a market filled the dim street before them.  At a butcher’s stall two thirds of a human body hung from a meat hook.  The butcher was a misshapen creature in a bloody apron with a cleaver in one deformed hand.  An apothecary’s stand was neatly arrayed with ingredients for potions, poisons, and narcotics.  A hawker, clearly undead and missing an arm, touted his master’s cheap zombies in a gravelly monotone that belied the suspect quality of goods he was shilling. 

 

Humans, Nephilim, and all manner of nightmarish creatures all rubbed shoulders while green gremlins and darker things scurried about underfoot.  By unspoken accord mortal enemies mingled without incident, all sharing a common purpose. 

 

Malcolm calmly led Geoffrey into the milling market, politely pausing as a cloven-hoofed creature led a gaunt and mostly naked man past on a chain.  They deftly sidestepped a pair of heavily armed gremlins that couldn’t be seen until they were almost upon them.  Geoffrey quailed when he accidently bumped into an eight foot tall Nephilim but the creature merely looked down at him, snuffled dismissively and lumbered on.

 

“What…” Geoffrey could hardly formulate words, “What is this place?”

 

“The Night Market.” His mentor replied as if it were self-evident.

 

“But how?  Why?  It… it…”

 

“It is a little jarring at first, I will concede.  Rest assured, you get used to it.”

 

“How can this be real?  How can this exist?”  Geoffrey was incredulous.

 

“Common ground.” Malcolm replied, “Brought together by the one guiding principle followed by all who would seek such a place: Power.  Power, true power, always comes at a price.  There are those who seek it through conventional means, and there are those who take… other paths.  Those who come here set aside their petty grievances, sympathies and bespoke loyalties in order to find what is most important to them.  We all have something of value to someone, and we all want something.  Everything has a price.  This place exists for those willing to pay.”

 

Geoffrey gawked, scarcely able to believe what he saw but unable to look away.  He watched forbidden trade happen with the same casualness that one might barter for a new coat.  Once he got over the shock of walking among monsters, it was the humans who fascinated him most.  They looked so normal, but grossly out of place for it.  A bent old woman in a threadbare overcoat haggled with what appeared to be puppet in full jester’s motley over the price of a child’s teddy bear.  The animate doll seemed to communicate through elaborate pantomime.  Geoffrey shivered and tried not to think about where the stuffed bear had come from or what it would be used for.  He glimpsed a tall stovepipe hat and stared wide-eyed at the man wearing it.

 

“Isn’t that the undertaker?” He said, gesturing with his head.

 

“One neither sees nor is seen in the Night Market.” Malcolm admonished.  Geoffrey swallowed and looked away.

 

Master and apprentice wove through the crowd until they came to a grimy tent.  Malcolm pushed the flap aside and entered.  Fearful of being left behind, Geoffrey hurried after.

 

Inside the tent was impossibly spacious and richly appointed.  The walls were hung with silks of red and maroon finer than anything Geoffrey had ever seen.  Several small paper lanterns hung from the ceiling, swirling motes within them casting soft yellow light.  A low table was surrounded by plush pillows.  At the back of the tent hung a curtain with a sinuous oriental dragon embossed in gold.  The outer door flap closed behind the apprentice, immediately cancelling out the sounds of the outside.  Removed from the abattoir stink of the Night Market, Geoffrey could smell the delicate fragrance of cherry blossoms.

 

The curtain at the back of the tent was pulled aside by a grotesque creature whose warty red skin and snaggle-toothed face seemed absurdly at odds with the beautiful blue silk kimono it wore.  It bowed and growled something in the language of the Three Kingdoms.

 

Malcolm bowed low and replied in the same tongue.  All Geoffrey understood were their names as his master apparently made introductions.  He did his best to swallow his fear and focus as he had been taught.  He forced himself to approximate a bow similar to Malcolm’s.

 

The Oni gestured to the table and pillows and waited until its guests were seated comfortably before folding its thick legs in a lotus position across from them.  On cue a diminutive creature in robes shuffled out from behind the dragon curtain bearing an ornate bamboo platter with three porcelain tea bowls and a steaming pot.  It set the platter reverently on the table and retreated silently behind the curtain again.

 

With practiced grace the Oni carefully poured tea for Malcolm, Geoffrey, and finally itself.

 

“Please,” it said, its words thickly accented, “drink.”

 

Malcolm drank his steaming matcha slowly, taking time to appreciate it with every sense.  Geoffrey watched his master out of the corner of his eye and did his best to mimic his actions though he failed to observe anything about what he was drinking.

 

After several long and contemplative moments of silence, Malcolm spoke, “I am most grateful for your hospitality, Kakure Oni.”

 

Geoffrey was aware of an odd aftertaste in his mouth.  His tongue felt furry and numb.

 

“You honor me with your presence, Malcolm Durand.” It intoned formally.

 

Geoffrey’s fingers and toes tingled and refused to respond to his commands.  Panic started to percolate in the pit of his stomach.

 

“You have come for the book,” The Oni said after a pause, “The One Hundred Winds.”

 

Malcolm nodded, “I hope that my offer is acceptable to you?”

 

Geoffrey tried to shout a warning or scream in terror, but his throat would release no sound.

 

“He is young,” Kakure Oni said, weighing the apprentice’s worth with those alien yellow eyes, “Strong though, I think.”

 

“His raw potential is considerable, and he has proven himself an apt student. It grieves me to lose him.” Malcolm confirmed.

 

Geoffrey grasped desperately for any part of him that might still be under his conscious control, but even his vision was blurring.  The red silks washed into a red blur, the yellow lanterns into aureoles of soft light, and his master into an indistinct brown smear at the edge of his vision.  Only the Oni remained in eerily crisp focus.

 

Once again the dragon curtain rippled as the small robed minion returned.  This time it bore a thick tome bound in blue leather and held shut with an ornate silver clasp.  It bowed low and held the book out to Malcolm.  He examined it carefully, running his hands over the worn leather covers, then nodded and rose.

 

“I am grateful for your hospitality,” he said, offering another bow, “I thank you for your generosity.  I hope that my gift will sate your hunger.”

 

 As he turned to leave Malcolm laid a hand on Geoffrey’s rigid shoulder, “I am sorry, my boy.  Everything has a price.”

 

Malcolm slipped through the outer flap of the tent and back into the pungent, noisy Night Market.

 

Geoffrey’s world was a blur of red, yellow and terror.  He could only watch helplessly as the Oni crept toward him, running an impossibly long tongue over its jagged teeth.  There was a wet ripping sound and the coppery smell of blood.  In his last moment he was grateful that he could feel nothing.

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