Natalie sat at the side of the bed, in the creaky old chair Mina had picked out at a second hand store, watching Mina as she slept. She could see the pain on Mina’s face, every now and again her eyelids would pull as tight as they could while her lips contorted around bare teeth. Her body would bend and bow as the pain ran through her, and then, just as quickly, she sank back into the sagging mattress.
It’s my fault, Nat thought, wiping tears from her eyes, I should never have taken her there. It’s all my fault.
Her teeth ground as she watched Mina. She reached out and took Mina’s hand in her’s. It was cold and limp, but Mina stirred when Natalie squeezed it. Her eyes fluttered open, wonderful, deep, green eyes. Mina had eyes like peridot. She looked over to Natalie, just for a second, before her eyes slammed shut again.
Natalie ran a hand through Mina’s jet black hair.
“It’s ok,” Nat whispered, planting a kiss on Mina’s forehead, “I’m gonna fix this. I promise.”
She checked her phone. Quarter after eleven.
Time to go.
It took almost an hour to walk to the alley between the pretzel place and the mexican grocer. The street was quiet as the grave. It was Saturday night, almost Sunday morning technically, but this was not a place on the radar of the Indy nightlife. The only person on the street was a young man leaning against the brick wall of the grocery. A small wooden sign propped against the wall next to him advertised “Far Market – Midnight to 7am.” Derek nodded to her, taking another hit from his vaporizer.
“Derek,” Nat mumbled back, barely registering his presence.
“You ok?” He called after her, but she wasn’t listening anymore as she turned the corner into the alley.
Where the street had been empty and quiet, the alley was alive with noise, though none of it seemed to be audible from the street. Along either side of the alley were dozens and dozens of tables and booths. At the mouth of the alley, they were simply the usual flea market fair. Baubles and doodads, handicraft knick-knacks, the occasional piece of borderline disturbing art. The very first of these tables, just there on the right side, belonged to Guinevere. Guinevere was old, wrinkled, thin and fading, but jovial, quick to laugh and kindly. She knew something was wrong the moment she saw Nat turn into the alley. She struggled to her feet with the help of her two canes and asked the customer investigating the small carved figures that covered her table to wait while she took a moment to say hi to a friend.
Nat would have walked past, she wasn’t here to talk to Guinevere after all and time was short, but the old woman thrust her cane out to block her path.
Nat sighed, “Sorry, Guinevere, I don’t have time to talk tonight.”
“Clearly,” Guinevere looked Natalie up and down carefully, “What has you looking fit to murder this night?”
Nat shook her head, “I really don’t have time.”
Guinevere tapped a cane on the asphalt three times, a length of sycamore she’d carved herself into the likeness of a lioness for the handle. She often did this when annoyed, or excited, or sometimes for no reason anyone else could see.
“I will ask again, because I love you child, what has happened to put such hatred in your eyes?”
The woman tapped her cane again, faster this time.
“Guinevere, I have to get to the back. The way back of the market.”
“Why? And if you think to shelter me from some horrible news, know that I have lived through darker days than you could imagine. So I will ask you, for the third and last time: What has happened?”
“The young princess? I remember her well, but what about her?”
Natalie looked about, the customer who had been looking at Guinevere’s figurines was looking cautiously their way, but he cleared his throat and returned to examining the little wooden animals and buildings. Nat ran a hand through her short hair. Guinevere noticed her discomfort and silently ushered her to a chair behind her table, asked the customer to return later, and put up a small folded bit of cardboard at the front of her table that said “Please Come Back Later.”
She returned to Nat, practically shoving her into the chair, then took Nat’s hand in her own.
“Tell it all child. I cannot help if I don’t know what is wrong.”
“Oh, Guinevere,” Nat gritted her teeth, trying to hold back the tears, “Mina got cursed.”
Guinevere gasped, her fingers tightened around Nat’s hand, “Oh no, child.”
“At last week’s market. It was her first time,” she couldn’t hold the tears back anymore, and they came rolling down her face, “I asked her to come, she’d never been before…I swear I lost track of her for just a second. I should have warned her, but she loved it here, and she ended up way in the back. I hadn’t explained yet…”
“Oh god, child, tell me she didn’t eat anything back there?”
Nat sobbed, “I was going to explain it to her,” she paused to stifle another sob, “before we got back there, not to trust anyone in the back, but I lost her, and…by the time I found her…”
Guinevere put her canes aside, and wrapped both arms around Nat. “Oh child, I’m so sorry. When did she die.”
“She isn’t dead,” Nat said through gritted teeth.
“What?” Guinevere pulled back.
“Mina’s still alive. That’s why I came tonight.”
“She must be very strong,” Guinevere breathed, “To survive a week under a curse. She must be in horrible pain.”
Nat just nodded.
Guinevere picked her canes back up from its position against the wall. She looked up for a moment, tapped three times, then brought her gaze back to Natalie. “You want to find the one who cursed her then? How will you accomplish this?”
Nat wiped her eyes and gritted her teeth, “I’m gonna beat my way through the bastards who sell that cursed shit until I find somebody who can fix it.”
Guinevere sighed, “You may not find them, you must know this.”
“I know,” Nat stood, “But I have to try Guinevere. I have too. I can’t lose her.”
Guinevere nodded, “Then I will help.”
Guinevere turned to the cardboard boxes she brought her figurines to market in stacked on a small trolley behind her table. She pulled a small lockbox out of the larger cardboard one and unlocked it carefully with a key hanging from her neck. She examined the contents for a brief moment, plucked one out, then locked it and returned it to the cardboard box. She pressed a small wooden figure into Natalie’s hand.
Nat looked at it. A falcon in flight.
“I cannot say this will bring you to a profitable end, or that it will be any help at all, but it is all the help I can give you tonight.”
Nat half laughed, and half sobbed. She stood, giving Guinevere a hug, as tight as she dared with the frail looking woman. “Thank you, Guinevere.”
“God go with you, brave knight,” Guinevere smiled and tapped her cane three times once more, “Now off with you.”
Nat pocketed the figurine in her jacket, and went straight down the alley, headed into the deep, deep market.
Near the street, any passer-by who could see into the alley, and most random persons could not, would see things one would expect to see at any flea market. Further back in the alley, the veil of normalcy began to wear very thin indeed. Tables of knick-knacks and art gave way to tables selling things like hair. Not wigs, hair. Sold by the strand, the lock, or spools of spun hair. Gray was the cheapest, then the browns, blacks and blondes, red was the most expensive listed, but behind these common colors were greens and pinks under a sign reading “All Natural – make me an offer.” Across from this was a booth selling bones. Most belonged to animals, but many did not. There was a collection of bookshelves on wheels, stuffed with a motley assortment of leather bound tomes, dog-eared paperbacks, and old used notebooks. This one was oddest, not because of its inventory, but because of the proprietor. Behind the table with the cashbox, stood a young boy gazing with lifeless eyes into the distance. His spoke, in an unchanging soft voice, and his hands worked, taking money and pulling books off shelves. People did not speak to the boy, they spoke to the gray cat who sat contentedly on the table. Patrons would address the cat, who would yawn, or stretch, or occasionally meow, and the boy would inform them in that haunting voice of his (the cat’s) reply.
Nat walked past all these tables. None of them were the sort she was looking for. She found that between a booth selling signs that were said different things when you weren’t looking and a busker fortune-telling with horrific accuracy. A short, filthy looking man wearing a threadbare coat. He was holding a bowl of what looked like rock candy out to a passerby.
“The sweetest thing you’ll ever taste. Melts on the tongue. Infused with moonlight. Pass unseen under the pale lady’s gentle glow, guaranteed.”
Nat felt her body tense. A shudder passed through her and her hairs stood up on end. She took a breath, calmed herself, and stepped forward.
“Can I interest you perhaps, sweet lady?” The man said, holding the bowl out to her.
“How much,” she forced herself to ask.
“A trifle. For one, just a bit of gold, a sweet dream, or, even better, I’ll take a share of ignorance for the whole bowl,” the man smiled through blackened teeth, “Or perhaps you come to me for something else? Yes, you seem a trouble sort. Perhaps something to take your mind off those troubles?”
“What about something to get rid of my troubles all together?” Nat asked, clenching her fist behind her back.
“Oh? Getting rid of troubles eh? It just so happens I might have something for you. What specifically are you looking for?”
“A curse. A good one. One that kills.”
The man chuckled, looking around surreptitiously, “I just might have something for you.” He reached into his coat pocket, and came out with a bright orange-red peach. Lucky? Nat wondered, or fate?
“Is this what you’r–AH!” He cried out as Nat’s hand whipped around.
Her clenched fist seemed to glow with hot fury as it took the dealer in the teeth. He was slammed back into the wall, clutching his mouth, red spittle dripping around his fingers. His bowl of candies went flying, as did the peach. Nat grabbed the peach, ignoring the candies as they scattered across the pavement to be snatched up by the less scrupulous patrons. She also quickly grabbed the coat of the man as he tried to run. She slammed him back into the wall and held up the peach.
“Did you sell this to a girl last week!?” She shouted. The crowd around her was quiet. Even the fortune-teller had stopped to watch this unfold.
“‘hat?” The dealer mumbled through his hand, now covered in bubbly red blood mixed with saliva.
“A girl! Green eyes, dark skin – lighter than mine – wearing a hijab!”
“Hijab? No. No I swear!” He threw up his hands as Nat raised her fist.
“She had a peach!” Nat shouted, shoving the fruit into his face, “And you sell peaches!”
“Lots of guys do! I didn’t make it!”
“Who does?” Nat growled.
“I don’t know. I just get ‘em from a guy further back.”
Nat raised her fist again, and the man cowered again, “Name?”
Three dealers later, word of a mad woman was beginning to spread through the market. Most of the spell-dealers decided that next week would be here soon enough and went home. Nat refused to give up hope, but she was also acutely aware that the longer this took, the less likely she was to find the one she wanted. The second dealer had given her the names of several likely candidates, but insisted that none of them were the ones who made the curse, just bought em from further back.
Dealer number five was a mousy looking….thing…barely human in appearance, but Nat hadn’t spared this one her anger. He sold killing curses. He was just as much a monster.
“Did you sell to a girl last week?” She asked this latest monster.
The monster spat, “Look. I never sold to nobody didn’t ask me to sell to them. It ain’t my fault if-”
Nat lifted the creature by the collar, forcing it to its tip-toes. “Not what I asked. Did you sell to a girl last week? Wearing a hijab?”
She saw the recognition in its eyes before it had a chance to speak, “N- Of!”
Nat punched it in the gut. Then again. And again. And again. She kept punching until her fist hurt. In her fury, she let her hand be surrounded by the creeping blue glow that ran across her skin, forming a gauntlet around her fist. The creature screamed and coughed and begged. Finally, when her arm was too tired to swing, she let the creature slide to the ground.
It coughed and spat and gagged.
Natalie felt a pang of regret. She’d gone too far.
“Why?” She said through the tears she hadn’t noticed she’d been shedding.
The thing coughed for another minute before it answered, “‘Cause it was mine! It was meant for me,” it was crying, “You know how that curse shit works. I had to get somebody to take it or I was gonna have to eat it myself. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Nat grabbed its collar again and sat him up. “Well guess what. She’s still alive.”
The things eyes went wide, “What?”
“She’s alive, and you’re gonna tell me what I need to undo the curse.”
The thing shook its head, “I don’t know.” Nat lifted a fist again, “I swear!” Spit, “I don’t know. The guys who makes ‘em would know that.”
Nat’s heart sank. So far nobody could tell her the maker’s name. “Who?”
“I don’t have a name,” it spat again, “But I do know where.”
It was getting late. It was almost seven, and the sun was starting to come up. When seven came, the market would close, and even if this sorcerer, whoever they were, could help her, they would disappear with the rest of the market. Scattering back to their respective hovels for another week. That would be too late for Mina.
The creature led her to a large tent of painted silk. This far back in the alley, the walls were farther apart than they should be, and the tent had plenty of room. Outside, two strange men, shirtless and with faces of wolves, stood guard. Each one carried a golden and jeweled sword on one side of their belt, and a black metal gun on the other. Nat kicked the spell-dealer on his way, warning him that if Mina died, he had better hope Nat never found him.
She approached the guards.
“Who approaches,” The wolf-men said in unison as she approached. Their voices were empty monotones. Probably homunculi. Not that the wolf faces weren’t a pretty big clue. People didn’t usually have wolf heads, even in the Far Market.
“My name is Natalie,” homunculi weren’t easy to negotiate with, she knew to expect some trouble getting into the tent, “I need to see the sorcerer inside.”
“The maker sees no one,” they said, again in unison.
“I have to. It’s a matter of life and death.” Nat insisted. She let the light start to gather around her.
“The maker sees no one. Leave at once.”
Nat took a deep breath.
Ten seconds later, the first of the guards went flying through the silken curtain at the tent’s entrance. Nat came through a moment later, holding a broken sword in one hand and dragging the guard it had belonged to by the throat, smearing the rich carpets on the floor of the tent with green blood. The hooded figure sitting cross-legged in front of the brazier at the center of the tent looked up to see Natalie tossing his guard to the floor by his side. The figure stared ahead, seemingly examining Nat’s shins for a long moment before shaking its head. Nat couldn’t see a face, but she could see a green light from within the hood.
“Do you know how much those cost?” The figure said, it’s voice raspy and harsh.
“I don’t care,” Nat snapped, “You’re the one who’s been making the killing curses? The ones that look like peaches?”
“I am. Does this offend you, or are you here to purchase? I must say if it is the latter, attacking my guards was not a good way to start.”
“I need a counter.”
“Ah. I see, did someone curse you? Looking for a way out?” The figure sighed, “Well I’m afraid to do that you’ll need to pass the curse to someone else before it overtakes you and you take your last bite.”
“Not me! Mina!”
“Mina? I don’t know this name I’m afraid,” the figure titled its head
“My girlfriend. She…she didn’t know what she was accepting. It was her first time at the market. One of your peaches….I need you to tell me how to undo it.”
“I’m afraid there is little I can do for you on that account,” the figure stood, and Nat got a good look inside the hood. Where a fleshy face should have been there was bone. Bone and lacquered wood, and shining through all the gaps was a ghastly green light. “When did she eat it?”
“And she still lives? That is impressive. Yes…yes I could help you.”
Nat’s heart soared, “Oh thank you, I’ll take you…”
“For a price,” the figure finished flatly.
Natalie frowned. Of course ‘for a price’ you asshole. “What do you want.”
“For the undoing of a curse that has festered for a week? I will take an elephant’s weight in gold and call it a bargain.”
“That’s insane!” Natalie shouted.
“You don’t think your beloved’s life is worth so much?” The skull was always smiling, but Nat could feel the smug smirk that would have covered the thing’s face.
“You know that’s not it!”
“Well, if you don’t have it…well…I suppose there is nothing I can do after all.”
Natalie lost it. She released the light she’d been holding back and let it envelop her as she leapt over the black iron brazier. The sky blue light surrounded her, crystallizing over her skin into a brilliant suit of armor. It was a part of her, and it vibrated with Natalie’s rage, filling the tent with a low hum. The broken sword in her hand became a mass of molten gold, growing and reshaping as she brought it down into a great sword of deep azure metal streaked with its former golden color. Her fists, already bloody and raw from half a dozen spell-dealers, held the sword in a white-knuckle grip as she brought it down on the sorcerer.
The thing inside the cloak was inhumanly fast though, and from within the folds of cloth erupted hands of smooth yellow bone and polished wood, holding its own sword made of deepest darkness. Their blades met, and Natalie felt her blade kick back, wrenching her wrists. She was afraid they might be broken, but she could still hold the sword and so she lunged again at the curse making monster. They fought in a circle around the brazier, each swing experiencing the same counterforce, but now Natalie expected it, she could adapt. Once she did, she was able to take stock of the situation. The thing she was facing was fast, faster than her surely, but she wasn’t losing. The same effect that sent her own blade jumping away from the other seemed to plague the sorcerer too. It would stumble and fail each strike, only the monster’s incredible speed allowing it recover in time to meet Natalie’s blow.
He’s fast, she thought, but he’s not very strong. If I can just get past this pushback…
She adjusted her grip, planted her feet firmly, and came down as hard as she could on the skeleton. She was ready for the backlash this time, and when her sword kicked like a mule in her hands, she pushed right through it. The sorcerer did not. There was a ripping of cloth, a crack of bones, and a thunk of splintering wood as the blue sword sheared off the sorcerer’s arm.
Natalie wasn’t sure if she expected the skeleton to shriek in pain, but she definitely hadn’t expected it to start laughing.
The arm that fell to the carpeted floor of the tent shriveled and crumbling into dust. Beneath the curse maker, on the tent floor, a pool of inky black oil was collecting, dripping down in thick globules from its shoulder.
And it laughed.
The fluid twitched, then moved deliberately, lifting itself off the ground like some caricature of a snake or an eel. A ripple ran through the black liquid, and it snapped out rigidly, splitting into a dozen tendrils.
Natalie was almost cut, as the first of the black tendrils whipped out at her. Her sword intercepted it it time, but no sooner had she deflected the oily whip then a second, and third, and more came scything in from all sides. Natalie danced around the tent, barely able to stay ahead of the black tentacles. The sorcerer still had its sword, and between lashes of the black whips would idly swing it at her, more bemused than aggressive.
I’m going to die, Natalie realized, I can’t keep up with these things. I am going to die!
She briefly thought of running, but if she turned her back on this thing she’d be dead before she could get out of the tent. It wouldn’t be long now before she tired. She’d been fighting all night, and she hadn’t slept in…she didn’t know how long. The sword was getting heavier, slower, even the light off it was dimmer.
She thought of Mina, in pain, still fighting though.
I can’t die here, Natalie thought insistently. Mina needs me. I can’t die here. I can’t die here. I can’t die here!
Finally, a black tendril made it past her sword. She saw it slide past the blade, almost casually, and she felt it as it pierced through her armor just above her left hip. She thought she was cut, but she felt no pain.
This is it then. I’m sorry Mina. I’m so sorry.
The sorcerer shrieked. The tendril that had cut at here burst, erupting into a million droplets of black ooze that evaporated in an instant. The cloaked thing recoiled back, its black whips coiling around itself in fear.
Natalie looked down at her hip. Her armor was cut, but she wasn’t bleeding, the tendril had only torn her jacket pocket. She could see the burning figurine falling out of her pocket. On impulse, she threw out her hand and snatched it out of the air. The wooden falcon Guinevere had given her lit up like the sun in her hands, and she felt the light spread out from the falcon and mingled with her own.Her armor renewed itself sealing the cut, her sword felt lighter, and a great set of immaterial sun-light wings erupted from her back.
She held the falcon up to her lips and whispered, “Thank you, Guinevere.”
The thing hissed in its horrible raspy whisper and renewed its attack, lashing out with all its horrible scything black tendrils and it’s black sword. Natalie would have none of it. Her sword was a blur of blue and gold, and her wings folded in on instinct, forming a shield of light against the dark weapons. Her defence was impenetrable.
I still can’t get him, she realized, he’s fast, and he’s learned from the arm I took. Can a skeleton get tired? If not, then I will still lose this fight, even with Guinevere’s falcon. I need to finish this.
She looked at the fast lashing of the black tendrils and sword.
She countered the latest blow and dropped the sword, pulling her light back from the length of metal. She pulled it all in, her armor, her wings, all the light she had left into a single in her hands. The Sorcerer made a horrid, wheezing roar and came for the killing blow from eight directions.
Too late, monster.
She released her light, sending it forth in a lance of blue. It took the cloaked sorcerer right in the chest, throwing him back across the tent. The tendrils melted away, and the black sword was in pieces about the tent.
Natalie went to one knee, out of breath, but otherwise unhurt. She didn’t have time to rest though. She quickly went to one of the dead homunculi, pulling his pistol free. Her light was spent for now, but that doesn’t mean she couldn’t be dangerous. She staggered across the tent, grabbed the collar of the thing’s cloak and pulled him up, where she promptly pushed the barrel of the gun against the exposed skull.
“Fix. Mina.” She demanded through heavy breaths.
The skeleton’s own green light was flickering and dimmed, but he could move, and he looked away from her. He didn’t have a face to read, but Natalie still got the impression that he was sulking.
“Fine,” he muttered.
When she left the tent, it was only a few minutes before seven, and just about all of the market was packed and gone. She made her way back towards the street which wasn’t far. With the market closing, things were less magical, more normal now, and the alley which had seemed endless in the night, was no longer or wider than any other alley. Guinevere was gone by the time Nat reached the street, and Derek was picking up the sign to go home. He nodded at her as she passed, and she nodded back.
When she arrived back at the apartment, Nat hesitated.
What if he lied? What if he didn’t stop it?
She opened the door.
There was Mina. Dark hair spilling down over her shoulders, wearing a baggy concert tee that had advertised ‘one size fits all’ from some music fest they’d been to a year ago. She was leaning on the counter, eating a bowl of granola and yogurt. She set it down and ran to hug Natalie when she saw her.
They hugged, they kissed, they sat down together on the floor and cried.
“I woke up and you weren’t here,” Mina managed to say through the tears of joy.
“I know. I had to go back to the Market,” Nat bawled.
“I figured. I’m so sorry.”
“Sorry?” Nat pulled away from Mina, “What are you sorry about?”
“I made you worry. I’m sorry,” Mina kissed Natalie’s forehead.
Natalie didn’t know what to say. She looked into those eyes, those beautiful green eyes, and she kissed Mina. She never wanted to stop kissing her.
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