The next evening, as the liquefied winter sun poured itself down the horizon, Stanley and I stood side by side on the deck of my boat. He held his grey wool cap over his breast, gazing mournfully at the fissures and holes that ran end to end across the fiberglass roof of my poor home. He had just taken the last hour to inspect her, inside and out.
"She was a good boat," he lamented.
"Do you think I can fix her?" I asked plaintively.
But he shook his lowered head. "On a boat this old, it'd cost more to do the repairs than it would to just buy a replacement. I'm sorry, kid. She's for the bottom of the sea, now, or nowhere. You'll just have to let your insurance cover you, that's all."
"Sure, my insurance," I murmured. "I'm so totally paid up on that."
"No worries, then," he put his cap back on his head. "Everyone at the club is dying to know how it all happened, you know. They saw you going out last night with some friends, some told me. Must have been a party for the ages, is all I can say."
"Yeah," I sighed. "You should have seen it. Everyone dancing, the beer flowing endlessly, people came from all over to join us."
"I hope it was worth it. I suppose it had to have been."
"No, not really," I said.
"You know, I could swear that crack there is shaped like a horseshoe. And that one, there, too."
"Uh, just a trick of the light," I said quickly.
I knelt in my galley—alone if you didn't count Jeeves and Wadsworth—still trying to divide bits of boat from my things, when Khon-Ma stepped down the ladder, not bothering to knock. She was dressed in a black woolen overcoat and had a thick red scarf wrapped around her neck and stuffed down the front of the coat. The coat bore a broad hood, which was draped across her back. And in each hand she carried a tall and thick rune-covered oaken staff. She quietly flicked a chunk of fiberglass away with the toe of her leather boot.
"Are we going back to headquarters?" I asked, looking her over.
"No, we're going to assist Jaroslava. She needs to pick up the particle, remember? You and I will be keeping her company."
"Where?" I asked.
"We're going to the demons' tryst. It's in Pennsylvania, a ghost town called Centralia. If you have something warm to wear, I suggest that you put it on. After all, the Earth's climate isn't like Miami. Some places get cold this time of year. Or—at least the outskirts of town will be cold. Inside town—it will be a bit balmier. You'll see."
"I don't have much here for cold weather," I mused.
"Then wear what layers you can scrounge. There won't be any shopping malls on the way. We'll be walking through Nevernever to get there." She looked around the galley. "This was all the work of the valkyries?"
"No," I said. "Most of this down below was Jeeves and Wadsworth fighting with each other."
She furrowed her brow. "Who are Jeeves and Wadsworth?"
"Crap," I muttered. "I never told you. They're both homunculi. Wadsworth is the one you bound to me."
Her eyes widened. "What nonsense are you talking about? You have two? When did this happen?"
"Jeeves has been a part of my family for as long as I can remember," I said. "When father went away, Jeeves stayed behind with me."
She irritably cracked her staff against the hull. "Why didn't that boy ever tell me that he had been granted his own? Hell and damnation, no wonder you resisted the binding. If I had realized, I would never have pressed you into it. That moron, I should have foreseen that he would try something unscrupulous to protect you."
"Khon-Ma, why do they fight?" I said. "The two little dudes been trying to murder each other ever since they got within spitting distance."
She walked through the galley, nosing around. She picked up Jeeves' net made of extension cords, examining it critically. "They shouldn't. When they do, it's an indication of malfunction."
"Malfunction of the homunculus?" I asked.
"Malfunction of the owner," she casually dropped the net back onto the table.
"That would be me," I sighed.
"Come here and let me have a second look at you," she said. "I want to see how near you are to the breaking point."
She gently put down the pair of staves and grasped my arm with her cold left hand. Her eyes seemed to bore into me, and I felt an intense need to look away. My skin itched.
"Mmm," she murmured.
"What is it?" I asked.
"Mmm," she said again. She let go of my arm and sat down on my couch. "It's not as good as I had hoped. You're balanced on the edge of the precipice. The good news, at least, is that your specialist has responded to my call, and will see you tomorrow morning. You'll need to hold out that long. But it's a near thing. I shouldn't send you out tonight. I should put you in a coma until the specialist arrives. But of course I can't. If you don't come now, Jaroslava will ask questions."
"Is there anything new you want me to try?" I asked. "I've been using my uncle's exercises, but I don't think that they are doing much, anymore."
"Don't use magic," she said. "It'll drive you closer to the darkness."
I tilted my head back. "Great," I said. "No magic. Sure, why not?"
"This is deadly serious, young one," Khon-Ma said. "I may have to kill you tonight."
"I've lived under that threat for a long time, now," I said. "I can live with it one more night."
"See that you do. I would hate to bring your uncle bad news."
I pulled my backpack out from under a pile of debris, dusted it off, and began to pack it with odds and ends that might be useful on a journey that involved visiting an entire town full of soul-sucking demons. I opened a cabinet and sorted through my old potions, picking out a few of the more useful ones and stuffing them into the bag.
Khon-Ma stood. "It's almost time," she said. "Call out your father's homunculus. I'll need to talk with it. Is there some place away from this boat that it can hide while we are gone? We should separate it from your own."
"I guess the theater," I said. "Nothing's playing for the next few nights."
"Good," she said. "Call it."
"Jeeves!" I shouted out. "Yo, little dude!"
The door to my small fridge opened up and Jeeves poked his head out. His face was half-blackened with char.
"Jeeves," I said. "Come meet my master."
He slid all the way out of the fridge and quietly closed the door. He was still wearing bits of my oven mitt, but had supplemented it with patches of leather from some source that I couldn't identify. Warily, he crept towards us, pausing at intervals to listen for his rival.
Khon-ma pulled a gold signet ring out of a pocket under her coat and held it out for Jeeves to see.
"Homunculus, do you see this token of your master? I speak with his voice, do you hear me?"
Jeeves stared silently for a while, but finally nodded.
"You will depart this place and seek refuge at George's theater. You will hide there until called for. Do you understand me?" Khon-ma told it.
But Jeeves vehemently shook his head in defiance and pointed at me.
"It is for your ward's sake that I give this order," she said softly. "Do not disobey me in this. Go there and protect the actors who work there."
The little dude seemed to shrug his shoulders before offering a quick salute. He clambered up the ladder and before long I thought that I heard a soft splash.
"There," she said. "What a pity."
"Should I bring Wadsworth with us?" I asked.
"Probably not," she answered. "Given your condition, I would give it a fifty-fifty chance of starting a war along the way."
The pair of us stood outside a tattoo parlor, taking stock of our belongings in preparation for opening the gate to Nevernever.
"Here, this is for you," Khon-Ma said to me, tossing me one of her runed staves.
I looked it over. The runes were not familiar to me. "How do I use it?" I asked.
She lifted her eyes skyward. "If something comes near," she growled, "hit it with the stick."
I took a second look at the staff in my hand. "Okay, right," I said. "Just asking."
I opened the door and led the way through, aiming for the back of the shop. The shop was crowded with customers being inked, but no one looked up at us as we passed. I guess they were used to weirdoes tromping through their domain. At the back of the shop, I opened up a curtain that led to the store room. As I held it open, the telltale sound of a magical gate closing reached my ears from the darkness beyond. I looked back at Khon-Ma, but she merely waved me forward.
Two men and a woman, all enormously tall and all sporting thick dreadlocks, emerged from the gloom and paused when they saw the two of us. The man in front snorted in derision.
"Paranet lover," he said.
"Fomor cretins," I replied.
"We will come for you when the time is right," he laughed aloud.
I walked by him without a word. At the back of the supply room, Khon-Ma opened up a gateway and we stepped through.
It was night on the other side, and a river of multicolored stars blazed in the black sky. They were beautiful, but to be honest I was getting fatigued with seeing nothing but moons and stars. Tired of being Khon-Ma's personal Renfield.
We were surrounded by tall sawgrass that waved in the warm night wind. The air was heavy with moisture, and I felt burdened by all the layers of old clothes that I was wearing. In the distance, I could see the soft amber light of wisp-like creatures that placidly floated and twirled along with the air currents.
A well-worn mud trail snaked away from us through the vegetation. We would have no choice but to keep to the trail for the next mile or so. If we strayed to either side, we would eventually end up either sinking in a peat bog or slipping into warm, dark water.
Eventually, the trail ended at the remains of a derelict cobblestone road where a gnarled old pine stood watch as a landmark. The last time Khon-Ma had guided me along this trail was when we had gone to the Sky Chamber, and that time at this spot she had taken the left turn. Now she looked back and forth for a few moments, and then without any word plowed straight ahead, right off the trail altogether. I was so surprised, it took me a few moments to collect my wits and catch up with her.
"Where are we going?" I finally asked.
"There are no short trails from here to our destination," she said. "Tonight, we forge our own."
"You know," I offered, "the good thing about the well-traveled trails is that they tend to be swept clean of monsters."
"You forget that the monsters are us," she said.
"Yeah," I mumbled. "I keep forgetting about that part."
The ground rose as we trudged on, in a very un-Floridian way. The marsh ecosystem fell behind us, replaced by dry rocky terrain, with occasional slash pines, then a handful of northern pines. My breathing became labored from the climb, and I found myself having to stop occasionally to catch my breath. Khon-ma waited for me patiently each time, absently fingering the runes on her staff.
On the third stop, I looked to my right and found that I was gazing down into a valley. But I couldn't see much. The valley was engulfed with a darkness that seemed deeper to me than the mere nighttime's absence of light.
The ground shuddered lightly beneath my feet, and I suddenly knew where I was. I pulled off my floppy hat and held it to my still-heaving chest as I stared down into the gloom below.
"What is it?" Khon-ma asked.
"I've buried some friends down there," I said. "Seems like a lifetime ago."
"You know this place?" she asked. "An unlucky place to die. The dead gods here do not dream pleasant dreams."
"Are they not completely dead, then?" I mused. "Is there a chance that they might ever come back?"
"Let us hope not," she said. "They built the outer gate, and may my gods help us if they return again to build another." She pulled off her red scarf and plunged it into one of her coat's expansive pockets. "I do not know why they built that accursed hole in the first place. Only the eldest of the Winter fey could say, and she guards that secret from gods and mortals alike. But I can say that theirs was a tale of woe, Dorje. The eldest of them was determined to explore beyond the gate, and entered it over the words of caution given to him. When he returned, he was the first of the infected. He and his two brothers fought a great war that pulled in their vassals, the Summer and Winter Courts, and which soon led to the creation of the Fomor. Those three warriors died in each other's arms, right in that valley. And so their sorrows ended, but ours only began. For the Outer Gate was later used to exile the enemies of the Fey, with little thought given to the consequences. The Fey thought that the space beyond the gate was merely deadly. They did not realize until much later what they had brought upon themselves. That beyond the gate was death, but also power, and madness to match. For the space beyond the gate had never been intended for sentient beings. It contains all of the universe's machinery beneath our feet, designed to run autonomously, and it is filled with thaumaturgic gears and toxic energies that destroy the mind."
"I know," I said. "My program told me."
"Don't take everything it says at face value, young one. Information can be a half-truth if it isn't understood in its context.
"As an aside, Dorje, whether it comes from me of from the infection, all that you have been told about the Outer Gate is privileged information. There are in this world some who will kill a mortal who knows its story. But given your role in this, it seemed to me that you should understand something of the context behind your struggle. This is why you will have to have your mind erased if you survive this mission. It's for your protection."
"Nawang said the same thing to me, but he never explained why. I should thank you," I said. "Or perhaps I shouldn't. I went through all this trouble to try to preserve my memories, after all. And now it's all for nothing, it seems. I'm sick of all the fighting, Khon-Ma. Sick and tired of it."
"Did you know who the very first Fomor were?" Khon-ma continued. "They were pacifists. Members of the Fey Courts who objected to their involvement in war of the three gods. Considering how they live today, it goes to show that peace is never timeless, not even for the fey."
"Then perhaps they will come to be pacifists again," I said.
"A commendable philosophy," she replied, "but sadly not likely to happen in your lifetime. But while we are standing here above this valley, something else comes to mind that might interest you. The strain of your own infection comes from the dead god that lies below. It's a different line than the infections brought back by the exiles. The exiles have spent much effort suppressing the line that you and I carry."
"Why, what's wrong with it?" I asked.
"We don't know," she said. "From our perspective, all Outsider infection seemed the same to us. But we reasoned that if the Outsiders feared it, then it might have qualities that our kind could exploit. It's a risk that we took when we volunteered to become carriers. A risk that we are still taking. We can only make educated guesses as to how our gamble will turn out."
"So how did you beat the infection?" I turned to her. "How did you keep it from dominating your mind?"
She sighed heavily. "You don't beat it, of course. You learn to ride it with clenched fingers, fearing always to dismount. It was the specialist who taught me and your father how to do that. But his training is individualized, and was completely different for each of us. The techniques that he taught me cannot be passed on to you. You will have to deal with him in person."
I leaned hard against my staff, wondering. "Who is he?" I finally asked. "This specialist? Where did he gain his knowledge?"
"You will see soon enough who he is, if you survive the night. As for how he gained his enlightenment, none but he could tell you, and I doubt he ever would." She turned away from the valley, gazing ahead into the gloom. "Did I beat it, really? How would I ever know for certain? That alien thing inside of me may be cleverer than I, Dorje."
"If it can beat you, then it definitely can beat me," I said.
"Never forget that," she replied.
"Khon-Ma?" I asked.
"Nawang. I was infected by him, yes?"
"Then he carries our line. And if he carries our line, is he one of us?"
Khon-ma picked up her oaken staff and walked on. "Once, briefly. He overcame the infection, but he couldn't overcome the darkness that he had already nurtured deep within his punished soul, Dorje. Forget him, there's nothing more to be done."
"That was you who came to him at the temple, you who promised him that he would find his children, wasn't it?"
"Nothing is as simple as it sounds from the mouth of a mortal, Dorje. I cannot count how many volunteers I have lost to the ravages of the infection. I sometimes believe that I have killed as many friends as enemies. Yet I can do no differently. I use the tools that I have."
"It was your promise that led to the breaking of the Spiral, wasn't it?" I called out to her.
She stopped, her back to me. "We will not speak of this again," she said.
Several hours of marching later, we stepped foot upon a road. Khon-ma now carried upon her shoulder the carcass of what I could only describe as a sea-cucumber with a taste for human blood. I had lured it, and she had killed it. At least, that's the story that I'm going to tell people. It's only half a lie. She decided to carry it with us, saying that its flesh would be valuable at the tryst, in spite of the fact that its gooey skin was soaking her shoulder with some kind of glowing ectoplasmic slobber.
"We're theoretically in Pennsylvania, now," she said to me, pointing her head to the left to indicate which way she was headed.
"Huh," I said. Nevernever would always remain a mystery to me, I decided. I knew from my training that space and time within its dimension did not run evenly in relation to the mortal realm. Short walks in one realm could equate to long ones in the other, and vice versa. The trick to travelling quickly was to know where all those shortcuts were, and as far as I could tell, there was no scientific method to predict where those shortcuts would be. All you could do was walk the walk, and see where you ended up in the mortal realm whenever you poked your head out.
When I was an apprentice with the White Council, I had asked several instructors why Nevernever worked the way it did, and they would invariably turn all occult and ambiguous on me, saying that any useful explanation would require advanced magical knowledge on my part. It didn't take me long to figure out that they didn't know but were too full of themselves to admit it. Typical White Council.
The stars in the sky seemed different here than when we had first left Miami. They were blood-red, and felt larger and somehow heavier. Like we had climbed up a mountain, and were within a rock's throw of the firmament. It creeped me out a bit, but I couldn't explain why.
The sound of hooves and clattering wheels came from behind us, and Khon-ma took my arm and pulled me off the road and into the protection of the trees.
"The closer we are, the more crowded the road will become," she said to me. "But it's best that we not draw too much attention to ourselves from the other buyers. Not everyone respects the peace."
As she spoke, a team of black horses with empty, flame-filled eye sockets raced by, pulling a gloomy carriage behind them. The heavy velvet curtains of the carriage had been drawn shut, but I could clearly see that the driver was a human skeleton wearing a top-hat. It raised a bleached arm and twice cracked a black whip over the heads of the horses.
We waited a little longer than perhaps we needed to before we stepped back out onto the road.
"We are entering the domain of the demons," Khon-ma said to me quietly. "A gate to fiery Naraka-gati lies ahead, and near it, the gate to the tryst, which only opens during a new moon."
"Let's hope we take the proper exit," I said.
"If one is meant to take the gate to Naraka-gati," she said, "all the horses in the world could not drag a mortal away from its maw."
"Could our kind manage it?" I asked. "Do we have the power to subvert Fate?"
"Our kind cannot as far as I know," she said. "But as for our masters, who can say? When you wield the powers that bind the universe together, what can you not achieve?"
"I was wondering about our resident valkyrie," I said. "She seems to be plagued with Fate not coming through for her."
"A senior god is toying with her," Khon-ma said. "I can think of nothing else."
"Nor I," I said.
The tree-line ended, and the soil quickly became rocky and barren. In the light of the stars, I could see that the ground looked like lava that had recently cooled. It formed jet black ripples and waves of bare phaneritic stone, and there were places where it had bubbled up, forming what looked like fragile black flowers. Everywhere around me, the ground glowed with a soft red sheen, reflecting the light of the stars.
In time, we reached a congregation of tents, booths, and tables. Tiki torches illuminated the area. A multitude of humanoids—representing a sampling of all the sentient races that I knew of, and many more that I didn't—ambled about, browsing through the wares being offered at each display. The closer we came, the more tents I saw.
"Is this it?" I asked.
"No," she said. "This is merely the outer market. The real market is held in the mortal world above, in Centralia, controlled exclusively by demons. It is the one place on your home continent where they will openly do business with mortal-kind. But wealth attracts many, so a second market was permitted here in Nevernever, where other races could try their hand at salesmanship.
"And this place also serves a second purpose," she added. "Here, each race can spy upon the market road that runs through Nevernever, noting who comes and goes, and sometimes guessing what was purchased. There are more spies here than salesmen. And there are a few bandits, as well, sniffing for the vulnerable and unwary. Let that be a warning to you. Do not leave the tryst by yourself, Dorje."
"Wait, don't the demons have to be summoned to our mortal world?" I asked. "How do they get outside into Centralia in the first place?"
"Answer your own question. They reach Centralia through mortal collaborators, as you must have guessed," she responded. "There are many of your ilk who are willing to bring them through in exchange for favorable discounts."
"Seems like a lot of trouble," I said.
"Oh, indeed," she smiled. "Mortals excel at that."
At the threshold of the outer market, we stopped to be inspected by a pair of bored-looking demons. They wore upon their reptilian bodies a scaled bronze armor that looked like something a samurai might have worn in battle, back before there were any guns in the world. Upon their heads sat ornate helmets with the faces of the dead carved intricately onto their surface.
"Have you seen any wandering spirits recently?" one asked Khon-ma.
"No," she said.
"We offer a reward for sightings," he said. "Sometimes we have stragglers who leave the group, and it looks bad when we lose them."
"I will keep an eye out," she said.
"Thank you for your cooperation. Are you buying or selling?"
"A little of both, I think," she patted her gross little carcass.
"Hmph, not my place to make suggestions, but I'd give up an eyeball if it turned out that Zeonae turned that down," he appraised her kill with fire-filled eyes.
Khon-ma handed the guard a small gold coin, which he pocketed with practiced finesse.
"On you go," he said, nodding economically. "I like the regulars," he said to his compatriot. "Everything goes like clockwork. It's a welcome relief, I tell you."
Khon-ma took her time leading me in the direction of the tryst gate. She randomly wandered past tents and booths, sometimes turning left, sometimes right. Sometimes we would pass by the same display twice. Since she seemed to be in no hurry, I would occasionally stop to browse through the offerings, and she would patiently wait, observing me through half-lidded eyes.
"What is that for?" I pointed at an ancient-looking silver coin that was cradled within a glass jewel case.
"Don't touch!" the proprietor screeched.
I slowly pulled my hand away.
The sales-lady looked human to me, but I decided it was unwise to make any assumptions. She was old-looking, with scraggly salt-and-pepper hair. Somehow, though, I thought that maybe she was younger than she looked.
"Don't you know what that is?" she leaned forward to me, blasting me with breath that smelled of rotting meat.
"No," I said.
"That," she stage-whispered, "is a Denarius coin. For the right price, all of its wondrous powers could be yours." Her eyes opened wide dramatically as she spoke to me.
Khon-ma snorted. "It's a fake, of course," she said quietly.
"Isn't!" the sales lady hissed. "Real! Real as death!"
"If it were real," Khon-ma said, "you would be wearing it upon your own forehead. You would be unable to do otherwise."
"Oh, you think yourself so clever!" she retorted. "I am so humbled by your wisdom, you know so much! But let me tell you how I am protected from its call. I have a magic charm, yes, a magic charm that saves me. But even better! I have two such charms, yes, yes, two!" She turned a conspiratorial eye to me. "I could sell you the second, oh, yes! You would be protected from the cruelest of demons! You would dance before them, and they could not touch you, no!"
"Coming, apprentice?" Khon-ma turned her back and walked on.
"I have many more things, you have not looked!" the lady shouted at my back as I left her behind.
"Khon-ma," I called out.
"Yes, student?" she kept walking.
"I can't believe I just walked for hours to end up at a tourist trap," I said. "If I had known, I could have brought a box of plastic flamingoes from home and called them holy lawn ornaments. I could have been rich in minutes."
She smiled thinly. "The outer market is not entirely like that table. But you have to sniff around. Come here enough times, and you will remember who deals truly and who deals falsely. And upstairs, of course, is entirely different. The demons there won't lie to you, but they will certainly try to mislead you. You must listen very carefully to their words, sift them through a fine sieve."
"Madame! How much do you want for your adenpod?" A woman's melodious voice interrupted us from inside a slouched tent that looked like it was made up of old hand-woven blue and black carpets that had been loosely stitched together with ratty brown twine. Behind the tent, an ox-like creature with six legs lay on the wrinkled ground next to an old wooden cart, chewing thoughtfully.
Khon-ma leaned down to peer through the tent's shadowy door. "You know this kind of creature?" she called out.
"I have seen them near my home now and again," the voice said. "A knowledgeable alchemist can extract useful ingredients for a love potion from it. There may be a buyer or two on the road. Let me look at it."
"I already had a buyer in mind," Khon-ma said, "in the upper market."
"Well, you can't take it there without it melting. You'd have to bring the buyer here, and he'd demand a discount for taking up his time. Come, I can offer you full price right here."
"Full price?" Khon-ma smiled.
"Based upon its value, of course," the woman said.
Khon-ma seemed to consider for a moment. "Come," she said to me. "It's true that I would be glad to rid my shoulder of this thing."
There was already another pair of customers in the tent when we slid through the doorway, but the proprietor was already shooing them away. "Buy something or go!" she snapped at them, a pair of male vampires. "Or I'll charge you rent!"
"Your goods are worthless," the older of the two vampires hissed.
"You mean my prices are too high. Well, I've gone as low as I can afford. Lower than anyone else, I'm certain of it. So buy or leave!"
"We shall go, and consider your offer," the vampire said.
As they roughly brushed past us, the woman called back to them, "I make you no promises! My price may be higher when you return!"
"That would be unfortunate," the vampire hissed over his shoulder.
"The Black Court makes for bad business," Khon-ma scrutinized the pair of them through the tent's open door.
"You're one to talk," the woman said. Now that my eyes had adjusted to the gloom within the tent, I could see that the proprietor was some kind of fey, probably from the Summer Court. She wore a gossamer wrap around her youthful body, through which pierced a double-pair of leaf-shaped wings. Where the light of the tiki lamps landed on her from outside, I could see that her dress was colored with oranges, reds, and greens.
"So, merchant," Khon-ma said. "What is it that you sell?"
"Like any good dealer," the woman pointed at some empty cushions at her bare feet, "I sell that which will fetch me the highest price."
Khon-ma knelt upon the cushion, waving me down next to her.
"May I inspect your beast?" the fey asked. She gently pulled it off of Khon-ma's shoulder, unfazed by the luminescent goo that dripped from it onto her dress. She turned it over in her hands expertly, tisking as she moved. "This was a clumsy kill," she pronounced. "What did you do, beat it to death with a stick?"
I could feel Khon-ma's eyes rolling. "Well, yes," she finally admitted.
"There is a fine art to killing these creatures," the woman said.
"There is a time and a place for art, and a time for a blunt instrument," my master answered.
"I know the preferences of vampires," she replied lightly. She leaned forward and lowered her voice. "I have news about three of the names on your list."
"Don't expect me to be cowed by insults," Khon-ma said with her normal voice. "Give me an offer, or don't. I already said that I have another buyer." She leaned in closer. "Who?" she whispered.
"What currency do you wish me quote? Gold? Diamonds? Ounces of fresh blood? I can provide flexible terms, of course." When she lowered her voice again, she added, "Two of them have come and gone. The Merlin was here, and with him, the wizard named Todd Brantley. I did not see what they bought, but the word around camp is that they were interested in protections against mental domination, enough for many. They are gone already."
"Gold will do," Khon-ma said. "What of the third?"
"If it were in good condition, I would offer you much, but it is so damaged that I am not certain that it can be saved. I will offer you two ounces of gold, and that is truly generous," she said. "Bùi Kim Mãi has also been seen to have arrived."
"Scoundrel! This is easily worth twice that much! I won't leave without a fair price! Perhaps I should have listened to your other customers before talking with you!" she grated. "Bùi Kim Mãi, are you certain of that? What did he buy? When did he leave?"
"My prices are the best you will find tonight. If you think otherwise, you are free to look elsewhere. But in the interest of goodwill, I will add another two-fifths of an ounce to my offer. But nothing more! I have my sisters' welfare to look after!" she shot back. "He didn't. He's still here, or rather up there in the main market. They say he went to Unturd's tent, and hasn't left since."
"Pay up then, and may the gods of vengeance make your accursed tent moldy!" Khon-ma growled. "A thousand thanks to you."
"Here is your payment, and may the gods of wisdom teach you the proper way to kill," the woman said. "You may reward me later in the usual fashion."
"Come, apprentice," Khon-ma rose to her feet. "Let us go. We still have business to conduct, and the minutes are falling away from us." Outside the tent, Khon-ma leaned close to me, whispering, "Bùi Kim Mãi is here, I can't believe it! He hardly ever gets out of Edenborough! Who would have thought!"
"Do I know that name?" I asked. "It's familiar."
"He's a White Council wizard, a researcher. But he holds the ear of the Merlin. Our masters have long wished to have an opportunity to turn him to our side."
"Turn him to our—oh," I said. "What about our mission?"
"That takes the highest priority, of course, but we must tell Jaroslava when we meet her. She probably already knows via her own sources, and it will reflect poorly on us if we cannot confirm her own intelligence. She will certainly want to pounce on him while the opportunity lasts."
"I think I remember him," I said. "Back from when I was an apprentice with the White Council. He was all right."
"Don't get sentimental, that's not a quality that our masters value. Here, up this way the path leads to our gate. Keep to the side of this walkway, it's a busy road, even when the market isn't here." She led me up a small rise that leveled off with an elevated stone-paved road. In the distant gloom, I could hear the steady beat of marching boots. "Remain here, on the shoulder," she reminded me.
"You guys aren't going to ask me to perform the conversion, are you?" I asked her. "I have no idea how to even do that."
She peered back at me. "You know exactly one way to do it, as you were there when it was done to you. But do not fear. Jaroslava will want the honors. She carries the proper line, after all. Our masters will not want you perpetuating what you carry."
"Small favors," I breathed.
The rhythmic stamping of boots grew louder as we spoke. Eventually, the sound caught up with us, and together we halted and turned to watch the procession match by.
Two columns of red-skinned demons marched in time. They wore armor similar in make to that which the gate guards had worn. At their waists they wore short swords, each carved from a single massive animal bone. Streams of orange fire rose gently from their headdresses, but somehow the light offered no real illumination of the company. I guessed that each of the two columns consisted of about a hundred demon soldiers. To the right of the columns rode a commander and his attendants, each mounted upon an emaciated, angry-looking black horse. The commander half-spread his leathery left wing as he spoke, and groomed it. He must have been telling a joke, because suddenly his attendants laughed.
Between the two columns marched a line of hunched shadows, the sounds of rattling chains drowning out their footsteps.
"What is that?" I whispered.
"Newly minted damned," Khon-ma said. "They have been judged and are being taken to Naraka-gati to work off their bad karma. Guarding the spirits of the dead is the original and true purpose of the demons, here. They only started the market as a way to buy what they needed. It wasn't until later that they realized that they had a true talent at trade. Now the market dominates their time."
"We live in a truly strange world," I said.
"You've only seen the barest fraction of it," she responded.
We patiently stood on the road's shoulder, watching the line of demons march by in crisp formation. From time to time, a soldier would pull a crop from his belt and prod a wayward spirit back into line. As they neared their gate, the soldiers broke into a marching song and increased their pace.
"How is it that I can see the spirits they are herding? Is that a power we have?" I asked my master when the last of them had passed us by.
"Thankfully not," she said. "But the ground you stand on lies at the very threshold of Hell, and so strong is its power that it extends a bit out into Nevernever through each of its thirteen gates. So, in a sense, tomorrow you could claim that you visited a bit of Hell tonight."
"Awesome," I said. "That makes me feel so terribly comfortable."
We fell in step behind the line, but held a respectful distance. When the army reached a fork in the road, they chose the right hand path, which dipped down, descending into a wide crevice gouged deep within the rock. I couldn't see their final gate, but the walls of the canyon glowed with an unearthly red.
At the side of the path, a pair of tall, baboon-faced demons lounged in heavy mahogany high-backed chairs. Each was dressed in flowing red and purple robes. They each cradled in one arm a wax-covered tablet on which they were writing down their count of the damned who had been collected and processed. As we passed them, I could hear them quietly comparing their totals with each other.
Khon-ma took the left hand road, which wound up a small hill.
At the end of the path there sat upon a huge onyx stone a lynx-faced demon who bore a black, waxy mustache that hung down to his knees. He was playing a graceful tune upon a xun flute. It was ceramic, looked like a teardrop, and must have been fired a few thousand years ago.
The flute only had a six finger holes in it, but the demon played it like it had fifty. The music was sweet and sad, and I stopped for a moment to appreciate it. When the song was done, Khon-ma said, "Master of the gate, we seek the mortal world." As she spoke, she pulled her red scarf from her pocket and wrapped it around her neck.
Without a word, the demon held out a taloned hand, palm up, and Khon-ma greased it with an ounce of gold, a bit of the coin that she had earned for the sale of the adenpod. The demon bit upon the gold discreetly and put it into a small leather bag that hung at his waist.
"May fortune favor you in your endeavors," he politely spoke with a gravelly voice. A large round gate opened to one side, and Khon-ma took me by the arm, leading me through.
On the other side, a wave of frozen air blasted me. Flakes of snow swirled through the nighttime air like a ball of sardines seeking escape from a school of hungry swordfish. I delighted in the beauty of the dance, deeply breathing in the scent of the pine trees that surrounded us, glad in the face of the cold.
The mortal world. The gods above and below know how much I cherish it, in spite of everything.
We were standing upon a line of hills, at the edge of a tree line. A snowy trail led from our feet down the hill, leading into Centralia below.
There was no city, no permanent buildings—except for one. At the very center of the town, a modest butte rose up. Upon it rested the dilapidated remains of an old church, its steeple half-disintegrated.
The brightly lit tents and booths of the tryst were arranged in neat concentric circles around the foot of the hill, with pathways running both alongside the tents and radiating out from the butte like the rays of a midnight sun. And while the snow steadily fell around me and my master, I noted that the roads within the tryst were black.
In some places among the tryst, I noted gaps where no tent stood. In those places, a steady stream of smoke and steam rose up, challenging the falling snow, and I could swear that I could make out a dull red glow emanating from the tents that nestled close by.
"Why doesn't the snow fall there?" I finally asked.
"It does fall there, but it melts," Khon-ma answered. "Centralia was once a thriving coal town, a decent place to hold a steady job a raise a family. But the mortal residents became the victims of their own riches. For the coal seams caught fire below the very feet of the community many years ago, and those fires burn still, too widespread for men to control. The ground beneath the town sank and in some places gave way, exposing the fire here and there, adding more oxygen to the flames. Houses and stores collapsed. And so the state of Pennsylvania stepped in and bought out all the residents who wanted to leave, which by then was most everyone."
"And thus the demons moved in, as good as a second home for them. Was the fire an accident?" I wondered aloud.
"It's not polite to ask, of course," she said.
"And the church, there on the hill?" I asked.
"Built upon a firmer foundation," she replied. "The demons leave it be. Come, Jaroslava is waiting, and we have news to bring to her. Just remember to keep your hands in your pockets, and speak no promises. Better yet, speak no words at all to anyone. The merchants here are deadly serious about their business."
"Money," I said to myself. "For angels, demons, or men, in the end it's always about money."