Marcus stood in line, awaiting his turn to give the gatekeeper of the midnight market portal his offering. A mesmerized hush fell over the group, at the sight of the first sparks from the gatekeeper’s spell. They blazed brightly, dancing about like fireflies in the darkness beyond the feeble reach of the streetlights. The newcomers were thrilled at the sight of the dancing lights gradually lengthening into electrified tendrils and weaving themselves together into a luminescent tapestry suspended in mid-air.
The latecomers towards the rear of the line strained forward, peering over and around the people in front of them, in an effort to watch the gatekeeper work. One snap of her fingers and the glowing knitted oval split with a thunderous crack. There was a collective gasp as a portal into the interdimensional market opened with a whoosh, blowing back the hair of the woman at the head of the line. The newbies’ gape-mouthed stares made Marcus smile. He supposed that he had looked much the same way, on his first trip to the market with his mother as a young boy.
There was an atmosphere of excited anticipation. Several people around Marcus murmured quietly about the charms and potions they hoped to acquire. A couple of them attempted and failed to engage Marcus in conversation. He had learned a long time ago to keep his intentions to himself. Some of the more unscrupulous market sellers employed people to stand in line and steer customers their way. Those sales stalls and shops tended to offer the highest priced and poorest quality items. Some of the fraudulent merchants even sold cursed items to newbies and tourists.
The line surged forward. Marcus snapped out of his distracted musing and chided himself. He needed to remain alert and keep his wits about him. There were many trustworthy vendors. However, the midnight market was full of predators both behind sales counters and in the crowd strolling past. It was also full of distractions which opened one up to attack from unscrupulous spellcasters, opportunistic thieves and kidnappers.
Marcus cast a cautious eye around the people standing in line, as he moved forward. From time to time, progress slowed to a stop as one issue or another arose. People were always attempting to smuggle prohibited items into the market. He joined the others around him in chuckling at banned repeat offenders, who attempted to gain entry to the market only to be summarily dismissed by the no-nonsense gatekeeper.
The line began moving quickly and Marcus abruptly found himself face-to-face with the wizened gatekeeper. Her black eyes boring into his made him momentarily forget the procedure. He felt like a teen attempting to gain entry to the market alone for the first time. Avoiding eye contact, he awkwardly bowed his head deferentially and presented the gatekeeper with his offering. Rather than taking the spiritual sachet he proffered, her bony fingers closed around his wrist. The small birdlike hand latched onto him with a vice-like grip which belied its delicate appearance. Startled, Marcus looked up into her seamed face. She spoke so softly that he had to lean down to hear her.
“To what do we owe the…honor of your visit witch hunter? Surely you realize that the market is a protected haven for spellcasters. As such, witch hunters do not hunt here.”
“Yes ma’am, I’m just trying to find a friend of mine.”
“Witch hunters have no friends in the market. Unless, you have turned your back on the order…then you might find many allies.”
“I haven’t turned my back on the order…not exactly,” Marcus instantly regretted his choice of words. The old crone gave him a sly, knowing look.
“Well whatever your mission is here tonight, watch your back witch hunter.”
Marcus nodded and hastened to move forward out from under the weight of her stare. He stepped over the threshold, feeling the electrostatic tingle of the pierced veil between realms against his skin. Entering the midnight market, he immediately became aware that someone was following him a little too closely. He knew what was coming next, the old bump and pocket pick tactic. He immediately planted his feet, in anticipation of the not-so-subtle shove from behind by the first member of the tag team pretending to bump into him.
Rather than stumbling into the second man in front, Marcus reached back and gripped the wrist of the hand attempting to slip into his wallet pocket. One forceful twist and the thief dropped to his knees with a startled bark of pain. Marcus kept his gaze fixed on the accomplice in front who, seeing the gambit thwarted, deserted his partner and slipped into the crowd flowing into the marketplace. Visitors still streaming through the portal barely spared them a glance, strolling past unconcerned. People minded their own business in the midnight market.
Marcus tightened his grip and dodged the thief’s feeble left hook before growling, “listen up because I’m not going to repeat myself. I can either turn you over to the market patrol and let them take you into custody or you can help me find something. What’s it going to be jackass?”
“I’m not telling you a damn…ow…you…augh…let go. You…ok, alright I’ll tell you whatever you want to know just let me go!”
“Don’t make me laugh. I’m not trying to hear anything you have to say. No telling what off-the-wall answer you’d pull out of your ass! I’m looking for something that has been stolen. So, I need to find a fence, but not any of the small timers who work on the main drag in the market. The…thing I’m looking for is very valuable. You’re going to take me to the big fish here in the market.”
Marcus disliked the sudden oily smile that spread across the thief’s craven face. No doubt, it was the same smile he’d wear while driving a knife into Marcus’ back. There was no honor among thieves like him. Seeing revulsion on Marcus’ face, the man fixed him with a piteous look and whined, “Look man, I’ll take you to see the man. You ain’t got to twist my wrist. Could you let go, before you break it?”
“In a minute, I need a little insurance against any under-handed tricks you might pull.”
“Oh, I assure you…ouch, why are you ripping out my hair!”
“Not assurance dumbass. I said insurance,” Marcus explained as he pulled a vial of goofer dust from his pocket, unstopped it and inserted the man’s plucked strands of hair alongside a rusty coffin nail and proclaimed, “I bind you to my will, until such time as you deliver me safely before the person I seek.”