This story is by Kacy Hogg and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The land had been warped by carnage. Desolate. Crumbling into ash carried away by hot winds. The war was savage, swift, bloody. The vengeful pitted against the defiant. White magic against dark. Now, all that mayhem had been eradicated, only whispers left to prove that it had ever happened. The earth was bled dry of its sorcery, soaked up by a sponge and wrung out in Elsewhere. Persons of magical blood were erased from history; not even a lowly gravestone there to mark that they had indeed lived, survived, fought. Been slain.
A single outpost, standing at the crossroads where every world collided, its ramshackle foundation brittle, creaky and lopsided, functioned as a market of sorts, where items of magic could be bought, sold – never traded – and offered up as testimony that the such a force once existed.
The black market was his asylum, where he held all control; every inkling of manipulation, luck, temptation, fate, was his. The customers, vendors, thieves and beggars were all his. Even the fear that lingered in the air belonged to him. It bubbled in his veins, pricked at the edges of his consciousness and increased the price of every item that was for sale.
Everything was his. Including their souls.
The hellish heavens, drooping from the weight of ever-present gray clouds, surrounded the market like a cage. It was familiar yet claustrophobic.
Dark hair, dark eyes, dark clothes, dark intentions. He walked in darkness much as the crows flew in it. It was sewn to his body like a skin, branded on his eyes like a blindness and pumped out from his black heart. He joked that his business had rotted the organ, turned his vicious desires inside out, but he silently suspected he’d been made that way. Which was fine. Sentiment was finite. James Notley was a man dressed head to toe in the slithering shade, only standing out due to his height and his milky, corpse-like skin.
His footsteps were swallowed by noise as he weaved his way through the market; it was bustling with creatures. Open only from midnight to dawn, customers made it their priority to visit. Foul odors of decay mingled with that of mystery. It choked the air from lungs far faster than a coil of rope.
Black awnings hung over the open stalls, flapping against the muggy breeze. Shifty looking dealers babbled with customers; eyes bulged, fingers scrabbled at the sickly but enticing merchandise. Parts of mythical creatures were sold at a few booths – Pegasus wings, unicorn horns, fairy skeletons freshly flayed, the screams of sirens, basilisk venom, angel tears all bottled and stoppered, ready for use. Next, the voodoo paraphernalia – mainly talismans that supposedly warded off evil but did nothing but scare the wits out of your dinner guests; dolls and needles to inflict pain on one’s enemies and, more often, one’s friends.
The middle of the market was a calamity of miscellanea. Jars of graveyard dirt and bouquets of five leaf clovers; tarot cards and crystal balls that foretold dismemberment; the legendary Apple of Discord and Pandora’s Box, vacant of any true curiosities; curses and spells temporary and permanent; items for proper demonic possession – exorcisms weren’t a good investment – and enchanted coils of rope, chains and even caskets to imprison any sort of thing.
The shadier items could be purchased towards the back of the market, namely necromantic objects – the most profitable. When the rules of death could be ignored, one’s interests became unlimited. Bones of victims murdered, drowned and diseased could be purchased alongside vials of blood. Only the depth of one’s pockets stood in the way. Shrunken heads, Hands of Glory, volumes of forbidden magic, covered the teetering tables.
Then, there was his stand. Perhaps stand wasn’t the right word – pavilion, office, refuge – was nestled in the very corner of the market. Hidden under a plethora of coverings, he smiled and entered. Plush chairs and tables stacked with browning scrolls littered the space. Another opening led to his inventory. Rows upon rows of wobbly shelves stared back at him in the dim candlelight. Each was crammed with a frosted jar, a semitransparent entity writhing inside.
James Notley was not just the owner of the market. He was also the only one there who dealt in the buying, selling and capturing of souls. There were no boundaries of pain to him when it came to the prickly methods of extracting a soul; therefore, it was the most corrupt of ventures.
No soul was off limits. Souls of the tortured and the damned, the benevolent, foolish, the lost and mundane. Each soul belonged to him. No jar would open without his consent. It was addicting. Others might say cruel, but it was power.
He didn’t like getting his hands dirty – the market was dirty enough with all its blurred lines, grimy surfaces and sinful patrons. All he had to do was reach forward with his mind and an individual would be drained of that tiny flame. It was a form of magic so uncommon, a magic that dwelled in the murkiest fathoms between each world – not in the worlds – and so went untouched by the war’s cleansing.
The soulless were chained to the land, unable to travel from one parallel world to the next. Prisoners of the emptiness that consumed their entire being.
He was the only one who could come and go between worlds as he wished. Boundless.
But he remained neutral, favoring his market and his profits and the fact that he alone, was a warden of spirits. Never aging, never fighting, just hunting.
“Jamie?” A husky, yet musical voice rang out.
A knot of dread formed in his gut. He willed it to untangle.
“Jamie, come out where I can see you.”
Sitting in the plush chair was a little girl who looked more like a goblin than a girl. Patches of hair protruded from her greenish scalp, and her eyes were too wide and too close together.
“Ah, there you are. How’s business been?” It was unsettling, how the gravelly voice did not match the body it came out of.
“How many souls have you collected today?”
“I’ve just finished my rounds. I’ve captured every soul in the Distant realm.”
“Good, good.” cooed the girl, scratching at the arms of the chair with talon-ish fingernails.
The Conjurer never visited in the same form. Paranoia at its utmost. James Notley may have owned the market, but the Conjurer owned him. “I see you have been admiring your collection. The souls, I mean.”
“It’s quite beautiful isn’t it, the inexhaustibleness of your power, mystical or not. I suppose magic just adds a certain dramatic flair, am I right?”
James nodded again.
“Might I remind you, Jamie, to look me in the eyes when I’m speaking to you.” James raised his chin and looked down into the little girl’s dead gaze.
“To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?” he said through gritted teeth. He loathed the Conjurer’s unannounced checkups.
“It’s come to my attention, that you’ve began selling the souls. Why is that?”
James shrugged. “Curiosity, I suppose. It’s always piqued my interest what others might try to do with them.”
“That is not for you to decide, Jamie.”
Stop saying my name, he threatened. “I am the owner of the market, I can do what I wish. Besides, soul magic cannot be controlled by anyone but me. They kill themselves whilst trying to coax it from the jars and then I can take it back and sell it again to another naive customer. It’s smart business.”
“It’s absurdity and a risk we don’t need to take.”
“We?” spat James against his better judgement. “Last I checked my decisions had nothing to do with you.”
“They have everything to do with me!” the goblin girl spat, flashing a pair of too-sharp canine teeth. James raised his eyebrow. “Must I remind you I can take this all away from you, Jamie?”
“No, you don’t.”
“You answer to me. I permit you to run this operation. I permit you to wander astray between worlds. And it is I who can leave you gasping on the ground, no better than the rest of those wretched mortals. All I need to do is snap my fingers.”
James growled. His freedom was tied to the Conjurer and what he traded in: covenants.
After all, only the dead could capture souls, and if James did not watch himself, the Conjurer would cause his infinity to shrink and he would reincarnate him. He’d become a man again and loose everything.
“Now,” purred the girl. her yellowing fingernails had torn right through the velvet of the chair and into the fluff beneath. “What do you have to say to me?”
“Please, Conjurer, do not make me live.”
The goblin girl smiled a nasty smile reserved for killers. “I accept your request today, Jamie.”