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Whimsical Wonderful Wandering Wares

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                  The sound of icy slush crunching underfoot bounced off of closely packed stone and timber walls in the narrow backstreets of a small, frozen city in the Cold South. The rest of the continent was warming with the end of winter, but spring in Valjer meant only that the roads were clear enough for a few intrepid travelers to make their way to the city on foot instead of by the small airship port. Ainsworth, a traveler, was neither intrepid nor wealthy, but he was in Valjer none the less.

Said traveler, a man with a flame cupped in his palms stepped off to the side of the street to allow a horse and sled to trudge past. It was carrying several blocks of ice from the market and neither draft-horse nor driver looked pleased about it.

He called out to the driver. “Any late arrivals to market?”

The driver didn’t stop the cart to yell back as he drove past, “Sorry, pal, closed an hour ago.”

Ainsworth shaded his eyes and squinted at the sky. The sun was hanging low, bright against the grey, overcast heavens. He estimated he had three more hours until it was gone. Maybe less if the storm moved in. He sighed. With a snap of his fingers he relit the spark that danced an inch over his palm without burning the skin. It wasn’t much, but the heat felt good through his threadbare gloves.

Ainsworth walked briskly down the street, his hands preoccupied, giving his mind time to ruminate. Time was running out and so were his hopes of finding what he needed. As someone who relied on magic as a livelihood, the idea of returning home empty handed was intimidating. He had a full silver piece saved in his purse for this purpose, but it wasn’t enough to buy passage to a city further north where such supplies would be abundant.

He snuffed the spark and pulled a crumpled list from his pocket. Some items had been crossed off already, but the apothecary he bought the fireweed and reishi from dealt solely in local herbs. After spending the morning at the market, hoping the thaw would attract new business and being disappointed, he took the afternoon to comb the streets of valjer for any shop that sold anything magic at a decent price.

Powdered magnesium? Expensive.

Ashwagandha? Even more so.

Witch stone? It was unlikely he would find something like that this far south, though he still had a few hours to go.

He stopped in front of a door. Frowning, he looked down at the hastily scribbled address on his paper. It matched. A local at the market had directed him here, promising a “strange shop” with “strange things inside.” Ainsworth looked at the door curiously. It was worth a try.

The gentle tinkle of a bell welcomed him inside. “Hello? I’m looking for-“ the man drew up short when he took in the inside of the shop. “Woah,” he breathed softly, eyes wide in awe of the sight before him.

Spoiler

 

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The sound of the bell as the shop door opened rang above the newcomer's head, the sound swelling like a small creature stirring from a deep slumber, before drifting across the room like a sort of phantom. The traveling jingle of a sound touched the far wall, where a store clerk sat nose-deep in heavy book, which lay open on a dark wood-top counter. The sound of the bell circled back from the wall, whipping past the clerk's left ear, close enough to brush her cropped, raven hair like a gust of wind before returning to its copper home above the front door. The clerk looked up from her thick, dusty tome to catch the silhouette of a man standing in the doorway, and heaved the book closed with a dry, solid 'thunk'.

“Hello.” she said, her voice soft, but somewhat flat. She eyed him over as she stood from the stool she'd been perched on for most of the afternoon, just about matching his height as she stepped around the counter. She didn't seem surprised to see somebody coming in from the street so late in the day and, more notably, in such cold as the sun began its descent into the horizon. Really, she didn't seem to express much of anything in her features apart from momentary interest, and even that was a little debatable.

The space itself was smallish, or else it just seemed small because of the wares and oddities that lined the shelved walls and seemed to close in on whoever entered. It was a dim space, too, despite the many orb-shaped lamps that hung from above at various heights and locations and in no discernible pattern. There were no windows in sight apart from the one on the door, and the dim, glowing orbs illuminated the space with a greenish light that gave everything it touched a similar tint. One had to wonder how anybody could read under such conditions.

The place smelled of incense and old paper, but with a hint of something sour beneath it; Likely whatever preservatives were keeping the jars of frogs, fingers, and other biological oddities (some of which seemed to be staring Ainsworth's way) in remarkable condition. The clerk looked past him as the door eventually swung closed, noting the chill that drifted in behind him. She approached one of the low-hanging lamps and leaned in to whisper something to it in a way that was too soft and breathy to hear. The light from the orbs shifted from green to a warm, sunny gold, brightening the place, but also emitting a warmth that wasn't there before. As the green light faded, so too did the greenish tint on everything it had touched, save the woman herself, whose skin kept its leafy spring color.

“There.” she said, still flat, “That is better, I hope. You were looking for something..?”

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Still staring unabashed at his surroundings with a wide-eyed awe, he replied, “I think I found it.” 

He didn’t know what he was expecting when he came here, but it wasn’t this.

As the lights and temperature of the room changed, he was surprised that while the light returned his skin to its warm tan, the woman’s skin remained green. That was new. Ainsworth caught himself staring and averted his gaze to lock eyes with some... eyes. A jar of eyeballs, yellow and fleshy, floated in their preserving fluid in a jar that sat just below eye level on a crowded shelf. One blinked. (Winked?) Ainsworth blinked back with unease.

“Actually,” he started, diverting away from the jar, “do you sell hag stones? Specifically, any with quartz in the base composition? Oh and, wait, hold on a second,” he fumbled his list back out of one of the many pockets on his jacket, “I’m also looking for 15 grams of runestone, 5 grams Ashwagandha herb, sympathy wax, and, well, do you know what Panax is? More importantly, what half a terric pinch of Panax is?”

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“Panax notoginseng, Panax quinquefolius..?” she asked. In the warm light one could better see the green of her eyes as well, which seemed to brighten as he rambled off his list of ingredients (though her overall expression stayed stone and plain as ever). “You're looking for ginseng root, of which I have a few kinds..” The witch stepped past him, gesturing to a middle shelf along the same wall as the door, where a line of dried roots and herbs sat in neat little boxes of varying size. Some were labeled with handwritten cards, but most were not. One got the impression that anyone who came to the shop either had to know exactly what they were looking for, or else be wise enough to ask for help.

“I'm getting ahead of myself, though. Let us begin from the top of your list. Hag stones..” the witch moved past him again, angling herself so as not to accidentally brush elbows before reaching up to a high shelf on a different wall. She wore a long black dress that might have been flattering if it wasn't so painfully simple in make and design. Still, the fabric flowed as she moved, rippling with each step like droplets of ink in water. The clerk pulled down a small, but heavy chest with a silver latch and no lock. She turned to her guest, flipping the lid open to reach in and pluck out one of many smooth, pitted stones within. Holding it to her eye, she looked through the hole in the middle right at Ainsworth. “Quartz is among the most common minerals you'll find in any composite stone. Any of these should be sufficient, but please,” the pitted stone clacked against the couple dozen other still sitting in the chest as the witch dropped it back in, “have a look for yourself.”

The witch held the chest firmly in one arm and kept the lid open with the other. And though she showed no immediate signs of distress, the way her arm began to sag beneath the weight of the stones suggested that holding them for too long would prove difficult. Why, then, were they on a tall shelf to begin with? Above them a taxidermy barn owl sat poised and motionless in a sprawled attack position, save for its eyes. The eyes were watching them.

“May I ask..?” the witch began, inquiring with minimal inflection, “Are these for you, or are they an errand for someone else?” She wasn't in the habit of asking such things, not usually. It wasn't her business to know such things. But there was an uncertainty about the man that she couldn't quite put a name to. Not yet, anyway.

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“Ginseng?” Ainsworth asked as he stripped off his gloves and tucked them into a pocket as the room warmed. He nodded in recognition. “I never would’ve been guessed. Makes sense though. Thank you.”

He followed her to the shelf and waited for the witch to retrieve the wares, fingers absentmindedly playing with a loose thread. The owl perched overhead caught his attention. Its predatory eyes, combined with the general feeling of being watched from unsuspecting corners of the shop, sent a shiver of uneasy paranoia down his spine. It contrasted with the feeling of wonderment the rest of the shop brought. While an adversion to eye contact rarely caused any trouble, the feeling of being watched by eyes where there should be none preyed upon his nerves. He was glad for the distraction when the witch brought the box down. 

Ainsworth pushed up his sleeves and began shifting through the chest of hag stones with a practiced motion, picking through the stones as if he had done it many times before. He looked fast out of consideration for the witch and the heavy box in her arms. Some of the excess jittery energy seemed to drain from the mage as he focused on the task, his fingers suited to spending their energy on feeling for faults in the stones. Most he pushed to the side. For a few, he took them out and held them to the light, turning and examining each face and facet, before dropping them gently back in. He examined one of a trigonal disposition with a single opening a little bigger than the pad of his thumb and large splotch of quartz coloration along one side for some time; he turned it over in his hands and held the hole to his eye to peer through, mimicking the witch’s earlier action; Though, he took care not to look at her through the hole. Beyond simple courtesy, based on his experience in the shop so far and a hunch, it may be best to let some things remain unseen.

The shopkeep asked a question in her monotone way of speech while the exchange happened.

Not expecting the query, Ainsworth started in surprise and fumbled the hag stone in his hands, loosing the rhythm of his analysis. “I- well, it’s mostly for me,” he said. “The hag stone is for me anyway. There’s a few things I’m looking for that are going to get used and maybe sold if I’m lucky. They’ll get used, that’s for sure.” He gave a small smile and pushed back a strand of escaped hair from his face in a habitual tick. “Oh- and I’ll buy this one,” he said, and held up the triangular stone, apparently satisfied in its appearance.

“If I could ask a question,” he said after a moment, “how did you get so many natural witch stones? None of them looked drilled.”

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“Mostly..” she echoed, sort of humming flatly to herself. It wasn't a question, but there was an emptiness about the word.

“They do not come to me all at once, that is for certain.” the woman said with a deep sigh, the first sign of inflection to be found in her voice as she hefted the chest back into place. “When I go looking I have to dive for them and scour the seabed for piddocks. If one knows where to look, however, one can harvest a stone or two before they are washed ashore.. or lost to an endless deep.” She smoothed out her dress as she turned back to him, then gestured to the hag stone he'd plucked from the bunch. “That one,” she said, “is a somewhat rarer find. You have a good eye.” A compliment, though it hardly sounded like one in her particular way of delivery. Of course she might have been trying to sweeten him up before negotiating an inflated price, but it was hard to say for certain.

“Let me see..” the woman said, “Ginseng, witch stone, wax...” she was revisiting his list out loud, pointing to each corresponding item among the shelves. “What else?” The clerk drifted back to the counter to step behind it and open the ledger. She scrawled what looked like phantom notes on a blank page with the tip of her finger as she awaited the remaining items on his list.

The taxidermy owl followed them the whole time with warm, near glowing eyes, as though it were watching a baby rabbit in the underbrush. “You seem a little uneasy.” she said, still peering down into her invisible (if they were there at all) notes, “Would a cup of tea put you at ease? It would warm you from the cold at the very least.”

Edited by Lady Gilaen

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