The crack in the sky was no bigger than a sliver, a hairline fracture, just enough for the ghost of a breath to slip through. A tear in a world was a dangerous thing, a beacon for the wildest creatures, hawk-eyed beasts and prowling scavengers alike.
At the sight of it, she dove, her wingbeats gathering force. The air stirred in her wake, whistling a strange melody that made those on the ground shiver and shut their windows when they heard it.
But she was impervious to the scream of the wind around her, or the fire in her bones. Her eyes were fixed on the faint circle of light amid the undulating darkness. It was too deep into the forest to be noticed by anyone who wasn’t looking for it. Trees huddled closely into each other, guardians of a secret better off concealed.
Folding her wings, she set herself onto the carpet of moss. It was pleasantly wet and moist, and she sucked in a deep breath, letting the life of the forest fill her lungs. It was a stark difference from the stench of rot and ruin she had breathed in no more than a few minutes ago. Already, hope felt within reach.
She brushed off the remaining vestiges of her glamour and watched as her form materialised into sight. Her skin, uncomfortably tight, was parched from the journey and ravaged by the battle. She stretched her aching wings before remembering what Astov told her about this world and its earthbound occupants. With a resigned sigh, she turned her wings invisible.
The forest was a tangle of gnarled branches and creeping undergrowth, impenetrable as a heart. There was the heartbreaking scent of things blooming and growing, living and dying, that used to fill the air back home.
Astov would have stayed here if he could. She recalled the light that filled his eyes whenever he spoke of other worlds and imagined lives, then pushed the thought of him to the back of her mind before her traitorous heart could take over.
Through the lattice of branches, the light from the market came through as flickering pinpricks, easily overlooked. She cut like a blade of wind through the soggy mire of undergrowth, ducking from the reach of branches.
The stench was the first thing she noticed about the black market – its overpowering miasma of avarice and cunning made her footsteps falter. She supposed it was to be expected of a black market, and forced herself to brave its fumes and observe its workings.
While she had learned about the type of currency used in this world, here she saw not a single dollar flashed. Instead, the goods, displayed under the vendors’ keen gazes, were weighed and measured before being traded. None of them needed introduction – those who sought them knew what they were and those who didn’t had no business knowing.
There were the innocuous-seeming stones and jars of coloured liquid and light. And then there was the macabre: claws, feathers, teeth, skin. And bones, so many of them – ranging from the intricate to the bulky and blatant, ones of the purest white to the duskiest grey – she wondered how she might ever locate the one she was looking for.
There was no time to waste. Every minute she lingered here was another minute carnage was created at home. She blew like red death past the stalls, too intent on what she was seeking to pay attention to the eyes that fell on her, or the conversations that bled away wherever she passed.
When at last she came to a stop, it was because of the gleam she caught sight of from the corner of her eye. She found herself standing before a dimly-lit stall at the periphery of the market. Nearby, a wall of trees stood guard.
A magus’ bones were eternal, preserved by the magic they contained. It was why they cast their own glow even in a badly lit stall like this, why you could hear music – a faint whistle like the song of the wind – emanating from the ivory-white core of the bones. The king had once said that magic was the only thing that could secure everlasting peace and progress, but even his knowledge of magic could not save him from his demise. Now that she – along with the others who were fighting the war at home now – was one of the last few who possessed the knowledge, it was up to them to guard it to their graves.
But their magic alone was hardly enough to bring Astov back. The crown prince’s death remained a mystery – there wasn’t even a body, only the long aching days of hope and dread, hope and dread, that eventually settled into the numbing conviction that their new leader was dead.
They had waited long enough to take action, but now she was just a step away from bringing Astov back. A mage’s bone was not enough; she needed an archmage’s. Bones from a leader of magic would be so much more potent. Yet –
“You will not find what you’re looking for here.”
At first, she wasn’t sure if that statement was directed at her. But the man was staring right at her in a way that made her folded wings twitch under her clothes.
He was one of the vendors, but not from the stall she had set her eyes on. Instead, he sold bits of rocks and stones – none of them precious – displaying them next to a rusty old weighing scale. Under the single light bulb swinging overhead, his eyes were dense and iron-grey, like the bullet Astov once showed her after one of his expeditions to this world. She regarded the man with keener senses now. Someone with a weapon in his eyes was not to be taken lightly.
He went on pleasantly as though she had just inquired about his health. “You want to bring a loved one back, you’ll need something more than a pile of old bones.”
At once, she bristled. Mages were the elite practitioners of magic. Those at home died trying to save the people with all they knew. Yet, this man had simply dismissed them as though they were worth nothing.
She filed her voice into something able to draw blood. “These old bonescontain more power than you can ever understand.” She wondered why she was standing there arguing with a man she hardly knew; he was only a vendor, after all.
“If magic could save whatever it was you were fighting for, you wouldn’t have come here.”
And it was this sentence that stilled her before she could move on. Because it meant that he knew three things – that she possessed magical abilities, that she was in the midst of a battle, and that she was in desperate need of assistance – all within five minutes of acquaintance.
She relented and turned her attention back to him. The vendors from the adjacent stalls were preoccupied, so she ventured further: “How can you tell?”
His voice was dry. “You conceal those wings rather pitifully. They won’t go unnoticed in the day. Also, your scars – they’re still fresh. You’ll need more than a selkie’s tears to heal them. Four stalls down my left you will find an antidote that can heal you at twice the speed. But he only accepts fangs as payment – the more exotic, the better. As for your lover –”
“He’s not my lover.” She dipped her head low to hide the fire in her cheeks.
“My apologies. I assumed you two were romantically involved given how frequently your thoughts drift to him.”
“I said,” she snapped, meeting his gaze straight on, “he is not my lover.”
He chuckled, as though indulging in a recalcitrant child. “As for him, the magic required to bring him back using an archmage’s bones will be too intricate, the process too arduous. From the looks of it, you can ill-afford losing any more time.”
She frowned. “This is the only way.”
“There is always more than one way if one looks hard enough.” He reached for a smooth rounded rock the colour of dried blood. It sat in his palm like congealed liver as he held it out to her.
Her frown deepened as she stared at it. “A rock.”
“A bloodstone,” he corrected. “A far better and quicker solution to your problem. All you need is – as you can probably guess – blood. Not just any blood, though. The blood of an enemy to restore the life of a loved one.”
The blood of an enemy. Who? She had many. But the one who topped the list had to be her. Whom she knew Astov was in love with. Her, whom Astov had come to see on the sly (he covered his tracks well, but she knew him thoroughly enough to find him here). Her, for whom Astov had likely died.
She was dizzy with rage – now a dagger that she tucked close to her, the grooves on its hilt worn and familiar – but she forced herself to focus on the conversation at hand.
“I suppose you want my magic in return,” she scoffed. She had heard enough about Traders to know that they were a mercenary bunch.
“No,” he said, spinning the stone in lazy circles in his hand. “You will never give that up. Besides, what would I do with all that knowledge?”
“What do you want, then?” She longed to tear the stone out of his hand and be done with him, but there was more to learn about the Trader – a lot more.
“Just your wings, love.” For the first time since they spoke, his lips stretched into a broad crescent grin.
She took an involuntary step back, but steeled her voice. “But how will I get back?”
The Trader raised an unsympathetic brow. “Then I guess you’ll have to choose, won’t you?”
She speared him with a look that he returned with relentless fervour. All the while, her mind buzzed and spun. She could feel herself trembling precariously on the hinge of her choice. One word, and the change was irrevocable. If she gave up her wings, Astov would live again. He would restore peace to her home, and continue his father’s legacy. But then she might never see him again; she would be stuck in his foreign world, away from everything she had ever known.
But she hadn’t come here to return in the same sorry state. If there was a chance to save her people that she did not take, she could never live with herself.
When she lifted her gaze to meet the Trader’s again, there was a renewed shine in her onyx eyes. Ignoring the sharp pain in her shoulder blades, she said, “How do we go about this trade?”
Her wings twitched in protest, but already she was imagining herself detached from them, forever earthbound.
When at last the Trader came to collect his payment, it was with a blunt, rusted axe in hand. She hadn’t expected to have her wings severed by such a crass instrument – so unceremonious, almost disrespectful – but the stone was already in her possession and a deal was a deal.
The axe whistled, low and hollow, as it arced through the air.
She braced herself for the oncoming agony. In her palm the bloodstone throbbed, a live thing squirming and writhing, desperate to break free.