Shopkeeper Trader was bored.
She idly glanced around the shop, and sighed to herself as she waited for something to happen. Someone to enter the shop, someone to buy someone, someone to talk to her.
Part of the problem with running Needless Things, as she named the Shop, was that people weren't exactly flocking inside constantly. After all, it technically didn't normally exist spatially, only appearing when people were actively searching for it, whether they knew it or not. True, this meant that she only had to deal with one Customer at a time, but the loneliness got to her sometimes.
She stood up from the cash register, and walked into the back of the shop. Once there, she idly began sorting through the Sacrifices that'd been traded to the Shop, pulling them out of the almost infinite cabinets and drawers sticking out of the colossal wall, too large to see the ends of with a telescope, that made up the back of the Shop. She pulled them out, idly staring at each one, thinking about the events that had happened when she had gotten them. This memory was traded for a million dollars in cash. Another person's happiness had been traded for the life of their loved one. A rare book here, a gouged out eye there, a person's talent for music. Dreams, nightmares, and everything in between.
The Shop didn't accept credit cards. Or cash, for that matter.
Sacrifice. That was what Needless Things accepted. Sacrifices traded for a Curio of an equal or lesser value to the Customer. That was the number one rule of the Shop. Nothing is given without something else being taken. Equivalent exchange.
She began smiling as she remembered the people she'd talked to, the interactions that she'd had, the warmth and smile of another human. Remembered how nice it was when people were there.
"Alright," she said to herself. The voice was quiet and stoic, despite the immense cheer and deep sadness that she was feeling. "I'm going to sort these by when they were traded, only this time by time of day." She talked to herself often. Sometimes it helped.
Humming to herself, she began pulling everything off the shelves, and putting them back in, by the exact time of day they were traded for her.
Fifteen days, four hours, nineteen minutes and seven seconds into this, the bell rang.
Jumping up in glee, the girl headed toward the cash register, prepared to greet her customer.
She composed herself just as she got to the door, and put on a solemn, morbid face. She checked herself out in the mirror. Her dress, black and somber looking, was clean. Her face was pale enough, and she had the right mixture of scowl and apathy that she'd perfected centuries ago. Her black, waist length hair was straight and even. Overall, she looked as scary and beautiful as the shop's rules decreed.
Once, she had decorated the shop pink and dressed in the same, putting on a rather cheerful smile and cutting her hair. It hadn't gone down that well with her superiors, needless to say. She'd stuck to the dress code ever since.
"Welcome, dear guest, to my Bazaar of the Bizarre, Shop of the Strange, Emporium of the Extraordinary, Market of the Mystifying, Gallery of the—oh. It's you."
Her mystifying air turned into one of annoyance as she realized who was awaiting her.
"Good day, Shopkeeper Trader," said the man, tipping his hat. Dressed in a purple suit and wearing snakeskin boots, he was a peculiar sight—and a disturbing one, at that.
"Professor Plum. How can I help you?" asked Trader, somewhat coldly.
A trained eye might have noticed that his grin, which was already up to the arms of his glasses, widened slightly, but didn't otherwise appear to react to—or even notice—her joke. "Oh, well, a cup of coffee would be nice. Thank you so much for asking, my dear."
"I wasn't offer—" Trader began, before she noticed the hint of malice in the man's eyes, appearing for a split second before disappearing. "I...cream and sugar?" The last bit sounded slightly strained. She would prefer to give the man a cup full of arsenic, but it probably wouldn't have been wise. Besides, he'd probably drink it just to spite her.
Dr. Alphonse Ulysses Card continued to smile, quite careful to not show his teeth. "I prefer my coffee black. But thank you for asking."
Trader sighed, and got up to make the man his coffee. She knew from experience that he didn't enjoy being kept waiting, so made sure to be quick about it.
As she brought the two coffees back—one as black as the sky on a cloudy night, the other, hers, with considerably more milk and sugar in it—the man began to speak. "So, Trader. How's business these days?"
She shrugged, and placed the black coffee in front of him. He smiled at her, and picked his cup up, taking a small sip.
"It's been…slow. Two months since my last Customer."
She took a sip of her coffee, and realized, to her shock and dismay, yet not quite surprise, that it was the black one. He smiled at her some more, and placed his coffee cup down, allowing her to see that his was the one with the milk and sugar in it.
She pretended to ignore this—along with the question of how he had done it—and continued with, "Why? Do you know something?"
He grinned at her. "Oh, no. I was just curious, is all. It's polite to ask your friends how their jobs are going, you know."
Trader noticed that there was a rather obvious hint of something in that last sentence, and the emphasis certainly wasn't on the word, "Friend."
She sighed, and decided to play along. "And how is your business going, Al?"
The good doctor continued to smile, but this time his voice was laced with a bit of humor. "Well, let's just say that the old saying is right: There really is a sucker born every minute."
"Cute." Alphonse gave her a sad look, as if he'd expected more of a reaction, and that somehow she'd disappointed him.
"In any case," he continued, "I probably should get to business."
Trader feigned shock. "W-what? You didn't just come here to intrude upon my hospitality? Blasphemy!"
His smile slowly faded. "Trader, if I didn't know any better, I'd assume that you were intentionally trying to be impolite to me today. I would recommend trying to appear more humble. We wouldn't want anyone to think that you consider yourself to be my equal, now, would we?"
His smile returned. "Very good."
He brought his coffee cup to his lips, and Trader noticed—not for the first time in all she had known the man—that, while he allowed some of it to touch his lips, he didn't seem to open his mouth and ingest any of it. Which made sense, in a way.
"Now, as I said, I am not here to socialize, as much fun as that always is. Instead, I've come here on business purposes."
He smiled at her, this time opening his mouth a tiny bit, revealing some of his milky white teeth.
"Meaning, of course, that I wish to Exchange something with you."
Trader let out a small exclamation of surprise, barely audible, before standing up, knocking over her chair in the process. The sound of it clattering to the floor was the only noise that pierced the ensuing silence.
After what felt like an eternity had passed, Dr. Card cleared his throat carefully. "I'm sorry, did I say something strange?"
The Shopkeeper seemed to return to reality. She blinked, before speaking: "N-no. It's just…odd."
He smiled at her. "What, did you think I would never employ your services? I have knowledge of your shop, and the ability to enter and exit it at will. Given how useful it's been to other people in the past, I find it surprising that you would assume that I'd never use it."
"Yes, but…you know the risks. The price. The Sacrifice."
He shrugged. "Well, I suppose so. However, perhaps I think that the price is going to be worth it?"
She gave him a long stare, before saying, "That may be true. That may very well be true. Come. I'll do the Exchange. But first, will you tell me why you want to do this?"
Dr. Card lowered his head, concealing his eyes with his hat. Trader could practically see her reflection in his sharp, white grin, a grin that looked more like it belonged on a shark than it did on any ordinary man.
Not that Dr. Card was any ordinary man.
"Oh, please forgive me. I should have told you that from the beginning, now, shouldn't I have? My sincerest apologies," he said, grabbing the brim of his hat. "The answer, my dearest Trader, is that I want something that only your shop can provide. Well, that's not entirely true—I could in fact do the job myself—but I'm afraid that the price I'd pay would be a little too much. But telling you, I think, won't convince you. Ah, I know. Why don't I show you?"
Trader frowned. "How would you do that?"
He chuckled, and picked up his coffee cup. She watched him as he poured some of the liquid into his saucer, raising an eyebrow slightly.
"I'm going to let you in on a little secret that my kin and I share. A forbidden magic—well, not really, but it sounds better to say that than to say, "A magic that's slightly disapproved of due to its wastefulness and sheer impracticality in this modern age of electronic communication," and I like the old ways better anyways—that has been passed down from generation to generation."
"I thought there was only the one?" asked the Shopkeeper ennuiously. The man let out a chuckle, before responding with, "Oh, come now. I'm not that old." Trader muttered something under her breath, before Card cleared his throat. "Might I ask for a drop of your—"
"—Not a chance in hell. How stupid do you think I am?"
He raised his hands in defense, responding with a grin, "Hey, it was worth a try. Now, then, I suppose my own will do." He reached one of his fingers to his mouth, quite aware of Trader watching him curiously, and brought it out, now bleeding a sort of diluted red liquid—thinner than syrup but thicker than water. He squeezed a few drops onto the saucer, and the red stuff made ripples in the sugar and cream laden coffee.
"Scrying? Isn't that a little old fashioned?" asked Trader, wearing a bemused expression.
He laughed. "Funny. You sound just like my critics." He waved his hands over the saucer vaguely, and the liquid inside began to bubble. "Yes, this is scrying. However, unlike other forms of scrying, which are limited to where certain seals or objects have been placed, this style of the magic seeks out a person."
Trader blinked. "So it's sort of like a mixture between telelocation and remote viewing."
He grinned at her, his teeth hidden. "Exactly."
She nodded, somewhat understanding the thaumatology behind it. "So, you can use this to view anyone? At any time?"
"Now you know why it's frowned upon. Apparently, some of my…less mature kin was using it to view respectable young ladies when they were bathing. Including yourself, I might add."
Trader's mouth twitched, but she quickly composed herself. "Please don't attempt to frighten me. It's impossible to spy on the Shop, or anyone therein. Besides, it's not funny."
He let out a chuckle, before saying, "You have no sense of humor, my dear. Now, shall we continue?"
The liquid slowly turned pitch black, before colour began to return to it—but not red mixed with brown this time. Primarily, the color that replaced the darkness was white.
"A hospital?" Trader asked, and looked up at Dr. Card.
He wasn't smiling.
His eyes focused on the saucer, he didn't seem to notice Trader, and she noticed for the first time how tired his eyes looked.
Her eyes dropped to the saucer, and she saw what he was looking at.
A red haired boy was lying in a white hospital bed, with various tubes and devices connected to him, keeping him alive. The doctor beside him didn't seem to notice the two observers, staring down at the two from above, and spoke softly to the child, trying to comfort him.
After a while, Trader looked up. "I don't follow."
Alphonse didn't take his eyes off the saucer, but spoke to her in a quiet voice that was fairly unlike him. "He's my son."
"H-hang on. If he's your son, why is he in the hospital? Your kind never gets injured enough to go to a hospital—you either recover on your own or die immediately."
Alphonse grimaced slightly, before looking up at the Shopkeeper, staring into her eyes. "He's half human. His mother…heh…it seems he took more to her side of the family than mine."
"Then why don't you just…you know." Trader put her pointer fingers to her mouth, and made little fangs with them, but the good doctor just shook his head.
"His mother wanted him to be human. I don't want to disobey her wishes unless it's absolutely necessary. Which is why I came to you."
"Oh? To think that the great and fearsome Dr. Alphonse Ulysses Card would come begging to me in order to…" she stopped, seeing the expression on Card's face. While it wasn't a nice look, it wasn't like the ones he usually gave her either. There was no hint of malice, no anger or hatred or even contempt for her. Merely…sadness, and weariness, and even a bit of hope, as if Trader was the only hope the man had.
"I…understand. I'll perform the Exchange." She waved her left hand vaguely in the air, chanting something briefly, before snapping her fingers.
She picked a piece of paper off the table, some parchment that a careful observer would have sworn wasn't there before, and handed it to the man.
"Write your existence with your life, and then the exchange may occur."
He nodded grimly, and accepted the parchment, along with the quill the trader gave him. She placed an inkwell before him, and unscrewed the lid.
"Bleed into this. Only a few drops are necessary."
He nodded, and squeezed his bleeding finger into the ink well. The ink turned a dark maroon, and although he could have been imagining it, Card thought he heard voices, soft and almost silent, coming from the liquid.
Dipping the pen into the well, he read the parchment—written in a language incompressible to the human brain—carefully, before signing his name in some foreign alphabet, either lost to human records or beyond them.
Trader let out a cry, and black blood began to flow from her eyes. She writhed and twisted, in obvious agony, and it seemed as if the whole world was focused on her for that instant. Card watched calmly, more curious than concerned about this new development. He'd never seen an Exchange take place, let alone taken part in one.
Suddenly, the room fell silent, and the Shopkeeper stopped writhing.
She lowered her head, slowly, and finally made eye contact with the good doctor. The man jumped slightly, a look of shock on his face, a look of overwhelming fear.
This was not the same girl as before…no, this was not a girl at all. He realized this, staring at the eyes that stared back at him—not his appearance, but he himself, the person he was, his existence—and not only did It see him, It comprehended him. Which was supposed to be impossible. Meanwhile, this…entity that stood before him, seemed to be beyond even his perception—it seemed to be beyond perception itself.
He waited, and waited, staring at the Being which calmly, emotionlessly stared back at him, before he suddenly realize that he was supposed to speak.
He began to do so, swallowing his fear, and told it his name—but the words that came out of his mouth, he realized, where not his own, where not words he had been planning or considering, where not even spoken with his voice.
"Tell me, witch: Art thou God?" He asked the Being, speaking in a tongue he had never spoken before yet, at the same time, understood.
Nay, I am but the Balance. The Exchange. The Contract. I have no quantity, no existence, merely working as the center, the mediator, the duality between good and good, evil and evil. Speak thy wish, and let it be heard.
Card found himself in control over his own voice again, and said, with conviction, "I wish for my son to be healed."
It shall be done. But the life of a human is worth a great deal, and the price you pay will not be light. Do you take on this suffering?
"I do, Madame."
It has been written.
And without warning, the Entity was not sitting in the chair, which now held Trader, a dazed look on her face. She blinked, and quickly regained her composure. "The price has been paid. Your son is now completely recovered." But for some reason, she couldn't meet Card's eyes.
The man smiled slightly at her, before asking, in a quiet voice, "So you're that…Existence's host?"
The Trader shrugged, and took a sip from her coffee, before wincing slightly. "Occasionally. When a Contract takes place. I don't like It that much, and from the looks of it, neither did you, but…having that thing inside my soul, my body, my mind is a part of the Contract I signed."
Card frowned, carefully staring at Trader. "You signed a contract with it? I thought you couldn't buy the store…?" He left the question hanging, but Trader ignored him, pulling the Contract Paper towards her and carefully reading the incomprehensible, writhing alphabet.
Her expression twitched for a second, and then she turned to another page, continuing on. Another twitch. Slowly, she began to speed through the pages, carefully reading each one.
She ignored him for a second, before glancing up. "I suppose you could say that…as It said, the price of a human life isn't cheap. The Contract took away something of equal value from you, something that would equate to your son's life."
"I'm willing to pay anything I can give."
"That is, unfortunately, the problem. Your son is now completely mortal."
An expression of worry began to grow on Card's face, before he asked Trader, "I don't follow."
"Meaning he can never become immortal. Meaning that one day he'll die, and there's nothing you can do to stop that."
Card laughed, although there was a hint of nervousness in the laughter. "I still don't follow. I have no intention of stopping his eventual death."
"Oh?" Trader asked, emotionlessly. "Well, I hope those feelings never falter. For your sake."
After the doctor left, Trader sat there, quietly, staring at the man's coffee.