Fabian Van Guise saddled his horse. He had twenty miles to ride and less than six hours until sunrise. Even if he used a spell to speed his passage, he knew that he was running dangerously behind schedule. Missing his appointed return time was bound to get him into trouble. Unlike some young wizards who lived exclusively within the Cloisters of the Order of Light and gave little thought to the outside world, Fabian enjoyed visiting his family whenever he could. Unfortunately, he always seemed to drink too much or simply lose track of the time, which meant that he usually made it back to Lucia only by the skin of his teeth.
The right to travel was one of the chief privileges that went along with attaining the rank of Journeyman. Having just earned his staff after eleven years of hard work, Fabian was in no hurry to have it revoked.
"Are you really leaving without saying goodbye?" A familiar voice demanded.
Fabian turned slowly. His sister Ingrid stood in the doorway of the stables. She put her hands on her hips and glared at him, doing her very best impression of their notoriously strict mother. Fabian did not have to ask how she had known that he had slipped out. He and his sister were twins, Ingrid only a few minutes older than her "little brother". They had always read one another effortlessly, and could often finish one another's sentences.
Though well past marriageable age, Ingrid was as fiery as Fabian was even-tempered and her strong spark of witchery was enough to deter even the most desperate of suitors. The fact that her twin was a true wizard and well on his way to becoming a verypowerful and dangerous man did not help matters. Still, Ingrid did not seem upset by her predicament. She had no interest whatsoever in running her own household and often lamented the fact that "wizard" was not an acceptable profession for a young noblewoman.
Fabian smiled slightly to himself. If he ever discovered a way to sneak his sister into the Cloisters, he knew that he'd do it without even considering the trouble it would surely get him into. They were as much opposite as they were alike, and he was certain she would excel at the things he'd always struggled with. The though of his sister casually tossing fire at the people who whispered about her was especially amusing to him.
"Can't you wait until morning, little brother?" Ingrid sighed. "The mists are high tonight and there's a fae moon out!" She warned.
Fabian sighed. There was really no point in protesting. He could feel the insidious wild magic rising up all around him as he stepped out onto the dark road and he could see the moon sitting on the horizon line, unusually large and touched with faintest frostings of blue.
"I meant to leave earlier," He admitted. "I wish I could stay another day, but I can't. I'm still a Journeyman. They'll be expecting me back at the Cloisters," he reminded his sister.
Ingrid laughed. "I know, I know! Such a demanding job you have! All right, off you go! But be careful, Fabian!" She advised. "You may be able to slay fiends with your sorcery, oh-great-wizard, but I still worry about you! It's a big sister's sacred duty!" She stood up on the tips of her toes and hugged him around the waist. Then she gave his horse an affectionate pat.
"I'll stay one the road," Fabian promised, tousling Ingrid's unruly black curls. They were born only minutes apart, so if Ingrid could treat him as if he were so much younger than her, surely he could do the same to her. "I'd better get out of here before mother overhears us. If I have to argue with her, it will be morning before I get back to Lucia!"
"Don't worry. If she comes chasing after you, I'll hold her off!" She vowed, jabbing with an imaginary sword. "Come see us again soon!"
"You know I will," Fabian promised. "Goodnight, Ingrid." Calling up a little white light to ride by, he urging his horse into a trot and set off down the road.
Van Guise Manor was some miles from to the great city of Lucia, and there was no direct route from the Guise preserve to the King's Road. Still, Fabian had ridden the Trader trails that snaked through the forest many times. He slowed his horse to a walk as he crossed the narrow bridge that marked the boundary of his family's lands and stared out across the mist-laden moors. The familiar hills looks like islands floating in a vast silver sea. Fabian could barely make out the stones of the road, but his horse knew the way and the sound of his mare's hooves ensured him that he was headed the right direction.
As he neared the Lucia, he noticed that none of the roadside lamps had been lit. The soldiers who were supposed to attend to the task of lamp-lighting had probably thought it too dangerous to leave their posts, with the mists so high and the fae moon staining the whole world blue. Fabian shuddered slightly, thinking of all the Midwinter tales he had heard as a child about what happened on such ill-omened nights.
The King's Road, though heavily patrolled, was every bit as dangerous as Ingrid feared and despite his valiant departure, Fabian was more exhausted than he'd led his sister to believe. He doubted very much that he could successfully cast any sort of spell more strenuous than his little globe of guiding light, and his lax grip on his mare's reins might have persuaded her to stray off the road if she had not been of such obedient temperament.
Before he came within sight of the first guard post, Fabian felt his head beginning to droop. The night was quiet and unseasonably warm. He considered taking off his cloak and splashing a little water in his face to keep himself awake, but the mists so close to the road made dismounting seem like a dangerous idea. He tried pinching himself, but the need for sleep still weighed heavily upon him. His light began to flicker, and then it went out.
Fabian woke with a start and to his horror discovered that he must have fallen asleep. He could not guess how much time had passed, but his horse had stopped plodding along and was nibbling on a patch of bright green grass. He quickly reinvoked his light, but the King's Road was nowhere within sight. The mist had closed in all around him, as thick as day-old porridge. A surge of fear came over him.
He was completely lost.
Fabian steadied himself. Being afraid kept him awake and wary. He was a Journeyman wizard, and well-equipped to deal with any fiends that should emerge from the gray. So long as he kept his wits about him, he stood a good chance of surviving until sunup. When the mists disappeared with the light of day, he could certainly find his path and hurry on to Lucia. He would be hours late, but the thought of being reprimanded or punished no longer worried him.
There were worse fates than being trapped within the Cloisters for a few months. Wizards who's strayed too far into the mist often wound up horribly cursed or dead. Fabian shuddered at the thought. He searched the mists that surrounded him for any flicker of light, a roadside lamp, or the guard post which he fervently hoped was close enough to catch his eye.
In the distance, Fabian heard the sound of wagons. He urged his horse forward. A trail of bobbing colored lights led him deeper into the forest. As he drew closer the lights, he could make out the distinctive clatter of copper pots, the jangle of harness bells, and voices. While he knew that fiends like sylf and liarbirds could make people thinkthey were hearing human beings, Fabian decided to take his chances. He breathed a sigh of relief as the mists cleared slightly and he saw there was a caravan not far ahead.
Though it was madness to travel on such a night, the Traders never stopped moving. Free from the divine laws which governed the lives of other men, Traders chose and "crafted" their own destinies with powerful magic. They never suffered accidents, but they could cause a stranger to fall down a flight of stairs with little more than a harsh word. No matter what crimes they committed, Traders could never be bound or imprisoned. Shackles would fall from their wrists, normally diligent guards would fall asleep while on duty, and locked doors would mysteriously open for them. They could also drink things that were poisonous and pass unharmed through the mist. Of course, like all magic, their power demanded a price. Even halfbreed Traders could not resist the lure of the road, and if a Trader tried to live in an ordinary, quiet, life, misfortune inevitably befell him.
Traders were only marginally less dangerous than fiends, but Yfaar, the Horse God whom they worshipped forbade them from harming travelers. As Fabian saw it, even being in the company of dangerous not-quite-men was better than riding on alone, a pleasing appetizer for any hungry monster that might be hiding in the mist.
Fabian urged his horse into a trot and soon caught up with the Traders ahead of him. As he approached their last brightly-painted wagon, and brightened his magical light to catch the attention of their guards, he saw that the mists ahead were beginning to clear.
His relief was short lived, however, and Fabian felt his heart seize in his chest as he saw the impossible place that the Traders had led him to.
It was a huge city wall, buried underneath a mountain's worth of rubble. The surrounding forest had worked diligently to reclaim the ruins, but two marble dragons still stood guard before a battered bronze gate. Their bodies were almost consumed by creeping ivy and patches of scarlet Deadly Nightflower, but they still looked majestic in the moonlight. Although ancient cities built by dragons were scattered throughout the world, Fabian was sure he would have heard of such a ruin if it were located anywhere near Lucia. The mist had a way of making time and distance seem arbitrary, and even if he had only nodded off for a heartbeat, Fabian was sure that he had wandered very far from home.
Still, he was curious by nature, and he did not want to be alone. Although the Traders had not formally acknowledged him, they'd hadn't attempted to chase him off either. No one tried to stop him as he followed them through the gates and into the city.
Huge old trees that grew out of every crumbling building within the walls. Their branches were filled with glowing paper lanterns. All around, Traders and stranger folk were arriving out of the mist, opening up their wagons and pitching tents, laughing and hugging one another as if they were old friends separated for far too long. It was a carnival atmosphere, a nighttime spectacle unlike anything Fabian had ever seen. There were stories about a market that only the Traders knew how to find, a place where anything and everything could be bought for the right price.
The Nok Market was supposed to occur in a different location every seven years. No one credible had ever seen it or returned with proof of where it had been.
"The Nok" for whom the market was named was a mythical creature which often appeared in bedtime stories told to naughty children. The Order of Light had scoffed at the most terrible demon of Fabian's childhood, calling it "peasant superstition". According to all of his masters, nothing existed in the world which was older and more powerful than the god Lucius, least of all a giant salamander with a penchant for hoarding lost things.
Even if the Nok was not real, it was obvious that the market was. Fabian was sure that the Archwizard himself would have killed for the opportunity to peruse stalls selling the essence of dreams, lust, fear, and perhaps even immortality.
Fabian dismounted from his horse. He kept her reins wrapped tightly around his hand so that he could control her head and prevent any thief from thinking that she looked like easy pickings. Though usually his wizard's robes were enough to ward off trouble, Fabian suspected that fiends and fae would not be so easily deterred.
Every open space was filled to the brim with Traders and creatures he could not name, all hawking unusual wares and mulling about as if it were midday in an ordinary marketplace.
A stall draped in red silks run by a pair of masked, feathered creatures sold floating glass balls with mirror-like surfaces. Each reflected a different image, not one of them showing Fabian's own face or any view of the Nok Market. As he reached to touch the one closest to him, the shorter of the two fae swatted his hand away with a paper fan.
"Oh no, wizard! Payment up front!" The creature warned. Though it was impossible to tell with the outlandish garb he wore, Fabian suspected that he was not actually speaking to a fae at all, but a man wearing a mask and a headdress covered in feathers. His hands looked very human at any rate. A wind elemental swooped down and the merchant stroked it idly, as if it were a familiar pet. Feeling a breeze rising around him, Fabian looked up.
The largest flock of elementals that he had ever seen was drifting lazily overhead. Normally, such creatures were invisible, though a powerful wizard might possess Sight enough to catch one or two in flight. Watching dozens of them nosing and swooping around one another, Fabian was reminded of a herd of horses rather than a flock of birds. He'd never suspected that elementals were capable of behaving in such a fashion, and the way that one of the larger ones constantly nipped at the tails of the smallest two made him think of his own mother, forever chasing after her mischievous twins.
Fabian slowly made his way through the crowd towards the brightest light, hoping to find someone in a position of authority. As he passed by the Traders he had followed into the city, Fabian began to realize that the ruins were far larger than the city of Lucia. If he strayed from the main road, there was a good chance he would not find his way back to it.
Watching an odd-looking fire lizard running along a wall, Fabian accidentally stumbled into a large wolflike fiend on a fine silver leash. It snarled at him and its master slowly turned to see what the commotion was, not bothering to rein in his monster. Fabian stared in disbelief at the black arcane brands on the man's death-pale skin. His eyes were as black as the hide of his fiend and he had no pupils. "Watch where you're going, wizard," the Deathwalker growled.
Like the Nok, Deathwalkers were supposed to be fairy-tale monsters... the sort of things that only superstitious Calyareans and ignorant children believed in.
And yet Fabian could think of no better word to describe the branded, black-eyed man he had just seen. Wanting to be as far away from the fiend as possible, Fabian bowed several times, mumbled an apology and picked up his pace. He continued towards the brightest light in the center of the gathering, trying his damnedest not to look like a little lost sheep.
In addition to all of the buying and selling going on, there seemed to be a good amount of debauchery taking place as well. A pair of Trader women with snakes wrapped around their bodies moved sinuously in Fabian's direction, and a man with the horns of a stag and goat hooves was pouring mead for a group of gray-bearded Northmen who'd been sitting and drinking for so long that the had become covered in cobwebs. Distracted once again, Fabian nearly ran into the post of a very large purple tent. The sound of drumbeats and the scent of some sort of noxious drug filled the air. Wizards were not supposed to drink alcohol or consume any other mind-dulling substances. Though Fabian still drank wine from his family's vineyards when he was at home, the scent of the smoke made him uneasy. Like the mist itself, it seemed capable of overpowering him if he ventured too close to it.
"Why hello there!" A woman laughed, speaking with a peculiar accent. Fabian blinked in surprise at the stranger who had somehow managed to sneak up behind him. She was tall and thin with unusually fine features and very dark skin. While she wasn't precisely beautiful, she seemed to know exactly how to catch a man's attention. Despite the fact that she was a woman, Fabian's first instinct was to call her a wizard. She was dressed in a dark blue robe that resembled Fabian's own uniform, and she carried an enchanted sword on her hip that had to be at least a thousand years old. It was not until she came close enough to take hold of his collar that Fabian noticed she was not human. Her blue eyes were catlike, her ears were sharply pointed, and a pair of ivory horns poked out of her short golden hair. A line of scales ran down her neck, and she also had a pair of diminutive blue-feathered wings.
"Now what is a pretty boy like you doing all alone on a night like this?" The woman suggested slyly, running one of her claws up to his chin. Fabian's horse snorted and pawed nervously, and he took a hesitant step back, clinging to her reins.
Something immediately seized hold of his leg and pulled him forward. Fabian gasped in shock as he realized that it was the woman'stail. If he'd been suspicious about her appearance before, he recognized her for what she was then. Women had not been formally trained in magic since the time of Ilshanna the sorceress more than a thousand years ago. No mere mortal could live so long, but humans weren't the only wizards in the world. If the legends could be believed, Vincentus Saleri, one of the founders of the Order of Light, had learned his craft from a dragon.
The dragon woman smirked as Fabian noticed her tail, showing a mouth full of pointed teeth. She tickled him with the tip of her tail and laughed as he almost fell over. Spending so much of his life within the Cloisters, Fabian had precious little experience with women. Wizards were supposed to be celibate, after all.
"I'm sorry, I couldn't resist!" The dragon woman blew a ring of smoke in his face. There were sparks of blue fire on her breath. "That Order of Light robe you're wearing? "You should probably take it off," she advised.
"No, no!" Fabian blushed scarlet. His horse pulled away from the dragon woman, and he was only too glad to follow.
"Well, don't say I didn't warn you!" Seeming slightly disappointed, the dragon woman flounced back into the purple tent.
Fabian opened his water skin and took a long drink. Then he splashed some on his face. Obviously, he was in a dangerous place. If all the Midwinter tales were true as they seemed to be, he knew that he would only survive it if he kept his name to himself and refused to trust anyone. Dawn was only a few hours off, he suspected, and the sunrise would be his salvation. He hoped so, anyway.
Something dripped on Fabian's head. He blinked in surprise as he looked up and saw a sprite darting through the air with a thimble full of ale. The little fae zipped into the nearest lantern and when Fabian squinted to see what was making the light, he realized that it was a gathering of sprites, all carousing and drinking inside the red paper shell. Following a trail of zipping golden lights down the road, he peered into the next lantern and discovered a scene much the same. The sight of the little fae zipping through the air from lantern to lantern was mesmerizing. Distracted by the surreal beauty of the fae, Fabian did not even notice that he had reached the center of the ancient city.
He had come to the steps of a palace that put the Cloisters to shame. Half of it had crumbled into a huge black sinkhole, but three towers of solid gold still pierced the stormy night sky, illuminated from below by the red glow of huge bonfires.
Could it be that he had found Aureus, the legendary lost city of gold?
Fabian stared in awe, at least until he considered the sinkhole.
What if it wasn't a sinkhole? What if it was the entrance to a tunnel?
Fabian felt the blood freeze in his veins. The ground rumbled beneath his feet and the bustling crowds of the market fell silent. Everyone who could move did, dodging behind peddler's carts or dunking into ruins. Fabian's horse pulled hard on her bit and made a fearful, strangled noise. He barely held her still, and if he had not enchanted her bridle before heading out from the Cloisters, he felt certain that she would have broken it to get away. He felt like running himself, but there was nowhere he could go.
"A wizard!" A high-pitched, reedy voice exclaimed. "Heh, heh, heh..." it cackled.
A huge shadow fell over him. The smell of carrion was overpowering. Something had found him, and it was something worse than he could have ever imagined. Fabian immediately wished that he'd taken the dragon woman's advice and taken off his robe when he had the chance.
"Most exciting! The Nok has never had a wizard at its birth-day before! What present has the wizard brought the Nok?"
Fabian slowly turned around. Blotting out the light from the fae market's bonfires was an enormous bloated salamander, the color of the moon with a mottled green back and black spots. It was more than forty feet long, and when he turned to face it, the creature grinned at him. Its yellow eyes were fixed on him.
"Well?" it demanded. "Where is the Nok's present?"
Fabian nearly fell to the ground, but his hand was still wrapped tightly in his horse's reins and the mare's sudden rearing forced him back to his feet. She thrashed and pulled away from the Nok, but Fabian held onto her even as she upset a display of pottery and kicked over a barrel of apples.
A stranger stepped out of a nearby alley. He spoke a single incoherent word, and Fabian's horse immediately calmed. The Nok eyed the newcomer suspiciously.
"I'm sorry... I don't have a present for you," Fabian whispered. A gasp from the crowd warned him that he had just given the worst possible answer, but he could not think of anything else to say.
"What? The wizard come to the Nok's birth-day with no present for the Nok? Insolent! The Nok will eats you!" The Nok roared, flailing its flabby tail. A nearby stall was crushed to matchsticks and a string of fairy lanterns collapsed, pouring a dozen inebriated sprites all over the street. Even the Traders who had seemed remarkably calm when dealing with the fiends and fae that browsed the Nok Market looked ready to run.
Surprisingly, Fabian's mare held her ground. She nickered and went for an apple, as if the Nok were not looming over her at all.
"Give me your horse, and I'll speak for you," the stranger whispered, turning to face Fabian. He was dressed like a Trader, but he looked Arborean, with pale yellow hair and very blue eyes that marked him as Gifted. Fabian nodded in agreement. Though a horse of such quality was something he could not soon replace, his mare was not a very dear price to pay in exchange for his life.
"Oh Great Nok!" The Trader proclaimed dramatically. "Forgive this foolish wizard! He dropped his gift for you while he was holding my mare. Here it is!"
With a flourish, the Trader produced something that looked like a large black rat, flattened, turned inside-out, and baked in the oven. Fabian grimaced. The Nok's eyes lit up. "Oooooh! Clever wizard! What is it?"
"I don't know," Fabian admitted.
"A mystery! Yeessss! The Nok wants it, yesss! Give to the Nok!"
The Trader tossed the dead animal in the Nok's direction and the enormous monster crouched down to get a closer look at it, clearly fascinated.
"Hmm! A mystery indeed!"
The Trader winked at Fabian and turned to depart with his horse. Fabian followed him back to the enormous purple tent that he had passed earlier.
The Trader casually passed the horse's reins to a faerie who waited by the tent's entrance and motioned for Fabian to follow him inside the smoky tent. Inside there were many more Traders consorting with all kinds of creatures. The branded Deathwalker with the chained fiend was nursing a bottle of liquor and the strange dragon-woman who'd made a shameless pass at Fabian was lying on a long couch. She flicked a forked tongue at him and he began walking quicker, following his guide to a round table in the corner of the room. He collapsed into the pile of incense-saturated pillows that the Traders seemed to think qualified as proper seating.
"What was that thing?" Fabian wondered as soon as he could find the words to speak.
"Petrified possum," the Trader replied. "Don't worry, it will take Nok awhile to figure out that it isn't worth anything and by that time it will have forgotten all about you. I take it you've never been to the Market before?"
"I didn't believe that it was real," Fabian admitted.
"Well. You learn something new every day, wizard. On that note... what is your name?" the Trader asked.
Knowing very well the kind of power that names possessed, Fabian immediately settled on an alias. "Right now you can call me Hopeless. And you?" He asked.
"Lovelace," the Trader replied, obviously giving an alias as well. Most Trader names were grandiose sounding and almost impronoucable. "Well, friend Hopeless! I must confess something to you. Only very rarely do I feel bad about getting the better end of a deal, but I do think that fine little mare of yours is worth more than one rotten possum. In order to make our arrangement more equitable, I will be your guide tonight. I'll see to it that you survive until morning. A fair price for your mare?" He suggested.
"More than fair," Fabian agreed. An elder earth elemental brought two steaming cups of tea to the table. It set one in front of Lovelace and the second in front of Fabian. The Trader downed his cup in a single gulp and Fabian sipped his tea hesitantly. He felt better, at least until he noticed his companion's shocked expression.
"Oh dear! You shouldn't have done that!" Lovelace chided.
"Done what?" Fabian wondered.
"You shouldn't have drank that tea!" Lovelace replied. "You obviously don't know the rules. Mortals aren't supposed to touch faerie food! Never! Not one sip, not one bite!"
"But you drank the tea first!" Fabian protested.
"Well, that doesn't matter. It won't affect me. Traders are immune to the Laws of Men," Lovelace replied. "And besides, I'm not mortal."
"Who... who are you?" Fabian wondered, feeling suddenly woozy. He got the distinct impression that the Nok had only been the cooking pot, and his rescuer was, in fact, the fire.
"I'm your liberator, Fabian Van Guise. You may be hopeless presently, but you've a tremendous amount of potential and I am to make you live up to it if it kills you. Someday you'll thank me for this, whelp!" Lovelace replied with a smirk. The last thing Fabian saw before losing consciousness was his companion's wicked grin and suspiciously sharp, white teeth.