By Darrin Bright
Frigg’s day. It was a slow week, so I was in the back room antiquing the magic lamps when the door chime went off. When I got up to the counter, the shop looked empty, so at first I thought someone was obfuscating or nifflering me. But then I spotted her in the back corner, poking through the lanthanide fleeces. She spent a few minutes hesitantly looking around, almost left twice, then turned around and approached the counter, giving me The Look: pinched eyes, tight mouth, jutting chin. I didn’t hear the Orphan Detector by the door go off, so I glanced over at Jerome, but the statuette just shrugged at me.
She asked, “Are you the proprietor?”
“The one and only.”
“Are...um...I don’t mean to be rude, but...are you a goblin?”
You’d think my green skin would be a big enough clue, but some people still ask. I pulled myself out of a slouch, all six foot four of me, and smiled, showing off my tusks. “Half-goblin. Apatosaurus on my mother’s side. You can call me Guff. What can I help you with, young lady?”
“I...I...” she stuttered a bit, snuck a look back at the door, then took a deep breath and drilled into me with those piercing brown eyes, sharp as agates. “I’m looking for something to get rid of an evil sorceress.”
I don’t need Saint Jerome to help me with this one. Second-hand robes, knobby knees and wobbly elbows, the hunched don’t-notice-me posture. She’d done everything except scream ‘I’m The Chosen One’ at me. “Don’t we all. So, what are you in the mood for? Banishment, disjunction, petrification, soporifics, or are we up to poison and death rays yet?”
She gulped. “You...you have death rays...that can kill?”
I shrugged. “It wouldn’t be much of a death ray if it didn’t kill. Look kid, I sell tools, like a magic hardware store. What other people do with the tools, that’s not my problem. I don’t get too deep into that whole wheel of morality thing. Bad for business. So...let me guess. Evil sorceress, cryptic prophecy, secret factions plotting to kill you, adults are too scared to explain what’s really going on?”
That got a rise out of her. She huffed at me, nostrils flaring. “I did not come in here to be mocked.”
I rolled my eyes. “Hey, don’t get your petticoats in a bunch. I’m no scribbling scapegrace, just a shopkeeper.” I caught myself baring my tusks, so I took a deep breath and let it out. “Sorry. I’ve been at this awhile, so I see a lot of you kids come through here. The bodies pile up, you get jaded. So, this evil sorceress of yours. You want to kill her, or just take her out of action?”
Oh, I knew that tortured look. Her mother was a monster, and I bet I knew which one. In fact, you could say I’d already had the displeasure of her acquaintance. It explained the shrug from Saint Jerome. She said, “Never mind about that. I just want to make sure my friends don’t get hurt. Do you have any protection charms?”
“Sure. How many friends? You got a Power Trio, or a Five Man Band?”
“I’m sorry...a what?”
“Your Scooby Gang. Do you just have the two best friends, or do you have a bigger group?”
“Oh! There’s three of us.”
“Got it. Ok, so, the Smartypants Pariah generally doesn’t need so much protection, which leaves the Loyal Lunkhead. What’s his weakness?”
“He’s not a lunkhead!”
“Really. So...do you copy his notes, or is he always copying your notes?”
“That’s...that’s not the point! He...he has really bad handwriting.”
“Uh huh.” I dug around behind the counter, brought out a wooden box, and opened the lid. “Amulet of Ereshkigal. Complete protection against death spells, death rays, and killing curses.”
Her brow furrowed as she mulled this over, then she shook her head. “Too many other ways to die. Knives, bullets, drowning...or, I don’t know, something really stupid, like falling off a roof or getting hit by a bus?”
I put the amulet back with a chuckle. “Yeah, the Lunkheads tend to be their own worst enemy.” I pulled a bag from a rack next to the counter, opened the drawstring, and shook out a thumbnail-sized yellow stone. “How about a Trollskin Tooth? For one hour, your skin hardens like stone. That covers knives, bullets, roof, and you’ve got very good odds against the bus.”
She gave me a skeptical look. “Are there any side effects?”
I shrugged. “Ravenous hunger.”
“If your friends have any pets or livestock they’re sweet on, you might want to make sure Fluffy is locked up or out of sight. I can sell you an appetite suppressant, but it’ll cost you extra. Oh, and stay out of the sun, or it’ll put you to sleep.”
She shook her head. “That’s not really what I’m looking for.”
Rule of Three, and you don’t get very far in the fairy realms if you don’t follow the rules. Time for the honeypot. I slid over a rack of vials from the end of the counter and made a show of digging through them while squinting at the labels, although I knew exactly what I was looking for. I could feel the twisting, cloying pull of the hidden rune scratched underneath the label just as my finger touched the vial. I held it up and gave it a little shake, the smoky glass obscuring a few drops of liquid, but the vial felt much heavier than it looked. I set it down on the counter in front of her. “How about a little whiff of the Vapors of Pythia? Take a little peek into the future, about five minutes of foresight.”
I saw it in her face, those piercing brown eyes locked on that vial, and before she even touched it, the Covetous Rune already had its hooks in her. The rest of the world could have just melted away. But she fought it, could maybe taste the teeny little tickle of a trap in the back of her throat.
“Just...five minutes?” she asked in a breathless whisper.
“When the proverbial excrement hits the fan ...that could be a very important five minutes.”
She picked up the vial, rolled it around with her fingers...and then very deliberately thunked it back on the counter. Those sharp agate-brown eyes broke away from the vial, tilted up to look at me, and started drilling into my skull. She asked in a steady, quiet voice, “Did you get this vial from my mother?”
Crom Cruach on a cracker, this kid was sharp! It took me a moment to shake off my shock, and then I gave her some bluster. “Look, kid, I got a business to run. You don’t like what I sell here, the door is behind you.”
She made a show of looking around the shop, then turned back to me. “I am well aware of how your bread is buttered.” She sighed. “All right, Mr. Guff. I need to buy a lie that sounds true, and then something a lot more valuable.”
Common sense was hollering at me to throw the kid out, that this ankle-biter was a badger in a basket. But a twitch in my nose told me the kid had an angle of some sort, and I wanted to see what it was, so I decided to play along. “Coyote’s Tongue, second aisle on the left, next to the Medusa Shampoo.”
She walked over to the aisle, came back with a small thumb-sized clay pot, and set it down next to the Vapors of Pythia. Then she pulled a candle out of her pocket. I’ve got a goblin nose, so all I needed was a whiff and I knew what it was. I almost jumped across the counter and grabbed her by her dainty little neck. Almost. My muscles were tensed for it. But I’ve been at this racket long enough to know that going full donnybrook on one of these kids can go horribly wrong. One of the few perks of being ‘The Chosen One’ is that getting strangled by a shopkeeper usually isn’t part of the story. I gave her a deep growl, the kind that rattles the windows, and asked, “Is that what I think it is?”
She nodded and said, “Candle of Aletheia. If I light this, the flame burns blue when you speak true. If it burns red, I’m being misled. But I don't want to do that." She put both hands on the counter and let out a deep breath. "I think I can guess the truth without the candle. The candle has limitations, like the Coyote's Tongue. I could ask you, did you get this vial from my mother? And you could say no, because you got it from someone who worked for her. And while that would be technically true, it would not be the whole truth. If I was very clever and asked exactly the right questions, I might be able to fence you in between half-truths and omissions until I figured out what exactly my mother has done to this vial. Or I could try something else, perhaps by dealing with you honestly, trading in good faith for something you really want, and earn your trust the old-fashioned way. And then you might voluntarily tell me what I need to know without deception or coercion. But even then, it might not even be the whole truth, and you might unintentionally leave out some important detail, so when the Prophecy comes true, something horrible happens anyway, no matter what steps I take to avoid it, no matter what magical potions or spells I might buy in this shop. Do I have the proper understanding of all this?"
I had goosebumps up and down my arms. Bugger me blind, this kid was sharper than a redcap's razor. "I...think you've got it by the short and curlies. So, what are you doing with this candle?"
"It occurs to me, that in your line of work, this candle might be more valuable to you than to me. Would you be willing to trade the Vapors of Pythia and the Coyote's Tongue for it?"
"Done." I knew a good deal when it smacked me upside the skull. She gave me the candle, and I stowed it under the counter so it was out of sight. "Now, what are you really here for, kid?"
She continued to stare straight at me, not even blinking. "I'd like to purchase your honest advice. If it's available, I mean."
That was definitely worth a chin-scratch or two. I mulled it over. Like most everything in my shop, there was a downside. If it got out that I gave my honest advice, and the kid came to a bad end because of it, that could be very bad for business. But it was also wrapped up with flattery and some respect for my position. Very shrewd little bastard! I said, "It could be...under the right circumstances. It's going to be expensive, though. Brass tacks, kid. What have you got that might be worth my good advice?"
She pulled a lump of amber out of her pouch and set it on the counter. Damn my goblin nose, I hadn't even touched it, and I could already feel the dappled touch of the first spring sunrise, a warm glow spreading down into my arms, through my body, and down into the roots of my feet. Fresh spring water laughing and gurgling through creeks and streams, filling my roots with life, purpose, and energy. The wind shivered through my leaves, tickling and whispering all its secrets to me. The rest of the forest bloomed around me, swirling with pollen and birds and wildlife, all the quiet joy of sunlight and fresh rain soaking up through me. Time and weather marching not towards a moldy grave but an endless celebration of life and growth and rebirth. All of that from just a whiff, and I hadn't even touched it yet. It took me a moment to steady myself and catch my breath. "A Dryad's Teardrop. Where did you get that?"
"A gift from a dryad friend."
Even with my own senses screaming at me that this is the real thing, old habits die hard. "Dryads are not in the habit of giving gifts."
"I saved her tree from a fire."
That would do it. And I was tempted...so tempted. But like I said, I've been at this a long time. "What if it gets back to your mother that I helped you?"
She didn't even blink. "No strings attached. Tell her the truth."
Bollocks on a bandersnatch, this kid had nadgers. I took the Dryad's Teardrop, and even though my entire body shuddered with the full weight of it, I managed to put it behind the counter. "Ok, kid. You've got my honest advice. What would you like to know?"
She finally broke her gaze away from mine, and I could see her turn inward as she gathered her thoughts, mapping out all the possible twists and turns of what exactly she wanted to ask. Then she turned back to me, and asked, "If you were in my position, standing here in this shop, what would you buy to deal with my mother?"
I've been doing this a long time. I know
everything in this shop, how to use it and what drawbacks and
limitations to avoid. All the evil, dark things these kids are put
through, all the forbidden curses, all the dark pacts, and all the
spells that dare not be spoken, have passed through my hands at one
point or another. All the undead necromancers, the evil stepmothers, the
Nothings, the Dark Ones, the World-Devourers, the various
Whoever-Shall-Not-Be-Named, they come to call in my shop at one point or
another. Over the years, I have acquired a few things that not even
they would dare to touch, some really nasty stuff. "Hold on, kid." I
headed into the back room. It took me a few minutes to move the
hearthstones out of the way and disable the wards. I brought back an
ebony box, set it on the counter, and opened the lid. Three bottles,
stoppered and sealed with wax, laid out on a black velvet pillow. I took
the bottles out, one at a time.
"You want to deal with your mother? Here's three things she has absolutely no defense against." I set the first bottle down, a square blue flask with a faintly glowing liquid inside. "This one is called 'Introspection'. Insight and self-awareness, you might say, although it's a bit more than that. Just a few drops of this, and your mother gains a new understanding for all the decisions she has made, and how they created or contributed to her current situation. Essentially, it makes her see how her current hot mess is her own making, rather than something other people did to her."
I set the next one down, a rounded red bottle with a thick syrup inside. "The next one is 'Empathy'
. This will cause her to realize how much harm she's inflicted on others. Which I'm sure she's already well aware of, but this time she'll feel the other end of it, all at once."
I placed the final bottle, a narrow vial of bright green liquid next to the others. "And this is the worst of them. This one is called 'Remorse',
and it's a double-whammy, because you both get hit with it. However, you at least know what's coming and will be prepared for it. She won't be."
She gulped, and I could feel the tears already building up behind those sharp eyes. Like I said, nasty stuff. She stammered, "And...um...after the remorse?"
"There's no potion for that, kid. Whatever bed she's made, she's got to lie down in it."
She took a deep breath and nodded. “I’ll take them.” She reached for the potions, but I put my hand over them.
“Whoa...not so fast. You paid for my good advice, and I gave it. You haven’t paid for the potions yet.”
And that’s when she opened her pouch, pulled out three more Dryad’s Teardrops, and laid them out on the counter. They hit me in waves, roots in the cool shade as the bright green treetops soak up the hot potency of summer, the bittersweet crispness and glorious cascade of colors in autumn, the comforting blankets of snow underneath the dazzling sparkle of icicles in the winter. If I hadn’t been holding on to the counter, I would have been on the floor trying to take root right there. I grunted, “How many times did this dryad friend of yours almost get her tree burned down?”
“She cries a lot. She...how did she put it...she said she has terrible taste in men.”
With a chuckle, I put the three potions back in the ebony box and slid it over to her. “You got a deal, kid.”
I was closing up the shop when I heard the evil sorceress gurgling her way up through the pipes. This gave me time to hide the teardrops and toss the empty clay pot into a dustbin. When I stepped into the back room, she was coming out of the bathroom, wringing out her long raven-black tresses. She snarled, “Would it kill you to clean out your drains every once in a while?” She pulled out a clump of goblin hair, attempted to fling it off her fingers, and failed. Frogboy, her amphibious minion, was not quite so disconcerted at being covered with slimy sewer water. He attempted to hand her a towel, but she pushed it away in annoyance and burned the hair off her hands with a firefinger spell. Frogboy looked wounded and hurt by this careless rebuff, but this was close enough to his normal expression to be nearly indistinguishable. The pungent stench of burning hair permeated through my sitting room.
I coughed, trying my best to ignore the stench. “Try the sink in the kitchen next time. I take it the Ministry is watching the magic mirror network?”
“Idiots,” she grumbled. “Shatter a few mirrors, blind a couple of useless switchglass operators, and all of a sudden I’m ‘Public Enemy Number One’ again.” She looked around the sitting room to locate the proper spot to loom malevolently, but there’s nothing particularly ominous about a few hassocks tossed around a stone slab table covered with empty bowls, stacks of invoices, and a half-eaten archaeopteryx. She then noticed Frogboy still holding the towel, and angrily swiped it from him with a snarl for failing to give it to her earlier. She patted herself down, then hurled the towel back at Frogboy. “Well?” she demanded. “Did she take the Vapors of Pythia?”
“Yes, she took the potion.” This was true.
“Excellent.” A wicked smile contorted her face, then twisted into a frown as a dark thought crossed her mind. “Did she buy anything else?”
“Yes. She bought a Coyote’s Tongue.” This was true.
Puzzlement pinched her face. “Really? What would she need to lie about?”
“It wasn’t for her.” This was also true.
The Sorceress dismissed this with a shake of her head. “No matter. When those drops of cockatrice blood hit her, she can look into the future all she wants, but she’ll be paralyzed. She can watch her friends die, then watch them die all over again, and she’ll be completely helpless to stop it.” She locked her sharp agate-brown eyes on me, and I could see the resemblance. “She trusts you?”
I hadn’t expected this question, but the answer slid effortlessly off my tongue. “Implicitly.”
“Good. Now I just need something to get past those stupid wards those idiots at the Ministry have set up. Can you get me a scrying glass?”
“I’ll need some of your blood.”
Her eyes narrowed. If they were sharp before, they could split diamonds in half now. She snarled, “Do I look completely stupid? Divination may not have been my strongest subject, but I know you need the target’s blood, not the observer.”
I shrugged. “Half her blood is your blood. Easier to get, you’re standing right here.”
“Why can’t you get it from the girl? You said she trusts you.”
“Your daughter is young, but she’s not stupid. Even if she doesn’t realize what the blood is for, you can bet your belt-buckle that her friend Captain Smartypants will. Look, you want a scrying glass? You can have it fast, cheap, or effective. Pick two.”
The sorceress mulled this over, but not for long. That’s the problem with World Domination: when you want it bad enough, you really don’t want to wait for it. With a disgruntled snort, she pulled out a dagger. “Fine! How much blood?”
“I need three drops.”
After I collected the drops into a vial, she pointed a bloodied fingertip at me. “If you betray me, I will turn your spine into a toilet brush.”
I showed off my tusks. “Now, why would I do something that stupid?”
After the sorceress left, I knocked on the broom closet. “She’s gone. You can come out now.”
Fishgirl slopped out of the closet and turned those big bulging eyes on me. “Didth you geth the dropth of bloodth?”
“Yep. Just give me a few minutes, and I’ll mix up the potion for you.” Spell-breakers just need one drop, plenty of blood left for the scrying glass. While I got the ingredients together, Fishgirl just stood in a puddle. I couldn’t tell if she was still crying, or just dripping.
She burbled, “Anth thith will breakth all her spellth on Gigg?”
“Frogboy? Yep. Standard spell-breaker. Just sprinkle a few drops on his choco-crickets or whatever he eats.”
“Anth,” she said, “Gigg will shtop following her arounth anth dthoing everything she shays?”
“No, it doesn’t work like that. He’ll see her as she truly is. After that, it’s up to you. But...do you remember the secret incantation I taught you?”
She rolled her eyes at me. “Boyth are shtupidth.”
“That’s the one. After the potion hits, he’ll be broken, and no matter how he feels about you, he will not think of this potion as a kindness, not at first. It’s not your job to fix Humpty-Dumpty. You need to pick up the pieces, get him to a safe place, and let him sort out what to do with what the pieces he’s got left.”
She continued to stare at me while I finished the potion, which was a little unnerving, but then again...no eyelids, so nothing she could help. I sprinkled in a little topaz dust. Alligator tears. Black mustard seeds. A little kale. I am so glad I finally found a use for that inedible crap! The iron helps binding with the hemoglobin. I pestled it up, dripped it into a vial, and handed it over.
She stared at it for a moment, and then looked up at me. “Why are you dthoing thith?”
“I got a very lucrative sideline, kid. All these Chosen Ones, all the Dark Ones, all this Save-the-World-From-the-Big-Bad-Nothing shenanigans. You think all those terrible young-adult fantasy novels are just going to write themselves? There’s a huge market for all that crap.”
She frowned at me, which was a lot more unnerving coming from a fish-girl. “Sho thath all? Your justh dthoing thith for the money? I don’th pay you, buth you geth paidth for shumone to writh all thith dthown?”
And I was so close to just leaving it at that. She gets her potion, she goes off to save her Frogboy. But maybe it was a side-effect of the Coyote Tongue wearing off.
“No,” I said. “That’s not it. You ever heard the story of the Brave Little Tailor? Or maybe you know the German version, Das tapfere Schneiderlein?”
“No. Whath a thailor?”
“He makes clothes.”
She scowled at me. Noting her sopping wet dress, she said, “My people are noth sho keen on clothesh.”
“Point taken. Doesn’t matter. The point is, the tailor isn’t the Chosen One. He doesn’t cast spells. He doesn’t have an enchanted Elvish sword. He’s not an orphan, he’s not special, he’s just someone who knows how to sew together clothes. All he’s got is what’s inside his skull, same as you and me. They send him up against giants, and he beats ‘em all. He gets everything: the princess, half the kingdom, the Happy Ending. You want to know why I do this, what my angle is? You and me, we’re like all the little tailors out there. We’re the bit players, just normal every-day folks trying to scrape by. I don’t know if you and your Frogboy will get a Happy Ending. Not everybody gets a Happy Ending. But you and me, just like that Brave Little Tailor, we still get a shot at it, just like any Chosen One. So, any Dark Lords or Evil Sorceresses out there that want to screw over a tailor, or a frogboy, or a fishgirl, then they might want to think twice about it. Maybe Guff has got the little guy’s back.”
She gawped at me, and said, “Whath I meanth to shay, I don’th know how to pay you for thith potion.”
I waved her off. “We’re square, kid. Go save your frogboy.”