“You can’t wear that.” I stared at Abby in her fluffy pink sweatshirt.
“We’re pretending to be wealthy Hunters interested in buying magical antiques. Not… teenage girls having a slumber party.”
“You should lose the scarf, too, Kira,” Jim called from the front seat. The low tones of some Top 40 pop music came through the speakers, blending in with the gentle patters of rain.
“Ugh, fine.” I unwrapped the hand-knitted indigo scarf from my neck—made with the yarn the three of them had gifted me after I’d spent time in the medical ward. It was probably my favorite fashion accessory.
Really, my only fashion accessory.
I bunched it up and threw it on the floor of Jim’s monster truck. He’d somehow collapsed the monster cage in the back and pulled up a row of seats, which were stained with a suspicious black liquid.
I didn’t want to know what had left those marks.
“So we don’t even know what the illegal artifact is?” I asked, zipping up my jacket.
“Nope,” Gavin replied.
“How are we even going to find it?”
“Usually, the black market dealers follow a specific procedure,” Jim said, as we slowed down to make a left. “They’ll have a booth selling normal artifacts, but when a buyer says the ‘secret phrase,’ they’ll hand over the illegal item. I agree that it won’t be easy to find them, but if we keep our eyes peeled for suspicious activity, we’ve got a shot.”
“Okay…” I said, the gears in my head turning. “But if someone saw that suspicious activity, and sent out the alert, wouldn’t it be good to tell us what they saw? So we can be on the lookout for it?”
Abby, Jim, and Gavin all broke into laughter.
“You’ll find, in working here, that the ‘alerts’ are often dubious,” Jim said.
“Yeah. You’ve been lucky that all the alerts so far have been legitimate—the Mother of Dolls, Tentaclon, the necromancer.”
“That’s a funny definition of ‘lucky,’” I said.
“You know what I mean.” Gavin smiled at me, as the light of a streetlamp washed over his face in the darkness. Lighting up his handsome face, green eyes, strong jaw. “We get so many bogus calls about bogeymen under the bed and suspicious animals in the swamp that we could fill a whole monster dungeon with them.”
“So let me get this straight. We’re going to a market… on a claim of suspicious activity… that we have no details about… that might be fake.”
“Yup. Welcome to the NIMP!” Abby said, cheerfully.
When we rolled up to the curb, there was already a throng of Hunters standing on the street in front of the alleyway. We jumped out of the SUV and hurried down the sidewalk—but when we got to the alleyway, it appeared to be just that. An alleyway.
“Uh. Where’s the market?” I asked. Most of them ignored me, but Mr. Elsa—I didn’t know his actual name, but it was the dude who had literal ice crystals growing on his skin, so that’s what I was calling him—turned towards me.
“Hey, you’re Kira, right? You were amazing. What you did, getting the Gravedigger—unbelievable. I thought I was a goner. That we were all goners.”
“Oh, uh, thanks,” I said, suddenly blushing. I still wasn’t used to people profusely thanking me when they saw me, instead of making fun of my clothes.
“Incredible. Really. I’m Taylor, by the way.”
“Taylor. Sure.” I made a mental note to rewrite “Mr. Elsa” in my brain as Taylor.
“We’ll have time to fawn over Kira after we get into the market,” a voice said behind me. I turned around to see Erika, the telekinetic, weaving through the crowd. “You were amazing, by the way,” she said, giving my arm a squeeze.
“Thanks,” I replied.
“It must be cloaked,” Gavin said, as the group walked down the alleyway. “But we’ll find it. I mean, the dark magic detector says it’s here, and it’s never wrong.”
“Except when someone hacks the code. Like a week ago.”
He frowned. “Yeah. But that’s very, very rare.”
We continued down the alleyway. Buildings shot up on either side of us, like the sides of a canyon, but wrought in brick and metal instead of red stone. Fire escapes crawled up them like thick vines.
Then the alleyway turned right, and I saw it.
At the end of the short alleyway, I saw the slice of a courtyard. Set up inside it was a massive tent, strung with lanterns glowing in soft gold, and rows of booths underneath. Hordes of customers walked to and fro, chatting softly, gesturing.
It looked rather enchanting, actually, for a market that might be selling illegal items.
I walked towards it.
My body hit a wall. I bounced back, face stinging, body aching. “What the hell?” I muttered, rubbing my face. “That hurt!”
“Er, Kira,” Gavin said softly beside me, “why did you just walk into a brick wall?”
“I didn’t just walk into a brick—” Oh. Right. I could see the market beyond the brick wall… but nobody else could. “The market’s through there. How do we get in?”
The point of a spear appeared behind me. Jim scraped it across the brick, making a horrible sound like nails on a chalkboard. “Probably a concealed opening somewhere,” he said, over the racket. “Now we just have to find it…”
“Will you stop that!” Abby shouted, hands pressed over her ears. “I can just use fire to—”
“I have a better idea.”
I turned around to see Eric, the water elemental who looked more like a lumberjack than a Hunter. He stood behind us in a buffalo plaid shirt, arms crossed. “There’s a much better way to see where the opening is.”
With a flick of his wrist, a cloud of mist rose up from the ground. Mist coalesced into hundreds of droplets, suspended in air. He waved his hand, and the water soared towards the wall.
Most of the drops exploded upon hitting the brick. Which to me, looked pretty trippy, since I didn’t see the brick. They just exploded against an invisible wall. But some, in a perfect rectangle near the floor, soared through.
“There you go,” he said, with a smug smile.
“That’s what I was going to do!” Abby complained.
“Yeah, and what, let everyone know we’re here by the fire suddenly torching through the exit?”
“I could’ve used sparks!”
As they bickered, I crouched down. I could see the water trickling in thin air, and the strange dry patch. It was only a few feet wide and a few feet tall—enough for me to get through, but I wasn’t so sure about Jim.
I pushed my hand through. Instead of hitting the rough, cold surface of the brick, it extended into the marketplace.
A warm hand fell on my shoulder. I turned around to see Jim. “We’re going to split into groups, so we don’t cause a panic,” he said. “You and Gavin go in first. And play up the couple thing. It’ll look more natural, that way.”
Gavin looped his arm around my waist, and I felt the warm tingles again. “Yes, we’re just looking to score some sweet shrunken heads, very well, carry on. How’s that?”
“Great,” Jim said, the sarcasm going right over his head. “You go in now. Abby, you and I will go in next, in about five minutes…”
Their voices trailed off as we crouched. Gavin pressed softly against my back, and I pushed through the hole. When I came out on the other side, I couldn’t help but gasp.
A vast tent stood in front of us, stretching the entire area of the courtyard. People passed to and fro underneath it, and various magical artifacts stood in the booths. Amulets, small carved statues, mirrors framed in glittering silver. Every color of crystal, gleaming in the soft golden light of the lanterns strung overhead.
Gavin came in after me. “Bloody concealment spells,” he muttered, brushing his pants off.
“Come on. Let’s go!” I said, excitedly.
“Right.” He sidled up to me, wrapped his arm tightly around my waist, and said in a mocking tone: “Kira, honey-sweet-poodle-pie, please lead the way.”
“Way too much.”
We walked towards the tent. The sound of happy chatter filled out ears, as the shoppers milled about. We passed the first booth, that held an array of potted plants.
Snap! I shrieked as a Venus-flytrap-type plant snapped at me, inches from my hand. The saleswoman grinned.
“It is beautiful, no?” she said in a thick French accent.
“Uh… yeah. Very beautiful,” I said, nodding profusely.
“You might want to keep your hands to yourself,” Gavin whispered. “Some of these things bite.”
“You couldn’t have told me that sixty seconds ago?!”
“Sorry, I forgot. It’s been a while since I’ve been to the Bluebell market.”
“You’ve been to one of these before?”
“Yeah, a few years ago. They held it next to the swamp. It came to an abrupt end when the shoggoth ate part of the tent.”
We stepped over to the next booth, which held an array of paintings. But they weren’t ordinary—the brush-strokes swam and shimmered, the people blinked and the grass rippled in the wind. “Woah. These are beautiful.” I stared at the paintings, as if hypnotized.
A particular one caught my eye. A painting of a lake at sunset. The clouds rolled by softly, as if pushed by a gentle breeze; the water rippled, reflecting the symphony of orange. A couple sat on the shore, silhouetted by the light, the woman leaning her head on the man’s shoulder.
“Might I remind you, Kira,” Gavin said, seeing my hypnotized stare, “buying something from the Bluebell market is a class-4 violation according to NIMP’s rulebook. Punished by docking 2% of your income, or one week of mucking out B1. ”
“Because buying any magical item of unverified origin is risky. They could contain hexes or spells that aren’t noted at the time of purchase, and that could cause injury, or worse—”
“And how often does that happen?”
“It’s happened… er… a few times, in the past ten years.”
I scoffed. “That sounds like a pretty low risk.” I turned to the saleswoman, who was watching us, a bemused look on her face. “How much for that painting? Of the two people sitting by the lake?” I asked, already feeling around for my wallet.
“Kira!” Gavin hissed in my ear.
“Two-hundred and fifty dollars,” the woman replied, examining me over her gold-rimmed glasses.
I pulled out my credit card.
Gavin swatted it away.
“Kira, please. If you buy that, I’ll have to write you up to Thomas, and I really don’t want to do that—”
“You’d tattle on me?!”
“Well, I wouldn’t want to, but I’d have to!”
I frowned at him, crossing my arms over my chest. “You’d have to. Sure. Just like we had to fill out that entire book of paperwork to declare our relationship to HR.”
“We did have to do that.”
I stared at him, blankly.
He sighed, in his usual annoyed tone. “Okay, I get it. I wouldn’t tell on you. But please, you really shouldn’t buy that. It’s against the rules, and—”
“It’s beautiful.” I picked my credit card off the ground and handed it to the woman. Pain flashed through Gavin’s eyes as he watched the woman slide the card through some newfangled credit card reader on her phone. Then she unhooked the painting from the plywood behind her, bagged it up, and handed it to me.
“There you go!”
“Thank you very much.”
As we walked away, Gavin fell silent.
“Gavin, I’m sorry. It’s just… I’ve never had anything nice for my apartment. Or my office. I never could afford anything like that. And it’s so beautiful.”
He just sighed in response. “I won’t report you,” he muttered—but he didn’t say anything else.
I turned around to see Abby running towards us, a huge smile on her face. In her wake was Jim, looking most displeased. “You guys aren’t going to believe this!”
She grabbed the pink crystal pendant hanging from her neck. “Guess how much it was. Guess!”
Gavin brought his hand to his face, shaking his head. “You too?!”
“It was only fifty dollars!” she shrieked. “It protects me from any kind of hex. And it’s gorgeous.”
“I told you,” Jim said, as he caught up with us, “it’s impossible for something to universally block all hexes! That would be as if a computer was immune to every single virus in existence.”
“Yeah, whatever.” She waved her hand dismissively.
“I doubt it has any more powers than those ‘healing crystals’ sold on eBay.”
“I have three of those, Jim, and they’ve made me feel amazing, thank you very much.”
The four of us started down the aisle again, Abby and I glancing at the treasures around us. A cat, carved in gold, staring at us with glittering emerald eyes. A silver wand, and a shower of purple sparks coming from it. Even a leveled stone fountain that reminded me of the one in NIMP’s atrium—water that swirled and twisted in the air before splashing into the lower basin.
Then we made a right, into the next aisle. The wooden sign that levitated in the air above us read: MYTHICAL CREATURES & RELATED PRODUCTS.
The very first booth had a sign hanging from it that read: GOBLIN TOENAIL CLIPPINGS: 50% OFF! Stacked above it, in neat rows, were yellowed crescents.
I jabbed Jim in the side. “Are they for real?”
“No.” He waved his hand dismissively. “They’re not 50-percent off. He jacks up the price, then cuts it in half. It’s like 20-percent off.”
I stared at him. “What I meant was, are they actually… goblin toenail clippings?”
“Ugh.” I squinched my face up in disgust. “So… what exactly is illegal here? It all looks pretty illegal to me.”
“Mind-control stuff, mostly,” Gavin said.
Mind control. I’d seen first-hand how awful that could be. It was only about a week ago that necromancer Ryan Banks controlled Gavin, and it was the most terrifying thing I’d ever witnessed.
“Love potions are a big one,” Abby said. “Oh my gosh. Jim, do you remember the Bluebell market, fall 2017?”
“No,” he said flatly.
“Oh goodie. This is an amazing story, you guys. So this teenage girl goes and buys a love potion for her boyfriend in the middle of the market. As she’s reaching for it, her hand slips, and she drops it. Crack! Thing splits open, love potion sprays everywhere. On everyone. They all start making goo-goo eyes at each other. Flirting, hugging, and grabbing. NIMP actually had to come out here and break it up—if we didn’t, there would have been a full-on org—oh! Look, it’s Chad!”
My eyes flicked up.
There was Chad, the medical examiner from NIMP’s morgue. Despite the dim lighting, he wore dark sunglasses—and a frat-boy tank. I internally rolled my eyes as we walked towards him.
“Hey-hey, Abby! You look amazing, as always.” He looked up at us and gave us a smile. “Hey, Kira, and… what’s your names again?”
“Gavin and Jim!” Abby said, before they could reply themselves. “The four of us are on Team Indigo.”
“Right, right. Yeah. So cool. Always wished I could get out on the field, but I don’t really have useful powers.” He sniffed deeply. “Except this!”
In a very obvious sleight-of-hand, he reached into his pants pocket—and pulled out stained handkerchief.
As in, I could literally hear the crickets singing outside the tent.
“Uh, whoops. I meant—this!” He reached around to the other pocket, and with too many gesticulations, pulled out an obviously fake red rose.
“Oh my gosh!” Abby said, starting to giggle. “That’s so cool!”
Gavin and Jim both rolled their eyes.
“Hey, Gavin, I’m going to explore,” I whispered, poking him in the elbow.
“Good idea. I’ll come with you.”
“Me, too,” Jim said.
Both of them began to follow me away from Chad. But then he stepped forward and shouted: “Wait! Garth, was it? And John?”
Gavin frowned. “Gavin. And Jim.”
“Uh, right. Yeah. I wanted to ask you about the…”
I took the opportunity and ducked down the nearest aisle.