This is the second part of a three-part short story, inspired by the folks chatting during one of MCA Hogarth‘s livestreams a little while back. If you missed Part 1, read it here before jumping into this bit.
Mr. Fickle’s Pawn and Shoppe the sign hung above the door read in gilt letters beneath one of the eponymous chess pieces carved in relief and painted black. Ted looked down at the card in his hand for the millionth time, then back down the alley toward the street he’d come from. Another bubble of uncertainty welled up from his stomach. He could still go back to his wife and pretend the previous evening’s strangeness hadn’t happened. He had wondered if perhaps the woman was just some nutcase — but the place actually existed! It was more than he had expected after an hour and a half of getting so turned around by well-meaning strangers that he wasn’t sure he’d be able to find his way back to his car, much less the hospital.
He gritted his teeth and pushed the door open. A bell chimed, cheerful but unheeded as Ted gaped at the sheer immensity of the place. On a second floor, open to the ground level, indistinct figures moved in the shadows of row upon row of bookcases like library stacks, and along a catwalk at the room’s perimeter overhead. A stairway curved up one wall to a third floor, hidden from sight. The room in front of him stretched back into dimly lit rows of shelves and display cases with signs denoting such strange things as “Yesterday,” “Today,” and “Tomorrow,” or “Beastly Components,” or “For Warding.”
“Welcome, sir!” A tall, impossibly thin man approached him, arms open in greeting. “I’m Bristlewine, at yuir service.” He paused watching while Ted stared, then leaned forward and said in a low voice, “I’d wager yuir a first time customer, if ye’ll pardon my sayin’.”
“Uh… yeah. A woman at the hospital gave me your card.” He held it out to the man, eyes transfixed by the excited wiggling of the strange man’s ears, long and pointed, jutting up and back out of lank white hair. Bristlewine took it, barely sparing a glance for the front, and flipped it over to see the name “Elzebub” that had been written there in neat curling script, accompanied by “Woman, mated” and the date his wife had entered her current state.
“Ah, I see,” he said, frowning, and handed the card back. “And she told ye that ye’d find this woman’s soul here, did she?” He leveled his storm-cloud gaze at Ted who, unsure how to respond, simply nodded. “Follow me, then.” He turned on his heel and headed back into the store proper, moving briskly through rows of boxes and bottles, crystals, bits of stone, sticks, and all other manner of apparent detritus and other odd objects. Questions tugged at Ted’s tongue, but he bit them back, preferring to have this weird business done quickly. All the way across the vast expanse of that lowest floor they hurried, to the farthest corner, occupied by an enormous floor-to-ceiling glass display case, lit carefully from above by small bright spotlights.
It was filled near to bursting with jars of all sizes and shapes, some of clear glass, some smoky or brown, and for all the world, empty to a one. Each bore around its neck a bit of twine with a tag, probably the cost, Ted thought, until he leaned in to see what outrageous price an empty jar might fetch in such a place. Instead, he was surprised to find they bore hand-written notations of species and gender — “Dog, neutered male” in the case of the first he read, a small wavy-surfaced piece that looked like it may have been made by hand. He quickly scanned the others, moving around within the corner to examine different groups of jars while the shop attendant waited patiently, apparently familiar with this dance.
Ted found that they were separated by type of creature, and noted with absent humor that there were about a third as many cats as dogs, but too there were a small herd’s worth of horses, several types of primates, only a couple bears, and–
She won’t wake up until her soul is returned to her body.
He staggered backward, and immediately Bristlewine was at his elbow, steadying Ted by his presence alone, as he made no attempt to actually touch him. “There y’ are, sir,” he said gently. “I believe those’d be the ones fer which ye came. If she’s truly yuir own true mate, ye’ll know the one ye want when ye find it.”
“This is some kind of joke right?” he asked incredulously, the patience borne of desperation finally beginning to crack. “How much money do you and that woman make off of grieving people? Selling empty jars, saying they have souls in them?”
“Oh, these containers aren’t empty. Take a closer look at those there.” He pointed at the group with the “human” labels.
Ted was sure he’d had just about enough of this place, but felt compelled to turn back to the case, leaning in close to the glass to examine the jars. For the most part they did look empty, but in a handful of them, he was sure– There! Tiny, tiny sparks, like flecks of delicate glitter flashed and swirled for a moment and then were gone. If he watched long enough, they appeared again, but always just for a moment, and the longer he stared at one, the stranger he felt. He scanned the shelves, searching for some unknown sign, when suddenly sparks flared in one of them, bright gold behind pale green glass, and he heard Catherine’s voice.
Or more a whisper of it, really, like in a dream where you can tell from someone’s voice who they are, but can’t understand what they’re saying. It was his wife, absolutely, for all that it sounded like she was speaking from a thousand miles away. The sparks seemed to hang still within the jar, lasting longer than the others he had seen, and when they finally faded, the sound died away. He lurched suddenly into the glass case, making a pained noise as he scrabbled to reach it.
“Ah! That one then!” Bristlewine sounded surprised. The man’s voice brought Ted back to himself enough to regain some semblance of control, though he had never in his life wanted so badly to hold an object in his hands. His palms near burned with the need to have the jar, to take it away from this strange, strange place.
“What do you want for it?” He pulled out his wallet, not caring how insane it was, ready to pay any amount the strange elf-eared man wanted. But the attendant simply held up a hand to stop him.
“That plastic card won’t buy ye th’ smallest twig in this shop, sir.”
“I’ll go to the bank then, and get cash. Here, take my keys as collateral. I want to place a hold on that jar.” He thrust the car keys at the man, but found himself once again refused.
“Let me try t’ explain, sir. This’s a very particular kind o’ place, and we cater t’ very particular sorts o’ patrons. We dinnae trade in money.”
“Then what the hell do you trade in? I’ll give you whatever you want!” Ted’s voice was rising frantically.
“Any o’ those others, might go fer a song, but that one in particular is quite potent. One o’ the most vibrant I’ve seen in quite a while. It’ll come at dear cost to its buyer. Be sure yuir willin’ t’ give what’s asked.”
“Take everything I have if you want. I’m not leaving here without it.” Ted met the man’s piercing gray gaze and for the first time in weeks felt completely certain of his path. They stood there a moment, then the man nodded, seemingly satisfied, and fished a ring of keys from his pocket.
A short time later, they stood at the counter. Bristlewine had placed the jar in front of Ted, who compulsively wrapped his hands protectively around it. He was startled to find himself at once surrounded by the whirling sound of Catherine’s excited whispers, and also effectively immobilized by feet grown ponderously heavy. He tried experimentally to lift one of them, and it came slowly away from the floor as if moving through molasses, and Ted suspected that if he were not loathe to release the jar he would be free again.
The other man had donned a pair of thick-glassed spectacles, with several small colored lenses attached at the corners, through which he squinted at a piece of what Ted could only guess was parchment. He was drawing the paperwork up by hand, with stylus dipped in ink. After a few minutes, he returned the pen to its stand and looked up at Ted.
“D’ ye know yuir True Name, sir?”
“Theodore Percival Spires,” he said, stumbling only a little over the frilly name he had always disliked. The man flipped two yellow lenses down over his spectacles, leaning his head back a little so he could examine Ted through them.
“Not yuir given name. Yuir True Name.” He stared unblinking through the specs.
“Uh…that is my name.” Bristlewine shook his head and picked up his pen again to make a notation on the document, then set it carefully out of the way and pushed his glasses up on his nose. He flipped a pair of dark purple lenses down over them and stared at Ted without comment. Ted stared back for a few moments, then began to fidget nervously under the strange man’s gaze. Before he could ask how long the paperwork was going to take, the attendant made a noise of pleased surprise and removed the glasses.
“Well, Theodore Percival Spires, you don’t have much that’s of use t’me, but I believe ye do possess a small thing I’d be willing t’ take in trade. I’ll give ye that soul jar and its contents in exchange for th’ Potential of yuir True Name.”
“I don’t know what that means, but if it means I’m not leaving empty-handed, it’s yours,” he said, unwavering.
The white-haired man’s brow creased and he pursed his lips. “If ye should discover yuir True Name, it’s mine t’ do with as I see fit.”
“Sure, fine, it’s all yours. Where do I sign?” Ted asked, growing more impatient with each passing moment.
Rather than answering, the man held up the paper he had been writing on and showed it to Ted. The writing was in a language he didn’t know, the letters spidery and angular.
“Speak yuir given name fer th’ record.” Ted did so, feeling somewhat silly speaking at a piece of paper, but was amazed to see a gold light etch a signature in his own handwriting at the bottom of the sheet. The man turned it back around to look at it and nodded, then spoke to it himself in a clear voice. “I, Bristlewine Harew Fickle, do accept and sign this contract of trade to be fullfilled at an unspecified future date.”
“That’s it?” Ted asked, feeling his feet suddenly released from whatever force had been holding them.
“Th’ purchase is complete. I’ll need yuir stamp to validate th’ transfer of ownership on the soul.” Fickle turned to a cabinet behind the counter, still speaking. “In blood, o’ course. Technicalities, ye know. Then she’s all y–” He turned with a small rolled scroll in his hands to find the space at the counter empty and his customer gone. “Oh… That’s unfortunate.” He clucked his tongue. “Impatient mortals.”
He shook his head and locked the scroll safely away again.