“I was in Chicago, following directions a friend gave me to a shop. I’m new in town and needed some materials that I used up before I moved . . . anyway. I turned down the alley that was supposed to lead to the shop, I must’ve passed it or gotten the wrong alley because next thing I knew, the weather was different. Warmer and sunnier. And then this . . . shaggy, horned Ogre thing was yelling at me, but I know it’s not an Ogre, I took Non-Human Studies at school, two years ago. Then all these people in stalls around here started trying to sell me things,” Osric Kirkwood trailed off, looking at his new companion. He took another pull of the dark, frothy . . . well, beer, in his mug. “Where am I? And how do I get home?”
“You’re at the Bazaar, kid,” the giant of a Gargoyle, wingless but craggy grey replied. “Sounds like you ran into an Anont too, sorry.”
“Um, what’s an Anont? No, wait. More important, what’s the Bazaar?”
“How to describe the Bazaar?” the other man stared at the ceiling, “Saying it is a continuous 24/7 marketplace hardly does it justice. You said you were from Earth, right? Heard of the Goblin Market or Faerie Market?”
Osric shrugged, “Sure, but my Goblin and Elf friends say there’s no such thing.” He was getting the distinct feeling that despite appearances, his ‘guide’ wasn’t from his world . . . and he’d chosen to bother this guy because at least Gargoyles were familiar.
“Well, they’re right and they’re wrong. The Bazaar’s the place that started those stories on every Earth.”
“Okay . . . so how do I get back?”
“Assuming you don’t know any dimensional transport spells? Or have a device to do? You find the gate way you came through to get here.”
Osric rose and turned toward the door, “Okay. I got a bit turned around, but I think I can backtrack . . .”
The Gargoyle just laughed, “Heh. It ain’t that simple, kid. By now, the gate’s moved on. It’ll look the same, but they move around through the Bazaar, so you’ll have to hunt it out or find a magician who can trace it.”
“Great,” Osric muttered, “Thanks . . .”
“Liam, Earth 15743. Good luck, kid.”
Wonder what Earth I left, Osric thought as he left the bar. He glanced over his shoulder, just to see the place again. It still looked like a tiny one room shack. Back home there was, so his teachers had said, dimension magic, both sorcery and spirit-speaking, but he couldn’t remember being in an obviously altered building before. Pretty cool, really. If there were more of them back home, hiding from mundanes would be easier.
He shook his head to clear the wayward thoughts.
Finding a way back was his current goal. Once that happened, he could think about other things like sightseeing. How to locate one of these tracking magicians? Following signs would be easiest, if there had been any signs to follow. It seemed like the place was laid out randomly with no attempt at organization. If what Liam had said was true, he could wander for months and not find what he needed, or he could stumble over it in a second.
As his sorceress mother always said, when in doubt fall back on your skill set. Not having her sorcerous talent or his father’s nose, Osric decided to let his vision slip slightly out of focus. Nature spirits were unlikely, but with the sardine-like press of people, there had to be some deaths in the Bazaar and that meant a strong chance of ghosts floating around at the very least.
Spotting several likely candidates only took a couple seconds. There were a variety of spirits around, including many bound and for sale. Which meant the place had spirit-speakers, Osric concluded, so he should be able to recoup lost offerings and find a good secluded space.
He found an alley that would work well enough in a pinch between two low stone buildings. The far end was blocked by a tent and it was reasonably clean. Probably the best place he’d find without having to pay, he thought as he settled into a cross-legged seat midway down the gap. Osric laid out a few items produced from concealed pockets in his clothing. Like most spirit-speakers, he always carried some essential tools of the trade for emergencies. The task he had in mind would not require anything too tricky or powerful, just a simple summoning and information negotiation. His mother could probably get the information faster, but she was back in Iowa, so no help at the moment.
First, a simple ad hoc ritual to cleanse the alley, something he’d drilled to the point of doing it in his sleep.
Then a simple chant in a dead language, Anglo-Saxon as his choice, repeated several times as he arranged the offerings. Seeking and summoning a specific spirit, instead of any in range, would take time, he realized and repeated the chant.
Osric repeated the chant nearly a score of times before he perceived a response.
A small heat shimmer was visible to the unaided eye about knee high from the ground and just out of reach.
He allowed his vision to shift the subtle amount necessary to see the being. Where anyone lacking the gift would see the effects of heat haze, the spirit-speaker saw a middle aged woman of a race he had never seen before. She was faintly Elven in form, but her translucent coloring was a completely alien blue-grey and she seemed to be clad in something like early Victorian attire. All of which appeared to show his chant as successful, he had summoned a ghost as desired. And she’d responded to the Old English, cementing another theory that language was no barrier in the spirit realm.
“I need to find the gate home,” he said, fighting the urge to consider the theories. “I promise offerings and one favor in return, to the limits of my abilities.”
The spirit-speaker went with a fairly simple and common pact. With a ghost, for information, he felt no need for convoluted counter-trickery. And he wasn’t the type to force his will upon a spirit, they generally seemed to appreciate that fact.
The ghost woman nodded after a moment and pointed down the alley.
Osric hastily gathered his few belongings and followed her drifting form. He decided not to require her name, although he had the means to do so. It should build a rapport. The next time he did a summoning, he could not call her specifically or compel her service. That, his instructors had told him, helped build trust on the spirit’s part, which in turn built loyalty.
He paid little attention to his surroundings, all his focus going to the ghost. She traveled in a straight line, simply moving through obstructions and people that he had to dodge. More than once, Osric lost sight of his guide in the mingled mass of mortals and spirits that his split vision allowed him to access. She moved through one wall and the spirit-speaker had to spend a few minutes searching for her.
After an hour of going roughly the same direction, the ghost abruptly changed and started almost doublebacking down the trail of streets. It took a few minutes before Osric realized they were at a slight angle to the original route, maybe two streets further north, or what he thought of as being north, for lack of a better orientation.
He called a halt to the search, hours later, when he noticed the sun setting. The latter took awhile to set in as the level of lighting barely changed. As the natural light diminished, more shops and stalls were illuminated by torches and magical lights. He even swore he spotted a couple light bulbs amongst a group of tents.
In calling a halt, Osric ordered, “Spirit, find the nearest inn or hotel. Then you may leave until morning, if you choose not to return, there will be no reward offerings.”
He stepped into a ramshackle wooden building a short time later as the ghost drifted off wherever she chose. He hadn’t much hope of a good room, but at least the place had looked affordable.
Once he was through the door, the spirit-speaker had to stop and take in the sight before his shock disappeared.
The floor was black veined white marble. A scattering of pillars held a ceiling two stories above his head. Straight ahead was a staircase that looked like it belonged in a Hollywood movie, with Astaire and Roberts dancing down the steps. Large potted plants and lush seating dotted the cavernous room, broken by gold trimmed red carpets. To his right was a solid gold desk manned by clerks representing at least a half score races.
And the place had looked like a two story dump from outside.
Suddenly uncertain of his ability to pay, Osric went straight to the desk, hoping that would get him out of the spotlight.
Certain he already knew the answer, he asked a rat-man, “You wouldn’t happen to have a room I could get for one night, under forty bucks, would you?”
The, he assumed, wererat tapped something into a keyboard attached to a crystal mirror.
“Hmm . . . well, sir, we do have a few rooms open,” the rat-man said after a moment. “No reservation? Not to worry, so few make them, I’m surprised we even bother asking. It would make things much easier, and it’s not like interdimensional communication and a little planning are that hard, right?”
Osric found himself nodding and apologizing, even though he wasn’t really sure why.
“Alright, sir, if you could just produce one unit of currency,” the clerk said with a few more key taps, “just so we can fix the exchange rate, you see. No billing until you check out, sir.”
After fumbling out a five dollar bill and handing it to the clerk, the spirit-speaker watched him flatten the bill on another, horizontal, mirror. A fist sized crystal ball floated over the bill as if it was reading. Once it stopped, the clerk scanned his mirror quickly and handed back the bill.
“It seems, sir, that we have two rooms that fit your requirements,” he said. “Room 215 goes for a little over fifteen a night, sir. The other is forty even.”
Probably a broom closet, Osric thought, but he selected the cheaper room as being more prudent seeing as he didn’t know how long he’d be staying. In fact, “I’m surprised you take dollars at all,” he mused aloud.
The wererat smiled.
“Aside from gold and silver coins, they are the most common currency we see, sir,” he explained. “It is said that any currency in the multiverse can be used or exchanged at the Bazaar, sir. We need only determine which group of Earths the dollar comes from, for exchange. Ah, here’s the porter, sir, to take you to your room. 215.”
A young, uniformed, Human accepted the key and nodded toward the left.
“Sir? Unless you would prefer the stairs?”
“Huh? No, that’s fine,” Osric followed, distracted by the place, toward a set of lifts. He looked around the wood paneled and gold accented car as it rose soundlessly. The number rose by, he assumed, one in an unfamiliar system, then the doors opened again. Probably a sorcerous or spellwoven device, levitation or some such, he decided as he followed the porter down a corridor.
This one was nowhere near as fancy as the previous floor, but it wasn’t a dump either, the spirit-speaker noted. The carpet was a typically bland hotel pattern of red and green with gold strands. The doors looked reasonably solid and bore slim plaques with numbers. No locks, though, and the clerk hadn’t done anything downstairs, but had given the porter a key. Odd.
That notable waved the key once in front of the door handle, then fiddled with something on the end.
Only after the door was open, into a stuffed closet, as expected, did the young man drop a ring into Osric’s hand.
“Just wear that, sir, and the room door will open for you. It also allows entry to the pool, gym, and restaurant at any hour, day or night, sir.”
Soon after the porter left, Osric decided to splurge a little on room service, eating on the bed while he thought over his situation and plan.
It was a few hours later, when he woke from a restless, yet sound, sleep, that he realized what the door clerk had said, or implied. Their exchange reader told them where currency came from . . . in other words, where he came from in this bazaar’s naming system. They could get him that information. He could go home faster.
The thought kept him awake for the remainder of the night, despite his best efforts to calm down and sleep.
When dawn peeked through the lone window—wonder how that happened with no planet—Osric was already dressed, cleaned, and clutching a dollar bill in his hand as he rushed down the hall and stairs.
Different beings were on duty, so he chose a fellow Human, wanting a bit of normalcy and not recognizing the other species. He slapped the dollar on the counter and asked, “Your scanner can tell me which Earth this came from, right?”
“Not exactly, sir. The scanner is only good to within a hundred dimensions,” the man replied, taking the bill. “But, I can run it, if you like, sir.”
Osric thought for a second. The Gargoyle had said he was from Earth fifteen thousand something . . . which meant . . .
“Yes, please do,” he said, realizing a hundred or so was better than at least sixteen thousand.
The technomagical device repeated its operation from the previous night. Once it stopped, the clerk typed something in—“Switching from exchange rates to dimensional tracking, sir”—and scribbled two numbers on a piece of scrap paper. He handed the slip over with, “That’s the best we can do, I’m afraid, sir.”
“I understand, we have hardware issues back home too,” the spirit-speaker said, reclaiming his dollar and the paper. He glanced at the numbers—1704 to 1802—before folding it and stowing it in his pocket. Just in case his spirit-guide failed today or the gate disappeared completely.
Osric turned from the counter and jumped as he found the spirit in question hanging a few inches behind him.
With a few muttered expletives, he got himself checked out and followed the ghost through to the street.
The sound of a thousand voices hawking wares and haggling mingled with the cries of innumerable animals hit his ears the instant he was past the doorframe. They added to the stench of the same animals and competed with strange spices and foods to threaten an immediate headache. Osric touched the simple pendant that a friend had placed a minor enchantment on years ago, as a gift. It was meant to aid with minor illnesses, he hoped it was up to the task.
A wave set the ghost on its way and the spirit-speaker followed, used to skipping breakfast and eager to find home.
He followed in its wake, focused entirely on keeping the entity in sight as it drifted through people and obstructions. Keeping up required so much attention that he was only dimly aware of his surroundings. Osric’s only interactions were to dodge and weave around what his guide ignored. Fortunately, keeping his vision slightly shifted to see the spirits was one of the first things he had learned, to the point that it was second nature and needed none of his attention. Had it been otherwise, he was sure he’d have lost the ghost in the first three blocks from the hotel.
By the time the sun, or what passed for a sun, has reached its zenith, the young spirit-speaker felt he’d walked the entire place several times over. There was a dull throb beneath his ankles, as if he’d tried to cover every inch of downtown Chicago on foot. Or so he thought, that being the largest city he had any experience with.
Once he smelled, and then spotted, a collection of food stands, Osric called his spirit to a halt.
He approached one that looked like a street vendor’s hot dog cart, as the most familiar.
About four feet away, Osric veered off toward another stand, swearing to himself that something inside the cart had lifted the lid and tried to escape. Whatever it was had looked decidedly rubbery, slimy, and suspiciously tentacle-like.
The other looked safer, even though he couldn’t read the menu’s language. Still, it seemed to be tended by an Alvar and a Svartalfar, people whose food he’d had some experience of. Heavy and not his first choice, but at least he knew it wouldn’t bite back. A few minutes of pidgin sign language haggling told him that, appearances aside, the pair were not what he thought, but that he could part with a few dollars for edible food.
In the meantime, Osric watched his ghostly servant out of the corner of his eye.
It seemed to continually face one direction throughout the whole process.
He hoped that meant the portal was staying in one place and decided to eat on the move, despite his sore feet.
The item on a stick that tasted vaguely like heavily seasoned chicken was gone by the time the ghost stopped. She pointed straight ahead of where they were, a few yards down the street. Osric spotted the, he hoped, portal. It looked like a wooden doorframe with a shimmering, roiling fog-like substance inside.
He dropped to a knee, still watching the portal and being watched by the ghost, to build a small fire out of things from his pockets. He struck a match and lit the offerings, allowing them to burn so the sparks drifted through the ghost. With the portal still in sight, and aware of his promise, Osric waited, his foot tapping and nerves afire, for the spirit to ask its favor.
After a few moments, during which Osric couldn’t help but glance impatiently at the portal, the ghost pointed toward the local north.
The spirit-speaker shook his head.
“What? I don’t understand. Look, I can’t leave the gate now that it’s here.”
The ghost continued to point.
“Oh, come on . . . can’t you just tell me what you want?” That was odd, normally the sentient spirits were chatty as hell, he absently thought.
Yet, the ghost continued to point toward the north.
Osric gave the portal a look of longing for several heartbeats.
Suddenly, he took out the slip that the hotel desk had given him. A pencil appeared from one of his numerous pockets. He scribbled down the time from his watch, guesstimated the distance of the portal from the nearest three shops, and jotted down their names too. It was probably pointless, he felt as he stowed the items, but at least the info might help someone help him, or something. There were other magics and a lot of new knowledge at work here, well beyond what he’d learned at Norwood.
With one last look at the gate, and a sigh, he waved to the ghost, “Lead on, I suppose. You’ve fulfilled your part of the agreement.”
Really, he thought a few blocks later, it was his own fault. He’d been the one who phrased the contract and he should have known to be more careful. Professor Gaskill, back at the academy, would not have failed him for that, but Osric knew he wouldn’t have passed by much either. It was a second year’s mistake, not a graduated, full-fledged spirit-speaker’s. All he could do was blame stress, a little fear, and go with it. Who knew, maybe the Norns were involved in some subtle way . . . even the gods couldn’t fight fate with any hope of success.
They took several twists down side streets after following a main road north for a while. After the tenth or twelfth turn, Osric admitted to himself that he was lost. He figured from the sun-replacement that they’d been moving generally north, but that was about it.
When the ghost finally slowed, the young man noticed that one side seemed to be dominated by archery related stalls, the other by shoemakers of various sorts. He quickly stifled the knee-jerk urge to look around for Brownies. An old mundane story invariably came to mind, ever since they’d covered mundane folklore in one of his elective classes. Interesting stuff, even if most of the stories were way off, but not important now, he thought as the ghost seemed to get her bearings and took off again.
Osric tried asking for information—where they were going, why—a few times before giving up.
Either she couldn’t talk or she wouldn’t.
He wracked his mind for anything he could do to force her to speak. Nothing jumped up. He’d focused on cajoling, treating with, and befriending spirits, not threatening and forcing them. Others preferred those routes as faster. It might be in some ways, he admitted. But, it ultimately failed in the long run and led to paranoid spirit-speakers. Spirits were practically eternal, had long memories, and could obsess about anything, especially revenge.
Hell, probably every third ghost out there stuck around to get revenge for something, even if the target of their vengeance was long dead.
They started moving again once the ghost got her bearings. There seemed to be a more easterly drift, he noticed by sighting the large circular tower to the southeast. Liam the Gargoyle had said it was called the Peak or Spindle or something. Anyway, it was tall and supposed to be the center of the dimension. That made for a convenient landmark he’d ignored the day before.
After a couple more attempts to get the ghost to talk, Osric gave up as a lost cause.
He did notice that they were passing through a loud area, even by Bazaar standards. Cheers and groans resounded off the walls of larger, multistory buildings. In fact, they looked taller and sturdier than any he’d seen yet, some at least. Others seemed to be slapped together from discarded boards. Beneath the yells, Osric caught the occasional mixture of sharp rings and dull thuds that brought memories of Self-Defense 101, interspersed with what could only be animal cries and the, rare, telltale sounds of the flashier magics—sorcery, thaumaturgy, elementalism, spellcraft, maybe some psionics or channeling. Those tended to be much more obvious and showy than the more subtle arts, but also made for better theater.
One bloodcurdling yowl awoke some primal part of the spirit-speaker’s subconscious and propelled him through the neighborhood mere inches behind his flying guide.
A few blocks later, as the structures gave way to what were obviously temples, Osric decided that the area behind him had some sort of circus. That didn’t entirely explain the few people on the street who seemed to be involved in gambling. It did explain the animals and flashy magic. In some ways, the transition to temples was subtle. There were hawkers outside every building filling the air with a cacophony of random languages. The only noticeable differences, at first, were the architecture and the few snatches of intelligible shouts he caught and made sense of.
As the ghost led the way deeper into the Bazaar’s religious section—so he thought of it—the spirit-speaker noticed fewer shouting people and larger, more stately structures. Maybe more successful gods, he thought as he jogged after the ghost. She’d been steadily drifting faster since they’d passed the first temple. If she kept it up, Osric figured he would be running in a block or two.