Paying the Price, by Rurik Paisley

Updated: March 17, 2010

Marek peered out through the shutters of his stuffy room onto an empty street. It was almost noon and not a single soul could be seen in the streets of Jayah. It was so hot outside that people would come out only at sundown. Marek spat. He didn't have that luxury today. After combing the city's taverns, stalking various Kha'rah dealers, he had finally managed to set a meeting with one today, and the bastard had invited him to his house in the middle of the day. Marek had the feeling that the dealer wanted Marek to be at a disadvantage. As if he wasn't already.

Jayah wasn't the preferred destination for Kha'rah buyers. It was more inland and one had to travel through rough country to get there. Foreigners were less welcome. The locals didn't know his language that well and he had managed to pick up only a few words in theirs. But, Marek had to come here. The prices were considerably lower than in the coastline cities and no one knew his face. He'd be just another outlandish trader, looking to buy some raw magic.

Putting his boots on was difficult, not taking them off immediately was an ordeal. His feet felt like they were being boiled, but he wouldn't dream of going outside wearing anything else, especially those shoddy sandals the local were so fond of. A pair of good sturdy boots was the second most important thing in the world for a Kha'rah trader. The first was connections. And without anything of the latter in Jayah, the idea of forsaking his boots was unthinkable.

Marek went outside and started walking towards the dealer's house. The air was dry and he felt like he was walking inside an oven. He hated the heat and the annoying lack of shade. He tried walking close to walls, but the shade cast by the houses was just a thin, tantalizing strip of disappointment. Marek cursed the dealer under his breath. This was no way to treat a buyer. No wonder his colleagues preferred staying near the ocean, despite the fact that the heat was even worse in the coastline cities, where humidity made things utterly unbearable. At least there, they treated foreign buyers with more respect. It took him more than half an hour to reach the dealer's house. It was a low, clay colored building, like most of the houses in Jayah. The drawing of the split mountain on the door marked the resident as a dealer of raw magic. Marek didn't bother knocking and simply walked in to get out of the baking sun.

It took his eyes several moments to adjust to the dark, so he couldn't see the man who said, "You. Rude."

Blinking, Marek turned his head in the direction of the speaker and replied. "It's hot outside. My gold began evaporating and I didn't want to lose any of it to the sun. I prefer to give it to you." He hoped that the dealer had some sense of humor.

"You think I stupid?! Gold is gold!" Marek was now able to make out the shape of the dealer, seated at a table in the left corner of the room. He could also make out the outlines of two other men standing behind him. Bodyguards.

As his eyes adjusted to the dimness, he saw a chunk of dark glass on the table. It was the size of a man's fist. If this was Kha'rah, it was a lot less than what he'd been promised. "Where is the rest?" He pointed at the chunk.

"I have more. You. Show gold!" The dealer said and Marek started feeling uneasy.

"I want to test the Kha'rah first." He stated. He was barely able to discern the features of the dealer. The man did not look pleased. This worried Marek even more. This whole meeting was beginning to reek of a trap.

"You. Test." The man said eventually and Marek relaxed a little. He took a small vial from his pocket. It was made of treated Kha'rah, and the liquid inside it was prepared by alchemists specifically for authentication purposes. The liquid reacted like acid with anything else but Kha'rah.

He stepped closer to the table and picked up the chunk of glass. His eyes had already gotten accustomed to the dimness and he could see that it was purple, as Kha'rah should be. The edges exhibited the expected mining bruises, but it wasn't enough to convince Marek that he wasn't being duped. He placed the chunk back onto the table, opened the vial and paused. No one tried to stop him, or made a move towards him. He spilled a single drop of the liquid onto the glass. Nothing happened, the drop simply slid along one of the chunk's facets and onto the table, where it started fizzing, creating a dig on the table's surface. Marek closed the vial carefully and put it back into his pocket. When his hand emerged it was holding a pouch.

"I'll take it. Here is my gold." He placed the pouch on the table, and with his other hand he took out a handkerchief and wiped off the remainder of the liquid off the Kha'rah. His handkerchief was ruined, but it was better than getting the acidic liquid on his fingers accidentally.

The dealer took the pouch and spilled its contents on the table. He wasn't pleased. "That all?"

"Yes. This is for this small piece." And then Marek added one of the local lingo words he knew. "Jerrah." Fair.

"No jerrah!" The dealer slapped his hand on the table. "You. Pay more. Now." Marek rolled his eyes, pretending to be exasperated, while checking the reactions of the bodyguards. They seemed unfazed, but more alert.

"How much more?" It was an effort to remain calm, but he managed. Even if the dealer had asked for the same amount, it would still be cheaper than anywhere along the coast.

"Two more." The dealer said, opening the door to haggling. Marek obliged.

"It's too much for such a small piece. Give me another, of the same size, and I will give you two more pouches."

The dealer gave this some thought and Marek hoped he would agree. The price wasn't terrific, but with this quantity of Kha'rah he could go back to his homeland and sell it to the alchemists, not having to return to this furnace of a country for a whole year. Kha'rah, or raw magic, as it was known in his homeland, was the greatest luxury commodity. The alchemists had a formula to turn the raw chunks of the purple glass into a drinkable liquid. A liquid that enabled whoever drank it to perform magic. The effects of the liquid were temporary, diminishing in potency as the substance gradually left the body through the urine system.

This artificial source of magic was used to perform tasks that would take a lot of time and effort to do manually, like large-scale construction and agriculture or to heal diseases and prevent plagues. Rich people used it for entertainment as well, but the quantities consumed by them were minor by comparison.

Marek didn't care one bit who the Alchemists sold magic to. He just wanted to get paid. "No. One piece more. Three pouches more." The Jayan dealer was a weasel. Still, the price was too good to give up.

"Alright." Marek agreed.

"You. Show gold." The dealer insisted.

"First, show me the second piece." Marek was no fool. He carried quite a lot of gold on his person, but he wasn't going to flaunt it in a room full of armed men. He was sure the bodyguards were armed to the teeth, just like himself and the dealer probably had a knife or two about his person. The weapons were concealed, but all the men in the room were aware of their existence.

"Yako! Harra da." The dealer barked an order at one of the bodyguards and the man ducked into a hallway. He returned a few moments later, carrying another chunk of purple glass. He placed it on the table and Marek reached for his authentication vial.

"No. It good." The dealer protested. Marek ignored him. He opened the vial and let a single drop fall. It hissed as it hit the glass, filling the air with sulfurous fumes. The dealer jumped back, away from the table, drawing a knife out of his sleeve. The bodyguards also had a knife in each hand. Marek wasn't impressed. He'd been in these situations too often before. The most important thing was to remain calm and appear unthreatening. He slowly closed the vial and put it back into his pocket.

"I will take only the real Kha'rah. The fake you can keep." He took the first purple chunk and turned to leave.

"You. Wait." The dealer shouted. "I have more real Kha'rah. I sell."

Marek turned back to look at the dealer. He didn't like the situation at all. Even if the dealer wasn't lying, things have gone far beyond the usual distrust among tradesmen. He wanted to get away. He rushed out of the house and was immediately blinded by the brilliant sunlight. He walked briskly away, stealing glimpses of his direction through fluttering eyelashes. He heard some shouting within the house he had just left, so instead of taking the direct route to his inn, he ducked into an alley and then again, until he was sure he couldn't be followed.

In all the commotion he'd forgotten how hot it was outside and once the thought occurred in his mind, it had become even worse. His boots felt like two furnaces, grilling his feet. His head was being fried from above and a vicious thirst gripped his throat. Marek stumbled through the sun baked streets, cursing the weight of the unspent gold in his pockets and the scorching sun overhead. He was hoping to stumble upon a fountain or a well, but had no such luck. The only way he could get any water was at his inn, the only one in Jayah, and he knew he mustn't go anywhere near it. If the dealer's men hadn't already turned his room upside down, looking for whatever gold he might have left there, they were surely halfway through it and would be expecting him to turn up. He had learned long ago to carry all his valuables on his person, in order to be able to make a quick escape if necessary.

In Jayah he'd made his first mistake. He hadn't taken any water with him when he went to see the dealer. And now, he was starting to feel the dizziness and weakness of dehydration. Marek hoped it won't be the cause of his undoing.

He spotted a two story building ahead and quickened his pace to reach it. The shade it cast was enough for him to hide from the sun, and he inhaled deeply as he leaned against the building's wall, closing his eyes. It was very quiet.

As he was catching his breath, Marek decided that if he ever made it out of this city alive, he'd never set foot in it again.

Then, he heard it& the sound of trickling water. It came from somewhere ahead, and although he was reluctant to leave the shade, Marek knew that water was more important. He headed in the general direction of the sound.

It was a fountain, set into the corner of a building. Water was dripping from the poorly closed tap and into the large basin underneath. It wasn't a serious flow, but the basin was full of water and Marek ran towards it, plunging his head inside. He dropped the Kha'rah chunk and filled handfuls of water, gulping it down and splashing it on himself. He laughed out loud at how ridiculous his priorities were only this morning and how everything could change in a span of moments. He looked into the basin and smiled. All of a sudden, a sharp pain exploded at the back of his head and the basin rushed upwards to meet him. He tried to stop it with his hands in vain, realizing that it was he who was falling into the water. Instinctively, he heaved sideways and fell in the dirt near the basin, just as the man behind him made a move to grab him by the hair and shove his head into it. The man was slightly surprised but he reacted quickly, hitting the grounded Marek on the back with his cudgel. Marek rolled sideways and moaned in pain as he rolled onto his back. To his relief, nothing felt broken.

He raised his head to look at his assailant. It was one of the dealer's bodyguards. The one called Yako. At the moment Yako wasn't interested in him, but rather in the discarded Kha'rah chunk. Marek slumped his head backward to the ground and immediately regretted it. Hot pain laced through his head, where the cudgel had hit him earlier. He grunted and rolled onto his side, allowing for a better view of his surroundings. There were two other men in the street besides Yako, the dealer's second body guard and a third man. Each had a knife in one hand and some sort of bludgeon in the other.

Yako picked up the chunk of raw magic and brought it to his companions for inspection. They held it up to the light and nodded among themselves. Marek was too much of a realist to hope they would just take the thing and leave. Kha'rah didn't just lie about in the desert. It was mined in the black mountains by slaves. Some of whom were probably unfortunate Kha'rah buyers, who had stumbled into traps devised by conniving Kha'rah dealers.

He made an inconspicuous move towards his authentication vial. Once it was closed firmly in his fist he doubled up, as if in pain, reaching for the concealed knife in his boot and propping himself on one knee. This movement made the men look in his direction. Then, after they exchanged a few quiet words they started advancing towards him like vultures, taking hesitant steps. Yako was the first to reach him, having succeeded in surprising Marek while drinking, he was more confident than the other two. He stepped closer, and swung one foot, meaning to kick the folded man in the head. Marek spun on his heel and cut Yako's leg under the knee. Yako's other leg came swinging with momentum and Marek used the forearm of his second hand to raise the leg more, causing Yako to fall on his back. Marek then lunged and drove his knife into the man's thigh, were he knew the major artery should be. The shaking Yako would be dead in moments. Marek rose to his feet, holding his blooded knife in front of him. The odds were slightly better now, but his back was constantly sending pangs of pain into his already splitting skull. He couldn't hold out much longer and needed to resolve this as quickly as possible. Holding the vial behind his back between his thumb and small finger, he slowly unscrewed the cap with his fore and middle fingers. The other two men stopped their advance and while not taking their eyes off Marek, were arguing about who would attack him now.

Marek couldn't afford to wait, he was taut with adrenalin pumping through his veins, hardening his resolve, but he knew it was only temporary and the sooner this was over with, the better.

Not waiting for his opponents to decide, he flung the open vial towards the bodyguard gripping the chunk of Kha'rah. He missed the man's chest slightly, hitting his shoulder instead. As soon as the liquid started spilling out of the vial, the man's clothes began dissolving and hissing. He tried to rip the shirt off, but the substance had already eaten though the fabric and when it touched the man's skin he dropped the piece of raw magic and began shrieking and clutching himself, unable to stop the burns. He fell and began rolling on the ground, only worsening the situation. His cries ceased abruptly when he lost consciousness, but some people had already begun opening their windows to see what was going on. Marek knew he had only moments before they came pouring out into the street.

He charged at the last man, making slicing movements with his knife. The other man was better trained and unwounded, so he easily deflected Marek's thrusts, and eventually made some of his own, giving Marek some negligible nicks and one deep gash on his forearm. Raised voices were drifting from the open windows, and Marek could hear the urgency in them. He knew whose side the nearby residents would take so he threw his knife at the bodyguard and turned to run, tripping on Yako's body and falling into the dust.

The last bodyguard snorted in contempt and sidestepping his comrade's corpse, bent down to pull Marek's head upwards by the hair. He leered at his prey, exposing rotting teeth, gloating and not seeing the dagger Marek pulled from his other boot until it was too late. The dagger was plunged into the man's throat, killing him instantly. Marek crouched on his hands and knees to the place where the chunk of Kha'rah lay in the street. He picked it up and with his last bits of strength fled from the fighting scene. As he half ran half hobbled towards the inn, to get his horse and a supply of water for the harsh journey back to the coast, he gripped the bit of purple glass as strongly as he could. When he was not far from the inn, Marek stopped to straighten his clothes and hair. He didn't want to alarm the inn workers that something was amiss. Inside, he hurried upstairs to get his belongings, finding them in complete disarray. He didn't care. He grabbed his saddlebags and some empty water casks and rushed to the stable. He filled the casks in the horses' water trough, not bothering with the water cleanliness and loaded them onto his horse. Once in the saddle, he rode out of Jayah, not looking back.

After a few miles of hard riding he stopped to check for pursuit. There wasn't any he could see, but he was far from being calm. They could still catch up with him before he reached the ocean, and probably even track him down in any of the coastline cities. Marek decided to keep riding until his feet were safely aboard a ship heading for his homeland.

As he rode on he made a promise to himself that he would never sell the chunk of dark glass lying in his saddlebags. The price he almost ended up paying for it was too high for any Alchemist to match.