The alley was pitch black. The two sides crawled out of the darkness like black hands reaching for the heavens out of the eternal abyss. The sheer sides of the two-story buildings lining either side stopped what little light the moon might have offered, and the eves criss-crossed the sky like the thick canopy of a graveyard forest. The floor was damp and muddy, and Claude's steps sloshed in more than just water and mud as he slid deeper into its darkness.
The four figures had vanished as he stepped into the alley and now only their footprints remained. Puddles formed inside, hiding the excrement squashed beneath.
The alleyway stretched into a winding eternity. He'd walked down it for ten minutes now and yet he'd not found its end, nor any suggestion he might anytime soon. There were no signs, no lit windows, no open doors to tell him where the magic black market might be.
He wondered if he should have come during the day. There was no doing that now, however, so he kept walking, perking his ears to listen for any sloshing besides that of his own feet. The slums were dangerous, far more so than he had let himself admit before he'd come. He was not very concerned about being ambushed, however. His hearing was exceptional; he would have heard someone coming even without the water to louden their footfalls.
He heard nothing.
He passed a right-angled elbow in the alley five minutes later, and suddenly found himself bathed in a faint light.
He took several deep breaths, gathering his nerve, then continued on. His eyes adjusted and he saw a familiar scene, a scene he'd definitely seen before. He could not place it no matter how hard he tried, however.
Two alleyways intersected about twenty metres ahead of him. They formed a small clearing in the forest of buildings in the middle of which stood an old mulberry tree. A couple of worse-for-wear sheds stood beneath its canopy.
A lantern hung by the door of each, and a few people sat around a long table between the two. The table was lit by a single oil lamp and a brazier. Fish hung in the air, competing with black ale.
His mind jerked at him, desperately trying to rediscover the memory of this place as his feet carried him towards the clearing. The lively, if subdued, conversation over the table died down as he approached. Everyone's eyes glinted at him alertly. He was not surprised by their glares. He was not the least bit suspicious in his getup. He ignored them, however, and marched on, his eyes fixed on the mulberry tree which towered over everyone present, even the two-story buildings forming the clearing's border. His mind finally got hold of the memory and shoved it into his awareness.
That's it! Eriksson had brought him here a while back, but they'd arrived at the clearing through one of the other four alleys. The sheds hadn't been there that time. It had been just the tree. They had gone there to buy his favourite malt candy. They bought it from that new shop by... what was his name... Hurian!
His shop had not been the sheds he saw under the mulberry tree now though. His had been one of the shops looking out into the clearing. He'd also come here once to buy candy for his little brother and sister. He'd come during the day, of course.
Hurian's shop was still there, but it was clearly closed. Only a single lamp hung by the entrance and was the shop's only present illumination. Behind it '17 Flowerstone Alley' was carved into the wall.
So the letter had been right. Hurian's store really was the magic black market. He hadn't believed it when he saw the address written on the piece of paper. To think the old man was a magus as well...
"Is anybody here?" he asked, his voice purposefully hoarse, as he knocked on the door.
The shop remained dead quiet. Someone from the clearing responded instead.
Claude turned around and saw a fat man stepping out of the sheds. It took him a moment to recognise the man as Hurian in the dim light.
He knew the man as a warm person with a perpetual smile plastered on his face. That smile was gone and his persona was suspicious of Claude. He regarded him apprehensively.
"For what are you here?
"I heard you have certain... exotic items," Claude answered.
He regretted not asking Maria if there were any secret phrases, but it was too late for that now.
Hurian entered the shop without a word, lit a small oil lamp inside, and motioned for Claude to follow as he walked deeper into the shop.
"What do you want?" the man asked once he was behind his desk.
"Something special. Some might even say magical," he said conspiratorially and Hurian's eyebrows rose.
"Magic crystals, to be specific," Claude said after he saw the man's reaction.
"And what makes you think my little joint sells that? Come, cast a spell for me so I can see if you're a magus."
Well... what should he cast? He certainly couldn't use any of the spells he'd engraved in his hexagram. Maybe one of Maria's eight. He couldn't do Appraisal or Submerged Breathing. The point was for Hurian to see the spell, so they were useless. Luminous Pearl was too eye-catching, so that one was out as well. Wind Barrier wasn't appropriate either. Chill needed a liquid medium, and he saw no cup or jar or jug of water in the shop. He didn't want to cast Hydrogenation either; it used too much mana.
He made up his mind and snapped his fingers. A small flame burst into life like one of his old world lighters had been struck.
He was very glad he'd brought his tome. He'd have been in a bit of a bind, otherwise. Hurian gazed at the flame intently for several long moments, then pinched it out of existence with a wetted thumb and forefinger.
"Come with me," his voice echoed as if from nowhere as he walked to a small door nearby and opened it, "In."
Claude followed obediently. The room was pitch black. The door clicked shut behind him and he could see nothing for a moment, then a bright light flashed into being and blinded him. He squinted instinctively, then his eyes slowly started adjusting.
The room was windowless, with bare stone walls. The door behind him and Hurian was the only interruption to the stone of the ceiling, walls, and floor. The roof was a vaulted ceiling, curving in to the middle in gentle arcs which terminated in a round hole which vanished further upward.
Three wooden shelves stood along three of the walls, the only furniture in the room. The shelves, too, were familiar to him. Were they not Wakri's? Their contents were not his, however. Claude's eye glinted as Eye of Appraisal activated.
The room lit up with colour the moment it did, so much so Claude flinched.
"So, how did you know?" the old man asked, smiling, satisfied with Claude's reaction.