PodCastle 726: The Elixary of the Evanescent Market
The Elixary of the Evanescent Market
by Marina Ermakova
Iris eyed the interior of the carriage with caution as the train came to a screeching halt. Potions clinked against the clamps which held them in their travel positions, but didn’t come loose in a crash of shattering glass. A wheeled cart smashed against the wall it was tied to, yet failed to dislodge from its bindings and turn into a bludgeoning projectile.
There was still the other carriage, the one that served as a workshop instead of a storefront, but Aunt was inside of it. Aunt had decades more experience with combustible potions than she did.
Which meant that everything had arrived intact, and Iris could allow herself to relax.
The creak of metal hinges signaled Aunt’s arrival though the carriage door. The older woman set a brisk pace for the glass cabinets, bolted in place. Iris rushed to help in unclasping the vials, knowing they had a small window of time before the train announced its arrival to potential customers.
“You will be on your own, so remember never to open the orange potions,” Aunt lectured her. “I specifically color the dangerous ones orange.”
“I know,” Iris said, resisting the urge to roll her eyes. She was not going to magically forget everything she’d learned in the past few years just because Aunt didn’t remind her.
“And if a customer becomes unruly — ”
“Aunt, I know.”
Aunt stopped loosening one of the clasps and turned piercing gray eyes upon her apprentice. “Iris,” she admonished. “You may believe nothing will go wrong. Most likely, nothing will go wrong. But there is a real possibility of danger, and if that should happen . . . what would you even do?” A glint of concern appeared behind her eyes. “Perhaps I should stay.”
Alarm rose within Iris. “No, no, I’m sorry! I am taking this seriously. I even have a list of all your instructions written down.”
What would she do if Aunt decided not to visit her friend after all? If she continued to hover over the shop, watching Iris’s work, she would intercept customers before Iris could handle them! How long would it be before Iris had another opportunity for freedom, where her every move did not need to meet with Aunt’s approval?
Aunt’s sharp eyes raked over her apprentice’s apologetic form. “All right,” the woman finally said, the words like a weight being lifted. “Hurry up, then, and get this dreary place decorated.”
Iris threw herself into the work with alacrity. Ropes were removed, vials repositioned, ribbons hung. Before long, the carriage looked less like a collection space and more like a cozy little shop, lined with elaborate glass bottles containing deep-colored liquids.
Aunt slid open a doorway at the width of the carriage, while Iris carried a wooden ramp to place over it. Splinters dug into her skin as she lowered the ramp, almost dropping it as the low note of a horn thrummed through the air, echoing towards the white spires and winding streets of the nearby city.
The anticipation coursed through Iris. Customers would close their own businesses and postpone their day’s plans at the instrument’s call. The entire city would flock to the Evanescent Market, a spectacle arriving by railway, not to be seen again for years.
She finished with the ramp, smoothed out her plain but presentable dress, then took a few steps back to survey their work.
The words ‘Goodstone’s Elixary’ adorned the side of the carriage in a neat cursive, the white letters contrasting nicely against the dark blue coloring of the train. Strategically placed lamps trailing blue and green ribbons lit the interior. The air carried the lightest hint of citrus, emanating from the fragrance vials Aunt situated around the shop.
It was ready. It was perfect. And if only for today, it was all hers.
By the time the first customers arrived — the ones enterprising enough to beat the rush — Aunt was gone. And if the memory of Aunt’s concerns raised any doubts in Iris’s mind about what she was truly in for, they were quickly swept away by the thrill of independence.
“Welcome to Goodstone’s Elixary,” she called with a little too much cheer, as a middle-aged woman ascended the ramp. “Is there something in particular you were looking for?”
The woman tossed a self-conscious gaze around the carriage. “Relief from nightmares,” she said.
“Ah, yes, we have that.” Iris strode away from the displays of the more impressive potions near the entrance towards the stocks of practical ones in the back. She picked up a small vial filled with a cloudy black liquid, the cool glass fitting neatly into the palm of her hand. “Dreamless Sleep. Add a few drops to a cup of hot water — tea will do as well — and it should curtail dreams for several days. It may be taken as needed, but not more than once a day.”
The woman paid for three, and pride welled inside of Iris as the coins touched her palm. It was a modest sale, but a respectable one. And it was her first. The first customer she’d ever handled alone.
This precious milestone in Iris’s life made a furtive escape down the ramp, as a pair of younger men — barely past boyhood, with curious eyes — wandered in. The cabinets of brightly-colored potions by the entryway caught their attention. Excited whispers flowed from their lips as they pointed out the labels to each other.
“Look, it says Breath of Fire,” one said.
“And Interrupted Time. What do you think that means?”
Iris immediately dismissed them as browsers. They wished to peruse the more interesting wares, which they wouldn’t have a use for even if they could afford them. Perhaps once they made their way towards the back, they might be tempted into buying some trifles. Best to leave them alone for now.
Behind them, a gentleman followed, dark coattails trailing behind him as he removed his hat. From the shine of his shoes to his gleaming gem buttons, everything about him declared his wealth. A man like this, while perhaps not looking for the sort of potions the young men were studying, could spend quite a bit of money. If Iris managed to direct him towards an item that intrigued him.
Aunt had never let her handle such a valuable customer before, even with her help.
“Welcome to Goodstone’s Elixary,” she began, surreptitiously slipping her coins into the pouch dangling from her belt. “Is there something I can help you find?”
The man raised an eyebrow as he noted her appearance, perhaps not expecting a girl her age to manage the shop alone. Iris only straightened her shoulders and turned up her smile in response. He would be impressed soon enough.
“There is something I am interested in,” he said, tone impassive. “What in this shop can alter reality?”
Iris blinked at the unusual request, uncertain of what he meant. “We have all sorts of potions to transport you into a different world. Endless Ocean, or Mountain Peak, or The City of Crystal. . .”
The man gave a contemptuous sniff. “Paltry illusions.”
Iris kept her smile up through sheer force of will and hoped he wouldn’t notice it growing brittle. She had only just learned to mix Endless Ocean herself and was quite proud of the results. “Then might you be thinking of something that disrupts gravitational forces, or transforms one material into another?”
“What nonsense,” the man replied. “You offer me children’s tricks.”
Those were most assuredly not children’s tricks — they were time consuming and expensive recipes that had to be crafted with great care, lest they fail to work or explode. This man had asked her for something that altered reality. How did bending the physical forces that shaped their world not qualify?
“Perhaps you might give me a better indication of what you’re looking for?” Iris asked.
He turned to the nearest cabinet, tracing the label for Upward Plunge with a gloved fingertip. “I have no need of trifles that affect some tiny radius. That hardly changes the world at all. Now, strumming the strings of time . . . that is a worthy magic.”
Latching onto the new information, Iris rushed to say, “We have items such as Interrupted Time to slow everything in — ”
“Stop,” he cut her off, voice rising. “I said that I am uninterested in your tiny radius. Or in something as meager as slowing down time. You shall show me where you keep your potions for traveling to the past. By about an hour, I believe, is the usual amount?”
Iris froze, suddenly noting a predatory glint in the man’s eyes. Uncertainty washed over her, because who would ask for something like that, who would even think that something like that existed . . .
A fleeting thought passed through her mind that Aunt should be the one dealing with this. But no, she didn’t need Aunt. She was perfectly capable of handling this on her own.
“That’s impossible,” she told him, drawing on all the defiance she could muster. “We craft nothing capable of undoing time.”
“You would want it to be accessible in an emergency, but nonetheless difficult to find,” the man continued, ignoring her words completely. “Where is it, child?”
He took a step towards the little desk Iris used for accounting — it was the only place in the carriage not intended for customers. Iris gathered her courage and moved directly into his path, refusing to let him intimidate her. He paused, an amused gleam shining from behind his eyes.
“I’m right, aren’t I?” he said. “You keep it here.”
Circling around her to reach the desk, he began searching through the papers atop it, peeking underneath it. Iris tried to take a subtle step towards the nearest cabinet, accepting that he would not stop until she made him. A potion like Interrupted Time would give her quite the advantage.
Without even looking up, the man lifted an arm in her direction — and all of her muscles locked into place.
“Stay put,” he admonished. “I may need you yet.”
A sudden panic fell over her as she strained to move, yet remained stuck in place. How could he do this? Affect her so powerfully without the aid of a medium? He wasn’t simply some wealthy customer. He was a magician.
She truly wished Aunt were here now, her own pride notwithstanding.
He continued rifling through the desk, leaving Iris trapped in helpless fear — and confusion. For why would a magician need anything from them? Why bother with the bottled magic of an elixary? He could do anything they could, and fuel it with his own reserves rather than their complicated recipes.
What motive could he have? He’d expressed a desire to go backwards in time. Magicians were powerful, but Aunt had warned her that they liked to exaggerate their power. Perhaps this was something he couldn’t do for himself?
The magician shoved her accounting books off the table in a sudden show of frustration. The clatter drew the attention of the youngsters, who’d moved a bit further into the carriage. Turning away from the vials, their eyes landed upon Iris’s form, frozen in mid-motion.
“What’s going on?” one of them asked.
The man flicked a wrist, and their eyes drifted shut as both of them slumped to the ground. Iris managed a gasp of horror before her throat closed from whatever spell had trapped her.
How was this happening? They were a small-scale elixary, talented enough, but not worth the attention of anyone this powerful. The truly impressive elixaries were private, held by noblemen and royals who retained the services of their own practitioners. Goodstone’s Elixary should never have attracted the notice of a powerful magician. Their poor customers should never have so much as breathed the same air as this walking menace. And yet these two young men were paying for it.
“Oh, do not be so dramatic,” the magician grumbled, perhaps noticing her terror. “They are merely unconscious. But there are no potions here that I can find. Where are you hiding them?”
He straightened, and suddenly the spell holding her in place dropped. With her muscles unready to hold her weight, Iris’s body plummeted against the nearest cabinet. Her shoulder crashed into the wood, throbbing from the impact, as she struggled to lift herself into a sitting position.
“I told you,” she insisted in a shaky voice. “We have nothing like that.”
The magician gave a disappointed sigh. “You persist in lying to me.”
He moved closer, towering over her, and she tensed. But instead of turning to her, he reached for the cabinet. A flash of orange came from above her as he removed a potion — she recognized it as Searing Heat.
“This is a nice one to light a fire with, for those pathetic enough to require outside assistance,” the magician mused. “What do you think should happen if it touched your skin?”
If she had felt fear at the loss of her ability to move, it was nothing compared to what she felt now. This man was a monster. She felt a clawing desperation in her chest, a trembling over her entire body, as he dipped the bottle . . .
Then he tilted it back up, placing it back inside the cabinet. “But that would be rather boring, no? Let us find something more inventive.”
She had seconds to act, before he found something worse. Seconds. And this was not a normal emergency. This was life or death. It was time for the most drastic of actions, for whatever it took to escape him.
Her hand slipped into the pouch at the side of her dress, reaching for a plain tube filled with a pale white potion. A dull color, so as not to tempt customers. Before the magician had a chance to look down and stop her, she opened it and downed its contents, the viscous liquid sliding down her throat.
A middle-aged woman stood near the entrance of the carriage, gazing with suspicion at her surroundings. “Relief from nightmares,” she said, her voice so soft it was almost a whisper.
Iris felt a wave of disorientation, slowly realizing her fist was clenched around a cool glass tube. An empty glass tube. With a sudden anxiety, she rifled through her pouch, looking for Second Chance. It was gone.
And then the memories came flooding back to her, along with a terror that nearly swept her away.
The magician had been right, in that Aunt kept a single massively valuable dose of Second Chance in the shop at all times. He had been under the impression it would give back an hour of the user’s time and Iris wondered where he’d heard such a thing. The mix Aunt made was only capable of restoring thirty minutes.
Yet those thirty minutes cost dearly, and Iris found herself overwhelmed that she’d used it at all. Months of crafting, rare ingredients which Iris wouldn’t know how to acquire herself, all spent on this one dose of potion. It was not for sale. Even the knowledge that Aunt had the ability to make it was immensely dangerous — as today’s events insisted on proving.
Now it was gone. Used up. The empty tube had come with Iris when she traveled back from the future. There would be no more second chances, no emergency potion to save her from the coming danger.
How long did she have? Ten, fifteen minutes until the magician once again stepped foot into the shop?
The thought nearly sent her into a panic, for what was she supposed to do? He was so strong, while Aunt was too far away to help. She dared not risk her neighbors by involving them. And the ephemeral nature of their traveling market meant that Iris didn’t know where to find local help, didn’t have regular customers to rely on.
Run, came a voice in the back of her mind. Run, and you will live.
But then this magician would have free access to everything in Aunt’s shop. Second Chance was the single greatest potion in the elixary’s arsenal, true, but it was not the only powerful item Aunt kept hidden. If Iris allowed him to take them . . .
Then collect those items and flee, the voice insisted.
In ten minutes? She would never make it. And even if she did, the magician could spring a trap on Aunt upon her return.
She can handle him better than you can.
But Iris was certain that Aunt couldn’t handle him. He was far too powerful, and his magic was innate, rather than derived from craftwork. To have any chance against him, Aunt would require time to prepare, and he would give her none.
This left Iris with the decision of whether to doom Aunt, or endanger herself.
Why had she ever thought she was ready for this? Why had she believed that, because she could handle the shop under Aunt’s watchful gaze, she could manage anything that came her way? This was not what she had imagined at all.
“Miss?” the middle-aged woman questioned.
“Ah, yes,” Iris answered absently. “I will be with you in a moment.”
Aunt was not here to make things better, the way she always had been in the past. She had entrusted the shop to Iris. And if Iris did not live up to her expectations, she would come back to unimaginable danger.
There had to be something Iris could do. Scrambling over to the cabinets, she read over the labels, searching for inspiration. Something like Searing Heat would never work, for she would have to hit him with the potion somehow. Interrupted Time afforded him too much opportunity to counterattack . . .
“Excuse me,” the woman said again, irritation bleeding into her voice.
“Dreamless Sleep,” Iris replied, waving a hand towards the back. “Two cabinets over.”
Then she paused. Dreamless Sleep. A few drops to lessen dreams, a few more to dull emotions, a bottle to turn off the mind for days. That was it.
She had barely enough time to fetch and hide a vial before the young men arrived, halting at the nearest cabinet to marvel at its contents. And after them, adopting a more leisurely pace, followed the magician.
There was only so much Iris could predict. She had already caused the woman with nightmares to stay long enough to cross paths with this dangerous man. But if she acted as normally as possible, she would know the general direction events might take.
“Here,” she said to the woman, moving to pass her another vial of Dreamless Sleep. “Apologies for the delay.”
The magician perused the store’s wares while money exchanged hands. As the woman exited into safety, Iris turned her attention to the gentleman. Any confidence she’d tricked herself into disappeared at the sight of his stony eyes, the amused tilt of his lips.
“May I help you?” Iris asked, trying not to choke on the words.
“You may,” he informed her. “I should like to see an item which changes reality.”
She tried to recall what she’d told him before. “Are you looking to affect physical forces such as gravity, or — ”
“No, no, no. Not gravity, and none of those cheap radial effects either, please. Impress me with something beyond the bounds of what you place on your shelves.”
Heart pounding, Iris adopted her best quizzical expression. “But everything we sell is on the shelves.”
“Do not toy with me, child,” he said, voice dropping to a tone that sent shivers down her spine. What had she been thinking? Why hadn’t she run while she had the chance? “I know the sorts of things a good elixary can hide. And what but a good elixary can secure itself a coveted spot on the Evanescent Train?”
Iris swallowed over the lump in her throat, unsure what to do with him veering off script like this. “Sir, I am but an apprentice. I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
His eyes fell on her desk. Good. Oh, good.
The heel of his shoe clanked as he stepped towards it, and Iris — forcing herself to remember her earlier boldness, putting aside the thought of how easily he could hurt her — moved into his path, staring him down for all the world like she wasn’t a terrified girl pretending to be brave.
But she had to do it. This very action was why he’d believed there was something hidden in the desk the first time around.
“I am right, am I not? It’s here.” He swept past her, descending on the desk, searching its contents — and finding a tiny black bottle hidden inside. “And what is this unassuming little thing?”
A tiny bit of relief came over her as he found the bottle, even as she knew it to be premature, even as her task only became harder from here. She had no insight left into what would happen next.
“Sir, that isn’t for sale,” she said, telling herself that the tremor in her voice was deliberate.
His condescending eyes met hers, but he made no move to leave with the bottle or drink it. “Tell me what it is.”
Only then did she grasp how rushed this plan was, how badly thought out. He had not even mentioned the properties of Second Chance specifically this time. All he knew was that she kept this potion hidden from customers. He would not drink it without knowing what it was. Even if he did believe this was Second Chance, she would still be unable to coax him into drinking it now instead of when he’d truly need it.
Which left Iris with the unenviable task of getting him to leave peaceably, imagining himself satisfied.
“It’s nothing,” she told him. “It is one of my own failed attempts to replicate an advanced recipe. Please, don’t injure yourself by consuming it.”
That wasn’t enough. It couldn’t possibly be enough. But at least he would believe she didn’t want him to drink it.
A beleaguered sigh escaped from the magician. “Why must you make this so difficult? Very well.”
He raised an arm and the two youngsters dropped just as they had before. The act left Iris less shaken than it had the first time around, as she was already aware that they still lived. Unless this time was different. A creeping doubt found its way into her heart, as she contemplated how much had changed already. What if they were truly dead?
“Don’t hurt the customers,” she said, her voice coming out in a squeak.
“I haven’t hurt anyone yet,” the man replied. “They merely sleep. What do you imagine it might take to wake them up?” He shifted towards the nearest cabinet, the same one as before, his fingers tracing the labels of the potions. “Searing Heat? Too boring.”
“Please don’t hurt them,” she beseeched, hoping to buy enough time to figure this out. Events were progressing slower than before — or perhaps it only felt that way because she wasn’t the one in immediate danger.
The magician paused. “Then give me a reason not to,” he said. “Tell me what the potion is for. Tell me what other secrets are hidden in this elixary.”
A desperate idea came to her. It might not work. But it was all she had. “I have no knowledge of the secrets hidden in the elixary.”
A gentle chuckle emanated from the gentleman. “No? Would your mistress leave you here without making that knowledge available to you? What if some dapper gentleman came to cause trouble?”
“I don’t know her secrets,” she repeated, the desperation in her tone real even if her words weren’t. “I truly don’t.”
“Then she must have left you a way to access them as needed,” he replied in his deceptively calm voice. “An inventory of some sort.”
Iris deliberately cast her eyes upon the Dreamless Sleep potion in the man’s hand, attempting to make the gesture seem unconscious.
“This?” the magician asked, a note of delight in his voice. “A memory potion, containing the inventory to her secrets?”
“No,” Iris said, lacing the word with horror. “That isn’t — sir, it isn’t safe. Please don’t drink that.”
And he laughed, an airy sound that chimed through the air. It was far too handsome a laugh for so terrible a man. Removing the cork from the bottle, he drank the contents in deep gulps. Then he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe his mouth and asked, “How long before it takes effect?” As the last word left his lips, he listed to the side. A cloudy realization appeared behind his eyes. “What did you do?”
Iris backed up a few steps, wary.
“You drugged me,” he said, with a quiet fury. Bracing himself against the cabinet, his previous grace gone as his body lost its coordination, he raised a hand in Iris’s direction.
She bolted for the door, hoping to evade him until he lost consciousness. A few minutes had seemed like such a short amount of time for the potion to take effect before, yet now it felt far too long.
A wave of pressure passed by her, close enough to graze her arm and send her veering into another cabinet face first. Her cheek collided with the edge in an explosion of pain. Pushing away, turning back towards the magician, she found him slumping down the cabinet to the ground. His eyes were unfocused, but his arm still rose in the direction of the doorway. She watched as a blast of air emanated from his hand, shattering the glass of the nearest cabinet — and the closest potion.
Orange liquid poured over the side of the cabinet, dripping onto the bits of shattered glass on the floor. As the first drop touched a shard, it launched itself diagonally into the air, taking only an instant to lodge itself into the ceiling.
Upward Plunge. But despite the name, the potion did not quite reverse gravity. It was not precise enough for that. Instead, it changed the flow of gravity in a generally upward but often tilted direction. That meant it was safest to duck while it was in effect.
Of course, the rows of potions sitting in the potential path of these glass projectiles did not have the capacity to duck. And if even one more potion bottle broke, Iris might have yet another disaster on her hands.
She had to neutralize Upward Plunge.
But Reassert Gravity was located in the same cabinet as Upward Plunge, sitting directly behind the broken vial, and to reach it she would place herself in the way of the glass shards. The pool of orange liquid on the ground grew with every additional drip, expanding towards the collection of shards on the floor. The danger to her person was clear.
But if the wrong potion broke, it could cause an explosion, or overdose all of them with a sleeping agent they might never wake up from. Even potions which might harmlessly disperse in open air would become lethal in such a small, enclosed space. This was the price they paid for traveling with the Evanescent Market. Never before had it felt quite so high.
Iris dashed for the cabinet, flinching as another glass projectile sped past her and embedded itself into the wall with a light thud. Her fingertips brushed against the glass containing the clear blue fluid of Reassert Gravity, just as a sudden sting in her arm had her hissing in pain. A glance down revealed a trail of red where another shard had grazed her — she was fortunate it hadn’t hit her neck or chest instead.
Terrified that the flying glass might be the end of her at any moment, Iris uncorked the potion with one hand and poured it over the splotch of orange on the ground with the other. Heart in her throat, she watched as the colors blended into a dull brown, inactivating the effects of Upward Plunge.
Her gaze turned towards the magician, whose eyes had finally closed, whose hands were finally resting against the ground.
Iris let out a breath of unparalleled relief that turned into a sob midway. By all the world’s enchantments, it was finally over. Finally safe.
He would remain unconscious for days at least, and by then Aunt would be back to fix this mess. Disposing of powerful strangers with discretion was not something Iris had been taught, and only now did she understand how much she had left to learn before she could run an elixary on her own.
She had not been ready for this. She could not have imagined how much she wasn’t ready for this. So many mistakes, so many rushed plans.
But she could do better.
She could formulate a series of contingencies. Review the inventory again with an eye for how each item may be useful in an emergency. Seed little traps throughout the shop like she did with Dreamless Sleep.
She had not been ready for this, but she’d survived it anyway. And she would make sure that the next time something like this happened, her victory would not be so precarious.
About the Author
Adventure fantasy writer Marina Ermakova has degrees in genetics and history, and the heart of a lifelong geek. She loves writing about outsiders, loners, and thinkers.
She’s publishing two series: The urban fantasy Terrestrial Magic, set in a post-apocalyptic Italy where a scientist researches legendary animals and dodges assassination attempts. And the YA epic fantasy Chains Carried on Wings, featuring four teenagers who navigate their broken relationships to protect their city from supernatural monsters.
About the Narrator
Srikripa Krishna Prasad
Sri is a graduate student hailing from near Toronto, Ontario, who is (metaphorically) wandering the world, searching for purpose. She is deeply fond of reading and writing speculative fiction, especially fantasy, and has work published in Cast of Wonders; she hopes to publish more soon. Outside of writing, she is learning how to play the guitar and piano, practicing the violin, daydreaming, and trying to motivate herself to finish any of the numerous projects she has going. You can find her on Twitter at @sriative, where she rarely tweets but lurks in the shadows, casting her judgmental yet benevolent eye over the world.