"So," Helen said, "This is, like, a normal car, right? No monsters in the glove box or an emergency eject button or anything?"
They were in Eliot's car, which turned out to be an old black pick-up truck that was quickly fading to gray and rusted around the wheels. They had been on the road for almost twenty minutes and Helen was relieved to discover that he was a much better driver when he wasn't trying to escape a couple of angry vampires.
"Yeah, it's a normal car," he replied, "What? Did you think I rode to work on a magical unicorn?"
"I don't know. Anything's possible. Are we almost there?"
"Should be right around this next bend."
Helen didn't know exactly what she expected the New York State Magician's Exposition to look like but she had certainly expected something. When they turned the corner and saw nothing but a dirt trail surrounded by woods, Helen couldn't help but feel that Eliot was pulling her leg. Had they really come all this way to go to a place that didn't exist or was this simply his idea of a joke? For a moment, she looked at him suspiciously.
"This is a real thing and not just something you made up, right?"
He looked absolutely shocked as he replied, "Of course. Why would I make this up? If you're going to be my apprentice, then you're going to need some weapons and this is really the only place to get them."
"Do the trees sell swords when no one's looking?" Helen wasn't sure if she meant this to be a sarcastic comment or not so she went with a neutral tone.
"If you'd be patient, I'd show you. Patience is a virtue, you know."
As he spoke, he parked the truck on a small patch of grass by the side of the trail and got out. Helen followed suit, on the look out for anything strange. Maybe they were going to get sucked underground into the fair or perhaps they had to take a different mode of transport to the bazaar and were waiting to be picked up. A million possibilities raced through her head. Now that she knew that anything was possible, she would have to keep an open mind about the opportunities that surrounded her. But despite her mental tuning, what Eliot did next was so unbelievable that Helen felt her jaw drop.
He reached through the thin air and seemed to take hold of something slightly above his head. With a tug, the peaceful meadow scene in front of her wrinkled and a whole new scene appeared behind it. It was as though Eliot had pulled back a curtain.
"That- no, it can't- But- What?" Helen stammered out.
Eliot burst out laughing, "This is a whole new world. Weird is the new normal. You're going to have to retrain the way you think."
"You got that right," Helen said in wonder. His trick had been incredible but what was beyond the curtain was even more amazing. Far from the peaceful meadow, there was a wide-open field filled with tents, carts and stalls of every shape and color imaginable that stretched as far was the eye could see. Rather than being arranged in orderly rows, the vendors seemed to have parked themselves wherever they pleased, with no rhyme or reason at all. It looked like total chaos but every one of the thousands of people milling through seemed to know exactly where they were going.
"Are all of these people magicians in New York?" Helen asked, stunned at the shear volume of people.
"No, they come from all over," he said and Helen got the feeling that he wasn't particularly happy about this, "Come on."
He led the way into the babbling crowd, weaving through the packed field. Helen tried to keep up with him, but it was difficult when there was so much to distract her. Every tent seemed to be selling something different from talismans and potions to weapons and traps. And all around her, the vendors called out the virtues of their wares above the din of the crowd.
"Get your troll seeking pendants here, guaranteed to detect any troll within a mile!"
"What challenges does you future hold? Step right up and have your fortunes told by the one, the only Madam Whitfield! Find out what your future holds, if you dare!"
"Shrunken werewolf paws! Prefect for any occasion!"
"Authentic love potions for sale here! Guaranteed to work in three days or less!"
By now they had passed several carts selling weapons and Helen wondered what, exactly, Eliot was looking for that those vendors didn't have. But just as she tore her eyes away from a man who seemed to be running a service teleporting people to and from the exposition, she glanced around and realized that he was nowhere to be seen. She turned in a full circle but still failed to spot a familiar face in the crowd. He must have stopped or turned off somewhere while she was distracted. Backtracking was her best option but, as she spun around again, she realized she had no idea which direction she had come from. Everything was so foreign to her that it all looked the same. Finally, she just picked a direct that seemed familiar and headed that way. She decided to keep a sharp eye out for stands selling weapons and, with a little luck, run into him before too long.
The exposition was much larger than Helen thought. No matter how much she walked the crowd never thinned and she never reached the edge. It was stall after stall after stall.
"Helen Cooper," a voice croaked from somewhere to Helen's right, "I've been waiting for you."
Helen turned towards the sound of her name and discovered elderly woman barely four feet tall. She was hunched over and leaning heavily on a gnarled old walking stick. She was draped in colorful tattered cloaks and covered in jewels that jangled with every movement. A green hood was pulled over her head, covering her face but Helen could see wisps of white hair sticking out from under it.
"How do you know my name?" Helen asked her.
"I know a lot of things. Come with me, my dear."
"I don't think-" But then the old woman started to hobble off. The only person at this fair that knew her name was Eliot and so it was logical to assume that the woman knew him and might lead her to him. In any case, she had nothing to lose. The woman led her to a navy blue tent that was covered in patches and dwarfed by a massive yellow tent to one side and a huge wooden stall with a picture of an orange dragon on it on the other side. If the woman hadn't led Helen to it, she probably wouldn't have seen it at all. No sign proclaimed what services or goods were sold within.
Inside was nothing but a small table with chairs on either side of it. A crystal ball was situated in the middle of the table, fog billowing around in it mysteriously. The woman sat in one of the chairs and indicated for Helen to do the same. Once seated, the woman finally removed her hood and Helen saw that her face was almost as gnarled and twisted as her walking stick. Wrinkles creased every inch of her face, she had a big nose with pockmarks on it and her mouth only seemed to contain a few teeth. However, her eyes were as black as the night and looked as though they held all the wisdom of the universe. Something about the expression in those eyes told Helen that this old woman was not a person to be trifled with, but someone who deserved a good deal of respect.
With a sweeping motion, the woman knocked the crystal ball off the table and it shattered on the floor, yellowish fumes drifting out. Helen, so surprised by this sudden act of violence, jumped in her seat.
"The crystal is useless. It sees nothing but what the seer wants to see. If you are after the truth, then these are your friends," the woman told her, pulling out a small box from under one of her many cloaks. She placed it reverently on the table and removed the lid. Inside were several small, white bones.
"What are they?" Helen asked.
"They are the knuckle bones of a very old, very wise dragon. They see the truth. Each one is represents a part of your future. All you have to do is pick them up and drop them on the table."
"What if I don't want to know my future?" Helen asked, thinking of her possible impending death at the hands of an angry vampire.
The woman smiled, revealing her few rotten teeth with a twinkle in her eye, "You are a wise one. Fine, a true reading you will not get but let me tell you this: There is great danger in your future and not just for yourself. You are going to have to rely on people for help but not all of them will deserve your trust. Just remember, when the time comes, go to the Oldest Ones and ask for the sword of Gul."
"Who are the Oldest Ones? What does the sword of Gul do?"
"Some questions can only be answered with time," the old woman told her with a smile. Then she grabbed her hood and pulled it back over her head and, as she did, she disappeared.
"Wait!" Helen shouted, "Who are you?" But the tent was empty. Whoever the woman had been, she was gone now. Helen left the tent with more questions than she had answers. What did the woman mean, ‘not all of them will deserve your trust?' Did that mean she shouldn't trust Eliot? And what about the Oldest Ones and the sword of Gul? What time would come when she would need such a thing?
"Hey! What's a pretty thing like you doing in a place like this?"
Helen snapped out of her thoughts and found herself facing an ugly, fat, balding man in a brown leather jacket and black dress pants. And he wasn't the only one. There were four other men that all looked very similar to the first, all dressed exactly the same, and they were all surrounding her.
"Hey, my friend here asked you a question. Who'd you come here with?" A man much taller than the first and with a little more hair asked this time.
"I came here with Eliot, Eliot Sykes. Why do you ask?"
They all burst out laughing.
"Sykes?" a different man asked, sounding shocked, "How did Sykes tag a girl like this? There's no way!"
"It can't be true," said another through his laughter, "Who'd you really come with sweetheart?"
"I'm telling the truth. I came with Eliot He's around here somewhere. I was just-" Helen turned to point out the old woman's tent but it was gone, just an empty space sat between the yellow tent and the stall with the dragon.
They exploded into another chorus of laughter.
"Can't even keep track of her!" roared the shortest and fattest man in the bunch, "He doesn't deserve you, honey! Come with me, I'll treat you right."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"C'mon, honey. Let's have some fun." The first, who appeared to be the leader, said. He grabbed her wrist and started to drag her away from the crowd. Helen twisted in his grasp, trying to break free. She wielded around and kicked the man squarely in his rotund belly, causing him to double over. However, he was determined and his grip didn't loosen until Helen sunk her teeth into the man's knuckle and his blood began to trickle down his fingers.
Free at last, she noticed that the other men in the group were surrounding her, looking angry. Before they managed to fully enclose her, Helen darted over to the stall with the dragon on it and seized two shining, silver blades, a little longer than butcher's knives. The hilts on both were curved dragon's heads and the black grips felt warm and comfortable in her hands. She held them in front of her and faced the five men now advancing on her. They had all rolled up the sleeves of their jackets to reveal a tattoo of a blue magician's hat covered in white stars on the inside of their right wrists.
"You really shouldn't have messed with us," said the tall man with a cold look in his blue eyes. He snapped his fingers and one of the thick ropes anchoring a nearby tent unraveled itself and began to coil around Helen's feet like a boa constrictor. Her blades were more than up to this challenge and easily sliced through the coils, killing the snake.
"Stand aside you idiot," barked the man she had bitten, "I'll teach you."
He raised his still bleeding hand and snapped his fingers like the first man but this time the orange dragon from the front of the stall sprang to life, black talons and dagger-like fangs flashing in the sunlight. It bellowed as its black eyes rolled wildly and charged. Helen dove to the side, narrowly avoiding its attack. The dragon skidded to a stop, leaving deep gouges in the earth and turned for a second assault. A torrent of fire exploded from the creature's mouth and Helen lurched out its range but not fast enough to avoid being singed. She aimed her knife for the dragon's belly but it bounced right off. Laughter rumbled from the now large group of watching magicians.
"Can't cut dragon hide! Doesn't this girl know anything?" she heard from somewhere behind her. The dragon rounded on her for a third charge and Helen stood like a statue in its path and refused to budge. It lowered its head and opened its jaws wide, aiming to bite her clean in half. At the last second, took one blade and pushed its nose to the side, forcing its jaws to close. Then she plunged her other knife straight into the roving black eye, all the way up to the hilt. With a violent screech, the dragon began to dissolve until there was nothing left but the dagger, which Helen retrieved from the ground. The surrounding crowd burst into cheering and applause for the wonderful performance and even the magicians that have started the fight with her were looking appreciatively. Except for their leader. He was livid, shaking with rage.
As the crowd began to disperse, they obscured the leather jacket magicians from sight and Helen set off in the opposite direction, hoping to escape. Her heart was still racing from encounter with the dragon, one that she did not want to repeat any time soon. But she had hardly taken five steps when she heard someone scream "Look out!" from behind her. The next moment she felt like an elephant had charged into her back and sent her flying through the air and hitting the ground some twenty feet away. A crippling pain swept over her entire body the second she landed and increased in magnitude until it was unbearable. It felt like every inch of her body was being crushed and twisted at the same time. She had a sense that there was a lot of activity going on outside herself but she was both blind and deaf to it, as her vision darkened and an odd wailing filled her ears. She felt hands touch her skin, serving only to send fresh waves of pain through her. The faint, far away sound of voices filled her head as the wailing receded.
"Stand back," she heard a deep voice say. She felt another set of hands touch her right arm, which was excruciatingly painful, and the pain multiplied to something Helen was sure was going to kill her and then, just as she was sure it was the end, it began to fade.