The Secrets of Hidden Places
The personality of the Island changed during the Festival, opening the gates for all things to pass. All women were beautiful, and all men were prosperous. It was a time for magic. People found long lost brothers, great treasures and made dangerous promises. Not all who saw it start would see it end.
Melanie took a deep breath through her mouth to avoid smelling the rank stench of the water and almost choked when she tasted it instead. The boat tipped on the grey water, leaning as if to capsize before rolling back. Hanging over the railing Melanie spat out the bile that rose up. When she was confident that the sour taste and the burn in her throat were all that remained she leant back. The wind blew multi-coloured hair into her eyes and worked its way down her back, raising goosebumps. She pulled her artistically ripped leather jacket tighter around herself. It was big enough to fit around her and then some; it had belonged to her father before he had died and was nearly as old as she was. She pulled it up and buried her nose in its sweet smell of leather, perfume and an unknown scent that Melanie was confident was her dad. Her pocket buzzed. She reached in, felt the sweet wrappers and change for her phone, knowing full well who the message was from.
“You better be on the boat. I’ve promised Felix that you’d go with her on the coaster. We’ll meet you at the docks Luv Laura :)”
Melanie flicked back through her texts from Laura. A week of texts about how fantastic the Festival was, about how much fun she would have if she came. They had finally convinced her to join them for the weekend.
“I hear it’s haunted.” Melanie glanced up and looked at the boy who had spoken. He was entertaining his group of friends. “It’s got the record for the most accidents, it must be haunted.”
He was talking about the permanent fairground on the Island’s waterfront. Melanie always found it strange how the fact that it held the ‘fatal accident’ world record attracted people as well as repelled them. Melanie sighed to herself, she was positive she could come up with excuses to avoid the coaster once she was at the fairground.
The Island was close now; she could hear the music coming from the death trap fairground. The crowded boat became louder, kids became restless while mothers shouted and fathers scolded. Melanie reached into her pocket and pulled out her headphones. She slipped them in, turned up her music and tried to lose herself in the soft voice of the singer. The boat bumped against the dock and Melanie squeaked, lost her footing and tumbled into the back of a man. He turned and looked at her with irritation. Melanie lowered her eyes and rubbed her hands on her skirt.
Stepping onto solid ground, Melanie scanned the crowd for familiar faces. Even on the Island during the magic time of the Festival, when the strange and unique were commonplace, her friends would have stood out. Thin and pale, dressed in shredded black and bleeding scarlet, it was easy for her to realise they weren’t here. She considered waiting but the magic of the Island tugged at her and pulled her further in. She decided she would eat before looking properly and wandered down the promenade. Stalls and shops lined the street, their wares spilling out onto the road, their music spiralling out and up to the sky. She walked past stalls selling hotdogs and burgers, past one selling doughnuts. She wanted something richer, something special. The Island pulled her suddenly, and she turned off the promenade down an alley. The stink of salt water wasn’t quite so strong down here, something else permeated the air. Rich and thrilling: the smell of roasting meat.
The stall was so small she should have missed it. Painted a red so dark it was almost black. Lighter red paint spelt out the name Neifelhiem.
“Hi,” Melanie said. The girl looked at her.She didn’t smile, and she didn’t speak. Melanie didn’t notice, she was too busy reading the posters behind the girl. The writing was faded, the letters swirled in strange ways, the words a confused jumble. A myriad of bottles lined the shelves under the notices. Shoes ran along the bottom of the stall. A collection of walkmans and personal music players hung from a hook on the wall. Phones were stacked on a shelf. One small wall was littered with overlapping posters; faces of missing people stared out with dead printed eyes.
“Do you want something?” The girl in the stall finally spoke. “Food?” Melanie nodded. The girl turned and opened an ancient oven. The smell of roasting meat poured out, wrapping itself around the stall, shielding it from the reek of sea water.
“You sell weird stuff,” Melanie said, relaxing into one of the high seats arranged haphazardly in front of the stall.
“We sell a lot of second-hand goods.” The booth girl agreed. She looked up from her oven and stared hard at Melanie. “My name is Nit; I run the stall for Balor.” She stood up and offered a thin, pale hand.
“I’m Melanie,” Melanie said, taking her hand. Self-control stopped her from flinching; Nit’s hand was clammy and bone cold. As she pulled back, Melanie could not resist the urge to wipe her hand on her skirt. “Where do you get all this stuff? “ Nit smiled again and for a second Melanie had the impression of teeth, too long to fit into a human mouth. But the notion vanished as quickly as it had occurred and Nit was just a girl again.
“Are you interested?” Nit asked, crouching in front of the oven. Melanie laughed.
“The boots look good.” She pointed to a pair of neon pink doc martins. “But I’m not here to buy shoes.” Nit dropped a shank of meat in front of her in a small Styrofoam tray. Melanie sniffed at it; it was lamb with the juices still bubbling. Her stomach growled. The meat burnt her fingers, but she didn’t care. Tearing into it with her teeth, she almost groaned when it fell softly from the bone.
“Do you want a drink with that?” Nit sniffed. Melanie nodded and swallowed.
“Are any of those alcoholic?” Melanie wiped her chin and pointed to the bottles lining the shelves at the back of the stall. Nit nodded. Melanie looked carefully at the bottles. The labels were dusty, the corners turning in, most of them torn in places. What writing she could see was pale and faded.
“Any recommendations?” She pulled the meat off the bone with her fingers and snapped it down. Licking juices from her fingertips she smiled and made a mental note to remember this place.
“Actually yes,” Nit murmured. She peered at Melanie from under dark hair for a long moment “I think I know a one that would suit you, Melanie.” Nit looked away and pulled down a slender green bottle filled with dark liquid. She tipped it up and handed the glass to Melanie.
“What is this?” Melanie looked at the glass in front of her. “It’s purple.” She sniffed it, it smelt like cloves. Wiping wet fingers on her skirt, she lifted the glass.
“Monster Blood.” Nit said, Melanie knocked the shot back with a practised motion. It burned going down. Roasting the soft skin of her throat and starting a comfortable fire in her belly. She coughed and smacked her lips once. The after taste came upon her slowly and built, smooth and herb ridden. “What about that one?” She gestured to a bottle that was clear glass and squat, the liquid inside golden with small bubbles.
“Can I try it?” Melanie smiled at Nit when she nodded. The heat in her belly swelled, and a weakness ran down her arms. Her head swam, Melanie smiled wider and clenched her hands twice to feel the tingle in her fingertips. She sniffed at the new glass handed to her and smelt of honey.
“It’s mead?” She breathed and sipped it. Like Monster Blood it went down smooth with an initial sweetness. The heat grew quicker this time overwhelming the sweetness of the drink. It burned in her stomach and up into her throat, the roasting burn faded quickly, however, leaving in its place soothing warmth and a feeling of contentment.
“Do you like it?” Nit said. Melanie nodded.
“I’ve always liked things that were a bit different.” She admitted. “It’s gotten me into trouble once or twice.” She picked up the shank and peeled the last strips of meat off with ravenous efficiency; she hadn’t realised just how hungry she was.
“I can tell.” Nit smiled, fox-like again. “I think I should invite you to Alfheim.” Nit’s head jerked towards a sign. Melanie squinted at it. The notices which had been undecipherable only a moment ago now looked clearer. The heat in her belly grew and spread down her legs to her toes. The letters faded going out of focus before coming harshly into focus, dark and clear.
“You can see the sign?” Melanie nodded. “It’s a bar,” Nit murmured. “Under our feet.” Melanie blinked.
“Underground? A cellar bar?” Melanie leant forwards. “How do I get in?”
“Balor must see you and grant you permission. Only a select few are permitted.” Nit said, “Are you sure wish to enter?” Melanie nodded. Nit grinned and disappeared, ducking down beneath the countertop.
“Hey,” Melanie called leaning forward to try and see where Nit had gone to. “Where’d you go?” But Nit was gone; all that was left was old shoes and dusty bottles. Melanie sat back with a huff. “Typical.” She looked at her empty glass and bare bone. “Should have got another.”
Melanie waited and glanced around the eclectic stall looking for a distraction. Her eyes fell onto the pictures of the missing people. Melanie stared and frowned, the posters overlapped each other so much that they sat an inch thick in places. Some of them were recent, last year, the year before; others were older ten years previous, fifteen years. All claimed that the person pictured had been last seen at the Festival.
“Must be artistic,” Melanie muttered. “Morbid, though.”
She was contemplating reaching across and re-filling her own glass when the stall shook roughly, the wood creaked, and a string of curses came up from the thin wood by her feet, followed by a man. The man who came up in front of her was a man mountain. He stood at almost seven feet tall when he straightened up. He was solidly built with broad shoulders. Melanie did a double take; she could have sat comfortably on just one of this man’s shoulders. Like with Nit and the image of the fox, she had a sudden flash of tarnished metal armour on this man. The man mountain turned and glared at her with one terrifying eye, the other was covered by a yellowing cloth. His face was a mass of creases and half hid by a scraggy beard. He was dressed in stained white. Food stains covered his apron, and he wiped his hands on it. He grunted and leant forward.
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