Fresh from my success of crossing the hexagon path I round the corner and see the old man. He’s tilted back with shoulders pressed up against the wall balanced on two legs of a small wooden stool. A leather apron with multiple pockets and odd objects protruding from it is wrapped around his usual white tunic. In the corner of his mouth hangs a barely lit, thin rolled cigarette, but I can smell the old smoke still lingering in the air.
“Hello quester,” he says beckoning me closer. “You’ll be looking for a way out, no doubt?” He says with a slow smile and crosses his arms in front of him.
The smile annoys me, like he still sees me as the young quester from a year ago, ready to offer a few words of wisdom then disappear into the ethers of Webland again.
“Actually. No.” I try to reply with more confidence than I feel. “I have a long way to go still.”
His smile doesn’t change, but the smallest of twitches seems to make his left eyebrow raise, just for a second. He jumps up, throwing the cigarette from his mouth and grinning ear to ear. The legs of the stool clatter back on to the floor and it somehow manages to land upright.
“Then you’ll be needing to visit my shop.” He says and grabs me by the arm.
He pulls me so we’re both facing the wall and he reaches out to draw two symbols. From the tip of his fingers the lines appear in the same flamed writing. Cracks appear as the lines of the symbols spread out in a dozen different directions, they dance across the face of the wall curling back in on itself until the whole wall looks like the cracked skin of a broken egg.
The cracks seem to grow brighter and I had to shield my eyes. I take a step back, but his arm feels reassuring as he stays rooted still. I can’t see, but I feel the hot blast of air that comes from space in front of us, then nothing.
I open my eyes and see the entrance where the wall had been. A wide doorway that the old man quickly steps through into the lighted large room.
The room has a wooden floor and along the walls it is filled top to bottom with shelves hollowed out of the rock. There are folded stacks of clothes and helmets of every size crammed row upon row. Swords and staffs line the spaces in between leant upright and bundled together with strips of cloth.
The long counter at the back of room has dozens of little drawers, I can hear the old man bent down behind it rattling drawer after drawer, open and closed, and mumbling under his breath. As I reach the counter, the mumbling quiets and he reappears wearing a pair of silver rimmed glasses and smoking a fresh cigarette.
“So what have you got to trade?” he asks, the cigarette jiggling at the side of his mouth dropping flecks of ash.
I look down at the old clothes I’ve been wearing since I set off on my journey. The same ragged cloak covered in the dirt picked up from over 2 months of travelling through the forest. But that’s not all, I picked up, I suddenly recall.
I pull the backpack from my shoulder and open it up to rummage inside. I put the charred lump that used to be my wooden staff out and I see the old man wrinkle up his nose, the creases on his forehead chasing each other .
“No, not that” I say quickly. “These…” and from the backpack I pull out and place two rubies, as big as boar eyes, on the counter in from him
He picks one of them up and holds it up to the light. A red glow briefly falls across the whole of the shop’s rocky roof bathing everything in its eerie light and then its gone. With a quick gesture the two rubies are swallowed up into one of the pockets in his apron.
“Those area a start,” he says and points a finger at the backpack I’m still holding. “Anything else?”
I look inside the bag, two A to Zs, a couple of online courses and the meanderings into the worlds of psychology, gamification and user experience. It doesn’t seem to amount to much.
“Well. You can see for yourself.” ” I say at last and throw the open backpack on to the counter in front of him.
As the bag lands on the counter, a cloud of dust seems to puff out from it, another remnant from my long travels on the road.
The old man looks surprised. His already drooping cigarette falls from his open mouth and he doesn’t seem to notice. Instead he leans down close to the backpack, bulging eyes staring hard from behind his spectacles almost brushing his face to it and then he sniffs.
His head snaps. “Where did you get that?” he asks, both hands moving around the counter and I hear the manic sliding of drawers again.
“It’s my blogging backpack. It’s been with me since the start.” I say and lean in close myself taking a small sniff. It smells to me like old burnt grass, dirt and then yes, something else…
“Word vapour.” The old man says and bangs shut a final drawer.
His hands emerge holding a t-shaped pipe and a small glass ball that has a slightly protruding opening with a shallow lip. He pops the lip of the ball into the middle hole in the pipe giving it a sharp twist and it clicks into place.
He leans down over the backpack again with one end of the pipe close to the material and his lips clamped over the other end. He looks intently at the the bag, not moving. His eyes flick around surface watching, waiting for something, and then he starts to suck.
He takes a slow, long pull of air through the pipe that hollows out both cheeks and coloured mist fills the small glass ball in the middle of the tube. I see it now. Letters and words jumbled together as he keeps on sucking in the small molecules of word cloud.
When he stops the glass ball is filled with a green-grey mix of cloud. He twists the pipe free and from a pocket in his apron pulls a small cork to stopper the opening with.
“It’s raw and pretty unstable.” He says, shaking the ball for me to see and the mixture changes colour and reforms into another set of words.
“We might get another 2, tops 3 glasses at most that you can trade with.” He says, whilst admiring the little glass ball.
The days and nights floating on the word clouds, sleeping on it and letting it drift me wherever it wanted to go. I smile as I realise what this must mean.
Picking up the pipe from the counter, I unbuckle my ragged cloak and sweep it from my shoulder. As I lay it across the counter a trail of dust particles, we both recognize, floats and settles between us. I hold the pipe out to the excited look of the old man.
“How many do you want?” I ask.