In the year that the mermaids cries were heard over the Western Ocean, so that all the world knew of the passing of the last king of the sea, when his empire was fought over and divided by his generals because he had no sons, the collector of cantrips found himself in the forest of Tothamnon. Along a certain beach, he knew, washed ashore the black shells of a species of conch that lived in the drowned cities off the coast, and he had read in the histories how those cities had once been famed for their necromancies, and that the echoes of its forgotten spells could still be heard in the shells of those sea creatures that lived in the ruins, which were slowly being overtaken by coral and oyster, so that octopuses crept though its barren treasuries, and sharks swam through its desolate halls, and fronds of sea-grass waved where once roof-gardens had stood, and only barnacled skeletons remained in its jails and dungeons, the keys to their cells corroded masses of blackened silver.
The collector of cantrips walked over this beach, was was strange in that the black sand was replaced by a rainbow of colored glass, red-orange, green-grey, yellow, blue-white, and smoky black, which had once been the shattered windows of those sunken cities, but time and tides had washed them smooth and round. It was early, with the sun but a promise on the horizon, and the tide was yet high, leaving its treasures on that strange beach. Yet as the collector soon saw, he was not alone.
Ahead of him, carrying a clutch of lustrous black conch shells in a net woven of hair - black, blonde, and brunette - was a dark woman dressed something like a fishwife. Yet her skirt was all the warty leather of toad-skins, sewn together, in her unruly hair hissed tiny serpents that whispered and reared as the collector's footsteps came *tink, tink* on the glass, and between her pendulous and ample breasts hung a blue bottle topped with a stone cap in the shape of a terrible octopus. Dead wasps decorated her fingers, their stingers held outwards on rings of copper that left the fingers beneath them green, and about her shoulders hung a cape of leaves and nettles, every thorn and spike of which carried some minor malevolence.
The collector halted a few arm-lengths from the poison-witch, and giving a cordial bow at the waist, bid her good day. In response she opened her mouth, revealing a gaping maw with graying gums around teeth stained black, but only the barest, shriveled stump of a tongue. He made a few signs in the languages he knew, but she only shut her mouth and shook her head, looking at him strangely. Finally, he resorted to pointing to a black shell that lay on the ground between them, and mimed placing it up to his ear.
At that, the poison-witch nodded, the snakes in her hair bobbing their tiny heads in time with her, but held up her left hand, palm towards the collector, with two fingers raised. The collector nodded, and fetched forth his book of cantrips, paging through them to consider what spells he would trade.
As he paged through the book, the poison-witch laid down her net, and fetched forth chunks of driftwood from the beach, stacking them together before him. From some hidden pocket she drew forth a lidded horn, and opening the lid he saw a burning coal nestled there among dried sea grass, and with care she blew on that coal, and coaxed it with pulling gestures, until tiny ribbons of flame licked out to touch the driftwood. In time it blazed to life as a bluish flame, for which the collector was grateful, for the sun was still but a grey blob on the horizon, and the poison-witch carefully put her coal-horn away.
She watched his face intently, and finally he looked up and met her gaze across the fire.
"There is a wordless song, which the sharkmaids sing, which summons forth the blood-eels while they are sleeping, so that the sharkmaids can take their venom, which keeps the blood from coagulating, and they paint it on their knives. It is in a strange scale, but I can teach it to you."
The poison-witch closed her eyes and shook her head. So the collector tried again.
"The assassins of the Opal Cities have long used a charm drawn on their leaden blades; when they strike a wound the edges break and leave slivers in the wound, which wiggles inwards away from the surgeon's knife. So the victim is doomed to a long and debilitating illness before death."
In answer, she brought forth her own blade, a well-carved bone-knife with not much of an edge, but a sharp point. He considered it for a moment, then shook his head. "No, I don't think it will work on that." So he flipped a few more pages and tried again.
"The Way of the Toad," he said at last, "is practiced by a certain sect, who use the toxins in toad-skins to make a kind of paste, which they apply to their skins to deaden the nerves. In this way they may train harder than others, as they feel less pain from blows, and their skin grows tough as elephant-hide. Although I must warn you, as the one who told me this did, that prolonged use can cause you to loose the feeling permanently."
At this, the poison-witch seemed to consider, but at last she nodded. Then she held up her hand again, with two fingers raised, and lowered one. The collector of cantrips folded his book and put it away. Then from his belt, he took forth a certain charm. It was ivory, a snake coiled about a coconut, the scales of one blending into the other, and held on a string of yellow silk.
"In the district of Vhargardan, this charm is used to assist in suicide. Placed in a drink of water, even brackish water, the water becomes sweet, like coconut water - but too much of it in a day, and the bowels will fail, the kidneys will fail, and a lingering death will occur."
The poison-witch seemed to hesitate, so the collector reached forth around his neck, and pulled forth an amulet of bone capped at either end with bone, with a bead of blue glass set in the cylinder like a window.
"A small demon lives in this house, and stares out at the world through the glass glass," he said, "I have never learned its true name, but if you feed it blood or milk you may befriend it. He is a minor demon, but he claims to know the name of every poison there is, and the signs and symptoms of their poisoning. I do not know the truth of it, but so far he has never been wrong when I asked him about such matters."
At this, the poison-witch gave a toothy smile, and he handed the amulet over to her, which she immediately strung around her own neck, and he began to copy forth the recipe for the toad-paste. By then the sun had begun to rise, and cast its blazing reflection on the great sea, so in the shallowest waters the collector could just make out the sunken towers of a city.
From the collection of black conches in her sack, she drew forth a large and beautiful one, all the shades of black from flashing coal to polished onyx, and turning it over revealed the horror of legs and muscle that lived within. With a practiced twist of her bone knife, she evaded those tiny yet terrible claws, and in a work of a minute had removed the horror entirely from the shell, and chopped it into three pieces - the claws of which she never touched with her bare hand, but secreted carefully in a pouch. The collector watched all the while, missing nothing of her technique. The meat she wrapped in seaweed and lay near the fire to cook.
At last the meal was ready, and the collector had copied out the recipe, and all was done. They did not shake hands, but they bowed respectfully to each other, and the poison-witch took her leave, heading up the beach to the forest of Tothamnon.
The collector of cantrips, for his part, sat on the beach with pen and ink and paper at hand, and with the other brought the now-empty black conch shell up to his ear. Closing his eyes, he listened intently for the rarity he had traded for.