Boruin wavered, still feeling the rocking of the hill even as he watched it drift back south into the jungle. He had saved his breakfast, which was a better result than what would’ve happened if they had actually been aboard a ship.
“Damn Fae,” he cursed again, though he could not deny that his crew had gotten the better out of their deal. It had taken weeks of searching the jungle before they found the boy. It would have taken two more to make it back out, save for the bumbling little creature piloting that hill. The Fae had cut straight cross-country, though at times tipping over the steepest cliffs and climbing up the highest peaks. It was a path Boruin did not wish to take twice, even if they had made it in a day. Beyond that, he was looking forward to Wraethe’s waking remarks. She would, of course, deride his decision and method of dealing with the Fae, but she could not dismiss the results.
They set to trekking down the western shoulder of the mountain, the ridges below them spreading and splitting until they formed three separate hands pointing out from the large peak. At one time, it might have been the Mountain of the Four Hands, but the northern side of the peak had sheared off long ago. The locals claimed that the mah’saiid had carved a massive city into that fourth ridge. The drunken ones would whisper low over the table that it had been the capital of the ancient civilization. The Purahd, that unknown plague that 3000 years past had torn body and soul out of the mah’saiid and the land they lived on, had not taken the city. Instead, rumor said that it was moved when the Nefazo crossed south over the Monahdriachean Range. It was all ale-soaked nonsense to Boruin. Perhaps it had been there, perhaps the Purahd had taken it, but the city sure hadn’t up and moved, no matter how powerful the mah’saiid were. To the locals, though, every twisted tree, box canyon, and unexplainable cosmic event had something to do with mah’saiid secrets.
They moved down off the mountain, Pile leading them through game trails and forgotten paths. Few would expect a tired and worn group to come out of the jungle, climbing up the mountain just to walk back down, but Boruin was careful. They avoided the main roads and stepped down the ridge without incident.
Boruin spat, almost at the same time as Toaaho, as the jungle cleared and the city became visible below. The heart of Terre Haute had the makings of a beautiful town. Resting on the upper slope between two of the main ridgelines, the old settlement sat above the swamp where the breeze washed away the smell of wet decay and the hungry midges.
The North Quarter was one of the birthmarks of the Nefazo nation. Those old stone buildings, with their squat towers and wide arches, bore the look of distant northern cities. Their builders had been the first families of the great caravan sent south by the high merchant houses of northern civilizations. Two hundred years prior they’d traveled south, seeking a trade route through the wild center of the continent. Those that survived refused to risk the death that would come of returning. Instead they carved out a new country in the jungles and lowlands of the south.
The Nefazo nation was born of merchants weighing chance against risk. Modern Nefazo continued in the same vein. The merchants were generally a lot fatter than their ancestors, and the chances they weighed were of sly sales and trades rather than survival in a wilderness. Regardless, all Nefazo were merchants right through to the juice of their bones. That was one trait never been bred out of the Nefazo. They worshiped the art of the trade, and its laws, the L’Traie nu Duoit, were their scripture.
Terre Haute crumbled into ruin as the nation expanded toward the southern coast and the trade routes found through the sea. When the mah’saiid ruin of Trilaeta was found three-weeks hard journey northeast, eyes turned again to the northern borders. The mah’saiid had long ago withdrawn from the world, their civilization dwindling down to nothing, but their ruins remained. An ache for artifacts from that mysterious race had long infected the modern Nefazo like a slow fever. The city returned to life and growth, but it took on a new character.
Down the slopes below the North Quarter, new merchants built their quarters. They flocked from Ouilainne to buy cheap from those foolish enough to enter the jungles and sell the newfound treasures back to the capital. Between them and the swamp, ramshackle inns and cane and leaf huts were tacked together to house those fevered relic hunters. These ill moved north with their eyes set on wealth lying hidden under the blanket of jungle growth. Illusions of gems nestled among the river stones and vaults of gold under each northern hill swam through their minds. Some returned south with the treasures and stories for which they came. Most entered the jungle and stayed there, rotting in the swamps under blood-letting plants or in the bellies of hungry creatures.
Worse were the seekers of darker items. Crossbreeds of magic and metal would purchase entire kingdoms. Unlike the stories of unlimited gold and silver, these artifacts were more than just rumors. Too many had been found to deny their existence. Most were carried out of the jungle in disrepair, sitting too long under the humid press of mist and mold. A precious few survived intact, their metal untarnished, their workings unmolested by time. Their workings were often as mysterious as their purpose: devices that changed river mud into chalky stone, drove veins of metal into wood, thickened water until it sat like a ball inside it’s bowl. Some just killed, and others just healed and often neither were precise. Rarely were these carried out of the jungle without a dark smear of new blood staining them, a sign of a double cross, an ambush, or an amateur hand too eager to explore its operations.
The buyers of such things were cautious ones. They bartered for men unknown and carefully hidden. It was these rich proxies that now inhabited the North Quarter. Belok had taken a shop on the outskirts, though he could only wish for the influence and wealth of these elite merchants. It was for them that Boruin’s spit had left its mark in the dirt. If anything had caused the legendary Purahd, Boruin guessed it had been machines like the ones they sought. If any man was further removed from the proud merchants that had conquered the continent by crossing it, it was a merchant willing to pay any price, in gold or blood, for those vile machines.
Yet, Terra Haute was home. It was no great city, but neither was Terra Haute a backwater slum. It was a mix between, like the prospectors and relic hunters, whores and reputable merchants that all shared shoulder space between the middle and western hands of the mountain. And where there is wealth, or imagined wealth, there is thievery.
Boruin had caught Pile’s hands in his pocket here, a skinny boy hardly older than nine years that could turn sideways and almost slip between a door and its jam. He’d put the kid to work for one week as punishment, and Pile liked to joke that the week was now 15 years long.
“Watch for them,” Boruin whispered as they stepped onto the city bridge that stretched over the mountain stream and into the small clothing market on the west side of North Quarter. A boy lifted his eyes from his small blanket of wares and watched them cross. He grabbed the corners, threw the load over his shoulders, and peddled off through the crowd.
Pile chewed on his thumb to cover the movements of his lips. “That’s one.”
“Two more,” Toaaho added.
“The one in the swamp waders?” Pile asked.
Toaaho stooped to pluck a stone out of his boot and, with his back to the market, thumbed toward a stall covered in stacks of brightly colored bolts of silk. “Yes, and the one in the red trousers,” he replied.
Boruin saw another man look up from his drink, his ornate earrings sparkling brightly across the fine weave of his robe. The merchant tipped back the mug and left the patio for a refill at the bar. Boruin knew they’d been marked. No rich merchant gets his own drinks. He’d look too eager and unable to barter for a lower price. He memorized the man’s high sideburns, light scar near the hairline, and long stride before turning back to his crew.
Boruin gathered them in a close circle. “At least four. Our contract may have gathered an interest,” Boruin said. “Pile, start your drinking. Find out who’s looking, which ones were looking for us, and which were just the regular purse cutters.” Pile smiled too broadly, and Boruin reminded him to listen first and drink second. “Toaaho, check the hotels and the gaming houses. See who’s in town.”
“What about the boy?” Toaaho asked.
Boruin looked to the sun. It wasn’t as low as he’d like, but dusk was close. “I’m quite capable, and Wraethe will be up soon. I’ll make the evening’s arrangements. You know where. I expect you back at a decent hour.” Boruin faced Pile for that last statement. The short man winked and bounded off with his hand already in his coin purse.
Toaaho tightened his black silk scarf to keep the wind from pulling it free from his face. There were plenty other slave tattoo masks in Nefazo, but Boruin didn’t chide the man for his need of secrecy. He knew well enough when to leave a man alone.
“Here, boy. Come on, now,” Boruin called, trying to command the child away from a horse trough. The boy continued to scoop the water up and hold his cupped hands under the horses’ noses. Boruin slid between the drinking beasts and bent to the boy.
“There will be plenty of time to play,” he said, “but there are times when we must be serious. I’ll need you to listen closely and act quickly. Can you do that?” The boy looked hard into the man’s eyes, as if deciding. He wiped his wet palms on Boruin’s vest, leaving a stained print, and wrapped his fingers around the man’s hand. “I guess that’s the way it’ll have to be–but the left hand, son.”
Boruin led with his right thumb resting in his belt, close to his sword’s hilt. Wraethe walked just behind and beside the boy. Her stride was long and smooth, and she seemed to glide over the cobbled street. Those that recognized the dark shade stepped lightly out of her way. He hoped her senses were near the surface of her sleep now that the sun was dipping close to the horizon. Walking into town with a contract completed was not the time to let your guard down. More than once, a crew had been waylaid just as they returned for their pay. Disreputable merchants would leak their contracts and pay a street thug half of the amount they’d offered the relic hunters. Thieves in the home stretch were almost more dangerous than the creatures abroad.
Belok was not one to be trusted. Boruin had no love for the man and that certainly went both ways. The skinny bastard always tried to renegotiate after completion, but he had yet to seriously cross Boruin. Belok knew that the old man could handle any job faster and more discretely than most. The merchant had promised to pay dearly for this one, but not what it was truly worth, not by far if Pile’s theories were right. Boruin wondered if he knew whom he had sent them for.
Boruin moved quickly through the streets, sticking to the shaded side of the avenues in hope that Wraethe could come forward sooner. He watched every passing face, marking any that gave him consideration. He moved fast but not so quickly as to draw extra attention. He relaxed, and his breath deepened as he reached Simonez’s curio shop. They would be safe for the night, at least.
“Baelly’o, here’s your man, back aga’n!” Pile slurred as he waltzed into his third bar. His rowdy hair was smoothed down to one side, probably with some of the ale that had drenched the front of his red vest. The keep looked up with half a wince and half a smile as Pile plopped himself down on the nearest stool. It was the kindest response the short man had received all afternoon, though he knew Baelly liked him less than most.
“Back from the graves, me boy’o?” the bartender asked.
Pile placed both hands on the bar and carefully climbed up on top the stool. “Aye, and your coldest mug from the coldest tap would just quench my thirst,” the young man answered.
Baelly made no move to serve him. “Not a chance sonny, I got no help today, and I ain’t climbin’ down the cellar stairs with hands such as your’s about.”
“Fair enough. Then I’ll take whatever warm, swamp-stale pot of piss I can afford,” Pile said.
Baelly pulled out a mug and poured a deep red draught from his tarnished pitcher. He held the mug just behind the bar as Pile wet his lips and reached out with two hands for the drink. “And that’s the key, ain’t it? What you can afford.”
It was Pile’s turn to wince, but he followed through with a flip of his thumb and a silver coin spinning on the bar top. “One for yourself out of that,” Pile said as he took a long swig of the hard ale. “I need more than just your drink today,” he added.
“Never known anyone that comes only for that,” Baelly answered.
“Right you are, and so then: any word on me and my crew?”
“You mean the ghost and her crew?” Baelly asked.
Pile leaned back, ignoring the insult. His hands snapped to the edge of the bar as he remembered at the last moment there was not back to the stool. “Well, call it what you must.”
“I’ve heard nothing in terms of your work, but that gentleman’s been all over town asking if you’ve come in,” Baelly said with a wide grin and a nod over Pile’s shoulder.
Pile turned to follow the bartender’s glance and saw five fingers plowing him out of his seat. The short man sat up and shook his head, his eyes clearing to see a man bowing his head just to fit under the rafters.
“Mother had a giant fetish, didn’t she?” Pile coughed as the enormous man picked him up and slung him back the other direction. The man ground his teeth and held his tongue, but drove down with his heavy boot to crush Pile in the ribs. The thin relic hunter rolled under the man’s wide stance and sliced out with his knife. The sharp edge bit above the hard leather of his opponent’s boot and split a chunk of meat across his huge calf. The man roared and pinched his feet together, but Pile was already moving. The unexpected punch had knocked the afternoon’s drunk right out of him, and he was ready now.
“All right, tall and dim, you want to start this over?” Pile asked, his short axe swinging lightly in his hand.
End chapter 03 part 01.