Part 124: Sensory Stone of the Nameless One: Part 2Sensory Stone of the Nameless One: Part 2
Marquez looked up from the table as I approached. "You here about Barse's daughter Jasilya?"
"She's free. She should be back here shortly."
He clapped me on the shoulder. "Good work. You want the first part of the key that will get you under Curst? Here it is: 'Such place eternal justice had prepared for those rebellious...' Go talk to Kitla over there. She's got the second part of the key."
That could wait until the morning. All I wanted at the moment was a bed I could lie on until my wounds knit shut. We paid for our rooms and headed upstairs, passing by small groups whispering to one another, each with a practiced way of surreptitiously glancing at us as we walked past. More than one pair secretly passed coin for small satchels of contraband in exchange, hidden behind prostitutes who displayed their wares so broadly you'd think they were getting a cut from the hidden smuggling done behind their backs. If Annah hadn't taught me so well to keep an eye out, I would never have noticed.
Upstairs a particularly twitchy man glanced at me with a wince. His gaze wasn't nearly as practiced, and he held himself with a tension that spoke of him being an outlander. I approached the mousy little man with darting frightened eyes. "Please don't hurt me!" he whispered. "They'll kill me if they find me!"
I blinked, "Who will kill you?"
"The guards. They're after me. I think I offended someone with a question, or said something to the wrong person. I was just offering an opinion, but it seems like you have to speak in a certain way here. It's all corrupt!"
"Who are you, anyway?"
"I'm Berrog Quickshoes, traveler and problem-solver. I guess you could call me a thief, but I prefer to call myself an engineer - traps and puzzles and so forth. I only use my skills for good ends - I hate to harm anyone. I guess that they use engines for different purposes here." He shuddered.
"What are you doing here?"
"I came to Curst because I'd heard there was a deva trapped here, and since I have some archon friends back in Mount Celestia, I thought I could be of assistance. This town, though... this place is a cesspool and I can't trust anyone! How can people live like this? I need to get out of here!"
A long way for a man to go, from the heights of Mount Celestia to the fetid hole that was Curst. I recalled casual conversations of the plane with Ebb Creakknees: a realm where all things have their place, and all things are beautiful. It's a realm where winged archons wheel in the skies in exquisite patterns that could break your heart. The fruit grows larger, the game bigger, and all homes are open in Celestia. The poor sod was close to breaking down... he wasn't made for the treachery of Curst.
"You'd best go then. The entire city is on lockdown, but you might be able to find a place to hide properly when it's lifted."
He looked at me with disbelief in his eyes. "Thank you! You'll not see me again!" He scampered away.
"Chief, there's a corpse outside of our room."
"Looks fresh," I said with a nod.
"It's kind of bumming me out."
"We'll drag it off later, I guess." At that moment I missed the Hive. The air was foul and you could also get murdered without a second glance, but at least bodies would've been dragged off in a blink by a Collector.
I will admit, I was half-surprised to find there wasn't a dead prostitute lying in my bed. A dry, musty smell hung in the air and dust patterned the edges of the carpet in thick layers. A screen was set up in one corner of the room for changing, and the ramshackle furniture looked to be on its last legs. I ignored the rust-brown smears and streaks on the walls. At least the bed was nice and big.
"Hey Annah, I want to talk to you." The six most terrifying words that could be said, by man or woman.
She paused, arms folded beneath her breasts. Her fingers twitched, as if caressing the hilts of her punch-daggers.
"Why don't the rest of you guys see what Barse is serving up for supper?" I said with a wave. It was about as clear a dismissal as I could make, but Nordom for one blinked.
"Nordom does not require sustenance. This unit is self-operating and fueled on planar ener-"
"Oh pike it you stupid polygon," Morte grunted, "Just get your metal backside downstairs."
"By your command."
Annah's tail flicked nervously once the door shut, "Aye? What is it yeh want, then?"
"In the maze, Ravel said you were tormented... what did she mean?"
Annah frowned. "She meant nothing, she did. Barmy hag talk, it was."
"Annah, I know I draw torment to myself. I know about Morte, Dak'kon, Nordom, and a little of Grace. Are you sure she didn't mean anything?"
"It was NOTHING. If yeh donnae know what she was sayin', I don't either." She gave a flick of her head, as if to say her issues were her own. I could respect that.
"Well, if you want to talk about it, I'm lis--"
"I..." Annah's gaze dropped for a moment, and her shoulders sagged. "I donnae why I'm travelin' with yeh! I donnae know why I went with yeh tae find Ravel!" She frowned, but she seemed more confused than angry. "It makes no sense, it does, and I donnae like it.
"I..." Annah took a deep breath. "I think I have feelings for yeh. It feels strange, it does... I don't think I've ever liked anyone. But yeh..." Annah gave a half-hearted shrug without meeting my gaze. "I donnae know what it is about yeh, I mean -- yeh're daft a lot of times, yeh walk like yeh're hips are broken, yeh're clumsy, yeh smell like a zombie, but..." She sighed. "I like yeh."
"Annah, why didn't you say something? We could have settled this long b-"
"It's cause I think yeh're doomed." Annah suddenly met my gaze. "I think yeh walk with chains, but yeh don't know it yet. So I... feel for yeh, but I'm afraid for yeh... an' that's killing me, it is. I cannae let yeh come tae harm, but I donnae know what tae do to stop it!"
The heat of her voice rose with each word. Her teeth bit down on blood-black lips. There was a hunger in her gaze. When we first met she had lied to me and sent me to die in an alley. When Annah stood by my side she had fought at my command, bled for me. Annah, so superstitious that she froze in fear at the mere mention of the Lady, followed me into Ravel's maze. I could still feel the warmth of her blood trickling into the street, the desperation when I tried to call her soul back to her body...
In an instant I grabbed the back of her neck with my free hand, and Annah's features became stone as I pulled her to me and kissed her on the lips.
At first, it was like kissing a wall, then she started slowly kissing me back, hesitant at first, then with more confidence, her teeth lightly biting my upper lip. She snarled in the back of her throat, and her tail started snaking around my leg, then squeezing, each squeeze matching one of her bites.
"Would you two cut it out before I have to get a dabus over here to separate the two of you!" Morte hmmphed. I didn't even hear the door open. "Or at least allow me to cut in."
For once Annah ignored him. I wanted to throw something heavy.
We continued, sharing the warmth of each other's bodies, the moistness of our lips, when suddenly Annah's skin grew warmer - radiating heat, like hot coals. I pulled back, Annah's teeth giving one last bite, and she looked at me in confusion, then anger. "What is it, then? I'm not good at it, am I?"
"No, it's your skin - why are you getting so warm all of a sudden?"
"Aye?" Annah frowned, and looked down at herself; small wisps of smoke were trailing from the edges of her jerkin. "Fiend blood, it is..." She raised an eyebrow. "Never had that happen before, though."
"What? No one's ever kissed you before?"
She shrugged. "No one ever dared tae. An' even if they did, I doubt it woulda been like that."
"I'll take that as a compliment, then."
"Aye... eh..." Annah glanced around, and her tail was flicking erratically. "Are we gonna go down ta the bar now or what? We don't have time tae be standing an' chattin', we don't."
"Well, I'm not done kissing you yet. Come here," I grinned.
She stepped back, alarmed. "Nay - who knows what would happen next - maybe my body'll turn tae flame, it will! Yeh and your lips keep your distance!"
"All right - THIS time. Let's move on."
I tried not to laugh when we left, closing the door and locking it behind us. In the corner of my eye, though, Annah seemed to be smiling.
"It tastes like cranium rat."
Then again, just about everything tastes like cranium rat. I gave the stringy piece of tricha meat a poke. It was a sloppy bowl of stew that I suspected was just white stuff and water. If I wasn't certain that the ale here would give me the runs I would've asked for a drink to wash the mealy taste of it out of my mouth.
Annah winced, spitting a bone gracelessly onto the table. I shoved my bowl aside in disgust and stood... the sooner we found that deva the sooner we could leave. At least, we could if I could find a way around the quarantine.
Kitla was a tall, striking woman who stood staring at the walls of the tavern without seeing them, her hands slowly curling into fists and unclenching. When she saw me her eyes darted across my scant clothing and gear, and then back to my eyes; a sardonic smile crossed her face, and she looked away again.
She looked back at me and scowled. "Do you always make a habit of talking to strangers?"
"If I need to ask them questions, then yes."
"What a fascinating life you must lead to do such things. Sadly for you, I'm busy. I'd appreciate being left alone."
My finger tapped impatiently on her table, "I understand you're the next person I'm to talk to about this key."
"About the key, hm?" She arched an eyebrow at me. "You want to know what you have to do for it, don't you? It's easy enough, friend. Interested? Of course you are; you've come to talk to me about it. Are you ready to listen, I guess, is the real question."
"Tell me what I have to do."
"There are two men here, named Crumplepunch and Kester. Crumplepunch is the smith, Kester the distiller. They both owe me a lot of money. One of them owes the other as well, though, and so neither of them is paying me. They're arguing about an inheritance; get me the legacies they're holding on to. I can bargain with them very effectively, then. Failing that, get them to solve their problems with each other - or kill them - and I'll give you the second part of the Key."
He was bent over the anvil, tongs in one hand and a hammer the other, with a face that looked like it'd taken a few poundings itself. Small brown scars flecked his skin: burns from stray embers and sparks accrued over the years. A sweat-stained leather apron was bound tight against his bare torso, and he glistened with the sweat and the glow of the forge. His face twisted into a sour grimace, and he glared at me for interrupting his work. Crumplepunch seemed a little slow, but earnest - not as poisonous as the others in this town. He reminded me of an ox. "Aye? What d'yeh want?"
"Are you Crumplepunch?"
He nodded, his thick brows furrowing. "Crumplepunch Malako, the town's smith. Yeh want somethin'?"
"I've come from your brother about a question of debts between you two..."
"Oh, yeh have, have yeh? Is my business with my book-learned brother the whole town's gossip, then? Is my younger brother spreadin' stories against me? Am I t' be slandered jest 'cause I ain't educated? The planes be against me!" Each word became more heated until he was shaking his fist at the sky.
"I'm actually interested in clearing the matter up."
He looked at me shrewdly. "Here's the story, then: Our father was a barmy ol' bastard, but a wealthy one. He left us his smithy and his distillery when he died... but now my brother's tryin' t' cut me out of the distillery, which always made more coin, and I'm tryin' to get it back. I got a legacy to prove it, but I ain't so smart with this stuff and I don't trust anyone in this town t'help me. Yeh help me, I'll give yeh some jink, and I'll live by yer decision."
"All right. I'll need your legacy to look it over."
"Well... all right. I guess yeh got t' study it up and make sure it's on the up'n'up." He passed me a crumpled wad of paper.
The wadded-up piece of old vellum I unfolded was heavily creased and covered with soot, pored over much by someone with very dirty hands. No amount of squinting could make it clear, but from what little I could decipher Malako Senior didn't exactly have the brightest torch lit. While the distillery was to be split between the two brothers, there were no details for the actual division.
Two weasel-eyed guards flanked the entrance to the distillery. Excessive for a distillery in a hive of rats, not enough for a business in a town of thieves. There was only one purpose for those two, and that was to provide twice as much muscle than Crumplepunch had. Kester kept a tight grip on his business, and wouldn't let his brother get his ham-sized fists in.
He was a lean man, with deeply tanned skin and piercing green eyes. "Welcome to the Malako Brothers Distillery!" he cried, as if he could think of no one he'd rather see than me. His lips peeled back into an unctuous grin. "What can I do for you today?"
"Kester Malako, right?"
"Yessir, proprietor and half-owner of the Malako Brothers Distillery. Can I sell you something?" His grin slipped slightly. A layer of syrup floating over a venomous core. I hated him already.
"Yes, indeed. My brother also owns a part interest here, though I don't know that I'd call it an 'interest,' seeing as he spends so much time caring about it. Listen, do you want to buy something?"
"What can you tell me about your brother?"
His face darkened. "His name is Crumplepunch. He's the blacksmith here in town. He's doing his best to make sure my business doesn't succeed, and... why am I telling you this? You're a total stranger."
I shrugged, "I'd like to help." If my voice had a little less gravel in it I would've probably sounded more convincing, but looking him in the eye when I spoke was enough. Few in Curst could do that.
"You would, eh? All right. Take a look at this. This is my copy of the legacy our father left for us. Here: You can clearly see that the money that's supposed to come to us should build up this distillery, not just get split between the two of us. Yet my foolish brother insists that we just take the cash, instead of building toward the future. Get his copy of the legacy, or talk some sense into him, and I'll see you're well rewarded."
"I'll need your copy of the legacy to look over."
He looked at me suspiciously, and then relented. "If it'll get it done faster and better for me, then all right. Here."
Kester's copy was carefully-folded and well-pressed, as if he stored it in the pages of a book. There was nothing else to be gleaned from this copy, neat as it was, but I needed no other information from this.
Just leverage from holding the original pages of the will.
"Have yeh made up yer mind yet?" Crumplepunch grumbled, pulling a white-hot ingot from the coals.
"The two of you should split the money from the two businesses down the middle. It's clear that your father wanted it this way." With everyone vying for an advantage in Curst, even the mayor would've been to preoccupied with intrigue and advantage to mediate and declare the fairest solution.
"Yeh mean split the proceeds from both businesses, aye? In that case, I'm in favor of it. Yeh done me a good turn, friend. Yeh ever need quality metal work done, yeh come here."
Kester wasn't quite so happy about the good news when I told him.
He sputtered, "But... but... that's just... but... All right. I accepted your word on this. Just don't expect any good treatment from me on this. Get out of my shop." He tossed over a bag of coins, a sour expression on his face. "I promised you this, and you'll have it. Take it."