Saturday, 7 May 2011

Windchaser - An Excerpt from Chapter Five

Once, Dockend had been the merchants’ quarter of Lothos Par, before the then-struggling crafters and traders who flocked to the new capital had begun to make anything but a meagre living from their wares. Almost as soon as the money began to come in to Lean Way, those who earned it moved out, heading for the shining, glorified new district on the opposite side of the city’s central island, once called High-Crescent but now renamed Farend.

What they left behind was, among other things, space. Yard upon square-yard of warehousing, lockups and workshops crowded around the docks and wharfs like empty-bellied urchins waiting to be fed. After years of standing unused, disrepair began to creep through them like a cancer, eating at their walls, dragging down their foundations until their floors sagged like warped, grimy bowls. The sea wind thrashed them, bleaching them with spray, rubbing thin the poor-quality shipboard walls. Holes opened up and were repaired with sheets of rusted tin or shards of driftwood, and upon the district settled an aura not of poverty, as might have been expected, but of struggle – of survival. If the wind blew it down, someone would stand it back up again; if the rain and lashing waves tore rusty wounds in it, someone would patch over them. For all the effort poured into destroying the squat, grey-white flesh of Lothos Par’s docks by time and nature, the district endured.

The poor settled, despite the dank clamour of the area, drawn to the atmosphere of resilience, of stubbornness in the face of crushing adversity. There were homes that needed filling and warehouses that needed occupying, and so the Concordance had no reason to impede such migrations, instead opting to monitor Dockend’s citizens as they did in the other districts. Taxes were demanded and – for the most part – paid, and there was now a citizenry in the docks to maintain repairs and man the waterfronts.

In recent decades though, the district had become almost synonymous with crime. The design of Lean Way – once merely a street name but now a colloquialism for the rat’s nest of cul-de-sacs and narrow, shadow-steeped alleyways at the district’s centre, hidden behind a mesh of shoulder-wide, litter-strewn aisles and balcony-shaded huddles – made it the ideal skulk for cutthroats, beggars and ruffians of every ilk. A day never passed that did not see blood spilt somewhere upon Lean Way’s un-cobbled roads. Those who were smart stayed well away, keeping their distance towards the riverside and steering clear of the shadows and grime, while the poor who were forced to take up residence shuttered their doors at curfew and took false comfort in the fact that they possessed nothing worth stealing.

Tonight the streets were characteristically quiet and an air of creeping menace clung to the thick, damp mist that wound through the matchbox network. Here the squeal of an alley cat baying for mates pierced the sepulchral silence; there the clack and rattle of a shutter reverberated through the cramped darkness.

Through the cloying shadows a figure strode, seemingly out of place in the garb of a Gentran noble. It was an appearance that would endure only a momentary glance, however, for a closer inspection would reveal that grease and sweat slicked the man’s fire-red hair to his skull, oil and blood soiled the laced cuffs of his billow-sleeved shirt and his cracked leather boots were caked in mud and slime. Across his shoulder was slung a heavy object wrapped in burlap, both ends hanging past his waist. A dark stain spread through the material like the blooms of a pressed flower, leaking wax-thick liquid that rolled too lazily to drip. Warm steam danced around the burlap, fading into the fog.

Coming upon the high, wide double doors of what had once been a warehouse for Delad spices and sweetmeats, Warwick Munmartyr shifted the weight of the object he carried and rapped twice upon the rotted wood. The street smelled of damp and decay, mixed with the repugnant odour of several dozen southeastern spices that had saturated the knots and weather marks of the shipboard walls. The Rogue wrinkled his nose at the sickly scent before reminding himself of his own current condition; he probably stank worse than any of the buildings in Lean Way.

He waited almost sixty heartbeats before raising his hand and knocking again. A sound came a moment later, the dragging of a heavy bulk across rubbish-strewn floorboards. An almost invisible shutter slammed open to reveal a huge narrowed eye, rheumy and off-green, framed by thick dark lashes and grey, leathered skin, pockmarked and rough. The eye stared for a moment, then blinked and vanished. A hollow rattling sounded as a lockbar slid out of rusted grooves.

Munmartyr smiled to himself. So much for pleasantries.

The door was pulled open, piling up filthy rags and shards of smashed crates as it went, to reveal a vision that put the undanoi reputation as peaceful giants to shame. The pachyderm was over seven feet tall and almost half as wide across the shoulders, dark grey all over. The thick skin around his neck and hairless head was crisscrossed with pale scars, and his clothes – a long oilskin kilt and a sleeveless black surcoat – were tattered and stained. There was a weapon hanging from his belt that Munmartyr would only loosely term a sword: the blade was almost a foot wide and three feet long, flaring at one end and razor-sharp on either edge.

The Rogue observed as the pachyderm made his way back to the table and seated himself upon an iron chair large enough to be a throne for some inglorious king. It had always seemed somehow unnatural to Munmartyr that the undanoi should walk upright, but long ago in the evolution of the species, their front hooves had split into three-fingered hands as wide as shovelheads. The giant moved slowly, even gracefully, despite his considerable size.

As Munmartyr entered the warehouse and closed the door, the one-horned undanoi watched him steadily over the curved beak of his mouth, his narrow eyes barely visible due to the curvature of his skull. His left ear, standing out from his head horizontally, fluttered twice; of the right, only a ragged flap of scar tissue remained. A candle thicker than a man’s forearm guttered upon the table, casting a frantic orange glow across the undanoi’s right side.

Munmartyr glanced around, eyeing the litter and refuse scattered on the floor: shattered packing crates, strips of mouldy paper, and a dead seagull lying prone in one corner, a feast for maggots and flies. The table and chair were the room’s lone furnishings and the only light beside the candle flame oozed through a grime-caked square window in the back wall, thick and pale and blue.

‘Well,’ the Rogue said, ‘I see you’ve moved up in the world, Rhaat’Arat’Khu.’

The undanoi snorted and twin plumes of steam rose above his sloping head. ‘And Munmartyr, as ever, does no better for himself,’ he retorted, his voice a deep rumble that hissed and laboured around the shape of his mouth.

‘Now, now, Khu,’ the Rogue warned with a false smile. ‘Don’t get personal. We don’t want a falling-out, do we?’
Khu answered with a second snort. ‘Without Rhaat’Arat’Khu, who to supply Munmartyr’s trinkets? Who to wipe blood from Munmartyr’s careless treads?’

‘Very true, very true.’ He crossed the room, heaved once and tipped his cargo onto the table. It slapped down with a meaty thud and continued to steam.

The undanoi leaned forward, not taking his eyes from the Rogue, and sniffed twice. ‘Preserved in cantus oil, Rhaat’Arat’Khu thinks. Costly.’

‘And thawing quickly – so get on with it.’
‘Munmartyr preaches haste,’ Khu said absently, now inspecting the burlap-wrapped object with questing fingers. ‘Much time yet. Rhaat’Arat’Khu sees no plats.’

Munmartyr reached into the doublet he wore over his once-fine shirt and produced a clanking bag full of slim, knuckle-sized platinum bars, each one worth a hundred copper ren. He dropped it onto the table. ‘I thought your people traded in sand and stars.’

‘Sand and stars have no power in Coriathi lands. Plats have power.’
Munmartyr smiled. ‘Now can we get on with it?’

‘How long since shell was emptied?’

‘You mean how long ago did I cut the bastard’s throat? A few weeks. And I had to follow him around for several moons beforehand, reading him like a student with an encyclopaedia. Why?’

‘Smells funny.’

‘Well, what did you expect?’

The undanoi ignored him and sniffed the body again. His beady eyes widened and he sat back. ‘Munmartyr said man.’

‘It is a man. Well, it was a man.’
‘Not man. Windchaser.’

Munmartyr laughed, hopping up to perch on the edge of the table. He slapped a hand down on the sack-wrapped corpse between himself and Khu. ‘What’s the difference? And please spare me the mystic mumbo-jumbo you people wax so lyrical upon.’
‘No mumbo. No jumbo. Simple. Dead Windchasers bring live Windchasers.’
‘Then hurry up and torch the body. I killed him out on the Middlesea, twenty leagues from land. He’s been hidden for a while and none of the House’s puppets have come anywhere near him. I doubt he’s been mourned at all.’

Khu’s unconvinced gaze lingered upon Munmartyr a moment longer, then he reached under the table and produced a simple, unadorned square box. Setting it down he flicked the catches on its front side and swung back the lid. Munmartyr peered inside to see a bundle of muslin, tied with twine.

‘And you are sure it still functions?’

Another grunt rumbled from the undanoi. ‘Why does Munmartyr question Rhaat’Arat’Khu? Has the second ever failed the first?’

‘I don’t think you have ever sold me anything this old. Where did you find it?’

The undanoi issued a series of clicks that Munmartyr knew to be tutting. ‘No stories. Munmartyr knows the rules.’
Reaching into the box, the Rogue removed the muslin-wrapped contents and laid them down. He loosened the twine and smiled. The object within was a piece of mesh comprised of hundreds of hair-thin metal strands, shaped like a theatre mask. The inside was bare metal, whilst the outside was painted red with decorative eyes of black.

‘It doesn’t look like much,’ he observed.
Khu gently took the mask from Munmartyr’s fingers. ‘It is same for all artefacts of great power – uglier it is, more it is worth. Now Munmartyr must stand back. Rhaat’Arat’Khu summons ancient Craft.’

The Rogue stood up and took a step away, watching intently. The undanoi were a fascinating race; they were only mortal species to retain a powerful affinity for magic after the Cataclysm. Where the Windchasers relied upon the severely limited capabilities of Jhi, and magickers used the weakening Essa, the undanoi were still able somehow to combine both, enabling them to practice Old Realm Crafts lost to all other mortal races since before the Cataclysm. It was, in Munmartyr’s belief, a skill wasted on the desert-dwelling pachyderms. They were too peaceful to truly make use of such a gift, too passive to glory in their power, and too guarded to share it with other races. Even Khu – pirate, thief and swindler that he was – was unwilling to use such crafts against other living mortals or impart the secrets thereof; and Munmartyr had personally witnessed him smashing in more than one head with that brutal blade of his.

A sudden penumbra formed around the undanoi, a sharp-edged aura of pale blue that rose and dipped in time with an unheard rhythm, dragging Munmartyr’s focus to the magery taking place before him. Unlike some, the Rogue had never felt uneasy around the arcane. Daemons had a power all their own, not spawned from anything as pedestrian as magic, while Essa was merely the manipulation of Allarei and a Windchaser’s Jhi was internal – but the concept of magic, perhaps a memory of the arcane power that still throbbed and swirled beneath Lor’s crust, had never frightened him. Munmartyr was interested only in power, and cared not whether it was knowledge, standing, money or magic that brought it to him.

He watched with interest as the undanoi laid the mask upon the face of the dead Windchaser. The glow deepened, covering the corpse, brightening and pulsing; then it faded, the shimmering halo around Khu and the cadaver dropping away like a discarded shroud to vanish amongst the dingy shadows. The undanoi looked up, his exhaustion showing in the ripples of black and pale grey that crawled over his skin.

‘It is quickened,’ he announced, raising the mask.

Munmartyr grinned, reaching out to accept the offered device. He hefted it, eyeing it suspiciously as its icy coldness seeped into his skin. ‘How long will the effects last?’

‘Seven sunsets. Then power curdles, and Munmartyr finds himself trapped and maddening.’

‘Maddening, eh? Interesting. If official reports are to be believed, I am already mad.’

The undanoi shrugged. ‘Munmartyr’s risk now. Rhaat’Arat’Khu has completed his task.’

‘Indeed you have,’ the Rogue agreed, rewrapping the mask and placing it back in the box. He looked sideways at the undanoi. ‘Usually, it is customary for me to kill anyone who has helped me as you have. Old habits and all that, you know. But you have always been useful, Khu, so I shall let you live to prove such usefulness again.’

The undanoi seemed unconcerned by the threat. ‘Rhaat’Arat’Khu says nothing of Munmartyr’s business – Munmartyr pays too well.’
‘That he does, Khu. Now finish the job for which you were paid – and burn that stinking corpse.’

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