Malost found the wine here in the City of The White Boar a good match for the weather; cold, toneless, and none too agreeable to the palate of those not born of these northern climes.
Toneless or not, he reflected, swaying slightly as he turned from the bar, it serves.
Finding his cup empty and the serving maid being groped by a largish man who had her on his lap, Malost decided he must head to the bar. Squinting, he marked its location and set out across a floor that seemed to roll under his feet like the seas surrounding the tiny homeland he’d left behind years ago.
He dropped another coin on the bar, slammed the cup back. Had another served, made a start on it.
Malost closed his eyes, opened his heart, and muttered a prayer.
The smell of salt and sea, gulls crying on the wind, Najia’s smaller hand strong in his.
Malost smiled, rejoicing in the sense of being back on the shores of a place torn from him many measures back.
A belch welled, found release, brought him crashing to the present with its thunder.
He blinked back tears of loss.
Almost, but not quite.
He again closed red-stained eyes, trying to find that place he needed to be, right on the edge…
Two Pathless hunched over a table, one with a tentacle waving, another with a hard shell covering half a twisted face, both before a third Pathless whose traffic with the Dark had marked him with raised crown of bony points and barbs along the brow.
“Patience,” the Crowned One urged, “the triptych will arrive in a few days. Until then, you must stay here.”
Ignoring the complaints of his companions, the Crowned One drank and upended his cup, ”I will bring more wine, food, and a proper offering before we make the next attempt.”
Malost knew, then, where they were. It was not so far from where he swayed.
Stars, then bright light. A youth, as much boy as man, striding from the light, sun in his hair, speaking words Malost could not hear but understood, despite not knowing his name, to be those of his namesake.
The same boy, now more a man, with grapevine wound through his hair, a song on his lips, and a jug of wine in hand, guiding others through a complex dance.
A sudden push sent Malost stumbling, stiff-legged, from the bar. He screwed his eyes shut, tried to hold on, but it changed:
An elderly woman, care and tears marking her face more than the years, her hair a mess, coughing, eyes begging a son to stay when her voice failed. The son laughing as he strode out her front door, her few coins jangling in his purse and the last of her wine in hand.
The vision popped like a bubble, leaving him breathless and blinking, struggling to gather his thoughts.
A man stood between him and the place he’d occupied at the bar, required a moment more to recognize the broad back as belonging to both the vision itself and the cause of its abrupt end: the son, a local, had shoved him aside, bent on getting a drink.
He briefly considered pointing out, for the benefit of all present, the niceties of tavern manners by way of application of his fists to the softer parts of the man’s anatomy. Concerned he would lose details of the vision in the fog of battle, he decided against directly attacking the piece of shit.
Besides, Khadoz waits, and you know how patient that bigoted fuck can be.
The man was ordered another drink, and none-too politely, either.
Still, I cannot let such behavior go unrewarded.
“Vintas bless,” he said quietly, dipping a finger in the wine staining the bottom of his cup and daubing his lips with it.
Feeling the power, he pulled three full marks from his purse, he waved them at the barkeep over the man’s shoulder. “Barman!”
“What?” the barkeep answered, eyes locked on the silver in Malost’s hand.
“A drink for everyone in the house save this man,” he answered, pointing at the local who’d shoved him aside.
The man still had his back to Malost and didn’t realize he was to be left out until everyone’s eyes came to rest on him and the taproom grew silent with their regard. He slowly turned to face the room as the barkeep moved to fill Malost’s order.
“What’s this?” the local asked, one big hand tight on a tankard.
Reaching past him, Malost slapped the coins down on the bar, said in a voice that cut across a sudden quiet in the taproom: “What is this?” he waved a hand at the other patrons, “Well, for the rest of these folk, it’s a free round of drinks on me. For you, it’s nothing–nothing but the shame of having these folk know you robbed your own mother of money for her medicine just so you could get a drink.”
The man’s face went whiter than was usual, even for a northerner.
“That true, Pellon?” someone called from further down the bar, as Malost knew they would.
“I-“ Pellon reached for rage-filled denial, but the words could not come at his call, seeming caught in his throat.
“I always knew you for a low sort, Pellon, but that’s just foul!” someone else shouted as Malost stepped away.
More than one hiss from the crowd, then a voice shouted: “Let’s have our drink, then go round to Pellon’s home and see what we can do for her, eh?” the same voice as asked if the story were true. Malost tracked the words to their owner, saw a man rosy with good health and a few cups and said a silent prayer for him.
A general rumble of agreement with the man’s idea was still making the rounds of the taproom as Malost stepped, unobserved, out into the cold northern night.
The ice on the wind made his face prickle and kicked him with the sudden urge to piss. He paused on the edge of the porch and quickly undid his trews. Groaning with relief, he and his waste began parting ways, his piss steaming. If the calendars didn’t agree Stag Night is upon us, I’d call any man who said this day marked the first of spring and the first mating of Jagma to Nisha a filthy liar!
“Done?” the lone word issued from the darkness at his elbow.
Not in the least bit finished, Malost’s urine still slowed to an uncomfortable trickle as surprise drew tight that which had to relax in order to work.
Mahok! No man so big should be so quiet. Khadoz must be even more impatient than I thought, to send his favorite torturer.
Refusing to look up from his freezing cock, Malost answered as calmly as he could. “Yes, Mahok, I am done. Go, tell the Quaestor I have what we seek.”
A sweet whistle Malost recognized as a few lines of Inn-Keep’s Daughter, then: “Tell him yourself, he’s still at the inn.”
Malost sighed. “Mahok, just do as I say.”
A creak of old boards under the big man as he leaned close enough his breath steamed the air above Malost’s shoulder with each word: “And if I don’t?”
“Then Khadoz will ask why he was unable to attend his duty, and I will tell him you thought of yourself before his duty.”
“No, I would not lie: I won’t be able to find my way from the inn.”
Silence for a space of heartbeats. Then, from some paces away, Mahok resumed his whistling, the sweet tune receding in the direction of their lodgings.
Malost’s bladder required the whistle fade entirely into the distance before releasing its stinking contents into the street. He finished up, tied his trews closed, and edged into the darkness where Mahok had come from.
The door to the tavern opened, patrons spilling into the street under a pair of torches. Pellon, tied up and carried at the center like some reluctant idol, was the subject of much poking and prodding from his bearers, but was otherwise unharmed as he was carried to face a sort of rough justice before his mother. The man Malost had blessed led the motley array of drunkards and drinkers down the street and around the corner, on their way to Pellon’s home.
From the shadows, Malost watched as the last of them disappeared from view. Feels good to do good. First time in a long time, and not the usual, since…
With a little effort, and aided by the wine he’d already consumed, Malost turned his thoughts from past pains and instead contemplated the vision, sending his mind along the grapevine he imagined was the link between the visions Vintas provided.
The boy must be very important to appear so strongly when I expected only visions of the Pathless I seek. And the boy himself is definitely no Pathless, given the display of favors bestowed on him; vine, song, and happiness–each, alone, a mark of the love Vintas bears for Man. To have all three favors, that means something extraordinary.
He re-examined his memories, but that stretch of the vine ended in Pellon’s maltreatment of his mother.
Knowing it would come no closer if he reached too hard for it, Malost went back, reaching for the vision he’d had before the boy’s appearance. The Pathless were no more attractive in memory, and he still felt the creeping portion of the vine which would lead him to where their conversation had taken place, but he sensed nothing connecting that place to the boy.
I should take it on faith that the boy will present himself in time. Vintas knows Khadoz won’t be of help: damn Solamite has little enough use for Quaestors of the New Gods as it is. If I ask him for time to chase down this boy, he’ll surely make a stink.
Shaking his head, Malost stamped feet grown numb with the cold, then had to do it again mere heartbeats later. Vintas Bless, but it’s fucking cold here! He pulled from his pouch the silver flask that was his single most expensive possession. Unstopping it and bringing it to his lips, Malost found he had to tilt it back further than he’d like to get the wine to flow. Might run out before Khadoz and his band of merry killers show up.
His concerns proved unnecessary: as he lowered his arm a group of man-sized shadows appeared in the alley opposite, headed his way. Each shadow resolved into a man as they stepped through the narrow strip of Hesh’s ruddy light that found its way between the buildings that leaned close together above the street. Light glanced from the metalwork studding the leathers one wore, momentarily making him appear covered in tears of blood.
A poor omen.
The slim figure leading them jumped from the open sewer of the street and onto the porch, harness chiming quietly. “Malost?”
“I am here,” he answered.
Khadoz’s shadow turned. “Mahok says you have found them?” he asked, lisping slightly in the fashion of the local nobility. Malost thought it pretentious. Doubly so, since the man hadn’t had the lisp for the last two years of their association.
“It’s not far. We should go softly. One of them moves around, said he’d return later.”
“Any idea of their number?”
“At least three.” Malost said, brushing past to step into the street.
Khadoz followed, stopped to murmur to Mahok, who passed his orders further down the line of waiting men.
Malost waited, wishing he could drink away the rest of the night.
“Ready,” Khadoz lisped.
Nodding, Malost closed his eyes and reached for the vine. In his mind’s grip, he tugged it gently. It gave slightly, then retracted, pulling away in the direction of his desire. Holding to his purpose, Malost opened his eyes and followed in the wake of that gentle retraction.
The men followed him, darker shadows on the dark streets and narrow alleys of the city Malost did not know himself. He could sense Khadoz directly behind him, keeping an eye out for the Duke’s Watch as well as any watchers the nest of Pathless might have set.
After less than a quarter-measure, Malost came to a halt, peering around a corner at a building the looked much as the others did, dark and lifeless.
“Which one?” Khadoz asked, from his elbow.
“Third one down on the other side.”
“Is that a chandlers?”
“Looks that way. But it’s the stores door we want,” he answered, punching his chin toward the doors sloping steeply from the street a few steps beyond the front door.
Malost closed his eyes, studied the vision. “Yes. It’s bigger than the front of the place shows. There might be outlets around back. I could only see the one room.”
“Very well.” Khadoz turned, murmured a few words in Mahok’s ear.
Malost took a knotted string from his belt as the big Pavari walked along the line of men, selecting five of them with a slap on the shoulder. Mahok turned and led the chosen men across the street and around a corner in the direction of the chandlers.
Malost began silently counting knots.
“Twenty?” Khadoz asked.
He grunted assent, continued the count.
“Solk, be ready with the lantern,” Khadoz murmured to the shadow behind him.
A crack of light appeared, then snapped closed, Solk showing he was listening. None too intelligent and not particularly warlike, the simpleton had the twin virtues of being steady and following orders to the letter.
Khadoz addressed the men in a low voice, “Know that you are the hand of a Quaestor, and can do no wrong so long as you follow my orders. You know your duty. Do it and we shall burn these Pathless properly.”
Malost finished the count, nudged Khadoz with an elbow.
Khadoz moved, the men following.
Malost followed the last man, kept an eye out for the Watch. His head was starting to throb a bit, hands twitching for the feel of cup and flask.
Khadoz stopped on the far side of the cellar door, drawing sword and one of the hideously expensive pistols he kept a brace of. Malost thought the choice of weapon foolish on a raid that had no sanction from the secular authorities. Gunshots were not common here, and would certainly draw attention. Much better the crossbows he heard saw to of the men putting tension into and loading. Quieter, though just as prohibited.
Malost halted on the near side, eased himself onto the door as quietly as he could. He pulled a flat length of steel two fingers wide and a couple hands long from his sash, knelt and worked it between the doors. Feeling the catch, he glanced at Khadoz.
Malost pushed, felt the catch give. He slid off the door, getting out of the way.
One of the men grabbed the door and pulled it up. Khadoz plunged through, the rest of the men on his heels. A hollow clattering sounded, followed by a muttered curse.
Closing the door after him, Malost followed the rest of the men. He tripped over the last step in the dark, whacked his head against a series of sticklike somethings and came to a halt when he crashed into someone’s back.
Good thing I didn’t lead with blades.
“Light, Solk,” Khadoz hissed.
Solk, owner of the back Malost had run into, opened the brass shutters a fraction, letting the men see.
The raiding party stood on a narrow strip between covered vats containing, from the smell, tallow. The ‘sticks’ that had hit him in the head were candles hung to dry still swaying from recent collisions with human skulls.
“Idiot,” Khadoz grunted.
Malost ignored him, comparing their surroundings with memory. This was the place, or nearly so. Aside from the stair leading up into the storefront, an ill-fitting door he’d not seen earlier was set in the far wall. He nodded toward it.
Khadoz motioned his men to follow and approached it. He was just steps from it when the door slammed open and one of the Pathless from Malost’s vision charged out. The chitin-plated horror crashed into Khadoz, sending him reeling before hammering into the men behind and coming to a stop. Malost caught a glimpse of a saw-edged arm, heard it whicker as the thing slashed at the men.
Malost drew two blades, slipped sideways between the vats and watched the door. Sure enough, the second Pathless step silently from the doorway behind Khadoz. “Behind you, Khadoz!” he shouted.
The Quaestor whirled, brought his sword up instinctively parry. The knife the Pathless held in one tentacle skirled against Khadoz’s steel.
One of the crossbowmen loosed, the bolt making a loud TOCK as it slammed deep into wood somewhere in the darkness.
Taking careful aim, Malost drew back his arm.
Khadoz parried another knife, this one held in a human hand.
Malost threw, missing his mark; instead of taking the thing in its malformed head, his knife bit home where the arm would make a shoulder in a normal human. The Pathless gurgled, dropping the knife gripped in its tentacle.
Taking advantage, Khadoz stepped in, pressed the muzzle of his pistol to its gut, and pulled the trigger. The lock snapped forward, sparking the pan. An instant later the gun discharged with a dull thump: thunder, smoke, and ball all absorbed by the flesh of the Pathless. It slumped to the ground, lifeless.