Wister The Gurrd
"You have no idea why it attacked you?" Thront leaned over the table and scrutinized the artifact with his one great eye. His hulking, amber-armored form reflected on its surface.
"No idea." Kal was perched on the rail, working the cork of a nhurr bottle with his knife. A warm wind drifted up from the south.
"You didn't attack it, or say anything rude, or-"
"Enough with that, you sound like Sursha, what do you think about the egg."
"Lettering looks like Nhadite epoch, maybe Gharnilt Dynasty. I don't know. Sursha could tell you."
"Sursha's not here," Kal said and frowned, thinking of that most unexpected disappointment, but, just then, the cork came free of the bottle; his face brightened at once, and he took a long drink.
"She'll be here in a few days," Thront said.
"Not soon enough. Anyway, I want to give it to her as my reunion gift. I need to know what it is... And consider this, One-eye, what if there are more of these-" Kal paused and hopped down. He paced, one finger raised in the air as if he were testing the wind. Lights of Xiang-Xiang burned over his shoulder, across the water, their essence gentled by distance and swirling seahaze. "What if there are more of these- ASSASSINS about."
"Assassins?" Thront reached for the nhurr.
Kal took another long drink before surrendering the bottle.
"Assassins," he said. "A dark brotherhood of squishy headed killers pledged to destroy me. And this," he held up the egg. "Our only key to the mystery."
Atop Zimtur Hill, and across the bay in the belfry of the Rook Mesiquitar, the tones of the hour sounded. Kal stared at the distant city; two moons hung in the early evening sky: Vasmet in the east, Sfent in the southwest.
Thront lifted the silver egg. "I know somebody in the city."
"Trustworthy?" Kal's attention remained fixed upon the bay.
Thront held the egg up close to his eye. An extremely curios piece. Very odd.
Thront moved the object closer, turning it slowly. "We'll see him in the morning. His place is on Fish Street." Thront continued to turn the artifact in his fingers. "We'll come back here after and get ready. The festival begins tomorrow night."
Kal nodded. The purpling of the sky was complete, and Geesta, the third moon, hovered on the eastern horizon.
Kal looked askance at the sloppy, peeling letters of the poorly painted sign.
"The Chamber of Unlikely Rarities," he read aloud, wrinkling his nose at the stink which issued from the fish stalls on either side of the tiny shop.
"Never mind how it looks," Thront said, "Wister the Gurrd knows artifacts, probably as well as Sursha."
Kal coughed and made an unpleasant face.
"Let's go inside then, if for no other reason than to escape this waft."
Thront nodded and shoved open the decrepit door.
An untidy cram of disparaging items awaited them beyond the threshold, a smorgasbord of device and trinket, like a dream overfull of image and portent.
Packed with merchandise, several long shelves and two locked display cabinets crowded the cramped space.
The only other customer, a tall and whipcord thin, yellow-furred meafle, examined a rack of knives, his snout crinkled in a dubious expression.
At the back of the room, behind a counter strewn with tech trash, perched atop a stool, was the owner, Wister the Gurrd: a tri-ocular being, Wister very much resembled a worn out and moldering bean bag chair, tied off at the top with a handful of living snakes.
After making a momentary show of examining the stock, Thront approached the Gurrd. Snorting in an attempt to blow the fish-stink from his nostrils, Kal milled about idly, browsing. He looked at the contents of the locked display cases.
Junk, just as I thought.
As he turned away, though, one item, a mace, drew his eye. It had a wickedly curved haft and a spherical head of shining metal. Kal blinked, leaned closer, and looked again. A Thunderfist! The finest powerclub ever made.
Further consideration, however, made him frown. Thunderfist or not, the weapon looked to be in poor shape; filaments and small components bristled out of breaks up and down its length. In working order, it could bring down a house with a single, well placed blow, but it looked to be in an order far from working,
It might be reparable, how much...
Kal pressed his nose to the glass.
According to an attached tag, the club was priced at two hundred Zorms. Considerably out of his range.
Unless, I raid the group treasury...
He huffed in mock disgust and walked away from the case. Wandering down the next isle, he glanced at the rear of the store. Thront and the bag-creature were talking. Kal joined them.
"You Kal? I am Wister. Welcome. Welcome to shop," Wister said. "Friend monoch tells me that you have artifact of interest."
Kal nodded. He placed the silver ellipse on the counter.
"I have not, as of yet, made a decision," Kal said in his most practiced, academic tone- he thought it important to sound important while dealing with the lower caste beings such as merchants. Thront rolled his eye. Kal ignored his companion or failed to notice, and went on, "But I would like very much to know what it is."
"Of course. Of course." Wister's voice rattled and was full of hissing, hard, flat noises, like a sliding avalanche of sand and small pebbles. Wister possessed no mouth, he vocalized by palpitating a drum-like fold of flesh at the center of his cranial tentacle node.
"Very wise,” Wister said. "Consultation fee two Zorms."
Thront slid the coins over the counter top.
"Memory egg." Wister, more flexible than he appeared, bent down and palpitated the artifact with his tendrils. Kal made a puckered face and took a half step back. "Sometimes can be turned on."
At first, nothing happened.
"Entertainment device. Most are pictures of strange budding," Wister said.
Strange budding? Kal looked at Thront, who shrugged.
Wister made a flatulent noise; Kal suspected it was a sigh of frustration, but held his breath to be safe.
The Gurrd probed and poked the memory egg.
A many hued, vertical plain, like a painting made of light, winked into existence directly above the object. Wister's lumpy profile shone partially through the semi-transparent image.
Asymmetrical shapes, hewn from light and sparkling dust, danced across the air. Ignoring the Gurrd, Kal gazed at them, rapt.
What is it? An abstract piece?
Kal reached out towards the floating picture with tentative fingers.
Wister flinched, and the image flashed and sputtered out of being.
"Shock. Shock." Rockslide volume. For several moments Wister went through a complicated pattern of tentacle positions. Thront laid his hand on the memory egg.
"Worth nothing," Wister said, at last, his voice measured and quiet. "Twenty Zorms."
"No thank you," Thront said.
"Worthless. More than worthless. Dangerous. Thirty Zorms."
"Not today, my good... er, Wister." Kal leaned forward took the egg from Thront. "I like it too much to sell, but my gratitude for your time." He bowed low, angling his tail (clad in a magnificent new sock of crimson silk, patterned with coiling serpents) in a general attitude of respectful appreciation.
They departed the shop. Thront caught the meafle staring as they went through the door. For a heartbeat he held its two eyes with his one. The door closed between them. Thront snorted with disgust and turned away.
Leaving the Chamber of Unlikely Rarities, Fish Street, and its attendant bouquet behind, the pair walked east to the city's edge, where they ascended a long flight of half-crumbled stairs and came onto the northern section of the High Palisade, a raised walkpath which ran along the top of the city wall. They moved slowly towards the Rook Mesiquitar and walked in the red taint of its shadow.
Late afternoon fog drifted southward from the sea of mist; ghostly fibrils of it hung low over the city. Below, to the left, surf crashed and raged, summer's placidity giving way to the will of the five moons.
Below, on the right, the thrashing sea was forgotten as the peoples of the city made ready for festival: scores of lamplighters spread hundreds of colored lights throughout the neighborhoods; children of innumerable species ran laughing over the cobbles, throwing bowls of colored water at one another in a mock recreation of Thingar's charge against the Meltarids; the bang and flash of fireworks, accompanied by occasional notes from festival horns, enhanced the burgeoning mood of festivity and abandon.
Kal and Thront paused on a landing just south of The Rook and looked down over a courtyard.
A newly erected stage stood against one wall. Small, hairy creatures, with a myriad of boneless and squirmy appendages, played a bouncing and discordant melody on angular, black-lacquered string instruments. A legless, bell-shaped being, rainbow feathered and with a convulsing, vertical mouthslit performed a wheeling, rolling dance on the platform before them.
Spectators gathered near the musicians, and at the far end of the courtyard, near the Dynastic Way arch, a band Thyggll were throwing brightly colored dart-worms at each other. Laughter and applause of a thousands sorts echoed, reflected, and vibrated against the flags.
The landing sported several benches. Kal and Thront took one with a good view of the court. They purchased cigarettes from a nortish vender and watched the activity below.
"Same thing every year. You'd think they'd come up with something new, with all five moons in the sky and what not." Thront moved his pupil in a bored fashion.
"He turned it off, you know," Kal said.
"I am certain of it." Thront carefully exhaled smoke; the wind blew some back into his eye. He blinked rapidly; seated close, Kal could hear the squeaking noise that accompanied each muscular contraction of the great eyelid.
"Perhaps if we experiment with it-" Kal stood up.
"That won't be necessary; I memorized the sequence and pattern of Wister's palpitations."
Delighted, Kal released a rather unpleasant laugh. "Why do you think he did it? Turned it off, I mean."
"We'll have to get it reactivated to know that."
"Home it is then," Kal said. "We can catch the half-day ferry, and come back across, later, when things get more interesting."
They resumed their walk along the palisade; all sorts of folk crowded the thoroughfare; Kal saw an entire party of dundaszi, a Jik, three zimtors, a few reptarchs, several beings he failed to classify, and a great many norts- the city's dominate species.
The crowd grew, progress slowed. In an attempt to numb himself from the displeasure of the press, Kal stopped off and bought a small cask of nhurr for the walk.
"Five, five, five moons arise, and then The Dark Concordance..." A doomsayer, a snit with a ridiculous, pink cranial fin, forced past them, presaging a larger crowd wending southward along the palisade.
The traditional parade form 'Seven Paper Behemoth's' rattled along the avenue, towards them. Fireworks flashed, snapped and barked at the feet of the puppet dancers.
Kal pushed back from the procession and took a drink. He passed the cask to Thront, and went up on the monoch's shoulders. Once up, he leapt onto the exterior wall, found handholds in the mortar gaps, and scrambled to the top of the battlement. He scanned the oncoming throng.
The festival was beginning early; already, he could see it would be a much more frantic affair than the year previous'; after all, it was the turn of the centiad, five moons instead of four. The Dark Concordance would follow, marking the passage of an age; and, it seemed, every yokel and fretseed farmbeing in all existence had traveled to the leaning city to celebrate the occasion.
The crowd surged and reveled as far as he could see. Travel any further along the High Palisade would be, if not impossible, at least tiring and inconvenient.
Thinking that backtracking might be faster, Kal looked south, towards the Dynastic Way stair; he caught a glimpse of something yellow in the crowd.
Kal looked closer, squinted; the meafle from The Chamber of Unlikely Rarities walked northward.
He scrambled down the wall and returned to Thront. He took the cask and had a long drink. "Being followed," he said. Blue drops rushed down his chin, vanished into his collar.
"Please." Thront squinted with amusement. "The fellow from Wister's? Are you just spotting him now?"
Kal snorted. "Don't be silly. I marked him a quarter span ago."
They moved forward a bit. Thront swiveled his ocular case and panned behind. "He's still a good way back; lets split up- meet me at the ferry.
Kal nodded and without further discussion went over the side of the palisade. He leapt into space, careened through the air, and disappeared into a gust of roof fog.
Thront came off the stairs at a trot; he avoided the high traffic of Dynastic Way, and chose to travel the smaller, more residential streets instead.
Compressed buildings of blonde wood and azure mud brick crowded tight against one another. A mandate of the City's forgotten founder demanded style and cleanliness from residents; and indeed, stained glass, tooled woodwork, and tasteful fittings of magentax abounded; but although almost all the homes were attractive individually, and aesthetically pleasing in the context of their neighborhoods, a great many of them, the majority, in fact, were poorly built. Nearly every building leaked in the rain and exhibited cracks in its walls. Houses slumped and huddled, leaning towards each other across narrow alleys and constricted streets, like drunk and belligerent sailors.
There were braces everywhere, built of wood and stone, or sometimes hard, ebony crystal from Herratzu in the east. Many of these supports doubled as walkways and terraces; cafes were often built atop arches overgrown with flowers and leafy plants, further cluttering the upper spaces of the city, and hiding the streets below in nearly perpetual, if not unpleasant, shade.
Thront used the raised walkways and the tight, jubilant confusion of the narrow surface streets to lose himself. Emerging from the neighborhoods, he came out onto Troublecox Landing certain he'd thrown off any pursuit.
Kal awaited him on the ferry.
They crossed to Zimtur Isle and took a short, uphill cab ride to their bungalow. They remained outside the little house for several minutes, watching for signs of unwelcome interest.
The street remained clear. Thront gave a non-committal shrug and they entered the house.
After closing all the shutters and latching the front door, they set up in the oval-shaped drawing room. Kal activated a wallglow, and placed the memory egg on the table between them.
Thront leaned over and studied it for a long and silent space.
"My fingers are too large," he said.
Kal sat down and picked up the egg. "Tell me what to do."
Thront spoke directions in a quick, low voice. Kal's fingers moved over the surface of the artifact, applied pressure in a complicated way.
The screen of light came to life in the air between them.
"That's a map." Kal pointed at the dominant image he had earlier mistaken for abstract art. Pictures flashed along the square border: a huge dome of translucent red crystal, pyramids of glowing coins, objects of art...
"One moment." Thront dashed into the library; he returned with an atlas. He fluttered the pages. "That's the same coast- almost." He held up a map and pointed to a spot on its surface. "That's Xiang-Xiang, and here, that's the Sea of Mist" He shoved his finger into the screen of light.
Kal was infatuated with the sidebar images. "It's a treasure map."
"Don't be stupid."
"What is it then?" Kal said. "Certainly not 'strange budding'."
Thront looked at it the image; golden light glowed on his chitin. "An advertisement for a museum, perhaps from the Nhadite period..."
"If it is a museum from the Nhadite period, that works out to be a treasure map." Kal leaned closer to the glowing plain. "How far you figure that is?"
"Aboard The Siren? Three days, maybe four, but I cannot be certain; the waters are rough during the time of five moons, and during the concordance that follows, and, for a fact, the true dimensions of The Sea of Mist are unknown." He paused and ticked off figures on his wide fingers. "Even so, fuel costs for a short voyage would clean out the treasury, and I need to make some repairs. Sursha will be here in a couple more days. She can decide."
"I agree- er I mean, she should most certainly be consulted." Kal stood up and stalked around the room. "She doesn't need to know about our involvement with this fellow Wister, though, and we'd better hide this thing, just in case." He tossed the memory egg to Thront.
TO BE CONTINUED
NEXT WEEK: All the nhur you can drink and dreamfruit you can eat as the Five Moons rise.