Chapter 20: The Glint of Gold
“Give to the needy? I do it all the time. Some people need to die, and I’m always happy to offer a bullet or two towards a good cause.”
-The Golden Son, account written by biographer shortly before the latter’s death, date unknown.
Kazzul lay suspended in crystal waters. He looked up at the reflected shimmer of sunlight, fish darting around him this way or that.
He didn’t know how long he had been there, floating carelessly, and he would stay a while longer.
Water surrounded him, filled his lungs. It was safe. Safer than the world above ground, at least.
Deep Gods, Slitherers, Great Worms, he thought. Why am I here? Why does this scoundrel, this murderer, continue to blight existence? Why, when so much innocence dies and sinks to the bottom and flakes away until none remember it at all.
He waited for several minutes, open to the unknown. There was no answer. Of course there wasn’t. The Deep Gods were never charitable with their knowledge.
A heavy rock pushed on Kazzul’s stomach. The guilt was still there. Lizzy had been his friend, more than that, and she was dead. He should have felt strongly about that. And yet, every time he thought of her, someone else came to mind.
Someone even more precious.
He spun himself around with a few swipes of his webbed hands, staring into the width of the ocean before him as it plunged low, deep and dark.
That thought ran the length of his guilt and the width of his shame.
He wanted the thing he could never have, and so was cursed to spend his life chasing pale imitations.
Slitherers… spare me this pain, he thought.
But there was no reprieve for him, and he deserved none.
Stephan stared at the blackened pan, filled with what was likely supposed to be some kind of casserole. He forced a tense smile at the many-limbed monstrosity as it waved the pan in his general direction. A smell like char and rotten fish caused his nose to wrinkle.
“This is my aunt, Vormor,” Quintilla said, clapping one of the creature’s six long arms. “People call her the Spider, for obvious reasons.” She steered the ruined casserole away from Stephan’s face with two fingers. “You can stop tormenting him now.”
“Oh dearie me, I’m sorry if it’s not up to human standards,” Vormor said in a whisper-thin voice, backing up a step as she dragged her knuckles along the ground. “I just wanted to make a good first impression with Quincy’s latest suitor.”
Quintilla chuckled at that. “You hear that, Mr. Lordling? You be careful now, or I might just snatch you up and make a good little husband out of you.”
Stephan swallowed hard. That sounded dangerous.
“So, ah…” He pushed up his glasses as he attempted to form words. “If it isn’t improper to ask, what, um… What are you?” He peered up at the monster.
Vormor laughed, though Stephan detected some strain. “Hmm, that’s a difficult question. Suffice it to say I’m not from any place you’d know of. And before you ask, no, I’m not a demon, although the company I keep may suggest otherwise.”
“I see. No relation, I assume?” He glanced between Vormor and her significantly shorter, reasonably limbed niece.
“Bond, not blood,” Quintilla said. “But we can mingle later. I have something important to tell you.”
Stephan let Quintilla and Vormor lead him down to a basement. As soon as he entered, a nasty, pale little creature hobbled up to him and blocked his path. His two companions were already further ahead, oblivious to his troubles.
The creature’s ugly, twisted face and blood-red eyes marked it as a demon. An imp, maybe. It sniffed him intently and rubbed the fabric of his suit between its fingers.
“Uh, a little help!” Stephan called.
The imp reached up and snatched the glasses off his nose. It bit the rim, let out a shrieking cackle, and put them on. It shuffled in place as it looked around the room through the oversized glasses, muttering incoherently to itself.
“Wuzzle, give the human his spectacles back!” Vormor called. She snapped her fingers in the direction of the imp.
The demon grumbled, but eventually removed the glasses and returned them to Stephan. Wuzzle stood aside, and Stephan hurried to catch up with the two women.
They approached a large metal frame at the end of the room. It was partially filled in with bronze tablets resembling the one Stephan had seen them retrieve from the slaver ship.
Stephan regarded the tablets. He stepped forward, touched the smooth, aged surface.
“...Is a map,” Stephan concluded. “Isn’t it?”
Quintilla smirked. “Correct.”
“Good head on him, this one,” Vormor murmured in her niece’s ear.
“I thought it was strange when I first saw it,” Stephan said. “They’re old, but clearly well-preserved. This is different, though. Something beyond.”
He tapped the frame of his glasses and spoke their command word. A network of silvery strings sprung into existence, running across the bronze in dizzying, intersecting patterns. A million runes nestled within the tight weave of magic, and a million more.
He had never seen such refined enchantry in all his life. The mere sight of it made his head swim, and he was forced to turn off his glasses.
“This is not some pirate treasure map,” Stephan said. “There’s only one people I know of that could produce something like this. But could it be…?”
“It’s Ancestor technology,” Quintilla confirmed. “I’ve been gathering them for years with Vormor’s help. If we can find them all, it will lead to a treasure beyond mortal reckoning.”
“What kind of treasure?” Stephan asked.
Quintilla and Vormor shared a look. The six-armed monster spoke; “We don’t know yet. No one’s laid eyes on it since the death of the Ancestors.”
“Then how do you know it’s valuable?”
“It was valuable enough for the Ancestors to split the map into sixteen pieces and scatter them in the ocean.”
“Fair enough. And how do you know it leads to a treasure at all? It could be a very elaborate road sign, for all we know.”
“The Ancestors inhabited the place of my birth, as well. I investigated a few of their ruins in my youth. Trust me, they wouldn’t put this much effort into something if it wasn’t important. They were a practical people. Whatever location this leads to, we're sure to find something of great value.”
Stephan was far from certain that he could trust the many-limbed creature, but let the matter rest. It seemed that the captain placed a great deal of trust in the Spider, which would have to be enough for the time being.
“You’ve assembled quite a few pieces already,” Stephan said. “Where has it lead you so far?”
“Nowhere,” Vormor said. “My command of the esoteric arts is considerable, but the enchantment was made such that the treasure’s location will not be revealed until all pieces are assembled. At current, we need seven more.”
“And the Dryden Crew has four of them, you said?” Stephan asked.
“Correct,” Quintilla said with a nod.
“The crew’s alright with this… treasure hunt?”
Quintilla shrugged with a wide grin. “That’s what pirates do, isn’t it? They won’t miss a chance to make themselves fabulously wealthy.”
“I see. I don’t proclaim to be an expert, but won’t you attract more attention the more of these pieces you collect? Pirates who want the treasure as badly as you.”
“Well, that’s the gamble,” Quintilla said. “Listen, I’m no fool. I know it’s dangerous. But there’s… something else.”
“A debt. I owe money to the governor, a lot of it, and he won’t let me or my sister go until we’ve paid it off. We’re talking over a million standards.” Quintilla stepped close Stephan, held his shoulder and squeezed it. “So do you understand? This is not just about money. It’s about freedom, too.”
“Then, you’re asking for my cooperation?”
Stephan contemplated. This seemed a dreadfully dangerous proposal.
A trove of Ancestor treasure. If I laid eyes on that, I could die happy.
“Very well, captain,” Stephan said. “I will aid you in finding this treasure.”
Quintilla smiled. She seemed genuinely grateful. “Thank you.”
“But if I may ask, how did you accumulate such a debt?”
“A story for another time. Ask Taira, if you have to know. For now, we have a job to prepare for. Dryden’s going to be a tough customer.”
END OF 'THE CHARMER' ARC