The old ship groaned in the whipping wind, always threatening to tip over but never following through.
Yet, thought Calfin, Always yet.
Ze took a look through one of the portholes, scratched on one side and covered with candle soot and ages-old grime on the other. The dried lake looked much the same as it had the past day, last month and the summer before: tediously barren, with a hint of unguided malice to anything that found itself stranded there. No trace of the trio yet.
Beyond the derelict fishing boat ze called home, a few landmarks shimmered on the horizon: The Pier stood high to the northeast, giant plinths of stone worn away by some unknowable river gleaming in the silty sunlight; the only ships docking there were sand-skiffs from the folks that lived deeper into the desert – and woe betide any fool that sought it as a safe port in a storm.
Further north sat the Mouth, a squat formation of old river rock cliffs and salvaged steel. Bastards had tried to scrap Calfin’s ship on more than one occasion to add to their sickly gate – worshipping some such or another and cursing Waterborne like Calfin for being what they so badly desired. Pond scum desperate for what lie below the surface of a dead lake.
Twenty-or-so metres to the right of the porthole, ‘Ol Marr was still where ze’d left it, bones charred and melting in the midday sun, oozing like glass syrup.
Demons are so dramatic, Calfin thought as ze pulled back from the window, seating zimself at the wood table that barely stood mounted to the wall, candles and bottles arranged in a crescent facing away from zim. It’ll freeze back up into shape come evening. Swear if that thing starts howling again… Ze eyed the old revolver perched on the edge of the table, sun-hardened steel and barnacle-crusted frame gleaming enticingly.
“Bastard had its chance.” Ze tapped the gun with zir pincer-like right hand, giving it a push for emphasis as ze began setting worn cards in arrangement on the poorly-stained wood – last year’s attempt at a refurbish. “Wants to strike a bargain, it’ll have to wait ’til the rains come.”
Ze muttered on about tradition and pacts for some time as ze shuffled and laid cards out into piles until ze heard the telltale sound of skittering claws approaching the ship through the open cabin windows, followed by a familiar whoop and callous laughter.
Calfin took up the pistol and holstered it, though it was more for show than anything; this was to be a friendly meeting, if ze’d been told right. But so the adage went: “Waterborne rules are always fluid”, as the townies at the Mouth were fond of repeating. Ze decided to casually stroll to the side door, half-buried in the salty sand, keen to make zir guests wait a spell longer than.
See which crab wanted out of the bucket bad enough.
“Calfin!” Came a cry from one of the visitors, sounding like it were spoken with a cheekful of water. “Sun’s past the seam, let’s have at it!”
Calfin approached the door, leaning zir crustacean visage on the frame in just the right way to expose zir holster, hand on the hip above it. “Well, if you’d have come sooner, we’d not be so short on daylight, Hulf. Surprised Twiggy there couldn’t hustle your ass up with how close they keep to it.”
The assembled posse rode large centipedal insects, famous around these parts for their retention of water and resilience in a gunfight, but also famously expensive; Calfin expected this was a show of force as well as wealth, but ze weren’t impressed by either. Those second-age bugs had been bred so long they were as smart as the rocks they slept under, and half as wise. Better as cover than as a threat.
The riders, however, were to a one clever, manipulative and altogether keen: Hulf, the usual muck of the Waterborne gangsters, twenty-fifth of a family of crabfolk and aching to prove his worth; Mulch “Twiggy” Destrado, resembling a lone dead tree on a hilltop – half-dryad and all-brawn, they were a bruiser in every right; and silent, eery Goldyn, a shimmering third-age automaton that worked as a gun-for-hire and was worth its weight in gold or silver in a fight.
Twiggy didn’t seem to notice Calfin’s insult and grinned, wooden hand resting on the hilt of their eight-shooter with practiced ease. Goldyn sat in iridescent judgement, no expression visible on its scarred visage, a bronze-cast blunderbuss just visible in a holster on its mud-red mount.
“Now, Calfin. Ain’t no need to be so rude to guests!” Hulf wore his characteristic smile, sliding smoothly off his insect and removing his hat to press it at his chest, barely looking like a gentleman. “Folk might get the impression you’ve no interest in getting paid.” He pulled out three silver pieces of coin, sliding them to and fro in his palm and never breaking eye contact with Calfin.
Calfin tried not to notice the gesture, but zir stomachs growled in unison at the thought of eating something other than silt soup for the first time in a month. Ze put on a charming smile and side-stepped from the doorway, gesturing into the dimly-lit cabin with zir gun hand. “Rightly so, Hulf. Rightly so.” The false niceties wormed their way past gritted teeth and clenched jaw.
“Mighty kind.” Hulf intoned as he ducked into the ship, followed shortly by Twiggy, creaking and groaning with the effort. Goldyn gave a curt nod to Calfin and slipped from its saddle, meaning to tie the crew’s mounts up to the hitch at the boat’s prow. It likely wouldn’t come inside for the reading, and Calfin was glad for it.
Hulf had seated himself at the good chair across from Calfin’s, leaving Twiggy to hunch over in a rickety bench seat next to him. Calfin took zir time getting tea for them both, mulling over which of zir dwindling stock ze’d be happy parting with for these particular “guests”. Ze settled on a heady set of gulch leaves and cragmoss, setting the kettle on a battered stovetop and coaxing a few sparks from a weave of impcloth to set the burner blazing. Ze took a charcuterie board filled with salted shrimps and crawdads, pressed plankton and cubed dirt over to the table while the water boiled, happy to make the brigands itch in their seats until ze were ready to begin.
“Any chance we’d be done soon?” Twiggy snapped, giving Calfin a side glance as they munched on some soil, kept fresh in a wrap of selkie skin from last season’s crops. “Sun’s going to set before your pleasantries are through, feels like.”
Hulf was halfway to slapping his companion when Calfin’s gun hand laid on their shoulder, drawing Twiggy’s eyes up to zim. The whole cabin sat tense and quiet, and the sound of centipedes feasting on feed from the trough outside gave the moment a hungry accent.
“Traditions, Twiggy. If what you told me last week is true,” Zir gun hand, a scaled and cracked five-digit grasper, squeezed gently on their shoulder, “that find isn’t going to up and walk away, now is it?”
Hulf breathed out through his nose, hands moving back to rest on the tabletop as his eyes quickly swept to the doorway, head shaking imperceptibly. Calfin heard the soft click of a hammer being reset, then bootsteps receding from the ship. Ze tried not to shiver at the danger and moved off to check the kettle, leaving Twiggy to Hulf’s admonishing stare.
Before long the tea was mostly drunk and the spread of food had been picked over, and the cards were cut and shuffled. Dog-eared, waterlogged and dried, stained by use and accident alike; the cards in this makeshift deck had a history, mismatched and uneven in number, from all over the dried lake and beyond. They’d seen things, heard things, knew things that even Calfin couldn’t explain.
That’s why ze offered zir services to folk, for coin or barter – everyone had a question or two they couldn’t ask out loud.
“Hulf.” Calfin said evenly, eyes flitting to look up at him briefly before returning to the arrangement on the table, candles burning low in the later afternoon dim. There sat four piles of cards, as neatly arranged as their shapes would allow, with room in the middle of the tabletop to place them, aptly named the Pit. “Keep your question first and foremost in your mind, then choose.”
Hulf stared intently at the table, hands drumming incessantly as they tried to find a rhythm their owner couldn’t place. “Alright. Fourth-age, first set.”
Calfin’s large pincer drifted over to the fourth-age pile – a relatively new collection, most of them recreations – deftly drawing out a set of four cards and placing them face-down in the Pit in the center. The first chosen was the last revealed, for reasons even Calfin wasn’t sure.
“Twiggy.” Ze breathed, looking at them from the side of zir vision. “The same. Top of your head, keep it floating, then pick.”
Twiggy’s bark looked like it wanted to peel off, they were thinking so hard. “Uh. Third-age- No,” their branch-like hand jerked up, nearly knocking over a bottle, “second-age. Fourth set.”
Using zir gun hand, Calfin smiled and nodded as ze took out the first three sets of four from the second-age set – this pile had seen more time and use than most, and the majority had been painstakingly restored to function – placing them aside and drawing a fourth set, laying them face-up below Hulf’s: A soot-covered 3 of Clubs; a peeling King of Crowns; a stitched-together 9 of mixed suits featuring a mish-mash of less-than-tasteful nude models; and a near-pristine Temperance, looking quite out of place among the others.
Twiggy’s breath sucked in like a stiff spring breeze, though Calfin was sure they had no clue what it meant. Hulf didn’t stir in his seat.
“Goldyn’s choice?” Calfin raised a scaled brow ridge, eyeing Hulf’s hulking form in the growing shadows. He sat stock-still, arms stiff. Ze could see the sweat beading his face.
Just as Calfin made to move, meaning to walk to the door and call to the metal creature, Hulf croaked out: “First-age. 9th Set.”
There followed a deep and foreboding silence. Nobody Calfin knew chose a 9th set willingly, let alone from the first-age pile. There were only 9 sets in each, and first-age cards were known to be villainous and cruel to a fault. Relics of a time people normally chose to forget, if they bothered to remember at all.
It implied Goldyn knew that danger, death and betrayal were inevitable in the answer, and most folk didn’t want that knowledge on their mind, before or afterwards. It clearly knew how much was at stake and wasn’t taking chances – and that could leave Hulf and Twiggy on the wrong end of a barrel at the end of their path.
Calfin suppressed a grin – serves the dodgy bastards right for going after such a score – and with practiced pauses drew out and discarded eight sets from the first-age pile, each card adding to the tension. Ze could see in Hulf’s arched posture and Twiggy’s attempts to still their quaking branches how much was riding on this reading, how little they’d planned. Half-cocked and barely loaded.
As the last four cards were drawn and played face-up below Twiggy’s, there was a collective sigh of relief from the two outlaws: all twos of four suits, red on black on red on black. A hand they’d seen before, last summer before a raid.
“All Unsure,” Calfin said with a reassuring smile, flipping Hulf’s choices over and examining the results: Two fours, a Diamond and Sword each, both inked gold on thin-pressed beetle shell; A Joker, resplendent in a fool’s costume from some ancient design; and an inverted Emperor, covered in so much dross and scorched nearly beyond recognition save for the head. Hulf wouldn’t have known the difference for that last card, but Calfin nearly burst out laughing when ze flipped it.
Ze coughed to regain their composure and read the table out loud in order for Goldyn to hear outside. “Your quarry’s in a dug-out across Oasis Marsh, four klicks from the point on which dead men drink. Delve deep in a mine and seek there the demon’s ore; pacts will you make, pacts will you break, and on the discovery a choice must be made.”
The candles started to gutter as if on cue; Calfin had kept the timing well in mind. The light scattered unnerving shadows through the coloured glass of the bottles, the figures on the cards seeming to move and warp in the dying light. Hulf and Twiggy made to stand at once, stooped over against the slanted ceiling and saying nothing. Twiggy’s hands nearly reached for his revolver, but he thought better of it, storming out of the cabin in a huff.
Hulf deflated and let out a sigh of blissful ignorance. “Calfin, a pleasure, as always.” His hand dug deep into a pouch at his waist and retrieved the three silver promised, plus a half-golden coin and a tuft of hair – second-age Bristlepine fur by the look of it – and placed each atop a bottle, then pinched the flames of the candles out one by one, his pincers menacingly close. He never met Calfin’s eyes, but ze could see the fear he hid so well behind that practiced ease.
He knew he wasn’t long for this world, and that ate him up something fierce.
Without another word, he donned his hat and left the cabin, leaving Calfin to relight a candle and reshuffle the cards, all the while grinning as the sounds of the posse mounting up and scuttling off into the night filtered in. In the empty evening that they left, ‘Ol Marr whispered and murmured on the breeze, bones reforming from their solar slag in the cool air.
“Maybe the rain’s coming soon, after all.” Calfin murmured back, drawing the top card from the deck and eyeing it as the candle struggled to remain lit.
The first-age Ace of Cups stood upright and overflowing on a barren field, bringing with it change and relief. A flood to the parched and a boon to the dead.