The Cartographers

By 0xStax

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"You can call me Inara.” She said after dodging another beer mug. She was brandishing a bottle of wine in one hand and a sturdy beer krug in the other. I had been left with a broken bottle of rum, but it was sharp enough to keep most of the drunks at bay. When I arrived that day at the Three Rooster’s I didn’t expect I would end up fighting drunken sailors, paupers and scammers by the evening.

It was the first time I had been in a bar fight, but Inara fought like she did it every other week. Luckily, we managed to get out of the beerhall before the guards arrived. Spending the night in jail was not in my plans after all, not when I had my bags full of stolen jewelry. “Where did you learn how to fight like that.” I asked her. “Here and there. You spend enough time in big cities and you learn how to defend yourself. You didn’t do that bad either, for a stablehand that is.”

“I’m a farmer. Not a stablehand. I can work the land, but I can’t tell you which side is which in a horseshoe.” I replied, and she laughed back at me “Alright, then. You didn’t too bad either. For a farmer.” Soon after, we heard the barking of hounds a few of blocks away, and we could see the lanterns lit up the alleys at a distance. That was my cue, and where we parted ways, but I guess both of us wanted to get out of there as fast possible before they would arrest us with the rest of the brawlers. As luck would have it, I met her again the next day in front of the Cartographer’s guild.

The cream colored building had clearly seen better days, although its blatant disrepair seemed to concern everyone but its own members. When I passed by, a large crowd had already gathered at the entrance, and I could hear the people were getting anxious, and very annoyed. It was only when I talked to Inara again that I understood why everyone was so restless.

“You’re late, farmer!” I heard someone scream in front of me, and when I looked up to see who that was, I saw Inara waiving at me. I pushed and dodged and ducked my way to her, happy to see a familiar face. “What are you doing here?” I asked her. “Presumably the same as you. You’re late, by the way. Very late” she replied. I had no idea what she meant by that, or what was everyone doing there in the first place. “And…could you tell me what that is…exactly?’” I said. “Don’t be silly. Everyone knows why everyone is here. Why, do you think all of these gallant exemplars of uncivilized rudeness woke up one day and decided to become mapmakers?” I blinked and stared at her for a while before she continued.

“The lovely owners of the pile of rubble that stands in front of us trying to pass as headquarters, sent a call months ago, for pretty much anyone who could lift an axe, or was remotely acquainted with tracking, to meet here. Today. 2 hours ago. Which is why you are late, and very lucky it seems. Those lazy mapmakers are still sleeping.” The cartographers must have heard Inara’s complaints, because as soon as she had finished her sentence, a loud trumpet boomed behind the building’s wooden gates and the whole crowd fell silent. Once everyone was quiet, the massive doors opened, and from within, a small, old man appeared. He was wearing a blue and white robe, and held a large bag in his left hand. The man took a few steps forward and immediately addressed the crowd.

“Who’s the old guy?” I asked. “No clue. But I bet if you shut up, we can hear what he has to say. Don’t you think?” she said with a small smirk. I remained quiet and focused my attention on the small man who was finishing his speech. “(…) We can’t promise you glory, nor wealth, but let me assure you that, should you continue on this path with us, your life will never want for adventure.”

As he said those words, the bag he was holding started to bulge and expand, and I could see as if something was trying to escape from the inside, pushing and pulling the fabric apart. As the bag writhed, the man dropped it on the floor and it started to grow larger and larger. As the minutes passed, it went from being a small rucksack to a large cloth wrapping meters in size. It kept growing and twisting until at one point something ripped open a hole at the side of the bag and a beak protruded outwards. Large talons then clawed at the open hole and from the tattered remains of the bag, an enormous bird, larger than anyone I had ever seen, came forth. It resembled a brown eagle, but far larger, with huge quills that were as thick as armor. The bird then let out a loud shriek and with its feet firmly on the ground flapped its wings towards us. The gusts of wind that came from it were so powerful, it threw several people into the ground. Inara quickly grabbed me and we managed to hide behind a nearby tree and I looked at the massive bird with awe and bewilderment.

“What is that?” I cried as the wind barreled down like a hurricane. “It’s magic” Inara said, her gaze stuck upon the winged animal. “Magic doesn’t exist. It is but a fairy tale to keep children from misbehaving” I yelled back, not entirely sure myself of my own words. “You look at that and tell me it isn’t magical!” The beast had created a storm from just the flapping of its wings and most of the crowd that had gathered earlier had fled in horror. Only a few us remained, either too enthralled by the impossible creature who stood before us, or paralyzed with fear at the sight of such a horrifying and dangerous bird.

As the gusts of wind blew against us I closed my eyes and grabbed the tree as hard as I could, focusing all my strength on my hands. I knew if I slipped, I was going to get blown away and smashed against the concrete, a wall, or a stray person behind us. Then, at some point the storm faded. The bird had stopped flapping its wings.

Only about thirty people remained after that. Earlier that morning there had been hundreds gathered in front of the building, now, only a handful remained. I don’t think we were the strongest or smartest ones, but we were definitely the most curious. As the storm faded and we could regain our footing, we all went forward towards the gates. Towards the giant bird, and the small man.

“This is a Rukk” the man said as we approached him. “We…It, found us, last year.”

“What do you mean it found…you?” A girl asked.

“We were in a scouting expedition, redrawing the borders from the Desert war with Leilen when we found a nest. We found four eggs, the Rukk you see here in front of you, was born from one of them.”

“Birds don’t grow that large. Not even Giant Eagles are that big” I replied. “But this isn’t a Giant Eagle. And it’s not just any bird, for that matter”, the man replied.

“It’s magic” Inara said once more. Her eyes were wide open, firmly placed on the giant Rukk standing in front of us. She stepped forward and gingerly tried to put her hand on top of the Rukks’ head, as if trying to calm it. “I’ve seen it before” she said, still mesmerized by the bird. “Back in the Desert War. We were out deep in the dunes and we hadn’t seen any action in weeks, and then in the middle of the desert we saw this…boy appear. He was not a man yet. He had a golden cuirass, a breastplate of some sorts, and a large hammer in his hands. The boy was a wraith, an emaciated corpse more than a person. We were surprised he had managed to survive in such an unhospitable place. Which is why we let our guard down. He killed twenty of us before we could pin him down. I’ve seen many things, and I know that sometimes the weakest of all can muster unfathomable strength out of nowhere. Call it adrenaline rush, battle rage, whatever you like. But this wasn’t it. He should not have been capable of doing what he did. He wielded that hammer as though it had a life of its own, he bludgeoned the best of us like they were fresh recruits. And they couldn’t even hurt him once. His armor was impenetrable, unsullied. I saw how they struck him hundreds of times, and yet his breastplate didn’t have a single mark. He took down twenty fully grown men before he succumbed. We didn’t best him, he just succumbed from exhaustion. I’m sure it was magic. Whatever that boy was wearing, it had to be magical. Just as this giant bird is.”

“The war made us reassess a lot of our beliefs” the man said. “When we found the Rukk…we didn’t know what we had found, we didn’t know what to expect. Later on, we heard accounts of impossible things happening in the frontlines, and tales of miracles from all around the country started to emerge. We are not bounty hunters; we are not sages or warriors. We are but humble mapmakers, and this is why we have summoned you here.”

The old man looked to the Rukk and placed both of his hands on its beak, he then started to rub at it softly, as if he was talking to a dear friend. As he did that, the bird changed its size, it started to shrink slowly, with each stroke, the bird grew smaller, until at last it was no larger than a common eagle. Once it had become small enough it perched on top of the man’s shoulder, looking at us as if standing guard, ready to grow large again and blow us out with it mighty wings.

“We want you to go out and explore the world. When we found the eggs, they were next to a velvet bag, and we have heard rumors that others have found, what they call magical items, inside bags as well. If what they found is just even half as wonderful as my dear friend here, perhaps those bags are the key to find out if magic is truly real.”

“Why us?” I asked.

“Because you didn’t run when you were faced with an impossible beast that could kill you.” the man answered. “And it is likely you will find more, if you choose to accept our request.”

“Why don’t you do it?” Inara asked. “You were the ones who found it first, why don’t you continue with this task?”

“We are cartographers, mapmakers. We are skilled with carbon and ink, not swords or daggers. Now, this also provides you with a fantastic excuse. See, we are everywhere. Ever since the war ended everyone seems to be in need of cartographers. Borders have been redrawn, old roads do not exist anymore, and new ones have been built. Mountains have been blown away and rivers have turned to lakes. People have grown accustomed to see us roam around. What better excuse for a group of travelers to be out and about from one place to another?”

The irony hadn’t been lost on me. I had been hired to steal maps and blueprints from them (and keep whatever stray piece of gold I could find in doing so) and here they were, telling me that magic was real, and that they wanted me – us – to go on an adventure and help them gather as much information about this awakening as we could. In less than an hour I had been promoted from petty thief to cartographer/adventurer, and all because I happened to sit next to a lady that could swing a bottle of wine the night before. I almost felt bad for stealing her bracelet. I figured I could always give it back.

Besides, if these bags were real, there was surely going to be more than enough loot to be had.

I looked back at Inara and I noticed she was still looking at the bird. After a moment, she glanced back at me, and we nodded at each other.

We were both in.