Before, when Cooper walked the streets of the Apartheid District, he did so with a head hung low in shame. He would avert his gaze and take no heed of the skeletal rags begging for coin. He did so not out of disgust, but out of fear. Fear that he was but one slip away in the stepping-stones of life from taking abode against a grime-soaked corner and partaking in the battle of pity; a hand held out so he too could receive coin to exchange for the only vice that ran true in these streets, Nepenthe – ‘The Quell of Sorrows’. He understood the potency of this drug all too well, for he too had been a thrall under its spell.
One vial was enough to force a person into a euphoric mirage, a dreamlike sequence that would last from dawn to dusk. It wipes your mind blank, allowing you to forget the hunger the tore at your belly, the cold the seeped into your bones, the pain the ached at your joints and replaced it with a prison of pleasure; drip-feeding you a constant source of bliss to wane your woes. To most, it felt like bathing in a warmth that existed outside of your understanding and turned your struggles into something incomprehensible.
Even now, Cooper would occasionally feel himself wanting to escape back into that realm of rapture – but, he refused. He was out, he had escaped and with his new role he would forever be free of temptation; and he walked alongside Jay-Dee with his head held high, near skipping with mirth as they exited the Apartheid District.
They talked little and walked briskly. Jay-Dee kept a flask tight to his lips and Cooper kept his lips tight, unsure of what to say as he held little opinion on things that mattered to most, and figured that silence was better than trite prattle.
They eventually passed Mariana’s patisserie, but did not enter. Cooper decided that the next time he would see her, it would be with coin and he would pay for the bread that he had received out of kindness many times before. And so, without saying a word, they progressed further onwards, venturing deeper into the Daimon District. And the further they ventured the more unfamiliar Cooper found his surroundings. He had not before a reason to travel this far – he had nothing to sell, nor buy and he was not of the ‘Named’, so surely he would have been shunned – but here he was, standing in the Daimon Plaza during peak time day-break, surrounded by a foray of travellers and not one gave passing glance towards him.
The Daimon Plaza was the centre of all trade within Hiberia and as so it was often buzzing with activities and sights to behold. Cooper found himself mesmerised by the busy patter of people around him; men and women walked the cobbled pathways, eloquently dressed in fine clothes and keeping to the shade offered by ornamental trees that lined the streets. Folk rested or found an audience in the crowds by sitting against park fences, decorated with twisting metals and separated by stylised columns. Carts like Cooper had never seen before travelled alongside these walkways, carts of metal and steam which propelled themselves with no cadence of hoofbeats but instead with a thrum of sputtering smoke and machinery. The plaza was a beautiful array of rich colours, from sandy browns of the stone architecture to the deep greens from the forestry and walking parks, all coalescing into a stylised centre of wealth and otherworldly attractiveness.
Jay-Dee continued further into the Plaza and Cooper trailed behind, struggling to keep up while cautiously weaving between the sea of people. Normally, he had no issues squeezing between tightly knitted groups as he had many nights of practice doing so in a busy tavern –
but with the Looter’s Scaffold on his back, he was still unaccustomed to his new dimensions, and he received a few reproachful protests from strangers who received an unceremonious thwack to their sides from the bulbous Scaffold. And as he turned to profusely apologies, others would fall victim to his Scaffold, which in turn would lead to a vicious cycle of Cooper turning to apologising, thwacking and apologising again.
After windmilling his way through the dense crowds, they eventually came to a clearing and Cooper found himself at the centre of a marketplace. The hubbub of hawkers haggling their wares from pop-up stalls filled the air; they offered fruits and goods, the smell of spit-roasted briskets scented the air – others displayed shimmering metals of weapons and armour, medicine shows enticed crowds with vanity flares and promises of youth, artisans tinkered with toys and trinkets, miners mingled meddling with ores and tools, all accompanied by the rhythmic dulcet tones of the merry banter from buskers near.
Cooper suddenly felt both captivated and exposed amongst the dense and boisterous crowds. Instinctively, he put his hand on his coin purse which rested by his side; for what little coin he had, he cared very much for and he did not want it to fall into the wandering hands of those around him.
Jay-Dee immediately noticed Cooper’s suspicious eyes and his tight grip around his purse.
“You have no need to worry,” he said, “You could spill one hundred gold coin pieces right here on the ground, and you’d be the only one picking them up.”
“Seems a little unrealistic,” Cooper said, cautiously loosening his grip.
“From whose coffers do you think your coin originates from?” Jay-Dee replied with a slight scorn to his voice, “For these’ns, coin is just a commodity. It’s only useful for as long as they want it to be. We’re the ones who have a need for it. They’re the ones who give us a need.”
“Lighten up,” came a voice from behind and Cooper turned to see Anna walking towards them. “You can grumble all you want when you’re old, rickety and rich,” she said, speaking between gritted teeth while dragging behind her a large sack that rubbed and rasped against the ground.
Following alongside Anna was Ifri, paying attention only to herself and a skewer of glazed meats that steamed in the morning chill. She nibbled along its length, taking small and delicate bites with a face full of content.
“Lookin’ good, Coop,” Anna said, releasing her grip on the sack – the contents of which tumbled and clanked as they settled. “I’m sure it wasn’t easy getting that Scaffold on ya’. Jay-Dee seemed adamant that he was the only one who knew how to assemble it, so I’m glad to see he wasn’t talkin’ a load of shite.”
“Well, actually—” Cooper began to say, but was quickly interrupted by Jay-Dee.
“—Are those my rocks?” He asked, gesturing to the sack.
“Indeed. Sourced from only the finest stonemason in the district, as you asked – you never warned me how heavy they were going to be, though.”
“I could not have known. And the Runes?”
“Inscribed, exactly as directed.”
“Why do you need a sack of rocks?” Cooper asked.
“To kill things,” Jay-Dee replied. “Anna has her daggers, Ifri has her bow… And I have my sack of rocks.”
“Ah – yes, of course,” Cooper said, “The sack of rocks. The most potent of weapons – second only to the bundle of sticks.”
“Mock them all you want,” Jay-Dee replied. “You’re the one who’s going to be carrying them.”
Cooper let out a hefty laugh and he looked to the group, expecting the others to join in. But, instead, he was greeted with only still faces and unamused glances.
“Oh,” he said, as the realisation dawned on him, “You can’t be serious now, are ya’? Why the fuck am I carrying that? Look at the size of that sack! We haven’t even started yet and I’m already going to be over-encumbered. Can’t you just use a normal person’s weapon? Or,” Cooper continued, entering the third stage of grief, “If you’re really that passionate about them, maybe just take a couple of your favourite rocks? Some of the prettier ones, perhaps?”
“Respectfully,” Jay-Dee said, no longer carrying his usual fanciful mannerisms but instead adopting a more serious tone. “You don’t get to have an opinion on the matter. We hired you to carry our items and loot,” he continued, “You are to relieve that burden off from us so we can delve deeper into the World Tower. That is your only purpose, and if you’re going to complain about it – then you are not fit for the job.” Cooper felt a strange ominous wave of unease wash over him, and for the first time, he noticed just how intimidating Jay-Dee truly was, especially when coupled with his scarred face.
“Even though what he is asking of you may seem senseless,” Anna spoke with softer inflections, her tone affable, and patient, “On this rare occasion, I do agree with Jay-Dee. If you are not happy with the situation, we can release you from your contract. And, you can keep the new outfit; we won’t charge you.”
There was a lull in Cooper’s mind. He felt as if he had just been reprimanded by his mother – and made a fool of himself. He, of course, had no intention of leaving. But, he considered that perhaps he had been a little too lax with his opinion of his role, and was determined to show otherwise.
“No,” he said, “I apologise. I overstepped my boundaries and I will do my best to carry all that I can – if I can just ask for some help with hooking the sack to the Scaffold.”
“Of course,” Anna replied.
She removed her satchel from her back and handed it to Ifri, asking her to hold it temporarily. And just as Ifri extended her hand – a sudden unseen force struck them both. It bludgeoned their chests and swept them off their feet, knocking them up wildly into the air. They both fell to the ground with a sickening thud, landing with a puff of dust.
Cooper and Jay-Dee scrambled to their sides, unsure of what just happened and watched as Ifri shot up to her feet, scanning the immediate area. Anna struggled to find her breath, gasping and clenching her stomach. Cooper noticed that Ifri’s skewer of meats was missing, as well as Anna’s satchel.
“The map,” Anna wheezed, “It was in the satchel!”