Loba was starting to get bored. She had been sitting in this goddamn forsaken bar for the whole of thirty minutes and if there’s one thing she truly despised, it was waiting. And the awful smell of cheap whiskey and stale beer that had been permeating from the floors and walls were not doing any good to her mood.
What a dump, Loba thought. There was a jukebox right at the corner looking like it’s in the last stages of its life. Most of its lights were either broken or missing, and the sound coming out from it was as muddled as it looked. The chair she was sitting on, as all the others scattered across the floor, were old and rickety, and she didn’t want to know when the table she had her elbow on was last wiped down. She hurriedly lifted her arm in disgust.
Across the bar was a smattering of drunk patrons mostly minding their business, but the woman who had been bartending had been giving her looks ever since she walked in. Maybe if she wasn’t so preoccupied, she would have given her the time of day.
Sighing, she tapped her fingernail on the small card stock in front of her, dragging it towards her with furrowed brows. The written message was clear; she was at the correct place and she had arrived at that right time, yet it seemed like the person who sent it was a no-show. Although the fact that this message was slid under the door of her apartment—one of her multiples—and had known where she was staying exactly was enough to send her to this blind meeting. It was dangerous, she knew, but more importantly, she was intrigued. The weight of a small pistol strapped to her body at least made her feel safe.
She was about to stand and leave when Loba’s body suddenly went taut. She felt someone come up behind her, somehow managing to sneak past her watching.
“Leaving so soon?” She heard a man say. Something about his voice made her body shiver. She reached for her gun discreetly.
“Aw, no need for that tonight. No one’s gonna hurt you here.”
Loba kept track of the sound of his footsteps, eyes to the side, waiting. She let herself breathe when he continued to walk to the spot in front of her. The first thing she noticed was that he was tall, a foot more than her, maybe more. He had this certain hardness to his eyes, like it had already seen too much. His hair was a dirty blonde, cropped short at the top and shaved at the sides. He was wearing a fitted black suit without the coat, and his vest was a blood red hue.
Everything about him was disconcerting.
“The famous Lone Wolf ,” he said finally, gesturing to her as he took the seat in front of her. “I’m—“
“Late,” Loba said, almost instinctive. She crossed her arms as she leaned back on the chair.
The man only laughed in reply.
“My apologies. I understand that you should never make a lady wait. Especially one such as yourself.”
Loba waited but the man didn’t offer any reasons for his tardiness. He just kept on smiling at her like he knew something she didn’t. Loba hated it.
“Would you like something to drink? We have a fine assortment of spirits, reserved only for the special ones, of course.” He winked, moving to gesture for the bartender. Only then did Loba realize that they were alone, save for the other woman. Loba cut him off before he can call her.
“I’ll pass,” she said, growing increasingly annoyed at the display. “What I’d like to know is why I’m wasting my time here.”
The man smirked. “Very well. The name’s Kaleb Cross.” He extended his hand for a shake.
For a second, Loba wondered if it was a good idea to accept it.
She still did in the end. She did have manners.
“Loba Andrade. But I’m sure you already know that.”
“Why of course! Your reputation precedes you, Miss Andrade. But I didn’t call you here to talk about your infamy. I’m here to discuss a proposition.”
For the first time that night, Loba laughed, and a real one at that.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Cross,” she said as she stood, finally having enough. “I‘m sure you’re a fine man, but I never do business with a Revenant .” She smirked as she tapped at the spot near her right wrist before pointing towards Kaleb’s own. There was a small imprint of a skull on his. Barely visible, but not invisible to Loba’s trained eyes. She was glad that she shook the man’s hand. "Have a good night."
She turned to leave but Kaleb apparently wasn’t done.
“This is where you’re wrong, girlie . I’m not a Revenant, I am the Revenant.”
The arrogance made Loba scoff. “I don’t see where it makes a difference, Mr. Cross. I don’t care if you're the head guy, I don’t work with the likes of you.”
She eyed him from head to toe and scowled, turning to head for the exit when she heard the distinct sound of a briefcase being unlocked.
“Maybe this can change your mind.”
Loba half expected to face the muzzle of a gun once she turns back.
Frankly, she would have preferred that rather than the trap that she willingly submitted herself into.
Loba sighed as tapped her fingernails against the kitchen counter, phone pressed to her ear. In front of her sat a wooden cube in a padded case, deep ridges and lines covering all of its faces. It was stained with age—a couple hundred years according to the Revenant scum—but also perfectly preserved. She was skeptical at first, but the moment she held it in her hand, she knew it was real.
Pick up. Pick up. Pick up.
“Jaime, I need your help.”
There was a clattering sound on the other line followed by a series of curses.
“Fucking hell—Loba?! You’ve been silent for days! I thought you were dead!”
I might as well be , she thought to herself.
“I’m fine,” she waved off, trying to sound nonchalant. “But probably not for long if you don’t help me.”
Jaime went quiet.
“You’re scaring me,” he said after a beat. “What happened in that meeting?”
Her eyes immediately went to the wooden cube in front of her.
“I may or may not have accepted a job—”
“That doesn’t sound so bad—”
“From the Revenant himself.”
The line suddenly went dead. Loba furrowed her eyebrows as she checked her phone, dialing again when she saw that it was fine.
“Jaime, did you hang up on me?”
“What—No! I, uh, I dropped my phone,” he said, apologetic. “But Loba! Kaleb Cross?! I thought you hated the Revenants?”
“Don’t be dramatic, Jaime. Of course I hate them. I just,” Loba paused, closing her eyes tightly as she rubbed her forehead. She’d been dealing with a pounding headache ever since she’s taken the job.
“You just can’t resist, can you?”
Her resulting groan made Jaime chuckle.
“Can I ask how much they’re paying you?”
Loba’s headache intensified. “Fifty million,” she whispered, almost painfully.
Jamie went silent again. She heard a series of taps and a bunch of typing on the other end.
“I don’t like this, Loba,” he said as the typing sounds continued. “That’s a lot of money. Whatever it is that they want you to do, I’m sure they’re gonna kill you first before they’ll ever need to pay you.”
“Do you think I don’t know that?” Loba hissed. “This is why I need your help, Jaime. I need to make sure that I won’t be murdered prematurely.”
She heard Jaime sigh.
“Alright. Tell me what you need.”
The sun was already in its highest by the time Loba had arrived at the secluded cabin. She could see her friend already waiting by the porch, leaning on the doorway with their arms crossed. Despite the dark, circular glasses covering most of their face, Loba could see their small smile from her car’s windshield. She took the small box tied with twine sitting beside her on the front seat, and patted for the briefcase she hid under it before exiting the car.
“It is nice to see you again, Loba Andrade.” They greeted as soon as she was in earshot, voice a little rough from unuse. Every pause was prompted by the need to take a breath.
She met Blódhundr a few years ago; the search of an artifact leading her to their small cabin in the woods. Their knowledge of everything old had proven to be an invaluable asset.
Blód, as Loba had taken to calling them, was an old soul. Often it came out with their distinct way of speaking. Their face had been disfigured, small scars littering the edges of their jaw and forehead, concentrated towards the left side of their face. Their left eye was white, left blind by the damage. An accident when I was young , Blód had told Loba once, shared with a sad smile through labored breaths. Their weakened lungs were another casualty, Loba deduced. She never asked about them again.
“Hello, Blód,” she called back, presenting the small box in her hand with a flourish. “As promised from before, I come bearing gifts.”
Loba let them take the box before accepting their greeting, right hands clasping each other’s forearms in a firm shake.
“Ah, you never forget.” They gave her forearm another squeeze before gesturing towards the door. “Come, let us share the midday meal.”
What an unlikely friend , Loba thought to herself, smiling as she followed them inside the cabin.
The meal was a quiet affair. Blód had made good use of the spices that Loba brought them, immediately adding some of them to their cooking. When they finished, Loba had insisted to help clean up but Blód was having none of it.
You are my guest, please let me be hospitable, they had said, teasing.
Nothing much has changed in Blód’s home. It was predominantly decorated by animal bones and fur–hung on the walls, draped on chairs and covering the floor boards. A mix of old and new trinkets lined the shelves, some hung from the corners of the room in strings. Loba eyed a familiar wooden carving of a wolf on a far wall, a gift she had once given them before from a trip abroad.
Large opened windows served as the main source of light during the day, while a number of candle and gas lamps were scattered around the room for use at night. Blód did have a peculiar relationship with technology, selective as it was, because they still enjoy some of it especially in the kitchen. There had been a palpable weariness around some of them, as Loba had observed for the past few years of their friendship, perhaps the product of their disfigurement.
“I believe there is a more important reason for your visit,” Blód finally said when they finished washing up, leaning back on the sink to face her. They took a shallow breath before continuing. “Jaime’s message was… cryptic.”
Loba grimaced. Her eyes flickered towards the briefcase she left on the table before facing them. “Yes, but I’m afraid we need to talk about this in private .”
Even with the dark, circular glasses covering their eyes, Loba knew they had understood.
“Very well. Please retrieve your belongings and follow me.”
With the briefcase in hand, Loba followed Blód further into their cabin. It wasn’t big but the hanging furs concealed a lot of doorways, making it difficult to navigate. Finally reaching the backside, she watched Blód kneel on the floor before rolling up the fur carpet to reveal a metal door hatch and a security panel filled with symbols instead of numbers.
She turned around to give them a little privacy, turning back when she heard the metal hatch open with a hiss.
The stark contrast between Blód’s living quarters and the secured monstrosity they hid beneath it was astounding. It wasn’t Loba’s first time in the basement but it never failed to leave her in awe. The sight of it always left her inner thief silently weeping at the wasted opportunity of breaking in. She once asked Blód in letting her try. She was only met by an uncharacteristic, wheezing laugh.
The iron wrought spiral staircase creaked as they descended. She took careful steps, making sure that her heels were planted fully on each step before taking another one. She followed Blód down until they reached the bottom, waited until they opened all the lights to reveal the whole room.
One would never think that anything like this would be hiding underneath a simple log cabin, but Blódhundr was a keeper of history. Their basement stretched far exceeding the walls of the upper house, encased in a combination of metal, brick and wood. The walls were equipped with floor to ceiling shelves, sectioned off in temperature controlled cubicles to preserve their contents. Blódhundr had amassed an impressive collection of old books, even older writings on non-paper materials, maps of the old world and new, and a good assortment of artifact and relics that were acquired both through legal and questionable means. Loba did contribute to some of them at some point.
Not everyone knew about Blódhundr and their knowledge, but they were highly respected by the few who did. Some have tried to rob them; they’ve all died even before they reached the cabin doors.
Loba continued towards the middle of the room, resting the briefcase on the well lit table. Blód had gestured for her to wait as they disappeared behind a series of shelves. When they returned, they were wearing a portable respirator mask.
“Please,” they gestured for Loba to sit on the stool, voice now muffled but their breathing much better. “Now we may discuss freely.”
Loba nodded as she took the briefcase towards her, unclasping it open before turning it towards her friend. “I’d like for you to tell me what you think of this.”
Blód kept quiet, only the sound of their breathing audible. Now that their mouth was covered by their breathing mask, Loba could no longer gauge what little of their expression she could see. They stood there for a while, unmoving, before gesturing for the wooden cube.
“May I?” They asked, ever polite.
“Please. Go ahead.”
Loba watched them hold the cube carefully, almost reverent. They turned the artifact in their hands, inspecting each face with a calculated move. Their fingers followed the deep grooves and indentations from end to end, turning the cube to follow the continuation across every corner. They felt for the raised bumps and symbols, studying each one closely.
“This is old,” she heard Blód say through their mask. “Older than the others you have brought me. Older than some of my collections. One of the forgotten ones.” Slowly, they returned the cube on the foam slot in the case. “Where did you find it?”
“A vile man gave it to me,” Loba answered with a grin.
“And what does this vile man want in exchange?”
“They told me it was a map.They want me to find what it’s hiding. For a fee, of course.”
Blód only hummed in reply. They kept staring at the cube for few more beats before looking at her. “They couldn’t find it themselves?”
The innocence behind the question made Loba laugh. “I believe they don’t have the brain capacity to search out for clues and hidden messages.”
Blód nodded in understanding. “You are probably right,” they said, still sounding a bit distracted. They had their attention focused solely on the cube, and Loba was starting to get excited on what’s to come next.
Suddenly they stood, telling her to stay where she was before disappearing amongst the shelves.
When they reappear, they were carrying a leather binder in their arm, and a small liquid container wrapped in a rag. “They were not completely wrong about the map,” they said, placing the objects on the table in front of Loba.
Carefully, they took their glasses off, folding the arms before placing them at the corner of the table. They then reached for the cube, turning it in their hands close to their face as if looking for something–as if seeing something Loba couldn’t. She kept herself quiet, not wanting to disturb the genius at work.
“The people who crafted this cube, worshipped nature,” they began speaking, as if in a trance, eyes still tracing invisible patterns across the wooden cube they were holding. “They knew their lands, studied them by heart. They cared for the forests, the rivers, and all living things. They were a small populace, and nothing much have been known about them, not even their name, and only a few things have been recorded when the remains of their people and culture have been unearthed.”
Blód reached for the binder blindly, pulling out an old cloth parchment from it. They let their eyes linger on the cube for a few more seconds before returning the artifact in the case. They pinned Loba with what looked to be an amused gaze. “But what the general people know is not the same as what I know,” they said, almost arrogant.
“My past studies about them have taught me some things–that they were fond of mysteries and its machinations. They were also hoarders. Since they were a small group, they tended to keep and hide most of their treasures behind riddles, away from invaders and foreigners that know nothing about them. But when they failed to expand, their secrets perished with them.”
Loba watched them spread out the sizeable cloth parchment on the table, smoothing them out with a careful hand. They pulled a translucent sheet next, placing it on top of the first one that Loba could now see as an old, fading map of a vaguely familiar land. Blód reached for something under the table and light suddenly flickered open from underneath. The drawn details of the map now looked a lot clearer against the backlight.
“What kind of treasures?” Loba asked as she watched them trace the outline of the old map on the translucent sheet with a thin lead.
“All kinds–grains and seeds for planting, pottery, clothing. Art? Precious stones, perhaps? Gold? We may never be sure, as none of their caches have been found, only ideas and vague mentions on unearthed literature. But we know now for sure that they exist. Thanks to this cube.”
“Now, this map was copied from one of the drawings found inside a jar at the site of their civilization. I believe this was what the terrain had looked back then, back when most of the nature was undisturbed.”
Blód had urged Loba to stand closer to them, showing all the quick details that they have managed to etch in aside from the general outline. Loba could see the symbols for what seemed to be for mountain ranges, lakes and long rivers. There was a specific one that looked oddly familiar–a symbol of a single tree, noticeably bigger than the others.
She watched as they opened the small liquid container next, tipping it over the rag slightly until a dark colored liquid made a small spread on the cloth. They took the cube next and showed Loba a specific face that they had been looking at previously. There at one of the corners, was the same symbol on the old map, a single big tree.
“Do not worry, this ink will not damage the wood,” Blód said as they lightly placed the cube face down on the rag, coating the raised ridges with an even amount. They then brought the cube towards the newly traced map, with Blód carefully lining up the identical the symbols on the cube and the sheet. Loba finally understood what was happening when they pressed the inked cube on the translucent surface.
It wasn’t perfect, but the stamp had revealed a series of converging lines, a starting point and a pathway.
“The cube is not the map,” Blódhundr finally said, quite proudly. “It is the cipher.”
Loba let her friend lead her outside, stopping at the porch for a proper goodbye. She had with her the briefcase and the rolled up tracing paper with the completed stamped cipher.
“I am confident that Jaime will be able to translate this to the current topography. The technology he is using is fearsome for me, but it is quite astounding,” Blód said slowly, now without their breathing mask. They clasped her forearm with a small smile on their scarred lips.
“I can’t thank you enough for this, Blód.”
“You can thank me by being careful, Loba Andrade. I look forward to sharing another meal with you when you are done with your mission. Perhaps you could bring me interesting things when you get back?”
Loba nodded as she stepped off the porch, giving them another wave when she reached her car. She pulled out her phone as soon as she sat on the driver’s seat.
“Jaime? I need you to hire me some muscle.”