The Crossroads

The village had always been between.  In the beginning, Old Marie’s stories said, it had been a trading post, a depot connecting the waterways of Riverlands to the woods and mountains of the north.  Merchants and enterprisers would enter, transient but somehow still fixture, carrying lumber and pelts and cloth and ore. Sometimes they would pass through, sometimes they would return the way they came.  Those that called the village home did well for themselves in those days. They made fortunes in trade–anything they could want somehow found its way there from afar. And, of course, those plagued by wanderlust had no shortage of opportunity to escape.  All they had to do was jump in with the next caravan that came to town, and they would most assuredly see the world.

The War was not kind to the place, but even that was mitigated by its betweenness.  The village was far enough south that it saw the horrors of the roaches but still northerly enough that its people, broadly speaking, survived.  Its young men and women proudly aided the Harmony resistance in the Battle of the Ouroboros, and then they returned to a peaceful existence at their crossroads.  For a short time, things were as they were before. But soon, new wares began to make their way through the village, and with those wares came news.

It seemed Lord Ka had kept a secret from the world.  It was a stone, rough, heavy to hold, unimpressive to the eye.  But the power.  To the mystics, the magically inclined–no matter their inexperience–it was a sun.  At the fall of Bloodhull, soldiers of Harmony who had never once in their lives channeled mana held this stone–the Hellstone, as it came to be known–and felt that power, that gruesome possibility thrumming in their hands.  They said that Harmony destroyed the Hellstone, that its power might never be unleashed upon the world again. Some did not believe that story, but they missed the point. The Hellstone’s legacy was not its power–rather it was a realization: Such objects could exist, objects that would make gods even of petty fools like Lord Ka.  

The art of putting magic into inert things was not new–hedge mages had been quietly crafting oddities for centuries.  None had possessed such power as the Hellstone, but after its discovery, that hardly mattered. A plain man with ten or twenty weak but useful magical artifacts could play at the same superhumanity.  A new order was materializing then about a delicate but ruthless balance between mankind’s lust for power and a fear among the powerful that they may at any moment be devoured by those seeking their possessions.  In this order, the village, which had always been a crossroads, became a hub of a different kind of resource.

At first, the artifacts were simply commodities.  Merchants who previously sold spice or textiles would arrive at the village, carts laden with curios and magical knickknacks they had bought at a pittance from looters and refugees.  Most of them were useless: stones that would chirp birdsong when thrown to the ground, a silver fish sculpture that bled an endless stream of effervescent crimson from its eyes; but the ones that weren’t found purpose with alacrity, after one villager–Sam, the cooper’s son–was murdered in broad daylight by one of the merchants’ customers. The killer had used a pair of gloves that rendered his hands–and their activities–unnoticeable, and when he escaped the guards following this grim test of his new purchase, the proper merchants saw the signs.  Most left the trade. Many left the region entirely. Either way, the village saw little of them from then on.

Of course, lust for power and the knowledge that enabled it would never fade away simply for lack of sellers.  Even then there were those hovering at the fringes of civilization with fearsome arsenals and stores of wealth, willing to make very rich the one who brought them a means of surpassing their rivals.  But they were murderers. For all their wealth and power, everyone knew they were cutthroats, and no trinkets, no magical elevation could change that. It was no secret they would just as soon save their money and kill for what they wanted if it was an option.  What was missing was a class of trader capable of persuading them toward the latter.

It was Marko who solved this problem for the village.  He had always been a scoundrel, well connected in spite of his sclerosed reputation, surviving on his ability to find buyers for the occasional item the merchant overclass knew it should not have.  His arrival had been timely. In another era, Mayor Bergen would have had him jailed for one of his violent altercations, his lewd demeanor, any of his all-too-public vices; but with the village’s mercantile lifeblood all but vanished, Marko’s ability to sell the artifacts–which, for a time, looters were still attempting to offload in the village’s streets–saved the livelihood of everyone there.

The village remained between, even as the world had changed, between the abandoned manors and shrines of mages long dead, the looters that trawled them in hopes of a windfall that would raise them from squalor, and the elusive buyers that Marko sold to, petty thieves and killers made greater than they ever ought be by the panoply of lies they carried.  They called themselves gods, but that wasn’t precisely true.

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