The altercation could have gone better, Bleeding Wolf supposed, surveying the bodies at his feet. If he and his companions had arrived sooner, had been better prepared, they might have been able to surround the mercenaries, force a surrender, stop the violence before it began. But to the extent that he prioritized the job and his own party’s safety, it had gone perfectly.
There had been five that marched into the clearing. They had worn white, Holmite capes and carried a characteristically motley assortment of mismatched armor and armaments of varying quality. They were likely Holmite citizens then, but not Holmite agents, which was just as well: Bleeding Wolf had little appetite for the political implications that would entail. Of the five, he had personally dismembered two. They…would not be standing back up. Lan had beat the shit out of another who had unwisely attempted to dispatch him with an axe, and Ty had kicked another in the head hard enough to knock her unconscious. Those two were still alive, though Lan’s victim was in bad shape. The girl’s was another story. Bleeding Wolf hadn’t witnessed the whole interaction himself, but he did see the end, as Ty wrestled her to the ground and the last mercenary hacked frantically at his own chest, trying ostensibly to remove his heart. Leaving the girl contorted in a fetal position, Ty had cut the man’s throat before he could finish the job.
“Well, that was splendid,” Lan said dryly, wiping his rapier clean and re-slotting it into his umbrella-shield. “I think I shall be off to a walkabout. See if these louts left any stragglers still on their way. Mind the poor dear, would you?”
“She’s the poor one, is she?” Ty muttered as the merchant walked off. He glanced down at Orphelia. She seemed to have calmed somewhat, but she was still horizontal, breathing slowly and clutching her teddy bear to her chest. Ty was keeping his distance from the girl, and Bleeding Wolf was of a similar mind. He felt no need to intervene in her coping process, and there were other pressing matters besides.
“See if he’s got any rope in there,” he said, gesturing to the bag Lan had left in the clearing. He unbuckled a pouch at his waist and withdrew a handful of herbs. “I’ll see if I can patch this one up.”
They worked efficiently, applying rudimentary bandages to the mercenaries’ wounds and tying them both to a tree. By the time they finished, Orphelia had mostly collected herself, and the three of them met up again beside their original quarry: the corpse of Bilgames, Hunter of Beasts.
“This the guy, then?” Ty asked. Bleeding Wolf nodded, suppressing the swell of emotions as the certainty of it resolved. It was…him. The enormous, musclebound frame, the long beard, the etched armor. It was just like the stories, just like the glimpses he caught decades ago through a crowd. But though the corpse was still in remarkably good shape for what had almost certainly been days of exposure to the elements, the job was still just as it had been advertised: The corpse was just a corpse, throat cut, unmoving, and they were there to loot it.
To that end, Bleeding Wolf noted that his earlier conjecture–that the tipster had already taken his cut–had been vindicated. In life, the Hunter of Beasts had worn an enormous lotus flower upon his chest, but where the flower ought to have been, there was only an indentation, an irregular cavity amidst the corpse’s musculature, framed by hundreds of tiny pinpricks, perhaps where the roots had entered his flesh. The stories were true, then. The flower was an artifact.
“Looks like the best has already been taken,” Bleeding Wolf remarked, gesturing to the indentation. “I think we’ll earn our fee if we can bring Marko the armor, though.”
“Is it magic?” Ty asked.
“Hell if I know, but it’s all he’s got left. Marko didn’t ask for anything in particular, right?” Ty shook his head. “Help me get these off, then. The bugger can figure for himself what his merchandise is worth.”
It took them little time to remove the heavy belt and vambraces, but as they set about the task, a deep uneasiness fell over Bleeding Wolf. At first he thought little of it. They were in the Bloodwood, it was getting dark, there may yet have been more mercenaries about, and they were looting the grave of his childhood hero. There was plenty to be uneasy about. But then he heard a rustle beyond the clearing, and the unease became material. He looked up, saw a flash of white, and the rustling receded rapidly. Dammit, he thought. Missed one.
“Keep an eye out. Run if more show up,” he growled to Ty. “I’ll be right back.”
He tore into the woods. He’d try to be less lethal this time, he thought to himself, but either way, they needed this one caught. If their group had spread out, if the party had only intercepted a portion of them, this scout could be bringing friends back. And given the state the first group was now in, they would be out for blood.
Except this scout seemed to be very fast, and–Bleeding Wolf noticed it quickly yet still too late–something wasn’t right. The trail he’d been following for lack of visual contact, the scuffs in the dirt, the trampled moss, the broken twigs and branches–it was not a trail made by a human, no matter what kind of hurry they were in. These footprints could not have been made by boots. The spread of shattered branches was much too large for a human frame. The deep lacerations into the bark of the trees–what could a Holmite scout have been carrying to have made those accidentally? All of these thoughts coalesced, collated in his mind just in time for the trail to abruptly end.
He slowed to a halt, listening, sniffing the air, straining his senses to detect any sign of…whatever it was he was chasing in the rapidly dimming undergrowth. At first there was nothing. The shadows were still, the air smelled of the forest’s pungent floor and little else. Then he heard breathing, massive, deafening, not ten feet away, and the unwelcome feeling that he had been outwitted, that he had been led here, began to settle in. Slowly, he turned to face the source of the breathing, and he froze, fear and awe mixing, cold in his chest, as he recognized the mask.
He fell to his knees. It was him. The Wolf of the Green, for whom Bleeding Wolf had taken his own name all those years ago. The Masked Wolf. The Masked Alpha.
In his peripheral vision, he could finally resolve the Alpha’s colossal frame amongst the shadows as the creature began to pace, its steps suddenly graceful, silent in spite of its incredible size.
“You followed in our footsteps, then,” came the rumbling words, seemingly from every direction, as the earth and trees resonated with the primal force of the creature’s presence. “You were eager. Do you understand where it has led you?”
Bleeding Wolf looked up to see the Alpha paused mid-pace, neck elongated and bent down to regard him. It was not poised to strike. It was…skeptical? He bowed again.
“I am not sure that I do, Great One. Please help me understand.” The Alpha remained motionless for what might have been minutes before the reply finally came:
“Two circles converge. One, a careful orchestration, pieces placed carefully, falling outward until all is in ruin. Our congregation was the instrument of its genesis, and the first among us has now fallen to it. The second is a gyre of passion and rage and lies. It draws all within, for it is of the Deep, and the Deep is of all. It is human, and for that I despise it, for it has long since consumed me.
“Your eagerness has brought you to a crossroads of ruin, too late to turn back, only chaos and ravening before you. But…” Again, the Alpha paused, and the forest paused with him, as if the insects, the birds, even the creaking branches were captive to its words.
“But perhaps you may prove yourself a successor. Perhaps your devotion might stem the rot and resentment and the Story-That-Hungers. If you think yourself worthy, then listen carefully: Trust not the girl, but help her to find her redemption. Beware the Second, but help her to find peace. And when His whispers drown out all else, do not be afraid, for Harmony compels naught without discord.”
With that, the Alpha fell silent, and slowly, tepidly, the subtle din of the forest began to seep back in. Crickets and cicadas resumed their sawing chorus, and a breeze blew through the canopy, and as the quaking leaves drowned out the Alpha’s rumbling breaths, Bleeding Wolf looked up. Around him was nothing but roots and leaves and dusk.