Thock, thock, thock.
“I’ll give ya a gold piece for the lot, plus your time,” Marko muttered, massaging his temple. He seemed to wince each time the sound of the apprentice’s hammer rang through his office.
“A gold piece for the armor of a legendary hero?” Ty asked. “That’s it?” Marko growled and reached for a steaming, herbal-smelling cup on his desk.
“Yeah,” he spat. He took a gulp. “Ya got a buyer who’s paying more?”
“Ya feel like breaking our contract, then?”
“Our contract was that you’d pay fair value!”
“What, that ain’t fair?” Marko snorted. “Does it do anything special?”
“I don’t know,” Ty said, “but coming from the Hunter of Beasts–”
“Well there you have it,” Marko replied, clutching his head. “You don’t know what it does, might be nothin’, I’m payin’ less ‘cause I’m the one that gets to find out. It’s called speculation.”
Thock, thock, thock.
Bleeding Wolf rolled his eyes as the “argument” went on, vaguely wondering if this routine had worked on any of Ty’s previous dealers. The Khettite knew what he was doing–no way he’d been in this line of work for more than a job and hadn’t figured out what Marko was telling him–but a gold piece was fair, Marko knew it, Ty knew it, and Bleeding Wolf was growing impatient.
“Ey, Marko!” he called out, interrupting Ty’s fourth or fifth objection, to another visible wince from the dealer. He gestured at the splintered entryway: “The fuck happened here?”
“Disruptive customer,” Marko grunted, taking another gulp of his brew.
Bleeding Wolf chewed on that, noting the bandage around Marko’s arm.
Thock, thock, thock.
“You…lookin’ to do something about that?” he asked. Marko glared at him.
“Not yet, Dog Boy,” he scowled. “Keep in touch.” He glanced back to Ty. “We done here? I’ve got unconsciousness callin’ my name.” Ty sighed:
“Fine. One gold piece.”
“Ah, sorry,” Bleeding Wolf cut back in. “There was one more thing.” He rummaged in his belt pouch as Ty took a step back, eyebrow raised. After a moment, he withdrew the fiber Lan had cut from the Hunter’s corpse. Despite the full night’s travel, its vibrant green had not faded, and in the shadows of Marko’s office, the faint glow it gave off was clearly visible.
Marko considered clipping, raising the cup steadily to his lips. Perhaps too steadily, Bleeding Wolf thought. The dealer’s eyes had widened, his posture ever so slightly stiffened, and if Bleeding Wolf was not mistaken, the man’s pulse had picked up just enough to hear. At last, Marko spoke:
“Ten gold pieces.”
“Twenty,” Bleeding Wolf countered.
Bleeding Wolf flinched, to Ty’s visible concern.
“Dammit,” he muttered, climbing up to Marko’s stage to make the exchange.
“Best not beat yourself up,” the dealer said, counting gleaming coins into a pouch. He slid it to the end of his desk. “I wasn’t speculatin’ on that one.”
“Got a buyer already?” Bleeding Wolf asked through a forced smile.
“Ain’t your business,” Marko replied coolly, watching Bleeding Wolf exchange the fiber for the pouch. Bleeding Wolf raised an eyebrow but offered no further reply.
“You see, the reason Ka’s eastern flank was unassailable at that point was because Le Marquains had an established alliance with Ali’Khazan of the Barabadoon, probably the most influential warlord in Hazan at the time…”
The man’s–was his name Naples?–voice droned on at the other end of the makeshift infirmary in the apothecary’s shop, no doubt fueled in enthusiasm by Lan’s intermittent, excited outbursts, but Orphelia didn’t follow, let alone care. Her attention was on Devlin, curled, shuddering, unconscious on the cot before her. He looked even sicker than when she’d left him the previous morning, his face gaunt, his wrists and elbows bony and protrusive, dried mucus and blood caked over his cracked lips. Despite the sweltering temperature in the room, he still shivered, and his forehead was cool and slimy.
“You must be his sister.” The voice came from behind her. She turned, hunched, to see the apothecary, the wizened person Lan had referred to as Brill, approaching from the swaying curtain that marked the divide between the infirmary and the rest of the shop.
Orphelia nodded but kept her mouth clamped shut. For a brief moment after their return to town, Mr. Ruffles had broken his silence to issue a warning: The Crossroads would become interested in them, in the Bad Stuff, and she mustn’t let them know. She didn’t know what Brill knew already, what it was okay to say, whether it was okay to say anything at all.
“Have you heard then?” they asked. “He saved the whole town.”
“What? How?!” she blurted, surprise momentarily overtaking her trepidation.
“A monster tried to break into Marko’s stock last night. Your brother helped fend it off.”
“Is that why he’s not waking up?” Brill frowned.
“I do not believe so,” they said. Orphelia found it strange that she could not tell whether the apothecary was a man or a woman, but she found their voice calming nonetheless. It wasn’t parental–perhaps she was thankful for that?–rather it felt like a sort of pragmatic compassion, and it put her at ease in spite of Mr. Ruffles’ warning. “Actually,” Brill added, “I was hoping you might shed some light on the source of his illness. Do you know when this all started?”
There it was. Orphelia consciously shut her mouth, her eyes, shook her head for a moment, thinking before she spoke:
“No…a few weeks ago, maybe.” The tears welled in her eyes, one rolling down her cheek. “We were with a caravan when he got sick.” It was an acceptable performance, Mr. Ruffles assured her. They would tire of questioning soon.
“Do you perhaps know whose caravan it was?”
Orphelia sobbed again and shook her head. Brill considered this and opened their mouth to press further, but it was at this moment that Orphelia’s deliverance arrived, and Bleeding Wolf stepped through the infirmary curtain.
“Ah, al’Ver, there you are,” he said. “Got coin for you. And Brill, a word.”
“A pleasant surprise as always, Bleeding Wolf,” Brill replied sardonically.
“Yeah, yeah,” the beastman muttered. “Sorry. Yesterday was a rush. Still need to talk to ya.”
“Very well.” Brill glanced apologetically down at Orphelia, but before they stepped away, an angry look flashed across their face. They turned on Naples. “You!” they shouted across the infirmary. “I do not recall giving you invitation to recline here. Your talk is–I would surmise–of little help to my other patient. Please recuperate from your questionable decisions elsewhere!”
Naples shrugged aggressively and glanced among the infirmary’s other occupants in search of defense, but finding none, he adjusted the bandage on his head and, dejected, left the room. Brill sighed and followed Bleeding Wolf beyond the curtain into the main shop, and Lan, easing himself from the empty cot where he’d playacted Naples’ attentive audience, sauntered to Orphelia’s side. His demeanor seemed carefree, but as he reached her, his expression grew suddenly forlorn. He knelt by Devlin and took the boy’s hand.
“Please, Sister,” he whispered, slipping a dirty, iron ring from the boy’s finger. He placed it on the table beside the cot. “Let the child rest.” Orphelia threw her head back in mock affront, objecting:
“Mr. al’Ver! I am not your sister! How informal!” Lan turned to her, his face overtaken by a mischievous grin.
“My apologies, Miss Orphelia, I forget myself. But quick, we must away! An encounter is close at hand, and I am ill-inclined to leave it to chance! He swept out of the room, and Orphelia, bewildered but heartened, made to follow him, taking one more glance at Devlin before she did. Mercifully, his breathing had calmed and his shivering ceased, and for the first time in weeks, she felt truly reassured.
“What’s this business about an attack last night?”
“You’ve heard already, then,” Brill sniffed.
“Just the bare bones. Marko was tight on details.”
“I wonder, then…”
“Wonder what?” Bleeding Wolf asked.
“The…thing that attacked. It was clearly one of the False Gods’ abominations, but not any handiwork I recognized. It was an eight-foot-long centipede, anatomical liberties notwithstanding, wearing a cloak, walking upright, pretending to be human. Except…”
“Except there wasn’t a bit of flesh on the thing. It was entirely steel, a machine.” They paused. “This familiar to you?”
“The witch of the Ironwood,” Bleeding Wolf muttered. “I’d never seen substance for any of the talk, but there’s scattered rumor down south of a mage-monster who lives in a metal forest near the Junction. They call her the Ben Gan Shui.”
“She makes metal monsters?”
“Guess? The rumors say she can turn a man to steel, make ‘im immortal. Metal bug monster seems within the realm of possibility. But then…fuck.”
“We brought back a trinket, likely similar to the Hunter’s flower, and Marko bought it off us. Said he’d already found a buyer.”
“I don’t follow, Bleeding Wolf.”
“I was kind of hoping the witch was his buyer. It was too little and esoteric for anyone small-time, and my list of False God tinkers isn’t long.”
“The Sculptor, then?”
“No. It’s a plant that strengthens flesh. He would need stone to fit in somewhere.”
Abruptly, both turned to the door as an eruption of shouts poured in from the street.
“What the fuck?” Bleeding Wolf growled.
“You are looking for a Khettite?” Naples repeated to the hunched, hooded figure. “Well I’m sorry to say you may be at a historical disadvantage. The kingdom of Khet fell centuries ago when the Blood God of Kol took power, and–”
“They ssay you arrived on the ssame boat.” The figure’s voice was guttural and whistling, and Naples had to conclude he didn’t care for its tone. No, he wasn’t going to be helpful here, he decided. He continued his pedantry:
“I certainly didn’t arrive with anyone from a place that doesn’t exist. And I’m afraid I did not interrogate my traveling acquaintances regarding their heritage. In my opinion, we’ve come together here in the Revián, and in this way we are all Riverlanders in this place.”
The creature expressed a noise between a grunt and a hiss, and beneath its threadbare cloak, Naples caught sight of a bandaged fist, clenched in frustration. He considered whether it might be prudent to cut this conversation short–before that fist were to be propelled at his already tender skull–but the apothecary’s door opened behind him before he could make a decision.
“Ah,” he said, noting the emergency of Captain al’Ver and the urchin girl. “If you are so interested in the circumstances of my arrival, then I should introduce the gentleman who conducted me. Captain–”
The figure had already turned to al’Ver, shambling rapidly, unevenly past Naples.
“Boatman,” it growled. “Tell me where I might find–”
“Yes, yes, the Khettite, Ty Ehsam,” al’Ver said, drawing a rapier from the handle of his umbrella, to a look of perhaps-feigned shock from the girl. “Tell me: What manner of cowardly creature art thou to threaten innocents in the street for these questions? In broad daylight, no less!”
“That iss none of your concern.”
The figure had barely finished speaking when al’Ver lunged, catching the hood of its cloak on his blade. The escalation caught Naples by surprise. He was no stranger to scuffles, of course, but Captain al’Ver had not seemed the type to strike first. But then the hood, sliced at the crown, fell to either side of the stranger’s head, and Naples caught up to the Captain’s intent.
The creature’s face was a bizarre, careless distortion of human anatomy. Its skin was blackened unevenly by burn scars, the top of its cranium squished low and smoothed, marked by irregular–presumably decorative–bone spurs jutting through its flesh in the shape of horns, and its jaw had been pulled forward and fashioned in the shape of a snout, suggesting an overall reptilian appearance. It was an abomination–in the technical sense, of course, clearly a product of magical experimentation by an unhinged mind. But in this case, if Naples was not mistaken, he had had a pretty good idea of which unhinged mind that was: This individual was a dragonling of the Blaze.
Snarling, the creases in its scarred flesh alighting like embers, the dragonling leapt at al’Ver, who rebuffed it with the explosive unfolding of his umbrella. As it reeled backward, the Captain calmly swiped a nick across the creature’s snout, sending flecks of black blood across the street. Naples noted expectantly that the blood burst into flames where it landed.
“WHERE ISS HE?!?” the creature shrieked. “WHERE ISS THE THIEF?!” Wild-eyed, it turned to the girl and leapt again, arms outstretched, the boney claws adorning its fingertips now fully visible. Al’Ver stepped between them, sword raised, shield braced, and before Naples could call out what he realized might be a…relevant warning, the dragonling had fallen on al’Ver, impaling itself on his blade.
The girl screamed. The Captain grit his teeth. The creature belched liquid fire onto him, its burning blood pouring for good measure down the hilt of his sword, onto his arm. And Naples took a deep breath. Perhaps he would be helpful here after all.
He reached out, felt for the hungering violence of the flame, surrounded it, drank of it. All of it. Too much, too hot, but it must be gone in the end. And then it was in his gut, in his heart, rising, fighting to burst from his mouth, boiling the nerves behind his eyes. It had to go. He exhaled, channeling the death the only way he knew how. He started with a campfire.