The damp night air washed over Bleeding Wolf as he stepped through the door. It smelled sweet, like sugar mixed with smoke from the glimmering fire he spotted in the distance. He was cold, and the fire was a welcome sight. He hurried onward.
As he approached, he found the fire well-attended, crowded even, with the huddled figures of children sitting cross-legged around it. At one end, an old man gestured animatedly, his thin voice cutting through the soft background of gentle breeze and swishing branches.
“The kingdom was eventually destroyed,” he said. “The Dead Queen angered a power even greater than herself. But before our doom came, we had already escaped. A great prophet rose among us and led us into exile, in defiance of her tyranny. Do you know who that was?”
“The Cloudman!” a child shouted. Bleeding Wolf stared for a moment, having seated himself on the circle’s outer rim. For some reason, the child looked familiar, but he could not place exactly why. The old man nodded.
“Yes. Indeed. The Cloudman saw a path that no other did. He led us out of dead, rotting Khet and into the mist, into the sky. Where we would be safe.”
“Why did you leave?” the child asked. No. Not a child, Bleeding Wolf realized. It was Lan al’Ver. He took a deep breath of the saccharine breeze and looked up. The sky was pitch, starless–but also strangely cloudless. Something was wrong.
“We fell,” the old man said, an unsettling grin spreading across his face. A chill ran down Bleeding Wolf’s spine as he realized that every child around the circle was smiling as well, gaze set unblinkingly upon Lan. They said in unison:
“And even you couldn’t save us.”
Bleeding Wolf gasped, his eyes snapping open in the midday sun outside Brill’s shop. Next to him, wide-eyed and breathing heavily, was Brill himself. And before them was chaos:
Lan, seemingly the least perturbed in the scene, was covered in soot, vigorously dusting himself off. Before him was a corpse, unrecognizably charred, still visibly smoldering. Behind him, Orphelia and other bystanders seemed to be groggily emerging from the same trance as Bleeding Wolf.
“I am so sorry!” Naples exclaimed, catching Bleeding Wolf’s attention. The man was doubled over, sweeting, offset from the crowd just enough to have not been immediately noticeable. “That ending–the creepy turn–I don’t know what that was. It’s never happened before!”
“Two of you, then,” Bleeding Wolf growled, beelining for the self-described scholar. “That’s a coincidence I don’t trust.”
“Again, I’m sorry,” Naples said, catching his breath. “I’m not sure I foll–” He cut off with a gurgle as Bleeding Wolf grabbed him by the throat.
“I was taught not to trust mind mages,” he said, teeth bared and sharpening visibly before Naples’ eyes. “So far I’ve never regretted that advice.”
“That is–” Naples wheezed, “that is quite understandable, but I was just saving Captain al’Ver!” Bleeding Wolf looked over his shoulder.
“It was indeed helpful,” Lan said, answering the cue, continuing to wipe down his blade. He seemed otherwise disinterested in the altercation.
“And by-the-by,” Naples added, smooth hands gently attempting to pry Bleeding Wolf’s claws from his throat, “what do you mean by ‘two of us?’” Bleeding Wolf held his gaze for a moment, grip unmoving.
“Girl. Orphelia,” he said, maintaining his stare at Naples. “You know this one?”
“I think I heard his name!” Orphelia replied cheerfully. “It’s Mr. Nipples, which is kind of creepy to be honest.”
“It’s…Naples…” Naples gasped. Bleeding Wolf relinquished his grip, and the man stumbled backward, clutching his throat.
“Whatever your name, you have a lot to explain,” the beastman hissed. “What was this all about?” Naples coughed, massaging his throat for a moment before composing himself. He gestured to the burnt corpse:
“This dragonling had accosted the Captain and his ward–he’d started quite the incendiary mess, you see–” Bleeding Wolf’s eyes widened.
“Dragonling?” he interrupted. “The Blaze?”
“Yes, yes, well, the Captain had dispatched him by the time I intervened, but there was quite a lot of fire. So I harvested it–standard fire magic technique, I’m sure a mage like yourself would be familiar–but then I needed something to do with the mana, so I invoked a memory. My childhood–that’s what you saw.”
For all his experience, Bleeding Wolf in fact had very little knowledge of the practice of fire magic. But the scene in the street was beginning to draw a crowd, and while Orphelia seemed fixated on Naples’ explanation–and Lan much more interested in the deluge of ash upon his attire–the bystanders appeared to be looking to Bleeding Wolf, awaiting an interpretation of the stranger’s credibility, one he was…loathe to express. The man’s explanation for his unsavory skillset was plausible. Just as much as it was worrying.
Bleeding Wolf found himself nodding slowly, acceding that odd measure of public trust for which he found himself gatekeeper. For now, there were more concerning aspects of the situation to address:
“Why are the Blaze’s fuckin’ lizards starting fights here in broad daylight? This is supposed to be neutral ground!” As he said the words out loud, he registered their hollowness–and an uneasy whistle from Brill confirmed well enough that his doubts weren’t solitary.
“Perhaps a question for our erstwhile companion,” Lan declared, slotting his rapier back into his umbrella. “The miscreant was looking for Ty.”
“He didn’t clarify why, of course,” Naples added. “He really was quite rude all around.” Bleeding Wolf swore under his breath. He had meant to hold the monk to his end of the bargain, to pry out his secret when they had returned, but the fallout of the night before had taken precedence.
“Brill, let the mayor know the Blaze has broken the piece too. I have a Khettite to find. And you,” he turned to Naples. “We’re having a conversation when I get back. If you fuck with anyone else’s head, I’ll fuckin’ kill you.”