The Crossroads, Chapter 20: A Plan for Three Fronts

“Regrettably, the boy has been missing for two days now,” Mayor Bergen said, hurriedly scribbling in a ledger.

“Just as well,” Gene replied, arms folded.  “We ain’t handin’ a kid over to that thing.”  The scribbling stopped, and the mayor peered over his spectacles.

“An interestingly sudden loyalty to the little thief,” he observed, to Gene’s obvious consternation.  “I hope this didn’t kill the negotiation outright?”

Bleeding Wolf leaned against a chair in the mayor’s meeting room as the argument unfolded.  The Ben Gan Shui did not want Devlin per se.  She wanted to know what was wrong with him, and if she could not examine him herself, Bleeding Wolf could do so by proxy:

“Search the boy,” she had said.  “His belongings, everything.  Especially that which he clutches dear, that which he hides.  I predict you will find something familiar.  Deliver me your observations when you do.”

“She said she can help us put up a defense,” Gene said, evidently declining to share that detail.  “But we gotta provide the iron she needs to build it.”

“What sort of defense?”

“An army of them-there…”

“Constructs,” Bleeding Wolf clarified.  “She agreed to build us a controllable army if we supply her with iron.”  The mayor let out a heavy sigh and set down his ledger.

“She controls these devices herself, does she not?” he asked.  “Has it occurred to you that she may intend to simply build herself an army at our expense?”

“Obviously,” Bleeding Wolf replied.  “She promised us the exclusive means of control, provided we don’t take it apart and that we keep it well clear of her.”

“Upon her word?”  Bleeding Wolf shrugged.

“I should be able to sniff out the mana flows on the device.  Figure out if she’s retaining any keys she didn’t tell us about.  But for what it’s worth, I’d say her word is actually worth something.  She doesn’t seem to care for most people, but I get the sense she dislikes lies even more.”

The mayor held his gaze for a moment.

“Very well,” he said.  “That’s one of three fronts, anyway.”

“Three?” Gene asked.

“Yes.  The Ironwood is one, the Blaze himself is another.  And unfortunately, Marko’s recent operation in the Bloodwood has opened up a third.”  Bleeding Wolf started.

“What?!” he roared.

“Oh, yes,” the mayor said.  “You were involved in that, weren’t you?  Perhaps you will be able to help me sort out this mess: A Holmite delegation arrived while you were away with an accusation that our people slaughtered a group of theirs in the Bloodwood.  Is this accurate?”

“Passingly,” Bleeding Wolf muttered.

“You murdered our allies, then?”

“They shot first.”

“I expect you will also offer the excuse that it was scav work, and these things happen, yes?  We already made it that far without you.  Their concern is that regardless of the misunderstanding that prompted all this, the result was not mere injury: Their entire group was wiped out, the bodies were not returned, and no mention of it was made.”

“You’re telling me you want scav mercs doing diplomacy now?” Bleeding Wolf asked both angry and incredulous.  “Not to mention that story ain’t right.  We let two survivors go.”  Mayor Bergen frowned.

“That’s something that ought to be worked out, then,” he said.  “I can’t say I blame you for failing to execute a protocol that doesn’t exist, but if Holme is tired of the lawlessness of the roads–at least the lawlessness between us–I don’t disagree with them either.  I think it’s time to make some rules, and since it is their citizens dead and not ours, it will need to be on the back of our apology one way or the other.”  

“There’s…some sense in that,” Gene said, nodding.

“And it’s pragmatic,” Bleeding Wolf added begrudgingly.  “If we need iron, Holme is going to be the supplier.”

“I’m glad we’re on the same page, gentlemen.  I’ll ask you to attend when I meet with the delegation next, but I have another appointment at this time.”

“With who?” Gene asked.  “Marko?”

“No.  The Crossroads has hired a captain for its militia.”  Gene’s expression soured.

“What militia?” he asked.  The mayor looked up at the sound of a knock at the door.

“We’ve decided to expand the peacekeepers,” he explained, rising to answer it.  “We need a way to ensure trade is not disrupted by incidents like the one at Marko’s, and with all this trouble on the horizon, I’ve little doubt we’ll find other utility for it besides.”

“Dammit, boy!” Gene yelled, walking after him.  “I told you!  You’re going to far, and the town won’t stand for it!”

“Actually, Gene, they will,” Mayor Bergen said, whirling, a suppressed venom surfacing in his tone.  Bleeding Wolf moved to restrain Gene, but the old man stopped himself at the mayor’s sudden turn.  “I put it to a vote,” the mayor continued.  “Brill and Marko made your case as eloquently as it deserved, I think, but the Crossroads wants security that your force of will just won’t provide.”  The angry sneer falling from his face, he turned and opened the door.

“Apologies, Mayor Bergen,” the woman in the doorway said.  “If we need t’reschedule, I’m amicable.”

“No need,” the mayor replied.  “Please come in.”

The woman who entered the mayor’s house, this new captain of the new militia, radiated an aura of unease, and Bleeding Wolf wasn’t the only one to notice it.  Gene caught his outrage in his throat as she stepped into view, and the mayor himself seemed to give her a wide berth, even as he welcomed her inside.

“Ah, y’must be the returnees from the Ironwood,” she said, adjusting the red shawl that hung loose over her mail shirt.  “Gene the blacksmith, I presume?”

She reached out her hand, and Gene, still somewhat bewildered, shook it.

“And that means you’re Bleeding Wolf o’the Green,” she continued, offering her hand to Bleeding Wolf as well.  “I’ve heard much about’ya.”

“You have the advantage of me then,” he replied, reaching out to shake it.  “I can’t say I know your name.”

“It’s Atra,” she said.

In Bleeding Wolf’s experience, mages tended to make their magic known within a significant radius of themselves, usually well before their capabilities became relevant.  It wasn’t because they were necessarily even doing anything with it–rather, a mage’s grip on mana channels was a difficult thing to release, and those who were capable of drawing from them tended to do so reflexively.  It was like a muscle they strengthened but had little conscious control over.  It was why Orphelia sweated her awful sugar-mana everywhere within blocks of her, why Ty, Devlin, and Naples each had their own characteristic stink.  Bleeding Wolf did it himself, and he’d learned to look out for it as an early warning for trouble that might not otherwise have been visible to an untrained eye.

But very occasionally, he would come upon a mage in his travels who could exercise some control over the reflex, either through study of elusive metamagic or sheer talent.  He didn’t really know how they did it, but none of them had been the type of person he’d wanted to ask.  In fact, he had quickly found reason to get away from them with all the haste he could manage, which was why, as he grasped Atra’s hand, and her otherwise magically inert presence sparked, blinding his magical sight and flooding his senses–though only for a fraction of a second–with smoke and fear and the smell of charred, rotting flesh, he flinched, and every hair on his body stood on end.

“Ah, sorry, friend,” she said cheerfully, examining the palm of her glove.  “This leather is mighty scuffed, prob’ly not the softest touch.”

Bleeding Wolf and Gene exchanged a few more guarded pleasantries with the newcomer before excusing themselves, abandoning the argument Gene clearly still wanted to have.

“You alright, Dog Boy?” he asked as they walked away.  Bleeding Wolf was not.  His head was swimming, his stomach was unsettled, and they were not safe.

“Just to be clear, Gene,” he said, expending some effort to form the words.  “Atra.  She’s trouble.”

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