“Show yourself, mage!” Bleeding Wolf shouted into the night, to the clear alarm of both Gene and their villager guide. He knew that sugary stomachache of a smell, and he’d had far beyond his fill of it in the past few days. But no mage appeared, and, gradually, the scent of magical delusion faded into the background of the Riverlands’ humid mudstink–and this particular village’s pervasive bouquet of rust and seed-oil.
“We bein’ watched?” Gene asked, breaking the silence. Bleeding Wolf shook his head.
“No. Not anymore.”
“Travelers, please,” the guide woman interjected. “The emissary’s dwelling is here, but you do not have much time. The night’s offerings are to begin soon, and the Ben Gan Shui does not like delays.”
“Thanks for showin’ us in,” Gene replied as Bleeding Wolf approached the house she had indicated, a small hut on stilts at the end of the village, nearest to the woods. “I’m sure we can adjust our schedule if need be–pardon, now.” Bleeding Wolf heard the old man hobble to keep up behind him but made no comment. He walked up the steps and rapped on the thin, wooden door.
“Enter, strangers,” came the faint voice inside. Bleeding Wolf obliged.
Inside, the hut was almost entirely unfurnished. Bare, gapped wooden floor met bare, gapped wooden walls met sparse, exposed rafters below the poorly-thatched roof. The only objects of note inside were five lamps: four positioned in a square around the room, the last before a thin woven mat. Upon the mat was the “emissary.”
The rumors had prepared Bleeding Wolf for the sight of the man–though he noted Gene’s grunt of consternation with a kernel of satisfaction–but from the perspective of a mage accustomed to altering his body, seeing one of the “metal men” in person was fascinating and revolting in equal parts. The creature before them was not simply a machine in the shape of a human–quite a bit of human remained actually. Rather, Bleeding Wolf realized, this man’s anatomy had been reengineered in a thousand discrete strokes of genius. On his face, gear wheels so fine as to appear almost a continuous surface turned, modulating facial expressions in smooth, uncanny shifts around exposed metal teeth and moist human eyes. On his arms, metal plates only half-covered the arrays of pistons fused to his tendons, which flexed as he opened his hands to bid his visitors inside. And within his chest, Bleeding Wolf heard a steady-smooth wheeze, more like bellows than the twitching thump of a heartbeat, distorted by the whir of flywheels but lively, somehow, in its strange way.
“Have you also come seeking rebirth?” the metal man asked, his voice resonating behind his motionless teeth.
“Fuck no!” Gene shouted, shattering the otherwise eerie silence in the hut. “We’ve come to talk to yer witch lady ‘bout her attack on the Crossroads.” He stamped the butt of his halberd into the floorboards to accentuate the message, though the metal man remained perfectly still. Even so, Bleeding Wolf could hear a measured increase in the tempo of his mechanical circulation.
“She does not generally accept invitations to entreat,” the metal man said after a moment. “But I will confer with her.” With that, the man began to emit a piercing mosquito-whine, so loud that Bleeding Wolf instinctively clapped his hands to his ears. Gene grabbed him by the shoulder, muttering some concern he could not hear over the din, but within a few seconds it stopped.
“The fuck was that?” he roared.
“You just freaked, Dog Boy,” Gene whispered. Bleeding Wolf looked back, realizing that the old man had not heard anything at all.
“It is unusual for humans to hear the frequencies we use to communicate in the Ironwood,” the metal man said. “But I am told that some beastment can perceive the raw signals. I imagine the sound is unpleasant to hear without a decryptor.” Bleeding Wolf spat.
“Decryptor? What are you on about?”
“I am afraid you would not understand without rebirth. But it seems my intuitions were wrong. My master is intrigued that you would approach her. She asks whether you have brought the boy.”
“What? This isn’t abou–” Bleeding Wolf reeled as another burst of high-pitched sound blasted through the room. “Fucking stop that!” Then, as the whine quieted once more: “If she’s intrigued, let us talk to her directly.”
The gears on the man’s face twisted into an expression similar to a frown.
“That is an unusual request,” he said. “I advise you do not conflate her interest with a promise of safety.”
“Yeah, well, consider it conflated,” Bleeding Wolf shot back. “We need to talk to her, and I’m done doing it through these fucking screams.” The metal man’s body shifted into a pensive posture.
“If you like, you may accompany the travelers who are seeking rebirth tonight. If my master is amicable to your request, I do not doubt she will beckon you in as well.”
“Yeah, fine,” Bleeding Wolf said. “Whatever.” The metal man nodded and then, in a continuous motion, rose to his feet. As he moved to the door, he turned his head to speak:
“I often tell those who come here that my master likes people in the way that some people like clocks. You should keep that thought in your mind. Come.”
The pistons in the metal man’s legs hissed rhythmically as he led them from the hut to the doorway of the building next door. Three particularly wretched humans emerged from it–a blind man, a cripple, and a man who Bleeding Wolf supposed was not technically a leper, though the amount of death on his skin meant he might as well have been–and joined their procession as they headed out of the village, through the tall, damp grass, toward the woods.
The sky was bright enough for the Ironwood to be visible, if only as a dark spot against the stars on the horizon, but Bleeding Wolf found if offputting how rapidly the sounds of the Riverlands–the trickle of water, the screech of crickets and cicadas, the scattered hoots and bird calls–abated as the approached the locus of dark. And it wasn’t replaced with nothing. The chorus that seemed to well from the ground, the hum of metal vibrating, the whistle of steam through an aperture, the respiration of some unseen metal beast of gargantuan proportions, repeating in rhythm: bengan-SHUI, bengan-SHUI–it was like being digested, he thought. Except he understood digestion as it satisfied hunger. Whatever this metallic digestion served, it wasn’t any hunger he knew.
Eventually, some hundred feet from the trees, the emissary raised a hand, bidding them stop. For a moment, they waited there in the dark, in what Bleeding Wolf was sure the rest thought was silence. Then the metal man turned and gestured to the cripple. Wordlessly, she hobbled forward on her driftwood crutch. Once ahead of them, she stopped, reached into a pack under her shawl, and withdrew a small, wicker doll. She held it outstretched in her one, open hand, balanced precariously across her crutch. She held the position for a minute, two minutes, occasionally glancing back to the emissary, though he offered neither encouragement nor interpretation. Eventually, the crutch slipped in the mud, and she crashed to the ground. Sobbing silently, she heaved herself back onto her good leg, hung her head, and hobbled away, back in the direction of the village.
The metal man turned again, this time signaling the blind man vocally:
“Go now, sightless one.”
The blind man stepped forward, surprisingly surefooted on the uneven, wet ground, and presented a small, metal bauble–a pocketwatch, Bleeding Wolf guessed–on his palm. Again, the cavernous breathing of the Ironwood persisted for a moment, but this time it began to ramp, to intensify. And then, in the looming shadow of the trees, lights began to dance. They were soft, blue and white, multitudinous. Bleeding Wolf could not make out any particular source for any of them, but they seemed to be everywhere–behind the trees, on the forest floor, wavering between the tops of branches. As the humming of the forest approached an almost melodious crescendo, he heard a whisper, not meant for him, vanishingly faint, distorted and in the accented dialect of Old Revián, but certainly there:
“Very well. Come forward.”
The blind man’s shoulders slumped with relief, even as the corners of his mouth tightened with apprehension, but whatever the mix of emotions he felt, he obeyed, clutching the price of his admission to his chest, and walked on into the tangle of lights and shadows. As he disappeared between the trees, the hum faded and the lights dimmed, and the four of them who remained were returned to darkness and the ominous breath of the wood.
Exactly as before, with no acknowledgement of the previous display, the metal man turned and gestured to the last beggar, the infected man, who stepped forward with a surge of bravado. He held out–practically brandished–a small, alabaster figurine. Bleeding Wolf recognized the object, or at least its kind: It was a token of the Holmite faithful that hierarchs used in rituals when travels took them far from their city. They were, in fact, magical, though he couldn’t say what exactly it was they did. As before, the woods remained dark for the ensuing moments, but this time the creaking sound of the Ironwood made no orchestral rise. The dark stretched on, and with each moment that passed, the infected man’s confidence withered more and more into angry disbelief.
“Don’t you know what this is?” he muttered under his breath. “Your man said you wanted magical. That’s what this is!” The Ironwood remained indifferent to his objections, but that seemed only to incense him further. “Don’t you know?” he asked louder, taking another step forward. “Don’t you want it?!”
He broke into a full stride toward the wood, repeating his questions with increasing desperation. He made it maybe a third of the way there before something lurched from the ground behind him and Bleeding Wolf heard the familiar, slick staccato of a heart being punctured.
“He had been informed of the master’s rules,” the metal man said, as if to preempt his guests’ reactions. “He knew the boundaries she would not cross, but he decided to cross them himself. Hopefully his flesh will serve a more prudent purpose.”
As the emissary spoke, the shadow before them which had impaled the infected man began to approach, looming much taller than its sudden appearance might have suggested. As it did, Bleeding Wolf began to take note of the limited portions of its anatomy that the moonlight reached. Its form seemed myriapod, similar, he assumed, to the accounts of a great silver centipede that Gene had relayed to him, but the descriptions of the cowled invader at Marko’s theater had not mentioned the uncanny anthropomorphism of the creature’s thorax, the featureless mannequin head that adorned it, or the seemingly human arms that ended in hinged, mantid sickles.
“You may leave us, Philip,” the creature said in a brassy, cacophonous voice, not unlike the pseudo-music that had responded to the blind man’s offering. “I will begin my parlay here.”
Without a bow–or even a gesture of acknowledgement, the emissary departed, leaving the two of them alone in the moonlight with the creature. After a moment, the voice returned from behind its featureless faceplate:
“It is only upon your arrival together that I have realized: Neither of you is unknown to me. It is a rare boldness among your kind to respond to violence with…questions. I had expected your colony to send a mob to die here, but you wish to speak with me instead. Fitting care for survivors of the Ouroboros.”
“That’s pretty far back,” Bleeding Wolf said.
“And yet.” The tones that interlaced in the creature’s voice, framing its words, trilled high and icy. “I have cataloged every moment, every vision of that day in media far sturdier than human brainflesh. I remember both of your faces at the vanguard of the reinforcing army.”
“You were there too?” Gene asked. “Fightin’ the–”
“There is no need to honor the monster’s sobriquet in my presence. I was there, indeed. And the bond of our momentary alliance has earned you your safety tonight. If you would discuss your colony–your ‘Crossroads’–then I will listen. Come.”
Its multiplicity of legs stabbing wetly against the ground, the creature coiled and turned, skittering toward the wood. Bleeding Wolf glanced at Gene, noting the old man’s teeth were grit with unease.
“Come on,” he muttered. “Don’t get the impression she’s a liar. Too many rules, too many codes.” Gene nodded, following reluctantly.
Somehow, even as they entered the shadows of the wood, and the moon and stars above disappeared from view, the world around them only seemed to grow brighter. As they clambered over roots and past hanging branches and foliage, light seemed to emerge in cool glows from beneath roots, the opposite sides of trees, filtering through the canopy in hues that seemed almost–but not quite–like moonlight, until their environment and the creature leading them both were perfectly visible in the faded gloam. This was an oddity, of course, but it was not nearly as odd as the particulars of the forest that it illuminated. Despite a patina of dirt and debris clouding their surface, the trees and roots they navigated through had a noticeable trace of artificial sheen. They weren’t comprised of bark and wood, Bleeding Wolf realized. “Ironwood” was literal: The trees were, themselves, metal. A stray root clanked as Gene bumped it with the butt of his halberd; a hanging vine jingled as Bleeding Wolf brushed it aside, and all around them, the Ironwood’s respiration took on visual salience as bursts of steam escaped intermittently from knots in the trees or hoses he could now see coiled around their trunks.
Eventually the dense undergrowth before the creature opened to a large hollow between a pair of roots, and it stopped its skittering advance.
“Proceed,” it said, rotating its head to face Bleeding Wolf. “I will speak to you within.”
His shoulders hunched, he descended into the hollow, Gene in tow. It was far darker than in the midst of the wood, but with few options but “forward,” he found the entryway easily enough. Inside was a long, cramped hallway that reminded him somewhat of a mineshaft. It was made entirely of earth, save for intermittent metal struts, though it was much thinner than any mine he had visited, scarcely wide enough for him to face forward without brushing his shoulders against the walls. Sconces hung periodically from the ceiling provided dim, blue light all down the hall, which Bleeding Wolf could now see sloped downward, heading deeper into the earth. He descended, his unease deepening as well with every step.
As they walked, they would occasionally pass iron doors embedded in the sides of the hallway. They were unmarked, and though they had no visible lock or keyhole, none of them would open. However it was that the Ben Gan Shui organized her sanctum, she clearly had no interest in making it legible to outsiders. Bleeding Wolf couldn’t exactly blame her, though it gave him a disturbing sensation of being funneled along a pipeline, of being processed. For some reason, it jogged a memory of the War, when the forces of Harmony set about dismantling the Bloodfish’s residual network of camps and depots, when it came to light the way he had mechanized the process of gathering corpses, dismembering them, shipping them down the river as charnel and back up as roaches, new, mindless pseudo-soldiers to be used as fodder for conquest. From what the witch said, she was on the other side, on Harmony’s side, but there were echoes in her system, similarities to Ka’s buried evil that made Bleeding Wolf wonder what exactly that old fight had meant to her–and what that meant for him in this moment.
The blue light of the hallway gave way to chromatic chaos as the two of them stepped out into a large chamber, lit in even measure by the blue sconces along the walls, blinding white spotlights dotting the ceiling, and orange firelight blasting from a row of furnaces in a far corner. The cavernous space was littered with tables and workbenches, some actively in use by mental men similar to the emissary–to Philip. Some were littered with metal, wood, and other detritus, at whose origin Bleeding Wolf preferred not to speculate, and others were piled high with paper and parchment, scrolls, and codices. The furnaces seemed to be outfitted for metalwork, and they were manned by smaller steel creatures with spherical bodies and arrays of spindly legs that granted their simplistic anatomy a surprising degree of both agility and dexterity. As he considered them, Bleeding Wolf realized he had seen a metal sphere just like these sitting, inert, outside the emissary’s house in the village. Perhaps the witch’s influence over the place was even more direct than he’d realized.
“Godshell,” Gene muttered breathlessly. “Haven’t seen anything like it since–”
“Yeah,” Bleeding Wolf agreed. “But best keep the bastard’s name off your tongue. I don’t think she’s fond of the topic, and she can definitely hear us.”
“You are a perceptive hiveling.”
The voice was barely above a whisper, but it somehow cut through the workshop’s roar, magnified, Bleeding Wolf assumed, by some artifice, though the effect was subtler than the centipede’s earlier vocal symphony. Its directionality was clear as well. Bleeding Wolf and Gene both looked to its source: one of the workbenches, like all the others, at which a small, hunched creature clad in folds of black cloth perched atop a tall stool. Cautiously, they approached.
The figure seemed to be occupied with a thin sheet of steel, passing an appendage that looked almost like a dead tree branch over it, producing streams of blinding white sparks. Opening senses beyond his sight, Bleeding Wolf recognized that the sparks were mostly mana, with the distinctive char of fire magic. More disturbing, though, was the way the branch-appendage resolved as he watched the channels of power flow through it: It had the form of a human hand with fingers split in two at each knuckle, for a total of twenty subfingers, each operating with some degree of autonomy to cut the metal beneath it.
The creature’s face had the vague shape of an old woman’s, it’s compacted and gnarled features retrofitted–or perhaps imitatively built–with unwrinkled, flawless skin, which Bleeding Wolf guessed was not, in fact, made of any kind of actual flesh. Her mouth was held shut in an emotionless grimace, and her left eye projected outward from her face, split–like her fingers–into an array of oculi on telescoping rods, several of which turned as the two of them neared.
“You have earned yourselves a rare experience,” the Ben Gan Shui said, her mouth barely mumbling, though it did not seem to distort her words. “None before you have seen this place, save the reborn.”
“It’s a great honor,” Bleeding Wolf said without enthusiasm. He could admit that the look into the inner workings of the place was dreadfully fascinating, but his sense of danger was far too heightened to feel at ease, let alone to converse on the topic.
“Why’d you attack the Crossroads?” Gene blurted. A plume of sparks shot up from the bench as a corner of the metal sheet fell from the edge, only to be snatched out of the air by a hand that darted from between the folds of the witch’s cowl. Bleeding Wolf noted with some consternation that this, like the one splayed and sparking across the table, was also a right hand.
“I wanted more data on how you work,” she replied, handing the piece of metal scrap to a passing legged sphere. The spider-like creature clasped it delicately between three of its thin legs and skittered off toward the furnaces, as the witch drew her second right hand back within her cowl. “It seems your colony is stable enough, though I suspect your survival may nonetheless be owed to symbiosis with the Sculptor rather than any exceptional resiliency.” Gene grunted angrily.
“We were resilient enough for you, weren’t we?” he spat. The sparks stopped for a moment, and several more oculi turned upon Gene.
“Oh. You think I am insulting you. Rest assured, I am making no such appraisal of your worth among humans, though one must wonder if ants too perceive some sense of pride or injury in the economics of their survival.” Gene stared at her, his rage waning in confusion. The sparks began again.
“You wanted to know…how we work?” Bleeding Wolf asked. He had not arrived expecting equal treatment by a False God, but the complete lack of malice in the Ben Gan Shui’s responses put him off guard.
“Yes. I was well aware of your colony’s social place in our vicinity, but I wished to know your inner workings. I wished to know how you would stop me if I attempted to take your stockpile.”
“Is it not obvious?” the witch asked, turning her oculi back on her work at the table. “We are neighbors. Most projections of the future would have us either connect on friendly terms or conflict on unfriendly ones. I am loath to do either with an entity I do not understand.”
“And did you think that attacking us wouldn’t accelerate one of those two outcomes?” Bleeding Wolf asked, framing his accusation as cautiously as he could. The sparks stopped once again, and though the witch remained focused on the table–Bleeding Wolf could see now that the product of her cutting, a vast collection of tiny gears, was arrayed there–he thought he saw a hint of a smile at the corner of her mouth.
“Did you think I cared which eventuality we came to?” she replied. “And besides, you are here now, parlaying. Let us consider where circumstances have taken us.”
Bleeding Wolf took a deep breath and looked back at Gene. The old man’s head was clearly spinning. He looked mad, but he also seemed to grasp that they were getting somewhere.
“Fine,” Bleeding Wolf said. “We’ve come to propose cooperation. We have reason to believe the Blaze is headed south from the Gravestones, and you’re in his path just as much as we are.” Another arm–this time a left one–emerged from the Ben Gan Shui’s cowl, its fingers disjointing as well with a rapid series of clicks. With her now forty visible limbs, she began rearranging the gears on the table in the shape of a distorted face.
“I can aid your colony with this,” she said pensively. “Cooperate. There are things I would ask of you in exchange.”
“We can give you yer pick of the stash you were tryin’ t’steal,” Gene growled, clearly not happy to make the offer but seeing sense in it nonetheless.
“I am not interested in your collection of baubles.”
“There are other things you harbor. Things of much greater interest to me. The boy who was there the night of my visit–tell me about him.”