The Crossroads, Chapter 12: Calls to Disadventure

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?”

“No–”

“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.

“They dead?”

“No.”

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.

“Done.”

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…”

“Hmm?”

“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.”

“What?”

“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.”

“Then…oh no.”

“Yeah.”

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.

The Crossroads, Chapter 11: Security Considerations

Been dealing with other aspects of life for some time, but hopefully getting back into the swing of semi-regular updates.

“Do you know what it was after?”

“Nah,” Marko spat, wincing as Brill pulled a stitch closed on his shoulder.  From the other side of the table, John Bergen, mayor of the Crossroads, stared half-lidded, annoyed and unimpressed.

“What would it have found in your office had you not stopped it?” he ventured.

“None of your business.”  The mayor sighed and glanced between the others in the room, probing for reactions–Gene, arms crossed, leaning against the wall; Michel and Anita, the peacekeepers, standing at attention by the door; Brill, focused on his stitches, but not so focused that he forgot to turn his head, avoiding the mayor’s withering scrutiny.

“Brill, you have a key to the back room, don’t you?” Brill looked up, nearly dropping his needle.  It was confirmation enough.  “Would you kindly provide it?”  Brill gulped as Marko interrupted, slamming the table with his uninjured arm:

“I said it’s none of your business!”

“He’s right, boy,” Gene grumbled.  “You’re oversteppin’.”  The old man didn’t mean it unkindly, but the mayor bristled anyway.  It was endlessly frustrating to him that the elders refused to lead but still insisted on ramming their fingers through the spokes of his solutions.

“I do not intend to seize any property,” he clarified, staring Brill down.  But since your patient has decided not to help in the effort, I would like Michel to take a look and help me estimate what portion of our town has just narrowly escaped ruin.

“John…” Gene cautioned.  The mayor placed a hand flat on the table and turned to the blacksmith as slowly as his anger would permit.

“I’m not so young that I don’t remember what happened fourteen years ago, Gene.”

“What?”

“The last time Marko’s stockpile was attacked,” he intoned.  He turned on Marko.  “Hazani scavengers found the cave up north where you were storing your acquisitions.”

“What of it?” Marko shot back.  “It wasn’t even a setback in the long run.”

“Yes, but the short run was a year long.  A year you didn’t have the funds to purchase inventory.  A year your credibility was damaged by the exchanges your ‘non-setback’ made impossible.  A year our three largest trading companies plotted routes bypassing the Crossroads, directly to Holme–do you recall, Marko?”

“I do,” Marko growled.

“Do you recall that during the food shortages we experienced that year, one in five of us died or left?”  Marko practically snarled but did not reply.  The rest of the room had fallen silent.  “The key, Brill,” John said.

Before the apothecary could react, Marko stood, sending his chair skidding backward and tearing the needle from Brill’s fingers.

“Oh, fuck you, kid,” he rasped, moving to rip the thread from his shoulder just as Brill intervened, cutting it free with a hastily produced pair of scissors.  “I took precautions after that, I gottem now, I’ll add some more fuckin’ precautions right fuckin’ now if it’ll help you sleep at night.”  He paused, turning angrily back as he reached the door.  “Long as you keep your damn nose to yourself.  Gene, send your apprentice by me tomorrow.  Door needs fixin’.”  And with that, he stormed out.

A quiet moment passed before Brill, prompted by a pointed look from the mayor, begrudgingly rummaged the key from his pocket.

“You probably don’t have much time to use this,” they said, placing it on the table.  “He’ll be booby-trapping the place as soon as he gets back, no doubt.”

“I can head over now, sir,” Michel offered.  John shook his head.

“No need.  Marko answered the question well enough.  Tonight was indeed a closer call than we can afford.”  He reached over and picked up the key, noting its ornate design and filigree handle.  “This isn’t your work, right Gene?”  The old man leaned over the table, squinting.

“No,” he confirmed.  “It ain’t.”

“An artifact, then,” John said.  “He won’t be able to change the locks very easily if that’s the case.  I’ve no doubt we’ll find a use for it soon.”

“Whaddya mean, ‘we’, John?” Gene asked.  “I don’t like this one bit.  It’s bad precedent.”

“Marko isn’t like the rest of us anymore, Gene.  He’s too important.  You and Brill, you’re the backbone of this town, and I will always be grateful for what you’ve done for us.  But dead things have backbones too.  Marko’s trade is our lifeblood, and we can’t pin our livelihood on the dubious solace of his paranoia.”

Gene considered the argument for a moment before gritting his teeth and flicking the table in frustration.

“Do you disagree,” John asked.  Gene huffed:

“No.  I agree.  Still don’t like it.”  The mayor turned.

“Brill?”  The apothecary sighed.

“I sympathize with  your position, John,” they said.  “I understand what you are trying to protect, and I’ve given you that key to use as you see fit.  But I would have you understand that when we are finished talking here, I will be visiting Marko to advise him of what transpired and how he might protect his interests in spite of it.  I am his friend, or the closest he has to it.  I think that has its own importance in your web of incentives.”

The mayor grit his teeth but said nothing, regarding Brill silently until the apothecary, ascertaining that their point had been made, turned timidly to leave.

“Brill,” John muttered, grasping at the last thread he could think of.  “Do you know where you stand in the end?”

“With the Crossroads, of course,” they replied, before making their exit.  The mayor thought about it for a moment, nodding to himself as the others waited for a reaction.  Gene pushed away from the table, snapping him back to reality.

“Gene, before you go.  The boy.  What was his role in all of this?”

“Ain’t sure, but I don’t like it either,” the old man grunted.  “Barely coherent, sicker’n anyone I’ve seen since the war, but he shambles into the square and hits the thing with some kinda spell.  Stunned it just long enough for Marko to pin it down.”

“Do we know where he came from?”

“Nah.  Showed up with a caravan two weeks back.  Think he goes by ‘Devlin’, but that’s all I’ve got.”

“I’ll look into it.  Goodnight, Gene.”

Constellations

Getting back out of my house once more.

“You might try then, as I did, to find a sky so full of stars it will blind you again.  Only no sky can blind you now.  Even with all that iridescent magic up there, your eye will no longer linger on the light, it will no longer trace constellations.”

-Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves

The problem is that you think a constellation is a picture.  You see in the Night Sky’s plumage an unknowable design–but merely a design, to be studied for meaning, for intent.  But would you study it for its use?

A pair of points makes a line, and each line is a connection, yes, but also a barrier, a demarcation separating one side from another, a within from a without.  And in the Night Sky, millions of lines, millions of walls become a vast, shining labyrinth, home and prison to Existence’s greatest shame and most inexorable inevitability.

When the Night Sky first dreamed the world into being, he had yet to look upon it.  As he did, the multiplicity of his subconscious vision greeted him: the earth, the forests and fields and seas, the creatures, the first gods and their Magics, and yes, of course, mankind.  But beneath it all, a second greeting, singular, arose from the darkness.  It was Hunger.  It was Lack.  It was Cold.  It was Freedom.  It was Song and Promise and Desire, All That Was Not, All That Should Have Been, All That Might Yet Be.  The humans gave it many names–the Minotaur, the Wendigo, the Voice that whispered and sang in the night–for it hunted and devoured them with a cold and unfathomable tenderness.

To spare the rest of his dream, the Night Sky sealed the darkness in the space between the stars.  Its whispers would not be silenced, and its hunger–the hunger of all creation–would not be sated, but for a time, none could heed its call.  They would look skyward and be saved, struck senseless by the vast array of beauty and light.

The Maze in the Mists

Slight change of pace. This is the introduction for a new setting I’m working on for the Rale universe. Credit to Kelsyn for the original concept.

You have been walking this road for some time now.  It is an unremarkable road, unpaved, trodden uniformly by an infinity of unrecognizable footsteps.  All around you is mist, itself unremarkable for its familiarity–you’ve been living in it for longer than you’ve been walking the road, after all.  It is everywhere in this place: blanketing the fields, suffusing the woods, wrapping the scattered towns between in its damp embrace.  You suppose you can still remember that there was a time without the mist, but the specifics elude you.  All you remember is this:

You were a soldier once.  You and your companions.  You no longer know who you fought, what you fought for, or where, but by the time you stopped you had nightmares.  Bad ones.  The kind that woke you not screaming but frozen, paralyzed by the notion that whatever you had been running from in your sleep had crossed into the waking world.  It was there with you, standing over you, behind and to your left, just out of your peripheral vision, breathing heavy, deafening.  You could feel the rancid condensation of that breath on your forehead as that nameless creature reached down and caressed your hair with dirty fingers and whispered:

“Why would you do that?”

Whether you could answer the query is moot–you can’t anymore.  You never told anyone about the nightmares, save your companions, and you all agreed it wasn’t the sort of story anyone would want to hear.  The war stories, though?  The ones that preceded the nightmares?  Those you traded away gladly for the means to sleep soundly again.

That was the thing.  This place in the mists operated by different rules.  The people here had different wants, a different economy.  When it came time to pay for your meal, your provisions or board, they did not ask for coin.  They asked for a story.  And when you told it to them, it was gone.  It was no longer yours.

Not all of your stories were horrible.  The good memories you traded for fine food, company, and wine.  The solemn ones you traded for fresh clothes or flint.  The everyday occurrences, the uninteresting daily nothings weren’t worth much, but in a pinch you found they bought you attention, an ear to listen as you vented your increasingly formless rage.

You learned ways to make your stories last.  You could tell only a single side of a complex tale, embellish banalities, omit details that you could cling to for a while longer.  Sometimes it worked.  Most often they would see through you, not that they minded.  You were still offering a story of sorts, and it was still payment.  A falsehood was just worth less than a truth, and what you bartered for was measured accordingly.

As time passed, as you walked the road, you grew poorer and poorer, and you remembered less and less.  Sometimes you were able to trade your labor for someone else’s story.  Sometimes your travels and choices and happenstance allowed you to forge your own anew, but too often you found yourself giving away more than you got, and now…well, now you have been walking the road for some time.  You don’t remember the last time you saw anything but the dirt and the mist and the imprints of travelers before you.  But, of course, that could be for a number of reasons.

The Crossroads, Chapter 10: Nom de Guerre

Lan was troubled.  It was not a matter of the Holmites and scouts or stragglers–no, he was quite certain there would be no more of them, though they provided a convenient enough excuse for egress.  He was troubled, yes, but he had no need to show it to his companions.  What depths of despair might overcome them should they witness the great Lan al’Ver fretting like a house-husband?  Better to save them such unnecessary crises of conscience.

Their mental fortitude notwithstanding, Lan was troubled because the whole scene had been…troubling.  Preternaturally troubling.  The sort of troubling that had one counting and sorting their troubles like inventory, attempting to spot the error in the arithmetic, to trace back the entry missing from the ledger.  Or perhaps to cross out one made in error.

It wasn’t Bilgames.  No, the old boy had long since retired, given up his crusade against whatever beastie he’d pulled that silly cult together for.  He’d been sitting on the shelf awhile now, and it was about time his sins caught up with him.  It wasn’t the Holmites either.  Mud rats could scurry as they please in the dark and dry–it was no concern to a riverman.  If Lan was being frank, Holme itself had worn out its welcome.  The Riverlands had little tolerance for dogma these days, and the Sculptor wouldn’t have the mettle to survive in spite of it.  The place would be torched within the decade, he predicted, but an eddy in the stream when all was done.

Lan arrested his thoughts as he reached the forest’s eastern edge.  Why the exposition, he wondered.  His intuitions were winding.  Following them precisely was often difficult, but troubles, troubles: Something told him the stakes were higher now.

Back to the grave.  The whole thing had felt familiar.  Like family.  Like Brother and Sister.  Like home.  Like old comforts and old threats, which was odd, because the forest was no home to Lan al’Ver.  An exotic locale, certainly, a fleeting call to far-flung adventure.  But it ought to have felt more…foreign.  And why did the Holmite–the rude one, the one with the gall to raise an axe to a legend like him–keep butting into his thoughts?  The man would live–he had time left–and besides, the scoundrel had nothing to do with Lan’s family one way or the other.

“I was wonderin’ if I’d have the pleasure t’meet you here, Captain al’Ver.”

Lan stopped cold.  He was not frightened.  He was not even very surprised–the forest was dark, and a body eluding his notice was the most plausible thing in the world.  But no one ever did, and he was somewhat surprised, and that was cause for consideration.  

He turned to the source of the voice to see a flint spark bloom into torchlight.  The torch’s carrier was a woman, leaning at ease against an ash tree, clad like the Holmites in patchwork plates and leather.  Instead of a white cloak, a red cowl hung loose about her shoulders, and a rusted spear and greatshield balanced against the tree beside her

“I suppose I shall grant you that pleasure,” Lan said.  “Though I think it only fair I know who accepts that gift.”  The woman’s smile was barely visible in the firelight as she pushed away from the tree and approached.

“But of course,” she replied, extending a hand.  “I’m called Atra ‘round these parts.  And you, I’ve admired for some time.”  Lan shook her hand, for it was only polite, though he had to admit he found the lady peculiar.

For one, he could not for the life of him tell her age, and he was normally quite good with those sorts of things.  He could tell quite easily, for instance, that Bleeding Wolf had sixty-eight years in spite of his youthful frame, or that young Miss Orphelia was sixteen, no matter how forcefully she projected the notion of an innocent eight-year old upon her victims.  His intuition told him nothing of Atra, however, and he was left with only the confusing visual cues on her skin: fit, unwrinkled, unlined, but covered in an array of scars that suggested either extensive torture or an…improbable amount of time on battlefields.  Then, of course, there was the matter of recognition:

“Are you, indeed?” he remarked.  “And here I’d thought myself quite familiar with these parts.”  Atra laughed uncomfortably.

“Ah, you’ve caught me–I’m a new arrival.  Just a week ago, in from the ‘Stones.  I told no lies, though.  ‘Tis indeed m’name, and ‘tis what my employers in Holme know t’call me.  Enough, though.  I’m sure you grow bored of this starstruck girl’s prattle.”

“Never, my dear,” Lan replied.  She was clever, he admitted.  She knew that flattery would get her everywhere.

“Even so,” she continued.  “I take it we’re here on the same business, then?  And I take it you found my men wanting?”

“Desperately, I’m afraid.”  Atra sighed and spat on the ground beside her.

“Bloody useless.  Should have known.”  She put a hand on her hip and glanced up at the sky beyond the canopy, then back to Lan.  “Any survivors?”

“Two,” Lan replied.  “I expect they’ll be conscious before long.  Would you like me to bring you to them?”  She shook her head.

“Thank you, Captain, but there’ll be no need.  Just send ‘em east, and that’ll suffice.  You can let ‘em know I’ve got camp set up just beyond the treeline if it please you.”

“It can be arranged,” Lan said, welcoming the easy solution.  He was still distracted, though.  There was something about the woman that he ought to have been able to place, but he couldn’t quite focus on it.  “My professional apologies that you should return empty-handed, but I am quite unable to offer assistance on that count.”  Atra laughed again, this time at ease.

“You’re every bit the gentleman the stories built you up to be!  But no, you’re right.  The pieces’ve fallen, and it’ll be my lot t’get those two back home once they’ve made it t’me.”  She walked back to her weapons, picked up the spear and slung the shield over her shoulder.  “I bid you good evening, Captain,” she called back.  “Perhaps we’ll meet again on more pleasant terms!”

“I shall await the hour!” Lan replied to her departing silhouette before he too turned away.  That solved the Holmite problem, he supposed.  Best to head back with the good news.  Though the darkness and tangled undergrowth may have proven an impediment to a lesser man, Lan cared little for the frivolity of logistical struggle, and by force of his disdain, he arrived at the Hunter’s informal grave some minutes later.

It appeared he had not kept his companions waiting overlong.  Ty had lit a torch and was fussing over a bundle of what appeared to be the Hunter’s armor as Orphelia, her demeanor evidently much improved, offered a bound and freshly conscious Holmite a severed finger, calling the gift a “lozenge”.  Bleeding Wolf, meanwhile, seemed the opposite of his normal, capable self.  The man was slumped at the base of a tree, oblivious to Orphelia’s nonsense, clearly preoccupied with some existential concern or another.  Lan shook his head, disgusted.  Was no one going to take advantage of this teaching moment?

“Miss Orphelia!” he called out.  “Don’t you know it is impolite to hoard snacks between you and your friends?”  Orphelia looked up at him, an unmistakable twinkle of disturbed mischief in her eye.

“Oh, Mister Lan!  Would you like one too?”

“Captain, my dear,” Lan corrected, plucking the severed appendage from her hand.  “And do tell: Did this lozenge come from one of these cadavers, or have you been keeping yourself a stash?”  Orphelia’s face fell, and the mercenary, suddenly recognizing the object for what it was, began to sob violently, struggling against the ropes holding her to the tree.

“But…” Oprhelia muttered.  “But you’re not supposed to–”

“Don’t think you can pull the sack over my eyes so easily, young lady!”

“What in the bloody, bottom-feeding hell is wrong with you?” Ty interrupted.  “Both of you!”

“A bold question from one who allowed such behavior to proceed with impunity,” Lan replied, dismissive.  Ty exhaled angrily, turning his glare on Orphelia, but otherwise swallowed his response.

“Did you find anything, then?” he asked instead.

“Indeed, I did,” Lan said.  I spoke with these ruffians’ leader.  She awaits their return at a campsite to the east.  Best let them run along.”  Ty nodded, approaching the tree and pulling Orphelia–perhaps more forcefully than necessary–away from the prisoners.  The girl blew a raspberry at his back but otherwise acceded.  Some minutes passed as they gathered their effects.  Ty helped the mercenary to lift her still-injured comrade, but before they all could depart, Bleeding Wolf gave out a low whistle.

“That,” he growled, pointing to the Hunter’s corpse, “concerns me.”  Lan pursed his lips and approached.

Concerning indeed.  From the floor of the clearing, still sprouting rapidly, a web of green, luminescent tendrils was beginning to envelop the body.  They had the vague shape of vines, though Lan suspected they were not plants.  Not truly.  Not completely.

“Looks like something’s got an interest in the dead stuff,” Bleeding Wolf added with a glance back at the three Holmite corpses they had dragged to the edge of the clearing.  They were being swallowed similarly, and Lan had to admit the beastman had a point.  The two surviving Holmites did not wait for the situation to develop.  They took off into the undergrowth, hobbling as fast as their injuries allowed.  Lan, however, paused to consider the strange growth, and his companions, out of respect or simple confusion, followed his lead.

He drew his rapier and gingerly cut one of the tendrils, lifting it with the flat of his blade.  He plucked it off and held it between two fingers.  It was…inert.  But strangely, it still held life, far more than such a small strand ought.  He did not like what he felt of that life.  It was cold and vast and hungry.  And familiar, like the gravesite and the lark that watched over it.  Familiar, though no longer familial.  He tossed the strand to Bleeding Wolf, who caught it deftly if not readily.

“We should be along,” he said, doing his best to make light of the deep unease that had overtaken him.  “I do not think it is safe here.”

The Crossroads, Chapter 9: Confluence

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.

The Crossroads, Chapter 8: Devlin

Devlin woke with a heaving cough, dust and feathers issuing from his mouth.  His brain was foggy.  He could barely think.  He could barely breathe with all these birds, black birds, brown birds, birds the color of dirt and shadows and dried blood, fluttering about his shoulders and face, shedding filthy down in his throat, cawing and chirping in his ears.  In his daze, he could barely hear it, but it was all he could hear.  Where was Orphelia, he wondered.  Why couldn’t she chase them off?  Why were they still here?

He wiped the crust from his eyes and looked about the alley.  It was getting dark, and she wasn’t here.  That wasn’t right.  She went about during the day, of course.  She brought food and water and the blanket she’d used to erect the makeshift awning over his head, but she always came back before it got dark.  He roused what little strength he had and crawled to the mouth of the alley.

The street was nearly empty, and Orphelia was nowhere to be seen, but a sudden flicker of movement in the shadows prompted Devlin to recoil.  He scrambled backward as a figure appeared, pausing at the mouth of the alley.  It was the old blacksmith from across the street–the one Orphelia had warned him not to speak to.  He lingered for only a moment, meeting Devlin’s gaze with a reassured nod before hurrying away.  He had a large object–a spear, or perhaps a halberd–balanced on his shoulder, and somewhere amidst the confluence of details, it occurred to Devlin: Something was wrong.

The flock took off in surprise, instinctively squawking, pecking at his hands as he clambered upright.  He began to stagger after the old man.  The haze and the birds pulled at him, the fog gathered at the edge of his vision, but he willed his legs to keep moving.  Orphelia should have been back by now.  People were hurrying through the streets with weapons at twilight.  She could be in trouble.

He kept hobbling after the man’s shadow for what felt like hours.  Was the town really so large? How many houses had he passed?  On his periphery, he kept trying to count, to note signs and features of the doorways on either side, but the birds kept fluttering about his shoulders, blocking his view, breaking his train of thought.  It was only with a semblance of cognition that he realized he had followed the blacksmith into the square at the north end of town, and then almost immediately he was knocked to the ground, senses assaulted by a blast from the old theater on the other side of the square.

Bleary, he righted himself in a half-crouch to see, through the storm of screeches and feathers, a tall, black-clad figure climb to its feet amongst the debris from the explosion, only to be engulfed again by a torrent of fire jetting from the theater entryway.  In the sudden abundance of light, Devlin could see the figure all the more clearly, that it did not seem to heed the flame licking at its voluminous cloak, that its movements were too smooth, too precise, as if it were unfolding rather than simply standing.  The birds seemed to see it too: As the flames around the creature died down, leaving it apparently untouched, the screeching chorus faded with them, and for the first time in weeks, Devlin could see clearly.

Standing in what remained of the theater’s doorway was the greasy man Devlin knew to be Marko, the artifact dealer, brandishing a stone sculpture of a face in his left hand, his right covered in blue fire, surging from a glowing bracelet on his wrist.  On the other side of the square, as yet unnoticed by either, the blacksmith waited next to a stack of crates, halberd ready, attempting–like Devlin–to take stock of the situation.

“You can get lost if y’ain’t got nothin’ to say!” Marko called out.  “We do business here.  You can take your threats and leave!”

The figure did not respond, but it did glide forward a pace, prompting Marko to raise the stone face.  Instantly, the ground in front of the figure compacted with a loud thud, as if struck by something massive, sending dust into the air and leaving a crater in the dirt.  As a warning shot, it would have terrified Devlin, but the creature seemed unfazed, and in the moment of aftermath, as Marko attempted to judge the efficacy of his intimidation, it charged, closing the distance in an instant.  It batted the stone face from Marko’s hand and, ignoring the plumes of fire he reflexively raised, tackled him, impaling him through his shoulder on a spike jutting from its cloak where a hand should have been.

The blacksmith was already in motion, running toward them, halberd braced for a wide swing, but Devlin found himself approaching as well. In the uncanny silence of the birds’ absence, he found himself beset by a bizarre, intrusive desire. He wanted to touch the creature. He wanted to see what was beneath its skin, to stab his beak into whatever served as its eyes and savor the strange taste of flesh. There was a part of him confused, that recoiled halfheartedly at the wet fervor that had overcome him, but it was tired, far too tired to resist.

The blacksmith arrived first, his wild cleave catching the creature at the base of its neck, pulling it from atop Marko and sending it reeling toward Devlin’s position in the middle of the square.k  But though he seemed to have struck a solid blow with the sharpened edge of his weapon, the creature righted itself swiftly with a clicking undulation, barely inconvenienced, much less decapitated.  It issued a jarring sound, somewhere between a hiss and an otherworldly hum, and poised itself for another charge.  Then Devlin reached it.

With a confidence he had never known in himself, he reached out and grasped the limb the creature was passing for an arm, and with a terrifying, practiced familiarity, he projected a presence into the creature, found its whirring voice, and took hold of it.

As expected, it fought back.  The hum and the harmonies swelled, intensifying, weaving into vicious complexities as they writhed in his gnarled grip, and then they burrowed into him.  Devlin imagined a clicking, modular eye, studying him, unblinking, segments dialing and focusing, but the image remained for only a second before his mind was recalled to reality.

The creature was shuddering, resonating violently, and the force of the vibration was all but wrenching Devlin’s arm from its socket.  His confidence was gone.  He panicked and let go.  Still twitching erratically, the creature whirled on him, but before it could continue the motion, it lurched sideways into the ground with a metallic crunch, and the twitching stopped.

Looking past the fallen creature, Devlin noticed Marko, clutching his shoulder with one hand, the stone face raised tepidly in the other.  Behind him stood the blacksmith, undisguised concern written on his brow, attention divided between Devlin and the motionless heap of cloth and spines at his feet.

“What…” Devlin croaked, the query only half in mind before the screeches and feathers returned to drown it out.  Then the haze returned.  And the fatigue.  Then his legs buckled, and everything went black and mercifully quiet.

The Crossroads, Chapter 7: A Visitor

It was growing late, Brill noted, sleepily watching the technicolor projections the setting sun, filtering from their window through the incongruous mass of bottles, phials, potions, pots, and tinctures arrayed before it on their sill-made-shelf, had cast upon the study wall.  They continued grinding away with their pestle.  The market had been…demanding today.  Many orders.  Little time to fulfill them.  It would be another late night.

Business was booming, it seemed, and though they regretted the impingement upon their reading time, Brill knew to be grateful for the surplus.  They had seen the alternative.  They peered down at the parchment on their desk, absentmindedly emptying the mortar into a mixing dish.

“Gar slime…” they muttered, creaking to their feet, rummaging through the pots and bottles on the shelf.  Locating the requisite container–a bulbous, ceramic tub, sealed with a large cork for the…aroma of its contents–Brill lifted it gingerly, pausing mid-turn as a knock on their door echoed through the shop.  “We’re closed!” they called back.

“Aint’ a customer!” came the response.  Gene.  Brill lifted an eyebrow, set the tub of slime on their desk, and proceeded to the door.

“What do you need?” they asked, opening the door to a restless Gene, hands on his hips, mid-pace.

“Need a favor,” the old man muttered.  He was uncomfortable.  The way he got before doing something impulsive, Brill noted.

“I’m always at your service, Gene,” they replied softly.  “Though I am running short on time this evening, so–”

“Sorry,” Gene muttered.  “Y’know those two kids been skulking ‘round the past few weeks?”  Brill nodded.  “Right.  Younger one–the sister–jumped town with Dog Boy today to run some errand for Marko.”

“Bleeding Wolf is back?”

“Was.  Maybe back soon, but that ain’t the point.  Point is the girl left her sick brother in the alley by my shop, and he’s been layin’ there all day coughin’ his guts out.  Was wonderin’ if you could do something for him.”

“That will depend on the reason for his cough,” Brill said.  “I will need to examine him–can you bring him here?”  Gene glanced over his shoulder.

“Weren’t sure if it was okay to move him.  He don’t seem particularly conscious neither.”  Brill sighed.  The alternative it was, then.  He grabbed a small oil lamp off a shelf near the door and lit it with the candle from his desk.

“Take me to him,” they said, their tone urgent partly for concern and partly–they hated to admit–for annoyance at having to leave the shop at such a late hour.  Gene nodded, taking whatever implication he needed, and turned to lead, only to freeze at the rapid approach of a stranger on the dusky street.

The figure was tall, draped head-to-toe in a thin black cloak, though Brill wondered–at the swaying of the garment in the breeze, at the complete lack of visible ambulation beneath it–whether toes were something this creature even had.  It stopped before the two of them, looming, silent, its face obscured by the twilight and the cloak’s drooping cowl.  Then it spoke:

Where might I find the one called Marko?

The words were jarring, brassy, spoken not in tones but in harmonies, and they reverberated, as if through a long, metal hallway.  Gene turned slowly to Brill, then back to the creature.  He nudged his head in the direction of Marko’s.

“Big house.  End of town.”

The creature declined its head in acknowledgment and proceeded down the street as quickly and eerily as it had arrived.  Gene looked back to Brill.

“Think we need to handle that first,” he said.  Brill agreed.

“Go make sure it’s under control at Marko’s,” they replied.  “I’ll get the Mayor.”

With that they parted ways, Gene to his workshop to fetch his polearm, no doubt; Brill to Mayor Bergen’s residence at the town square.  The boy would have to wait.  Unfortunate though it was, a False God’s arrival in town put more lives in danger than his own.