Three Gifts Given of Dissatisfaction

A brief interlude from Crossroads (because I caught myself working on material out of order). Note the references below to the Sevenfold Gyre and to the One-Eyed Crow (and, obviously, the previous Three Gifts story).

***

From these three came two and two

And circles stretched from sea to sky

To the Gyre did Seven headlong run

Then all the world

That’s why, that’s why

-Words From a Severed Head

***

The Fox’s Second Gift

Long ago I gave you hearth

A place of return from which you roamed

A fire within to banish night

To soothe your aches, to make you home

I rested then for I had thought

My labors had achieved their end

Of steeling you to cold and rot

Your fire I would not need to tend

But now we meet here in the Dark

In fearful quiet ‘neath the earth

Your inner fire early guttered

Broken body lost its worth

The light of day betrayed your years

Promised you many, gave you few

For you I’ll burn, entombed below

This shall be my gift to you

***

The Lark’s Second Gift

Long ago I gave you sticks

Upon your ground I taught my tricks

I brought you craft which you might ply

I bid you: Join me in the sky

Why now have you misplaced your wings?

Forgot that art which made you free

To toil among the beasts and bring

Those who bleed right back to me

I fixed their marks of red and black

As wisdom you refused to learn

I wonder if it’s fear you lack

To drive you on, to make you burn

‘Tis fear that brings you here tonight

Poxed and stricken, marked by blue

Fear of wrongs you would not right

This shall be my gift to you

***

The Turtle’s Second Gift

Forever ago I gave you time

A river running ‘round this bend

Would frame your life with reason, rhyme

Would crown your story with an end

When at last you came to cross

Your souls would from your bodies leap

Your ghosts I’d carry to the shore of loss

Your flesh would drift on to the Deep

I will admit I’ve grown fatigued

As I look upon your evil eye

Your request–it has me so intrigued

You’d go upstream instead of die

Three Gifts were given under Night

And from those three came two and two

You’ve sought your torment, earned three more

This last shall be my gift to you

The Crossroads, Chapter 5: Ty’s Quandary

Ty Ehsam had been certain from the get-go that his visit to the Crossroads would be a costly detour.  Marko’s reputation preceded him, and Ty’s question had never been whether he would efficiently ascertain the location of the Keystone.  Rather, he had merely wondered which particular pound of flesh the broker would extract in exchange.  But the visit had still exceeded his expectations in a not so good way.

The job, Marko’s price, stank to the high mountain.  Tip of some folk here–Bilgames or some such–biting it up at the edge of the Bloodwood.  It sounded like bait.  Marko knew it sounded like bait, but if Ty Ehsam got his head collected by some booby trap up north, that was hardly Marko’s problem, was it?  Damn it.

And the boatman made it all so much worse.  Who was Lan al’Ver?  What was his interest in Ty?  And what did Marko know about him that he wasn’t sharing?  Near as Ty could tell, the man was no mage–mana didn’t cling to him the way it clung to the other two travelers on their journey north–but everything else about his behavior outright keened of magical fuckery.  And the girl.  The girl was certainly a mage, drenched in the Deepest magic Ty had ever seen, obviously up to no good, and even after making it clear they had nothing to do with each other, al’Ver stepped in for her.  Ty was not easily persuaded toward murder, but his priors on Deep mages assured him the girl was very probably a cannibal, and even now, hours later, sipping wine in the relative safety of the inn, he could scarcely believe that al’Ver had vouched responsibility for the girl, volunteered her for the job.  And Marko listened!

Ty hated it.  Whatever was going on with this damn job–this damn town, even–everyone knew more than him, and it was going to get him killed, and he didn’t have any choice but to go along with it all because no matter what kind of gruesome death was waiting for him in the Bloodwood, failing to deliver on his promise to the Blaze would be worse.  He’d backed himself into a corner, and he hated it.

He gulped the rest of his wine, setting down his cup just in time for another patron to pull up a seat at his table.  He glanced over, guarded and irritable, to see the shapeshifter who had traveled up the river with him and al’Ver.

“Greetings.  Marko mentioned you were looking for muscle.”  Ty stared him down for a moment, though he seemed not at all put off by the suspicion.

“Yeah,” Ty replied.  “He mention anything else?”  The shapeshifter shrugged.

“Scavenging near the Bloodwood’s all he said.  You have more details?”

“Yeah.  Some mage died,” Ty said.  “Got an approximate location and a warning we should expect other scavs.”  The shapeshifter frowned.

“That…sounds like bait,” he said after a moment.  Ty couldn’t help but snort.  It was a dark sort of funny, sure, but it was a relief too.  Finally, someone else who saw the insanity in all of it.

“It sure does,” he admitted.  “Marko’s got something I want, though.  This is what he wants in return.”

“You have yourself in a bind then.”  The shapeshifter smiled as he spoke and finally sat down.  He offered his hand.  “Bleeding Wolf.”

“Ty Ehsam,” Ty replied, tepidly shaking it.

“Well, Ty, it it’s a trap, there’s a good chance bringing me along could save your life.  I’m pretty familiar with the area.”  Ty nodded.  He’d figured: Every shapeshifter he’d ever heard of had ties to the Bloodwood.

“I’d still want to know why you’re so eager to run into a trap.”  Bleeding Wolf shrugged.

“I understand Marko’s paying for time even if we don’t find anything.”

“Enough for a risk like that?”  This prompted a laugh.  The shapeshifter’s canines were uncomfortably prominent.

“You got me,” he conceded.  “There’s actually a point of curiosity in this for me.  To which end, I’m asking an additional fee.”

“‘Fraid I don’t have much to offer you.”

“You can tell me what it is you want from Marko, and I’m yours.”

Ty grimaced.  He didn’t want anyone else stuck in his miserable business, but…fine.  This one wanted in, and he could really use the help.  And, he had to admit, it was some comfort that he at least knew something the shapeshifter didn’t.

“Okay,” he replied.  “When the job is done, I’ll tell you.  You might wish I hadn’t, though.”  Bleeding Wolf shook his head, cracking his neck at the end of the gesture.

“I wouldn’t worry,” he said.  “Wouldn’t be the first thing I’ve learned that I shouldn’t’ve.  So I’m in.  Tell me more about our dead mage.  Any idea who it was?”  Ty swirled the dregs of his wine.

“No.  Marko gave me the name ‘Bilgames’, but I’ve never heard of ‘em.”  He looked up to see Bleeding Wolf staring, aghast.

“Are you sure that was the name?” the shapeshifter asked.

Ty nodded, alarm creeping once again out of the pit in his stomach.  Bleeding Wolf stood up and nearly ran to the door.

“Get up!” he called back to Ty, still sitting bewildered at his table.  “We need to find al’Ver and get out of here, or every scav and False God in the Riverlands will have beaten us there by morning!”

Tarot

I have mentioned it before in the most fleeting sense, but one of the long-standing goals of the Rale project has been to produce a Tarot-inspired (though structurally not really) deck of cards depicting images from the world as exemplars of the ways that humans fight death.

Many of the images themselves have been ready for some time, but they have been waiting on frames. They need frames, of course, because the frame is what indicates the card’s suit. Like so:

Cruelty and Control are here presented in the “Viscera” suit. Blame is in the “Gifts” suit, and God is in “Stories”. Not pictured here are “Embraces” and “Avoidance”, as they are still in progress, but these came together so beautifully that I had to share.

Way down the road, a deck is in the works, but if you like any of these, they are now for sale on the store!

Images include work by Quinn Milton and Rae Johnson. The “Tarot” suit frames in particular are by Rae.

The Crossroads, Chapter 4: Marko

The saga continues. Those who have been following Rale for some time will recognize the pieces of the original Crossroads story here.

The Crossroads had always been between.  Of the townsfolk who still remembered, there were yet many versions of the town’s history.  Brill the Apothecary’s was closest to the truth: It began as a tiny trading post, a makeshift connection between the waterways of the Riverlands and the mountains and woods to the north, situated at a crossroads which existed in every sense but the literal.  That enterprise which would become the town was built at the northern mouth of the Lifeline, where the Riverlands’ greatest highway became just another minor stream from the Gravestone range and where, incidentally, the eastern prairies and western hills were separated only by a thin stripe of dry, firm ground, more hospitable, certainly, than whatever hid between the trees of the Bloodwood to the north.  As the rickety post became a place, merchants and enterprisers would enter by each of these routes of convenience, transient but somehow still fixture, carrying lumber and pelts and cloth and ore.

Sometimes they would pass through; sometimes they would return the way they came, but those who settled, those who came to call the place home did well for themselves in those days.  They made fortunes in trade, and anything they could want in return somehow found its way there from afar.  And of course, those plagued by wanderlust had no shortage of opportunity to escape.  All they had to do was jump in with the next caravan that came to town, and they would most assuredly see the world.

The War was not kind to the place, but even that was mitigated by its betweenness.  The town was far enough south that it saw its share of the roaches’ horrors but still northerly enough that its people, broadly speaking, survived.  Its young men and women proudly aided the forces of Harmony at the Battle of the Ouroboros, weathered the devastation of the “bloodsick”–the Dragon’s parting gift to those who deposed him–then returned to a peaceful existence at their Crossroads.  For a short, in-between time, things were as they had always been.  But soon, new wares began to make their way through the village, and with those wares came news.

It seemed Lord Ka of the Roaches had kept a secret from the world.  It was a stone, rough, heavy to hold, unimpressive to the eye.

But the power.

To the mystics, the magically inclined–no matter their inexperience–it was a sun.  At the fall of Bloodhull, soldiers of Harmony who had never once in their lives channeled mana held this stone–the Hellstone, as it came to be known–and felt that power, that gruesome possibility thrumming in their hands.  They said that Harmony destroyed the Hellstone, that its power might never be unleashed upon the world again.  Some did not believe that story, but they missed the point.  The Hellstone’s legacy was not its power–rather it was a realization: Such objects could exist, objects that would make gods even of petty fools like Lord Ka.  

The art of putting magic into inert things was not new–hedge mages had been quietly crafting oddities for centuries.  None had possessed such power as the Hellstone, but after its discovery, that hardly mattered.  A plain man with ten or twenty weak but useful magical artifacts could play at the same superhumanity.  A new order was materializing then about a delicate but ruthless balance between mankind’s lust for power and a fear among the powerful that they may at any moment be devoured by those seeking their possessions.  In this order, the Crossroads, which had always been between, became an in-between for a different sort of trade.

At first, the artifacts were simply commodities.  Merchants who previously sold spice or textiles would arrive at the village, carts laden with curios and magical knickknacks they had bought at a pittance from looters and refugees.  Most of them were useless: stones that would chirp birdsong when thrown to the ground, a silver fish sculpture that bled an endless stream of effervescent crimson from its eyes; but the ones that weren’t found purpose with alacrity.  One villager–Sam, the cooper’s son–was murdered in broad daylight by one of the merchants’ customers, who had used a pair of gloves that rendered his hands and their activities unnoticeable.  And when the guards simply failed to apprehend the assailant, the proper merchants saw the signs.  Most left the trade.  Many left the region entirely.  Either way, the village saw fewer of them from then on.

Of course, lust for power and the knowledge that enabled it would never fade away simply for lack of sellers.  Even then there were those hovering at the fringes of civilization with fearsome arsenals and stores of wealth, willing to make very rich the one who brought them a means of surpassing their rivals.  But they were murderers.  For all their wealth and power, everyone knew they were cutthroats, and no trinkets, no magical elevation could change that.  It was no secret they would just as soon save their money and kill for what they wanted if it was an option.  What was missing, then, was a class of trader capable of persuading them toward the latter.

It was Marko who solved this problem for the Crossroads.  He had always been a scoundrel, well-connected in spite of his sclerosed reputation, surviving on his ability to find buyers for the occasional item the merchant overclass knew it should not have.  His arrival there had been timely.  In another era, Mayor Bergen might have had him jailed for one of his violent altercations at the tavern, his lewd demeanor, any of his all-too-public vices; but with the town’s mercantile lifeblood crowded out by the “scav trade”, Marko’s ability to sell the artifacts–as a middleman for the merchants who were no longer willing to face their buyers themselves–saved the livelihood of everyone there.

So it was that the Crossroads remained between: between Holme to the east and the Reach to the south; between the Bloodwood and the Riverlands and the plains and the hills; between the desperate scavs and the respectable merchants and the mercenaries who protected them and the townsfolk who made that place function and the “False Gods”, those buyers of the scav trade who propelled the entire system on with gold in one hand and abject brutality in the other.  And somehow, Marko was between it all, his greasy promises and fine-tuned survival instincts connecting those trustless, unconnectable lines which made the town a town.  Of that in-between place, Marko was its most between part.

But Captain Lan al’Ver was not about to be outdone by a scoundrel like Marko.

His errands were complete, his modest shipments had all been sold, his generous, dangerous, precisely calibrated allotment of free time had begun, and he could think of no better way to spend it than inserting himself, needed but unwanted, amidst the business of the most between man in the most between place in the Riverlands.  It was only appropriate recompense for such uppity behavior, the Captain concluded, making his way to the door of the sprawling, patchwork building Marko had made his base of operations.  He did not knock, of course–now was not a time for courtesy.  It was a time for welcome surprises.  He pulled the door open and strode into the wide, familiar interior of Marko’s “office”.

The traveler, Naples, had been correct: The build had originally been constructed as a theater by a retired merchant some centuries ago, though it only functioned as one for a short time.  The owner, it turned out, was a rather thorny artist who in short order managed to alienate every thespian in the region, and he soon sold his investment to a consortium of stall traders who utilized the structure far longer–and far more prosaically–as a warehouse.  It was only in the last two decades, under Marko’s management, that it had returned to a theatrical operation, though Marko had shaken up the formula somewhat.

Predictably, in Marko’s new “theater”, he was the spectacle.  His desk sat prominently upon the raised area which once had been a stage, leaving his customers and contractors to address him from the spacious area below, long barren of any sort of seating, though cluttered at the periphery by empty crates and other miscellaneous junk.  But Marko had included a twist in the arrangement of his spectacle: The stage was lit sparingly, a single torch at its edge affording just enough light to discern Marko himself behind the desk and little else of his disposition.  His audience’s floor, meanwhile, was furnished with braziers, torchstands, and even two scrapwood chandeliers, all spilling their revealing shine onto every corner of the space.  It was only appropriate, Lan admitted, for a man who exclusively traded with the untrustworthy.

Today’s visit would deviate little from that setup, Lan gathered, confirming the specificity of his surroundings as he swept into the space, purposefully ignorant to the consternation his entrance had elicited from Marko and his guest, the self-described Khettite monk who had earlier paid for passage aboard Lan’s own vessel.

“Ey!” Marko barked, hefting a crossbow over the top of his desk, unaimed but angled threateningly in Lan’s direction.  “This conversation’s private.  Come back when you’ve made an appointment.”

“Cease your jest, knave!” Lan shouted back.  “Lan al’Ver waits not for petty schedules!  I am needed here–’tis plain.”  The monk’s jaw clenched, eyes darting about the cavernous space, no doubt planning his egress.  Marko, for his part, just groaned.

“Ah, feck.  It’s you.”  Then, to the monk: “Relax, mate.  He’s just saving you the effort.”  The monk blinked, nonplussed.

Lan dragged over a crate and seated himself on the edge, polishing the handle of his umbrella as Marko explained:

“Intel you want’s got a price, an’ the price is a job.  Got a juicy scav tip I need you to follow up on.  You bring back somethin’ good, I’ll tell you what you need to know.”

“I’m not sure my circumstances allow me the time to run errands,” the monk replied.

“Well I’m not sure I have the spare clout to be just tellin’ you where to find my clients,” Marko spat.

“So you did sell it, then?”

“You got what you’re gonna get, kiddo.  Now do I get a yes or a no?”  The monk frowned, crossing his arms.

“Fine,” he caved.  Then, gesturing at Lan: “So where does he come in?”  Marko sat back, the shadows falling back over his face.

“Two details,” he replied, the acoustics of the room giving the words an otherworldly echo.  “First, I’m gathering from my source that this tip ain’t exactly exclusively info.  Second, it’s about a day’s journey upriver by boat.  Much longer on foot.  Y’see where this is going?”  The monk looked again at Lan.

“I’m going to need a boat.”

“Bingo,” Marko said.  “Some muscle, too, case you find competition, I’d say.  Trust you’re game, al’Ver?”

“My appetite for danger is insatiable, dear Marko.”

“Great,” Marko continued.  “Ask around town if you want an extra set of hands.  I’ll pay normal scav rates for each o’ya, along with your intel.”

“We’ll get going, then,” the monk said, reservedly.  “Though I do ask that you let me know before you bring another into our talks next time.”  Marko raised an eyebrow before glancing over at Lan.  He hawked a wad of spit onto the corner of his stage.

“Best get used to the Riverlands, kiddo.  I didn’t call nobody–Captain al’Ver shows up where he’s needed, and that’s all any of us get to know about that.”

Lan beamed, smugly aloof to the monk’s evident dissatisfaction.  But amidst his implicit gloating, he raised a finger, calling attention to a point of order which had now vexed him for some minutes.

“I do of course with to query,” he began.  “Is it your intent that the girl should accompany us as well?”  Both the monk and Marko answered only with a confused stare.

“What girl?” the monk asked.  Lan shrugged and raised his hand in the vague direction of the girl, dirty, ragged, clutching a threadbare stuffed animal, perched on a crate near the edge of Marko’s stage who now stared back at Lan, her face white with fear.  Marko turned, following the gesture.  His eyes went wide.  He reached for his crossbow.

The Crossroads, Chapter 3: Old Friends

An hour later, Bleeding Wolf stumbled on the tradesmen’s street, equal parts chagrined and impressed.  He had fallen into the trap of thinking the captain a generous man.  Instead, it seemed he was a clever one, though Bleeding Wolf had to give him credit: He really was cleverer than most.  

It was no matter, though.  Lack of care had landed him with worse consequences.  This would simply need to be a reminder.  He pulled his vest back over his shoulders and gave his surroundings a glance.  The street was longer than he remembered–the last few years had evidently treated the Crossroads well–but the surge in the town’s fortunes had cost him his bearings.  It was another fifteen minutes of sullen wandering before he finally came upon his destination.

“Dog Boy!”

The greeting came from under the awning of a smithy, uttered by the old proprietor, looking bemusedly up from his workbench.

“Gene, you look older than ever!” Bleeding Wolf replied with a smirk.  He ducked through the doorway, out of the sun.

“And you still look like a damn kid.”

“The mana yet flows.”

“That’s dangerous talk these days, what with our clientele, and the Shell knows I ain’t riskin’ the bloodsick for an ugly babyface like yours.”

“The warning is…appreciated, though,” Bleeding Wolf replied, leaning against the counter.  “Are they actually coming into town now?”  Gene scoffed.

“Big bads ‘emselves?  I sure hope not.  Marko don’t meet with ‘em here anyhow.  But they got ears to the ground, and words are loud hereabouts.”  Bleeding Wolf glanced out the door at the empty alley across the way.  For a moment, a strange scent tinged the air.  Sugar.  Uncomfortable sweetness.  Then it was gone.  He turned back to Gene.

“Who’s shopping these days?”

“Sculptor, per usual,” Gene said, polishing the knife blade he was working when Bleeding Wolf came in.  “Stays in Holme, of course, but you see whitefrocks here every day.  ‘Yond that, Marko’s got a mystery buyer who’s ‘parently throwin’ cash around wild-like, and then you got the less savory ones hangin’ on the periphery.”

“Less savory?”

“Ya know,” Gene adjusted his spectacles, “the Blaze has his…uh…people around, and I heard a rumor that Old Ouroboros himself put out a buy order a few weeks back.”  Bleeding Wolf let out a low growl at nothing in particular.

“Good to see you’re still on the gossip,” he said, sincere in spite of his choice of words.  “Tell me Marko didn’t sell.”

“Woulda killed ‘im m’self if he did,” Gene replied, glancing back down at his bench.  “Not sure the rest of the Crossroads woulda understood, though.  Town’s changed, Dog Boy.  ‘Tween the bloodsick and the newcomers from the scav trade, most folks round here don’t remember the war.  Maybe they know it’s what took their gramps, but they never saw those roaches or the…stitched things the Dragon had in ‘is basement.”

“Probably for the best.”  Gene spat.

“If the bastard were gone, maybe!  But he ain’t!  He’s still here, the old timers are all gone ‘cept me, and the damn fools holdin’ Marko’s leash don’t know what they’re dealin’ with.”

“The Bergen boy?” Bleeding Wolf ventured.  There was a long pause, then Gene sighed.

“I’ll hold my tongue,” he said.  Another pause, shorter, then: “What have you been doin’ these last five years?”

“Odd jobs around the Bloodwood.  Then I took a trip down south.  Just…trying to understand.”

“What’s there to understand?”

“Well, what’s left, for one.  Seems like after the war the Riverlands were ready to bloom again.  Then a few decades go by, the scav trade gets big, and the Crossroads and Holme and the Reach, they all do well for themselves.  But I realized I’d stopped hearing about everywhere in between.”

“And?”  Bleeding Wolf shook his head.

“There isn’t much there anymore.  Lots of stops I remember on the riverfront between here and the Reach.  Just damp and scrapwood now.  Some signs of violence, though I couldn’t tell you if it was before or after everyone left.  It’s like everywhere but here is just dying, Gene.”

“Certainly a shame,” Gene said, setting aside his knife.  “Something we oughtta be worried about, y’reckon?”

“We should definitely be worried,” Bleeding Wolf replied.  “Though fuck me if I can say what of.”

“Well I ain’t gonna fuck you, so I guess I’ll just wait’n’see.”  Bleeding Wolf cracked a smile at the retort, but he found himself distracted again by the sudden, intrusive taste of sugar at the back of his mouth.  Instinctively, he glanced back at the alleyway to see a boy, perhaps fourteen, slumped there against the wall.  Strange.  How long had he been there?

“I’m worried about those two,” Gene said, following his gaze.

“Two?”

“Boy and his sister.  Came in with a caravan a few weeks back, but I think they was just hitchin’ a ride.”

“They begging?” Bleeding Wolf asked.  “I didn’t think the merchants were a charitable lot.”

“He’s sick an’ ain’t doin’ much of anything I can see.  Pretty sure she’s stealin’ from market stalls.  Peacekeeper’ll get wise soon, but I pity ‘em all the same.  Ain’t their fault the world gone cutthroat.”

“It ain’t.”  For a moment, they sat in silence, contemplating the boy’s dead-eyed expression.  Then Gene spoke up again:

“How long’ll ya be in town this time?”

“Not sure,” Bleeding Wolf replied.  “A day or two, maybe.  Think I’ll see if Marko has any work.  If I’m gonna be worrying about abandoned villages and unseen threats, I might as well check with him anyway.”

“He certainly knows all ‘bout threats,” Gene agreed bitterly.

The Crossroads, Chapter 2: Irregulars

From here.

It had occurred before to Bleeding Wolf that the Riverlands were something of a confused identity, but the point always felt most salient when he found himself aboard a boat.  He hated boats.  They were wretched, unstable things riding arrogantly upon tangles of opaque current and manifest unreliability.  And yet, boats were the only decent way to get about west of the Scrubline, and Bleeding Wolf tolerated them for his debt to the place.  Since the war, the Green had been the only purpose he’d really known.  He belonged with it, and it, for better or worse, belonged here.

Nonetheless, despite his tenuous misery on the water, he had to admit the journey of the last week had been interesting.  He’d bargained for passage up the Lifeline from Captain Lan al’Ver, an eccentric merchant whose aloof manner and patchwork, ersatz aesthetics might have led Bleeding Wolf to seek help elsewhere, if not for the man’s surprisingly widespread reputation for reliability.  Indeed, though this was their first meeting face-to-face, Bleeding Wolf had heard the name Lan al’Ver many times, and so far, it seemed the man’s notoriety was well-earned.

Since the trip began, no fewer than twenty passengers had boarded–and since departed–their small, six-person vessel.  Lan had asked only a pittance of Bleeding Wolf, provided he would help with portage when they reached their destination, but with each new face that boarded, the captain’s negotiations seemed to take a strange, new turn.  In each case, he would offer much more than was asked–he even once fought off a pair of bandits who had chased one hapless passenger into the river–and received more than he requested.  By the time they had reached the fork with the Artery, Lan had made himself several times Bleeding Wolf’s fare, the boat was laden with food and goods and an impractical bounty of knickknacks left in gratitude by the erstwhile passengers-in-distress, and, somehow, they had suffered no particular delay for their semi-charitable excursions.

And now, in the final leg of the journey, they had picked up two final traveling companions, each conspicuous in their way amidst the Riverlands’ fluctuating normalcy.  The first was a quiet, paranoid man who offered coin for passage and no other information, whose evident desire for anonymity was likely undercut by the strangeness of his garb.  Bleeding Wolf recognized it as Khettite, though he’d thought all remnants of Khet had disappeared from the Riverlands by now.

The second somehow managed to be even stranger, despite his complete disinclination toward secrecy.  His name was Naples, and where the previous passenger could scarcely be persuaded to open his mouth, Naples seemed quite unable to shut his own.  He was traveling to the Crossroads, he explained between bites of an apple, to reunite with his lover, with whom their smoldering romance could not continue in the vicinity of her father, and also for the historic architecture, apparently.

“Did you know the Crossroads is home to the oldest theater in the Riverlands?” he asked, tossing his apple core over the side of the boat.  “It’s not used as a theater anymore, of course, but don’t you think something like that ought to be better recorded for posterity?”

Bleeding Wolf very much did not give a shit, but he found Naples just as bizarre as he was offensive.  He didn’t like the man’s carefree attitude, and he especially didn’t like his obliviousness to the concept of hunger.  Not because it was an insult–rather, these days, people who didn’t go hungry had a reason for their comfort, and the less obvious those reasons, the less they were to be trusted.  

For his part, Lan seemed entirely unperturbed by the subject of architecture, throwing in a haughty exhortation that Naples “ought rightly to have laid eyes on the Grand Amphitheater of the World City,” which earned a raised eyebrow from the would-be scholar.  Deservedly, Bleeding Wolf thought.  No history he had ever encountered mentioned an amphitheater in Kol, and even if it had existed, he doubted Lan had the requisite centuries of age necessary to have seen it.

Still, despite Bleeding Wolf’s guarded suspicion, the thread of conversation–Naples musings on various useless miscellanea met by Lan’s boasts and impossible one-upmanship–persisted for days, abating only as they pulled ashore on the Crossroads’ southern outskirts.  Naples and the Khettite disembarked quickly and politely, leaving Bleeding Wolf to help Lan with the boat, as agreed.  He admittedly wasn’t sure how the merchant intended to secure the various windfalls he had accumulated along the way, but that certainly wasn’t his concern.

“Do you want it beached here?” he asked, hopping ashore, gripping a line lashed to the vessel’s bow.

“Oh, heavens no,” Lan replied.  “We’ll be taking it into town.”  As he spoke, he wrenched down a lever near the rudder, lowering four wheels, previously nestled in alcoves in the boat’s hull, into the water.  Bleeding Wolf’s eyes widened.

“What?”

The Crossroads, Chapter 1: Orphelia

Coming from here. I’m going to try posting these in more bite-sized pieces, since I’ve been a little quiet on here lately. Hope you all are doing well.

Orphelia’s welcome, she gathered, was beginning to wear out.  Admittedly, she was surprised it had taken this long.  Most villages in the Riverlands would have noticed her and Devlin immediately, regarded the vagrant children with a tepid, kind suspicion, which would inevitably fade to hostility as their naked intent–to take full advantage of any kindness or carelessness mistakenly offered–became clear.  This town was different, though.  It had bustle, traffic in and out, and along with the stream of caravans and trade boats and wandering merchants, there was a matching current of vagrants and parasites through the town’s auspices, among which she and her brother encountered only superficial resistance.

It helped that since the Bad Stuff, she had found it much easier to be places without demanding attention.  She just needed to follow Mr. Ruffles’ instructions: Stand here.  Walk over there if they move too close.  Take the fish from the stall when they look away.  It was weird they didn’t react, even when they could see her so plainly, but Mr. Ruffles wasn’t worried about it, so neither was she.

Still, even in the mess of moving faces, someone sees yours too many times, and they start getting suspicious.  Two weeks on, the blacksmith, a gruff, addled man with sooty hands, approached her and Devlin in the alley opposite his shop one morning.

“Which caravan was you two with?” he asked.  “Best get back to ‘em.  They’s prob’ly lookin’ for you.”  She feigned bleariness, pretended to have just woken up.  Then she muttered something about lozenges and dragged Devlin away, just as he began coughing again.  It could have gone worse, she supposed, but it also wasn’t as if her noncommittal mumbling had convinced him of anything in particular.  Now he recognized her, and that recognition was one step closer to the truth that their caravan–which they’d been a part of for a full day and a half–had departed a week ago, no doubt glad of their absence.  And that, of course, was one step closer to things Orphelia needed to keep hidden.

It had been long enough, she decided.  Others would notice soon, start asking questions.  Then the Bad Stuff would happen again.  She and Devlin needed a ticket out of here–or a pretext for staying above suspicion–but Devlin was sick: The two of them would be bandit fodder out on the roads alone, and she didn’t trust that the town might pity them.  Pity required a story, and stories invited questions too.

She had been thinking on it all morning, but nothing was coming.  She clutched Mr. Ruffles to her chest as she steadied Devlin against the side wall of the inn.  Mr. Ruffles was normally so helpful, but he wasn’t talking today.  Today it was just scared thoughts in her head, Devlin’s labored breathing, and the busy sounds of commerce on the market street before them.  She watched it numbly, stowing the foreboding certainty that nothing was alright beneath the experiential barrage of simply being amidst the Crossroads marketplace.  Time passed, some minutes or hours–she wasn’t paying attention to which.  Then a break in the market’s ebb and flow caught her eye.

Down the street, she saw a strange, unwieldy contraption break through the masses.  Nominally, it was a wagon–a particularly large one, perhaps–but the ways in which it was not a wagon seemed just as important as the ways in which it was.  Specifically, it was also quite clearly a trade raft, one of the flat-bottomed, shallow barges that Father’s river caravans had used, though this raft had been fitted with wheels, affixed to the sides by some mechanism Orphelia couldn’t quite discern from her sideline vantage.  Regardless of–or perhaps because of–these modifications, the craft should have been quite heavy, which made it all the stranger that it should have been pulled by a single man, shirtless, wild-eyed, veritably tattooed by scars, as another–its owner, likely–rode atop it, waving greetings to the stalltenders all along the marketplace.

The Age of Heroes and Horrors

Another expositional story by Leland. Edited by me.

All us left the city after the bureaucrats fell. There was nothing there no more.

However much the food was a problem an’ those bureaucrats shit at solving it. When nobody was there. It got a lot worse. Can’t feed no thousands people with no planning. Chaos in the street what it was.

Only law was they ol’ blood knights. But they turn real nasty. Blood knight want your house, want your food, they don’t give a rat whisper ‘bout you. They kill you like they kill your mama. They ain’t got no more blood god, like a preacher an’ no church. They just nothin’. Big ole freaky piles o’ nothin’ with unbreakable skin an’ a sense o’ entitlement.

We had to find food. Find land for growing food. Become farmers. A whole world become farmers. Everyone hungry then, thousands people. All roaming the countryside stealing everything. All dangerous people, smart people, social people. But that didn’t matter nothin’. Don’t matter if you talk good, lie good. That don’t make no food grow from the ground.

Everyone learned how to become farmers real quick though. You figure out how to tear up the earth, plant seeds, never let no fruit get thrown away like the old time. No way. No garbage dumps. You use everything. Your poop, mama poop, the donkey poop. It was a dirty, simple kinda life.

Tiny little villages start poppin’ up. With stupid names. Things like “River Crossing” because there a river with a dirt path that cross it. Mostly trade posts where people sit for half day chattin’. Not a lot o’ chit chat on the old farm you see. Mostly the traderfolk knew what was what a little bit around an’ people wanna hear news. Most the news was gossip. 

Some the farmers though, they didn’t like this new life. Used to be someone. Used to be someone important. Had a nice life in the world city. Didn’t need t’ work hard on the farm. Some these people had some real nasty magic too. Power didn’t go nowhere an’ at the beginning ain’t nobody have nothing to steal. But after first five years or so, they ol’ blood knights start popping like wasps durin’ the summer time. Nasty little gangs o’ em, three, four, five. Come to a farm, demand food, maybe murder someone, maybe rape ‘em. Horrible little creatures they was. 

Villages start posting bounties on some these nasty types. They didn’t like no gangs o’ bullies an’ robber man coming in, messing up the place. Some those used-to-be-someone people start doing the bounty trade. Hunt down these washed up, second rate demons roam round.

Trade grow an’ grow ‘tween villages like River Crossing an’ Forest Lake. More bounties an’ bullies walk round. A certain kind of peace come durin’ these times. Not so safe on dirt roads in the middle. But in a trade post you were safe enough. Then the Monsters start really poppin’ up. Things just had enough magic no one could deal with ‘em at all. Creatures like them mages o’ the back before. Nothing powerful as the blood god, but powerful enough. They know not t’ always fight everyone. Some of them was even likable for awhile. Some of them talked real nice. But they always want weird things, strange things, twisted things.

They live on a mountain top and want virgin boys every month like some sort of moon ritual. If you don’t pay up they burn a field with hellfire. It weren’t good to live near a Monster. But it weren’t’ all bad neither. The crops grow better near, they give you these little gifts, cure the sick children sometimes. Some people worshipped ‘em.

Was all a matter of chance. Whether that old mage lived just out of town would help you or

turn on you. Never know who that stranger walked in was. They gonna cure the pox? Or they takin’ a child at midnight?

It weren’t a safe way to live.  But better than starvin’.

Words From a Severed Head

Shall Harmony reign, yet in his wake

Lie severed heads whose fortunes bore

Craven lies and notes of strife

But also those whose scales returned to balance with their vengeful roar

For each great circle ‘scribed thereof in single voice the headless spake:

***

There was once a man who wished to hide from the truth.  He gathered his flock and said unto them: “See how we cower in servitude before death and shadow.  Do you not wish to escape this tyranny?”  They did, the flock replied, but they could see no path, no way by which they might escape.  So the man gathered the clouds from the sky and wrapped them about his people, that when the agents of death came to find them, they encountered only mist and lies.  The man then swept his flock and his clouds both to a peak rising high above the land, and from there, they ascended to the heavens.

***

There was once a man who realized the world was a lie.  He saw what the Man of the Clouds had wrought.  He saw that what was real had been split in twain.  Others beheld the city in the clouds and declared it fantasy, an escape from reality.  But this man questioned: Was the world they had escaped any more real?  Was it so in any way that mattered?  He thought to the lies the world had told him, that when men and women ceased to be they ascended to Heaven or rested beneath the earth, in the domain of the Dead Queen they had left behind, but he had ascended and, in so doing, made true that great lie.  But though he could have rested in his Heaven, he could not avert his gaze from the tiny fracture now etched in halcyon Truth.  Through it he beheld a churning darkness, a Deep of ill portent which he knew would one day come crashing through.  Yet he did not recoil.  He did not wail in terror or seek to forget what he had seen, for in that Deep he saw salvation, a beautiful and terrible reunion of reality’s glassy shards.  So he smiled upon it and mad his preparations, for to perform his miracle of one only thing, to link once again the Heavens to the Deep, he knew he must descend and evoke his argument below the anesthetic comfort of the clouds.

***

There was once a man who sought to complete the circle.  He knew well from the river beneath his feet.  For it to flow, the reservoirs in the lands above must be emptied, struck, their discordant greed resolved.  He knew that memory, like water, lacked persistence.  With time its form would denature.  It would evaporate, would become mists and clouds and false shapes therein, once again to fall upon the stagnant reservoir.  He knew that were he to maintain the circle, ensure that the lake of discord always emptied in Harmony, his memory could not falter.  The circle could not fall victim to time.  He could not fall victim to time, so he separated himself from it, became a terrible grudge which remembered in cinder instead of dewdrops, that discord the world over might be met by righteous Vengeance and inevitable Harmony.

***

From these three came two and two

And circles stretched from sea to sky

To the Gyre did Seven headlong run

Then all the world

That’s why, that’s why