Ty was well-traveled, used to the discovery of new places, cynically just as used to leaving them forever at a moment’s notice. He’d lived in the Shrah, upon the slopes of the Gravestones and amidst their foothills. He’d scavenged for nearly a decade in the Basin of Hazan and traveled among the nomad tribes that casually defied its scorched, arid landscape. He was well familiar with wastelands, and the Riverlands were emphatically not a waste. Which is why it was strange to him that they were so damned empty.
His three days of journeying since the meeting with the Dragon had been circuitous and painfully slow. The sudden flight from the Crossroads had left him low on supplies, which, in the absence of any nearby smaller villages–and a distrust for the secrecy of any caravan he might attempt to contact on the road–he’d had to painstakingly forage from the verdant but unfamiliar biome. And after two nights–and one nocturnal rainstorm–of camping alone and off road, Ty was beginning to suspect that at this rate, if he arrived at the Southern Reaches at all, he would do so with either a dearth of strength, an abundance of pneumonia, or both.
On the third day, he finally caved, surreptitiously joining a caravan by way of his magical knacks, and he asked a merchant’s manservant where, for the love of the gods, the river, and the Green, he could find any vestige of human civilization south of the Crossroads. The manservant was confused, though whether this was for Ty’s sudden emergence upon his conscious attention or because he saw no sense in an alternative when the Crossroads was scarcely a day’s walk away, Ty couldn’t tell. Reluctantly, he shared that he knew of another village close by, a short ways south and across the river, though he knew his employers to be uneasy about stopping there. Ty wasn’t sure what that meant–and the manservant had been unable to clarify–but he was running out of options. It would have to do. He found a point where the river’s current was particularly lazy, swam the gap, and headed south, following the tentative directions as best he could.
By nightfall, he reached the village, if one could call it that. Against the cloudy orange of the sky, he could make out a tepid gathering of twelve huts lit by a row of raggedy seed-oil torches, with a scattering of farm shacks on the horizon. Much more interesting, Ty felt, was the dense copse of trees rising in the distance behind them. He wondered if the “village” had more of its population squirreled away in the woods, but he supposed he would check here first. As he neared, he noticed a woman sitting on a bench by one of the huts, cleaning a bundle of some sort of fiber. Meeting his gaze, she set her work aside and rose, hobbling to where Ty approached, at the head of this village’s approximation of a street.
“Good evening, stranger,” she called with a warm and practiced smile. “Have you come seeking rebirth?” Ty blinked, pausing mid-step.
“No,” he said. “Uh, no. I can’t say that I have. Just looking for some food, a tent, perhaps a place to spend the night. I have some coin to pay.” The artifice of the woman’s smile melted, leaving an expression that seemed at once relieved and disappointed.
“Ah, just a traveler. Your sort is a rarity these days. Well, come.” She motioned over her shoulder and began shuffling down the street. “We have little to spare that you can carry with you, but we can at least provide a roof for the night.” Uneasily, Ty followed.
Despite the strangeness of the woman’s greeting, the village itself did not seem especially strange–it just seemed poor. Ty noticed a few more villagers outside their huts as he and the woman made their way through. Most of them stared him down for a short while before growing bored and returning to their leisure–or at least their idle work–but they seemed all of a kind he’d seen before: undernourished, raggedly clothed, all possessing the stoic sunkenness in the eyes of those who have learned to vivify their drudgery. It wasn’t until they had nearly made it to the end of the street that he realized that something actually was off. All along the way, the door of each hut had been decorated by a large, round rock, about knee-height, placed beside the opening. At least Ty had thought they were rocks. Upon approaching the end of the street, he noticed beside the stairs leading up to the final hut–a smaller house than the others, built upon stilts–was a gleaming, polished, silver sphere. Exactly the same, he realized, as the rocks beside the other doors. This one was just clean.
The woman offered no explanation for the objects, nor, as far as Ty could tell, any indication that she had noticed his wandering attentions. Instead, she brought him to the door of the house beside the stilt-hovel, a larger structure that looked capable of sheltering multiple families. She opened the door and stepped aside.
“You may rest here tonight, traveler,” she said. “Come morning, you may take some food if you need it, but it would be best if you do not linger.” Ty thanked her and stepped through the door of the hut. Oddly, her implied wish that he would get gone was more reassurance that he was safe here than any more traditional gesture of hospitality. In his experience, none was more trustworthy in the world of the scav trade than someone who was unhappy to see you. Regardless of any resentment they might harbor, one could always tell exactly what they wanted.
Inside the hut, by the light of a single glass-shielded candle–the most conspicuous human luxury Ty had yet seen in the village–he could see row upon row of straw bed mats, most empty, but not all. In a corner, away from the light, three scrap-clad beggars sat, attempting attention to a figure, speaking softly, sitting before them on a wooden stool. Ty could make out little of the figure’s appearance save that its demeanor and voice seemed vaguely masculine. The beggars, however, were visible and uniquely pitiable. One was missing an arm and a leg, jealously cradling a piece of malformed driftwood that Ty could only guess might have been her crutch. Another, the least clothed of the three, stared at the locutor, open-mouthed, toothless, and dazed; arms, legs and most of his face covered in scabs. The third, face covered, seemed to be looking past the figure, gazing idly upon the bare wall beside Ty. Blind, perhaps?
“You would do well to remember,” the figure said, barely audible over the rustle of Ty’s clothes as he sat against the far wall. “She does not empathize with you. She will not pity you, and if you should persist at the wood’s edge in an appeal to that pity, she will harvest your body for parts.”
Instinctively, Ty’s eyes darted to the figure’s silhouette, still obscured by shadows even now that his vision had adjusted. Their words were alarming, and, he noted, something about their voice was…off.
“Did each of you bring an offering?” the figure asked. The beggars nodded. The scab-covered man reached into his threadbare vest and withdrew a small, pale figurine. He held it out to the figure. “Very good,” they said, and without moving or otherwise acknowledging the beggar’s gesture: “Hold it for now. It is not for me. For the rest of you, know that she will accept or refuse at her discretion. But she prefers that which is magical, mechanical, or beautiful.”
That was it, Ty realized. The figure wasn’t moving. At all. Staring closely, he realized that no portion of the silhouette so much as fidgeted. They didn’t even appear to breathe.
“In one hour, you will travel to the wood,” the figure continued. In a strangely smooth motion, they lifted their arm to point at the crippled woman. “You will go first. I will let you know when it is time.
“You will approach the wood with your offering and hold it outstretched in your palm.” Their forearm shifted, turning their palm upward. “If you hear the song and see the lights within the trees, you may proceed inward.”
With that, the figure rose to their feet and turned toward the door, pausing to answer the question that remained, bubbling ominously in the instructions’ wake:
“If you see and hear nothing, come back another night with another gift.”
They moved to the door, making a peculiar hiss with each step, turning briefly to face Ty as they went. Ty gulped as he caught sight of them, the silver glint off their arms and fingers, the lipless, skull-like steel of their teeth, the thin hoses running from their temples to the base of their neck–this was a humanoid shape, comprised, save for its glistening eyes and spare bits of connective material, entirely of metal. But they said nothing to Ty and disappeared through the doorway.
It was abundantly clear to him now why the merchants did not visit this place. He imagined his risks were not so acute–he, unlike the merchants, carried not “offerings” this cult might covet–but it was still a cult. If you stuck around, you’d be pulled in or torn apart. All that was left was to figure whether the villager woman’s one night of begrudging hospitality qualified as “sticking around.” As he considered it, a clear of a throat across the room grabbed his attention. He turned to see one of the beggars–the one with the covered face–beckoning him over.
“Hail, stranger,” he said. His voice was soothing in spite of the clear effort he put into speaking. “Have you also run out of places to go?”
“No,” Ty called back, guarded. “Not yet. Just looking for a place to rest, then I’m movin’ on.” The beggar with the missing limbs seemed to start at the sound of his voice, glancing between Ty and her companions nervously. The beggar with the scabs didn’t react at all and continued to stare, slack-jawed, into the dim.
“Is that you, Ty Ehsam?” the blind beggar asked. It was Ty’s turn to start. Instinctively, he jolted to his feet and seized his pack, but something about the beggar’s smile, now visible beneath the layers of cowl covering his eyes, gave him pause. Then, a spark of recognition:
“Bernard?” he asked. The beggar sighed, his smile deepening.
“It is good to hear your voice. And good to know my refusal to give up your whereabouts has borne fruit.”
Ty relaxed slightly and heaved his pack over his shoulder. He stepped cautiously toward the beggars and their corner, at once relieved–to find a friend in this remote and altogether spooky place–and chilled: Bernard had not been blind when Ty had last seen him. He hadn’t been a beggar either. In Hazan, Bernard had been a small-time dealer–like Marko but with smaller stakes and more mobility. He was an uncommonly clever man and one of the kindest Ty had ever encountered in his horrible line of work. And his presence in this place spoke poorly of his fortune since they last met a few months ago.
“Did you know my whereabouts?” Ty asked. Bernard laughed, the sound coming out somewhere between a cough and a wheeze.
“Of course not,” he said as the fit subsided. “All the more reason to refuse. I can claim the moral high ground that way.”
Ty took another hard look at the other beggars, trying to determine if he knew them as well. No, he didn’t know their faces, he concluded, and if their bewilderment was any indication, they didn’t know his.
“He came for you, then,” Ty said.
“He did,” Bernard replied, pulling the cowl from his head to reveal a cascade of oozing, melted flesh all down the top half of what used to be his face. “Surprising in retrospect that he didn’t have me killed outright. S’pose it helps his reputation to have a few examples of his wrath around to precede him.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“You didn’t steal the stone, did you?”
“We got attacked by another scav group. I was the only one to get out. I’ve been tracking the stone ever since. I’ve found–”
“Then it’s not your fault. And if you don’t mind, I don’t want anything more to do with it.” Ty nodded, swallowing his excuses.
“Okay…” he said, unsure how to ask his question. “Why, uh–”
“Why’ve I hauled what’s left of myself here?” Do you know where you are right now, Ty?”
“I’ll admit I’m a little lost.”
“I wouldn’t go looking right now if I were you, but the forest near this village isn’t really a forest, not like any you’ve ever seen. This forest has trees made of metal and a witch who rebuilds people who bring her the right gifts.”
“That’s a False God,” Ty said, trying as best he could to convey how alarming every piece of this felt to him, but Bernard just scowled.
“Don’t give me that. Look at me, Ty–I’m trying best I can not to blame you and your crew for it, but I’m at the end of my line. Either this Ben Gan Shui is gonna fix me, or she’s gonna put me out of my misery.”
Ty exhaled, speechless. He hated the logic, but it…it made sense.”
“I’d do it myself if the upside weren’t a possibility,” Bernard added. The silence stretched, the candlelight wavering as a breeze outside blew a draft through the boardinghouse.
“Ben Gan Shui, huh?” Ty asked at last.
“I don’t think it’s a real name,” Bernard said. “I think it’s the sound the machines make. You heard the man in here before, right?” Whenever he moved–” Bernard mimicked the hissing noise of the man walking: “Bengan-SHUI, bengan-SHUI.”
“Is he a machine?”
“Obviously, but they say he is a man as well. He had something wrong with his lungs some time ago, and the witch made him new ones.”
“Other things too,” Ty said.
“I can only surmise,” Bernard replied. “But now he functions as a guide. Perhaps you noticed: This village is a sort of annex to the Ironwood, under the witch’s protection so that they make sure all the rabble seeking her make an orderly queue.”
“That’s…oddly civilized,” Ty admitted.
“The witch herself is civilized, they say–in her way. She has her rules. She abides by them. Just wants people around here to understand that they’re here at her pleasure.”
The walls of the house creaked as another draft blew through, but this time, it carried the faint sounds of a conversation ambling through the village. And the sounds, Ty noted, were distressingly familiar.
“…keeps an emissary here? Lives with…” came a growl Ty recognized as Bleeding Wolf’s.
“I have to go, Bernard,” he whispered. “Good luck. Please don’t mention I was here.”
“Who was here?” Bernard wheezed through a smile as Ty dashed to the doorway, peering out onto the muddy street. Maybe fifty feet down, he saw the outlines of three figures walking past the torches. One was the woman who had greeted him. Another, based on the bristling hunch of his shoulders, was certainly Bleeding Wolf. Ty did not recognize the third, but he was not especially curious.
Taking a deep breath, he exhaled mana and slipped out the door, around the side of the house, into the brush surrounding the village. He pushed through it, moving away as swiftly and silently as he could, even as Bleeding Wolf called out behind him:
“Show yourself, mage!”
Ty, of course, did not. The people of the Crossroads knowing where he was, where he was going, only put them in more danger, to say nothing of the danger it invited upon himself. No, he put the calls and the flickering lights of the village behind him and made his way back out into the wet, sticky, mosquito-ridden wilds of the Riverlands.
“I’m glad we came to a mutually agreeable conclusion on that matter,” Ty’s mouth said of its own accord, triggering a wave of panic down his spine as he attempted to reestablish control over his jaw and tongue, to no avail. “Come now, did you forget our arrangement already?” it asked. Ty paused.
“Well, now that you remind me,” he said.
“Good,” the Dragon replied. “As it were, I would have insisted you depart even if you had not found your own reason. If the trinket man had noticed what you are, his mistress would have become far too interested, and I’ve no desire for any collaboration with that worm.”
“Yeah, you don’t seem much for collaboration in general,” Ty muttered.
“Sayeth my own collaborator? You wound me. I collaborate with jollity given the proper opportunity and leverage. But not with her.”
“Oh yes. I fear she never forgave me for our last collaboration. She would only try to take advantage of me now, and I’m sure such advantage would come at the expense of your bodily integrity. Veer left here, away from the trees. No need to stray so close to certain death.”
Ty complied, finding the Dragon’s explanation grating–but plausible enough–and gave the woods and village both a wide berth as he drew a zigzagging, uneven route back to the river. In spite of the moonlight, it was dark as shit, and he knew he would lose his bearings if he didn’t find a landmark before making his next move. Eventually, though, he made it back to the dull roar of rushing currents and earth that squelched beneath his feet. He pushed aside the reeds at the river’s edge and confirmed the dazzling dance of the moon and stars upon the gleaming water as he pondered what to do next.
No thought had time to arrive, however, before the sound of striking flint range in his ears, and a bloom of fire all but blinded him. Shielding his face, Ty made out the shape of a vessel tucked onto the riverbank not ten feet from where he stood, and as his eyes adjusted, he recognized the figures on it.
Brandishing the newly-lit torch was the dilettante scholar he had met on the initial journey north–Naples, if he recalled. Cowering behind him was an emaciated boy that Ty dimly recognized as Orphelia’s brother. And of course, standing at the prow of the boat, posed dramatically with a hand on his hip–
“I understand you are heading to the Southern Reaches, Mr. Ehsam,” Lan al’Ver declared. “Might I offer you conveyance?”
“Fuck,” Ty’s mouth muttered. He wasn’t sure whether it was him or the Dragon who said it.