The Crossroads, Book 1 Epilogue: The Alchemist

Long ago, before the War of the Roaches, in the time that some called the “Age of Heroes and Horrors,” a warrior rose to renown in the Gravestone mountains.  He waged great campaigns of conquest in his homeland and pushed outward, crushing rivals and resistance from northern Hazan to as far west as the outskirts of the Bloodwood.  Fortresses fell to his armies, villages burned, countless lives were claimed by his spear, but eventually–through mistakes, misunderstandings, or perhaps simply happenstance over which he had no control–he fell ill.  A great fear overtook him then: With so much more of the world to see, so much more that he must dominate, he grew terrified that the sickness would break him before his work was complete.

He sought out Excelsis, called the Alchemist, whose expertise was said to be the bane of all disease, and demanded he be cured.  This was, though, not all he demanded.  The Alchemist was a famous figure in those days, a hero to the people of the Gravestones and the Revián both, and rumor had spread that he was on the cusp of a deeper secret: an elixir that would link the body and soul, conferring longevity or imperviousness–though the stories differed with each telling as to which.  The warrior demanded that the Alchemist gift this elixir unto him, that he may finish his work of conquest no matter what impeded him.  For reasons few would ever understand, the Alchemist acquiesced.

It was never clear whether the serum he provided to the warrior was given in good faith.  Perhaps he had judged the cruel man unworth, deserving of punishment.  Perhaps the hell that would come with the Alchemist’s gift was merely the price of its boon.  But either way, as the warrior imbibed it, his blood was turned to flame, and his body was transformed.  He was made an undying Blaze, a prison and a pyre, invincible in the midst of perpetual, burning agony.  He slew the Alchemist in a rage, and nearly every trace of the hero’s intent died with him.

The warrior suffered for many years, but with time, he came to find truth–a sort of manic salvation–in his torment.  He no longer desired to conquer the world, not in the same way.  He had been rescued from the fate of the tyrant, had been granted entry to a heaven where, for all its worldly agony, he would never again need to fear the dark of the night of the world’s ill-intent.  He bade his soldiers scour the Alchemist’s library, his many and scattered laboratories, any trace the hero had left upon the earth for the means to recreate the elixir, to grant his burning immortality to all the world.

He and his most devoted followers, those who would become the first of his dragonlings, found some success.  They translated the Alchemist’s incomplete texts, found the means to transmute one’s blood to fire, but the formula was incomplete.  The bodies of the devoted could hold the fire for only a short time.  Their fire was dim and guttered quickly, and it was all they could do to make more of themselves before they collapsed in embers and ash.  They searched out ever more of the Alchemist’s research to no avail, until word began to spread among the common folk of one of the hero’s last works: a stone that would unlock the secrets of everything he had ever built.  So it was that after many years, the Blaze determined the location of the laboratory–one of the few remaining–which housed the Keystone and, due to its far flung distance from his horde, contracted a group of scavengers to obtain it.

But in truth, the Keystone and the Blaze were not all that Excelsis had left for the world.  He also left a particular request, but that request was for someone very specific.

At the moment he died, the moment the Blaze’s roaring fire engulfed his fragile flesh, he found himself somewhere else, somewhere quieter and darker.  The air was cool and humid, and a breeze blew through him, through the reeds before him, out to where he knew the river waited.  Above him the sky was dim.  Few stars twinkled in the expanse, and the moon was scarcely a crescent, just barely opening its brilliance on the landscape otherwise dominated by its somnolent shadow.  But that opening eye was the problem, he noted, grimly reaffirming everything he had ever done to bring himself to this place of endings.

The Alchemist pushed through the reeds, wading into the shallows that pooled between them.  The water soaked into his boots, but he didn’t care.  It wouldn’t matter much longer.  Past the last of the reeds, he stood knee-deep in the river’s lazy flow and waited, watching the thin glimmer of moonlight on its surface.  And soon he saw it, what the stories had taught him to expect, what he realized he had anticipated long before he had even heard those stories, from the origin of his existence, the depths of his soul: Beneath the river’s glass, a shadow emerged from the mist in the distance and approached him in silence.  Then a wooden hull, stylized and decorated like the shell of a swimming turtle breached the water, and before him rose a small riverboat.  The boatman, clad in a dark cloak over the muted finery of a merchant, withdrew his wooden pole from the water and offered Excelsis his hand.  He took it, boarding unsteadily.

“I see you have changed with the times, Turtle on the River’s Surface,” Excelsis said.  The boatman grinned.

“Few pray for my services anymore,” the boatman replied.  “Fewer still remember who I am.”

“Fear not.  Your memory–and that of your promise–still live among those wise enough to seek them.”

“My times in port of late would say otherwise,” the boatman said.  “But I suppose you are proof to the contrary.  I’ll have you know that assurance is an unexpected gift.”

“I thought you might see it that way,” Excelsis intoned slyly.  “But you are a merchant now, right?  You deal in debts, not gifts.”  Seeing the boatman’s jolt of consternation, he preempted: “And that is well–a debt is reason to care for the future.”  The boatman placed the pole back in the water, steadying the boat as he considered his passenger suspiciously.

“You have a request, then?” he asked.  “A future you wish me to care for?”  Excelsis nodded.

“I do.”  The boatman stared into the river’s current for some minutes before turning back.

“Very well,” he relented.  “What is it?”  Excelsis gestured at the moon.

“I’m sure you have noticed,” he said.  “The Night Sky stirs in his slumber, and soon he will wake.  When he does, everything will end.”

“Everything must end, eventually,” the boatman replied.

“But this is an ending unfinished,” Excelsis protested.  “In the beginning you promised us time, and you gave us stories.  Our story has been one of tumult, of cruelty, of falls and redemption, but such was your gift.  You gave us death, of course, but in so doing you gave us life as we know it.  And despite the failings of our memory, I believe we have cherished it.  I am asking for the time you promised us then–all of it.”

The moments stretched on, and the river, inexorably, flowed.  Slowly, the boatman’s expression softened.

“What would you have me do?” he asked.

“I have left the burning warrior as a piece of the apparatus which will stave off the Night.  But the rest is locked away.  Seek the Keystone and bring it to the shrine where once you ruled.”

“Why must you ask this of a god?” the boatman asked.  “Could it not have been accomplished by a mortal messenger?”

“Likely not,” Excelsis said.  “It is a very difficult task, and of course this is only the beginning.  But truly it is because only with you I can be certain.  You are a god of Endings–you are certainty itself.”

“You flatter me.  I am but a humble merchant.”  Excelsis laughed out loud.

“Fine then.  If not ‘god of Endings’, what would you be called?”  The boatman chuckled.

“These days I just go by Lan.  Lan al’Ver.”

The Crossroads, Chapter 23: Carrion, of a Sort

Reminder again that as of this week, some of my stories are available in digital form on Amazon. If you like what you read and are interested in supporting my work, I would greatly appreciate a purchase and/or review!

“Y’did good in th’drills today,” Atra said, clapping Anita on the back.  The girl shuddered from the light blow, prompting a trickle of bemused wonder: How hard would she need to hit the little peacekeeper to collapse her ribcage through her ringmail?  Would she need to use her greatshield?  Could she do it with the haft of her spear, or–the thought almost made her chuckle–perhaps just a well-placed fist?

“Thanks, ma’am,” Anita replied with a shy smile.  Atra returned the good-natured expression as she picked up the various straw dummies littering the stableyard the militia had repurposed as a training ground.  

In spite of her wandering thoughts, she meant the comment earnestly.  The girl and her fellow peacekeeper veterans had done well, not for a long and improbably fortunate time, but they would be effective fodder.  Where they were, on the back foot, staring down the Blaze’s overwhelming horde, good fodder was well worth its cost in training and equipment.

“I did want to ask, though,” Anita added.  “We barely have a hundred people now.  We’ll need more, right?”


“Then…should Michel and I do another push door to door?  To recruit more?”  Atra shook her head, trying not to smile, trying to avoid crossing the line between practiced familiarity and the implication of an unsettlingly careful plan.

“There’s no need,” she said.  “This is home for ya, right?”


“And y’fight ‘cause y’wanna protect it, yeh?”

Anita nodded.

“I think that’s true for near everyone here,” Atra said.  “They just gotta realize th’town needs it.  Neither you or I’re gonna tell’em–they’ve gotta figure it for themselves.  We’ve got time.  Don’t worry ‘bout it yet.”

“Alright…anything you want me to make sure is included in my report to the mayor?”

“Just your honest thoughts,” Atra replied, confident those thoughts would be exactly the message she wanted.  Anita gave a sloppy salute and went on her way.  Atra would need to work on their discipline.  It would mean little when the war arrived, but the breakdown of the drill and routine and preparedness was practically the point of the exercise.  As Anita left, though, Atra raised an eyebrow at one of the plan’s fuzzy edges–the one that the passed the girl with a terse greeting at the stableyard gate and approached with grave, half-tempered purpose.

“Bleeding Wolf,” she called out.  “T’what do I owe the pleasure?”  The beastman strode into the torchlight, muted rage straining at the muscles in his neck.  He was a beautiful specimen, she had to admit–exquisitely violent, kindred to the blinding thrill of bloodshed, yet still endearingly curious as to the meaning quivering beneath it all.”

“What are you doing here?” he growled.

“Preparing your town for a fight with th’Blaze,” she replied.  The answer was honest, to a point, but his scowl told her well enough that coyness wouldn’t satisfy him.  “But I s’pose y’picked up on somethin’ from our handshake.”


Atra glanced across the yard toward her spear and shield, leaning uselessly against a fencepost.  They would have been a nice contingency, but oh well.  She was up for a wrestling match with the beastman if it came to it.  She’d always found teeth…interesting.

“Well, I’ve told’ya no lies,” she said with a grin.  “And ‘yond that, I don’t see what explanation I owe ya.  So maybe y’wanna change your question–or your tone?”  Bleeding Wolf snarled.

“What do you get out of it?” he asked.  “I know you don’t give a shit about Bergen’s coin.”

“Don’t I, though?”

“Thought you were planting your flag in ‘no lies.’”  Atra felt her own lip curl.  This one had potential.

“Fine,” she admitted, lounging against the stable wall.  “I don’t.  Would’ya believe I wanted t’meet th’Blaze in battle?”

“I’d find it difficult.”

“It’s th’truth.”  Not the whole truth, but so goes the con.

“And you wanna drag the Crossroads into battle with you?” the beastman spat.  Atra snorted.

“I didn’t choose th’Blaze’s path,” she said.  “And I didn’t convince th’Crossroads t’stay in it.  I’m jes takin’ my opportunity where I see it.”

“No lies?” Bleeding Wolf growled.

“No lies.”

“What’d you tell the mayor?”

“Th’same, mostly.  He’s cleverer than y’think, and he’s payin’ me a pittance.”

“And the peacekeepers?”  Atra shrugged.

“They think I’m workin’ for coin,” she said.  “But they’ll learn better if they don’t think I’m a fool.”

“You’re not a fool.”

“I’m flattered.”

“You know damn well what I mean,” he said, taking a threatening step forward.  Atra raised an eyebrow.  “And I want you to know that if this scheme of yours costs the Crossroads even a single life, I will make fucking sure it costs you yours.”

She couldn’t help but smile.  She had expected the dog to bark but not for him to mean it.  It made her almost anxious to feel the bite on her skin.

“A warning well taken,” she replied.  “But feel free t’come by again t’ensure th’militia’s training is…appropriate.”

Bleeding Wolf twitched, irritated as intended by her goading.

“I may,” he said, attempting adorably to maintain the menace in his tone, before turning to leave.  Atra watched his shadow recede into the evening.  As he vanished, though, she noted with equal parts vindication and surprise that the wall behind her began to vibrate with the scurrying roil of hundreds of tiny feet.

“I almost thought you were going to fuck him right there,” said a choir of chittering voices through the wood.

“Cirque,” she sighed.  “Y’made it.”  As she spoke, a stream of rats, thrashing, wriggling over each other, began to pour from the gaps in the wall, gathering in a two-foot-high mound of vermin, writhing beside her.  From the mass emerged a figure easily mistaken for a child, though his height, rags, and youthful features couldn’t quite disguise the scowl of dead hatred that had spent nearly a century calcifying on his face.

“I think it’s best he dies,” Cirque hissed with a glare into the shadows where Bleeding Wolf had disappeared.  “He’s an intelligence risk, and I’d really rather you don’t get distracted.”

“T’ain’t what it’s about,” Atra replied, unbothered.

“Spare me the philosophy.  I don’t give a shit.  You promised me a feast, and all I see here is carrion for a massacre.  And gods help us if you screw up even that.”

“He ain’t the th’only one payin’ attention,” she said, crossing her arms.  “Means killin’ him’ll raise more questions, means a bigger risk of this all collapsin’ ‘fore th’Blaze even gets here.  ‘Sides, it’s carrion for me too.  Scav trade’s squashed all th’cities since th’False Gods like their trading posts exploitable.  No cities means you’n’I get scraps unless we can set this whole thing on fire.”

“So your plan is…nominative determinism?” Cirque said disdainfully.

“My plan is t’make this thing as big as it can possibly be,” Atra replied.  And so far, it’s all on track.”

“I’m hungry, Atra.  And unlike you, I have no secondary appetites for hate-sex with would-be heroes.”

“Well I know the roads’re dangerous enough.  I’m sure th’occasional caravan guard could go missing with minimal questions.”  She paused, glancing down at Cirque.  “Perhaps I even nabbed one this morning and buried ‘im in a hay bale yonder.”

Cirque’s eye twitched, but his show of annoyance did not extend to the rats scurrying excitedly at his feet.

“Before y’eat, though,” she continued, “y’did say ‘gods help us’ if I screw this up.  Care to guess who I ran into on th’way here?”

The Crossroads, Chapter 22: Promises Kept, Circles Completed

Note: This is a very long chapter, and it’s sloppy, but that’s showbiz, baby. Reminder again that as of this week, some of my stories are available in digital form on Amazon. If you like what you read and are interested in supporting my work, I would greatly appreciate a purchase and/or review!

They had relocated Lan’s boat well in advance of their approach, away from the Reach’s harbor–which they would have no chance of escaping should things turn noisy–to an alcove upriver where they could regroup on foot.  Though daylight had begrudgingly illuminated the beginning of the effort, night had arrived by the time they finished and settled in thoroughly by the time they began the real work.  Ty and Naples’ reconnaissance had turned up a number of details, most of them useful if unfortunate.  According to a group of merchants who frequented the town, Naples’ rumor about Les’ Marquains’ treacherous interior decor was more than hot air: One of them had once attended one of the lord’s “gatherings” and witnessed an aristocrat knock a lamp from a table.  Rather than breaking the lamp, however, the act seemed to instantly snap the aristocrat’s arm in three places.  The merchant declined to share more, though it was clear to Ty that his feelings on the culture of the Chateau had been meaningfully tempered.

Meanwhile, a drunkenly loose-lipped aristocrat at the tavern divulged to Naples that Les Marquains enforced a weekly meeting of the Reach’s municipal council at the Chateau at the end of every week but otherwise remained within, distant from the town’s affairs.  They had arrived midweek, with Orphelia’s “reentry”s imminent that night, according to Lan.  This meant they would be unable to use the orgy–it was an orgy, right?–as cover for infiltrating the Chateau, but it was just as well.  The chatter on what occurred at those events was vague but plenty disturbing, and Ty was hopeful that if they were to die in this venture, that wouldn’t be the way they would go.  Besides, it seemed that entry to the Chateau on any other occasion was looked upon as unimaginably foolhardy.  If nothing else, their attempt would not be expected.

From those warnings and other scattered fragments, they had pieced together a plan.  After nightfall they would enter the Chateau by means of a servant’s passage in the northwest corner of its foundation.  The townsfolk did not seem able to corroborate the existence of this passage, though Naples insisted it would be there based on his memory of a pamphlet he’d read once on notable examples of Revián architecture.  Once inside, they would split up, since numbers would likely do little to protect them from what waited there, and they would scour the house for Orphelia and the Keystone.  They established a location for rendezvous in the meadow below the house as well as rules for personal safety: Don’t break or damage anything.  Avoid touching anything that might be moved to the extent possible.  And should they encounter Les Marquains himself, run–the man was murderous, unreasonable, and nigh unassailable due to some combination of magical talent and artifice at which the rumors could only speculate.

As plans for impossible tasks went, it wasn’t bad, but the task was still impossible, the consequences for failure were nightmarish, and Ty was rattled.  The tension wasn’t lost on Naples either.  The man was putting on a brave face, but though scavving wasn’t his profession, he clearly understood the gravity of their predicament.  Lan, of course, remained breezily aloof, though his pomp seemed diminished, and the boy, Devlin, well, Ty couldn’t tell whether it was cruel or merciful to let his childish bravery stand.  Uniquely, he didn’t seem to understand how dangerous their venture was about to become, but Ty guessed the kid probably looked at it the same way: Except for Lan, they all acted like they didn’t have a choice.  For Naples and the boy, finding Orphelia seemed worth the danger–worth any danger, maybe.  And if Ty didn’t find the Keystone, he was dead, not to mention the many more the Blaze would kill on the way to him.

But they all mustered the courage, and when darkness fell, they made their way overland, giving a wide berth to both the Reach and the promontory on which the Chateau rested before slipping in toward the cliff through the tall grass.

“We should find a cave hidden at the foot of it,” Naples had said earlier.  “According to the stories, Les Marquains used to use it to sneak out while his grandfather was still alive.”

For all of the oddity of the factoid–and the luck that the scholar had even encountered it–Naples turned out to be correct.  In a thin corridor between two outcroppings, they discovered a chamber hewn in the rock.  Inside it was pitch, a stark and unwelcome change from the shining moonlight outside, and they had to light one of the candles Lan had acquired during the day’s commerce in order to navigate the staircase within.  It was dingy, uninviting, and unadorned, save for intermittent silver, fanged catfish laid into the stone bannister beside the stairs.  But though the reminder the fish signified–that they were entering the domain of a lord of Ka–had its chilling effect, it did not impede them, and they made their way up quickly, exiting the passage through a simple, wooden door into what Ty intuited was the Chateau’s garden.

“Best stay on open ground,” Naples whispered, extinguishing the candle.  “Plants are Les Marquains’ specialty.  Likely not everything growing here is harmless.”  Ty nodded, Devlin gulped, and the four of them continued, tiptoeing their way along the garden paths.  In the moonlight, what Ty could see of the trees and flowerbeds was limited, but what he did see suggested the warning was apt.  Trees creaked and turned expectantly at their approach, engorged bramble seemed to slither onto the pathways behind them as they passed, and though nothing impeded their progress to the house, Ty had a feeling that they might have experienced more of the garden’s personality had they dallied even slightly.  Fortunately, all of them seemed to understand the urgency of their pace, and they made it to the house without incident.

The door they approached was probably not intended to be the house’s primary entrance–Ty had not heard specific accounts of the building’s front, but he could imagine the staples: a wide greeting area, a paved approach from the gates, stairs, heavy oaken doors.  Instead here there was a simple wooden chair, a covered awning, and a dirt patio, bordered by stones but otherwise no different from the garden paths that led them there.  The door was well-made but small, with dusty glass panels comprising most of its upper half.  Ty paused before it and the others, intuiting the import of the threshold, came to a halt behind him.

“First test,” he whispered.  “Dunno if it’s an artifact.  Or if the man cares about locking doors.  Who wants to fi–”  Needing no additional prompt, apparently, Lan stepped forward, placed his hand on the doorknob, and turned.  The door swung open with a quiet creak, and the merchant strode inside, Devlin in tow.  Ty glanced, put off, at Naples, but the scholar just shrugged and followed them.  Ty begrudgingly brought up the rear.

Inside was a thin corridor, decorated with various paintings, indiscernible in the gloam but nonetheless profoundly unsettling to look at.  In fact, upon entering, Ty was dismayed to feel with some degree of certainty that he was being watched by the house in general.  The presence did not feel especially human–though that hardly made it better–and it seemed to well in the black, invisible patches of hallway between the places where slats of moonlight streamed in through the windows.  He suppressed a shudder at the ambiguity of whether they had already tripped a crucial wire, but there was no way to know yet.  Lan and Devlin, seemingly heedless to the aura of the place, had already begun making their way to one end of the hallway.  Ty signaled Naples to follow him the other way.

Seeing a flicker of light from the doorway ahead of them, they slowed, looking into a large dining room.  The long table, unset, was adorned with a lit candelabra, but the room was otherwise empty.  Ty hesitated, listening, in case the burning candles constituted a reason for someone to return to the room.  But heard no footsteps, nothing echoing or groaning through the house, only his and Naples suppressed breathing.  Gritting his teeth, he snuck hastily through, into another hallway and on to the threshold of a sitting room of some sort.

This one was lit by a crackling fireplace behind an empty chair, framed by two towering bookshelves.  Above the fireplace hung a painting depicting, confusingly, the same empty chair before the same fireplace.  The glow from the hearth mixed with the pale moonlight from the large window on the room’s opposite end, bathing the room and the base of the grand staircase beside the window in a pleasingly serene pall.

“Is that your name, Mr. Ruffles?” asked a thin voice from within the room.  Ty started, ducking behind the doorway, peering back around to see a slight figure standing in the shadow of the bookshelf.

“Holy fucking shit,” he said, part startled, part relieved, perhaps louder than he should have been.  It was Orphelia.

Orphelia, evidently not pleased to see them, jumped in surprise.  She stared at Ty for a split second before lunging toward the fireplace, reaching up above it for the strange painting.  Then she blinked out of existence, leaving Ty to stare dumbfounded.

“What on earth was that?” Naples asked.

“No idea…”

Naples cautiously stepped into the room, approaching the fireplace.

“I wonder if it took her somewhere,” he said, considering the painting.  “Maybe we can…”

“Absolutely not,” Ty interrupted.  “Before we touch anything, we’re gonna find al’Ver.”


“Ah, they’re here already,” Rom said, his voice soft but strangely clear amidst the crackle of the fire and the shock of Ty’s sudden intrusion.  “We’ll have to move with haste.  Now: See that painting?  Touch it.”

Orphelia did not delay.  She practically jumped, stretching her hand up above the mantle to tap her fingers against the cracked paint.  As she did, she felt a chill run across her ankles, and when she landed, she saw the room had changed.  Ty and Naples–he had been behind Ty, right?–were gone, as was the fire, and only long-spent ash remained in the hearth.  The furniture in the room seemed different as well.  They were still the same pieces, the same chair and end table, bookcases, fireplace–but they were all old and broken and ruined.  The chair was covered in dust and dirt, its upholstery shredded well beyond the point of repair, and the bookcases were empty save for dust and cobwebs.

“Very good,” Rom said, turning to look out the window.  The light outside had changed from dark, glittering night to something more like twilight, though Orphelia could not tell if it was the fading light of dusk or a brightening dawn.  “We are closer now.  Come.  I believe the one we seek waits for us below.”

Rom strode back into the room and turned past the stairs, exiting into a large foyer.  Orphelia followed as he made his way to the double doors and proceeded outside, holding one of them open for her.

“Mr. Ruffles?” she asked, shielding her face from the sudden comparative brightness.  The sky, she realized, now that she was under it, didn’t seem quite right.  The colors, the whorled clouds, the striations against the setting or rising sun, it all seemed upside down and out of order.

“Yes, my dear?”

“Who is it we’re looking for?  I thought you said this was my journey.”

“It is your journey,” Rom replied, taking the lead again toward the side of the courtyard where a path began winding down the side of the cliff the house sat upon.  “You are to release a monster back upon the world so that one promise might be kept and another might be made.”  Orphelia shook her head, confused, interrupting her attempt to decipher the explanation so that she could focus on navigating the craggy path down which Rom was leading her.

“What…what does that mean?” she asked at last.  Rom paused, looking over his shoulder with a sly smile.

“When a person does something bad,” he said, “what is it you would say they deserve?”

“Do they have to deserve anything?” Orphelia replied, defensive in spite of herself.  Rom stared at her evenly.

“That is a question born of precociousness and cowardice, my dear.  But I suppose we all must ask it at some point.  The reason is because consequence is a safeguard against the dark and cold.  They do not have to bear the consequences of their actions, but the alternative is more terrible than you realize.  So suppose they do.”

Orphelia thought for a moment, her head spinning, before responding:

“I guess they deserve to be punished?”

“Indeed,” Rom said, turning back to the path.  “It has been human tradition for all our history that our sins should be met with retribution.  But that has not stopped people from being bad, has it?”

“No,” Orphelia said, carefully following him down the steep slope.  “I guess it hasn’t.”

“This leaves us a duality, then.  The relationship, the promise that sin makes to vengeance, that circle revolves at the core of the human soul, as we, uncomfortable with gazing to such depths, ascribe it to pragmatic social management.  That promise, for which we actually have no ‘why’, is the Sky, the Truth wrapped in lies to which we one day aspire to ascend.

“At the same time,” Rom continued, “the clouds we use to obscure the Sky rain down upon an inevitable realization: If retribution does not deter sin, if the completed circle does not preclude its formation anew, then our persistence in sin, in treachery–” he turned to face Orphelia, punctuating his lecture: “In death–must have a purpose which drives us as well.  This is the Deep, that which my master seeks to connect to the Sky, a task for which I believe you will play an important role.”

“But…your master?  Why does he want that?” Orphelia asked.  “And what role?”

“He believes it will save the world,” Rom replied.  “But we do not need to pick the corpse clean now.  I promise that my master and I will be made human to you in time.”

“You don’t need to be human, Mr. Ruffles.  I liked you fine as my bear!”

“It is the nature of lies to dissipate, I’m afraid.  But take heart.  Our destination is not much further.”

With surprising agility, Rom danced down a ten-foot rock face, turning to take Orphelia’s hand and guide her down his path of nearly invisible footholds.  His hand was cold and calloused, but she found herself relieved nonetheless to be holding it.  Mr. Ruffles had been a companion to her, of sorts, but even she was not so delusional as to have presumed the stuffed bear to be a human connection.  Except…it seemed that her delusional surrogate father was human, actually.  Human enough to have a face and a hand she could hold.  It gave her hope at a deeper level than she was accustomed to of late.  It was hope for a future, though it felt more comfortable than specific.

She followed him a short stretch further down the slope, until the rock face above them began to jut over their heads, and they found themselves at the wide mouth of a cavern, yawning its dusty shadows out over the technicolor sky.  As they had climbed down, the wind had been strong and unpredictable against the cliffside, and now, beneath the overhang, the gust and whistle reverberated through the cavern at thunderous volume.  As they walked inward, the blasts became less disruptive, but as they grew quieter they ceased to mask the very similar–but altogether more regular–rumble of breath, shaking the ceiling with each exhalation.  Then, her eyes adjusted once more to the dark, Orphelia saw it: the silhouette of a man, seated, hunched over on the floor of the cavern some twenty feet ahead.


Naples withdrew his hand from the painting.

“Okay?” he whispered.  “Where did he go?”  Ty looked around the room, evidently frustrated.

“Fuck if I know, but we have other things to find,” the scavenger shot back.  “We’ll track her down before we go, but I’m not gonna mess with that shit until we have backup.”

Naples looked up at the queer painting, then back to Ty, regretting the sense in his words.  They really didn’t have any idea how it worked, and more importantly, Orphelia had revealed she had less interest in their rescue than they’d presumed.  If they were going to muck about with transportative artifacts to get to her, it really would be better to first line up their waterfowl.

“Alright then,” he said.  “Where do y–”  His question froze in his throat as a floorboard creaked directly overhead.  Both men’s heads snapped to the staircase, and both dashed, silently as they could, to their respective ideas of hiding spots.  For Ty, this was apparently the shadows where the staircase bent into the room.  For Naples, less prudently in hindsight, it was between the armchair and the fireplace.  Realizing the precariousness of his position as heavy footsteps began to descend the stairs, he gulped down the mana of one of the hearth’s blazing logs and projected it as anonymity, just as he’d been taught as a child, just as Ty was likely doing from his own vantage.  He concentrated on the channeling as if his life depended on it, which–as became clear when a corpulent man sauntered down the staircase into view, goblet in one hand, a book in the other, and a sneer etched perhaps habitually upon his much-depicted face–it did.

Les Marquains strode lackadaisically into the room, gulping irreverently at his goblet, and Naples watched as Ty seized the moment, creeping up the stairs behind him.  He ducked back behind the chair as Les Marquains paused before it, sniffing audibly then sitting down, his back separated from Naples’ face by only a few inches of strained upholstery.  It was all Naples could do to hold his breath and hope that the man would find some distraction, some focus for his attention before noticing the intruder behind him.  But after thirty seconds he spoke aloud:

“Awfully brave of you to visit with no invitation.  I was feeling lonely, though.”

Naples’ heart sank, and words caught in his throat as he desperately tried to imagine a sentence that could buy him the seconds he needed to run.  But another voice preempted him.

“I’m afraid your loneliness will have to persist,” Captain al’Ver said.  “I don’t believe our company will be much to your liking.”

Les Marquains rose from the chair with a snigger, and Naples felt every single mana flow in the room warp in his direction.  He wasn’t sure how much faith he had in Captain al’Ver against these odds, but he was going to do everything he could with the gift the merchant was offering.  As quietly as he could, he sprinted for the stairs.  He watched out of the corner of his eye as a mass of thorny tendrils erupted from the floor where Captain al’Ver stood in the doorway at the opposite end of the room, and he clapped his hands to his ears as the house itself screamed a piercing wail that felt as if it might rip his brain out through his eye sockets, but he didn’t wait to see the outcome.  He stumbled up the stairs as the cacophony continued, to find Ty waiting at the top, beckoning him into a door in the hallway just off the landing.

“We need to go!” Naples sputtered breathlessly.  Ty pulled him inside and slammed the door.

“I’m not going anywhere until I find the Keystone!” Ty spat.  “Now help me look.  This looks like a study, and if so, there’s a good chance it’s here.”

Ty had lit a candle and placed it on a bookshelf.  By its dim light, Naples could see Ty’s supposition had some merit.  The room was a mess of books, loose parchment, and–mostly–various knicknacks of ambiguous significance and purpose, stacked in some places in teetering piles, heaped carelessly in others, spilling from the shelves, desk, and threadbare sofa onto the half-carpeted floor.  Naples could not even begin to guess what all of it was doing here–there were tools, ornaments, artwork, cutlery, a sextant, numerous small taxidermies, at least five dried human appendages, and all manner of other nonsense, with little to distinguish things purposefully saved from what was, or should have been, garbage–but he began to sift through the piles, wary of what he touched in case any of it was bewitched to trigger some enchantment upon being touched.  The closed door and the floor between them and the chaos downstairs dampened the howling from the ongoing confrontation below, but it still hurt more than sound should, clawing at the space behind his eyes.

“What am I looking for?” he asked, wincing, unsure if he should be shouting over the din or whispering to hide their whereabouts.

“Blue, flat stone,” Ty yelled over his shoulder, pushing whole piles of junk off the desk.  “Set in a silver medallion, crazy design engraved on it.”

Scattering the pile before him and seeing nothing of the sort, Naples dropped to his knees beside the sofa.  He rummaged for a moment through the heaps stacked around it before peering beneath it to find even more esoteric trash packed between it and the floor.  He pulled it out by the fistful: a straw doll bedazzled with an unnerving array of precious jewelry; a stack of used plates, sticky with icing and covered in mold; a surprisingly large and intact snakeskin; and a wide, ornate, porcelain dish.  That, unfortunately, was where Naples made his mistake.  As he pulled the dish out from the crush of baubles beneath the sofa, he looked down at it.  He felt a familiar tingle at the base of his skull–the tingle, he realized, of magical compulsion–and then, suddenly, he gagged.  He needed to vomit.

He was dimly aware of Ty hissing “Yes!” as the floor seemed to shake.  But then his stomach inverted, and he doubled over, spewing everything he had in him into the dish.


The fear had taken a few moments to set in after they entered the house, but in the quiet dark, with the walls that seemed to watch and breathe, it ultimately arrived in force.  Still, Devlin found that sticking by Captain al’Ver helped.  Though the impression was sometimes a bit strained, the merchant really did project a convincing persona of a fearless hero.  It was infectious, and though Devlin saw the cracks in the man’s facade, he took comfort in the realization that it was not this place that Lan was afraid of.

The hallway where they had entered soon opened to a foyer framed by an imposing set of double doors, a large silver mirror opposite them, and fine, dark, wood-paneled walls adorned by molding with the same flowing catfish motif that had greeted them on the way in.  Captain al’Ver paused there to consider a portrait hanging on the side wall of a severe, bald-headed man in a fitted silver breastplate.  Devlin looked up at him, attempting to discern his plan, but the merchant was inscrutable.  He glanced down, momentarily meeting Devlin’s gaze before turning, perplexed, back to the hallway.  He opened a door, revealing a set of wooden steps leading down into darkness, and proceeded inside.  Faithful if apprehensive, Devlin followed.

Despite the more or less complete lack of light, the merchant seemed oddly surefooted as they navigated down the steps.  Even stranger, though, was the fact that even though the dark all but obscured the features of their descent, Devlin never seemed to lose sight of Captain al’Ver.  Even in the pitch black, his form, though dim, was perfectly discernible.  So Devlin followed on carefully, even as the passage began to assault his other senses.  First, of course, was the smell.  Mere seconds into their downward journey, a rank miasma hit his lungs, the smell of vomit and acid and rot passing through him and into him.  It was all he could do not to vomit himself, though he could not help but gag.  And then he heard the sloshing, splashing, rattling hiss, and not even Captain al’Ver’s contagious bravado could stop him from freezing.

But Captain al’Ver stopped too, drawing his sword and raising it cautiously

“This is your doing, is it not?” he asked, though Devlin had no idea to whom.  There was another hiss, then the sloshing before them receded.  Lan shook his head sadly before jolting upright, looking over his shoulder.  “She has arrived.  Come.  Quickly.”

He hurried up the steps, leaving Devlin to scramble frantically after him, away from whatever horrible, vomit-soaked presence waited below.  The ascent, while vigorous, somehow felt much longer than their trip down, but eventually, the ominous splashing faded, the smell dissipated, and they emerged once again to the silence of the hallway.  Silent, of course, except for the creaking of heavy footsteps down the stairs above them, which, to Devlin’s alarm, Lan made straight for.

“Awfully brave of you to visit with no invitation,” a thickly accented voice greeted as they stepped from the foyer into what appeared to be a sitting room.  “I was feeling lonely, though.”

The voice came from a man, heavyset but babyfaced, in spite of the lines on his skin, sitting in an armchair before a fireplace.  It occurred to Devlin that this was certainly the “Les Marquains” his companions had discussed with furtive scorn throughout their preparations, the one they said would certainly overpower and torture them if he found them, but somehow, Captain al’Ver was undeterred.

“I’m afraid your loneliness will have to persist,” the merchant replied.  “I don’t believe our company will be much to your liking.”

The fat man rose from his chair with a casual laugh and maskless cruelty in his eyes and raised a hand, beckoning something.  Devlin felt the temperature in the room drop barely an instant before the doorframe around them exploded, covering them in thorny masses of bramble that seemed to seek out their limbs, already wrapping about them by the time he had even realized what happened.  At the same time, his ears were assaulted by a deafening, inhuman screech, as if the house itself were reciprocating the sudden violence.  He tried to cover his ears, but he found his wrists were held tight by the thorns, no matter how much he tore his skin attempting to force his way out of their grip.  And then, suddenly, his hands were free.  He plugged his ears, looking back and forth at the morass that had overcome them.  Through the still-writing tendrils, he could only barely see Les Marquains, clutching his own head, apparently in pain despite his maniacal giggling.  Captain al’Ver, meanwhile, was slashing deftly and rapidly at the bramble–it had been his intervention, Devlin realized, that had freed him.  The merchant’s battle was going poorly, though: While his sword arm remained free, tendrils had already encircled his shield and one of his legs, and it seemed all he could do to keep his remaining limbs free as the bramble continued to pour from the walls.

“Oh, yes!” Les Marquains exclaimed over the screaming, just barely audible through Devlin’s makeshift earplugs.  “Savor it, old man!  How much more of you is that?!”  But it was only one of the things he heard at that moment.  The other, he was sure, did not come from Les Marquains, the house, or anything really there.  But still he heard it:

“‘Tis fear which brings you here tonight

Resisting that which lets you fly

Resist no more, accept my gift

And save yourself, that’s why, that’s why”

He knew it was in his head, and in a calmer time he would have been more worried that he also knew exactly why it was in his head.  But he was not capable of that introspection at that moment.  Instead he plunged his hand into his pocket, withdrew his ring, and slid it onto his finger.  And then the sudden, blanketing rustle of wingbeats drowned out even the house’s screams.  Devlin’s lungs recoiled at the miasma of dust and dirty feathers, and he doubled over, coughing uncontrollably, like he had before, when everything fell apart.  But as he coughed, he felt the filth flow out of him, and dimply, he realized the bramble had stopped writhing.  It was going limp, erupting with blight, desiccating and disintegrating.  Captain al’Ver stared at him, a concern writ upon his face that Devlin had never seen before, of which he wasn’t sure he knew the Captain to be capable.  Les Marquains was staring too, though his reaction was less surprising:

“What the feck?”

The fat man composed himself before throwing a handful of small, sickly green, luminescent objects, which Captain al’Ver batted away with his shield.  Devlin was dimly aware of the melee that ensued, of the way the glowing seeds expanded, growing rapidly into what looked like huge flowers with teeth, of Lan’s daring advance, cutting down two of the creatures even as he was buffeted back by a third, but as he struggled to catch his breath, his attention was fixed on the cascade of falling feathers, gathering like a pool of shadows at his feet, and the voice that persisted, louder and clearer now in his daze:

“My child, my marquis, see how delightfully your legacy rots?  Stand proud, stand pure, until the end.  You shall be a model for the way the world will die.”

But then, suddenly, the entire house shuddered violently, and even the voice went silent.  Les Marquains groaned.

“What on earth do you people think you’re doing?” he spat.  “I swear I will make you regret it.”  He turned angrily and placed his hand on the painting above the fireplace–the painting which, Devlin realized, depicted…his fireplace–and disappeared, leaving Devlin and Lan alone with three more of the hissing flower-creatures.


“Wake up, Gaenyan,” Rom called into the darkness.  “Your freedom is at hand.”

In the dim light, Orphelia saw the silhouette jolt.  It did not turn to face them, exactly.  Rather, it seemed to blink rapidly, exploding outward, collapsing inward, each with a sudden blast of wind, reappearing already turned, halfway through the motion of standing, then again fully upright, apparently having eschewed the intermediary motions.

“IS HE HERE?”  The words came less as a voice than as an echo in the gale, blasting outward from the silhouette as it wavered between its humanoid shape and another massive, winged form around it.  “HAS THE SMILE ARRIVED?”

“Fear not,” Rom replied, seemingly fearless.  “The Smile is the Gyre and the Gyre is the Smile.  And you are still safely within the heart of the whirlwind.

“THEN WHO,” the silhouette roared, “ARE YOU?”

“I am Rom, his disciple and emissary.  And this is Orphelia, who will keep his promise.”

Another blast, and the man-shaped silhouette was gone, replaced by the much larger, closer figure at which its previous waverings had hinted.  And finally, Orphelia realized what she was seeing.

Its form was not solid, she realized, taking in the amalgamated gargoyle of human, goat, and insect features towering over her.  Its shape was definite, but where she expected flesh there was sand and dust, whirling rapidly, violently, with force she guessed capable of stripping the flesh from a live animal.  The demon looked down on her in turn, a snarl forming on its face as dark voids resolved in the sand where its eyes and mouth should have been.


“Do not question his need,” Rom rebuked.  “You know nothing of it–your entire existence has been a product of excess.  But you still have a debt owed you.  Do you not intend to accept it?”  The demon roared again, though Orphelia found it as interesting as it was terrifying that the sound arrived as reverberation from the entire cavern rather than issuing from the creature’s “mouth”.  Nonetheless, Rom did not even flinch, and slowly, the demon’s rage turned to caution.


Rom looked down at Orphelia and offered his hand.

“It is your turn, my dear.  You must dismantle this prison.”  Orphelia shook her head.

“I can’t, Mr. Ruffles,” she said.  “I don’t know how.  Can’t you–”

“I am only here because you roused my memory, Orphelia,” he replied.  “Everything we have done together we have done by your power.  The only difference here is that I cannot guide you.  To unravel this prison, constructed according to the designs of the One-Eyed Crow herself–this is a feat of true talent, and even you cannot do it unconsciously.  You must choose it.”

“But how?” Orphelia asked, tears welling in her eyes.

“Calm, my dear.  My substance now is lie and madness, and this place Le Marquains engraved in his painting is much the same.  Look past the gilding and etchings of stasis, past the concessions it would force on reality outside.  Open your mind and find the ways in which it and I are the same.  Find the common thread and pull.

Orphelia glanced, panicked, between Rom and the glowering demon, wishing desperately that she had never come here, that she had never gone sneaking into Marko’s office.  But something about Rom’s face struck her.  His expression was an odd mixture, not entirely kind but still reassuringly warm; filled not with love–not exactly–but faith.  For all of the confusion and horror of this strange place, this monstrous creature, all the unresolved questions–how did they get here?  What were they even doing?–he truly believed she could do this, she could make a difference, she would make him proud.  She took a deep breath and opened her mind, acknowledging for the first time the strange ethereal web that seemed to waver between her conscious senses.  She felt the connection between Rom and Mr. Ruffles, the stuffed animal, between him and the book she’d lifted from the shelf.  She felt the way his essence was being pulled from the objects by her.

As he had hinted, she felt the contours of the cave, of the world around the cave.  She felt the way its surfaces, the rocks and dust and crags, even the air itself lay, superimposed upon the thick, viscous flow of reality as she knew it, the reality to which she hoped they would return.  She felt the way the two layers were separated only by a mesh of interlocking bonds–like a bird’s nest–that pushed her away, dulling her senses and radiating a subtle pain when she forced her mind to inspect it.  She saw the way the demon was wrapped in that mesh, both ignorant to it and needled by it, and she saw a piece of the mesh where the weave jutted out, perhaps a flaw in its construction, perhaps a weathered rip sustained incidentally in the century it hung there without repair.  And then she realized what the pain was.

“It feels like death,” she said breathlessly.  “Will it hurt me?”

“It is death,” Rom said.  “And it already does.  Your only choice is whether to let it hold together in the shape someone else gave it.  Remember: It is the nature of lies to dissipate.”

She reached out, in the same way her heart reached out to Rom, in the same way, she realized, she had reached out unconsciously in the Crossroads each time she had stolen an apple or a loaf of bread, building her own fragile realities around the people she met.  Realities that didn’t include her.  But this time it was the opposite: All of them–she, Rom, this demon–were being excluded from reality right now, and she was going to end it.  She grasped the flaw in the weave, resisting the urge to recoil as it oozed its cold venom into her soul.  She grasped it and pulled.

And the cave–no, the whole false world–began to shudder.


Somehow, Ty was not yet scared.  He was frantic, annoyed, and in quite a lot of pain–the magical distortion emanating from the havoc downstairs was fucking with the enchantment on the thread the Dragon had sewn in him, and it was burning in his temples.  But he found, strangely, that his determination was overpowering his fear, which was good: He was going to need to be determined to find anything in this fucking trash heap.  Running up the stairs, ducking into the first room he found–at first he’d been thrilled to see the desk and the shelves.  If there was any room in which Les Marquains would store a magical curiosity, it would be his study.  But as Naples arrived, shitless, and the two of them began tearing through the room’s various piles of junk, Ty’s dilemma of trash, treasure, needles, and haystacks began to clarify menacingly.  Perhaps this was still the room where Les Marquains kept his mysterious magical trinkets, but if he did, Ty imagined it was because such trinkets were useless to him.  As it turned out, everything else in the room was pretty damned useless too.

Fortunately, it seemed that Lan’s efforts holding Les Marquains at bay were less doomed than Ty had feared, and the ongoing altercation below, while still disorienting, was buying them time.

He and Naples finished their hasty rifling through the piles nearest the door and moved on, Naples to the junk-laden sofa, him to the desk, an imposing, black, wooden structure adorned all over with more silver catfish.  On it were several piles of books he swept unceremoniously to the floor, an armillary sphere he lifted gingerly off the desk for fear of magical retribution should he break it, and a scattered mess of what looked like jewelry.  Warmer, he thought, though he did not see the Keystone among the pieces.  He did, however, see a silver key entangled between a bracelet and a particularly ostentatious earring.  Carefully prying it out, wary of enchantments on any of the items, he scanned the desk for a lock, quickly finding one on its central drawer.  He breathed a sigh as he turned the key in it, feeling the latch release, and gently pulled the drawer open.

Inside were a number of items that clearly had not been disturbed in some time: a brass letter opener, a few brittle-looking scrolls, a set of wooden marbles that rolled lines in the dust at the bottom of the drawer.  But next to them was something less dusty, more recent.  It was a medallion on a silver chain, and on its front was a flat stone that looked like some sort of blue jade.  Inscribed in the stone was a set of circles, arranged in and around an intensely complicated geometric design, the meaning of which Ty could not fathom but with which he was extremely familiar nonetheless.  This was it.  This was the artifact that had roused the Blaze’s wrath, the one he had retrieved from the Alchemist’s old laboratory, the one that had been stolen from him, rendering him a fugitive in a land with no laws.  This was Excelsis’ Keystone.

“Yes,” he gasped, lifting it from the drawer by its chain.  Then the entire house shook, as if something deep beneath it had been disturbed, and the sounds of growls and blows landing downstairs quieted.  But before Ty could hear any resolution to the stalemate, he heard Naples gag desperately.  He whipped around to see the scholar on his knees, bent over a porcelain basin, vomiting his stupid guts out.

An inexperienced scavenger might have assumed he’d glimpsed something sickening.  One savvier might conclude–correctly–that the sickness arose from a magical hazard, but more than likely neither would notice that where he was vomiting was not unimportant.  Ty had been doing this a long time, and while he didn’t know shit about meta-magic or how artifacts really worked, he sure knew what they looked like.  As he looked at the dish where Naples was retching and felt the bile rising in his own throat, he figured out what he needed to.  He grabbed Naples by the collar and wrenched him backward, pulling a trail of vomit over the edge of the dish.

The intervention did not entirely quell the urge Ty felt to relinquish the contents of his stomach, but it did bring it under control.  Naples, hands covering his mouth, seemed to be experiencing a similar reprieve.  But as Ty watched the streak of vomit Naples had left on the floor coagulate and slither up into the dish, he realized with both anger and terror that the crisis had not been totally averted.

The surface of the bilious fluid in the dish began to swell and slosh, and a dome began to form, as if something beneath that surface was fighting to break the tension, to emerge upon the world, drenched in sick.  Nothing did emerge, exactly, but as the dome continued to rise and features began to form–tendril-like limbs; a gaping, dripping mouth; masses of rancid bubbles for eyes–Ty began to wonder whether the alternative might be worse.  He glanced at Naples, who was staggering to his feet and frantically composing himself.

“We’re running, right?” the scholar asked.


The two of them bolted for the door.  Neither looked back for more information on the gurgling and splashing behind them or the wave of stench that hit their lungs, and when they cleared the door, they slammed it shut.

“Did you find it?” Naples asked, gasping.

“Yeah, let’s–”  Turning, the two of them nearly collided with Devlin at the top of the stairs.

“Captain…al’Ver said to run,” the boy muttered faintly.  In the dim of the hallway, Ty could make out a sudden blear on the boy’s eyes.  He seemed dazed, though Ty was without a guess as to why.

“Where is he?” Ty asked, acutely aware of the liquid seeping out from beneath the door behind them.

“Went to…save Orphelia…”

Naples hesitated, glancing his unease at Ty, but Ty shook his head.

“Nope,” he said.  “That’s enough for me.  We’ll meet him at the rendezvous.”  He hastily ushered Devlin back down the stairs, and Naples, begrudgingly, though without vocal objection, followed.


As he touched the painting, Lan felt the rush of cool and wet wash over him.  It was a deeply familiar feeling, the feeling of being born into the world, the one he had felt each night in the time before the Slumber began.  And it was a deeply wrong feeling–at least it was deeply wrong that he should experience it here.  Stories had been shared far and wide of Le Marquains’ magical brilliance, but those who shared the stories did not know–even Lan did not realize until now–that the brilliance of the enchantment was not Le Marquains’.  This was old magic, buried magic, and there were scarce few with memories that might have resurrected it.

“Sister, you persist here still?” he said to the still air of the false Chateau’s ruined sitting room.  “I realize now that it was your War and not just an idle pastime.  Are you pursuing an ending for them in spite of me?”

There was no response, for there was no one to respond–there were only echoes, footprints and feathers where her will had been spitefully cast–but that was just as well.  The sentiment was for him, for Lan al’Ver, awake at last, it seemed, to a world irrevocably changed.  Those changes would rear over him soon, but of course his intrusion onto this dream was also about the here and now.  Orphelia.  The Saraa Sa’een.  He roused his attention and sought them, striding from the sitting room to find the front door of the dream-house ajar.  He stepped outside, ducking out of the way of a carnivorous vine that lashed down at him from above the doorway, cutting it loose with an offhanded slash.

“I’ve had about enough of you,” Les Marquains remarked from the bottom of the front steps.  “All the moreso that you’re not a person, so why don’t you tell me what the feck you are and what you want.  Then we can skip to an ending where you feck off with your crowchild and get away from my house.”  Lan regarded the fat man, his umbrella at the ready.  He didn’t care for the tone of the question, but he was legitimately unsure how to respond.

“He is a shade without a place in the world,” came a new voice from behind Les Marquains as a stocky, muscular man materialized on the dream’s dusty path to the house.  “He is here because we are, and he wonders if the current of our purpose might lead him to his.”

Les Marquains groaned and flicked his wrist, and a mass of dead-looking roots exploded up from the ground, ensnaring the newcomer’s legs.

“Enough fecking riddles!”  But then the fat man started.  “Wait.  Haven’t I killed you before?”  The roots climbed the newcomer’s body, but he remained motionless, even as spines emerged from the flora and began to jab at his neck.  “You were one of the sandfeckers with Ali’Khazan on the day I escaped, weren’t you?  The Whiskers or something?”

“Sand-Masked Fox,” Lan said, suddenly recognizing the man.  “Nose of the Barabadoon.”  Les Marquains’ attention snapped apoplectically back to Lan.

“Aghhh,” he groaned again.  “A famous piece of shit.  Well, then what happens if I kill you again, hmm?  Will you come back for more?”

“Yes,” Fox replied.  “And you will be drawn ever closer to the center.”  At this, Les Marquains’ bluster subsided, and he glanced between the two of them, true concern finally visible on his face.

“I am only here for the girl,” Lan said, answering the fat man’s original question.

“What girl?”

“The girl who was drawn here by your prisoner,” Fox said.  Les Marquains frowned, calculating.

“And I expect you’re here for the monster, too, noseboy?” he spat.  “I never much liked those Gyre stories, but that thing was part of them, no?”

“That is correct,” Fox confirmed, though Les Marquains hesitated a moment longer.

“Fine then.”  He snapped his fingers, and the roots receded from Fox’s body.  “Do what you will with it.  Like I give a shit.  But then get the feck out.”  Shaking his head, he walked up the stairs, past Lan, flashing a sneer before disappearing back inside, leaving Lan to confront the newcomer.

“I think it high time for an explanation,” he said.  Fox met his demand with an even stare and slowly made his way to the head of a path beside the steps to the house.  From where he stood, Lan could see the path wind down along the side of the promontory, leading, no doubt, to the individuals that they respectively sought.

“I do not see what needs to be explained,” Fox said as he passed by.  “Not to you.  I am here to fulfill a promise of vengeance made long ago, as I have countless times before and will, countless times yet.”  Lan frowned, sheathing his sword, and followed him down the path.

“Are you here for Rommesse of Khet, then?” he asked.

“I am here for the Demon.  Can you not see it?  Or do you lose the current when it becomes mist?”  Lan found the question impudent, but by the same token, it did not appear to matter to Fox whether he answered it or not.  He pushed past it:

“And the girl?”

“She is setting the Demon free, that my circle may be completed,” Fox said simply.  “But it is not for me to speculate as to why you should seek your own purpose in her journey.”

Lan swallowed a retort.  Wit unfortunately had little value against one so single mindedly disinterested in the discussion.  It was as Fox said: He was here for the Saraa Sa’een, a point which Lan supposed he knew and which told him very little.  And the man was right, too.  The reasons Lan should be drawn to Orphelia, vexing as they were, did not matter to Fox.  They continued in silence for several minutes before Fox spoke an apparent afterthought:

“The old man speaks often of his burden.  And of ours, each of which ties us to him.  Even now I am not without compassion, so hear me when I say that I have seen what becomes of your kind when you become unburdened.  Consider it, and let dread fill you.”

As he uttered the foreboding imperative, they came upon a wide opening in the cliff face through which the wind howled.  Without hesitation, they entered, and as Lan’s eyes took in the patina of darkness, he isolated what he’d been seeking.  Off in the distance, three silhouettes: Orphelia’s slight frame; the ephemeral, hulking form of the Saraa Sa’een; and the presence that should not have been there but which Lan realized had been there ever since he had met the girl.  He could not see the man’s features, but he knew them well enough: the ashen skin, the silver hair, the kind eyes and cruel determination to make of the world that which it was never meant to be, the echoes of the historian that had persisted in stories and whispers since the fall of Khet.  But before he could approach the trio, Lan felt another shift, and the cave shook again.  The air of the dream grew cold, and the premonition of awakening drew nearer.  Sand-Masked Fox pulled his hatchet from the loop at his belt and looked back at Lan as red fire began to shimmer along the blade.

“It is time, Riverman,” he said.  “Perhaps you will embark on a journey now.  If so, I wish you fortune.”  Lan forced a laugh.

“I hadn’t realized you intended to hunt your quarry after it was free.  I expect Les Marquains is in for an unpleasant surprise.”  Fox considered him for a moment, more perplexed than amused.

“A curious thing,” he replied, “that you should so readily be human while we do all we can to flee our condition.”

Lan did not have a chance to respond.  At that moment, the fluid tension of the dream broke, and the ground where they stood, the howling wind, the darkness before them, and the technicolor twilight behind all collapsed in a cascade of so many raindrops.  Lan was adept at navigating the stream, even when its flow was variegated and vertical, but it was only be a feat of uncommon presence that he was able to see Orphelia’s trajectory in the falling dream-rain and alter it, bringing her path in line with his own.

And then it was dark, and they stood in the reeds.  A crescent moon hung over them in the shape of a grin, its light glinting on the river before them.  Orphelia looked up at Lan, shocked by the sudden change in scenery.  His presence registering in her expression, she turned, seeming panicked, to the other man beside her.

“Greetings, Lan al’Ver,” Rom said with a comfortable smile.

“Captain al’Ver,” Lan clarified.

“You are no captain, though I suppose I cannot begrudge you of all people a lie.”

“What do you want with her?”

“Wait, Captain al’Ver!” Orphelia objected.  “I can tell you everything!”

“There is no need, my dear,” Rom said, placing a hand on her shoulder.  “He already knows.”  He turned back to Lan and answered: “I want what the Smile wants, and the Smile, as he always has, wants time.”

“I think you both have accrued more time than you deserve,” Lan replied, dimly aware of the grim shift in his manner and the effect it was having on Orphelia.

“Oh, it is not for us,” Rom said.  “It’s for her.  And the Riverlands, and the world beyond.  And though you’ve so little interest in your own survival, the time is for you as well.”

As he spoke, Lan became increasingly aware of a dull ache behind his eyes, and the grinning moonlight began to absorb more and more of his attention.

“The world has changed, Riverwalker,” a voice which was not Rom’s echoed through his mind like a song played on broken chimes.  “It’s grown small, like a dream in the waking day.  And it’ll keep getting smaller, as long as He has no reason not to wake up.”

“Orphelia proved herself today,” Rom said, reorienting Lan’s focus on reality.  “Perhaps she will save you if you let her.  And by the by: The Smile looks forward to his coming visit.  He has told me he misses you.”

Lan blinked, and Rom was gone.  Orphelia looked back and forth, processing the sudden disappearance before focusing back on Lan.  Hesitantly, she approached him and hugged him around the waist, and, with an uneasy glance at the gibbous moon above, he embraced her back.

“I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at this point,” came a voice from the reeds.  Lan and Orphelia both looked up to see Ty, Naples, and Devlin emerge into the clearing where they stood, looking haggard but broadly uninjured.  Devlin stumbled forward, almost tackling Orphelia as Ty met Lan’s gaze with a nod.  Then in the distance there was a rumbling blast as a cloud of writhing dust exploded from the promontory beside the Reach, and the Saraa Sa’een’s gale-roar echoed out across the fields, loud and clear even where they stood, miles away.

Naples whistled nervously.

“So how do we all feel about getting out of here?” he asked.

The Crossroads, Chapter 21: She-Lord of Ka

Content warning: Rape, abuse, the same as the original story. Rale is a deeply violent world with a number of highly disturbing characters and occurrences, but it is my intention that all of it is for a purpose. The greater story, and the story of the Crossroads in particular, has a lot to do with promises and obligations, and the way those sour and rot over time. In its way, Les Marquains’ story of growing up in that world is a surprisingly good microcosm of the theme.

A short time ago–a lifetime for some, but short nonetheless–two men arrived in the Southern Reaches.  Neither much cared for their humanity, though they coped in different ways.

The first came from the desert basin to the east.  Some time before, he had killed, and his people censured him for it.  They declared him a demon and made to punish him, but he embraced their title: If he should be a demon to them, he should be a demon to all.  He killed his pursuers and fled, but more followed.  They chased him to a cave at the foot of a mountain, where he found a strange weapon, a knife which had fallen recently but waited for an eternity.  It spoke to him, showed him how a lie might become the truth, and so a demon he became in truth.  The demon, called Jin Gaenyan by those he had killed, called the Saraa Sa’een–Demon of the Sands–by those who hunted him thereafter, carried the knife from the cave, blowing south as a deadly storm and sating himself on the flesh of those who died in the flesh-stripping winds of his body.  He turned west at the hills on the basin’s southern edge and continued on until he reached the Riverlands.

The second man came from the Bloodwood, far to the northwest.  He had been born there, had been taught from childhood by the most careful of teachers that his human spirit was an object of shame.  To redeem himself, he, like his fellow students, attempted to imitate his master’s form in hopes that his spirit would follow.  He attempted to climb, feathered, into the boughs of the canopy, to aspire to the sky as humanity had long ago been tasked, but no matter the zeal he poured into his imitation, his studies of the teacher’s words, he could not wash away the filth with which he knew his essence was irrevocably stained.

One day, the teacher gathered her three most promising pupils–him included–and revealed to them the truth: The way of the Feathermen had been only a test, a path upon which the chosen would begin to understand what might allow humanity to ascend truly, without need for artifice, without need for feathers which were not their own.  These three, she said, had discovered the first inklings of their missions, and thus they had to depart the Bloodwood to cultivate their virtues in mankind’s rotting garden.

The first and greatest of them, called the One-Eyed Hawk, for whom the stakes of his task had been well-impressed, was given the virtue of Control and sent to Mudhull to await the teacher’s arrival.  The second, called the Serpent–later, the Dragon–was dispatched to the Westwood with the all-consuming virtue of Ambition.  The third, the man who would arrive at the Southern Reaches, was given the virtue of Purity.  Soon, he would be known across the Revián as Le Marquains.

Le Marquains arrived in the South a warrior and a prophet.  In his long journey from the Bloodwood, his devotion to Purity had rewarded him with followers, those who heard his sermons, read his treatises, felt the weight of filth in their souls and longed to purge it.  It had rewarded him with renown as a master of battle and combat, as a stern and fair leader with no patience for excess or deviance or failure–least of all within himself.  It had rewarded him with a daughter who, in spite of her late mother’s weakness, met his high expectations in devotion and prowess.

In those days he did away with his feathers and shaved every hair from his body.  He only ate lemons and hardtack, and even then, he forced himself to vomit the impurities that accumulated within him thereof.  He never touched other men, for the human split into sexes was a festering wound in one’s spirit–to physically bond with a man was to accept this infection.

For one so obsessed with his own purity, it should be no surprise that when he arrived in the South, he found the country in disarray.  The Saraa Sa’een had roamed there for some time, and through its rampages, no settlement could flourish.  The nomadic tribes of Hazan had waged war upon the creature for a generation, to little avail: Though they sometimes forced their foe into retreat, the demon always returned.

Le Marquains was unimpressed by the nomads.  They were hardy warriors, but they wore their flaws proudly, shamefully even.  They were undisciplined, fond of drink, given to premature celebration and despair in merely transient failure, but there was one among them worthy of respect: Ali’Khazan, called the Tooth of the Barabadoon, a dogged spiritualist and a peerless warrior.  It was with him that Le Marquains laid the foundation for an army of the Pure, and army that finally cornered the Saraa Sa’een and trapped the monster in a magical prison–for try as they might, they could not seem to kill it.  In the battle, he recovered the knife the demon carried, and he would later bestow it as a gift to the Bloodfish on the advent of the War.  Lord Ka, of course, cared not for the significance of the object and used it to spread butter.

But this has not yet become a story about the knife.

Le Marquains became a hero to the people of Hazan and the Revián both.  The church of the Pure blossomed, the city of the Reach grew and flourished, and when the Bloodfish came to power, and the One-Eyed Hawk’s armies came to call, the man popularly known as the marquis of that borderland became, in truth, Le Marquains of the nascent empire of Bloodhull.  To symbolize his loyalty, he married his daughter to one of the Hawk’s generals, and she soon bore him a grandson.  But despite the boy’s auspicious pedigree, he was an immeasurable disappointment.

The grandson was fat.  He liked cakes and fatty foods.  The grandson would eat lemon–but only on top of muffins.  The grandson was addicted to touch and, as a baby, would scream to be held, though Le Marquains never allowed his daughter to give in.

As a boy, the grandson refused to control his appetites, to maintain himself as the Pure should.  Le Marquains taught him to vomit all but the barest taste of food from his guts, taught him to scrub the grease from his skin until it bled, taught him that his body was not to be contaminated with the grime and gluttony toward which his malformed instincts drew him.  The grandson failed his lessons often.  When he did, Le Marquains broke his bones and seared his back with hot iron, but still he would not seem to learn.

When the grandson was ten years old, the War effort began to mobilize.  His mother and father departed to lead the Bloodfish’s armies, and he was left alone, bereft of any shield from his grandfather’s ferric discipline.  He began to try to hide the pain, to bind his wounds invisibly, to make himself seem a model of Purity, and though Le Marquains was not impressed by the boy’s token effort, though the violent reinforcement continued unabated, it was enough that the grandson’s horrible nature was concealed from the citizens of the Reach, the rest of the church.  For this reason, Le Marquains stopped short of drastic measures.

In the early days of the grandson’s solitude, Le Marquains’ chateau was as a prison.  The house was filled with objects that the old hero had infused with the fey-magics of the Feathermen as expressions of his ideal Purity, as homages to his long-absent teacher.  Some he had created specifically for the grandson: the dish the boy was made to vomit in, the gown he was given for dress, the bandages wrapped around his seared skin.  The boy could feel the death in them, the way they lapped at his suffering, hungry, as if one day they would wake, finally sated.  But of course they never did.  Instead, he felt his suffering flow into the house, accumulating in foreboding presences that loomed when Le Marquains was away.

As the grandson grew into his teenage years, his resourcefulness and curiosity began to butt against the chateau’s capacity to control him, and, begrudgingly, Le Marquains allowed him occasional wanderings beyond its walls.  In the Reach and its surrounding villages, the customs of the Pure were mere norms rather than iron law, and the grandson was relieved to discover that the darkness which seemed to watch him at home would not follow him outside.  He befriended the villagers there, queer but unobtrusive in his gown, and if they knew who he was, who his grandfather was, none of them ever mentioned it.  They accepted him.  He learned their sayings, ate their food.  He even fell in love.

One day, he and a peasant boy caught a rabbit in the woods.  They cooked it over a fire and shared it.  Overcome by an affection the boy had never known under his grandfather’s roof, he kissed his companion, and his companion kissed back.  The two made love into the evening until the responsibilities of reality set back in, and, flush and delighted, they parted ways.  But that delight soon soured–the grandson had not been attentive to the time.  He would arrive home after dark, and his grandfather would certainly notice.  Welling with dread, acutely aware of the rabbit fat still flecking his lips, he made his way back to the chateau.  He needed his facade back up.  He needed to find his dish.  He needed to vomit.

But when he arrived, Le Marquains was waiting.  He tore the gown from the grandson’s body, struck him with knuckles like horn, raped him until he bled, and again, and again.

“Is this how you like it?” he asked, breath hot against the boy’s ear.

What followed was hell for the both of them.  For the next year, the grandson scarcely ate, could barely walk without a cane.  Nightly, he screamed, sobbing, so loud it could not possibly have gone unheard, as his grandfather continued his sexual “corrections”, his crusade to expunge whatever blemish he continued to perceive within his progeny.  But though the boy’s screams were not unheard, they went unanswered.

For Le Marquains, the shame was almost too much to bear.  The grandson had shown the flock unignorable proof of his uncleanness, proof of the disgusting slime that had issued from him, which persisted under his own roof.  That the Pure who lived near the chateau had to hear the boy’s nightly sow-squeals was unfortunate, but they would understand that he needed to be purged.  But the boy never was purged.  So the corrections had to continue, to Le Marquains’ mounting frustration.

The problem was that though the boy had inherited none of his grandfather’s conviction, none of his respect, none of his discipline, he had inherited his magical talent.  The grandson was powerful, perhaps gifted with an even tighter grasp on death than Le Marquains, and he accrued expertise rapidly, showing an affinity for the manipulation of plants and the things that grew within the ground.  So it came to pass that as the Bloodfish’s war machine stalled, and Le Marquains’ efforts to break his grandson escalated, well, the grandson finally broke.  One day, as Le Marquains walked his garden, preparing to lead his army to the Westwood to reinforce at the Battle of the Ouroboros, the grandson seized control of a lemon seed his grandfather had swallowed, germinating it, forcing a tree to grow within him, roots and limbs holding him in place as it burrowed through his body, entombing him in plain sight within his own symbol of precious Purity.

Le Marquains’ army collapsed in chaos with the disappearance of their leader, for they were unable to enter the magically-protected chateau to search for him.  Without their reinforcements, the rebel forces of Harmony defeated the Dragon at his citadel.  In short succession, the rebels’ revealed their true aim as well: Their leader, the mysterious Matze Matsua, had already maneuvered a second army to sack Bloodhull, beginning the end of the War of the Roaches, burying unceremoniously everything Le Marquains had worked for.  And soon, the grandson emerged to seize control of the disarray that had spread over the Reach.

He became known as Les Marquains, the feminine form of his grandfather’s title, though stories disagreed as to whether he propagated the name for himself or if his terrified subjects called him this out of spite.  He ruled for a decade through a combination of social division, abject terror, and infectious, gleeful debauchery.

He threw lavish orgies at his grandfather’s chateau, in his grandfather’s bed.  He would have the former clergy of the Pure hunted, compelled to attend, forced to gorge themselves on cakes made with lemons plucked from the tree which grew from their hero’s corpse, and when their customs were fully befouled, he and his guests would visit cruelty on their bodies far in excess of even his grandfather’s corrections.

For ten years he reigned this way before finally, an angry mob arrived at his gates, only to find that Les Marquains and his chateau both had vanished from the countryside.  All that remained was ruins dusted lightly with sand and shadows that loomed too dark for too long–and the fleeting conceit that something within that place was keeping watch, waiting for something.  But nothing that remained was valuable, and very little could be carried away, and so the folk of the Reach, fatigued and frightened but relieved at the departure of the disgusting She-Lord of Ka, soon lost interest, turning at last to the task of rebuilding their home in the aftermath of the War.

But men, even within their lifetimes, have short memories.  Amid the furor of those who sought to overthrow Les Marquains, little regard remained, even, for the tolerated tyranny of his fanatic grandfather.  They did not remember their fear for the iron and unnatural tenets of Purity, much less the respect and admiration that Le Marquains’ entrance into their lives had earned.  They certainly did not remember the defeat of the Saraa Sa’een or the feat of magical brilliance which had accomplished it.  

But Lan al’Ver did.  Which is why he was not surprised when, thirty years later, Les Marquains and his chateau reemerged upon the outskirts of the Reach, finally free of the pocket reality in which he had sealed himself–in the exact same way his grandfather had sealed the Saraa Sa’een more than half a century before.

Since his return, Les Marquains had seemed a different man, older, more careful, less prone to excess but infinitely crueler; and the Reach had suffered for it.  On their ride in, the four of them–Lan, Naples, Ty, and Devlin–had seen the effects of his new regime firsthand.  The majority of the Reach’s outlying villages had been vacated as those who could afford to flee their lord’s crackback upon their livelihoods did so.  The remainder almost flaunted their squalor.  Their citizens–peasants, half-naked, undernourished–worked through the heat of midday in grain fields and orchards under the watch of well-armed guards nearly as numerous as the peasants themselves.  And ahead of them, the Reach loomed upon the cliffs above the river, its gates fortified but only lightly surveilled.  After all, there was little worry as to what might approach them from without.  They had been bolstered, rather, to keep people in.

“Do they really need all those soldiers on the farms?” Devlin asked, watching the laborers in the distance.  “They don’t really look like they want to fight.”

“They don’t want ‘em running away,” Ty said, swiveling his gaze, wary of any attention their passage might have attracted.

“Where would they go?”

“Doesn’t matter.”  Ty did not clarify further, but Naples interjected:

“They might well die, but Les Marquains’ problem is that he can’t chase very well.  They say he has some sort of magical tie to the Chateau that prevents him from leaving.  So he can compel the townsfolk who don’t want to leave, and they oppress the peasants.  But if they have to leave to chase a runaway…then they might just run away too.  Better to make sure there are no runaways.”

Devlin nodded, looking characteristically ill, clearly overwhelmed by the answer.

“We’re getting close,” Ty said, focus narrowing on the cliffs ahead.

“Well what’s our plan?” Naples asked, arms crossed.  “Your target is in Les Marquains’ direct possession, yes?  And Captain, is Orphelia to emerge in the Chateau itself?”

Lan nodded breezily.  It was fortunate that Naples had been the one to accompany the rescue.  He was accommodating and had not pressed upon the bonds Ty had taken to acquire this mission.  The currents were sometimes vague, and it was good that the scholar’s place had not been taken by, say, Bleeding Wolf.  As it was, Lan was confident that the importance of Ty’s treasure would be apparent by the time they returned to the Crossroads.

“Then we don’t really give a shit about the Reach,” Ty said.  “The house is outside the city, right?”

“Yes,” Naples replied.  “Though a run through the rumor mill could be valuable to us.  The Reach maintains a policy of strict noninterference with merchants, provided they keep their dealings to the nobles, so I imagine a stop in port would be safe enough.”

“We aren’t merchants.”

“Well, yes, but the Captain is, and we can pose as his manservants until nightfall.  We are thinking we’ll try at night, yes?”  Ty exhaled, frustrated, though not clearly with anything in particular.

“Obviously,” he said.  “What’s the point, though?  Just talking with the nobles is going to get them asking questions.”

“Do you know anything about the Chateau de Marquains?” Naples asked.

“Les Marquains lives there?”

“Yes, and who else?”


“Sorry, trick question: Nobody knows, actually.  Most say he lives alone.  Some rumors say he has a daughter there who he never lets outside.  But more importantly, the stories say the house is filled with traps.  He used to throw parties, and it was apparently common for guests to touch the wrong statue or piece of furniture and lose a limb.  Or worse.”

Devlin shivered as Naples spoke, but the scholar continued:

“Point is, what we are trying now is damned insane.  The house is supposedly a death trap even when Les Marquains isn’t in it, and if we’re going to get out alive, we’re going to need more precise info than the vague rumblings that make their way up north.”

“It’s decided, then!” Lan said, deciding it.  “Young Devlin and I will carry our wares to market while you and Ty negotiate with the harbormaster and glean what morsels you will.”

The others either agreed or had little energy to argue the point with him, so they proceeded on, navigating through the Reach’s deep canyon to its harbor, nestled between the striated crags at the base of a massive staircase hewn in the rock, which led up into the town proper.  They docked, and Ty and Naples haggled with the harbormaster, a gaunt man in a stained and yellowed gown with both cowardice and viciousness apparent in the set of his jaw, as Lan made for the staircase, pulling a small, collapsible cart laden with crates of pelts up to the gates of the Reach, with Devlin following closely.  They found a stall in the market without much trouble, and eager buyers began to stop by soon after.

Lan kept careful watch over Devlin as they conducted their commerce.  The boy was not naturally suited to following the flow of mercantil conversation, and he struggled to have product on hand for demonstrations or hands free when it came time to accept currency, but he clearly understood the role of this step, the pageantry, in the rescue effort, and his dogged determination helped ensure that he only ever disappointed Lan a little.  Lan realized, though, that the boy was fighting more than his nature.

Part of it, certainly, was distraction.  Lan had visited the Reach many times before, but for Devlin, the backdrop of stunted and maimed peasants working in the streets, collecting trash, hauling goods as the marketplace clientele–sometimes other merchants, usually Les Marquains’ slavish “aristocracy” in their ersatz makeup, dirty gowns, and ornamental, pointedly-symbolic chains–did their shopping was no doubt something of a culture shock, if one could ethically call it that.  But still, Lan surmised that most of Devlin’s distraction was with himself.

The boy’s position in the stream at this point in his life was…unlikely.  Not impossible, but it did seem that at points when Lan’s attentions were elsewhere, Devlin was being pulled to extremes that a boy of his temperament would not seek on his own.  And the subterfuge of it–Lan was unsure whether whatever force gripped the boy wanted to remain hidden or whether it was his own doing.  Or both.  It was fortunate that his ties to his sister kept him close to lan in this instance.  Better to keep such influence in a place it might be easily contradicted.

Such thoughts gave Lan pause.  The day went on, the purchases and sales wheeled, and a steady stream of coin jingled uselessly into his purse, but the question stuck, oozing its implications across his thoughts on Devlin, on Ty, even on Orphelia: What did he care?  Why should he brandish scissors at the strings holding the boy?  Whe should he take personal interest in Ty’s desperate quest for someone else’s treasure?  Why even glance at Orphelia’s departure from the stream?  These people would always be people, poor students of history, unmoored from principle, easily entangled by alluring promises and grand-sounding ambitions.  And the water was roiled now, he’d made sure of that–what did he care if its flow became more circular with each passing year?

“You are a merchant now, right?  You deal in debts, not gifts.  And that is well–a debt is reason to care for the future.”

The words leapt from his memory like a chill spray of winter brine.  Everything had grown so hazy of late, but that was right: He carried a debt, to the accord he’d made with his siblings, to the strange man who had reminded him of it.

“Mr. Lan?” Devlin’s voice intruded upon his ruminations.  He blinked.  The sky was orange, and the market was nearly empty.  Ty and Naples stood before the stall, eyeing him with some concern.

“You good?” Ty asked.  Lan nodded slowly.

“I have never been better, my friend,” he replied, unable to muster enthusiasm to match the sentiment.

“Well…” Naples said, looking about the emptying square, “I think we ought to get going.  We were able to get some details from the folk at the inn, and we have the bare bones of a plan.  We’ll need to move your vessel, though, and–”

“Yes, yes,” Lan interrupted, shaking himself awake.  “Don’t just stand there!  Help me load the cart, and we may speak on the way!”

The Crossroads, Chapter 20: A Plan for Three Fronts

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What sort of defense?”

“An army of them-there…”

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

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

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

“Upon her word?”  Bleeding Wolf shrugged.

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

The mayor held his gaze for a moment.

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

“Three?” Gene asked.

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

“What?!” he roared.

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

“Passingly,” Bleeding Wolf muttered.

“You murdered our allies, then?”

“They shot first.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“With who?” Gene asked.  “Marko?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s Atra,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whom Emperors Have Served, Chapter 2: An Aviator’s Afterlife

Let’s see how long I can keep the alliteration rolling. This is the second chapter to this piece, which I’ve recently decided I actually do want to complete. The KiY references continue, except now with additional overtones of Titanic and obscure Alec Baldwin movies.

“I am to understand it arrived in port on Thursday.  Have you been by to see it yet?”

The words breezed lazily across Lamont Sterling’s wavering locus of attention.  He wasn’t especially interested in their meaning, though he could do without the way the fricatives gently pushed their needles into his hungover temples.  Inclining his head, he stared, half-lidded at the fluid parade of foot, cart, and automobile traffic proceeding past the window of his uncle’s Rolls-Royce as it sped along South Street.

“I’d meant to stroll by the harbor yesterday afternoon,” Harold continued.  “But then lunch stretched into a sales meeting, and by the time it was done, I–Lamont, are you quite alright?”

Lamont was not particularly alright, but this was a stable state of affairs.  He was operating–if one could call it that–on his usual four hours of fitful sleep, and he was reeling from the aftereffects of last night’s tonic, the barrage of martinis and Suffering Bastards calibrated precisely to keep him drunk enough to be enchanted by Manhattan’s high society and yet not so drunk as to be gripped by a fascination for its deconstruction.  Not enough, and the hopelessness of postwar life seeped in through even the liveliest party’s atmosphere; too much, and, well, he’d crossed that line only once before.  Appeasing the poor Carnegie boy’s family after that incident had been expensive and exhausting, and Lamont was worried he would not have Harold’s help doing it a second time.  At its best, though, it was a tolerable lifestyle.  But mornings were, quite reliably, not the lifestyle’s best.

“Yes, yes, Uncle,” he mumbled.  “No, I haven’t seen the boat.  I was also busy yesterday.”

“Yes, of course,” Harold said, though Lamont was fairly sure his uncle was aware he had spent yesterday’s daylight hours in his sitting room, curtains drawn, with a glass of seltzer and a plate of sandwiches.  “Well, I think you should perhaps have made an effort.  It would be good for you to take more of an interest in Mr. Hawberk’s affairs.”

“Eh?”  Harold fixed him with an attempt at an even stare.

“He considers you a potential business partner.”  Lamont scoffed.

“Bullshit,” he said.  Harold seemed to start at the coarseness of the retort, but only for a moment.

“I have it on good authority.”

Lamont rubbed the bridge of his nose and blinked before meeting his uncle’s gaze.

“You’re serious?” he asked.  “Who told you that?”

“I heard it from Louis Castaigne,” Harold said.  “He and I met at Delmonico’s earlier this week.  He let slip that Mr. Hawberk was planning an expansion into aircraft and was hoping you would consult.”

“Thought he was smarter than that,” Lamont muttered with an eye roll.

“I think it’s a good opportunity,” Harold affirmed.  “For both of you.  The Post called you ‘an icon of American aviation,’ Lamont.  You are an accomplished man, and I think you would be better served acting like it.”

Lamont felt his eyes snap to Harold almost involuntarily.  He quickly suppressed the rage, but not before some portion of it flashed across his face.  Harold must have noticed–his own expression quickly softened.

“Lamont,” he said, quieter.  “I know, with your father still missing–”

“This isn’t about Dick,” Lamont spat.

“Then what is it about?”

Lamont didn’t answer for a moment.  He put his arm up on the sill and looked out the window.  The car had slowed behind an unhurried horse carriage, and it was drawing stares from nearby pedestrians for whom the opulence of the vehicle was no doubt an uncommon sight.

“Don’t worry about it, Uncle,” he said at last.  “I’ll talk to Hawberk.  See what he wants.”  Then, after a moment: “How is Louis, anyway?  I haven’t seen him since he left for exercises upstate.”

“He seemed well.  A little rattled, I’ll confess.  Apparently, he’d just struck a man with his car, though no one was injured.”

“Thank heavens,” Lamont commented, disinterested.

“He and Constance are engaged now.”

“I’d heard.”

“He seemed excited to share it,” Harold continued.  “I, for one, had not realized how protracted their courtship had become.  Louis put the onus on himself, of course.  He said that Mr. Hawberk had offered his blessing freely, but he was too concerned with his brother’s treatment to commit.”


“Apparently, Hildred is doing much better now.  Louis says he has a job working for Mr. Hawberk.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” Lamont remarked to the window, though Harold seemed to hear it well enough.

“What do you mean?”

Lamont meant that he did not consider Hildred Castaigne’s employment at Hawberk Armoury and Defense a job, strictly speaking.  He had little personal experience with the man, but by every account except Louis’, Hildred was either a simpleton or a lunatic, and, with some awareness of the irony, Lamont doubted that such a man would so abruptly be rehabilitated into productive society.  But he didn’t say that.  Harold, by virtue of his own success and his brother’s fame, was thoroughly embedded in New York’s fine-grained upper crust, for whom the notion of a “job” was a signal-frazzling concept.  For reasons entirely divorced from wages and necessity, employment was vitally necessary for a working man’s character and nigh anathema for the elite.  Lamont doubted that Harold cared whether Hildred’s job description was merely to occupy a chair for appearance’s sake, but he knew a detail Harold would care about:

“He works for Hawberk’s accountant.”  Harold’s face fell immediately.

“Ah,” he said.  “I see now why Louis didn’t mention that detail.”

“Indeed.”  Traffic had picked up, and they were once more speeding toward their destination at the harbor.  After a brief silence, Harold spoke again:

“Do you expect Mr. Wilde will be in attendance on the voyage?”

“I doubt the little goblin would let Hawberk out of his sight for a week.”

“Lamont!”  Oh.  Lamont raised an eyebrow at Harold’s show of shock.  If only he’d heard the things his own brother made a habit of spewing from his mouth.

“You brought it up,” he said with a shrug.  “Don’t tell me you don’t feel similarly.”

“Don’t tell me you’ll be speaking like that this week!”

“I’ll speak how I like, Uncle.  Hawberk invited me after all.  And besides, it’s not like Wilde would take offense.  I’ve scarcely met a man with so little ego in my life.”

“How do you mean?”  Harold looked puzzled.  Lamont frowned.  He knew exactly what he meant, but he was disturbed to notice the thought was not his.  It was an observation he had been trained to make for purposes Harold would not understand.  Was better off not understanding.

“I mean the man is goal-focused and cares little for banter,” he clarified.  He declined to add the corollary which had motivated the analysis–Zongchang’s criteria by which he and Lamont knew their enemies: A man without an ego was a man at his most dangerous.  But Harold knew nothing of Feng Zongchang, would be dismayed to learn, likely; and Lamont was eager enough to forget as it was.

“Ah,” Harold acknowledged, probably attempting to square his and Lamont’s clear disdain for Felix Wilde with what had sounded like a compliment.  Oh well, Lamont thought.  His uncle would figure it sooner or later.  Out the window, he watched as Manhattan’s vistas of brick and concrete gave way to the expanse of ocean, sky, docks, and nautical vessels of every kind that constituted New York’s harbor.  All that, of course, and the towering form of The Prince’s Emblazoned, Hawberk’s ocean liner, upon which he would be spending his next week.

Fortunately, the voyage was meant to be leisurely, a celebratory jaunt into and out of the Atlantic for the benefit of Hawberk’s shareholders, New York’s rich and famous, and the skeleton crew lightheartedly waiting on them.  Lamont knew there were mercantile undertones to the affair, that what they were celebrating–perhaps prematurely–was a pivot to Hawberk Armoury and Defense’s postwar future in vehicles and civilian mass transit, a future for which The Prince’s Emblazoned was both an advertisement and a prototype, but he had little interest in engaging with that thread.  If, as Harold believed, Hawberk was going to insist on dragging him in, he would entertain the notion.  Perhaps he would even halfheartedly consult, but Lamont had little interest in a future in commercial aviation.  As far as he was concerned, he was living out his afterlife.  Manhattan’s heaven wasn’t especially enthralling, but it sure as hell beat being Dick Sterling’s errand boy.  And Manchuria…he’d take anything after that, he supposed.

As the car slowed to a halt at the curb before the harbor, the driver called back from the front seat:

“Shall I deliver your luggage, Master Lamont?”

“I’ll get it, Alec, thanks,” Lamont said, pushing his door open and stepping out onto the sidewalk.

“I’m going to say my hello to Mr. Hawberk as well,” Harold said, his voice muffled from within the vehicle.  “Do you mind waiting?”

Alec would not mind, Lamont was sure, but he respected that his uncle gave the help that sort of consideration when his father never would.  Lamont had no mind to wait, though.  He swiftly grabbed his bags from the trunk and headed toward the leviathan waiting in the harbor.  As he neared, and the whites and blues of The Prince’s Emblazoned loomed more and more like a skyscraper, taking on the character of an institution more permanent than mere conveyance, he spotted a familiar party gathered near the gangway.

Tall, broad, and regal despite his effusive charisma, William Hawberk waited beside it in his pristine white suit, greeting a steady line of newcomers–shareholders and business connections, broadly–embarking the monstrous vessel.  By his side, close enough to be considered “involved” in the greeting but just far enough to avoid materially participating, was his daughter, Constance; her fiancé, decorated Army Major Louis Castaigne; and her confidante, Carol, whom Lamont did not know well and trusted even less.  She had the air of someone with something to gain from delving into others’ business, something more than the socialite’s characteristic nosiness.  And of course, in the shade of a nearby tree, separated some thirty feet from the rest of the greeting party, Lamont spotted the aloof, swaying frame of Hildred Castaigne and, beside him, eyes fixed on the procession in the manner of a chef perusing a butcher shop, the short, gnarled, shrunken-headed accountant to Mr. Hawberk’s enterprises: Mr. Felix Wilde, himself.

Catching Wilde’s gaze, Lamont smiled politely if unconvincingly before snatching the shoulder of a passing crew member.

“‘Ey, what’s the bi–oh, hi Monty!”

“Ira.  I see the referral worked.”

“You bet it did!” Ira Soskin replied, hefting an almost comical mass of instrument bags over his shoulder.  “They booked me the whole week!  The accountant fellow said if it goes well there’d be weekly gigs after.”  Lamont glanced back at Wilde.  The dwarf was speaking to a tall, shabbily dressed man whom he did not recognize.

“Well I hope it’s true,” he said.  “You never know with that guy.  Also, that uniform doesn’t suit you.”

“Someone piss in your coffee or somethin’?”

Lamont rubbed his temples.  Perhaps that was rude.  But it was true: The baggy sailor’s uniform was a poor match for Ira’s short, slight, artist’s physique, not to mention its clash with the dark, understated, bespectacled aesthetic Lamont had come to associate with him.  He had met Ira when he had first returned to New York last year.  He’d done his drinking alone then, having not yet discovered the cachet to be won by feeding his liberally edited Oriental exploits to wide-eyed debutantes who had never left the American Northeast.  They had met in a jazz club, New York’s preeminent supplier of social solitude, and by virtue of some careful scheduling, they seemed to keep meeting.  Lamont liked the kid.  He was driven, idealistic, riding the star of his own deserved success.  He was exactly the type of young man Dick had wanted Lamont to be, save for the jazz and the Jewishness–but those ironies, that standing evidence that Dick was wrong, only made their friendship more reassuring.

“Sorry,” Lamont sighed.  “Last night was as bad as usual.  Got any hooch?”

“Monty, it ain’t even 10 AM!”

“You do have it, then?”

“What is wrong with you?”

Lamont again looked back to Wilde.  The tall man was now looking directly at him with an unusual expression, like he was taking notes on something.  Lamont raised a hand in his direction, as if to ask “You want something?”  Luckily, the man intuited the true meaning of the gesture and looked away.  Ira, following his wandering attention, if not its particulars, set his instruments on the ground.  In spite of his care, they still clattered into a chaotic heap.

“Fine,” he said, pulling a flask from a duffel–by Lamont’s estimate, the only non-musical baggage on him.  “I expect a fat tip this evening, though!”

“You know I’m good for it, Ira,” Lamont replied, taking a deep–and not especially discreet–pull from the flask.  Brandy.  It would do.  Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Harold and Hawberk disengaging from their respects with a boisterous handshake.  “I’ll have to see you then, though.  That looks like my cue to kiss the ring.”

He waved Iron on, grabbed his bags once again, and headed to the gangway, waving his greeting to Constance and Louis.

“Mr. Sterling!” Hawberk called at his approach.  “You look like death!”

“Glad to see it’s not mutual, Bill,” Lamont said with a muted laugh.  “But you know me.  I’ll be fresh as a daisy come sunset.”

“I certainly hope so!”  Then, in a softer voice as he clasped Lamont’s hand: “You and I ought to chat tonight.  It’s something long overdue, and–oh, there’s nothing to worry about…”

Lamont nodded and smiled.  New York was a nice enough afterlife, but even at its pinnacle, it didn’t seem like he would be able to escape the reminders of his sins.  Oh well.  He was sure there would be booze enough for it all at sea.

The Crossroads, Chapter 19: Ben Gan Shui

“Show yourself, mage!” Bleeding Wolf shouted into the night, to the clear alarm of both Gene and their villager guide.  He knew that sugary stomachache of a smell, and he’d had far beyond his fill of it in the past few days.  But no mage appeared, and, gradually, the scent of magical delusion faded into the background of the Riverlands’ humid mudstink–and this particular village’s pervasive bouquet of rust and seed-oil.

“We bein’ watched?” Gene asked, breaking the silence.  Bleeding Wolf shook his head.

“No.  Not anymore.”

“Travelers, please,” the guide woman interjected.  “The emissary’s dwelling is here, but you do not have much time.  The night’s offerings are to begin soon, and the Ben Gan Shui does not like delays.”

“Thanks for showin’ us in,” Gene replied as Bleeding Wolf approached the house she had indicated, a small hut on stilts at the end of the village, nearest to the woods.  “I’m sure we can adjust our schedule if need be–pardon, now.”  Bleeding Wolf heard the old man hobble to keep up behind him but made no comment.  He walked up the steps and rapped on the thin, wooden door.

“Enter, strangers,” came the faint voice inside.  Bleeding Wolf obliged.

Inside, the hut was almost entirely unfurnished.  Bare, gapped wooden floor met bare, gapped wooden walls met sparse, exposed rafters below the poorly-thatched roof.  The only objects of note inside were five lamps: four positioned in a square around the room, the last before a thin woven mat.  Upon the mat was the “emissary.”

The rumors had prepared Bleeding Wolf for the sight of the man–though he noted Gene’s grunt of consternation with a kernel of satisfaction–but from the perspective of a mage accustomed to altering his body, seeing one of the “metal men” in person was fascinating and revolting in equal parts.  The creature before them was not simply a machine in the shape of a human–quite a bit of human remained actually.  Rather, Bleeding Wolf realized, this man’s anatomy had been reengineered in a thousand discrete strokes of genius.  On his face, gear wheels so fine as to appear almost a continuous surface turned, modulating facial expressions in smooth, uncanny shifts around exposed metal teeth and moist human eyes.  On his arms, metal plates only half-covered the arrays of pistons fused to his tendons, which flexed as he opened his hands to bid his visitors inside.  And within his chest, Bleeding Wolf heard a steady-smooth wheeze, more like bellows than the twitching thump of a heartbeat, distorted by the whir of flywheels but lively, somehow, in its strange way.

“Have you also come seeking rebirth?” the metal man asked, his voice resonating behind his motionless teeth.

“Fuck no!” Gene shouted, shattering the otherwise eerie silence in the hut.  “We’ve come to talk to yer witch lady ‘bout her attack on the Crossroads.”  He stamped the butt of his halberd into the floorboards to accentuate the message, though the metal man remained perfectly still.  Even so, Bleeding Wolf could hear a measured increase in the tempo of his mechanical circulation.

“She does not generally accept invitations to entreat,” the metal man said after a moment.  “But I will confer with her.”  With that, the man began to emit a piercing mosquito-whine, so loud that Bleeding Wolf instinctively clapped his hands to his ears.  Gene grabbed him by the shoulder, muttering some concern he could not hear over the din, but within a few seconds it stopped.

“The fuck was that?” he roared.

“You just freaked, Dog Boy,” Gene whispered.  Bleeding Wolf looked back, realizing that the old man had not heard anything at all.

“It is unusual for humans to hear the frequencies we use to communicate in the Ironwood,” the metal man said.  “But I am told that some beastment can perceive the raw signals.  I imagine the sound is unpleasant to hear without a decryptor.”  Bleeding Wolf spat.

“Decryptor?  What are you on about?”

“I am afraid you would not understand without rebirth.  But it seems my intuitions were wrong.  My master is intrigued that you would approach her.  She asks whether you have brought the boy.”

“What?  This isn’t abou–” Bleeding Wolf reeled as another burst of high-pitched sound blasted through the room.  “Fucking stop that!”  Then, as the whine quieted once more: “If she’s intrigued, let us talk to her directly.”

The gears on the man’s face twisted into an expression similar to a frown.

“That is an unusual request,” he said.  “I advise you do not conflate her interest with a promise of safety.”

“Yeah, well, consider it conflated,” Bleeding Wolf shot back.  “We need to talk to her, and I’m done doing it through these fucking screams.”  The metal man’s body shifted into a pensive posture.

“If you like, you may accompany the travelers who are seeking rebirth tonight.  If my master is amicable to your request, I do not doubt she will beckon you in as well.”

“Yeah, fine,” Bleeding Wolf said.  “Whatever.”  The metal man nodded and then, in a continuous motion, rose to his feet.  As he moved to the door, he turned his head to speak:

“I often tell those who come here that my master likes people in the way that some people like clocks.  You should keep that thought in your mind.  Come.”

The pistons in the metal man’s legs hissed rhythmically as he led them from the hut to the doorway of the building next door.  Three particularly wretched humans emerged from it–a blind man, a cripple, and a man who Bleeding Wolf supposed was not technically a leper, though the amount of death on his skin meant he might as well have been–and joined their procession as they headed out of the village, through the tall, damp grass, toward the woods.

The sky was bright enough for the Ironwood to be visible, if only as a dark spot against the stars on the horizon, but Bleeding Wolf found if offputting how rapidly the sounds of the Riverlands–the trickle of water, the screech of crickets and cicadas, the scattered hoots and bird calls–abated as the approached the locus of dark.  And it wasn’t replaced with nothing.  The chorus that seemed to well from the ground, the hum of metal vibrating, the whistle of steam through an aperture, the respiration of some unseen metal beast of gargantuan proportions, repeating in rhythm: bengan-SHUI, bengan-SHUI–it was like being digested, he thought.  Except he understood digestion as it satisfied hunger.  Whatever this metallic digestion served, it wasn’t any hunger he knew.

Eventually, some hundred feet from the trees, the emissary raised a hand, bidding them stop.  For a moment, they waited there in the dark, in what Bleeding Wolf was sure the rest thought was silence.  Then the metal man turned and gestured to the cripple.  Wordlessly, she hobbled forward on her driftwood crutch.  Once ahead of them, she stopped, reached into a pack under her shawl, and withdrew a small, wicker doll.  She held it outstretched in her one, open hand, balanced precariously across her crutch.  She held the position for a minute, two minutes, occasionally glancing back to the emissary, though he offered neither encouragement nor interpretation.  Eventually, the crutch slipped in the mud, and she crashed to the ground.  Sobbing silently, she heaved herself back onto her good leg, hung her head, and hobbled away, back in the direction of the village.

The metal man turned again, this time signaling the blind man vocally:

“Go now, sightless one.”

The blind man stepped forward, surprisingly surefooted on the uneven, wet ground, and presented a small, metal bauble–a pocketwatch, Bleeding Wolf guessed–on his palm.  Again, the cavernous breathing of the Ironwood persisted for a moment, but this time it began to ramp, to intensify.  And then, in the looming shadow of the trees, lights began to dance.  They were soft, blue and white, multitudinous.  Bleeding Wolf could not make out any particular source for any of them, but they seemed to be everywhere–behind the trees, on the forest floor, wavering between the tops of branches.  As the humming of the forest approached an almost melodious crescendo, he heard a whisper, not meant for him, vanishingly faint, distorted and in the accented dialect of Old Revián, but certainly there:

“Very well.  Come forward.”

The blind man’s shoulders slumped with relief, even as the corners of his mouth tightened with apprehension, but whatever the mix of emotions he felt, he obeyed, clutching the price of his admission to his chest, and walked on into the tangle of lights and shadows.  As he disappeared between the trees, the hum faded and the lights dimmed, and the four of them who remained were returned to darkness and the ominous breath of the wood.

Exactly as before, with no acknowledgement of the previous display, the metal man turned and gestured to the last beggar, the infected man, who stepped forward with a surge of bravado.  He held out–practically brandished–a small, alabaster figurine.  Bleeding Wolf recognized the object, or at least its kind: It was a token of the Holmite faithful that hierarchs used in rituals when travels took them far from their city.  They were, in fact, magical, though he couldn’t say what exactly it was they did.  As before, the woods remained dark for the ensuing moments, but this time the creaking sound of the Ironwood made no orchestral rise.  The dark stretched on, and with each moment that passed, the infected man’s confidence withered more and more into angry disbelief.

“Don’t you know what this is?” he muttered under his breath.  “Your man said you wanted magical.  That’s what this is!”  The Ironwood remained indifferent to his objections, but that seemed only to incense him further.  “Don’t you know?” he asked louder, taking another step forward.  “Don’t you want it?!”

He broke into a full stride toward the wood, repeating his questions with increasing desperation.  He made it maybe a third of the way there before something lurched from the ground behind him and Bleeding Wolf heard the familiar, slick staccato of a heart being punctured.

“He had been informed of the master’s rules,” the metal man said, as if to preempt his guests’ reactions.  “He knew the boundaries she would not cross, but he decided to cross them himself.  Hopefully his flesh will serve a more prudent purpose.”

As the emissary spoke, the shadow before them which had impaled the infected man began to approach, looming much taller than its sudden appearance might have suggested.  As it did, Bleeding Wolf began to take note of the limited portions of its anatomy that the moonlight reached.  Its form seemed myriapod, similar, he assumed, to the accounts of a great silver centipede that Gene had relayed to him, but the descriptions of the cowled invader at Marko’s theater had not mentioned the uncanny anthropomorphism of the creature’s thorax, the featureless mannequin head that adorned it, or the seemingly human arms that ended in hinged, mantid sickles.

“You may leave us, Philip,” the creature said in a brassy, cacophonous voice, not unlike the pseudo-music that had responded to the blind man’s offering.  “I will begin my parlay here.”

Without a bow–or even a gesture of acknowledgement, the emissary departed, leaving the two of them alone in the moonlight with the creature.  After a moment, the voice returned from behind its featureless faceplate:

“It is only upon your arrival together that I have realized: Neither of you is unknown to me.  It is a rare boldness among your kind to respond to violence with…questions.  I had expected your colony to send a mob to die here, but you wish to speak with me instead.  Fitting care for survivors of the Ouroboros.”

“That’s pretty far back,” Bleeding Wolf said.

“And yet.”  The tones that interlaced in the creature’s voice, framing its words, trilled high and icy.  “I have cataloged every moment, every vision of that day in media far sturdier than human brainflesh.  I remember both of your faces at the vanguard of the reinforcing army.”

“You were there too?” Gene asked.  “Fightin’ the–”

“There is no need to honor the monster’s sobriquet in my presence.  I was there, indeed.  And the bond of our momentary alliance has earned you your safety tonight.  If you would discuss your colony–your ‘Crossroads’–then I will listen.  Come.”

Its multiplicity of legs stabbing wetly against the ground, the creature coiled and turned, skittering toward the wood.  Bleeding Wolf glanced at Gene, noting the old man’s teeth were grit with unease.

“Come on,” he muttered.  “Don’t get the impression she’s a liar.  Too many rules, too many codes.”  Gene nodded, following reluctantly.

Somehow, even as they entered the shadows of the wood, and the moon and stars above disappeared from view, the world around them only seemed to grow brighter.  As they clambered over roots and past hanging branches and foliage, light seemed to emerge in cool glows from beneath roots, the opposite sides of trees, filtering through the canopy in hues that seemed almost–but not quite–like moonlight, until their environment and the creature leading them both were perfectly visible in the faded gloam.  This was an oddity, of course, but it was not nearly as odd as the particulars of the forest that it illuminated.  Despite a patina of dirt and debris clouding their surface, the trees and roots they navigated through had a noticeable trace of artificial sheen.  They weren’t comprised of bark and wood, Bleeding Wolf realized.  “Ironwood” was literal: The trees were, themselves, metal.  A stray root clanked as Gene bumped it with the butt of his halberd; a hanging vine jingled as Bleeding Wolf brushed it aside, and all around them, the Ironwood’s respiration took on visual salience as bursts of steam escaped intermittently from knots in the trees or hoses he could now see coiled around their trunks.

Eventually the dense undergrowth before the creature opened to a large hollow between a pair of roots, and it stopped its skittering advance.

“Proceed,” it said, rotating its head to face Bleeding Wolf.  “I will speak to you within.”

His shoulders hunched, he descended into the hollow, Gene in tow.  It was far darker than in the midst of the wood, but with few options but “forward,” he found the entryway easily enough.  Inside was a long, cramped hallway that reminded him somewhat of a mineshaft.  It was made entirely of earth, save for intermittent metal struts, though it was much thinner than any mine he had visited, scarcely wide enough for him to face forward without brushing his shoulders against the walls.  Sconces hung periodically from the ceiling provided dim, blue light all down the hall, which Bleeding Wolf could now see sloped downward, heading deeper into the earth.  He descended, his unease deepening as well with every step.

As they walked, they would occasionally pass iron doors embedded in the sides of the hallway.  They were unmarked, and though they had no visible lock or keyhole, none of them would open.  However it was that the Ben Gan Shui organized her sanctum, she clearly had no interest in making it legible to outsiders.  Bleeding Wolf couldn’t exactly blame her, though it gave him a disturbing sensation of being funneled along a pipeline, of being processed.  For some reason, it jogged a memory of the War, when the forces of Harmony set about dismantling the Bloodfish’s residual network of camps and depots, when it came to light the way he had mechanized the process of gathering corpses, dismembering them, shipping them down the river as charnel and back up as roaches, new, mindless pseudo-soldiers to be used as fodder for conquest.  From what the witch said, she was on the other side, on Harmony’s side, but there were echoes in her system, similarities to Ka’s buried evil that made Bleeding Wolf wonder what exactly that old fight had meant to her–and what that meant for him in this moment.

The blue light of the hallway gave way to chromatic chaos as the two of them stepped out into a large chamber, lit in even measure by the blue sconces along the walls, blinding white spotlights dotting the ceiling, and orange firelight blasting from a row of furnaces in a far corner.  The cavernous space was littered with tables and workbenches, some actively in use by mental men similar to the emissary–to Philip.  Some were littered with metal, wood, and other detritus, at whose origin Bleeding Wolf preferred not to speculate, and others were piled high with paper and parchment, scrolls, and codices.  The furnaces seemed to be outfitted for metalwork, and they were manned by smaller steel creatures with spherical bodies and arrays of spindly legs that granted their simplistic anatomy a surprising degree of both agility and dexterity.  As he considered them, Bleeding Wolf realized he had seen a metal sphere just like these sitting, inert, outside the emissary’s house in the village.  Perhaps the witch’s influence over the place was even more direct than he’d realized.

“Godshell,” Gene muttered breathlessly.  “Haven’t seen anything like it since–”

“Yeah,” Bleeding Wolf agreed.  “But best keep the bastard’s name off your tongue.  I don’t think she’s fond of the topic, and she can definitely hear us.”

“You are a perceptive hiveling.”

The voice was barely above a whisper, but it somehow cut through the workshop’s roar, magnified, Bleeding Wolf assumed, by some artifice, though the effect was subtler than the centipede’s earlier vocal symphony.  Its directionality was clear as well.  Bleeding Wolf and Gene both looked to its source: one of the workbenches, like all the others, at which a small, hunched creature clad in folds of black cloth perched atop a tall stool.  Cautiously, they approached.

The figure seemed to be occupied with a thin sheet of steel, passing an appendage that looked almost like a dead tree branch over it, producing streams of blinding white sparks.  Opening senses beyond his sight, Bleeding Wolf recognized that the sparks were mostly mana, with the distinctive char of fire magic.  More disturbing, though, was the way the branch-appendage resolved as he watched the channels of power flow through it: It had the form of a human hand with fingers split in two at each knuckle, for a total of twenty subfingers, each operating with some degree of autonomy to cut the metal beneath it.

The creature’s face had the vague shape of an old woman’s, it’s compacted and gnarled features retrofitted–or perhaps imitatively built–with unwrinkled, flawless skin, which Bleeding Wolf guessed was not, in fact, made of any kind of actual flesh.  Her mouth was held shut in an emotionless grimace, and her left eye projected outward from her face, split–like her fingers–into an array of oculi on telescoping rods, several of which turned as the two of them neared.

“You have earned yourselves a rare experience,” the Ben Gan Shui said, her mouth barely mumbling, though it did not seem to distort her words.  “None before you have seen this place, save the reborn.”

“It’s a great honor,” Bleeding Wolf said without enthusiasm.  He could admit that the look into the inner workings of the place was dreadfully fascinating, but his sense of danger was far too heightened to feel at ease, let alone to converse on the topic.

“Why’d you attack the Crossroads?” Gene blurted.  A plume of sparks shot up from the bench as a corner of the metal sheet fell from the edge, only to be snatched out of the air by a hand that darted from between the folds of the witch’s cowl.  Bleeding Wolf noted with some consternation that this, like the one splayed and sparking across the table, was also a right hand.

“I wanted more data on how you work,” she replied, handing the piece of metal scrap to a passing legged sphere.  The spider-like creature clasped it delicately between three of its thin legs and skittered off toward the furnaces, as the witch drew her second right hand back within her cowl.  “It seems your colony is stable enough, though I suspect your survival may nonetheless be owed to symbiosis with the Sculptor rather than any exceptional resiliency.”  Gene grunted angrily.

“We were resilient enough for you, weren’t we?” he spat.  The sparks stopped for a moment, and several more oculi turned upon Gene.

“Oh.  You think I am insulting you.  Rest assured, I am making no such appraisal of your worth among humans, though one must wonder if ants too perceive some sense of pride or injury in the economics of their survival.”  Gene stared at her, his rage waning in confusion.  The sparks began again.

“You wanted to know…how we work?”  Bleeding Wolf asked.  He had not arrived expecting equal treatment by a False God, but the complete lack of malice in the Ben Gan Shui’s responses put him off guard.

“Yes.  I was well aware of your colony’s social place in our vicinity, but I wished to know your inner workings.  I wished to know how you would stop me if I attempted to take your stockpile.”

“But why?”

“Is it not obvious?” the witch asked, turning her oculi back on her work at the table.  “We are neighbors.  Most projections of the future would have us either connect on friendly terms or conflict on unfriendly ones.  I am loath to do either with an entity I do not understand.”

“And did you think that attacking us wouldn’t accelerate one of those two outcomes?” Bleeding Wolf asked, framing his accusation as cautiously as he could.  The sparks stopped once again, and though the witch remained focused on the table–Bleeding Wolf could see now that the product of her cutting, a vast collection of tiny gears, was arrayed there–he thought he saw a hint of a smile at the corner of her mouth.

“Did you think I cared which eventuality we came to?” she replied.  “And besides, you are here now, parlaying.  Let us consider where circumstances have taken us.”

Bleeding Wolf took a deep breath and looked back at Gene.  The old man’s head was clearly spinning.  He looked mad, but he also seemed to grasp that they were getting somewhere.

“Fine,” Bleeding Wolf said.  “We’ve come to propose cooperation.  We have reason to believe the Blaze is headed south from the Gravestones, and you’re in his path just as much as we are.”  Another arm–this time a left one–emerged from the Ben Gan Shui’s cowl, its fingers disjointing as well with a rapid series of clicks.  With her now forty visible limbs, she began rearranging the gears on the table in the shape of a distorted face.

“I can aid your colony with this,” she said pensively.  “Cooperate.  There are things I would ask of you in exchange.”

“We can give you yer pick of the stash you were tryin’ t’steal,” Gene growled, clearly not happy to make the offer but seeing sense in it nonetheless.

“I am not interested in your collection of baubles.”


“There are other things you harbor.  Things of much greater interest to me.  The boy who was there the night of my visit–tell me about him.”

The Crossroads, Chapter 18: An Image of Failure

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.”

“Gods, Bernard.”

“What, Ty?”

“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.

The Crossroads, Chapter 17: A Fish Which Flies

It had been hours since the feeling set in, but Lan had not been inclined to worry.  The river was, at its heart, a chaotic process.  Eddies, whorls, ripples where the surface was disturbed–all were commonplace.  But what was not common was constancy, and as dusk fell, and Lan docked beside a shallow crossing, and Gene and Bleeding Wolf disembarked heavy with apprehension which Lan knew–uniquely perhaps–was ill-founded, he found himself more and more distracted, more and more irritated with the anomaly he had apparently left behind in the Crossroads.  Alone on his vessel, he stared down the river’s burbling surface, contemplated the currents’ beginnings and endings and assimilations.  And there it was.  The constancy.  The source of his unease, it seemed, was not a ripple–it was a ripple which had disappeared.

This was serious.  He made up his mind to return to the Crossroads.  Then he was there.

Stepping off his boat with highly irregular purpose, he made for the tavern at the end of the tradesmen’s street.  The timbre of the cricketsong told him the apothecary was presently occupied, and the other ideal witness was…compromised.  This left the fateful stowaway repacking his experience with mulled wine in the tavern’s soft candlelight.  Ah, yes, he was there: Lan kicked open the door, slamming it into its hinges hard enough to dislodge a nail, to the clear consternation of the proprietor and her patrons.

“Where is the girl?” he barked at the third table from the door.

“Ah!” Naples gasped, looking up with a jolt from his journal.  “Captain al’Ver, I’d thought you were awa–”

“Answer, man!  Everything depends on it!”


“The girl!  Miss Orphelia.  You were to be watching her.”

“But, I,” Naples sputtered.  “What–no!”

“No, of course you never agreed to,” Lan said, charging the table and grabbing Naples by the shoulder, “but you certainly intended to.”

Even in the dim light of the barroom, the shock on Naples’ face was electric.  In the split second of silence that followed, though, the presence of the tavern’s denizens reintruded.

“Mr. al’Ver–” the barkeep began.

“Captain!” Lan corrected.

“Yes, uh, what is this about?” Lan swept his hand dramatically in the direction of the bar.

“A girl has gone missing, my lady, and Mr. Naples is to help me locate her!”

“I swear to you there was nothing untoward about–”  Lan interrupted Naples limping excuse with a roll of his eyes:

“Yes, yes, you wanted to investigate her connection to my illustrious self.  I am very interesting.  Now gather your things.  We have work to do!”  

As he snarled the order, Lan instinctively scanned the rest of the tavern.  Most of them were visibly bewildered by the intrusion, a small few were adeptly ignoring the interruption which, for all its suddenness, was still in no way their business or their problem, but there was one set of eyes fixed significantly upon Lan with intent that was not immediately readable nor obviously benign.  It was an old man with a hat at the table in the corner.  His presence wasn’t right, Lan noted, but it was far less wrong than Orphelia’s disappearance, and time was short to get Naples moving.  

He turned, twirling his umbrella, and exited as Naples scrambled to catch up.  Outside, he paused and stared up at the half-moon between the night’s murky clouds, as much for the pragmatism of allowing his new disciple to finish his exit as for respectful consideration of the ill omen that the damn sky always seemed to bring him.

“I truly have not seen her since this afternoon,” Naples said, stumbling through the doorway behind him.  “She was sneaking out of the apothecary’s, went to the market, then toward the old theater. But that’s when I lost her, I swear to you.”

“I have no reason to doubt your sincerity, Mr. Naples,” Lan replied, still staring skyward.  “And I will admit I already knew the answer to my first question.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“‘Where is the girl?’ Mr. Naples.  It was a trick question.  Miss Orphelia is currently nowhere.”  After a brief silence, Naples attempted a response:

“I…don ‘t follow.”

“The river runs always, Mr. Naples, from today to tomorrow, from spring to summer, from one year to the next, and we all swim in its current like so many fish.”

“A lovely turn of phrase, Captain.”

“And so much more besides,” Lan said, beginning to wander up the street.  “The trouble is that Miss Orphelia seems to have leapt from the stream.”

“Well, to run with the metaphor, fish do jump sometimes,” Naples offered.

“Except she has not come back down.”

“Ah.”  Naples went silent, thinking for a moment.  “Like a flying fish?  Or perhaps a fish snatched by an eagle and carried elsewhere.”

At the words, Lan felt a surge of fire run up his spine, and the clarity of the old man’s gaze upon him in the tavern returned.  He had been familiar, Lan realized.  The wide-brimmed hat.  The burning in his eyes.  Ah, yes.  That one.

“We had best apply our razors, Mr. Naples.”

“Sounds danger–oh!  Like the Thagosian idiom?”

In spite of the foreboding complexity manifesting in the currents, intruding upon Lan’s consciousness, so rudely calling “Wake up!” at this inappropriate hour of night, he could not help but smile.  Naples continued to be a pleasant reminder of how long it took for humans to truly forget anything.

“Precisely,” Lan replied.  “If you don’t mind, I have further want of your aid.  It has come to my attention that a few old friends of mine have come to visit.  One is at the apothecary now–let us go and meet him.”


“Lazy fucking idiot.  Wake up!”

Devlin started awake at the rough voice, inches from his face, as a rough hand grabbed him by the throat and dragged him from his bed.  He opened his bleary eyes to see a shaggy face and a singed hunter’s jerkin by the dim light of Brill’s infirmary before being flung, skidding to the floor.  He whimpered.

“Oh, shut up,” the man sneered.  Devlin blinked his eyes open, shivering as he pushed himself half-upright.  The man, he could see now, was tall, tall enough that the candlelight didn’t reach his face above his beard.  But that notwithstanding, Devlin had never seen him before in his life.

“Wha–what do you want–” he began to stutter, but the man reached back to a quiver tied behind his waist.  He drew a short spear with a gleaming, serrated tip, and Devlin stopped cold.

“Where’s your sister?” the man asked, testing the tip against his forefinger.

“I don’t…I don’t know?”

“Really, fucker?  Been outta the hag’ claws three days now, and you still think that’s an acceptable answer?”

“I don’t know–”

I don’t know what you’re talking about!” the man mocked.  “Best start payin’ attention, then, huh?  And don’t try to feed me any crap about being sick–you haven’t been sick since that fop pulled the bitch off your finger.  You just figured that if you could still be sick, then it couldn’t have been your fault you killed your stupid mom.”

At this, Devlin sobbed and, scrambling to his feet, tried to run for the door, but the man grabbed his shirt and pulled him back, slamming him against the wall.

“And while you were making excuses, your idiot sister jumped into the deep end of the river.  Time to take responsibility.”  In a motion Devlin couldn’t really follow, the man pulled a hook-like implement from his belt, slotted the spear into it, and flung it backward.  The spear embedded itself with a thunk in the wall.  “You’re gonna fish that girl outta there, or I’m gonna kill ‘er.  Those are the only two options.”

At that moment, the apothecary door on the other side of the infirmary curtain burst open, and Devlin stared, terrified, into the man’s burning eyes for several horrible, silent seconds before the curtain was swept aside by a man Devlin only dimly recognized.  This one had come with Orphelia often when she came to visit him back here.

“Daniel,” Lan al’Ver said sternly.  The shaggy man grunted disdainfully without taking his eyes off Devlin.

“Minding the shop now, are you, ‘Captain?’” he asked, curling his lip.  Another man stumbled in behind Lan, freezing upon seeing the situation in the room.

“Oh!” he exclaimed.  “Oh dear.  Uh, who are you?”  The shaggy man turned to face the newcomer, his venom now tempered by the slightest tinge of confusion.  “And, uh, yes.  Why are you threatening the boy?”

Daniel stared the newcomer down, weighing what Devlin could only imagine was a clear urge toward violence against unknown considerations.  He kept his cool, apparently, backing begrudgingly away from Devlin and turning back to Lan.

“Stinks of cruelty, dragging an innocent into the Gyre,” he said.

“I navigate the waters as I please,” Lan replied.

“With passengers?”  Daniel’s laugh was bitter.  “You’ve a poor track record with what you carry, you know?”  With that, Lan drew his rapier, defiant, scowling, prompting an outburst from the third man as Devlin tried as best he could to sink invisibly into the corner of the room.

“Hold on now, both of you!” the man said.  “Whatever this is about, we need to find the girl, right?  Orphelia.  Let’s set the weapons down and talk!”  At the mention of his sister, Devlin perked up.  He did not understand the nature of this sudden interruption, though he was certainly glad for it.  But more people looking for Orphelia made him even more anxious to find her.

The room was silent for a moment before Daniel straightened, reattaching his hook to his belt.

“Minding the shop indeed,” he muttered.  Then, to the third man: “Fine.  You two go get the girl out and take this little bastard with you.  He owes it to her.  And to Harmony.”  Devlin gulped as all the men renewed their attention on him.

“Who took her?” Lan asked.

Rom,” Daniel said, with a tone that Devlin could swear smelled of smoke.  “I understand there is a certain Jin Gaenyan he wants pulled back into the fold.”  Lan nodded, sheathing is sword, and Daniel retrieved his spear, all to the third man’s obvious bewilderment:

“Captain, what does all of that mean?”

“Fear not, Mr. Naples.  We have our destination now, and we shall make sure that dear Orphelia and young Devlin are reunited once more!”

Daniel, meanwhile, made for the door.

“The personas, all three of you,” he muttered.  “Who the fuck wants humanity anymore?”  And then he was gone.

Devlin looked up, shaken, as Naples approached him with the ersatz, showy alarm of a concerned citizen with only an arm’s-length notion of how one ought to interact with children.

“Dear boy, are you quite alright?”  Devlin nodded, limping away from the wall, which seemed to satisfy the man, as his focus returned to Lan: “Captain, please no more oblique reference–what on earth was that all about?  Who was that?”

“That, Mr. Naples, was Daniel Patch.  He is part of an entity called Harmony.”

“The cult of Matze Matsua?”

“Precisely.  And yet also not at all.”


Devlin took advantage of the moment of pleading confusion to swipe his ring from the table by his bed.  Over the past several dazed, he had attempted to reach it several times, but his efforts had been thwarted: The table had been kicked, its contents had been swept aside for a bowl of soup, he had received a sudden, semiconscious hug from Orphelia–each had, at the time, pushed the ring just out of his grasp, and each, he was beginning to realize, had been the direct or indirect work of Captain al’Ver.  He had little idea why the Captain would care about the ring or his possession of it, but he certainly didn’t want to ask.  And to make sure he wouldn’t have to, he decided to hide the reacquisition of his treasure.

As his fingers touched the cold silver, he heard the faintest sound of flapping wings outside the infirmary.  It chilled him, and it comforted him, and while he could fathom the reason for neither, he was far too afraid to lose his last link to his family to question any of it.

“The magic of legend itself shrouds them, Mr. Naples, and even I cannot speak directly of what binds Mr. Patch and his colleagues.  You will have to pardon me in this respect.”

“Very well,” Naples replied, dejected.  “But what of the names he mentioned–Rom?  Jin Gaenyan?”  Lan laughed.  The bravado of the gesture seemed uncharacteristically brittle.  “What?” Naples inquired.

“Well-read as you are, I expect you’ve heard of them,” Lan said.  “The second is the clue we needed, for though the name ‘Jin Gaenyan’ has been lost to all but the most observant chroniclers, I can assume you have encountered some mention of the Saraa Sa’een?”  Naples scratched his chin.  Devlin, unsure of what to make of this conversation, began to inch toward the door.  He didn’t trust these men, and he wanted to find Orphelia before they did.

“The Saraa Sa’een was killed by the Barabadoon nearly sixty years ago,” Naples mused, “with–oh you clever dog!  This is exactly where we left off three days ago!  They did it with the help of–”  Lan snatched Devlin’s hand as he attempted to sneak out the doorway.  He froze, looking timidly up at the Captain.  The man’s grip was amiable but frustratingly firm.  He smiled warmly down at Devlin before facing Naples again.

“My friend, you should know better than most how history may play reanimator to even the longest-dead,” he declared with the inflection of a showman.  “But in this case, the Saraa Sa’een is quite literally alive.  He was, as it happens, captured, to be used as a defensive measure by the architect of the place where dear Orphelia will reenter the stream.”  Naples exhaled, the expression on his face souring.

“The Chateau de Marquains,” he confirmed.  He glanced at Devlin and grimaced.  “That’s no place to bring a kid.”

“No.  But it is as Daniel said.  We are navigating the waters together, and my path is thus ordained.


“Mr. Lan?” Devlin piped up.  “Are you sure this place is where we need to go to save Orphelia?”

“Indeed I am, my dear boy.”  The man’s smile was still warm, and Devlin still found it suspicious.  But needs must.

“Then I’m not scared.  Let’s go!”  It was partially true: Devlin truly did not fear the Chateau de Marquains, in large part because he knew nothing about it, but he was terrified for his sister, for the violence that had seized the both of them weeks ago and, it seemed, would not let them go.  Would not let her go.  He felt the wind of wingbeats brush against his cheek.  He needed to save her before it was all gone.

“We are decided, then!” Lan proclaimed.  “Let us depart before Brill discovers your intrusion, Mr. Naples!”

“A fate to rival the False Gods,” Naples joked mirthlessly.  He moved to follow Lan out of the infirmary, pausing momentarily to look in the direction of Devlin’s bed.

“Come on, Mr. Naples!” Devlin called.  Shaking his head, the man turned and exited.

The Crossroads, Chapter 16: Mr. Ruffles

Recent weeks had been short on both comfort and normalcy, but Orphelia was beginning to rediscover all of their annoying side effects now that they had returned.  For the first time since the Bad Stuff, she had a place to sleep, food she didn’t have to steal, even a daily routine running errands for the apothecary and the blacksmith’s apprentice.  Devlin’s illness had improved dramatically: He was still bedridden, but he was spending more time awake every day.  However tenuously, things felt as if they might turn out alright.  And gods was she bored with it.

Part of that was certainly a lack of freedom: She had been running messages and packages across town for days now–nothing valuable, nothing salacious, nothing interesting–but Brill’s oversight remained draconian.  Every day, the apothecary would run errands of their own, asking questions of Orphelia’s contacts the previous day, making absolutely certain she had not defected, absconded, sabotaged, or otherwise deviated from her terminally uninteresting schedule in any way.  And this was to say nothing of the uncanny frequency with which she found Captain al’Ver on her path–or at her destination–on “business” of his own, no doubt in truth to facilitate her supervision.

To their credit, if she found even a shadow of a reason to cause trouble, she totally would.  But their constant anticipation of it was just exhausting.

Still, beyond the benevolently oppressive gaze of her newfound caretakers, Orphelia was slowly beginning to accept what had likely been apparent to both Ty and Bleeding Wolf during their odd sojourn to the Bloodwood: There was a capacity in which she thrived on the threat of violence–and that she was feeling it call back to her after only three days of peaceful stasis…it scared her.

But in spite of her apprehension, she found herself growing excited for the incremental change in status that would arrive that afternoon.  Captain al’Ver was leaving for a day, taking Bleeding Wolf and the blacksmith a short distance down the river, which meant she would get to talk to Mr. Ruffles again.

Amidst her friend’s few words since the Bloodwood, she had been keeping careful track: He had not stopped speaking to her–he simply would not speak to her when Captain al’Ver was present, and it turned out he was present all the time.  He had parked his boat next to the apothecary’s shop, so he was within earshot of the room where she and Devlin slept.  He was at market when and where she was carrying her deliveries and notes.  More often than not, he was somehow loitering on the tradesmen’s street when she returned.  Orphelia liked the man well enough, of course, but she found his omnipresence troubling, to say nothing of the silence it seemed to instill in Mr. Ruffles.

When Mr. Ruffles did speak, he did not mention Captain al’Ver, though he did seem apologetic for his silence.  He also hinted that an important message was forthcoming and that Orphelia’s destiny would “shake the sea and sky both”.  She had no idea what that meant, but she was surprised to find herself looking forward to finding out.  She realized that it had been a matter of days since she had been praying for safety, and she supposed she still wanted that for Devlin, but for her part, she thought she might be ready for the sort of danger that a destiny entailed.

“Daydreaming again, Orphelia?” Brill asked from across the shop.  She looked down at the bottle that had been in her hands the last five minutes.  Devil’s Breath (Distilled) the label read, with a double-X next to the title, indicating that the substance was never to be ingested alone.  It belonged across the room, on the shelf behind Brill’s counter.

“No!” she protested, calculatedly embarrassed.  She’d gathered by now that if she was, inevitably, to have a reputation as a liar, it was better for her lies to be stupid, easily detected, trivial.  She rose and hurriedly carried the bottle over to Brill.

“Careful with that,” they warned, snatching the bottle and placing it gingerly at the back of their shelf.  Then, softer: “What’s on your mind, child?  Your thoughts have been wandering all morning.  I do apologize, I know cataloging is not the most interesting of–”

“Captain al’Ver’s leaving today,” Orphelia volunteered.

“Ah, yes,” Brill said, quieting.  Their brow furrowed.  “I don’t think you need to worry about Mr. al’Ver–”


“Yes, Captain al’Ver.  I’m sure he’ll be back soon.  The others, however…”

“Where’s Dog Boy going?” Orphelia asked.  The particulars of the expedition had been hushed in her presence before, but Brill seemed worried now–worried enough that they might actually spill the details.  They frowned, clearly considering their words.

“Bleeding Wolf and Gene are going to speak with a, uh, dangerous person.  To ask them for help.”

“Ooh!” Orphelia gasped, unable to prevent her face from lighting up.  “Who is it?  What are they asking for?  Why is Gene going?  Isn’t he old?”  Brill shook their head, grabbing the bridge of their nose with immediate regret, and began examining their order ledger in defiance of Orphelia’s barrage of questions.  She continued to press for several minutes, finally eliciting a response:

“In my opinion, child, Gene should not be going.  He is old.  Too old–we all are, these days.  Except Bleeding Wolf.”  They sighed.  “Dear, we need to get back to work.  And I would appreciate if you did not repeat what I’ve told you to anyone in town.”

“That’s okay!” she replied cheerfully.  “I don’t talk to people in town!”  Fairly speaking, that was true.

Orphelia was more efficient in the ensuing hours, excited to be engaged–even fruitlessly–in the Crossroads’ preeminent controversy, and she worked, peppering Brill with questions they refused to answer, into the mid-afternoon, at which point the apothecary kicked her out of the shop.  They had an errand to run over by Marko’s, they said, but they also instructed her not to be back until dark.  She had her doubts that any errand Brill could make would actually take that long, but she supposed they could both use the time free of each other.

As she stepped out onto the yellowed afternoon shade of the tradesmen’s street, clutching Mr. Ruffles under her arm, she considered where she wanted to spend her hours of lurking.  The market street seemed like the obvious choice, but no sooner did she turn onto the alley leading there than Mr. Ruffles, right on schedule, offered an alternative:

Marko’s theater, my dear.  That your journey may begin.

“Are you sure?” she muttered beneath her breath, in spite of the empty alley’s lack of eavesdroppers.  “They saw me last time I went there.”

Do not be afraid.  One must invite the beast’s passing to harness its wake.  Today, you shall learn to navigate the waters.

Orphelia paused, now at the alley’s mouth, glanced right, then left.

“Like Captain al’Ver?” she whispered.

There is no better teacher.  Few more terrifying, besides.

She turned right, toward the town square–and Marko’s.

“Then why are you teaching me?”

Because I would teach you what he would prefer you not know.  Perhaps what he would prefer to un-know himself.

The market street was still busy at that hour, though its intensity was beginning to tend toward outflow.  Even so, there were countercurrents of merchants and wagons still weaving their way into the traffic from both the north and south ends of the street.  Among them, Orphelia felt familiarly unseen, the way she had before her frightful previous encounter in Marko’s theater.  It wasn’t invisibility, she knew, not exactly.  Pedestrians on the street would step around her, stop to let her pass, react to her presence–subconsciously, at least–but not one of them made eye contact.  None of them acknowledged her as a person, not to her, not–as far as she could tell–to themselves.  And with the feeling of anonymity returned its companion: power.  At these people’s periphery, with free reign to exploit any blind spot, with freedom from all their stupid control–it reminded her why she had trusted Mr. Ruffles, how he had helped her and Devlin to survive when no one else would.  After moments among the crowds which felt much longer than moments, she reached the square.  Marko’s theater, ostentatious in spite of its weathered exterior, loomed from the other side.

“Why wouldn’t he want me to know it?” she said back to Mr. Ruffles at last.

Because it is in our nature to regret where we falter.  It requires both strength and insight to recognize the ways in which our failures become gifts in their own right.

“Are you saying Captain al’Ver failed at something?”  She approached the theater’s currently makeshift front door.

Hardly.  I am saying merely that he thinks he failed.

Before she could put her hand on the handle, the door barged open and Marko stepped out, Brill in tow, each with a bulging satchel slung over their shoulder.

“Not much time,” she caught from Brill, along with “…from Holme,” as the two of them hurried past her, just as oblivious as the market street crowds.

Inside, my dear.  Find the stairs behind the stage.

Orphelia shuffled quickly through the open door and past the theater’s modest foyer to the familiar, torchlit, detritus-filled audience area.  Just like before, she climbed up to the stage by way of an empty, overturned crate and crept over to Marko’s desk.  It was piled high with papers and codices, including a rolled piece of parchment sealed prominently by wax sculpted into a relief of a bearded man’s face.  Gripped by curiosity, she reached for the oddly-sealed scroll, but Mr. Ruffles’ whisper stopped her:

Don’t get distracted now.  Remember: the stairs.

She withdrew her hand, noting the shadows in the recesses of the stage.  She could make out an opening in the floor where the faintest outline of a staircase descended into the dark.  She cautiously stepped toward it, allowing her eyes to adjust to the increasingly dim light.

“Are we going to steal something from Marko?” she asked softly, testing the first step with her foot.

We will not steal anything from this Marko today.  Our aim is to make a fair and common exchange of time for space.  But only places of certain power are capable of handling the particulars–or quantities–of our transaction.

“I hadn’t realized you were such an accomplished businessman,” Orphelia said, proceeding down the stairs.  She immediately regretted her choice of words–she had never before been so familiar with Mr. Ruffles, and the thought of losing his confidence in her breach of their decorum felt icy in her gut, all the more so for the darkness closing in as she made her way below the floor of the stage.

I see the one you call “Captain” has taught you flippance.  Repelling the Deep is instinctive, I suppose.  And we all attempt it in our own ways.

Relieved by the acceptance she read in the response, she found a cadence descending the stairs without the aid of her vision as the gloam turned to pitch, and she lost sight of the stairs completely.  It wasn’t quite right to say she lost count of the steps she’d taken–she hadn’t been counting in the first place–but after some time, she craned her neck over her shoulder to find she could no longer see even a glimmer of light up the stairs from where she’d come.

Patience, my dear.

She gulped and continued downward.  The uncanny darkness continued for several more minutes before a thin, pale light began to illuminate the contours of the steps beneath her, and her descent finally opened to a wide, gently-curved staircase that spilled into a darkened sitting room.  She whirled in bewilderment, tallying the impossibilities that had suddenly materialized before her.

Despite the numerous unlit sconces and candelabras about the room, she found its features–the intricate patterns of the carpet; the staircase bannister, immaculately carved and adorned with silver catfish bearing teeth like razors; the painting which dominated the wall before her of an empty chair beside a crackling hearth–visible, well enough, by what was apparently moonlight streaming in through windows on one side of the room.  Up the stairs, there was no trace of the passage by which she had arrived: She could see the top of the staircase end at a hallway, down which she recognized the orange flicker of firelight.

Take care with your silence.  We are trespassers now, and alerting our host will bring terrible consequences.

Orphelia swallowed her objections, frantically wondering how Marko’s staircase–which by all rights should have led underground–could have brought her somewhere in view of the sky at night.  It had been mid-afternoon when she’d left…right?  She hurried quietly as she could to the window.  Outside, beyond a garden wall, she could see grassy plains stretch into the distance, rippling in the nighttime breeze under a cloudless, starry sky.  The gibbous moon, almost blindingly bright, resembled a face, half-turned, attention fixed calmly upon something nearby but elsewhere.

This one was clever.  We will need to find the entry point to his reservoir.  But first, I think perhaps you are owed an introduction, Orphelia, daughter of Errol.  Look to the bookshelf.  There is a vessel upon it far more potent than the one you carry with you.

She glanced away from the window, quickly finding the bookshelf he meant.  It was a tall piece, made of foreboding, blackened wood, towering beside the strange painting of the empty chair.  Approaching it, Orphelia found she needed no clarification as to what the “vessel” might be.  Among the numerous aged scrolls and codices, one–a thick, leather bound grimoire–seemed to seize her attention of its own accord.  Timidly, she wrapped her fingers around its spine and hefted it from the shelf.

Surprising indeed that Le Marquains collected a copy.  I only ever transcribed three, and I left none near this place.

Orphelia peeled open the cover, carefully separating a dusty title page from the leather.  Straining her eyes, she made out the words: A History of the Wars Fought Under Shadow, by Rommesse of Khet.

“Is that your name, Mr. Ruffles?” she whispered.

“I was called Rommesse of Khet by scholars far from my birthplace,” came the response, in every way the same voice Orphelia had heard over the past several weeks, but more real, more there.  She turned to face its source and saw a man in a dark robe standing beside the window.  His hair and short beard were silver, his skin was ashen, and his eyes were lined and creased with a sense of burden that belied the easy smile on his face.

“Few of them ever met me,” he continued.  “Of those that did, I was called ‘Twice Traitor’ by some.  The rest, my friends included, called me Rom.”

Orphelia opened her mouth, already overcome by questions for Mr. Ruffles–for his human incarnation–but her reply was interrupted by another voice, this time from behind her:

“Holy fucking shit.”

She jumped, spinning to face the speaker.  It was Ty, standing in the doorway at the edge of the room, staring in disbelief.