Ty, for his part, had little interest in being found at this time. He’d been in the scav trade for over a decade now, and he knew the dangers of being findable. He’d known companions who were findable, who got found carrying something worth finding, who let the wrong people know their names. None of them were around anymore, and with dragonlings hissing his name in the streets of the Crossroads, Ty had a feeling he was standing on a very similar precipice.
But Marko, for all his sleaze, had been true to his word:
“Sold the Keystone two weeks ago,” he’d said. “To a girl. Good chance she’ll be back here tonight, but you heard none of it from me.
“And better write it clear for ya too,” he’d added. “If you follow her, you’re dead. No guarantee it’ll be preferable to whatever the Blaze has for you either.”
This had left Ty at the limits of his imagination, though–he had no idea what might await worse than the Blaze’s promised, excruciating immolation–so he had decided to take his chances. When he emerged from Marko’s office and saw the hunched figure of the dragonling making its rounds about town, he took to the rooftops. And now, the sun low in the afternoon sky, he watched with muted anxiety as Marko’s visitor made her way down the street below.
“Girl” had been an accurate if inadequate descriptor. She was clearly young–no older than sixteen, likely younger–but her aloof demeanor, braided hair, garb of fine silks and silver jewelry even the wealthiest merchants wouldn’t dare boast on their person–it was like watching fiction step out from the stories of the walled cities, before the war, before the roaches and the scav trade, and pass before his eyes. The townsfolk stared as well, Ty noticed, but they soon averted their gaze. No doubt they all realized it would be better if they didn’t know too much. So it was with Marko’s customers.
Ty had no idea who she was and no desire to get too close, but luckily, she did not seem to be taking any measures to disguise her presence. She approached Marko’s office, knocked at the door, and stepped inside. A few moments later she exited, carrying a small parcel, and as she made to leave the Crossroads by its southern thoroughfare, Ty followed.
He kept a sizeable distance, blending with the sparse merchant caravans remaining on the road where he could, but that luxury had all but vanished a mile outside town, so he resorted to keeping by the brush at the roadside. He was weaving his mana as best he could to elude notice, though he couldn’t really tell whether it affected the girl at all. Either way, she never so much as glanced over her shoulder. Miles on, as the sun began to set, she came upon a tall figure, cloaked and hooded, leaning against a tree. From behind a boulder, Ty watched them exchange a few quiet words before they both left the road, heading east together. Apprehension growing, he followed them as best he could.
By dusk, they had reached a small shack in the scrub. The cloaked figure gestured something unintelligible to the girl, took her parcel, and went inside. The girl merely nodded, turned back the way she came, and began to walk directly toward the patch of brush where Ty was hiding. As silently as he could, he moved to get out of her way, but as he turned, he froze. The girl was suddenly standing before him at the edge of the brush, hands folded at ease behind her back.
“Father wishes to know if you would like to keep your arms and legs,” she said in carefully enunciated, emotionless syllables. Ty bolted.
He made it scarcely ten feet before his legs went numb and collapsed under him. He pushed himself faceup, scrambling backward to see the girl approaching at a leisurely pace.
“He would like you to know that, by default, you would not, but you have met us on a fortunate night. He is willing to discuss the matter. May I invite you inside?”
Ty was at a loss for words to describe how little he wanted to enter that shack, but he still couldn’t feel his legs. Powerful magic was certainly involved, and he was quick enough to ascertain that any choice he had was illusory. Teeth grit, he nodded, and sensation returned abruptly to his limbs.
He climbed to his feet and followed warily as the girl led the way, unconcerned, almost carefree, to the shack. He paused periodically, testing her attention, looking for any opportunity to slip away, but each stop in his progress was met in kind–she would halt on the very same step, looking over her shoulder expectantly. No such luck, he noted with dampened dread.
She reached the door, opened it, beckoned him inside. He entered and waited. The cloaked figure stood over a small, spare hearth which he lit with a snap of his fingers and a pulse of mana.
By the firelight, Ty saw little luxury or comfort in the room: two tables–one piled with scrolls and codices, the other completely bare–two chairs, two narrow bedrolls tucked into a corner, and, to Ty’s horror, a pile of perfectly preserved, naked human corpses, eyes and mouths stitched shut. The cloaked man set his parcel upon the empty table and took a seat, pulling his hood from his face.
Ty swallowed. His visage was distressing–red chitinous scales formed plates, hornes, and spines, arranged around piercing yellow eyes in an…artistic impression of a human face. Moreover, though, it was distressingly familiar. The man spoke, opening his mouth of wicked, shining fangs:
“Do you know who I am?”
Ty did. The sobriquets marched, funerary, through his mind: the Citadel Stitcher, Favored General of the Bloodfish and the Roaches, the Eternal Dragon of the Westwood–or as the people of the Crossroads referred to him, simply “the Dragon”. Ty knew exactly who this was, and his cold paralysis was as much indication as the False God needed.
“Good,” he said, his maw approximating a smile. “Please have a seat. I require your assistance.”
As the man spoke, the sound of a deadbolt sliding into place behind Ty jolted him to his senses. Resigned but still apprehensive, he did as the Dragon asked while the girl moved to stand by the table as well. With claw-like hands, adorned with the same spikes and scales as his face, the Dragon unwrapped the parcel, withdrawing a small wooden box from the unfurled bundle of sackcloth.
“May I inquire as to what drew you after my Fortuna?” he asked softly, his attention otherwise focused entirely on the box. He flicked the clasp open with a sharpened forefinger. “You walked an awfully long way after the poor girl. I would hope it was not any…untoward motivation?”
Ty took a deep breath. He could engage with the accusation or not–he doubted the False God’s plans for him varied that much either way–but he was somehow being given an opportunity to broach the one subject that mattered in the minute likelihood he escaped with all his limbs, and he was most certainly going to take advantage of it:
“I need to find Excelsis’ Keystone,” he blurted. The Dragon paused, finger on the lid of the box, jaundiced eyes flicking up at his emboldened prisoner.
“Now how…” he mused. “Ah. Marko. Your lapse in discretion will not go unmentioned, but…”
Carefully, he lifted the lid, reached inside, and withdrew a glowing green fiber–the very one Lan had cut from Bilgames’ corpse–clasped gingerly between the claws of his thumb and forefinger.
“Fortuna, sweetheart,” he muttered, peering intently at the object. The girl had already turned to rummage among the stacked materials on the other table. She soon produced a spool of thread which she placed in the Dragon’s open hand. Setting both the spool and the fiber on the table, he began to trace slow, precise symbols with his fingers in the air above them. But despite the man’s intense focus, it was not clear to Ty that anything was actually happening. He glanced around. Fortuna seemed just as entranced by the Dragon’s strange ritual, and though he dared not make another run for it, he wondered if they would notice if he stood up.
He shifted in his chair, but no sooner did he put weight on his foot than he was all but knocked from his chair by an explosive pulse of mana. Hanging from the edge of the table, he felt an overwhelming wave of nausea rise through his gut.
“Patience,” he heard the Dragon undertone–unsure to whom–as he retched, fell to the floor, vision hazing over. Dimly, he felt another blast of mana, but he lost consciousness before he could register any of its other consequences.
Ty woke on his back, shirtless, splinters from the table digging into his shoulder blades and an almost electric spark of pain cycling around his clavicle and up the back of his neck. The Dragon loomed over him, eyes glinting in the firelight, one claw pressed lightly against his chest, the other angling a fine–but sickeningly long–white needle toward his face.
Instinctively, Ty thrashed, attempting to twist himself off the table, free of the Dragon’s grasp, but his captor swiftly–almost carelessly–grabbed him by the throat and pinned him in place.
“I would have sedated you,” the Dragon said. “But then I would have had to wait hours to see the results. So please,” he again pressed Ty into the table, “settle before you give yourself a lobotomy. I need to connect your optic nerve before we can conclude.”
Ty suppressed a yelp as he felt the Dragon’s needle pierce the back of his scalp.
“What have you done to me?” he grunted as the Dragon pulled the needle away, a softly glowing thread trailing behind it.
“A less…intrusive version of what I’ve done to them.” The Dragon gestured in a direction Ty could not look but–he intuited–likely referred to the stitched corpses he had witnessed when he entered.
“Less intrusive…death?” Ty winced as the needle entered behind his ear. The Dragon chuckled softly:
“Oh, they are not dead. Suspended, metabolically hibernal, but experientially? I doubt they are inert. You should count yourself lucky. You would be among them had you met me any other time. But as it stands–”
Ty screamed as he felt the needle jam into his temple, and the electric pain, for a moment, drowned out everything else. Slowly, the Dragon’s voice reclarified in his ears:
“…met at a confluence. A confluence of new frontiers and burning curiosity. Up with you, now. That should suffice.”
Ty sat up slowly, still dizzy from the excruciating thrum at the base of his skull, dulling but not disappearing as the Dragon conjured a flame in his palm to burn the needle clean. He slotted it methodically into a leather roll of similar implements before returning his attention to Ty.
“Now, please look left,” he said. Ty obliged. “Look right. Excellent, it is working. Better for you to understand sooner rather than later that you are mine now: I see what you see, I hear what you hear–”
“And should I require it, I may speak with your voice,” Ty said, clapping his hands to his throat as soon as he did. The Dragon’s monstrous smile broadened.
“Ah, the Hunter of Beasts wore the guise of a lumbering oaf, but he was a brilliant mage,” he said. “Not so brilliant, though, that I cannot improve upon his methods.
“As you can see, we are linked,” he continued, pacing away from Ty and stuffing his tool roll amongst the detritus on his spare table. “This has implications you should be wary of…”
He drew up the edge of his cloak to reveal a portion of his forearm unprotected by scales, across which he cut a clean line with his claw. It left no mark, but Ty felt a searing in his own arm. He glanced down to see a trickle of blood, dripping from the incision the Dragon had apparently made in his flesh instead.
“…and some you might find advantageous.” The Dragon suddenly grabbed Ty by the wrist and plunged a claw through his open palm, to a bloom of shooting pain. Ty wrenched free and rolled off the table, clutching his hand, but when he looked down to inspect his wound, it had disappeared. He looked back up at his captor, who gestured at the pile of corpses.
Warily, still rubbing his palm, Ty crept closer to the bodies. He noticed it first on one which had apparently tumbled from the top of the pile, its limbs splayed across the whole macabre fixture: Its right palm was red, and at the center of the contusion was a tiny puncture, scarcely more than a pinprick. Ty was at this point beyond terrified, but he found he was interpreting the Dragon’s theatrics with surprising acuity. He inspected another corpse’s right hand, then another. In all, five, maybe six of the bodies had light wounds matching the first–matching where Ty had been stabbed, with no wound of his own to show for it.
“Diffusion of harm across phylacteries,” the Dragon said. “A new set of scales for a new eternity. I dare say even the One-Eyed Hawk would be jealous. And of course, as we work together you may partake–at my discretion.” Ty whirled.
“Work together? What?”
“Don’t think too much of it, insect.”
“No–what the fuck do you want from me?”
“You were doing so well,” the Dragon remarked with a shake of his horned head. “It has everything to do with what you want from me.” Ty paused.
“Indeed. You were told true that Fortune acquired it. I of course attempted to extract its secrets, but with other irons in my forge, I gifted it to a colleague who I hoped might elucidate its mechanism by more…careless means. Your work for me is to determine what he’s done with it. Hell–retrieve it if it suits you.”
“Why not just ask him yourself?” Ty proposed, reaching for his shirt. The Dragon just laughed.
“Because he is merely a colleague. Unlike his grandfather, Les Marquains is no one’s friend, and he does not especially appreciate the intrusion of those he cannot dominate. His domain is not suitable for me.”
“What makes me any different?” Ty asked, chilled. He had heard stories of Les Marquains before–the man was a notorious sadist, and he and his cult had, in the opinion of dealers even beyond the Riverlands, made all of the Southern Reaches better off avoided.
“What makes you different from me?” the Dragon repeated with cruel incredulity. “Benighted creature, you are not to treat with him, though if you do, your subsequent rape, torture, and unwilling…integration with a thornbush will be far more entertaining vicariously. No, you are to infiltrate his chateau, ascertain his findings, and, if you would forego the aforementioned, get out.”
Ty digested this, pulling his shirt over his head and retrieving his pack from the corner next to the corpses, where Fortuna had presumably placed it. The Reaches were at least a week’s travel south, but with the Blaze’s cronies looking for him ever further from the Gravestones, south didn’t sound like such a bad idea. Les Marquains did, though, and the constant, minimal pulsing of the thread the Dragon had sewn into him was more reminder than he needed that though this meeting had given him a way forward, his choices were growing less and less palatable.
“Oh, yes,” the Dragon added as Ty made for the door. “Since I’m curious what you make of the omen, recall that I spoke to you before of confluence. A confluence in Time is coincidence, after all, and the only being I’ve ever feared once told me never to trust coincidence in the Riverlands. Consider it. I foresee a storm over the horizon, and I intend to keep my distance, but you–I imagine you’ll be amidst the tempest soon.”
Ty regarded the False God for a moment. Then he shook his head, bewildered, and left.