The Crossroads, Chapter 3: Old Friends

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

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

“Dog Boy!”

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

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

“And you still look like a damn kid.”

“The mana yet flows.”

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

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

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

“Who’s shopping these days?”

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

“Less savory?”

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

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

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

“Probably for the best.”  Gene spat.

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

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

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

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

“What’s there to understand?”

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

“And?”  Bleeding Wolf shook his head.

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

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

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

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

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

“Two?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Crossroads, Chapter 2: Irregulars

From here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

The Crossroads, Chapter 1: Orphelia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Age of Heroes and Horrors

Another expositional story by Leland. Edited by me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words From a Severed Head

Shall Harmony reign, yet in his wake

Lie severed heads whose fortunes bore

Craven lies and notes of strife

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

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

From these three came two and two

And circles stretched from sea to sky

To the Gyre did Seven headlong run

Then all the world

That’s why, that’s why

Old Times and Old Gods

A story by Leland. Not unlike this, but less saccharine and more anthrocentric.

When the ancient gods roamed the world we humans were harvested. 

Every bear with teeth and fur and claws could rip us apart and eat our soft meaty insides. The creatures of the wild were so big back then. Monstrous. All with terrible magics far greater than our soft skin. 

But the thing that truly hunted us was the Wendigo. It roamed in the forests at night, riding the winds, riding the cold. It cultivated us as a crop. The weakest were culled every season by that creature that sang in the dark. We humans fought within ourselves to avoid weakness, undermining our neighbors to save our children from the horrible screams. We humans developed emotions and manipulations to survive this thousand year torture. 

Then came the Bird, the Turtle, the Fox and humans received protection. A sweet gift of safety beneath the mountains of fur and feather they offered. Sitting atop the shell of the island Turtle we humans were not hunted for flesh, but these gods still had hunger. 

The gargantuan animals with their beautiful magics hungered for something else that the humans had: sweetness and sadness. Our strange emotions that ruled our universe and had been developed by seeing our neighbors and children die while wishing for their survival. These emotions became the sweet desserts that the old gods ate. 

Rituals upon rituals upon rituals were made for the old gods. Their massive eyes would watch them with an odd, thirsty calm as they drank our emotions in. Humans in groups learned different god’s preferences and built their society around satisfying a terrifying yet loving benefactor. 

The beautiful red Fox loved weddings and desire. It would curl around a group of young humans that were bonding themselves to each other. The fox required that this group never touch fully before they made their promise in its ear. Then that night they would lie in the mountains of soft, deep, velvety fur and make love for the first time on the old gods back. The fox would rumble and purr underneath the human moans. 

The Turtle was obsessed with mourning and the death of those long dead. It required it’s humans who lived on its island-like shell to record the names and loving acts of each person in each lineage from the very beginning of time. Parents would recite stories to their children about their grandparents and great grandparents and their great grandparents before them. Deep, powerful, emotional stories of pain, and they would all cry at the end, banging on the ground, the Turtle’s shell, as hard as they could. Every week the humans would light a fire for each loved one who had ever died and try to keep the fire going, heating the tortoise, while they sobbed. 

The Lark was fascinated by change in the bodies and in the minds of the humans. Parenting and adulthood were curious for the bird, for old gods never raised their children. The bird demanded clothes on its humans, feathers that covered the humans up and made them see shame in each other. Different colors for different ages, different colors for different genders, different colors for those who made mistakes. The change between colors was a massive affair, humans would get naked under the eyes of the bird and wait for a day and a night in the cold and the rain while the bird hunted down the fluff and trinkets that would cover them again. The bird required children to leave their parents upon the age of thirteen. Too young to feel safe, but old enough to survive their silent pain. The bird would stare into their eyes and then pick them up flying them to another nest of humans hours and hours away. 

The Wendigo never left. It’s horrible whistling and ice cold breath still rang through the woods at night. It never crossed the ancient gods, never stole from their herd. But it knew the sadness of being one of the enslaved. It offered freedom for humanity a chance to not need do anything but live in its forest. Some humans chose freedom and had their guts turned into ice. Some humans chose freedom and ate their children with the distended mouth of the Wendigo. Some humans chose freedom and moaned in the night, crying and sobbing and chewing the ice cold of their own hands and feet. 

In that way, humanity never lost its emotions and the gods never grew tired of us.

Prologue: The Merchant

The true prologue to the Crossroads story I begin writing a long time ago and then took offline. The plot and characters of that novella are much more fleshed out now, though it remains to be seen how much of it will end up on here.

Thago is burning.  The river is burning.  The Floating God is burning.  It began with unrest, an uprising among the slaves of the lower barges, made perilous by an attack by the servants of the Two-Eared Crown.  Coincidence, surely.  So the magisters and princes must have thought.  Coincidence, perhaps, they would take to their grave.  But the Merchant knows this was not coincidence.  It was fire, built and kindled and sparked by singed, practiced hands, spread by design and the carelessness of those who saw coincidence in such things.  And now Thago is burning.

With this certainty, the Merchant finds himself in the plaza before the palace which was once a temple.  The northern and eastern launches have been blockaded; the bridge to the trade barges is ablaze, and the flames now lick the palace’s western walls.  The southern dock below swarms with the enemy, and above, the Riversworn guard their trapped princes, awaiting reinforcement that will not arrive in time, hopefully and foolishly unaware that their only path out is through the force massing beneath them.  The Merchant draws his sword and locks his shield to his arm.  His task is impossible but clear: He must somehow give them enough time.

Five race up the steps now.  They are scouts meant to reconnoiter, but they charge anyway, seeing only the Merchant in their path.  Their spears stall upon his shield, and he dispatches them quickly.  One tumbles down the steps, two die to his blade, two are pushed from the plaza to the churned water fifty feet below.  One will drown, the Merchant knows.  The other will be rescued by his countrymen.  But there is little time to dwell on either fate, for a much larger host of soldiers has begun its determined ascent.

Many fall before him–seven more are hurled into the water, fifteen bleed out there on the plaza, nine thrown down the steps collide with eleven climbing, and two more collapse, skulls fractured by the spur of the Merchant’s shield–but the number on the plaza with him continues to grow.  He is driven back to the palace entryway, certainty resolving that his vain gift is reaching its limits.  Then the soldiers fall back.  They open a wide circle as a silhouette crests the stairway behind them.

The Merchant recognizes this one, recognizes the tattered regalia, the scar over his broken nose, the long knife set ablaze by magical gifts twirling in his hand.  This is Brother’s general, the one called Ignigoet, Pyrotechnic of the Left Hand.  It is betrayal then.  The Merchant suppresses a roar and hurls himself at the smirking man.

Their engagement is swift and brutal.  Ignigoet parries the first thrust, catching the Merchant’s shield with his offhand.  They separate.  Ignigoet throws a barrage of knives into the Merchant’s shield.  Then the flames upon them detonate, and the Merchant is scorched and sprawling, and time has run out.

He dimly notices the knife cut his throat as he stares up at the plumes of smoke in the night sky.  The general kneels over him, but the smirk is gone.  His face is impassive, and the burning eyes therein do not belong to Selenus Ignigoet.  The Merchant realizes too late that this is no betrayal at all.

And then he is gone.

Top Image: From Stories, by Rae Johnson

The Thing in the Woods

A rare piece of standalone short fiction.

Art by Tomislav Jagnjic. Yes, all of these titles are real. - Album on Imgur

One day I went wandering, and as the sun got low in the sky, and the clouds turned stormy over my head, I found myself at the edge of the woods.  In clear need of shelter and with no means to build my own, I ventured in.  The dark had only just fallen when I was beset upon by wolves.  They ran me down and bit into my flesh and tore my bleeding corpse apart.

***

The night passed, and the sun rose, and I lived again.

I returned to the forest’s edge, armed with wits and weapons, and when night fell, and the wolves again approached my camp, I shot the first of them dead, ending the chase before it began.

“You will come no closer!” I shouted after the remainder, confident I was heard, for I felt then the woods’ countless eyes upon me.  Alas, one pair of those eyes belonged to a brown bear, which wandered, hungry, into my campsite, undeterred by my shouts and gesticulations.  My first shot barely wounded it, and I did not get another.  It mangled my shoulder with a swipe of its claw and, biting into my chest, slammed me into a tree until my skull shattered.

***

The night passed, and the sun rose, and I lived again.

When next I returned to those woods, I brought with me others as eager as I to conquer the brutality of that place.  We came well-prepared with tools and traps and, of course, our firepower, and on account of our numbers–or perhaps the noise we made in our conversation or careless trudging–the wolves did not bother us at all.  It was not until the third night that we came upon another bear, its leg caught in one of the traps we had cunningly placed at the perimeter of our day’s patrol.  Incensed by pain, the beast attempted to charge us, but restrained as it was, it perished in a hail of bullets before crossing even half the way.

My companions and I were in good spirits then, for we had conquered the monster.  The things in the woods–we believed–were no longer any threat to us.  But come morning, we realized a new worry: In our trek into this place, we had taken scant inventory of the movements of the sun above, for it had been obscured by branches and far from the forefront of our minds.  We had little idea of where we were, and there, three days’ journey of indeterminate direction into the undergrowth, we had little idea of how to return.  Moreover, as the days passed, as our aimless wandering brought us no closer to anything we’d seen before, it began to grow colder, and the number of beasts about seemed to dwindle.  And as our supplies grew sparse and our worries thrived, I began to feel more and more as if I were being watched.

It was not an animal–of that I was sure–for I had grown cognizant of the ways in which their presences intruded upon ours.  Rather, it seemed as if the forest itself was watching, laughing, licking its thorny lips in anticipation of the fate which imminently awaited our arrogance.  Such a fate did seem to be waiting, after all: It seemed we would likely starve and succumb to the cold within the week.

I did not starve, though.  Instead, I awoke one night to my companion standing over me, hefting an axe and grinning madly.

“We’re all just animals, aren’t we?  Eating to survive?” he cried out, as much to himself as to me, and brought the axe down.  Not exactly an illuminating thought, I noted as my head split open.

***

The night passed, and the sun rose, and I lived again.

While I had been glad of my companions in my previous life, it was clear to me that in difficult times, their presence would turn to liability.  So the next time I ventured into the woods, I did so alone, seeking not to conquer their brutality but, rather, their austerity.

Searching closely this time among the boughs and brush for floral details my foregone predatory inclinations might have overlooked, I came upon a bush laden with red berries which were tart to the taste.  I tasted them, then ate my fill, satisfied with my find, but that night I found my bowels so inflamed that when the wolves came, I could scarcely defend myself, and they feasted happily on my viscera.

***

The night passed, and the sun rose, and I lived again.

Subsequently, I avoided those berries, but, determined to find some sort of sustenance that might supplement my stores in the colder months, I continued to seek out the marginalia which I had previously ignored, accumulating a wide variety of brown mushrooms, white mushrooms, black mushrooms, herbs, fruits, roots, and saps, nearly all of which–I discovered over as many lifetimes–brought about my death in some fashion.

***

The night passed, and the sun rose, and I lived again.

Much time thereafter, having amassed some knowledge–still hardly sufficient–of survival in those woods, I found myself despairing of my mission, for I could see only more death resulting from further effort.  It was in this state that I spotted, between the thick branches which saturated the forest’s depths, a small shack, firelight in its window and smoke rising from its chimney in tentative wisps.  Bewildered but heartened by the discovery, I approached and rapped on the door.  A disheveled woman answered.

“I beg you: help me,” I said.  “I have searched many years and paid uncountable cost with precious little to show for it.”

“Why do you search?” she asked.  Her face was dull.  Her eyes were wild.  I told her:

“I seek the wisdom to conquer this place.”

“Hmph,” she grunted.  “You are not of this place, then, are you?”

Not waiting for an answer, she invited me in and gave me a bowl of stew which I found hearty and pleasant, though I did not recognize the roots and meats therein.

“It is clear you know much of these woods,” I said.  “Would you do me the kindness of sharing what you have learned?”

“I know these woods.  I fear these woods.  I am a creature of these woods,” she replied.  “I inhabit the shadows between the trees.  I fear those shadows.  I recoil from them in awe and horror.  But you have been away too long, and you have forgotten what casts them.”

“I am not afraid of the dark!” I protested.  “I merely wish to be prepared for what stalks it.”  She cackled:

“You should fear it!  You stalk the dark–you are a beast!  The beasts that survive learn to fear!”

At this, I began to notice a blackening at the edge of my vision and a sharp pain in my stomach, and the old woman donned a crown of bone and antlers which, I realized, had hung on her wall since I entered.  Unable to move, I could only watch as she drew a knife and carved my heart from my chest, and in that moment, I felt what I imagined was an inkling of the horror she had described.

***

The night passed, and the sun rose, and I lived again.

I reentered the woods immediately, retracing my steps through the brush with new fervor.  It felt then like anger, perhaps righteous indignation that the hag should so betray a traveler seeking aid, but I still retained enough presence to recognize the unsettled, writhing terror beneath it.  The poison and bones and antlers, the darkness that surrounded the woman had rattled me, and I was driven now to respond in the only way I knew.  I came again upon the witch’s shack and crashed through her door and battered her skull to a pulp with the butt of my rifle, and then, my racing heart assuaged that the threat had receded, I went about gathering what I had come for.

I scoured her shelves for wisdom in whatever form: parchments, recipes, jars of ingredients wet and dry that I might recognize, memorize, harness.  I found it, so very much of it, and I spent what felt like lifetimes there in that shack, absorbing what the old woman had been.  I brewed her potions and cooked her stews, and when I had no more of her ingredients left, I went out and gathered them anew, each from a dark and invariably unsettling place.  A day arrived when I sat in that ragged cabin, harrowed and manic and at last satisfied that I had conquered the fierce shadows of those woods, and on that day, I was shaken to attention by a hammering at my door.

I opened it to find an unruly mob, stereotyped to the last man with torches and pitchforks, who wasted no time on pleasantries and attempted immediately to force their way through.  Holding them back for only a moment, I beheld the contents of my shack in the woods–the scattered parchments, the cauldron bubbling with flesh lumps of unsavory origin, the string of dried human hearts I had “gathered” in my most recent foray outside, and, of course, the seven-foot-tall man with the head of a deer who had been with me since I came to this place–and realization overtook me.

“Perhaps I let this all go too far,” I remarked to the deer-headed man as the mob finally overpowered me and burst through the door.  They tied a noose around my neck and dragged me outside.  The deer-headed man followed.

“I think not,” he called after me, a hollow, guttural echo reverberating between the trees.  “You did not go far at all.  You simply fell into a trap.”

As a woman tied my rope taut to a branch, I called back:

“Are you actually talking to me?  Do deer throats even make those sounds?”  I saw him shrug, but at that moment the woman kicked the block out from under my feet, and the snap of my neck cut the conversation short.

***

The night passed, and the sun rose, and I lived again.

When next I came upon the forest’s edge, I paused, reflecting on the traps I had stumbled upon in my past lives.  Behind me in the light, humanity had spread fearless and far, erecting towers of metal and stone, and now there was little left beside the metropolis, its controlled, sub-rural gaps, and, of course, the woods, still dark, inexorable, frighteningly constant and yet faded, it seemed, from every human attention but mine.  I was still drawn there, but it occurred to me that the injury which so drove me before now barely ached.  Once I had thought to prove myself better than this place, but now, my inferiority a foregone conclusion, I found myself at the edge of the woods all the same.

I was afraid, I realized.  Afraid, of course, of the woods, that I should enter and again be so thoroughly consumed, but that fear which so struck me then lay not before me.  It was behind me, what I fled, the metropolis, the sterile nauseam of “progress” shepherded by system, by vast presences of voltage and industry which needed no longer hide in the shadows between the trees.  They hungered like the woods, would gladly swallow me if I stepped back through their shining gates, but I knew that if I decided to fight back, to rebuff the paper teeth that gnawed my soul, those presences would vanish into aether, and the only blood on my fists would be that of people, innocent of–incapable of understanding–the horrors they comprised.

The presence between the trees, though, offered me a certain courtesy.  It offered me an opponent.

“Escape to the Great Outdoors!” blared a sanitized imitation of a woman’s voice, resonating, discordant, across the woods’ threshold, distorted by trees and what sounded like rattling, corroded tin.  “Exclusive Travel Packages Available Today!”

I was of course uninterested in such an offer, but I had a notion that, in actuality, none was being made to me.  Intrigued, I crossed into the trees.  It was not long before I came upon a clearing, and at its center I found the source of the strange advertisement.

Standing there in the afternoon sun, motionless but hunched, as if paused, hesitating before its next step in a hopeless shuffle forward, was a bizarre and uncanny creature.  It loomed over me, fifteen, perhaps twenty feet tall, with a body resembling an emaciated–perhaps mummified–corpse, overgrown and infested with roots, branches, debris, and a winding, itinerant thread of barbed wire.  The corpse-giant had no head, but where its neck ought to have been, a metal pole jutted from its flesh, wreathed by two strands of electrical cable.  Atop the pole, the wires attached to a pair of siren horns, fastened at asymmetrical heights over the creature’s left and right shoulders.  Its stance was wide, no doubt due to the precarious balance offered by its semi-skeletal legs, and its arms hung lifeless in front of it.

It stood oblique to me, “facing” the woods to my left, but though I found its countenance quite unsettling and feared the consequence of making myself known, I could not help but query:

“Didn’t I read about you on the internet?  You’re someone’s scary story!  You’re a product of civilization!  Why are you out here in the woods?”  With a screech of feedback, the creature’s sirens blared to life.

“Face your fears for a better life!” imported the static-ridden voice of a hip-and-with-it everyman.  “Ask your doctor if Phobilify is right for you!”  Then, with a shudder, the creature turned to face me, taking three halting–and yet somehow violent–steps.  I stared into its faceless, industrial visage, curiosity only barely overcoming my terror, and considered whether I ought to turn and run.

The reaction which instead emerged from my gut was a hysterical giggle, which I quickly suppressed, clamping a hand over my mouth.  But the thought behind it remained: It was ridiculous, wasn’t it?  I knew these woods, knew to fear them, knew that to face them risked my life and my sanity.  I could lie.  I could admit to an astounding lapse in judgment which brought me here, face to face with the darkness in its own home.  But I would not.  I knew, this time, I would not.  I wanted to gaze into the darkness, to see in it not the meaningless void which humanity saw in the woods but something else–something shifting and unknowable–which I hoped, with all I was, still lived in my own heart as well.

And it was funny!  This electo-cryptid before me, this thousandth face of the ineffable thing in the woods, sounding its mockeries, its empty calls for monetizable attention–it was laughing!  And I had a sense, a hopeful suspicion, that it was laughing with me and not at me.

So I stood there, defiant, terrified, giggling, as the siren-headed thing lurched, seized me in its dry, slender fingers, crushed my ribcage in its grip, and though I died, defeated utterly once again by this thing that lived here in the woods, I realized amidst the rush of air from my chest that, somehow, I no longer felt trapped.

***

The night passed, and the sun rose, and I lived again.

It was many years before I again spoke with the thing in the woods, though in that time my demeanor toward it softened.  I did not abandon my forays beyond civilization; rather, I renewed my vigor, seeking with every opportunity the uneasy solitude I found among the trees, tolerating–or perhaps embracing–the uncertainty of survival which came with it.  I had cultivated a healthy awe for the forces whose sway I navigated there and a healthy fear for the gaze I felt upon me in the night, but even so I was surprised to eventually find others like myself in that place.  We were few, and it took years–lifetimes, even–for us to find communion there, but I was not alone.  There were rare others who found that strange comfort in the unknown’s hungry embrace, who were as well deeply unsettled by the monolithic indifference offered by their fellow men amidst the cities and the streets.  

Together, we were resilient to the forest’s caprice, and in time, we ceased departing it altogether.  We found a clearing–perhaps the same clearing where I had perished to the siren-headed beast, though I could not be certain–and built a town, snug amidst the trees, and we thrived there, going about our lives–and the lives after those and the lives after those–until one day, a man strode in from the woods, hefting a shabby briefcase up to my doorstep.  His breath smelled of charcoal, his shoes worn but uncannily pristine, his perfectly greased hair clashing nauseously with the threadbare, burgundy suit hanging loose on his frame.  He was a traveling salesman, he explained.

“Traveling from where?” I asked.

“Oh, ya’know, hereabouts, thereabouts.  Th’important thing’s what I’m bringin’ to ya, though!”  He knelt and balanced the case on his knee, undoing the clasps as he flashed his plastic smile, and just then, behind his dead eyes, I saw something writhe.  I knew what would be in the case.  I knew it would be like a faraway shelter, simple, familiar in its use, eerily out of place.  It would have some hidden, darker side, a sordid history perhaps, or an old, dusty curse of which the salesman would relay only the slightest rumor.  It would compel me to cling to it, press past the ill fortune it would seem to bring until, finally, the mystery of its existence dangling, tantalizing before me, I would be devoured.  I would almost certainly die, I knew, but it would not be before I tasted the narcotic brine of the unknown, the fear, the horrible something which I had always truly sought.

I knew what would be offered, so I met the man’s stare, looked past him, gazed again upon the thing in the woods whose shadow twisted behind his eyes.  And with the case’s last clasp still fastened, I preempted:

“I’ll take it.”

Top Image: yo bro is it safe down there in the woods? yeah man it’s cool, by Tomislav Jagnjic. I do not own it.

The Nicholas

April 2, 1920  

It was a clear morning off the New England coast–approaching the southerly latitudes of Maine, if memory serves–and though the waves were calm, April’s lingering chill had yet to pass on, crawling, it seemed, up the sides of my boat, around my ankles and settling uncomfortably, like some odious shawl, about my shoulders.  I had sailed north only recently, having spent the winter fishing down in the Gulf, and the swift return to my summer grounds–premature, for a bout of restlessness I now vehemently cursed–had left me as yet poorly acclimated to the northern spring and robbed of any enthusiasm for the productive use of my location.  In my shivering solitude that morning I had cast two lines, and though I’d gotten bites on neither, I was having difficulty mustering the will to bait a third.  I recall it was in that fraught quiescence that I took notice of the irregularity surfacing some forty yards off the port bow.

To my first glance it seemed like jetsam or some other detritus, having the texture of maritime vehicularity without a form I could identify as any particular boat, but as more of the mass emerged above the waves, my befuddlement became something more akin to awe.  My previous confusion in identifying the object, it seemed, had lay in my assumption that its form would be singular when, in fact, it was comprised of numerous vessels and the pieces thereof.  Before me were hulls of dinghies, canoes, fishing boats, shattered boards and beams lashed haphazardly against great sheets of black rubber in a jumbled ellipsoid that, from far off, might have been mistaken for the carcass of some colossal leviathan.  For all the strangeness, though, of this great, nautical garbage heap, I still found myself ill-prepared for the sign that then surfaced on its carapace–glowing red neon, proclaiming it to be The Nicholas–or the concrete suburban front porch, flanked by flaccid strands of potted seaweed, which emerged beneath it.  Even as the door of the porch slammed open, and a ragged man stepped out and hurled a bucket of something foul into the ocean between us, I could only stare, speechless.  Ultimately, it was he who called out to me:

“Aye, laddie!  Watsonismouth?!”

I shook myself awake.  Being then unable to place either the man’s accent or the meaning of his query, I called out as much and motored over on the supposition that proximity might serve to make better order of the situation.

He clarified as I drew closer: “Sonny, let meh ask ya ferst: What’s in ya mouth?”  I might have guessed his previous call had been delivered in some dialect of the British Isles, but now his accent had drifted westward, seeming suddenly more appropriate for a denizen of the Carribean (and, I will admit, suggesting an origin I would never have guessed from his appearance).  Beyond the vagaries of his delivery, though, I was also rather bewildered as to the substance of his inquiry.  My mouth was quite empty, for though I normally partook of a smoke at this hour, I had dropped my pipe somewhere on the deck, amidst the shock of his vessel’s emergence, and had since lost track of it.  I indicated as much to him in my reply.

“No, son,” he clarified in an abrupt Mississippi drawl.  “It’s a mattah of circumnavigation.  We’s tryin’ to get at what’s in ‘eez maouth, an if yer knowin’ what’s in yer maouth, then that’s a tack on the chart, ‘cause what’s in yer maouth properly ain’t in ‘eez maouth, ya see?”

I did not.  I inquired–skeptically, for I was growing increasingly certain that this man was in something of an unpredictable state–as to whose mouth we were investigating.

“Not whosemaouth, son.  ‘Eezmaouth.  Like beezmaouth, if’n ya know the rock, ‘cept withaout that certification of a job done at the utmost pinnacle o’mediocrity.”

The conversation had, at this point, attained the clarity of a bayou, and my only remaining answer was a blank stare.  He shook his head sadly.

“It iss clear to me”–his accent was now that of the Mexican fishermen I’d dealt with so frequently in the Gulf–”dett we fall on fundamentally different sides.  No matter.  Diss iss not a sorpraiss.  Do you haf any feesh?”

Alas, I did not have much in the way of a catch.  I’d trawled no nets since arriving up north, and I’d no plans to do so for a few days yet.  I had a pair of mackerel I’d caught the previous day, but that was it, I told him.

“Oh, don’tcha know dere’s nuttin’ to be ashamed of, young feller.  I’m just lookin’ for a bite ta’eat is all.”

It sounded like Upper Midwest to me.  Minnesotan, perhaps?  It also occurred to me that despite the man’s graying, unkempt beard and repeated references to me as a young man, he did appear, in all other respects, to be at least twenty years my junior.  Befuddled, still, but acclimating to the ersatz temperature of the conversation, I offered him one of my mackerel, which he eagerly accepted, biting–rather aggressively–into the fish’s flesh right there on his vessel’s concrete gangway.  Then, shouting something about “makin’ you rich” through a full mouth and what sounded like an American’s (decidedly poor) impression of an Australian accent, he dashed back through his door, leaving me to the continued ponderance of the monument to madness which was The Nicholas.

In his absence, I began to notice a number of unsettling details lodged in the crevices of its unsound construction: Marionettes, features scrubbed clean by brine, dangled among the mishmash of hulls and rubber, alongside inscriptions and engravings in those surfaces in alphabets I did not recognize even from Dr. Sterling’s texts on the Oriental scripts.  Place to place, I could see protrusions from the rubber that looked like the spiraled horns of narwhals, and just past the threshold of the vessel’s “front door,” I saw hanging vines and foliage as if within were some dark jungle separated by unnatural, great distances from the semi-boreal sea where we drifted that morning in truth.  These items were, of course, in no way sinister, and I had no means of rationally justifying the fear for my soul which I felt there, in silent anticipation of the man’s return, except, perhaps, for the vessel’s unignorable suggestion to me that rationality had ceased, in this circumstance, to be a meaningful boundary.  However, my fear passed unactualized, and the man soon returned, heaving over to me a bulky canvas sack.

“My recommendation,” he said to me, all pretense of brogue or twang gone from his voice, “is that you bring that to an office of the United States Navy.  They will pay you for it.  Or pay you to keep quiet.  Or both.  Please pass on that it arrives to them courtesy of Captain Kneecap.”

With that, he disappeared back across his threshold, and, his door scarcely closed, The Nicholas dropped rapidly beneath the waves, the shock of which rocked my own boat violently.  Once I steadied myself, both physically as well as from the emotional disturbance of “Captain Kneecap’s” presence, I examined the contents of his gift to me.

Inside was something I found appalling, though not to the exception of an urge to examine its nature.  It was a body, headless, human-shaped, though clearly not human, for it was comprised not of flesh but of some metallic substance resembling steel but impossibly light for its bulk.  Between its noticeably elongated fingers and toes was webbing of a material I could not identify, and though they had been torn from it, I saw sheared joints on its arms, legs, and spine where fins might have once attached.

I did not know what to make of the corpse-mannequin, but if the Captain’s words were to be taken with even the slightest skepticism, there was nothing there for me to glean.  I was to be an intermediary in a conversation to which I desired precisely no connection.  Though I hesitated at the thought of the Captain’s promised riches passed over, I threw that “gift” back into the ocean that day.  The Nicholas was perhaps not the strangest thing I have ever seen upon the water, but I hope all the same that I never see her or the Captain Kneecap again.