The Crossroads, Chapter 9: Confluence

The altercation could have gone better, Bleeding Wolf supposed, surveying the bodies at his feet.  If he and his companions had arrived sooner, had been better prepared, they might have been able to surround the mercenaries, force a surrender, stop the violence before it began.  But to the extent that he prioritized the job and his own party’s safety, it had gone perfectly.

There had been five that marched into the clearing.  They had worn white, Holmite capes and carried a characteristically motley assortment of mismatched armor and armaments of varying quality.  They were likely Holmite citizens then, but not Holmite agents, which was just as well: Bleeding Wolf had little appetite for the political implications that would entail.  Of the five, he had personally dismembered two.  They…would not be standing back up.  Lan had beat the shit out of another who had unwisely attempted to dispatch him with an axe, and Ty had kicked another in the head hard enough to knock her unconscious.  Those two were still alive, though Lan’s victim was in bad shape.  The girl’s was another story.  Bleeding Wolf hadn’t witnessed the whole interaction himself, but he did see the end, as Ty wrestled her to the ground and the last mercenary hacked frantically at his own chest, trying ostensibly to remove his heart.  Leaving the girl contorted in a fetal position, Ty had cut the man’s throat before he could finish the job.

“Well, that was splendid,” Lan said dryly, wiping his rapier clean and re-slotting it into his umbrella-shield.  “I think I shall be off to a walkabout.  See if these louts left any stragglers still on their way.  Mind the poor dear, would you?”

“She’s the poor one, is she?” Ty muttered as the merchant walked off.  He glanced down at Orphelia.  She seemed to have calmed somewhat, but she was still horizontal, breathing slowly and clutching her teddy bear to her chest.  Ty was keeping his distance from the girl, and Bleeding Wolf was of a similar mind.  He felt no need to intervene in her coping process, and there were other pressing matters besides.

“See if he’s got any rope in there,” he said, gesturing to the bag Lan had left in the clearing.  He unbuckled a pouch at his waist and withdrew a handful of herbs.  “I’ll see if I can patch this one up.”

They worked efficiently, applying rudimentary bandages to the mercenaries’ wounds and tying them both to a tree.  By the time they finished, Orphelia had mostly collected herself, and the three of them met up again beside their original quarry: the corpse of Bilgames, Hunter of Beasts.

“This the guy, then?” Ty asked.  Bleeding Wolf nodded, suppressing the swell of emotions as the certainty of it resolved.  It was…him.  The enormous, musclebound frame, the long beard, the etched armor.  It was just like the stories, just like the glimpses he caught decades ago through a crowd.  But though the corpse was still in remarkably good shape for what had almost certainly been days of exposure to the elements, the job was still just as it had been advertised: The corpse was just a corpse, throat cut, unmoving, and they were there to loot it.

To that end, Bleeding Wolf noted that his earlier conjecture–that the tipster had already taken his cut–had been vindicated.  In life, the Hunter of Beasts had worn an enormous lotus flower upon his chest, but where the flower ought to have been, there was only an indentation, an irregular cavity amidst the corpse’s musculature, framed by hundreds of tiny pinpricks, perhaps where the roots had entered his flesh.  The stories were true, then.  The flower was an artifact.

“Looks like the best has already been taken,” Bleeding Wolf remarked, gesturing to the indentation.  “I think we’ll earn our fee if we can bring Marko the armor, though.”

“Is it magic?” Ty asked.

“Hell if I know, but it’s all he’s got left.  Marko didn’t ask for anything in particular, right?”  Ty shook his head.  “Help me get these off, then.  The bugger can figure for himself what his merchandise is worth.”

It took them little time to remove the heavy belt and vambraces, but as they set about the task, a deep uneasiness fell over Bleeding Wolf.  At first he thought little of it.  They were in the Bloodwood, it was getting dark, there may yet have been more mercenaries about, and they were looting the grave of his childhood hero.  There was plenty to be uneasy about.  But then he heard a rustle beyond the clearing, and the unease became material.  He looked up, saw a flash of white, and the rustling receded rapidly.  Dammit, he thought.  Missed one.

“Keep an eye out.  Run if more show up,” he growled to Ty.  “I’ll be right back.”

He tore into the woods.  He’d try to be less lethal this time, he thought to himself, but either way, they needed this one caught.  If their group had spread out, if the party had only intercepted a portion of them, this scout could be bringing friends back.  And given the state the first group was now in, they would be out for blood.

Except this scout seemed to be very fast, and–Bleeding Wolf noticed it quickly yet still too late–something wasn’t right.  The trail he’d been following for lack of visual contact, the scuffs in the dirt, the trampled moss, the broken twigs and branches–it was not a trail made by a human, no matter what kind of hurry they were in.  These footprints could not have been made by boots.  The spread of shattered branches was much too large for a human frame.  The deep lacerations into the bark of the trees–what could a Holmite scout have been carrying to have made those accidentally?  All of these thoughts coalesced, collated in his mind just in time for the trail to abruptly end.

He slowed to a halt, listening, sniffing the air, straining his senses to detect any sign of…whatever it was he was chasing in the rapidly dimming undergrowth.  At first there was nothing.  The shadows were still, the air smelled of the forest’s pungent floor and little else.  Then he heard breathing, massive, deafening, not ten feet away, and the unwelcome feeling that he had been outwitted, that he had been led here, began to settle in.  Slowly, he turned to face the source of the breathing, and he froze, fear and awe mixing, cold in his chest, as he recognized the mask.

He fell to his knees.  It was him.  The Wolf of the Green, for whom Bleeding Wolf had taken his own name all those years ago.  The Masked Wolf.  The Masked Alpha.

In his peripheral vision, he could finally resolve the Alpha’s colossal frame amongst the shadows as the creature began to pace, its steps suddenly graceful, silent in spite of its incredible size.

“You followed in our footsteps, then,” came the rumbling words, seemingly from every direction, as the earth and trees resonated with the primal force of the creature’s presence.  “You were eager.  Do you understand where it has led you?”

Bleeding Wolf looked up to see the Alpha paused mid-pace, neck elongated and bent down to regard him.  It was not poised to strike.  It was…skeptical?  He bowed again.

“I am not sure that I do, Great One.  Please help me understand.”  The Alpha remained motionless for what might have been minutes before the reply finally came:

“Two circles converge.  One, a careful orchestration, pieces placed carefully, falling outward until all is in ruin.  Our congregation was the instrument of its genesis, and the first among us has now fallen to it.  The second is a gyre of passion and rage and lies.  It draws all within, for it is of the Deep, and the Deep is of all.  It is human, and for that I despise it, for it has long since consumed me.

“Your eagerness has brought you to a crossroads of ruin, too late to turn back, only chaos and ravening before you.  But…”  Again, the Alpha paused, and the forest paused with him, as if the insects, the birds, even the creaking branches were captive to its words.

“But perhaps you may prove yourself a successor.  Perhaps your devotion might stem the rot and resentment and the Story-That-Hungers.  If you think yourself worthy, then listen carefully: Trust not the girl, but help her to find her redemption.  Beware the Second, but help her to find peace.  And when His whispers drown out all else, do not be afraid, for Harmony compels naught without discord.”

With that, the Alpha fell silent, and slowly, tepidly, the subtle din of the forest began to seep back in.  Crickets and cicadas resumed their sawing chorus, and a breeze blew through the canopy, and as the quaking leaves drowned out the Alpha’s rumbling breaths, Bleeding Wolf looked up.  Around him was nothing but roots and leaves and dusk.

The Crossroads, Chapter 8: Devlin

Devlin woke with a heaving cough, dust and feathers issuing from his mouth.  His brain was foggy.  He could barely think.  He could barely breathe with all these birds, black birds, brown birds, birds the color of dirt and shadows and dried blood, fluttering about his shoulders and face, shedding filthy down in his throat, cawing and chirping in his ears.  In his daze, he could barely hear it, but it was all he could hear.  Where was Orphelia, he wondered.  Why couldn’t she chase them off?  Why were they still here?

He wiped the crust from his eyes and looked about the alley.  It was getting dark, and she wasn’t here.  That wasn’t right.  She went about during the day, of course.  She brought food and water and the blanket she’d used to erect the makeshift awning over his head, but she always came back before it got dark.  He roused what little strength he had and crawled to the mouth of the alley.

The street was nearly empty, and Orphelia was nowhere to be seen, but a sudden flicker of movement in the shadows prompted Devlin to recoil.  He scrambled backward as a figure appeared, pausing at the mouth of the alley.  It was the old blacksmith from across the street–the one Orphelia had warned him not to speak to.  He lingered for only a moment, meeting Devlin’s gaze with a reassured nod before hurrying away.  He had a large object–a spear, or perhaps a halberd–balanced on his shoulder, and somewhere amidst the confluence of details, it occurred to Devlin: Something was wrong.

The flock took off in surprise, instinctively squawking, pecking at his hands as he clambered upright.  He began to stagger after the old man.  The haze and the birds pulled at him, the fog gathered at the edge of his vision, but he willed his legs to keep moving.  Orphelia should have been back by now.  People were hurrying through the streets with weapons at twilight.  She could be in trouble.

He kept hobbling after the man’s shadow for what felt like hours.  Was the town really so large? How many houses had he passed?  On his periphery, he kept trying to count, to note signs and features of the doorways on either side, but the birds kept fluttering about his shoulders, blocking his view, breaking his train of thought.  It was only with a semblance of cognition that he realized he had followed the blacksmith into the square at the north end of town, and then almost immediately he was knocked to the ground, senses assaulted by a blast from the old theater on the other side of the square.

Bleary, he righted himself in a half-crouch to see, through the storm of screeches and feathers, a tall, black-clad figure climb to its feet amongst the debris from the explosion, only to be engulfed again by a torrent of fire jetting from the theater entryway.  In the sudden abundance of light, Devlin could see the figure all the more clearly, that it did not seem to heed the flame licking at its voluminous cloak, that its movements were too smooth, too precise, as if it were unfolding rather than simply standing.  The birds seemed to see it too: As the flames around the creature died down, leaving it apparently untouched, the screeching chorus faded with them, and for the first time in weeks, Devlin could see clearly.

Standing in what remained of the theater’s doorway was the greasy man Devlin knew to be Marko, the artifact dealer, brandishing a stone sculpture of a face in his left hand, his right covered in blue fire, surging from a glowing bracelet on his wrist.  On the other side of the square, as yet unnoticed by either, the blacksmith waited next to a stack of crates, halberd ready, attempting–like Devlin–to take stock of the situation.

“You can get lost if y’ain’t got nothin’ to say!” Marko called out.  “We do business here.  You can take your threats and leave!”

The figure did not respond, but it did glide forward a pace, prompting Marko to raise the stone face.  Instantly, the ground in front of the figure compacted with a loud thud, as if struck by something massive, sending dust into the air and leaving a crater in the dirt.  As a warning shot, it would have terrified Devlin, but the creature seemed unfazed, and in the moment of aftermath, as Marko attempted to judge the efficacy of his intimidation, it charged, closing the distance in an instant.  It batted the stone face from Marko’s hand and, ignoring the plumes of fire he reflexively raised, tackled him, impaling him through his shoulder on a spike jutting from its cloak where a hand should have been.

The blacksmith was already in motion, running toward them, halberd bracced for a wide swing, but Devlin found himself approaching as well.  In the uncanny silence of the birds’ absence, he found himself beset by a bizarre, intrusive desire.  He wanted to touch the creature.  He wanted to see what was beneath its skin, to stab his beak into whatever served as its eyes and savor the strange taste of flesh.  There was a part of him confused, that recoiled halfheartedly at the wet fervor that had overcome him, but it was tired, far too tired to resist.

The blacksmith arrived first, his wild cleave catching the creature at the base of its neck, pulling it from atop Marko and sending it reeling toward Devlin’s position in the middle of the square.k  But though he seemed to have struck a solid blow with the sharpened edge of his weapon, the creature righted itself swiftly with a clicking undulation, barely inconvenienced, much less decapitated.  It issued a jarring sound, somewhere between a hiss and an otherworldly hum, and poised itself for another charge.  Then Devlin reached it.

With a confidence he had never known in himself, he reached out and grasped the limb the creature was passing for an arm, and with a terrifying, practiced familiarity, he projected a presence into the creature, found its whirring voice, and took hold of it.

As expected, it fought back.  The hum and the harmonies swelled, intensifying, weaving into vicious complexities as they writhed in his gnarled grip, and then they burrowed into him.  Devlin imagined a clicking, modular eye, studying him, unblinking, segments dialing and focusing, but the image remained for only a second before his mind was recalled to reality.

The creature was shuddering, resonating violently, and the force of the vibration was all but wrenching Devlin’s arm from its socket.  His confidence was gone.  He panicked and let go.  Still twitching erratically, the creature whirled on him, but before it could continue the motion, it lurched sideways into the ground with a metallic crunch, and the twitching stopped.

Looking past the fallen creature, Devlin noticed Marko, clutching his shoulder with one hand, the stone face raised tepidly in the other.  Behind him stood the blacksmith, undisguised concern written on his brow, attention divided between Devlin and the motionless heap of cloth and spines at his feet.

“What…” Devlin croaked, the query only half in mind before the screeches and feathers returned to drown it out.  Then the haze returned.  And the fatigue.  Then his legs buckled, and everything went black and mercifully quiet.

Alternative Alternative History

The Sounds Of New York City, Circa 1920 : The Two-Way : NPR

An intro story intended as a direct reference to Robert Chambers’ The Repairer of Reputations. I do recommend the original, provided you can overlook one or two references to attitudes that are justifiably no longer acceptable. Beyond that, though, in the niche of literature that Lovecraft and Derleth came to dominate decades later, The Repairer of Reputations stands out as a particularly subtle example among weird fiction’s supremely un-subtle enclave, with its portrait of a shining, futuristic 1920s New York (from the perspective of its 1895 publication date!), seen through the eyes of Hildred Castaigne, a megalomaniacal but only understatedly unreliable narrator. It also has suicide booths.

The original leaves the open question of how much Hildred’s insanity has affected his perception. There are clear, “onscreen” arguments over whether Hildred’s combination safe is, in fact, a breadbox, or whether the crown he keeps inside it is simply a piece of trash, but those allude to the arguments no one has: How much of the ordered, tranquil, pomp-and-circumstance New York of the future can be real if we are seeing it only through his distorted gaze. It’s an elegant ambiguity, one I ignore entirely in the below. My story is not elegant, and where Chambers’ work was meant to stand alone, mine is intended to introduce an aesthetically similar but larger and (by modern standards) much more conventional interweaving of characters. My version of Chambers’ setting is meant to be unambiguously real (because I like it), but I hope it will pique your interest anyway. The tags/categories are relevant, of course.

Toward the beginning of the year 1920 the government of the United States (and, newly, of Britannia) had practically completed the program adopted during the last months of President Winthrop’s administration.  The country had every appearance of tranquility.  The Great War, despite its ravagings upon Europe, had left no such scars upon the republic, having cemented its mutually agreed-upon annexation of the British Isles and Canada and emboldened its navy, granting it control over a profitable majority of both the Atlantic and Pacific.  The last vestiges of the white separatist movement in Texas had been quelled and its leaders apprehended with the aid of the Venus of the Sinaloa, and with the exception of the Army’s ongoing, troubled campaigns in the Shandong jungle, the country was in a superb state of defense.

Moreover the nation was prosperous.  Chicago, for a moment paralyzed after a second great fire, had risen from its ruins, argent and stately and even more beautiful than the white city which had been built for its people in 1893.  Everywhere good architecture was replacing bad, and even in New York a sudden craving for decency had swept away a great portion of the dingiest existing edifices.  Streets had been widened, properly paved, and lighted; trees had been planted, squares laid out, elevated structures demolished, and underground roads built to replace them.  The new government buildings and barracks were fine bits of architecture, and the long system of stone quays which completely surrounded the island had been turned into parks, which proved a godsend to the population.

The colossal Congress of Religions had convened only a year ago, but already itseemed clear to most that a new understanding prevailed between men and their cultures and creeds, that bigotry and intolerance were to be laid in their graves, that kindness and charity had finally triumphed over that ugly, sectarian will to conflict.  Many thought the millennium had arrived, at least in the new world, which, after all, was a world unto itself.

Many thought as much, yes, but Beau Pierre wasn’t so sure.  He looked down, bleary, from the window of his tenement–one of the few of its hideous kind remaining in the city–upon the newly reconstructed Pell Street, its wide, neat sidewalks, flowering cherry trees, alabaster storefronts opening to the carefully managed calm of a seaside park two blocks down.  People were supposed to like these things, to draw from them the same outward order and organization within their own souls, but Beau found them curiously soulless.  Something was wrong with him, he admitted.

After the war, he had enrolled at Columbia.  Prospects had been bleak at the time for a return to Paris, and he had been eager to resume his studies.  But it didn’t take.  It wasn’t that the faculty weren’t supportive or that they were hostile to expatriates or really any subversion of his expectations for the place.  Beau had changed.  It might have been the war–the Romantics had oft described the change that might occur in man upon his immersion in hardship and violence–but something told Beau that the particulars of the Western Front weren’t what the Romantics had in mind.  Besides, the war failed acutely to provide an explanation for the other changes he’d noticed in his life.

Beau turned to look at the door at the opposite end of his dusty studio and focused, flexing a muscle in his mind which had gradually made itself apparent over the past three years.  Clouds of possibility converged about the door, forming lines and threads stretching into dimensions he could intuit but not consciously fathom, along which the door began to shift.  The vast majority of them–ninety five percent, Beau estimated–were closely grouped, and the majority of what remained did not stray far.  It was a near certainty, then, that the door would open between seven and eight minutes from now.  He checked his pocket watch.  Ten minutes late.  Perhaps it was a power play?

Since his departure from the university, Beau had drifted through a few different arrangements of employment, less for the needs of his lifestyle–he lived cheaply and had been able to extricate an appreciable nest egg from his family’s holdings in France before his crossing–than for an idle fascination with Americana and its trappings.  A store clerk, a carriage driver–a profession swiftly yielding to the automobile traffic coming to dominate transportation about the city–a librarian, a shop assistant to a record seller–it was through this last, oddly, that he finally encountered the grasping fingers of New York’s peculiar underworld.  Out of curiosity, he had accepted an invitation to a secret society dedicated to the King in Yellow, who seemed to Beau to be a sort of cross between myth and metaphor, though he still had little idea what any of the society’s gibberish actually meant.  It was through that bizarre enterprise, however, that he had been recruited by Felix Wilde.

He’d never seen the man–only received messages from the other members of the society.  The employment they offered–periodic requests to deliver cryptic messages and nonsensical objects to individuals across the spectrum of social standing–paid poorly, which was notably orders of magnitude better than it ought to have paid.  It was terribly interesting, Beau felt, made all the more so by the enigma of Mr. Wilde himself.  The man, purportedly a microcephalic gremlin, was the chief accountant at Hawberk Armoury and Defense, the largest arms dealer in the country, but it seemed he had his malformed digits in some great share of New York’s illegal operations as well.  Some small portion–liquor smuggling, forgery–seemed profitable.  Most, like Beau’s errands, did not, but it was clear that Mr. Wilde held a sort of ineffable sway over the city’s miscreants.  Beau dearly wanted to understand why, but salient evidence had thus far eluded him, which was why the development of three weeks ago was so exciting.

Between Wilde’s sporadic requests and his own counter-research, Beau had taken to spending his afternoons at Belmont Park, testing his newfound predictive talents upon more measurable stakes.  Almost to his surprise, they proved quite reliable, and he found himself able to collect margins on small bets placed within ten minutes of a race’s start.  When he attempted to replicate his success with a more substantial sum, his predictions did not fail him, but unfortunately, his lack of guile did.  The track administrators had apparently noticed their novice patron’s perfect betting record and, upon the unfurling of circumstances that might otherwise have garnered the attention of their other clientele, decided to intervene.  Beau’s winnings were confiscated, and he was tossed unceremoniously to the street.

It was a costly error, to be sure: Though he was not currently relying on the extra pocket money, he had entertained hopes that it might provide some assurance of his financial independence in years to come.  A ban from every track in the state of New York complicated things.  Ultimately, though, Beau found it worthwhile, for the very next morning, an envelope arrived at his door, marked in the usual way with the initials “F.W.”  It was a task, of a sort, but unlike previous instances of terse, unadorned instruction, this note took the form of a ledger entry:

Incident recorded for one B. Pierre, student, migrant, amateur gambler.  Incident occurred April 3rd.  Reputation damaged on the racetrack.  Known to track proprietors as a race fixer.  Reputation to be repaired April 23rd aboard the Prince’s Emblazoned.  Retainer to be paid by client’s assistance to Mr. Hawberk on said date.  Entry papers and details to be provided to client by H. Castaigne at 8:30 AM, April 23rd, prior to departure.

-Mr. Felix Wilde

Accountant, Hawberk Armoury & Defense Co.

The mystery had coagulated deliciously.  Martin Hawberk was a pillar of society, and the Prince’s Emblazoned, his ocean liner, was the decade’s crowning achievement in modern nautical engineering–such was the agreement among every sailor Beau could find relaxing outside the cafes which bordered the harbor.  That idle engagement with Mr. Wilde’s nonsense had propelled him into such stations was a thrill in itself.  That it might finally shed light on Wilde’s intentions–or “repair” Beau’s damaged public character–was a veritable culmination of his atrophied ambitions.

He cut these ruminations short, rising in anticipation of a knock at the door, which arrived precisely on schedule.  Adjusting his sleeves, he breathed deep and opened it to a dandily-dressed young man who sauntered in with barely a glance of acknowledgment.

“Mr. Castaigne, I presume?” Beau asked.  The man delayed his response, surveying Beau’s ascetic lodgings with an almost exaggerated curl of his lip before laying his cane against the windowsill and producing a folio, which he set upon the table.

“Indeed,” he replied, begrudgingly making eye contact.  He did not sit, instead choosing to lean dramatically upon the backrest of Beau’s chair.  “You understand what is at stake here, yes?”  Beau clasped his hands and shook his head humbly, for now content to play along with Castaigne’s overstated theatrics.

“I am afraid Mr. Wilde provided me with precious little context.  What service is it I am to be providing?”

“You are to be controlling damage,” Castaigne said, almost with a snarl.  “Hawberk has decided that he shall jeopardize our finances with his frivolity, and Mr. Wilde finds this unacceptable.  We are to understand your capabilities make you an effective card player?”

“I’ve not made a habit of card playing.”  Castaigne scowled and looked out the window, perhaps to hide his sudden turn of rage.

“My blood boils at the thought that you were chosen, with wits this dim!” he spat, turning back.  “Your role is to ensure that either Hawberk or yourself wins this useless game, so that our work is not imperiled.  Do not fail, or the King in Yellow will surely enlighten you as to the meaning of fear.”

Beau considered the manic threat for a moment but ultimately found himself unable to resist:

“What have I to fear from the King in Yellow?”

Castaigne regarded him for a moment, taut-lipped, knuckles clenching around the top of the chair.  Then, in a low voice, he intoned:

“Mr. Wilde the other day relayed to me the most curious rumor of a certain Benoit Foyer, a French entrepreneur most perturbed by the theft of his family’s fortune by his estranged half-brother, mere hours after their father’s death on the Front.  I understand he is attempting to ascertain the miscreant’s whereabouts.  What do you make of it?”

Despite his efforts, Beau felt his brow raise incrementally.  Mr. Wilde’s attention was more careful than he’d realized.

“I would venture,” he replied slowly, “that Mr. Foyer may overstate his claim.  There exists no record of his parentage prior to his adoption into the Foyer family, making his accusation baseless.”

“Mr. Wilde is quite gifted at finding records, Mr. Pierre.  Hawberk’s former competitors can attest to it.  But let us agree that, in this case, he is surely mistaken in his assumption that such a record might be provided to Mr. Foyer.  And let us agree that his faith in you is not misplaced.”

With that, Castaigne deliberately relinquished his grip upon the chair and fetched his cane.

“Everything else you need should be in it,” he said, gesturing carelessly to the folio on the table.  He paused.  “Except you had best find yourself a tailor.  Even Mr. Hawberk would not suffer your presence on his ship looking like that.”

He strode out, leaving the door open behind him–and Beau to wonder whether his curiosity had been worth it after all.

The Crossroads, Chapter 6: The Hunter of Beasts

Orphelia was scared.  It had never happened before.  Not being scared, of course–Orphelia was unfortunately well-acquainted with fear.  No, it was Mr. Ruffles.  Since the Bad Stuff, he’d kept her safe.  She followed his instructions, kept herself and Devlin fed.  She stole food and medicine, but only when Mr. Ruffles said, only how he said, and no one noticed.  No one ever noticed.  Then he told her to follow the man in the brown tunic, follow him into the house they said was “Marko’s”.  She didn’t know why.  She didn’t need to know why.  Mr. Ruffles had kept her safe, and no one ever noticed.

But the merchant noticed.  The strange man who rode into town on his wagon-boat, who spoke with funny words, who had followed her to Marko’s house–no one else saw her.  He saw her.  Plainly.  Like she was really there.  Then everyone saw her, and she really was there, and Marko yelled, and the man in brown left, and the merchant named Lan al’Ver asked her to come with him, and she did, because Mr. Ruffles wasn’t keeping her safe anymore, and she wasn’t sure what else to do.

He led her first to the market, where he argued with the stall traders over the price of onions which he ultimately did not buy and which, it seemed, none of those traders were even selling.  Then, bidding her to carry the bolts of linen which he did buy, he led her to his wagon-boat, tied to a post at the edge of town, and served her tea that was not hot–but was far warmer than it ought to have been without a fire in sight–in a clean, white, porcelain cup.  They remained there for the better part of an hour as he drank his own tea and inquired unhurriedly into how she was enjoying the springtime.  At first she barely responded.  What was she to say?  She was not enjoying much at all at the moment.  Truly, she wanted simply to walk away, but she was paralyzed by the notion that this man saw her, could–and likely would–follow her if she left.  Even so, as his questions became more obtuse, less grounded from reality, she found herself playing along.  He would ask:

“Upon which road lies your greatest treasure?”  To which she would reply:

“Why Mr. al’Ver, ‘tis the road of love, wherein toward me my Prince rides, ever gallant, ever fearless of the tribulations which bar his way.”  He would consider this approvingly for a moment before inquiring again, along a completely separate line:

“Then name me a luxury, Miss Orphelia, which you cannot live without!”

“So forward, Mr. al’Ver!  Alas, I should say I would be rather poorly without my warmest socks.”

And so on.  She was, it occurred to her, even having fun with the strange interaction, though it nagged her that the man somehow knew her name.  She had never given it.  She never had the chance to inquire into the mystery, though, as their game was interrupted by the breathless arrival of the man in brown and another: the man she’d seen before, scarred and shirtless, pulling al’Ver’s wagon-boat into town.

“Al’Ver,” the boat-puller growled.  “We have to leave now.  Target’s much higher profile than Marko let on.”  Lan met his gaze over the top of his teacup, then slowly lowered both cup and saucer.

“Worry not, Mr. Wolf,” he replied, though Orphelia found his smirk at least slightly worrying in itself.  “I am quite prepared to depart–I merely await my conveyance to the riverbank.”  Mr. Wolf, scowling, held his stare for several seconds before exhaling angrily.

“Fuck you.”

Some fifteen minutes later, they were pushing off onto the river, Lan poling skillfully against the current, the others arranging themselves as comfortably as possible amongst the boat’s minimal seating and piles of supplies and goods.  Orphelia leaned over the side, trying to remember the last time Father had let her board a trade raft, listening idly to the conversation behind her.

“Who’s the girl?”

“She was eavesdropping at Marko’s.  Al’Ver insisted she come along.”

“How much she hear?”

“Everything, near as I can tell.”  There was a pause.  Then:

“Girl!” Mr. Wolf called.  “What’s your name?”  Orphelia turned, shaking herself to attention.

“I’m Orphelia, Mr. Wolf, sir,” she said with a curtsy.

“Bleeding Wolf,” he clarified.  “Are you a mage, Orphelia?”  She gulped.

“Um, no.  No, sir.”  The man in brown snorted.

“Lying,” he muttered.

“What!  No!” Orphelia, shouted, stamping her foot.  “I’m not lying!  You’re just rude!”  Bleeding Wolf glanced over to his companion with a raised eyebrow.

“Well, isn’t this cursed as shit?” he remarked.  “What are you playing at, al’Ver?”

Lan ignored the question completely, continuing to whistle a tuneless nothing, eyes on the river ahead.

“What are you talking about, Mr. Wolf?”  Bleeding Wolf exchanged another look with the man in brown.

“I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt,” he said at last.  “You’re sweatin’ mana all over the boat–the kind that comes out of real sons of bitches.”

“Like you?”

“What?”

“Well, you’re a wolf, so I just thought…”

“Dammit, girl!” he snarled.  “Way I see it, we have no way of telling whether you’re a brigand or a victim, but as victims go, you aren’t making out to be that sympathetic.”  Orphelia frowned.  She clasped her hands and looked down at her feet.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Wolf,” she mumbled.  It was partially true–she still thought the joke had been funny, though.  Still, the raft remained silent for some minutes as the weight of Bleeding Wolf’s angry stare slowly eroded, dissipating in juxtaposition to Lan’s off-key whistling.

“Something happen to you, then?” he asked, breaking the silence.

“Hmm?”

“You run into a mage who did something to you?  Make some sort of deal?”  His eyes fell for a moment, Orphelia noticed, on Mr. Ruffles.  “Did you find something you…regret finding?”  Orphelia gulped and shook her head.  She didn’t like that question.  Her non-answer wasn’t a lie, not really, but she knew that volunteering anything more would lead Mr. Wolf to topics she didn’t want to think about.  She doubted Mr. Ruffles would approve of the scrutiny either.

Luckily, Bleeding Wolf did not press further, though the man in brown continued to scowl.  Instead, he turned the conversation back toward their quarry, the cause for concern which had accelerated their day’s travel to a rush.

As far as Orphelia could tell, they were looking for a dead body, but it sounded like a really important dead body.  “Bilgames”, the name Marko had given, was apparently used near the Bloodwood to refer to the hero known further and wider as the Hunter of Beasts.  He’d been an invincible warrior, slew some horrible, scary monster, liked the color green or something–Orphelia stopped paying attention after a point.  What she couldn’t tell–and what Bleeding Wolf was not offering–was what she had to do with any of this.  She didn’t want to work for Marko.  She didn’t care about dead folk heroes or robbing their graves.  She just wanted…she just wanted her and Devlin to be safe.  Yes, that was it.  Safe.

But this misadventure didn’t sound safe at all!  The Hunter was super famous, if Bleeding Wolf was to be believed.  There were other scavengers and mercenaries headed this way for sure, and the three men didn’t exactly resemble a fighting force.  Moreover, it didn’t even sound like they would find anything.  Why wouldn’t Marko’s tipster have just picked the corpse clean already?  She came out of her daze to vocalize the question, interrupting Bleeding Wolf’s lengthy description of a flower the Hunter had supposedly carried.

“Bravo, Miss Orphelia!” Lan shouted from the back of the raft.  The man in brown continued to scowl, but she saw a hint of a smile crack at the corner of Bleeding Wolf’s mouth.

“It’s a good question,” he admitted.  “Ty, it’s your line of work.  You wanna tell her?”  The man in brown sighed.

“The scav trade is all about how much trouble you can handle,” he said reservedly.  “Anything you pick up’s just as liable to get you killed as pay for your next lunch.  So if you’re gonna grab it, you need to be ready for the trouble that comes with.  Some scavs aren’t, so they’ll take valuable info, like where the body–or ruins or whatever–is and sell that instead.”

Lan tucked his pole into the crook of his elbow to clap politely.

“So the tipster was a scaredy-cat?” Orphelia asked.  Ty looked annoyed, but Bleeding Wolf responded first:

“Exactly.  My two silver, though, is that our tipster took something anyway.  The Hunter of Beasts has to be the biggest find he’s ever gonna get.  Maybe he didn’t take enough to slow him down, but he took something.”

“So what are we gonna take?” Orphelia pressed.  Bleeding Wolf shrugged.

“Whatever we find.  Whatever the last guy missed–or didn’t have the know-how to identify.  I’m honestly more worried about who we’re gonna have to fight off to walk away with it all.”  He turned to Ty.  “Who other than Marko has their claws in the trade here these days?”

“Salaad of Hazan, mostly,” Ty offered.  “Too far south of Lesser Cairn for any of the Stones dealers to have heard by now.  I’d guess–if the mage is as well-known as you say–we’re competing with one or two groups ready to fight and any number of prospectors waiting to nab whatever’s left.

“Not bad.  You any good in a fight, Ty?”  Orphelia suppressed a giggle at the man’s exaggerated frown.

“As I recall, you were the muscle in thesis arrangement,” he shot back, indignant.  Bleeding Wolf shook his head, as if the answer didn’t matter one way or the other, but the conversation lulled there.  For the next several hours, the group said little else, leaving Orphelia to ponder the mystery of her inclusion undisturbed and, unfortunately, unaided.  Mr. Ruffles wasn’t being helpful either, though that was only to be expected with all the people about.  Soon enough, though, Lan drew the raft up against the riverbank and jolted her awake again.

She looked up, taking in the landscape as the Captain tied his knots and pulled the vehicle’s transformative lever.  The sun was starting to get low in the sky, staining the air with the deep yellow of late afternoon, but despite the number of hours left in the day, from where they floated, it seemed just minutes from being out of sight, lost behind the treeline that loomed over them, spanning their entire field of view to the north and west.

The Bloodwood.  Orphelia had never seen it, though she’d heard plenty.  She had always found the name interesting–dark and scary and romantic.  Father had told her the story of how it got the name, how a bunch of Riverlanders had died there in a war–or was it that the war was about the woods, and they died somewhere else?  She didn’t really remember the details, but she also didn’t care for war stories.  She preferred to imagine there was a more ominous, mysterious reason for the name.  Judging by the way Father and the other merchants he knew had avoided the place, it seemed her fantasy may not actually have been far from the truth.

“I would surmise our quarry three miles and a quarter to the northeast,” Lan announced, the wheels of his vessel locked into place.  “What say you, Mr. Ehsam?”  Ty paused, preparing to jump to the bank.

“Our tip wasn’t that specific,” he replied, confused.

“Specific!” Lan scoffed.  “Ha!  Would you trust that scoundrel Marko to guide you anywhere specific?  Better to place your trust in a consummate professional.”  Ty blinked, likely swallowing a response.

“Let’s…let’s check it out, then.”

Bleeding Wolf, for his part, gave no reaction to the exchange and began hauling the boat up onto the bank.  Ty disembarked to lighten the load, and Orphelia followed, though Lan remained aboard, just as much, it seemed, to annoy Bleeding Wolf as to secure and cover the cargo.

They covered the boat in a patchwork sheet Lan produced from a compartment in the deck and hid it among the brush at the base of a tree before continuing northeast on foot.  Orphelia followed closely, alarmed by the sudden change in light, the tallness of the trees, the ubiquitous, seemingly amplified din of insects and birds, all around but somehow almost entirely out of sight.  She didn’t admit to any of these discomforts, of course, but she did hold Mr. Ruffles close to her chest.

Of the others, only Bleeding wolf seemed to have adjusted his demeanor, his normal calm watchfulness heighted to the posture of a stalking cat.  It was almost a caricature, Orphelia thought.  He would occasionally pause, scratch at the ground, sniff the air, all of which she found hard to believe were actually useful.  She might even have laughed at it if not for the uncanniness his appearance had taken on.  The hairs on his arms and neck were bristling, his pupils had dilated, his…teeth had grown?  She realised in spite of her amusement that the man had become just as unnerving as the forest.

Ty and Lan, meanwhile, seemed mostly themselves.  Ty had been jittery and paranoid from the moment Orphelia had first seen him, and the Bloodwood certainly did seem like an appropriate place for paranoia.  Lan, by contrast, was ineffably aloof, bringing up the rear of their party with a casual stroll and little in the way of backward glances, about which Orphelia was conflicted: It certainly seemed less safe than the others’ frenetic vigilance, but it somehow put her at ease anyway.

“Company on the breeze,” Bleeding Wolf announced, quietly but clearly amidst one of his many stops.  He sniffed.  Sweat and iron.  Could be miles out, could be closer.  Get a weapon ready if you have one.  On…another note…”  He took another deep breath.  “We’re close too.  This way.”

He set off into the brush, and the others followed, struggling to match his quickened gait.  Within minutes they came upon a clearing where, for an oblong patch no more than twenty feet in diameter, the trees gave way to a short bed of grass and wildflowers and a section of worn dirt around a stump.  Just past the stump was a cold pile of ash from a campfire long since extinguished, and next to the ash lay the pale–and only slightly withered–body of an enormous, bearded man.

As she noticed it, it felt as if the world twisted: She saw Father, lying there, bloody hands around the knife in his stomach, a wild grin on his face, but it wasn’t Father.  Father wasn’t here.  It was Devlin, coughing, holding that stupid ring Father had given him, every bit as pale and clammy and withered as the corpse that should have been there, that would be there if she could just focus, could just remember what was real and what was a lie.  She tried and tried and held her breath and pressed her hands against her temples and slowly, piece by piece, put reality back together.

But as she did, her thoughts lingered on Devlin.  She didn’t notice when Bleeding Wolf snapped to attention, fixated on the far side of the clearing; or the way that Ty, in response, seemed to fade from view even as he remained still; or Lan’s gaze, suddenly sorrowful, locked not on the corpse but on the small, dark bird perched in the trees above it, watching him sidelong with a single eye.  She didn’t notice any of it because she was hoping–wishing, willing into reality as hard as she could–that her brother was alright, that he too wouldn’t turn out like the corpse before her.

Trickery

Still a lot of things being worked on, but the pace has been slow these last two weeks. Hoping to get much more done on the Crossroads story by next weekend. In the meantime, here is something Leland wrote for a collection of “world-building” stories we’re working on. It’s a subtly different depiction of the Fox, as if in a tale to be told to Diarchian children. The Fox was the original patron deity of Spar, and one of its founding myths concerned the Old God’s interactions with two orphans: a right-handed boy and a left-handed girl, who became the mythological models for the Diarchs (the Left-Hand King and the Right-Hand Queen).

Once upon a time, a long long time ago, older than your grandmother, and maybe even older than me there was a brother and a sister who loved each other and had only each other in the big wide world. A pair of orphans, whose mother and father were godless and dead, leaving them with just a small family home.

The sister, who was right handed, was a very clever girl who could build amazing traps for hunting. The brother, who was left handed and clever too, knew everything about the forest, what was edible, what was poison, what would happily eat him instead. Brother and Sister lived together, each depending on the other for days and weeks and months and years.

One day a fox with a long pointy nose, a great fluffy tail, and crooked smile from ear to ear came by the cheery little home of the orphaned boy and girl. This fox with a crooked grin was an Old god and he had a sense of humor. The fox god had many humans he took care of and in return they gave him little gifts. He had a funny idea: What if he came to this little house and acted like he needed a human’s help?  He was a little tired and a little hungry. He thought to himself: After I climb inside and take a quick nap, l shall eat whoever lives here!

The fox shrank down, chuckling to himself the entire time and knocked on the door. The sister who was right-handed opened the door and looked at this tiny fox sitting on their doorstep. The fox said, “Oh little girl! Can you help me? I am all alone in these woods and I would very much like to come in from the rain just to warm up!”

The Right-handed Sister looked at the fox and said, “I suppose there’s nothing wrong with heating up from the rain,” and took the fox inside. The fox went towards the fire, snuggled up into a tight little ball and fell fast asleep. He was, after all, very fond of napping.

The Brother came through the door with a small basket of mushrooms and paused as he saw the fox. “Sister,” he said “There’s a god sleeping on our rug! What’s more–he’s not a very nice one.”

The Sister thought to herself and said, “I have a plan! Could you pick some mushrooms that would make an elephant fall asleep?” The brother nodded his head quietly and left.

The Right-handed Sister started to make a delicious rabbit stew. She knew that foxes loved rabbit more than anything else in this entire world. She put in potatoes and carrots and celery and salt. Pepper and paprika and even Garlic pods. By the time she was done the stew’s smell hung in the room and felt like a meal all on its own.

The fox woke up and snuffled the air. “What smells so delicious?” he asked the girl. 

“Why it’s my favorite soup!” the girl said to the fox. “And it’s almost ready, it just needs something before it’s done.” 

The fox said, “I’m so hungry I think it’s time I eat you!”

The girl said, “Well you could…but if you get me a radish this soup will be twice as good.”

The fox paused. “Twice as good?” he thought.  Now as we know foxes are a little greedy, and he did know where radishes were.  He thought, “I’ll get this radish, and eat her and the soup soon after!” 

Off the fox went as the brother came back, with mushrooms in his hand. The sister took the mushrooms and put them in the soup and said, “Brother, can you get a rope?” The brother nodded and left, and the fox came back, a big juicy radish held in his watering mouth.

“Perfect!” the girl said “It is almost ready, it just needs something else.” 

The fox said, “Something else? It smells amazing! I’ll eat it and you right now!”

The girl said, “Well you could…but if you get me some seaweed it will be twice as good.” 

“…Seaweed?” said the fox whose tummy was rumbling.He’d never had seaweed before. “Fine!” he said and ran out the door. 

At that very moment, the brother came back with fresh rope.  “Hide behind the pot!” said the sister to her brother. And the fox came back, wet, salty and miserable. 

He said, “Here’s your seaweed!” 

And the little girl said, “Perfect almost done! The very last thing…” 

“No way!” Said the fox. “No more radishes, no more seaweed! I want to eat!” 

And the little girl said, “I was just going to ask you to try it and see if there’s enough salt.” 

“Oh,” said the fox, “I suppose that makes sense.” The fox tried the soup. He said, “This is good!” and he started slurping and smacking and licking his snout. He ate the whole pot and started to feel woozy… and fell fast asleep from the mushrooms in the soup! 

The Brother jumped out from behind the pot,tied up the sleeping fox and threw him out the door. That wasn’t the last time they saw the fox mind you, but they weren’t the meal for one day more!

Three Gifts Given of Dissatisfaction

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

***

From these three came two and two

And circles stretched from sea to sky

To the Gyre did Seven headlong run

Then all the world

That’s why, that’s why

-Words From a Severed Head

***

The Fox’s Second Gift

Long ago I gave you hearth

A place of return from which you roamed

A fire within to banish night

To soothe your aches, to make you home

I rested then for I had thought

My labors had achieved their end

Of steeling you to cold and rot

Your fire I would not need to tend

But now we meet here in the Dark

In fearful quiet ‘neath the earth

Your inner fire early guttered

Broken body lost its worth

The light of day betrayed your years

Promised you many, gave you few

For you I’ll burn, entombed below

This shall be my gift to you

***

The Lark’s Second Gift

Long ago I gave you sticks

Upon your ground I taught my tricks

I brought you craft which you might ply

I bid you: Join me in the sky

Why now have you misplaced your wings?

Forgot that art which made you free

To toil among the beasts and bring

Those who bleed right back to me

I fixed their marks of red and black

As wisdom you refused to learn

I wonder if it’s fear you lack

To drive you on, to make you burn

‘Tis fear that brings you here tonight

Poxed and stricken, marked by blue

Fear of wrongs you would not right

This shall be my gift to you

***

The Turtle’s Second Gift

Forever ago I gave you time

A river running ‘round this bend

Would frame your life with reason, rhyme

Would crown your story with an end

When at last you came to cross

Your souls would from your bodies leap

Your ghosts I’d carry to the shore of loss

Your flesh would drift on to the Deep

I will admit I’ve grown fatigued

As I look upon your evil eye

Your request–it has me so intrigued

You’d go upstream instead of die

Three Gifts were given under Night

And from those three came two and two

You’ve sought your torment, earned three more

This last shall be my gift to you

The Crossroads, Chapter 5: Ty’s Quandary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tarot

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

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

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

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

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

The Crossroads, Chapter 4: Marko

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

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

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

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

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

But the power.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So you did sell it, then?”

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

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

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

“I’m going to need a boat.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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