The Crossroads, Chapter 10: Nom de Guerre

Lan was troubled.  It was not a matter of the Holmites and scouts or stragglers–no, he was quite certain there would be no more of them, though they provided a convenient enough excuse for egress.  He was troubled, yes, but he had no need to show it to his companions.  What depths of despair might overcome them should they witness the great Lan al’Ver fretting like a house-husband?  Better to save them such unnecessary crises of conscience.

Their mental fortitude notwithstanding, Lan was troubled because the whole scene had been…troubling.  Preternaturally troubling.  The sort of troubling that had one counting and sorting their troubles like inventory, attempting to spot the error in the arithmetic, to trace back the entry missing from the ledger.  Or perhaps to cross out one made in error.

It wasn’t Bilgames.  No, the old boy had long since retired, given up his crusade against whatever beastie he’d pulled that silly cult together for.  He’d been sitting on the shelf awhile now, and it was about time his sins caught up with him.  It wasn’t the Holmites either.  Mud rats could scurry as they please in the dark and dry–it was no concern to a riverman.  If Lan was being frank, Holme itself had worn out its welcome.  The Riverlands had little tolerance for dogma these days, and the Sculptor wouldn’t have the mettle to survive in spite of it.  The place would be torched within the decade, he predicted, but an eddy in the stream when all was done.

Lan arrested his thoughts as he reached the forest’s eastern edge.  Why the exposition, he wondered.  His intuitions were winding.  Following them precisely was often difficult, but troubles, troubles: Something told him the stakes were higher now.

Back to the grave.  The whole thing had felt familiar.  Like family.  Like Brother and Sister.  Like home.  Like old comforts and old threats, which was odd, because the forest was no home to Lan al’Ver.  An exotic locale, certainly, a fleeting call to far-flung adventure.  But it ought to have felt more…foreign.  And why did the Holmite–the rude one, the one with the gall to raise an axe to a legend like him–keep butting into his thoughts?  The man would live–he had time left–and besides, the scoundrel had nothing to do with Lan’s family one way or the other.

“I was wonderin’ if I’d have the pleasure t’meet you here, Captain al’Ver.”

Lan stopped cold.  He was not frightened.  He was not even very surprised–the forest was dark, and a body eluding his notice was the most plausible thing in the world.  But no one ever did, and he was somewhat surprised, and that was cause for consideration.  

He turned to the source of the voice to see a flint spark bloom into torchlight.  The torch’s carrier was a woman, leaning at ease against an ash tree, clad like the Holmites in patchwork plates and leather.  Instead of a white cloak, a red cowl hung loose about her shoulders, and a rusted spear and greatshield balanced against the tree beside her

“I suppose I shall grant you that pleasure,” Lan said.  “Though I think it only fair I know who accepts that gift.”  The woman’s smile was barely visible in the firelight as she pushed away from the tree and approached.

“But of course,” she replied, extending a hand.  “I’m called Atra ‘round these parts.  And you, I’ve admired for some time.”  Lan shook her hand, for it was only polite, though he had to admit he found the lady peculiar.

For one, he could not for the life of him tell her age, and he was normally quite good with those sorts of things.  He could tell quite easily, for instance, that Bleeding Wolf had sixty-eight years in spite of his youthful frame, or that young Miss Orphelia was sixteen, no matter how forcefully she projected the notion of an innocent eight-year old upon her victims.  His intuition told him nothing of Atra, however, and he was left with only the confusing visual cues on her skin: fit, unwrinkled, unlined, but covered in an array of scars that suggested either extensive torture or an…improbable amount of time on battlefields.  Then, of course, there was the matter of recognition:

“Are you, indeed?” he remarked.  “And here I’d thought myself quite familiar with these parts.”  Atra laughed uncomfortably.

“Ah, you’ve caught me–I’m a new arrival.  Just a week ago, in from the ‘Stones.  I told no lies, though.  ‘Tis indeed m’name, and ‘tis what my employers in Holme know t’call me.  Enough, though.  I’m sure you grow bored of this starstruck girl’s prattle.”

“Never, my dear,” Lan replied.  She was clever, he admitted.  She knew that flattery would get her everywhere.

“Even so,” she continued.  “I take it we’re here on the same business, then?  And I take it you found my men wanting?”

“Desperately, I’m afraid.”  Atra sighed and spat on the ground beside her.

“Bloody useless.  Should have known.”  She put a hand on her hip and glanced up at the sky beyond the canopy, then back to Lan.  “Any survivors?”

“Two,” Lan replied.  “I expect they’ll be conscious before long.  Would you like me to bring you to them?”  She shook her head.

“Thank you, Captain, but there’ll be no need.  Just send ‘em east, and that’ll suffice.  You can let ‘em know I’ve got camp set up just beyond the treeline if it please you.”

“It can be arranged,” Lan said, welcoming the easy solution.  He was still distracted, though.  There was something about the woman that he ought to have been able to place, but he couldn’t quite focus on it.  “My professional apologies that you should return empty-handed, but I am quite unable to offer assistance on that count.”  Atra laughed again, this time at ease.

“You’re every bit the gentleman the stories built you up to be!  But no, you’re right.  The pieces’ve fallen, and it’ll be my lot t’get those two back home once they’ve made it t’me.”  She walked back to her weapons, picked up the spear and slung the shield over her shoulder.  “I bid you good evening, Captain,” she called back.  “Perhaps we’ll meet again on more pleasant terms!”

“I shall await the hour!” Lan replied to her departing silhouette before he too turned away.  That solved the Holmite problem, he supposed.  Best to head back with the good news.  Though the darkness and tangled undergrowth may have proven an impediment to a lesser man, Lan cared little for the frivolity of logistical struggle, and by force of his disdain, he arrived at the Hunter’s informal grave some minutes later.

It appeared he had not kept his companions waiting overlong.  Ty had lit a torch and was fussing over a bundle of what appeared to be the Hunter’s armor as Orphelia, her demeanor evidently much improved, offered a bound and freshly conscious Holmite a severed finger, calling the gift a “lozenge”.  Bleeding Wolf, meanwhile, seemed the opposite of his normal, capable self.  The man was slumped at the base of a tree, oblivious to Orphelia’s nonsense, clearly preoccupied with some existential concern or another.  Lan shook his head, disgusted.  Was no one going to take advantage of this teaching moment?

“Miss Orphelia!” he called out.  “Don’t you know it is impolite to hoard snacks between you and your friends?”  Orphelia looked up at him, an unmistakable twinkle of disturbed mischief in her eye.

“Oh, Mister Lan!  Would you like one too?”

“Captain, my dear,” Lan corrected, plucking the severed appendage from her hand.  “And do tell: Did this lozenge come from one of these cadavers, or have you been keeping yourself a stash?”  Orphelia’s face fell, and the mercenary, suddenly recognizing the object for what it was, began to sob violently, struggling against the ropes holding her to the tree.

“But…” Oprhelia muttered.  “But you’re not supposed to–”

“Don’t think you can pull the sack over my eyes so easily, young lady!”

“What in the bloody, bottom-feeding hell is wrong with you?” Ty interrupted.  “Both of you!”

“A bold question from one who allowed such behavior to proceed with impunity,” Lan replied, dismissive.  Ty exhaled angrily, turning his glare on Orphelia, but otherwise swallowed his response.

“Did you find anything, then?” he asked instead.

“Indeed, I did,” Lan said.  I spoke with these ruffians’ leader.  She awaits their return at a campsite to the east.  Best let them run along.”  Ty nodded, approaching the tree and pulling Orphelia–perhaps more forcefully than necessary–away from the prisoners.  The girl blew a raspberry at his back but otherwise acceded.  Some minutes passed as they gathered their effects.  Ty helped the mercenary to lift her still-injured comrade, but before they all could depart, Bleeding Wolf gave out a low whistle.

“That,” he growled, pointing to the Hunter’s corpse, “concerns me.”  Lan pursed his lips and approached.

Concerning indeed.  From the floor of the clearing, still sprouting rapidly, a web of green, luminescent tendrils was beginning to envelop the body.  They had the vague shape of vines, though Lan suspected they were not plants.  Not truly.  Not completely.

“Looks like something’s got an interest in the dead stuff,” Bleeding Wolf added with a glance back at the three Holmite corpses they had dragged to the edge of the clearing.  They were being swallowed similarly, and Lan had to admit the beastman had a point.  The two surviving Holmites did not wait for the situation to develop.  They took off into the undergrowth, hobbling as fast as their injuries allowed.  Lan, however, paused to consider the strange growth, and his companions, out of respect or simple confusion, followed his lead.

He drew his rapier and gingerly cut one of the tendrils, lifting it with the flat of his blade.  He plucked it off and held it between two fingers.  It was…inert.  But strangely, it still held life, far more than such a small strand ought.  He did not like what he felt of that life.  It was cold and vast and hungry.  And familiar, like the gravesite and the lark that watched over it.  Familiar, though no longer familial.  He tossed the strand to Bleeding Wolf, who caught it deftly if not readily.

“We should be along,” he said, doing his best to make light of the deep unease that had overtaken him.  “I do not think it is safe here.”

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 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.