The Crossroads, Book 1 Epilogue: The Alchemist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Crossroads, Chapter 23: Carrion, of a Sort

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

Anita nodded.

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

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

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

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

“What are you doing here?” he growled.

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


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

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

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

“Don’t I, though?”

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

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

“I’d find it difficult.”

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

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

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

“No lies?” Bleeding Wolf growled.

“No lies.”

“What’d you tell the mayor?”

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

“And the peacekeepers?”  Atra shrugged.

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

“You’re not a fool.”

“I’m flattered.”

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

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

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

Bleeding Wolf twitched, irritated as intended by her goading.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Crossroads, Chapter 22: Promises Kept, Circles Completed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What on earth was that?” Naples asked.

“No idea…”

Naples cautiously stepped into the room, approaching the fireplace.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, my dear?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I guess they deserve to be punished?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Naples withdrew his hand from the painting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“‘Tis fear which brings you here tonight

Resisting that which lets you fly

Resist no more, accept my gift

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

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

“What the feck?”

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Rom looked down at Orphelia and offered his hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“Went to…save Orphelia…”

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What girl?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And the girl?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Captain al’Ver,” Lan clarified.

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

“What do you want with her?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Naples whistled nervously.

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

The Crossroads, Chapter 14: The Nemesis

Ty, for his part, had little interest in being found at this time.  He’d been in the scav trade for over a decade now, and he knew the dangers of being findable.  He’d known companions who were findable, who got found carrying something worth finding, who let the wrong people know their names.  None of them were around anymore, and with dragonlings hissing his name in the streets of the Crossroads, Ty had a feeling he was standing on a very similar precipice.

But Marko, for all his sleaze, had been true to his word:

“Sold the Keystone two weeks ago,” he’d said.  “To a girl.  Good chance she’ll be back here tonight, but you heard none of it from me.  

“And better write it clear for ya too,” he’d added.  “If you follow her, you’re dead.  No guarantee it’ll be preferable to whatever the Blaze has for you either.”

This had left Ty at the limits of his imagination, though–he had no idea what might await worse than the Blaze’s promised, excruciating immolation–so he had decided to take his chances.  When he emerged from Marko’s office and saw the hunched figure of the dragonling making its rounds about town, he took to the rooftops.  And now, the sun low in the afternoon sky, he watched with muted anxiety as Marko’s visitor made her way down the street below.

“Girl” had been an accurate if inadequate descriptor.  She was clearly young–no older than sixteen, likely younger–but her aloof demeanor, braided hair, garb of fine silks and silver jewelry even the wealthiest merchants wouldn’t dare boast on their person–it was like watching fiction step out from the stories of the walled cities, before the war, before the roaches and the scav trade, and pass before his eyes.  The townsfolk stared as well, Ty noticed, but they soon averted their gaze.  No doubt they all realized it would be better if they didn’t know too much.  So it was with Marko’s customers.

Ty had no idea who she was and no desire to get too close, but luckily, she did not seem to be taking any measures to disguise her presence.  She approached Marko’s office, knocked at the door, and stepped inside.  A few moments later she exited, carrying a small parcel, and as she made to leave the Crossroads by its southern thoroughfare, Ty followed.

He kept a sizeable distance, blending with the sparse merchant caravans remaining on the road where he could, but that luxury had all but vanished a mile outside town, so he resorted to keeping by the brush at the roadside.  He was weaving his mana as best he could to elude notice, though he couldn’t really tell whether it affected the girl at all.  Either way, she never so much as glanced over her shoulder.  Miles on, as the sun began to set, she came upon a tall figure, cloaked and hooded, leaning against a tree.  From behind a boulder, Ty watched them exchange a few quiet words before they both left the road, heading east together.  Apprehension growing, he followed them as best he could.

By dusk, they had reached a small shack in the scrub.  The cloaked figure gestured something unintelligible to the girl, took her parcel, and went inside.  The girl merely nodded, turned back the way she came, and began to walk directly toward the patch of brush where Ty was hiding.  As silently as he could, he moved to get out of her way, but as he turned, he froze.  The girl was suddenly standing before him at the edge of the brush, hands folded at ease behind her back.

“Father wishes to know if you would like to keep your arms and legs,” she said in carefully enunciated, emotionless syllables.  Ty bolted.

He made it scarcely ten feet before his legs went numb and collapsed under him.  He pushed himself faceup, scrambling backward to see the girl approaching at a leisurely pace.

“He would like you to know that, by default, you would not, but you have met us on a fortunate night.  He is willing to discuss the matter.  May I invite you inside?”

Ty was at a loss for words to describe how little he wanted to enter that shack, but he still couldn’t feel his legs.  Powerful magic was certainly involved, and he was quick enough to ascertain that any choice he had was illusory.  Teeth grit, he nodded, and sensation returned abruptly to his limbs.

He climbed to his feet and followed warily as the girl led the way, unconcerned, almost carefree, to the shack.  He paused periodically, testing her attention, looking for any opportunity to slip away, but each stop in his progress was met in kind–she would halt on the very same step, looking over her shoulder expectantly.  No such luck, he noted with dampened dread.

She reached the door, opened it, beckoned him inside.  He entered and waited.  The cloaked figure stood over a small, spare hearth which he lit with a snap of his fingers and a pulse of mana.

By the firelight, Ty saw little luxury or comfort in the room: two tables–one piled with scrolls and codices, the other completely bare–two chairs, two narrow bedrolls tucked into a corner, and, to Ty’s horror, a pile of perfectly preserved, naked human corpses, eyes and mouths stitched shut.  The cloaked man set his parcel upon the empty table and took a seat, pulling his hood from his face.

Ty swallowed.  His visage was distressing–red chitinous scales formed plates, hornes, and spines, arranged around piercing yellow eyes in an…artistic impression of a human face.  Moreover, though, it was distressingly familiar.  The man spoke, opening his mouth of wicked, shining fangs:

“Do you know who I am?”

Ty did.  The sobriquets marched, funerary, through his mind: the Citadel Stitcher, Favored General of the Bloodfish and the Roaches, the Eternal Dragon of the Westwood–or as the people of the Crossroads referred to him, simply “the Dragon”.  Ty knew exactly who this was, and his cold paralysis was as much indication as the False God needed.

“Good,” he said, his maw approximating a smile.  “Please have a seat.  I require your assistance.”

As the man spoke, the sound of a deadbolt sliding into place behind Ty jolted him to his senses.  Resigned but still apprehensive, he did as the Dragon asked while the girl moved to stand by the table as well.  With claw-like hands, adorned with the same spikes and scales as his face, the Dragon unwrapped the parcel, withdrawing a small wooden box from the unfurled bundle of sackcloth.

“May I inquire as to what drew you after my Fortuna?” he asked softly, his attention otherwise focused entirely on the box.  He flicked the clasp open with a sharpened forefinger.  “You walked an awfully long way after the poor girl.  I would hope it was not any…untoward motivation?”

Ty took a deep breath.  He could engage with the accusation or not–he doubted the False God’s plans for him varied that much either way–but he was somehow being given an opportunity to broach the one subject that mattered in the minute likelihood he escaped with all his limbs, and he was most certainly going to take advantage of it:

“I need to find Excelsis’ Keystone,” he blurted.  The Dragon paused, finger on the lid of the box, jaundiced eyes flicking up at his emboldened prisoner.

“Now how…” he mused.  “Ah.  Marko.  Your lapse in discretion will not go unmentioned, but…”

Carefully, he lifted the lid, reached inside, and withdrew a glowing green fiber–the very one Lan had cut from Bilgames’ corpse–clasped gingerly between the claws of his thumb and forefinger.

“Fortuna, sweetheart,” he muttered, peering intently at the object.  The girl had already turned to rummage among the stacked materials on the other table.  She soon produced a spool of thread which she placed in the Dragon’s open hand.  Setting both the spool and the fiber on the table, he began to trace slow, precise symbols with his fingers in the air above them.  But despite the man’s intense focus, it was not clear to Ty that anything was actually happening.  He glanced around.  Fortuna seemed just as entranced by the Dragon’s strange ritual, and though he dared not make another run for it, he wondered if they would notice if he stood up.

He shifted in his chair, but no sooner did he put weight on his foot than he was all but knocked from his chair by an explosive pulse of mana.  Hanging from the edge of the table, he felt an overwhelming wave of nausea rise through his gut.

“Patience,” he heard the Dragon undertone–unsure to whom–as he retched, fell to the floor, vision hazing over.  Dimly, he felt another blast of mana, but he lost consciousness before he could register any of its other consequences.


Ty woke on his back, shirtless, splinters from the table digging into his shoulder blades and an almost electric spark of pain cycling around his clavicle and up the back of his neck.  The Dragon loomed over him, eyes glinting in the firelight, one claw pressed lightly against his chest, the other angling a fine–but sickeningly long–white needle toward his face.

Instinctively, Ty thrashed, attempting to twist himself off the table, free of the Dragon’s grasp, but his captor swiftly–almost carelessly–grabbed him by the throat and pinned him in place.

“I would have sedated you,” the Dragon said.  “But then I would have had to wait hours to see the results.  So please,” he again pressed Ty into the table, “settle before you give yourself a lobotomy.  I need to connect your optic nerve before we can conclude.”

Ty suppressed a yelp as he felt the Dragon’s needle pierce the back of his scalp.

“What have you done to me?” he grunted as the Dragon pulled the needle away, a softly glowing thread trailing behind it.

“A less…intrusive version of what I’ve done to them.”  The Dragon gestured in a direction Ty could not look but–he intuited–likely referred to the stitched corpses he had witnessed when he entered.

“Less intrusive…death?”  Ty winced as the needle entered behind his ear.  The Dragon chuckled softly:

“Oh, they are not dead.  Suspended, metabolically hibernal, but experientially?  I doubt they are inert.  You should count yourself lucky.  You would be among them had you met me any other time.  But as it stands–”

Ty screamed as he felt the needle jam into his temple, and the electric pain, for a moment, drowned out everything else.  Slowly, the Dragon’s voice reclarified in his ears:

“…met at a confluence.  A confluence of new frontiers and burning curiosity.  Up with you, now.  That should suffice.”

Ty sat up slowly, still dizzy from the excruciating thrum at the base of his skull, dulling but not disappearing as the Dragon conjured a flame in his palm to burn the needle clean.  He slotted it methodically into a leather roll of similar implements before returning his attention to Ty.

“Now, please look left,” he said.  Ty obliged.  “Look right.  Excellent, it is working.  Better for you to understand sooner rather than later that you are mine now: I see what you see, I hear what you hear–”

“And should I require it, I may speak with your voice,” Ty said, clapping his hands to his throat as soon as he did.  The Dragon’s monstrous smile broadened.

“Ah, the Hunter of Beasts wore the guise of a lumbering oaf, but he was a brilliant mage,” he said.  “Not so brilliant, though, that I cannot improve upon his methods.

“As you can see, we are linked,” he continued, pacing away from Ty and stuffing his tool roll amongst the detritus on his spare table.  “This has implications you should be wary of…”

He drew up the edge of his cloak to reveal a portion of his forearm unprotected by scales, across which he cut a clean line with his claw.  It left no mark, but Ty felt a searing in his own arm.  He glanced down to see a trickle of blood, dripping from the incision the Dragon had apparently made in his flesh instead.

“…and some you might find advantageous.”  The Dragon suddenly grabbed Ty by the wrist and plunged a claw through his open palm, to a bloom of shooting pain.  Ty wrenched free and rolled off the table, clutching his hand, but when he looked down to inspect his wound, it had disappeared.  He looked back up at his captor, who gestured at the pile of corpses.

Warily, still rubbing his palm, Ty crept closer to the bodies.  He noticed it first on one which had apparently tumbled from the top of the pile, its limbs splayed across the whole macabre fixture: Its right palm was red, and at the center of the contusion was a tiny puncture, scarcely more than a pinprick.  Ty was at this point beyond terrified, but he found he was interpreting the Dragon’s theatrics with surprising acuity.  He inspected another corpse’s right hand, then another.  In all, five, maybe six of the bodies had light wounds matching the first–matching where Ty had been stabbed, with no wound of his own to show for it.

“Diffusion of harm across phylacteries,” the Dragon said.  “A new set of scales for a new eternity.  I dare say even the One-Eyed Hawk would be jealous.  And of course, as we work together you may partake–at my discretion.”  Ty whirled.

“Work together?  What?”

“Don’t think too much of it, insect.”

“No–what the fuck do you want from me?”

“You were doing so well,” the Dragon remarked with a shake of his horned head.  “It has everything to do with what you want from me.”  Ty paused.

“The Keystone?”

“Indeed.  You were told true that Fortune acquired it.  I of course attempted to extract its secrets, but with other irons in my forge, I gifted it to a colleague who I hoped might elucidate its mechanism by more…careless means.  Your work for me is to determine what he’s done with it.  Hell–retrieve it if it suits you.”

“Why not just ask him yourself?” Ty proposed, reaching for his shirt.  The Dragon just laughed.

“Because he is merely a colleague.  Unlike his grandfather, Les Marquains is no one’s friend, and he does not especially appreciate the intrusion of those he cannot dominate.  His domain is not suitable for me.”

“What makes me any different?” Ty asked, chilled.  He had heard stories of Les Marquains before–the man was a notorious sadist, and he and his cult had, in the opinion of dealers even beyond the Riverlands, made all of the Southern Reaches better off avoided.

“What makes you different from me?” the Dragon repeated with cruel incredulity.  “Benighted creature, you are not to treat with him, though if you do, your subsequent rape, torture, and unwilling…integration with a thornbush will be far more entertaining vicariously.  No, you are to infiltrate his chateau, ascertain his findings, and, if you would forego the aforementioned, get out.”

Ty digested this, pulling his shirt over his head and retrieving his pack from the corner next to the corpses, where Fortuna had presumably placed it.  The Reaches were at least a week’s travel south, but with the Blaze’s cronies looking for him ever further from the Gravestones, south didn’t sound like such a bad idea.  Les Marquains did, though, and the constant, minimal pulsing of the thread the Dragon had sewn into him was more reminder than he needed that though this meeting had given him a way forward, his choices were growing less and less palatable.

“Oh, yes,” the Dragon added as Ty made for the door.  “Since I’m curious what you make of the omen, recall that I spoke to you before of confluence.  A confluence in Time is coincidence, after all, and the only being I’ve ever feared once told me never to trust coincidence in the Riverlands.  Consider it.  I foresee a storm over the horizon, and I intend to keep my distance, but you–I imagine you’ll be amidst the tempest soon.”

Ty regarded the False God for a moment.  Then he shook his head, bewildered, and left.

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 braced 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. William 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.

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!”


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.