The Crossroads, Chapter 19: Ben Gan Shui

“Show yourself, mage!” Bleeding Wolf shouted into the night, to the clear alarm of both Gene and their villager guide.  He knew that sugary stomachache of a smell, and he’d had far beyond his fill of it in the past few days.  But no mage appeared, and, gradually, the scent of magical delusion faded into the background of the Riverlands’ humid mudstink–and this particular village’s pervasive bouquet of rust and seed-oil.

“We bein’ watched?” Gene asked, breaking the silence.  Bleeding Wolf shook his head.

“No.  Not anymore.”

“Travelers, please,” the guide woman interjected.  “The emissary’s dwelling is here, but you do not have much time.  The night’s offerings are to begin soon, and the Ben Gan Shui does not like delays.”

“Thanks for showin’ us in,” Gene replied as Bleeding Wolf approached the house she had indicated, a small hut on stilts at the end of the village, nearest to the woods.  “I’m sure we can adjust our schedule if need be–pardon, now.”  Bleeding Wolf heard the old man hobble to keep up behind him but made no comment.  He walked up the steps and rapped on the thin, wooden door.

“Enter, strangers,” came the faint voice inside.  Bleeding Wolf obliged.

Inside, the hut was almost entirely unfurnished.  Bare, gapped wooden floor met bare, gapped wooden walls met sparse, exposed rafters below the poorly-thatched roof.  The only objects of note inside were five lamps: four positioned in a square around the room, the last before a thin woven mat.  Upon the mat was the “emissary.”

The rumors had prepared Bleeding Wolf for the sight of the man–though he noted Gene’s grunt of consternation with a kernel of satisfaction–but from the perspective of a mage accustomed to altering his body, seeing one of the “metal men” in person was fascinating and revolting in equal parts.  The creature before them was not simply a machine in the shape of a human–quite a bit of human remained actually.  Rather, Bleeding Wolf realized, this man’s anatomy had been reengineered in a thousand discrete strokes of genius.  On his face, gear wheels so fine as to appear almost a continuous surface turned, modulating facial expressions in smooth, uncanny shifts around exposed metal teeth and moist human eyes.  On his arms, metal plates only half-covered the arrays of pistons fused to his tendons, which flexed as he opened his hands to bid his visitors inside.  And within his chest, Bleeding Wolf heard a steady-smooth wheeze, more like bellows than the twitching thump of a heartbeat, distorted by the whir of flywheels but lively, somehow, in its strange way.

“Have you also come seeking rebirth?” the metal man asked, his voice resonating behind his motionless teeth.

“Fuck no!” Gene shouted, shattering the otherwise eerie silence in the hut.  “We’ve come to talk to yer witch lady ‘bout her attack on the Crossroads.”  He stamped the butt of his halberd into the floorboards to accentuate the message, though the metal man remained perfectly still.  Even so, Bleeding Wolf could hear a measured increase in the tempo of his mechanical circulation.

“She does not generally accept invitations to entreat,” the metal man said after a moment.  “But I will confer with her.”  With that, the man began to emit a piercing mosquito-whine, so loud that Bleeding Wolf instinctively clapped his hands to his ears.  Gene grabbed him by the shoulder, muttering some concern he could not hear over the din, but within a few seconds it stopped.

“The fuck was that?” he roared.

“You just freaked, Dog Boy,” Gene whispered.  Bleeding Wolf looked back, realizing that the old man had not heard anything at all.

“It is unusual for humans to hear the frequencies we use to communicate in the Ironwood,” the metal man said.  “But I am told that some beastment can perceive the raw signals.  I imagine the sound is unpleasant to hear without a decryptor.”  Bleeding Wolf spat.

“Decryptor?  What are you on about?”

“I am afraid you would not understand without rebirth.  But it seems my intuitions were wrong.  My master is intrigued that you would approach her.  She asks whether you have brought the boy.”

“What?  This isn’t abou–” Bleeding Wolf reeled as another burst of high-pitched sound blasted through the room.  “Fucking stop that!”  Then, as the whine quieted once more: “If she’s intrigued, let us talk to her directly.”

The gears on the man’s face twisted into an expression similar to a frown.

“That is an unusual request,” he said.  “I advise you do not conflate her interest with a promise of safety.”

“Yeah, well, consider it conflated,” Bleeding Wolf shot back.  “We need to talk to her, and I’m done doing it through these fucking screams.”  The metal man’s body shifted into a pensive posture.

“If you like, you may accompany the travelers who are seeking rebirth tonight.  If my master is amicable to your request, I do not doubt she will beckon you in as well.”

“Yeah, fine,” Bleeding Wolf said.  “Whatever.”  The metal man nodded and then, in a continuous motion, rose to his feet.  As he moved to the door, he turned his head to speak:

“I often tell those who come here that my master likes people in the way that some people like clocks.  You should keep that thought in your mind.  Come.”

The pistons in the metal man’s legs hissed rhythmically as he led them from the hut to the doorway of the building next door.  Three particularly wretched humans emerged from it–a blind man, a cripple, and a man who Bleeding Wolf supposed was not technically a leper, though the amount of death on his skin meant he might as well have been–and joined their procession as they headed out of the village, through the tall, damp grass, toward the woods.

The sky was bright enough for the Ironwood to be visible, if only as a dark spot against the stars on the horizon, but Bleeding Wolf found if offputting how rapidly the sounds of the Riverlands–the trickle of water, the screech of crickets and cicadas, the scattered hoots and bird calls–abated as the approached the locus of dark.  And it wasn’t replaced with nothing.  The chorus that seemed to well from the ground, the hum of metal vibrating, the whistle of steam through an aperture, the respiration of some unseen metal beast of gargantuan proportions, repeating in rhythm: bengan-SHUI, bengan-SHUI–it was like being digested, he thought.  Except he understood digestion as it satisfied hunger.  Whatever this metallic digestion served, it wasn’t any hunger he knew.

Eventually, some hundred feet from the trees, the emissary raised a hand, bidding them stop.  For a moment, they waited there in the dark, in what Bleeding Wolf was sure the rest thought was silence.  Then the metal man turned and gestured to the cripple.  Wordlessly, she hobbled forward on her driftwood crutch.  Once ahead of them, she stopped, reached into a pack under her shawl, and withdrew a small, wicker doll.  She held it outstretched in her one, open hand, balanced precariously across her crutch.  She held the position for a minute, two minutes, occasionally glancing back to the emissary, though he offered neither encouragement nor interpretation.  Eventually, the crutch slipped in the mud, and she crashed to the ground.  Sobbing silently, she heaved herself back onto her good leg, hung her head, and hobbled away, back in the direction of the village.

The metal man turned again, this time signaling the blind man vocally:

“Go now, sightless one.”

The blind man stepped forward, surprisingly surefooted on the uneven, wet ground, and presented a small, metal bauble–a pocketwatch, Bleeding Wolf guessed–on his palm.  Again, the cavernous breathing of the Ironwood persisted for a moment, but this time it began to ramp, to intensify.  And then, in the looming shadow of the trees, lights began to dance.  They were soft, blue and white, multitudinous.  Bleeding Wolf could not make out any particular source for any of them, but they seemed to be everywhere–behind the trees, on the forest floor, wavering between the tops of branches.  As the humming of the forest approached an almost melodious crescendo, he heard a whisper, not meant for him, vanishingly faint, distorted and in the accented dialect of Old Revián, but certainly there:

“Very well.  Come forward.”

The blind man’s shoulders slumped with relief, even as the corners of his mouth tightened with apprehension, but whatever the mix of emotions he felt, he obeyed, clutching the price of his admission to his chest, and walked on into the tangle of lights and shadows.  As he disappeared between the trees, the hum faded and the lights dimmed, and the four of them who remained were returned to darkness and the ominous breath of the wood.

Exactly as before, with no acknowledgement of the previous display, the metal man turned and gestured to the last beggar, the infected man, who stepped forward with a surge of bravado.  He held out–practically brandished–a small, alabaster figurine.  Bleeding Wolf recognized the object, or at least its kind: It was a token of the Holmite faithful that hierarchs used in rituals when travels took them far from their city.  They were, in fact, magical, though he couldn’t say what exactly it was they did.  As before, the woods remained dark for the ensuing moments, but this time the creaking sound of the Ironwood made no orchestral rise.  The dark stretched on, and with each moment that passed, the infected man’s confidence withered more and more into angry disbelief.

“Don’t you know what this is?” he muttered under his breath.  “Your man said you wanted magical.  That’s what this is!”  The Ironwood remained indifferent to his objections, but that seemed only to incense him further.  “Don’t you know?” he asked louder, taking another step forward.  “Don’t you want it?!”

He broke into a full stride toward the wood, repeating his questions with increasing desperation.  He made it maybe a third of the way there before something lurched from the ground behind him and Bleeding Wolf heard the familiar, slick staccato of a heart being punctured.

“He had been informed of the master’s rules,” the metal man said, as if to preempt his guests’ reactions.  “He knew the boundaries she would not cross, but he decided to cross them himself.  Hopefully his flesh will serve a more prudent purpose.”

As the emissary spoke, the shadow before them which had impaled the infected man began to approach, looming much taller than its sudden appearance might have suggested.  As it did, Bleeding Wolf began to take note of the limited portions of its anatomy that the moonlight reached.  Its form seemed myriapod, similar, he assumed, to the accounts of a great silver centipede that Gene had relayed to him, but the descriptions of the cowled invader at Marko’s theater had not mentioned the uncanny anthropomorphism of the creature’s thorax, the featureless mannequin head that adorned it, or the seemingly human arms that ended in hinged, mantid sickles.

“You may leave us, Philip,” the creature said in a brassy, cacophonous voice, not unlike the pseudo-music that had responded to the blind man’s offering.  “I will begin my parlay here.”

Without a bow–or even a gesture of acknowledgement, the emissary departed, leaving the two of them alone in the moonlight with the creature.  After a moment, the voice returned from behind its featureless faceplate:

“It is only upon your arrival together that I have realized: Neither of you is unknown to me.  It is a rare boldness among your kind to respond to violence with…questions.  I had expected your colony to send a mob to die here, but you wish to speak with me instead.  Fitting care for survivors of the Ouroboros.”

“That’s pretty far back,” Bleeding Wolf said.

“And yet.”  The tones that interlaced in the creature’s voice, framing its words, trilled high and icy.  “I have cataloged every moment, every vision of that day in media far sturdier than human brainflesh.  I remember both of your faces at the vanguard of the reinforcing army.”

“You were there too?” Gene asked.  “Fightin’ the–”

“There is no need to honor the monster’s sobriquet in my presence.  I was there, indeed.  And the bond of our momentary alliance has earned you your safety tonight.  If you would discuss your colony–your ‘Crossroads’–then I will listen.  Come.”

Its multiplicity of legs stabbing wetly against the ground, the creature coiled and turned, skittering toward the wood.  Bleeding Wolf glanced at Gene, noting the old man’s teeth were grit with unease.

“Come on,” he muttered.  “Don’t get the impression she’s a liar.  Too many rules, too many codes.”  Gene nodded, following reluctantly.

Somehow, even as they entered the shadows of the wood, and the moon and stars above disappeared from view, the world around them only seemed to grow brighter.  As they clambered over roots and past hanging branches and foliage, light seemed to emerge in cool glows from beneath roots, the opposite sides of trees, filtering through the canopy in hues that seemed almost–but not quite–like moonlight, until their environment and the creature leading them both were perfectly visible in the faded gloam.  This was an oddity, of course, but it was not nearly as odd as the particulars of the forest that it illuminated.  Despite a patina of dirt and debris clouding their surface, the trees and roots they navigated through had a noticeable trace of artificial sheen.  They weren’t comprised of bark and wood, Bleeding Wolf realized.  “Ironwood” was literal: The trees were, themselves, metal.  A stray root clanked as Gene bumped it with the butt of his halberd; a hanging vine jingled as Bleeding Wolf brushed it aside, and all around them, the Ironwood’s respiration took on visual salience as bursts of steam escaped intermittently from knots in the trees or hoses he could now see coiled around their trunks.

Eventually the dense undergrowth before the creature opened to a large hollow between a pair of roots, and it stopped its skittering advance.

“Proceed,” it said, rotating its head to face Bleeding Wolf.  “I will speak to you within.”

His shoulders hunched, he descended into the hollow, Gene in tow.  It was far darker than in the midst of the wood, but with few options but “forward,” he found the entryway easily enough.  Inside was a long, cramped hallway that reminded him somewhat of a mineshaft.  It was made entirely of earth, save for intermittent metal struts, though it was much thinner than any mine he had visited, scarcely wide enough for him to face forward without brushing his shoulders against the walls.  Sconces hung periodically from the ceiling provided dim, blue light all down the hall, which Bleeding Wolf could now see sloped downward, heading deeper into the earth.  He descended, his unease deepening as well with every step.

As they walked, they would occasionally pass iron doors embedded in the sides of the hallway.  They were unmarked, and though they had no visible lock or keyhole, none of them would open.  However it was that the Ben Gan Shui organized her sanctum, she clearly had no interest in making it legible to outsiders.  Bleeding Wolf couldn’t exactly blame her, though it gave him a disturbing sensation of being funneled along a pipeline, of being processed.  For some reason, it jogged a memory of the War, when the forces of Harmony set about dismantling the Bloodfish’s residual network of camps and depots, when it came to light the way he had mechanized the process of gathering corpses, dismembering them, shipping them down the river as charnel and back up as roaches, new, mindless pseudo-soldiers to be used as fodder for conquest.  From what the witch said, she was on the other side, on Harmony’s side, but there were echoes in her system, similarities to Ka’s buried evil that made Bleeding Wolf wonder what exactly that old fight had meant to her–and what that meant for him in this moment.

The blue light of the hallway gave way to chromatic chaos as the two of them stepped out into a large chamber, lit in even measure by the blue sconces along the walls, blinding white spotlights dotting the ceiling, and orange firelight blasting from a row of furnaces in a far corner.  The cavernous space was littered with tables and workbenches, some actively in use by mental men similar to the emissary–to Philip.  Some were littered with metal, wood, and other detritus, at whose origin Bleeding Wolf preferred not to speculate, and others were piled high with paper and parchment, scrolls, and codices.  The furnaces seemed to be outfitted for metalwork, and they were manned by smaller steel creatures with spherical bodies and arrays of spindly legs that granted their simplistic anatomy a surprising degree of both agility and dexterity.  As he considered them, Bleeding Wolf realized he had seen a metal sphere just like these sitting, inert, outside the emissary’s house in the village.  Perhaps the witch’s influence over the place was even more direct than he’d realized.

“Godshell,” Gene muttered breathlessly.  “Haven’t seen anything like it since–”

“Yeah,” Bleeding Wolf agreed.  “But best keep the bastard’s name off your tongue.  I don’t think she’s fond of the topic, and she can definitely hear us.”

“You are a perceptive hiveling.”

The voice was barely above a whisper, but it somehow cut through the workshop’s roar, magnified, Bleeding Wolf assumed, by some artifice, though the effect was subtler than the centipede’s earlier vocal symphony.  Its directionality was clear as well.  Bleeding Wolf and Gene both looked to its source: one of the workbenches, like all the others, at which a small, hunched creature clad in folds of black cloth perched atop a tall stool.  Cautiously, they approached.

The figure seemed to be occupied with a thin sheet of steel, passing an appendage that looked almost like a dead tree branch over it, producing streams of blinding white sparks.  Opening senses beyond his sight, Bleeding Wolf recognized that the sparks were mostly mana, with the distinctive char of fire magic.  More disturbing, though, was the way the branch-appendage resolved as he watched the channels of power flow through it: It had the form of a human hand with fingers split in two at each knuckle, for a total of twenty subfingers, each operating with some degree of autonomy to cut the metal beneath it.

The creature’s face had the vague shape of an old woman’s, it’s compacted and gnarled features retrofitted–or perhaps imitatively built–with unwrinkled, flawless skin, which Bleeding Wolf guessed was not, in fact, made of any kind of actual flesh.  Her mouth was held shut in an emotionless grimace, and her left eye projected outward from her face, split–like her fingers–into an array of oculi on telescoping rods, several of which turned as the two of them neared.

“You have earned yourselves a rare experience,” the Ben Gan Shui said, her mouth barely mumbling, though it did not seem to distort her words.  “None before you have seen this place, save the reborn.”

“It’s a great honor,” Bleeding Wolf said without enthusiasm.  He could admit that the look into the inner workings of the place was dreadfully fascinating, but his sense of danger was far too heightened to feel at ease, let alone to converse on the topic.

“Why’d you attack the Crossroads?” Gene blurted.  A plume of sparks shot up from the bench as a corner of the metal sheet fell from the edge, only to be snatched out of the air by a hand that darted from between the folds of the witch’s cowl.  Bleeding Wolf noted with some consternation that this, like the one splayed and sparking across the table, was also a right hand.

“I wanted more data on how you work,” she replied, handing the piece of metal scrap to a passing legged sphere.  The spider-like creature clasped it delicately between three of its thin legs and skittered off toward the furnaces, as the witch drew her second right hand back within her cowl.  “It seems your colony is stable enough, though I suspect your survival may nonetheless be owed to symbiosis with the Sculptor rather than any exceptional resiliency.”  Gene grunted angrily.

“We were resilient enough for you, weren’t we?” he spat.  The sparks stopped for a moment, and several more oculi turned upon Gene.

“Oh.  You think I am insulting you.  Rest assured, I am making no such appraisal of your worth among humans, though one must wonder if ants too perceive some sense of pride or injury in the economics of their survival.”  Gene stared at her, his rage waning in confusion.  The sparks began again.

“You wanted to know…how we work?”  Bleeding Wolf asked.  He had not arrived expecting equal treatment by a False God, but the complete lack of malice in the Ben Gan Shui’s responses put him off guard.

“Yes.  I was well aware of your colony’s social place in our vicinity, but I wished to know your inner workings.  I wished to know how you would stop me if I attempted to take your stockpile.”

“But why?”

“Is it not obvious?” the witch asked, turning her oculi back on her work at the table.  “We are neighbors.  Most projections of the future would have us either connect on friendly terms or conflict on unfriendly ones.  I am loath to do either with an entity I do not understand.”

“And did you think that attacking us wouldn’t accelerate one of those two outcomes?” Bleeding Wolf asked, framing his accusation as cautiously as he could.  The sparks stopped once again, and though the witch remained focused on the table–Bleeding Wolf could see now that the product of her cutting, a vast collection of tiny gears, was arrayed there–he thought he saw a hint of a smile at the corner of her mouth.

“Did you think I cared which eventuality we came to?” she replied.  “And besides, you are here now, parlaying.  Let us consider where circumstances have taken us.”

Bleeding Wolf took a deep breath and looked back at Gene.  The old man’s head was clearly spinning.  He looked mad, but he also seemed to grasp that they were getting somewhere.

“Fine,” Bleeding Wolf said.  “We’ve come to propose cooperation.  We have reason to believe the Blaze is headed south from the Gravestones, and you’re in his path just as much as we are.”  Another arm–this time a left one–emerged from the Ben Gan Shui’s cowl, its fingers disjointing as well with a rapid series of clicks.  With her now forty visible limbs, she began rearranging the gears on the table in the shape of a distorted face.

“I can aid your colony with this,” she said pensively.  “Cooperate.  There are things I would ask of you in exchange.”

“We can give you yer pick of the stash you were tryin’ t’steal,” Gene growled, clearly not happy to make the offer but seeing sense in it nonetheless.

“I am not interested in your collection of baubles.”

“What?!”

“There are other things you harbor.  Things of much greater interest to me.  The boy who was there the night of my visit–tell me about him.”

The Crossroads, Chapter 18: An Image of Failure

Ty was well-traveled, used to the discovery of new places, cynically just as used to leaving them forever at a moment’s notice.  He’d lived in the Shrah, upon the slopes of the Gravestones and amidst their foothills.  He’d scavenged for nearly a decade in the Basin of Hazan and traveled among the nomad tribes that casually defied its scorched, arid landscape.  He was well familiar with wastelands, and the Riverlands were emphatically not a waste.  Which is why it was strange to him that they were so damned empty.

His three days of journeying since the meeting with the Dragon had been circuitous and painfully slow.  The sudden flight from the Crossroads had left him low on supplies, which, in the absence of any nearby smaller villages–and a distrust for the secrecy of any caravan he might attempt to contact on the road–he’d had to painstakingly forage from the verdant but unfamiliar biome.  And after two nights–and one nocturnal rainstorm–of camping alone and off road, Ty was beginning to suspect that at this rate, if he arrived at the Southern Reaches at all, he would do so with either a dearth of strength, an abundance of pneumonia, or both.

On the third day, he finally caved, surreptitiously joining a caravan by way of his magical knacks, and he asked a merchant’s manservant where, for the love of the gods, the river, and the Green, he could find any vestige of human civilization south of the Crossroads.  The manservant was confused, though whether this was for Ty’s sudden emergence upon his conscious attention or because he saw no sense in an alternative when the Crossroads was scarcely a day’s walk away, Ty couldn’t tell.  Reluctantly, he shared that he knew of another village close by, a short ways south and across the river, though he knew his employers to be uneasy about stopping there.  Ty wasn’t sure what that meant–and the manservant had been unable to clarify–but he was running out of options.  It would have to do.  He found a point where the river’s current was particularly lazy, swam the gap, and headed south, following the tentative directions as best he could.

By nightfall, he reached the village, if one could call it that.  Against the cloudy orange of the sky, he could make out a tepid gathering of twelve huts lit by a row of raggedy seed-oil torches, with a scattering of farm shacks on the horizon.  Much more interesting, Ty felt, was the dense copse of trees rising in the distance behind them.  He wondered if the “village” had more of its population squirreled away in the woods, but he supposed he would check here first.  As he neared, he noticed a woman sitting on a bench by one of the huts, cleaning a bundle of some sort of fiber.  Meeting his gaze, she set her work aside and rose, hobbling to where Ty approached, at the head of this village’s approximation of a street.

“Good evening, stranger,” she called with a warm and practiced smile.  “Have you come seeking rebirth?”  Ty blinked, pausing mid-step.

“No,” he said.  “Uh, no.  I can’t say that I have.  Just looking for some food, a tent, perhaps a place to spend the night.  I have some coin to pay.”  The artifice of the woman’s smile melted, leaving an expression that seemed at once relieved and disappointed.

“Ah, just a traveler.  Your sort is a rarity these days.  Well, come.”  She motioned over her shoulder and began shuffling down the street.  “We have little to spare that you can carry with you, but we can at least provide a roof for the night.”  Uneasily, Ty followed.

Despite the strangeness of the woman’s greeting, the village itself did not seem especially strange–it just seemed poor.  Ty noticed a few more villagers outside their huts as he and the woman made their way through.  Most of them stared him down for a short while before growing bored and returning to their leisure–or at least their idle work–but they seemed all of a kind he’d seen before: undernourished, raggedly clothed, all possessing the stoic sunkenness in the eyes of those who have learned to vivify their drudgery.  It wasn’t until they had nearly made it to the end of the street that he realized that something actually was off.  All along the way, the door of each hut had been decorated by a large, round rock, about knee-height, placed beside the opening.  At least Ty had thought they were rocks.  Upon approaching the end of the street, he noticed beside the stairs leading up to the final hut–a smaller house than the others, built upon stilts–was a gleaming, polished, silver sphere.  Exactly the same, he realized, as the rocks beside the other doors.  This one was just clean.

The woman offered no explanation for the objects, nor, as far as Ty could tell, any indication that she had noticed his wandering attentions.  Instead, she brought him to the door of the house beside the stilt-hovel, a larger structure that looked capable of sheltering multiple families.  She opened the door and stepped aside.

“You may rest here tonight, traveler,” she said.  “Come morning, you may take some food if you need it, but it would be best if you do not linger.”  Ty thanked her and stepped through the door of the hut.  Oddly, her implied wish that he would get gone was more reassurance that he was safe here than any more traditional gesture of hospitality.  In his experience, none was more trustworthy in the world of the scav trade than someone who was unhappy to see you.  Regardless of any resentment they might harbor, one could always tell exactly what they wanted.

Inside the hut, by the light of a single glass-shielded candle–the most conspicuous human luxury Ty had yet seen in the village–he could see row upon row of straw bed mats, most empty, but not all.  In a corner, away from the light, three scrap-clad beggars sat, attempting attention to a figure, speaking softly, sitting before them on a wooden stool.  Ty could make out little of the figure’s appearance save that its demeanor and voice seemed vaguely masculine.  The beggars, however, were visible and uniquely pitiable.  One was missing an arm and a leg, jealously cradling a piece of malformed driftwood that Ty could only guess might have been her crutch.  Another, the least clothed of the three, stared at the locutor, open-mouthed, toothless, and dazed; arms, legs and most of his face covered in scabs.  The third, face covered, seemed to be looking past the figure, gazing idly upon the bare wall beside Ty.  Blind, perhaps?

“You would do well to remember,” the figure said, barely audible over the rustle of Ty’s clothes as he sat against the far wall.  “She does not empathize with you.  She will not pity you, and if you should persist at the wood’s edge in an appeal to that pity, she will harvest your body for parts.”

Instinctively, Ty’s eyes darted to the figure’s silhouette, still obscured by shadows even now that his vision had adjusted.  Their words were alarming, and, he noted, something about their voice was…off.

“Did each of you bring an offering?” the figure asked.  The beggars nodded.  The scab-covered man reached into his threadbare vest and withdrew a small, pale figurine.  He held it out to the figure.  “Very good,” they said, and without moving or otherwise acknowledging the beggar’s gesture: “Hold it for now.  It is not for me.  For the rest of you, know that she will accept or refuse at her discretion.  But she prefers that which is magical, mechanical, or beautiful.”

That was it, Ty realized.  The figure wasn’t moving.  At all.  Staring closely, he realized that no portion of the silhouette so much as fidgeted.  They didn’t even appear to breathe.

“In one hour, you will travel to the wood,” the figure continued.  In a strangely smooth motion, they lifted their arm to point at the crippled woman.  “You will go first.  I will let you know when it is time.

“You will approach the wood with your offering and hold it outstretched in your palm.”  Their forearm shifted, turning their palm upward.  “If you hear the song and see the lights within the trees, you may proceed inward.”

With that, the figure rose to their feet and turned toward the door, pausing to answer the question that remained, bubbling ominously in the instructions’ wake:

“If you see and hear nothing, come back another night with another gift.”

They moved to the door, making a peculiar hiss with each step, turning briefly to face Ty as they went.  Ty gulped as he caught sight of them, the silver glint off their arms and fingers, the lipless, skull-like steel of their teeth, the thin hoses running from their temples to the base of their neck–this was a humanoid shape, comprised, save for its glistening eyes and spare bits of connective material, entirely of metal.  But they said nothing to Ty and disappeared through the doorway.

It was abundantly clear to him now why the merchants did not visit this place.  He imagined his risks were not so acute–he, unlike the merchants, carried not “offerings” this cult might covet–but it was still a cult.  If you stuck around, you’d be pulled in or torn apart.  All that was left was to figure whether the villager woman’s one night of begrudging hospitality qualified as “sticking around.”  As he considered it, a clear of a throat across the room grabbed his attention.  He turned to see one of the beggars–the one with the covered face–beckoning him over.

“Hail, stranger,” he said.  His voice was soothing in spite of the clear effort he put into speaking.  “Have you also run out of places to go?”

“No,” Ty called back, guarded.  “Not yet.  Just looking for a place to rest, then I’m movin’ on.”  The beggar with the missing limbs seemed to start at the sound of his voice, glancing between Ty and her companions nervously.  The beggar with the scabs didn’t react at all and continued to stare, slack-jawed, into the dim.

“Is that you, Ty Ehsam?” the blind beggar asked.  It was Ty’s turn to start.  Instinctively, he jolted to his feet and seized his pack, but something about the beggar’s smile, now visible beneath the layers of cowl covering his eyes, gave him pause.  Then, a spark of recognition:

“Bernard?” he asked.  The beggar sighed, his smile deepening.

“It is good to hear your voice.  And good to know my refusal to give up your whereabouts has borne fruit.”

Ty relaxed slightly and heaved his pack over his shoulder.  He stepped cautiously toward the beggars and their corner, at once relieved–to find a friend in this remote and altogether spooky place–and chilled: Bernard had not been blind when Ty had last seen him.  He hadn’t been a beggar either.  In Hazan, Bernard had been a small-time dealer–like Marko but with smaller stakes and more mobility.  He was an uncommonly clever man and one of the kindest Ty had ever encountered in his horrible line of work.  And his presence in this place spoke poorly of his fortune since they last met a few months ago.

“Did you know my whereabouts?” Ty asked.  Bernard laughed, the sound coming out somewhere between a cough and a wheeze.

“Of course not,” he said as the fit subsided.  “All the more reason to refuse.  I can claim the moral high ground that way.”

Ty took another hard look at the other beggars, trying to determine if he knew them as well.  No, he didn’t know their faces, he concluded, and if their bewilderment was any indication, they didn’t know his.

“He came for you, then,” Ty said.

“He did,” Bernard replied, pulling the cowl from his head to reveal a cascade of oozing, melted flesh all down the top half of what used to be his face.  “Surprising in retrospect that he didn’t have me killed outright.  S’pose it helps his reputation to have a few examples of his wrath around to precede him.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“You didn’t steal the stone, did you?”

“We got attacked by another scav group.  I was the only one to get out.  I’ve been tracking the stone ever since.  I’ve found–”

“Then it’s not your fault.  And if you don’t mind, I don’t want anything more to do with it.”  Ty nodded, swallowing his excuses.

“Okay…” he said, unsure how to ask his question.  “Why, uh–”

“Why’ve I hauled what’s left of myself here?”  Do you know where you are right now, Ty?”

“I’ll admit I’m a little lost.”

“I wouldn’t go looking right now if I were you, but the forest near this village isn’t really a forest, not like any you’ve ever seen.  This forest has trees made of metal and a witch who rebuilds people who bring her the right gifts.”

“Gods, Bernard.”

“What, Ty?”

“That’s a False God,” Ty said, trying as best he could to convey how alarming every piece of this felt to him, but Bernard just scowled.

“Don’t give me that.  Look at me, Ty–I’m trying best I can not to blame you and your crew for it, but I’m at the end of my line.  Either this Ben Gan Shui is gonna fix me, or she’s gonna put me out of my misery.”

Ty exhaled, speechless.  He hated the logic, but it…it made sense.”

“I’d do it myself if the upside weren’t a possibility,” Bernard added.  The silence stretched, the candlelight wavering as a breeze outside blew a draft through the boardinghouse.

“Ben Gan Shui, huh?” Ty asked at last.

“I don’t think it’s a real name,” Bernard said.  “I think it’s the sound the machines make.  You heard the man in here before, right?”  Whenever he moved–” Bernard mimicked the hissing noise of the man walking: “Bengan-SHUI, bengan-SHUI.”

“Is he a machine?”

“Obviously, but they say he is a man as well.  He had something wrong with his lungs some time ago, and the witch made him new ones.”

“Other things too,” Ty said.

“I can only surmise,” Bernard replied.  “But now he functions as a guide.  Perhaps you noticed: This village is a sort of annex to the Ironwood, under the witch’s protection so that they make sure all the rabble seeking her make an orderly queue.”

“That’s…oddly civilized,” Ty admitted.

“The witch herself is civilized, they say–in her way.  She has her rules.  She abides by them.  Just wants people around here to understand that they’re here at her pleasure.”

The walls of the house creaked as another draft blew through, but this time, it carried the faint sounds of a conversation ambling through the village.  And the sounds, Ty noted, were distressingly familiar.

“…keeps an emissary here?  Lives with…” came a growl Ty recognized as Bleeding Wolf’s.

Fuck.

“I have to go, Bernard,” he whispered.  “Good luck.  Please don’t mention I was here.”

“Who was here?” Bernard wheezed through a smile as Ty dashed to the doorway, peering out onto the muddy street.  Maybe fifty feet down, he saw the outlines of three figures walking past the torches.  One was the woman who had greeted him.  Another, based on the bristling hunch of his shoulders, was certainly Bleeding Wolf.  Ty did not recognize the third, but he was not especially curious.

Taking a deep breath, he exhaled mana and slipped out the door, around the side of the house, into the brush surrounding the village.  He pushed through it, moving away as swiftly and silently as he could, even as Bleeding Wolf called out behind him:

“Show yourself, mage!”

Ty, of course, did not.  The people of the Crossroads knowing where he was, where he was going, only put them in more danger, to say nothing of the danger it invited upon himself.  No, he put the calls and the flickering lights of the village behind him and made his way back out into the wet, sticky, mosquito-ridden wilds of the Riverlands.

“I’m glad we came to a mutually agreeable conclusion on that matter,” Ty’s mouth said of its own accord, triggering a wave of panic down his spine as he attempted to reestablish control over his jaw and tongue, to no avail.  “Come now, did you forget our arrangement already?” it asked.  Ty paused.

“Well, now that you remind me,” he said.

“Good,” the Dragon replied.  “As it were, I would have insisted you depart even if you had not found your own reason.  If the trinket man had noticed what you are, his mistress would have become far too interested, and I’ve no desire for any collaboration with that worm.”

“Yeah, you don’t seem much for collaboration in general,” Ty muttered.

“Sayeth my own collaborator?  You wound me.  I collaborate with jollity given the proper opportunity and leverage.  But not with her.”

“History?”

“Oh yes.  I fear she never forgave me for our last collaboration.  She would only try to take advantage of me now, and I’m sure such advantage would come at the expense of your bodily integrity.  Veer left here, away from the trees.  No need to stray so close to certain death.”

Ty complied, finding the Dragon’s explanation grating–but plausible enough–and gave the woods and village both a wide berth as he drew a zigzagging, uneven route back to the river.  In spite of the moonlight, it was dark as shit, and he knew he would lose his bearings if he didn’t find a landmark before making his next move.  Eventually, though, he made it back to the dull roar of rushing currents and earth that squelched beneath his feet.  He pushed aside the reeds at the river’s edge and confirmed the dazzling dance of the moon and stars upon the gleaming water as he pondered what to do next.

No thought had time to arrive, however, before the sound of striking flint range in his ears, and a bloom of fire all but blinded him.  Shielding his face, Ty made out the shape of a vessel tucked onto the riverbank not ten feet from where he stood, and as his eyes adjusted, he recognized the figures on it.

Brandishing the newly-lit torch was the dilettante scholar he had met on the initial journey north–Naples, if he recalled.  Cowering behind him was an emaciated boy that Ty dimly recognized as Orphelia’s brother.  And of course, standing at the prow of the boat, posed dramatically with a hand on his hip–

“I understand you are heading to the Southern Reaches, Mr. Ehsam,” Lan al’Ver declared.  “Might I offer you conveyance?”

“Fuck,” Ty’s mouth muttered.  He wasn’t sure whether it was him or the Dragon who said it.

The Crossroads, Chapter 17: A Fish Which Flies

It had been hours since the feeling set in, but Lan had not been inclined to worry.  The river was, at its heart, a chaotic process.  Eddies, whorls, ripples where the surface was disturbed–all were commonplace.  But what was not common was constancy, and as dusk fell, and Lan docked beside a shallow crossing, and Gene and Bleeding Wolf disembarked heavy with apprehension which Lan knew–uniquely perhaps–was ill-founded, he found himself more and more distracted, more and more irritated with the anomaly he had apparently left behind in the Crossroads.  Alone on his vessel, he stared down the river’s burbling surface, contemplated the currents’ beginnings and endings and assimilations.  And there it was.  The constancy.  The source of his unease, it seemed, was not a ripple–it was a ripple which had disappeared.

This was serious.  He made up his mind to return to the Crossroads.  Then he was there.

Stepping off his boat with highly irregular purpose, he made for the tavern at the end of the tradesmen’s street.  The timbre of the cricketsong told him the apothecary was presently occupied, and the other ideal witness was…compromised.  This left the fateful stowaway repacking his experience with mulled wine in the tavern’s soft candlelight.  Ah, yes, he was there: Lan kicked open the door, slamming it into its hinges hard enough to dislodge a nail, to the clear consternation of the proprietor and her patrons.

“Where is the girl?” he barked at the third table from the door.

“Ah!” Naples gasped, looking up with a jolt from his journal.  “Captain al’Ver, I’d thought you were awa–”

“Answer, man!  Everything depends on it!”

“What?”

“The girl!  Miss Orphelia.  You were to be watching her.”

“But, I,” Naples sputtered.  “What–no!”

“No, of course you never agreed to,” Lan said, charging the table and grabbing Naples by the shoulder, “but you certainly intended to.”

Even in the dim light of the barroom, the shock on Naples’ face was electric.  In the split second of silence that followed, though, the presence of the tavern’s denizens reintruded.

“Mr. al’Ver–” the barkeep began.

“Captain!” Lan corrected.

“Yes, uh, what is this about?” Lan swept his hand dramatically in the direction of the bar.

“A girl has gone missing, my lady, and Mr. Naples is to help me locate her!”

“I swear to you there was nothing untoward about–”  Lan interrupted Naples limping excuse with a roll of his eyes:

“Yes, yes, you wanted to investigate her connection to my illustrious self.  I am very interesting.  Now gather your things.  We have work to do!”  

As he snarled the order, Lan instinctively scanned the rest of the tavern.  Most of them were visibly bewildered by the intrusion, a small few were adeptly ignoring the interruption which, for all its suddenness, was still in no way their business or their problem, but there was one set of eyes fixed significantly upon Lan with intent that was not immediately readable nor obviously benign.  It was an old man with a hat at the table in the corner.  His presence wasn’t right, Lan noted, but it was far less wrong than Orphelia’s disappearance, and time was short to get Naples moving.  

He turned, twirling his umbrella, and exited as Naples scrambled to catch up.  Outside, he paused and stared up at the half-moon between the night’s murky clouds, as much for the pragmatism of allowing his new disciple to finish his exit as for respectful consideration of the ill omen that the damn sky always seemed to bring him.

“I truly have not seen her since this afternoon,” Naples said, stumbling through the doorway behind him.  “She was sneaking out of the apothecary’s, went to the market, then toward the old theater. But that’s when I lost her, I swear to you.”

“I have no reason to doubt your sincerity, Mr. Naples,” Lan replied, still staring skyward.  “And I will admit I already knew the answer to my first question.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“‘Where is the girl?’ Mr. Naples.  It was a trick question.  Miss Orphelia is currently nowhere.”  After a brief silence, Naples attempted a response:

“I…don ‘t follow.”

“The river runs always, Mr. Naples, from today to tomorrow, from spring to summer, from one year to the next, and we all swim in its current like so many fish.”

“A lovely turn of phrase, Captain.”

“And so much more besides,” Lan said, beginning to wander up the street.  “The trouble is that Miss Orphelia seems to have leapt from the stream.”

“Well, to run with the metaphor, fish do jump sometimes,” Naples offered.

“Except she has not come back down.”

“Ah.”  Naples went silent, thinking for a moment.  “Like a flying fish?  Or perhaps a fish snatched by an eagle and carried elsewhere.”

At the words, Lan felt a surge of fire run up his spine, and the clarity of the old man’s gaze upon him in the tavern returned.  He had been familiar, Lan realized.  The wide-brimmed hat.  The burning in his eyes.  Ah, yes.  That one.

“We had best apply our razors, Mr. Naples.”

“Sounds danger–oh!  Like the Thagosian idiom?”

In spite of the foreboding complexity manifesting in the currents, intruding upon Lan’s consciousness, so rudely calling “Wake up!” at this inappropriate hour of night, he could not help but smile.  Naples continued to be a pleasant reminder of how long it took for humans to truly forget anything.

“Precisely,” Lan replied.  “If you don’t mind, I have further want of your aid.  It has come to my attention that a few old friends of mine have come to visit.  One is at the apothecary now–let us go and meet him.”

***

“Lazy fucking idiot.  Wake up!”

Devlin started awake at the rough voice, inches from his face, as a rough hand grabbed him by the throat and dragged him from his bed.  He opened his bleary eyes to see a shaggy face and a singed hunter’s jerkin by the dim light of Brill’s infirmary before being flung, skidding to the floor.  He whimpered.

“Oh, shut up,” the man sneered.  Devlin blinked his eyes open, shivering as he pushed himself half-upright.  The man, he could see now, was tall, tall enough that the candlelight didn’t reach his face above his beard.  But that notwithstanding, Devlin had never seen him before in his life.

“Wha–what do you want–” he began to stutter, but the man reached back to a quiver tied behind his waist.  He drew a short spear with a gleaming, serrated tip, and Devlin stopped cold.

“Where’s your sister?” the man asked, testing the tip against his forefinger.

“I don’t…I don’t know?”

“Really, fucker?  Been outta the hag’ claws three days now, and you still think that’s an acceptable answer?”

“I don’t know–”

I don’t know what you’re talking about!” the man mocked.  “Best start payin’ attention, then, huh?  And don’t try to feed me any crap about being sick–you haven’t been sick since that fop pulled the bitch off your finger.  You just figured that if you could still be sick, then it couldn’t have been your fault you killed your stupid mom.”

At this, Devlin sobbed and, scrambling to his feet, tried to run for the door, but the man grabbed his shirt and pulled him back, slamming him against the wall.

“And while you were making excuses, your idiot sister jumped into the deep end of the river.  Time to take responsibility.”  In a motion Devlin couldn’t really follow, the man pulled a hook-like implement from his belt, slotted the spear into it, and flung it backward.  The spear embedded itself with a thunk in the wall.  “You’re gonna fish that girl outta there, or I’m gonna kill ‘er.  Those are the only two options.”

At that moment, the apothecary door on the other side of the infirmary curtain burst open, and Devlin stared, terrified, into the man’s burning eyes for several horrible, silent seconds before the curtain was swept aside by a man Devlin only dimly recognized.  This one had come with Orphelia often when she came to visit him back here.

“Daniel,” Lan al’Ver said sternly.  The shaggy man grunted disdainfully without taking his eyes off Devlin.

“Minding the shop now, are you, ‘Captain?’” he asked, curling his lip.  Another man stumbled in behind Lan, freezing upon seeing the situation in the room.

“Oh!” he exclaimed.  “Oh dear.  Uh, who are you?”  The shaggy man turned to face the newcomer, his venom now tempered by the slightest tinge of confusion.  “And, uh, yes.  Why are you threatening the boy?”

Daniel stared the newcomer down, weighing what Devlin could only imagine was a clear urge toward violence against unknown considerations.  He kept his cool, apparently, backing begrudgingly away from Devlin and turning back to Lan.

“Stinks of cruelty, dragging an innocent into the Gyre,” he said.

“I navigate the waters as I please,” Lan replied.

“With passengers?”  Daniel’s laugh was bitter.  “You’ve a poor track record with what you carry, you know?”  With that, Lan drew his rapier, defiant, scowling, prompting an outburst from the third man as Devlin tried as best he could to sink invisibly into the corner of the room.

“Hold on now, both of you!” the man said.  “Whatever this is about, we need to find the girl, right?  Orphelia.  Let’s set the weapons down and talk!”  At the mention of his sister, Devlin perked up.  He did not understand the nature of this sudden interruption, though he was certainly glad for it.  But more people looking for Orphelia made him even more anxious to find her.

The room was silent for a moment before Daniel straightened, reattaching his hook to his belt.

“Minding the shop indeed,” he muttered.  Then, to the third man: “Fine.  You two go get the girl out and take this little bastard with you.  He owes it to her.  And to Harmony.”  Devlin gulped as all the men renewed their attention on him.

“Who took her?” Lan asked.

Rom,” Daniel said, with a tone that Devlin could swear smelled of smoke.  “I understand there is a certain Jin Gaenyan he wants pulled back into the fold.”  Lan nodded, sheathing is sword, and Daniel retrieved his spear, all to the third man’s obvious bewilderment:

“Captain, what does all of that mean?”

“Fear not, Mr. Naples.  We have our destination now, and we shall make sure that dear Orphelia and young Devlin are reunited once more!”

Daniel, meanwhile, made for the door.

“The personas, all three of you,” he muttered.  “Who the fuck wants humanity anymore?”  And then he was gone.

Devlin looked up, shaken, as Naples approached him with the ersatz, showy alarm of a concerned citizen with only an arm’s-length notion of how one ought to interact with children.

“Dear boy, are you quite alright?”  Devlin nodded, limping away from the wall, which seemed to satisfy the man, as his focus returned to Lan: “Captain, please no more oblique reference–what on earth was that all about?  Who was that?”

“That, Mr. Naples, was Daniel Patch.  He is part of an entity called Harmony.”

“The cult of Matze Matsua?”

“Precisely.  And yet also not at all.”

“Captain…”

Devlin took advantage of the moment of pleading confusion to swipe his ring from the table by his bed.  Over the past several dazed, he had attempted to reach it several times, but his efforts had been thwarted: The table had been kicked, its contents had been swept aside for a bowl of soup, he had received a sudden, semiconscious hug from Orphelia–each had, at the time, pushed the ring just out of his grasp, and each, he was beginning to realize, had been the direct or indirect work of Captain al’Ver.  He had little idea why the Captain would care about the ring or his possession of it, but he certainly didn’t want to ask.  And to make sure he wouldn’t have to, he decided to hide the reacquisition of his treasure.

As his fingers touched the cold silver, he heard the faintest sound of flapping wings outside the infirmary.  It chilled him, and it comforted him, and while he could fathom the reason for neither, he was far too afraid to lose his last link to his family to question any of it.

“The magic of legend itself shrouds them, Mr. Naples, and even I cannot speak directly of what binds Mr. Patch and his colleagues.  You will have to pardon me in this respect.”

“Very well,” Naples replied, dejected.  “But what of the names he mentioned–Rom?  Jin Gaenyan?”  Lan laughed.  The bravado of the gesture seemed uncharacteristically brittle.  “What?” Naples inquired.

“Well-read as you are, I expect you’ve heard of them,” Lan said.  “The second is the clue we needed, for though the name ‘Jin Gaenyan’ has been lost to all but the most observant chroniclers, I can assume you have encountered some mention of the Saraa Sa’een?”  Naples scratched his chin.  Devlin, unsure of what to make of this conversation, began to inch toward the door.  He didn’t trust these men, and he wanted to find Orphelia before they did.

“The Saraa Sa’een was killed by the Barabadoon nearly sixty years ago,” Naples mused, “with–oh you clever dog!  This is exactly where we left off three days ago!  They did it with the help of–”  Lan snatched Devlin’s hand as he attempted to sneak out the doorway.  He froze, looking timidly up at the Captain.  The man’s grip was amiable but frustratingly firm.  He smiled warmly down at Devlin before facing Naples again.

“My friend, you should know better than most how history may play reanimator to even the longest-dead,” he declared with the inflection of a showman.  “But in this case, the Saraa Sa’een is quite literally alive.  He was, as it happens, captured, to be used as a defensive measure by the architect of the place where dear Orphelia will reenter the stream.”  Naples exhaled, the expression on his face souring.

“The Chateau de Marquains,” he confirmed.  He glanced at Devlin and grimaced.  “That’s no place to bring a kid.”

“No.  But it is as Daniel said.  We are navigating the waters together, and my path is thus ordained.

“Hmm.”

“Mr. Lan?” Devlin piped up.  “Are you sure this place is where we need to go to save Orphelia?”

“Indeed I am, my dear boy.”  The man’s smile was still warm, and Devlin still found it suspicious.  But needs must.

“Then I’m not scared.  Let’s go!”  It was partially true: Devlin truly did not fear the Chateau de Marquains, in large part because he knew nothing about it, but he was terrified for his sister, for the violence that had seized the both of them weeks ago and, it seemed, would not let them go.  Would not let her go.  He felt the wind of wingbeats brush against his cheek.  He needed to save her before it was all gone.

“We are decided, then!” Lan proclaimed.  “Let us depart before Brill discovers your intrusion, Mr. Naples!”

“A fate to rival the False Gods,” Naples joked mirthlessly.  He moved to follow Lan out of the infirmary, pausing momentarily to look in the direction of Devlin’s bed.

“Come on, Mr. Naples!” Devlin called.  Shaking his head, the man turned and exited.

The Crossroads, Chapter 16: Mr. Ruffles

Recent weeks had been short on both comfort and normalcy, but Orphelia was beginning to rediscover all of their annoying side effects now that they had returned.  For the first time since the Bad Stuff, she had a place to sleep, food she didn’t have to steal, even a daily routine running errands for the apothecary and the blacksmith’s apprentice.  Devlin’s illness had improved dramatically: He was still bedridden, but he was spending more time awake every day.  However tenuously, things felt as if they might turn out alright.  And gods was she bored with it.

Part of that was certainly a lack of freedom: She had been running messages and packages across town for days now–nothing valuable, nothing salacious, nothing interesting–but Brill’s oversight remained draconian.  Every day, the apothecary would run errands of their own, asking questions of Orphelia’s contacts the previous day, making absolutely certain she had not defected, absconded, sabotaged, or otherwise deviated from her terminally uninteresting schedule in any way.  And this was to say nothing of the uncanny frequency with which she found Captain al’Ver on her path–or at her destination–on “business” of his own, no doubt in truth to facilitate her supervision.

To their credit, if she found even a shadow of a reason to cause trouble, she totally would.  But their constant anticipation of it was just exhausting.

Still, beyond the benevolently oppressive gaze of her newfound caretakers, Orphelia was slowly beginning to accept what had likely been apparent to both Ty and Bleeding Wolf during their odd sojourn to the Bloodwood: There was a capacity in which she thrived on the threat of violence–and that she was feeling it call back to her after only three days of peaceful stasis…it scared her.

But in spite of her apprehension, she found herself growing excited for the incremental change in status that would arrive that afternoon.  Captain al’Ver was leaving for a day, taking Bleeding Wolf and the blacksmith a short distance down the river, which meant she would get to talk to Mr. Ruffles again.

Amidst her friend’s few words since the Bloodwood, she had been keeping careful track: He had not stopped speaking to her–he simply would not speak to her when Captain al’Ver was present, and it turned out he was present all the time.  He had parked his boat next to the apothecary’s shop, so he was within earshot of the room where she and Devlin slept.  He was at market when and where she was carrying her deliveries and notes.  More often than not, he was somehow loitering on the tradesmen’s street when she returned.  Orphelia liked the man well enough, of course, but she found his omnipresence troubling, to say nothing of the silence it seemed to instill in Mr. Ruffles.

When Mr. Ruffles did speak, he did not mention Captain al’Ver, though he did seem apologetic for his silence.  He also hinted that an important message was forthcoming and that Orphelia’s destiny would “shake the sea and sky both”.  She had no idea what that meant, but she was surprised to find herself looking forward to finding out.  She realized that it had been a matter of days since she had been praying for safety, and she supposed she still wanted that for Devlin, but for her part, she thought she might be ready for the sort of danger that a destiny entailed.

“Daydreaming again, Orphelia?” Brill asked from across the shop.  She looked down at the bottle that had been in her hands the last five minutes.  Devil’s Breath (Distilled) the label read, with a double-X next to the title, indicating that the substance was never to be ingested alone.  It belonged across the room, on the shelf behind Brill’s counter.

“No!” she protested, calculatedly embarrassed.  She’d gathered by now that if she was, inevitably, to have a reputation as a liar, it was better for her lies to be stupid, easily detected, trivial.  She rose and hurriedly carried the bottle over to Brill.

“Careful with that,” they warned, snatching the bottle and placing it gingerly at the back of their shelf.  Then, softer: “What’s on your mind, child?  Your thoughts have been wandering all morning.  I do apologize, I know cataloging is not the most interesting of–”

“Captain al’Ver’s leaving today,” Orphelia volunteered.

“Ah, yes,” Brill said, quieting.  Their brow furrowed.  “I don’t think you need to worry about Mr. al’Ver–”

“Captain.”

“Yes, Captain al’Ver.  I’m sure he’ll be back soon.  The others, however…”

“Where’s Dog Boy going?” Orphelia asked.  The particulars of the expedition had been hushed in her presence before, but Brill seemed worried now–worried enough that they might actually spill the details.  They frowned, clearly considering their words.

“Bleeding Wolf and Gene are going to speak with a, uh, dangerous person.  To ask them for help.”

“Ooh!” Orphelia gasped, unable to prevent her face from lighting up.  “Who is it?  What are they asking for?  Why is Gene going?  Isn’t he old?”  Brill shook their head, grabbing the bridge of their nose with immediate regret, and began examining their order ledger in defiance of Orphelia’s barrage of questions.  She continued to press for several minutes, finally eliciting a response:

“In my opinion, child, Gene should not be going.  He is old.  Too old–we all are, these days.  Except Bleeding Wolf.”  They sighed.  “Dear, we need to get back to work.  And I would appreciate if you did not repeat what I’ve told you to anyone in town.”

“That’s okay!” she replied cheerfully.  “I don’t talk to people in town!”  Fairly speaking, that was true.

Orphelia was more efficient in the ensuing hours, excited to be engaged–even fruitlessly–in the Crossroads’ preeminent controversy, and she worked, peppering Brill with questions they refused to answer, into the mid-afternoon, at which point the apothecary kicked her out of the shop.  They had an errand to run over by Marko’s, they said, but they also instructed her not to be back until dark.  She had her doubts that any errand Brill could make would actually take that long, but she supposed they could both use the time free of each other.

As she stepped out onto the yellowed afternoon shade of the tradesmen’s street, clutching Mr. Ruffles under her arm, she considered where she wanted to spend her hours of lurking.  The market street seemed like the obvious choice, but no sooner did she turn onto the alley leading there than Mr. Ruffles, right on schedule, offered an alternative:

Marko’s theater, my dear.  That your journey may begin.

“Are you sure?” she muttered beneath her breath, in spite of the empty alley’s lack of eavesdroppers.  “They saw me last time I went there.”

Do not be afraid.  One must invite the beast’s passing to harness its wake.  Today, you shall learn to navigate the waters.

Orphelia paused, now at the alley’s mouth, glanced right, then left.

“Like Captain al’Ver?” she whispered.

There is no better teacher.  Few more terrifying, besides.

She turned right, toward the town square–and Marko’s.

“Then why are you teaching me?”

Because I would teach you what he would prefer you not know.  Perhaps what he would prefer to un-know himself.

The market street was still busy at that hour, though its intensity was beginning to tend toward outflow.  Even so, there were countercurrents of merchants and wagons still weaving their way into the traffic from both the north and south ends of the street.  Among them, Orphelia felt familiarly unseen, the way she had before her frightful previous encounter in Marko’s theater.  It wasn’t invisibility, she knew, not exactly.  Pedestrians on the street would step around her, stop to let her pass, react to her presence–subconsciously, at least–but not one of them made eye contact.  None of them acknowledged her as a person, not to her, not–as far as she could tell–to themselves.  And with the feeling of anonymity returned its companion: power.  At these people’s periphery, with free reign to exploit any blind spot, with freedom from all their stupid control–it reminded her why she had trusted Mr. Ruffles, how he had helped her and Devlin to survive when no one else would.  After moments among the crowds which felt much longer than moments, she reached the square.  Marko’s theater, ostentatious in spite of its weathered exterior, loomed from the other side.

“Why wouldn’t he want me to know it?” she said back to Mr. Ruffles at last.

Because it is in our nature to regret where we falter.  It requires both strength and insight to recognize the ways in which our failures become gifts in their own right.

“Are you saying Captain al’Ver failed at something?”  She approached the theater’s currently makeshift front door.

Hardly.  I am saying merely that he thinks he failed.

Before she could put her hand on the handle, the door barged open and Marko stepped out, Brill in tow, each with a bulging satchel slung over their shoulder.

“Not much time,” she caught from Brill, along with “…from Holme,” as the two of them hurried past her, just as oblivious as the market street crowds.

Inside, my dear.  Find the stairs behind the stage.

Orphelia shuffled quickly through the open door and past the theater’s modest foyer to the familiar, torchlit, detritus-filled audience area.  Just like before, she climbed up to the stage by way of an empty, overturned crate and crept over to Marko’s desk.  It was piled high with papers and codices, including a rolled piece of parchment sealed prominently by wax sculpted into a relief of a bearded man’s face.  Gripped by curiosity, she reached for the oddly-sealed scroll, but Mr. Ruffles’ whisper stopped her:

Don’t get distracted now.  Remember: the stairs.

She withdrew her hand, noting the shadows in the recesses of the stage.  She could make out an opening in the floor where the faintest outline of a staircase descended into the dark.  She cautiously stepped toward it, allowing her eyes to adjust to the increasingly dim light.

“Are we going to steal something from Marko?” she asked softly, testing the first step with her foot.

We will not steal anything from this Marko today.  Our aim is to make a fair and common exchange of time for space.  But only places of certain power are capable of handling the particulars–or quantities–of our transaction.

“I hadn’t realized you were such an accomplished businessman,” Orphelia said, proceeding down the stairs.  She immediately regretted her choice of words–she had never before been so familiar with Mr. Ruffles, and the thought of losing his confidence in her breach of their decorum felt icy in her gut, all the more so for the darkness closing in as she made her way below the floor of the stage.

I see the one you call “Captain” has taught you flippance.  Repelling the Deep is instinctive, I suppose.  And we all attempt it in our own ways.

Relieved by the acceptance she read in the response, she found a cadence descending the stairs without the aid of her vision as the gloam turned to pitch, and she lost sight of the stairs completely.  It wasn’t quite right to say she lost count of the steps she’d taken–she hadn’t been counting in the first place–but after some time, she craned her neck over her shoulder to find she could no longer see even a glimmer of light up the stairs from where she’d come.

Patience, my dear.

She gulped and continued downward.  The uncanny darkness continued for several more minutes before a thin, pale light began to illuminate the contours of the steps beneath her, and her descent finally opened to a wide, gently-curved staircase that spilled into a darkened sitting room.  She whirled in bewilderment, tallying the impossibilities that had suddenly materialized before her.

Despite the numerous unlit sconces and candelabras about the room, she found its features–the intricate patterns of the carpet; the staircase bannister, immaculately carved and adorned with silver catfish bearing teeth like razors; the painting which dominated the wall before her of an empty chair beside a crackling hearth–visible, well enough, by what was apparently moonlight streaming in through windows on one side of the room.  Up the stairs, there was no trace of the passage by which she had arrived: She could see the top of the staircase end at a hallway, down which she recognized the orange flicker of firelight.

Take care with your silence.  We are trespassers now, and alerting our host will bring terrible consequences.

Orphelia swallowed her objections, frantically wondering how Marko’s staircase–which by all rights should have led underground–could have brought her somewhere in view of the sky at night.  It had been mid-afternoon when she’d left…right?  She hurried quietly as she could to the window.  Outside, beyond a garden wall, she could see grassy plains stretch into the distance, rippling in the nighttime breeze under a cloudless, starry sky.  The gibbous moon, almost blindingly bright, resembled a face, half-turned, attention fixed calmly upon something nearby but elsewhere.

This one was clever.  We will need to find the entry point to his reservoir.  But first, I think perhaps you are owed an introduction, Orphelia, daughter of Errol.  Look to the bookshelf.  There is a vessel upon it far more potent than the one you carry with you.

She glanced away from the window, quickly finding the bookshelf he meant.  It was a tall piece, made of foreboding, blackened wood, towering beside the strange painting of the empty chair.  Approaching it, Orphelia found she needed no clarification as to what the “vessel” might be.  Among the numerous aged scrolls and codices, one–a thick, leather bound grimoire–seemed to seize her attention of its own accord.  Timidly, she wrapped her fingers around its spine and hefted it from the shelf.

Surprising indeed that Le Marquains collected a copy.  I only ever transcribed three, and I left none near this place.

Orphelia peeled open the cover, carefully separating a dusty title page from the leather.  Straining her eyes, she made out the words: A History of the Wars Fought Under Shadow, by Rommesse of Khet.

“Is that your name, Mr. Ruffles?” she whispered.

“I was called Rommesse of Khet by scholars far from my birthplace,” came the response, in every way the same voice Orphelia had heard over the past several weeks, but more real, more there.  She turned to face its source and saw a man in a dark robe standing beside the window.  His hair and short beard were silver, his skin was ashen, and his eyes were lined and creased with a sense of burden that belied the easy smile on his face.

“Few of them ever met me,” he continued.  “Of those that did, I was called ‘Twice Traitor’ by some.  The rest, my friends included, called me Rom.”

Orphelia opened her mouth, already overcome by questions for Mr. Ruffles–for his human incarnation–but her reply was interrupted by another voice, this time from behind her:

“Holy fucking shit.”

She jumped, spinning to face the speaker.  It was Ty, standing in the doorway at the edge of the room, staring in disbelief.

The Crossroads, Chapter 13: An Unsavory Heritage

The damp night air washed over Bleeding Wolf as he stepped through the door.  It smelled sweet, like sugar mixed with smoke from the glimmering fire he spotted in the distance.  He was cold, and the fire was a welcome sight.  He hurried onward.

As he approached, he found the fire well-attended, crowded even, with the huddled figures of children sitting cross-legged around it.  At one end, an old man gestured animatedly, his thin voice cutting through the soft background of gentle breeze and swishing branches.

“The kingdom was eventually destroyed,” he said.  “The Dead Queen angered a power even greater than herself.  But before our doom came, we had already escaped.  A great prophet rose among us and led us into exile, in defiance of her tyranny.  Do you know who that was?”

“The Cloudman!” a child shouted.  Bleeding Wolf stared for a moment, having seated himself on the circle’s outer rim.  For some reason, the child looked familiar, but he could not place exactly why.  The old man nodded.

“Yes.  Indeed.  The Cloudman saw a path that no other did.  He led us out of dead, rotting Khet and into the mist, into the sky.  Where we would be safe.”

“Why did you leave?” the child asked.  No.  Not a child, Bleeding Wolf realized.  It was Lan al’Ver.  He took a deep breath of the saccharine breeze and looked up.  The sky was pitch, starless–but also strangely cloudless.  Something was wrong.

“We fell,” the old man said, an unsettling grin spreading across his face.  A chill ran down Bleeding Wolf’s spine as he realized that every child around the circle was smiling as well, gaze set unblinkingly upon Lan.  They said in unison:

“And even you couldn’t save us.”

***

Bleeding Wolf gasped, his eyes snapping open in the midday sun outside Brill’s shop.  Next to him, wide-eyed and breathing heavily, was Brill himself.  And before them was chaos:

Lan, seemingly the least perturbed in the scene, was covered in soot, vigorously dusting himself off.  Before him was a corpse, unrecognizably charred, still visibly smoldering.  Behind him, Orphelia and other bystanders seemed to be groggily emerging from the same trance as Bleeding Wolf.

“I am so sorry!” Naples exclaimed, catching Bleeding Wolf’s attention.  The man was doubled over, sweeting, offset from the crowd just enough to have not been immediately noticeable.  “That ending–the creepy turn–I don’t know what that was.  It’s never happened before!”

“Two of you, then,” Bleeding Wolf growled, beelining for the self-described scholar.  “That’s a coincidence I don’t trust.”

“Again, I’m sorry,” Naples said, catching his breath.  “I’m not sure I foll–”  He cut off with a gurgle as Bleeding Wolf grabbed him by the throat.

“I was taught not to trust mind mages,” he said, teeth bared and sharpening visibly before Naples’ eyes.  “So far I’ve never regretted that advice.”

“That is–” Naples wheezed, “that is quite understandable, but I was just saving Captain al’Ver!”  Bleeding Wolf looked over his shoulder.

“It was indeed helpful,” Lan said, answering the cue, continuing to wipe down his blade.  He seemed otherwise disinterested in the altercation.

“And by-the-by,” Naples added, smooth hands gently attempting to pry Bleeding Wolf’s claws from his throat, “what do you mean by ‘two of us?’”  Bleeding Wolf held his gaze for a moment, grip unmoving.

“Girl.  Orphelia,” he said, maintaining his stare at Naples.  “You know this one?”

“I think I heard his name!” Orphelia replied cheerfully.  “It’s Mr. Nipples, which is kind of creepy to be honest.” 

“It’s…Naples…” Naples gasped.  Bleeding Wolf relinquished his grip, and the man stumbled backward, clutching his throat.

“Whatever your name, you have a lot to explain,” the beastman hissed.  “What was this all about?”  Naples coughed, massaging his throat for a moment before composing himself.  He gestured to the burnt corpse:

“This dragonling had accosted the Captain and his ward–he’d started quite the incendiary mess, you see–” Bleeding Wolf’s eyes widened.

“Dragonling?” he interrupted.  “The Blaze?”

“Yes, yes, well, the Captain had dispatched him by the time I intervened, but there was quite a lot of fire.  So I harvested it–standard fire magic technique, I’m sure a mage like yourself would be familiar–but then I needed something to do with the mana, so I invoked a memory.  My childhood–that’s what you saw.”

For all his experience, Bleeding Wolf in fact had very little knowledge of the practice of fire magic.  But the scene in the street was beginning to draw a crowd, and while Orphelia seemed fixated on Naples’ explanation–and Lan much more interested in the deluge of ash upon his attire–the bystanders appeared to be looking to Bleeding Wolf, awaiting an interpretation of the stranger’s credibility, one he was…loathe to express.  The man’s explanation for his unsavory skillset was plausible.  Just as much as it was worrying.

Bleeding Wolf found himself nodding slowly, acceding that odd measure of public trust for which he found himself gatekeeper.  For now, there were more concerning aspects of the situation to address:

“Why are the Blaze’s fuckin’ lizards starting fights here in broad daylight?  This is supposed to be neutral ground!”  As he said the words out loud, he registered their hollowness–and an uneasy whistle from Brill confirmed well enough that his doubts weren’t solitary.

“Perhaps a question for our erstwhile companion,” Lan declared, slotting his rapier back into his umbrella.  “The miscreant was looking for Ty.”

“He didn’t clarify why, of course,” Naples added.  “He really was quite rude all around.”  Bleeding Wolf swore under his breath.  He had meant to hold the monk to his end of the bargain, to pry out his secret when they had returned, but the fallout of the night before had taken precedence.

“Brill, let the mayor know the Blaze has broken the piece too.  I have a Khettite to find.  And you,” he turned to Naples.  “We’re having a conversation when I get back.  If you fuck with anyone else’s head, I’ll fuckin’ kill you.”

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.

The Crossroads, Chapter 3: Old Friends

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

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

“Dog Boy!”

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

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

“And you still look like a damn kid.”

“The mana yet flows.”

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

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

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

“Who’s shopping these days?”

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

“Less savory?”

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

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

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

“Probably for the best.”  Gene spat.

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

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

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

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

“What’s there to understand?”

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

“And?”  Bleeding Wolf shook his head.

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

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

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

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

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

“Two?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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