The Maze in the Mists

Slight change of pace. This is the introduction for a new setting I’m working on for the Rale universe. Credit to Kelsyn for the original concept.

You have been walking this road for some time now.  It is an unremarkable road, unpaved, trodden uniformly by an infinity of unrecognizable footsteps.  All around you is mist, itself unremarkable for its familiarity–you’ve been living in it for longer than you’ve been walking the road, after all.  It is everywhere in this place: blanketing the fields, suffusing the woods, wrapping the scattered towns between in its damp embrace.  You suppose you can still remember that there was a time without the mist, but the specifics elude you.  All you remember is this:

You were a soldier once.  You and your companions.  You no longer know who you fought, what you fought for, or where, but by the time you stopped you had nightmares.  Bad ones.  The kind that woke you not screaming but frozen, paralyzed by the notion that whatever you had been running from in your sleep had crossed into the waking world.  It was there with you, standing over you, behind and to your left, just out of your peripheral vision, breathing heavy, deafening.  You could feel the rancid condensation of that breath on your forehead as that nameless creature reached down and caressed your hair with dirty fingers and whispered:

“Why would you do that?”

Whether you could answer the query is moot–you can’t anymore.  You never told anyone about the nightmares, save your companions, and you all agreed it wasn’t the sort of story anyone would want to hear.  The war stories, though?  The ones that preceded the nightmares?  Those you traded away gladly for the means to sleep soundly again.

That was the thing.  This place in the mists operated by different rules.  The people here had different wants, a different economy.  When it came time to pay for your meal, your provisions or board, they did not ask for coin.  They asked for a story.  And when you told it to them, it was gone.  It was no longer yours.

Not all of your stories were horrible.  The good memories you traded for fine food, company, and wine.  The solemn ones you traded for fresh clothes or flint.  The everyday occurrences, the uninteresting daily nothings weren’t worth much, but in a pinch you found they bought you attention, an ear to listen as you vented your increasingly formless rage.

You learned ways to make your stories last.  You could tell only a single side of a complex tale, embellish banalities, omit details that you could cling to for a while longer.  Sometimes it worked.  Most often they would see through you, not that they minded.  You were still offering a story of sorts, and it was still payment.  A falsehood was just worth less than a truth, and what you bartered for was measured accordingly.

As time passed, as you walked the road, you grew poorer and poorer, and you remembered less and less.  Sometimes you were able to trade your labor for someone else’s story.  Sometimes your travels and choices and happenstance allowed you to forge your own anew, but too often you found yourself giving away more than you got, and now…well, now you have been walking the road for some time.  You don’t remember the last time you saw anything but the dirt and the mist and the imprints of travelers before you.  But, of course, that could be for a number of reasons.

The Crossroads, Chapter 10: Nom de Guerre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Crossroads, Chapter 9: Confluence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is it magic?” Ty asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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