The Crossroads, Chapter 14: The Nemesis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you know who I am?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Work together?  What?”

“Don’t think too much of it, insect.”

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

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

“The Keystone?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Crossroads, Chapter 12: Calls to Disadventure

Thock, thock, thock.

“I’ll give ya a gold piece for the lot, plus your time,” Marko muttered, massaging his temple.  He seemed to wince each time the sound of the apprentice’s hammer rang through his office.

“A gold piece for the armor of a legendary hero?” Ty asked.  “That’s it?”  Marko growled and reached for a steaming, herbal-smelling cup on his desk.

“Yeah,” he spat.  He took a gulp.  “Ya got a buyer who’s paying more?”

“No–”

“Ya feel like breaking our contract, then?”

“Our contract was that you’d pay fair value!”

“What, that ain’t fair?” Marko snorted.  “Does it do anything special?”

“I don’t know,” Ty said, “but coming from the Hunter of Beasts–”

“Well there you have it,” Marko replied, clutching his head.  “You don’t know what it does, might be nothin’, I’m payin’ less ‘cause I’m the one that gets to find out.  It’s called speculation.”

Thock, thock, thock.

Bleeding Wolf rolled his eyes as the “argument” went on, vaguely wondering if this routine had worked on any of Ty’s previous dealers.  The Khettite knew what he was doing–no way he’d been in this line of work for more than a job and hadn’t figured out what Marko was telling him–but a gold piece was fair, Marko knew it, Ty knew it, and Bleeding Wolf was growing impatient.

“Ey, Marko!” he called out, interrupting Ty’s fourth or fifth objection, to another visible wince from the dealer.  He gestured at the splintered entryway: “The fuck happened here?”

“Disruptive customer,” Marko grunted, taking another gulp of his brew.

“They dead?”

“No.”

Bleeding Wolf chewed on that, noting the bandage around Marko’s arm.

Thock, thock, thock.

“You…lookin’ to do something about that?” he asked.  Marko glared at him.

“Not yet, Dog Boy,” he scowled.  “Keep in touch.”  He glanced back to Ty.  “We done here?  I’ve got unconsciousness callin’ my name.”  Ty sighed:

“Fine.  One gold piece.”

“Ah, sorry,” Bleeding Wolf cut back in.  “There was one more thing.”  He rummaged in his belt pouch as Ty took a step back, eyebrow raised.  After a moment, he withdrew the fiber Lan had cut from the Hunter’s corpse.  Despite the full night’s travel, its vibrant green had not faded, and in the shadows of Marko’s office, the faint glow it gave off was clearly visible.

Marko considered clipping, raising the cup steadily to his lips.  Perhaps too steadily, Bleeding Wolf thought.  The dealer’s eyes had widened, his posture ever so slightly stiffened, and if Bleeding Wolf was not mistaken, the man’s pulse had picked up just enough to hear.  At last, Marko spoke:

“Ten gold pieces.”

“Twenty,” Bleeding Wolf countered.

“Done.”

Bleeding Wolf flinched, to Ty’s visible concern.

“Dammit,” he muttered, climbing up to Marko’s stage to make the exchange.

“Best not beat yourself up,” the dealer said, counting gleaming coins into a pouch.  He slid it to the end of his desk.  “I wasn’t speculatin’ on that one.”

“Got a buyer already?” Bleeding Wolf asked through a forced smile.

“Ain’t your business,” Marko replied coolly, watching Bleeding Wolf exchange the fiber for the pouch.  Bleeding Wolf raised an eyebrow but offered no further reply.

***

“You see, the reason Ka’s eastern flank was unassailable at that point was because Le Marquains had an established alliance with Ali’Khazan of the Barabadoon, probably the most influential warlord in Hazan at the time…”

The man’s–was his name Naples?–voice droned on at the other end of the makeshift infirmary in the apothecary’s shop, no doubt fueled in enthusiasm by Lan’s intermittent, excited outbursts, but Orphelia didn’t follow, let alone care.  Her attention was on Devlin, curled, shuddering, unconscious on the cot before her.  He looked even sicker than when she’d left him the previous morning, his face gaunt, his wrists and elbows bony and protrusive, dried mucus and blood caked over his cracked lips.  Despite the sweltering temperature in the room, he still shivered, and his forehead was cool and slimy.

“You must be his sister.”  The voice came from behind her.  She turned, hunched, to see the apothecary, the wizened person Lan had referred to as Brill, approaching from the swaying curtain that marked the divide between the infirmary and the rest of the shop.

Orphelia nodded but kept her mouth clamped shut.  For a brief moment after their return to town, Mr. Ruffles had broken his silence to issue a warning: The Crossroads would become interested in them, in the Bad Stuff, and she mustn’t let them know.  She didn’t know what Brill knew already, what it was okay to say, whether it was okay to say anything at all.

“Have you heard then?” they asked.  “He saved the whole town.”

“What?  How?!” she blurted, surprise momentarily overtaking her trepidation.

“A monster tried to break into Marko’s stock last night.  Your brother helped fend it off.”

“Is that why he’s not waking up?” Brill frowned.

“I do not believe so,” they said.  Orphelia found it strange that she could not tell whether the apothecary was a man or a woman, but she found their voice calming nonetheless.  It wasn’t parental–perhaps she was thankful for that?–rather it felt like a sort of pragmatic compassion, and it put her at ease in spite of Mr. Ruffles’ warning.  “Actually,” Brill added, “I was hoping you might shed some light on the source of his illness.  Do you know when this all started?”

There it was.  Orphelia consciously shut her mouth, her eyes, shook her head for a moment, thinking before she spoke:

“No…a few weeks ago, maybe.”  The tears welled in her eyes, one rolling down her cheek.  “We were with a caravan when he got sick.”  It was an acceptable performance, Mr. Ruffles assured her.  They would tire of questioning soon.

“Do you perhaps know whose caravan it was?”

Orphelia sobbed again and shook her head.  Brill considered this and opened their mouth to press further, but it was at this moment that Orphelia’s deliverance arrived, and Bleeding Wolf stepped through the infirmary curtain.

“Ah, al’Ver, there you are,” he said.  “Got coin for you.  And Brill, a word.”

“A pleasant surprise as always, Bleeding Wolf,” Brill replied sardonically.

“Yeah, yeah,” the beastman muttered.  “Sorry.  Yesterday was a rush.  Still need to talk to ya.”

“Very well.”  Brill glanced apologetically down at Orphelia, but before they stepped away, an angry look flashed across their face.  They turned on Naples.  “You!” they shouted across the infirmary.  “I do not recall giving you invitation to recline here.  Your talk is–I would surmise–of little help to my other patient.  Please recuperate from your questionable decisions elsewhere!”

Naples shrugged aggressively and glanced among the infirmary’s other occupants in search of defense, but finding none, he adjusted the bandage on his head and, dejected, left the room.  Brill sighed and followed Bleeding Wolf beyond the curtain into the main shop, and Lan, easing himself from the empty cot where he’d playacted Naples’ attentive audience, sauntered to Orphelia’s side.  His demeanor seemed carefree, but as he reached her, his expression grew suddenly forlorn.  He knelt by Devlin and took the boy’s hand.

“Please, Sister,” he whispered, slipping a dirty, iron ring from the boy’s finger.  He placed it on the table beside the cot.  “Let the child rest.”  Orphelia threw her head back in mock affront, objecting:

“Mr. al’Ver!  I am not your sister!  How informal!”  Lan turned to her, his face overtaken by a mischievous grin.

“My apologies, Miss Orphelia, I forget myself.  But quick, we must away!  An encounter is close at hand, and I am ill-inclined to leave it to chance!  He swept out of the room, and Orphelia, bewildered but heartened, made to follow him, taking one more glance at Devlin before she did.  Mercifully, his breathing had calmed and his shivering ceased, and for the first time in weeks, she felt truly reassured.

***

“What’s this business about an attack last night?”

“You’ve heard already, then,” Brill sniffed.

“Just the bare bones.  Marko was tight on details.”

“I wonder, then…”

“Wonder what?” Bleeding Wolf asked.

“The…thing that attacked.  It was clearly one of the False Gods’ abominations, but not any handiwork I recognized.  It was an eight-foot-long centipede, anatomical liberties notwithstanding, wearing a cloak, walking upright, pretending to be human.  Except…”

“Hmm?”

“Except there wasn’t a bit of flesh on the thing.  It was entirely steel, a machine.”  They paused.  “This familiar to you?”

“The witch of the Ironwood,” Bleeding Wolf muttered.  “I’d never seen substance for any of the talk, but there’s scattered rumor down south of a mage-monster who lives in a metal forest near the Junction.  They call her the Ben Gan Shui.”

“She makes metal monsters?”

“Guess?  The rumors say she can turn a man to steel, make ‘im immortal.  Metal bug monster seems within the realm of possibility.  But then…fuck.”

“What?”

“We brought back a trinket, likely similar to the Hunter’s flower, and Marko bought it off us.  Said he’d already found a buyer.”

“I don’t follow, Bleeding Wolf.”

“I was kind of hoping the witch was his buyer.  It was too little and esoteric for anyone small-time, and my list of False God tinkers isn’t long.”

“The Sculptor, then?”

“No.  It’s a plant that strengthens flesh.  He would need stone to fit in somewhere.”

“Then…oh no.”

“Yeah.”

Abruptly, both turned to the door as an eruption of shouts poured in from the street.

“What the fuck?” Bleeding Wolf growled.

***

“You are looking for a Khettite?” Naples repeated to the hunched, hooded figure.  “Well I’m sorry to say you may be at a historical disadvantage.  The kingdom of Khet fell centuries ago when the Blood God of Kol took power, and–”

“They ssay you arrived on the ssame boat.”  The figure’s voice was guttural and whistling, and Naples had to conclude he didn’t care for its tone.  No, he wasn’t going to be helpful here, he decided.  He continued his pedantry:

“I certainly didn’t arrive with anyone from a place that doesn’t exist.  And I’m afraid I did not interrogate my traveling acquaintances regarding their heritage.  In my opinion, we’ve come together here in the Revián, and in this way we are all Riverlanders in this place.”

The creature expressed a noise between a grunt and a hiss, and beneath its threadbare cloak, Naples caught sight of a bandaged fist, clenched in frustration.  He considered whether it might be prudent to cut this conversation short–before that fist were to be propelled at his already tender skull–but the apothecary’s door opened behind him before he could make a decision.

“Ah,” he said, noting the emergency of Captain al’Ver and the urchin girl.  “If you are so interested in the circumstances of my arrival, then I should introduce the gentleman who conducted me.  Captain–”

The figure had already turned to al’Ver, shambling rapidly, unevenly past Naples.

“Boatman,” it growled.  “Tell me where I might find–”

“Yes, yes, the Khettite, Ty Ehsam,” al’Ver said, drawing a rapier from the handle of his umbrella, to a look of perhaps-feigned shock from the girl.  “Tell me: What manner of cowardly creature art thou to threaten innocents in the street for these questions?  In broad daylight, no less!”

“That iss none of your concern.”

The figure had barely finished speaking when al’Ver lunged, catching the hood of its cloak on his blade.  The escalation caught Naples by surprise.  He was no stranger to scuffles, of course, but Captain al’Ver had not seemed the type to strike first.  But then the hood, sliced at the crown, fell to either side of the stranger’s head, and Naples caught up to the Captain’s intent.

The creature’s face was a bizarre, careless distortion of human anatomy.  Its skin was blackened unevenly by burn scars, the top of its cranium squished low and smoothed, marked by irregular–presumably decorative–bone spurs jutting through its flesh in the shape of horns, and its jaw had been pulled forward and fashioned in the shape of a snout, suggesting an overall reptilian appearance.  It was an abomination–in the technical sense, of course, clearly a product of magical experimentation by an unhinged mind.  But in this case, if Naples was not mistaken, he had had a pretty good idea of which unhinged mind that was: This individual was a dragonling of the Blaze.

Snarling, the creases in its scarred flesh alighting like embers, the dragonling leapt at al’Ver, who rebuffed it with the explosive unfolding of his umbrella.  As it reeled backward, the Captain calmly swiped a nick across the creature’s snout, sending flecks of black blood across the street.  Naples noted expectantly that the blood burst into flames where it landed.

“WHERE ISS HE?!?” the creature shrieked.  “WHERE ISS THE THIEF?!”  Wild-eyed, it turned to the girl and leapt again, arms outstretched, the boney claws adorning its fingertips now fully visible.  Al’Ver stepped between them, sword raised, shield braced, and before Naples could call out what he realized might be a…relevant warning, the dragonling had fallen on al’Ver, impaling itself on his blade.

The girl screamed.  The Captain grit his teeth.  The creature belched liquid fire onto him, its burning blood pouring for good measure down the hilt of his sword, onto his arm.  And Naples took a deep breath.  Perhaps he would be helpful here after all.

He reached out, felt for the hungering violence of the flame, surrounded it, drank of it.  All of it.  Too much, too hot, but it must be gone in the end.  And then it was in his gut, in his heart, rising, fighting to burst from his mouth, boiling the nerves behind his eyes.  It had to go.  He exhaled, channeling the death the only way he knew how.  He started with a campfire.

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.