The Crossroads, Chapter 22: Promises Kept, Circles Completed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What on earth was that?” Naples asked.

“No idea…”

Naples cautiously stepped into the room, approaching the fireplace.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, my dear?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I guess they deserve to be punished?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Naples withdrew his hand from the painting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“‘Tis fear which brings you here tonight

Resisting that which lets you fly

Resist no more, accept my gift

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

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

“What the feck?”

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Rom looked down at Orphelia and offered his hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“Went to…save Orphelia…”

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What girl?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And the girl?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Captain al’Ver,” Lan clarified.

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

“What do you want with her?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Naples whistled nervously.

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

The Crossroads, Chapter 14: The Nemesis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you know who I am?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Work together?  What?”

“Don’t think too much of it, insect.”

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

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

“The Keystone?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Crossroads, Chapter 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?”


“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?”


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.


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…”


“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.”


“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.”


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.